2 MMO assumptions that are getting flaky these days …

I am really enjoying levelling characters in SWTOR. One thing I personally get from levelling characters in a new game is a reminder about things I like or dislike about diku type MMOs. I like that when levelling, no one really cares about your spec or gear as long as you are helping the team (in PvP) or able to complete the instance (in PvE). And of course if you are soloing, no one else needs to care anyway. So it’s all about you figuring the game out yourself and trying out different strategies/ builds to see which you prefer. You are free to experiment.

I recall that back in the dawn of my personal history in MMOs, I happily ran PvE and PvP on the same character in (mostly) the same gear and if it was sub-optimal then I never noticed and never got called on it. When I first heard of people keeping multiple sets of gear (I think it was druids in WoW beta), I thought they were obsessive min-maxing crazies. That’s how unintuitive that playstyle seemed to me in those days.

Even in vanilla WoW when I was priest officer in a 40 man raid guild, when I personally was taking things a bit more seriously, I knew fine well that at least one of my healers raided in shadow spec because they couldn’t be arsed to respec after PvP (note: this was before the inspect function allowed you to check other people’s talent trees).  I could have called them on it, but we were doing fine and it was more useful that they turned up regularly. We cleared AQ40 with that team, incidentally. The main thing was that they switched into healing gear when they were healing, and that seemed to make the difference.

1. What if I don’t want to play the same character in PvE and PvP

I like playing melee/ tanks in PvE, but I prefer playing healers/ ranged in PvP. There, I admitted it.  I find playing ranged is just flat out easier, and playing healers in PvP is something I learned back in DaoC.

So the MMO eat-all-you-can buffet, wide-variety-of-content model doesn’t work too well for me in this respect. I like my Sith Warrior, but I don’t want to PvP on her because I’m not finding it fun. It’s not that I’m determined never to queue for a warfront with her ever again, it’s just that the PvP gearing requirements need you to grind this stuff and I don’t like the playstyle enough to do that. Clearly it won’t matter if I never PvP – I’m not a completist, I don’t care about the achievements and titles. If I miss out on PvP gear then I miss out on it.

I just don’t like that I have to choose between my preferred PvE type character and preferred PvP type at character creation. Sure, I could have picked a different class, but I’m finding the baseline assumption that at the beginning of the game you’ll be able to make that choice to be irksome.

In comparison, the space flight minigame is independent of your character class, so not dependent on your choices at the beginning of the game. I find that a more appealing model. I don’t want more flexible respec options, or complex Rift-like multiple talent trees to choose from, I just want to be able to earn PvP tokens for my account (ie. to buy PvP stuff for my warrior IF the PvP gear happens to be better for PvE than what I have) on a character I’d prefer to PvP on.

If that was in place, the PvP game could actually be even more separate and more developed from the PvE one. (The goal of having an integrated PvE/PvP game fits better for sandboxes anyway, once you have all your PvP taking place in instances then they might as well be treated as separate minigames.)

2. Stop tying the stats to the gear

There may be players out there who absolutely adore having bags full of gear and having to laboriously click through the whole set to change any time they change spec/ function in the game.

I do not.

Even with WoW wardrobe-like addons that make changing gear a one-click proposal, I resent all the time it takes to set up. I don’t have an objection to collecting the stuff (although it’s not my favourite thing in the world either), but the faffing around with inventories is not a high point of the genre. It would in fact make me happier if I could switch spec or role without having to touch my gear.

Or in other words, I wish devs would stop tying the stats to the gear so tightly. Either use stats that can apply equally to any role that class could fill, or else find some more creative way to tie the stats to the character. Let me change gear for cosmetic reasons only (ie. more similar to real life).

Long dark winter of the MMO

It isn’t inevitable that MMO blogging dries up if a new AAA MMO hasn’t been released in the last 6 months; people will happily find things to say about their current game of choice as long as they are playing it, having fun, invested, and finding new angles. Also there is no shortage of F2P MMOs out there for people to try, as well as offshoots from the genre like Glitch and some of the Facebook games. But it is true that new players or new games give a shot in the arm to the whole debate — and when the whole debate starts to look tired and moribund, that would be a nice thing to have.

One of the RPGs I used to play was called Ars Magica (AM), and it’s a cult classic of the tabletop world. A game all about playing mages and their sidekicks in a ‘realistic’ fantasy version of medieval europe. One of the cool ideas that AM brought to the table was that for any covenant of magi (it’s their word for a group, including the building they live in and surrounding area) there is a cycle over the lifespan, which they base on seasons.

  • Spring: everything is new, the covenant is likely to be weak, it has few resources but lots of potential
  • Summer: covenant comes to its full strength, everything is going well, the future looks rosy
  • Autumn: covenant may be even stronger than in summer, but there are signs of stagnation, some of the people are getting older (maybe also a bit nuttier and more set in their ways), less open to new ideas and some of the younger magi will go their own way
  • Winter: the glory days are in the past. the covenant is slowly dying. the group has to try to store as much of the old knowledge as they can, in the hope that one day spring will come and it will be useful again

I always found this a very powerful metaphor (our group was a Spring covenant and although we were kind of useless, we were endlessly optimistic and up for challenging our elders – with predictable results, but it was what people expected from a spring covenant, so often got away with it.)

And as Winter is coming in real life (in the UK at any rate), it feels as though MMOs are drawing into a long Winter too. SWTOR and GW2 may be the last ever AAA MMOs as we would know them, and now more than ever it seems to me that we could be remembering lessons from the past.

Gevlon has been wondering a lot recently about raiding, today pondering why it was ever popular. He immediately discounts social explanations, but I have a longer memory than WoW and I do think the social aspect was important to a lot of people at the beginning. There were other aspects too, and there were also always hardcore groups who valued the idea of the group/ social challenge. I think that as the emphasis moves more to the individual challenge than the group challenges, it’s inevitable that hardcore raiding becomes a very minority pursuit — this also means that they really can’t assume an endless pit of new recruits to replace anyone burned out (I don’t think this was ever true except for some of the top guilds but lots of people bought into the conceit).

So actually the social challenge of top end raiding becomes greater, because keeping the raid together and avoiding burnout is absolutely key to a raid’s longevity if it can’t recruit easily to fill gaps. It will be interesting to see how raid leaders try to manage this, or whether people give up trying and shift to a more single player type of MMO.

I also think that while players do enjoy being able to do stuff without having to depend on others, it’s ultimately a fools’ game to pretend that a game based on soloing is going to be much of a virtual world simulation. iRL, we have to accept that everyone needs to both give and receive support at some point in their life and that even goblins need to realise that there are some things people will do for love or loyalty that they will not do just for money.

Do you feel that we’re entering the winter season for MMOs? Will there be a spring?

What if you like grinds in MMOs?

So grinds in MMOs are out at the moment. Out is immersion and player engagement. It’s all about slick story based gameplay and/or lobby-based PvP/ PvE. It’s all about the casual F2P crowd who will drop a tenner on a cosmetic cloak because it’s shiny and it’s less than going out to tMcDonalds. (This incidentally is why Gevlon isn’t quite right about money as a measure for player engagement – some people demonstrably spend loads of cash on things they don’t care about.)

In many ways, playing LOTRO is the antithesis of all these things, which is why I find it so delightfully old school. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t find it very alt friendly, there are so many different things to do with your character that it tends to foster fewer, deeper alts rather than lots of shallow ones.

But their attitude to reputation grinds is very interesting. My new warden has just levelled high enough to have access to a zone/ dungeon called Goblintown. This is quite an interesting piece of design, it was brought in via a patch before Moria was released along with other rep dungeons, so it’s been in the game for several years now.

  • 1. The main purpose of Goblintown is to let players grind reputation (with Rivendell in this case). It’s full of goblins. They drop reputation items. If you like grinding, you can go there either alone or in groups and kill goblins for your rep items until you get bored. It isn’t the only way to get reputation with the Rivendell elves, but I think it is the only way to max it out (I could be wrong on that though.)
  • 2. It’s tied deeply into the lore. Goblintown is the goblin stronghold under the Misty Mountains where Bilbo met Gollum in The Hobbit. In fact, one of the introductory quests is from Bilbo himself, who sends the character off to scout out the secret entrance so that he can make sure he remembers the details correctly for his book. You can also explore and find the cave where Gollum used to live, it’s quite an interesting and well detailed dungeon.
  • 3. Rivendell rep is purely optional. Unless you desperately want the reputation-based mount, there’s no special need to grind this rep at all. It is definitely a grind, but no one is forcing anyone to go there.
  • 4. The reputation items are not bound. So people who like grinding can always sell them on the AH to people who want the rep and don’t like grinding.
  • 5. Because it can be done solo or in a group, it makes for quite a chilled out kinship activity if people just want to hang out together and kill stuff in a social way (a sentence you won’t really see anywhere outside gaming.)
  • 6. At this point in the game, it’s a mid level instance. So a high level character can just mow their way through very easily. If collecting reps is your thing, it can be a relaxing goal to work through for an endgame character.

I am sure I will get bored of Goblintown long, long before I have ground out Kindred rep (the highest level), but as a MMO player, I love that it’s there as an option. And I do want to explore and find Gollum’s cave sometime. (The player doesn’t actually get to meet him until Mirkwood though, I think.)

How do you feel about the idea of rep grinds, particularly as opposed to daily quests (which are a kind of grind I guess but seem more rigid in terms of how much you can/ should do per day.)

Chasing a changing playbase

Discussions this weekend about how players could/ should react if a long running MMO changes in ways that they don’t like have brought one thing front and centre for me. And that is the notion of planned playerbase obsolescence.

Think of any long running TV series, comic series, long running band, or book/ film series. How many current fans have been fans since the beginning? How many for 5 years, how many for 10? I wonder how many of the long term media with long term fans have either involved the same creator all the time, or else have made a commitment to trying to keep the same fanbase. If you look at a long running game like Star Craft for example, the developer made updates have been committed to maintaining similar gameplay with tweaks intended purely to smooth gameplay for existing fans. Mods have allowed existing fans to keep turning out content for other existing fans.

But the other side of the coin is planned obsolescence. Games Workshop is the best example I can think of for a company who plans product based on this assumption. Their core playerbase is 14 year old boys. They expect a regular turnover as that playerbase grows up and discovers the opposite/ same sex. Sure, there will always be a hardcore geek element who keep playing the game into adulthood but the core model is aimed at a 2 yearly update.

And where do MMOs stand with this model? Older MMOs tended to grow with their playerbase, many of whom stuck with the games for years. Everquest is a good example, the gameplay has changed and there are tons more expansions but the core crowd is basically long term loyalists. The majority of players though probably never did have that sort of commitment; the figure I have seen quoted as average sub length was 6 months. Players did assume that the game would continue on, mostly in the same vein, ad infinitum. The strength of the classic MMO was that it provided scope for lots of different types of gameplay, often referred to as a buffet. The assumption was that as a longterm player’s tastes changed, they’d probably stick with their current game and community but switch the focus of their gameplay.

When running MU*, we always tried to grow with the existing community. We might have worked with them on figuring how to best attract and retain new people, but there would have been a reluctance to make far reaching changes. Best if people who wanted something different just went to a new game.

But now we’re seeing that publishers have their eye on that average 6 month subscription length number (which now may be lower than that and of course it’s harder to measure in F2P games anyway.) WoW in particular is shifting towards the Games Workshop model where they plan on the basis of fans growing out of the game, rather than trying to change with them. But with a twist. In recent interviews, senior designers have commented that their main target market is shifting towards players who have previously played WoW and then left. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to entertain the current players but they want to try to pick up more players who already tried the game and then left.

That’s almost backwards from Games Workshop really. How do you attract players who may have grown out of (or burned out on) your game? And how do you do so without boring the existing player base? And what if those longterm players are also the core of your community (which may or may not be an attractive factor to returning players too)?

What it does mean is that increasingly the games are likely to be changing under players’ feet in more radical ways than just adding new content and new minigames. We used to assume that if you burned out on a game, it would be because you had grown past it. Now it might easily be because the game grew past you, and probably in a way you could not have predicted. And there may not be some easily accessible alternative game that provides the experience you had previously enjoyed.  These are strange times for people who seek long term virtual homes in their MMOs. Even an old school game like LOTRO is torn between catering for their longterm players and the new F2P crowd.

I think the planned obsolescence route is playing with fire. It risks annoying the current players and not attracting the hoped for new ones.  No one really wants to throw dice to figure out if their current game of choice will still be fun next expansion. Maybe it would be better to accept that games will tend towards a small core playerbase over time, stick to a particular game’s strengths,  and just try to migrate other players to different games.

[Roleplaying] Death of the Actor

Wolfshead writes (again) about the death of MMOs as a genre, and this time he explains quite clearly how a lot of gamers feel about roleplayers:

Why do actors in real life pursue careers as actors? What kind of person finds fulfillment in being somebody else?

In his view this isn’t the same as roleplaying, because you don’t actually create the character yourself. But the ability of an actor to ‘become’ their character and to immerse in that character and setting is very close to what immersive roleplayers get their kicks from doing. I’ve played one-shot tabletop games where we were given pre-generated characters, and there was definitely plenty of roleplaying going on.

I have also listening to actor friends describing the kick they get from acting, and I always felt there was commonality with a really kickass RP session where you got deep into your character.

Virtual worlds should be fertile ground for this type of immersive gaming, and in many ways they are. You don’t have to imagine what a room looks like if you can stroll around (virtually) and check it out for yourself. You can learn a lot about an in game faction or NPC by interacting with them rather than just having some data read out to you across the table. Yes, your role and storyline might be fixed but this doesn’t mean that it can’t also be an immersive experience, especially if (in games like DAO and ME) you have some room to personalise how you portray it.

But the key thing about this type of immersive play is that it can only work well in a large scale game if most of the other players are similarly immersive (or good enough at RP that you never notice) or you have a well crafted storyline and NPCs to interact with (mostly single player, but maybe with some group stuff too). As soon as you end up trading insults in trade chat or an instance with xxArthasdkxxx and lolboobies the immersion is gone.

Wolfshead argues that the Actor stance is a step back from the sandbox roll-your-own-role stance, and I’d say that it’s a shame if we can’t have both but players have shown that they’re more interested in winning and achievements than in either acting a role or making their own adventures. There was a time when Actors were more welcomed. When player run RP events brightened up MMOs on a regular basis (I remember RPed trade markets and RPed winter pantomines and parties, for example.)

Wolfshead concludes by saying:

MMOs should be proving grounds where players can distinguish themselves by testing their mettle against the environment and other players.

And I’d say that one of the sad things with MMOs is that this is all that players have wanted to do. What else do you call achievement collecting and PvP arenas/ battlegrounds?

So if I’m looking forwards to SWTOR, it’s in the hope that just a little of the Actor remains in the world and that some people at least will care about their characters and roles. Because I don’t see it happening in many other upcoming games.

Question of the Day: Are you happier when you focus on one game?

Zubon wrote a post on Kill Ten Rats which has been haunting me since I read the title (good title btw).

He wonders if ‘single game players’ are happier, arguing that if you don’t realise how much better other games can implement different aspects of MMOs, it’s easier to be happy with the one you have. For example, if you never played an MMO with a really well designed crafting system, you might find WoW crafting to be great.

Zubon also comments, sensibly, that if you haven’t played EVE you won’t know what a fully functional MMO economy is like. And I wonder how many of the hardcore WoW auction house/ goldmaker players have been tempted to try EVE because it’s strange to me also that most of them don’t.

I’m not sure on that one (you play the whole package after all, not the separate minigames), but I take the question another way.

Do you have more fun in games if you can focus utterly on one at a time? This means not switching butterfly-like between several in the same week but focussing utterly on the game that currently holds your interest? It means picking one MMO to spend the majority of your MMO time in.

I think that the most fun I’ve had in MMOs has been when I have been most engaged and that means very immersed in my current game of choice. It’s partly because that makes it easier to build social bonds, which I enjoy, and partly not feeling the stretch between ‘shall I play character X in game A or character Y in game B.’

If you do play multiple MMOs, how do you manage it? If you are more of a one game player, do you ever feel tempted to stray when things are quiet in your game of choice? Or are you a serial MMO player like me, who likes to have one main game at a time, but may switch after a few months?

 

On the cost of MMOs

Tobold argues today that MMOs are too inexpensive on the grounds that the average US consumer spends $58 per month on hobbies.

I noted on following that link that what it actually says is:

The average monthly cost of Hobbies in the U.S. is $58.

The median monthly expense, which is sometimes a better indicator of typical spending behavior, of Hobbies in the U.S. is $23.

Median. What that means is that most hobbies are not actually as expensive as $58 per month (which is probably closer to what you might intuitively expect.)

The other issue I have with this argument is that many MMO players probably see their hobby as gaming/ computer gaming rather than just one specific MMO. So their monthly hobby spend is split between the MMO and whatever other new games they are buying, probably spread across multiple platforms (eg. mobile phone apps, console, PC, etc).

The other huge argument is that a virtual world environment becomes less pure as a simulation the more people can bring real world funds to bear. There’s a concept of ‘the magic circle’ in games/ simulation which affects how good the simulation is and how easily people can become immersed in the game world.

So really, to me, if MMO devs want more of the monthly hobby budget without weakening the games, they should be looking harder at bringing more aspects of the game offline. This means the spin-off cardgames, the conventions (hi blizzcon), the t-shirts, the community stuff, the branded phone apps, etc. Which is I think where people are going — virtual shops can only go so far, after all and only appeal to certain types of player.

And still, the average (median) hobbyist in the US spends $23 per month on their hobby, which is not a million miles away from the average subscription when all’s said and done. I think game devs get their pound of flesh.

In which it is claimed that every game is now an MMO

Ryan Seabury, the lead developer on LEGO Universe, has posted an open letter in Kotaku explaining why he’s getting out of the MMO game.

Scott Jennings posts a critique in which (as I do below) he shudders at the phrasing and eyerolls at the hype but generally agrees with the drift.

Nouning our verbs

Unfortunately, Ryan loses the internet by actually using the phrase “leveraging our synergies” in a non-ironic way (or something that’s close enough to it for government work.)

So we came together <…> with a new mission <…>  while leveraging all the expertise we’ve learned in a decade

First of all, stop lamenting. (The first four letters of lament are L A M E.)

Must be a nightmare working with this guy if he actually talks like that all the time.

Anyhow, the argument boils down to, “Why spend 5 years working on a large and complex product of uncertain appeal to a demanding audience when you could just crank a little social game out in a couple of months that will turn a profit?”

Lots of engineers go through this phase. Large commercial organisations tend to have you working on old and complex pieces of code. There will be sections that no one understands because the original developer was an unsung genius who left three years ago and didn’t comment their code. There will be bits that desperately need to be refactored but no one will authorise the time and effort required because they’re (sort of) working. It is in many ways more rewarding to join a new startup and get in on the design work from the ground level, and hopefully see people using a product you worked on in a matter of months.

So the games industry isn’t unique in this aspect. I thought it was interesting that I’m not sure if he’s writing as an engineer (why won’t people use my stuff sooner?!) or as a businessman (where’s my return on investment?!) but the general drive is similar.

Every game is now an MMO

Another comment he made is about the ubiquity of social networking in games:

I simply realized there actually hadn’t been an “MMO game” to get out of for at least two, three years. It’s no longer a meaningful label. Point at any significant entertainment experience trending today, you won’t be able to find one without some kind of social feature layers and persistent aspects. No one cares if something is “single player” or “multi player” or “massively multiplayer” anymore.

There is some truth in this. Not that every game is now an MMO, but that a lot of the social experiences that were once unique to MUDs (and their MMO descendents) really are more ubiquitous now.

Players who were drawn to MMOs because of the interaction with other people in real time (there’s a reason Everquest used to be referred to as a chat room with a game attached)  can now chat on twitter or facebook instead and play something else.

Lots of brands are trying to generate their own social networks, from gaming companies like Blizzard and Bioware to offline ventures such as Toyota and HBO. And that’s not even counting the millions of bulletin boards, blogs, mailing lists, and other ways for people to share information about what they are doing.

I’ve also written before about how I find myself more likely to play even single player games more socially, with all the benefits (yay sharing!) and minuses (boo, competitive pressure) that entails.

But I still think that MMOs have a unique appeal in their virtual worlds. It’s just that the next phase of MMOs seem to be moving further and further away from this in a quest for some kind of bizarro gaming singularity in which all games will be multi-player actioners with lobbies and competitive as well as co-operative modes. They’ll probably also feature bald space marines with BFGs and semi naked female NPCs.

It’s the future, baby. 1-click rapidly churned out social games or mega-shooters that may or may not take 5 years to produce.

Meanwhile, my project for the next week (when I have time) is to spend some more time with Terraria and try to figure out how to actually put a door in a house, and hopefully some more guild PvP shenanigans in Rift. Because that future? It’s not actually here yet …

Thought of the Day: The pitfall of MMO storytelling

Do you ever find when reading a book that you’re more interested in some of the characters or storylines than others? When I first read Lord of the Rings I remember skipping some chapters so that I could follow the ringbearer – don’t hate me, I was 14 at the time.

I was thinking back this weekend to which parts of Cataclysm had been the most fun for me. And came to the conclusion that it had mostly been the new Forsaken starting areas and the later follow up in Andorhal. (I like the Forsaken and they did a great job on Silverpine/ Hillsbrad, what can I say?)

And it’s in the nature of Blizzard’s levelling experience that after a bit of one storyline, you’ll be whisked off to another zone to do something completely different.

If, for the sake of argument, Blizzard had decided to follow up on the Forsaken storylines in 4.2 rather than Hyjal, there’s a good chance I would have resubbed just to see what happened next. After all, does anyone hordeside NOT want to know what happened to Koltira?

And I think this is one of the pitfalls of the “fourth pillar” in MMOs. Not all stories are the same, and of all the multiple stories going on in a world as big as an MMO, not all of them are interesting to all players. There is a question that has been doing the rounds for years about whether all players should be able to see all content. But the truth is that most of them would be perfectly happy if there was enough content that they cared about to keep them busy. If I get to chill with my NPC forsaken colleagues and their politics, I probably don’t care what the hardcore raiders are doing in the firelands. Crack on guys, give Ragnaros hell, and enjoy those wipes – I’m busy here…

Providing storylines for everyone’s taste in every patch would be a crazy amount of effort to expect. But if story is one of your primary draws, then you will also have to expect people to only show up when you’re telling a story they want to hear. Now the advantage of a sandbox where people have more freedom to tell their own stories comes a bit clearer.

Thought of the Day: An MMO of Thrones

I’ve been catching up recently with episodes of A Game of Thrones (can’t wait to go to Comic Con now, since Arb informed me that GRRM was going to be there on the Game of Thrones panel) which seems to be getting better and better every week as the pacing kicks in.

It makes me wonder about the role of politics in MMOs. And how interesting it might be to play a more strategic and political game.

Probably EVE is the strongest implementation of this type of concept, and the player politics there sprang up from within the setting. Partly because the game allows players/ corps to effectively claim and try to hold areas of space, so there is something worth fighting over. Without this sort of stake, the politics is going to feel fairly pointless.

And ultimately, in a MMO, the role any individual player is going to play is far more likely to be that of a grunt than of a kingmaker, unless you keep the size of the game small and have tight-knit, active factions.

So I think politics in an MMO is awesome for flavour, and factions have a lot more potential than most designers give them credit for. But ultimately the most fun sorts of politics for games are played out on a smaller canvas, where individuals feel that they matter.

Note: This is not to say I wouldn’t jump for an Amber MMO, because that would be crazy fun … but not for Westeros.