Category Archives: MMO Design

Missions and Content on Demand

Friday night at about 10pm I was sitting in front of my computer and really feeling the desire to resubscribe to World of Warcraft.  My wife and daughter had gone to bed early, it was quiet in the house, the air was cool in something of the usual mid-September tease of the coming of autumn, and I was really in the mood for the sort of easily guided, always something to do, nature of Azeroth.  I might have even had enough gold for a WoW Token, though they have gone up quite a bit of late.  If I did that I could just jump back into the game.

Ah 2015! WoW Tokens prices are now about 170K Gold

That is the way it is with WoW.  You can log in and just do something.  And, more importantly, you can log in a do something yourself.  Being able to solo is one of the key attributes of the game… perhaps THE key attribute sustaining its ongoing success.  For all the talk of the Blizzard name, the Warcraft setting, the low system requirements, the stylized graphics, I think being able to just log on and potter away on your own might be the biggest thing in retaining its player base.

A lot of us old timers pine for the glory days of early EverQuest, becoming practically fetishistic about the forced grouping and harsh nature of the game.  But even at its nadir in the dark days of garrison boredom during the Warlords of Draenor era, WoW was still pulling in an order of magnitude more subscribers than EverQuest did at its absolute peak.  And with good reason.  Mixed in with all those “good old days” memories of Norrath are the recollections of evenings wasted trying to get something going, not being able to find a group, waiting for a spawn camp to be available, or just traveling across the world to group up with friends only to take so damn long that everybody was done for the night by the time you arrived.

You can even do the traditional group things solo thanks to Dungeon/Raid Finder.  Well, solo-ish.  You get grouped up, thrown into an instance, and everybody still has to do their job.  So there is always something to do, and usually something you can do right away with a limited amount of time.

So when sitting, stuck for a game to play, it isn’t hard to see why WoW springs to mind unbidden.

And, as I sat there pondering Azeroth I did not even consider New Eden.

The problem is that many of the things that make EVE Online challenging, interesting, dynamic, and what not also conspire against it being, for lack of a better word, convenient.  World of Warcraft is, most of the time, very convenient.  I recall getting to Desolace back in the day being a long run, but even that sort of thing has been smoothed out.

I have said in the past, only half-jokingly, that before you do anything in EVE Online you usually have to do two or three other things first.  At least I am past the point where I need to train a skill to do something new on my main.  That only took a decade.  But even trained up I was a bit stuck.  On Friday night my jump clone was still on cool down and I was in a clone with implants in a station so I couldn’t jump, couldn’t swap to a clean clone, and couldn’t self-destruct without wasting some implants.

But that really didn’t matter.  While I was in an out-of-the way location, there were no fleets going up and I was just in the mood to “do” something and not travel somewhere on the off chance that maybe I might find something to do.  Something besides running anomalies, which I tend to when I don’t really want to “do” anything.

I do get an occasinal screen shot out of anoms…

Which brings us back to missions.  I could have logged in the Alpha clone alt I used for the last few events in The Agency cycle and run a few missions.  Missions are one of those things you can do on demand, at least once you have yourself setup, which leads us back to the whole thing about new players going down the mission path until they are able to run level four missions, at which point they leave the game.

To recap, missions are the closest thing EVE Online has to the theme park, WoW-esque, PvE experience in that they:

There isn’t much else in the game that hits those three buttons.  Even mining, the beloved pastime of those doing something in another window, isn’t as reliable as you might assume.  Belts get mined out, anomalies take time to respawn, and on a rare day somebody might even try to interfere with you just to see if you’re awake.

Covering those three things seem to me to be something of a baseline to cater to a casual player base.  And EVE Online fails on the first one eventually because the progression is only temporary.  Once you, as they say, “level up your Raven” and can run level 4 missions safely, there is no more progress to be made.  There is no story tying the missions together, there are no other stories to follow.  The cold darkness of the space sandbox, where content is random and fleeting is what remains.  The occasional highs are offset by long periods of quiet routine.

Which is why EVE Online is never my only game.  In the end, I am far far further down the casual spectrum than you might suspect.  There are things to do and sometimes I feel inclined to log on and do them.  But more often my tales from New Eden start with a mention that a ping went out over Jabber for a fleet op.  That is something that works for the space tourist in me.  Somebody else has found something interesting and I log in to go along for the ride.  I’ll do my part as something of a combat reservist that shows up when called to support the people who find the content.

But as a game that provides content on demand… and those other two things… EVE isn’t very good.  As has been said many times over, you need to find your own path in the game, you have to discover what is out there that will keep you engaged.  EVE Online pretty much dares you to like it.

It is never going to be a home for casual theme park MMO players.

Anyway, that is the last of my three part exploration of PvE in EVE Online.

I’m still thinking about resubscribing to WoW, though on Friday night I managed to distract myself by picking one of the many unplayed games out of my Steam library to try.  I spent a couple of hours with Sniper Elite V2, which I think was a freebie on Steam at some point in the past as part of a promotion.

And Potshot has mentioned Medieval Engineers as a possibility.  But it seems likely that there will be more Azeroth in my future.

Quests, Missions, and Return on Investment

One of the great compelling aspects of MMORPGs is progression, progression being defined as doing something… gain a skill, earn some gold, gain some experience, advance a story, open up new zones or dungeons… that advances you towards a larger goal.  I was all over that, along with what was meaningful and what might not be, last week.  Or, at least I strung together a bunch of words alleging to be all over that.  The rather subdued response could mean I sent everybody away to think… or that I just sent everybody away.

I am back for more.

Part and parcel of whatever variation of progression you choose, at least in PvE, is knowing that the time you spend gives you an expected return in the coin of the realm, be that gold, progression, faction, or whatever.  Knowing you can log in and do something in a given amount of time for a set reward can be a powerful thing.  But it can also be a limiting thing.

In a discussion in a comment thread a while back about PvE in EVE Online there was the usual gripe about the dull and repetitive nature of PvE in New Eden, accompanied by the call for CCP to make PvE more challenging, dynamic, exciting, or whatever.  Those words always play well, in part because they are just vague enough without solid context to mean just about anything.

However one person called bullshit on all of that in a comment.  His assertion was that what mission runners valued above all was the consistency of both knowing what they were going to get for their efforts and understanding what it was going to take to complete the task at hand.  It was the surety of the return on the time invested that kept people going after they learned enough of the game to move forward.

Great moments in PvE, two explosions at once… I clearly split my guns

And while I wasn’t on board with everything he had to say, I had to agree strongly that the almost guaranteed return on the time invested was likely the bedrock on which many a mission runner career ended up being based.  In the absence of broad scale progression like levels, the reward in ISK and LPs was about all one can hang their hat on when it comes to New Eden PvE.

There is a reason that bounties in null sec are the biggest ISK faucet in the game.  Anomalies are repetitive in the extreme, don’t really have much of a fig leaf of a story to cover your reasoning to warp there and shoot everything in sight, and the big excitement is that maybe you get an escalation at the end.  And even escalations, not all that common back in the day, have gotten much more rare as CCP attempts to put the reigns on the faction battleship supply.

Furthermore, as I noted on Talking in Stations a week or so back, the escalation option for many players is to sell the bookmarks to a group that will run them and split the rewards with you so you don’t have to step out of your comfort zone and have your payout expectations set in advance.

There was a skit with Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live way back in the day where he was on stage with another performer ( I forget who at this point) who would give him a treat every time he did something on stage.  Then, after one action, he didn’t get a treat, at which point he stopped to point out that he was expecting a treat.  He’d been given a treat for every action in rehearsal and during the warm up before the show and for every action up to that point, but now suddenly he didn’t get a treat when he clearly expected one and had to find out, mid skit, what happened.

This is sort of the dark side of MMORPGs, the conditioned behavior, in that we expect to get a treat… experience or gold or achievement or whatever… for every action.  We expect that our time invested ought to be rewarded and can get upset or demoralized when it does not.

I am reminded of spending a whole evening grinding mobs with a group back in early EverQuest and then having a bad spawn or a mob wander up or get trained onto us, getting killed, and essentially losing all of the progress I had made.  That was always a disheartening moment.  For all the arguments about having enjoyed yourself up until that moment, the loss of what you had played/worked for tends to cancel that out and then some.

MMORPGs have tended to mitigate that since the early days of EverQuest.  In World of Warcraft death’s sting is pretty light, no progress is lost, and you can run back and try your hand at things fairly quickly.

In New Eden however the destruction of one’s ship can still represent a setback in the only progress a lot of people use, ISK accumulation.  One of the hardest things to get used to in EVE Online is that losing a ship is something to be expected, a normal part of the game.  It took me a long time to get past that.  I have seen people argue that they would never play EVE because they equate a ship in New Eden with gear in WoW, and the idea that you could somehow lose all of your hard earned purple raid gear is anathema to some people.  The whole “only fly what you can afford to lose” is nonsense talk to people who come from worlds where you never lose anything.  That there is a whole complex economy happy to sell them replacement ships doesn’t matter, loss is bad.

And even when you have accepted that ships are temporary, there is still that ISK setback and the inconvenience of getting a replacement.  So PvE in New Eden tends to be the pursuit of the optimized ISK gathering experience, and null sec anomalies win on that front.  Missions are arguably at least mildly more interesting, but a boring anomaly is very consistent in reward and difficulty and you don’t have to travel to find one.  With no real progression outside of ISK accumulation, people tend towards the easiest path.

But that is setting up for failure if your primary focus in PvE.  Anomalies are deadly dull.  I will never be really space rich or own a super capital ship because I cannot bring myself to run more than one or two on any given day.  Instead I use them to fill in the gap between alliance ship replacement payouts (you never quite get what you paid, or for peacetime ops you only get a small payout), to buy new ships when doctrines change, and to cover my own losses when I am off doing dumb things just to see if I can. (I was told I was very dumb for flying my Typhoon back from the deployment, fun and/or challenge not being a mitigating factor in the minds of some.)

In a sandbox game like EVE Online which lacks what I would consider long term, meaningful progression, how do you build “better” PvE for players?  What does “better” even look like given that, for many people, additional complexity or difficulty is often viewed as a negative and the accumulation of ISK or LPs are the only real long-term incentives?

Even people who choose more difficult content like burner missions optimize for them, so that when CCP changes something without mentioning it in the patch notes it can cause some heartburn?

And where does that leave CCP’s ambition to convert new players from PvE to PvP?  Because the return on investment… measured in fun, excitement, or kill mails… for PvP in New Eden can be even worse than PvE.  Much worse.

EVE Online Curse

Sitting in a bubble during a gate camp and waiting…

The problem with sandbox PvP is that it depends on other people, and we’re all notoriously unreliable.  And all the more so in New Eden where you can’t just pop up again at the nearest respawn point fully equipped and ready to have another go.

Yet another on the list of reasons I fly in null sec is that not only do I see some of the more large scale PvP battles, but for the most part somebody else does the work of figuring out where to be and when, then just calls on people like myself to come and help make it happen.  People like Asher Elias and Jay Amazingness and a host of other people put in a lot of effort to find fights that will keep us all happy to hang around and respond to pings.

Even then I would say that maybe, possibly, very optimistically one in four operations end us up with us shooting at hostiles, leaving aside structures and the occasional passing target of opportunity… which usually gets scooped up by the guy not running the doctrine fit because he has two scripted sebos in his mids for just such an occasion.

And even then, actually getting the much worshiped “gud fight” is a rare bird indeed.  Most roams or gate camps or whatever tend to end up as ganks of singletons who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and can’t quite get away.  It is no wonder that final timer structure shoots tend to get a good turnout.  At least we all get to fire our guns and a kill mail is almost guaranteed.

So I ask, in the context of the progression the game offers, the tendency for players to optimize for the desired outcome, and CCP’s fantasy about turning PvE players into PvP players, what does better PvE look like in New Eden?

Meaningful Progression in New Eden PvE

On Saturday I was a guest on Matterall’s Talking in Stations show about the Lifeblood expansion and PvE.

The look at Lifeblood was largely a review of what was part of the expansion announcement last Friday and comparing that with what we knew already from past statements from Fanfest along with a bit of speculation.  Also noted was the fact that October is already Winter in Iceland, so Lifeblood is, indeed, the Winter expansion.

Then we moved on to the PvE discussion which was picked up and driven by Seamus Donahue of EVE university and quickly turned into an EVE University PvE 101 lecture covering the breadth of PvE options in New Eden.

Certainly a guided exploration of the What to Do in EVE Online chart has value.  I didn’t know each box in an much detail before the show as I did after, so I came away more informed.  However, that was not the discussion I prepared for and, as such, I had little to add to that presentation aside from some details about escalations and cosmic anomalies.

Once the exploration of the chart had subsided the show moved on to some discussion of the Alliance Tournament, its popularity, and whether or not the teams really represent alliances or specific sub-groups within alliances.  I had nothing to add on this front as the Alliance Tournament doesn’t hold much meaning for me, so the audience was spared having to listen to my voice any further.

After the show wrapped up and people wandered off, Noizy from The Nosy Gamer, who was also on the show, myself, and Matterall hung out in the Discord channel for a bit to chat a bit about the philosophy, reality, and problems CCP has with PvE in EVE Online, the discussion Noizy and I had prepared for.  Matterall actually recorded some of that and it may at some point become a subsidiary show.  But, as I pointed out in our discussion, I try not to let things go to waste and notes for the show could also be notes for blog posts.

However, rather than jumping straight into a sprawling screed about the failings of both PvE in New Eden and CCP’s assumptions about how PvE players will approach a game like EVE Online, I want to focus on one specific aspect of PvE, progression.

While I am in a null sec alliance now, I spent the first five or so years of my time with the game doing various PvE things in high sec.  I did them in the traditional MMO way, solo.  And even since my move to null sec at the end of 2011 I have spent time exploring various aspects of PvE.  See yesterday’s post for an example.

Anyway, after that long preamble, let’s talk about progression.

Progression is, to my mind, a vitally important “hook” that keeps people playing various MMORPGs.  You can find progression in various forms, from the loved/loathed levels that are the staple of so much of the fantasy genre, to raiding progression, to faction and standings, to your PvP battleground scores or arena standings.

Progression is a thing that keeps a lot of people going, and EVE Online has its own sandbox forms of progression.  It is something that people pick up on… if they get through the tutorial and pick up on anything at all… pretty quickly.

You might remember this chart from Fanfest 2014. (Seen in this video.)

New Player Trajectory

Back before the Alpha clone option, when you had to figure out if you wanted to subscribe to EVE Online by the end of your 14-21 day free trial, half of those who actually opted to subscribe cancelled their subscription before it reached the end of its first cycle.

At the other end, ten percent of those who subscribed found a group and went off to play in New Eden in the ways that CCP expects people to do.  They found or formed groups and went off to help build or blow up castles/content in the sandbox.

In between those two, are the people who came to EVE Online and played it like they would expect to play any other MMORPG.  40% of those who opted to subscribe, myself included back in the day, hit the end of what passed for a tutorial, followed the bread crumbs to the first mission agent, and started running missions.

Missions do provide some of what quests do in other games.  As with WoW, which I will use as the baseline for this discussion, there is a financial reward.  Sometimes you get a module or an implant as a reward.  Not as often as you get a gear upgrade in WoW, but once in a while.  You also get loyalty points, which can be traded in for equipment, so maybe that makes up for not getting gear as mission rewards.

And there is even progression of a sort.  Every time you finish a mission you gain standing with the agent, which increases your future mission rewards, as well as standing with the agent’s corporation.  The latter will, over time, open up access to higher quality agents as well as higher level missions.

Eventually, however, that progression ends.  Once the solo missioneer has unlocked level 4 missions, progression is about over.  They can unlock higher quality agents for a while longer, but eventually you’re done.  Level 5 missions, which run in low sec (read: danger zone!) and are supposed to require groups to finish, are not a viable route.

Continuing to raise standings by running more level 4 missions has some minor benefit, in that you get a small boost with the empire as well, which raises standings for all of the associated corps of that empire.  I’ve done enough missions with various Amarr corporations that if I want to start in with a new one I go straight to level 3 missions.  And standing used to have other uses, like being able to deploy jump clones in empire stations and being able to put up a POS in empire space, but that has all fallen by the wayside of the years.  So progression is pretty much done.

Compare this to WoW.  While every quest gives you some immediate reward, that is almost a minor aspect of most quests.  More important is the progression.  With each quest you gain some experience that helps you level up.  You also gain some standing with a given faction with most quests that helps you unlock rewards later on.

In addition to that, each quest unlocks the next quest.  And, while I may revile the destruction of the old world with the Cataclysm expansion, the quest system that resulted where each zone has a story and each quest advances that story means that there is a sense of coherence with the progression as you move through zones.  My nostalgia fights with the improvement that brought to some zones.  And the zones add up to stories in expansions and so on.

Now, of course, WoW has it’s own problems with progression ending.  When arriving at the last quest in the expansion we have seen a lot of people unsubscribe and go off to other things until the next expansion arrives.  And hand tooling a series of quests requires a lot of work and tend to be one-offs, so it costs to do that.  And then there is the eternal gear grind and upgrades and what not.  It is an imperfect system.

But this progression is popular enough that WoW’s subscriber base at the post-Draenor low ebb was still an order of magnitude larger than EVE Online‘s peak a few years back.

So the question seems to be should CCP devote some time to that 40% of players who show up looking for an internet spaceship progression journey?

CCP has remained steadfast in believing that progression in New Eden means going from PvE to PvP of sorts, though they do have paths to group PvE via incursions and higher risk PvE that exists outside of high sec space.  Should CCP throw the solo PvE players a bone?  Is that compatible with the sandbox?

CCP knows they have a problem here, and they have tried a few things.  We have the various empire epic mission arcs.  Though, like many things in the game, those remain hidden gems rather than obvious destinations.  And the recent events based on the event framework of The Agency have given people little bites of progression.

But it doesn’t seem like enough.  Furthermore, if you looked at the Lifeblood updates (Noizy goes through what we know point by point) you’ll see in the mix an attempt to turn The Agency framework into a multi-player event focus, no doubt based on data indicating that people who join up with other players end up sticking with the game.

However, as some players will never progress to PvP or null sec or faction warfare, some players will never progress past a solo focused experience.  So going towards a group focused version of The Agency will leave people behind.

I remain mixed on the whole idea myself.  I see a great benefit to extending and enhancing the solo capsuleer experience, giving them meaningful progression that will guide them to exploring the game more fully without the expectation that they will graduate to some other aspect of the game.  A few will.  More will likely stay in the comfort zone.

On the flip side I am concerned about making a path that might funnel people away from the sandbox nature of the game and I cannot personally visualize a form of progression that would both fit within the nature of the game and that would both provide the sort of fulfilling guided experience that would keep the solo mission runner demographic engaged AND not end up as disposable or empty in the long term as the typical WoW expansion quest/story chain.

So I come to the end of this with many questions and no answers, just a feeling that there could be something CCP could do.  Somewhere between sandbox heresy and doing nothing at all there ought to be an answer.  I’ve been down this path before.  But New Eden is a place that benefits from more players, even players who just live there but keep to themselves.

The Return of the Stripper

Video safe for work, it is just music.

That is the song that came to mind when I saw the CCP Dev Blog go up about a return to the skill stripping plan, though Smed over using the word “hardcore” and “extremely deep” yesterday might have influenced that line of thought.  Anyway, the whole thing is a bit lurid, something of a tease, and not making everybody in the community happy.

Officially CCP is calling this Skill Trading.  This is the ability to strip skill points from a character in 500,000 SP chunks and sell them on the open market.

For lore reasons this may hurt a bit...

For lore reasons this may hurt a bit…

There seems to be a couple of reasons behind this move.

The first was articulated by CCP Quant at EVE Vegas, where he said the desire going forward was to have players able to create as many of the items in the New Eden economy as possible, including skills… and, apparently, skill points.  This seems to fit withing that over-arching goal.

The second is the classic new player complaint about their inability to “catch up” to older players.  I’ve seen that come up any number of times, the feeling that skill points are the levels of EVE Online and that people who show up late are being unfairly penalized by a system where time alone is the only way to grind up the skill point scale.

And, true enough, no day one newbie is going to be flying a titan or a faction battleship or even a strategic cruiser most likely.  Then again, no day one newbie is going to have the ISK to buy a titan or a faction battleship or a strategic cruiser… or a 500K SP bundle, which is bound to be a bit pricey… not unless they also buy some PLEX to boost up their bank balance.

And therein lies the rub, as the whole discussion gets into the “Pay to Win” arena.  There was enough push back on this idea when CCP broached it initially a couple months back that I thought they might shelve it, but now it is slated for the February 9th release.

The argument against does seem pretty clear.  You can take real world money and, through some process, turn that into skill point advancement for your character.  You are, essentially, buying levels and, while CCP isn’t selling them directly to you, they make money along the way and thus leveraging new players for fun and profit.  I’m sure the #ResistCapitalism team would have some choice words about that situation.

On the flip side CCP makes it quite clear that they are not creating skill points out of thin air.  A quote from the Dev Blog:

It’s very important to note here that this means all the skillpoints available to buy on the market in EVE will have originated on other characters where they were trained at the normal rate. Player driven economies are key to EVE design and we want you to decide the value of traded skillpoints while we make sure there is one single mechanism that brings new skillpoints in to the system – training.

The sum total of skill points in New Eden won’t change inflate because of this, players will simply be trading skill points amongst themselves. [And, as noted in the comments, the total number of SP in game may actually go down a bit.]

Also, for those dying to spend money to advance their skill point total, there is already the character bazaar where you can buy and sell characters for ISK, something that has been around for years without much in the way of objections.

The skill point injectors also will favor new players, so this won’t be just a way for those “rich” in skill point to get richer.  The injectors have diminishing returns based on how many skill points you already have:

  • < 5 million total skill points = 500,000 skill points per injector
  • 5 million – 50 million total skill points = 400,000 skill points per injector
  • 50 million – 80 million total skill points = 300,000 skill points per injector
  • > 80 million skill points = 150k skill points per injector

Then there is the fact that you do not actually have to spend any real world money at all on injectors and the like.  They will all be for sale, from other players, on the market for ISK.  See Jita for the best pricing.

And, finally, there is the fact that advancement does not equal winning in EVE Online, unless your goal… your personal win condition… is to merely skill up your character.  As somebody whose main character recently passed the 150 million skill point mark (while my main alt is past 110 million), I can tell you that having skill points does not mean winning any more than having ISK means winning.  In my case, it generally just gives me a wider range of ships in which to be blown up.

Still, even with those offsets, the whole plan makes me somewhat uncomfortable for a couple of reasons.  One is that even a whiff of “Pay to Win” will give those who already hate the game for whatever reason to throw stones about how CCP is exploiting new players, cash grabs, the evil of money grubbing developers, and so on.  Once you go into an area with a dubious reputation, like multi-level marketing schemes or free to play MMORPGs, you inherit some of the reputation that such has already attained.  You may seem to be selling power with the best of intentions, but it has been done so blatantly wrong before in other games that it is tough ignore.

Then, of course, I am waiting for the tale of how Goons will be the main beneficiaries out of the feature.  If your Goon conspiracy theory cannot include that, you’re doing it wrong!

But mostly I am wondering where the hole, the exploit, the unintentional outcome will show up, because if there is one thing that the last dozen years of the game has shown us is that the wisdom of crowds is a thing and that there is no way a few hundred people in Reykjavík can foresee what a couple hundred thousand people will come up with.

If they mess up with a new ship or a module or game mechanic, they can fix that in the next patch without much bother.  We’ve seen that over and over.  But when you start mucking with one of the core aspects of in-game character development, that might be a place where I fear to tread. We’ll just have to wait see how it plays out.  At least we don’t have skill point losses due to forgetting the update your clone any more, though there is still the strategic cruiser thing.

And in the long run, I suspect that the likely users of this feature will be old hands looking to quickly boost an alt, corps and alliances looking to help promising new players along, people looking for a bit of ISK out of skills they trained and never used, and maybe, just maybe, a few hard cores who want to be able to retrain lost strategic cruiser skills more quickly.

Will I use this feature?  After all, having gone beyond the 150 million skill point mark there must be some skills in there that I ended up never needing.

The thing is, this is EVE Online.  There are so many paths to follow that I can’t really predict what I might need tomorrow given how many careers I’ve had in the past.  Hell, if it wasn’t for Reavers I might run off and join Signal Cartel and be a space hippie for a year, and who knows what skills I might need for that.  So I doubt I will be stripping any skill points out of my skull any time soon.

Others on the topic currently:

Some post from when this first came up:


Torn on MMORPGs

That headline doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Back at the start of November I got an unsolicited email asking me for something.  Not an uncommon occurrence.  I get a surprising amount of offers on the blog email address, most of which I delete out of hand.  This one, however, appeared to be from an actual person.  I was still skeptical.  If you send me a note asking for something on that account, expect that.  But wanted to know what he was really up to.

Kevin, Head of Digital at Chedburn Networks Ltd, the makers of the text MMO Torn (from which I draw the title of this post, so there is that question answered) wanted to know if I would provide feedback on something akin to an MMORPG white paper project they were working on and, also, would I like my blog to be listed on the finished product.

After a bit of back and forth and cynicism on my part, set off by trigger words like “brand exposure,” I said I would look take a look.  After seeing an early draft, I said I would be okay with being listed as an example of an MMORPG blogger along with Syp, Murph, Jewel, Chris from Game by Night (where is your handle, man?), and some John Doe guy that used to write about MMOs, then stopped, but who can’t stop reminding people that he could have been a contender or something.

(I also appear to be the only one of the six that can follow instructions, judging from the final product, where I am the only one with an “established” date.)

That was in late November, after which the whole thing dwindled into silence… until this week, when I got an email with a link to the finished product.  You can go see it here.

There is actually quite a bit of information packed into that.  There is a nice little history of online games with a timeline that starts with Ultima Online and carries through to today, picking out some events that have happened along the way.  It is interesting, in its way, to see what got included.  I’m not sure that the EVE Online T20 scandal ranks up there with the advent of Leeroy Jenkins.  And did nothing happen in 2009 besides the launch of Aion?  It is also hard for me to see these two next to each other like they were totally unconnected events.  And no mention of Warhammer Online, which killed the genre.

SWG was closed because of SWTOR

SWG was closed because of SWTOR

There is also a chart listing out the top MMOs out right now that contains some hard numbers that I am sure people will want to see.  You can, I suppose, extrapolate total player bases by multiplying players per world by the number of worlds they list out.  Of course EVE Online is the top MMO when you sort that way, though the total players is a bit gloomy, while the WoW numbers seem to add up to a total not seen since 2010.

That is a lot of daily players...

That is a lot of daily players…

I asked about the source for some of those numbers, as some of them seem quite questionable, like the ones listed for EverQuest Next.

Daybreak dreaming here?

Daybreak dreaming here? These can’t be Landmark numbers…

But there it is, a pile of data ready to be argued over.  I can foresee some doom and gloom coming from a few entries on the list or what it means to be in the top five, depending on how you sort things.

Anyway, if you are a general MMORPG nerd there is probably something in the report that will interest you.  If nothing else, there ought to be something to spark a blog post.  I will likely write something further once I have had time to sit down and digest what is there.  And it is nice to be told how popular I am again.  It says so right there in that last section.  All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my authoritative close-up.

A Bit of Ancient History that Still Sticks With Me…

There has been this problem in MMORPGs of having to have sufficient content… in the form of whatever bad guys or monsters… or mobs if you want to go Diku MUD old school in your terminology… available for players while not looking like you are packing them in like a vending machine.

This was not really a problem back in the days of MUDs simply because the populations were tiny.  A MUD that kept 100+ player population online around the clock was a booming success in 1995.  But when it came to Ultima Online or EverQuest there was a mass of players eager to play and advance, and advancement comes through the slaying of foes.  At least in old Norrath that ended up meaning a pile of mobs outside of home towns to start with, most non-aggro, and then a sort of series of concentric circles of higher level, more difficult mobs in bands as you moved further from the starting zone.

Yeah, this looks familiar

Out in front of Qeynos during the low level bubble

It wasn’t quite so cut and dried in the early days.  EverQuest was pretty well known for mixing high and low level mobs together in a zone.  West Karana was mostly a low level hunting ground, but had that cyclops and a werewolf and a few other surprises lurking about.


Froon in West Karana

But by 2004 and the introduction of EverQuest II and World of Warcraft the idea of how mobs had to be stratified seemed to be pretty settled.  Outside every town or quest hub would be several layers of mobs of increasing levels of difficulty.  My mind immediately goes to the vast array of gnoll camps in the low hills of Antonica, outside of Qeynos, back in EQII.

When it comes to WoW, Westfall springs to mind with its rings of Defias around the main alliance outpost.

In both cases, there were lots of mobs present, spread out to accommodate parallel sets of adventurers, and just sitting there, milling about, waiting for somebody to show up.  You could avoid them… in both zones the general logic was that such groups would be clear of the roads… but they certainly looked like they had the place surrounded, if in a somewhat desultory way.  They were off far enough to not aggro anybody accidentally, spread out, oblivious to their fellows being slain while clearing in line of sight (but outside of their aggro radius), and looking pretty static.

And they remained there long after you were done with them, but still had to be avoided unless you just wanted to kill a few extra gnolls or Defias.

Blizzard set out to solve this and, with Wrath of the Lich King introduced two things.

The first was phasing, where the environment changes after you complete a specific quest or task.  While problematic, it did allow the game to remove mobs that no longer made sense in the context of the story.

Then there was a slightly more subtle bit of work that took all those mobs idling around the quest hub and gave them something to do.  They were put onto the field with a like number of your allies and set in a pitched battle, NPC on NPC, so everybody looked busy.  That also kept the field from being a nightmare to pass through, as the hostiles otherwise engaged would not aggro on you unless you attacked them.  But the NPCs were otherwise barely chipping away at each other, so you could step in and attack a hostile and end up battling them directly, as aggro was easily pulled from the NPC it was fighting.

And, as it happened, that worked out and has become a staple of Azeroth ever since, an easy way… well, I don’t know if it is easy, so maybe just a reliable way… to put that first belt of mobs out there that you need to kill without having them look idle or bored and without them becoming an annoying wall of conflict when you need to move through them to the next location.

Old news.  That was back in 2008, which is further from today than from the launch of the game.  But I was reminded of how that played out when I ran across an old screen shot from EverQuest II, a screen shot that raises my hackles to this day.


I needed that runesmith!

SOE was on to a similar idea to what Blizzard eventually adopted, that mobs ought not to be static but should interact with their environment and trade blows with their natural enemies should they run across them.  And they put a bit of that in from the start of the game.

So we have the Deathfist runesmith in the screen shot battling with the local faeries.  They are natural enemies and they should not get along.  Dynamic environment!

The problem here was implementation.  Unlike the Blizzard solution, SOE left the locked encounter code in place, so when the the runesmith began fighing with the faeries, you could no longer attack him and get credit for killing him.  And you needed to kill him, as you were likely there in the Valley of Sacrifice to slay him and seven more like him.  Only he was something of a rare spawn.  And when he did spawn, he spawned near the faeries, who would immediately engage him.

So you had to clear all the faeries, clear all the place holders, and keep clearing them across a stretch of land, because if you missed a faerie your runesmith might spawn and get tagged before you got to him.

And that all assumed you were the only one out there looking to get him.  Solo, and in optimum conditions, I have spent well over an hour trying to get those eight kills.  If somebody else was there hunting Deathfist runesmiths as well, then the competition became fierce because… if I recall right… back in the day you didn’t just have to kill them, but you also needed a drop, a drop that wasn’t 100%.

And you couldn’t just dump the quest, as it was step 8 in a 23 quest long chain that ran all over the isle of Zek and which would eventually send you off to Feerrott.

SOE had the right idea.  The implementation was just such that it seemed to maximize frustration.  If it had been some common mob, it would have been interesting.

Then again, they did create a situation that I still think of years after I last ran through the Valley of Sacrifice on the isle of Zek.  And I bet it hasn’t changed after all these years.