It’s Friday somewhere, I guess, in some dimension

If you’ve found yourself here because I tipped Massively to a story and they were kind enough to link back to me, the post you are looking for summarizing and breaking down Stoot’s impromptu Community Q&A about Glitch can be found here.

I hesitated to make a new post knowing that Massively’s article linked to my home page, but it’s been over 24 hours.  Time to move on.

Speaking of Massively, today Syp made a post at his blog Bio Break about being happy to be a gamer right now that seemed a bit of a poke about gamers nostalgic for a past that theme park fans are often tempted to claim never existed.    Syncaine responded with a post on Hardcore Casual strongly disagreeing, in his somewhat snarky, fully sarcastic, yet rather insightful style.  I was participating in the comments on both pages, when I found I was writing about the same thing on both blogs.  And that the current response to Syp was going from comment territory to small novel turf.  So I’m going to try and put it here.

What I really want to address is the idea that in early MMO history, gamers had less choice.  They were stuck, to use an example, with either harsh death penalties or harsh death penalties.  The thought behind this thought, at least as I understand it, is that when WoW released gamers were given a choice between meaningless deaths and harsh death penalties, and by virtue of WoW’s subscription numbers, clearly gamers chose the meaningless deaths, right?

Except I don’t see when gamers really had those two options side by side.  When Ultima Online was at its peak, more people were using AOL for internet than their cable company.  Most had no other choice.  By the time broadband became more common, UO had been patched to have more in common with EQ, which alienated a lot of the UO vets, did nothing to convince EQ players to switch, and generally marked the beginning of the end for the game.  In 2004, WoW releases into an MMO field which included EQ II and really nothing else, at least nothing else that was polished and well marketed.  I did not, personally, hear about SWG until most of a year after it launched.  However, I not only saw articles about WoW on sites like gamespy (remember gamespy?  I remember gamespy); I even got a “talk” about how much better WoW would be delivered to me by the pimply faced kid at Best Buy that was ringing up my EQII preorder.

Turns out he was right, mostly.  But I digress, the point is that aside from MMO vets, whom at that time were a much smaller club, most people did not see their choice as between WoW and SWG.  Even those that were aware of SWG weren’t necessarily rejecting it for being a sandbox, but instead were rejecting it because it was buggy and unpolished despite having been live for quite awhile, and grinding missions to skill up to the “real game” was kind of a pain in the ass.  SWG was perfect for me, since I was primarily into crafting, but my glasses are clear rather than rose-colored — it was not the game for your average combat aficionado.

No, most gamers saw their choice as between WoW and EQII.  So their choice was between meaningless death penalty and meaningless death penalty.  Their choice was between questing or questing.  Their choice was between nearly polished and lacking polish.  And with broadband becoming cheaper and more common, there were more gamers looking for an MMO, and WoW, being nearly polished, managed to hook in a whole crap load of them.

Publishers took note.  What they saw was a game with formulaic character classes, solo quest-based progression, and a rather linear leveling game that led players from quest hub to quest hub without ever giving them an overwhelming set of choices.  They jumped all over those characteristics and decided that these, combined with as much polish as possible, were the reasons for WoW’s success.  They ignored any role shared by the increased prevalence of broadband, and they dismissed MMOs that did not achieve WoW status based on their game mechanics, rather than the fact that there simply was a smaller pool to draw on at the time and that when the pool finally became larger, WoW was the most logical choice.

Now is the point in this rant where I direct you to Extra Credits Season 3 Episode 15: Working Conditions.  While I do recommend watching the whole thing at some point, especially if you work in or hope to work in the game design industry, for this discussion I only ask that you jump to about the six minute point, and listen to the bit about ways that publishers can negatively interfere with a game’s designers.

I’ll wait until you get back.  I promise.

Publishers appear to be doing the same thing to MMOs that Extra Credits claims they tried to do to FPS games.  They’ve locked on to the features that were present in a game that happened to be more successful than any previous game, ignored anything else that may have contributed to that game’s success, and declared that the failure to achieve similar stellar results from games that did not include those features were a direct result of those missing features, so no game like them will ever be successful again.  They were wrong before.  I think they will find they are wrong again.  FPS games have a short shelf life, so that blunder of marketing governing design didn’t last so long, but I believe we will eventually begin to see polished sandbox releases as future competition.

Yes, I’ve seen the comments on Massively attacking sandbox fans as outdated troll that just need to accept that their genre moved on without them.  But I also remember friends saying there was no point to FPS games without multiplayer, and I haven’t heard any of them say that in years.  And most of them played Fallout 3.  I borrowed Bioshock from one of those very people, actually.

Just like I don’t see gamers ever having been presented with a choice between harsh death and meaningless death, I don’t see gamers having ever really been offered a choice between sandbox or theme park, not with games of equal quality, both still operating off their original design plan, both still live at the same time.

So yes, I too am happy to be a gamer in 2012, but only because, in my secret dreams of my secret heart, I feel the end of this hidebound repetition is somewhere just out of sight, just over the horizon.  Not because I think the games of today are objectively better than the games of a decade earlier — I think the games of today are different than the older games, that they traded one set of problems for a new set, and really have done little to advance the genre since WoW polished up a lot of EQ mechanics and made them the new shiny.

And I think next the gamers I mentioned in an earlier blog, the ones who project every mechanic on to WoW, will have many new opportunities to see mechanics, that they assume must be terrible, in games that build specifically around that mechanic and make it awesome.  The two MMO sub-genres may fuse for the sake of accessibility, or they may split further until most think of virtual worlds as a different genre altogether — but the idea that an MMORPG must be based on WoW to be successful will first drain from the publishers and then from the gamers once we actually reach an era where there are real choices.  Where the choice is not between harsh death penalty with no real direction and harsh penalty with no direction, and once the choice is not between hotbar combat solo leveling experience with endgame grouping and hotbar combat solo leveling experience with endgame grouping.

Eventually there will be real choices.  And many gamers, myself probably included, will likely find they are entertained by both.  Many will wonder why they didn’t have sandbox elements in those other games they tried, because it will seem so obvious once they play one where it works.

In the meantime, I steeple my fingers and stare out of the darkness.  Lurking.

13 responses to “It’s Friday somewhere, I guess, in some dimension

  1. Subscribed!

    I’m always bewildered by MMO players who’ve only played one species of game and think that way is The Only Way.

    I guess that’s easy for me to say though… my first major “virtual world” experience was a non-Diku MUD with multi-classing, player housing, and non-persistent gear, where “the real game” happened about 1/3 of the way up the leveling curve. Actually reaching the level cap was the stuff of myth and legend… you’d get your own statue of you were crazy enough to do it! Not exactly standard.

    Do you think the games currently on the hype train represent a significant step towards real choice? I’m referring to things like TERA’s “action combat,” The Secret World’s “skill wheel” that replaces classes/levels, and the whole suite of Guild Wars 2 systems that make group play both welcome and inevitable. (And as a side note, none of those games has a two-faction system.)

    • I think they will definitely provide more meaningful choice than SWTOR v. WoW.

      Though for all I know, everything else about the games will be just like the previous theme parks, since to be fair and honest, I haven’t really read anything about TERA—I actually can’t remember if its fantasy or scifi or none of the above—and every time I tell myself to start reading up on it, something else captures my attention. With all the drips of information that come out during the hype process, I’m not even sure where to begin with TERA — other than their website, of course.

      I also have to admit to intentionally burying my head in the sand when it comes to The Secret World. I am an old World of Darkness pencil and paper fan, and though most associate that game with vampires and werewolves, the core concept behind the WoD was that all the conspiracy theories and myths you’ve ever heard are true, which seems to be the idea behind The Secret World. But CCP is definitely in no rush, and I recently read about TSW’s skill system and was intrigued, so I’m beginning to get over my personal bias there. I haven’t yet decided whether to actually start reading up on the game or to go in half-blind and just see how I dig it when I get there. Money is tight though, so I’d need to consider ritual suicide if the skill system was the only interesting bit.

      I have paid a lot more attention to Guild Wars 2 than I have the other two. I’m not about to declare that it will cure cancer, but it seems that Areanet, instead of asking what about WoW made it successful, is asking what sucked about WoW despite it being successful. And that could lead to some actual progress. I like that they are axing the holy trinity. I like that they’re done nitpicking over whether to give you credit for a creature you hit once or twice but someone else pulled or someone else killed.

      I haven’t seen any reason yet to start gushing about the dynamic event system, but I imagine that will actually be the future, and the point where the sandboxes and theme parks begin to blend. Areanet is talking thousands of events, each with branching possibilities leading to different results and going through multiple stages before eventually returning to a point in the cycle that a player might recognize from earlier, and that could be great if it’s done right. But I imagine in the future MMOs will have systems like that combined with dynamic mostly-solo leveling quests similar to the static kill ten rats quests that theme parks have popularized — these quests would not be specifically programmed in, but instead generated by a logarithm that picks an NPC, picks a problem from a list of millions, finds a nearby location where the right type of mob has moved in (as enemies would need to have dynamic, changing lives as well), then generates a quest without any direct developer input, gives it to the first player that asks for it, and never gives that quest to anyone else ever again. And couldn’t if it wanted to — after all, once you cleared the bandits out of that cave, the survivors moved on, and now it’s home to a protective mama bear with a few cubs, and some giant cave spiders have bred almost without check and taken over the lower levels.

      That’s probably beyond what current technology can do, at least in a reasonable price range, but I think its the future, so I definitely think Guild Wars 2 is making strides in the right dirrection, though it remains to be seen how far they are able to travel.

      • TERA is Asian fantasy. I don’t know much about it myself, but supposedly it has a really slick action-game combat system that’s “more God of War than WoW.”

        Guild Wars 2 is almost definitely going to be my game of choice.

      • Sooo…. you do realize that GW2 has no death penalty at all, and pretty much map-wide instant travel, right? And I’ve played it at PAX – dynamic kill-10-centaurs is still pretty much kill-10-centaurs.

        But on the original post, I have to disagree with your core premise. Players have certainly been given a choice in modern games. EVE had been out about a year, enough to get past its initial launch bugginess. Since then we’ve had more than a few games with harsh death penalties – Shadowbane, Darkfall, etc – which have all failed to get traction. EVE can certainly be called a success, but its actual player count (not the accounts, very different things) are pretty much unknown. They cliam 350-400K accounts, I think – if they have more than 100K players I’d be astonished.

        So I think players have been given the choice in side-by-side options – but even then, I think it’s really irrelevant. I could turn your entire premise around and say you only like harsh death penalties because you didn’t have broadband at the time – which doesn’t make much sense, does it? Well, it doesn’t the other way, either. I played UO for about two weeks, and it was one of the most miserable gaming experiences of my life. I may have a few fond corpse run memories from EQ, but I also remember not being able to log off late at night after an unfortunate death until I’d recovered. I also worked as a Guide for a time, and frequently dealt with the angst of a painful corpse loss.

        While you’re right about the timing and other improvements, you can’t simply ignore that there are plenty of people who did experience the same things you did, and simply don’t want it back.

      • If you can find where I stated that dynamic events are clearly better than static events, if you can point out where I said that meaningless death is always a bad thing, if you can show me where I said anything at all about instant travel, I’ll avoid putting you in the “I don’t actually read anything you write, I just make assumptions about why you write it and respond to those” column.

        Eve is great and all. But its UI and core game play do not have wide appeal. It cannot be said in any fashion to be a sandbox of equal production quality releasing parallel to a theme park. But despite all that, and despite whether Eve has 350k accounts all from a single player, it’s still alive and growing at a steady pace, suggesting there is indeed a market for sandboxes.

        Where did I say I prefer harsh death penalties? I never even played UO. You’re reading into my words and coming up with motivations other than what I have. You’re equating me with Syncaine, dismissing what I’ve written as coming from a dichotomy with Syncaine on one side and Syp on the other. But it’s not an either or. It’s not a dichotomy. It’s a scale that starts at black and goes through a whole goddamn rainbow of hues and shades before it ever arrives at white. I fall somewhere in the middle.

      • @Buhallin – Ref: accounts vs. subscriptions.
        But yet, the very same logic can, and should!, be easily applied to any online game: LoL, WoW… Shoot, I wish I could remember the study (one of Nick Yee’s perhaps?) that basically showed that in any given sub model, 1/4 to 1/3 of players weren’t ‘active’ but yet were paying. At least in EvE a paying sub gets you skill ups?
        Apply this to the genre 800lb gorilla, coupled with how subs in the East are tallied, the general knowledge that subs in the West have been declining since 2009-10, and I’d be surprised if they even had 2m subscribERs.
        The thing is, everyone is going to count their ‘numbers’ differently, but all are going to inflate.

      • @Ahtchu: It really is different in EVE. I just finished writing a very long explanation to Sauce over on Syp’s site, since he doesn’t understand EVE either. You can read it there, or just trust me: EVE is not the same. As to whether EVE shows there is a market for sandbox games… Meh. That’s a very big leap to make. Personally, having played EVE a great deal, I think it could just as likely show there’s a market for closet sociopaths looking for an outlet which won’t get them beat up in return, or sent to jail.

        @Sauce: I apologize if I read something into this that you didn’t mean. But it seems rather jarring to write a very long screed about how everyone has incorrectly written off things like harsh death penalties and then hanging your hopes on GW2. I’m looking forward to it too, but I don’t feel it’s risky to say that the same people ranting about how boring and uninnovative SWTOR is will be saying the same things once they get their hands on GW2.

        You are right about not having an appropriately polished sandbox to compare to… But you have a chicken-and-egg problem. As a general rule, investors don’t really look kindly on “Well, no, there’s not much real evidence for it, and it goes against everything the industry has been doing, but I’m sure that if you spend a hundred million dollars letting us build it, it’ll be a hit!” It’s all well and good to claim that there’s a market for it – and there is. Whether that market is big enough to support the dollars you want to invest, to provide an appropriate return… I’m not the one who has to be convinced. I can say I wouldn’t give you the money based on the argument you made here.

        In short: “silent majority” arguments may suffice for internet arguments among random bloggers, but nobody’s going to drop nine figures worth of development cash based on them.

      • If you had read Syp’s post and comments and actually absorbed what you read, you’d realize I didn’t choose those examples. He did. I just worked with what I was given.

        As for hanging my hopes on GW2, I specifically said I don’t think it’s the cure for cancer. I specifically said the execution of dynamic events is still a wait-and-see issue. Perhaps it’s not a risk to assume GW2 will be more of the same — but I didn’t say it wouldn’t be. I just pointed out that it’s the only one I’m the slightest bit interest in playing and the only one that seems to ask appropriate critical questions about MMO design “must-haves” such as the Trinity and anti-social leveling.

        I will be going to read your post about Eve. I’m sure I’ll laugh until I cry if you’ve concluded I don’t understand the game. Especially given that you think it’s just a market for “closet sociopaths”

      • I’d also like to add that I still see no reason to believe you’ve actually followed the link to the episode of Extra Credits I mentioned. And that this discussion about investors won’t really be all that productive until you do.

        This is not a silent majority argument. It’s two things: the inability of many consumers to imagine something other than what they know, and the inability of investors to accept what the designers (read as artists) actually understand about their audience. I’ve never claimed it was a majority, but then again, given how well single player sandbox games sell, that’s a possibility. And they are certainly not silent, that’s for sure.

        There are designers out there saying the same things. I’ve had some wonderful conversations with staff at Tiny Speck — they get exactly what I’m saying. And they have plenty of investors, investors that trust them enough not to pull funding after “unlaunching” the game, which takes some immense trust. And those investors get it: let the creative types do their thing because the creative types understand the audience. Tiny Speck created a light-hearted, no combat, goofy-as-hell virtual world with no “make it like those other games” static, and as a result, have actually produce something rather unique and frequently innovative. And they not only got people to play, they got more people to subscribe then what they told investors to consider a best-case scenario.

        Declaring what investors will or will not do may suffice for internet arguments among random bloggers, but apparently it doesn’t do much to convince the investors to conform to your expectations.

        And of course, investors have done just that, taken a risk on something unproven, a million times over, not only in gaming, but in every field and every industry that exists. The risk is greater, but so is the reward.

  2. I liken what is taking place in this industry to the scouts that European nations sent to observe and study the Russo-Japanese war: they came back with all the wrong causes for effects. End result: WWI took place, rather than be swift or not occur at all.
    Great post.

  3. To set the record straight, I am neither for nor against harsh death penalties or mild death penalties. I think the penalty needs to fit the game.

    If a game has snooze combat that only requires memorizing a rotation, perhaps I would encourage meaningful deaths, to at least give incentive to pay attention. But I think even hotbar combat can be better than it is now. I think it can be created to discourage the One True rotation approach, in such a way that requires everyone to react to conditions. Perhaps abilities can be triggered at any time but only have an effect if the enemy is using a certain type of attack. That’s a post for another time though.

    I truly don’t mind meaningless death as long as it is not accompanied by meaningless combat. And I’m not elite. I’ve never been a hardcore raider. I expect to lose more often than I win in PvP games.

    Though I’m a sandbox fan, I don’t think sandbox has to mean no content. I don’t think sandbox has to mean open PvP, and I don’t think sandbox has to mean holy shit this is so hard I’m quitting right now. I don’t even think challenge has to mean unforgiving and only for the Syncaines of the world.

    I think the industry can even create “challenge” that interests the bhagpusses of the world, whom I saw a post from on KIASA saying that any challenge, any need to pay attention, would drive him away. Of course, I don’t really think the majority of gamers putting money into MMOs are MMO hotbar combat exclusive gamers that have never even played Super Mario, so I think it would be silly to assume that any reason to pay attention would drive a way more than it would attract.

  4. @Buhallin
    Putting response here (comment inside of comment inside of.. gets hard to read).
    I recognize that EVE is different. I really do. I understand how beneficial it is to run multiple accounts, unlike nearly all of the other games in the genre where the gameplay is contained 100% inside of a single account (exceptions, exceptions FFXI etc). Since we are talking about numbers, I’m assuming this is the topic of discussion, not other matters pertaining to EVE.
    The takeaway remains. People inflate numbers. People substitute *near* synomyms and end up lying (subscriptions != subscribers). WoW, for all of its [current] “10m subscriptions” would be hard pressed to find “2m active subscribers”. Reasons aforementioned.
    F2P titles are the worst. An ‘open account’ is indicative of nothing whatsoever.

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