Saturday, May 30, 2009

At the Border Between the Free Realms and Norrath

Tipa opined, "Will EverQuest III be Free Realms II?", making the astute observation that Sony would hardly invest so much time in this new technology and not use it elsewhere. I think that goes without saying. It would be a waste of effort for any company to reinvent the wheel. EverQuest II shared a common foundation with Star Wars Galaxies. Similarly, some of the technologies in Free Realms are probably a taste of things to come in a future SOE AAA title.

The main feature that I expect to see in future SOE titles would be the streaming technology. Ogrebears disagreed, arguing that no one would want to stream a large title, given that MMOs are often in the 8-10GB range, and many top 20GB. I would argue that the size of new MMOs is the principle reason WHY streaming technology is necessary. Streaming brings many benefits that fix issues that games with particularly large resource footprints, like MMOs, face.

One of the main benefits is that you get into the game faster. I tried to encourage a friend to join EverQuest II. He downloaded the client and started the download. Then proceeded to complain day after day that the download was taking forever. I imagine World of Warcraft would have taken just as long to patch to the latest version from the original discs that were put on shelves in 2004, but he already had that installed. I don't think he ever even bothered to get in game. At some point, other things intervened and he didn't bother to try.

That's just one anecdote, but I doubt its an outlier. It's just human nature: we're all willing to try something new, but generally not if it's going to cost us. And babysitting a computer program patching over 10GB+ of data slowly isn't something many people will bother with, except the die-hard MMO addicts among us.

On the other hand, if you can download a smaller client, with just the files you need to launch the newbie area instantly, you can get a lot of people in the game instantly. Which means you get more potential conversions to subscribers.

Free Realms' streaming technology provides the ability to update the client WHILE IT IS RUNNING. [Update: Actually, I'm not sure if Free Realms can do that. I think I may have been confusing what I read with something in an article about Guild Wars' streaming technology, which does have the ability to seamlessly update the game on the fly. At any rate, it is a potential benefit of the technology that I'd like to see exploited and expanded upon in future games.] This is important because it reduces down time (which is a competitive advantage to other games). It also allows you to patch more often and more frequently (no more waiting until patch day to close a major exploit!).

The benefits don't have to be limited merely to reducing downtime for patching in fixes or major content updates. Being able to stream new information and new items on the fly provides more flexibility for Live Events, since you don't have to take down the servers to change the world. The Live Event can go through several stages and have smaller, more incremental changes over time.

While Free Realms isn't the type of game I'd like to play, because it is oriented towards kids, it has many features that I would love to see in a more mature setting. Streaming content is one such feature. Next week, I'll ramble on about a few of the others.

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