Devs speak out: “MMOs are for the hardcore.” “Immersion makes people spend more in cash shops.”

For today, a quick look at comments made by developers which caught my eye this week.

Aventurine speak out

Tasos Flambouras, from the Darkfall team, had a Q&A session with Rock Paper Shotgun this week. One of the things he was talking about was the type of players who are attracted to MMOs.

When you play any MMOG, you’re making an investment, these are not casual games and they continuously evolve.

Nothing much to argue about there, you’d think. But commentators have interpreted this as meaning that MMOs are for the hardcore only. They’re right, of course. But it depends how you define hardcore.

Even the most casual MMO player has some kind of ongoing commitment to their favourite game/s and to their character/s. That commitment might go on for months or even years. Even if you just log on once a week to chat to your friends and solo a bit, that’s pretty hardcore compared to most gamers.

But it does go further than that. These are massive, complex games (even if old time players don’t think so). They reward time spent researching or looking up information online. The more time you spend thinking about the game when you aren’t playing it, the better. The more time you put in, the more you get out of the game – that’s been the traditional way things have worked, and it sounds to be the type of game Aventurine are proud of producing. So these are also games which have tended reward players for being more hardcore and challenge them as to who can be the most hardcore guy on the block.

Even if the competitive hardcore aspect was toned down (as is the trend), a casual MMO player would still come across as amazingly hardcore compared with the average gamer.

However, convincing Darkfall players that they’re more hardcore than everyone else has been one of Aventurine’s marketing strategies so it would be surprising if Tasos didn’t mention it several times during the Q&A session. He does forget his hardcore persona and go slightly off-message later in the article when he adds:

Darkfall is not the strictly hardcore game it’s made out to be. We have numerous casual players who enjoy the game as much or even more than the hardcore players. We were also surprised to find a healthy population of role-players during our events.

I’m intrigued as to what a healthy population of role-players is. If you are too, and like full PvP in games, they have a free trial on at the moment.

If a game world is immersive, players will spend more

MMO Crunch post about a report that shows how immersion affects buying habits in virtual worlds. (But they fail at linking to the actual report so I can only comment on their summary – which is that players spend more in immersive worlds.) This sounds plausible to me, although I was sad not to see the report because I’m curious as to how they measured immersion.

But another well known developer also spoke on a similar issue this week. Legendary Nintendo designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, answered questions in a video interview for IGN (partly transcribed by eurogamer.)

And then what happens is as the player begins to understand the world that they’re playing in, then they’re going to begin to think about ways that they can play within that world; they use their own creativity and their own imagination to tell the story or to come up with their own parts of the story, and at the same time they come up with new ways to play in this world that has been created for them.

So in a time when many MMO players have been wondering if devs are giving up on presenting immersive worlds, there are two different angles on why immersiveness might be THE single most important part of a game.

The first argument, straight to the bottom line, is that being involved in an immersive gameworld encourages players to spend more money. And the second, straight to the gameplay, is that players are more encouraged to play in immersive worlds.

So don’t give up hope yet!

Gaming News: LOTRO goes F2P, Zynga buys Warstorm Dev, Sony announces Clone Wars Online, DC Online, Buzz about Halflife 3

Good news everyone, I didn’t have to make up any news this week!

LOTRO, Darkfall: Free as in Beer (the first round is on the house)

In case anyone had escaped the internet LOTRO blogging blitz, yes Turbine have announced that their  AAA Lord of the Rings MMO will be offering a wider variety of payment schemes from sometime this Autumn, so probably around November. Which does, yes, include some non-subscription cash shop options.

The big news from my point of view is that this is going to happen for the Euro servers as well as the US ones (unlike DDO). So we may actually retain some players. We still don’t know exactly how the changeover will affect existing players. So expect to hear more about that as the deadline approaches.

In other freemium news, Darkfall has announced a new 14 day free trial. So if you’re curious to test Aventurine’s claims that their MMO is not just a hardcore PvP gankfest with a confusing UI but actually does sport some challenging PvE also, this is your chance.

Zynga pays a high price for Challenge Games

Continuing to buy their way to dominance of Facebook games, Zynga announced a new acquisition this week. Challenge Games have made a name for themselves producing innovative social games like Warstorm (a collectible card type game) and Ponzi (a game that pokes fun at corporate life), with the obligatory cash shop purchases built in.

So it’s clear that Zynga recognise that they’ve been weak at innovation in this area – all of their more popular games right now were based on polishing other existing games. And this is how they plan to plug the gap. Challenge now becomes Zynga’s Austin office.

Sony announces two new MMOs, internet ignores one of them

Sony announced that they are releasing two new MMOs this year:

Care to guess which one got all the attention? Hint: It wasn’t DCU Online. This can’t bode well for the superhero MMO, maybe the popular interest in playing superheroes just isn’t there or is already well catered for with City of Heroes (due an expansion later this year too) and Champions Online. I was actually surprised by how few of the blogs and news outlets I read had much to say about it.

Everyone seems far more taken by the notion of Clone Wars Adventures, myself included. Maybe Sony have some agile PR campaign planned for DCUO later this year to stir up some excitement.

November is looking pretty busy this year for MMO releases, especially if Cataclysm ends up with a November release date too (which is likely). And we still don’t have dates for Final Fantasy 14, which also could potentially release this year, not to mention other smaller games (Jumpgate Evolution, Black Prophecy, TERA, etc.)

Valve cancels the Portal 2 demo at E3… what are they planning?

Lots of gaming journalists this week received a note from Aperture Science to announce the cancellation of the Portal 2 demo at E3. It will be replaced with A Surprise. RPS speculate whether the surprise might be related to a Half-Life 3 announcement.

From working my way through Portal (what a great game!!), I can only say that I regard announcements from Aperture Science with a degree of .. uh … cynicism. My 2c says that it is in fact going to be the Portal 2 demo, but maybe they’ll zap visiting hacks with cake guns or something similarly amusing to the public.

In any case, Valve could teach Sony a thing or three about PR campaigns. Maybe Portal 2 could include a Batman level to hype DCUO or something…

Puzzling PR #2, and a great article on casual/ hardcore gaming

Most puzzling comment made in an interview I saw this week was from Bioware, on the topic of Mass Effect 3. Apparently the third story is where they are going to bring some more fun and lightness into the trilogy, like the ewoks in Star Wars.

But I thought that everyone hated the ewoks and also, what if existing players love the games BECAUSE they aren’t fun and light hearted. Just a thought. Why are devs so scared of the grimdark, I wonder. It obviously does sell.

And because I forgot this from yesterday’s link post, everyone should go and read Greg Costyikan’s great article in The Escapist in which he ponders why publishers and retailers have been trying so hard to drive a wedge between casual and hardcore gamers. After all, don’t lots of people play both, and have been since the very dawn of gaming?

What is immersion

I’ve been reading a few reviews of Darkfall in other blogs this week. If you don’t follow small/ indie MMOs you may have missed this one — it’s a fantasy MMO which is all about hardcore PvP. There’s a big world to explore, you can stake out pieces of it with your guild, and when you kill people you can loot all their gear.

So here’s a couple of positive reviews from Keen and from Syncaine.

What struck me, and has also struck me with various reviews I have read about EVE, is how immersed the players were in the game. Something about full-on hardcore PvP makes the experience more immersive for people.

Having real players to fight, a stake in the game world, and being constantly on your guard adds up to more of an emotional rollercoaster. The buy in from players is higher. They care more. And because both you and your opponent do care about the outcome of a fight, it makes it more meaningful.

So what’s immersion all about

When gamers talk about immersion they can mean several things. How ‘real’ the game world feels to them, how easy it is to relate to their character, how exciting and emotional a game experience they had.

There are two main types of player who care deeply about immersion. Hardcore PvPers … and roleplayers. It’s kind of ironic because usually those two types don’t see eye to eye and don’t even like each other; with all due apologies to any roleplayers out there who do relish hardcore PvP. Although they favour immersion for different reasons (RPers want to experience a living breathing world, PvPers want to feed on your tears), it is an important part of a game’s appeal.

Immersion is what makes a game experience memorable, and it is all about having an emotional connection with your character and the (virtual) world in which it lives.

And as to why these two groups of players experience most immersion:

  • Fighting other players is always more immersive than fighting NPCs. No one really cares about the NPCs, they’re like animatronic models, And you know they say the same thing to everyone. Players on the other hand are very real. When they smack talk to you, it’s meant for YOU.
  • Good RPers can roleplay past all the inconsistencies in lore, the robotic NPCs, and the unimmersive mechanics. They can create a living breathing world for themselves despite all the obstacles in the way.

This has all been done before

Unsurprisingly, pen and paper RPGs faced this problem of immersion many years ago. Because there is NOTHING immersive about sitting around a table and rolling dice. Absolutely nothing at all.

Some of the ideas people have used:

  • Emphasis on good interactive storytelling. Draw people into the story by making the story much more about their characters and using their backstories.
  • Mechanics which make it easier for players to control parts of the story. Maybe you can decide when you want your character to be lucky or unlucky. Maybe you can suggest that an NPC has a personal connection with your character and have the GM roll with it.

Both of these are all about building a framework in which players have more of an emotional stake in the game.

But more interestingly from a design point of view, some of the smaller indie games get more experimental with game mechanics. Instead of having to fight against  the mechanics to feel immersion, the mechanics encourage it.

One of the oldest and best well known examples of this is Call of Cthulhu’s sanity points. Cthulhu, if you don’t know it, is based on H P Lovecraft’s horror stories. In these stories, it’s very common that when people learn more about the eldritch  horrors that threaten them, they go mad.

In the game, you have to balance your desire to learn about whatever you are investigating with your need to  keep your sanity. Discovering anything about the Mythos is often accompanied by a SAN loss. And eventually, you can lose your character to insanity (traditionally often accompanied by wigging out on your friends and trying to shoot them but that might just have been our games).

What it meant was that people actually cared about their sanity, and the danger of discovering too much of that which should not be known was always on the players’ minds.

A couple of other more modern examples:

Dogs in the Vineyard (a Western themed game. Players are lawmen in the Midwest. Read the ‘actual play’ links on the site to get a feel for how it works)

My Life with Master (hammer house of horror game. Players are ‘Igors’ in service to some evil overlord. The mechanics here are all about telling melodramatic, tragic stories, and they work very very well.)

So why can’t MMOs get more immersive?

I think it’s about time MMO devs stopped (re)designing MUDs. MUD combat in particular is usually dire. Here is a typical example.

kill monster

kill monster

kill monster

And you can keep on with that until the monster dies.

MMO combat is a lot better than this. You can move around, use lots of different abilities with appropriate graphical effects. But  circle strafing is not really a much better representation of combat than typing ‘kill monster’. It may be fun in its own circle-strafey way, but it’s a mechanic that gets in the way of immersion.

I’d like to see more games where the mechanics are designed around the game world and the themes which that game in particular is all about. I’d like to see games where I can feel more than excitement at a good kill or glumness after a bad session.

Why not have a Vampire game where you have to guard your humanity like a hawk and try not to give into the monster inside?

After all, why shouldn’t we have a game based on Georgian Romance Novels which is all about melodrama, romance, social climbing, and politics? And if we do, ‘combat’ better not be about circle strafing.

It’s easy to blame other players for ruining immersion. Hardcore PvPers show us one way out of that – harness other players to help immersion instead. More creative mechanics is another.