[Links] Death of an MMO, Obsidian Kickstarter, Backlash for GW2

We are just coming up on one of the traditionally busy times of the year for the gaming industry, and this year is busier than most for MMOs with a slew of big new releases, new expansions and media blitz. You might almost think that the traditional (whatever that means) MMO is not in fact dead.

Unless, like City of Heroes, it is dead in the water. One of the reasons the news about CoH inspires such emotion around many of the blogs I read is that it is an older MMO, from an era where social networking was not as widespread as it is now. Back then, if you played an MMO, it may well have represented a much more important part of your online social life and online support network, at a time when these things didn’t greatly exist anywhere else.

Welshtroll notes some memories about the UK CoH community. Bree thinks about how this will affect how she plays MMOs  in the future, and how she feels about GW2 now. Strawfellow writes about what CoH meant to him and why the news that it is closing has hit him so hard.

What I am left with is a profound sense that no part of my life is sacred from the feeling of loss. Online games used to be my refuge, and now I am acutely aware that this ground is not safe either. It is difficult for me to trust to begin with, and investing myself in a new game will be significantly harder. You never do trust as easily as you do the first time.

Peter @ Markovia also reflects on what it means when a virtual world shuts down that had been active for so long (relatively).

… I’ve heard from people who have grown up there, who have proposed to wives and husbands in-game, or who have introduced their children to it as they become old enough. These people face losing their old haunts, places they often regard as an extension of their hometown. The community faces being torn apart.

<…> this isn’t a game anymore; the ‘game’ aspect of it is, at this point, something of a vestigial organ connected to the body of something much larger.

Unsubject analyses the state of NCSoft to think about why they made this decision.

NCsoft wants big successes, not titles that have limited future potential for growth. If the money might be better off going to ArenaNet (you bet NCsoft wants Guild Wars 2 to an incredible success) or Carbine Studios (Wildstar is on its way) than staying with Paragon Studios, then it makes sense to divert the cash.

Another game that has had a rough ride recently is The Secret World. Funcom announced that the game failed to meet their (crazily high) expectations, and that they have laid off some staff, and the promised monthly update is also running late.

A former Funcom CEO is also under investigation for insider trading.  Tobold suggests that figuring out that the game would not meet Funcom’s expectations and that this would affect share price, and therefore selling ones shares before launch may not indicate insider trading so much as common sense.

But I am sympathetic to all the players who really love the game and hoped for it to have a long and prosperous future. It’s far too early to announce doom and gloom, but clearly things aren’t going to well at the moment, and they’ll have to make do with the players they have.

lonomonkey argues that players who want MMOs to go places other than fantasy need to back new ideas with their money by supporting games like TSW when they are released. I would rather give the industry the message that if they make fun games, I will buy them.

A word from our developers

Alexander Brazie (who is a WoW designer) has a great blog on game design, and his post this week touched a nerve with me.

If you consider the pacing the macro level of a game, dungeon or encounter, you don’t want players to be going balls-to-the-wall nonstop for the entire experience. To cater to their human nature, you want luls, breaks and breathing periods between moments of intensity. Players, however will continue to naturally seek higher and higher levels of intensity until they breakdown from exhaustion.

You need to give them a hint that pushing forward harder is wrong.

Although I think I’m fairly good at knowing when to stop, I’ve definitely played games that felt like the gaming equivalent of a sugar rush. It was exciting, there was so much to do, and I played to where I was (mentally, if not physically) exhausted. So I appreciate efforts by designers to design in this type of lull as a pacing mechanism.

Because sometimes you want chilled out fun and not balls to the wall fun.

Whatever you think of GW2, the trading post/ auction house/ economy is shaping up to be one of the most exciting parts of the game (in my opinion). John Smith, the house economist, writes a great blog on the state of the economy that I hope is going to become a regular update. And incidentally, why don’t other MMOs other than EVE have their own economists?

We’ve noticed several markets that are clearly out of sync in terms of supply and demand. It isn’t interesting or fun to have a market flooded with items that contain very little value, so we’re making adjustments to the game every day. Players can expect to see these markets even out over time.

While adjusting the supply and demand will bring markets closer to non-vendor based equilibrium, there is still the matter of massive surplus of some items. To address the surplus, we’ve created some new, limited-time Mystic Forge recipes that use these items. These recipes create boxes that give chances for gold and some cool items.

It’s the fact that they are making constant adjustments in a way that players can respond immediately (via trading, naturally) that makes this so interesting. The day after he posted this, the ‘massively surplus items’ shown in the screenshot on the blog saw a huge increase in value, presumably because some players decided to stock up so that they could gamble on the new limited-time Mystic Forge recipes.

I realise this won’t be new to anyone who plays EVE, but it is entirely possible that Anet will do a better job of ‘balancing’ the economy than CCP. They also have an easier task because GW2 isn’t a completely sandbox game so they can tweak elements like the Mystic Forge and what is sold by NPCs in a way that CCP can’t. I think it will be interesting to watch, and interesting to play if you are economy-minded. I’m already loving the buy orders.

Smith also discusses economic issues around gold making ‘exploits’ in MMOs, and the karma vendor exploit in GW2.

The game has gotten to a point in size where there is no such thing as a single player discovering an exploit. Exploits come in waves of mass participation and in the end, if they aren’t dealt with, the economy becomes hyper-inflated. After mass exploitation, your wealth is only relative to how good you were at exploiting, rather than your success in the game. This damages the integrity of the game and makes it unfriendly to new and honest players. There have been cases where exploits have severely damaged and arguably killed a game.

Exploits are mostly generated by a mistake on our end and are really hard on players. When an exploit is discovered, players are tempted to participate by the draw of becoming wealthy and out of fear of being left behind the massively wealthy players who do participate. We take a harsh stance on exploiters because this decision should be easy: find an exploit, report the exploit and move on. It isn’t worth the risk to the player or the game.

Let me give you all my money

If you are one of the 36k players who have already thrown some money into the Kickstarter hat for Obsidian Entertainment, you probably know all about Project Eternity.

If you are like me, you got as far as the first paragraph of blurb ….

Obsidian Entertainment and our legendary game designers Chris Avellone, Tim Cain, and Josh Sawyer are excited to bring you a new role-playing game for the PC. Project Eternity (working title) pays homage to the great Infinity Engine games of years past: Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment.

… and then gave them some money immediately, before finding out what this game is actually intended to be about or when it might be released (2014 is the current estimate.) I do not pretend that this is either sensible or smart, but what is life without a little risk? I hope it’s more like Planescape than Baldur’s Gate but I won’t quibble either way.

The Kickstarter still has 29 days to go and, amazingly, made it’s $1.1m goal in about the first day. What makes me excited as a player (and pundit) is that with the success of games like Skyrim, GW2, and this kickstarter, I hope the industry is getting a strong message that there is a really solid audience for open world fantasy games and that we would like more of them.

Guild Wars 2 – backlash edition

So the game has now been out for a few weeks, plenty of  time for bloggers to get stuck in and come out with a stronger idea of what they do and don’t like about it.

Syncaine describes the game as ‘enjoyably meh’ and feels that it lacks meaningful decisions. Or at least the sort of decisions and challenges that would feel meaningful to him. It feels as though he can’t quite summon the energy for a full blown rant, but knows that something isn’t right.

Keen explains that he really enjoyed the levelling experience, and talks about what he and his guild are doing at level 80, with suggestions for other players. (Mull around, get bored and/or burned out, write an insightful post about flaws in the game and hop on the next hype train?)

Verene at Under the Pale Tree gives her two week summary and  touches on something Arb brought up while we were playing. The game is like crack for people with short attention spans.

Nearly every time I set out to do something, I spot another thing going on, and then another, and so on and so forth. Suddenly it’s three hours later, I’ve leveled up several times, and I realize I never got to what I was going to do in the first place!

Ravious is looking forwards to giving Arenanet more of his money in return for fun toys, like a pirate outfit that comes with its own emotes (we thought that looked quite fun when we saw it in the store too.) He also writes about his attempts to slow down and smell the roses in game – this is related to what Brazie wrote (see link above) about the natural lulls.

One of the cool things about being British, apart from the Olympics/Paralympics and having a weather system that isn’t trying to kill us, is that “afk 5 mins to get tea” is one of the great universal codes among British MMO players for “need a lull/ slow the pace.”

smakendahead also touches on the pacing of the game.

Dusty writes about roles in GW2 and discusses dungeon tactics. Since my main takeaway from the one dungeon we did run was “That wasn’t really very fun compared to roaming in PvE/WvW,” I’m trying to be open to the possibility that I was just doing it wrong. However, he does conclude that it would be useful to have a plate wearer around to take damage, which doesn’t quite gell with the whole ‘no trinity’ vibe.

Jeromai describes why he loves the underwater environments so much in GW2. I think I’d love them more if they were less full of barracudas.

Doone summarises some of the rest of the feedback from bloggers.

It’s interesting that I don’t have a lot of bloggers on my reader discussing WvW or sPvP in GW2. Feel free to recommend any blogs that cover those in more detail (or if you have written about them, feel free to add links in the comments, I’ll post them up here.)

On another note

Lord British (Richard Garriot) is getting Zynga to publish his new Ultimate Collector game. Don’t hate me but it sounds kind of fun and I think both of them are going to have a big success on their hands. You heard it here first.

Although I will probably be too busy playing on the GW2 auction house.

[News Bits] DA2 DLC, How much do popcap want for that zombie?, CoH goes F2P, Diablo 3 followers for normal mode only, more on EVE

Apologies for a bits and pieces posts, there’s a lot of news out this week that I thought was interesting but not really enough to write a whole blog post about.

First DLC announced for Dragon Age 2

Arb and I are keeping a weather eye out for announcements about Comic Con 2011 since we’re going to be there (have I mentioned this enough times yet? :) It’s less than a month away now.)

Bioware chipped in this week with the announcement that they’ll be offering demos of Mass Effect 3, SWTOR, and Dragon Age 2 Legacy – the first DLC for that game. The SWTOR announcement is in a different link but I’m sure that was a no brainer anyway. We’ll be aiming to check those out, if only in the hope of picking up freebies such as the inflatable swords which have been on offer the last couple of years.

We don’t know much about Legacy apart from the title, but already starting to wonder whose legacy we’re talking about here, exactly. I would be quite curious to find out what happened to Kirkwall after I left in a blaze of glory skulked out in the night with my batshit insane blond boyfriend of doom. Surely the world can’t keep on turning without Hawke to set it straight/break it horribly??!

ArenaNet will also be demoing Guild Wars 2 at Comic Con this year, so hopefully we’ll be able to report on that as well. As well as snag freebies, obviously.

Is Zynga going to buy Popcap?

Venturebeat reports rumours that Popcap (makers of Bejewelled and Plants vs Zombies, amongst many others) is in talks to be acquired. It’s not known yet if it is true, but they naughtily bander Zynga’s name around as a prospective suitor.

I think the most depressing sentence in the article is:

PopCap is an appealing target for almost any game company because it has several extremely popular games that can be turned into franchises.

I suspect that a lot of us would rather have new games than Bejewelled 17: the slightly sparklier version.

City of Heroes (finally) goes free to play

This is good news! City of Heroes announces that later this year, they’re switching to a model which will allow players to play for free or go with a subscription model. It sounds as though they’re going with a LOTRO-type of approach where subscribers get some free currency to spend in the game shop (which has plenty of fun cosmetic costumes) as part of their monthly deal.

Here’s the side-by-side comparison of what subscribers get in comparison to F2P players. And again like LOTRO, if you have ever paid a sub for CoH previously you get some perks when the game switches over compared to a new F2P player (Note: F2P players are limited to 2 alts unless they buy more slots, it’s not clear to me if older players will be able to keep all their alts if they come back except for directly purchased slots.)

I’m happy about this news partly because it’s a fun game which I think will lend itself very well to this model, and also because I have friends who play and now it’ll be way easier for me to join them occasionally.

Followers in Diablo 3 are for noobs only

Anyone who thought Blizzard had caught the companion bug from Bioware and were planning to amp up the importance of  followers in Diablo 3 can think again. Apparently the main use for followers is to help new players in normal mode in single player (and get them used to playing in a group – although this may backfire once they find how annoying real people are compared to their faithful NPCs). They will become less useful in hard mode, pointless in nightmare, and not available at all in multiplayer.

They’re there to make the single-player, normal difficulty experience feel more cooperative and to aid in enhancing the story. These factors lose some importance in multiplayer and in the higher difficulty settings of the game, and as such, the followers won’t be as relevant there.

EVE and Microtransactions

The latest on EVE is that someone has leaked an internal memo about plans for microtransactions in CCP’s games. Eve News 24 discusses the cosmetic cash shop prices and the data in the memo.

One of the main reasons that I think long term players get concerned about some of these microtransaction plans is that there’s a point where you wonder how far game devs are putting profit above making fun games. And if your main concern as a consumer is to buy (and pay for) fun games, you’d probably like THAT to be their main focus.

Clearly it’s great if companies that make good products do well. But at what cost?

The other main issue – probably mostly for old dinos like me – is that we like virtual worlds because they’re separate from the rat race of the real world. It’s because the real world doesn’t have much effect on the game world that the game world can be relaxed and fun, and being relaxed and fun is important for being able to play. The more the game favours real world tilts, the less ‘fun’ it gets. It’s like the way people always seem to have more fun in betas, because they know there’s no major consequence for failure or not optimising.  Maybe fun is a minority interest.

Gaming News: Landmarks for Wizard 101 and Free Realms, Rumour Control (SWTOR beta, DCUO pricing, APB adverts), CoH expansion dated, Blizzard writing contest

If you have somehow escaped knowing this, Steam have a really good sale on at the moment. Also, we’re about to lose at football again. Is that really news?

Numbers are up for Free Realms and Wizard 101

Good news everyone! Kid friendly non-subscription MMOs have posted some great numbers this week. Wizard 101 registered its 10 millionth player this week, with Free Realms claiming it’s jaw-droppingly 12th million signup.

Obviously the majority of these players are not actually paying to play, and many of them probably registered, checked out the game, and never came back. But props to both studios for getting the word out. Millions of players found out about those games  somehow – probably not through the gaming press — and came to check them out. That is not a small accomplishment.

If you want to join the party, you can get to Wizard 101 here, and Free Realms here. They’re both solid, kid oriented games.

Assorted Rumors, we’ve got them here!

The beta test for Star Wars: The Old Republic is widely rumoured to have started this weekend. Apparently 100-200 people received invitations to a game testing program, and SWTOR community managers have clarified what is and isn’t covered by their NDA (a fairly good sign that there’s something going on.)

Anyone care to bet that Blizzard will end up releasing Diablo 3 in the same month that SWTOR goes live? Anyone?

Sony confirmed this week that they’re going with an old fashioned subscription pricing setup for DC Universe Online. Or should I say, “old fashioned subscription model but probably with a cash shop anyway”? It’s interesting that they decided not to distinguish their game from CoH and Champions Online by going with a different pricing model. Clearly they’ve looked at their various portfolio of games and run the numbers, and think that they’re playing to a more hardcore audience here.

APB continues to flirt with controversy by deciding to play audio ads to players – even paying players. I don’t personally feel that one advert every three hours or so is something to get worked up about, is this even the sort of game that people play for three hours straight? Still, it takes double dipping to a new level if you look at income sources. Players pay for hours, plus there’s a cash shop, plus income from advertising.

I don’t imagine there’s all that much cash YET in in-game advertising, but I’ll be interested to see if it catches on.

Turbine is rumoured to be working on a new console MMO, with the assistance of Twisted Pixel. Scott@Pumping Irony guesses that this might be a Harry Potter game, given that Turbine is now owned by Warner Brothers who own that licence. I think I’d go with that as my guess also.

On a more local level, politicians had been talking excitedly here about the possibility of some kind of tax break for gaming companies. This went out of the window in the recent ‘austerity’ budget. But was there undue influence from outside companies lobbying against this? Did ‘one of the biggest gaming companies in the world’ really sabotage the tax break? The local gaming industry body says no, government made that decision all on their own. I’m inclined to believe them, this wasn’t a budget in which there was ever going to be much support for tax breaks.

And finally, is Linden Labs (the developer of Second Life) in trouble? They’ve just sacked their CEO and earlier this year they made 30% of the staff redundant. There is no good spin for that sort of story. They’re going down.

Going Rogue goes live in August

NCSoft announced that 17th August is the date for City of Heroes players to pencil into their diaries.  Going Rogue always sounded to be an interesting expansion, promising moral choices for players and the possibility for heroes to become villains or vice versa. I’ll be curious to hear more about it (probably from my husband since he’s a huge fan :) ).

I think they’ve done well to pick a date which is in the traditional MMO doldrums, before the rush of new games in the Autumn and Winter months. Maybe players who are bored with their other games will be lured into picking up an old fan favourite to see what they have to offer.

Anyone thinking of trying this?

Blizzard seeks fanfic writers

Last year’s contest was evidently popular because Blizzard is again running a fanfic competition. If you have any stories to tell that are set in the gameworlds of Diablo, Starcraft, or Warcraft, this could be your chance to shine.

These are last year’s winners if anyone wants to gauge the possible standard of entries. I rather enjoyed the winner (bit too elfy is my only criticism.)

You’re playing it wrong!

No multiplayer game ever survives contact with the players. This is as true for traditional card and board games (and pen and paper games, if those count as traditional these days) as it is for MMOs, but there is a huge difference in scale.

For example, has anyone ever played a game of Monopoly without some house rules? In fact, has anyone read the actual rules? I sometimes wonder if every family has its own set.  Note: Monopoly is such a poor game  that I’d advise anyone to PLEASE USE YOUR OWN HOUSE RULES IF THEY MAKE IT MORE FUN

Running pen and paper games, it’s also  a given that players will always think of something that you didn’t expect them to do. But when I’ve been running those sorts of games, a large part of the fun for me is finding out how players will surprise me.

I’m fascinated by player behaviour in MMOs,  particularly in ways we find to play the games that the devs never intended. This could involve:

  • exploits
  • players cooperating on goals where devs expected that they would compete, or vice versa
  • roleplaying in games that aren’t designed around that
  • exploring instead of achieving, or vice versa
  • soloing content that was designed for groups
  • buying gold instead of farming it
  • powerlevelling
  • griefing
  • building elaborate social structures that weren’t foreseen by designers
  • any kind of mixmaxing that devs didn’t spot
  • focussing on unexpected goals (eg. the naked warrior, or people who collect pets as their endgame)

As soon as you bring real players into the picture, the sky’s the limit. Some of these emergent behaviours get labelled as cheating. Players are told ‘you’re playing that wrong’. Or ‘you’ve broken the game.’ Some exploits get fixed, some players get punished, life goes on.

But is it really possible to play the game wrong? It is understandable that if you present a player with a game — and no rulebook — they’ll assume that anything they can do in game is reasonable.

Even if there is a rulebook, as per Monopoly, they’ll feel comfortable tweaking it the rules just don’t reflect how they want to play.

Some players will not make this assumption. Instead, they’ll assume that the way they play is reasonable and everyone else is wrong. You’ll sometimes see complaints about perfectly legitimate power levelling from players who think it removes the fun from a game.

So in any case, it’s easy to feel confused. The huge MMO sandboxes that we play around in are welcoming to lots of different styles of play. You can do what you like. Except when someone decides that you were playing it wrong. That rock on which no mob could reach you? You thought it was designed like that, but what if it was a bug? That’s an exploit right there. That super powered combo you built your character around? Sorry, not intended. It gets nerfed next patch.

It is absolutely part of the MMO genre that if players find a way to be a little too optimal in game, steps will be taken to fix it. For the sake of balance. And because in order for the game to be fun for the majority, the optimal route through needs to be a ‘fun’ one and not a dull grindfest? Well maybe.  In any case, devs have their ideas of what is fun and since you are paying them to produce fun games, we assume most players are down with that.

So when is an exploit not an exploit?

Most people are aware of when they are exploiting an unforeseen bug in the coding, or even outright cheating. When these bugs are fixed and the exploits closed off, the majority of sensible players nod, remind themselves that these games are complicated, and may even think in passing how much more fun MMOs would be if you could just dump the hardcore achievers with their minmax attitude, exploits, gold buying, and tendency to focus on the ends rather than the means.

But sometimes it simply isn’t that clear.

Recently City of Heroes introduced a mission architect. You could create your own instances, your own plot arcs, your own supervillains and enemy groups, and other people could run through and give them marks out of 5. You could even earn xp and pick up achievement badges inside architect missions. It was (and is) terrifically fun.

Then someone worked out how to create a mission that was optimised for xp. It was called meow. It wasn’t just optimised for xp, it was crazy xp. You could create high level mobs with virtually no health. You could use high level mobs who were effectively rooted to the ground. You could use bunches of high level mobs clustered around a bomb that players could explode.  Here’s a  video of a player in a meow farm mission.

Other people caught on quickly and before you knew it, the channels were full of requests for groups for meow missions. They zipped up levels like wildfire.

And then NCSoft decided that enough was enough. Positron stepped in (as reported by Blog of Heroes) and stated clearly that this was going to stop. Meow missions would be banned, and:

Players that have abused the reward system egregiously may lose benefits they have gained – leading up to and perhaps including losing access to the characters power-levelled in this fashion

So the punishment is not just for the people who designed the missions. But possibly for anyone who ever used them. Even if it was just to grab a couple of quick levels to get a new ability, to help a friend or partner, or just to get high enough level to access some of the cooler zones.

Ardua@Echoes of Nonsense has a good rant about this. He helped his wife get her character a couple of levels via a meow mission because he was tired and it was late, so that she could get a pretty cloak and a pet that would help her to solo and now she risks being banned for it? And this is in City of Heroes, a game with no significant endgame.

I don’t have a problem with devs banning exploits and cheaters where they find them in games. But when it was down to their mistake and no one was really hurt by the extra powerlevelling, what’s the point in coming down so hard on all the players who may have taken part?

Maybe instead we should ask: why were people so keen to powerlevel in CoH? Is it because the midgame is boring as heck? Is it because some characters just don’t get fun before they collect a full set of abilities at higher levels?

Yes there will always be some people who exploit loopholes just because they can. In a way, they get their fun by outsmarting the devs (and good luck to them). But when you find a large proportion of the playerbase jumping onto the bandwagon, you have to ask what’s wrong with the game at a more fundamental level. Because if it was fun in vanilla mode, people would eat vanilla.

And if it takes hours of boring gameplay to get the character you want, then maybe the problem isn’t with the meows.

On another note, I’m still impressed at whoever thought to design powerlevelling missions. Someone recruit that guy as a level designer, stat. S/he obviously has a solid understanding of game mechanics and how players behave in game.

Souvenirs

When you play an MMO, you’ll likely do lots of different things. Lots of quests, lots of instances, lots of … whatever else people do. But how many of them offer souvenirs that  you can look back on later?

I have been dipping into City of Heroes a bit lately (not on my account, true, but since my beloved insists on paying for his even when he is totally not playing it, I feel morally justified in treating it like a ‘household’ account). And two things come to mind.

1/ I still think they do titles and achievements very very well. Like the WoW achievements, you get some titles for exploring, some for grinding, and some for finishing particular story arcs or completing other activities (like creating your own mission via the mission generator).

2/ I like the mission creator. The genius of it is that it’s very very simple to create a playable mission. Even if you just pick a standard map, standard enemies, and write some garbage quest (find the thief who stole the sweets from the shop), you will end up with a playable instance. It will be no worse than a majority of the instances you hit while you are levelling, playability-wise.

I also really like that you can add a souvenir to your mission, so that when a player has completed it, they will have something in their souvenir list to look back on later, and it will remind them of the mission. For example, in my attempts to write a sad, spooky, ghost story, the souvenir is a photograph of the ghost on his wedding day – a picture of the memory that kept him from moving on.

(If you want to try the mission and are on a CoH US server, the arc id is 52484. It’s very short and intended to be very easy/ good for lowbies, I just wanted to experiment with storytelling.)

Souvenirs in Games

I always kind of liked that aspect of WoW also. I have bits and pieces in my bank that I have not used for years. The sceptre that was the key to Marauden (actually, did I ever use it at all? I don’t even remember), my old mechanical yeti (quest reward from level 55+), a christmas hat I picked up one year, 250 apexis shards (why on earth are they still in my bank???) from blade’s edge.

Now achievements can be a kind of souvenir also. First kills, completing long quest chains, collecting pets, and so on. I don’t find the WoW achievements to be as powerful souvenirs as the CoH titles, maybe because the titles are more imaginative in scope. But the thought is there. And you can look back through your list of achievements, and remember.

And then there are screenshots. It would have seemed crazy to me a couple of years back to compare a folder of screenshots with a family album because  one is about real people and places and the other has pictures of my sisters (I jest, I jest!). But looking back at them now, the memories are real enough. I wish I’d taken more.

There’s the blog also. I can look back through the Book of Grudges and revisit lots of happy memories of playing Warhammer.

The only actual solid souvenir type object in our house to do with MMOs is a model of an undead warlock that I bought my husband for Xmas last year (he loves it, his warlock had the same shoulders as the model at one point).

Fixed Levelling Groups: Myths and Mythconceptions

There are big advantages to coming into a new MMO with a bunch of people you already know.

You have yourself a fixed social group. Instead of going out for a beer, you can just arrange one night as an online gaming night in the game of choice and pick up where you left off last time. Especially if you are playing with friends who don’t live in the same city (or even country) you get to hang out together without needing to actually be together.

You can  pick compatible classes/ specs/ starting areas to make yourselves a perfectly balanced team. All the group content as you level is easy for you to organise. You  never have to fret about finding a tank or healer (or dps) — because you have your fixed group of friends.

And of course, you’ll never have to run in a pickup group or use the looking for group tools. You can laugh at the trade channel/ barrens chat/ whatever and know that you’ll never need to hangout with anyone outside your fixed group.

So to sum this up, fixed groups offer:

  • Good, guaranteed social group – hopefully of people you want to spend more time hanging out with.
  • Good guaranteed mix of classes for tackling group content in game.
  • Good, guaranteed game times that you can arrange your week around in advance.
  • Less risk of having to rely on people outside your fixed group.

By playing in a fixed group, people are effectively saying that they’re less interested in the massively multiplayer side of MMOs, and instead they’re looking for a small multiplayer environment.

Some MMOs offer fantastic  rewards for people who can keep a tight core group of friends to play with. All the group content suddenly becomes easier because you’re removing the most difficult part; getting the group together in the first place. So in WoW, for example, there would never be any trouble organising groups for the 5 man achievements (assuming that your friends play at a similar skill level) or getting people together to boost one of the group’s alts through an instance.

And as with all rewards, hardcore players respond by changing the way that they play the game. Small group content is great, but it does encourage small cliques and actively nudge people away from mixing outside their regular social circle.

So what is the problem with fixed levelling groups?

I don’t know about you but I’ve never been in a fixed group which lasted more than a few months. That’s with playing one night a week. The group sessions also tended to become shorter and shorter, and we never got anywhere near the endgame.

So all those dreams of the perfect fixed group? It just turned out to be easier to level the regular way and then feel around for people to hang out with.

I am sure there must be people out there who have made it work. In my experience the fixed group is most stable when people share the same goals, and works best when those are casual goals. Otherwise people get frustrated when one player forgets a session, isn’t in the mood, or decides that they don’t like their class and want to reroll (this is also one of the problems with trying to premake the perfect group).

Problems I’ve seen with fixed groups:

  1. Some people know the game better than others, they either get frustrated, or the newer players get stressed out at being dragged through content faster than they had planned.
  2. One or more people isn’t so into the idea and often forgets sessions or has to leave early.
  3. One or more people really loves the game and their character, and sneaks on during the week to play it more often.
  4. People find that they don’t actually get on all that well.
  5. Progress is slow, and at least one person decides there is something else they’d rather do that night. I was in at least one group that was running instances in WoW, the first few weeks we ran a different instance every week. Then things slowed down, people didn’t want to run the Scarlet Monastery for three weeks running.
  6. People want to do different things on the set game night. Maybe one person wants to run a cool questchain that ends in a group quest, and another wants to do an instance, and another is just in the mood to craft quietly.
  7. Some quests just don’t work very well if you do them in groups.

So although MMOs often reward the fixed group, most aren’t really set up for levelling in one. If the levelling game is designed at all, from a social point of view  it’s with the idea that people will be doing some quests solo or in small groups (duo is popular), with occasional larger groups for specific group quests or instances.

It didn’t used to be like this. Before the onset of quests/directed content people usually formed into groups and hung out at prime farming spots. And if you went to one of the farming spots on your own, you could probably find a group to snap you up. If not, you hung around and waited until they had room.

It was definitely better for preformed groups, but not necessarily more fun in itself.

So these days it would probably be easier to sort out a schedule in advance of things to do on the game nights. And let people level on their own in the meantime. eg. start with any outstanding group quests that anyone had, go on to run an instance. And agree at the end of each session what sort of level people would try to be at for the next session.

But you can’t sort out a good schedule unless you know the game quite well, and that’s the rub. When you know the game, you will know what levels the instances are designed for, where they are, and what a good group mix might be. You’ll know which quests to avoid and which will be most fun.

Alternatively, if you’re all going in blind with the aim of learning the game together, you risk people learning at different rates, deciding they want to do different things, not understanding the mechanics well enough to pick a good balanced group at the start and so on. With friends, and people you want to hang out with, this won’t matter so much. Either you’ll handle the content with the group you have, or eventually get bored. But you’ll have had your social hangout which was one of the main goals.

I think CoH is the notable exception to the trend here.  I like my games massive and multiplayer but CoH have really nailed it when it comes to removing barriers that stop friends being able to play together. Missions and instances scale themselves to the group size, if one person wants to play more or less then they can be sidekicked/ exemplared, and there aren’t really that many different things to do that people would get distracted. So if I was looking for a fixed group, that might be my game of choice.

Has anyone had much luck with fixed levelling groups? And in which games?

5 reasons we love in-game festivals

  1. New Content. It’s something new to do that wasn’t there yesterday.
  2. Lore and Immersion. A fantasy culture feels more believable if it has its own customs and festivals. So it’s important that we know the history of the festival and of any local customs that we’re invited to honour. And also that the holiday fits with the feel of the game.
  3. Mirroring real world festivals. Sounds like the opposite of the previous reason but this is why so many games have special festivals around Christmas. Players are celebrating in real life, and it gives us a kick to be able to celebrate in game too. This can fall flat in a multi-cultural environment — a game that celebrated American Independence Day would leave the non-Americans feeling that the game simply wasn’t aimed at them.
  4. More activity in game. Smart designers have learned that an in game festival can help point players at content in game (such as instances, PvP, etc) which means more people around for everyone to group with.
  5. They are time limited. SALE ! SALE ! ONE DAY ONLY ! We love time limited events that only happen for a few days every year. It adds to the air of exclusiveness and excitement if you know there’s only a brief period in which you can get your new shiny title/mount/whatever.

Warcraft is a gonzo game so their events veer more towards mirroring RL than establishing a coherent in game culture (and I’m putting that kindly — Hello Olympic Event? WTF??!!). But in a game like LOTRO, the events really do enhance the organic feeling of the game world.

I never could figure out events in City of Heroes, they all seem very grindy. But since it’s a game that is set in a modern day city, it’s very easy for them to mirror real world holidays and they don’t really need to establish a fantasy culture.

Warhammer, by comparison, is more of a gamist design than an immersive world but they do draw on the rich Warhammer lore to set the scene for their holidays.  I liked the Warhammer holidays that I’ve seen. They get people interested and out there, encourage more PvP, and have some cool lore attached. You can’t really ask more.

Note: I’ve not played EQ2 or Guild Wars, I know they have holidays also but not much about them. I’d be interested to know more about how those fit in and how fun they are?

Same as we did last year

But holiday events are repetitive, which is true in real life too, it’s the whole point. Of course they’re the same every year, that’s what local customs are all about.

If you’ve been playing a MMO for more than a year, this means you’ll  see the same events come round again. This isn’t a bad thing per se, it just means that the amount of play you get from a holiday may be on diminishing returns.

I wouldn’t say I get bored of holidays, I look forwards to my favourite ones and I try to log onto games when they are on. So in that sense, they’re a huge success for me. And opening presents never gets old.

But I’d love to see more support for player-run holidays. In DaoC, we used to have annual fairs and the GMs would help decorate the fairground on our server. Just our server, because we had the in game organisation that ran the fairs and asked them for help. And our server felt as if it had its own culture. Not one that was just created by developers and slapped on top of it. (Well, we had that too.)

In the drive to more user created content, this is the sort of event I’d like more support for. Holidays run by the people, for the people! And each server it’s own organic society.