Saturday, September 24, 2011

Every Endgame is PvP

The title and focus of this post is a reference to something Gevlon wrote recently. I read his blog quite often, but do not comment. Regardless, the full quote is this:

"To understand the problem we have to recognize two basic points. At first, every endgame is PvP. The PvE players want to get higher on the charter. Even the pet collectors try to show off their rare pets, what are rare because others don't have it. You can dampen the PvP aspect, you can help the ones behind, you can add more content to explore, delaying the endgame for the more casuals, but eventually in all games the player will have to encounter the endgame that is PvP by nature and runs below the slogan of "gtfo noob" (or trivial and people leave in boredom)."

I was reminded of a post I had made previously on individualistic communities. The average WoW player does not need to cooperate with anyone else to achieve his goals. The Dungeon Finder, and soon the Raid Finder, will allow him to gem and gear up while only needing to rely on himself. Gevlon even recognizes it in his latest post, saying,

"The problem of Cataclysm from the community viewpoint is that the difficulty comes from the "dance" that can't be helped. I can't give you dance, I can't carry you over the dance, I can't even help you learn the dance. I can only give you meaningless advices as "watch more videos", which is a solitary activity."

Without these elements; without needing other players to progress, you have no reason to socialize. So we have to give people incentives to be in guilds. Though this might seem like a great idea, look at it from another light: WoW has to give people a reason to be in a guild, because being social isn't a good enough reason.

Where is my Massively Multiplayer game? SWTOR devs promise to keep their queues within the server, but also say they will evaluate the impact this has on the game. Sound familiar? How about RIFT? The players of MMORPG's are far too used to the convenience this brings to be willing to give it up. Once again, social interaction is neglected. There is a much larger focus on the game part of MMORPG than the multiplayer part.

But then again, how can a company create reasons to be social? Removing the Dungeon Finder is a popular response to this sort of thing. Or making it server-only. However, the second option there would damn small servers, so it may be simply more merciful to remove it altogether. I don't believe removing it from games is even possible at this point though. People love their conveniences, and removing them would cause a tremendous outcry. Imagine if you had to collect your mail at your town's post office instead of at your mailbox. It is a longer trip to accomplish the same thing, and though you are being more social, you don't realize what a hassle it is until you have a mailbox. Then, suddenly, you never want to live without one.

While we are blaming the players for these design choices, let's pick a quote from Game By night which has been popular in the blogosphere* recently.

"As husbands and wives, careers, kids, bills, and mortgages enter the picture, gaming time tends to slide until it either disappears  or the classification on your gamer card changes entirely. MMOs are becoming more casual because, you guessed it, we’re becoming more casual."

Big thanks to Bio Break for featuring it in a big, bold place where I could find it easily. This quote puts some things into context. Most avid gamers are aware of the statistic that most gamers are over the age of 30. WoW is 7 years old, and the free time that college kids and early 20-something year olds had to play this game is now gone. The same audience they have held has changed in a big way, and WoW evolved their game to try to keep them. It's only natural to create the Dungeon Finder for people who are starved for time to play and see content, right?

Except they are suddenly no longer designing for the crowd that made their game popular in the first place: The 20-something year olds with disposable income and a lot of free time. Sure, 30 and up may have more income and those who choose MMO's as a hobby will appreciate the design choices, but they are also the ones who are less likely to pursue new social connections in comparison to the 20 year olds. 30's and up are likely to already have established family and friend circles that investing in those connections online is no longer worth the time. Yet, they enjoy the game and may also enjoy the fact that there is an established community to talk with when the desire arises. The community is there when you want it, but you never need it.

And so we bring this full circle. How exactly does this make endgame PvP now? We seemed to have ridden the Tangent train all the way to the middle of No-Longer-Relevant, New Mexico. The word of the post is rewards. It is one of the reasons the badges system was developed, and it is the reason why every endgame is PvP. Because despite not needing the community to gain your rewards, everyone else in the community wants your rewards too. Raid drops, dungeon drops, and even the guy who is camping you in Warsong Gulch and preventing you from gaining honor (before they handed it out like aggressive free-sample marketers at a food stand in your local mall. You know the ones.) are all in the way of you getting rewards. You are no longer competing against a game challenge for your items, you are competing against your guild and PuG mates. Badges help alleviate this, yes, but since they do not replace loot they still do not prevent this from happening.

Your teammates want your loot. Your teammates are preventing you from winning Tol Barad/Wintergrasp/Random Battleground. Your teammates keep screwing up on the Sapphiron fight because damnit, how hard is it to stand behind an ice block? And you can't help them in any way. It is you against the World of Warcraft. Or Middle Earth. Or whatever the world name is in Warhammer.

*I refuse to believe that "blogosphere" is a real word.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jagex - Ahead of the Curve?

I've mentioned in one place or another how Jagex's browser game Runescape is full of ideas that the wider MMO field should take to heart. Today's Massively article on their clan citadels puts that into full view.

Massively Interviews Jagex

Guild Housing? Check.
Guild vs Guild Activities? Check
Alternate way to level without depopulating main areas? Check
Balanced for guilds of any size? Check

From the looks of it, Jagex may actually be ahead of the game when it comes to designing features for MMORPG's. Guild housing is a major requested feature that few games offer lately, (City of Heroes, SWG to an extent, Guild Wars) and this not only addresses that issue but gives players reason to do stuff in it with their guild. It isn't just a fancy space to appease RP'ers, it is a full fledged system.

Apologies for the lack of a full post today, but I felt the need to point that out. It was one of the first online games I ever played, and it still can surprise me at times.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Social Networking and MMO's

Most of you are already aware of SWTOR's pre-release guild feature. Guilds are being formed and recruited for, and falling apart due to drama months, and in some cases years, before the game is even released. As entertaining as I find the guilds who are recruits for PvE, PvP, RP, Raids, Questing, Dungeons, Social and Back-rubs without even having access to the game, if I spent my writing time correcting people who were wrong on the internet then my blood pressure would skyrocket.

No, I've had a bit of a pet cause here for a little while that I've mentioned in comments on other blogs and I'd like to expand on it. It's about social networking and MMO's. SWTOR is just one example of such features that I think should be capitalized on.

Let's begin with Turbine. I don't think it's a stretch to say that when it comes to designing a website that works, Turbine is not on the top of my list. However, they have put together community tools that are not only interesting, but keep the community connected to each other. I'm talking about your own personal web page. Let's pick one for example from the featured pages: Samiusbot's Page

Much like a typical forum profile, you have a small section for a profile picture, a bit about yourself and what they are up to. Though I loathe the huge length of the page, you also have a journal/blog of your own. A friends list, a characters list, an RSS Feed, a wall to post on, a screenshot gallery, and even a character log of what your character has been doing lately. This can be easily summed up as a DDO Facebook, and even under a username instead of a real name. Anyone who briefly glanced at the gaming community during the RealID fiasco knows that this part is an important feature.

The site has flaws, of course. I am no web designer, in case you haven't noticed the generic template for the blog, but navigation is difficult and finding other players on your server or who share similar interests in difficult to say the least. But it does attach to your forum account and makes for an excellent addition to the community.

Next up we have SWTOR. As mentioned above, they have allowed the creation of guilds before launch. What you may not know are the tools guilds are given. Once again, it is worthy to note that guilds are connected to your forum accounts. Here is the search feature for finding a guild in SWTOR. The criteria are staggering on comparison to any other MMO site, and that isn't all. There is a built in application system to apply for a guild, a guild site to explain your goals and activities, a public forum for potential recruits or friends of the guild, a private forum for guild members and, of course, a roster.

Guilds are free to use these features as much or as little as they want, but not using them is missing out on one of the easiest ways to recruit from the community. The same goes for those looking for a guild. Now, whether a guild lives up to the criteria it sets for itself is another story altogether, but giving them the tools to expand rather than leaving it up to third party sites and trade chat is a major boon.

Lastly, I'd like to briefly discuss RealID. Cross-game chat is worthless when talking about an MMO: MMORPG players are typically loyal to one game and I know very few who would use such a feature already, not to mention how many actually subscribe to more than one game from one company as is. No, I'm talking about grouping with friends who aren't on the same server for a dungeon finder group, and being able to chat and play with them. I'm a role player, and I prefer to play on RP servers. Though I have joined a guild that facilitates that, my friends in real life aren't into it. So they play on normal servers. Being able to chat and play with them, even though we prefer different server settings, is an excellent addition to any MMO and should be considered whenever a dungeon finder system is implemented.

I am waiting for the day that an MMO company puts together a polished community system that allows gamers to network on their own terms. We're capable of making very good communities when given the resources. And it would sure help keep people around and subscribing, if the bottom line is all you're worried about.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wouldn't it be Cool if...? Speechless

Everyone is interested in Bioware's fully voiced MMO, SWTOR. Despite not being the first to have quality voice acting, they certainly will come in cheaper than hiring Mark Hamill and half the cast of Firefly like DCUO did. Still, I have been thinking lately...

How about an MMO with zero text or voice?

It could be of any style, really: Sandbox or theme park, sci-fi or fantasy. The main point is that it would have no dialogue, no voice acting, no text of any kind. Everything would be communicated through speech bubbles with picture in them, or character gestures such as pointing. Characters would not receive names either.

This hypothetical game is to prove a bit of a theory of mine: Players will become inventive to work around the communication barrier by relying on the in-game gestures, and by that measure become more cooperative. Of course, some will cheat and use ventrillo or third party chat programs, but you can't win them all.

The style would extend to the entire interface as well. The only thing with text would be the launcher program, with news, and the options screen. Otherwise, you have the minimap, your inventory, and health/energy bars. To make it work, things would have to be presented in a clear, possibly a bit cartoony, fashion so that wood in your inventory is never mistaken for something that you made out of wood.

I think this could present interesting challenges to the players. Say you have a sandbox style game, and you are attempting to build a house. Trading for materials is its own challenge, as well as just building the thing. Though, now that I think about it, cooperative sandbox would work best for this model. If there would be combat, abilities would not be able to be used as text is disallowed. Or, at least many abilities.

Music and sounds would play important roles as well. Setting the mood, of course, but also knowing when danger is nearby. I would expect players could choose from a number of noises to make that could mean a variety of things, such as enemies incoming, help needed, or just being obnoxious.

I will admit, I haven't got the idea entirely fleshed out yet, but I find the concept very interesting. What do you think?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remember The Time Stories had Consistency?

I've been mulling over the idea of class stories for SWTOR for some time now. I'll get all of my praises out first: It will make leveling and interesting and fun experience for the player, it does an excellent job at breaking up the grind by making players make meaningful choices that don't involve which boar they should be disappointed in next for not having a liver, and can make even non-roleplayers have an idea of who their character is and possibly introduce them into that hobby.

But what about story consistency?

Most of us are aware at how quickly player victories are turned into the victories of major NPC's or how nobody can ever remember our names despite us being around often enough for them or be remembered. (Varian killed Onyxia, Tirion and a nameless group killed the Lich King) But these little parts were there for a REASON. The choices were taken out of the players hands in order to create a story that made sense and was cohesive.

Give players choice in how a story progresses without actually having the world progress with it lands many players in different places. Which makes players create big grey spots in what is going on in the world, especially when it comes to Flashpoints. Let's use two on SWTOR's site as an example.

A Sith Flashpoint gives players the option to let a captain who had disobeyed orders to live or to kill him off for disobedience. This is the captain of a battleship, and because of this Bioware can't touch the NPC in any way outside of this Flashpoint. Is he dead or alive? What were the repercussions of either decision? They can't do that without having all these different diverging threads that need to fit in to the game world. Another involves the Republic rescuing a Jedi from a prison. It's important enough a mission to warrant sending players after it, but then we have a break in story where the outcome is once again hazy.

As I've been briefly mentioning, there seems to be two ways to go from here. The first is to consistently make diverging threads of plot, which would be too much of a mess for any company to handle, especially since Flashpoints are the equivalent of dungeons and can be run over and over again. The second is simply to make any and ALL player decisions either so minor they can't affect the overall world/universe or those that do have a major impact have hazy after conclusions.

And then we have future content updates. I don't doubt it will be a bad idea to keep introducing NPC's to kill off or spare constantly, as it is a big universe, but sooner or later our plot decisions are either going to feel incredibly minor or they're going to run out of major NPC's they can even use. Bioware really has to walk on eggshells here in their writing, or else major characters will have to be written out on the sole basis of ambiguity in their fate.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tin Mechanics - Scaling Difficulty

"Mercifully, we're seeing the start of a change in the way these mechanics are implemented. Lately, the big recurring element is the idea of scaling difficulty, instances or quests that grow or shrink depending on the size of the group. And, of course, that prompts fears that the game is just catering to solo players and the removal of any interesting group experiences, turning the entire game into a single-player experience that just happens to be online."

I seem to enjoy responding to Massively's Soapbox posts, don't I?

Scaling difficulty is something I have a fairly biased opinion on, especially when it comes to group content. This is because I spent a good amount of time in City of Heroes, a game I consider to have done it right. Except for the part where the servers crash because too many people are in one spot. Then, yeah, that just sucks.

Back on track here, I'm at a loss as to how one could describe this (at least, City of Heroes' implementation) as catering to the solos and removing group experiences. It can't be due to efficiancy: Group players can get more exp/hr than a solo player ever can. It can't be endgame, because all of the important endgame content isn't soloable at all. And the most important aspect, if my previous post is of any indication, is that scaling content doesn't take away from developer time on group content. It just makes the group content available to players who don't have the time, energy or patience to put together a group. 

I bolded the ever-loving hell out of that statement because it's important to me. Group content that can be soloed should take precedence over solo content you can bring a group to. An example of the latter would be quests in WoW these days. They are built for you to do them alone. Sure, you can bring along a friend, but it's not necessary and sometimes actually makes you level up slower. If reports on the exp rate are any indication, perhaps that would be a good thing to do.

No, group content that can be soloed is like the Rikti Invasion events that pop up. If the aliens show up in your zone, a number of mobs will spawn next to you that have two distinct qualities: Firstly, they have no level. Anyone can fight them and win, though higher level characters who have improved their powers clearly have an advantage, and even a level 1's buffs, debuffs, heals and damage can substantially contribute.

However, I don't think scaling content should be universally applied to a game. That is a poor decision. It should apply to instances, and events such as the one I mentioned above. Why? I think Zubon from Kill Ten Rats said it the best, despite him talking about Borderlands: " It’s great that you can have a Playthrough 2 where everything is even-con to make it a potentially meaningful challenge, but it really drives home that you put levels in a FPS where they add so little that you built mechanics to get around having levels in your FPS."

There are options available. It is possible to create group content without sacrificing the solo player, and vice versa. It is also an excellent way to reuse old dungeons and content by simply ramping up the challenge for end-game players. A cheap way, yes, but this post isn't about dealing with that particular problem.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Randomized Dungeons

Would randomized dungeons improve how long content would last with the playerbase?

This question occurred to me while playing a bit of Torchlight recently, and I began to wonder why very few online games have taken the route of using randomized dungeons, or at least one randomized dungeon. Spiral Knights, the F2P game you can get off Steam now, is one of these examples. I'm finding few reasons to justify not implementing their kind of dungeon making in some way.

Firstly, in Spiral Knights a dungeon is created by collecting gems from other dungeons and putting them into a machine. The specifics of the dungeon are then derived from the kinds that are put in. For example, the environment and enemy types, as well as bosses. Other than that, the floors are randomized with groups of enemies as well as rudimentary puzzles that require teamwork.

Rewards would be random, bosses could be created solely for random style dungeons or perhaps generated from a list of current bosses in other dungeons. Justifying it within most games wouldn't be difficult either, as most titles could simply use a variation of "A wizard did it."

So we have our base idea. Which brings us back to our question: Would it increase the length of time content would last among the playerbase?

The "Yes" side has a good number of points for it already. Random dungeons would require a bit more attention than normal ones, as you couldn't reliably predict the next encounter or puzzle. Randomized loot means there is potential to find an upgrade for everyone, unless you outgear the content of course. The track record of success with randomized dungeons is fairly high already, and the random nature ensures a good level of re-playability at least.

However, it does strike some points against it in modern MMORPG formulas. The fact that loot is random scores against it, as if you are, say, a Holy Paladin style with a very specific type of armor, you may be waiting a long time for something of yours to drop. It's generic nature would be a turn-off in some cases as well, as normal dungeons can sustain a story and have far more interesting encounters due to their static nature. And even though boss encounters could be randomized, once you see which boss you get the fight will still be the same, unless randomized boss tactics are put in place, which have a whole slew of problems to go with them.

The idea has potential to increase the life span of a level content, yes, but putting such a thing into practice is a different story. Would it be worth the time spent to create such a system in, say, WoW or SWTOR? Would it actually increase re-playability by any significant amount? I'd love to hear other opinions on this.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Lion's Den - Solo Dungeons

Good news everyone! I found something to do with that other Wizard of Oz reference. Lion's Den pieces are typically going to be opinion pieces, and possibly rants.

And you know what I hate? Solo Dungeons. First Age of Conan does them, and now RIFT is jumping on the bandwagon. There have even been rumors of WoW putting something like this in the works, though I'm afraid I've lost that link. It wouldn't surprise me though, given that Blizzard is known for "borrowing" features.

Now, my problem isn't that they are a bad idea, or that I think they won't be fun. And by all means, I fully support there being interesting and fun content for players who want to go solo, because your friends can't be online ALL the time and sometimes you're up until 2 in the morning playing a game just because you can. No, my problem is the designers of this feature breaching a barrier that I personally considered sacred, and now there is a fear of it invading more titles. MMORPG's are social games. Whether you like it or take part in it, the fact is that you are paying your sub (or just logging in, in the case of F2P) for the opportunity to interact with others within the game world.

I recall one awful post on the WoW forums (Just one? Ba dum pish.) that was a plea to make solo versions of raids with no loot just so people who didn't have a raid group or didn't have the time to commit to one could experience the content. And now developers are creating solo dungeons for players who apparently have the time to do a dungeon run but don't want to interact with other people. I have Fallout and Oblivion for when I want to dive into dungeons without other people or when my internet is down. My question is: Why on earth do you want to go onto an online game to not be social?

I read Klep's post today, ""I am not the target audience" is an uncomfortable thought" and suddenly it hit me: Why is the target audience for an MMORPG becoming the person who wants to play solo rather than the person who wants to be social? So many features released in the past year or so have been directed solely at those who don't want to be a part of any social group. This is not news, of course, as it goes back to when the LFD tool was first released, but still a jarring realization. How many MMORPG's can you think of that are working on more features for groups than for solo plays? WoW's last major patch was a single raid dungeon and a set of daily quest areas. LOTRO's next expansion includes more quest content than dungeon content by a landslide. RIFT's solo dungeons, SWTOR's dungeon loot bags and solo questline stories, and I'm sure I could name a few more if I gave it a shot but you get the point. 

I'm aware that solo dungeons are merely the symptom of a larger issue at hand here. That doesn't mean I dislike it any less, but it also doesn't mean I'm going to argue with those who say it's merely the companies catering to their playerbase. Here's to hoping we'll get someone to put the Multiplayer back into MMORPG. Maybe GW2. Maybe.