[MMOs] Farewell Titan: Beginning of the end, or end of the beginning?

Blizzard broke the news this week that they have cancelled development on the MMO they had in development for the past few years, codenamed Titan.

This news does not come as a surprise. For two reasons.

1.  When a project has been kicking around this long, has been through complete redesigns, and the ‘buzz’ we’re hearing about it still doesn’t sound particularly interesting, the chances of it becoming a massive hit are fairly minimal. It would have been an albatross, not the “omg successor to WoW’ that some people were touting.

2. I’m not saying MMOs are finished, but clearly producing huge expensive MMOs  is not the way to bet. There are successful games which involve massive numbers of players, which may have a lot in common with MMOs, but they aren’t based on the classic Diku model, or even the less common EVE model. If there is a true successor to WoW, in terms of being a breakout viral hit that involves millions of people then it is Minecraft, not the large WoW-alikes.

So what changed? The games have become more refined, gameplay has improved, graphics have improved (hugely), lots of new ideas have been tried. The players changed. The internet and social media became more mainstream. People learned that there are large downsides to interacting with massive numbers of people. There are also many many more games on the market where you can interact with massive numbers of players competitively, with carefully designed gameplay, in more controlled ways than just throwing everyone into a virtual world together.

This is a post I wrote on rpg.net about why MMOs are not the in-thing any more:

The genre feels increasingly stale. There are plenty of players with enthusiasm to try new games, but they tend to demand very similar features. They also tend not to want to stick with a new game for more than a few months, which isn’t a problem per se, but means it’s harder to form new communities. They also tend to be much less patient than players were in the past when we were all a bit new to the whole idea.

One reason is that people are increasingly likely to see being around massive numbers of people as a downside, not an upside. You need massive numbers for some mechanics: to simulate an economy and support a quick LFG queue and good PvP ladders. But other than that, actually being in a gameworld with that many people can be frustrating. And ultimately the elitist, more abusive elements have tended to have a big influence on the culture (I know not every elitist player is abusive, some of them are lovely) — it’s increasingly challenging to learn a new game when you have a high chance of meeting hostile oldbies in your groups.

Another is that so much of the discovery about MMOs is probably on neat little websites before the game even launches. And due to competitiveness in the player base there is an increasing pressure for players to have read it. That means the content barely lasts any time at all before it is beaten unless there is an unholy grind involved. Not a problem, but the discovery process was a big part of the appeal of the MMO back in the day.

It’s also about the tendency of open world games with PvP and a full economy (like EVE) to become really cut-throat. It’s great for the players who love it, but there’s a limit to how many of that type of game can fruitfully exist. And they tend to drive out anyone else from their games.

I think there’s a huge future in open world games — but they’ll be partitioned neatly between single player elements, co-op elements (like raiding), PvP elements, massive elements (like the economy), large group elements, and maybe even open world server shards with contained numbers. Something like Diablo3 (with better designed economy) is going to be a better picture;  you can play solo or with friends, or in LFG, or with the economy, and chat on your friends list and share pictures of your armour — and each of those parts of the game is neatly designed for that kind of group of people.

I think there is still a possibility for a more social open world type of game to become a breakout hit at some point, but it will do so by reaching out to people who are not currently core gamers (like Minecraft did). I think there are definitely still possibilities for huge procedural simulationist/ survival type open world games to become breakout hits. But for the rest of the MMO-type genre I think success will be much smaller scale – the pattern of the big influx of players and then drop off after a month or so is too frequently seen to blame on individual games and the days of the huge investment AAA MMO as we know it are done. There will still be successes and opportunities, but devs will have to design around the steady state numbers.

And maybe, sometime in the future, the MU* model of player run shards – which has been so successful in Minecraft – will re-enter the MMO-type area and the cycle will begin again.

Still, we’ll always have Warcraft.

Here’s a couple more blog posts from other people on similar themes, go read them they are good! (Will add more tonight, feel free to suggest links in the comments).

Brief catchups, Steam Sale, and a RPG kickstarter not to miss

There are two main reasons that I have been quiet on the blogging front lately. The first is that I’m feeling quite uninspired about MMOs at the moment – my main games are WoW (in which I’m still raiding with my awesome guildies) and LOTRO (which I’m playing about a session a week with Arb on my runekeeper). They are both oldish games. Maybe I’m just an oldish school MMO player.

The EVE experiment ran to the end of the first month, by which time I was really only logging on to tweak the skill queue. I have no doubt that the game is all about the corps and PvP, but I’ve played sandbox games enough to know that even with all these things in place, it’s still not going to be a game for me during the long slow summer gaming slump. It is in the nature of sandbox games to involve a lot of hanging around and being bored in between flashes of interest. It’s a pretty game though and I miss Elite.

Like many other players, I often fall into a summer gaming slump. This year feels different, because my enthusiasm about upcoming MMOs is so muted. I have played the FF14 beta and it was OK, but I felt bored. I saw nothing to make it stand out from the other themepark MMOs I am playing. I may have missed the aspects that make the game stand out, but I played until I got too bored to log in any more. TESO is likely the next new MMO I will play, and mostly because a friend of a friend told me that the writing was good. We’ll see.

The (not so recent now) news that Blizzard have ditched whatever their old plans were for Titan and are starting from square one didn’t surprise me, I’d already wondered whether they have dropped previous redesigns and had to redo due to changes in the market. But it does mean that WoW is going to be the Blizzard staple for a few more years yet. They’ve done a lot of things right with MoP but by this stage in the expansion, I am still feeling generally unenthused. It will be hard work for them to keep coming out with this level of content output and even if they do, they will be constantly losing players.

And as I have pretty much no interest in shooters, the upcoming shooter type MMOs are largely going to pass me by also.

The second reason for not blogging is that I’ve been busy with new job, which is all quite positive but takes a lot of energy.

I will however try to do more regular updates in future. Even if I am on a downswing in MMO playing (and the genre in general is also) it is still worth documenting. Along with some generic thoughts about MMO tropes that I will not miss. It is the vast virtual worlds to explore that I will however miss. I’m not sure how great a feature those will be for any new entries to the genre, such as it is.

Steam Sale

It’s that time of the year again. Anything big on anyone’s wishlist? I’m not sure I do, this time around. A lot of the games I wanted I have already been able to buy at good discounts. Kerbal Space Program sounds intriguing though, and I’d be up for Sword of the Stars or some kind of 4x strategy game. Any indie games anyone would recommend?

Clearly it is a bad idea to buy new games when there are older ones I have not started yet, but such is the world of extra disposable income.

Kick out for Chuubo

And lastly a shout out for a kickstarter that is ending soon, which is a (pen and paper) RPG by one of the most talented writers in the industry. Jenna (probably best known for Nobilis and some of the better received Exalted books)  is often hailed as either a genius or a quirky cultish author but aside from her evocative writing style, the real smarts are in the way she plays with rules and mechanics to build games that just work differently to the standard D&D wargaming based dungeon crawls.

In Chuubo the goal is to make it interesting and easy to run pastoral games, where character development and exploration is core to the game rather than just killing monsters and looting their corpses. If you want to know how she does this, plonk down $15 for the KS and you can have access to the entire first draft, as well as various other freebies, examples of play and short stories that she’s put up for the KS supporters. And as you might guess from the fact that the first draft is up, the game is already  completed and the KS is funded – further funds will go towards the stretch goals.

She describes the game as:

It’s an RPG that strives, as its first principle, to make it worthwhile to spend your time on both the little things and the big ones — a game that’s meaningful and fun whether your characters are drinking tea with their friends, exploring their new home, doing their daily round of chores, or hunting horrors in the dark. It’s a work that strives, as its second principle, to bend but not break when the same people who were sweeping or arguing over television shows a few minutes before start throwing around godly powers, breaking the world with their poorly-phrased wishes, and heading out into the dark to challenge Death.

I especially recommend this one to game designers. She is honestly a genius with mechanics. Enjoy!

Spurious Gaming Predictions for 2013

My predictions for last year missed the boat on some of the big news stories, although some of the other general comments aren’t too far off and I think I did get that both Diablo 3 and MoP would sell hugely. (Actually even then I was noting that my previous predictions were bad, so there’s a pattern forming here.)

I wondered if the sheen would have rubbed off F2P. I’m sure plenty of F2P games are still doing fine, but Zynga’s plunging share price, and Turbine’s layoffs are making it pretty clear that it’s not the be all and end all of gaming monetisation. With a solid game and pricing model behind them, Riot’s LoL and wargaming.net’s World of Tanks still look to be doing very well. But the sense of ‘Switch every game to F2P!’ that was pervasive at the start of last year isn’t quite how things look now.

I thought SWTOR would be really successful. We know how that worked out. It wasn’t due to being a bad game per se, many people really enjoyed what Bioware brought to the table. But when your definition of successful involves millions of people taking out longterm subscriptions (and when you’ve spent so much money on development that you NEED those millions of long term subs), then you’re largely doomed regardless of how good the game is or isn’t. Yes, the endgame was deeply lacking, which is why they couldn’t sustain the 500k they claimed that they needed. But what they had was fun (in PvE at least). I’m glad the game was made and that I got to play it.

I’m not trying to rescue my rubbish SWTOR prediction but I did say:

Better legs in this case may mean stays strong for 6 months rather than 3, it’ll be down to Bioware in the end to persuade people to stick with it.

I thought TSW would get mixed reviews and a small but dedicated hardcore following. Which is true, and again they weren’t able to sustain the sub numbers that they needed, hence the switch to B2P. It doesn’t mean the game is a failure in terms of gameplay, but something went wrong in the planning/ budgeting/ prediction department.

I thought CCP might see falling numbers. Actually the numbers they have released show that the opposite has happened. The dev team clearly managed to pull some patches out of the bag which pleased the core player base and improved the confidence players have in the game. I’m not sure why they might have attracted new players though, so it may be that this sub increase is due to expanding into new regions or core players buying more accounts.

What’s in Store for 2013

Mobile was a huge story last year and with the increasing numbers of tablets being sold, that can only increase. I personally find tablets a much better platform for games than mobile phones, mostly because I like to save my phone battery for making calls. Also better screen size. Some of the better mobile games I’ve seen with MMOish features are based around collectible cards (like Rage of Bahamut and Shadow Era) – I think we’ll see more of those. They are currently aggressively monetised and that trend can only continue, at least until players desert in large numbers. Hopefully someone will develop a good card based game with a F2P model that isn’t actively painful, until then there is always Duel of the Planeswalkers.

With respect to the games industry, EA  in particular have had a rocky year. Whether they can sustain another without some major changes I’m not sure. There will be more shakeups, and probably more big name failures and layoffs, sadly.

The ongoing competition between Android and iOS continues. Android devices will continue to outsell Apple. The reason that so many devs still develop for Apple first is because metrics show that Apple owners spend more on apps. This is probably a self fulfulling prophecy and we should see more apps jumping to Android next year. (Obviously cross platform games would be better for consumers but you can assume there isn’t much drive for that.)

The ongoing evolution of F2P monetisation continues. This year the trend has been towards convergence of MMOs/Persistent online games and other types of multi player games. For example, with CODBLOPS2 you buy the game and get access to the multiplayer, and can then buy DLC over the year. Similar with ME3 (where I’m told the multiplayer is great). You can compare this with GW2 or the updated TSW where you buy the boxed game, can play the MMO/multiplayer for free, and have a cash shop/ DLC which you can also buy. This convergence trend will continue and there will also be more games that are based on converging multi player with persistence.

Crowdfunding continues to draw attention, but it will become clearer that the games with smaller and more developed scopes are better bets for your kickstarter money. This will not stop people from throwing money at crowdpleasing favourites, but it’s only a matter of time before some big crowdfunded game fails to implement the wildly optimistic initial plans and disappoints hugely.

Rift will continue to lose players slowly as it settles on a core playerbase who prefer it to other offerings enough to pay a subscription. I don’t expect them to move to F2P but there may be more enticing offers for returning players.

I do predict that far from seeing the death of subscription games, we’ll see more games try a subscription model. But they will be small niche games focussed on a core player group, with long betas and careful market testing. The day of the new large AAA MMO sub game is likely over, unless anyone wants to try it with cheap subs.

More and different genres will join the fray. This year Dust and Planetside 2 have led the charge on FPS MMOish games. We’ll see more sports games and RTS MMOs this year. I’m dubious about whether Dust will fulfill CCPs hopes, given how much it must have cost to develop. If they can’t attract the player base they need, we’ll see them lose staff and that may affect EVE.

Although fantasy MMOs feel tired at the moment, the interest in multiplayer persistent gaming is still huge.

The ethics of different types of monetisation/ design will continue to be widely debated, while devs try to find a way to make profits and keep the players entertained without actually killing any staff or players in the process. Mobile will continue to have the most aggressive monetisation strategies, partly because it’s a young person’s platform (yeah I know there are oldies too) and they’re just more susceptible. Plus more disposable income, if we weren’t in the middle of a triple dip recession.

Emphasis on storytelling has been another theme this year, and we’ve seen both the upsides and downsides of this. Players do like good storytelling and will buy games on that basis. They also get invested and very very angry if they’re not happy with how the stories are going (see: ME3 ending). And storytelling is expensive in terms of MMO content. The Walking Dead’s episodic content is however bang on trend with current monetisation trends so hopefully more games will follow that pattern.

SWTOR’s ‘expansion’ will be successful if they can keep the quality up, despite not including class storylines. (There won’t BE any more class storylines.) There are plenty of players who liked the game and want more story who will come try the F2P offering and pay to try the new content.

Blizzard will announce something about Titan this year, even if it is just that it is either delayed or has been abandoned (I don’t think they’ll be able to abandon it, since they do need to be working on something new, but I’m not really sure what they might come up with.) They will also announce an expansion for Diablo 3. And while their current content release schedule for MoP is really solid, it’ll run out of steam by the end of the year.

Wildstar will be terrible. I predict this because it has Bunnygirls, so you know what their target audience is. And also because they want to completely separate playstyles like building and PvP. This means they either have to have separate deep compelling games in multiple genres or a fully functional sandbox. Since I haven’t heard anything that makes me think they’re going to do either of these, I don’t expect much from this game apart from pretty and flashy graphics.

The Elder Scrolls Online may surprise MMO players as a solid entry in the field IF the devs can keep the costs down and their expectations reasonable. I don’t know how possible it will be to keep costs down and produce the kind of fully realised virtual world that Skyrim fans will expect, so I am dubious about this one but willing to be convinced.

We will no doubt hear more about sandbox games, as EQNext and Pathfinder are both aiming to dip into the fantasy sandbox arena. I think this will get players excited by hype, but ultimately sandbox games are for the hardcore unless devs find a way to provide a social sandbox function and I don’t think either of these devs are tending that way. (ie. so many excited players will be disappointed by the realities of the sandbox if they launch.)

Every year I predict DaoC2. Maybe this will be that year.

Bits and pieces; and thoughts from 3 years ago about the future of MMOs

Happy Sunday (and Happy Jubilee if you are the queen – seems a bit harsh of people to make two octo/nonogenarians stand around for hours on a cold and windy river, but what do I know?) This isn’t really a links post so much as a quick news roundup, some whining about Diablo, and a moment of insight where I realise that some of the stuff I used to post was pretty smart.

New games to get excited about, current games to get excited about

CD Projekt, best known for their work on The Witcher CRPGs, have announced that their next game will feature a Cyberpunk setting. In fact, it’s THE Cyberpunk setting for RPG players because they’ll be using the setting from R S Talsorian’s Cyberpunk RPG. So all you glitterboys, slicers, and fixers get your netrunning shoes on. I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it that this is super-exciting for any fans of the genre, and Cyberpunk should be a great match for the dark noirish stories that CD Projekt have shown they enjoy tackling in previous outings. It’d be nice if they would also let us play female characters this time around, but let’s not run before we can walk.

Rift announced its first expansion: Storm Legion. It will feature tons of new stuff including huge new continent, 10 more levels, new souls, a woman on the front of their expansion website who isn’t wearing much — yup, it’s all there. New expansions are generally a good sign for MMOs and the Rift devs have been earning their reputation for ploughing plenty of new content into the game all year, so things are looking good for Rifties. They do have a free trial up to level 20 if you want to try the game out.

An excellent new Humble Indie Bundle has gone on sale, featuring Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Psychonauts, LIMBO, and Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery , with Bastion thrown in as a bonus if you pay more than the current average (standing at $7.84 at the moment). It’s a feature of the indie bundles that you decide what you want to pay so if you’re feeling cheap, you could get the four main games for almost no money at all. They are all indie games that have garnered good reviews, especially Psychonauts if you are a fan of platform/adventure games.

In their ongoing crusade to make the always-online experience of Diablo 3 best in breed, Blizzard have now introduced autojoining the General Chat Channel when you log in. This has not been met with universal acclaim. While I find it annoyingly spammy and prone to gold seller chat, occasionally General Chat surprises you. I’ve sometimes heard people offer to help anyone out with hard bosses, which either is quite decent of them or else is a new cunning way to steal accounts – you pay your money and take your choice.

Personally my barbarian has reached an impasse with Izual in Hell Mode. Getting him down would require a serious amount of kiting given my current DPS and … I just don’t enjoy kiting on a melee class that much. So I shall be tooling around on alts instead, no point playing past the point of unfun. One thing Blizzard did get right though is the secret level (don’t click this link unless you want spoilers), which requires a special blacksmithing recipe and ingredients, all of which are rare drops in specific locations and may be farmed. Farming for this stuff with Arb has actually been pretty fun, for Diablo variants of fun. This is exactly what I was talking about when I was wondering why Blizzard hadn’t developed the farming side of the game.

So how DID soloing affect MMOs?

Milady reflects about MMOs evolving into an ‘always alone together’ singleplayer theme park  type of experience, and is nostalgic for a time when singleplayer and multiplayer experiences seemed to sit more comfortably side by side in MMOs. She wonders where players who enjoyed the multiplayer side of things will go if new MMOs tilt so far towards soloers.

The problem is that, although I can think as alone-together MMOs as a valid choice, especially for that demographic that can’t participate in the social part of them, there is no such choice when all are designed this way.

This reminded me of some thoughts I posted a few years ago about what might happen to MMOs if the proportion of soloers continued to increase. It was contentious at the time and attracted more comments than anything I’d ever written. Now I look back and – it seems prescient.

What happens if MMOs develop along lines such that most people are soloing most of the time? There’s no downtime built in where you might have to talk to people you didn’t know? There may not be enough of the more hardcore to form all the guilds those people might want to join? The people who would have been running those guilds are all going casual/ solo/ in small groups of RL friends instead?

Would a game like that really have much of a community at all? Is there any support network left for anyone at all?

Fairness in MMOs

Simon Ludgate posted an interesting article on Gamasutra about fairness in MMOs.

He talks about the illusion of fairness (whether it’s more important that players believe a game is fair than whether it is), dynamic content scaling, challenge, and grinding. I’m going to excerpt some quotes, as I haven’t decided yet how far I agree with him.

If you are too low — if the challenge is too hard — the usual player response is to backtrack and “level up” by completing easier challenges. <…> However, if you are too high and the challenge is too easy (and you haven’t been grinding all that much), the game just feels poorly designed. Shouldn’t the developer have expected me to be level 15 by this point in the game?

This is the precise issue that WoW has with levelling content at the moment. You can easily outlevel earlier zones just by questing through them.

Fairness is a very important concept in developing MMORPGs. That’s because fairness doesn’t exist in their single-player predecessors. “Cheating” and other forms of rule-changing in single-player games is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged. <…> Does it really matter that you beat the game on easy instead of hard? Only to you.

So how much of the hardcore mentality comes from people who cut their teeth on single player games, where exploits are practically part of the landscape. No wonder old MUD/MUSH/ RPG/ boardgame players, whose first experiences may have been with more social games, see things differently. (I suspect the latter is more likely to metagame in different ways, rather than being immune to the lure of cheating.)

Changing the rules is very common in multiplayer; creating mods, which are basically changes to game rules, are incredibly popular and gave birth to entire genres and franchises. But these rule changes intrinsically depend on the agreement of all participants. Everyone has to download the mod and choose to use it.

And of course once the majority have chosen to use a helpful mod, there are huge social barriers against NOT using it.

To a game’s developer, buying gold or leveling is akin to telling them their game is so bad, you’ll actually pay money to avoid having to play it.

He then goes on to talk about F2P games, and revisits this assumption.

To most designers, selling content-skipping seems like an inevitably bad idea. But Turbine actually did it, braced for the storm, and found it never came. It turns out that most players don’t actually find it unfair.

So if most players don’t actually find it unfair, what’s the concern? Why monocalypse?

Players have developed a strong sense of unjust game development due to free-to-play game designers who produce barbaric “games” in the hopes that players will pay to avoid having to play them.

OK, doesn’t quite explain monocalypse but this isn’t a million miles away from the fear that designers will produce PvP-winning items that players can pay to use.

He then goes on to talk about WoW, and how (some) players responded when raiding was made more accessible during Wrath.

Players were justifiably upset: why raid at all if you can just wait for the next set of raids and buy your way through the previous tier of content? What did that accomplishment mean when Blizzard would hand it out to everyone a month or two later?

As I said, SOME players were upset. Others happily got on and enjoyed the content without fretting over what was fair in other people’s eyes and what was not.

Anyhow, it’s a good article. His conclusions are fairly anodyne (it’s good to have lots of different types of achievement) without really addressing non-achievers or why people enjoy things that aren’t marked by achievements in games.

The Shape of Things to Come

This week, two main news stories made their way out of EA. The first one is that they bought Playfish, the social/ facebook gaming developer, for a eye-bleeding $300 million plus change.

And the second is that EA laid off a lot of staff, including 40% of Mythic, developers of Warhammer Online. I think it’s fair to say that WAR’s days are numbered, and there’s not going to be any magical expansion on the way to introduce a third realm and save the game.

This is not a post of doom though, the MMO genre isn’t dead. And no big game publisher can really ignore the massive success that social games have seen for the low cost to make. But MMOs have been going through a process of experimentation and refinement over the last few years. A lot of big budget games haven’t been as successful as they might have been expected to be on paper.

2010 may see the last gasp of the AAA big budget MMOs. It’s going to be a fantastic year for MMO gamers. It will see Star Trek Online, Final Fantasy whatever (14?), Guild Wars 2, Jumpgate Evolution, Cataclysm (I don’t really count this as a new game but it’ll be big) and SWTOR.

CCP still have to announce what they’re doing with Vampire even though it’s an open secret that they are working on a Vampire MMO. Blizzard haven’t yet announced their next MMO although they’re known to be working on it. But I doubt anyone else will start working on any new MMOs with that sort of budget and scope any time soon. It’s time now to wait, and see, and find out what players actually want.

As to where social gaming is going, Mashable makes 5 predictions here — of all of those, the one I have most confidence in is that EA will find new ways to monetize.

2010 is going to be an amazing year for MMO gaming, but will it just be the beginning of the end?

It’s been a bad week

It’s been a rough few months for a lot of people. The economy is in nosedive, fuel and food prices are rising, and no one is unaffected by any of it. This last week, we’ve heard more about redundancies in the gaming sector. Mythic, THQ, and there will be more. I read about them with a sinking heart.

It’s not a happy time. And no one is safe any more, that’s the one thing you get from a recession. No one can be sure of what the future holds for them.

Fulgaris has posted one of the most inspirational blog posts I’ve read in awhile, about why he games and why a touch of escapism and touching base with other people is so important to him.

I wish I had good stories to tell about hope and strength over adversity. But I do know that there have been times when I’ve been down in real life — when my father was really ill, when my work was depressing, when other things just weren’t going right — and I could log on and escape from it for a few hours. I could be welcomed by a friendly guild and be in touch with other human beings, albeit dressed up as orcs and trolls. I could spend time with my sisters, even though they were physically in different continents.

People are very down on escapism, as if it was somehow wrong to want to set aside your burdens for awhile and go and have fun. But it’s driven art and music and literature for generations. It can help us to deal with our real lives, not just to run away from them. And just that feeling that other people are out there, that you’re not alone with whatever troubles you, and that you can take some time out from it whether it’s with your friends down the pub, your guild in a game, your family, religious community, whatever it takes; human beings are social animals and that means something very important to us.

And in a world where we’re more likely than ever to be geographically separated from family and friends, sometimes being in an online game is the closest you can get. Closer than many people will ever realise.

Have a good weekend all, cherish your guildies/ friends. And I wish I was better at these emotional posts. (On the bright side, I probably won’t do it again :) )