Thursday, September 26, 2013

An Open Letter to MMOs and Players

Let’s take a second and look at the recent release of Grand Theft Auto V.  Here’s a game that took around $265 million to develop, making it one of the most expensive video games created, then it rakes in over a billion dollars from sales.  There’s many reasons why this was so profitable.  From the superb voice acting, animations and music… to the sheer amount of content within the game providing players with variety and engaging gameplay for over 100+ hours.  I know this seems like just a pitch for GTAV, but I’ll get to that in a second.  This game really is memorable, because honestly it proves to the industry that taking the time needed, and spending the right amount of money to get the necessary resources to produce a top-notch triple A game release is worth the effort. 

Many companies are looking to cut corners and reduce costs… heck, it’s not even just the games industry.  It’s the current state of the American economy.  The average citizen can’t afford to purchase every new game release.  That’d be financially irresponsible and impossible.  However, if you give them a title worth shelling out cash for, people will clamor over any and all barriers to get it. Step back and really observe what just happened.  This populous that’s straining with increased costs of healthcare, reduced wages, and increased tax/city costs, just shelled out full price for a game out of excitement and confidence that it will be worth it.  We knew it would be a good game.  We knew the studio behind it.  We knew it would be worth the monetary and time investment.  We knew we would get our bang for our buck.

What’s the deal with upcoming massive multiplayer online(MMO) games?  I’ve always wanted to be excited about new MMO releases, sometimes to the point of leading my friends astray with game recommendations, but I’ve learned a lot over the past couple of years I’ve been a consumer.  I’ve learned what makes a strong MMO.  You need a strong sense of community and positivity and excitement.  You need gameplay that is new in some way, and the same in others.  You need a gradual difficulty increase that won’t scare away the more casual crowd, and let’s not forget that bit of ultra-difficult content for the players that will invest their life into the game.  I’ve played most of the bigger MMO releases over the past couple years, maxing out a character and getting bored of the repetitive tedious end-game and occasionally surprised by the advancements in gameplay and user interface design.  Let’s touch upon each of the points I’ve made that I think make successful MMO’s.

Community.  This is the pinnacle of maintaining an MMO crowd.  I think the penultimate example of the ideal MMO community is the initial release and early adopter crowd.  The people that were excited for the game before it’s out.  I remember at World of Warcraft’s release the player-base was a pleasure to play with.  Players were helpful and curious.  The game was new to everyone, there really hadn’t been anything exactly like it.  Sure there were the couple of people that made references to similarities in earlier MMO’s like EverQuest or Star Wars Galaxies(I was one of them!), but this was also in Blizzard’s golden years where the gaming population would have killed a man to get their hands on a new Blizzard game.  The level of excitement was palpable and players were engaging each other in learning this new game and exploring its world.  The server populations weren’t enormous and the content wasn’t too difficult yet, but that’s ok because it was new.  It was finally a game that had the capability to bring a lot of gamers that had been uncertain about the MMO world into a new game fostered on their knowledge that Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3 were amazing games.  This is the kind of gamer that you want to play games with.  The kind of people that can make your experience really enjoyable because you might be stuck with some complicated quest, and the other players are actually eager and available to help out.  They won’t demean your skill level and call you a “noob” or tell you to refer to some website for quest guidance.  There weren’t sites for that yet, and if there were, they didn’t have all the information yet because their content creators were also still learning the game.  The days where an epic item gave you motivation to keep playing so maybe you’d one day see such treasures, and a legendary was just awe-inspiring.  Sure placing so much value on these “colored pixels” is trivial, but it also added a sense of wonder.  You needed to know where they got those items and how.  I know sometimes I’d feel overwhelmed by the process required to obtain some of the items, but the process also made it feel like there was a reward for investing time into the game.  I’m steering away from my point of community, and we know any player could rant and rave about how World of Warcraft was amazing and terrible in endless ways, so I’ll circle back.  In my opinion, community in MMO’s lends itself to shared exploration of the game world and content.  You want to experience things for the first time in a game at your own pace, and you can increase that feel ten-fold by experiencing content for the first time with friends.  Maybe not even just friends, but other people.  It’s that first time you see some bit of lore or content and you have your “wow…” moment.  That first time you or a friend gets an epic item and people want to know how to get it.  I remember the original paladin hammer quest.  I don’t think it was an epic hammer, just a blue quality, but it felt powerful.  It had lore behind it.  It had meaning.  It FELT epic.  It was thrilling to be able to tell other paladins about the hammer and which quest that was coming up that would enable them to get it and experience it.  Forming a guild for the first time with some friends from real life, and some new friends that you’ve met online that were enjoyable to play with.  That initial thrill of exploration of a new game is what it’s all about.

Now we have to talk about new gameplay.  Not new in a literal sense of the word, but new in an iterative sense of the word.  We need gameplay that will be similar and derivative of other successful games that people enjoy, but with certain advancements to the gameplay mechanics that enhance the user’s experience.  It’s easy to go back to talking about World of Warcraft but I want to use other examples as well.  I felt World of Warcraft was an improvement on the game genre that Everquest really defined.  Then other games took the ball and ran with it.  Warhammer Online had a PvP system that was more engaging.  Guild Wars 1 and 2 both had different combat systems and PvP features.   Star Wars: The Old Republic had better voice acting and story structure and interactivity.  Tera had a more active combat system that required more attention to detail and the graphics were an improvement as well.  We need to take the successful aspects of other games and utilize them to create an ultimate product.  The problem is that while the new content needs to be new, it also needs to be easy to approach.  I think the days of people really learning any gameplay mechanic that is brand new is almost gone because making a new game successful means you have to make it approachable by the widest audience.  Which brings me to the next point.

Difficulty can be described in many ways.  I have all sorts of friends that I play games with from all “walks of life” when it comes to gaming.  I have the casual friends that just want to log on occasionally to have fun, and I have the hardcore friends that stick with one game and play that for every available hour of free time.  I also have friends from anywhere and everywhere in between.  I want to play with all of them.  I cherish the community I’ve built around playing games and I enjoy talking about them as much, if not more, than I enjoy playing them.  Okay, I’ll just come clean.  I crave talking about games.  I crave having something new to be excited about.  I yearn for advancements to be made in technology in order to make a game better.  I love talking about it.  So why is difficulty an issue?  Well, in order to play all these games with as many of my friends as possible, then the game has to be pretty flexible.  “Okay Elan, well you just like to play with other people, but how is that relevant to the industry?”  Companies want to make games that make money.  They make more money by getting more people to buy it.  To get a bigger audience to buy it, they better WANT me to play with all my friends, of all different gamer types. 

World of Warcraft was the latest game that really encompassed almost all gamer styles and brought them to one place.  You could be casual and log on occasionally and do some daily quests, or queue up for a quick raid using their Looking For Raid system.  You could be one of the hardcore and log on for at least four hours a night to beat your head against your keyboard to experience killing the latest in raid bosses with twenty four other compadres.  You could even be anywhere in between, there were so many people playing that there was a place for everyone. 

New games must be easy enough to get involved in.  You want them to beckon you in with easy-to-understand mechanics and maybe even a nice introductory tutorial.  Sure it might not be for everyone, maybe even add an option to skip the tutorial.  Some players will breeze through the beginning of a new game with ease while even watching Netflix and barely paying attention, but you also want to cater to the players who it is a new experience for.  You want to drag them in.  Show them the world you spent a long time creating.  Show them a new world for them to spend time in with their friends.  Show them a new online hangout.
Take the game mechanics that have worked well in the past, and polish them.  I didn’t say simplify, I mean polish!  You can keep a game complicated, as long as you’re easing the newer players into it.  Don’t throw the girth of the game at a new player off the bat (I’m looking at you EVE Online), that can be both overwhelming and frustrating.  I poke fun at EVE, but they have made strides to make it easier to get into as a new player, so I have to afford them some credit where it’s due.  The game has to be immersive and addicting.

Keep the end-game hard.  While I strongly believe that the start of playing a new MMO should be all-inclusive and easy to understand, I feel the complete opposite about the end-game.  The end-game dungeons or raids or player vs player content should be difficult.  There should be some content that the majority of players will be unable to complete.  Now should you make the gameplay leading up to the end-game too easy and then just drop them in a bottomless pit of difficulty, they’ll leave the game.  I just had this experience with Tera.  Leveling was fine and dandy, and people enjoyed the process.  It was a little grindy here and there, but most people did it, then we hit the end-game.  I didn’t have any problem with the end-game or the combat system, but I’m not really the majority by any means.  The dungeon’s bosses were hard and unforgiving to people still learning the combat mechanics.  It caused people to get overly frustrated at the skill level that it took to complete, and people ended up leaving in droves.  So you have to gradually scale up to the end-game in order to lock players into still logging in.  At the same time though, you have to have some super-hard content.  The hardcore crowd that become super invested in your intellectual property are the ones that will foster the community.  The hardcore people will be the one’s posting boss kill videos, strategies, and updating the bigger fansites and database webpages that people use.  They will showcase that hard content in a way that will drive some of the players into committing more time to the game in order to see that content for themselves.  You’ll most certainly have some people that will complain that it should be easily available to anyone with a spare 15 minutes to go in and waltz through, but that trivializes the content.  If it’s too easily approachable, then there’s no sense of accomplishment when seeing it and completing it.  My fondest memory from World of Warcraft was finally downing the original Four Horsemen for the first time.  It was a boss fight that required immense coordination between forty people.  It was one of the most difficult parts of any game I’ve ever played, but that feeling when we beat it was immeasurable.  That feeling is exactly what you want players to crave.  It’s why the play the game.  Keep delivering feelings like that, and you will have struck gold.

Now I have to talk about the upcoming MMO’s that I’m excited about and why.  I know I have some friends that will forever hold a grudge against me for recommending Age of Conan, but I feel like that was during a time where I was a little bit more naïve about game marketing and what factors actually keep people playing games.  I am both excited and hesitant about this new game called Wildstar.  Wildstar is a game being developed by original World of Warcraft developers, City of Heroes developers, and a smattering of other veteran devs from the MMO world.  I’m excited about it because I really feel like it enhances the MMO experience.  It’s both more of the same, and brand new at the same time.  They take a semi-cartoony art style in a sci-fi setting, with a good dose of humor, and a new combat system that is easy to learn and hard to master.  The user interface is pretty similar to the standard setup that players are used to from an MMO, and it’s customizable as it should be.  The combat system is much more engaged than the WoW standard “tab and smash keys.”  You certainly still mash keys, but at least there’s abilities where you have to hold it to charge it, and you can move while casting almost every ability in the game.  It’s a much more mobile and exciting combat.  So the base combat is similar, but improved.  They also added a housing system to the game.  You get a plot of land floating in the sky, and you can build a house in the early game that stays with you as you level and experience the end-game.  Playing unlocks features and decorations for your house that makes it feel much more personalized.  I remember placing things in my house in Star Wars Galaxies years ago, and I was always wondering why most modern MMO’s don’t have housing in the game.  It was always such a cool place to show your friends and store and display your loot.  Lord of the Rings Online had decent housing, but it just needed more options for customization and decoration.  Wildstar will let you pick the material for your floors, your walls, place decorations wherever you want inside, and even customize the exterior.  It takes it one step further and lets you develop and customize the land around your house as well.  From random things like a BBQ pit, a playable floor piano, to even a dungeon entrance.  Now while Wildstar is leaps and bounds going in the right direction with MMO development, I worry it’s not enough for the over-saturated market right now.  I feel like players are getting bored of the standard leveling system to get to max level then see what the game really has to offer.  I worry that Wildstar will fall into that trap and some people will be turned off by the aspect of having to level to max level before they really begin to have fun.  The game’s not released so I can’t say that it will be one way or another, but I’m just concerned because I want a new game that will engage my needs for an immersive mature experience and my friend’s needs to just have fun while playing.

Then we could go the other route with MMO’s.  Why just take the standard leveling/end-game pattern and only stick with that?  That brings me to Star Citizen.  Star Citizen is hardly going to be a traditional MMO.  It’s a space simulation action game.  Combat will be 1st/3rd person in real time, blasting away at your enemies with lazers, phasers, and rockets.  There will be some public servers that will host a large number of games, but you can also play on private servers with your friends.  So it’s not traditionally an MMO with servers and always online logins, but it will have that option.  You could even have a 250 person server which is technically a massive multiplayer online game, but it’s not thousands like most MMO’s on the market.  Star Citizen is going to take what people loved about old PC space simulation games and bring it up to speed.  You have the freedom to do whatever you desire within the game.  Feel like just beginning the game as a space pirate and looting precious cargo from trade freighters when you start the game?  Do it.  Want to get a hang of the combat?  Do the full single-player military campaign and experience the story while learning the game.  Having trouble with a mission?  Invite your buddies to come help for some cooperative action.  Don’t want to wait to finish the campaign to play in the free-roam galaxy?  You don’t have to.  You really are open to any options of gameplay.  “But Elan, all you’ve talked about is combat…”  Then be a trader!  Be a crafter.  Make all your money from producing goods and exclusively doing missions to further that goal.  The options for gameplay are there.  The game is also going to have an unprecedented amount of immersion.  It will have voice acting, orchestral soundtracks, fully fledged space stations and hangars, functional interiors for your spacecraft, the works.  Not satisfied by my hype ranting?  How about some numbers for you.  Star Citizen requested five hundred grand for development on their Kickstarter campaign.  They have now made over twenty million dollars from private donations from fans excited about the game.  I think it will be one of the next steps in game development.  It’s pushing the boundaries of graphics and content in ways that every game should be.

There’s a lot of issues with current and upcoming MMO releases, but there’s many things they do right.  It takes a lot of effort to engage millions of players on a consistent basis, and even more effort to keeping them playing and paying for months/years to come.  If companies invest the right amount of time, money, and people in the development process, they can make enormous profits.  This doesn't even apply to just MMO's.  It applies to all games.  Keep the players happy, and reap the benefits. 

Next time:  How good games are like private clubs.

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