Tag Archives: Yeah well that’s just like your opinion man

MMORPG Preservation and Reality

There was a bit of news last Friday when the Library of Congress announced that they would allow an exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act so that institutions interesting in preserving online games, MMOs and the like, could do so.

An exception had been previously granted for stand alone video games no longer published or otherwise available, so this was something of an expansion of that initial ruling.  The Federal Register document is here for your perusal.

The document covers several rulings.  The one you are looking for is labeled as section 8, but is listed out between sections 5 and 7, so it was probably meant to be section 6 as there is another section 8, concerning 3D printing, after section 7.  Maybe this was an error… or maybe I just don’t understand how government documentation works.

This decision was greeted with almost universal acclaim in the niche genre that is fans of dead MMOs.  The Museum of Digital Art and Entertainment (The MADE for short or The Video Game Museum colloquially) over in Oakland, about a 40 minute drive from my home, was particularly effusive.  They were in the fight to make this happen, so were there to cheer once the ruling was announced.  They tweeted out a couple of messages on Twitter that got a frenzy of support over in the comments at Massively OP, this one especially:

I am going to quote that tweet here, just in case it spontaneously combusts out of sheer naivety:

Hey Twitter fans: please go track down people who could legally get us Star Wars Galaxy’s server code, and City of Heroes server code. If they agree to hand over the server code, we can bring those games back online legally.

That note contains the seeds of the problem being faced here.  If you take some time to leaf through the document I linked at the above, you might have run into a paragraph opening with this sentence:

The Acting Register found that the record supported granting an expansion in the relatively discrete circumstances where a preservation institution legally possesses a copy of a video game’s server code and the game’s local code.

Therein lies the rub.  To be within the law, and thus legally protected, a preservation institution like The MADE needs to obtain a copy of the server software legally.  So far as I can tell, the only way to do this is to get a copy directly from the companies who hold the rights to these games, and that seems an impractical and unlikely scenario for several reasons.

First, there is the question as to what sort of infrastructure such a server might require.

Yes, people who put together emulators of these servers do so on the cheap, using whatever is to hand, so you might think this is a non-issue.  But the official server software wasn’t designed to run on your desktop machine.  This isn’t an automatic pass.  This could be a problem because things as simple as the operating system and patch version required to the database connectivity expected to be in place.  The server software might not run as provided without the ecosystem it was made to run with.

The MADE likes to point out that they managed to get Habitat up and running, but that was not only a game from a simpler time, but they were given the source code to work with. I cannot see many MMORPGs doing that for reasons covered below.  Still, at least this is a technical issue, and enough time and effort could garner a solution.

Then there is figuring out who actually has the software and what shape it is in.

Let’s take Star Wars Galaxies as an example.  That shut down in mid-December 2011, almost seven years ago.  At that point it was run by Sony Online Entertainment, one small cog in the giant machine that is Sony.

Time to settle up with Jaba again

A little over three years after that SOE was bought and became Daybreak Game Company.  One might assume that all SOE games, past and current, went with that deal.  But I don’t know if that was actually so.  Given that SWG was a licensed IP, it might have been too complicated, too expensive, or simply not possible or desirable to let Daybreak have that.  It could be stowed away still with Sony.

And, once we figure out who has it,  we have to see if the software has been archived in a way that it can still be accessed.  The server software isn’t like the client, existing in the wild on hundreds of thousands of install disks.  This is likely tightly held, produce on demand software.  Somebody might need to run the build system to generate a copy.

Let me tell you a story about that sort of thing.

Midway through the first decade of the century a company I used to work for once had a formerly famous consumer film company call up and ask for a patch for the server software they bought from us nearly a decade back.  It was on IBM OS/2 and we had long since switched to Windows server.  But that was fine, we had kept the OS/2 build system machines in the lab.  Only when somebody decided to power the system on the drive on the main machine wouldn’t spin up.  And while we had archival backups stored off site, there wasn’t anybody around who could re-create the build system.  And that was all before we had to figure out the problem that company was having, update the code, and run a build.

Since the company calling us wasn’t current on their maintenance contract… we were surprised they were still running our software… we declined to put in the effort.  We probably could of done it, but the work required was not trivial.  Even with the company in question willing to pay us, we had more lucrative avenues to pursue.  Software development is as much choosing what to focus on as anything, since there are always more plans and ideas than there is time.

If we weren’t going to do it for money, we certainly weren’t going to do it for free, which is what organizations like The MADE will expect.  And no company is going to let outsiders troll through their company to look for such software, so finding it relies on a current insider getting permission from the company and using their own time to find things.  This isn’t impossible, but the candidates able to perform this task are probably few.

And, finally, there is the question who can legally provide the server software.

The above are both solvable problems, things that could be made to happen if the right people were to volunteer some time and effort.  Getting the right people to green light this sort of project though, that feels like the highest hurdle of all.

I am going to go ahead and declare Star Wars Galaxies lost to any preservation effort for the foreseeable future right up front based on this.  At a minimum you need Disney, who holds the rights to the IP, to go along with this, and I cannot see that happening.  Mickey Mouse doesn’t even get out of bed unless he’s getting paid.

So let’s look at City of Heroes instead.  This is easier.  NCsoft owns all the rights, so there is no problem dealing with IP problems.  There should be no issue here, right?

The final plea

No server software stands alone.  Even if the previous problems can be brushed aside, it is very likely that Cryptic, in developing City of Heroes, licensed third party libraries, utilities, and other assets in order to create the game.  That licensing likely doesn’t allow NCsoft to give the server software out, even for a good cause.

This, by the way, is part of the answer to every question about why companies don’t open source their games when they shut them down.  They cannot if they don’t own all the code.

In order to cover themselves, NCsoft would have to run down every third party aspect of the software and get the permission of the licensing entity.  My gut says that NCsoft isn’t going to do this and, if they did, that getting every single third party on board would not be easy.

But if you can get past all of that, then you can have an MMORPG in your museum.

And I don’t even want to delve into the question of which version of a game ought to be preserved.  The answer to that will only make people angry since it likely won’t be the launch version or the version from what you might believe to be the golden era of the game.  It will most likely be the final version available from the build system.

All of that ought to be enough to make you say “screw it” and just start working on an emulator.  That has to be easier, right?  You can do what you want with that.  Then you can put it up in your museum.

Well, there is a whole paragraph devoted to that in the ruling.

The Acting Register did not, however, recommend an exemption to allow for instances where the preservation institution lacks lawful possession of the server software. She found the record insufficient to support a finding that the recreation of video game server software as described by proponents is likely to be a fair use. A number of scenarios described by proponents do not involve preserving server software that is already in an institution’s collections, but instead appear to involve something more akin to reconstructing the remote server. She found that this activity distinguishes proponents’ request from the preservation activity at issue in the case law upon which they relied. Moreover, she noted, the reconstruction of a work implicates copyright owners’ exclusive right to prepare derivative works.

That sums up pretty much as, “No, you may not have cheezeburger.”  Recreating is not preserving.  You either get the real deal or you get nothing at all.

And so it goes.  The door has been opened ever so slightly for the preservation of MMOs, but there are still many problems in the way.

Finally I want to call out what I consider a disingenuous to the point of being nearly deceptive part of the tweet above from The MADE.  This phrasing irks me greatly:

…we can bring those games back online legally

Without the necessary context, always a problem on Twitter, one might assume that people will be able to fire up their clients and play their favorite shut down MMO if only The MADE can get the server code.  However, this is covered in the document linked at the top as well:

Video games in the form of computer programs embodied in physical or downloaded formats that have been lawfully acquired as complete games, that do not require access to an external computer server for gameplay, and that are no longer reasonably available in the commercial marketplace, solely for the purpose of preservation of the game in a playable form by an eligible library, archives, or museum, where such activities are carried out without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage and the video game is not distributed or made available outside of the physical premises of the eligible library, archives, or museum.

The emphasis is my own.

So no, should any of this come to pass, you are not suddenly going to be able to play City of Heroes or Star Wars Galaxies or any other closed MMO.  This whole thing isn’t being done just so you can play a video game. Unless you’re willing to schlep on over to Oakland to visit The MADE in person, you won’t be able to see what has been preserved.

And even then, I wonder what a visitor will be allowed to do.  MMOs are strange beasts.  They aren’t like Donkey Kong with discreet interaction parameters and a “Game Over” state after which everything starts again fresh.  MMOs, at least the ones mentioned above, are MMORPGs, with an emphasis on the RPG part.  You go into the world and play a role, interact with things, accumulate items and wealth.   A story unfolds before you as you progress, and it doesn’t reset when you put down the controller and walk away.

How will a place like The MADE handle this sort of game?

Do you let every random person who walks in create a new character?  Do you have some template characters available for people to wander around with?  Do you let people wander around the world and die or do things that irrevocably change the nature of a character’s position in the world?  Do you store progress?  Do you wipe progress every night?

Probably the best case, within the law, scenario here is that a place like The MADE will get software that will let them setup a closed environment in their facility where the general public will get to see, maybe poke at, but probably not play in any depth, certain MMOs.  The only people likely allowed greater access will be press writing articles or academics doing research… and the occasional big donor or volunteer who will get to make a character and play.   The rest of us will just have to feel better that something has been preserved and move on with our lives.

Which is fine.  I can live with that.

But I suspect that many people expect a lot more out of these efforts.

Addendum: Endgame Viable used a couple comments I made on Twitter in his post on this.  This post is essentially an expansion by a couple thousand words on those two tweets.

Addendum 2: Ars Technica has a write up on this as well.

Is EVE Online a Gankbox?

Syp has been angsty about the “gank culture” of EVE Online this week.  He started on Twitter.

Then he turned that into a post on Massively OP where he declared EVE Online to have a “gankbox” culture.

I had to go look up “gankbox,” as this was a new term to me.  According to Massively OP:

Gankboxes are sandboxes that place such an emphasis on unrestricted free-for-all PvP that ganking comes to dominate the entire game, to the detriment of the rest of the world design.

As somebody coming up on eleven years of playing the game, that does not describe EVE Online to me at all.  New Eden is not a place of unrestricted, free-for-all PvP.  Sure, out in the wilds of null sec space or in wormholes you can shoot at other players without consequence, but in low security and high security space, where Neville Smit tells me most of New Eden plays, there certainly are restrictions on PvP.

In low sec you have guns on gates and stations that will shoot at people who initiate combat, there are suspect timers and kill rights that make people who shoot you vulnerable to attack even in high sec space, and the whole security status system that can make travel to high sec a dicey proposition if you sec status gets too low.

And that is low sec space, which hosts faction warfare, where people are alleged to be shooting each other all the time.

In high sec space, CONCORD lands on you and blows up your ship if you just start shooting at other people, something that I would call a pretty serious restriction on PvP.  Somebody has to declare war on you to shoot you without restriction in high sec, and they can’t do that if you’re still in an NPC corporation.

Which, of course, isn’t to say that people don’t get blown up in high sec space.  It happens all the time.  I’ve been on both ends of that.  I have been blown up traveling the space lanes of high sec.  And I have helped blow other people up as part of Burn Jita and Burn Amarr in the past.

An Obelisk freighter goes up

And suicide ganking is a thing in high sec space every day.  But it has restrictions and it can be avoided with some care.  People engage in it as a for-profit venture, so simply making sure it isn’t profitable to gank you goes a long way to making your journey a success.  You can start by getting the hell away from Jita.  As the center of commerce in New Eden, it attracts all the bad elements, so the further you go from it, the quieter and safer things tend to become.

But the term “gankbox” seems completely off base.  Ganking does not dominate the game.  I live in Delve, PvP barely dominates the game.  We mostly mine, shoot NPCs, build things, and sell them to each other, as the monthly economic report demonstrates.

I will cop to EVE Online have a bad reputation however.  It has provided some cringe worthy moments in gaming.  And even I called out the game’s reputation as one of the top five problems I feel the game has.

But a reputation isn’t reality, it is a perception.  You aren’t going to get ganked and scammed by Goons the moment you undock into the tutorial in your noob ship.  Syp couldn’t have “looked” and the gank culture, because it doesn’t exist as he describes it.  He just let one aspect of the game’s reputation color his point of view.

Sure, people get blown up and get mad, as in this classic Reddit post.  But you’ll note two things in that thread.  The first is the pilot’s disregard for security status, and thus his own safety.  Second is that down in the comments he eventually says he is over his moment of frustration.  Life in New Eden, and on Reddit, where flaws get magnified 100x.

For all of that though, I will predict that Syp wouldn’t like EVE Online.  He seemed to get a bit flustered by RuneScape, which at least follows some recognizable MMORPG conventions.  EVE is just plain right-angles to reality confusing if you’re coming from other games in the genre.

Back to my top five problems post, the game’s name, age, and reputation stop people from playing, but it is the the user interface, the complexity of gear, and (my bonus item) the horrible, mis-used, and sometimes arcane terminology common within the game are much more likely to be a real issue than the game’s reputation.

EVE Online is a place where veterans of the game learn about features by accident all the time.  I saw this gem just the other day.  I don’t have to undock to tinker with overview settings.  Who knew?  For a new user it can be confusing as hell.  And that doesn’t even get into the sandbox nature of the game where, once you’re done with the tutorial, the game leaves you to figure out what you want to do.

All of which is me picking on Syp, which he probably doesn’t deserve.  But I would like to see him try the game and reject it for one of it many real flaws rather than running away due to a flaw he thinks it might have. (Also, his posts on Massively OP about EVE might use the games terminology correctly more often.)

When I think of ganking and annoying player behavior, my mind always goes to WoW.  I have experienced a lot more direct bad user behavior in Azeroth than in New Eden.  But I play EVE and not WoW currently.

To round back to the post topic, do you think EVE Online is a “gankbox” or not?

Addendum: Inventory Full, Endgame Viable, and Contains Moderate Peril all have words on PvP as well.

 

Agnarr Server Success and the Nostalrius Question

It looks like Daybreak did manage to get their new EverQuest nostalgia server, named Agnarr for a raid boss of old, up and running and open to the public around their 2pm Pacific time target.

While I was at work, I make this assumption after the fact because there was already a thread up in the EverQuest forums by 2:01pm complaining about overcrowding.

Agnarr the Stormlord approves… I think…

Reading the forums there was apparently over a 4 hour queue to log into the server, problems with user creation, problems with disconnects, problems with zones crashing under load, and a problem with some starter zones being denuded of MOBs by the rush of new characters.  And, just to pile on, Massively OP reports there is even a duping situation on the server, something that can destroy a server economy.

Just another day at Daybreak where “dey break games” in the grand SOE tradition, right?

And there is certainly an element of that in the situation as the crew down in San Diego carries on the SOE habit of being unprepared as events carry the day.  Laugh at them, they’re used to it by now.

But the element that pervades every nostalgia server opening is overwhelming popularity.  Before the Agnarr server launcher, the most popular EverQuest server was Phinigel, also a progression server, followed a ways back by Firiona Vie, the RP preferred live server.

After Agnarr launched, looking in last night and this morning, Angnarr and Phinigel both have full server status indicators and Firiona Vie is out in third place.

Nostalgia sells, these servers are popular, they offer something people want and, more importantly, something people are willing to pay for.  You have to have a Daybreak All Access subscription to play on these servers, so everybody sitting in the queue trying to get on is a paying customer.

This is all the more interesting when you recall that just over two years back SOE blessed Project 1999, the EverQuest classic server emulation project, which you can totally play on for free.

Conclusions one might draw:

  • Nostalgia is popular
  • People are willing to pay for it
  • People want an official server

All of which brings my mind back to another MMO that stopped talking about subscription numbers because they were tanking so bad a while back, World of Warcraft.

Things are better now, or were better with the WoW Legion expansion at least until the end of Q1.

And yet Blizzard wants nothing to do with this nostalgia stuff.  A development team that probably has a larger head count than all of Daybreak combined won’t even glance in the direction of a special server.  Last year Blizzard were keen to shut down Nostalrius, the rogue WoW classic server emulation project, but had not plan to offer anything of the sort on their own, claiming to be unable to even manage what a small group of outside amateurs did.

Initially unmoved by the ensuing drama, Blizzard did eventually agree to meet with the Nostlrius team, listened to them politely, took their user data and code, said a few bland words, mumbled something about maybe a special server of some sort at some future date, then threw the whole thing in the trash bin and went back to working on their master plan to make unlocking flying in the Broken Isles a horrible grind.

In a situation where the burning question for the WoW team ought to be, “Do we have a wheel barrow big enough to hold all the money classic servers would bring in?” the team has stuck to their trifecta of responses, claiming that it would be too hard, nobody wants it, and that the current game is better in any case.

The first is offset by money.  Doing that difficult task would earn money that would make it worthwhile.  And I know it won’t be easy, something you assign to the summer intern, even if that was pretty much the Nostalrius level of effort.  Blizzard has quality standards that they would not want to compromise.   But this isn’t the impossible task that some are making it out to be.  We are not living in some dystopian fantasy future where mankind has lost the ability to make a pre-2007 World of Warcraft server.  While I hate to that guy, since I have been on the recieving end of this quip several times in my career, but it is only software.  When you have coded something once, doing it again is much easier because you solved all the real problems the first time around.

Again, The WoW team is huge, beyond 300 members last I heard, and yet they cannot do what the tiny EverQuest team does and put up a nostalgia server… and get an expansion out every year?  Yes, the two courses are not parallel.  The Daybreak team is a lot more keen to take risks, that they fall on their face before us as often as they do is evidence of that.  And, of course, the EQ team didn’t destroy their original content when pressed for an expansion idea, a fact that does make WoW’s path to nostalgia more difficult.  But a game that is still bringing in more than half a billion dollars a year has the budget to get past that.

The second is just bullshit.  The popularity of the Nostalrius server, the popularity of the EverQuest nostalgia servers, and the willingness of EverQuest fans to pay to play when a free alternative exists argues heavily in favor of any official WoW server offering being off the hook popular.  WoW and EQ share a common bond in that they were, in their times, the first and formative MMO experience for a lot of players.  The key difference is that while EQ peaked at 550K players, WoW peaked beyond 12 million.  That means there is a huge patch of fertile ground on which Blizzard could farm nostalgia.

And the third… the third just seems like ego… ego or fear.  If the current WoW team did roll out some sort of nostalgia flavored server and it turned out to be as hugely popular as I suspect it would, it would be, in the parlance of the genre, a slap in the face.  Nothing hurts like being the new guy and people loudly and exuberantly extolling the virtues of the old guy.  There has to be a strong desire to avoid that sort of public comparison on the team.  It would be bad for them if WoW fans voted with their wallets heavily in favor of the old stuff.  Better to claim it can’t be done.

However, while I argue in favor of some sort of special WoW server, I doubt we shall ever see such a thing.  Even as Blizzard is exploring the idea of farming nostalgia… there was the unsatisfying attempt to recreated Diablo in Diablo III along with the coming remastered versions of StarCraft, Diablo II, and Warcraft III… the WoW team doesn’t seem at all enamored with any such move towards the past.

Still, the ongoing popularity of EverQuest nostalgia does seem to be getting around.  Over at Trion, a team with some old SOE members, there is some talk about special servers for Rift.  I am not at all keen on the challenge server idea, but Trion rolling up an original content server with some special achievements and such might get me to install their launcher again.  Original Rift… vanilla Rift… had some of the tightest, well put together zones I have ever played through.

Anyway, if you’re keen for nostalgia in Norrath, you’re in luck yet again.  If you’re seeking other worlds, your mileage may vary.

Where the Hell is that EverQuest Successor Already?

A staple of MMO blogging is going on about the good old days, and no days were gooder and older at the same time than classic EverQuest.

EverQuest

I will stop for a second and define “classic” EverQuest as a time somewhere between late beta and the final days of the Planes of Power expansion.  Legacy of Ykesha changed the world too much in my opinion.  But if you’re down with Frogloks, the era was certainly dead with Lost Dungeons of Norrath, which made instanced dungeons a thing.

And in that time frame, the classic era, EverQuest was at its most popular, as millions of players passed through the game and as many as 550,000 were subscribed at once.  Most popular has to mean best product, right?  That number is how we know that we aren’t just suffering from selective memory that is editing out the bad bits.

So there have been calls to return to or recreate that era… probably since that era… to bring back all sorts of things like the harsh death penalty, simple classes, spells every five levels, mandatory grouping, open world dungeons, steep level curves, travel time, contested raiding, mobs that chase you right to the zone line, and probably dozens more that I cannot think of at the moment.

And yet, despite that, SOE quite deliberately moved away from that list.  It was as though some old school fans made a list of things that made the game great… that list I just started on myself… and the company said, “You like that?  Well, it has to go then!”  So we got instancing, easier levels, solo quests, a light death penalty, mercenaries, the Plane of Knowledge, player vendors, and some of the most awkward looking mounts ever to grace a video game.

The time seemed ripe for a successor, somebody to get back the essential hardships that molded a generation of MMO gamers.  But who would take on this task?

Mark Jacobs had EverQuest in mind when he said he wanted to take the “suck” out of MMOs.  But his game, Dark Age of Camelot, was really about realm vs. realm combat and not the Diku raiding and level grind on which EverQuest was built.  So I don’t think we can count that.

SOE themselves offered up EverQuest II, dreaming of it being the successor.  But EQII was build on a base of ideas that seemed to largely revolve reducing customer calls and quieting a few persistent complainers on the forums.  Having played EQ and EQII at launch, I gave my impression of what SOE’s “lessons learned” must have included.  EQII was many things, but it was not a successor to EQ.

Blizzard, of course, brought out World of Warcraft shortly after EQII, and it has dominated ever since.  Openly based on EQ, it sought to make a kinder, gentler, and more colorful version of the game.  It embraced a solo, no-fail, low penalty path through the game, the sort of attributes we now derisively ascribe to millennials.  That couldn’t have possibly been the real successor, and even if it was, they have screwed it all up since then.

Then there was Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, the Brad McQuaid attempt to get back to all that was good and right about MMOs, the REAL sequel to EverQuest.  While people blame poor execution on its failure to stick with anything beyond a tiny audience… and, at the time, making MMOs was hard and you had to do all the grunt work yourself… but I still feel he strayed from the true path.  I mean, how many of the fans of the game would go on about how “pretty” the game was to look at?  When was “pretty” ever an aspect of EverQuest, unless the word was paired up with things like, “ugly,” “awkward,” “dated,” or “strange?”

A few spiders were left for us

Oh, the textures!  Classic EverQuest!

And he couldn’t leave well enough alone when it came to the 1999 formula and had to add new things like diplomacy.  So, in the end, not really a successor, as it never attracted enough of those it was alleged to be for.

Meanwhile, in 2006 SOE itself decided to try to farm this obsession for classic servers and rolled up what they called a “progression” server.  It was popular, so popular that the had to roll up a second one.  The two servers, The Combine and The Sleeper launched in June of 2006 and opened up later expansions as the raid bosses for the current expansion were defeated.  A flawed interpretation of 1999, and driven at the pace of raiders who would defeat bosses in short order, it became a staple of the game after free to play, when a subscription was required to wallow in the nostalgia provided.  To this day the servers remain popular, with the latest one, Phinigel, showing high loads on the server status page at even odd hours of the day.

Who is playing at 5am?

Who is playing at 5am PST?

While Daybreak has finally realized the potential of such servers… the first couple of attempts were launched with fanfare and then largely ignored by the community team… and while they do hint at an untapped desire for such an old school experience… they are not really successors in any sense of the word.  Also, the experience they offer is tainted by things that did not exists back in 1999, like crude maps and a quest log.

But for a long time… over a decade really… that was pretty much the only option available for somebody seeking the old school experience.  By 2006 WoW had fully dominated the market, and who wanted to knock-off an MMO that peaked at 550K subs when there was one driving to 10 million subscribers world wide they could blatantly copy.

It took the death of the big budget MMO (Star Wars: The Old Republic implosion), the death of the subscription-only MMO (The Elder Scrolls Online or WildStar, take your pick), and the cancellation of any future plans for Norrath (EverQuest Next gets cancelled) to really get to a point where the industry could even consider not copying WoW and reflect on the origins of the genre and where it first really succeeded.  Even Blizzard is having to acknowledge that their “good old days” are not today, but at some point in the past with the whole Nostalrius thing.

So we have entered the era of the niche revival MMO.  We have Camelot Unchained seeking to relive Dark Age of Camelot in some way, Shroud of the Avatar as some sort of 3D vision of the Ultima series, Crowfall… um… doing whatever it is doing, and Project: Gorgon just getting weird, because why not!

And in this time, it seems like somebody could go back and copy the 1996 Sojourn MUD/TorilMUD flavor of the classic DikuMUD mechanics and make another grouping and level focused MMO in Unity pretty easily.

Yes, I know we already have Project 1999, but having to be able to find a copy of EverQuest Titanium seems like a pretty high bar for entry in 2017.  And then there is Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, Brad McQuaid’s next run at an EverQuest successor.  But I fear that he will be tempted to stray off the true path yet again.

Isn’t there somebody else out there that could rebuild a vision 1999 for us?

I mean, unless this whole nostalgia thing is just bullshit and the last 18 years of the MMO market has actually reflected what most players really want.  In which case, never mind.

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.

BB77 – Everything Has a Season

We’re mutants. There’s something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us… we play EVE Online.

I wasn’t going to join in on the blog banter this month because the topic seemed to have the potential for hysteria about it.  And then people piled on with all sorts of variations on the theme, not all of them the obvious answers, some good, some bad, some a bit silly, and I felt that I had to get my two cents with a set of simple, coherent arguments.  Instead I ended up with the steaming pile of confused opinions below.  And that was after I trimmed out some of the more rambling bits.  But I don’t have anything else ready to post today, so proceed with caution/skepticism.

So this blog banter, the 77th in the series, posits the following:

Is there a malaise affecting Eve currently? Blogs and podcasts are going dark and space just feels that little bit emptier. One suggestion is that there may be a general problem with the vets, especially those pre-Incarna and older, leaving and being replaced by newer players who are not as invested in the game. The colonists versus immigrants? Is this a problem? Are there others? Or is everything just fine and it’s just another bout of summer “ZOMG EVE IZ DYING!”

Just to bring things in to perspective, Noizy noted that we are coming up on the 13th anniversary of the first known usage of the phrase “EVE is dying,” which happened on July 30th 2003.

So is EVE Online finally dying?

Certainly the PCU count is down.  You can go look at the data yourself, but even anecdotally I have seen the numbers go down of late.  Not too long ago there would be 19K to 22K players on TQ during my evenings, now that number seems to range from 16K to 19K.

This year the PCU hit its high point towards the end of April and has been trending down ever since.  Of course, that pattern happens to match the recent war as well.  Wars get people playing the game, but they also burn people out.  Even DBRB, a man of seemingly boundless energy who led fleets nightly for a couple of months, has wandered off the range to play ArcheAge.

Add in the fact that it is summer when people often go on vacation or simply go outside… I hear Pokemon GO is popular these days… and it seems like the cause of the recent decline is pretty easily explained with a bit of hand waving.

Of course, the PCU count has been going down for a while now.  But, then again, CCP has been making it easier to “play” EVE Online without logging on.

Back in my day there was no skill queue at all and you had to log in every time a skill finished training in order to get the next one started.  Short skills were a menace.  Starting a 12 hour skill before bed and knowing that it would finish while you were at work and the next skill would have to wait until you got home to start was a mild pain in the ass.  Level V skills were good, if only because you wouldn’t have to fiddle with that sort of thing for as much as a month, or even more with some skill.

Cormorant Docking - Trails On

Space, back before training queues…

Then we got the 24 hour queue, so you only had to log in once a day at most.  You could pack in a bunch of short skills and they would take care of themselves.  Life was better and we didn’t have to log in as much.

More recently we got a skill queue limited to 50 skills or 10 years in duration, which allowed people to pile on lots of skills and log in even less frequently.  You could play only on the weekends with that, and leave the training queue chugging along unattended for the rest of the week.

Finally, this year we got skill injectors so, with enough money, in-game if you are industrious, real world if you are well off, you can have all the skills you want right fucking now.  You can make a new character in the morning and be able to fly a titan by lunch.

Not that I really object to any of these additions.  As focused on level V skills as I am of late, I don’t want to go back to no skill queue at all.  And even skill goo has its place, as it tears down the barrier of time… for those who can afford it… so newer players can “catch up” to the veterans on the skill front.

All of which probably dented the PCU numbers, at least a little bit.  Beyond that though, they are indicative of my broader point, which I will get to any paragraph now.

MMORPGs… by which I mean the shared, persistent world sorts of game that were en vogue in the middle of the last decade, and from which I explicitly exclude lobby games, shooters, MOBAs, and what have you… are a niche, market no matter what Mark Jacobs may have said in the past.  People who play them, who put in the time, have a tolerance for the efforts required, who will pay a monthly subscription, are outliers in the video game market.

The core of the video game buys a video game, plays it, then moves on.  You mother, over there playing Candy Crush Saga on her iPhone, is closer to the core reality of the video game market than you are.

One of the many recurring dumb arguments I have seen over the years is whether or not video games can be considered a hobby or not.  When we get into MMORPGs, with their complexity and changing dynamics and time requirements, I would argue we are well into the domain of the hobby, and sometimes straying close to the boarder of obsession.

Among other oddities, MMORPGs stick around for a long time relative to other video games.  Yes, they get new content and technical updates, but you and your characters persist through them.

EverQuest has been around and getting regular updates since 1999.  How many other 1999 video games have gotten that much attention and effort put into them over the years.  Here is the list.  There are games there that were successes, faded, disappeared, and were revived with updated versions in the same time frame.  EVE Online has been going since 2003, and the list from that year is also very much stuff we don’t play any more.

MMORPGs, when they are successful, have long lives… for video games… that go through different stages.  I tried to map that out in a previous post.  There is the time of youth, the time of growth, when an MMORPG is fresh and new and a majority of its players are relatively new to the game.

And then there is middle age.  Growth has slowed down or stopped.  Some decline (Deklein?) has set in.  The majority of the player base are veterans of the game, and there tends to be a gap between the new players and the the vets.  In WoW or EQ or whatever, that tends to mean that the old timers are clustered at the level cap.  In EVE it manifests itself more in the form of skill points, knowledge, wealth, and stories about how things used to before there was “warp to 0,” but the effect is the same.  There is a gap.

And, at that point, the company has to decide who its customers really are.

Middle age isn’t a bad thing, not completely.

The heady vigor of youth is gone.  But there is now a base of resources and wisdom to build on, and things that seemed impossible in youth are viable.  As the SNL skit used to say, “I know how escrow works!”  I know this because I have bought and refinanced houses more than a few times, something 18 or 22 year old me would have found bizarre.

Likewise, CCP has built on what it created.  There was, and continues to be, an era of additional features to enhance the New Eden experience.

But for a middle aged MMORPG, its customers are the installed base.  They are the ones invested in the game, the ones who make the big in-game events possible, the ones who pay the bills month after month.

That doesn’t mean that a company should ignore new players.  New players should be encouraged, as replacements for departing vets are needed.  In fact, one of the greatest failures of CCP has been its consistently bad new player experience, which has been driving of potential players wholesale for the entire life of the game.

But new players aren’t showing up in sufficient numbers to pay the bills and there is no feature that CCP can add to the game now that will ever restore it to that era of growth it enjoyed for as long as it did.  I defy anybody to point out another MMORPG that managed to restore meaningful growth via any new feature besides simply giving the game away for free.

The installed base is the life blood of the game and CCP must cater to it, first and foremost.  Anything that isn’t focused on, or in support of, spaceships being out in space and fighting or controlling territory or harvesting resources or hauling or defeating the NPC scourge is extraneous.  Those are the customers CCP has now, and selling them out for some illusory potential new customers would be a tragic mistake, the sort of thing MMORPGs don’t bounce back from.

So where was I?  Oh, right, is EVE Online dying?

Yes.  Yes it is.

But I am also a bit of a fatalist when it comes to the big picture.  I too am making my way inexorably towards death.  Things have their time, and nothing lasts forever.  Some things have a recurring cycle.  I’ve been through almost half a dozen recessions, nearly as many droughts in my life, and a seemingly endless series of IT upgrade projects.  I expect I will see a few more.  Other things have a single arc; lives, video games, the earth.

So why EVE Online is dying, it is still in the midst of it arc, it is still in middle age.  There will still be opportunities, wars, PCU spikes, and general revivals based on space, friends, foes, and nostalgia.

In the end, we play EVE Online now because it entertains us and gives us fun memories.  The memories bit is why I write this blog, which reminds me that I didn’t even start off on the side track to the topic “EVE blogging is dying!!1!”  There is a whole different post in that, but I will live it alone for now.

So there I am.  Others have different, and likely more succinct and coherent, opinions on this month’s topic.  You can find them here and linked below:

And a couple of posts related to the picture being painted:

NBI 2016 – The Worst Question Ever and Other Bits of Filler

Here we are, half way through June and I have finally gotten around to writing something for this year’s Newbie Blogger Initiative event.

NBI_Logo_450Why the delay?

Well, I’m lazy.  The event is being handled… differently this year.  Everybody was supposed to get on something called Discord for the event, which I declined to do because at this point I don’t want yet another communication channel.  We are also in the fifth turn around the NBI mulberry bush, and every year I think I have dispensed all the dubious advice I can come up with already.  Also, did I mention I am lazy?

Oh, and a bunch of people have already written some excellent stuff, which I would link to if that information wasn’t locked up in Discord or whatever.  I guess it is all in the Twitter stream, but I am not going to go pick out every post from that.  Laziness has already been mentioned.

But then I received a summons.   I got an email notification that there was a message waiting for me over at secret underground NBI headquarters.  Could this be the call to action?  The moment of inspiration that gets me to join in the event?  So I went there immediately and found this:

Houston, we have a permissions problem...

Houston, we have a permissions problem…

That at least woke me up however, and here I am.  So what do I have to add besides a bit of curmudgeonly bile?

Um… sorry, that’s all I’ve got.  But let me direct it onto a specific topic.  I want to talk about what I consider to be the worst question you’ll get as a blogger, gamer, podcaster, streamer, or the like.  And that question is:

Where do you find the time?

You’ll know you’ve truly arrived when you have been asked that question, or one of its many variations.

Part of what I hate about it is that, as questions go, it seems pretty innocuous.  Or it can.  As I noted, the question (sometimes presented as an implied question with a statement) can come in many forms, such as:

  • I wish I had as much free time as you.
  • I wish I had time to do that.
  • Do you have a social life outside of this?
  • How do you do all this and still have a job?
  • I would have to neglect my wife and children to do all this.
  • Don’t you have a life?
  • Are you some sort of basement dwelling troglodyte that you have time for this?

Those are all variations on the same question.  Some are more aggressive than others, but they all sum up to the same thing, that there is something different or wrong with you.  The implication is that you either possess some secret to having extra free time (which you are not sharing) or that you are neglecting some part of your life that you should not.

It is, when you think about it, a somewhat hostile question.  It annoys me when people ask this question, in all its variations, because I see the implications even if the person asking doesn’t.

What makes that question even worse is that it pops into my mind all the time.

I read about somebody who runs an alliance in EVE or leads a raiding guild in WoW or who plays multiple MMOs or even somebody who has a regular weekly group , something I used to be able to manage but which is off the table now, and I seem to automatically think, “I wish I had the time…”

I think that even though I know both the implications and the real answer.  The question still pops into my head unbidden.

But at least knowing the real answer keeps me from putting it on comments on other people’s blogs… most of the time.

So my meager contribution to NBI 2016 is sharing the answer with you.

Everybody finds time for the things they really want to do.

It is that simple.

In our world of the 24 hour clock and life and responsibilities, time is a constraint and, because of that, we will pick the things that are important to us and prioritize them.  There is no magical way to extend the day, so we use the free time we have to do the things we want to do most.

You will find the time to do anything you really, really want to do, and all the more so if it is something you enjoy and that makes you happy.  If all you can do is wish you had the time to do something, you’ve prioritized that something already and it didn’t make the cut.  The “fucks budget,” if you will.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t people who neglect important aspects of their lives, but if your assumption is that anybody who has time to do something that isn’t important to you is doing so, then you are wrong.

Let’s see, what can I tack on to the end of this post to distract from that rather bland bit of so-called wisdom.

Hey, there is this post about why you should read blogs.  It is short.

Bhagpuss has a post about blogging that links out to other NBI posts.  Go read that.

Oh, and there are the actually new bloggers in this year’s NBI.  I had better link to them… I was at least able to find that list… so go visit them.  Now!

Hrmm, this year’s list isn’t all that long, is it?  And no EVE Online bloggers, and I know there have been a few new EVE blogs that have popped up lately.  I guess the word didn’t spread far.

Well, go click on everybody on the list twice I guess.  It won’t take you long.

And, since I haven’t even crossed the thousand word mark yet in this unisightly ramble, how about I link back to all my previous NBI posts from past years so you can wade into the shallow puddle that is my wisdom on the topic.  Here we go:

My dedication to the event over these last four years has been pretty low, but there are a few bits of sage advice in all of that… and links to other blogs.

In the end, I really only have the same advice I hand out every year.

Be the blog you want to read

And even that seems a bit “duh” to me.  Why would you be anything else?

Anyway, who else should I link to here?  It is, in the end, all about the link whoring.

Addendum: See, even Syp doesn’t have all the time in the world.