Will AOL keep Massively going?

If you follow online media news, you’ll know that the big story of the week was that AOL bought the Huffington Post for crazy high amounts of dosh, and handed editorial control of all of its blogs/ media content over to Arianna Huffington. One of the family of AOL owned blogs is Joystiq which readers might recognise from the URLs of WoW Insider and Massively.

WoW Insider has pretty much nailed down its readership. I’d guess it as the most popular of all the WoW news blogs – the fact that getting linked from WoW Insider can easily net a small blog up to 5k hits will give you an inkling of how many readers they have in general, since only a small proportion of readers do click on links.

But what about Massively? I like the site (despite them failing to offer me a writing gig), but how long can that survive in the brave new HuffPo world, subject to an editor-in-chief whose main strengths are news and women’s interest issues. Here’s a hint of what is to come:

A recent leak of AOL’s growth strategy for its media division showed a business ruthlessly devoted to generating more traffic through increased frequency of publication, better search-engine optimization, and more recruitment of talented writers and editors. The new way sets ambitious goals for site editors, requiring writers to post 5 to 10 stories a day and generate at least 7,000 hits per story.

Does anyone think that press releases about non-mainstream MMOs are going to generate 7000 hits per story?

I’m not trying to be downbeat here. I’d like to be wrong, or misinformed. I think we’re lucky to have a bankrolled MMO news site that doesn’t cut out the smaller, newer, or less WOW-ish games and I’d like to see it do well. But small and diverse niches don’t sound to me as though they fit too well with the AOL growth strategy.

And if it does crash and burn in it’s current form, that doesn’t mean that its corporate masters are giving up on the market. Maybe if things change they can get better. What would you want to see instead?

New expansion for City of Heroes

Out with the old, in with the new! Paragon have been emailing around fliers about their next expansion: City of Heroes going Rogue. There’s a cool trailer on the site too.

What can I say? This old article from Massively last year is looking prophetic.

One of the big attractions is going to be the ability to switch sides. Heroes can become villains. Villains can become heroes. They aren’t the first MMO to do this (EQ2 has had side switching since forever)  but that doesn’t mean it isn’t pretty exciting, especially since the hero and villain powersets can be quite different.

New characters will start as neutrals, picking a starting side at the end of the tutorial instance. And various actions you can take in the game will edge you closer to the good or evil side of thing. I like this -  if any genre ever cried out for a basic good vs evil alignment mechanic, superheroes are it.

Other items from the survey last year and not yet announced for the expansion (but sounding plausible  are):

  • Characters that do not wish to change sides are rewarded by becoming exemplary heroes or villains, and earning rewards not available any other way
  • Character Creator 2.0 includes Powers Customization, allowing players to customize not only the character, but also the actual look of its powers
  • New Spy Archetype, Power Sets & Costume
  • Universal Enhancement Slots – at level 50, these enhance powers to the character, essentially bringing them to a hypothetical “Level 60″ once they have earned all ten slots

Unsurprisingly there’s a long thread on the subject on the COH boards. There’s no timeframe yet but this could be a good year for superhero MMO fans.

If this is CoH’s answer to Champions Online then all I can say is … game on!

Do you play like Alice, Dorothy, or Wendy?

alice-lewis-carroll (If you answered ‘tinkerbelle’ then take a well-deserved time out at Dorn’s fabulous blog.)

If you have ever taken the test that classifies players as socialisers, killers, achievers and/or explorers in MMOs (I’m ESKA, by the way) then you’ll be familiar with Dr Richard Bartle’s work.

We know that one of the big appeals of MUDs and MMOs is that they support a lot of different types of play. So there’s no reason why an achiever and a socialiser can’t happily play in the same game, even though they may not want to play together.  And this paper is really the seminal work in starting to classify those different types.

But the problem with this model from my point of view is that it dates from about 5 years BWE (Before the WoW Era). The virtual worlds he was observing were MUDs, or very closely based on MUDs. Trends in game design have changed. And there are some new emergent types of play that simply weren’t big in the MUD days (or  in the types of MUDs he was considering).

MUDs, for example, were never well known for their deep and immersive storytelling narratives. MMOs may have a long way to go, but with the rise of quest based levelling, storytelling is here to stay. Also although you could group in MUDs, I don’t remember team-based play being quite the cornerstone that it is in many MMOs today. Raiding in WoW has more in common with team based games like Team Fortress or Settlers than it does with a Diku MUD. (No one would ever had joined a MUD and asked immediately which endgame guilds were recruiting or what classes they most needed.)

So the fact that Bartle’s categories don’t include the narrative-seeking player or the team player just shows how there are new emergent playstyles coming alongside.

So I was intrigued to read in the Virtual Cultures blog about his keynote speech to the Indie Multiplayer Games Conference (via Massively) about ways in which players approach modern games. And here he’s tackling one of the big issues which is the divergence of sandbox games (like EVE or Darkfall) and ‘theme park’ games (like WoW and LOTRO).

I’d been thinking about this anyway, since Averaen commented on my post this week on virtual hangouts that s/he thought it was a mistake to treat WoW and similar MMOs as if they were virtual worlds. I don’t really agree; if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then maybe … just maybe… it could be some odd breed of duck. And WoW is certainly a massive persistent virtual world, it’s contiguous (you can fly from one end to the other without zoning), it has consistent-ish storylines, it has cities and villages, it has hangouts and places where players can buy food and drink, it has auction houses and a working economy. How can it NOT be a virtual world?

Anyway, getting back to Dr Bartle. In his keynote he picked up on three different types of play experiences in virtual worlds, using a metaphor of heroines from children’s stories.

  • Alice: the explorer, who wants to see things that are “curiouser and curiouser”
  • Dorothy: who wants to get to the end of the yellow brick road (ie. follow the railroad)
  • Wendy: the content creator, who wants to tell stories for her brothers and the other lost boys

He’s using the play types to describe different types of world, rather than just different players (eg. Alice represents sandbox games, Dorothy represents theme-park, quest heavy games, etc). He also notes that MMOs have been on a divergent path, with social and game oriented MMOs tending to separate. But that this is a bad trend because game-oriented MMOs become repetitive and meaningless, and social MMOs become impenetrable and unfocussed. I can’t speak much for the latter but we know that the former is definitely true. What does it even mean for a game to not have an end?

Bartle argues that a good MMO/ virtual world should offer opportunities for all of these playstyles. And NOW we’re talking about playing styles I can more easily identify with. Because I enjoy all of these things in games. And in an era where games seem to be becoming more and more focussed, it’s a call to arms that I hope someone will hear.

Because dammit, that’s the game /I/ want to play.