Deja Vue. Haven’t I seen this content somewhere before?

There is nothing  that will make you feel like an old MMO grouch more than hearing people get excited about the prospect of reusing content you saw enough of the first time around.

Naxxramas! Onyxia! Heroic Deadmines and Shadowfang! All the monster models that get recoloured, renamed, and reused! Scaling instances in LOTRO!

I don’t hate any of these things. There is a balance between nostalgia (Hey! I remember back in the day when we had to walk uphill backwards to get the key to blahblahblah) and burnout (if I ever have to see that fight again I’m going to rip someone’s arms out). But modern MMOs can’t afford to leave too much old content hanging around unused – it just isn’t cost effective.

Also, the new players hear the older ones talking wistfully about how the game was back in the day. They don’t see the annoying parts that get skipped in reminiscences, they just feel that they missed out and are being left out of the conversation.

I wrote once that after about 3-4 years, an online game would have to change or else it would die as the first wave of players moved on and the newer ones could never catch up. I now think that after 3-4 years, older players will be nudged to move on because smart devs have realised this fact and will then start to direct most of the content to the newer players.

So if your favourite game starts to make you feel old, grouchy, out of touch, and as if any new elements are no longer aimed at you … maybe you’re right and it’s time to move on.

Subscriptions level in WoW, and Ensidia have their eyes on The Old Republic

Earlier this week Activision-Blizzard reported their financial results for 2009, a business related press release in which gaming companies traditionally discuss how their recent offerings have fared in the market, and what’s due to be released in the next year.

Blizzard related points of interest:

  • Cataclysm is on track for a 2010 release
  • So is Starcraft 2
  • Current subscription numbers for World of Warcraft are holding steady at 11.5 million – the same number they mentioned in July last year
  • And apparently only 30% of new WoW players make it past level 10

The subscriber numbers is an interesting one, and underlines even further why Cataclysm is being targeted at new players and returners. The game just isn’t growing any more. On the other hand, there are many subscription MMOs which would have been thrilled to have maintained subscriber numbers from year on year. Could it be that many of the people who might have previously tried WoW have been lured away from MMOs altogether by the casual gaming sector?

Also, every player who has made it past level 10 may now feel like part of an elite force. You are the 3/10 who stuck with it. I think the 30% is misleading only because it implies that other MMOs are stickier; I suspect similar figures would be true of most free trials. In fact, I’ve always wondered how many of EVE’s increasing subscriber numbers is actually due to new players as opposed to old ones with multiple accounts (just picking on EVE because it’s notoriously unfriendly to newbies, especially if most of them can’t handle WoW!)

It won’t surprise anyone who has ever tried to help a friend who is a genuine newbie, but MMOs can be complex and overwhelming to new players. Even one that seems simple to experienced players. Gordon@We Fly Spitfires has written a few blog posts about his experience of playing with his brother, who is a genuine noob.

Mike Morhaine even commented that one of the aims of Cataclysm was to make the low level experience more compelling, to lure more of those newbies into staying. This makes me even more curious to see what they have in mind for levels 1-10. Can it be a good tutorial for genuine newbies and still fun for the old time players?

My big question though is if players who try a new MMO for a month and then go back to Warcraft are WoW tourists, what do you call a player who tries WoW and then goes back to … I dunno what really … Farmville? Should we call them Farmville tourists?

Ensidia eye up the dark side

Peace is a lie; there is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
—The Sith Code

This was one of the more unexpected links in my RSS reader this morning. Darth Hater, one of the big SWTOR blogs, scored an interview with a couple of the Ensidia officers who chat about raiding, difficulty in games, and why they are looking forwards to Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Now, nothing I have read about that game pegs it as a game designed to appeal to the WoW hardcore raiders. But everyone is entitled to live in hope.

In fact, SWTOR fans will have to live in hope, because EA announced in their own financial report that the game won’t be out before Q2 2011.

How should new players learn the ropes?

One of the comments on my post yesterday (about the trend for people not speaking up if they don’t know an encounter), by Boatorius was:

It’s simply not acceptable to require that a fresh level 80 learn _48_ or so boss encounters (16 dungeons * 3 bosses) before they ever click that “random dungeon” button.

That is a lot of different boss encounter strategies. More than that, it’s a lot to throw at a player at once. It’s almost the opposite of a well designed game. A good game should include a learning curve that makes it easy for the player to pick up the skills and strategies they need to defeat harder content. That’s certainly one of the ways we regularly assess single player games.

And then you have the MMO. Here you are expected to learn the strategy by joining a group and throwing yourself at the boss, learning more from every wipe, and finally killing it. Or alternatively wait a few weeks and watch the tankspot video and read the strategy from Elitist Jerks.

And yet, it is still hard to come in later on in the progression and be expected to memorise tens of boss fights all at once. I remember joining a raid guild in TBC when they were working on Lady Vashj. I’d never even been into Serpentshrine Cavern myself. So for my trial period, I had to try to memorise all those fights that I’d never seen. To be fair, the raid leaders did take this into account, but it felt like a lot of pressure at the time. I could barely even remember all the boss names.

God help the player who joins the game six months or more after the content was new. By that time, most of the player base will have learned the group content and won’t be so patient with new learners. And you’ll also be presented with all the current endgame content in one lump when you hit max level. Probably with no clue where to even start. How exactly will you know which is the easiest heroic instance? Which of the LOTRO hardmodes should you try first, and when?

The answers to these questions sit deep down in the primordial lizard brain of prehistoric MMOs. Because at their core, they were designed as social games. Players were going to figure out how the game worked and inform each other. If you wanted to raid in EQ, for example, the idea was that you’d join a raid guild and they’d teach you what you needed to know. One of the functions of the guild was to teach new players. One of the functions of the community was to teach new players.

The community does still teach new players. Guilds help newly levelled 80s through instances and raids all the time. There are thousands of blogs, websites, forum posts, addons, and guides available. If you ask for help in the game on a help channel, there’s a good chance that you’ll get an answer. (This is true in any game I’ve played recently, including WoW.)

Teaching is part of the glue that holds communities together in games. The need to keep recruiting and keep training is what allows newer players to join older ones and play together in the same raids.

But the times have changed. And 48 boss encounters is still a crazy amount of information to take in at once.

Only the first wave learn as intended

Now, the reason this never struck many players as an issue was because we took the instances as we levelled up. In fact, I suspect active use of the dungeon finder while levelling should make the sticker shock at 80 a little milder. But in any case, most of the active players at the start of an expansion learn as intended and receive the learning curve as it was designed into the game. They tackle the new content with a group of slightly undergeared players who are all learning at the same time.

The important thing about being undergeared is that you do have to learn the encounter because you cannot brute force it.

Later on, newer players will be able to lean on more experienced and better geared friends (or randoms). Maybe they’ll be able to ignore the tactics –- that depends on the game and the designers.

How could we make it easier?

A lot more of the teaching side of the game could be automated in an MMO. If WoW included some boss mods as standard, you could imagine text flashing up on the screen in big flashing letters to explain the boss attacks and standard tactics.

“LIGHTNING NOVA! RUN AWAY FROM THE BOSS NOW. YOU HAVE 6s” (and maybe it could even play the Countdown music)

And as much as people would complain about the game being dumbed down, this would not be greatly different from the typical raid experience using boss mod addons.

Alternatively, we could imagine single player versions of some of the bosses, giving players a chance to learn them quietly on their own.

Or maybe a pause button – I have no idea how this could work in a multi-player game but giving people the chance to pause the game so that they can take their time to look around and think would help a lot of people with slower reactions.

And the trouble is, it doesn’t stop at tactics. Tactics alone won’t teach a new player which instances they SHOULD be going to next, where the best upgrades can be found, what’s the best way to spend tokens. But a lot of the information about upgrades is in the game also. If you check the WoW Armoury, you’ll can ask for suggested upgrades for gear in any slot.

Again, even if the game was able to say ‘Ah, you really need a new shield now. Try normal Halls of Reflection, second boss,’ this is still no different from the way experienced players use addons.

But at what cost? If the teaching burden is completely removed from guilds and from the community, then what is left?

Perhaps the answer still lies in sandbox games, a model that has been largely abandoned by the big AAA MMOs recently. So you could imagine PvE with lots of game tutorials, boss mods, and in game help. Perhaps PvE will become more of a polished, console-esque experience. And if that means that new players aren’t pressured to learn 48 boss encounters as soon as they hit 80, that has to be a good thing.

And yet a newbie would still need to lean on the regulars for help with the in game politics, the wide ranging PvP, figuring out the economy and keeping up with the ebb and flow of the other players.

A tale of two expansions

expansion-mapvia Norman B Leventhal Map Centre at the BPL

It is always an exciting time for MMO players when a new expansion is announced or released. Expansions unlock new lands and continents to explore and colonise, new monsters to slay, new stories to tell, and of course newer and better loot. But new zones alone will not grab players’ attention any more – we also expect to see new gameplay, new classes, new professions or a variety of other new things to do in the game.

The most successful expansions are accessible to a wide variety of players, with something new for low level characters as well as the hardcore endgame crowd. And because new expansions succeed by catching the attention of new and ex-players as well as existing ones, there needs to be a smooth path into the new content for returning players too.

What’s not to be excited about?

This week, LOTRO players are taking their first steps into Mirkwood, an expansion which sounds as though it will deliver handily on all fronts. Arriving with a timely (oh who am I kidding, it’s at least 3 years overdue) revamp of the unpopular Lone Lands zone, the lynchpin of Mirkwood is the new notion of skirmishes.

A skirmish is a PvE instance with some random elements, that can scale for different numbers of players (including solo versions) and can also scale with levels from 30 up to the level cap. I haven’t tried them yet myself, although Pete@Dragonchasers is a huge fan, and played some in beta as well as in the live version. Still, I’m excited at the notion that as I level up my character, I can hop into a skirmish if I get bored of questing. Naturally they also reward players with tokens that can be spent on … stuff. I assume it’s good stuff.

One of the other facets to skirmishes is that players will be able to gear and trait up a companion NPC to help out. Pete describes experiences with his healer in the link above, but if you play a healer and would rather have a pet tank, that option is also available.

LOTRO have been experimenting in Moria with PvE content for soloers and small groups. There are single player instances which play neatly, like puzzles where the player has to figure out how to manage the pulls, avoid the patrols and see what effect different mobs have on each other. There are short three man instances. I believe those have all been quite successful, and I know I enjoyed the ones we beat although there are issues with class composition for three mans.

Skirmishes take this concept and hit it out of the park. Let’s have solo instances! Let’s also have group-based instances! Let’s have scaling instances! Let’s give everyone a friendly NPC to help with class balance issues! It’s potentially such a game changer that all MMO players should be curious as to how this will work out. Because if it’s a winner, expect this idea to get comprehensively nicked.

Mirkwood also offers the usual plethora of new zones and quests, new raids and non-skirmish instances, retweaking of classes and gear, some kind of reworking of crafting to make it easier to level, and a revamp of the legendary weapon system. Here’s the feature list.

So summing up: for levelling players, skirmishes are available from level 30 and upwards. The Lone Lands revamp covers characters from around level 20. For endgame players, there are the new zones, instances, and raids.

Having tried the welcome back week, I resubbed to LOTRO myself in time to see what all the fuss was about (we don’t get our expansion until tomorrow though, so I’m busy getting lost^D^D^D^D^D catching up with Moria at the moment.) I did appreciate the extra 25% xp given during the welcome back week and the company of arbitrary’s uber captain who basically killed stuff while I batted at it ineffectually, it was very nice to have a flying start.

Now let’s compare with Cataclysm. The really interesting thing about Cataclysm, aside from the fact that Blizzard is revamping the entire level 1-60 levelling game, is that we know very little about any new game play that is proposed.

It’s going to be a great expansion for returning players, or anyone who wants to start again from level 1. Loads of new stuff to do while levelling, and all the talent trees and gear stats are being reworked from the ground up to make them simpler and easier to understand.

Other than that… what endgame players are looking forwards to is more of the same. New zones, new quests, new raids, new instances. Blizzard will doubtless make great use of phasing to produce a stunning levelling experience, which has always been their strength. I cannot imagine that it won’t be a good expansion in that respect.

We’ve had rumours of a few cool ideas in the pipelines. Rated battlegrounds (so you can PvP with your raid group) and dance studios (design your own emotes) both sound fun, but they aren’t the meat and drink of an expansion.

So Tobold commented in his recent post on Cataclysm vs Mirkwood:

But if LotRO had a Cataclysm-like expansion which added lots of low-level content, and thus breathed life into the low-level zones, I’d be back.

Well frankly, I see new zones, skirmishes from level 30, and plenty of other revamps, if you have a lifetime subscription, what are you waiting for?

Why am I still talking when there’s linking to do?

  1. First up, a mind-boggling colour based optical illusion. (I’m thinking this won’t work too well if you are colour blind)
  2. And on that note, have been posting up some great interviews recently. Check out this discussion they had with Timothy Cain (lead designer of Fallout) and Mitch Ferguson (lead systems designer who worked on The Sims Online) about the future of MMO gaming, it has some real gems.
  3. One of my favourite newer blogs, standing at the back in my sissy robe compares his experience in PUGs to .. err.. his experience in pick up bars.
  4. Ixobelle helps out with the best healing macro you’ll ever need for PUGs.
  5. syncaine eyes up the problem of how to introduce new players into old games. Why do we force alts to regrind , and what about the new guy?
  6. Copra is also puzzling over the problem of how new players can learn to group when old players won’t teach them, may mock them, and may just exclude them. As a social player, I want games to make it easy for players to group, not foster elitist barriers which prevent them!
  7. Brenda Braithwaite thinks about what it is in games that makes us happy. Is it the purple loot? The other rewards? Or are they just steps on the path towards happiness?
  8. John Walker@RPS asks why we can’t just teleport in MMOs. It works fine in Free Realms and Guild Wars, after all.
  9. What does it mean to be unique? Why do we all want to be special? And how can you really sparkle in MMOs? Larisa has some deep thoughts and some smart answers.
  10. Suzina discusses a recent experience in LOTRO. She joined a guild with a few friends, and because her clique is so tight-knit, she feels as though they’re slowly taking over. I’ve seen this phenomenon also, and as a guild officer, I’ve always been a bit reluctant to invite a large group of existing friends for that reason.

Also, a gratuitous Harold Ramis link where he discusses why it’s more difficult to make funny videogames than funny films. I had such a crush on Egon as a teenager …. (then I grew up and found a cute, funny, geeky guy of my own to marry :))