Category Archives: Game Design

What makes me happy in MMOs [#Blaugust 15]

Gracie has a topic up on ingame happiness for this rainy Blaugust Saturday (rainy for me anyway) and I decided to follow her example. On our blogs we often talk about our gripes with games or how MMOs have changed for the worse over time, yet clearly there must be things that still make us very happy or we wouldn’t be playing them.

I still feel that MMORPGs are the greatest genre there is. I didn’t expect too much of 2015 game-wise but in many ways, it was a much better year for MMOs than many of us anticipated. There were the GW2 and FFXIV expansions for one thing, Wildstar is going f2p any time now and introducing some new features and I’m also hearing good things about Project Gorgon from various bloggers. For now, I am rather content. As for the specific things that make me happy in MMOs, these are just the first ten that popped into my head:

  • Random kindnesses by strangers while soloing out in the field or running dungeons. Meeting players that will help you out when they don’t have to or go the extra mile just for you, without any notion of wasting their own time.
  • Laughs in guild chat and getting to know new people across the world with whom I can have so much in common.
  • Spotting the little things; fireflies roaming in dark corners when all other lights have gone out. The first sunrays creeping over the distant horizons. Windmills creaking.
  • Getting my character to a stage where I feel competent and look crazy good in my gear.
  • Unexpected NPC interactions that make the world come alive for a moment. Companion pets doing the wrong thing at the exact right moment.
  • Heavy rain soaking my clothes. My cloak fluttering in the wind.
  • The sound of snow under my boots as I cross a white snowy field. The way it sounds different from a cobblestone street or a wooden bridge.
  • My own little space, a room in a guild house or a fully decorated plot that is as unique as the next person’s.
  • Getting that mob down against all odds. Not giving up when all seems lost and somehow prevailing.
  • Idling in the city and seeing everyone around me starting to dance because somebody must have started.

There’s so many great things about MMOs: their scale, their simulation, their longevity, their interactivity and social aspects. Most of all however, my magical moments lie in the unexpected. That’s when the game seemingly transcends the boundaries of its script and I feel as if the world was truly unique and live, just for me. MMOs leave room for that sort of thing when most games do not – they leave room for many individual experiences influenced by countless random factors. So I guess you could say I am most happy in MMOs when the game actually stops feeling like a game.

WoW Legion: Content Patches over Expansions any Day! [#Blaugust 8]

In January 2007 millions of World of Warcraft players turned their gaze towards the Blasted Lands: after two years of living in vanilla Azeroth, the Dark Portal was about to open. After too many runs through Molten Core, Blackwing Lair and Ahn’quiraj, it was finally time for the Burning Crusade – also known as “back when WoW was cool”.

According to the timeline on WoW wiki, the wait time between a freshly launched installment and the announcement of the next one, consistently lies around 10 months on average (TBC being the freak) due to winter launches and Blizzcon happening in fall every year –

  • Vanilla WoW, November 2004; October 2005 TBC announcement
  • TBC launch, January 2007; August 2007 WotLK announcement
  • WotLK launch, November 2008; August 2009 Cataclysm announcement
  • Cataclysm launch, December 2010; October 2011 Pandaria announcement
  • Pandaria launch, September 2012; November 2013 WoD announcement
  • WoD launch, November 2014; August 2015 Legion announcement

The average lifespan of a WoW expansion is around 20 months. Only vanilla WoW and WotLK made the playerbase wait for longer than that. Looking back, I am shocked how soon into the glorious TBC Blizzard already announced WotLK.

Considering Blizzard have been running like clockwork for 10 years, my launch date speculation for Legion is September 2016. Given that they’re down to 5.6 subscribers as of now, I wonder what else they’ll come up with to span the second half of Draenor. Expansion hype or not, it won’t keep more and more players from unsubscribing until the next expansion is actually here. Poor guilds.

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Oh and I still don’t like expansions

In 2011 I wrote a lengthy rant (with very srs charts!) on why I dislike expansions in MMOs. While GW2 or FFXIV have made some progress on that front in the past few years, it seems no AAA-title can withstand them forever. WoW has always been notorious for its extreme play-cycles, with mad content rushes after a patch and profound pre-drop/-expansion malady that has players methodically unsubscribing. This vexed me a great deal as raider and guild organizer in the past, because it became increasingly difficult to keep a schedule going during the second half of an expansion.

“I want to feel part of the world I play in. I want to be included in a continuous and ever growing story. I want change happening all the time, not every 1-2 years in traumatic leaps. I want stable and lasting fun, not a curve that goes from player fatigue and long wait times to over-excitement, before tumbling back down into the valley of tears. I don’t want to regularly un-subscribe from the MMO I am playing because it’s delivering content in situational peaks.” (Syl)

Besides impacting negatively on social stability, WoW expansions have always had more negative side effects. They affected the game’s economy, rendered our gear and trophies obsolete (green is the new purple! even for legendaries) and deprecated a major part of the previous world and content. That last one is a particularly sore point for players like me.

One the other hand, regular and smaller content patches don’t exhaust their audience and don’t reset their status quo in the world over night. They don’t hit guilds with simultaneous player exodus over and over. And there’s also less pressure and therefore less potential disappointment riding on patches. Didn’t like a particular chapter or felt bored with it? Well, the next one isn’t far off!

So really, what can expansions do for MMOs that a patch cannot? Okay – there are a few things, in fact Spinks (who is dearly missed!) has written about the differences between expansions and patches five years ago on her blog. And I agree with her: expansions have a more fundamental power to reset/expand a world or introduce a new one. They’re a marketing tool for bringing players back and maybe recruiting a few new ones. The extra cash from selling copies and CEs might make up for 40% of your subscriber-base leaving several months before each time, I don’t know.

I can’t help but feel these apparent benefits aren’t what they seem at first glance; not if expansions basically act as a “correction” of your own business strategy. If they bring back players you lost along the way due to how you’re handling content in the game, that is not a very good argument pro expansions, even if it does the job in that case. As for continuously introducing new worlds and abandoning old ones, what does that say about the longevity and depth of your work?

The WoW expansion model is its own enemy. Blizzard can’t turn back and change their strategy of so many years and they’ve bred their very own audience since day one, so I understand that they’re stuck with it. However, their example doesn’t do a very good job advocating for expansions in MMOs and thus I remain as ever, respectfully on the other side of that fence. You could say I am not prepared. Again.

Irresistible, futile player housing (#Blaugust 3)

Last night I finally rid myself of a 300k gil in FFXIV to acquire a private chamber in our guild house on Cactuar, mostly out of curiosity to see how SE handled the housing feature. Five hours flew by in which I found myself in a familiar building and decoration frenzy until I was pretty much “done”, browsing web databases and the auction house included. Significantly lighter in the pocket change department, I had to ask myself: what’s it all for? It is the age old question of the MMO player and the future still hasn’t arrived.

Welcome to the cosy SPA!

Welcome to the cosy SPA!

Maybe we’re asking for too much when we demand meaningful housing from MMORPGs. Building and housing simulations are an entire genre of their own and one need only look at Landmark, Minecraft or the Sims to understand the required freedom and complexity to make this activity, even as an end in itself, appeal to players longterm. The issue with building and decorating your house in an MMO is simply that “it ends” without further use or consequence but MMOs aren’t designed toward the finite. Once that item limit is reached on your plot, and FFXIV sports an underwhelming 50 items maximum, there’s only so much re-decoration you’ll be willing to do (or afford). At most, you’ll be adding the odd achievement trophy further down the line, yet the question about more meaningful and consequential player housing remains. May be that the two genres really aren’t a great fit, may be that nobody’s interested enough to allocate more resources towards figuring it out.

For what its worth, I had immense fun with my room in FFXIV while it lasted and SE’s housing isn’t even that great. Dealing with their fussy and limited tools, I missed my huge Wildstar plot with a sudden, overwhelming acuteness. And yet, as self-serving and ultimately futile as this whole activity was towards my further journey in FFXIV (if we are even allowed to question the futility of any actions in MMOs), it was engaging and made me learn a few more things about the world I hadn’t realized earlier. It was 5 hours well spent because I enjoyed it – I just wish there was a bit more to it than immediate and short-lived solo gratification.

Time vs. Money in MMOs and Arbitrary Lines in the Sand

Omg I am doing it again. Stahp m….too late!

Two bloggers against whom I harbor no particular ill will, which helps when ordering and formulating thoughts, are going at it: Eri is very angry at the free-to-play model, in regards to a specific, exploitative subset of games. Tobold argues that free-to-play games aren’t in fact funded by masses of poor and gullible people, again by example of a specific subset of games (which gets another reply from Eri). They’d probably really agree on many basic principles, if they were actually talking about the same thing; there are some pretty awful mobile games out there right now and some MMOs do f2p worse than others. On the other hand, it’s probable that in games like LOTRO or Allods, dedicated longtime players spend more money overall than short visitors, especially when the shops offer power-ups for alts and endgame-relevant items. Not all F2P is created equal.

Meanwhile in comments and elsewhere, the discussion has gone completely off the rocker once players start defending their love/hate for payment models by (ab-)using the old worrysome “addiction”-card. The issue aside that we cannot exactly equate lockboxes or micro-transactions in games with casino-like gambling since psychologically this is a simplification with certain problems, I am really quite vexed that something as complex as addiction gets pulled into payment model arguments by...players . There’s already a degree of compulsive behavior being facilitated by basic, everyday MMO design without qualifying as addiction. Addiction doesn’t “just happen” because of game- or payment model design, any more than depression happens because you watched too many sad movies. Addiction to games or gambling (or anything else) shows when other risk factors (such as distraction or withdrawal coping mechanisms) are already at play – which yes, makes many activities potential escalators.

There’s a way of making statements pro/against payment models for games without dragging in the flawed narrative of those who hate online gaming in the first place –

What I would appreciate and that’s a general statement, is that players stopped drawing that arbitrary line of ‘money spent’ being worse than too much time spent on MMOs. It absolutely isn’t true – losing grip on online gaming can have the same devastating effects (and happens a lot more often I’d wager) than erm, going broke. I don’t know anyone that went broke but I do know people perpetuating an unhealthy state of mind through escapism (I also know the opposite), to a point where it ruins their social and professional lives. That’s why the whole ‘dangerous addiction’ argument within anti-f2p arguments is so disingenuous. Let’s just agree right now that to a person that is already at risk, and only then, an awful lot of things can be harmful – lest we not start sounding like those who blanket condemn all online gaming because of its dangerous social hooks and manipulative progression-based content. (In reply to Azuriel elsewhere)

So much for that. Tangentially, my own brother is the one anecdotal example I can think of in terms of financial debt because of his Ultima Online addiction 17 years ago, amassing phone bills in the thousands of Euros for my parents in that early age of dial-up modems. UO didn’t have lockboxes any more than WoW does and yet, these MMOs are fully capable of serving good or bad, depending on a person’s situation.

In conclusion, once more

It’s important to be a vigilant consumer and be critical of what you’re served. It’s equally important not to turn a blind eye to what’s already there just because you’re more familiar with it. F2P games can be insidious cash-cows; F2P games can also allow someone with a small budget to participate in social gaming activities. Subscriptions can be a great, straightforward deal for regular players; subscriptions are also known to create a sense of “obligation” that some players actively avoid because it ain’t good for them personally.

But then, I have this feeling all along that our good old (and young) blogosphere is mostly in agreement on these matters, once all that righteous rage is spent anyway.

Returning to WoW: Everything is the same, everything is different

It is a mixed bag of feelings going back to an MMO you convinced yourself never to return to for lack of better judgement. An MMO you once called home and then were absent from for three years, maybe looking for closure. When I played WoW between 2004 and 2010, I did like so many of us in our mid-twenties, with passion and zeal and an exclusive all-or-nothing attitude. All or nothing, that also means quitting when you feel things ain’t going your way any longer.

Warlords of Draenor is nothing I had planned on; that too was a mixed bag of spontaneous curiosity, lack of content in new MMOs like Wildstar and winter is coming. And I made it very clear to myself: This time around, it will be about me taking my time re-discovering Azeroth in peace. I will sub for one month and find out if I still like this, no pressure. I will enjoy running around incognito after all this time, minding my own business.

Or something.

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Where do I go from here?

Everything is the same
WoD was off to a rocky start with DDoS attacks and massive server queues (how very vanilla!) making it impossible for many players to log in during the first week. After I spent launch day re-installing the game, it took another day before I managed briefly to log in for the first time in three years, finding my character standing in front of the Dark Portal, lagging horribly. After ten seconds of being unable to move like this, I got my first whisper from a very old guild mate from vanilla WoW: “SYL!”.

I disconnected right away. My game wasn’t stable and I really didn’t expect to be discovered so early into my return. But this is how it’s always been on my server – those who have been on Stormrage since 2004, the early guilds and raiders, they remember each other. And so many have come back for Draenor, it is bewildering. My friendlist shows names online I had never expected to read again. Already I find myself guilded once more in the very same raidguild I helped build in vanilla WoW, with almost its entire core and founding team back. A decade later it’s as if no time had passed at all. Sure, everyone’s gotten a bit older, some are married now and some have kids or better jobs. Everyone definitely agrees they won’t be raiding ever again but there’s much else to be enjoyed nowadays.

The player base has aged and so have Blizzard with them. Yet, on the surface everything about WoW feels and looks exactly as before. I spent my first week in Draenor getting used to and then charmed by the beauty of its dated graphics (especially in the old world) and cringing over its messy, gargantuan UI that has been so aptly compared to the old “Weasley’s house” in a conversation between Rowanblaze and Belghast. After I discovered void storage in combination with transmogging, I wasted another day on costumes until I finally felt prepared to see the world, which is why I ran straight into Elwynn Forest, love of my life. To my delight, it was not deserted and not any of the old zones I went to visit from there were either – Duskwood, Redridge, Burning Steppes, everywhere I went I saw players. After 10 years, there is still life in these old zones, I have no idea how that works.

As is tradition, I went to pay Ragnaros and Illidan my respects and announced my coming. They still dropped hunter loot mostly, so nothing has changed in that respect either. Even on the auction house, the same items that used to be expensive in vanilla are still on top of the list today (who would buy a Burning Brightwood Staff today is beyond me but I still want that blasted Greenwing Macaw!). So far, so familiar.

WoWScrnShot_112214_230719

Draenor is beautiful.

Everything is different
In their mushy Looking for Group documentary from this Blizzcon 2014, which has played no small part in bringing more WoW veterans back to Draenor, Chris Metzen talks about how WoW really has always been about two entities – the world and the player, and he couldn’t be more correct. The successes of this MMO are as much thanks to developers trusting their instincts as to a very passionate and creative player base that has an undying love for Azeroth. This huge and rich canvas of a world with its plethora of maps and music has been such a welcoming and ever more accessible home to players of every color and creed for years.

All the while, Blizzard have continued to re-invent themselves and I believe this is the secret of WoW’s long lasting success. With every expansion, they pushed further to offer something new to more people without dismissing the hard core entirely. Comparing WoD today to when I left three years ago, I can confirm that WoW is a changed game in so many ways, trying to keep up with increased standards, never daring to rest on its laurels. This is apparent in today’s casual and solo-friendly approach to grouping, dungeons and raids for one thing, with flexraids and bronze, silver and gold heroics. It’s the democratic spread of loot and gear models, combined with all the tier look-alikes available. It’s adding small stuff like treasure hunting similar (but more involved) to Rift, jumping puzzles like in GW2, pet battles à la Pokémon and a pseudo-housing system with private nodes, the way Wildstar has them (only in WoW, the Garrison is actually a lot more useful). The talent system has been simplified to match modern MMOs with more minimal action bars and while quests and loot aren’t FFA, important quest mobs are shared nowadays.

All of these changes and additions make WoW not just one of the most approachable MMOs today but the richest in terms of content diversity. Draenor is the pinnacle of that philosophy: jump in right away as a level 90 character, learn basic skills and talents from scratch by playing through the intro scenario (which for once ain’t in a cave!). Get some money and bags to start with and oh, we also boosted your professions so you can join for all these new quests! As for the Garrison, it might be the first example of useful ‘player housing’ with meaningful choices in over a decade.

The genius of Blizzard
In a competitive industry as this, Blizzard’s achievements are really twofold:

  1. Making a niche genre more accessible and creating their own faithful player base in the process.
  2. Continuously re-inventing themselves rather than resting on the laurels of vanilla WoW.

Some will say this is the mark of smart decision making and market observation over at Blizzard. However and without denying the aforementioned, another more simple answer also lies in the Looking for Group documentary where an aging core of lead designers and developers is still creating for a game “they themselves would like to play”, more casually now than in their late twenties. More mature too, giving more thoughts to their diverse target audience than before. It’s not just the players in WoW that have grown older.

WoWScrnShot_113014_164837

And so it’s the greatest irony of all that, while so many MMO developers raced to emulate what was essentially vanilla WoW’s successes, Blizzard themselves moved on and branched out, leaving their past to others. According to the latest news WoW is back to 10 million subscribers, something that is difficult to swallow when new and shiny titles like Wildstar are struggling to maintain an audience. But who is to compete with a ten-year old AAA-fantasy themed MMO this rich and loaded on diverse content? Comparing other titles to WoW is never fair.

To be continued
As for me and Draenor, two weeks in I admit that I am charmed once more by the world of Warcraft – more patiently this time, more laidback and happy to smell the roses on the way. There is so much to do and learn for me after three years and I am not rushed to get anywhere with anyone. Most of all, this explorer is enjoying the vistas of Draenor (and there are so many beautiful ones nowadays) and a soundtrack so reminiscent of our vanilla days. Yes, for now I believe I do like this again and that is all that matters.

QOTD: Completionism, No Thanks!

I am blessed as a player of MMOs in that I have not one tiny jot of the Completionist gene. If I’m not enjoying something I can easily stop, leave and never come back. I don’t feel any nagging pressure to finish anything in a video game. If it isn’t entertaining me it can go die in a ditch. [Bhagpuss]

I want to say amen to a sentiment expressed by Bhagpuss yesterday about his relationship with completionism in MMOs. As a fellow explorer and potterer, I have given up such past ambitions after realizing three things about my own completionism-monster back in vanilla WoW:

  • the (rat-) race never ends
  • it’s not actually enjoyable (duh)
  • this is not what I’m here for

I am not much into progressive content nowadays and yet, I am a fairly progression-minded player in the sense that repetitive tasks with foreseeable outcome bore me a great deal. There is a degree of repetition to all the games we’re playing but completionism in today’s MMOs is often defined by collectivism for collectivism’s sake (lots and lots of achievements of no further consequence) and the type of grind that solely exists as timesink and where the balance between journey and reward is broken. There’s no purpose or meaning in 100 of the same daily quests, no challenge and satisfaction in performing the same motions over and over in so many similar bossfights. The underlying narrative to many of our activities has become strangely reductive (as in stripped of all decorum) and circular:

Why do you farm 100 tokens? – To gain an achievement.
What does the achievement say? – That I should farm 100 tokens.

But this is not the time to get back into it all: the different playstyles and player focuses, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators, longterm vs. instant gratification, journey vs. reward, themeparks vs. sandbox worlds, the value of randomness, meaningful choices, incentives of cooperative vs. solo content and so many more topics that I’ve written articles about over the years. Instead, I am leaving you with three links, old and new, that discuss this subject in different ways:

  • On MMO Gypsy: Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

    About the ways questing and exploration have changed in MMOs over the years, why more and more rewards cannot make up for journey and how dominant achievements/achiever mindset have contributed to the current status quo.

  • Tevis Thompson’s Blog: We are Explorers

    The inspiring article for my own post and possibly the greatest and most important read on the subject of mystery and exploration in games I have ever read. Deals with the subject of how the illusion of scale and immersion in virtuality are juxtaposed to completionist mindset.

  • Recently on Eurogamer.net: The man who made a game to change the world

    About Richard Bartle’s dream of virtual worlds as a safe haven, MUDs/MMOs changing society and the ways current games have failed to live up to that potential (thanks Spinks for the link via twitter!).

The true traveler doesn’t know where he’s going. Happy exploring!

[Wildstar] Unforseen Questing Highlights

In her recent blogpost on questing, Jewel (by the way now co-host of brand new MMO/gaming podcast Podtato together with Izlain!), ponders the way MMO questing has changed and developed over time, from a more forced group-centric activity to an either instanced or collective experience for soloers. It’s evident that our questing and leveling game has become a more solo-friendly affair in recent years, sometimes to the detriment of social dynamics. On the other hand, Bhagpuss speaks level-headed truth in his related comment on soloability being a popular request of many gamers ever since the dawn of the genre –

[…]Consequently we have a powerful received wisdom, promulgated by a very particular interest-group, that states that the be-all and end-all of Massively Multiple Roleplaying Games is social interaction and the true worth of those games is the friendships they foster. I don’t buy that. It doesn’t match my experience and I don’t believe it jibes with the way we’ve seen the genre develop over the last 15 or 20 years.

If solo-play is a playstyle, then soloability furthers playstyle variety and a more inclusive community from there (which of course you can totally not care for). One reason why WoW made it this big was because it embraced a much wider audience than its oldschool, hardcore predecessors. That’s right, the vanilla kids were mocked by vocal then-MMO veterans for being dirty casuals. With my 16hrs per week (net) raiding schedule, I was among the mocked which is all the more ironic seen from 2014.

It doesn’t matter what side you’re on and I certainly concur with the notion that a degree of hardship and purpose in games create cooperation by pushing our primal human buttons (for reference) – however, there are several ways to further group play in MMOs. I will always hold a torch for GW2 not trying to incentivize grouping via setup restrictions or tiresome, traditional grouping formulas. The game tore mental walls down for me when it first came out, walls that can never be reconstructed.

Incentivizing grouping is therefore a most interesting topic and preferably, developers will go for a bonus-approach rather than a malus one. This is what Wildstar is doing right now and I dare say to pretty positive effect: not only is grouping a must to gain coveted guild renown currency (few housing challenges aside that will let you collect very little renown at a time), it is a considerable boost to your experience gain while leveling. There is a clear advantage to coop play in Wildstar without crippling the casual solo player.

puzzledsyl

You have many questions!

That brings me to another point about Wildstar’s questing game that is quite enjoyable. Yes, I’m managing to have fun while leveling up despite a very straightforward, traditional approach to questing! What ever is the meaning of this?

Wildstar’s questing highlights

Even the most fervent Wildstar advocates will probably agree that questing overall is one of this new MMO’s biggest shortcomings (besides the pretty abysmal UI and menu functionalities). There is not much in terms of innovative mechanics – there’s your standard fedex and kill quests with way too many markers, your escort and timed challenges as well as the odd special mission in which you control vehicles or get to memorize a sequence of XY (for the TBC players: Ogri’la bombing quests and Simon Says are back!). So far, so blah.

But…

If you are opting for WoW-type questing in 2014, then at least do it right! To me, traditional questing is all about the pacing and fine touches; there is potential here for designers who can keep a steady and rewarding progression going, with an engaging storyline leading from place to place in comprehensive manner and some refreshing humor peppered across. Now, Wildstar is 50% tedious kill quests, it ain’t no lie – yet, there’s also great pacing and lots of variety for everything else.

I can live with slaying another twenty Snoglugs if my EXP bar shows satisfying progress or if there’s a serious chance for shinies or some unexpected encounter, which brings me to the important point: there are some increasingly enjoyable and epic moments with a fresh spin in Wildstar’s leveling curriculum! This game is full of surprises and good laughs, so this is where I’d like to give you just two examples (spoiler warning: if you’re sensitive to quest spoilers up to level 35ish, you should probably stop reading now):

Whitevale: The Odd Squirg Hat!
At some point on your journey through the beautiful snowy lands of Whitevale, you will encounter the Squirg, weird alien race of squid-heads having Cthulhu written all over them. The Squirg questline includes a variety of activities from running over them in hovercrafts, to impersonating one and finally attempting to throw squid hats on enemy faction players (for PvP realms) or NPCs. This marks the conclusion of a pretty insane run, rewarding the player with the Odd Squirg Hat item that doesn’t only cover half a Chua’s body but…speaks to the player in literal possession! I don’t know about you – but small stuff like that goes a long way with this here MMO player.

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lol!

Farside: Low gravity high!
Having left Whitevale with some fuzzy feels (two words: lopp weddings!), the next map of Farside has quickly become one of my favorite MMO zones of all time as far as gameplay and atmosphere go. That’s quite the accolade so early into the game but no less deserved. As if the whole spacesuit and moon gravity simulation-thing (yay for moon jumps!) wasn’t enough, there are meteorites showering the landscape as you travel along until at some point sooner or later, your screen will go black with a message prompt, asking you to save the moon from impending disaster. Off you go, thrown into a chance scenario with random players running a drill into a huge meteor (and killing a mini-boss), so the good NPCs of Farside can enjoy another moon day. Of course there are goodies for the winning team!

Later on, as you explore the north-eastern parts of Farside, you discover Ravenous Ravine which is where the fun really starts. Pitch black part of the map, you will navigate by the light of your torchlight, fending off some of the spookiest deep sea-style creatures in the game thus far. The analogy of low gravity vs. underwater isn’t just fitting and smart, it is by far one of the most atmospheric places I’ve traversed in any MMO. So simple, such a small thing and yet to such great effect. More of that, please?

ravine

Did you just touch me??

And there’s more, a lot more in Farside until you’ve lost your mind completely in one big acid trip with rainbows and vending machines attacking you, while your still-sane party members can’t see the mobs you’re fighting.

…I don’t know about you but to me, these are traditional quests worth having. My next 15 levels in Wildstar have a lot to live up to all of a sudden – fingers crossed!

No purpose, no nothing

No purpose, no nothing – that short but poignant conclusion to so many things, coming to me once more while writing Monday’s post and then Kadomi said it again, literally, in the comments:

I don’t enjoy not having a purpose. What good is all that freedom if it leaves me feeling empty after a while?

“Who may be allowed to linger that is fulfilled by purpose?” I’ve asked that before, in slightly different context but no less relevant to this cause. A purpose is an end (hence the double meaning) and in many ways, endings bring a certain degree of linearity or at least progression to life real and virtual. Yet, purpose is also what fulfills that life lest in not be literally point-less. There is a cosmic balance here, a trade-off and even our favorite genre in video games, MMORPGs must struggle for it – that balance between the sandbox and themepark, between too much freedom and too little, too much endgame and not enough satisfaction.

pol02

To what end?

No purpose equals nothing, in virtual worlds too.

No purpose, no point for guilds.

No purpose, no point for housing.

No purpose, no point for gear.

Take GW2’s gear grind – so futile, so unfulfilling because it is not required, does not prepare you for any kind of endgame that exists. And what is endgame, by now such an unpopular term, but not a purpose or “life after”? Take LOTRO’s homesteads – beautiful but empty, forever instanced away from the world of men, not serving any purpose really. Take any other MMO you can think of that allows you to solo self-sufficiently, obtain everything on your own and then wonder why people don’t play in guilds. Having co-founded two lasting, successful raidguilds in WoW, I am very pragmatic: guilds are common ventures first, uniting people with the same purpose for that purpose. More often than not, that purpose is what keeps the best guilds alive. So what?

I made some wonderful friendships in MMOs founded on a common goal; common goals glue people together. Maybe they are the only thing that truly does. Common goals on the horizon add purpose to our stride, infuse our dreams, inspire our achievements social or otherwise.

To clarify, that’s not to say that there’s no such thing as individual purpose defined on an individual level in every game and for virtually anything (even jumping puzzles! eww) – there absolutely is and it matters too. However, in isolation this doesn’t tend to create the same value on a cooperative level and not the same longterm appeal, either. Not in my experience anyway.

Give me purpose, give me endings

No purpose -> no point -> no end -> no meaning. If things can only have meaning if they also end, let’s have ends and lots of them. Let’s have many purposes.

MMOs and not just Landmark, need a ‘hard’ purpose for the features they implement. It sounds simple and yet it’s a glaring oversight in so many games, yes sandboxes and themeparks alike, and it always backfires in the mid- and longterm and affects the community most strongly.

Oh sure, a game’s early flame burns brightly like a bonfire in the night and by all means, warm yourself at that fire. Enjoy it while it lasts. In the long run however, you’ll want some meat on the bone to roast on that fire and sustain you. In the long run, you will need that.

Off the Chest – Landmark Edition: Shelving Landmark, Wanna-be Devs and my Trouble with Votes

otc

Having enjoyed Landmark’s closed beta for several weeks now, I am putting the game on hold for the time being. I am in fact not even sure I’ll bother with claim upkeep until launch. This by no means comes as a shock: I’ve predicted and talked about building fatigue in sandbox games in the past and I’ve been through the same stages of declining enthusiasm with Minecraft. Landmark has some powerful building tools and beats Mojang’s giant in every cosmetic respect, which is great, but for now the game isn’t offering any content besides building or the more recent tool grind introduced in last week’s patch. Since I see no reason whatsoever to painstakingly upgrade tools or crafting stations for no better reason than because I can, nor wish to build anything else for now, that’s it for me and Landmark until SOE implement social features.

newforge

The new, ugly tech forge.

The game isn’t very enjoyable right now when it comes to social interaction; I’m not sure what the alpha players were gushing about because ingame community to me is not people posting fancy pictures on forums or re-tweeting them on twitter (which I do too). Don’t get me wrong, player organized swap meets and building contests are nice and so are SOE’s regular dev streams where they interact with fans – it just doesn’t make the actual game any more social than it is and it doesn’t make your neighborhood any less dead. The majority of any MMO’s playerbase are not on message boards or twitch and the server landscape ain’t lying: no matter what island you jump on, the place feels pretty empty and themes are all over the place. (Yeah, I know they said theme servers are coming.)

Landmark needs a purpose for all the housing, needs trade, quests, guilds and cooperative content if it’s meant to last down the road. Unlike Minecraft it won’t have the myriads of differently themed, self-hosted server modes nor the leagues of addons that have given that game such longevity. Landmark is a restricted sandbox and while most of the social features I mentioned are announced in the blueprint, I am not convinced it’s ever going to be more than “building with your guild (maybe) and a few quests and achievements”. From that point of view, I worry about its self-proclaimed endgame-free future the way anyone should who has watched GW2’s identity crisis. But hey, Landmark really is beautiful and atmospheric and if EQN becomes all the better for it, you’ll hear no complaints from me. More power to die-hard builders, may you stick with the game for years!

On wanna-be devs and rabid fanbases

After some brief brushes with Landmark’s official forums, it strikes me how rabid a yes-(wo)men community the game has inspired, as far as vocal minorities go anyway. Every half-reasonable topic on game design or even innocent list of personal preferences / wishes for the future, is getting derailed by righteous defenders of the blueprint. Clearly labeled player <suggestions> are often shot down because someone has learned each and every single line by heart ever uttered by Dave Georgeson (clearly not his fault, he’s awesome). I have already experienced some of that defensiveness myself on twitter and as a design-oriented, critical blogger, it’s not something I am used to. This is not my type of community and frankly, if you’re already in aggro-mode during alphas and betas, maybe you shouldn’t be a play-tester. MMOs change all the time.

I’ve wondered a little about this particular hype for peaceful building-MMO Landmark and have come up with a few possible explanations:
a) The Landmark community consists of a very broad demographic with very different interests (builders only, PVErs, PVPers) many of which may not be overly familiar with level-headed design debates. Richt now, everyone thinks the game is just for them.
b) Publishing blueprints way in advance and telling your playerbase that they’re your co-developers isn’t good for people’s egos and for keeping an open mind towards deviant player suggestions.
c) Games with a strong focus on individual “claims” make everyone more entitled and aggressive than usual.
d) I clearly need to stop bothering with anything public forum.
e) Also: EQ/SOE-evangelism.

If you have any other theories to add, I’d love to hear them!

The trouble with voting systems

My Inn of the Last Home has received a bit of love since the global voting system was introduced last week, via the ingame gallery feature. For those unfamiliar with this recent addition: players can now showcase and tag their claim with one screenshot in a global database that others can view and instantly up-vote (without having to visit). The new tool is wonderful insofar as it easily allows you to discover other claims and themes on any island and seek them out because coordinates. Yet, the voting system in particular has left me unfulfilled just the way it always does on webpages, blogs and elsewhere.

What is a vote on content? It doesn’t tell you whether the content was examined/read fully, why it was voted on or by whom. It’s impersonal numbers with no way to interpret or to create social interaction. Give me one personal blog comment I can reply to over 100 up-votes any day of the week.

lmvoters

Thanks (but I really wish I knew who you were!)

For social games, the feature strikes me as even less suitable. Sure, I absolutely get the wish to highlight great claims and make them more accessible for everybody. At the same time, it makes being discovered for newcomers a lot harder once you have 50 or more “top claims” that everyone will seek out before bothering with the lower ladders. And claims receive votes for all kinds of reasons: wonderful castles of 100 hours of work will be awarded the same or less votes than chaotic swap meets somebody put up for the community to contribute to. That’s a problem, as well as going by a single screenshot for multi-claims is. Votes don’t differentiate.

For me personally, it simply takes the fun away not knowing who visited the Inn or if they even did. So really – here’s my suggestion on what to implement instead, SOE: a guestbook. Give visitors / voters of claims the option to fill in a guestbook on site where they can leave a notice and name, so creators actually feel like there’s real people out there enjoying their work. That would be quite awesome (just a suggestion, don’t shoot!).

What the players want – who can say?

In a recent comment over here, blogosphere buddy Bhagpuss made an unsuspecting remark which at its core is a most familiar sentiment to all longterm MMO players, I’m sure:

[…]But that’s just what GW2 has become and, as people are prone to say, it is what it is. It could have grown into something very much more but apparently that’s not what the majority of players wanted so there you go.

I am going to blatantly take this quote out of its specific context and write a longer, more generalized post about it (sorry Bhag!).

What’s what the players want?

“What the players wanted” and any variation thereof is a commonly used phrase and reaction to MMO design, more often MMO design changes, that vexes me on a personal level. And oh, I have done it myself: how many times did I not do the “now reap what you sowed! (and I hope you suffocate on it)” fist-shake in gloomy retrospective whenever WoW changed for the worse over the years since 2004, in my very personal opinion? In a less considerate moment I’d love to blame all of you out there who are still playing for the state of the game. You ruined WoW for me or something.

But let’s get back to more rational debate. Every time MMOs change/evolve design direction the way so many have, the way GW2 has done from a non-commital “grind-and endgame-free” vision to what it is today, are we really in the position to say that it’s what the players wanted? If so, how do we know? More importantly, where would developers get such corroborated information?

(*)Not once in my 12 years-and-ongoing MMO career did I ever receive a developer letter asking me what I wanted. Not once did I receive a legit, official request or poll along the lines of “Dear Syl, please vote now if you would like to see achievements introduced to our game” or “…please let us know if you’re happy about another +5 level-cap increase with more gear grind at its end”. That would be spelling it out of course (and not a bad thing either).

Not once did anything remotely similar happen to me. And unless there is a secret society of select MMO players out there that receive these kind of emails when I’m not, other players don’t either. So, where and how exactly does the playerbase actively get to decide over an existing game’s direction? Surely not on chaotic message boards that no CM can effectively interpret and where it’s only ever the loudest voices that get noticed. Everyone should have figured that out by now.

DustSpeck

So maybe it’s the silent majority? Only, how does one speak on behalf of a silent group of people? Are they just “everyone else that is not on forums and twitter” that you therefore get to refer to easily for any given purpose since hey, it’s not like they’re saying anything to oppose you? Are we a homogenous mass of people just because we don’t scream and shout?

For me, it doesn’t work that way. It won’t do to retrospectively declare that things are the way they are because they went along with it. There’s a big difference here for me to actively shaping a process. To clarify: I’m not saying that developers should be telepathic and my main point is not to blame any particular group in the gaming industry for this situation (although clearly someone is to blame) – but you don’t get to tell me it’s what I wanted when it clearly wasn’t what I wanted and I never told you that it was.

Voting with your wallet blah

Here’s another catch-phrase I’ve come to dislike over the last few years: just vote with your wallet. The reason for my dislike is the simple truth of it and yet, it falls so horribly short in taking reality into account. I’m a part of a collective whose power is only as big or small as that same collective. I am also an enthusiast in a changing industry and on a wider scope, a human being in a constantly changing world. I’m not generally opposed to change; I’m constantly trying to evaluate which changes to embrace and which not to. Do I pay for an alpha? A beta? A collector’s edition? Do I pre-order? Kickstart? My head hurts.

I did vote with my wallet and unsubscribed from WoW at the end of WotLK, after a 6 years run of raiding madness. It has clearly made no impact whatsoever. If anything, Blizzard has become even less of a company I like to endorse than I did back then. But hey, I have the grim satisfaction of voting with my wallet, right? At least I don’t appear to be agreeing with this product anymore.

Whatever the silent player is supposed to do, I can’t seem to win. That’s why I object so strongly to the sentiment of absolute player/customer responsibility. As far as game design and development goes, the powers at work are way more complex and obscure than what any of us could influence. As much as players love to think they’re shaping games and as much as we love to blame others for when things turn badly, the much more likely scenario is that somewhere in an office, someone in a fancy suit with too many spreadsheets has figured out exactly which design directions to push in order to maximize monetization or subs or co-dependence. Sure, every once in a while a developer will ask us directly what we’d like on some social media platform, usually years or at least months before launch because that’s a good time to crowd-source and get cosy with fans. But videogame design is not a democracy, first and foremost it’s business and sneaky psychology.

wallet

BLAH

And players tend to go along with stuff. There may be some fluctuation but overall we are a flexible bunch when it comes to franchises we’ve come to love or where we’ve simply invested so much time already that it’s hard to leave behind the trophies and fancy dresses. Design directions don’t change over night either; they trickle down ever so slowly until we’ve all but forgotten where we came from and one small change at a time seems as harmless as the last one. That’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s a way of doing business and shaping your audience to fit your product.

In summary to this conundrum I will say this: I never wanted achievements in WoW, the cross-sever dungeons or flying mounts. And I certainly never ever asked for an achievement tab greeting me at the login screen of GW2 – game of too many back items and weapon skins. I didn’t ask for that, more importantly didn’t vote on that. Maybe others did consciously and some unconsciously and I could blame that second group’s lack of action but it tires me to do so. As long as nobody is sending each and every one of their paying customers an official, transparent and individual request to vote on a game’s direction, I am sure as hell not going to take responsibility (or credit) for the way that MMOs are changing and neither should anyone else. Sorry developers but that one’s still on you!

(*) Clarification: I’m not saying I want these kinds of democratic player votes on game design; I don’t for various reasons. What I’m saying is since I am clearly not in a democracy here, you don’t get to share responsibility or retrospective blame with me democratically, either (let alone putting it all on players).