Listening to player feedback: a double-edged sword?

Trion Worlds has gotten a lot of good press from the fact that, throughout their beta process (we’re up to Beta 5 at the time of this writing) they’ve listened to player feedback and made changes accordingly. This feels like a real breath of fresh air to disgruntled MMO players who never feel as though they’re being heard by the devs of whatever game they’re playing.

But is this always a good thing? When does “We respond to player feedback” become “Ours is a game designed by committee”?

I’m not saying the sky is falling and I don’t think Trion has gotten to that point yet, but I have been vocal about my enthusiasm for playing these beta sessions because I fully expect Rift to continually move closer and closer to “Generic Fantasy MMO #78” as the signature system of the game, rifts and invasions, get modified in response to player feedback.

Let’s face it. Players, or at least vocal players, taken as a unified voice, generally tend to want things easier (and then complain when a game ceases to be challenging). Rifts and Invasions can be damned inconvenient. To me, that’s what makes them so freakin’ awesome. For once the world doesn’t carefully operate around you so as not to get in your way. Quite the contrary.

But of course this inconvenience isn’t always popular with players, who expect Things to Work The Way They Did In That Other Game I Played.

I haven’t played Beta 5 yet, but I was concerned by these lines in the patch notes:

* Invasions which succeed will now despawn after 10 minutes, or 3 minutes if left out of combat.
* Invasions no longer aggro as a group and can be split.

Both of these changes appear to be ‘nerfs’ to invasions (I’ll be delighted if we discover that I’m totally wrong about that). I’m not entirely sure what they mean by “succeed” in that first line. Does that mean take down a Wardstone? I’ll assume it does since I can’t think what else marks ‘success’ on the part of an NPC driven invasion.

Combine that with the ability to ‘pull’ invasion members one at a time, and no longer will players have to self-organize into groups to drive off invasions and restore quest hubs to their working state. Instead, players will avoid the invasion force and let it kill the Wardstone asap so it’ll then despawn in 3 minutes. Pity the player who initiates combat with the invasion, thinking he can pull a single and defeat it, as s/he will be shouted down by those impatient for the invasion to go away.

I see this as another step towards the game I played in early Betas going away and Rift becoming much more generic. These changes appear to ease the pressure to join forces with your fellow player, and that’s a shame. (And this coming from a confirmed Soloist.)

I’m also on the fence about the new public group system. I understand how healers struggled to see who needed healing (though I generally healed ‘through’ mobs when I played a healer) and I understand the benefits of the system, but now you’re really going to have to join these public groups when rifting. In early betas, everyone helped everyone since no one was grouped. Once we’re in a group, though, we all tend to have tunnel vision and only help fellow group members. The player who chooses not to join the public group will be ostracized, whether deliberately or by circumstance. Honestly if they’re going to have public groups at all, they ought to just make them totally automatic. (As I said, I’m still on the fence about this system since the benefits to healers might outweigh the downside of the end of solo rifting.)

While I’m on a roll, I’ll also voice my disagreement with giving everyone all 8 souls so early in a character’s development. I’m not sure any character should have access to the entire palette of souls available for their class. I think the game would be much more interesting if Cleric A had access to souls 1, 2, 7, & 8 and Cleric B had access to 1, 4, 5 & 7. With everyone having access to all 8 souls, “flavor of the month” builds will blossom even more swiftly than they would have with limited souls. If you’re playing a level 20 Cleric and aren’t specced just so, expect to be shouted at. I’ve already seen a bit of this in earlier betas.

Don’t read this and think I’ve given up on Rift; that’s certainly not the case. But I hope somewhere in Trion there’s a core group of developers with a vision that they’ll hold true to, regardless of what the players want. Players don’t always want what’s best for them in the long run. I really hope they don’t nerf the rift system and keep the world dangerous forever. Yeah, you might log in and be in the midst of an invasion… tough. Life is hard and chaotic (and let’s face it, death penalties in Rift are pretty light) in the world of Telara. I hope that never changes.

Salem: Permadeath and open PvP

I saw a trailer for Paradox’s Salem over on Arislyn’s Tumblr page. I’d only heard a tiny bit about this upcoming MMO: basically that it took place in Colonial New England, was a sandbox game and so lots of crafting and what-not.

Now I’ve learned that it features permadeath and open PvP. The creative director, “Brother Bean” says he believes the player population will police itself and find its own balance. It’s a brave direction to take and I enthusiastically support the plan while at the same time doubt it can succeed. I’m glad I’m not investing in it, but I’m happy it is being made.

Here’s the problem with punishment in MMOs, in my opinion: it’s binary. When someone commits a crime against you, your options are: ignore the character or kill the character. There’s no other law or recourse beyond slaughter. I think for a system like Salem’s to work there needs to be the potential for some kind of (player run) police force. If you steal a chicken from your neighbor, someone should be able to forcibly take that chicken back and then make you pay some kind of fine. As it stands now the only way of doing that is to kill you and loot the chicken and fine from your corpse, which seems pretty extreme.

I’m not sure how to handle punishment in any other way. If you put a character in some kind of prison, the player is just going to log off and go do something else. Maybe some kind of tax system where a % of any wealth you pick up magically goes to whomever you’ve mistreated?

Maybe Salem will work; I’d love to be proven wrong. But there are just so many bored gamers out there who’d happily spend time to strengthen a new character just so he can then go and grief someone else. Sure, the ‘community’ will then kill him in turn, but that’s small comfort for that character’s initial victim, who now has to start over.

Hmm, maybe a semi-permadeath system where you only stay dead if the person who killed you manages to stay alive for 24 hours after the killing? And the dead has the ability to speak to the living and plead his case…

I dunno, just a random thought. What do you think? Could permadeath and open PvP ever work together?

What MMO devs can learn from The Witcher (and other SP RPGs)

So as mentioned in my last post, I’ve been playing my $5 copy of The Witcher and really enjoying myself. In a lot of ways I’m playing it almost like an MMO. I spend a lot of time wandering around harvesting herbs, or “grinding mobs” by hunting at night for experience and loot I can sell for Orens (the game’s currency).

One of the problems I often face when stepping away from MMOs and into single player games is that I forget to save. Years of MMOing has driven the “Quick Save” concept from my brain. Luckily The Witcher autosaves every time you enter or exit a building. So that’s something single player devs can learn from MMO developers: don’t make the player have to worry about bookkeeping tasks like saving.

But this post is about the teaching the MMO devs. The world of The Witcher feels more alive than just about any MMO feels, assuming you take the PCs out of the MMO. Obviously a SP game is never going to have the odd and weird interactions you’ll have with other people in an MMO, but the NPCs in The Witcher seem so much more alive.

Imagine Stormwind or Qeynos with no other players in it. What do you see? NPCs that either stand in one place or patrol along a set path, day or night, rain or shine, saying the same thing over and over again. They act like what they are: automatons. In The Witcher when it starts to rain, all the townsfolk scurry for cover. Not only that, but they’ll grumble or joke about the weather. I did a double take when an old codger ducked under the eave of a house and looked out and cackled “Ha! The neighbor’s laundry is getting soaking wet!”

To be fair, I won’t be playing The Witcher for years and years; if 3 years from now the same codger was saying the same thing every time it rained, it wouldn’t seem as amazing.

Now I know WoW has started to dabble in this kind of behavior via phasing, but generally you have to do something to trigger phasing. In The Witcher, even quest NPCs will move. At night they’ll be in their homes, during the day on the streets or at their place of business. Now the devs weren’t a slave to this ‘realism’ and you can barge into an NPC’s house in the middle of the night and talk to them about a quest and they won’t freak out. Having to wait until morning to talk to them would probably be too much realism.

Last is point-of-view. In The Witcher you play Geralt, the titular Witcher. And you always play the game as him. But when there are cut scenes, you’ll sometimes see the world through another character’s eyes. This can add richness to the overall experience.

[Trivial spoiler ahead]
Fairly early on in the game you meet a barmaid and save her from thugs. She is so grateful, and you so exotic and charming, that she agrees to meet you to “reward” you. She chooses the place: a (supposedly) haunted abandoned mill beside the river. You won’t be disturbed there. Assuming you make the appointment, you and she head into the mill for a bit of non-interactive nookie. At that moment the point of view changes to some folks who make their home across the river from the mill. They hear these faint moans coming across the water and assume it’s the ghost. One comments that there’s never a witcher around when you need one. The scene cuts back to the doorway of the mill where you can clearly hear the young lady’s cries of passion. (Yes, The Witcher is an M-rated game).
[End spoiler]

Now that moment took longer to read about than it did to experience and it might not translate to a blog post very well, but in the moment, playing the game, I found it really funny. We’re always playing these heroes charging through scene after scene but rarely do we get to see the repercussions of our actions. I know most MMO players are notoriously impatient and I’m not urging devs to stick in a bunch of video cut-scenes and their accompanying loading times, but the odd quick in-game cut scene showing your character from someone else’s point of view could really help to flesh out your adventure.

Story is a whole ‘nother blog post. I’ve actually been surprised in The Witcher, and have stayed up too late playing not because I wanted to make the next level, but because I wanted to see what happened next. Your average single player RPG doesn’t have a plot that could rival even a very pedestrian novel, but these stories are still better than those in most MMOs. As a best case scenario an MMO might have an interesting story that it takes you weeks of play and lots of groups to unravel, and spreading it over that much time tends to diminish things.

Anyway, that’s my mutterings for tonight. It sounds silly but the first time the NPCs in this game reacted to weather I kind of stopped and stared. And that was when I realized I’d been away from SP RPGs for a little bit too long. 🙂

Choice, game design, and MMOs

Once more into the breach, my friends…

In my last post I talked about Rift and groups and solo play. An interesting theme seemed to arise from some of the comments, and one that I found curious.

Today I want to talk about player choice and game design. I’m going to keep using Rift as an example but this could equally well apply to certain other games.

At the risk of over-simplifying things enormously, when you log into an MMO you have some broad decisions to make: the first is what style of gameplay you’re about to undertake. Are you going to putter around & craft? Just logging in to visit friends? Are you planning to solo? Are you planning to Group and go after content that way? For the purpose of this post I’m looking, once again, at Solo vs Group.

Say you’ve decided to Group. Now you’re going to pick a role. Do you want to be the Healer? A Tank? DPS? Buffing/support?

Let’s say for the sake of argument that you want to be a Group Healer. So here’s your character; a blank slate. Since you want to be a Healer, you pick Souls & Skills (in another game this could be Talent trees or whatever) that are heavy in healing capabilities. If you want to be a Healer and you take a bunch of skills that are focused on Taunting, you’d be a pretty poor Healer, right?

Can we all agree so far? Healers should take skills that help them heal. If a Healer takes skills that emphasize taunting over healing, you’re probably not going to be a great healer. Does this illustrate an example of bad game design? Does anyone think that?

Now let’s back up the decision tree a bit. Back up to the Solo vs Group decision. Here’s where my opinion seems to diverge with some others. When I decide I’m going to Solo I use a build that emphasizes that play style. I don’t take a bunch of group buffs: I won’t be in a group! I will look at self heals, or self shields, or perhaps a pet. I will probably set up a hotbar full of various consumable items that will help me to either survive or reduce down time between fights. Conversely if I’m going to Group I’m going to skip the self heals and instead take, maybe, a group-based stat buff or an AOE taunt or something else that works best in groups.

When I suggested that this was the best way to play Rift solo (specifically I said that if you’re going to solo a lot, some kind of self heal or pet will make life easier), some people suggested back that if playing Solo required using certain (Solo friendly) skills, it was an example of bad game design.

I don’t understand the difference: Healers need to take healing skills, Tanks need to take tanking skills. Everyone seems to agree on this and no one seems bothered by it. But when Soloers need to take solo skills, suddenly its bad game design?

It is essential to keep in mind that the only permanent decision you make in Rift is your archetype. That you’re stuck with, but within it, you can have several (at least 3 and maybe 4) Roles and each Role can use any 3 of your 8 souls, and each Role can have its own distribution of skill points and skills. You can switch Roles anytime except in mid-battle. And if a Role isn’t working out, fr a few virtual coins spent at a trainer you can reset it and build it anew as something else. So if you’re playing Solo and someone throws you a Group invite, you tap on Hotkey and now your Grouping Role is active.

To me this is the opposite of bad game design. I find it to be kind of awesome in fact. But it *seems* not everyone agrees.

How much travel is too much?

One of the many details that came out of the discussion of the New WoW New Player Experience is that travel has been greatly reduced. There’re more flight paths and lots of NPC’s offer you a temporary mount to get from quest hub to questing grounds.

I think we can all agree that in Ye Olde WoW Darkshore had way too much traveling back and forth. LOTRO is another game that gets dinged on too much time spent traveling.

In my [it was a joke people!] WoW in 5 Years post I postulated a time when there was NO travel. Instead, the quests and scenery came to you. It’s pretty clear that none of us would really want that.

So what’s the perfect amount of travel? We don’t want to have our time wasted, obviously. For many of us time is our most precious resource. But at some point reducing travel time gets to a point where it begins taking away from the game.

Here’s what I, personally, like about traveling:
1) The chance to encounter other people. Now in today’s landscape of highly instanced quests and dungeons and automagical instance-joiners, I’m the old man waving his cane at the youngsters. I miss the old days when you’d be traveling from point A to point B, and yup, maybe grumbling under your breath about it, when you’d encounter a group of players taking on a beastie just a wee bit too hard for them. They’d give a shout and you’d join forces, help them defeat the Evil and then go on your merry way, perhaps after adding a few names to your friends list.

The less we travel, the less likely it is to have this kind of encounter. On the other hand hardly anyone fights in a group outside instances these days, I guess.

2) Exploration. I enjoyed trying to find the most efficient way between point A and point B, and discovering neat things that the game’s artists had left laying around for me to find. A crashed gnome flying machine deep in the woods of a swamp; one that appears to be there just to be a cool thing to find? I love stuff like that!

Of course, no one is stopping us from exploring randomly at any time, so this is an arguable ‘Pro’ in this discussion, but a good world builder can look at likely travel paths between locations and drop some surprises to be found along the way. And I do find that I sometimes get caught up in ‘keeping up’ with friends and thus don’t take time to stop and explore and having to travel could be a nudge in that direction, reminding me to stop and look around now and then.

On the other hand, there’s nothing in the world more boring than running back and forth from point A to point B and back to point A and never encountering other players or discovering new things, and honestly the ‘chance encounters’ that I so took delight in were the exception rather than the rule. We all quickly figured out how to get best use out of various ‘teleport home’ spells that most games give us.

Looking at WoW again, just from the point of view of it being so familiar… I sure don’t want to go back to the way Darkshore used to be. But I kind of miss those random encounters and the sense of distance and scale games used to have. When it took you 20 minutes to get somewhere…you knew you were way the f’ out there in the middle of the wilds. That felt like exploring and you’d tend to work a little harder at doing everything you needed to do before you made the long trip back.

I don’t envy game designers finding the right balance here, particularly since the right balance is going to be different for every player. I’m sure that somewhere there’s a player that thought my joke post sounded like a great new system. And I’m sure there’re people that really miss those epic, peril-fraught treks accross Sossaria (that’s the Ultima Online world, in case you didn’t know).

I like enough travel time to feel like, well, I’m traveling. But I don’t want to spend an evening getting from point A to point B, either (well, unless it’s an evening spent on new discoveries and quick adventures with random travelers). I think Fast Travel points once you’ve reached a distant place are a good compromise but they tend to quickly be known by all and suddenly you’re back to no one traveling on foot any more.

I’ve got an idea (with no clue how the mechanics would work) of some kind of Fast Travel system that worked on a sliding scale. The more often you traveled to a specific location, the most often you could Fast Travel there. Maybe when you’ve been there once you can Fast Travel back once/day. After you’ve visited 5 times you can do it once ever 4 hours. And when you’ve been there 10 times you can Fast Travel whenever you like. Because the more often you go somewhere, the less likely it is that you’re going to discovering something new along the way in subsequent trips.

Anyway, I’m just wondering if anyone else had an idea of what’s an acceptable amount of travel time in their MMOs?

Rebutting Wolfshead’s Rebuttal of Tipa’s Rebuttal

I think I have the nesting correct in that headline. 🙂

So the saga so far:

An anonymous game designer who goes by the handle ‘Wolfshead’ posted a fairly scathing critique of the first 15 minutes of EQ2. Tipa rebutted his post. And Wolfshead rebutted her rebuttal.

I was posted a few comments in response to Tipa’s post, and this morning posted a comment on Wolfshead’s blog. Comments there are moderated (as they are here) and s/he chose not to approve my comment. Which is fine — your blog, your prerogative. But my spidey-sense was tingling when I posted that comment and I had the forethought to keep a copy of it.

So here is that comment. Imagine it was in the comments section of Wolfshead’s last post. I’ve left it intact, poor phrasing included (I was rushing to post it before work). The only change I’ve made is to add italics to quotes from the original post:

The problem I have with you is, you make too many assumptions about
EQ2 players. For example:

I would like to challenge Tipa and others to put forth their
suggestions to help SOE make a better EQ2 newbie experience.

What makes you think she doesn’t? My significant other is a die-hard
EQ2 fan, and she is constantly giving feedback to the team via proper

You, once again, act as if your interests are altruistic, but any
potential new EQ2 player that read your ‘First 15 minutes’ would be
pushed to give up on the idea of trying the game; you make it sound
about as much fun as bamboo shoots shoved under the fingernails.

In my experience (I dabble in EQ2, but honestly never stay in it for
very long myself) the EQ2 community is pretty welcoming to new
players. I’ll admit I see that situation through the lens of my SO and
her guild and all the new EQ2 players in it.

But neither can you. You have no idea what SOE is doing back at its HQ.

You say:

Companies pay thousands of dollars in consulting fees to get into the
head space of their potential customers.

Well how do you know SOE hasn’t done that? Doesn’t continue to do it?
Some of the things you critique (eg, the background images at
character creation) were the way you suggest that should be (different
background for ‘evil’ characters) but SOE changed it so that all
characters are in front of the same background. Why did they toss out
the ‘evil’ artwork? Was it an arbitrary decision, or was it based on
market research and focus testing?

If you truly, honestly want to help SOE improve the game, then submit
feedback TO THEM. Don’t trash the game on your blog…all that really
helps is your page view count. And I know you’ll say you weren’t
trashing it, and maybe that wasn’t your intent, but that is definitely
the feeling one comes away with after reading your 15 minutes post.
You come across extremely arrogant and dismissive. I’m not saying you
*are* either of those things, but that’s how the post reads.

Since I posted that, Wolfshead has approved other comments, so I suppose I’ve hit a nerve. Redacted. SmakenDahed makes a good point…the other comments might be ‘auto-approved’ by virtue of them being previous posters. Update: Confirmed that this was indeed what was going on, so I fully retract the ‘hit a nerve’ statement.

Solo grouping for hermits

It’s always interesting to talk about solo mmo players since the concept seems oxymoronic to some, while absolutely normal to others (I fall into the latter category). The oft-heard comment from the former group is “You should just play a single player game.”

Last night, I was playing Warhammer. I’d just jumped to a new (to me) tier and was loading up on quests, and I had a couple that took me out into the oRvR Lakes. Now I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that PvP isn’t my thing, but I went out there anyway. I got to the first quest objective and there were a bunch of friendlies there, capturing a Battlefield Objective.  So I hung out to help defend and get some Influence after the 3 minute timer counted down, then I headed to my next quest objective…and noticed that everyone else was running that way too.

Turns out they were headed off to take out the next Battlefield Objective, so I joined in the fight, helped them kill the guards (Destruction opted not to defend), hung out and got the capture after 3 minutes. Then I ran with them to the Keep, which was already under attack, and soon after we arrived it, too, fell.

Not once did I talk to these people. I wasn’t Grouped with a capital G with them, but I was working with them on a common goal.

So here’s my question. Was I, or wasn’t I, soloing last night? In my mind, I was because I was doing my own thing, which happened to coincide with what some other people were doing, and I never had to make any kind of social commitment to them. But you could argue that I wasn’t soloing because I was working with others, in which case I can somewhat see the “go play a single player game” argument. If you think of soloers as people who determinedly ignore other players, I can get behind your argument (to a limited degree). To me, a soloer is someone who resists making a formal commitment in terms of Joining a Group for the purpose of some united goal (but who will happily work alongside others for a common cause if the circumstances arise).

That kind of circumstance happened a lot more often in the old pre-everything-instanced days…I wonder if we’ve lost something there?

Class vs Skills

Yesteday’s post about levels has spawned an interesting and long running conversation.

Today I want to look at a related issue. Class-based vs Skill-based character systems. This question dovetails nicely with some of the side-conversation of the levels discussion.

The first “mainstream” graphical internet-based MMO was Ultima Online, and it uses a skill-based system. In case you never played it, and going from more ancient memory, every character had the same bunch of skills, all level 0 when the character was created. By doing stuff, the character would improve the skill related to that activity. So fighting with a sword would increase your sword-fighting skill a lot, and your strength skill a little. Casting spells would improve your magic skill a lot, and your intelligence skill a little, and so on. The catch was, a character could only have a set number of skill points (I want to say it was 300). A skill maxed out at 100, at which point you would be a GrandMaster of that activity. If you were a grandmaster swordfighter then spent a ton of time doing Carpentry to get that skill to rise, your swordfighting skill would slowly drop (though they later added the ability to “lock” a skill so it would never atrophy).

This was a great system because everyone could be who they wanted to be. If you wanted to be a healer/archer, you could do that. If you wanted to be a Grandmaster Carpenter and Swordfighter, you could. But you could never be Grandmaster at more than 3 things, and realistically you could only be GM at 2 things (you needed some “extra” points for other stuff, like Magic Resistance).

Anyway, after UO came EQ and that was a class-based system. And so the epic battle between skill-based and class-based MMOs began. Back in those days, the proponents of Class Based systems said they were better because they limited players (I chaffed hard against the Class-based bit back in those days) which forced classes to work together to make up for each others’ deficiencies and to prevent everyone from Min/Maxing their way to cookie-cutter characters. The forum battles were bloody, bitter fights.

Fast forward a decade or so, and it feels to me like the pendulum is starting to swing back and that folks are getting tired of class-based systems (in part because class & Level – with a capital L – tend to go hand-in-hand) and starting to want skill-based systems.

So far I can’t think of any pure skill-based MMOs beyond UO. There are MMOs with Classes which contain sets of Skills that let the player sculpt a character within pre-set parameters, but have there been any other completely classless MMOs in recent years?

Should there be? In UO, the only way to determine if you could best an opponent (be it Mob or Player) was observing gear, engaging in battle or asking people how tough an ettin really was. Nothing had Levels and I don’t remember there being any kind of Con system (though maybe I’m forgetting). And since dying meant potentially losing everything (anyone coming along could loot your corpse) the world felt very dangerous indeed.

Are we ready for that again? In a purely skill-based system, how do you determine relative strength? If you’re a master swordsman and I’m a decent swordsman and a very good mage, who wins? Do we even *need* to know this ahead of time?

Levels, what are they good for?

I’ve noticed a growing contingent of MMO bloggers that say levels are an out-dated concept and should be gotten rid of. “Everyone races to cap anyway,” they say, “so levels are just a way for developers to slow us down and suck more money out of us.” “The real game doesn’t begin until cap anyway,” others say, “so why not let us just start at cap?”

I thought it was time I stuck my oar in for the opposition. I play these games for the levels (and my ego isn’t big enough to believe I’m unique in any fashion, this point included). There is something primally satisfying about gaining levels; its a way of building a character, and I enjoy building things, both physical and virtual. I enjoy in-game crafting too, and I wonder how much correlation there is between people who enjoying “leveling up” and people who enjoy crafting.

I should pause to point out that this is a different argument from the one between class-based and skill-based systems. I’m fine with skill-based systems, where instead of gaining levels you gain skills… same difference for the sake of today’s argument: you’re still progressing a character from weak to mighty.

This weekend in EQ2 I gained 4 levels on one character, which really clarified some of the reasons I find leveling so much fun. We generally start using skills in distinct patterns as we play these games (hypothetical example: we use a skill that debuff’s the target’s fire resistance, then follow it up with skill that buffs our fire offensive rating, and then finally a fire attack on the target) to the point where some folks actually make macros to do the same sequence of skills over and over again. But what happens when you level? You gain new skills. And that means you need to re-evaluate your ‘combat patterns’ to see if there’s a more efficient way to use those skills. It mixes things up and keeps the game interesting.

Then there’s the aspirational issue. We see dragons and giants and we’re, yeah, killing ten rats. But to me, that’s a huge part of the satisfaction of these games. I can’t fight a dragon *now* but if I keep at it, I’ll become strong enough that I can finally get out there and fight the big dramatic creatures. If I could fight dragons the day I created a character well…that wouldn’t feel all that special.

The MMO[not-RPG] blogging community might be yelling for a revolutionary change to the DikuMUD leveling scheme in the games we play, but there are those of us who *like* things the way they are. I do believe there’re enough players to support both the evolutionary products and some hypothetical revolutionary ones, but I’m going to hazard a guess there are a lot of rank & file, non-blogging gamers that are delighted by the systems they’re enjoying today in LOTRO, EQ2, WOW, and a host of other level-based, aspirational-driven games.

Game devs, let us keep growing our characters! That’s where all the fun is!!

MMO Longevity

There’s been some talk around the blog-o-sphere about how bloggers don’t stick with any one game “long enough” (whatever that means) and I can’t deny that I’m as guilty as anyone of “game grazing.” I admit it, I get bored pretty easily.

Tonight I logged into LOTRO and did a few quests, said “Hey” to the guild, and refreshed my muscle memory on how to play the game. I did it mostly because I didn’t want to get booted out of my guild kinship, which has a policy of removing long dormant characters.

As I rambled around the hills of the North Downs I was enjoying the scenery and it struck me that MMOs don’t age like they used to. If you played EQ and then Asheron’s Call and then Dark Age of Camelot you’ll remember that once you moved on to a new game, it was hard to go back to the old one. Graphically games got dated really quickly (not just MMOs, all PC games) and the game mechanics that so many poo-poo as being ‘derivative’ today were just being layered into 3D MMOs. (UO was its own beast and still is, honestly.) I’m not saying it *never* happened, just that it was relatively uncommon to go back to an “old” MMO and stick with it. It just felt dated if you did so.

But that’s no longer true. WoW and EQ2 both came out almost 4 years ago (November 2004) and neither of them look dated today. People can and do go back to these games all the time. Warhammer and Age of Conan don’t look that much better, really. This is subjective and you can argue details, but overall if you took screenshots of WoW and War and put them side by side, you wouldn’t immediately say “Oh, this one is four years older than that one.” Same with AoC and EQ2. (I’m making these comparisons because WoW and WAR both go for a stylized, low requirements kind of design, and EQ2 and AoC both go for a more “realistic”, give us more GPU cycles kind of design.) If you look at screenshots of the Bioware/Lucasarts Old Republic MMO you won’t think “Whoa, that’s what the next gen of MMOs is going to look like!” The game looks fine, but it definitely isn’t the ‘order-of-magnitude’ jump in graphics quality that we used to see from year to year.

This is great news for those of us who are easily bored (as well as those of us who can’t afford to upgrade their systems very often. I remember a time when I’d buy a new gaming PC every 6-9 months!). I slipped into LOTRO like it was a comfortable old coat. Granted I’ve only been away for a month, but I’m pretty sure I could slip back into WoW fairly easily too, and I guess it’s been a year or so since I last played that. Going back to something like Tabula Rasa would be a bit more challenging, but I could (and might) do it. I wouldn’t log in and grimace at the low polygon models or the chunky controls.

I don’t have a big point to this long ramble, except that I find it all very relaxing. I don’t feel like I have to rush through MMOs anymore. Next month I’ll be exploring both the EQ2 and LOTRO expansions, so I might pause my Warhammer subscription while I’m doing so (I don’t want to be in a position where I’m paying 3 monthly subs!). But it’ll be nice to know that I’m doing just that: pausing, not quitting. Because as long as the servers are running, I can go back any time and pick right up where I left off. The game won’t look dated and probably it’ll be better than it is now.

MMOs, like wine, improve over time. At least until finally, far in the future, they turn to vinegar. In MMO terms, the servers go dark. I don’t think that’ll be happening to any of the “big” MMOs any time soon, though.

After Chronicles of Spellborn ships later this fall, it looks like we’ll have a bit of a drought when it comes to new MMOs. That’ll be a perfect time to go back and re-visit and re-enjoy some old friends.