[MMOs] Farewell Titan: Beginning of the end, or end of the beginning?

Blizzard broke the news this week that they have cancelled development on the MMO they had in development for the past few years, codenamed Titan.

This news does not come as a surprise. For two reasons.

1.  When a project has been kicking around this long, has been through complete redesigns, and the ‘buzz’ we’re hearing about it still doesn’t sound particularly interesting, the chances of it becoming a massive hit are fairly minimal. It would have been an albatross, not the “omg successor to WoW’ that some people were touting.

2. I’m not saying MMOs are finished, but clearly producing huge expensive MMOs  is not the way to bet. There are successful games which involve massive numbers of players, which may have a lot in common with MMOs, but they aren’t based on the classic Diku model, or even the less common EVE model. If there is a true successor to WoW, in terms of being a breakout viral hit that involves millions of people then it is Minecraft, not the large WoW-alikes.

So what changed? The games have become more refined, gameplay has improved, graphics have improved (hugely), lots of new ideas have been tried. The players changed. The internet and social media became more mainstream. People learned that there are large downsides to interacting with massive numbers of people. There are also many many more games on the market where you can interact with massive numbers of players competitively, with carefully designed gameplay, in more controlled ways than just throwing everyone into a virtual world together.

This is a post I wrote on rpg.net about why MMOs are not the in-thing any more:

The genre feels increasingly stale. There are plenty of players with enthusiasm to try new games, but they tend to demand very similar features. They also tend not to want to stick with a new game for more than a few months, which isn’t a problem per se, but means it’s harder to form new communities. They also tend to be much less patient than players were in the past when we were all a bit new to the whole idea.

One reason is that people are increasingly likely to see being around massive numbers of people as a downside, not an upside. You need massive numbers for some mechanics: to simulate an economy and support a quick LFG queue and good PvP ladders. But other than that, actually being in a gameworld with that many people can be frustrating. And ultimately the elitist, more abusive elements have tended to have a big influence on the culture (I know not every elitist player is abusive, some of them are lovely) — it’s increasingly challenging to learn a new game when you have a high chance of meeting hostile oldbies in your groups.

Another is that so much of the discovery about MMOs is probably on neat little websites before the game even launches. And due to competitiveness in the player base there is an increasing pressure for players to have read it. That means the content barely lasts any time at all before it is beaten unless there is an unholy grind involved. Not a problem, but the discovery process was a big part of the appeal of the MMO back in the day.

It’s also about the tendency of open world games with PvP and a full economy (like EVE) to become really cut-throat. It’s great for the players who love it, but there’s a limit to how many of that type of game can fruitfully exist. And they tend to drive out anyone else from their games.

I think there’s a huge future in open world games — but they’ll be partitioned neatly between single player elements, co-op elements (like raiding), PvP elements, massive elements (like the economy), large group elements, and maybe even open world server shards with contained numbers. Something like Diablo3 (with better designed economy) is going to be a better picture;  you can play solo or with friends, or in LFG, or with the economy, and chat on your friends list and share pictures of your armour — and each of those parts of the game is neatly designed for that kind of group of people.

I think there is still a possibility for a more social open world type of game to become a breakout hit at some point, but it will do so by reaching out to people who are not currently core gamers (like Minecraft did). I think there are definitely still possibilities for huge procedural simulationist/ survival type open world games to become breakout hits. But for the rest of the MMO-type genre I think success will be much smaller scale – the pattern of the big influx of players and then drop off after a month or so is too frequently seen to blame on individual games and the days of the huge investment AAA MMO as we know it are done. There will still be successes and opportunities, but devs will have to design around the steady state numbers.

And maybe, sometime in the future, the MU* model of player run shards – which has been so successful in Minecraft – will re-enter the MMO-type area and the cycle will begin again.

Still, we’ll always have Warcraft.

Here’s a couple more blog posts from other people on similar themes, go read them they are good! (Will add more tonight, feel free to suggest links in the comments).

[Wildstar] Game difficulty, player confidence.

“… each struggling MMO is struggling in its own way.”

– Tolstoy (sort of)

I have read a few blog posts this week about Wildstar, and the inevitable subscription drop-off and server merge. I’d be hard pressed at this point to name a recent subscription MMO that hadn’t experienced a drop-off after the first couple of months. Players have wondered whether the game’s difficulty compared with other similar MMOs may be part of the explanation for why the new MMO on the block has failed to break the 3-monther pattern.

I played the game in Beta and wasn’t hooked, but at the same time, when so many other MMOs have trodden the same path it’s hard to pick out anything exceptional about this one. Except that the magical lightning-in-a-bottle MMO factor that will get a game to go viral and grow the playerbase rather than shrinking doesn’t seem to be there. It isn’t doom for Wildstar though – other games such as SWTOR and Final Fantasy 14 have recovered from the slump and stabilised the playerbase at a lower level. At this point no MMO is going to go viral unless its new and different, or appeals to a wildly different audience from the usual crowd. WoW did it. Minecraft did it. Lots of other games were decently successful but without setting the world alight, and that’s fine.

At the same time, if their target core audience was hardcore raiders, that was only ever going to be a small proportion of the player base. And it was always likely that unless those people were very burned out with WoW, they’d be tempted back for the next expansion. It’s certainly possible to raid hardcore in two different games at the same time, but not when one of them has a new expansion out.

I did like Keen’s analysis of ‘the quit wall’ in games. “People reach the wall and they quit.”  It could be a frustrating grind, or a really hard solo quest, or dungeon that it is impossible to find a group for – whatever it is, it becomes so frustrating that players no longer enjoy the game because they cannot see a path to the next goal that looks achievable.

I think of difficulty as being in two types:

  1. Something you could do with time and effort and/or help from other players, but it might take more time and effort (and motivation) than you want to spend.
  2. Something you just can’t do, and you aren’t confident that time and effort would change that.

When you describe it in these terms, 1) sounds like a rational choice. If it takes me 2 hours to run a dungeon and I’d need to run it 20 times to get the tokens that I need, I could rationally step back and think “Whoa, 40 hours for one doodad that will probably be obsolete in the next patch. No thanks.” Sometimes the sheer sticker shock when you realise how much hassle will be involved is enough to put people off even trying.  2) is a judgement call – how long do you try an event/ grind/ etc. before you decide that it isn’t possible?

So our judging difficulty is all about confidence. How good am I at succeeding in difficult things? (Women, incidentally, tend to underestimate this, men are more likely to overestimate – they call this ‘the confidence gap’). If people are already stressed out by other aspects of the game (eg. being yelled at for being a newbie in instances) then they are already likely to be feeling less confident.

So if you put a difficulty wall in a game, the least confident people are most likely to leave first. If your game attracts a crowd who are bullying and elitist, more of the other players will lose confidence and leave. It may be because they are bad players who couldn’t keep up. Or it may be because they lost the will to try or felt they would not be able to learn quickly enough. In either case, the player base reduces.

But still, admitting to yourself that a game is too difficult feels like failure for a gamer. It’s hard to do and even harder to discuss – I think every time I have written a blog post about where I thought part of a game was overtuned, I’ve been challenged on that by people who felt quite strongly about wanting their games to stay difficult.

So this is a tough topic. But does anyone want to share a time when difficulty made them decide to drop a game and how that felt? I never did complete the solo part of the legendary WoW quest this expansion – it was too hard for me and my shadow priest, and I don’t play MMOs because I want to do hard solo content (I’d get Dark Souls if I wanted that). And though I will play the game again, I will always now feel that the designers are telling me it’s too hard for me, and I’m probably not going to raid other than very casually. Because I got the message.

[Problem Players] What if games didn’t make people angry?

So I talked a bit in the last post about problem behaviour. I haven’t tried to define yet what it is. Before I try to do that,  I want to talk about what triggers problem behaviour – because we assume that people are not like this all the time. (If they are, then they probably are problem players.)

The reasons that players act up or rage out are basically down to: rage/ frustration, boredom, and/ or peer pressure/ local culture. Maybe another way for games to tackle this issue is to address those directly.

 

Gaming and Frustration

Things that (can) cause frustration while gaming:

  • Losing in a competitive game
  • Team members playing badly
  • You playing badly
  • Waiting around
  • Playing a game you don’t really want to play because you want the rewards
  • Being taunted by other players
  • Facing a barrier to an in-game goal
  • Feeling let down by other players
  • Being excluded socially by other players
  • Learning new content
  • Guild drama
  • Having to miss an in game event due to RL
  • Playing with people who don’t speak your language
  • Playing with people of very different skill levels to yourself
  • Playing with other people
  • Bugs
  • Staying up too late
  • Having a bad day (anything else outside the game)

 

Yup, a game that tried to eliminate frustration would lose most of its gaming aspects. It would have no competition, probably no multi-player, minimal challenge, and might start playing calming music at you and telling to relax if the time was getting late. It might still be fun. There are games like Journey that are designed to be as calming for the player as possible – and I love Journey — but it wouldn’t be an MMO as we’d know it. It is debatable how far it would really even be a game, and no game can really stop you from having had a  bad day at work or an argument with your partner.

Some of these areas could be addressed in games, though. You can reduce the frustration of team members playing badly by making team events easier, or making the matching better so you are always playing with or against people of similar skill ratings to yourself. You can stop people staying up late by having the server close down at night. You can reduce the frustration of people feeling excluded by having random group finders (most MMOs these days). You can reduce guild drama by not having guilds. You can reduce the frustration of not understanding people by not allowing players to communicate using free text (Hearthstone, Free Realms (RIP)). Learning new content can be less frustrating by making it more obvious what the player needs to do, or making the new content easier. Different games can and do experiment with these kinds of mechanics.

Not all of those things will make a game more fun for all players. That is the payoff for less frustrating games.

The elephant in the room is the trigger that I have marked in red in the list – it is frustrating to feel forced to do content you don’t enjoy because you feel you need the reward. The reward doesn’t need to be big or important to lure people into this play style. People who feel they need to min-max (for whatever reason – being an elite gamer, playing ‘properly’ etc.) will feel pressured to pick up as many of the rewards as they can.  This has been an ongoing issue with Themepark games. Warcraft for example has made a lot of tweaks to their raiding schemas due to players feeling they need to maximise their loot options. And every tweak reduces options for those players who don’t feel the need to min-max. The players who are mature enough to manage their gaming do suffer for the sake of those who claim they are being forced to run content. HINT: No one is forcing you.

Not all of those things will make a game more fun for all players. That is the payoff for less frustrating games.

On a more futuristic level, games could try to measure when a player is becoming frustrated. Maybe the player’s avatar jumps around more, for example. Maybe some day authenticators will be worn and will have blood pressure or heart rate monitors built in.  Or the game could ask if the player is feeling stressed, or give them a button to press (“press this button if you wish you could slap your opponent”). If so, maybe they could be directed to less stressful content. “Go pick some flowers, deathknightxxx, you need to chill out!” At the cost of removing some player choice, bad behaviour could be reduced. (Would it be a fun game? Who knows?)

Perhaps we don’t need to reduce player choice. Maybe when there is some calmer paced content available, players will choose to do that instead when they don’t feel up for the hassle of grouping. “Yeah right,” you may  think, but actually this is one of the appeals of big MMOs. If you log in and want to do something non-stressful, you can opt for gathering or redesigning the interior of your guild house.

 

Boredom: For the Lulz

Bored players are both the joy and the pain of MMOs. This is because boredom is a trigger for player initiated activity. Some people use it to devise really cool ways to entertain themselves and each other. Plenty of social guilds run really fun events, for example – quiz nights, scavenger hunts, wide ranging RP events, server-wide markets.

Boredom triggers players to sit around talking to each other. When people talk about modern MMOs being less social due to lack of downtime, this is what they mean.

Boredom triggers players to go and explore, or think up new challenges for themselves and each other.

Boredom has probably been the source of most of the best MMO player stories we’ve ever had. And it definitely is the source of most of the good stories you have ever read about sandbox games (in which the player is expected to be bored a lot of the time, that’s part of the appeal, and is why people say you have to make your own fun in these games).

But boredom also means the cat starts to play with the box. It can trigger people to go off and try to mess around with other players, for the lulz. And that means it can trigger problem behaviour also. Granted, in some games, the difference between problem behaviour and productive behaviour is very small – that is where the game culture comes in.

So this leaves a couple of questions.

  1. How to encourage players to start thinking about whether it’s time for them to take a break from the game?
  2. How to help boredom trigger good outcomes?

With (1), MMOs often try to keep people as long as possible which means a committed player will be encouraged to stay in the game long after they are actually burned out and bored. It doesn’t have to be this way. They could be more proactive with a call and return approach. To do this, the game needs to give benefits for the players who keep playing but also make it quick and easy for players who have taken a break to catch up and be able to play with their friends again. I think Blizzard has transferred smoothly to this type of model with Warcraft. There seems to be an understanding now that many players will not stay for an entire expansion. But at the same time, the game needs to stay fun for the players who don’t dip in and out. They need to feel their commitment was worthwhile.

Again, it’s a payoff. Making it easier for players to come and go will reduce the number of bored players hanging around, it will also reduce dev income and may make the game less fun for the committed core players. That’s a big risk. We also hope people will be able to decide for themselves when a break is warrented.

With 2, it is all about the in-game culture and the player’s social circle. Most people don’t do things for the lulz without an appreciative audience. And they can’t recruit a group to do it with them if no one is interested. It is also harder to recruit people to the cause if the majority of the players shun that type of activity. In any case, this brings me to … guild culture, game culture, gamer culture – which is a subject for the next post.

[problem players] Pictorial version – problem players or problem behaviours?

victory of the daleks 1

 

“Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.”
Winston Churchill

So imagine we have a group of people in the room. One of them is secretly a dalek who actually hates all life and has anger management issues and a disintegration beam. Those people might argue, they may have bad days, but only one of them is going to ever disintegrate people.

That’s one model of problem players – that some people are not like other people and are inevitably going to go dalek. The reason is not important, just that when you put them in that setting, they are going to be a problem. So if you can find and turf out those guys ASAP, the game space instantly becomes less threatening for everyone else. For lulz you could separate them into their own space where they can exterminate each other rather than just turfing them out completely.

 

dog socks

dogshaming.tumblr.com

Here’s another model: dogs aren’t bad, they are just dogs. And sometimes that means they might do things that annoy other people (or dogs) if they aren’t properly trained.

So if you socialise your dog properly, identify the behaviour you want to stop, and put in some training,  then all will be well. If we want people to stop being abusive online when they lose a PvP match or end up in a PUG with someone who they think is a noob, then we have to teach them this is not acceptable and that bad dogs will be shamed. It is, ultimately, behaviour that players can control if they want to.

 

firing_squad_2

“In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others” (Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres).” Candide (Voltaire)

An example of using a ban as a teaching mechanism for others.

So let’s try this again with less labelling

I don’t like labelling people as problem players. Or in other words, everyone is someone else’s problem player. But there are legitimately some people who struggle more with playing with others. We don’t need to know the reasons for this – some people are on the autistic spectrum, others have abusive backgrounds, others have been used to a community where smack talk and rage outs are acceptable, others are roleplaying being internet heroes. Maybe it’s patriarchy to blame, or capitalism, or the internet, or testosterone, or the NHS, or young people today, or the parents.

In the ideal world, there would be help and support. In the real world, they get to stomp all over the rest of us while society figures out how to best regulate the internet. And at this point I am equating problem players in MMOs to trolls on the internet. It isn’t the first comparison I am going to make but it does demonstrate how there is a difference between committed, organised trolling and people who just rage out from time to time when they’ve had a bad day at work. And as an added bonus, lots of people rage out when they encounter any kind of rules or regulation that involves them being told off. (I can say this from my experience as a mod on rpg.net).

And as soon as we shift from talking about problem players to problem behaviours, we have a problem which (potentially) could be solved. Make no mistake, solving the problem of online bullying is up there with climate change and water shortages and war in the middle east as one of our generation’s Big Problems.

Unfortunately, bullies don’t want to be ‘solved’ and will spend many happy hours figuring out ways around any mechanisms that are in place, so that they can  make other people’s lives more miserable. Or in other words, Lum is wrong and actually it may be a problem if the cats want to play with the box rather than the cat toy. Why do I say it? Because if some people are determined that their game is really about playing with the other players whether they like it or not, they are ruining the sandbox for others.

For a lot of others though, the behaviours can be channelled and the larger and more successful massive online games are finding ways to do that. I will talk more about Blizzard later this week because I think they and Riot are right up there with the best of any online organisation, public or private sector, in managing the player base. MMOs/ massive games are going to be where these techniques are honed and the ones which work will see use more widely later.

And at the same time, we can argue about how well this behaviour management is working. WoW is still a game in which you may zone into a PUG/ LFR and be abused/ booted while you are a new player and trying to learn the strategies. LoL still has a reputation for similar types of abuse. There are other games which have more pleasant communities and reputations. So the other angle would be – how do we build nicer communities?

Thanks all for the feedback on yesterday’s post! I see some agreement with the general principle that we’d like our online spaces to be less hostile, and some equally valid concern about the mechanics of how this might happen and what kinds of rules could be fairly applied online.

Should MMOs ban more problem players?

Quick post today. I am going to spend the rest of the week writing about the problem of problem players, both in MMOs and online in generally.

There has been a tendency for devs to feel “don’t ban paying players.” I think that’s way outmoded. It’s time to moderate these game spaces properly, recognise that the bar for good behaviour (ie. don’t be an arse, don’t harass people, don’t deliberately spoil a group event for your grouup) is pretty darned low, and start banning people who can’t meet those criteria.

What do you think? Would you be more likely to play a game which was proactive about bans? Is it just the cost that stops devs from implementing this? (Yes I know Riot games has been quite inventive here, but LoL still has a pretty poor reputation for player behaviour).

The land of lost content: Lum on the lifecycle of the MMO player

*coff* Is anyone still here? (I love you all!)  I thought I’d catch the Blaugust train before it completely left the station.

This is Lum’s masterful summary of the lifecycle of an MMO player. He’s just looking at the cycle in one MMO, not the part where you try to repeat the experience fruitlessly a few times and then wander off to find some other hobby.

 

collared dove

XL. Into my heart on air that kills

INTO my heart on air that kills

  From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

  What spires, what farms are those?


That is the land of lost content,

  I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

  And cannot come again.

 

Listening to Welcome to Nightvale.

Thoughts on the Steam Sale, also Dust

It’s like Valve read my mind (or blog). I hadn’t really planned to buy much in the Steam Sale but they kept putting up games on my list so what’s a girl to do? Current haul this time around includes: XCom, FTL, Kerbal Space Program, SIns of a Solar Empire Rebellion and Dust: an Elysian Tale. I don’t feel manipulated and am a happy customer (at least now that I’ve figured out how to get XCom to save) but it’s true that I spent more than planned.

I am epically ambivalent about Steam’s strange trading cards thing – is it a game or just a bizarre hook to reel in collectors? Not sure, but it seems popular and I picked up some pocket change by selling my cards on the Steam marketplace to people who (for whatever reason) seemed to want them. It is worth noting that people will also pay pocket change for cards generated by playing the games so if you buy a game from Steam that has a lot of associated cards, you can recoup some of your outlay/put the profits towards your next purchase. This makes it one of the most excruciatingly clever promotions ever seen.

Also I kind of like the design that collectors get rewarded with being able to collect things, and I can still  get rewarded for NOT being a collector (ie. by being able to sell the unwanted collectables.)

Jamie Madigan has spent more time thinking about the psychology of steam summer sales.

So what’s the score with Dust?

I haven’t booted up Dust: an Elysian Tale yet, as am currently too occupied with XCom. But the name does remind me that I haven’t heard much recently about CCP’s Dust 514.

I assume from this that no news is bad news, given that gaming companies tend to hype every minor piece of positivity to the ends of the earth and beyond. So colour me unsurprised that Brendan Drain just slated the game on Massively after trying it last week:

Last week I finally sat down to play the game myself and was thoroughly disappointed with both its 2005-era graphics and fundamentally broken gameplay.

The review a couple of weeks back in Edge Online was also harsh.

Combat has about as much personality as the bleak, dust-blown worlds. There’s none of Halo’s gently exaggerated physics, Shootmania’s relentless velocity or Call Of Duty’s immediacy. There’s just shooting people with guns, albeit while battling against some suspect hit detection and sludgy controls.

It’s in stat-packed menu screens, not on the battlefield, that Dust feels most part of the universe in which it nominally takes place.

I don’t know of any official figures about Dust, but I remember wondering last year how much CCP had invested in developing Dust and what the knock-on effect might be on them if it wasn’t successful. I guess we’ll find out.