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

24 Million EVE Online Pilots Means What?

As part of their announcement that EVE Online was now available on the Epic Games store CCP put out a press release that indicated that more than 24 million “pilots” had played the game and that more than 91 million ships had been destroyed.

Some numbers

Those are some impressive numbers.

When I write about older titles in the MMORPG genre I often refer to a game’s “installed base.”   Those are the total number of users who have played the game and who are still interested in or fond of the game. They are often a lucrative resource for a company to sell to.  There is a direct correlation between that “installed base” number and how successful an older game can be playing the nostalgia card with retro servers and the like.

EverQuest, for example, while peaking at 550K subscribers, was the biggest show in town when it came to the genre for the first five years of its run.  During that time several million people played the game and then moved on.  So, while many players didn’t stick with the game forever, they played long enough to have had good times.  When SOE, and later Daybreak, started offering old school servers based around early content, that became a significant part of the title’s business.

Likewise, we saw WoW Classic revive the fortunes of World of Warcraft when Battle for Azeroth was foundering a bit, and Old School RuneScape… playing the retro card there has gotten it concurrent player counts more than a lot of titles have total players.

So EVE Online looks to have a sizable installed base to work with.  Even if they can’t play the retro server card, they can still market to appeal to players who have played and lapsed over time.

The question is, how big the core installed base, the players that got invested enough in the game, really is.  And for that we have to first figure out what 24 million “pilots” really means.  That could mean characters, accounts, actual individual people, or some other metric they came up with after a night of too much aquavit.

Fortunately, even as I was thinking about what it could be, CSM member Brisc Rubal was using his position to find out from CCP what it really meant.  On The Meta Show on Saturday he said that he got clarification and that “pilots” really meant “accounts.”

That means 24 million accounts have been created for the game.

But he got even further clarification.  Of those 24 million accounts… and I know I keep rounding down, but I am going to get into some sloppy math in a bit and that will be my margin for error or some such… 18 million were created by unique individuals.

So the largest potential installed base for EVE Online is 18 million people.

Of course, it is not that big.  Not every one of those players spent enough time to form at attachment with the game.  After all, we’ve all seen this chart from EVE North 2019, haven’t we?

How many new players log back in as time passes

And that wasn’t even news in 2019.  We had seen a similar sort of chart back at EVE Fanfest 2014.

New Player Trajectory

People who leave without engaging, people who don’t log in after a day or two, nothing has hooked them.  They got a glimpse, didn’t find anything to their liking, and moved on.

This was the view of EVE at the time

The retention problem has changed over time.  That 2014 chart reflects the pre-F2P era, when you had to commit a bit more to even get going because the whole thing required a monthly subscription after the 14 day trial, a fact that chased a lot of people off before they took their first step towards the game.

Now, with free to play, the reality of the first chart, where nearly 90% of new players fall by the wayside in a week and the overall long term retention is something like 4%, that 10% “Group / Diverse” long term retention path probably feels like the good old days.

That means that the installed base isn’t 18 million.  But it also isn’t 720K, which would be 4% of that number.  It is somewhere in between, though much closer to the lower number I would guess.

So I am going to do a bit of hand waving with the data we have to come up with a guess that, while not solid, has some foundation in reality.  And that is where we get to that gap between 24 million accounts and 18 million individuals.

That is a gap of six million, and I am going to use that as the basis of my estimate, because to me those are the secondary and tertiary accounts that users who are committed to the game, people who would likely count in the installed base, players that CCP could reasonably be able to market to with some new initiative.

So if that is six million alts and, let’s take a 3 alts per main as an estimate… I know, somebody will say that person X has a hundred accounts, but a lot of people still just have one, and even Goons by the last participation metric count are a little past 4 to 1…. that means that there are maybe 2 million individuals out there that have committed to the game enough to manage multiple accounts.

That leaves 16 million in the total users, who can’t all have turned and run, so I am just going to somewhat arbitrarily declare a million of them…  6.25% of that total… are also in the installed base of the game.

That gives the game an installed base to draw on of maybe 3 million individuals, and I am going to use the slop in my rounding down to 24 million at the top to hide the current player base, where CCP has said they have an active monthly user count that runs between 200K and 300K.

That is pretty healthy.  But EVE Online has had some promising numbers of late, like that floor of 110K subscribers that the redeemed ISK token line in the July/August MERs seemed to indicate.

Of course, the question is what CCP does with this installed base.  As I noted above, they don’t really have the retro server option, the New Eden economy being a bit precarious as it is.  Splitting the player base with another server would likely doom both, leaving aside the giant elephant in the room of what an EVE Online retro server would even be.

So they have untapped potential.  Can they do something with it?  What would lend itself to getting the installed base engaged and back to the game?  Or is the installed base really a thing at all for New Eden?  When you “win” EVE and log off, do you want to come back?  It is a game that can absorb all the effort and dedication that you have, so would you miss it when it was gone or just feel relieved?

On Perks and Paying More

While I was away last week I saw a dev post come up in the EverQuest forums (I subscribe to the dev post feed in Feedly and, while it delivers a lot of garbage… you get every reply to a dev started topic… it does pop up something interesting now and then) about a new monetization scheme for the game.

Not being able to write about them at the time, I forwarded a link over to Bhagpuss who put together his own post about the idea.

As he noted straight off these “Perks,” as Daybreak has branded them, are not really perks at all.  “Perk” comes from “perquisite” and is generally something you’re entitled to already, not something for which you have to pay.

Poor naming choices aside, I was kind of interested to see another attempt to bring in more money for an older title, because I was on a bit earlier this year about how the price of just about everything has gone up over the last 15 years, and yet somehow we’re still paying $15 a month for subscriptions.

Daybreak subscriber prices

The response to that was… not positive if you were an MMO developer.  Massively OP picked up the idea and their staff responded mostly against the idea of subscriptions being more (that was back in May, but their answers didn’t change much when they did the same question yesterday), while the comments were vehemently against any such thing, with a theme of “I want more if I am going to pay more” appearing.

And I get that as a gut reaction, but any attempt to go deeper seems to get met by the “greedy developers” trope that is so common.  Think about the answer I would get from the family that runs the Thai restaurant down the road using the same argument.  Twenty years back a standard entree was $6.95, these days it is $17.95.  Should I expect to get more for the extra I am paying?  Are they greedy restaurateurs, pocketing that largess?

We know that isn’t how it works.

There are other factors of course.  MMOs do not exist in a void and, as I mentioned in my post, we have been conditioned over time by the idea that tech should get cheaper and not more expensive.  But even Moore’s Law has to adjust for inflation.  And these days a lot more things are demanding a subscription, from Microsoft Office to Netflix to XBox Live, all of which influence our sense of value.

So when the Perks announcement came along, I was interested to see how they would be received.  These were, after all, optional items that delivered extra value for the price, and very close to what the current darling MMORPG, FFXIV does with retainers.  So who could possibly object?

Everybody?  Is that the answer I am looking for?

I suppose the coverage of the plan didn’t help.  Over at Massively OP they opened with the greed dog whistle by asking, “How can Daybreak milk even more money out of subscribers?”

I mean, unless I am missing some positive connotation for “milking” in this situation.

The comments naturally follow that lead, with a lone outlier mentioning FFXIV.

Over at MMO Fallout the tone was less overtly hostiles, though sarcasm was clearly in evidence at the idea of a subscription on top of your subscription.

The utility, or lack thereof, was barely up for debate.  The news story was “greedy devs at it again.”

Which, as noted, is ironic not only because of FFXIV, but also because this would not be anywhere close to the first time that the company that was once SOE offered and extra subscription option for additional stuff.  Those with long memories may recall that EverQuest II has such an extra at launch, offering access to their special players site for $2.99 a month.  There were also a special GM driven events server that had an extra monthly toll to play on.  And Station Access, the one subscription plan for multiple games, started off life as an extra cost option that offered perks, including extra character slots, which were enough to prompt many of the people in our guild back then to pay the price even though they were not going to run off and play EverQuest or PlanetSide.

Fine, whatever.  If we won’t pay more for a subscription, or even tolerate the idea of optional extra subscriptions, then I’ll just assume everybody is happy with cash shop monetization.  That must be true, right?  People certainly are not out there clamoring for the return to a subscription only model in order to banish the horrors of cash shop monetization.

Oh, wait.

We won’t pay any more for a subscription, hate the cash shop, and complain that studios won’t risk millions to make something new, betting instead on franchises and sustaining already profitable titles.

We’ll see how that works out in the long term.  But I’ll be investing in popcorn futures when Playable Worlds announces the monetization scheme for their metaverse project.  The things Raph wrote about just yesterday don’t come for free.  There is a lot of upside to the thin client idea, but it has to do the processing that the server normally does plus the work you desktop does as well, and somebody will need to play the bill for both.

Of course, it is possible that people say they won’t pay more… until they have to.  It is hard to judge the price elasticity of subscriptions without somebody challenging the $15/month meta.  If a game could go to $20 a month and keep the same number of subscribers, they do it.  They’d also drop to $10 if they knew they would double their subscriber base.  But nobody is willing to bet their game on that just yet.

Was the WoW Level Squish a Good Idea?

It will be coming up on a year next month since Blizzard introduced the big level squish as part of the run up to the Shadowlands expansion.  I started thinking about it as part of the mudflation post earlier in the week and whether or not it was worth the effort.

Of course, I have no way of measuring its impact beyond my own perception, and I am not sure if even Blizzard could answer that question right now, there being so many other factors impacting their user base this year.  But a lot of work went into making it happen and details like not being able to answer a question has never stopped me from asking one.

So this is going to be more of a gut check I suppose.  An emotional response.

And even that isn’t going to give a clear answer.  I am of mixed emotions on the topic even a year down the road. (It feels like more than a year ago to me, but time is a blur.)

To start with, I didn’t even think Blizzard would do it.  I am on record a number of times thinking the idea was too risky for Blizz, which can be very conservative on game changes.

That conservatism was apparently outweighed by the growing absurdity of levels in between any new player and the current content.

So in I went to the level squish and… I did okay.  It took me a bit to figure out that there was both an old school path through to the level cap as well a series of parallel paths through to the cap.

My vision in Excel format

I got a couple of characters leveled up through the new system before Shadowlands.  It was definitely speedier than before.  So technically a win.  And I feel like making all the expansions viable paths through the game was a good idea.

On the other hand, the whole thing was more complicated that needed, which is kind of the traditional Blizzard method.  If you were a new player it put you on the Battle for Azeroth path, but if you were making alts you had to go find Chromie and get on the path you wanted, and you had a chance of accidentally ending up in the old layer cake path through the game.

The horizontal stack with level caps on each expansion

And if you made a Demon Hunter, as I did, you might not realize you were in that layer cake model until you found that the mobs all grayed out before you made it to 50.

So the whole thing seemed like it had some good ideas and clearly had the intent to serve both new players and veterans alike.  But did it?  Is it a long term win?  Was it worth the effort… and reworking every expansion to scale and be viable for levels 10 to 50 was a lot of work… make that a thing?

Part of it is hard to appraise because you’re viewing from the outside.  And when you add in the long content drought after the Shadowlands launch and then the company blowing up with the lawsuit it is easy to think that Blizz could have spent their time better.

So I am left feeling neither all that positive or all that negative on the change, which is odd because a year ago I it seemed like a big freaking deal.  So it goes.

Immersion in the Nebulae of New Eden

Back to the immersion track again and this time I am going to change things up completely, leaving behind the fantasy realms of Middle-Earth and Norrath for outer space.  It is time to take a crack at EVE Online.  That is, after all, where this tear about immersion started a while back.

This should be easy, right?   CCP even ran an ad campaign around the “I was there” idea, which seemed to me to be a clear suggestion that immersion was a thing.

Of course, that was made for the Incarna expansion a decade back and ends with the player in the ship hangar of the captain’s quarters, a feature gone from the game for about four years at this point.  It was not a high point for the game and the relations between CCP and the players.  But it was trying to get at something about the game.  Was it accurate though?

EVE Online has a lot of things going for it when it comes to immersion.  It is a futuristic dystopian space empire game, which means not only can the game get away with a lot, but things that might seem immersion breaking in a fantasy MMORPG like Lord of the Rings Online are perfectly acceptable in EVE.  There are no naming conventions to break, no cultural references that you can make that aren’t ancient history in New Eden, things like in game chat channels and voice comms are totally appropriate to the setting.

And the game even enforces a bit more reality that your average MMO.  In the future currency is all electronic… it is mostly that way today… so a cash balance at your finger tips that is measured in the millions or billions of ISK is totally within the scope of what one should expect.  But the magic storage back doesn’t exist.  You can’t store something in your hangar in Jita then run over and pick it up again in Amarr.  You can’t even use the magic mail service that exists in WoW and EQ and so many other titles to insta-ship things to yourself or others.

Which isn’t to say there are not delivery services in New Eden.  They’re just run by other players.  Contracts, scams, industrial enterprises, spies, piracy, it is all there.  I even think the space flight aspect is probably more realistic to what we ought to expect that your typical dogfight in space simulator.  Do we think people will fly ships by the seat of their pants or do we thing computers will do the calculations and take the ship where you want to go?  I think entering a command to warp to a particular destination is probably more likely.

So here is the odd twist, at least for those of who read my posts about the game.  If I am writing about some big battle where thousands clashed and ships were exploding left and right… that even probably involved very little, if any, immersion for me.  Or maybe it is a different sort of “in the zone,” I am not sure.

But generally with those fights when were on voice comms with hundreds of people in a fleet and you’re getting instructions over your headset and trying to follow broadcasts and keeping an eye on your position and you overview, it can be a lot of work, a lot of switching around and not focusing on one thing, and getting focused on something is an easy gateway to immersion.

Add in time dilation and the UI not responding and having the outstanding commands window up and having the FC change their mind based on intel coming in on a channel that he can hear but you cannot…. it is probably very warfare realistic… but it not something that where I get that “I was there” feeling.  It feels very much like a video game.  An amazing, complex, video game with thousands of people involved, but still a video game.

One of the problems with EVE Online is that I spend a lot of time playing the game while tabbed out in some other window.  I am looking at Jabber channels or something in Discord or one of the many web sites with game information like DOTLAN or zKillboard… or maybe just looking up something that was mentioned on voice comms or linked in fleet chat.

Which is, like so much, is perfectly in sync with the technology age of the game.  Of course we would have access to all sorts of data… and data overload can be a thing.  If you have the wrong overview setting or mis-heard a command because something else was going on of the FC is too excited and only keyed up his mic half way into what he was telling us… but that is all very realistic too.

What isn’t, however, is the UI itself.  The game has gotten better over the years, doing things has become smoother, but having to fumble around with that user interface that is suppose to represent the state of the art technology thousands of years in the future doesn’t quite sell it.

Okay, so where do I find immersion in the game?

I can get there in big fleet fights, but usually only if I am flying logi, the repair ships that accompany a fleet into battle.  I can get into the zone in that role, and it is one of the reasons I spend as much time as I have over the years doing so, because your part of the battle is fairly small.  You need to stay on your anchor and keep an eye on broadcasts, locking up and repairing ships as they call for help.  This is often facilitated in a fight by a spy in the opposing fleet who will communicate the enemy’s next target.  Somebody in command will call out the name of the next target and tell them to broadcast for reps and we’ll all lock them up so they will have repairs already on them as hostile damage begins to land.  When things are going well it can be an assembly line of reps, one ship after another until suddenly the broadcasts stop if the fight has gone your way… or until the logi ships start dying off too quickly and you can no longer hold and then your side is probably on the losing end.

That is certainly a thing.  And even in smaller fleets, especially Reavers fleets, I can get in the zone flying a combat ship rather than logi.  Having an FC you know and trust and knowing what you need to be doing can get you there.

But for the most part immersion is kind of a solo thing for me in New Eden.

While most of my posts about big fights don’t involve immersion, almost every post I have made about doing some minor task… usually flying a ship through hostile space on my own… has involved some immersion moment.  Especially when I jump through a gate in low sec or null sec space and find hostiles on the other side.  I was reminded of that last week when I lost a Purifier to a gate camp.  I came through and saw them on the overview, that they had the gate bubbled, and my heart rate went up noticeably as my body responded to that sensory input with an little jolt of adrenaline.

A physiological  reaction to something that happens in game is pretty much proof of immersion in my book.

Anyway, looking back at what I have written so far I have been meandering.  That is often my style.  But I don’t need this to be 10K words, so I am going to try to pull immersion in New Eden into better focus by comparing it with my past two posts, which were about LOTRO and EQ in order to tease out what elements of the game help me find immersion and what works against it.  What do they titles have in common for me?

For LOTRO I listed out:

  • Familiar lore
  • Good adaptation of the lore to the game
  • Feeling of place within the game
  • Mechanics are familiar but not identical to other fantasy MMORPGs
  • Familiarity with the game
  • Well done landscape that feels like Middle-earth

And for EQ I said:

  • Feeling of place within the game
  • A connected world that required travel
  • A feeling of different places in that world
  • A simply huge world at this point
  • A freshness that has somehow remained with me
  • Night/light really changing the feel of the game
  • A sense of danger in the world
  • Mercenaries if you can’t find a group now

Lore comes up right away for LOTRO.  Without Tolkien’s works behind it LOTRO is just a poorly implemented fantasy MMORPG.  Lore is key to the experience for me.

Not so with EQ and not so with EVE Online as well.  The lore of New Eden just doesn’t do much in the game for me.  It isn’t compelling for me and is, in some cases, a bit annoying.

For example, the idea that ships in New Eden have crews is dumb, an artifact of somebody slipping a mention of crews into the old game wiki.  Nothing in the game supports the idea of crews and much argues against the idea.  Even those who love the idea of crews gladly toss aside the complexities involved with their pet theory.  Where do they come from?  Are they impressed into service?  Are they slaves?  Who willingly gets on a ship with an immortal capsuleer who will be reborn if the ship blows up?  Are planetary conditions so bad that people are willing to die?  This is a plot hole worse than where they go to hire henchmen in James Bond movies.

I am a proponent of the lone capsuleer theory.  The game takes places thousands of years in the future where technology has made capsuleers immortal gods of the space lanes.  Am I supposed to believe we have the technology for that and faster than light travel, but somehow my missile bays need somebody standing around loading them by hand?  I think not.  Besides which, how do my skills and implants and boosters affect ship systems unless it is me running everything.  I am alone on the ship, I am a part of it and it is an extension of my body.  This is the lore hill I will die on.

Sorry, got a little carried away there.  Let’s just say that the lore is a split decision for me on a good day.

I am going to skip down on the LOTRO list to familiarity with the game, which is kind of a draw for me in EVEEVE is a game of continual learning, so familiarity means that you have a foundation from which to work.  But there is so much to know.  The wise quickly learn their limitations and fools like me rush in and get schooled.  There are 65 regions in known space in the game and after 15 years of playing I still run across region names I cannot place on the map in the MER… and if I’m listing them out from the MER that means a bunch of people live there.  So kind of a wash on familiarity, but that was why I wanted to get it out of the way and move on to the big one.

Then there is a sense of place.  I said in the last post that this felt like an item that could be a through line on all of these posts, and this one will support that idea.

EVE Online very much has a sense of place.  Not in the way that Middle-Earth in LOTRO or Norrath in EQ do.  Not really.  I mean, space in New Eden is as beautiful and varied as the landscapes in LOTRO, and the size of EQ is only matched by the size of EVE Online, something enhanced by the lack of instant travel and automated post box deliveries I mentioned above.  It feels like a place because it takes time to move through it.

But New Eden doesn’t have a lot of personal touches, places that are special because the devs designed them that way.  There are a few monuments scattered about space.  But a lot of the places that are special are because the players made them so.

My personal map of New Eden and the places I’ve been

Jita, the main trade hub of New Eden is an accident of design.  The Caldari Navy Assembly Plant at Jita planet 4 moon 4 was once the first mission hub for new Caldari players back when rolling up Caldari gave you an initial skill advantage for PvP.  So lots of new players are coming back from missions and selling their stuff and suddenly it because the place to sell.  Jita 4-4 is your space mall.

The graveyard in Molea was a player driven effort.  CCP has since made it a thing they shepherd, but it went for more than a decade of being a place made special by the players.  Other monuments in the game are there to remember things that players did.  There are plenty of systems made famous for events, like B-R5RB or M2-XFE, where titanic battles were fought.

And then there are the places that mean something to us individually.  Two years back I wrote a post about my homes in New Eden.  Anybody who has played the game for any length of time likely has a system or two or a station that they feel like they lived out of, that has memories for them.

The funny thing is that while space if pretty, it is also kind of generic.  It doesn’t change much as you travel through a region.  One system can look very much like another.  They only become special because of the things we experience.  It is our stories over layered on top of New Eden which makes one system memorable and another just another pair of gates on the way to some place.  New Eden has a sense of place because we make place there special.

And that leads me into another item which isn’t on either of my other two lists, and that is the player stories.

Every MMORPG has player stories.  I write here about the tale of the instance group and my time in other games, essentially retelling the stories of my time spent.  But those tales are often in the context of the lore and the larger tales of the game itself.  I wrote about Hellfire Ramparts yesterday not because we did something unique, but because we ran a piece of content.  Our experience was our own, but it was parallel to what many thousands of others have experienced.

EVE Online, being a good sandbox, lets players have stories that are not on the same rails that everybody else has experienced.  It can be small, personal events.  If you have decided to move to a new region in high sec, just finding a new home, hauling your stuff, and getting to know the new neighborhood is a story.  A lot of stories depend on interaction with other people.  There is a lot of PvP in New Eden.  Ships blow up.  Players pop up where you don’t expect them… or sometimes they land exactly where you do expect them.  It is a difficult game to find the fun in at times because the fun isn’t always dispensed in bite sized increments.  And the scripted stuff, missions and events and the like, are often a bit tedious after the first run or two.  PvE is content that can be mastered and, thus, made routine.  But player stories about them doing their own thing, that is what makes the game.

People often complain about sovereign null sec.  It is boring.  It is too safe.  Wormholes are more lucrative and low sec has better small gang fights.  I’ve heard it all over and over and have been called names because of where I live.  F1 monkey is always a favorite.  Gevlon said I was a slave, like I somehow couldn’t log off.

But here is the thing.  Out there in null sec I am a part of a much larger story.  We just saw a 13 month war that had 120K in game characters attack a group of less than 40K in a campaign that swept through a dozen regions and laid waste to at least half of them.  It was a struggle the size of which just doesn’t happen in other games, driven by politics, deals, grudges, and a desire for fame and a place in the history of New Eden.  Andrew Groen has written two large books on the history of the null sec empires in EVE Online, and there is certainly material enough for a third.

Even if we assume the character to player ratio is something around 5 to 1 (I make this call knowing that the current ratio in Goonswarm Federation is 4.2 to 1) that is still a lot of people involved.  That is maybe 30K real life individuals involved in a virtual space war that carried on around the clock for over a year and spawned host of narratives, intrigue, and propaganda that spilled out into the real world.

I had to come up with a new term just to try and find some way to capture the feeling of being involved in such an event.  I will call it “Meta Immersion,” the feeling of belonging to something that isn’t real yet becomes a real part of your life.  This is a special aspect of New Eden that just doesn’t happen at scale in other games that I have played.  Empires rise and fall, alliances are made and broken, leaders become famous for a season and maybe infamous come the next, it is all quite a big deal when you dig into it.

Okay, I am getting all breathless about story here, I know, and I am already three thousand words into this post.  Maybe it is time to try and sum up to some bullet points.  So let’s see…

Pro Immersion

  • Sense of place
  • No fast travel options makes the size of the game more tangible
  • Scales up to “meta immersion”
  • A vast canvas for story, from the smallest to those with a cast of thousands
  • Lore that is compatible with player stories
  • A company that sometimes cares a lot about player stories
  • A lot of good complexity
  • Most meaningful trade skills in any game ever
  • Unique mechanics
  • Skill and knowledge focused versus gear focused game play
  • A sense of danger in the world

Against Immersion

  • A UI that really struggles to tell you what you need to know (remembers everything, tells you nothing)
  • Most info you need is outside of the game (tabbing out breaks immersion)
  • A lot of bad complexity (try managing a corporation)
  • No other game prepares you to play this one
  • CCP can’t quite grasp its own game or the implications of some of its actions
  • CCP goes through bouts of “you’re playing wrong” and breaks things
  • Other players on voice coms (and in the forums and on /r/eve)
  • Loss is very much part of the game, which is a tough hurdle for many people

That last one is a hurdle for so many people.  I still hate losing a ship.  If there is one thing that MUDs then MMORPGs have taught us as players is that gear is sacred.  I remember back in TorilMUD where a first offense for doing something considered cheating (which included a bunch of things that would be normal in WoW today) got you the choice of losing half your levels or all of your gear.  That was no choice at all.  With gear getting back your levels is no problem, but without gear a level cap character was useless.

In EVE Online ships are not like that.  Aside from a few very special items, ships are expendable, more like ammo than gear.  I’ve lost 334 ships in 15 years, which is a small number really.  That is almost twice a month.  If you lost your gear in WoW that often you’d quit.  But in New Eden you just go to Jita and buy a new ship.  There is enough competition that the market is usually good at finding the lowest acceptable price for producers and most anything can be had for ISK.

Anyway, I have rambled enough about EVE Online for now.  There are probably half a dozen things I meant to write that I forgot and no doubt a couple I went on at length about that could have been cut back.  But this is an exploration via writing on a blog where everything is a first draft.

So that is three games down.  Where should I go next?

The series so far:

On Immersion

Yesterday somebody triggered me on one of my most/least favorite hobby horse discussions, that of immersion.  Sometimes I think I have grown enough over the years to not get wrapped up in online arguments about such things, but apparently immersion is not on that list yet.

This time the immersion argument brewed up as one of the objections to CCP’s pop-up advertisement in EVE Online that comes when you lose a ship, encouraging the player to buy some PLEX so they can purchase a replacement ship.  This has led some anger… erm, some additional anger, because there is always anger… in the community.

Use your credit card to finance your revenge!

This led to any number of reactions, including the dead idea of returning to a subscription model, as well as any number or arguments about why this pop-up pushes the line in way that past monetization of the game has not.  Immersion features in some of those arguments as the pop-up comes during combat when you lose a ship, which puts it in a new category for some.

Sending players to the out of game website cash shop to spend real world money crosses an immersion line for some.

Enter Pollyanna, done explaining that the PCU drop is normal and nothing to worry about, who followed up to argue that immersion is a strictly definable thing, the same for everybody, and that this pop-up does not break immersion because PLEX exists, pop-ups exist, and links that take you out of game exist.

And there you have me triggered and engaging in a fruitless online argument.  I mean, they’re almost all fruitless, but I live in hope as 1 in 100 or so actually end up with some mutual understanding.  Not this time.

It probably took me a bit too long to figure out that Pollyanna didn’t give two fetid dingoes kidneys about immersion, that they were just there to defend CCP with religious fervor.  So I packed that up, muted the whole thread… thank you for that feature Twitter… and decided to write again about immersion.

The main problem is defining what immersion is, or if it is even a thing at all.  I add that last bit because I have had people argue that immersion is literally impossible, though those arguments often seem to assign an unrealistic definition to it.

So let me dispense with the “there is no immersion” side of the argument by saying that it isn’t an absolute belief that the game is real and you’re a part of it.  If that is the definition to which you are wedded, then there is no immersion.  But I am going to say that I both believe immersion is a thing and that I have never once literally believed I was in New Eden or Azeroth or Norrath or any other video game location.

Immersion is more like a release of the real world, the entering of something like a hypnotic focus on the game and its mechanics, becoming briefly one with the game, reacting at some level like the game is real even if you simultaneously know at a more logical part of your brain that you are simply playing a game.

Examples of this from my own personal experience include the rush of elation on defeating a difficult boss, the sudden boost in heart rate when you jump through a gate and find a camp on the other side, or the real knot in your stomach as you reach a cliff and see how high up you are.  These are all physiological reactions that indicate that some part of your brain believes what your doing in a video game is real.  That is immersion.

And, seriously, if you say you have never experienced anything like that I am going to have to ask why you even play video games.  That is the runner’s high, the payoff, the rare moment that makes the effort worth it.

Sometimes immersion is more subtle.  There can be what I have heard called a “competence high,” where you’re just doing very well at something like a simple match 3 game, where the moves are all coming to you and the game is totally going your way that qualifies to my mind.  Inventory management can even be like that.

The thing is that immersion isn’t a constant or reliable.  Sometimes you go through a gate and there is a camp on the other side and it is just another thing in the game.  Not every high place makes you feel a bit of acrophobia.  Not every boss fight, even difficult ones, give you a rush.

I have, in the past, likened being immersed to falling asleep.  I cannot explain how either happens.  There is just generally a point in time where sleep or immersion is not a thing, and then it is.

And things that break immersion can be as capricious as things that wake you up from sleep.  Some things are always going to do it.  The alarm clock is always going to wake you up, the game client crashing is going to break immersion.  Generally speaking, things that take you out of the moment are going to break immersion, and that pop-up could very well be such a thing for some people.

Now, you can certainly ask whether the people who are making the immersion argument really mean it or are just throwing that out there.  It is fair to question them.  Have they even seen the pop up?  (I haven’t) Were they in a state of immersion when the it came up?  Has immersion even been something they have mentioned as important in the past?

But if your counter to the immersion argument is that we all know what PLEX is in our logical brain, that the game has a pop up when log in, or that something like EVE Academy has a link that takes you outside of the game, so this pop up could not possible break your immersion, then I am going to suggest that you don’t know what immersion is or that you are arguing in bad faith because defending CCP is more important that whatever may or may not be immersion breaking to other people.  You certainly don’t get to arbitrarily define what immersion is and dictate what does and does not break it.

Anyway, thank you for listening to my TED Talk and/or my thousand word sub-tweet!

Related:

Is LOTRO Effectively in Maintenance Mode?

I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread

-Bilbo Baggins

There was a lot of optimism when EG7 announced their plans to purchase Daybreak Games.  It was a heady moment for many of us when EG7 gave us a bunch of data about the various titles.

Enad Global 7

There was also statements from EG7 about investing in titles like Lord of the Rings Online, including what seemed like crazy talk about a console version.  It felt like good things could be coming.

Almost five months down the road the, now that the afterglow of the announcements has passed, some of us are now getting a little impatient to see what changes, if any, the coming of the new Swedish overlords actually bring.  As with other such transactions, you only get so much goodwill time before the old problems become your problems.

Unfortunately, the message coming from the LOTRO team seems to be the usual litany of deferral and excuses.  Last week the community got a Q&A with the executive producer and to say it was a disappointment would be something of an understatement.  All sorts of things people have been asking after for years like a scalable UI or wide screen support to make the game playable on larger monitors are nowhere in sight.  They mostly seem to be on about bugs and whatever new content they can scrape together.

Most disturbing to me was the response about legendary items, a horribly grindy feature that should have been left behind in Moria:

We want players to have things to do while they are leveling. I know that some players are ‘Oh, this is too grindy and sometimes we overdo it,’ but ‘grindy’ doesn’t scare me as much as ‘I don’t have enough to do.’ I don’t have enough to do is worse because players want to play the game but they don’t really have goals to pursue.

This betrays such a basic misunderstanding of what makes people stick with these sorts of games that I despair for any future for the game, even if EG7 decides to throw some money at it.  This is all of the worst conspiracies about MMO devs confirmed, that they make things purposely grindy to keep us with the game longer.  Have you met your players?  We do stuff just because we can.  We don’t need enforced mandatory grind, we’ll make our own thank you.

I honestly thought we were past that somewhat when WoW launched as was relatively easy to level up in compared to the industry as a whole and yet people still found things to do in the game.  I guess not.

The legendary items thing really strikes home for me.  Despite my enjoyment of Lord of the Rings Online over the years… I bought a lifetime subscription back at launch and own every expansion… I have never made it very far past Moria in the game.  Part of the reason is that Siege of Mirkwood is just an uninspired expansion where Turbine was clearly just mailing it in while they threw resources at some of their fruitless projects.  But it has been mostly due to the constant need to attend to the legendary weapon… and not the one legendary weapon I got back before Moria, but whichever drop I happened to get that was an upgrade.

Yet somehow they are worried that if they dumped legendaries that players wouldn’t be able to depend on drops to keep up with DPS… though we pretty much have to depend on drops for that anyway.  I guess maybe I should be happy they aren’t planning to make them more grindy, which was pretty much the message back in January, but adjusting the “suck” setting back 10% still means things suck.  And they’re talking about challenge modes that will make grinding your legendary even more of a requirement.  They seem 100% locked into “grind makes the game” as a philosophy.

Leaving aside my personal investment in the demise of legendaries, the whole tone of the Q&A was as depressing as any of the worst periods of the Turbine or Daybreak eras.  Even the positive bits, like the new bit of content, The Further Adventures of Bilbo Baggins, turned out to be hollow, being made up of reused assets and mechanics.

A development team that was going to get an infusion of resources to help it along would surely be able to offer a more convincing vision for the future.  Instead I am beginning to wonder if EG7 isn’t simply perusing the Gamigo business model of buying up tired titles and milking the last bits of life out of them before shutting them down.  I previously dared to speculate as to what LOTRO needed.  Now I wonder what the game can even hope to get.

It should be a good moment for the game.  It is celebrating its 14th anniversary and a major potential competitor, the Amazon funded Middle-earth MMO, has been cancelled. (Though the LOTR series under development is still on, so there may still be a renewed interest in all things Middle-earth.)  Instead, the game is starting to feel like Bilbo at the top of the post, stretched too thin for the resources they have with no relief in sight.

Expert Systems in the Face of Failure

As I noted yesterday, if there is one thing you can count on from CCP, it is an overly grandiose and technically incorrect name for something mundane.

Last week CCP announced a new feature called “Expert Systems,” which I immediately summed up as “rent a skill,” as you’d be hard pressed to convince me it was anything else. (It was certainly nothing like an expert system.)

No expert that I know

It has been billed as a way for new players to try out skills they have not yet trained, which doesn’t sound awful on the surface.  The announcement, lacking in details though it was, did specifically mention the “magic 14” skills as part of the plan along with some industry stuff, but nothing about it was crystal clear.

The thing that got a lot of people riled up was the implication that this would be a paid service.  The gut reaction was “pay to win,” though “rent to be mediocre” might be more accurate, but the deeper issue on that front for me was the company having its hand out looking to make money from helping new players figure out the game.  That isn’t a good look.

Well, that and the whole thing seeming to add up a tepid and ineffectual compromise that won’t change anything, which got me back to the bigger problem of the new player experience and how it drives away pretty much everybody who tries the game.

We saw this chart back at EVE North in 2019, which was when CCP said they were making the new player experience a priority.

How many new players log back in as time passes

But we’ve seen charts like that in the past like this one from FanFest 2014.

New Player Trajectory – 2014 edition

CCP has been focused on the new player experience, the NPE, for a year and a half now, tweaking and making modest updates and generally trying to fix the issue without really doing anything too radical.

And it seems to have largely been a wasted effort so far.  CCP was given a golden opportunity during the pandemic to increase its user base.  Every month of the pandemic I have posted the revenue chart from SuperData which has indicated that revenues across the board have been up 15% for video games.  Even CCP has seen a bit of that surge, with the peak concurrent player count finally cresting above the 40K mark back in April as people sought indoor activities during the lockdown.

Hilmar himself was on a Venture Beat panel in late January where he said that EVE Online added 1.3 million new players in 2020. (This number gets mentioned again in the Expert Systems post.)  That was more that the previous few years combined, a gift to the company from the pandemic.

The question is, where did they go?  If CCP was running at the 4.4% long term retention rate their EVE North numbers suggested (which also didn’t seem bad compared to numbers I could find from comparable titles), that ought to have dumped another 57K players into New Eden.  That would be about a 20% boost over the approximate 300K monthly active users that Hilmar has mentioned in the past.

With that big of an influx of new players… so I am assuming they are not counting returning vets joining the war or looking for something to do during lockdown… the peak concurrent players online ought to be up enough for that surge to stand out.

But is it?  Looking at EVE Offline, it doesn’t seem to be.  After the great valley of the null sec blackout and Chaos Era, when CCP seemed keen to actively drive players away, the PCU climbs, sees a surge around April and May, then settles back down to about where it was pre-blackout.  Congratulations to CCP for flattening the curve?

Further evidence for CCP failing to capitalize on the jackpot scenario include the 2020 financial results from Pearl Abyss.  On the surface it looks like the EVE Online IP is growing.  But in we cannot forget that in Q2 2020 CCP was able to re-open the Serenity server in China and in Q3 EVE Echoes launched and attracted a couple million players on its own.  If you were to subtract those two items I suspect the EVE Online IP bit of the chart would be closer to flat.

And then there is the bottom line for the Pearl Abyss acquisition of CCP, which ended up with PA paying just $225 million of the potential $425 million price tag due to CCP missing performance goals, which I am sure included some revenue requirements.  Hilmar and some other big investors missed a payday there.

Fun times.

I don’t want to go all “EVE is dying” meme now.  But in the face of all of this, which stinks heavily of failure, the idea that CCP spent dev time to design and implement this new Expert Systems feature which allows new player to rent skills for some amount of currency in a game where skill injectors exist seems like a wasted effort.  It doesn’t feel like something that will move the needle at all on new player retention, in large part because it doesn’t feel like something that will impact a new player’s experience before they get frustrated or bored and log off.

I have bemoaned the fact that EVE Online is old and cranky and and has issues that will never be fixed because, after nearly 18 years, there just isn’t the time, money, or wherewithal to do it.  And I myself have been cranky about CCP in the past about things like selling skill points and the fact that when they say they won’t do something, that statement has a hidden expiration date of about a year.

But I try not to get too worked up about monetization.  This is a business and, frankly, the price we pay to play hasn’t changes in almost 18 years.  It was fifteen dollars a month in 2003, it remains fifteen dollars a month in 2021.  But I am going to bet somebody has gotten a pay raise or the rent has gone up or costs have otherwise risen in that time.  To balance that out you either have to make more money or have less staff.

So I am not irate like some about the real money aspect of this so much as being unable to see how this will make a lick of difference.  Software development is a zero sum game.  You only have so much time and resources, and if you waste them on things that don’t make the product better you cannot get that time back.

Now, maybe I am just not seeing the big picture here.  Maybe CCP has all the right data to hand and they know that this is a winning idea.  I’d like to be wrong in my assumptions and the announcement was vague enough for a lot of wiggle room as to how this will turn out.  Unfortunately, I have been party to way too many half assed, badly calculated products and features in my career to have a lot of confidence.

The real problem with software is that is written and designed by people who all have their own special collections of bad ideas.

Related:

Quote of the Day – Retro MMO Ideals

As for the ‘give us an old version of LOTRO’ thing – my answer is the same as always: why unfix all those bugs? You think it was perfect back then, but I remember our bug queues at the time and I can assure you it was not. Thirteen years of bug-fixes just disappearing? Yikes!

-Master of Lions, LOTRO Dev team, LOTRO forums

There is in some of us, myself included, a longing for the “good old days” of a particular game.  That isn’t so hard to find when it comes to single player games.  I have enjoyed a return to Diablo II on its 20th anniversary.

Back with Cain and his tales again, basically unchanged in 20 years

But when it comes to MMORPGs, which are as much a service as a game, a service that must exist within a complex and changing ecosystem, and which host players in a shared world that is being constantly fixed and updated, it becomes problematic to reach a state where the “good old days” can be achieved.

SOE, and then Daybreak, have been playing the nostalgia card for well over a decade with EverQuest by rolling out servers where the content is restricted and unlock by expansion and where they have tinkered with the xp curve and mob difficulty.  But purists rightly argue that this doesn’t get you back to 1999 as so much has changed in the game since then.

LOTRO likewise experimented with that a couple of years back.

Even with WoW Classic, where Blizzard spent time and resources creating an experience very close to a point in 2006 gets criticism for some of the compromises they made in order to ship a product that would be viable in 2019.  It is very close to the 2006 experience, but it is not perfect.  Even I can spot a difference here and there.

Creating the exact early game experience, while maybe technically possible, does not seem practical and, in some ways, problematic.  As the quote at the top asks, do you re-introduce bugs, some of which can be quite annoying, merely to get that first day feel?  Does fixing those bugs invalidate the experience?  And how does all of that interact with current operating systems?  In the case of LOTRO I was running on Win XP when it launched, an OS that was already starting to get a bit long in the tooth and, even skipping Vista and Win 8, I am personally still two operating systems down the road.

And what is the experience true to in any case.  I’ll bring out another salty old quote:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

Heraclitus

The problem is two fold.  Due to changes in technology and the infrastructure around games, it isn’t likely you can set foot in exactly the same game you did back in 2007, or 2004, or 1999, or whenever.  Too much has changed.  If a company with all the resources that Blizzard has cannot get there without making compromises, small studios like Daybreak or Standing Stone don’t have much of a chance.

But you too have changed.  Even the forgetful, like myself, cannot be surprised anew at everything in a game.  There are too many memories of what happened before, too many blog posts, too much information on wikis and news sites to possibly be able to approach a game as you did back in the day.

The best you can hope for is a good time that in some way reminds you of how you felt back in the day, an experience that revives memories and makes you feel good.

What Does Epic Want?

Always predict the worst and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.

-Tom Lehrer, quoting a friend

The big news in the video game world this week was around Epic Games and Fortnite.

Epic pushed a revision that allowed players to bypass the Apple store and pay Epic directly through their own service, even offering players a financial incentive in the form of a discount to use the Epic payment service over Apple’s.

Apple then removed Fortnite from their store.  This was entirely expected.  Epic knew they were in violation of the terms of service they agreed to when they put Fortnite into the store.

Epic wanted that.  That was clearly part of their plan as they immediately filed a lawsuit against Apple seeking injunctive relief to allow Epic to use their own payment service.  They even had a cute video to post mocking the Apple 1984 ad and setting Apple up as the villain.

Epic claims that Apple Store is a monopoly and that the company is engaged in unfair business practices as defined by various state and federal statutes.

They did the same thing on the Android side of the house and got pulled from the Google Play store and filed a lawsuit against Google as well with the same set of claims.

Two monopolies selling the same thing is an interesting take, and all the more so since Google allows other storefronts, like the Samsung Galaxy Store.

Tim Sweeney has also been active on social media stirring up anger about the two tech giants that sounds remarkably like the stuff coming out of Washington lately.  He likes to play a PR game where he casts himself as the hero and whoever he is facing as a villain.  We have seen that tack against Steam in the past as he has defended buying out exclusives for games that were already up for pre-order there.

What Does Epic Say They Want?

The lawsuit itself asks for, as noted above, injunctive relief to allow Epic to use its own payment service.

This seems like a non-starter.  It is essentially a request that companies be allowed to offer their applications on the Apple Store, allow them to be downloaded for free, and keep all financial benefit for themselves.  No money for Apple.

This feels like the nuclear option.

Apple (and Google) will fight this tooth and nail for years and have an army of lawyers between them to keep that going with motions and appeals for at least five years before it goes to trial.  They let this go and Facebook, already pressing Apple as well, will be close behind.

There are also some outsiders who might have some interest in this, like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.  The Epic lawsuit is an assault on the “walled gardens” of Apple and Google, but it ignores the console vendors who run similar locked store fronts for their own services.

Epic tries to split hairs, in my opinion, by saying that Apple and Google products are necessary for modern life while consoles are not, but I am not sure that fine distinction will fly.

There is also an air of hypocrisy in Epic’s complaint as they themselves run the Epic Store, which takes a percentage of the money from developers who wish their products to appear there.  Yes, they only take 12% as opposed to 30%, but as the punchline goes, we’ve determined what they are and we’re now just haggling over price.  But unless they allow their developers to use their own payment services and bypass sharing the take with Epic, their store might serve as an exhibit for Apple and Google.

I am also not sure the end result of Epic getting their injunctive relief would necessarily be a good thing.

Despite what people might think, running the Apple Store isn’t a low cost operation and Apple (and Google) are not going to carry on hosting things out of the goodness of their heart.  They will want compensation and will look for other avenues, like charging for being listed or amount of downloads, or some other direct method that would hurt more developers than it helps.

And the ability to use your own payment service itself is something likely to help only big companies like Epic in any case.  For all the posturing, Epic is doing this for themselves.

What Does Epic Really Want?

More money.

This is my opinion, but I think that Tim Sweeney is irked that he has to pay Apple and Google 30% of the cut.  He wants to pay less.  I am going to take a shot in the dark here and bet Tim would be happy with 12% which, coincidentally, happens to be the cut the Epic Store takes from its devs.  A reduction to that would probably make all of this go away.

Such an overall reduction would be good for developers big and small in a way the payment plan scheme likely would not.

Apple and Google will likely push back on such a universal percentage cut and we will have to see where things end up.  I would not be surprised to find the parties have arrived at an agreement over a Steam-like situation where apps that generate more than a given revenue threshold pay a reduced rate.  That will seal the deal on Epic’s motives.

As noted elsewhere, there is also a cost in lost sales to Epic by not being in the Apple and Google stores, so Epic has some incentive to make a deal sooner rather than drag this out to the bitter end.

A resolution like that will also save the consoles makers, Steam, and the Epic Store from a precedent that might come back to haunt them.  Imagine if you got a ruling that essentially says running an online store and requiring a cut of the sale price made you a monopoly?  The law is never static and some lawyer is always keep to stretch a ruling in order to make it fit a different situation, so long as there is some money in it for them.

Mobile is King

The other take away here is that mobile is king when it comes to gaming.  Consoles are still big in the US, and PC is big in the US and EU, but mobile titles bring in more money world wide and dominate in most of Asia.

Epic is suing Apple and Google, and not Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, or Steam, because the money stream from your phone or tablet is the biggest hose… the biggest overall by far and seeing huge growth compared to the stagnant PC numbers and declining console numbers… and Tim Sweeney wants more of that money in his pocket.

The End Result

When this gets settled, and however it gets settled, the rich will get richer and I will be greatly surprised if there is any benefit for small, indie devs at all.

Addendum:  Apple plays hard ball, threatens to cut off Epic developer accounts.

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.