[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).

Links and mini-posts for the weekend

I thought since I was away and these links will be at least a week out of date, I’d go back through my old bookmarks and see if I could find a few slightly older posts to mix in with ones that caught my eye recently.

RIFT’s Summer Update makes every other game’s producer letter seem slight and mean minded. They are going to do EVERYTHING. There is information about quality of life improvements, zone events, and how they try to balance putting effort into raids with other upcoming endgame activities. The guy knows his MMOs and knows his players, I defy anyone to read that post and not have even a minor yay moment.

I wrote about raid rifts in RIFT a couple of weeks ago, and apparently I’m not the only person who enjoys them.

The challenge there was to create an incentive for an activity that wasn’t burdened by lockouts, such that more people could help out more than once a day if they choose. Those have worked out amazingly well for pickup raids of 10 to 20. Just about all of the servers have multiple pickup raids engaging more people in the shared world than we had ever hoped, every single day.

There are issues that haven’t been explicitly addressed though. For example, PvP rifts sound fun, but what about issues around PvP gearing and how implacable it can be for newbies.

Having said that, their ideas about where to go with endgame and what sorts of activities different players might want to do are amongst the most interesting and exciting in the industry. I’m dipping into WoW at the moment again, but not likely to let my Rift sub drop any time soon. (Sorry to my guildies for not being around much.)

More links

  • I haven’t written much about Blizzard’s new game (codenamed Titan) because we don’t know much about it. But ‘back’ in June analysts were claiming that it was going to be a casual MMO. RPS reckon that means probably a FPS of some sort. Is MMOFPS the future of MMOs? If Blizzard does it, what does that mean for WoW? (and the many WoW players who may have been hoping for WoW #2.)
  • If you are good at a game and good at playing your class/ role, do you feel any responsibility to pass tips on to newer players? Nope? Only if they’re in your guild/ raid? Arthemystia argues here that experienced hunters in WoW should help newbie hunters. (Presumably they aren’t interested in helping non-hunters.)
  • I will miss Blacksen and I’ve enjoyed his blog a great deal, especially as it comes from a very different (and very hardcore) mindset. His goodbye post is well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand the inner workings of raid guilds. His comments on why the raiders names always rotate and how difficult it is to maintain a stable roster even as a competitive progression guild, ring very true. Anyhow, I wish him luck with the rest of his life :)
  • The SWTOR developer blog post last week was about crafting the opening videos for each class. You may think “yeah, yeah, introductory video – will take about 5 mins out of a game I may play for hundreds of hours,” but I defy anyone not to feel something when the screen goes dark, the star wars music starts to play, and text starts to scroll slowly up the screen a la A New Hope and it is about your character.
  • There was a press release that hit the games press last week discussing whether female gamers liked games better than sex. This is the only post I’ve found discussing that survey which makes the obvious point that maybe this is because quite a lot of women actually don’t enjoy sex all that much. They compare with a larger survey on US sexual activity in which 30% of female respondents said that their last experience of sex had been painful. Yup, Farmville is looking quite appealing in comparison to actual PAIN.
  • And lastly, one from my social work blog list, in which Social Jerk discusses how she’d sort out Hogwarts. (Yes, of course I went to see the Harry Potter film and it was great. I am however gutted that we got shown the trailer for Twilight and not The Dark Knight Rises.)

My tour in Call of Duty Black Ops

call-of-duty-black-ops-arctic6

I could hear the crunching of footsteps on snow, and froze with my back to the wall. Suddenly there was a flicker of movement in my peripheral vision and I spun round in time to bring the light machine gun (LMG) to bear on the man behind me.

“Oh shit, which button is it to fire…” I said, accidentally swinging the viewpoint round so that I was pointing my gun at the floor. I may possibly have said rude words to the PS3 controller.

My friend, patiently, waited until I had gotten the controls together and could happily obliterate him with a headshot.

“Sorry,” I said, as his blood splattered over the snow.

“You don’t have to say sorry every time you kill someone.”

Call of Duty doesn’t do unhappy endings. You don’t really die, you just respawn round the corner with a full clip.

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So here’s the setup. I was round visiting friends over New Year and had a chance to play Black Ops on a lovely big TV. “You write about games, you should try this,” seemed like a great idea at the time. And then there I was, controller in hand, feeling like the clumsiest soldier in the western hemisphere. Do real black ops personnel spend 5 minutes trying to get through an open door? I suspect not.

I can’t get over how awkward the controller is for this type of game. I haven’t played shooters for years, not since playing Quake on the office LAN (despite my partner’s best efforts to interest me in Unreal Tournament) and never on a console.

And yet. Once you have a vague feel for the controls, it’s a very exciting game. Sure, it’s just a souped up version of hide and seek. That actually is the basics of most shooters, as best as I can see. But add in interesting buildings, vehicles, and obstacles to duck around, and hide and seek with imaginary guns seems like a perfectly good afternoon’s pastimes.

I personally find that the ultra realistic uniforms and guns add approximately zero interest to the genre for me. If anything, the more realistic it gets, the more uncomfortable I get. I have no desire to shoot real people. I don’t really want to do anything more violent than paintballing (which I have done iRL and was a lot of fun.)

And compared to the MMOs I’m used to, Black Ops with its first person view feels very claustrophobic. You can’t see the whole battlefield, you can often barely see a few inches in front of your own face and if you tweak the controls awkwardly then the camera careers around, not only making you feel seasick but also destroying any chance at all of you getting a feel for the layout of the area.

I can see though that once you are comfortable with the controls and can get more into the ‘hide and seek with guns’ zone, you can get a good deal more fun out of it.

Reflections on FPS and Black Ops

One of the stand out points for me is that Black Ops was not especially more fun than Quake, despite the length of time between the two games. The actual gameplay wasn’t all that, at least not that I could see. It certainly has prettier graphics, more hyper realistic settings, and lets you interact more with the environment (or at least shoot holes through doors and break windows), but I’m not really seeing the great leap forward in FPS that I was expecting.

The second thing is that really, paintball is a lot more fun and way less claustrophobic. I did find the controller was a hindrance. The studio that can make a good Kinect based shooter will be onto a winner.

The third is that there’s nothing really novel about playing hide and seek online. It’s very basic gameplay, even compared with other console games like Uncharted 2 or Grand Theft Auto. (GTA in particular shows off the console much better, to my mind.)

The fourth is that although it is kind of fun to tag your friends, I just don’t like actually shooting people. So I feel a bit conflicted when I kill anyone. (I think once we started playing for real a bit more, although I obv. wasn’t as good as the guys who had more practice, I did get some actual kills that weren’t pity kills :) ).

The last is that if Blizzard are working on a PvE/ MMO type shooter for Titan, they could well be onto a winner. I think there are lots of players out there like my friends who enjoy playing with people they know, and like the PvE game, but aren’t all that excited about being massacred by random 14 year olds (the game, astoundingly, has no player rank matching a la Starcraft 2, which is an inexplicable omission for me in a genre that stands or falls on it’s PvP tournament modes.)