Archive for May 30, 2012
In what can only be considered to be a “perfect storm” of concurrent blog posting, I’m going to call this post the end-cap of the last two posts here at LC. First, there was my dissertation on how developers should cut armchair designers some slack, as they’re only wishing out loud for what they’d like to pay money for. Second, there was the opinion on what might be an opportunity for the MMO genre to diversify as an alternative to die out. Now, thanks in part to Scott’s comments in the second post, I’m going to take advantage of my soapbox to “design a game” which won’t solve the MMO genre’s problems…but it’s not designed to. So without further ado…the disclaimer:
I’m sure that there’s a lot of details that aren’t fully realized in this idea. I am a lone person, mainly a consumer of games, but also a developer (web and desktop) so while I have some sympathy for people who say “how hard can it be do do X?”, I got so friggin excited over the idea of having this product that I‘m sure I scared some people on the road as I swore out loud and hammered on the steering wheel, knowing that there’s no chance in hell I’ll ever get this as a real product. Also, I started to degrade into stream of consciousness at the end of this post so, feel free to leave comments for clarification if desired.
Heavy Is The Head That Plays The MMO
So last post, I talked about how the MMO genre is “stagnant” because MMOs are one-trick ponies relying on combat and taking years to make, meaning that they’re obsolete as soon as they hit the design stage. Diversification might be the answer: move BEYOND combat, and let people play how they want to play. Scott’s comments kicked off a flurry of other ideas, but in the end, it’s the players that need to find faith in the genre in order to save it. They can only do that if they feel that they’re getting something that they feel deserves their faith. It’s difficult for the genre producers to pull that off, since it takes millions of dollars to put these games together, and investors are skittish about backing untested ideas. So, stalemate.
Lay Down Your Burdens
Scott said one thing in the comments that set me off: Neverinter Nights. NWN was a great game that brought CRPGs back to prominence after they kind of died out, but it was mostly a single player game. It could be multiplayer, but it certainly wasn’t massive. What really gave the game legs, though, was the Aurora Toolkit. Many people created several great modules for the community, including a faithful remake of Pools of Radiance. People even tried to create massive, persistent server modules, which worked OK, but the game wasn’t designed to support it.
Despite the fact that there were expansions, they were technically unnecessary since the community was pumping out expansions every month. Some were good, some were not so good, but there were a lot of excellent designers, developers, and storytellers out there that made it worthwhile to wade into the community.
Get To The Damn Point
MMOs haven’t actually evolved since the early days. I don’t know the stats for what could be considered an “evolution”, but considering how fast the video game industry has grown, I’d expect that we’d be long past the DIKU model at this point. That means if MMOs were to evolve now, it probably wouldn’t look anything like an incremental change; it’ll be a massive leap into a form we might not associate with the modern MMO. That may be a good thing.
So, let’s say “massively” is dead. Having to be all things to all people at all points in time is helping to strangle the genre because it leads to nothing more than a baseline experience that can be shared by everyone, yet special to no one. However, we still want to have the “multiplayer”, because we’ve had years of playing alone, and now that we’ve been able to play with friends, we can’t possibly go back.
So let’s bring the idea of the Aurora Toolset into the MMO age.
There are a lot of armchair developers out there. A lot of people have “ideas”, but lack the skills or the tools, or the resources like cash or time or other talent. NWN was a godsend for folks like that, as are tools like the Foundry in Star Trek Online or the Architect in City of Heroes. They’re easy for non-professional developers to use, even when it comes to scripting, and gives the creators enough power to make something deep and engaging without having to worry about asset pipelines and audio production.
The creation tools for this concept would be available to everyone for a nominal fee. The creator package would be IP agnostic, allowing for anyone to create a game with either an open source RPG system, or a suitably generic system of the toolset developer’s design. The package would consist of the creation engine and a set of assets – like “Fantasy Village Pack 01”, consisting of 5 town buildings, props (trees, a well, barrels and flowers), 5 NPCs and 3 monsters. A complete adventure could be constructed out of this package, but for those who are more ambitious, creators could buy additional asset packages: Fantasy Village 02, 03, and 04 – but also Modern City 01, Steampunk 01, or Wild West 01. Having more than just a single setting tied to a rigid IP allows for more stories and more variation in the content created.
The modules created could be uploaded to the servers operated by the toolset creators who run “the service”. There would be an achievement system in place for creators, possibly with perks like unlocking some “bonus assets” not available in the normal packs. They would also have their own dedicated community and wiki for sharing design and development ideas. Once there, the modules are available for online play by…
People who have no interest in creating can download the gameplay client for free, but pay a subscription model price to access the service – $9.99 per month.
The rationale: People who play MMOs are used to paying $15 per month for a single game world. It’s the same character, same lore, same game month after month. People who are used to buying single player games spend anywhere between $9.99 for sale items up to $60 for release day titles. Assuming a dedicated player can get through a single player game in about a month, the next month needs a second game, also between $9.99 and $60.
For a $9.99 subscription fee, a player can access dozens to hundreds of solo or multiplayer games spanning several genres. Some may take hours, some may take days. Some may be stand alone, and some may form a series. The opportunities to pick a new game from this buffet would be near endless, and compared to buying a single player game or paying a traditional MMO monthly fee, $9.99 is entirely reasonable.
Players will naturally have the opportunity to rate and comment on the modules that they play, and the more participation the players engage in, the more opportunity they have to earn achievements of their own.
The role of the “developer” in this would be to create the toolset, the server architecture, the hosting structure, the web front-end, the client, and to furnish an ongoing asset stream for creators to purchase. Having a dedicated team of asset producers ensures that a single, unified vision can be followed between packs in the same series.
Other Stuff I Didn’t Have A Header For
The reason behind the tenacity of this idea is that I’m not sure that “massive” is the next step in the MMO. Maybe it can be smaller scale, but with more opportunity to play with others in varying environments. Although this idea would be more akin to “instancing”, it’s more along the lines of what you’d get in a co-op game like Borderlands or Magicka, where you can jump in, play a while, and then return to at another time.
The key is that this concept puts the onus of adventure creation into the hands of the people who bitch about it the most. Armchair developers are vocal about what they want, so this system is designed to let them put their money where their mouths are. The good thing is that everyone benefits: creators get to create games using professionally created assets and professional yet easy to use tools. Players get a wealth of original and expanding content at their fingertips. The operators provide the assets and keep the lights on, and can incentivize players and creators to switch places and to expand their experience on both sides of the divide. Part of the central purpose of this design (beyond what just installing NWN can offer at this point) is the hosting and server operation. Having the modules be available for everyone at every point is critical for this to be considered as an inheritor of the MMO legacy.
So this would be where the “boring” but most critical elements come into play. How would this get started? How much would it cost? What’s considered “profitable”, and could the monetization concept above actually be enough to sustain the ongoing maintenance and asset pipeline? Would these be downloadable tools, or could they be online using something like Unity (I would say yes)? Billions of more questions would need to be asked and answered for this to even approach even a concept stage.
I know there’s an iceburg’s worth of details that could most certainly stop this concept cold, but I really wish a dedicated content creation/content consumption/hosted solution product like this existed. I’m terribly sad that I doubt it’ll ever actually occur, at least not the broad satisfaction of being able to offer a wide range of genre assets and relatively low cost of ownership supported by an asset pipeline cash shop on one side, and an ongoing subscription revenue stream on the other.
Combat has been the traditional “bread and butter” of MMOs for…I dunno. As long as they’ve been a thing? It’s not just MMOs, though, as combat is a fairly simple concept to grasp and implement (relatively speaking, of course), and is a natural fit for a “game”. Games are contests between two or more sides. There may be a single prize awarded to the winner, or maybe the goal is simply to best the other player(s). Combat – more specifically, conflict – is a situation that encompasses many emotions like sadness, anger, surprise, and excitement, and conflict through games is something that it seems everyone understands, thanks to the worldwide passion for sports as well as an uncountable number of analog games like poker, craps, Monopoly, and the bane of my existence, Pictionary (don’t ask). Combat in video games is a natural fit, because in the end, one player or side is victorious (either PvP or PvE), and the other side is dead. Conflict is a known and expected literary tope that provides a backdrop of almost all game worlds. In these worlds, the participating in the conflict through combat means there’s no ambiguity, as the winner feels the rush of endorphins and the loser is enraged enough to either try again, or to quit in a fury – something that sounds to be 180 degrees from what a company looking to increase retention would want to engender, but that fury can lead to an emotional attachment to the game in it’s own right.
When looking at the MMO genre from a higher vantage point than what a single game represents, the argument of “sameness” surfaces. As often as people call them “World of Warcraft clones”, it’s what consumers expect “different” to mean, and what maybe the developers mean “different” to mean. Which perspective is more important? Well, each side would argue that their definition is the more valid. People who make these games have to make the best decisions they’re able to make within constraints (i.e. what investors are willing to take a chance on). Players are the ones who are going to spend the cash to buy the game, and then maybe to pay a sub, or to spend cash in the cash-shop if they like what they see. If I was forced at gunpoint to make a tally, though, I’d have to say that, as the ones who are asked to accept the final product, the consumers have the edge. If they don’t feel that Next Big MMO really brings anything to the table that Big MMO They Are Already Subscribed To doesn’t have, then there is zero reason for them to jump ship. “Tiny” differences aren’t enough to make Next Big MMO stand out anymore, and players are making that known. It’s totally anecdotal, but there seems to me that there are more people who are fence-sitting or are flat-out shunning some recent and upcoming titles like TERA, Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, and The Elder Scrolls Online. Just a few years ago, the hype around these games would be an unassailable tidal wave of fanchild slobber, but it seems more and more people are just willing to leave them alone.
Although it’s unfair to lay the blame at the feet of a single mechanic, I keep thinking that if these games offered players more choice – more real, honest choice – outside of combat, that they could be more attractive to this hardened segment of MMO veterans who can get combat anywhere, in any game. The idea that “you can have it in any color, so long as it’s white” went out in the 1960s, but MMOs are still telling us that “you can make your own experiences in our world, so long as it’s through combat”. There’s always a little asterisk, of course, because all games have crafting and the ability to play the auction house and other “nth-tier” systems that fill crevasses of down-time when the design doesn’t expect you to be mashing hot-bar buttons and collecting boots from wolves for some laze-ass NPC. I’m sure that legions of players never engage in those nth-tier mechanics. Some are probably A-OK with the constant combat focus, and others never engage in crafting because, quite frankly, it’s not worth it most of the time. Beyond crafting there’s…what? More combat. It’s not that I’m advocating for a dividing line between systems that can never be crossed. There are those who wouldn’t craft even if it were a full-fledged system (like in EverQuest II or Vanguard), but there are also those who would probably appreciate the opportunity to engage in combat on Monday, crafting on Tuesday, and other systems on the other days of the week in order to keep their experience interesting.
Most current or future MMOs are like blankets. They’re uniform in construction and texture, made with the single thread of combat, but embellished with other design aspects that are advertised to entice us and to “differentiate” one blanket from the next. Maybe what we need is an MMO quilt, something that’s less uniform and more diverse – honestly diverse, where nth-tier systems are “real” systems, and not just expected add-ons. We should stop thinking about crafting as “downtime busy-work” or “time-sink while chatting” and more as an opportunity to give players a choice in how they want to spend their gaming sessions. Crafting is just one, known-quantity example, of course. Housing is another that’s well done in some games, done “ok” in others, but is absent in most, to the great sadness of many. Beyond those examples is uncharted territory that has to be a veritable gold-mine of alternative game-styles that have yet to be explored – probably for fear that untested systems would spook investors who are already wary of the letters M, M and O.
At this point, though, the implementation of the MMO genre is stagnating, driving away MMO fans who still love the idea the open worlds with unrestrained social opportunities in an always-on environment, but are simply tired of the inevitable outcome heralded by the “Fauxhawked Developer In Trendy T-Shirt” videos that promise (r)evolutionary design while showing impressive cinematics and playing soaring orchestral music. I think that it’s a good thing that players are seemingly becoming resistant to The Hype, but I’m worried that the signal is being read by the industry that the audience no longer cares about the MMO genre, which will force investors to move their money elsewhere – like into mobile – instead of using this as an opportunity to take real chances with changes that players might be asking for in a bid to win them back.