EA: Probably the worst company in the USA?

Fellow gamers, we are living in interesting times. Despite sales of games heading up year on year, the traditional AAA/ publisher-developer model is looking increasingly creaky. Making a AAA game is an expensive, risky process and the feedback I’m seeing from the industry is that they’re often not getting the (vast) sales they need to justify the risk. So we end up with games that seem successful to consumers being judged unsuccessful by the publisher because 1m/ 2m/ 3m/ etc. sales just isn’t enough.

This all has very little to do with Electronic Arts being voted worst company in the USA for the second year running on a consumerist.com poll. The likelihood of them actually being the worst company in the USA is pretty low, but it’s clearly something people feel strongly about. Also there’s a sense in which a lot of people have made up their minds to hate EA and will just assign any bad decision made by any developer under the publisher’s umbrella to feed their hatred. For example, it’s really unlikely that EA had much say in the ME3 ending (that was a purely Bioware decision), but it’s all grist to the mill.

I have no interest in defending EA, no doubt they deserve a lot of the flak. Plus you have to assume that gamers will a) be online a lot and thus able to vote in online polls and b) interested in gaming any voting system.

But as a non-US person, the surprising thing to me is that US consumers don’t hate the same sorts of companies that I think would win the poll here: energy companies, banks, railways/ airlines, tax evaders, any other annoying company that is generally a hassle to deal with or sets unduly high prices. The businessinsider post I linked above notes the same thing:

Usually, utilities, cable companies, and airlines come at the bottom of customer satisfaction ratings because the interactions people remember are paying bills, delayed flights, or dealing with outages.

EA’s a company that is supposed to entertain people. The fact that it’s won this poll twice in a row shows how much it needs to alter its priorities.

I just don’t think UK consumers would vote a gaming company top of the hate list. Then again, looking at the reactions to Mrs Thatcher’s death, maybe some organisations or iconic figures have just become acceptable figures of hate. (NB. without getting into the politics of it, I think people who disliked Mrs Thatcher have more grounds than the EA haters.)

Peter Moore (EA COO) touches on this in his statement, and tries to address some of the criticisms, pointing out that for many of them there are many more players who are happy with the state of things than are complaining. (Although I think he should have left SimCity off the list: too soon, Peter, too soon.) This definitely won’t do anything to satisfy the people who hate his company, a bit more humbleness might have gone further. But I’m not sure anything would stop people from hating on EA except being given a different hate target.

Maybe next year.

Catching up: Kickstarters

I don’t know about any of you but I’m getting to a place with gaming kickstarters which is much closer to how I buy regular published games. I read the kickstarter, think “Sounds cool” and then “I’ll wait till it’s released and then pick up a copy if it’s any good.”

To get me to contribute these days, I’d need more emotional attachment to the project than just “Oh neat.” It would either have to sound like something I really want to play, involve a creator of whom I am a fan, or support a cause I care about. Maybe the sheen has just gone. Creators are finding new ways to use kickstarters – sometimes to raise awareness or for publicity more than for the kickstarter cash itself. This wasn’t really the original idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s terrible.

It’s just that in the grim dark future, instead of applying for a beta or preordering (or prepaying) to get your beta spot, it’ll only be open to people who paid more than $X in the kickstarter.  But the equating of “how much cash are you willing to put up” as a measure of your dedication as a fan is a trend that is only going to increase. It is also inherent in the F2P mindset. That’s more of a topic for a future post. For now, lets just say that fan enthusiasm is a commodity to be monetised. Fun times.

Anyhow, there have been a few large gaming kickstarters in the mix lately. Terra Silverspar sees this as a sign that kickstarter is going to be a bad thing for gaming in the longterm.

Many of big name developers using Kickstarter are furthest from strapped for cash to be able to produce the titles they are looking to produce, but they threw out these rather large figures at what they feel would need to be to create these games, some of them with not even a demo or name of the product to be seen, and even threw out shameless incentives to get people to pay more.

((…))

All they have to say is remember my one good game and they know their fans will jump on it, especially if said big name makes large promises that claim their in development product you’ve never seen will be like one of their famous games of the past.

This isn’t fundamentally different from the way hype works anyway. “New game X will be like old game Y that you really liked” is a fairly basic argument, especially if it’s backed up by having some of the same team involved. You pays your money and takes your chances.

However, phrases like “harkening back to his innovative early work,” “the team will revisit X’s design roots”, “this game is counter-revolutionary” et al lean towards a current view of kickstarter where it is getting used to support revolutionary (or not)  little indie games and old school (ie. not revolutionary) larger games. Except that the indie games struggle more with publicity than a big name celeb game designer.

Anyhow, I’m going to scan over some of the projects that I have either backed or been following.

Shroud of the Avatar (Lord British)

I know Arb is fond of this one, for sentimental reasons. This successful kickstarter has been controversial because Lord British (yeah I know, his real name is Richard Garriot) is wealthy enough in his own right that punters wonder why he can’t pitch a game to publishers without needing $1m of funding from the public first. Also controversial as the man is a dab hand at giving controversial interviews. Or in other words, he gives good media.

On the other hand, he is proposing making an open world RPG of the type he became famous for with the Ultima series. Shroud of the Avatar is a direct callback to Ultima, as your character was called “the avatar” in many of those games, although for legal reasons it won’t be using any of the Ultima IP (last seen being cast onto iOS via Ultima Forever). It is going to be a PC game. He is calling it a multiplayer game rather than an MMO so there is going to be some overlap with solo play and group play.

So if you liked that sort of game – which Arb and I did very much – it will be one to keep an eye on. I like open world RPGs, and that is what I expect this to be. The kickstarter almost doubled its $1m goal, so let’s see how it goes.

Jane Jensen (Moebius)

This is one of the first kickstarters that I backed, and I liked it because I admire Jane very much as a game writer and have fond memories of the Gabriel Knight games. Her studio has already put out an extra mini graphic adventure aimed at 5-9 year olds – which wasn’t anything I was interested in, but free perks are always nice and if I knew anyone with a kid and an iPad I’d happily give it to them. But the main attraction is Moebius, an adventure game which does not stray far from its Gabriel Knight roots.

RPG didn’t think much of the trailer but as a backer I’m happy, it looks pretty much to be what I would have expected. I look forwards to playing it on release and am happy I was able to support it.

Also she’s been great about monthly updates, free wallpapers, and generally being in touch and available.

Camelot Unchained

As a fan of DaoC (and Warhammer Online) I am always interested to see any project that Mark Jacobs is behind. He spent a few months building up publicity for this kickstarter before it launched, and is currently almost halfway to his $2m goal. It is a large goal, especially for a fairly niche type of game, so this will be an interesting one to watch.

Mark is doing a lot of publicity for this at the moment via interviews. He also has been quite active in the reddit, and I recall he always seemed to quite enjoy interacting on forums et al during DaoC also.

Although I really liked DaoC I am not backing this one, because all PvP all of the time isn’t for me. I do think it was a good idea to limit the scope of the game – PvE content in MMOs is expensive and there is definitely an audience for a smaller PvP focussed game. If it is your thing, feel free to go pledge them some cash as this kickstarter has just under a month to go.

A friend of mine commented that he thought this kickstarter was very jargon heavy and would be hard to follow for anyone who wasn’t into MMOs. I don’t think they are trying to get new players into the genre, the people who want to back this game will know what the jargon means.  I do wonder a bit about how developing their own game engine is going to impact on things. It isn’t that it is a terrible idea, just that having the core of your game as a new untried and untested piece of code adds some risk to the endeavour.

Double Fine

This is the kickstarter which really kicked off the phenomenon for gaming, raising $3m on an initial goal of $400k. The game now has a name (Broken Age), a website, a trailer, and you can preorder. They have also been releasing regular video updates for backers giving some insight into the development process.

I am looking forwards to seeing the game, and I like the concept a lot. The videos have been fun and it feels like a fun, different way to support a game genre that I like and get a cool game at the end.

Torment (Numenera)

This is the Planescape Torment sequel that isn’t set in Planescape. The concept of that confused me enough that I decided not to back it – I did however back Monte Cook’s Numenera pen and paper game so at least I’ll be able to decide if I like the setting before putting any money down for a computer game. (Oh and also I can wait for the game to be released to see if I want to play it.)

Fortunately, Torment isn’t dependent on my backing as the kickstarter raised a whopping $4m off an original goal of $900k. Planescape really was that popular. They’ve recruited Chris Avellone (original Planescape: Torment designer) onto the design team, among other experienced designers, and have already turned out some cool looking screenshots.

I’ll look forwards to seeing what they can do with the money. But I’m perfectly happy to wait until release before deciding if I want it.

Here’s an interview with Brian Fargo where he talks about his experiences with successfully running kickstarters for Torment and Wasteland.

Project Eternity

Another RPG (I have straightforwards tastes in gaming), this time to be developed by Obsidium Entertainment with the help of just under $4m raised via kickstarter off an initial goal of £1.1m. Chris Avellone is going to be busy with both this and Torment, and they’re likely to be quite similar games.

This one I did support, I liked the idea of knowing a bit about the team going into the project at the start. And I want to see what Obsidian can come up with. They have been sending out regular updates, and we’ll just have to see how it goes.

I also like that although they’ve been clear about their influences and what type of game it’s going to be, it doesn’t feel like so much of a namecheck as the Torment game. I will of course play both if they’re any good.

Bungie unveils Destiny: Shared World Shooter

Let us be very clear on one thing, Bungie does not want people to think that Destiny is an MMO. Instead they are describing it as a console-based first person shared world shooter that will require an internet connection. There’s also a hint of a 3rd person social hangout/city, and players being able to use space ships to travel round the solar system, with an implication that space combat may be supported. So, this thing is going to be big, the artwork is super pretty, and also they have already specified no subscription.

Also there will be evil space zombies to shoot.

Bungie invited a bunch of press in recently, so now we do know a bit more about the game itself. Although not a great deal about the gameplay, which wasn’t demonstrated. IGN have a large writeup, and also a shorter FAQ for people who just want the basic summary version. Here’s a sample:

What the heck does “shared world shooter” mean?

  • Basically, it’s an MMO, but you can play the entire game solo or in small co-op groups.

Give me an example.

  • You and a buddy could be fighting some bad guys on a planet, and another player could seamlessly appear, help you out, and then you could group up or all go your separate ways.

What does it remind you of?

  • A bit of Planetside 2, a dash of Borderlands 2, and of course some Halo.

Are you sure?

  • Nope. Bungie didn’t show any real concrete gameplay. We’re hypothesizing based off of everything they told us.

No doubt we will hear a lot more about this venture over the coming months (no release date as of yet, the journos speculate 2014). The current furore is around “How dare they not release this game for PC?” (There’s an interesting note in the comments there to the effect that pad-controlled shooters tend not to make as much use of vertical space because it’s so much hassle to adjust the camera for the player.)

I thought the more interesting point is that Bungie clearly feel that a large, immersive, persistent, game world is still really important to players. Important enough to hang an entire game around. In fact, world is the first of their seven key pillars (one upping Bioware’s four key pillars, I guess.)

  1. A world players want to be in.
  2. A bunch of fun things to do.
  3. Rewards players care about.
  4. A new experience every night.
  5. Shared with other people. They did specify also that no one will be forced to PvP unless they explicitly want to. So this sounds to be primarily a co-op game.
  6. Enjoyable by all skill levels.
  7. Enjoyable by the impatient and distracted.

This has been said before, mostly with respect to accessibility, but I wonder whether pillar 7 will be the weak link that brings the whole structure down. Because I’m not sure if most players really want to play with people who are constantly impatient and distracted (unless they match their own playstyle very closely).

But maybe ‘playing with other people’ is going to be a more flexible experience in general. Bungie were specifically comparing the multiplayer co-op to Journey (massive award winning emotional chillout exploring puzzle solving work of genius) of all things.

Really I was hoping to hear more about the space battles (not a pillar!) and what fun things there might be to do in their game (pillar 2) that don’t involve shooting things. I’m guessing that the bunch of fun things pretty much do mostly involve shooting stuff, but who knows? I liked the IGN comparison to Planetside 2, Borderlands, and Halo; I was getting that vibe from the descriptions too.

But mostly the intriguing thing about this game is that they aim to prioritise small group adventures, with a massive player base. How they fare may set the stage for the next wave of MMOs. And in particular, I imagine Blizzard are looking closely at Bungie’s offering because the basic layout (large 3rd person social area, FPS adventuring) has a lot in common with speculations about Titan. But then again, maybe that’s why Bungie is not planning to release Destiny on the PC…

[Solving the Content Problem] The Smörgåsbord: Adding different subgames for different playstyles

dessert_buffet

skenmy@flickr

MMOs have always given players some freedom to pick what activity they prefer to do when they log in. This is one of the aspects that makes them so different from other types of games. For sure, themepark games tend to adhere to the RPG model and prod people in the direction of levelling, or at least in the direction of whatever the other players are probably doing, but players do expect to have some standard options.

For these to make sense as addressing the content problem, these subgames need to have completely separate progression mechanics from each other. I’m not talking here about adding achievements to existing content, but about offering something for totally separate playing styles. You could think of it as being a way to attract more players to the same game, by catering for different gaming tastes.

For example, MMOs often include an economic simulation. Players progress by making gold via trade (or other in game activities). A player who chooses to focus on this subgame can do it largely independently of (for example) endgame raiding or PvP. There can be plenty of depth in a good economic simulation – you only need to look at the sheer number of gold making WoW blogs to see how many different markets and approaches there are to playing this subgame. While the economy can be connected to every other part of the game, in a separated presentation (like WoW), you never actually need to play the economy beyond selling loot that you picked up while levelling. You could happily ignore it.

Crafting  can also be a separate minigame of its own. Players progress by learning tradeskills (maybe multiple tradeskills on multiple alts) and figuring out how to acquire the materials and make the items that they want. Plenty of players enjoy crafting who never have any intention of spending much time trading. It can be separate.

PvP is another very common playing style that is offered as a separate minigame by themepark MMOs. Separate again means a completely separate progression and gearing path. Players who enjoy PvP can often do this without ever touching PvE (after they have levelled).

So: separating playing styles? Is it a good or a bad thing

There are two ways to look at this.

1. The first is that the ideal MMO (probably a sandbox) should have an integrated playerbase. It should be focussed on its niche, and every part of the game should feed into every other part to encourage players to interact. For example, there should not be artificial boundaries preventing PvPers from dominating some aspect of the economy (maybe by annexing some area where rare drops can be found) and at the same time, a player who participates in all aspects of the game (or is in a guild which does) should be able to dominate a player who doesn’t. If the game is large enough and the separate activities have enough depth, it won’t be possible for a single player or guild to dominate every aspect so there will be plenty of room for players  to specialise and co-operate. So there will still be plenty of choice for players, they can still pick which aspects of the game they prefer to focus on. They will just have to live with the consequences.

Note: this ideal would require quite a large, active sandbox game to really work. (This is the problem with a lot of the early ideas about ideal MMOs.)

2. The second is the buffet or smorgasbord approach. The game is like a buffet table, players can pick and choose which activities they want to do. More importantly, they can pick the activities which they want to avoid. There will be communities in game which focus on different activities and that’s fine. The game can never be as integrated as a type 1 MMO, the separate gaming bubbles won’t really affect each other. But if people want to PvP all the time then they can, and if they want to never PvP then they don’t have to.

It is true that there are many ways for players to cooperate or compete in MMOs that don’t involve beating the tar out of each other in PvP. You can argue that the economic game is a form of PvP also, which is true. But from a gameplay perspective, it’s a very different way of getting players to interact. There is plenty of competition but the raw aggression (and bad behaviour) that is so intimidating to so many players just isn’t as great an issue. It also can be slower paced and put more emphasis on strategic thinking.

Over time, players have seemed to prefer type 2 games. Even though type 1 games are probably more immersive and function better as integrated worlds. It might be fairer to say that either Type 1 favours a niche audience, or else that devs could do a better job with Type 1 if they stopped trying to shoehorn PvP into every game, since PvP tends to dominate games where it is not kept totally separate.

Introducing new minigames

I want to give some examples of separated minigames in MMOs, to show how different devs have used this as a way to solve the content problem.

  • Skirmishes in LOTRO. This is fairly brilliant design. The skirmishes are PvE instances that can scale from single player up to 12 people. They have their own queue. When running skirmishes you can progress your own skirmish soldier (a companion NPC who can be tank/ healer/ ranged or melee dps/ etc) via skirmish points. So there is a completely separate progression mechanic. You can also use skirmish points to buy levelling gear, cosmetic gear, and reputation items. Plus the skirmishes have their own achievements. Although skirmishes are integrated into some of the legendary book quests (and it would be an advantage to have a levelled skirmish soldier for these), they aren’t required outside this.
  • Pet battles in WoW. Another fairly brilliant design. It’s pokemon, in warcraft. You can go catch wild pets, have them fight other pets or other trainers. I’m not sure what you really get from pet battles other than the thrill of collecting more pets, or the occasional lucky battlestone drop that you can use to upgrade pets. But it’s fun, there’s some depth to it, and it’s very separate from the main game.
  • PvP in Warhammer Online. This is a fairly typical example of themepark PvP. You earn your progression points and gear by engaging in PvP. You may have special PvP abilities that you can buy with PvP points. While you can use your PvE gear in PvP, it isn’t optimal because the PvP gear has specialised stats.
  • Housing in EQ2. You get a house fairly early on in EQ2, and there is a huge array of housing items to collect and place. Fitting out and decorating both individual houses and guildhalls has pretty much become a separated minigame of its own.
  • Wormholes in EVE. EVE isn’t my speciality, but this is syncaine’s description. The reason I count this as a separated game is that it seems perfectly possible for people who enjoy wormhole play to focus on them and for people who don’t to never feel the need to go near them.
  • Space battles in SWTOR. A set of graded on rails space missions, with their own daily quests, tokens, and ship related loot. Bioware never really felt very committed to space battles, they’re fun but limited.

Raiding in WoW used to be a very separated game. The only way to get raid gear was to raid. As time goes on, players are now far more encouraged to dip into raiding as part of a general PvE playing style via LFR (ie. much easier to get into random raids), and have a much wider range of gear available for raiding.

Wildstar is touting separate player paths, and no doubt we’ll get to hear more about how those work out in practice as the game lurches towards release. My personal doubt is how well this caters for players who might be in a mood to fight/soldier one day and feel more like exploring the next. I don’t personally want to be forced to commit to one primary playstyle at the start of a new game and then be told I need to roll a new alt if I want to try something else. There’s separated and then there’s separated.

Separated minigames as content solution?

Both the good and bad sides about separated games is that they are all optional. It is possible for a dev to put a lot of effort into creating a new minigame and for the player base to collectively say meh. (PvP in City of Heroes is an example of a separated game that never really took off, the majority of players just weren’t that interested.)

It is also possible for devs to put a lot of effort into developing a minigame and then to abandon it to its own devices and not add any interesting new tweaks or content in future expansions. Housing in LOTRO feels a bit stagnant for that reason. The houses are nice, decorating them is cool, but there’s not really much to do with your house and it feels like abandoned content.

At its best though, separate minigames do give players a much wider choice of in game activities. And minigames with good depth can potentially add a lot of depth and replayability to the game world. On the downside, they can make a game feel far more complex, and it isn’t always clear to new players which content is optional, and how optional it really is.

[General Gaming Links] Events, ‘I quit’ posts, TESO, Wildstar, and more

otters

harlequeen @ flickr (Brought to you by otters)

So this is the second links post of the year so far, and unlike the gaming news links of last week, what I’m aiming to do with the regular general links posts is simply to highlight blog posts and articles that have grabbed me. Because I’m aiming to save up a month’s worth of tagged content, some of these blog posts won’t be ultra recent but I like to think the better ones improve with time.  Let’s see how we go!

Omali at MMO Fallout talks about Random Events in Runescape and how he thinks Jagex have evolved them over the years.

Overly Positive is a community mod blog, and in this post Frank discusses how mods deal with “I quit!” posts. Anyone ever written an “I quit” post on a public forum? I know I never have. I generally just quit without a fuss.

Community people are always interested in why people decide to leave a game they represent, which is why all the people who inevitably respond to “I quit” posts with the notion that they should somehow shut up, go away, go back to WoW or whatever else, doesn’t really help us.

Terra Silverspar is cautious about The Elder Scrolls Online, and explains what Zenimax would have to do to change this to optimism.

The Pensive Harpy begs for an end of cinematic  CGI trailers for MMOs.

Sure, they look really cool, and can thrill the imagination. But they have ZERO bearing on the actual game, and they show nothing of significance about the gameplay (you know, the bit that actually matters?). The more slick and impressive one is the more I think "How much money was wasted on making this rather than being invested in something useful for the game?"

Green Armadillo has been playing SWTOR and TSW recently, among other games, and weighs in on how he thinks the monetisation schemes are working out. I personally do struggle to write about monetisation at the moment, and it is partly because I know that SWTOR and GW2 are making a lot of money from selling random lootboxes, but I cannot understand the motivation of players to spend upwards of $100 per month on random loot boxes! I just don’t get it. How is that fun? But there are a large number of players who do this, enough to keep games viable.

I have new theories about both games… neither of which would be good news for me as a customer of both products.  I get the impression that SWTOR is heavily dependent on its cosmetic item gambling packs and that TSW appears to be running a fire sale to keep the lights on for a few more months before going under.

He has had a blistering good blogging month, and another blog I want to pick out is his takedown of Marvel Heroes and the decision not to pre purchase.

smakendahed is struggling with GW2, he plays characters up to the mid 20s-30s but can’t seem to stick at it any longer than that. Here is his discussion of his experiences and  a plea for others to explain what motivates them in the game. (For me, it was the people I was playing with.)

I have no motivation to advance to the cap or continue playing once I’ve gotten far enough to see how a class plays and gain most of the abilities that interest me.

j3w3l is also musing on the state of GW2.

For a game claiming to be the evolution of the genre I’m not actual very sure as to the way it did. They abandoned ideals that were working well, and created solutions to problems no one was having.

Psychochild writes about the grind in MMOs, and particularly with reference to GW2. He ponders how things can turn from new/fun into dull grind from a player perspective and thinks about what Arenanet could to do perk things up.

I keep wanting to write about The Walking Dead, and keep telling myself I should wait until I’ve finished the game first. (Short version: it’s amazing.)  Currently I am about to start Chapter 3, and I find I need a break between chapters as it’s quite traumatic. Syp describes his experiences with the game and in particular how the choices  made in game have affected him.

Nick Dinicola explains why he thinks driving games and open worlds shouldn’t mix, in the process discussing what he thinks the core themes of an open world game really are.

A good open world will get you to stop at least once to admire the environment. There’s always one spot from which we can see the whole world, and it is in this moment that it hits us that this is all open to us, that we can go anywhere. An open world should give us a sense of majesty and wonder while providing lots of gameplay options.

Vixsin is impressed by how many goals she still has in MoP after reaching the end of Tier 14 progression. (She wrote this last month so may have run out of goals since then Winking smile ). She’s not completely uncritical, but pretty positive about the experience so far.

Stormy at Scribblings on the Asylum Wall is angry at feeling pressured by Blizzard into doing PvP. There are two battlegrounds that you need to win as part of the legendary questline, plus various encouragements to PvP as part of the Domination Point questlines. I can sympathise with this, I don’t hate PvP as much as s/he does but that’s purely because I could get my battleground wins and then never go back again.

The Godmother ponders how people are going to gear new characters and alts in the next WoW patch.

Once LFR as it currently stands is relegated to ‘old content’ I’d expect no-one with a desire to competitively gear to want to set foot in one again, especially if you’ll need rep from the new instance to keep up with the Joneses. This means MSV, ToES and HoF will become ‘The Alt 25 Mans’, full of people wanting to gear their secondary characters: I’d suspect an increase in wipes and a decrease in decent group quality as a result.

Ted A. suggests a few possible improvements to LFR loot mechanics in WoW.

Keen argues that PvP isn’t necessary in MMOs. Which is interesting as it still seems fairly core on the feature list of most upcoming games.

I think a game designed solely around capturing people in the moment by creating a really rich PvE world is a something I can really enjoy.  What does that mean?  I guess I envision myself packing a bag full of resources, and setting off in a direction with friends to see what we can find.  I like the idea of not knowing what’s out there, or not knowing when I’ll be back to town because the game — the world — is letting me go off and truly make the “player vs. environment” a reality. ((…)) Maybe that’s why I wish PvP was seen as less of a requirement.  PvE has the ability to create a much better experience for me, and I wish those types of experiences would be developed further even with the risk.

Pete at Dragonchasers, a self described ‘casual shooter fan,’ finds that F2P games can keep him happily amused. But he wonders what kind of an impact they will have in the long term, and how devs will lure casual players to pay for what they can currently get for free.

I wonder if there are enough serious shooter fans to support many big budget $60 games. It is my understanding (and I may be wrong) that game publishers need casual gamers to purchase their titles in order to thrive.

So in the future, how will these publishers lure in casuals like me? What are they going to offer me that I can’t get for free?

Jester is a really good EVE blogger, and to my mind he is at his strongest when writing about the big picture (and not so much about minor political disagreements between various EVE personas). This is a really good post where he ponders the three main goals for CCP this year. These are for Dust to launch successfully, attract new players to EVE, and keep the old EVE players happy. (A cynical reader might assume that the last two would be running goals anyway). Obviously CCP could have timed Dust better since it looks as though the PS4 is about to be announced …

The Angry Dwarf wonders what would be so awful if every game had a super easy mode.

Syncaine looks back on WAR (Warhammer Online) and remembers the good things about the game. I was and still am fond of the game, although I haven’t played it for ages. Plenty of commenters also chime in.

…if you look at what WAR brought to the genre, and compare it to SW:TOR or the ‘genre fixing’ GW2, WAR win’s in a landslide in terms of contribution. Public quests, evolving cities, how they did instanced PvP, the Tome of Knowledge, map functionality, etc. Yes, at the end of the day the game did not work enough to succeed, but many of its parts were brilliant and the blueprint going forward.

Syp lists 40 things he is looking forwards to with Wildstar. The astonishing thing to me is how negative most of the comments are. I get not agreeing with blog posts, but wow that’s some anti hype right there. Maybe it’s just the list posts people don’t like.

[Solving the Content Problem] Enter Sandbox

sandbox

andrewmalone @ flickr

This is the second in a series of posts about various attempts to solve ‘the content problem’ in MMOs.

A Sandbox MMO is a game where the devs create the gameworld/ sandbox, and then players jump in and do pretty much whatever they want with the tools they are given. It’s a very different style from the more guided themepark MMO where the game encourages people to play in a more directed way. Sandbox MMOs seem to be coming back into vogue, partly because of the content problem. EQ Next and Pathfinder are among two upcoming games which adhere to this design.

If we imagine a continuum between MMOs as virtual worlds/simulations and MMOs as games, then the sandbox falls squarely in the virtual world side of the equation.

A true sandbox game would have no NPCs at all, those roles would all be filled by players. So if players decided they wanted to give out quests, then you could have a quest based game. There would be no NPC vendors, you’d have to buy items from other players. If players decided that they wanted to PvP, you could have a PvP based game. But also, if players decided they wanted minimal PvP, to patrol the game with hardcore roaming bands of judges, and to implement their own system of crime and punishment to ‘punish’ PvPers (however they could do this within the bounds of the game) , then it could pretty much be a non PvP game. Different groups of players could run their own ‘mini states’ within the game.

Read that last paragraph and think about the possibilities.

In practice, game design pushes players strongly towards different sandbox playstyles. A game like EVE in which player corps can hold territory and gain economic advantage from doing so is going to encourage corps vs corps PvP, at least until the holding corps/alliances get so large and assertive that no one dares attack.

The way a sandbox game tackles the content problem is by encouraging players to create content for each other. (By content, I mean goals, organisations to join/oppose, and just ‘stuff to do’ in general.)

You may be thinking “but we have player run events and organisations in WoW too” which is true. Most MMOs have some sandbox elements, and it’s a core feature of the genre. But an actual sandbox game is going to have a different kind of feel for players, with more pressure on bored players to make their own amusement rather than waiting for the next patch.

Also, in a sandbox game, things in the game can change radically between one logon and the next depending on what player organisations have done in the meantime. You can’t plan your gameplay around dailies or raid lockouts, or you can try but other player actions might affect everything. It’s not actually necessary for a sandbox game to feature PvP, A Tale in the Desert is an example of a game that doesn’t do this. However, when devs talk about sandbox games, they often have PvP in mind.

Good Sides to the Sandbox

  • Sandbox games can have an incredible sense of meaningfulness and depth. Everything that happens, many of the things that exist in the game world,  are because another player/s caused it. Because of this, they attract a very invested fanbase.
  • In particular, they can offer a meaningful sense for PvP.
  • Sandbox games offer a lot of power to players, in terms of being able to direct and influence the game world.
  • Sandbox games encourage social play, you can simply accomplish more as part of a group than you can alone.
  • There is huge freedom in a true sandbox game for players to pick their own roles, playstyle, and goals. If you want to set up an in game business delivering in-game food to player groups in far off locations, you could do it. If you wanted to specialise in helping other player businesses advertise their goods and services, you could do that. If instead you want to be an adventurer and go fight dragons, you can do that. If you want to be a crafter, you could do that. None of these roles is more important than any other. There is no ‘right way’ to play a sandbox. However, you probably can’t do all of those things and will have to choose.
  • The ideal of the sandbox involves actual in game player run communities. Probably Second Life illustrates this better than EVE, simply by being a more diverse environment.
  • Sandbox games typically place a high value on player crafting as a way to let players a) drive the economy and b) contribute creatively.

Downsides to the Sandbox

  • Sandbox games need a certain amount of active players to really work (the actual number varies depending on the type of game and how it is designed). If the playerbase falls below this number, the sandbox pretty much fails.
  • Sandboxes are not always good simulations. This is for many reasons including 24/7 access (what does it mean if players from another timezone can wander in and destroy what you have built up while you and your guild are asleep?) and players in general finding it easier and more fun to cause havoc than try to keep the peace.
  • But a more focussed sandbox game (or a more varied one like Second Life) could try gatekeep for players who are already in agreement with the themes of the sandbox. For example, if someone wanted to run a sandbox based on RP in 18th century Paris, and monitored new players to check there were on board with that, you could probably minimise the griefers.
  • Sandbox games can be quite socially unstable, because they’re dependent on players. They don’t have the checks and balances that a themepark game does to keep the game fun for everyone. They are particularly subject to griefers.
  • On the other hand, Sandbox games can be socially way too stable. If a PvP game settles into a state where large player organisations own all the land and have minimal motivation to PvP, then a PvP minded player could find themselves with nothing to do.
  • Similarly, you can spend hours sitting around in game waiting for something to happen. Sandbox games can be very dull.
  • This all means that Sandbox games are tricky to set up and run.
  • Sandbox games are really susceptible to accusations of devs getting personally involved and tweaking things to favour their own characters. I don’t entirely know why this is but we used to see it a lot on MU*s too.

Mark Jacobs to kickstart Camelot Unchained

HolyGrail034

Well, that’s a turnup for the books. Read the press release here. I’m sure there will be a press blitz shortly.

The core concept for the new MMORPG focuses tightly on three key elements, RvR, housing and a true player-owned economy.

“We believe there’s a small yet viable audience of fans who are very keen to play this type of MMORPG,” stated Mark Jacobs. “However, tightly focused niche games don’t necessarily hold great appeal for traditional publishers who are looking toward the mass market. We see Kickstarter as the best way to reach out directly to the people who will actually play our game for help in funding its creation.”

Also, no one is counting but that means at least one of my annual predictions for 2013 is actually going to be true! Win.