Saturday, January 24, 2009


I noticed Aspendawn talking about Alganon on Veni, Vidi, Bloggi, so I went and checked it out. This appears to be the new name for what was once called Crusade Online, by one of the original designers of Horizons. It seems to have some ambitious ideas; the primary goal of the game appears to be immersion.

Some of the ideas that it has that I am looking forward to:

It has a hybrid progression system that involves both skill-ups based on usage, but caps those skills based on real time that keeps hardcore players from gaining too much of an advantage over more time constrained players. I think real-time-based progression works well in Eve Online; it's probably a good feature for these games because it helps shift the focus from playing to level up to simply playing to play.

The game appears to also plan various "Domain Objectives," which give a shared goal to all players in a zone, whether they are grouped or not. If done properly, this could be a good community building feature.

The main thing I like about it is the promise that they will have customized quests. Some quests will be customized for your character so on multiple playthroughs you won't just be doing the same exact thing over and over again.

This game has been surprisingly under most people's radar. After all the exaggerated hype of the last batch of MMOs (Vanguard, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online), that's probably a good thing. Whether this game becomes a success or not, it seems they are trying several good, new ideas. This is one reason why I'm cautiously optimistic about 2009 MMOs. Even if we don't get a hit on our hands, we've got lots of games that are actually trying something new.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Invisible Walls ENHANCE Immersion

There is an interesting discussion on Terminally Incoherent about invisible walls. Luke seems to feel that they kill immersion. Apparently, so do everyone else that commented on his blog.

Always the contrarian, I have to defend the opposite position: invisible walls enhance immersion.

One of the irritating things I find in many RPGs that have "open worlds" where you can interact with everything is that everything is so damn small. You walk into the mining village and there's like five people who live there and three houses. Obviously the game developers have limited time and it doesn't make sense to design the game world with realistically sized mining villages with hundreds of NPCs and fully interactive homes because it would take them forever to do just that and then there'd be no time to actually make the damn game. So I understand that. But they have a choice:

- put in fake backdrops of "the rest of the village" but make it so the player can't go there, OR
- make the world unrealistically small so the developers have time to implement every facet of the game world and therefore won't need to upset player's illusion of interactivity and control

I prefer the former. I find it curious that people insist on the latter. Last time I checked, few RPGs put bathrooms anywhere in game, and I can't remember the last one that made me use one. So obviously as consumers we all draw the line at how much immersion we require somewhere.

When you get to the edge of a map, the game developers could put in an invisible wall to demonstrate that the game world continues, OR they can go out of their way to put in all sorts of natural barriers so you simply can't continue. Again, I prefer the former. Wrapping the entire game world with barriers just exaggerates how unreal the game environment is and ruins the illusion. Who builds nations in the middle of impenetrable valleys that you can't get goods in and out of?

I prefer the game world to feel realistically consistent. And that means having the maps appear to continue even if they don't. After all, if your RPG consists of a map of a nation, they probably do trade with other nations. That's not very plausible if you can't get an individual outside the borders of the nation, let alone a caravan. With an invisible wall, you can see that the world goes on, but from a role-playing standpoint, your character just doesn't want to go there.

In other words, I prefer the illusion of a continuous world even if it means sacrificing the player's control at certain points.

I do think that perhaps games could implement the invisible walls better. Instead of having you continue to run in place once you hit the wall, as most do, just have the player stop running and say "I don't want/need to go there," and/or turn them around. That way you can maintain narrative immersion (that the world continues but your purpose is so important you can't go wandering off yet) without violating the immersion of control.

There's no right or wrong here. It's all a matter of opinion. In Grand Theft Auto the city is big, big, big. It's a city after all. That's narrative immersion. But because it's so big, obviously the developers can't make every indoor area. That means some doors can't be opened (they are simply fake backdrops). That violates the illusion of control, which for many makes the game less immersive. You now have a game world where you can kick down SOME doors but not others, arbitrarily.

So what do you prefer your games focus on? Narrative immersion (if they say it's a city, it should LOOK like a city), or illusion of control (if there's a door, I should be able to open it)?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Distinct Lack of Class

One of the interesting things I've noticed in the design of several upcoming MMOs is that several seem to be moving away from the traditional "character class" game mechanic. Once upon a time, each character picked a class, which could not be changed, and that choice defined their role.

This approach has drawbacks. One of the most frustrating aspects of traditional MMOs is finding a group of players to play with that fill all the requisite roles. Its quite common to see people with almost full groups, unable to continue, shouting that they are looking for a tank, healer, or mezzer, over and over again, until they find one. This results in a lot of sitting around, not playing the game, just because you need ONE more person on a server with thousands of people on it and the group can't work without them.

In DC Universe Online, each powerset comes with three modes: offensive, defensive, or utility. You can change your role depending on your mood, what you want to do, and what is needed. The Agency likewise has a "you are what you wear" system of defining roles, meaning you can similarly change your role depending on what people need at the time.

Brilliant! Swapping out the "class" mechanic for "stances" removes one of the major impediments in grouping. Removing the types of obstacles that make grouping a pain is a great step forward for the genre.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Alternate Pricing Models

Openedge started a discussion on MMO monetization. He wonders what alternatives there are to the $15 a month subscription fee that seems to be ubiquitous in Western MMOs.

One model I would prefer would be a tiered subscription fee, just like you see with cell phones. For casual players, you might buy blocks of time (a "pay as you go" plan), with no contract. I might buy 15 hours in City of Heroes and even if I don't use it up for a year, I can still come back and play whenever I want.

Above that, you would have a low-priced time-limited subscription. For $5 a month you might get 15 hours of play, with overage charges if you play longer.

And above that, you would get your standard $15 a month unlimited subscription.

There are a lot of MMORPGs installed on my hard drive right now. I have a lot of disk space. I have Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft, EverQuest II, Vanguard, Planetside, Matrix Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Star Wars Galaxies, and City of Heroes. Right now, I only subscribe to EQ2. I could get all the Sony games for $30 a month, but I don't put in enough hours to make it worth my while. But if I COULD play all of these games for a reasonable fee, I would.

If I could pay $5 and get 15 hours of play (or something similar), it might be months before I used that up in City of Heroes, but that would be $5 they aren't getting right now, because $15 a month for something I'd only fire up once a month or so isn't worth it to me.

What other kinds of subscription models could there be? How about something modelled after the cable company? Instead of having MMO creators managing pricing and payments on their own, maybe they should just focus on content creation and outsource payment processing to third parties. Those third parties can create their own bundle deals for access to any of the games they've been licensed to resell.

With this model, I could subscribe to one company and access games from more than one game producer. Maybe I could pick any two MMOs for $25 a month, or five MMOs for $35 a month. I would get unlimited play and can swap one game out for another once per month (if you've ever used an e-Book service like Safari, you'll be familiar with this idea). The third party will determine the proportion of play time I'm spending in each game and pay out accordingly.

Another model could be paying be chapter in an episodic MMORPG. I don't mean what Guild Wars did by selling each Campaign separately for one flat fee. What I mean is having an MMO designed more like a TV series that's broken up into distinct story-related chunks that start and, more importantly, END. And you pay for access to each episode.

Let's have a game which ends when the episodic ends and then starts up again with the world changed based on what happened the previous time around. This wouldn't be a game for achievers, since each episode would essentially reset everyone just like many single player games don't let you keep your level 20 in the sequel even if you are supposedly playing the same character. This allows new players to join in any time in a world where everyone is on the same level, and it means we'd get a world that truly evolved over time and wasn't purely static. Each episode might last a month or two and then the game might be shut off until the next episode was ready. The main idea behind this model is that the world changes between episodes. The tower with all the orcs in it one episode has their angry ghosts in the next. The bandits are defeated and the fledgling outpost becomes a commercial and economic hub. No timesinks, because the game resets, just a focus on story and exploration. And we keep paying to keep taking part in the ongoing story.

There's plenty of other ideas but those are the ones off of the top of my head that I would prefer to see over the two current models: free-to-play with microtransactions, and the $15 a month subscription.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why Go It Solo In an MMO?

Saylah and Pete both had great posts recently about the importance of soloing in an MMORPG. Many people don't seem to understand why some of us like to solo in an MMORPG. After all, they say, if you are just going to play by yourself most of the time, why not just play Neverwinter Nights or Oblivion or some other single player RPG? Well, for me, there are many reasons why the single player RPG option isn't as attractive. I enjoy solo play in MMOs:

- Because there is a real economy with real players buying and selling things. You can simulate that in a single player RPG, but most don't. And knowing a real person is running around with something you made makes it far more rewarding than knowing the game deleted the item based on some random event and gave you the money, even if the end result appears the same.

- Because in games like EverQuest II with living guilds, I can contribute to the growth of my guild, even if I'm doing the work (adventure/tradeskill writs, particularly difficult quest lines, etc.) alone.

- The economy and living guilds are two ways that people can play "solo", while still playing together. Many other features in MMOs can be created that allow people to essentially "play" alone but still leverage the multiplayer nature of the genre to provide an experience single player games can't. Some examples would be: architect features in MMORPGs that allow people to design their own content, player-writable books, fluff RP features that let players play music or coordinate emotes to create customized 'dance' routines or players, and EverQuest II-style Live Events or Warhammer-style Public Quests that provide a goal for your faction, server, or region that everyone can work towards (even if they are alone).

- Because single player RPGs don't have chat rooms.

- Because trading in-game items I've earned with a computer algorithm isn't as fun.

- Because MMORPGs evolve over time; single player games get a few small expansion packs for 8000 Microsoft points a piece and then die.

- Because the game world seems more alive when there are other people running around in something other than a predetermined pattern.

- Because I do like playing WITH other people, even if I might not be "grouped" with them in combat. I might craft for them, I might help them out in chat by telling them where they need to go, I might check on something at the auction house, or grab an item that someone needs and deliver it to them since I'm on my way there anyway. All of these things are fun, and impossible in a single player RPG.

- Because in groups, everyone always skips the cut scenes. It was frustrating in Guild Wars because I was actually interested in the story. Everyone is in such a rush to get going that those of us who actually want to read the quest text or watch the cut scenes and enjoy the story are left behind. The MMO game world seems to be dominated by so-called "Achievers", so those of us in the literate minority often have to go it alone.

- Because sometimes I do want to group and I have the opportunity to do so if I choose. Most "single-player" or offline RPGs don't have cooperative modes.

- Because sometimes we don't have a choice: I love MMORPGs, and I do enjoy playing with others, but my wife recently gave me baby. I haven't had time to play anything yet, aside from a little Fable 2 while the baby napped on my belly. But when I do, I'm not going to be able to pause our EQ2 guild raid because my baby dropped some phat loot of her own. So I'll probably end up soloing. And, eventually, when I find time to game with others, I want that progress to count.

... and many, many more reasons.

What are your reasons for wanting to go it alone in a "multiplayer" game?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Who Am I?

Because Ysh asked...

3 things I like: mini-games, fluff, community building features
3 things I can take or leave: One-button Crafting, "Levels", Immersion
3 things I dislike: Combat as principle means of advancement, "Individual" quests, Free for All PVP


Mini-games: I like games that have multiple kinds of mini-games. Combat is generally the main game in an MMORPG; in newer games, crafting is an additional mini-game. Final Fantasy XI converted fishing into a mini-game at one point so it wouldn't be as bottable. The more ways there are to play the game, the more I want to play it.

Fluff: Fluff gives people goals that aren't game breaking, and don't contribute to mudflation.

Community building features: Community building features like leveling your guild in EverQuest II gives players shared goals they can work towards, whether they solo, group, or raid. Community-based goals can be powerful motivators.

Things I Can Take or Leave

One-button crafting: I like crafting if its a mini-game, but the World of Warcraft style where you simply click on the recipe and click a button is idiotic. Its barely better than Progress Quest.

Levels: Anyone that's read my blog regularly knows I'm not a fan of levels. They have their place, but I don't like how they make it impossible for players to play with one another. If someone implemented a progression system that made it so a level one newbie could play with a level 100 veteran without playing alone for two months, I'd be ok with it. Mentoring systems such as Final Fantasy XI's Level Sync system, and sidekicking in City of Heroes accomplish this to a degree, but they all do so by subverting the leveling system (changing people's levels). So why not just get rid of levels entirely? Motivate people through collection mechanics, story-based progression through a series of personalized missions, or through a skill-based system (which can be like levels if done poorly, but skill-based systems are generally flatter and offer more lateral forms of advancement, so it doesn't take long to become the expert at any one thing, but over time, players become generalists.)

Immersion: I like a self-consistent world that's fun to play, but let's not forget that these are games. Some amount of immersion is great, but some people take this goal too far. I heard people complaining that not having to wait for the boats in EQ2 (the bells effectively teleport you elsewhere) wasn't "immersive". I've heard people complain that you aren't forced to eat or drink in EQ2; apparently they think characters that defeat gods, teleport, and come back from the dead on demand should starve to death because you forgot to push a button. Well, having to take a crap in game would be immersive, but who wants to sit there and babysit their adventurers through every single minute immersive detail of their lives?

So, instant action features that take us where our adventurer friends are (so we don't have to trek halfway across the world to find them), and other fast travel features are a welcome addition to the game genre for me. We should be able to get to the fun fast.

I'd also want inventory management to be more like Oblivion, with a sortable list. Some people think dragging and dropping icons in a window with a bag icon in the corner is "immersive," but when I'm looking for the "Sword of Ultimate Truths" in my bag, I don't want to have to search over two hundred inventory slots of similar looking icons. Give me better tools for managing inventory even if they aren't "immersive." The game should be about what we do with those items, not about how well we search through all the crap we get.


Combat XP: I don't think combat should be the main way one earns XP. I'd prefer XP to be awarded for achieving goals. Avoiding combat when its not necessary should be rewarded just as much as slaughtering your way through an area. Dungeons and Dragons Online tried to do this, though they just ended up making running dungeon runs as the grind. However, I think it was the right direction to go.

Quests: I'd prefer quests to be something tied to a group instead of group members, and the rewards to be shared automatically by all members as they progress. We shouldn't have to have everyone share a quest or run around to the same quest givers.

In current MMORPGs on the market, I like the City of Heroes mission system the best. That game has the most healthy grouping scene of any MMO I've seen, and this is despite the fact that soloing is also completely viable.

People like to blame the ease of soloing for the death of grouping, but its not the case. I think individual quests killed grouping. After all, its hard enough to find people with the correct roles in your level range, now we have to find people on the same quest, and (in EverQuest II, with its multiple-stage quests) on the same freaking step.

Free for all PVP: I don't think PVP makes sense in an RPG; in an RPG, time is the principle means of advancement. Whoever has the most time advances fastest. So all we're really testing in a PVP-based RPG is who neglects their children the most. I prefer PVP in games where people are on equal ground (like strategy games) and skill is the determinant of victory.

Your Turn

Go to Stylish Corpse and reply there or post on your own blog. Let's find out what kind of MMO gamer you are!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Prognostications and Resolutions


I will not buy into any hype about any game. Darkfall, that means you, though I never had faith in that game anyway. It just seemed like the same people who hyped the indie failure Wish moved to Dark and Light, and now they have moved on to Darkfall. The same applies to Champions Online and whatever else is scheduled for this year.


On MMO Domination:

- World of Warcraft will still dominate. (I know, easy one.)
- EverQuest II servers will merge. Late in the year, it receives an expansion pack that raises the level cap to 90 and the AA level cap to 250. It introduces a new race and new starting area, but other than that, mostly high level (80-90) content. Everyone complains that the mythicals they worked hard to earn are worthless now.
- Darkfall will be released. No one will care.
- Chronicles of Spellborn will come out in the US. No one will care.
- Richard Garriot will announce he is making a new game. No one will care.
- Aion will be released and do well abroad. In America, it will cannibalize the Lineage 2 anime fetishist playerbase and generally be ignored as yet another Korean grind (except with wings).
- Age of Conan comes out with an expansion pack. Everyone loves the first twenty levels and uninstalls afterwards.
- Warhammer Online continues to lose players. EA Mythic starts their own version of Sony's Land of the Lost MMOs Station Pass collection, with a single subscription fee for all three of their games.
- Cheyenne Mountain fails to pay its employees and Stargate Worlds never makes it to market.
- Jumpgate Evolution is a sleeper hit, and Eve Online stops growing as its playerbase trades in their auto-attacking spaceships for more active gameplay.
- Somebody (*cough* Acclaim) brings a dozen more Asian MMO imports that no one plays.

On Lawsuits:

- lawsuit against NCSoft fails. NCSoft receives assistance from other parties, not (yet) directly involved in the lawsuit. Eventually (maybe not in 2009 but in 2010 at least), this goes the way of the PanIP lawsuit, a similar situation where a useless parasite of a company without a real product tried to leverage a patent to sue the world.

On Microtransactions and Revenue Models:

- A major AAA MMORPG (maybe Dungeons and Dragons Online) goes free to play with microtransactions. This move is generally well received because they choose to use microtransactions to charge for access (to new zones and quest lines; i.e., "modules") instead of a cash shop for items.
- The Agency will be an unmitigated success. The cash shop brings in so much revenue, all future Sony games are integrated with Station Cash.
- Sony either drops a dying MMORPG from its Land of the Lost MMOs Station Pass collection, or declares microtransactions to be a raging success and puts them in more of their games, starting with Star Wars Galaxies and Pirates of the Burning Sea.
- More MMORPGs will integrate advertising into the user interface. Bloggers fume when they find they are paying a subscription fee, microtransactions, and watching ads for the same game.
- Sony brings back /pizza, except now its paid for with Station Cash.

On Hype and Broken Resolutions:

- Bioware's The Old Republic MMO is still the most highly anticipated MMORPG in recent times. It doesn't come out in 2009.
- The blogosphere (myself included, despite my New Years MMO-related Resolution) gets caught up in the hype about Red 5's mystery project once they finally release some nuggets of information about it.

On Predictions:

- I will probably be completely wrong. But I hope I'm right. I am looking forward to some /pizza.