Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fantasizing Non-Fantasic Virtual Worlds

I saw on Massively that the UK newspaper The Guardian is asking its readers to design a virtual world without fantasy or sci-fi. Partly the reason for this article stems from a post by Richard Bartle on Terra Nova asking why the predominant genre for game-like virtual worlds is fantasy.

There are a number of MMOs coming out soon that avoid the fantasy genre: the GTA-inspired All Points Bulletin, Sony's "The Agency," and Pirates of the Burning Sea.

If one considers fantasy to mean only Tolkienesque swords-and-sorcery, the fantastical elements of the horror genre, such as vampires and werewolves, would make a rich backdrop for a virtual world. A Torchwood or Doctor Who based game would make great settings as well; while they involve sci-fi, these shows aren't about spaceships and phaser pistols. But all of those settings could still be considered fantasy if you broaden the definition beyond Tolkien.

There are plenty of other possibilities for an MMORPG, even if you eschew anything supernatural, futuristic, or fantastical in any way. Early 20th century mobsters could make an exciting (though probably controversial) backdrop for a virtual world. The Wild West is another obvious choice for a setting.

One setting I'd like to see turned into a virtual world would be one based on the notion of running modern-day corporations. For an idea of how that would manifest itself in a game, you might start with a game like Stardock's The Corporate Machine, except, of course, make it massive and multiplayer. And with places you could run an avatar around.

Each "guild" would be a corporation and players would assume various roles in marketing, public relations, research and development, and so on. The gameplay itself would manifest itself mostly in the form of card games, like Legends of Norrath, or the diplomacy system in Vanguard. At some point, the game would end (that's not so far fetched, A Tale in the Desert is an MMORPG that ends!) and the server would restart. By allowing the server to restart, the game stays fresh and able to welcome new players (most current MMORPGs have a hard time attracting new players once they have aged, since all the existing players are high level and the new players have no one to play with.)

I suppose it wouldn't be a virtual world if you couldn't run around in it, so part of the game would take place in a surreal office. Instead of completing quests, you have to handle "situations". (I hate it when we have a "situation" at work.) An example situation would include discovering that the coffee machine broke down; this would cause NPC staff to fall asleep. If left unchecked, the corporation's productivity will decline. Another situation: the media shows up unexpectedly, and someone needs to hype the unfinished product to them. The corporation would be given a day or two to handle the situation (by delegating the task to one or more persons in guild) or else consequences occur. Situations would also allow multiple solutions with ethical dilemmas. PVP would occur in the form of corporate espionage.

Corporate progress would be measured in the usual ways: dollars and market share, both overall and within the corporation's chosen industry. Players would earn salaries based on how desired their skill sets are (based on how effectively they overcome the "situations" that the corporation faces), and they could defect to other corporations if they wanted.

What type of virtual world would YOU build, if you couldn't use fantastical elements at all?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Live Gamer Will Destroy MMORPGs As We Know Them And Good Riddance

An up and coming company called Live Gamer seeks to provide a secure platform for legitimate real money transfers (RMT) in the MMO space. This would be very similar to Sony Online Entertainment's Station Exchange server platform, though Live Gamer will span multiple publishers and games.

I know its not a popular opinion to have, but I welcome the intrusion of RMT into the MMO space. And I don't even like RMT. I've never bought any in-game gold or items with real money. In fact, I think its rather stupid to pay someone else to play the game for you. But, like anything else that takes time to produce, there's value in these characters and in-game items for those who want them but don't have that time (or talent) to produce one themselves. And people are going to find a way to make a market out of that no matter how hard you try to stop them.

Not all forms of RMT are bad: selling fluff and non-essential items is a good way to monetize things that players frequently ask for that do little to make the game more marketable, such as roleplaying clothes and house items. These kinds of microtransactions aren't any worse than buying a collector's edition or a retail box that comes with exclusive in-game items, and gamers seem comfortable with that already.

As for characters, power leveling, and game-impacting items? RMT ruins the notion of achievement there. New games built around RMT will likely not be based around the traditional achiever-oriented MMO timesinks and treadmill grinds we're accustomed to. Some of them might be (there are, after all, Station Exchange-enabled EverQuest II servers), but I think that those games will be a niche market. There will always be a market for traditional achiever-oriented MMOs that continue to ban RMT, but the mix of the two doesn't work.

Most MMOs today reward players based on time and effort invested. That type of system simply doesn't have the same pull if you can bypass all of that with cash, just as the NFL wouldn't be as interesting if teams could pay extra to reduce the number of players the opposition is allowed to field, or to adjust the height and width of the goal posts. RMT for game-impacting items is fundamentally incompatible with achiever-oriented loot-and-level based EverQuest-type games. But the current subscription-based payment models aren't compatible with plenty of other forms of gameplay.

The intrusion of RMT into the MMO space provides an opportunity for the industry to grow past the rut its in and branch out to embrace additional forms of gameplay besides catering solely to the hardcore gamer with lots of time on his hands to accumulate virtual achievements.

Nobody complains about being able to pay an extra charge to download more levels for an FPS, or more tracks for a racing game. While there is a small market for cheats in those games, such as save games with hidden players or tracks unlocked, its not a huge market, since ultimately the experience is about playing the game itself. Similarly, I doubt anyone would care if people bought their MMO skills and loot if the gameplay was centered around what you did with them; its only an issue since current MMOs are entirely focussed on the acquisition of them.

As RMT becomes more ubiquitous, I am hoping we'll start to see a shift away from the timesinks and achiever-oriented levels and looting towards worlds that cater more to the socializers, the roleplayers, and the explorers. Maybe we'll even see a shift towards gameplay that is fun enough that its not worth it to skip.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Recently, I haven't been putting much time in any particular game world. I've been putting a lot of time in several. I think I love MMOs more for the idea than the implementation, since I'm always eager to try another, but I'm never fully satisfied. I think I've come down with MMOADD. Is it contagious? I have been reading Voyages in Eternity lately.

Luckily, I'm not as bad as damionov yet, but I'm getting there. I two-box in EverQuest II, so there are two subscriptions there. I have been toying around with City of Villains which NCSoft granted current and former City of Heroes subscribers for free. I even resubscribed to World of Warcraft for the first time since 2004. And I'm in the Pirates of the Burning Sea open beta, with my preorder placed, and my freetrader ready to set sail in January.

But I still find myself tempted to pick up other titles, such as Lord of the Rings Online. And maybe I should give Tabula Rasa another try. Luckily, I tend to think of my bank account like a video game score; I prefer it to go up, not down. So that mental fiction tends to help me keep my budget in order.

I think much of the reason I do this is that a lot of MMO design seems to be repeated over and over again. There is a lot of content I haven't seen. I went to Freethinkers Hideout for the first time yesterday, in EverQuest II, and that was fun. The scripts for raids these days are much improved over the early ones, and I hope to get to 80 to see the new raid zones in Kunark. But these pockets of newness are few and far between.

I like to explore these games, but exploration doesn't mean doing everything in the game. Once I start to see patterns, it grows tiresome. So even altitis doesn't help much, as my alts tend to get stuck at the lower levels, since once you get past the unique starting tutorial for their race or class or city, most games funnel you into the same areas all over again.

Once a game has been on the market for a while, the achievers start to ruin it for me. In Dungeons and Dragons Online, it only took a day or two before that happened. There is no sense of exploration when someone in the dungeon has already been in there a dozen times already and had a min-maxed route to take us through. And leveling and looting only goes so far for me.

Maybe my ideal game should be something like Uru Live. I did try it, and I enjoyed it. But its a very puzzle oriented world, and while I like the idea of puzzles in an MMO, I still enjoy the combat and economic aspects of your traditional MMOs as well. So that wasn't quite what I was looking for.

What is the point of all this rambling? I don't know. MMOADD? Maybe the MMO has nothing to do with it.

OH! I know what I want. What I really need is a cable channel like spectrum of MMO games for one monthly fee, offering products from multiple publishers (SOE, NCSoft, Turbine, and others combined.) Maybe one day when the market is so saturated with MMOs that you can't go to the grocery store without finding MMOs included in your Cracker Jacks and Captain Crunch cereal boxes, maybe that day -- that GLORIOUS day -- a hero will rise to unite the industry's disparate billing practices, liberating people like me so we can freely (or more cheaply) wander from world to world, until we find what we're looking for.

THAT's what I want. I think.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Pirates of the Burning Sea: Early Impressions

The NDA for Pirates of the Burning Sea has been dropped and people are talking. Tobold offers up a really great review of the game, as does Potshot. They seem to have similar opinions as to the quality of the game.

I didn't get to play much past the early levels, but I enjoyed it enough that I preordered the game. Its a no-brainer since I have the Station Access anyway. But its rather fun: in Pirates of the Burning Sea, you play the captain of a ship (as a pirate, captain of the navy, privateer, or a freetrader). Like most MMOs, you can collect missions from NPCs who stand around with exclamation points hovering over their heads. Missions usually take place inside instances, where you are tasked with destroying targets, or escorting friendly ships. Some missions let you run around as your avatar; these play like instances in other MMOs, such as City of Heroes, where the bad guys stand around and you have to explore to locate a number of items (NPCs or highlightable items that you can click on.)

Unfortunately, I don't care much for the avatar combat. At sea, you can defeat an enemy vessel by boarding it and defeating its captain. This gets very hectic and its hard to keep tabs on whats going on. And every combat seems to be the same: tab through the hordes of enemies to find the captain and defeat them. The enemy crew will surrender once their captain is defeated. Avatar missions aren't so bad since there's a little more variety to what you have to do.

Luckily, that's not the main part of the game. Much of the game takes place out on the open sea. Ship-based missions were fun and seemed to take more strategy. Its not your standard combat where you have a single health meter. Each side of the ship can accumulate damage, as can your masts. You can use weapons that try to weaken the enemy crew, focus on damaging the masts, or try to sink the ship. Its glorious fun, and there was enough variety to the ship-based missions for me.

I rolled characters on the British and Spanish sides and was dismayed to see that they had the same quests. But perhaps that changes at higher levels.

The economic side of the game is one I still need to get better acquainted with. From what I've seen so far, its very interesting. You have a limited number of plots on which you build structures that you have bought deeds for. Your structures accumulate "stored labor" in real time, which you spend like a currency, with money and prerequisite resources, to get what you want. This means crafting is more about figuring out what you want to build, and transporting the finished goods, then about repeatedly clicking buttons and watching progress meters (like it is in many other MMOs). That's a very good thing.

This game is more of a sandbox with a deep economy and PVP as the main factors that will drive interest. This is no World of Warcraft, and will likely remain a niche game. It also lacks a lot of the polish of other games. The UI seems rather clunky and the icons are way too small. But for those who want a little break from the standard run of the mill level-and-loot driven MMO gameplay in EverQuest and World of Warcraft, Pirates seems like it has plenty to offer.