[Question of the Day] How do new single player games affect your MMO playing?

As everyone who isn’t living in a hole knows, Mass Effect 3 is due to be released next week. I have never had much success with getting into the ME games, but for those of you who are, I’m imagining other gaming will be on hold until it’s finished?

My personal pattern with single player games tends to be that if it’s one I really really want then I buy it at launch (full price) and play exclusively until I’m done. Otherwise if it’s just one I mildly might want then I wait a few months until it’s half price to try it out, and then if it grabs me it’ll take all my time up then. Clearly neither of these patterns leave much time for playing MMOs, so in the past I’ve tended to stick with pre-organised raid or guild nights but otherwise disappear for a bout of single player fun instead. Or in other words, the single player game takes up the time in which I would otherwise be noodling around in the MMO, chatting, running instances with guild and generally socialising in game and getting on with stuff. (Unlike Syp, I don’t generally play more than one MMO at a time.)

For me, this isn’t that common. Many of the single player games I buy are casual games anyway, the big budget AAA ones on my personal to-get list are quite few.

How about you? Do you disappear from your MMO of choice several times a year to catch up with new releases? How does your guild cope when a really popular game like ME3 is released? Or is your MMO guild mostly made up of people who don’t have much interest in single player games?

The problem of difficulty in CRPGs

Challenge in RPGs has been a mixed bag at best for designers.

If they ramp the challenge up in an encounter, and classes/ builds differ noticeably in any way, then it favours min-maxing. A game with lots of these challenges can become largely about figuring out this optimal setup.  There’s room for a genre of games which are about figuring out the best min-maxed party  to beat encounters and then executing it. But the current theorycrafting metagame is largely an accident of fate. ie. if you wanted to design a game that invited all players to figure out through play the optimal setup, you wouldn’t design it like an MMO.

If we also want the diversity and flexibility in games of being able to try unusual classes or builds, or trying abilities because they sound fun rather than because they’re in the optimised setup, then this high-challenge scenario is the wrong one to be playing. Originally there was an assumption with MMOs that devs would provide a large game world with lots of ‘stuff’ in it and players would find their own level of challenge. Although you can still do this in most games, endgame tends to be situated around fixed design challenges.

Part of the popularity of Skyrim is as an antidote to this style of game design; it’s an entire game world which invites players (in a single player environment, naturally) to go explore and try stuff out. Yes, you can outlevel the content and make the game far too easy for yourself by minmaxing. Yes, you can also head into killer dungeons way above your level. But by and large no one is going to tell you that you’re playing it wrong if you do any of those things. It is flexible.

Maybe it was inevitable that massive multi-player games would end up favouring optimised character setups. Maybe the incessant focus on combat meant that optimising for combat was always going to be the end result. Maybe the freedom to experiment without being oppressed/ farmed by the hardcore section of the playerbase for not doing things the way they do can only ever happen in single player games. It isn’t that the player base is the problem exactly, more that in a multiplayer game people will eventually be pressed into conforming and competing with the rest of the online player base. And the ‘golden age’ of MMOs that Wolfshead waxes lyrical about was simply a pre-evolutionary stage, before the push of gamification, when being online with other people in real time in a virtual world was so exciting in itself that players were more patient with each other, and before there was much competition for the few virtual worlds that existed.

But one thing is for sure, that type of challenge design doesn’t work brilliantly with heavily story based games, unless the challenge can be tailored to the character/ group more closely. Because if a player feels torn between picking a character/ class for story reasons and picking one for minmaxing reasons, there will always be more pressure on them from other players (and the game environment itself) to optimise.

I think players who enjoy more flexibility do feel oppressed by the optimising hardcore, because it’s pretty rough to always be told that you’re playing the game wrong. And that’s not the same as being a bad player (‘bad’ is very much a social construction in computer games, and can  be used equally to mean someone with slow reactions, someone who doesn’t watch the youtube video of the boss kill before zoning into a raid,  someone who hurls abuse in general chat, or someone who never listens to advice and never seems to learn.)

[Question of the Day] What would you like to see in MMO endgames?

Last week, I wrote a post that touched briefly on the SWTOR endgame and it generated some great discussion in comments about what sort of things players liked to do at endgame anyway.

The SW:TOR endgame is hideously lacking if you’re not interested in conventional PvE/PvP. You might ask what else a player might like to be doing, but that’s the crux of the issue – there’s nothing.

“What I really hoped to see was for my ship to be more customizable on the inside, a form of player housing that could be developed far more than just “being there”.  “

– Zellriven

Question is – what do you think there SHOULD be to do at level cap that isn’t there? Maybe I’m a bit jaded by seeing the same debates over every game, but the nothing to do at level cap argument always takes on shades of Monty Python – “yes, but apart from all THAT what have the Romans done for us?”

-Tremayne

What I would have like to see was after you finished your class story they allowed free travel space flight. <…> I would have loved too if they somehow added Pod Racing as an endgame activity also. <…> I’d also have like to play solo challenging instances based off of using your crew as a team instead of just one at a time.

–Kelindia

In practice what you are probably doing is tooling around, hanging out with your guild, and marking time until the next story update.

–Me

So the way I see it, there are three main ways to look at endgame in MMOs.

  1. Endgame is the real game. Be it sandbox, ranked PvP, progression raiding or all three, the levelling stage of an MMO (if there is one) is really just an introduction to the game. Endgame needs to be enjoyable ad infinitum as a game in itself. But over time it will tend to mostly appeal to the more hardcore.
  2. Endgame should consist of a wide variety of opportunities for character progression to encompass all play styles, so that as many people as possible can find something they like. This progression can involve purely cosmetic upgrades. It may consist of identifiable minigames. There could be dailies.
  3. ‘Endgame’ is just a plateau between content patches, its main purpose is to keep people logging in and building social ties with their guild/ friends before the next patch. And each new patch should not be gear gated based on endgame phases. (ie. you should be able to jump into new content without having spent X days doing endgame activities first.)

These are not mutually exclusive, although type 1 games and gamers probably won’t be ‘wasting’ time on type 2 endgame because the rewards are less meaningful to them. If your type 1 endgame is based on guilds holding and defending areas of space, then anyone who spends time doing dailies to earn a minipet is probably not actively helping. (But you never know, I guess it could feed into the in-game economy in some way.).

But it is type 3 endgame that I want to focus on, because this has come to represent themepark MMOs. In SWTOR for example, there’s new single player content due for March. It is possible that Bioware will put a high gear requirement on this content, but since it’s aimed at soloers rather than raiders or high end PvPers, it would be counterproductive. Better that they don’t gate the solo content. Will it provide better gear in quest rewards than what is currently available from endgame instances and hard modes? Again, we don’t know, but it’s likely because they’d like to encourage people to play through it.

So themepark endgame tends to be forced into busywork plateaux before an effective gear reset with the next set of content. At that point it’s a question of what pattern of play do you prefer in endgame and what would you like to be able to do in that time? Or would you be happier to just unsub/ stop playing until the next content patch?

The time requirements of endgame

The other way to look at MMO endgame is to think about how people’s playing patterns change at that point in the game. Do you want the structure of organised raiding? Do you want to be part of a team in endgame? Do you like the pattern of logging on to do dailies and chat? Do you prefer to ease off and chill out in the game?

My feel is that people do like the idea of character progression, of getting something for the time spent in the game, and are less thrilled by the idea of gear resets for that reason. It’s also good to have a choice of activities, as long as no one feels forced to do the ones they don’t like.

But I also think that endgame serves a key role in cementing in game social networks. This is time when people aren’t driven by their own need to level so maybe have more time to hang out, do social activities, or just chat. It can potentially be a kind of downtime which serves a strong pacing role.

I’m still not sure what my ideal endgame would be. The games where I have most enjoyed being max level have always been those where I had the stronger social networks and where we had good options of things to do together (even organising them on the night) as well as things to do if you were feeling less social. I do know that while I have no objections to raiding (I do have a soft spot for raids, too many good memories), I don’t really want to be organising my weeks around it for months on end any more.

What would you like to see from MMO endgames that you don’t see at the moment? More solo content? More sandbox? More crafting?

 

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.