Thought of the Day: Are computer games the new megamedia or a (big) flash in the pan?

For as long as I can remember, computer gaming has been a growing hobby. It still is. Every year, more and more people play games on their consoles or computers, whether they be social facebook games, multiplayer deathmatch shooters, single player, or MMOs. Games are becoming more and more a part of the cultural fabric of society. Maybe the norm is still guys playing shooters on their xbox/ ps3, but it’s not a weird thing to do any more.

And yet, Syp has looked at various surveys on the average age of gamers and found that it is rising. (Even the more conservative figures here agree that the average age of gamers is rising.) It is possible that the surveys just don’t capture younger players well. It’s likely that they tend to play on consoles owned by older family members, or play games that aren’t included in the survey.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that the surveys are right and the average age of gamers is going to keep increasing. Younger people will drift into new, different hobbies. Probably they’ll involve internet connectivity but not the big AAA games, increasingly looking bereft of new ideas, that we’ve seen in the past few years. (If I say AAA games are looking short on ideas, it’s from having been trapped in an office with a fanatical black ops player – I know a lot about that game now! And pretty much all of the battlegrounds/ win conditions are things I’ve seen before.)

Whilst gamers are still in the money making part of their lives, studios will pander to them. But in 30+ years time? It’ll be on to the new hotness. It may be less than that depending on how the next generation of consoles shapes up. If you think that games are the 21st century’s big media breakthrough in the way that cinema and TV were the media darlings of the 20th century, then you have to wonder how the next generation will be enticed to make them a part of its life.

MMOs are changing — but maybe some players need to go back to their roots

wrongway johnnyjet@flickr.com

Wolfshead, one of the most inspiring blog writers I know, has been kicking arse and taking names recently with a rant about the entire MMO industry and the way it is heading. (If you enjoy this article of his do read some more, they’re all good.) His complaint is that MMOs are not reaching their potential as exciting immersive interactive experiences.

I will totally buy that today’s MMOs are less immersive in many ways that their predecessors. What we do in them may feel less meaningful. But do they really lack excitement or interactive experiences? For example, raiding in WoW today offers much more exciting gameplay than it used to do. WAR got PvP very right in many ways. And you’re also much less likely to log into your game of choice and be sitting around for hours waiting for something to happen (unless you are mining in EVE <—cheap shot).

We also get many more chances to interact with the game world than in games of the past. Bear in mind that mineable nodes were considered one of WoW’s innovations.

I have issues with WoW, and with other current gen MMOs, but lack of excitement isn’t one of them. As games, they’re improving with every patch.

We don’t know where we’re going, but we know where we’ve been

But that isn’t to say that Wolfshead has it completely wrong. Just you have to be an old dino to really understand that perspective.

Imagine that your first experience with multiplayer online gaming was a text-based MUD or MUSH. It was also your first experience with real time online chat. Probably also your first experience of online roleplaying, or being able to assume a different online identity and hang out in a world full of other real players.

Those were heady days. It’s hard to convey that now, in the cold light of 2010. But it was so damned exciting to log into a gameworld and come across another actual player. In those old games, which were part sandbox and part proto-EQ, everything was part of the escapist virtual world. We cared about immersion, except when we didn’t. MUSH players like myself disdained MUDs. We didn’t see the point in killing some dumb mob that would just respawn in 5 minutes anyway, especially not when you could be roleplaying a living part of a living city with other players. Yes we had that debate 10 years ago and the MUDders won. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if MUSH and not MUD had been the base starting point for EQ. I think we’d have had our virtual worlds, and achievers would have been complaining that all MMOs were oriented towards social gaming and interactive fanfic and why can’t we have a game that actually let them kill stuff. Oh, and the female: male ratio of players would probably have been reversed.

Then came graphical MMOs and MUDs and for a period of time, games didn’t really know where they were going. There were elements of virtual worlds and also elements of games. Old time gamers could look at the trends and believe that more and more virtual world elements and social elements were being brought into the arena. MMOs were evolving – and just as Wolfshead said, a lot of gamers thought they were going to eventually become a virtual nirvana.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment. Games were evolving in different directions and, led by WoW, there was an increasingly strong movement towards solo play and more gameplay at the cost of virtual worldness.

WoW is actually not the worst offender here. GW with its instant teleports from zone to zone never truly felt like a virtual world (which is one of the main complaints directed at it, along with the dreadful social experience in cities). Other more recent offerings have trimmed down on the virtual world side of the genre to try to bring in the mainstream – most of those attempts failed longterm. And the sandbox games such as Darkfall, EVE, and many text games which still hold out are doomed to their niches. Not to even mention Second Life which fails so utterly at simulating a cohesive world that people almost have to say ‘virtual world’ in inverted commas. (Maybe virtual worlds would be more apt?)

So I have a lot of sympathy with Wolfshead’s view. He has been in the genre for a long time, and for much of that time he genuinely felt that games were evolving towards his personal perfect MMO. And it is now increasingly clear that isn’t true and possibly never was. Much of it was wishful thinking. Now, the era of the AAA MMO is drawing to a close, and the few big games in the pipeline are not even  really attempting to offer a true virtual world experience for escapists.

I just don’t agree with him.

You don’t just ‘stop evolving’

It’s clear that the current MMO gaming model simply isn’t working. WoW will do fine (for some measure of fine) but other recent entries into the field simply haven’t maintained any long term interest amongst players. Only this weekend I reported that Aion – released last Autumn – is merging servers already.  Champions Online lost players even more quickly, from other reports. SWTOR has been reported as needing a million subscribers just to break even. These things cost crazy money to make and the model still isn’t proved to hook players longterm.

Don’t blame Blizzard for that. They made the most compelling MMO that has ever been seen to date. When I first tried out the WoW beta back in 2005, I was blown away because it felt like a quantum leap more fun of a virtual world than what I was playing at the time (and I loved DaoC but I was done with it after 3 years).  Blizzard trashed some old play concepts that really needed to be smacked on the back of the head with a shovel. Like them or not, they have stayed mostly true to their internal vision and pitch perfect sense for gaming fun, and 11 million players have rewarded them for it. WoW isn’t successful because players are dim or all love McDonalds. It’s been successful because it provides the best and most polished mix of gameplay in a virtual world on the market. Now the game is starting to show its age, but don’t blame Blizzard for giving pleasure to millions of gamers, many of whom might not have considered themselves gamers at all before they joined up. It isn’t Blizzard’s fault that newer players don’t share the same dream as the older ones.

And yet … games that adhere more closely to a virtual world model do seem to retain their player base for longer than non WoW MMOs. Darkfall and EVE may be niches (a large niche for EVE) but the majority of the player base doesn’t get bored after a month.

There are other trends in the market also. F2P, lowering the barriers for players to get involved in games, is coming right back to the MUD days. Of course, our text games were (mostly) free all the time and run by volunteers, but that made it very easy for visiting players to come and test the waters and slowly get more involved.

Ultimately, virtual world games may always be a niche but I believe that more sandbox and VW elements will be brought back into multi player games. F2P is an obvious application for this – many players will happily pay to feel that they own a stake in a segment of the game world, as Second Life has proved (and I suspect this is the enduring F2P model). And whilst Facebook and Real ID alike are striving to break down the cult of anonymity on the web, many players who enjoyed their innocent escapist fantasies of being weekend wizards, spaceship pilots, hobbits, BWG (blokes with guns) or  gnomes will always flock to the games that let them define their own character name and looks.

Face it, if I wanted to look like myself online, it wouldn’t be much of an escapist fantasy. Not compared to playing a badass undead plate clad warrior wench, or a burglar sneaking around Mirkwood spiders in LOTRO. “Let’s pretend” is one of the most ancient, magical (yes, this is the basis of sympathetic magic) and honorable of all games, and it’s time that gamers stopped acting as if twitchy shooters were the be all and end all of game design. So games based on acting out a role will NEVER die. Games based on virtual worlds will NEVER die. And in fact I believe that they’ll make a comeback.

And what about Farmville? Wolfshead hates it with the passion of a zillion supernovas and I’m not fond of the game myself. But let us remember one thing. It is a massively popular massive online social game in which NO ONE KILLS ANYTHING. Perhaps our dev lords and masters could take that on board while they’re digging around in the virtual world pantry for that magic ingredient that will make their new WoW knockoff magically sticky to players. Unlike the last several versions.

So I have hope. But also, I quite enjoy playing the games the way they are now. I have a lot of sympathy for Wolfshead – games these days are not realising the dream I dreamed either. But I also remember the things that used to annoy me about the text and MMO games I have loved in the past for their immersiveness and social whirl.

Maybe it is age, but I know increasingly that my personal perfect game does not exist, and probably never will. The internet, however, has become everything I ever wanted and more.  And somewhere in there are those virtual world games (yes, even text games have evolved) which may even make an old lag like Wolfshead happy for awhile.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

— A E Housman

General trends, the core tank toolset, and is survival more fun than threat?

(Firstly, apologies for the flood of WoW related posts. I’m trying to use WoW class changes as a jumping off point for more general discussion, but yeah I get that the blog is a bit focussed right now.)

Usiel asked in comments if I had any thoughts about the bigger picture for Cataclysm, based on last week’s class changes. I can see a few vague trends:

  • Blizzard are addressing a lot of ‘quality of life’ issues (rage normalisation, focus for hunters, simplified stats, treeform). If these work out as planned, then I do genuinely believe that the game will become more fun and less frustrating for everyone involved, whether or not they get many new cool abilities.
  • They have said several times that one goal is to make healing more fun. We are starting to see what they think that means. Wide range of heals, interesting choices, less frantic heal spam, more movement, more emphasis on deciding when to dispel and mana management. But we won’t see the whole picture until we get a chance to try it.
  • DPS specs of hybrid classes are losing some hybrid-ness. We will see shamans and paladins lose some dispel abilities when in dps mode. Blizzard have also commented that retribution paladins will lose some survivability (because defensive dps specs are viewed as not working well, perhaps another reason why Blood DKs are being turned into tanks.)
  • DPS in general are getting more abilities to control fights, in one way or another.

I don’t get a clear view yet of the vision for tanking in the next expansion. Gravity thinks that raids will place more emphasis on mobility, which would make me happy because I find the mobility fights more fun.

The core tanking toolset is becoming better defined, with more tools being handed out to classes who lacked them. Hence more interrupts for ferals and paladins, and a demo shout equivalent for death knights. Those are all good trends. If the ability is that important, then all tanks should have access to it. Anything else is just pointlessly frustrating.

So if we try to define a core tank toolset, it needs to include at least:

  • similar threat, both AE and single target
  • similar survivability, both vs magic and physical damage
  • similar cooldowns and effective health
  • interrupt/s
  • burst or targeted threat, to neatly pick up adds
  • similar buffs and debuffs (ie. if three tank classes have a buff, then the fourth should probably have it too).

In some ways, tanks are more homogenous than either healers or dps. It’s hard to imagine a core healer toolset when one healer has bloodlust/ totems, another has combat res, and another brings paladin buffs. This has always been an issue for priests, since originally the hybrids got more utility to make up for priests having better healing.

Interestingly, it appears that being able to smoothly switch from tank to dps (ie. in a multi-stage fight) is not considered a core tank ability, because as of Cataclysm only druids will be able to do that. We can only hope that there is not a single boss fight where this will ever be important, because it has been an annoyance for years. (ie. druids have felt annoyed at being ‘forced’ into the off-tank role, and paladins/ warriors have been annoyed at not being good at it. Death Knights have been good off-tanks up till now, but who knows what they will be like in Cataclysm?)

In many ways we also need to wait to see the new expansion encounters to really understand how tanking may or may not change.

Another trend I see is for more responsibility for the success of a group to be spread between dps and healers, rather than so heavily focussed on the tank. For those control freaks (surely no tanks are control freaks!) who enjoy the current state of tanking, this may not be an entirely good thing. Expect to spend more time feeling like a dumb lump with high auto-threat while dps misdirect threat, put up smoke clouds, run rings around you, and generally do more of the work.

Survival vs Threat

Perhaps put more succinctly, a lot of tank players just seem to find the survival game more fun than the threat game.

- Ghostcrawler

It’s clear from previews that tank threat is not intended to be much of an issue in Cataclysm. The easier it became for tanks to establish threat in Wrath, the more people played them. That sends a fairly clear picture of what players want, and also DPS players hate being threat capped so if one tank lets them go all out and another doesn’t, the one who doesn’t will get benched.

I’m in two minds about the above quote though. I find the pure survival fights to be very dull indeed (omg I hit my cooldown 0.5s late and died, woe is me!). Instead of favouring the tank with the highest threat, they favour the tank with the highest effective health or best cooldowns. This is equally out of the player’s control. And that’s not especially fun either.

In fact, I’d prefer to see both pure survival and threat become less of an issue, and instead focus on movement, situational awareness, and working with the other tanks and the rest of the raid. The tank who can both survive and hold threat whilst balancing a spoon on their nose and dragging a mob neatly through a dog agility course? That’s the one I want to play.

I’m just not really sure if that’s the way the game is going. We’ll know more after the paladin changes are announced.

New betas, and trends in upcoming games

Truly it is the season of the year for game announcements, otherwise known as the convention season. This weekend will see another slew of hype, trailers, interviews, and competitions trailing excitement across the blogosphere like empty beer cans after a rock festival. Imagine the hype-mobile as a shiny tug boat, the initial wave of excitement as its wake, and then the game itself as a heavy old steamer being pulled along behind.

Anyhow, today sees a couple of new MMO beta announcements.

  • Go sign up here for the Star Trek Online beta. For my money, this sounds to be by far the more innovative and interesting game in Cryptic’s current stable, and will have you playing the captain of your own starship with crew of your own to train up as you boldly go where no split infinitive has gone before.
  • Ysharros and Arbitrary point out the intriguing Initiate Quiz for A Secret World, which also invites you to sign up for their beta. Secret societies and cabals, templars, illuminati, modern urban fantasy … a geek would need a heart of stone not to be even a little tempted by that.

LOTRO have also announced their new digital expansion, The Siege of Mirkwood. No prices announced yet but it sounds to be introducing enough new features that a charge would be reasonable.

A few common upcoming features

So here are a few of the upcoming trends:

Companion Characters — LOTRO will let players train up their own soldiers to fight alongside them in Mirkwood. STO also features crew members who the player can train. Guild Wars made great use of companion heroes and they were so popular that GW2 will probably continue along the same lines. And Star Wars: The Old Republic has mentioned in the hype that they consider companions to be very key to their play also. (I am particularly hoping for droids because you can’t really complain if an actual bot acts like a bot.)

Guilds are the new black — Cataclysm features a new guild levelling system. The Final Fantasy XIV developers were keen to show off their Guildleve system at Gamescom this year, which is a set of portals into instanced content that reminds me very much of the trumps in Amber. Now the FFXIV system is likely to be available from NPC-run guilds and WoW is arguably behind the times in allowing guild levelling but I think that guilds in general are going to be more than just a chat channel in future.

More social networking features — Champions Online gives each of your characters its own web page and lets you spam twitter relentlessly from in game, Blizzard is frantically updating battle.net to allow chat across games too, and if anything they are slightly behind the curve (I know SOE has been providing guild websites in EQ2 and Free Realms for awhile). We’re going to see companies exploring more ways to interact with the games when you aren’t logged in, whether it means tweeting your friends from work in character or using iPhone applications to manipulate the auction house.

More dynamic contentGuild Wars 2 will be introducing an Event system in which Public Quests spontaneously erupt in the game world and players are notified in case they want to go and join in. I think this is potentially one of the more exciting upcoming feature in any MMO and I’m curious to see it for myself. LOTRO is bringing in skirmishes with Mirkwood in which you can grab a few friends from anywhere in the world and go run some instanced and randomised PvE content (it sounds like a PvE equivalent of WAR’s scenarios, which I loved). Blizzard have not yet mentioned how they plan to use phasing in Cataclysm but I’d bet that we haven’t heard the last of it yet.

Different charging schemes — I mostly write about subscription based games, but it would be silly to assume that this is the way things will always be. Devs are realising that most people don’t want to play more than one subscription based game at a time and may be willing to pay a premium for permanent access. We’ve seen how popular the Champions Online lifetime offer was, for example. I wish sadly that WAR had a lifetime sub offer, I would have happily taken it at the time and I think it would have worked out well for Mythic.  RMT is another option that is on the table, and we’ve been seeing more and more different variations on how to make that one work (check out Relmstein’s micro-summary of micr0-transactions). I’m also intrigued by the notion that FFXIV may end up using a similar anniversary system to Japan (you pay for 30 days and that’s for actual time played, not calendar months) so let’s hope the EU and US marketing teams don’t talk them out of it.

More hype, prettier trailers. Still waiting for that Vampire trailer … hopefully tomorrow. I’ll look like a twat if I’m wrong though :)

And last but not least — although admittedly this isn’t a trend — Torchlight has an October release date, so is something else to look forwards to for the heartbroken Diablo fans who otherwise need to wait until 2011 for their next fix.