Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The MMOs of 2007: Year End Review

I wanted to do a post about the big MMOs that are being released next year but during my writing I kept referencing games from this side of New Year's Eve. I realized that as much as I wanted to avoid a year end review, it was probably best if I organized my thoughts. Despite what a lot of people are saying 2007 wasn't that bad of a year for MMOs. True we had at least one horrible disaster but the majority of games released were highly polished.

The New Games


The only game that seemed to purposely ignore the lessons of the last three years was Vanguard. Sigil originally intended to release Vanguard as a hardcore raiding oriented game but changed gears when they saw how successful World of Warcraft was doing. Unfortunately, the company didn't have enough money to do the full circle redesign they wanted and the game launched filled with bugs and with fun not included. In the end the game went where most independent MMO failures go, the SOE all access pass. Reports are coming in that SOE has a small team slowly but surely fixing Vanguard but most of the original fan base seems to migrated to EQ2.

Lord of the Rings Online
Turbine got much needed respect with the launch of LOTR especially after their so-so work on the Dungeons and Dragons license. Many people loved the game in beta and signed up for lifetime and special rate memberships when it went live. The Shire has often been quoted as being one of the best looking and well designed newbie zones ever created for a MMO. However, everything in the game which attracted people to it at first seemed to disappeared after a 3 month period. Most reviewers attribute the declining subscriber numbers with problems that don't really become apparent until late in the game.

1) No class customization system like talents/achievements.
2) Small number of dungeons for a fantasy MMORPG
3) Questing becomes group required in the higher level zones.

Tabula Rasa
This was a very high profile game that had repeatedly had its release date pushed back over the years. Initial beta reviewers gave it mediocre reviews and proclaimed it only held their attention for a short period of time. Richard Garriott was the lead developer for the project and had often called it revolutionary and genre breaking. In the end the bullshit and bad beta reviews affected how many people picked Tabula Rasa. However, the game seems to be picking up the pace a bit as people remark the game has improved greatly since beta testing. Tabula Rasa seems to be the polar opposite to LOTR in terms of how its subscription base started out small but is slowly growing.

The Sequels: Current Market Leaders

Guild Wars: Eyes of the North
World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
Everquest 2: Rise of Kunark

The sequels of 2007 either sold more units or kept more subscribers then any new entry into the MMO market. This might be the reason why some gamers look back negatively on the year. It seems as if new MMO games haven't really improved that much overall except that "most" of them now released polished and mostly bug free. This was especially obvious when a sizable portion of World of Warcraft fans left the game to explore Lord of the Rings when it first released. Several sources tracked a dip in subscriber numbers for WoW and later on a corresponding increase three months later as these fans returned.

This seems to highlight a trend of the current market leaders really having perfected their games since 2004/2005. If subscribers do leave them for a new game it seems that its mostly because they want new content and not a new game. A World of Warcraft clone is never going to be better then the original but it might steal some subscribers because it has new content. However, once players get to the end of the content they are going to choose the better game. A game that has three years to perfect its design is always going to win over one that has just released.

As I see it there are only going to be two ways to break this trend. One is to make a game that is clearly better then the current market leaders, probably not going to happen. The other is to focus on areas which are ignored or done poorly by the current market leaders. The second one is where I think we'll start seeing some rising stars. Tabula Rasa might even become one since it combines FPS elements into its game play in a way clearly superior to Planetside. The only other game on the radar that is attempting the same tactic is Huxley which has been extremely secretive on details or a firm release date.

Next Post: The MMOGs of 2008: The Coming PvP Storm

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Did WoW's success cause MMO's to become Mainstream?

I've recently mentioned in a couple of my posts that the MMO market was in its infancy and a lot of design elements have been reused from earlier iterations of role playing games. Multi User Dungeons, Console RPGs, and D&D have all had major design elements used as building blocks to fast track the development of MMOs. As time goes forward though we are starting to see developers replace major parts of the standard MMORPG design. What used to be a niche market is expanding and flawed design elements are being reworked to appeal to more people.

World of Warcraft is probably the MMO out at the moment with the broadest sense of appeal and has the subscription numbers to prove it. While there are many casual MMOs out there with larger followings, their numbers don't reflect a large monetary value like the subscription base for the AAA games. Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin, and other ammunition in the casual MMOs are more popular argument only have monetary values in viral and web marketing. While these areas have grown in popularity and will probably replace traditional media advertisement in the future they are still a long way from beating the value of a large subscription base.

This is good in the current market since casual games just don't produce large enough revenue to justify mainstream advertising to investors. In the past, hardcore MMO's were limited to numbers in the low 100,000's which restricted traditional advertising to only well targeted avenues. Thus before World of Warcraft you were only ever likely to see a MMO advertised on Comedy Central, Adult Swim, or G4TV. Nowadays we have commercials where a warlock kills a dragon using a Tacoma truck coming on during prime time football.

Also important to note is that references to MMOs have started to creep into prime time television shows. This is a result of the broader appeal of modern MMORPGs working their way through the population and eventually reaching a writer here and there. Within the past year I've spotted references to MMORPGs in How I Met your Mother, Chuck, South Park, The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, and Stargate. In the days of classic Everquest/Ultima Online such references would get a blank look from most t.v. viewers. Nowadays though most people who follow pop culture or the news know what a online game looks like and that its somehow connected to the acronym MMO.

Its important to note that MMOs with players in the millions did happen before World of Warcraft. Games like Runescape and Lineage have long had a multi-million player base. Runescape did this by being playable over a web browser while Lineage was created in the most game crazy country in the world. Neither's success did much to push MMOs into mainstream awareness though. It was World of Warcraft hitting the 1 million subscriber mark in North America and then again in Europe that gained the attention of investors.

They approved the budget to improve the game and eventually to advertise it like a modern product. Mainstream awareness is a result of two things; media coverage and advertising. While corporations can run advertising until they dry up the budget it takes the other side of the coin to make a name on the tips of every one's tongue. Unfortunately for MMO's most media coverage has been negative news stories but times are a changing.

Positive stories about MMO's improving leadership skills, online friendships, and business acumen have started to emerge. Also despite being consider a "free votes" issue by most politicians some presidential candidates like Fred Thompson, Barac Obama, and John Edwards recently made it clear to Common Sense Media that they don't support legislating game content. We might be seeing a turning point where all video games stop being the easy to hit pinata for politicians. A lot of this has to do with high profile games becoming more mainstream and less scary to the older generation. After all its a lot harder for someone to be fooled into thinking a game is a murder simulator when they see footage of it advertised during the latest Patriots game.

Monday, December 10, 2007

How fast should MMO expansions be released?

The number of MMO's released is surprisingly high for a form of entertainment that is only just now approaching its ten year anniversary. Numerous and wildly differing MMO's have been produced over the past ten years but if there is one constant its been that they all offer players a persistent online world to explore. This exploration doesn't last forever though since these worlds all have finite lifespans dependent on how much content they contain. When the first MMO developers realized that their customers wanted their favorite worlds to continue forever it became apparent that expansion was needed. Thus most popular online worlds began to have teams of developers not only working at maintaining the current world but also growing it.

The problem of course was knowing how fast to grow their worlds. Quality content generation was always going to be a step behind the players especially in the early days when the vast majority were more fanatic about playing long periods of time. This resulted in some developers cutting corners in an attempt to keep up with their player's demand. Other games used a more layed back approach to expanding their worlds by offering constant free updates in hopes of keeping a stable subscriber base. Still others decided to skip the entry barrier of a subscription fee all together and just charge a one time fee for each expansion.

Out of all these methods a few proved disastrous but the majority of them had at least a minimum amount of success. Players tend to establish deep relationships with these persistent worlds and the friends they made in them. Thus the basic rule of thumb for expansions seems to be, keep a steady stream of new content incoming over time without changing the basic game play too quickly or charging too much. Of course too quickly and too much are relative terms but I'm going to give some examples of where it became obvious that companies broke this rule.

Chart of Expansion Rates and Quality

1 - Horrible (Timing: Bad, Cost: Bad, Quality: Bad)
Star Wars Galaxies

I almost hate to use SWG as the poster child for bad expansions since it gets brought up so often but there are just several factors that make it stand out. The first box expansion Jump to Lightspeed was so filled with bugs that it took months for the developers to get the major "selling points" working correctly. Later on the infamous CU patch completely rewrote the combat system of the game with very little warning to the players. If that wasn't enough the NGE patch introduced just 7 months later rewrote combat again combined with every other game system. While the overall quality of the content was okay it was effected by a very unstable player experience.

2 - Mediocre (Timing: Bad, Cost: Bad, Quality: Okay)

After the third expansion Everquest really tanked in its quality department. It soon became apparent that the expansion team was stealing developers from the maintenance teams. Bugs started taking longer to fix while expansions started being announced almost back to back. In the expansion Planes of Power a guild actually made it to the highest zone in the game only to find it only half way completed though developers originally denied this fact. It all culminated in a player organized boycott of EQ expansions until bugs were fixed.

3 - Okay (Timing: Okay, Cost: Okay, Quality: Good)
World of Warcraft, City of Heroes

It was at this point that companies started learning from the earlier SOE dominated days. World of Warcraft regularly held back specific content to make sure it was bug free before release. It was slightly annoying to buy a game that advertised Black Temple but didn't patch it in until 3 months later. Still holding back content until it was perfected is a better approach then fast tracking expansions filled with bugs.

City of Heroes never really could grow their player numbers with their constant release of small amounts of new content. City of Villains did a lot to fill out the game play by giving an opposing side and introducing PvP elements. Still in general while continuous releases every 3 months is nice its seems that its more effective have a longer production cycle which can produce more content.

4 - Good (Quickness: Okay, Cost: Good, Quality: Good)
Guild Wars

Guild Wars has followed a okay production timeline for its expansions which fall into either a 6 or 12 month cycle and reportedly contain a good deal of content even when compared with the market leader, World of Warcraft. Since the game doesn't require a monthly a fee it can even be thought of as the better deal. Unfortunately, each subsequent Guild Wars expansion has been rated less then the previous one. Reviewers have pointed out that Guild Wars is probably due for an huge overall especially in its chat system and introducing a persistent overworld. However, the box only revenue for the game has limited what the developers can afford tp do in a expansion. As a result the latest full expansion Utopia was cancelled in favor of creating a sequel to the franchise.

5 - Excellent (Quickness: Good, Cost: Good, Quality: Good)
Everquest 2

This might be a controversial choice but I believe Everquest 2 really epitomizes the perfect release schedule for an MMO expansion. They follow a steady 12 month cycle and with the last two expansions included all previous game content. Since Guild Wars is dependent on box sales they are unable to follow the same practice. Quality wise each expansion in EQ2 has introduced a sizable amount of content for solo, group, and raiding game play. In fact I believe they do a better job of balancing new content for different play styles then any other current game. So what hurts the top rated releaser of MMO expansions? Well one was first impressions since EQ2 in the style of SOE was very bug filled at the initial release. Two is definitely the UI which is still ugly and not as easily customizable as newer games such as WoW and LOTR.

6 - Godly
Theoretical Category made up of the best qualities of several games.

Quickness: Everquest 2
Cost: Either City of Heroes or Guild Wars
Quality: World of Warcraft without the wait

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Relmstein's Guide to Poaching Raiders

With the start of arena season 3 its becoming harder and harder to fill all the spots in the nightly raid. When people do log on their talents are all wrong like enhancement or retribution. What's a hardcore raiding guild to do? Well you could advertise by running dungeons or questing with random strangers but then you might get noob all over your boots. No the only obvious answer is to slip into secret agent mode, start making conversation with other raiders, and link the hell out of your gear. After all once they know how much better your guild is then their current one they'll be dying to join up.

1) Accidentally link your best guild weapon whenever you send someone a tell.
* "Opps I'm sorry was that the Twin Blade of Azzinoth I just linked. Sorry we just got our ninth one and we're having to force a hunter to take it."

2) Next time before your guild kills Kazzak or Doomwalker yell out "This villainous speech brought to you by ".
*There's no such thing as too much advertising especially when it signals a zone wide buff.

3) Brag about how quick your guild can kill Gruul/Mag.
* "Oh, your guild can kill Gruul in less then a hour. That's nice. I think it once took us 15 minutes but of course our mage was tanking."

4) Be that Creepy Tier-6 guy who hangs outside of Karazhan.
* "Hello, newbie raider. How would you like to hang out with the big boys." Its a lot like a 30 year old trying to get a date outside a high school except in WoW it doesn't lead to restraining orders.

5) Post Anoymously on other guild recruiting threads.
* Make sure to spread lots of rumors on other guild forums also imply that they follow the FOUL loot system. You know the First Officers, Underlings Later dkp system.

6) Link your guild's YouTube Illidian kill video as a low level alt.
*Make sure to link it with comments like "Look how quickly they do it." and "I heard they're recruiting" Bonus points if you point out how good your main character peforms in the video.

7) Drop hints that your guild leader works for Blizzard.
* "Yeah, we don't like to brag but our GL is Eyonix." You could also try Tigole but everyone knows he runs Nihilum now.

8) Talk about how your guild doesn't force people to raid if they don't feel like it. Maintain straight face.
* Also make sure to follow up quickly with "Offer to pass on raiding void for all level seventy shamans, druids, paladins, priests or warriors."

9) Vaguely describe you DKP system as giving epics to those who most deserve them.
*Details will kill you here since most people just blank out when you describe a DKP system. Instead by just saying it gives epics to those who deserve them you make the recruit think "Hey, who deserves epics more then me? This system sounds cool."

10) Two words ... "Punch and Pie".
* punch = potions, pie = stat food. free stuff = new recruit.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Why Items keep players coming back

One of the primary reasons for the popularity of modern day MMOs is their heavy reliance on statistical combat and items. While its not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your favorite game feature it has a huge impact on player involvement. In most games there is a baseline system for improvement which all players can max out on. Usually this system is comprised of experience points which are used to grant statistical improvements in the form of levels or skills. However, its after this system has been maximized that the importance of items really becomes a factor in whether players stick with a game or leave.

The truth is that even back in the days of text based dungeon games the item centric ones tended to be the most popular. Many a university computer ran a multi-user-dungeon back in the early 90's which players connected to by paying outrageous fees to their phone company. In the midst of such high prices the item (DIKU) based games emerged as the most common type since players stuck with them longer. Just ask any of the MMO old timers or MMOOTS as I like to call them and they can tell you the sordid tale of how the DIKU model took over like kudzu.

The reason items keep players in these types of games is that they form an easy reward system which can be used to reinforce a player's perception of improving at the game. Most players realize that the only reason they are hitting for 50 more damage is because they just won that new sword. However, over time that improvement becomes associated with a player's perception of how good they are in the game and not the item itself. A week after getting the item a player has mentally switched from "this sword really kicks ass" to "my warrior really kicks ass". This does a lot to keep people involved in the game since they feel they are getting better at playing it.

Games that don't allow items to influence the main game system (usually combat) have to depend on actual player skill improving at the same pace as the game's challenges. City of Heroes is a good example where their was a huge disparity between player skill and the game's challenges. At the time of the game's release most of the MMO market were from the hardcore games like Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot. Players from these games had no problems learning how to use the power set system in City of Heroes and quickly mastering it. This fact combine with how easy it was to get enhancements, the only item in the game, created a perception that the game had no challenges. In general games that have no challenges are not considered fun. Thankfully the character creation system combined with high role playing potential kept the game alive.

Ultima Online can also be used as an example though I have less experience with it then the other first generation MMOs. If you back track the history of the game though you can see Ultima Online had very little reliance on items and depended on a fluid skill system. The only real challenge in the game was staying alive since it was filled with dangerous exploits and armies of people who wanted you dead. As soon as the game allowed people to choose to get out of the PvP realm the only real challenge in the game was eliminated. The game bleed subscribers quickly after that since most people found the PvE challenges very easy compared to dealing with the sadistic player killers.

These examples show how hard it is to balance game challenges on something as ephemeral as player skill. With the amount of money MMOs take for their development cycle you can see why most developers would rather tune game challenges to something they have more control over, like item power. Luckily, while developers feel like they are locked into an item based genre they are experimenting. Games like Pirates of the Burning Sea and Tabula Rasa have introduced wildly different combat systems compared to most other games. While neither has gathered critical acclaim it at least proves that item based games don't all have to be based on sword and sorcery combat