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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3 Responses to Are Systems Really the Problem?

  1. I always find it interesting the ways people interpret my post.

    I think the game systems I highlighted are responsible for the bastardization of the MMO genre in that its key advantage over single player games is that you get to play with a MASSIVE amount of other players.

    By simplifying game systems to make operating solo an easy and painless endeavor, you remove player interactions with each other.

    City of Heroes was a game I enjoyed for a good amount of time. Yet, ultimately it closed down. So clearly the game wasn’t as good as creating a lasting community as you might want us to think.

    What caused City of Heroes to fail in your estimation? The lack of a playerbase with with any ties to one another, or the game failing to provide for a meaningful end game?

    To be honest, this conversation deviates greatly from my original point. The original point was to highlight that we’ve seen a shifted focus in the MMO genre from group/communal play to single-player emphasized play. I’m okay with you separating CoH from some of its brethren, and highlighting what it did differently. I’d agree with you on that aspect of your argument.

    I don’t think it deserves too much recognition, however, as it did after all… get shut down.

  2. j3w3l says:

    I think both of you are looking at it from different points of view and are both right in your own ways. COH is obviously not the same game as crowwfall – not even close. They may share the same basics but the goal is far different thus they way you design around them should be as well.

    Personally from what I’ve heard of COH i would like more mmo’s to learn from it. But I also wouldn’t want those things in CU or Crowfall – I just don’t see it as the right fit.

  3. LockOn says:

    Hey guys,

    So thanks for commenting. I think this is an interesting discussion, and worth having. So, Scree, let’s take your questions first.

    So why did City of Heroes shut down? As best as I can put together, based on multiple sources and discussions, CoH shut down not because it was failing or there were major things wrong with it, but because NCSoft thought it would be a good business decision. CoH had a solid subscriber base and was self-sustaining enough as an MMO to keep the lights on and fund new content development. The next major patch update was in open Beta testing at the time of shutdown, and we also know that they had content in various states of development for at least the next two updates after that.

    However, CoH was also a 9 year old MMO and it just couldn’t move the numbers on a balance sheet the way that new MMO’s can and do. All accounts I’ve read, show that the game was such a little blip in the operating budget of NCSoft that it was all but inconsequential. So the game was shut down basically because NCSoft was housecleaning and didn’t feel it was worth it to keep around. You often think that some design mistake, or subscriber numbers, would drive the closing of a property. And while those things can, in this case it appears to simply have been a NCSoft deciding they didn’t want to keep supporting a game that wasn’t moving the earth for them. Unfortunate, especially given that it perpetuates the myth that games have to have launch-like numbers on a continual basis in order to be considered “successful” by a corporation.

    Getting back to your point though (and the more interesting discussion), I’m not convinced by your arguments that the focus on single player mechanics is what’s driven MMO’s into the ground. Though there is PLENTY of evidence to support your theory (god, is there plenty), I cited CoH because the success it had with those same mechanics, seemed to run counter to your arguments. I also tried to relate it to your other example of a good MMO, Star Wars Galaxies, and attempted to find alternatives to your list of mechanics that might better explain both of those games successes.

    I think it’s a worthy discussion because it’s made me wonder if focusing on mechanics is really the problem. I’m wondering if it’s less about mechanics and more about a few key design decisions and other externalities that might actually make a game successful.

    I’m eager to see how Crowfall itself does, not just mechanically but also how it stacks up against SWG and CoH to see if the formula for success is more about these externalities and less about game mechanics. We know off the bat that Crowfall will share at least one externality with both SWG and CoH, no end-game content as is traditionally defined by the genre. I’m wondering what else it will have that’s similar to both of those games and how that might affect it’s success.

    I’m also eager to see a small development group publish a niche title for a limited customer base and be successful and thrive. If for no other reason than to prove the corporate model wrong as being the only model to create these things.

    J3w3l, we are in agreement. CoH was a much more casually focused game, while Crowfall by all appearances and statements is being made very much for a niche market of hardcore gamers. Very few of the design mechanics in CoH should be replicated for Crowfall and I’m actually eager to see how some of the decisions that the Crowfall team is making will play out over time.

    But fair warning, if we both end up playing and you gank me, I will cry like a small petulant child. 😉

    Thanks both of you for commenting though. This has been a thoughtful discussion and I appreciate the feedback.

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