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Capability versus Opportunity May 12, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online, MMO Design.
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17 comments

Last week I wrote a battle report of sorts… I think of it more as just what I saw on any given outing, but I guess that is sort of the same thing… about a fleet op where I was out there in the tackling role, something I had never actually done before despite having played EVE Online for more than seven years at this point.

Guns blazing

I did have the ship ready though

(That Rifter was the same one I loaned Potshot back in September.)

The post included a bit about a player on a one day old account, Jelly Knight.  I could have chosen pilot Robert Crend, another one day old account that was out there tackling with us as well, but Jelly Knight was speaking on coms a lot more and so was part of the atmosphere of the fleet.  I always try to include bits of atmosphere in my posts about fleet ops, as they can be very much a part of the flavor of such ops and anybody who was along on coms will probably say, “Oh yeah, I remember that!” upon reading the post later.

I also included him both to juxtapose a new player with only a few skill points and an veteran player with more than 120 million skill points being in the same role in a fleet and to point out the oft stated claim that a new pilot can be useful in fleets on their first day.  Day one players have that CAPABILITY.

SynCaine, Zubon, and then Rohan took up that point, the idea of new players being able to participate in what might be termed “end game” activities… or at least to get into the game and be effective beside their more experienced peers, something that EVE Online has going for it.

Mabrick, on the other hand, seemed to take offense at the idea and accused SynCaine and I of arguing an anecdotal fallacy.  Technically, my post wasn’t arguing anything, it was an observation on a fleet action, but SynCaine was using my post as an example of how new players can get deep into the game quickly, so somebody was building up an argument about CAPABILITY.

Mabrick though appeared to be upset because not every new player in EVE Online has the OPPORTUNITY to go out on a fleet op, sit on a titan, and tackle some hostiles on their first day.  Plus there is a good dose of “Grr Goons,” because they require an initiation fee which no new player could ever afford to join their alliance. (They do not actually require such.  In fact, their recruiting page says if you paid such a fee, you got scammed.  They only take members of the Something Awful community.  But that makes them elitists, and we return safely to “Grr Goons” again.)  So SynCaine and I were effectively painted as spreading lies.

I find that response hilariously poorly aimed.

What Mabrick should be mad about is that there are so few opportunities for new players to get so involved in the game.  Rather than the knee-jerk “Grr Goons” reaction, which is essentially getting mad at one of the few groups in the game that actually provides OPPORTUNITY for new players to use their CAPABILITY, he ought to be asking why there are not more groups out there helping new players… the life blood of any MMO… get invested in the game.  Why aren’t there more organizations like Brave Newbies or EVE University or even Red versus Blue?

Because EVE Online has a problem in that regard.  Jester has a post up about the New Player Experience panel from EVE Fanfest this year, and it does not paint a happy picture when it comes to the aforementioned new player life’s blood.  Look at this chart, which Jester took from the presentation and which I, in turn, stole from him.

New Player Trajectory

New Player Trajectory

That chart shows where players who get past the free trial and actually subscribe for at least a month end up.  Leaving aside the “I wonder how many people start with the trial and don’t even get that far?” question, half the players that opt-in for the game drop out during their first subscription cycle.  40% of those go off to solo/mission oriented, which is what the tutorial has always taught you to do.  There is a reason I have high standings with Caldari and Amarr.  When I wandered into the game, I just kept doing what the game told me to do.  And while that is a perfectly legitimate course to take, I ended up getting tired of it.  There are only so many missions, and a lot of them add up to “don’t die while you shoot the thing.”

Now, I ended up dragging friends into the game.  I ran missions with them.  I started mining and manufacturing and playing with the market.  Then one of the friends I got into the game ended up in a null sec corp and pulled me out there with him and I started doing that.  I wasn’t unhappy doing the other things in EVE. It had its moments certainly.

Double Boom!

Double Boom… in my upgraded Raven!

And it was fortunate that as I tired of them I had an opportunity to do something else.  Success story.  But if I had only stuck with “leveling up my Raven” as CCP Rise put it, I probably would have wandered off and never returned.  And EVE Online, in its usual way, made it difficult to go beyond that.  You have to go out of game to figure out how to do a lot of things in EVE as it guards its secrets well.  Solo EVE can be a difficult vocation, but satisfying for some who pursue it.

The question is, of course, what should CCP do?  There are lots of potential knee-jerk reactions.  The chart certainly suggests that, if CCP wants to drive subscriptions, then it should make a deeper and more interesting… and implicitly safer, for whichever parameters of that you prefer… solo experience in the game.  CCP, ever focused on EVE being a dangerous place where PvP is always a risk, wants to create a new player experience that brings people into a group oriented PvP.  That is what they view as the heart and soul of the game.

I am just not sure CCP can “fix” the problem on that chart AND drive people to PvP.  Yes, they give players that capability, even with their day one characters.  But how to give them the opportunity… and, more importantly, to get them to take advantage of it… to use that capability is another story indeed.  I am not sure how much more ubiquitous Jelly Knight’s experience would be even if there were ample opportunity to sit on a titan and tackle for a fleet on a players first day.  As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but PvP isn’t watering hole that many MMO players are willing to drink from.

Is PvP a Requirement for All MMOs? February 24, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EverQuest, EverQuest II, MMO Design, Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, World of Warcraft.
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28 comments

One of my gripes about the Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen Kickstarter campaign was about PvP.

PvP was a stretch goal, but I was annoyed that it was on the list in any form at all.  The promise of Pantheon seemed, to me at least, to be getting back to a difficult and dangerous PvE world that required grouping to take on.  The early days of EverQuest were invoked in this regard.  For a game being made by a small team that declared it was not trying to be “all things to all people,” the mention of PvP seemed like a step in that very direction.

And you should not get me wrong on this.  I am not saying there shouldn’t be PvP.  I play EVE Online, right?  But does every PvE focused game need to spend time developing a PvP mechanism as well?

Going back to the dawn of the first massive successes on the MMO front, Ultima Online was PvP from day one.  But EverQuest was derived from TorilMUD which had no PvP at all.  In fact, the dev staff at TorilMUD split over the idea of PvP, which the PvP faction moving off to follow their dreams with Duris MUD.  But SOE eventually felt that EverQuest needed PvP and so the Rallos Zek server was born.

This moved was widely viewed as a way to concentrate all the griefers into a single thunderdome where they would leave the rest of the player base alone.  It was successful, in that the investment was low (as far as I can tell SOE did very little explicitly for PvP and was pretty hands off when it came to running the server) and it scratch that PvP itch for those who had to have it in a Norrathian context. (Roll stock footage of Fansy the Famous Bard.)  And this lives on today as the Zek server with its own PvP rule set.

Asheron’s Call also had a PvP flagging system and a PvP dedicated server as part of its mix.  So the big generation clearly bought into PvP, as did the next round of games.  Dark Age of Camelot was explicitly PvP and Star Wars Galaxies had a sandbox PvP aspect to it.

Then came World of Warcraft, which had PvP and PvP servers from day one.  Granted, day one was pretty ad hoc when it came to PvP, but Blizzard has a long history with RTS games, so players fighting other players must have seemed a natural to them.  And whether or not you like the various stages WoW PvP has progressed through, it has been pretty successful.  It would be hard to imagine WoW without it.

2 minutes 11 seconds into Wintergrasp

I played a lot of Wintergrasp when it was popular

Of course, WoW also ran into one of the problems with PvP in a heavily PvE game, that of gear and ability balance between the two.  It is really cool that the rogue in your dungeon group or raid can crowd control an off-mob with a stun lock, but I don’t know anybody who likes having that done to them by a rogue in a battleground.  And Dark Age of Camelot ran into similar issued from the other direction, by introducing powerful PvE acquired gear into a primarily PvP game.

So mixing PvE and PvP is rarely a matter of a flagging system or a separate server.  The eternal balance of equipment and abilities… which is already nettlesome in just the PvE environment… takes on an even bigger role when PvP is part of the mix.  It doesn’t come for free, it requires design and development time… unless you take the approach SOE did with EverQuest and just try to ignore the whole PvP aspect of the balance thing, or you take the Guild Wars approach and just keep the two as separate as possible.

And after WoW, things just got went down hill.  The success of the game meant other companies trying to copy WoW features in order to capture WoW numbers.  EverQuest II is probably the most tragi-comic example of this.  So much development and design time has been spent on PvP ideas in that game that it just about breaks your heart.  They have had PvP servers, PvP arenas where you fight with a special sub-avatar of your character, arenas where you fight with your actual character, and, more recently, WoW-like battlegrounds.  And the trend has always been that either the PvP is so bad that nobody uses it or that it is so affected by PvE stats and abilities that a whole array of special rules and exceptions have to be put in place to try to maintain at least some illusion of balance.  The last time I checked in, SOE had gotten to the point where every piece of equipment and every ability essentially had two sets of stats, one for PvE and one for PvP, leading to some of the largest tool tip windows known to man.

Then there was Lord of the Rings Online, which couldn’t bring itself to allow the elf-on-elf combat we all secretly desire (we need more kinslayings) but which felt it had to have PvP, so they gave us Monster Play, a feature convoluted enough that I couldn’t even tell you how it works because I have never once used it.  And I have tried the various PvP options on every MMO I have played.  I know somebody loves Monster Play out there… you can find somebody who loves and will defend any MMO feature ever… but was LOTRO as a whole made better by it?  Could the time spent on that have been better invested?

Warhammer Online at least never had the PvE vs. PvP balancing problem, because I don’t think most of us stuck around long enough for it to be a problem.  Instead, it was bit by the WoW battleground bug, which became the most efficient way to level up, so everybody did those while the open world content languished for want of the numbers needed to make it viable.

And so it goes.  Even today we are looking at The Elder Scrolls Online coming out in a little over a month.  This is an MMO based on an exclusively single player RPG franchise… PvE to its deepest roots… and they are busying pushing the Alliance War, the PvP aspect of the game.  Meanwhile, Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO made in the BioWare mold… fourth pillar and all that… has its Galactic Starfighter battleground out and available to everybody now.

Which brings me around to the title of this post.  Is PvP a requirement for all MMOs?  Can you even launch a PvE MMORPG without an announced PvP plan?

Are Level Cap Increases an Aberration? January 2, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EverQuest, MMO Design, World of Warcraft.
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16 comments

One of the things I like about doing the predictions post every year is that I try to come up with some random items or take some minor event and run it to its extreme conclusion.  Then I start to think about if what I came up with was even possible.

Such was the case with companies selling jumps up to the current content.  That was a thing in 2013, with SOE offering to sell people a level 85 character in EverQuest II, Turbine experimenting with selling boosts to level 50 in Lord of the Rings Online, and Blizzard offering a character boost to level 90 with the Warlords of Draenor expansion.

In a very short span of time the idea of buying into a high level character went from a subject of theoretical debate to a reality, with three key companies appearing to opt in on the idea.

With those three offers out there, I figured I would declare 2014 to be the year of such offers, with the floodgates opening and MMOs everywhere racing to match these deals.  I even started to make a list of games that I expected to offer insta-levels for cash.

Which ended up being a pretty short list.

The thing is, in my world view, such insta-level offers make sense only in a specific set of circumstances.  You have to have an MMO that was popular/successful enough to have sold expansions that raised the level cap so that there is a large mid-level gulf in the player base between the old hands in the latest (and presumably best) content.  I would call this the classic EverQuest scenario of MMO success.

However, using that scenario as a measure of success doesn’t leave very many successful MMOs.  Listing them out from memory I got:

  • EverQuest – starts the trend
  • EverQuest II – assumed the pattern set by EQ
  • World of Warcraft – refines the EQ pattern, at least in timing
  • Lord of the Rings Online – sets out on the now established path
  • Rift – follows WoW in this as in so many things

These are the games that are, in my mind, the norm for MMORPGs.  (Who else has had expansions with level cap increases?  I am sure I have missed someone there.)

In reality though, that list is not at all the norm for MMOs.  Those five represent a very small fraction of the population of MMORPG titles and certainly are not the only successful titles in the history of the genre.  Leaving aside the Asian imports and browser games, the list of MMOs that were both successful… a disputed term, I know… and have had no level cap increase is substantial.  You can tick off Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Asheron’s Call, Star Wars: Galaxies, City of Heroes, Guild Wars (close enough to an MMO for this discussion) and EVE Online (or does EVE even fit in this picture?) pretty quickly before getting to titles like Vanguard, Age of Conan, or Star Wars: The Old Republic, that probably did not or will not get EverQuest-like expansions because they were not successful enough.

Which is what brought me around to the title of this post.  Are level cap increases… especially expansion related increases… an aberration that were just part of the genre in its infancy, but which is unlikely to carry on going forward?  Even EverQuest’s direct predecessor, TorilMUD, hasn’t had a level cap increase since launch.

And, as a follow on to that, in a market where the level cap at launch is likely to be the level cap for the lifetime of the game, does the insta-level option have a future?  Or do level cap increases enter into that equation when most of your population ends up crowded at the top of the ladder over time no matter what?  What is pay for a level boost needed?

Why Can’t I Just Turn Off Achievements? November 7, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EverQuest II, Guild Wars 2, Lord of the Rings Online, MMO Design, World of Warcraft.
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21 comments

Over in a corner of the blogesphere this week achievements have been the discussion point.

Syl at MMO Gypsy started venting on Twitter about achievements and went on the write about about her hate of them and other like things at her blog.

In the way of the world, that lead to Liore at Herding Cats to express her love of achievements.  Cuppy joined in on that front as well, while Klepsacovic just wonders if they are the right tool for the job.

The lines were drawn, let the battle commence!

Both sides make impassioned, emotional pleas for their point of view.  The ill-defined concept of “immersion,” which I think means something different to everybody, has been flung about.  Comments have popped up trying to explain one point of view to those whole held the other, myself included.  All just the blogesphere functioning as designed.

I fall on the achievement lovers side of the argument.  They went into World of Warcraft five years ago and I have enjoyed Blizzard’s implementation ever since.

Vikund's Achievements

Vikund’s Achievements – Oct. 15, 2008

I don’t think they necessarily belong in every MMO… and some retro-fits, like the EverQuest implementation, make me groan… but for WoW, already a bright and shiny game with a cultural reference around every corner, it seems like a good match.  I especially like the statistics tab which tracks all sorts of little details, but I am that sort of person.

That isn’t to say that I don’t “get” the dislike of achievements.  And while I think trying to describe what immersion is to each other is like trying to describe what blue is to each other, I can understand how some might find that a shiny pop-up in the middle of their experience might break that for them.

And while I was absorbing all of this, a thought popped into my head.

What if you could just turn them off?

I am not even suggesting that they be expunged from the game, but that the game have a check box somewhere in the settings to not pop up achievements, yours mine or ours.  They would still accrue somewhere in the background in case the person in question changed their mind, but while the correct box was checked somewhere in the settings, they just wouldn’t be a thing on that particular game client.  No pop-ups allowed.

And in imagining that, it sounded so simple that I had to believe that such a setting was already there.  I mean, you can turn off all sorts of things in the UI in most games.  How could that not already be a thing?

So I launched World of Warcraft and went to the setting to check.

You can turn on and off lots of UI elements in WoW.  You can toggle the on screen quest list, quest tracking, floating names over players and NPCs, quests markers on the map and so on and so forth.  There are even conditional settings, so you can have NPC names hidden unless they are part of a quest you are on.

But as far as I can tell, there is no setting to turn off achievement pops.

Well, WoW is a big game, with 7.6 million subscribers at last count.  Maybe somebody has filled this niche with an addon!  So I went to Curse to look at achievement related addons.  There are dozens of addons devoted to helping you find, track, and achieve your achievements, but not one to suppress them.  There may be one out there (let me know if there is) but I couldn’t find it in my admittedly limited search.

I decided to check other games.  The next up was Rift.  I downloaded the latest update, which was sizable, and got into the game.  Ignoring the fact that somebody clearly left the realm administration console unlocked during a bathroom break (Or was that server-wide broadcast about Ceiling Cat watching you part of the current event?) and the blinky telling me I earned a reward just for logging in (that I could do without) I started leafing through the settings.

DSEplopachi

Like WoW, Rift has a pretty comprehensive set of things you can turn on and off.  There is even a social media tab where you can annoy your soon-to-be-ex-friends by spamming Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr with all of your achievements.  But I could not find a way to keep achievements from popping on your screen.

I can automatically decline marriage proposals (which I have set) but achievements are sacred.  I even tried editing the UI to see if I could move achievements off screen, but that particular UI element isn’t part of the editor.

No luck on that front.  So I moved on to Middle-earth.

Lord of the Rings Online doesn’t have achievements… at least not in the WoW sense of them.  But there are traits and pop ups and all sorts of little nags that do get on my nerves.  And they also have a pretty comprehensive list of things in the settings.  But on the achievement-like traits front there was no joy there.  Like other games, there are plenty of potentially immersion breaking things you can turn off, but trait notifications… and the accompanying “Visit the LOTRO Store!” message… are stuck on.  So I moved on.

Next I patched up and tried EverQuest II.  EQII has such a half-hearted “I’m just like WoW! Love me too please!” attempt at achievements that even I am not really interested in them.

Which is odd when I think about it, because EverQuest II had a sort of proto-achievements implementation back at launch in 2004.  In addition to server first and world first discoveries, which were kind of neat until they inevitable ran out, there were the slaughter titles you got for killing so many undead or gnolls or what not.  But they felt they needed to tack on the WoW model as well, making EQII even more of a mish-mash of conflicting visions.

SBHHistoryBuff

Anyway, in digging through the “monumentally huge since day one” options window of the game, I figured out that achievements are part of the updates and notifications in the game.  You can set how quickly they are displayed and where the UI element shows up, but it doesn’t appear that you can actually turn them off.  I suppose you could move that off-screen, but since it shows information for things besides just achievements, I am not sure if that is a viable solution.  Call that a “maybe” at best.

I thought about checking Guild Wars 2, but was brought up short by two things.  First, their super duper, point of interest, laundry list, be the completionist mechanism seemed so much a part of the game when I tried it that I seriously doubted you could turn it off.  And it seems to have progressed since then.

Hah, finished!

Hah, finished!

And, second, I’ve forgotten my password and I cannot get Anet to cough it back up again because I’ve changed internet services since I last logged in so they think I am trying to hack the account.  Saved me from patching in any case.

I also considered checking EverQuest, which has had achievements grafted onto it as well, but I was starting to get bored with the whole idea.  Plus the pattern seemed to be pretty clear and I hated to ruin it by finding a contrary example.  Once you have two points, draw the line, calculate the slope, and move on I say!

But this does leave me with a few questions.

First, does any MMORPG with achievements let you turn off the pop ups?  Did I miss an example or a setting or an addon that would do that for any of the above or some other example?  And why isn’t the option to turn off achievement pop ups available?  Do companies believe them to be so important that the game cannot be separated from the achievements?

Then, would turning off the achievements as I have describe be enough for you explorers and those of you who just do not like achievements in general?  Or does the fact that achievements simply exist bother you?

Destination? Journey? Destination? Journey? October 23, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online, EverQuest, EverQuest II, Lord of the Rings Online, MMO Design, World of Warcraft.
14 comments

I always feel a mixed set of emotions when something like a double experience event gets announced.  Lord of the Rings Online has one going now as part of their ramp up to the Helms Deep expansion in November.

30 days of bonus XP!

30 days of bonus XP!

That is a pretty long stretch of double experience.  A lot of games will toss that sort of thing out for a special weekend or maybe a holiday or “please come back and play!” event over maybe a week.  But a 30 day stretch seems like a lot.  I cannot recall off hand any other game going for double for quite that long.  I wonder what SynCaine would say?

And when I saw that offer on the front page of the LOTRO site, a little voice within me said, “Wow, I should totally take advantage of that to get a few level!”

I mean, I made it through Moria with my captain on Brandywine (5th server, 5th guild)  and if I just pushed a little bit forward I could actually get into Siege of Mirkwood content that I purchased a couple of years back.

Not here, but I can see if from here

Look, I made it out the far side!

Basically, opportunity!  I should take advantage of it.

Then another voice in my head coughs and says something along the lines of, “Weren’t you just grumbling about how fast leveling is in MMOs these day?”

And I must sheepishly admit to myself that I have groused about how trivial, for example, the 1 to 60 game in World of Warcraft has gotten.   One of my issues in my quest to see the Horde side of the post-Cataclysm world is that I seem to out-level the quest chains in a given zone long before I am done.  The achievement for doing all the quests in Azshara, as an example, shows 60 quests to be completed.  But the zone had pretty much gone gray to me just after the 40 quest mark with one character.  And with another, with whom I did a couple of instances, I was beyond the zone before the 30 quest mark.  In fact, I was so far beyond that the Warchief’s Call board directed me to essentially skip the next zone in line as well.

Likewise, back in LOTRO, I was skipping whole sections of content.  I actually optimized my path through the game to visit some of my favorite zones… The Lone Lands and Evendim being two where I ran down the whole zone of quests… but otherwise leapfrogged until I could get into Eregion and then Moria.  Even in Moria I ended up skipping a big chunk of the content while running through some of the areas.  As it turned out, I think I picked the better areas… the content in Moria is somewhat uneven, with areas in the old fetch-and-carry quest hub model while other areas are in the more recent, more dynamic vein that Turbine has adopted… but there was still a lot left behind.

Of course, I write that in full knowledge of my own hypocrisy.  What is that I have equipped in my pocket slot?

everybody must get stoned

Everybody must get stoned…

What has it got in its pocketses indeed!  A 25% XP boosting item!

Well there’s your problem.

Or at least an insight into the problem, the competing aspects of such games that pull some people, like myself, in contradictory directions.

While seeing the world, experiencing the content, ought to be the part of the package, at the same time level based progression oriented games like this also push the achievement button for people.  As somebody who tends to be very goal oriented, at times I find myself quite caught up in the progress aspect of games.  Pushing on, getting another level, getting access to another zone, another instance, another expansion, another whatever, can quickly become my focus, especially if the content is nothing to write home about.  A series of fetch-and-carry and solve the local bear/boar/wolf problem quests become an obstacle to overcome in pursuit of the next stage of the progression aspect of the game.

In getting my fourth character to level cap in Rift before the Storm Legion expansion, my run became very much a matter of progress over everything else.

Progress, and giving feedback on progress, can be very powerful motivators.  There is a reason we went from the dark ages of TorilMUD, where you had to travel back to town to speak to your guild leader to see where you stood in your progress to the next level (and he would only give a vague answer that you could translate into which 10% segment of the climb you were in), to the tiny little five bubble experience bar in the character window in EverQuest which used to cause people to track progress in pixels (I had a friend who used to take a before and after screen shot every time he played so he could compare the bars and get an exact pixel count), to experience bars that are part of the main UI and which go from edge to edge across the screen, chopped up into nice little 5% increment.

This whole thing is exacerbated by the general “more levels” expansion plan that MMORPGs have been using since at least Ruins of Kunark.  When you start a game and you are staring at 85-90 levels to get to the latest content… presumably the “best” content, or at least the content where most of the population is playing… It becomes just that much harder to ignore progress in favor of content.

And it is not just the fantasy MMORPG where this holds sway.  I was thinking about why I left off playing World of Tanks earlier this year.  In part I think it was because I had hit a point where I was logging on every night to get my “first win” bonus XP with a couple of tanks on trees that I wanted to advance, and then logging off when I was done.  The fights seemed like they were becoming secondary to progression, at which point you sort of have to ask yourself why you are playing.  In my case, that dialog seems to happen somewhere in my subconscious and I simply stop logging in if it comes out the wrong way.  And now that I have picked up War Thunder, which has a similar daily bonus scheme, I wonder if I will end up in the same rut over there eventually.

It is easy at this point to say that we should focus on games without levels and the like.  But we will find our various progress metrics.  There are no levels in EVE Online, but people will track their progress in ISK, skill points, kills, standings, loyalty points, or being in one of the alliances on the sovereignty map.  We do like to have our cut and dried indicators.  And I think if you worked to eliminate all such things, you might just end up with no game at all.

Progress is in these games for a reason.  It can be both a good and a bad motivator.  I like the idea of getting to level cap.  In a number of MMOs my having arrived at that point meant me feeling done, in both a satisfying and a terminal way.  And progress, in my mind, is invariably tied in with the journey.  I couldn’t really get myself on board with SOE’s play to sell the jump to level 85 in EverQuest II.  In part that was because of the mire of skills and points and what not you are handed without any context.  But it also feels a bit like cheating, jumping up all those levels.  That is my own feeling anyway.  I wouldn’t point fingers at those who chose that path, but in my gut it feels like skipping all that progress… even though I have no inclination to do it myself at this point… is skipping the game.

Which sort of ties progress back to content in some odd way in my brain.  But, in the end, do I play the content in order to progress, or progress in order to play content?  And is there a “right” balance in there somewhere?

How do you feel about the balance between content and progress?

Great Moments in Exploits – The Ressurection September 20, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in Dungeons & Dragons Online, entertainment, MMO Design, TorilMUD.
5 comments

There were corpses all around the great fountain in Waterdeep.

Not that there aren’t usually a corpse or three sitting around there, preserved and waiting for a resurrection.  There was one there even as I started to write this.

Another day in Waterdeep

Another day in Waterdeep

But this different.  This was a lot of corpses.  And they were all from the same player who, I recalled, was a high level barbarian warrior.

Even as I stood there pondering the corpses the warrior, whose name I cannot recall all these years later, entered the room and attacked the elite guard.  He was killed almost immediately and another corpse joined the pile.

This went on for a while, the corpse count growing, while several of us pondered what he was up to.  Was this an attempt at an epic rage quit?  Was he working on some sort of corpse based art project?  Was this some sort of science project?

After a while, with many corpses on the ground, he gave up and went away.  Somebody was casting preserve on the corpses so that they would not rot and disappear as quickly, but otherwise we had a bunch of empty player corpses and some speculation about what had just happened.

As it turned out, of our possible answer, the last one turned out to be correct.  It was MUD science in action.

The player in question had apparently discovered that, in the character database, the key unique value for any character was the character’s name, as opposed to some unique never-seen number.  And why not?  Names were supposed to be unique in the world.  So what linked anything in the world to your character… equipment, corpses, money… was your character’s name.

The player had also discovered that when you die, part of the information saved with the corpse was how much experience it should restore to you if you received a resurrection.  When you died, you lost 25% of the experience of your current level.  If you got a successful ress, about 80% of that lost experience was returned to you.

And, finally, the player had noticed that when you deleted a character, any corpses that character left behind remained in the game.  The corpses were not tied to the character but were just objects in the world related to the character only because they were flagged with the character name.

Do you see where I am going with this?

So the player had taken his level 50 barbarian warrior, a somewhat common sort of character in the game and one of the easier classes to get up to level 50, and turned it into a pile of experience laden corpses strewn about the streets of Waterdeep.

The player then deleted what remained of that character, leaving the corpses behind.

The player then rolled up a new character, an enchanter, one of the most in-demand and difficult to level classes in the game.  He gave this character the same name as the warrior he had just deleted.  This character and name was approved by the admins… the naming rules were rigorously enforced by the people who ran TorilMUD… sort of… and this fresh level 1 enchanter entered the world.

This newly minted magic user made his way to Waterdeep, where a friendly cleric began resurrecting the corpses left behind by the old character.  And it worked.  The enchanter leveled up rapidly with each resurrection.  The enchanter did not make it to level 50, or even level 40 if I recall right, but he got far enough into the level curve to get past the awkward “got no spells” and “got no useful spells” points in his career and straight into the “I have key spells that make me useful to a group” zone, wherein he could expect to find experience groups easily and be able to make his way to the level cap with some diligence.

Experiment success!

Except, of course, for the whole part where he got caught almost immediately by the game admins.

The admins get a little message every time somebody levels up if they have the right feed turned on.  So while I understand that the player in question waited until no admins were visible online, there were a couple on that were hidden.  And they swooped down on him right away.

Now, this did not happen in the bad old days, when he likely would have been banned for life from ever playing TorilMUD.  There was a time when the admins would ban whole blocks of IP addresses just to rid themselves of one person, occasionally screwing over somebody else in the process.  But he had still be caught red-handed using an exploit to his own advantage.  He lost his new enchanter, all his experience, and probably some equipment along the way.  He was no doubt put on probation and might have even been given a temporary ban.  But if I recall right, they did not actively seek to ban him for life or burn down his house or anything that might have happened if he had tried this in the early to mid 90s.

And, shortly thereafter, a fix went in that wiped out any corpses remaining in the world when you deleted a character.

Or so I recall.

That is the rub here.  This happened nearly a decade ago.  I was not directly involved.  Everything I heard at the time was second or third hand and might have included a fair amount of speculation being passed off as fact.  And, of course, my own memory might have enhanced the tale as well.  The details might be totally out of alignment with what actually happened, and if you know something, feel free to correct me in the comments.

The essence of the tale is true though.  Somebody got their character killed repeatedly, saved the corpses, deleted the character, created a new character with the same name, and received repeated resurrections that rapidly leveled up the new character.  And I was around for bits of the whole thing.  Well, at least the killing and corpses bit.

And the whole event certainly does say something about players.  I am sure that this is covered somewhere in Raph Koster’s list of Laws of Online World Design.

I had actually forgotten about this event in TorilMUD history.  I was only reminded of it when I read Psychodhild’s post about the reincarnation game mechanic in Dungeons & Dragons Online.  That trigger the memory of somebody really attempting to recycle a character in order to bring it back as something new.

Which brings up the question if players ought to be allowed to do something with level cap characters that they do not play any more.  Could you use that as a re-roll mechanism that bestowed some benefit or which acted as a gate to new content for another run to level cap?

Quote of the Day – Commandments of Online Worlds August 30, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, MMO Design.
Tags: ,
7 comments

Thou shalt not mistake online worlds for games, for they encompass far more; nor shalt thou forget that play is noble, and game is no epithet.

Raph Koster, The Commandments of Online Worlds

A little over seven years ago Raph wrote his commandments post.  It, and the resulting discussion in comments, feels like it is from another era.  Of course, it is from before Zynga and gamification and free to play as the default revenue model, back when the idea of a virtual world had meaning to a lot more people.

I was reminded of this post because I was listening to VirginWorlds postcast #17 this morning.  The show itself is a nice time capsule, having gone live back in July 2006.  Brent talks about DarkFall, EA buying Mythic and what that could portend, The Burning Crusade expansion that was set to come out six months later, along with a discussion of subscription numbers and what they mean.  Or meant.

Quote of the Day – Defending SWTOR… Badly August 21, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, MMO Design, Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Tags: , ,
11 comments

Was this supposed to be sarcastic?

kuja1988a

That was my exact thought when reading the Massively Hyperspace Beacon post Six misconceptions about SWTOR free-to-play.

The post purports to defend the SWTOR free to play model from people who “make it out to be something that it’s not.”

And yet, for me, the article managed to damn the game through defensiveness and hair splitting to the point that I really had to question if the author was secretly trying to undermine the game while pretending to be a fan.  Was this SynCaine writing under a pseudonym?  The author seemed more keen to reinforce than debunk a couple of his assertions.  For anybody looking to play the game for the first time, the post is not much of an endorsement.

I certainly had some trouble reconciling that post with the words of SWTOR’s lead designer, who says he has gotten religion about free to play, and who recently wrote:

One of my mantras about being a free-to-play game is that, in order to call yourself that, your evangelists have to feel good about telling their casual friends, “Yeah, you can totally play for free!”

I guess you can still feel a little guilt for not telling your casual friends that the restrictions on free will come early and often and will seem at times like they are specifically designed to make the game frustrating to play unless you pay.

Not that such methods makes SWTOR unique in any way.  I seem to recall that at one point somebody from SOE came right out and said that their model was to drive people to subscribe if they really wanted to play. [citation needed]  And LOTRO, which I have been playing a lot this summer, sure seems to have its hand out all the time, reminding me there is a cash shop almost constantly.

It comes with the territory, and doubly so with a subscription game that has been retrofitted into the model.

I have rambled on about my ambivalence towards the free to play model as currently implemented in popular MMORPGs.  I can see the upside.  New players, for example, are the life’s blood of such games, and free to play seems to be the only way to keep them showing up.  But I can also see the cost, the fact that revenue generation always gets a primary focus.  So if your model is based on unlocks and cash shop companions, that becomes the top priority and anything beyond that shares whatever resources are left.

The free to play model is certainly here to stay.  I am just not sure if were “there” yet when it comes to the model maturing into something I am really happy with.  But that might be a futile hope.

Projecting on to EverQuest Next July 30, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online, EverQuest, EverQuest Next, MMO Design.
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17 comments

Enough about internet spaceships for the moment and on to a topic that will loom large this week.

We are going to hear a lot about EverQuest Next very shortly.  The clock is running down and SOE Live (formerly SOE Fan Faire) will begin this Thursday.

Freeport Next? I guess not!

I am hoping for new pictures this week

The big news will be whatever John Smedley chooses to reveal about EverQuest Next.  Everything else will pale by comparison.  And the reason it will be big is that just over a year ago it was reported that SOE was throwing out their current plan, which included some very basic lessons learned, and going for a much more dramatic change.  A year ago everything you knew about EQN was declared wrong.

So now we all wonder what we shall see.  And I am sure that we all have some hopes or wishes.  I have teased Keen about investing himself in the idea of the new game, and I see Wolfshead has come out of hibernation to issue a list of demands, which I tend to agree with in spirit if not exactly on a point by point measure.  The heroes bit resonates with me especially.

So I too have been thinking about what is coming, but it is tough to know where to begin.

There is the word “sandbox” that gets thrown about, even by Smed.  Especially by Smed.  That has been his opening.  But “sandbox” can mean so many things in so many circumstances that I am reluctant to hear get invested in that idea until I hear what the SOE definition of “sandbox” is.

And along with that, there are the realities of the SOE business model.  They have completely declared for free to play.

Well, who hasn’t, aside from Blizzard these days?

But free to play brings with it certain requirements.  A high amount of churn is expected.  A lot of people will try the game and for them to become paying customers, the game has to welcome them in and hold their hand for a bit, and presumably not just to guide them to the edge of a cliff so as to be better positioned to push them over into the abyss, ala a certain internet spaceship game I said I was not going to write about.

So EQN cannot be EverQuest of old, letting you create a character then dropping you on the doorstep of Qeynos with a pat on the back and a “have fun!”  There is a certain lowering of bars to be expected for the opening.  In free to play you cannot frustrate people straight off, you do not have their money yet!  You have to get them pointed in the right direction, teach them how to play, how to group, and how to interact. (Who does the last two nowadays?)

And then there is the StoryBricks angle.  StoryBricks announced at one point… and then turned around and denied everything… then got permission from the right people so they could announce it… that they were involved with EQN, which would be ‘the biggest sandbox ever designed.’  There is that word again.

Anyway, StoryBricks, if I can borrow a phrase from somewhere, is about bringing NPCs to life.  So, one might presume that we can expect a more complex relationship with the world of Norrath and its permanent citizens when we get to EQN.  Quests are unlikely to go away or become less common, but one would hope that we might be asked to dine on more than the common staple of ten rats.

I don’t know if we’ll get the salesman of Waterdeep or some sort of crazy Eliza interpretation, but it should be different.

And then, despite the rework of the system, I suspect that what previously seemed to be the lessons learned from previous games will still have influence.  I recounted them as:

  • Single world without the need to load zones
  • Instanced dungeons
  • Low system requirements
  • Stylized character models
  • Fewer classes, relative to EQII
  • PvP from day one and “done right”

A single seamless world sounds so “2004” at this point, but I think it is important and I hope they stick to it.

Instanced dungeons will be controversial.  Some insist that this kills the worldliness of a game.  Frankly, some of my fondest memories at this point are of dungeon crawls with just our group without other people in chat, trying to rush past us, stealing mobs, or otherwise turning a group adventure into a bad trip to the mall.  I think there is clearly a place for instanced content.  It should be special and rare and have a connection to the full world.  The instanced dungeons in World of Warcraft lost their charm for me when they ceased to be part of the world and, with the introduction of Dungeon Finder, became a way to avoid the world.

Low system requirements and stylized character models I think are pretty non-controversial on the surface.  Not that SOE couldn’t screw this up and makes us hate it, but it could be good.  And, with free to play in mind, it is probably a requirement.

Fewer classes relative to EQII.  I have to agree.  24 classes at launch was too much.  Adding a 25th years later was interesting, but not all that helpful.

PvP from day one and “done right” scares me.  PlanetSide 2 hasn’t had a charmed existence in my world.  I hope that “sandbox” doesn’t mean slaughter and fast respawns.  It doesn’t have to.  But SOE and PvP has something of a checkered past to my mind.  I hear it was good in Star Wars Galaxies at launch, but what have they done since?

So given all of that, what dare I wish for?  What would I like to see come to pass with EQN?

I would like to see a a lot less emphasis on levels and content that goes obsolete when you out level it.  We have had Band-Aids applied to that problem in the form of various mentoring and leveling down schemes, but they have all been unsatisfactory to my mind.  Yes, you have to have some sort of progression and character advancement.  That is part of what drives many of us in MMOs.  But our addiction to levels has to stop.  They start off great, but always betray us in the end.  They are a dead end street.

I couldn’t tell you how to replace levels, or even de-emphasize them sufficiently, but I hope that SOE has come up with something.

I want long, multi-stage quests like the heritage quests in EverQuest II.  I realize that WoW does similar things with long chains of quests, but the start and stop breaks the concentration for me.  Heritage quests are long term commitments, things you do not get done in a day, and which often require a group a various stages.  I want that again.

While we’re on quests, and as a nod to my gripe about levels, I also wouldn’t mind seeing quests get out of the experience delivery business.  They ought to reward items or equipment.

I want live, open world group content. I do not want to be able to solo every mob in the world.  I do not want to have to go into an instance for every group experience.

And while we’re at it, I do not want to get punished for grouping.  EverQuest had this about right.  WoW did not.  EQII started down the right path and then screwed up open world grouping completely. Trying to run our instance group through New Halas was an exercise in frustration because the whole thing expected you to solo.

I want my weapon choice to mean something.  If I choose a sword over a dagger or an axe, I want that to mean I gain some benefit at the cost of something else.  The damage per second calculation should not be my only factor in weapon choice.  Lord of the Rings Online tried this, but I do not think they went far enough.

I want weapon skills back.  I do not think I should spend ages swinging a sword and then suddenly pick up a spear and find myself equally adapt.

I would like to see crafting materials handled more in line with how EVE Online does things (sorry, internet spaceship reference again), where the materials do not change every ten levels.  I want to be done with this sort of thing.

LOTRO Ore - Most Wanted

LOTRO Ore Variety

I want some staples that are in high demand and which anybody can harvest.  And these should be good for making basic things.  Then I want some rare items to mix in that can be used to create special things.  And when I say rare, I mean rare.  Special things should be special.

I want crafting to be a bit more… I don’t know… organic?  Is that the word I want?  Organic to the game as opposed to being something of a side effort where you make 38 blue silk hoods to level up your tailoring skill and then just vendor them because nobody wants them because the auction house is full of them being sold at under cost.

Speaking of the auction house, if you give me buy orders as part of things, you will probably exceed all my expectations.  My view of such things is pretty low in the fantasy MMORPG realm.

And… and… and… well… a lot of things.  I could ramble on ad nauseum about the minute and trivial.  Basically SOE, make this all fit together with UI conventions that make sense.  And what Keen said about stories.  Mostly.  You can tell me stories.  You can make me part of stories.  But just remember that my own stories about what happened to me and my friends, those are the ones that really matter.

So I am waiting to hear what Smed has to say.  I realize that there are going to be compromises.  They have a business to run and we live in the world of free to play where fantasy MMORPGs are over abundant.  And I am going to hate some of the things he says this week.  You watch.  I know it will be true.

But I will be happy if I hear something new or different or exciting.  It doesn’t have to be from my alternately vague and oddly specific and somewhat emotional list above.  SOE is full of smart people.  Hell, SOE has brought back some people who made EverQuest lately.  They get it.  They played TorilMUD and decided to bring that sort of experience into a 3D world.  Find some of that essence for me.  Combine the mundane into something beyond the sum of its parts, into something magical.

Make me believe again.

Is that too much to ask?

I will be watching EQ Next Wire for news about the game.

How about you?  What do you want to see?

Summer Reruns – Fumbling with Questions that have No Easy Answers July 15, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in blog thing, entertainment, MMO Design.
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9 comments

I was away over the weekend, so I did not get a chance to write anything last night.

Plus, it is summer, the MMO scene is pretty quiet right now, and nothing being added, changed, or launched this year looks be set to change the MMO market in the slightest.

MMOs have become pizza. They vary a bit from vendor to vendor. You might not like the ingredients from one, and another might not keep their place very clean. But they are all round and share about the same set of toppings and what not. And if you like pizza, you will probably find a place that suits you.

So, with that in mind, I thought I would recycle some of my attempts at serious thought about pizza… erm… MMOs. Some of these are more than five years old. Have things changed that much since?

Or is it more a matter of the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Anyway, this is an open invitation to comment on some old posts if nothing else.