Urbanite Update for Spring 2016

Okay, so social news for today.

We have a regular and somewhat large group still running on Guild Wars 2.  Though sadly, I cannot bring myself to play that game for any length of time.  Partly due to hardware issues I’m currently suffering, and partly because the game is not much fun for me right now.  Perhaps I should consider a bag upgrade and make it so that I can avoid inventory management for huge play sessions at a time as opposed to the current onerous workload that the game makes it.

I’ve decided to give Firefall another try, in an effort to alleviate my fantasy doldrums.  Downloaded the 10 gig client and gave it a go last night.  It kept me engrossed for a solid 2 hours but sadly, not as much time on actual playing.  I was able to level up from 1 to 10 and that forced me to spend a lot of time doing inventory management.  I will be trying it out a bit more later on though and see if it’s made any significant improvements to the game since I first tried it out so long ago.  If you play Firefall give me a yell, (LockOnCoH) and we can kill aliens together.

But first, you’re invited to a party!!!!

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Thursday April 28th, to celebrate the launch date of City of Heroes, The Cape Radio is having a party using Paragon Chat.  If you’re feeling nostalgic and miss the character creator, come by between 3pm and 11pm Eastern, and relive the glory days.  I’ll be on and off throughout the day but there will be trivia and costume contests and hopefully a good crowd in Atlas Park that night.

Links

linkExtra Credits just put up a new video talking about what skills a game designer should learn in school.  It’s certainly pertinent to our conversation last week, and an interesting discussion in it’s own right.

Two new classes are available in Black Desert Online this week, the Maehwa and the Musa.  Both are a pair of melee aoe specialists with some good looking tricks up their sleeves.  This is a game I hope to delve more deeply into once my hardware issues are resolved.

Crowfall continues to get more and more interesting and if you’d like to watch how an MMO is made from the ground up, it’s a great place to lose an afternoon perusing through their update history.

That’s it for now Urbanites.  Hope to see you on the 28th.  I’ll update with my Paragon Chat ID if anyone wants to come find me later tonight after I get home.

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Telling Stories in an MMO – Final Form!!!

goku_super_saiyan_god_by_maniaxoi-d64xvw6

Okay, so in our first part of this series, we talked about types of content and how they relate on the Bartle scale.  Last time we talked about lore, narrative, and sand box gameplay and how hard it is to make that work right.

Today I could talk about how you manage the story of the world versus the story of the players in that world.  It’s important to set up your world to work in a way that provides players with a means to create their own stories using your world, while providing a developer the means to progress the story of the game world.  The trick is to do it in such a way the two end up complimenting as opposed to competing with each other.  But that was described better in this post, and that’s still only one component worth discussing.

I could also talk to how choose your own adventure games play into the branching paths that players look for to help customize their story and provide them a means to feel like they have choices in your game world.  This is a great post on how those games can be set up and also worth a full article in it’s own right.

I’d like to talk about how you take the mechanics of the various forms of content that we discussed back in that first post and manipulate your content updates such that you get as much bang for your buck when doing content updates.  We could compare content types and how to marry those mechanics with lore in such a way that they compliment each other without detracting or leaving a group of your players to die on the vine, waiting for content that never arrives.  Maybe another time.

Ouuu, and let’s not forget the various forms and equations usable to determine how much content can be produced in how long and how to actually get it all out.

Instead though, we need to talk about something else first.  The secret sauce.  How do you make content that makes players want to invest in your world, makes them want to play in it, and stay there?

It’s worth separating out the game programmers who write logic and vectors and hook everything together to allow for players to play and the game designers who write the lore and build the scenarios and create the content for the game.  Often I’ve conflated the two and that’s not appropriate.  Especially when I start talking bad about programmers.

Because you see, programmers, in general, are terrible game designers.  And if your game is being led by programmers than I really only have one question for you before I try your game out.  And it’s the question that all this has led to.

Have your programmers ever run a D&D campaign?

tumblr_no9pakqRk11utxrkto1_1280To be fair, it’s the same question I’d ask game designers as well.  If the answer is no, then our conversation is over and I’m just going to skip your game.  If the answer is yes, then we can go deeper.

Being a good game master involves so many similar skills as being a good game designer.  You need to be able to construct a scene the way a movie director does so that the scenarios and action unfold in your game logically.  You need to be able to communicate effectively so that your players can understand the goals you want them to go towards and the means they have to do so.  You need empathy with your players so that you can anticipate their wants and desires and build content that meets those desires.

Notice how none of those skills require debugging nested C function calls or interpreting the Java stack?

One more skill that’s important to both good DM’s and good game designers, is the ability to tell a compelling story.  It sounds obvious but too often in video games (not just MMO’s), the content I’m given to play is a collection of go here, do this, beat that, connect the dots to and do it all over again.  Have you done a connect the dots game, since you were a little kid?  Kinda loses it’s charm after the first time.  But content is king and it’s got to be filled up.  Keep the players busy, don’t let them stop and notice the wires holding up the puppets.  The one thing we can’t ask is why.  Why do any of this?  Without a compelling reason, the disassociation starts to set in.   It’s not enough to fill your game with actions and goals and consequences.  You have to hook them into something that the player values.  What’s your big idea that ties it all together?

Branden Vance, the writer who I linked to last week, talks about this at length.  He’s using old dead German philosophers to make his point, but it’s all about the idea.  What idea are you trying to convey?  What universal truth is behind the story you’re telling.  Is it about love?  Honor?  Sacrifice?  The avarice of man?  The kindness of strangers?  The possibilities are endless.  Sadly, in the rush to get the content out, this level of detail is just not there.  And that’s the problem.

Because it’s this conveyance of a big idea, that will drive your players into your game and keep them there.  We all seek universal truths and shared experiences.  These are not hard stories to write for.  Most of them already exist.  Adapt them for your game.  You steal source code off the internet like it’s no tomorrow, why aren’t you stealing story ideas too?  Worried about plagarism?  Ahhhh, this is because we don’t have very good skills when it comes to breaking a story down to it’s base elements, understanding what parts of it makes us itch, makes us want to read more, to do more, to see more.  Most of us would rather debug the Java stack than have to figure out WHY we liked a particular story.

If we can’t figure this out on our own, maybe we should invest more in professional writers.

Nahhh, next you’ll tell us community managers are important too.

But you can take these ideas, big or small, and work them into your game.  You can write scenarios about the cosmically bad luck an NPC has over a weekend and the lengths a player has to go through to keep them going.  All the fetch quests and collections you want.  You can write a different story about the crazed sociopathic villain who threatens the whole world with armageddon.  Both of those stories are about being a hero.  One to just a single person, and the other to the whole world.  But they’re the same story.  Show how.  Often it’s just a simple line of dialogue tying them both together.  It’s really not that hard.  If your stories have no idea behind them, they’re empty shells.  Content made to fill the time and nothing else.  It’s time to remember that stories fill up our souls and without them, without that experience, we’re just wasting time.

So be a good game master when you’re designing your game.  Give your players content that means something.  Even if you think it only matters to you, your players will surprise you.  Human experience has that shared quality.  And your players will appreciate it so much more over empty content.  Start there.  The rest is just details.

Over_9000

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Telling Stories in an MMO – Part 2

Last time we looked at what should be called content creation when you’re making or consuming things in an MMO.  The explicit promise of an MMORPG is that you’re inhabiting a character that lives in a world.  There are “real” events and things that are happening within that world that your character can take part in and engage with and make their own.  MMO ROLE PLAYING GAME after all.  Sadly, this hasn’t panned out quite as well as we may have hoped.

Last week we looked at the Bartle scale and how content creation may be tailored to appeal to a given type.  One thing that we may just not be measuring very well, but seemed to be coming to in our discussions was how little game lore seemed to matter in terms of content that would appeal to our various Bartle types.  So do players care about the story of the game and the game world?  A lot of energy is devoted to it.  There isn’t a lot of research around game lore and content.  This informal forum poll was all I could come up with while I was looking and while the questions are clearly biased towards lore, it would seem that in this sample at least, at least 75% of all players surveyed have strong feelings about game lore.

LorePole

Good game lore seems to be almost universally underappreciated and disregarded.  When it’s good, however, it’s often the hook that will bring new players into your game, enticing them to try living life in your world for a while.  Launch is one of those few places in a game where good or bad game lore can make or break it for the masses you’re trying to attract.  Good game lore can also help smooth the experience of achievers and explorers and help to give them a reason to do what they do beyond just the badge or the experience, though it’s not quite as critical.  It’s interesting how stories with good game lore tend to hang on despite a lackluster game.  DCUO and Star Wars The Old Republic come to mind, as two games that are far from outstanding, but continue to have a regular following in terms of both players and updates to their games.  Clearly, the lore of those two properties is helping to preserve them maybe even longer than they deserve to be.  You know who else has good game lore?  World of Warcraft.  The game is actually the 4th sequel in a series of RTS games that Blizzard made their name on.  That kind of continuity and direct continuation of their franchise has led to huge success and helped maintain their momentum.  It’s no accident that their other games, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, capitalize on the lore of their earlier games to help keep them popular.

Incidentally, bad game lore can ruin the experience for a player and slowly destroy your game.  Nothing takes players out of the moment more than a bad bit of lore or terribly written dialogue to remind them that they’re in a fake world.  The less believable the fake world is the more they start to look around and see what else is wrong with the game.  It also seems to be a warning sign as well.  If the lore is bad, odds are the rest of the game is bad too.  I’ve found that developers that won’t take the time to get good writing done, tend not to take the time for a lot of other things as well.

But it’s not just that it’s a good or bad story in the game.  It’s also how that story affects the player.  The chief complaint I’ve seen over the years with MMO content is always that it’s happening around and not really to a character.  There are always NPC’s who the story is really about.  Players are the window dressing, just there to push some buttons, fill in some space, and go along with it.  Trials and villains are the flavor of the patch and exist solely in the context of that patch.  Rarely are they seen or used outside of it.  It gets repetitive.  It gets rote.  It gets insulting.  Nevermind when story is badly done and ends up contradicting earlier content.  This can take us out of the experience completely.

These feelings may be related to how we play other video games.  In single player games, we take on the role of the story’s protagonist and this allows game developers to construct a narrative around the player.  But MMO’s allow us to be anyone we want (theoretically).  Suddenly, crafting stories for an unknown and unknowable protagonist becomes much more difficult, as a game designer.  When it’s done poorly, the result amounts to a single player story in a multi-player game, which isolates players generates that single player in an MMO feel.  Fixing this problem is central to fixing the problem of players feeling like side characters in MMO’s, but it’s not the only one.

Instead of focusing the narrative too tightly, some developers have tried to go in the opposite direction.  These are sandbox games and I’ve found that largely, I hate them.  It’s so bad now I won’t play a game from Bethesda anymore.  Brendan Vance on Twitter summarized my feelings on sandbox games with a series of short tweets, I’ve recreated here:

Brendan Vance ‏@4xisblack

  • Open world games are a Zizek impersonator’s wet dream.
  • You are free to do anything, which of course means there is nothing to do.
  • Your progress is measured by a bizarre Big Other surveillance presence.
  • The game’s attempt to make you feel more powerful broadens the symbolic plane to the point of incoherence; all you can do is exchange junk.
  • The utter deluge of consequences for many hundreds of actions of course makes the game consequence free
  • The game’s storyworld, immersion in which is supposed to be the entire point of the game, is somehow completely external to it……as every open world from middle earth to mad max somehow manages to be exactly the same
  • You say you want an open world, but my god, don’t you actually want it’s opposite?

I don’t think I need to say anything else about that.

So far, we’ve broadened our definition of content creation significantly, as well as laid out some of the problems with lore and story as primary vectors for content creation in a game.  Easy to point out the problems, but where’s the solution?  Next time we’ll talk to how to engage our player types and the content they desire holistically while also trying to come up with how to solve the problems that lore and story creation have in an MMO game space.  The answer is, maybe surprisingly, found behind the GM’s screen.

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Telling Stories in an MMO – Part 1

Content creation.  It’s one of the holy grails of MMO creation and it can easily turn into an albatross around the necks of the developers that are trying to keep an MMO alive.  Content creation suffers from both a poor definition and a lack of clear understanding of what makes up content sometimes.  The individual acts of making a video game while often taken in aggregate are each acts of content creation.  Visual design, story,  sound, or combat mechanics (if your game has combat), are all individual acts of “content creation” and are worth a deeper look.

For this discussion, Bartle’s taxonomy might be beneficial to help us understand what different users might consider as content creation and help us to understand the subject a bit more holistically.  Also, as we apply Bartle’s theory, some interesting patterns start to take shape.

Killers are in the game to get in there and kill.  While Bartle’s definition of killers probably needs some tweeking for the modern MMO age, his designation still works well for our PvP crowd.  They look for low learning curves to enter a game and to “win.”  Killers don’t care about lore.  They don’t really care about missions or quests, though they may do them if it helps them level faster or get to being better killers.  Content creation for them involves finding new and exciting ways to kill other players.  Here, new gameplay mechanics matter most to the killer.  New player archtypes, new skills, new combat mechanics, all of these things will excite them.  Anything that increases their repertoire of tools available to them.  These are content items that killers will care about and want to see more of, and more refinement of, as they continue to play the game.

Explorers get in there and go.  They just want to see everything, to open up the entire map.  Let them go to the places that nobody else has gone, and see what nobody looks at regularly.  They take the screenshots over the distant mountains.  They hunt the rare beasts.  If the game devs put it in, they want to discover it.  New maps, new creatures.  Seeing the new.  These are the content that matter to explorers.  They may also be interested in modes of travel, though how they get somewhere is less important than just getting there eventually.  They may not necessarily choose to engage in a given set of content, but they will certainly move to see it at least once.

Achievers want to win and they want to be the best.  They will take the time to learn the skills, acquire the resources, do the quests.  They live for the ding and for the acheivement window to fill up.  Crafters and marketeers fall into this category.  Any content that has a closed loop for completion, they will particularly pay attention to.  They will do new missions and new lore, especially if it lets them get another complete flag at the end of it.  Systems that have a large acquisition cost like crafting, or have a designated path to completion, like leveling, all appeal to them.  Even systems that let them diversify their skill sets in an attempt to optimize their builds and maximize their output will also appeal to them.

Socializers just want to be with each other.  They want spaces where they can grow and hang out and engage with but not necessarily care about playing or “winning” as much as the other types.  Anything that lets them express themselves more to their peers will appeal to them.  Power customization, new outfits, new emote,s all excite them.  Another aspect to this that I think gets overlooked often, easy teaming.  If teaming is easy and beneficial then Socializers will gravitate towards this game play.  This has a doubling down effect because good Socialisers also believe in being good teammate,s which encourages good game play.  This bleeds into other areas such as skill optimization in their builds.
Once we’ve analyzed this breakdown of content desirability, we see patterns emerge that can be exploited.  We also see that almost none of the 4 Bartle types care all that much about game lore or story missions as content.   Combat mechanic updates, new ways to get around, changes or updates to the crafting systems in the game, and new costumes or team content seem to be able to drive people to the game in ways that would guarantee better engagement than traditional story/lore updates would.

And it’s very much worth thinking more about how story/lore updates are the primary means to advance the narrative of their game and promote it as the primary content for people to play.  Perhaps MMO’s focus too much on the narrative of the game and not enough on core mechanics as content to update.  Perhaps we’ve become so used to lore and mission content “updates” that we won’t accept a new update as worth anything without them.  It’s clear that game lore can make or break a game.  But let’s talk about that next time, as it figures into other discussions about content creation as well.
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Carbine in a Jam

titleSo the news this past week about Carbine is grim.  Significant layoffs and possibly more on the way, their big planned expansion into China has been axed, and all of this comes just 6 months after going free to play.  None of these are good signs and to top it all off, the MMO Killer, NCSoft is their publisher.  I have really wanted Wildstar to be successful and I’ve said so in the past.  But sadly, things don’t look good and it’s time to take a harder look at what went wrong and why the game can’t seem to retain players or attract new ones.

So it all started with 16 original WoW developers who decided that they missed the supposedly golden age of MMO’s where raids were 40 people in size and attunement requirements were uncompromising and brutal.  Given how they’ve had to completely walk back those requirements for most of their raids in the game, time has judged this particular vision of MMO’s to be less than a winner.  It was different back when 40 man raids and heavy attunements were the only game in town.  But now that it’s not, nobody wants to manage the headache of organizing 40 people.  I can’t organize the 4 other people in my household on what to have for dinner.  Why anyone would think this was a desirable state of being, is a bit of a dreamer and that’s all I’ll say there.

And if that was the only mistake that the dev team at Carbine had made, just dreaming big and coming up short, than I wouldn’t look back so resentfully on the softball pieces I wrote for Wildstar up to this point.  Sadly, other accounts paint a picture of hubris, disdain, and a lack of concern on the part of the development team and it’s time for a harder look at just where they fell short.

The first two months of the game’s launch were by all accounts a wild success.  Population exceeded server capacity and the teams were struggling to meet demand.  This is the kind of release you want when you launch an MMO.  Sadly it came with a host of other issues as well.

Community management was wretched across the board.  Forum posters who were drunk from the Wildstar Beta Kool-Aid made the forums toxic.  The in game GM’s were often indifferent and at worst completely useless to a host of players who were trying to get issues resolved.  Telling players they should just start over with a new character rather than fix the issues at hand is no way to retain players.  Balance was all over the place for classes and roles, something that as experienced WoW developers, Carbine should have been able to handle and repeatedly couldn’t.  Bugs became features as they would often release patches that would do nothing to fix the existing problems and would instead create new additional problems to add to the mix.

I have a special place in hell reserved for the game lore and it’s writers.   At best, the lore was condescending and at worst, out right terrible with it’s binary focus on good and evil.  The lore treated the players as either pawns in the grand galactic war, or as barely competent rookies, despite all of the NPC’s being completely inept.  It seemed very much to me the lore was clearly written for the people who always skip past the mission text anyway.  It feels like the dev team thought that if they made the raiding experience “pure” then everything else would just fall into line on it’s own.  Never mind that the raiding population of any game is only a tiny sliver of your over all population and always has been for all games EVER.  This should not be news to anyone, but for experienced MMO developers, it’s inexcusable to treat so many of your players this badly.

To be fair it wasn’t all terrible.  The marketing videos were great.  They did their job perfectly.  I wanted to get in there and join the fight for Nexus.  Space colonization with cowboys and space ships.  It was a breath of fresh air.  The setting was it’s other huge selling point.  Not just another MMO set in a fantasy world.  Give me blasters, space ships, and genetics any day over swords, horses, and magic.  Yes I know it’s thousand island instead of ranch, but I’m so tired of ranch guys.  Sooo tired of ranch.

It seems to me, that the game Carbine really wanted to make was Overwatch and not Wildstar.  A team based action game set in a non-fantasy world that has almost no story and plot and is instead a giant PvP match in various arenas with objectives.   A focus on gameplay and balance and nothing else is needed that your marketing team can’t provide.  I wonder if any of the Carbine developers are looking back regretfully now.

Great news guys! I just asked NCSoft for an extension!

Finally, since the game is published by NCSoft, the likely hood of the game going into maintenance mode after the final round of layoffs, I place at less than 1%.  It would be refreshing to see if NCSoft has learned any lessons from it’s previous closures, but I do not have high hopes that those in charge at NCSoft have changed their ways.  Much better to completely kill a failed project than to leave it out for everyone to see.  And rest assured, they consider Wildstar a failure.

It would be nice to sit here and say if they only fixed their attitude and took care of their customers, then maybe they could have survived.  Sadly, Wildstar needed to fix it’s community management, it’s game balance, it’s numerous bugs, completely overhaul it’s lore, and well….I could go on.  But it’s clear that Wildstar isn’t.  It’s a shame.  I don’t actually wish ill will on anyone and I don’t sit here in quiet glee at all the lost jobs.  Here’s hoping that lessons learned from this one sink in and next time we get something better.

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The Demise of EverQuest Next

eqntitle

Lots of news this week and much of it is not very good.  I’ll talk a bit more about the impending death of Wildstar another time, but since I was following EQN quite a bit more, I have a bit more to say.

For those who haven’t heard yet, quite a few outlets have reported that the next gen MMO Everquest Next has been cancelled.  A summary of the announcement is here and Richard Cobbett over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun has an interesting piece on the death of the MMO genre as a result of the news.

First, to address the cause of death.  The game wasn’t fun, as the head of Daybreak Studios stated in their announcement.  Was anyone surprised by this news?  Because what did they think was going to happen to the game, when they fired their vision person, their lead content creator, a bunch of their community managers, and almost everyone else who wasn’t directly related to programming or art assets?  The myth that programmers are good game makers lives on quite handily it seems.

Seriously, where does this come from?  I’ve done some early prototyping for making games (board games, card, and pen and paper rpg) and it’s difficult and frustrating and has NOTHING to do with programming.  The notion that somehow because you can program in C makes you automatically a good game maker is an amazing leap of logic that has no basis in reality.  And yet, it’s pretty much accepted wisdom.

But that’s a discussion for another post.  Anyone who’s seen this kind of thing before, saw the writing on the wall as soon as those layoffs took effect.  Daybreak came in after the sale from SOE, and made a clear decision to kill EQN from the very beginning.  Inflammatory?  Yes.  Syncs up with company statements?  Not in the slightest.  Syncs up with company actions?  Oh, you betcha!

Without the vision guy, there was no voice driving the others towards success.  Without the Lead Content creator, a void opened up in terms of what content they should have done versus what they thought they could do.  The community managers, though some remained, were spread thin across their product line, and community managers are so important.  They are the glue that holds the fans together and without them, or without enough of them it’s very easy to let things slide away into oblivion.

And how energized do you think the remaining staff were after it was all said and done?  Many of them tried valiantly, put on their game faces, and worked hard.  They needed the jobs after all.  But the notion that EQN was going to happen after such an extensive culling, was always a long shot.  Even more so when they dissolved their partnership with the AI firm they were working on for their next gen AI.  This was the real red flag for me.  When the lead developer for EQN stated publically that they were no longer in need of that partnership and were going to continue to develop said AI in house, I knew shenanigans were in play.  You just suffered a huge loss of staff and now one of your key systems that was previously so important you had farmed it out to an external partner, you’re going to now take back in house and do yourself?  That never passed the smell test.

No.  EQN’s cancellation was always intended.  Daybreak came in, took a look at how much money was being thrown at development and cut that spigot right off.  They’ve been consolidating their assets and optimizing their revenue streams ever since.  They are a corporation after all, and that is a corporation’s job.

The future is now once again an open question.  Richard Cobbett is still looking for some magic trick, that some new thing that will come along and make everyone interested in them again and there’s some worth to this discussion.  Because many modern MMO’s have failed to innovate on the formula in any meaningful way, it can be hard to figure out what direction they should go.  Except, I don’t buy this arguement.  Arenanet is doing fine with it’s buy the game once, and offer a cash store for extras, perks, and cosmetics.  Black Desert Online is getting all the rave press right now for doing things in a very non-conventional MMO kind of way.  DCUO and Star Wars which Cobbett mentions are still cranking out updates despite being subscription based MMO’s.  So somebody is doing something right.  WoW chugs along, and likely will forever, but nobody asks what they do correctly.  Perhaps we should.

Cobbett also laments how modern MMO’s aren’t geared for the social constructs we have today, and cites MOBA’s and less team intensive games like Destiny as the direction to go in.  I would argue that an MMO that didn’t have strict teaming requirements and could allow you to do teamed content solo and solo content teamed (scale it up or down depending on team size), could in fact solve that problem.  No magic required, just some solid design work at the start.

It’s interesting to me how Cobbett cites games that offer smaller more personal experiences as a way to success, and this is something I think where many of our modern MMO’s have failed to pick up on and implement.  But offering a personal stake is just one piece.  I need to know that if I am online with a friend, we can do stuff together and we can make memories together just the two of us.  A third friend shows up late?  Come on and join in, we’ll make it work fine!  It’s this flexibility and lack of ability to share, that I think most MMO’s suffer from today.  They want the massive but won’t build for the middle without a middle, the massive eventually crumbles.  Until this problem gets fixed, we’re going to continue to see studios flounder.  Though this isn’t why Carbine is floundering.  But we will talk about Carbine very soon.

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Econ 4024

So, MMORPG.com has a fun and entertaining read on the economies of virtual worlds.  It features a guest poster from the Crowfall MMO that’s currently under construction.

I’m afraid it’s all I’ve got for now.  My mmo experience is less than stellar right now.  I’ve been playing some WoW and will probably dip back into Guild Wars 2 here at some point.  I know writing has been very light here lately, I’m still trying to get to a better work/life balance right now.

I do have more to post and talk to though, so stay tuned.  I’ll get to it soon, I promise.

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Urbanite Update for Winter 2016

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these and since it’s long overdue, I figured I’d post on all that was going on with City of Titans right now.  Because it’s been so long, there’s actually quite a bit of stuff to share.

First, no news on NCSoft releasing the rites for the server software for City of Heroes.  That is still, in negotiations, as far as anyone can tell.

Quite a few links on City of Titans though.  My favorite today is a link from an article back in October (I told you it’s been a while).  This was a brief interview with War Cabbit, and it covered a wide range of topics from where they were in development to what kinds of PvE and PvP we should expect in the game.  Great summation article for things going on if you’re interested in just a quick one pager.

In the meantime, Missing Worlds Media has released several updates through their kickstarter website that are worth mentioning.

First, there was a brief run down on travel powers and how those are coming along in the game from back in October.

Next, we had a holiday update at the end of December.  This one was reasonably exciting as there are links to multiple videos of things like traveling in the city, combat, and even a sample mission test showcasing where they are in the process.  It’s still rough and still needs lots of work, but the groundwork is being laid.

Where can you find us Urbanites, right now?  Well there’s still a group deep in Guild Wars 2 on the Janathir Isle server.  There’s also been a few of us hanging out on WoW on Earthen Ring as well.  Feel free to leave a comment if you’re playing and know where more of us are, or if you’re in need of some Urban Renewal assistance.

Lastly a few links for your reading pleasure.

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J3w3l at Healing the Masses goes off on a rant that warms my heart.  Turns out the publisher running Blade and Soul, the new eastern themed MMO, are running some cash shop shenanigans that made her none too happy.  What company is trying to screw over their customers, again?  You’d never believe me if I told you.  (Psssst.  It’s NCSoft.  Yes, shocking.)

The Overwatch Beta will be coming back in February with a new gameplay mode.  This looks a lot like the kind of gameplay that the Mass Effect 3 multi-player had and that was super fun.  Worth a look.

Crowfall also made an announcement about how character classes will work in the game, giving rise to some interesting possibilities.  That game is shaping up to be enough of a draw that I may consider playing it despite the PvP only gameplay.

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Are Systems Really the Problem?

A post I read over at The Cynic Dialogues on Reversing the decline of MMO’s via Healing the Masses (as usual J3w3l’s eye for good writing never fails) got me to thinking.  It’s a long post and they make a lot of good points on their blog.  I’m a fan of the notion of always giving players what they want being a bad thing to do when making a game.  They also expressed an interest and appreciation for the way Crowfall is being developed and linked Crowfall back to the “good ole days” with some comparisons to Star Wars Galaxies.  Given that Crowfall has several developers that worked on SWG originally, the comparisons are appropriate.

Sadly, they lose me when they lay the blame for the poor quality of most modern MMO’s on a series of systems that you see in many modern MMO’s today.  They put them all into a nice neat bullet list for us:

  • Multiple Characters per Account
  • Homogenized Character Roles (Classes/purposes/etc.)
  • Market-places or Auction House systems
  • Solo-able PVE or PVP content (i.e. a completely viable alternative to playing with other people).
  • A Short Leveling Curve (aka the opposite of “Grinding”)
  • Group Finders
  • Multiple Guilds per Character (utter blasphemy).

I think it might be instructive to discuss another MMO that’s gone away and was a contemporary of Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes.  (What you thought this wasn’t going to be another CoH was great post?  You silly-billies.)

Given that both games are among the top 5 MMO’s of all time, as ranked by MMORPG.com, I think the comparison is appropriate.  When we look at City of Heroes and compare it to the list of problem systems that The Cynic Dialogues identifies as issues in modern games we come across a problem:

  • Multiple Characters per Account – CoH allowed not only for multiple characters per account but even multiple characters per server!
  • Homogenized Character Roles (Classes/purposes/etc.) – CoH closed down with 14 different classes, almost all of them able to function either solo or in team environments interchangeably, seemingly homogenized.
  • Market-places or Auction House systems – CoH didn’t launch with one of these but one was in place after just a few years.  It’s efficacy was debated though I consider it highly successful at it’s stated goals.
  • Solo-able PVE or PVP content (i.e. a completely viable alternative to playing with other people) – You could actually alter the difficulty level in CoH to solo content that was originally made for teams only, a seeming blasphemy to this list.
  • A Short Leveling Curve (aka the opposite of “Grinding”) – You could level from 1 to 10 in a single evening of solid work in CoH, though there were certainly areas that had issues.  (Anyone remember the lvl 35 to 40 grind?)
  • Group Finders – Check.
  • Multiple Guilds per Character (utter blasphemy) – Definitely check.  Cry to the gods.

So all of the systems that The Cynic Dialogues points out as problem systems in modern MMO’s didn’t seem to have any impact on the success and fond recollections that City of Heroes engendered.  So, if it’s not these systems that are the problem, what is it that modern MMO’s are missing that these games had?

Let’s look at some things both games did.  That should help us.

First, neither game was a hack and slash fantasy genre MMO.  This might be conjecture on my part but there’s no doubt that the market for Fantasy MMO’s is over-saturated and has been for a very very long time.   The success of Star Wars, The Old Republic, Star Trek Online, and other games like DCUO, and Champions would fly in the face of this argument, if you could convince me that their subscriber/player numbers were in any way sustaining or definitely not niche.  This argument could be a whole post on it’s own.  But let’s move on to other ideas for now.

Second, neither game tended to focus on end-game content.  While I’m not 100% certain of this for SWG, I get the strong impression that the devs of that game were much more focused on the interacting pieces of it than they were on end-game content.  This focus on the “Combantants, Crafters, and Entertainers” as Thomas Blair mentions.  Did anybody else notice the Bartle symmetries there?  Sadly I never had the chance to actually play the game while it was live and this analysis is based mostly on my readings about the game, but I don’t see much evidence to the contrary that raids and other end-game content were a big deal in SWG.

City of Heroes also had nearly nothing that could be called end-game content, up until nearly the end of the game.  What I find interesting about this lack of focus on the end-game, is that the developers seemed to spend a lot more time making the game that was already there, better.  Adding options, filling in content holes, adding quality of life improvements, and most importantly, adding choices.  This seems seminal to me as all CoH’s expansions were focused on this element.  The first full expansion allowed you to go from being just a hero to hero or villain.  And with their 2nd and final expansion they added in the rogue/vigilante side switching system that allowed any character to change factions.  Another topic worthy of it’s own post but suffice to say, if a game like WoW allowed it, my blood elves would defect to the Alliance in a Tatooine/Paragon City minute.

The point of this though, was that by focusing on something other than end-game content, the devs sent a message to their players that the game they were playing NOW was important to them.  Improving that game meant something to them, beyond just add a content patch over the top and keep going from there.  It sent a signal that the game wasn’t just about escalating power levels, but instead a focus on making the journey of playing the game just as important.

The last major contributor that I think both games had, that clearly led to their ongoing popularity, was their communities.  Everyone always talks about how great the communities were around CoH and SWG.  Both communities are currently and actively involved in recreating the experiences of those games since they’ve been shut down.  However, this needs to be said, because I never ever hear it.

Good gaming communities don’t just pop up overnight, wholly formed.

GOOD GAMING COMMUNITIES DON’T JUST POP UP OVERNIGHT, WHOLLY FORMED!

GOOD GAMING COMMUNITIES DON’T JUST POP UP OVERNIGHT, WHOLLY FORMED!

Solid community management, from developers and publishers make or break a game’s community.  It’s their efforts that determine whether or not a gaming community is a  wonderful and grand experience for all or a giant stinking gank-fest.  I know that CoH always had very strong (NCSoft organized) community management, from people like CuppaJoe in the beginning, to Andy at the end.  These community managers and forum moderators worked tirelessly and often ridiculously long hours trying to help players and foster a healthy, happy, gaming environment.  Developer involvement was also key in that by providing feedback to the community, players felt that their voices were heard (sometimes).  I’m not sure if SWG and CoH got lucky in the community management front, or if this was a focus on the part of the publishers and developers, but it’s hard to argue the communities could have been as good as they were if they didn’t have support from both out front, setting the example.

It is interesting to me that two of the best and most fondly remembered MMO’s of all time seemed to have so many divergent game systems between them.  Yet both have achieved a level of inexplicable success that’s gone on long after their servers have shut down.  While the things that both games had that ARE similar paint a different kind of picture altogether.  Both games focused on player choice, building solid communities, and providing something that they couldn’t get anywhere else.  Interestingly, these games focused less on letting players do whatever they wanted and instead helped their characters to shape their own destinies through their choices.  Hero, rogue, villain, smuggler, fighter, trader, entertainer.  These were the choices that made characters, and maybe it’s time for games to focus on those things more instead of what systems work and don’t work.

Perhaps the systems are less important than we think.  Perhaps it’s characters, and how they’re allowed to grow, that matter most.

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The City

Wow, that was a long hiatus.  No excuses, I totally fell off the wagon there for a bit.  Trying to climb back on on and get things moving.  Hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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All video games are heavily dependent on the world that they operate in, for tone, narrative, and a host of other things.  Super hero games, however, are sufficiently more dependent on the City/game space in which they live and operate in and that is worth looking at in a bit more detail.  The most recent modern super hero games that I think reflect the points I want to make are the Arkham Series by RockSteady and Warner Bros Montreal (Remember them?  Arkham Origins?  No?)

We won’t be talking much about Arkham Asylum.  That game works well enough because so much of it is confined to a small island and the series of events that occur on it.  The game space works because the world is completely tuned for the purposes of the game.  Asylum isn’t trying to make you the hero of the city and the game benefits for that narrower scope as a result.  This is a huge problem that a lot of  sandbox games fail to make work.

When Arkham City came out, the game felt very flat.  Literally flat.  You had your rooftop level and your street level.  Each area spread out before you in a haze of muted blue.  The bad parts all hyper-highlighted in bright reds and oranges, but all details sanded away as your only objective becomes to turn everything blue again.  A whole city of sights and sounds all wiped clean and muted at will.  Where bad noises are elevated to chainsaw levels of annoyance, reminding you of the lose of your serene quiet and driving you back to it.  Even the lightening over your head is blue and learning to respond to it is the game’s ultimate test.  Succeed and you become the master of your domain, the Ultimate Batman.

Maybe it worked for Asylum because it was a smaller setting.  You weren’t turning your whole world blue in Asylum.  Just using your skills to help you learn more about the hidden things in that space.  Maybe it felt better because you couldn’t turn to the horizon and with the push of a button empty out the whole world.  It felt smaller and that was it’s saving grace in Asylum.

In Arkham City, it felt worse because the blue stretched on forever.  Like taking a sedative, the blurry, messy, vibrant, and contrasting world of the city all melts away.  All color and noise drained out for just the “important parts” for you to take notice of.  It’s a cheat.  A way to take the big open world and make it smaller.  Nevermind the myriad number of game mechanics Rocksteady et. all were already employing to do the same thing.  Missions, side missions, and side characters, none of them meshing together in any way that formed a coherent whole.  Mostly just there as a game design by numbers exercise.  Only the calming blue keeps it all together.  It’s where all the answers are and going there always makes sense.

The city becomes just a big backdrop and a waste of potential.  Dump a mountain of Riddler games in it, fill the streets and rooftops with thugs and then let the player “choose” what to do.  Nevermind that there’s no actual choice.  It’s especially frustrating given the flight mechanics in the game were super awesome, and easily the highlight of the whole experience.  But again, wasted potential.  Go from Point A to Point B and do the thing.  In a City where you can fly, the only thing the developers can think of for you to do with it is the equivalent of taking the bus.

The city itself becomes not so much a place as instead an obstacle that has to be overcome.  If you can’t give your city a life of it’s own, then there’s no reason really to include it.  In a city filled with skyscrapers and gargoyles, churches and monuments, there’s no artistry anywhere to be found.  Everything is there.  The grid lines all conform.  There’s streetlamps and power lines and this connects to that and it all makes perfect sense.  And it’s sterile and empty and emotionless.  Art as made by programmers, who reduce everything to a problem to be solved.  Add this alley here to make room for spawns, put the flagpole here to allow for grappling with.  Art reduced to problem solving.  Solve the problems but don’t give anything any meaning.  There’s no time for that.

I do understand the problem they face.  To call the game Arkham City you need the whole thing.  You need it to be big for the flight mechanics to work.  And when it’s big you need to fill it with stuff.  The problem is that after they made it big, they couldn’t fill it with anything other than the same parts that they had used everywhere else.  And that just wasn’t enough.

Interestingly, I think that Arkham Origins is a better super hero game than Arkham City.  City is a Joker story with Batman along for the ride, inside a giant obstacle course.  Origins is much the same but made better use of the city, both narratively and mechanically.   Origins narrative is tighter than City’s, and as a result the side quests and optional content feel more like actual options and help to expand the space and fill the city more significantly.  It still has the great quieting blue going against it, but because the main narrative isn’t trying to suffuse itself into every element of the game, there’s more space to operate in.  There’s more time to make the city more than just what the narrative is for.  Anyone who’s played Origins will know what I mean when I mention the Bridge.  For good or for bad, I can speak to locations in that version of Gotham City and I can evoke memories, and feelings with it.  I cannot do that with Arkham City.

Is the city still there after I turn off the game?  Does it feel like an actual place.  Can you feel the history or the artistry of it when you see it and when you do remember it, can you see it in your mind clearly, or is it just a series of lines on a screen, bisected and pock-marked with pins and glowing dots?  Is every thug in the game working for the big bad or do they have their own wants, desires, and dreams?  Can a generic character ever have character?  Is there space to even allow for the possibility?  Because for the city to feel real, it can’t just have a sense of continuity, but it also must have a sense of indifference.

“Oh look, it’s Batman!”

“That’s nice, did you get those eggs I asked you for from the store?”

Heroes make a difference.  Heroes change the story from bad to good.  Heroes are catalysts for a better tomorrow.  But those actions must be reflected back by the world they live in and operate upon.  If you can’t make the City a character, or even just a mirror, than flatness is all that you’ll ever achieve, and you’ll drown in the quiet blue.

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