In Which I Ramble About Being All Things to All People

Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man

-The Dude

If you asked me what the most egregious flaw in MMORPG development has been over the history of the genre, I would say it was a “lack of focus.”

All together now, "Stay on target!"

All together now, “Stay on target!”

Overreach, trying to have too many features, trying to appeal to too many different audiences, listening to too many voices saying that they will give you money if only you support their pet feature, has ended up with a lot of time wasted on features that did not enhance a given game over time.

Vanguard is probably the poster child for this, a game that launched with too much breadth and not enough depth. (Star Citizen could claim that crown from Vanguard, save for the “we’re still in Alpha” loophole that will be going on for the foreseeable future.)  All those races, all those starting zones, PvP and different types of PvP servers, huge landscapes devoid of content, all running on server code not ready for prime time.

The game wanted to leap past day one EverQuest and be EverQuest five expansions into its life.  Instead it jumped down a well and was on life support for the next seven and a half years, finally being let go when even a free to play conversion couldn’t make it economically viable.

That trajectory might have been different had the vision for launch not been so grandiose.  A few races, one continent, and a focus on content around that might have led to a different outcome.  Maybe.  They still would have needed more time on server code, but maybe with less emphasis on a huge world they could have spent some money on the underlying mechanics.

When Brad McQuaid showed up again with his Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen Kickstarter campaign three years back, I was happy with his vision… back to the core of what made EverQuest a success… and doubly so at him saying that the plan was to keep things small and focused.  And then people started pestering him about features they wanted to see in his new game and vision creep seemed to have returned.  When he caved in to a loud corner of players and said PvP would be a thing, I gave up on following the game.  What attracted me to it was his statement about focus, and once that was gone the project ceased to be special to me.

Not that I am anti-PvP.  I have enough posts about EVE Online here to show a commitment to that as a play style.  But I am not convinced that PvP needs to be a feature in every single MMORPG.  It needs to be an integrated, core feature and not something tacked on in the hope of a few more box sales.  That is where it works, where it is good.  However, there is a loud group of players who will show up and rant about any game that dares not have PvP on its feature list.

EverQuest II is my favorite example of time wasted on PvP.  It is a game where the core feature set and audience is PvE that spent way, way too much time trying to make PvP viable by tacking it on to the game in all sorts of ways.  There battles with avatars, and arena battles, and battle grounds, and different servers with different rule sets over time, and eventually there was a point where they redid all the gear so that it have both PvE and PvP stats.  And, in the end, after attempt after attempt to make PvP a thing, they finally gave up and went back to focus on the core game play, the PvE questing and dungeons and raiding, that keeps its main audience going.

Of course, I have a flip side example for EQ2 in EVE Online.  There has always been a persistent rumbling from people about making New Eden more PvE friendly or making high sec completely safe from non-consensual PvP.  CCP has admirably stuck to its vision of the game on that front, but they nearly slipped at one point.

When we speak of the Incarna release, a lot of people jump straight to cash shops and monocles and the insider talk of selling “gold” ships or ammo ala World of Tanks.  But the cash shop still exists and monocles are just as expensive today as they were five years back.

That was all fluff.

The main issue was the captain’s quarters and the diversion from flying in space to avatar based game play.  That was what was rejected after Incarna, but only after a dismissive attitude from CCP about ship spinning… something that was even in their CSM summit statement…  and the like.

But results trump attitude, and after Incarna we got a renewed focus on flying in space with the Crucible expansion that started a long series of reworks of broken or ignored features that were part of the core game play, after which the game reached its subscriber peak.  They seem to get that they have a core they need to maintain. (Which they even mentioned in an interview today.)

And yet there remains a loudly vocal group of players who insist that EVE Online needs avatar based game play, the dreaded “walking in stations” crowd, despite it being such a non-core feature that to make it viable CCP would have to essentially develop another game within EVE Online in order to make it any sort of real attraction.  And to do that it would need to shift resources away from space, which is where everybody who plays the game today is invested.

Arguments about avatars attracting new players are all pie in the sky wishful thinking, while ignoring core game play and the primary audience for the game simply cannot be justified.  But still somebody brings up “walking in stations” every time the future of the game is discussed.

Straying from your core audience can be a win, but only if you know the demand is there, and there is no evidence that an investment in avatar based game play would add a single player to New Eden.

You can point your finger at me and rightly say that I am not a game developer, so how would I know.  And it is true, I work in a different segment of the tech industry, enterprise software.  It pays better and is much more stable.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a sack full of stories about companies with solid products that bring in 99% of the revenue ignoring them to chase some pie in the sky vision because the VP of sales heard some analyst at Gartner say that the future was in “nano-plastic biometric IPv6 reporting schemas” or some other nonsense feature.

And let me tell you, the urge to stray from your focus is tested a lot more by a fortune 50 retailer telling you that they will only consider your product for their seven figure RFP if you support crazy feature X than by any number of gamers grumbling in your forums.

So I certainly have a sense of what happens when you lose focus along with a series of “no customer ever used” features I on which I worked for my resume.

All of which makes me a bit more optimistic about the MMORPG market these days.  WoW clones attempting to appeal to all demographics are dead for now.  Even WoW has felt the pinch for being too much of a bland reflection of early versions of the game.

Instead we have a range of “niche” titles in development, games that set out to be smaller and so can focus on what makes them what them special rather than feeling the have to have every feature ever present in any MMORPG ever shipped.  We wait upon Shroud of the Avatar, Camelot Unchained, Project: Gorgon, Crowfall, and probably a bunch more to validate once again that an MMO can be small and focused and successful.

But if you’re still out there shouting that every game needs to support your pet feature, you’re might want to reflect on whether you’re actually part of the problem that got us to the grim state of big MMORPGs in the first place.

16 thoughts on “In Which I Ramble About Being All Things to All People

  1. bhagpuss

    Hmm. Not sure. I think you are bang on the money when it comes to commercial success and since commercial success strongly implies satisfied customers I guess it’s hard to argue that more focused development works for both consumer and producer.

    On the other hand, it doesn’t work all that well for this consumer. I don’t particularly relish tightly-focused MMOs that know their audience and hone their product accordingly. They tend to be a bit…shrill. Playing MMOs like that (and many of the F2P imports I’ve tried have that feel) can be quite enervating. It’s like listening to a band that plays every song at the same pace.

    Moreover, I actively enjoy a modicum, or even more than a modicum, of chaotic overreach. I love Vanguard. It’s one of my top three favorite MMOs of all time. And far from it being too ambitious, my main regret (other than that they’d had a decent Project Manager on board) is that they didn’t manage to launch with the other two continents they’d already done the art assets for.

    Would you rather have a tightly-focused MMO that does three or four things well or a shambling mess of an MMO that does three or four things well and whole lot more less well? Because I think that tends to be the choice. Most of the sprawling MMOs still do enough of the core efficiently, even brilliantly, to maintain a healthy core, while spitting out side projects like sparks, some of which catch fire and most of which peter out. That seems to me a bit more like the interesting option, if not the reliable one.

    Oh, and DBG definitely haven’t given up entirely on PvP. Just on open world PvP I think. They are in the process of revamping and re-promoting the instanced battlegrounds yet again.


  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – But when in the seven and a half years did Vanguard become your favorite? At launch it was debatable as to whether or not it was even playable. After a few months of SOE really fixing things it did some things well, but by that point it had lost any potential to claim enough of a user base to make it economically viable. Your enjoyment over time was based on SOE’s willingness to have a non-earning title in its stable. We may come to view that as the golden era of SOE.

    I think, in this period of time, I would rather have a title that was more focused and good at fewer things, and all the more so if the game wasn’t just like WoW. We have enough choices there, both in basic mechanics and trying to serve many player types.

    Of course, I play EVE Online which one can argue has been a sprawling mess for 13 years, so I am not sure I am a reliable narrator. On the flip side, some part of the user base is always screaming that their part of New Eden is broken and needs to be fixed. (So part of my bias against avatars there is the “finish what you have on your plate first!” theory of second helpings I guess.)

    Well, maybe enough people actually play BGs in EQII to justify the effort. I won’t begrudge them that. Maybe they put the SOEmote team on that. Actually having a PvP server though seems to have been non-viable for most of the history of the game.


  3. bhagpuss

    The odd thing about Vanguard was that Mrs Bhagpuss and I never had enormous problems running it right from launch. I was in beta and it was utterly unplayable on the PC I had then and, since we were both planning on making VG our next main MMO, I decided to do something pro-active about it. There was plenty of advice on the beta forums about what people were running and what seemed to be working so I bought new PCs for both of us based around precisely that – and it pretty much worked.

    VG was pleasurably playable for us from the final beta onward. Yes, it was buggy as all get out, but frankly it was in better shape than EQ2 in late beta and played no worse at launch than several other MMOs I’ve played. I know it’s a low bar but Anarchy Online and Horizons, both of which I bought at launch (despite having been in unplayable betas for both) were far, FAR worse than Vanguard ever was. FFXIV Mk 1 was more stable but considerably less finished than VG, famously so since they didn’t even have the nerve to charge money for it for months and eventually had to remake it). DAOC was more stable than VG for sure but even though it launched with a level cap of 50 there was almost no content above level 30. I vividly remember our guild making a trip to the higher end of the level 20-35 zone of Muspelheim and finding it completely devoid of any life whatsoever.

    So, my impressions of Vanguard are colored by the fact that, for us, it really was very playable indeed. Even the bugs were mostly amusing – there was one where Mrs Bhagpuss’s shaman’s pet would attack my Disciple that became a running joke to the point that we were quite annoyed when they fixed it. It was apparent from the complaining in zone chat that other people weren’t having as good a time as we were but that’s zone chat all over so we didn’t really think that much of it. I think we were both genuinely surprised when the population dropped as much as it did.


  4. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – I played VG in late beta… as documented somewhere around here… but declined to buy the box at launch, largely based on how the game performed. I had a PC that would handle everything in EQII outside of Qeynos Harbor at high quality with no problem, which was a fairly good benchmark back in the day. So being bad with that comparison shoo’d me off.

    I waited until the box price dropped pretty steeply before I bought a copy, but at that point the place was already emptying out and after a bit of a run with the Asian themed starter area that was supposed to be the best the game quickly ran out of steam for me. I did go back again when it went free, but I had no connection to the game like you, so it just felt old and awkward.

    Meanwhile, opening up the Vanguard category and reading my 2007 posts brought back some memories.


  5. Catalina de Erauso

    The more CCP “stays on focus” with EVE, the less people play the game. Too much focus leads to tunnel vision. ;)


  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Catalina de Erauso – That is debatable given the 13 year history of the game. And leaving their focus abandons their current customer base for… who exactly? A bird in the hand and all that.


  7. Shintar

    Hm, I’m more with Bhagpuss on this one. While I agree that stretching yourself too thin is a bad thing, having a big mish-mash of different features to play with is part of what appeals to me about the MMO genre. It just creates a unique kind of ecosystem to have all these people with varying interests play together. And as someone who likes to dip her toes into lots of different features within the same game, more features equal more fun. If you’re just focused on one thing, there’s usually some other genre that does it better (MOBAs for PvP, single-player RPGs for story, The Sims for playing dress-up…) Which is not to say that I need everything in every MMO, but…

    It’s certainly a difficult balance to strike. SWTOR has been struggling with it for years. First they wanted to branch out and added space combat and housing. The housing worked out OK I guess, but the space combat was soon abandoned and is only limping along weakly these days. Last year they wanted to refocus on their main strength, story content, but then people got frustrated that there was seemingly nothing else to do. Now they are back-pedalling once again and trying to revitalise group content. What’s a dev to do?


  8. zaphod6502

    I am in a happy place with WoW Legion. This latest iteration has struck just the right balance for my MMO needs. I think they have focused on the fun aspects of what their core audience wants and the proof that has been successful is the large numbers of players I see online each day.

    EVE Online is still struggling in a continual tug of war to want to appeal to new players yet not abandon their core audience. It is something CCP has never been able to reconcile with and it will always be a problem especially with an aging player base. I personally think CCP needs to make some drastic changes to the game to refresh it but I don’t think they will ever be brave enough to do this anytime in the near future. There is a 100lb gorilla approaching and like it or nor CCP will have to do something eventually to remain relevant and attract new players.


  9. Catalina de Erauso

    @Wilhem Arcturus: Their customer base used to be larger until they focused on just a slice of that customer base. It is easy to change the definition of who are the customer base as it becomes less and less diverse and less and less abundant, but numbers are what they are. EVE grew on the road to Incarna, it hiccupped and then grew a bit further on the road to Rubicon, and since then it’s been fading.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Catalina de Erauso

    @zaphod6502: many people claim that they own the key to why EVE is fading because CCP is not focusing on their favorite content. Yet when you look at what CCP has done and don’t, it is easy to see that some players have been getting the lions’s share and others don’t. CCP will not make anything dramatic -or ‘brave’- at this point. That would be as much as agreeing that they’ve been wrong for years.


  11. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Catalina de Erauso – “EVE grew on the road to Incarna, it hiccupped and then grew a bit further”

    Exactly, Incarna interrupted growth.

    Meanwhile, as I noted in a past post, sometimes things are just done and no amount of shuffling about will save them from decline.


  12. zaphod6502

    @Catalina de Erauso
    I think It is not just about people not getting their favorite content. It is bigger than that. Simply (IMO) EVE is becoming an elderly game and many of the aspects that would have attracted players 10+ years ago are simply not that relevant anymore.

    We’re now in an era where “space” themed games are experiencing a revival and EVE has failed to latch on to that renewed enthusiasm. There is no real “fix” to this short of redesigning EVE completely or moving it to grandfathered status and developing a whole new “space” game. Valkrie doesn’t really count as it was designed as a VR shooter experience and hasn’t really developed from there.

    There will come a point though where the revenue from EVE starts slowing down to a trickle. I hope CCP has some long term plans in place to replace EVE if and when the time comes.


  13. Gevlon

    The problem isn’t feature creep per se. If you have the dev power for pet battles and garrisons and they bring more revenues than they cost to develop, then go crazy!

    The problem is cutting into the main game just to accomodate the next feature. When people didn’t leave their damn garrison and gained all their income from follower gameplay, that was a major blow to WoW’s “massive” universe. After all, the follower gameplay was a shitty single player mobile game.


  14. Catalina de Erauso

    @Wilhelm Arcturus: “Exactly, Incarna interrupted growth.”

    And how could that happen? If Incarna killed gowth, then why hasn’t growth continued once Incarna has been removed? Diversity made the game grow, homogenity is killing it. Is that simple.


  15. mcjomar

    EVE has had what were once termed “sucking chest wounds” for a while. It still has a few (lowsec/FW – a place I grew up in, in EVE – to name one, with fozziesov needing another iteration on the actual capture mechanics for two (My personal preference is re-use of hacking mechanics, but this is negotiable)) is it time to branch out? Yes, probably. Hence all these structure replacements to fix/replace the “sucking chest wound” of POS code, and hopefully we’ll see the stargate thing sooner rather than later, for the sake of subscriber counts.

    Unless we see Dust/Legion built on PC, however, with some of that gameplay appearing in EVE, asking for WiS-based gameplay isn’t going to do much other than add on/increase the weight of the albatross of an avatar system which has a reputation of devouring G-cards when it’s in a bad mood.

    We are approaching the point of needing a game changer, however. Something on par with apocrypha, or Live Events – both would be better. And preferably using the existing game, to minimise the chances of overreaching. It’s going to have to be focused around the stargate thing though – not just connecting new space together, or connecting to wormholes to stabilise them, but possibly to outright launch into the unknown, wherein players “discover” (auto-randomly generate?? I remember hearing a story about that being how they built the existing systems?) new null-sec systems entirely. “The Path to Earth” perhaps, Although that’s overreaching I’m sure. New server tech would be required. And the mechanics/in-game costs would be wild – probably bigger than a titan. Likely involving materials from multiple sources/regions. Belt and Moon minerals. PI too.

    All this is just an example, though. But while the new “alpacas” have given CCP some breathing room, they need to keep that pressure on to add all this new stuff into the game.


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