One thing I’ve mentioned a time or two on this blog is how I miss the old days when there was more, what I call, casual socialization. The ironic part is that while it felt casual, it wasn’t. EverQuest was hard and slow to play solo (not impossible), and so grouping with other people was very desirable. While lots of people hated this “forced” grouping, the fact is that it lead to people having to talk to each other. World of Warcraft, on the other hand, is so easy to play solo that barely anyone ever grouped, so much so that they had to invent an instant group making tool AND make it work across servers to get people to go do group instances. That’s not entirely true, people were doing group instances to a degree, but how it was being done is the point of this post.
Playing EverQuest felt like this:
While playing World of Warcraft felt like this:
In EQ, my guild always felt like a subset of the server. I raided with my guild (and their alliance) and I grouped with my guild, but I also grouped fairly often with other random people from other guilds and even raided with public raids (not to be confused with pickup raids where someone stands around shouting that they are forming a raid, but planned ahead of time, posted on the server message boards and open to signups by anyone). In WoW, my guild felt like it was my entire world. I raided with my guild and I grouped with my guild, and that’s it. Occasionally out in the world working on a quest I’d casually group with someone working the same quest (kill ten raptors goes faster for everyone around if you group up… collect ten raptor hides, however, is a cutthroat business), and at the lowest levels you might find a random group doing an instance, but only back before about 2006 or so because nowadays most people just race solo through the low level content to get to “the real game”.
I want to love my server again, my whole community, not just my tiny corner of it. But how do we do that? Unfortunately, the answer is less instancing and less easy solo content. In general, people will, even when it is detrimental, choose the path of least resistance. Soloing is easier than grouping in that you don’t have to contend with the personalities of others and you don’t have to share rewards, when you make soloing also better experience and progression, people stop choosing to group except when in their own niche of the community, their guild. When guilds don’t have to contend, compete and share content, they don’t have a reason to talk to each other. Instead they’ll just go off into their own instance and get their own loot.
Of course, this all depends on what you want out of an MMO. If you want a game, if you want pushing buttons to defeat monsters, if you want loot and to “grow” your character, above all else, then you want easy solo and instancing. But if you are like me and the game, the fighting, the loot and advancement, are all secondary to playing in the world with other people, then you want harder solo and shared content. Currently, WoW rules the roost. It makes the most money, and money controls the flow of design, so every game since WoW took over the market has tried to be like WoW, more game, less world. This is a great thing if you love WoW, except if you love WoW why would you want to leave a game you have investment in for a game that is exactly like WoW only you are level 1 instead of level 80? Couldn’t you get the same experience on an alternate character in WoW?
In the meantime, I keep trying new games and hoping to find one with less easy solo and less instancing and more community inside the game world. If you know of any, where you play with people not in your guild frequently because it has a vibrant community in the game, I’m all ears…
Lately, I’ve been diving into Facebook games so that I can see what they are all about. Overall, I’m fairly disappointed in a good number of them. Not in the game themselves, but in how they are implemented on Facebook.
I’m not new to online gaming. I’ve got an Xbox 360 and there are people on my friend list there that I met playing Left 4 Dead or Burnout Paradise or some other game. I’ve played MMOs and I know people from EverQuest and World of Warcraft and other games I’ve dabbled in. I understand, and actually desire, the need for other people. However, the way games integrate into Facebook, it requires me to be extra vigilant in how I handle my gaming friends.
In order to progress in most of these games, you need friends. I suppose you could spam messages out to all the people who are your real friends and beg them to play, but not everyone wants to play Facebook games, so it is not uncommon to need more game friends than your real friend list gets you. Most games, on their pages, have discussion boards where people can ask to be added as friends. Now, I can’t just add you as a FarmVille friend, I have to add you as a Facebook friend. Facebook does allow me to add people to lists, of which I have one called “Not” for people who are not my friends, and manage what they have access to and then I can hide them from my news feed so that I never see their stuff, but it just seems like hoops I am jumping through.
A perfect example of this is a game called Hero World. It is fun, if tedious at time, but the main element is that the number of people in your super team directly influences how powerful you are. So, people with more friends are more powerful. Scouring my list of real friends, I came up with 9 who wanted to play Hero World. With the max team size somewhere around 250, clearly my team was weak, and therefore I was weak. Moreover, I found that in order to buy bases and continue growing my own character I needed more friends. I utilized my “Not” group and made some new “friends”. Yay! I’m more powerful! And now I’m getting spam from people I don’t know!
Perhaps I’m just missing the point, perhaps I just don’t get it, perhaps I am becoming the old man screaming at the kids to get off his lawn, but to me a “friend” is someone I know. What passes for “friends” on Facebook just don’t seem to fit the definition. Facebook already makes a distinction between a friend and a fan, so why not allow someone to be application level friends where we can play a game together without the instant intimacy of being a “friend”?
Anyway… having been banging at some Facebook games for a while now, I’m going to start putting up reviews of them in the near future…
Text MUDs really didn’t have much of a perspective because they didn’t have a camera. You entered a room and were given a description of the room. Anyone in the same room was “within reach” and to get out of reach you left the room. Once games went graphical, the camera became a part of the game. On one side you have Ultima Online which followed the Ultima top-down isometric, decidedly 3rd person. On the other side you had EverQuest which owed its perspective to Doom and Quake and other 1st person shooters. Later on, EQ would free up the camera so that people could play in 3rd person, but the game was designed such that you didn’t really gain much from it (unless you were pulling, in which case you could use the 3rd person camera to look around corners and behind other obstacles). As MMOs have moved on, pretty much all of them have opted for the more tactical 3rd person view. Pulled back, staring at the back of your character, giving you an almost omniscient view of the world. It is very popular, in large part I suspect because it makes the game easier. When you can see around yourself in 360 degrees so that nothing can surprise you, life is more… predictable.
While playing the Star Trek Online open beta, I found myself really enjoying the space combat. The ground game was pretty much your typical bland MMO, like WoW or City of Heroes. In fact, it is almost identical to Pirates of the Burning Sea. But the space combat (much like the sea combat of PotBS) felt more much… alive. Even though it was pretty awesome, it still felt like something was missing, and it wasn’t until a friendly discussion and an offhand comment that I put my finger on it. A friend said, “I wish you could fight from the bridge.” And I light went on in my brain.
What is missing from Star Trek Online, and was missing from PotBS, was a more 1st person view of the game. STO’s space combat would be incredible if you played from the bridge, had to set the view screen, keep an eye on tactical items like scanners.
In my discussions with other folks about 1st vs 3rd person view, many of them cited PvP as being a reason for 3rd person. You need to be able to see if someone is stalking up behind your guy. And that discussion caused another light to go on. In EQ, when I played primarily in 1st person, I was my character. I was Ishiro Takagi, monk of Qeynos. When I played WoW, where 3rd person is the default, I was controlling my character. I was Jason, sitting at a computer controlling the actions of Ishiro, Alliance priest. Possibly owing to its roots in RTS games, WoW plays like a giant RTS where you only get one unit. The immersion is gone.
Stepping outside MMOs, in recent years I’ve been playing more console games. Back in the day, before I discovered MMOs, I played a ton of 1st person shooters. Before I started spending hours camping spawns in EverQuest, I was spending hours racing for flags and battling for control points in Team Fortress for Quake. In the last couple of years, games like Gears of War, which everyone else seems to go nuts for, just leave me feeling empty, largely because the viewpoint of the game is watching over the shoulder of a guy, not being the guy. I loved Dead Space, but there was a distance from the character, even though the integration of the UI into the game helped I still wasn’t in the head of the hero. On the other hand, Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 are just so awesome. No longer am I looking at the back of the hero, controlling him, I am the hero fighting my way through the hordes of the dead.
This is what is missing. This is what makes it so easy to casually cancel my MMO subscriptions and never come back. I never feel like I am in the game, just that I’m playing it. Sure, I could play many of the games out there in 1st person, but they aren’t designed for 1st person, they are designed for 3rd and playing in 1st puts me at a disadvantage to every other player. I hope more games consider locking in and designing for 1st person in the future.
What do you think?
The last thing I want to approach, and it is last only because I wracked my brain for weeks and could only think of five things a group mechanic provides (communications, status updates, rewards, content gating – everything else was purely social and not tied to the mechanic itself), is balance.
Many games these days that have groups use those groups to affect the design of the classes/characters in the game. Some players may not think so, but a lot, and I mean a ton, of time is spent tuning things like “what should the mana cost of this spell be?” and “what differences should there be between the single target version, the group version, and the area effect version?” You can look back at EverQuest and see that clearly in their buffs. A single target version of a spell might have a 2 second cast time and cost 200 mana. The group version has an 8 second cast time -making it harder to cast during combat- and costs only 700 mana -making it a big savings in both time and mana when casting it on a group of 6 players. The area effect version has a 30 second cast time, costs 3000 mana, and uses a pearl, making it impossible to cast in combat, wipes out the mana of the caster and costs in-game money, but it lands on “every player within a radius of X” making it fantastic for casting on a ten group raid at the beginning of an evening of raiding or for spamming buffs at the bank but little else. Every game (in the Diku mold) does this to some degree, using the group as an element of balance.
In Lord of the Rings Online, there are even group maneuvers where one player starts an action that opens up options for other group members to continue the attack. Without the group mechanic and the built in selection of who to notify of a group maneuver, the game would need to move indicators of group actions to the target itself so that a random collection of people without a formal group structure could pull off the same action.
Like with rewards and content gating, the group structure here is a fundamental element of the design for balance and weighs heavy in lots of the decisions made in what players can and can’t do.
Everyone these days seems to be talking about innovation (every letter is a link there). And by innovation they mean games doing something “new”.
I’ve made a few comments around, but there is one thing I want to post about here that I feel is important. I’ve touched on it before, at the end of this post. MMOs are a different beast that other forms of games.
Left 4 Dead 2 made some game play changes from the Left 4 Dead model. They added melee weapons, and the new boss infected shake up how you have to play, and the new “hordes until you turn them off” events instead of just the “hordes for X minutes/waves” ones change everything. However, if you hate the changes, all you need to do is put your old Left 4 Dead disc and play. The original game is still there.
When EverQuest launched, it had flaws. Parts were unfinished and some things just didn’t work. They released patches to fix those, and over the course of the first few expansions they expanded the game with new races, classes, item slots, abilities, and more. But, the underlying game, the way in which you played, really didn’t change. That came later. If you were to play EverQuest now, you’d find it plays very differently from the original game. With the new quest/task system that mimics WoW’s abundance of quests as opposed to EQ’s original more in-depth longer quests, mercenaries, more instancing, and other bits and pieces, it just isn’t the same. The old game still does exist on the EQMac server, but if you are on a PC and want to play the old EverQuest, you can’t.
Even World of Warcraft is not immune. The game as it exists now doesn’t play exactly the same as it did in the past. The faster leveling, the LFG tool for instance cross-server groups, the changes in raid designs. If you want to play the old WoW, you can’t, you have to play the WoW that exists now. The new Cataclysm expansion will put an end to the old game permanently as those zones won’t even exist in their original form anymore.
This is what I mean by the title, The Innovation Apocalypse. MMOs are expensive to make and expensive to run, and companies don’t want to see their game dwindle to a hardcore fan base and be faced with launching a sequel. EQ did that with EQII and initially EQII was a flop. They’ve recovered somewhat, and they have continued evolving EQ (up to expansion number 16 now). They are looking at EQIII (which might be referred to as EverQuest Next), but don’t expect it to be an iteration of the existing model – it will probably be a complete reinvention. If you are a fan of EQII, you should be thrilled with the idea of EQIII, because it means that all the new ideas are headed that way and are likely not to be implemented in EQII for a while yet. But that may just be a matter of time. Many of EQ’s more drastic elements didn’t come until after WoW and EQII were out. Someday, the EQII that you love may be gone as well.
Personally, I’m all for innovation in new games. But please don’t innovate in the game I’m already playing and enjoying. It is heartbreaking when a game you love ignores you and is ruined in its chase of a new lover.
Before anyone freaks out, no, I’m not advocating solo play, nor am I actually suggesting that the grouping mechanic be removed from games. This is simply a thought exercise. This and the posts that follow in this series will take a look at aspects of what grouping bringstechnologically and if we can retain it while removing the mechanic of forming a formal group unit.
Note: Please keep in mind that all discussion that follows is from my own experience, so if I mention that some game did something first, don’t yell at me because some game I never played actually did it first. Who did what first is actually irrelevant to the discussion.
The first element that comes to mind for me is communications. Joining a group in most games provides you with a group only chat channel. At one time this was necessary because it grew out of the design. Some games originally only had two forms of communication: local and whisper. Local would be just saying things and the people in range (in the room or on the screen) would see it. Whisper was something you said directly to another player and only that person could see it. Occasionally, games would have yelling or shouting, allowing people in adjacent rooms to see; and global, usually used by GMs to inform the entire game/server of something. But onceEverQuest came out, and local became distance limited and shout covered only the single zone, and the game had a formal group object, they needed a way for group members to talk to each other across zones without using masses of whispers and relaying information. Since then, most games now have the ability for players to create their own chat channels for any reason at all. With that, rigid group chat isn’t strictly needed anymore. Sure, its nice to have a channel you automatically join when you join a group, but since part of this is to eliminate group joining, we’ve established that the communications, if needed/desired, can be handled without the formal group.
In fact, to some degree, players don’t seem to care about group chat anymore. When it comes to raiding or even guild chat, many people (though certainly not the casual majority) have moved over to 3rd party voice chat like Ventrilo. This contributes to games becoming more “silent”, in my opinion, as members of your group may be happily chatting with their friends while they button push their group role with you. I’d say this, on some level, is borne out by the recent LFG tool implement in World of Warcraft. In that tool you can easily, almost instantly, get a group and go run a dungeon. However, those players may be from different servers, so social interaction becomes less important beyond the dungeon and the combat happening “right now” since you are not likely to play with them again. That is, unless they love playing with you so much, or you with them, that one of you decides to pay to move their character to a new server. Given this, WoWcould remove group chat today and replace it with a Wizard 101 style of menu selectable phrases (“Thanks!”, “Help!”, “Kill this [insert target monster]!”, etc) and most people wouldn’t be adversely affected by the change. They might even welcome it since the silence of a group could simply mean that everyone knows what to do and how to play, and not that people are being anti-social.
This isn’t a condemnation of the monthly subscription model for MMOs. In fact, I think it is still a great thing, and preferable to the heavy handed item stores than some games use instead of a subscription. However, over the past couple of months I’ve come to realize that as much as I love MMOs, games with a subscription model are largely a waste of my money.
Why? Well, back in the day, I started playing Ultima Online and I gladly paid their subscription because I played every day (almost). The same was true of EverQuest and of all the games that followed. Some games I didn’t stick with for very long, a few months or a year, but even then when I was paying I was playing. In the last year or so I have taken up a number of other activities, such as more reading, programming in my off time, writing, playing console games, and more. The net result is that my MMO playing time has become fairly erratic. One month I may play an hour or two every weekday and a couple of longer sessions on the weekend, the next month I may not log in at all.
Its the not logging in at all part that ends up bothering me. I hate paying for something I don’t use. Sure, I can just cancel and resubscribe when I want to play, but doing that is a hassle. On the other hand, I didn’t play Wizard 101 at all in November and it cost me exactly zero dollars and I didn’t have to cancel.
I’m not saying that Free-to-Play is the wave of the future and all games need to do that, however there is a disparity in the subscription model. It’s like going to an all you can eat buffet, paying the $10 and then only eating about $1.75 worth of food because you weren’t really hungry. I wouldn’t mind seeing some games in the US adopt the pay by hour model used in the Asian markets. I’d love to be able to buy a block of X game hours for Fallen Earth, and if I don’t log in for a month, I don’t use any hours, and when I do log in, all my hours are still there, waiting for me to use them. No canceling, no resubscribing, just easy. It would even be great if a game supported both models. Let people subscribe for $15 a month for unlimited play if they don’t want to worry about how much or how little they play, let people who don’t want a recurring payment and don’t mind watching their hours buy 75 hours for $15 ($0.20 per hour) instead.
I will say that the one thing the subscription model does is prevent me from maintaining active accounts in multiple games. I’d love to be able to pop in to EQ or DAoC or any of a number of other games for a couple hours once in a while, but re-upping for a full month of subscription makes the whole thing simply not worth it. However, if all those old games had a pay by hour model, I’d gladly toss $5 on there every now and then in order to keep some hours available for those days when I just want to go play something different.
All this hoping and wishing aside, however, the fact remains, as of today I am officially finished with monthly subscription MMOs. I want to play a number of them but I just can’t justify the cost given the amount of time I’ll play and the little spare money I’ve got for entertainment.
From a developer/producer standpoint, consider this. While the need to unsubscribe might garner you a couple extra months of fees from me before I realize I’m not playing and cancel, the need to resubscribe if I’d like to put my toe back in the water is very likely to keep me from coming back.
EverQuest was, as I’ve described before, really just a bunch of chat rooms with this mini-game of fighting monsters strapped to it. In each room, or zone, there were several chat channels. Local or say was distance limited, get too far from someone, twenty or thirty virtual feet, and you wouldn’t see their chat messages. Then you had shout which was zone wide, and ooc (out of character) which was also zone wide, and auction which again was zone wide. You might wonder why they had three channels that were essentially functionally the same. The answer is in the second channel, out of character. Shout was intended to be for things you wanted to say to the whole zone which was in character, or role playing. OOC was for talking about min/maxing and last night’s baseball game. Auction was for trade chat, selling items or offering to buy items.
The best thing about EQ was that the players did a fairly good job (on my server anyway) of policing that. People talking about baseball in shout were asked to move to ooc, and they usually did. This let players have control over how they interacted with the game. If you wanted to role play, you simply turned off ooc and all the other players could chat about baseball and you’d never see it.
In recent years, as the MMO genre has grown, with millions of people playing games like WoW, and games dropping the in character/out of character conventions, the boundaries of chat are gone. Every channel in most games is full of every kind of chat (except role play, which is getting pretty well crushed under the boot of “fun” which an ever growing segment of game populations appear to equate entirely with playing whack-a-mole and collecting loot). Take Fallen Earth for example. I love playing the game, but only after I filtered out both the New Player and Region chats to tabs I could hide because it was non-stop streams of spoilers and data and whining.
Of course, I’m not just lamenting lack of channel etiquette, but the loss of the RP in the MMORPG. Many people these days appear to approach MMORPGs like they are just another way to spend some time. They log in, they fight some monsters, they complete some quests, they level, and they log out. Somewhere in there, perhaps, they chat with some other people. Though with the increasing emphasis on solo game play in modern MMOs, playing or chatting with other people isn’t something most people are doing. For me, at least, I’d love to see the return of the “out of character” channel, if only as an acknowledgment by the developers that there is a dividing line between in and out of character.
Tobold has a great series of posts up called “Why Do We Play?” (that link goes to the summary, which links to the earlier parts because Tobold didn’t go back and put links in his introduction post) wherein he examines several aspects of gaming and how those aspect are realized. Of course, its mostly great if you aren’t a big gaming blog reader. Nothing in there is revolutionary, and most of it has been talked before in many places, but its not a bad read. Here is my rebuttal, of sorts…
I’m there for the social. I want to play with other people, and if I’m not going to play with other people, then I want a strong narrative which I am unlikely to find in an MMO and will more easily find in a single player game. One of the things I loved about EverQuest, and I’ve talked about it before, is that the game wasn’t quest driven. Yes, there were quests, and yes, I’ve said before that there was not a single day of playing EQ where I was not working on a quest of some sort. However, quests are personal. It is in their design to be so. A quest is started by you, it is on your quest tracker, and you will complete it. Someone can help you kill raptors and collect hides, but in the end, even if you both have the quest, you both need your own hides (whether the item is shared or not) and you will both talk to the NPC separately to complete the quest. The reason EverQuest worked so much better as a social game than WoW or other modern games is that while a player could always be questing, the bulk of the game was in fighting monsters, and fighting monsters is something you actually do together. When the monster dies, it may drop an item that is lootable by all group members, but still each of them loots the item for their own quest, they don’t complete the quest together, but they do kill the monster as a team. Especially in games like WoW, when you’ve collected all your items, you are best off running back to the NPC and doing the turn in as soon as possible because the next quest he gives may very well be in the same area you are already fighting in to kill monsters you are already killing but are getting no credit for since you don’t yet have the quest. And quests reward the player better than the killing.
To that end, I was very excited about Warhammer Online’s public quest system, where a quest wasn’t assigned to you but just happened in a specific area and to be a part of it you only needed to be there. Of course, that game also had a ton of traditional quests and the heavy PvE and quest focus of the game, plus it being level based like most every other MMO, lead pretty quickly to people not socializing, racing through content on the traditional quests. The saving grace of the game was supposed to be the PvP aspects, but with so much focus on PvE, and trying a bunch of PvP elements to PvE sieges, it didn’t really work too well. Honestly, I hope they keep plugging away at the game and don’t close it down any time soon. If they just accept that they are not going to defeat WoW at the PvE game and work on making the PvP game fun and rewarding, they might manage to carve themselves out a very nice niche, and I might go back to the game.
Despite my distaste for the gameplay of EVE Online, I am repeatedly drawn to the game because the social aspects of the game carry so much weight. And by “social” I don’t just mean hanging around chatting with people, though I do mean that too, but in how the player economy involves interaction with other players, even when done through an auction/buy/sell interface there are still other players on the other side of those transactions. Similarly, its why I am drawn toward Fallen Earth and why I’m so disappointed that I experience so much lag in towns. Hopefully they’ll resolve that, or I’ll be able to buy a super PC (when I win the lottery), and I can join in.
But that’s it in a nutshell. Of all the reasons to play an MMO, the reason I’m there is for the social interactions, and not just between me and my friends from previous games talking on our private chat server while playing in guild groups, but for the random happenstance of playing with and around other people, whoever they may be.
One of the things that bothered me a lot while playing World of Warcraft is that most people really just didn’t care. If you got too many monsters in the same fight, or an elite was just too strong, many people just gave up, took the death and came back. The penalty for losing was so soft that no one minded, and in fact many relied on it to test the waters. ”Hey, let’s try this! What’s the worst that can happen? Lose a couple minutes and a little money on repairs?” It added an element of fearlessness to the game, which had its own merit, but in the long run as you come to count on that losing doesn’t hurt, winning doesn’t feel as awesome. Winning is just something that happens. Winning, in World of Warcraft, is inevitable.
Meanwhile, back in the dark ages of 3D MMORPGs, death could easily cost you a couple of days worth of experience points if you couldn’t get a cleric to resurrect you. In some ways, this was bad because people were less likely to try things unless they were pretty sure they had a good shot at winning. However, a charismatic enough leader could convince just about any group to try anything once. ”I know we don’t have a cleric, but I’ve grouped with this druid before, and we have an enchanter to slow, we’ll be fine!” That was the basis of some of my most memorable moments in the game. Five monks and a druid as a group in Old Sebilis, ranger tank in the Plane of Storms, and so on. But the greatest effect of a stiff death penalty was the will to survive. If a pull went bad, or a wandering monster joined in your already iffy fight, not one person ever said, “Hey, let’s just die and come back in a couple minutes.” Instead, the chat window would immediately be filled with chatter about who was tanking what, or what mob was going to get pulled away and rooted, or which mob to focus on as various forms of crowd control were tried. My memories of EverQuest are filled with moments of healers being out of mana while the group is surrounded by five monsters all mesmerized and the enchanter ensuring us they could hold it while I yelled at the group, “No one touch ANYTHING until the cleric says he’s ready!” and people making sacrifices, “I’ll off tank this, but I can’t last more than a minute or two, if you don’t finish by then, I’ll be dead but I wish you luck with the add.” I fought many fights where bad agro killed the cleric and the rest of the group fought tooth and nail to stay standing as long as they could. Failure hurt, but snatching victory from the jaws of defeat felt incredible.
Many people will tell you that harsh death penalties are a thing of the past and that today’s players wouldn’t stand for it, and they are right. The people who would never play EQ who have flocked to WoW aren’t looking for that sort of risk, just a few odd minutes or hours of entertainment. But to me, that sort of investment in a game is what I’m looking for. I want a game worth fighting for.