MMOs – Where are they now?

Nosy Gamer’s recent MMO roundup from XFire shows some interesting developments when looking at Wildstar and ESO.  Wildstar launched at the start of June while ESO was start of April, so 2 months and 4 months respectively at this point.  They are slotted at 8 and 12 on the list.  WoW rounds out the top, even though it lost 800,000 players.  EvE and FF14 are the other 2 subscription-based games on the list.  Everything else is FTP, which makes for some interesting metrics.

I do agree that the sample is flawed and isn’t a direct representation of the population.  I mean, I can’t think of anyone who actively installs XFIRE today, so newer games are at a distinct disadvantage.  Heck, Raptr only shows WoW, WS, FF14 and ESO in their top 20. That said, XFIRE does a great job at showing patterns over time and for that I think the discussion is very relevant in that both WS and ESO are down.

While I can attribute a fair amount of that to the 60 day drop (people play box + 1 month), rather than the 3-monther Keen professes, there are certainly some additional factors at play.  We can’t just assume that the summer provides a dip here, because it should affect all the games rather equally.  The factors have to be game-specific.

ESO first.  The VR wall was my “I win” bucket.  The fact that the game was anti-social certainly didn’t help.  Mind you, recent reports say they are trying to fix both issues, among a pile of kitchen sink additions.  I do think that once VRs are gone, the game will be in “ready to launch” state, some 5 months after actual launch.  I think of this compared to Marvel Heroes, or Neverwinter’s “beta phase” but both of those had no price point for entry.  It will have cost box + $60 to get to launch with ESO and that’s a price point people can find more value elsewhere.  In particular GW2 from a FTP perspective or FF14 from a subscription perspective. There’s certainly a chance it comes back up to the top, what with WoW likely not launching ‘til December.

Wildstar next.  While I am still enjoying my stay, I do know a lot of people who have left due to lack of progress past 50 – or heck, even mid-game.  Wildstar’s approach to combat is extremely divisive, and scales at an inappropriate pace.  There’s very little transition for people entering group content, just a wall of bodies at 20.  There are very few reports of successful PUGs anywhere, to the point where Carbine had to make change to the rewards system, in order to avoid group crumbling after 5 minutes.  And this doesn’t even get into the craziness of level 50 and raiding.  Sure, you could do the attunement and farm gear in dungeons/adventures but there ain’t no way you’re going to raid.  Everything up until that point can either be accomplished solo, with 5 people or with random PUGs in a zone.  The dungeon medal requirement is crazy, to boot.  But the cherry is getting 40 people to do it and then getting them to raid with you.  Bluntly put, the investment requirement for raiding has either been accomplished already by those with a want to invest or never will be.  That means two distinct parts at issue.  First, you need to accept the combat structure (difficulty + pacing) which is not going to change, outside of adding some “learning” zones.  Second, you need to accept that you’re likely never going to raid.  This part has been beaten to death on many blogs and I would like to think that Carbine, like Bethesda, is actually paying attention.

I do have to say that I’m less surprised with ESO’s tumble than Wildstar’s.  The ESO beta was not kind, and there were significant rumblings before launch about readiness.  It’s clearly still popular if it’s on lists though, so that’s good.  And there is active development, also very good.  Wildstar’s issues seem to be more condemning.  It had a relatively clean beta and had significant groundswell at launch.  Many people have issues finding a flaw with the game outside of the inability to find attachment to justify investment.  That is a massive problem for MMOs in general and one that doesn’t bode well for the future.

Combat and Art Styles

Pegging off Tobold’s post on appropriate art style, I think it bears mention more than just a couple games.  And I won’t really go into what looks better because that’s a very subjective argument.  This is really about the practicalities.

We have WoW art style, with distinct character outlines since the start. However it’s moved away from tab target to smart target, and red/blue markers on the ground. WoD will finally have target outlines as well. It’s evolved.

Neverwinter, a LAS/action game, uses outlines and AE effects given the mouselook aiming features. It’s a more realistic art style, making it damn near impossible to find someone in the thick of things. BUT, since it’s soft lock and AE for nearly everything (including healing), it works.

SWTOR uses cartoon style graphics for a seemingly endless supply of humanoids. I found it a mess in regular PvE but the group instances aren’t too bad as the character types are often different. Plus tab targeting helps drastically.

FF14 uses tab targets and a full skill bar, though in reality few skills. The art style is VERY unique and it’s fairly easy to spot individual players, let alone NPCs in combat. In fact, you rarely have more than 2-3 enemies at once. Of course, with a requirement for focused combat and targeted attacks, this is vital for success

FF14 - Ifrit

ESO is LAS + mouselook. Many attacks are AE or smart target. Every frigging enemy is the same though. PvP turned into meat walls of AE spam because you can’t focus target effectively. It also means many skills lose all value if they aren’t multi-target. Plus everyone blends in together and the background. So it’s less about aiming and responsiveness as it is about mashing AE attacks and hoping the numbers are in your favor.

Big Boy

Big Boy

Wildstar is LAS but tab/free target combat. Everything has an AE target as well, making aiming very important. Plus the character diversity helps you quickly ID the players in the field. The more quickly you can make an assessment, the better your odds.

That's a big gun

That’s a big gun

I guess it boils down to offense vs defense. A more realistic game favors defensive style of play and 2 types of skills. Either you spam and get lucky or you cross that skill gap to “elite” and run amok. FPS shooters I think show that well.

A more cartoon, or rather distinct character set, provides more offensive options as you can’t really hide. Everyone knows who you are and you have more information to make the right decision. It removes the skill gap and includes progression.

I wouldn’t be able to say which has the higher skill ceiling as that is more game-specific. It’s certainly an interesting topic.

Continual Content – Gated Dailies

Themeparks have to give you a reason to run the ride again and again.  There’s a carrot somewhere that makes that switch in your brain go, “ok, one more time”.  Way back in the day, this was more or less organic – run a dungeon.  Eventually it turns into formal quests as we know them today – dailies.  For a very long time, this was mostly about money.  Free cash!  Just jump up and down!  Then this became a reputation grind to get items.  Just 18 more dragon eggs before you get a new shoe.  Then we reached a really weird stage where dailies were the precursor to more dailies. Hello Golden Lotus!

Dailies were also typically capped in terms of how many you can complete in a day.  Not only are the individual quests on a timer but you could only do X amount per day.  The reason for this was three-fold.  First, this was a massive money tap that could be exploited easily.  Millions of gold entered an economy per day unchecked.  Second, they often rewards reputation scores for better gear – which was vertical progression.  If you could do them all, then you would be progressing very fast.  Third was the natural gating requirement of time.  The game should last Y amount of time.  People would (and did) burnout.

Using WoW as a solid example, dailies went through many iterations and nearly all based around expansions.  From BC to MoP, there have been different flavors.  The main driver, or success if you will, for dailies is an alternative progression path.  Certainly, given the choice people will naturally take the path of least resistance.  Dailies however give you a chance to “quickly” make progress through alternate means.  The tabard/daily quest reputation grind made sense.  It fit both playstyles.  The “only-dailies all the time” approach of MoP put in an artificial gate that could not be bypassed.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the cloud serpent faction as the quests were related to the outcome.  Pat Nagle progressed through fishing-related activities.  Golden Lotus had (before 5.4) no purpose other than to gate access to 2 other (and more rewarding) reputation grinds.

SWTOR takes a slightly different approach in that “zones” have daily quests that share rewards.  Tokens/progress is made.  This supplements the raiding/dungeon game with modifications.  There’s a fair amount of horizontal progress as well (customization).  It works for me.

Neverwinter is an odd mix.  Daily quests reward Astral Diamonds based on activities – been there since day 1.  It works in that the rewards are the same, regardless of the content consumed.  Most of that content is social so, more people doing things together = good for the community.  The last 2 expansions added “gated dailies” where the rewards are not item based but content based.  You complete a few and get access to new dungeons.  A few (a lot) more and you get passive stat buffs that are not gear related – you keep it forever even if you get new items.  You complete more and get a better chance at loot.I like that this is daily and gated but that brings me to the final daily hiccup.

If you miss a day, you miss a day of progress.  Missing a raid means you have, usually, another shot in the week (assuming the timer is a week).  Miss a dungeon, then run 2 the next day.  Dailies are the only content with a short expiry.  I personally think it would be great if you could “store up” daily quests for a period of 3-4 days, or perhaps have the rewards reflect that “store”.  Have it run at a reduced ratio too, say 25% per day missed.  I know a game wants a hook to have you login often but unless that game is offering off-line progress (and an interface), then after a while you just lose interest.

If I knew that after a long weekend I could come back and make some additional progress, even reduced (which would be double daily rate based on the numbers above) I think that would motivate me to login and spend more time.  Especially if it related to gaining access to new content (and not items).

Raids Are a Nightmare

Sensational title for the win!

WildStar, if you didn’t already know, is pushing for a fairly difficult raid environment.  Compared to other games that have a variable player count per raid (or only 1 size), WS is taking a slightly different step.  There will be 20 man raids and 40 man raids, completely separate from each other.  I know that the resources required to develop either size raid are equal but it seems to be a waste somewhat, and that’s what I’ll be discussing.

I played Vanilla WoW.  I did Molten Core and Blackwing Lair.  AQ & Naxx were off my list because of the first two.  I won’t argue balance on these raids, they were relatively new takes on EQ’s zerg-fest, and had their share of bugs and issues.  What was challenging was the logistics.

Today’s raiders have it easy.  You need enchants, potions, buffs and whatnot.  They are easy enough to find and the challenge is getting the gold to buy them.  Let’s say a raid session sets you back 500g, at top tier.  In Vanilla this was a bit harder.  Tubers were BOP, gear needed resistance on it, enchants were rare (diamonds anyone?), repair bots and money was scarce.  It honestly took me longer to get ready for a raid than it did to be in one.  It just was not fun to slog through prep work to raid.

Then you get into the whole herding chickens aspect.  I was a role leader, DPS.  That’s 30+ people you need to corral together on a  set target list.  The difference between top DPS and bottom was massive.  Losing a single top DPS player could break a raid.  How does 1 person make or break a raid?  We had penalties for not showing up on time, in a day when summons were rare and travel was hard.  Sign-up sheets and a bench.

It is logistically impossible to consistently raid with the same people every time.  People have things to do and you can lose 2-3 per raid – most times in the middle of a raid.  Having a bench means people are on a waiting list to have fun.  What?  Math and people do not mix.  If I need a bench for a 10 person raid, then I need 1-2 people, max.  If I need a bench for a 40 person raid, I’m looking at 5+.  That’s 5 people, heartbeats, that are on a waiting list.  Maybe they just go to another place where there is no list and then you have to backfill that slot.  Managing people like this isn’t fun for the raid leader, guild leader or the people being managed.

Now we get into fairness, specifically around loot.  Enter the DKP systems.  Enter the master looter role.  Enter tribunals.  You have 40 people.  You have 5 pieces of gear (at best).  You have 35 people who are not getting anything for the effort.  You have a ton of gear wasted if they are class specific (shaman/pally gear….) and no one to collect.  As fair as you want it to be, people will be upset for many reasons, most stupid and selfish.  But you don’t have a choice, you need those people to actually raid.

Finally we get into simple usage metrics.  Raids are vastly underused compared to the effort developers put into them.  Until WoW put in LFR, the top tier raiders, 40 man raid target audience, accounted for less than 1% of the entire population.  LFR currently sits around 60% of all players having consumed raid content and 10% at top tier.  If the most accessible raiding system can’t get higher than 10%, and this is with recycled content (LFR, 10 man, flex, 25 man, heroics), how can other games expect more?

Perhaps this 40 man raid idea is an experiment.  Maybe there are a ton of tools surrounding this structure to help move it along.  Strong class balance, LFG tools, partial lockouts, tokens, flexible sizing to cap among others come to mind.  I am waiting with fingers crossed that there’s more coming on this topic.

Architectural Service Design

Now that’s a heading that should make people’s heads hurt.

I’m in the middle of a rather large service design project now and it’s making me think long and hard about similarities in games.  There are 4 main phases; design, migration, steady state and close out.  I am chest-deep in the first one and I talk about this a lot on the blog.  The other three, let’s get a bit more meat on.

Migration is the period between nothing and operational state.  This is paperwork stage, signing agreements and whatnot.  It’s when you buy your ticket to the ride.  Steady State is the day to day activities.  Close Out is when the service is about to be shut down.  There’s a lot of this one lately.  In simple terms, from a design perspective you need to figure out how to minimize impact to users during migration and ensure that steady state meets expectations, otherwise close out happens.  In practice this is more complex since expectations are all over the map for steady state.

If I take a console game as an example (BioShock Infinite or Ni No Kuni), the process of migration is simple enough.  Buy the disk, put it in, patch (maybe) and play.  There are no extra bells and whistles, you’re in.  MMOs you can’t really buy the games anymore, you’re downloading them.  There’s the signup, payment methods (PayPal should be an option everywhere), patching and then you get into the game.  That game part is also a problem since character creation, for many games, is done poorly.  Customization options are often lackluster and irrelevant after a few levels.  Class/race selection usually have a dramatic impact on gameplay but without the context for players to understand.  Someone starting an MMO cold is going to be confused and likely alone.  I went back to SWTOR recently and it took about 4 hours of reading forums and websites to have an idea what was going on.  Barrier of entry is a problem.

Steady state is also a fun one.  Again, the console example has you play a contained experience which is cohesive.  I mean that the game from start to end is logical, systematic and if you play the game you should be able to follow track for all content.  Batman doesn’t suddenly turn into a FPS game half way through. MMOs again have trouble here.  For some reason, many try to make 3 games in one.  First, is the leveling experience.  Heavy on story, exposition, relative balance.  Very lackluster on world integration.  You consume, move on and never really look back or understand your relation to the rest of the world.  Second is the “end game” aspect, where you’ve reached the end of the levelling experience and now have a list of a dozen things you can do.  Hunt knick knacks, get bigger numbers on your equipment, beat big bad guys.  This is, sadly, skinner box material.  Third is PvP.  This is usually a bolt on mechanic, with parallel gameplay and rewards.

 These 3 components are rarely integrated.  Leveling is often-time the only part people want to play since the disconnect at max level is just a wall of grind.  There’s no real progress except for numbers.  I mentioned in the last post that WoW leveling is a face roll of challenge, and then you reach the max level stuff and realize you actually need to use some of those skills you got 50 levels ago. SWTOR is somewhat interesting in that you need to use ALL skills to do leveling content.  PvP, other than a handful of games, has no bearing on PvE.  Since UO took the knife to the problem, no game has really put effort to figure out this problem.  Heck, FireFall has pretty much thrown in the towel even though it was pitched as PvP only.

Games today have a significant challenge to come out of the gate.  First, there are few people entering MMOs cold and they have expectations.  If your game’s Migration phase is different than existing models, it need to be ultra smooth and intuitive or you’re going to lose people.  If you want people to stay around after the leveling portion of the game is done, make sure it is tightly integrated with other systems.  GW2 is a good example where leveling content is also seen as end-game content.  If you want PvP in the game, make the social aspects obvious and integrated.  Have it affect the PvE world and vice versa.   Change zone “availability” based on PvP results and make those zones relevant.

I love the challenge of architectural service design.  I think it’s one of the most complex and overlooked parts of development.  If done well, and expectations are clearly understood, then meeting those same expectations is in the realm of possible.

Do What I Think, Not What I Say

I was in a meeting today and someone said “they are only doing what we told them to do, not what we wanted them to do” and I thought that was a great summary of computers and games as a whole.  I remember in my early programming days getting frustrated with some section of code that just wouldn’t work.  I’d pour through the lines, trying to find the problem.  It was never a problem with the code but a problem with the coder.  The system only ever did what I explicitly told it to do, not what I wanted it to do.  For every keystroke the user put in, I had to put in error handling to prevent a whole bunch of other things from happening too.  QA and bug control is a pain.

Today’s games are more and more complex, with hundreds of options for a player at any given time.  Gone are the EQ days of rigid code and sever limitations on playstyle.  If you were creative, you were called an exploiter.  Today, you can do pretty much anything you want in a game (exemplified by GTA) but with that freedom comes unexpected results.  Burning Crusade in WoW is a good example.  Everyone who raided needed to be a leatherworker for drums.  Guilds stacked shamans for bloodlust/heroism.   Content was tuned for this crowd since anything lower was something around a 15% power gap.  Lich King had to completely redesign the buff system to accommodate and “homogenized” the classes to avoid stacking.  Now it’s about individual player skill less so than actual class mechanics.  In that I mean that a great rogue is going to outshine a poor shaman, where in BC this was rarely the case.

This is more of a problem in themeparks, where the rides have expected outcomes.  In sandboxes, where emergent gameplay is encouraged, balance is less of an issue since the variables are so many.  I mean, you can’t rightfully balance group encounters in EvE so that both sides have an even chance.  You can however be explicit in how the given tools will function in a given circumstance.

In my gaming history I was often called an exploiter because I liked to try different things.  My favorite game was “The Incredible Machine”, which pushed for out of the box thinking.  In EQ, my necro soloed effectively in all sorts of places due to poor pathing.  In UO, I had a tree in my house.  In WoW I corpse-jumped through locked doors and climbed to the airport in Ironforge well before Cataclysm.  BioShock Infinite had quite a few places where I’d set up death traps for large groups and not take a scratch.   The entire concept of “what if I do it this way?” is the reason I still play games today.  I do feel bad for QA though.

Blizzard Design – Lessons Learned

Rohan and Syp got me thinking about how developers are forced to be iterative in terms of addition rather than in terms of subtraction.  What I mean by this is that any given game that expects longevity cannot regress in terms of feature sets.  People have expectations upon purchase and business models are dependent on having clientele – MMOs triply so.

Let’s consider the two main items in the news.  Titan has been restarted (I think this is the 3rd time) and Blizzard has plans on a D3 expansion.  The former isn’t surprising given Blizzard’s track record.  They have released the following games of note: Wacraft (1/2/3), Starcraft (1/2), Diablo (1/2/3) and WoW.  You would be hard pressed to argue that any given game in a series was a departure from the previous – simply an iteration on a given model.   To top it off, Warcraft and Starcraft are nearly direct IP thefts from Warhammer.  So in 18 years, Blizzard has 1 new IP and plenty of experience tweaking the ones they built all that time ago.  Blizzard takes very few risks so that they don’t alienate their massive playerbase.  If Titan ever does come out (they need a new codename for it), I don’t see it as being something completely new, just an iteration of an existing IP and format.  It’s worked for nearly 20 years.

The second news item deals with people’s expectations of Diablo 3’s feature set.  Consider the PS3 version has no online requirements and no AH – the two largest complaints against the PC version – many view this as a sign that those features are going to be removed from the PC proper.  Hold on a sec here.  We’re a year in and the PS3 port still isn’t ready.  We’re not talking about taking a console game with a set configuration and making it work on a bajillion PCs.  We’re talking about the other way around, which usually has more to do with the UI size and controller layout.  If it’s taken a year (arguably longer since this was rumored many years ago) then perhaps this egg is a bit tougher to crack.

In systems design we have disparate systems, integrated systems and synergistic systems.  Disparate ones are completely separate and have next to nothing to do with each other.  /gems in EQ is an example.  Integrated systems have parts that are shared between 2 or more systems.  LFD/LFR systems are here.  Synergistic systems are ones that are separate in terms of mechanics but complement each other in game.  Crafting in most cases fit the bill.

D3 was built with the AH in mind.  Stats play a much larger role here than in any other game I’ve ever played and there were clear benchmarks required for survival in Inferno when the game launched.  I can’t think of a game where 1 item level had such a massive impact on player power.  Because the Diablo model is 99% of the loot you find you can’t use, this requires a sink for the gear.  In the past it was selling/gambling.  With an AH, maybe gear you can’t use (as a Monk) someone else can (say a Wizard).  So you try to sell it.  Let’s say you find one piece of “decent but not great” gear every hour.  4 million other people are playing and doing the same.  Think about that for a second.

If Blizzard wanted to remove the AH, they would have to change the entire mechanics of how loot dropped and how monster power was calculated.  The “floor” of gear suddenly drops by a large factor and people will have a much harder time progressing.  All of a sudden, crafters become attractive (just like gambling was in D2).  Plus you still have millions of players using the AH to progress today and a rather large item gap between the top end and bottom end.  Some people don’t farm Inferno for their gear, they farm for other’s gear to make cash to buy their stuff or use the RMAH.  That and the entire business model of D3 is predicated on the RMAH.  Even if the expansion offered an off-line no-AH mode, then you’d have two similar but different games.

I don’t see an easy fix here.  I do see a lot of lessons learned, lots.