Sunday, January 31, 2010

What is Hardcore?

Playing EVE recently got me thinking about what exactly we mean when we call something or someone Hardcore in an MMO. A quick Wiktionary search returns a number of different definitions:
  • Having an extreme dedication to a certain activity; diehard.
  • Particularly intense; thrillingly dangerous or erratic
  • Resistant to change.
  • Obscene or explicit.
As you can probably guess from reading through those definitions, we use the term Hardcore in several ways. The central ones from an MMO perspective being a) extreme dedication and b) intensity.

The interesting part to me is that it is possible to be dedicated but not like intensity. Or conversely, like intensity but not be dedicated.

Syncaine's blog, Hardcore Casual, is a very clever play on words which, in addition to being an Oxymoron, strikes at the heart of our fundamental confusion about the definition of Hardcore. As his blog title implies, you can enjoy intensity in games and still remain casual (or less dedicated).

Rewarding the Hardcore
All MMOs (perhaps all games) reward us based on our success in the two areas. Either we are dedicated enough to finish, or we are skilled enough to survive the intensity. And most likely, it's some combination of both.

Players expect to 'work' for rewards in either of these two ways. They either expect a long ardous journey until completion, or they expect an extremely difficult challenge to overcome. One is a function of Time, the other the function of Challenge.

I think that's what people don't like about RMT and Microtransactions. RMT takes neither Time nor Challenge. You don't need to be dedicated or skilled to purchase something with RMT. It literally runs counter-clockwise to everything we have come to expect about earning rewards. It strikes anyone willing to invest the time or willing to take up the challenge as wrong.

This is the area that really got me thinking about this whole topic. You can be Hardcore dedicated to anything. It's just a function of Time. There are people who play Mafia Wars on Facebook for 8 to 10 hours a day. Eight to ten hours a day is Hardcore dedicated even if it is an incredibly simple and shallow game.

Last January I leveled up a new Mage in WoW. I hit level 80 in a bit longer than a month. I 'think' that was around seven days played, which averages out to around 5 hours a day or 35 hours a week. This was all spent on an Alt, mind you, and I was still raiding with my Rogue at the time.

Point being, I was playing Hardcore dedicated. And I was rewarded for that effort by hitting 80 with a new character in a bit over a month. And shortly thereafter, doing very respectable 25-man Raid DPS.

Contrast this experience to my current experience with EVE. Investing my time is getting me certain things (like faction, ISK, combat experience) but it's not allowing me to get into a better ship any faster.

To get into a better ship, I need to learn more skills. The rate at which I learn these skills stays the same if I'm logged on or logged off. Spending 5 hours a day playing isn't going to change how fast I get into a specific ship.

This really strikes me as favoring the more casual player. Much more so than Warcraft. Which is REALLY REALLY ironic when you consider EVE's reputation for being Hardcore.

On a personal note, I'm all for getting rid of all silly 'leveling' and 'skilling' things that take time.  I'd rather just give everyone a pool of 100 pts and the ability to pick and choose things in a 'tree' that describes the character.

Let's just skip that whole "ramp up" thing in terms of skill progression and replace it with an inventory system where the economy and crafting is important because equipment can be upgraded, lost or even destroyed.

The intensity of a game can come in a number of different forms. My blog entry the other day about impact and competition in many ways was just a descriptor for the intensity of a game.

The foundation of "impact" being in the consequences.  And the foundation of "competition" being player skill needed to win or achieve the objective.

Certainly an "impact" game which has a severe death penalty is going to make combat feel more intense. Likewise, a very equal and skilled match against another player (or NPC) will also feel more intense.

In my opinion, the "intensity" of a game is what really makes up the F-U-N factor. Increasing the "dedication" required in a game just makes it more boring. Increasing the "intensity" makes it more interesting. Provided, of course, that it's within your own personal threshold for performance.

And ultimately, that's the problem with intensity. What is not intense enough for ME, might be too intense for YOU. The poor dev is stuck in the middle trying to figure out how to create an intensity that is right for everyone.

The result is what we currently see in World of Warcraft. It's a 'fake' intensity. It's not really hard, it just appears hard unless you know the exact sequence of things you are supposed to do in a fight.

Memorize the proper order to do things and you will beat the encounter. Your actual 'skill' is measured by your ability to do these things in the prescribed order. The challenge is more about 'learning what to do' and not actually doing it.

EDIT: On the re-read after I published this entry, I realized that it might be construed that I don’t think there is any benefit to being Hardcore dedicated in EVE because of the skill system. That’s not true – it’s only a reflection of the skill system, not the entire game. As with any game, being more dedicated is going to be a much deeper and involved experience. That was really my point about Mafia Wars. Not complex or intense at all, but it’s still very possible to spend an irrational number of hours at it to make yourself better than the next guy. You really CAN be hardcore dedicated about anything.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The EVE Tourist :P

It’s been 7+ months since I played an MMO for any length of time and, for lack of anything better, I decided to join a few friends of mine who started playing EVE three or four months ago.

I actually tried the Trial when they started, said “Space sucks” to myself and quit after about a little more than hour of game time. Admittedly, not the fairest assessment of the game.

So I decided to give it a second chance and rolled up a couple of Trial accounts (one to mine/trade, one to be a combat pilot). I just upgraded the combat pilot to a full account on Monday for $20.

And yes, I appreciate the irony and hypocrisy that while I dislike Sc-Fi MMOs, I still started playing EVE. Truth be told, I was mere seconds away from trying Darkfall instead, but the lack of a Trial account swayed me. Again, ironic, because I didn’t even play out a full week of the Trial before buying the full version.

Then again, I do play on a laptop. And if I’m being honest about it, I think this is why Trials & Betas are so important to me. They give me a chance to test out how the game plays on my setup. That, and I’ve never trusted any dev to publish truthful system requirements. The single biggest reason why I never purchased or even tried Age of Conan is that I knew my old laptop couldn’t handle it.

Space is still boring
I have to say that Space is still boring. All the points I made in my other post about disliking Space as an environment still holds true. It’s big, it’s black and it’s mostly empty. Fights are still long-range and slightly disorienting.

It’s definitely not a game with in-your-face First Person style combat. The combat action mainly comes in the form of pushing buttons, reading HUDs, and positioning yourself tactically. Although, to be fair, some of it can certainly be frenetic and fast-paced.

I’m not judge and jury on this style of combat. It’s just never been ‘my thing’ and I do understand that lots of people like it. And well, the physics of space aren’t terrible conducive to other forms of combat.

The Upside
So far, I’ve enjoyed the negative sum PvE I have done in the Missions. I’ve already lost one ship because I was stupid. And you know what I did? I bought a new ship (GASP!).

For all the scariness that “impact” brings, it’s really mitigated by the fact the game is designed to allow you to recover from it. Also, as long as I follow the tenet, ‘don’t risk what you can’t afford to lose’ then I don’t really see how I can get screwed over too badly. Then again, maybe I’m na├»ve and I’ll have a QQ post for you in a few weeks.

That said, historically in the MMOs I have played in the past, I have had a real knack for making money. I’m focused on the combat pilot at the moment, but I fully intend to have another character who is the real earner.

My initial plan is to start him as a miner, then up to a transporter (blockade runner?) and ultimately (as I get enough ISK) a trader. But first and foremost, I need to understand what's valuable and useful in this game -- so hence, focusing on being a combat pilot and having the alt setup as a miner.

I’ve enjoyed the starter missions and I have to say that they are surprisingly helpful. If I recall, those weren't always in the game, so I can't imagine how overwhelmed new players used to feel.

Having followed EVE through the eyes of several other bloggers for years, I feel I’m about as knowledgeable about a game without having played it as you can get. And yet, the starter missions were a big jumpstart for me in understanding the mechanics of how to do things.

Combat, Mining, and even Crafting are things I’m sure I could have figured out just fine, but the whole ‘scanning’ and ‘probing’ would have been something I overlooked or not understood for a long time.

The Downside
If anything is a major disappointment, it’s the pacing. Things don’t happen quickly. You don’t gain skills quickly. You don’t travel quickly. Nothing happens quick.  You can't even 'grind through it' to make things happen more quickly.

The skill thing, in particular, is a de-motivator to play. Or as I wrote in the comments of Syncaine’s blog: “If what you want to do requires more skills than you currently have — then the motivation to log on is low. This is largely in-part to the fact that you don’t need to be ‘logged in’ to gain skills. I.E — if I don’t have the skill, and what I really want to do is THAT — why log on until you have the needed skill?”

That is very much opposed to the traditional MMO approach that benefits the guy who plays longer hours with faster character progression. In EVE, longer hours might earn you more ISK but it doesn't let you earn the skills any faster.

I can't help but think a mixed approach where you gain skills in this manner but could increase the rate at which you were learning the skill by using it.  Or in other words, gain it while logged off -- or gain it much quicker by using it while being logged in.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The PvP Political Compass

After reading Tobold’s response to yesterday’s entry and some of the comments, I wanted to take a moment to post this chart I created which I think does a better job of quickly explaining my take on the multi-facets of PvP. One quick caveat that the placement of these are quite subjective and my personal opinion. With that in mind, consider the theory for why I created this chart and not the specific placement of each game.

The theory being that PvP consists of two opposed ideas: Impact and Competition. More of one, takes away from the other in much the same way that political ideals oppose each other on a Political Compass (Liberal vs. Conservative).

In the chart, the ‘Impact-Competition’ axis is really a measure of Equality. Impact games have little equality and the only equality that you get is that which you take for yourself. Competitive games have lots of equality, but at the sacrifice of notable Impact.

On the other axis, we have a measure of the Strategic importance of Grouping with other players. This isn’t related to Impact or Competition, but is a significant factor in the ‘feel’ or ‘objectives’ of your PvP. Obviously, solo PvP being at one end of the spectrum and large Group PvP being at the other end of the spectrum. On this particular scale, I gave EvE a very high “group” score and Arena-style PvP a relative low score despite the fact that it is team based (it’s not much more strategic than Deathmatch, IMO).

PvP in games like WAR and WoW, which have what Tobold calls “positive sum” PvP, have very low impact relative to “negative sum” PvP in games like EvE and Darkfall. HOWEVER, you’ll notice that on my scale, there is a pretty big gap between the low impact in WoW and the high impact in Darkfall.

My issue with Tobold’s idea that people will only accept “positive sum” PvP is that it is based on extremes. There haven’t been many games (if any) in that space in-between WoW and EvE. My belief is that games with slightly more Impact, albeit not at a “Darkfall” scope, could also be popular among the masses.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Many Faces of PvP

Too often, PvP is used as some all encompassing term. In practice, PvP has many faces and describing what PvP is like in a game isn’t as simple as just saying it has PvP. I would argue that there are two opposing forces in PvP (Competition & Impact) and one complimentary consideration (Objectives). The type of PvP can best be described by talking about the level or quantity of each in a game.

In its most simple terms, competition is a contest between two or more players. At it’s core, it’s a burning desire to prove yourself better than the other guy. It’s not just about winning, it’s about being the best.

As a spectator or competitor, we frown upon unfair advantages. The competition should be pure, a test of skills, unmarred by outside interference. We hate cheaters and consider any achievement or victory arrived at by cheat, exploit, or other inequalities to be tainted. They didn’t really win. As such, the people most concerned about balance in an MMO are usually the most competitive. They want to see an equal playing field so that they can be judged on their skill or attributes rather than on their class.

They compete for an identity. For curiosity. For the spirit. For the challenge. And even when they lose, they respect the ability of those that beat them.

Impact is ultimately about giving meaning to your actions in an MMO. This is commonly interpreted as a negative consequence or the loss of something valuable. Of course, the corollary is also true and gaining something valuable can be equally meaningful.

This concept isn’t exclusive to PvP. An XP Penalty for Death is a very impactful loss even if it’s just an NPC which kills you. Likewise, gaining the uber Sword of a Thousand Souls for defeating an NPC boss is very rewarding. In truth, the key consideration with impact games is the degree or depth of those consequences.

But why in the world would anyone WANT severe consequences? Simple. Like high stakes gambling, players can have a physical reaction to the stress and actually feel a euphoria related to an endorphin release in the brain.

Wait. What? Is that an actual scientific factual reason to have Impact PvP? Yes, it was. Because, like gambling, the stress created taps into our adrenaline and endorphins to provide a natural euphoric reaction.

Betting $10,000 on the Superbowl is more nerve wracking than betting $10. The larger bet makes you more concerned about the possibility of losing – and conversely, more excited about the payout for winning. In short, the highs are higher and the lows are lower.

The potential consequences (good or bad) increase your emotional investment in the outcome. Bigger stakes results in a bigger emotional investment. The stress of that investment creates the euphoric high. And just like many people wouldn’t bet even $10 on the Superbowl, some people absolutely crave the euphoria provided by that bigger emotional investment.

Competition vs. Impact
These two concepts are somewhat at odds against each other. A truly competitive player doesn’t want whatever unfair advantage the impact would provide them. They are interested in testing their skill against your skill. Likewise, an Impact player really doesn’t care about things staying competitive. In fact, they don’t want a fair fight – they want the emotional rush of winning. They may appreciate a tougher opponent, but they would never sanction giving up a position of power in order to make things more fair.

Now most people don’t think in terms that are quite that black and white. Players leaning towards the impact side may still want to see some semblance of fairness and recognize certain things are game breaking.

Similarly, competitive players often want to see some type of reward for their actions. Nothing too overpowering, but some reward nonetheless.

Most disagreements within the PvP community are conflicts about these two perspectives. Either things aren’t fair, or there is too little reward or consequence. It’s a balancing act and one that is subjective to each individual.

What is fair? What is meaningful? Those two questions can only be answered by YOU. And yet, people with different opinions will argue about the fairness and consequences as long as there are people playing the game.

This is the biggest problem with using blanket terms like PvP or even Impact PvP. If I want Impact in my PvP, but my definition isn’t as severe as yours, does that make the opinion less valid? And yet, the term Impact PvP has become synonymous with “I’m going to pwn you and take all your crap, nub.” And so people all sit back in fear and cry about how ‘scary’ and ‘unforgiving’ Impact PvP is for most players.

Strategic Objectives
Typically we think about competition simply from the perspective of one player beating another. However, in a massive multiplayer game, it makes far more sense to think about ‘group wins’ over other ‘groups’ of players. I’m talking about Group vs. Group, rather than Player vs. Player.

In Group vs. Group, it’s very possible to sacrifice an individual player, object or territory as part of a larger strategy. For me, I’ve always found the strategic and tactical implications of our group PvP actions to be the most interesting and meaningful. And yet, it’s usually not the guy who saves the day by repairing the gate that gets hailed as the savior but the guy who racked up the most kills.

Is the player who stands back and defends the flag less valuable than the one who captures it? What about the sacrificial lamb who comes through a stargate in order to setup a bigger counter-attack? These types of tactical GROUP considerations are what I enjoy most about PvP.

Too often, players focus on THEMSELVES and only THEMSELVES. These are group games, so I find situations where groups compete to be much more interesting than the solo encounter. Any game which creates or supports lots of group tactical combat is a game that I want to play.

My e-peen is bigger than yours
Reputation or stature is an important social dynamic in any MMO. Other players aren’t mere tokens, but real people who are sizing you up. It exists in all MMOs and even in situations we consider wholly the domain of PvE. For example, players who perform poorly in a PvE Raid have a much lower social status than the player who performs the best.

In PvP, this seemingly little distinction multiplies the stakes for everyone because your opponent is a real player – not a mere token. Lose, and you lost to THAT guy. Win, and you took something from THAT guy. At risk, isn’t just your time investment, but your stature or reputation within the MMO.

Risking this stature is part of what amplifies the competition and impact in an MMO. It’s also what muddles the purity of competition or provokes people into attacking each other. From a competitive standpoint, we may be willing to cheat to win for greater e-peen. And likewise, we might be more willing to attack unprovoked to prove our superiority.

Griefing is NOT PvP
Before talking about Griefing specifically, I think it’s worth a mention that Ganking is not Griefing.

Griefing, by definition, is to hassle or harass with the intent to cause sorrow or discomfort. Setting aside the issue of context (what is discomfort for me, may not be discomfort for you) is the central idea that Griefing is always about harassment.

And harassment in a game is not exclusive to PvP-based MMOs. In fact, the WORST griefers I have ever experienced have always been members of MY team or MY faction.

The asshats who sit on a mailbox, NPC or other item and make it un-clickable or blocked. The greedy, lazy bastard who decides to AFK in a Battleground or Scenario to get the reward without any effort. The prick who runs around shooting friendly players or otherwise purposefully screwing up the objective. The jerk who spams the public channels with stupid repetitive messages.

Ironically, your enemies really have the least opportunity to cause you Grief. First, as your enemy, they can be attacked and killed. Unlike same faction Griefers, this makes the solution to countering them very simple. Gather up a posse of like-minded pissed off people and kick the crap out of them. Or if that simply isn’t possible – avoid the enemy. They are, after all, the enemy. That’s very markedly different than getting stuck with some random prick in your capital city being a jackass.

Similarly, the most common concern about Impact PvP are Griefers. Again, ironically, this is less of an issue when Griefers have to risk more in order to cause Grief. Or in other words, if there are consequences to Griefing that are very tangible, it naturally makes someone think twice about causing that Grief. Choices in that setting are more calculated risks and accepted as part of the game.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Why WoW Clones Really Fail

Tobold had a great post in October in which he told a story about an elephant sculpture. To paraphrase, he wrote that an artist created an exquisite sculpture of an elephant which sold for millions of dollars. Other artists saw this and began making elephant sculptures, albeit more quickly and not of as fine a quality. None of these elephants sold very well. Meanwhile, the original artist was working on a tiger, a huge tiger and also of exquisite craftsmanship.

More elephants in the room
Sometimes the most obvious explanation is simply the best explanation. The clone just isn’t as good as the original. Which, in a market where users typically only subscribe to one MMO, is a terminal flaw. Being “almost as good” just isn’t going to keep people subscribed for very long.

In many ways, the issue is that clones are imitating an older outdated version of WoW. When a competing game goes into development, Blizzard isn’t just sitting on their hands collecting a check. They are innovating and evolving their own game. The result is that the when the competing clone is released, it’s an offshoot of what WoW used to be, not what it has become since they began development.

The simple fact that Blizzard is continuing to evolve their product creates a huge barrier to entry to anyone trying to copy or imitate the game. Without some unique and compelling innovation, players who want a WoW-like game will likely have the best experience by simply continuing to play WoW.

The fact that WoW itself is largely a clone of other MMOs is irrelevant. I’m sure that artist wasn’t the first one to ever craft an elephant – but he was the first one to sell it for millions of dollars.

So while it’s a mistake to ignore WoW, it’s an equally huge mistake to simply attempt to copy WoW.

Emulate the Success; Not the Game
No one is going to attract millions of players in a single day. The key is growth. People need to first try your game, then STAY because they like it. The issue nearly every single non-WoW MMO has had since 2004 is that people haven’t STAYED.

To me, that’s really the defining characteristic of success in an MMO. Growth. Obviously, there are other factors like financial health and the scope or scale of your subscribership, but at the end of the day – the best measure for whether or not you are doing things right in your game is growth. This is because growth implies two things: 1) retention of existing users and 2) recruitment of new users.

The key to growth is to create something that makes people want to stay and is appealing enough to attract new people to try it. This is why games like EVE, and even Darkfall, should be considered successes. That’s not to say the scale of that success mirrors WoW in any way, but I do think it’s worth pointing to both of these games as examples of what competing MMOs should be doing. Which is to say, retaining customers.

Competing with WoW
Applied to Tobold’s elephant sculpture analogy, it can be easily argued that EVE is a success because a) it’s not an elephant, and b) it’s finely crafted. Albeit, perhaps that craftsmanship wasn’t immediate and took some time to develop. Or in the case of Darkfall, is still developing.

In any event, any MMO which competes with WoW (and by definition, all MMOs are competing with WoW) needs to address those two things. First and foremost, be finely crafted (or at least, have a solid enough foundation that users can see the potential craftsmanship). And secondly, be innovative enough to distinguish itself from being an imitation.

Those two things will lend you success. The scale of that success is going to be somewhat determined by that which you sculpt. EVE, in this analogy, isn’t an elephant – it’s an extraterrestrial alien. Lots of people like aliens, but more people like elephants. Darkfall is a shark. Some people love sharks but very few people are willing to jump into the water with one.

Now I would argue that while people don’t like aliens and sharks as much as they do elephants, there are lots of things people would enjoy if they shared that exquisite craftsmanship. Also, people are kind of sick of elephants. So why not a Tiger, or a Monkey, or even a Dragon? People love dragons – so let’s try that next.

What would your "Dragon" look like?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Denying the Correlative

WoW Tourism is just a label for something deeper in the psyche of many MMO players. It’s a term that manages to capture all the intense dislike they have for World of Warcraft. The source of that dislike really stems from the inarguable success that WoW has had both in terms of financial success and subscriber loyalty.

That success is a threat to them. Or more specifically, a threat to the creation or continued support of the types of MMOs that they want to play. Fantastic success inevitably leads others to attempt to emulate that success. As a result, we have seen no shortage of WoW-like clones that have been introduced to the MMO market.

The Elephant in the Room
The success of WoW is the elephant in the room we can’t easily ignore. This is why the WoW Tourist theory is so popular. It’s a very appealing argument for discrediting WoW players and their preferences. However, as I wrote the other day, we can’t deny WoW’s impact simply because it’s convenient to our argument.

No other MMO has been remotely as successful as WoW. That success is also what has attracted investors and game developers to the market. If WoW hadn’t been successful, we wouldn’t have seen such investment or attention in the MMO market.

It’s a mistake to outright ignore WoW and not learn from it's success.

Time to stop blaming the Timing
The other popular argument for dismissing WoW is that it’s success is a function of timing, not a function of game design. As this theory goes, WoW released at the same time other developers (like SOE) were making bad business decisions and broadband internet use was exploding. In short, the success of WoW is attributed to being the best available game at a critical moment in MMO history.

The issue with this logic is that this ‘critical moment’ happened five years ago. And arguably, it might explain the growth but it does not explain why WoW has maintained a subscribership of millions of users. And if blogger interest is any indicator – with a forthcoming WoW expansion (Cataclysm) that might be it’s most popular.

In internet time, five years is more like 20 years. The fact that WoW continues to retain its users after all that time (and for the foreseeable future) is nothing short of incredible.

Next Up: Why Clones Really Fail

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why Sci-Fi in MMOs Doesn't Work For Me

Credits to Tobold for linking this interesting article over at Gizmodo, The Physics of Space Battle, which paints a picture of what combat in Space would really look like given what we know about science today.

It’s a fun read. Although, in fairness to Science Fiction, most authors simply write some tech to circumvent the problems that gravity, inertia and propulsion present. A quick blip about an anti-grav device and an inertia-less drive solves 90% of the issues identified in the Gizmodo article.

I love Science Fiction. Always have loved it and I consider myself a huge fan of Sci-Fi. Although, perhaps not necessarily Sci-Fi movies as much as books. Most Sci-Fi movies are written as part horror movie and I prefer Epic Sagas over Alien Slashers. For whatever reason, Sci-Fi in Film that has a story seems to be a pretty rare occurrence.

But Sci-Fi in MMOs, or any RPG really, have just never worked for me. I just can’t get into it. Which is so odd considering how much I love the genre. So is it the implementation of Sci-Fi in MMOs or is it the Sci-Fi genre itself that doesn't work for me?

Space is Boring
Outer space is a REALLY REALLY big place. And it’s mostly empty. Our closest planet (Venus) is 23,000,000 miles away at it’s nearest point. Mars is 36,000,000 miles away. And those are our closest celestial neighbors (not including our Moon – which is still 220,000 miles away).

This means that any MMO that even remotely resembles Space is very large and very empty. And other objects in space are very far away. Which means that all space combat is ranged and attacks are typically fired from a distance.

The bigger something is, the more time it takes you to get from point A to point B. That means travel. As anyone who has played any MMO knows, travel is boring. And travel through big empty things is REALLY boring.

Even with such things like Faster-Than-Light (FTL) drives, Jump jets and Turbo boosters – you still have to travel through mostly empty space. Space whose predominant color is black. So unlike being on a landmass which has varying terrain (and colors), the setting in Space is “black” in nearly every direction.

So outside the occasional planet, asteroid or some other floating structure, most of your landscape is simply black. And you get to look at it all the time for long travel distances.

Space is not linear
OK. Space itself might be boring, but what about Space Combat? That’s why we play right? To blow crap up!

No. Space Combat is not boring. It’s confusing.

The issue is that Space Combat occurs in three dimensions. Getting flanked from below or above is just as likely as getting flanked from the side or behind. And it has to be that way in order to preserve the realism of combat in space.

This added complexity is great for immersion and horrible for gameplay. You rarely see your target close up and even the most engaging combat (dogfights) is mostly comprised of glimpses of your target. It's also possible (if not likely) to be killed and never even see what killed you.

The net is that if you don’t like Combat Flight Simulators (like flying F-18 Fighter jets), the chances are incredible high that you won’t like combat in space. It can be disorienting, random, and mostly comprised of flying around in circles. Exciting? Possibly. Confusing? Most assuredly.

Suspension of Disbelief
So Space has it’s problems. But not all Sci-Fi games are set in Space. Some are set inside of a star base, city or some landmass. Or in other words, a more traditional RPG setting where you move the individual character rather than a vehicle.

Interestingly, I’ve yet to enjoy an RPG (any RPG game, not just MMOs) that have this futuristic setting. There are plenty of examples of FPS, RTS and other genres in which I enjoyed that setting just fine. But with RPGs, it just hasn’t felt right.

But why? I think in part it comes from something called the Suspension of Disbelief. The idea being that in order to become immersed in a extraordinary adventure, the reader (or player) must suspend their disbelief of the implausible. Or in other words, if you are constantly calling “Bullshit” on the impossible, you’re not going to BELIEVE or feel invested in the story being told.

I think what sways me about the futuristic setting is that, in a similar manner to the uncanny valley, the closer an RPG setting gets to realism – the less I am willing to suspend my disbelief in that setting. When I see a character running around broken skyscrapers in a post-apocalyptic game, I am struck by how NOT like skyscrapers the game looks. And when I see a broken TV, I am struck by how NOT like a TV it looks.

For me, the closest I've come to liking a Sci-Fi RPG has been Knights of the Old Republic. And I think the reason this wasn't immersion breaking is because the setting was as far removed from reality as any fantasy game.

I think there could be a game developed that uses a Sci-Fi setting that I enjoy but I have yet to play it. In fairness, this might have as much do with never having played a quality MMO that uses this setting.

I will say that since I have played FPS games that didn’t break immersion (Halo, Half-Life) that I think the “not done right” explanation is likely the most credible.

Or alternately, you could argue that like KOR, both of those games have a setting which is very far removed from reality.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why WoW Tourists Don’t Exist

No such thing as a WoW Tourist
The defining characteristic of a Tourist is someone who visits a place for a brief time and then leaves. Most commonly, Tourism in this context is used to describe someone who tries a game for a month – doesn’t like it because it’s not WoW – and then returns to playing WoW.

The only problem with this logic is that it assumes that people are leaving WoW in the first place to try new MMOs.

That’s just not the case. In the weeks leading up to any new major MMO release, start asking around WoW servers about the new game. Not just if people plan to play it – but if they’ve even HEARD of it. You’ll find yourself hard pressed to find 1 in 10 people who have even heard of the game, let alone are willing to play it.

We get a different perspective in the blogosphere because we follow the development of these other games. Don’t assume that because YOU are in the know, that Joe Blow WoW player is either in the know or cares to be in the know. In this, we are in the minority.

The reality is that people playing WoW are not leaving WoW to go play something else. They just aren’t. No, the people getting called WoW Tourists are, in fact, former WoW players who are just looking for something else.

Home Buyers, not Tourists
And that’s the crux of this tourism myth. The intent is not to try another game and then return to WoW. As established above, the WoW player isn’t leaving WoW. The intent of the former WoW player is to find a new game or Home.

The fallacy is the belief that since they once played WoW – that they’ll simply go back. I would postulate that they aren’t going back – but moving on to the next major MMO release in an attempt to find that game to replace WoW as their new Home.

Thus, it’s the same transient group of players moving from MMO to MMO to MMO. Give them a nice enough Home to live in – and they’ll stay.

The intent is to settle at the destination. That’s markedly different than a Tourist who’s intent is to visit for pleasure before returning. Settling has more in common with someone looking to purchase a new House.

If they don’t like the neighborhood, that doesn’t make them a Tourist. It means the neighborhood sucks.

Tourism Myth shifts blame to Players, not Developers
My biggest issue with the Tourism Myth is that it shifts the blame for a failing MMO from the Developer to the Player.

It’s not our responsibility to “like” the game. It’s the devs responsibility to hold our attention.

Are there people with varying levels of interest in a game pre-launch? Sure. Do some people have a bigger stake or desire to see it succeed? Sure. But that doesn’t make everyone else a ‘tourist’ if they don’t like the game.

The fact of the matter is that the dev has an ‘opportunity’ to attract the player. If they miss or fail at that opportunity, that’s ultimately the devs problem. Not the individual player.

Anyone willing to try a different game has ALREADY taken a huge step. They are willing to try something new. That’s very markedly different than the majority of sheep who never try anything new at all.

Of course, some people don’t just take a step — they LEAP! Now obviously those people are going to be the most vested into a new game and the most willing to ‘give it some time’ to develop. But it’s ludicrous to blame the people who don’t take huge leaps for not finding value in a product. For crying out loud, they have already taken the BIGGEST step in TRYING the product!

It’s the developers responsibility to capitalize on that step.

Tourism Myth convenient argument for Bloggers who don’t like WoW
This is the real biggie in the blogosphere. If I can get you to buy in to the idea that Tourism exists, that WoW players don’t like anything that is not WoW, then I can completely discredit and ignore that group in my arguments for what I believe are good qualities in an MMO.

This is a logical fallacy called “Denying the correlative” in which an alternative is introduced when logically there are none. The basic idea here being that WoW Tourists only like WoW, so we shouldn't consider their opinions as MMO gamers. This makes their opinion of less value than my opinion because I like things other than WoW.

Of course, this completely ignores the correlative that WoW is an MMO. That it makes up the majority of the market. And that many players enjoy WoW and look at it favorably – even former players like myself.

You might not like those facts – but they are the facts and you can’t simply ignore them because it’s convenient to your argument.

Friday, January 15, 2010

My return to blogging…

I’ve taken a pretty long and significant break from blogging (I had a mere 5 posts in 2009). It wasn’t really announced as I never really intended to take a break. One day, I just found myself without anything inspiring enough to write about. In hindsight, I can pick out the moment when I lost that inspiration. It was shortly after I gave up on Warhammer.

As an MMO player, I was simply turned off about so many things that were wrong with WoW in Burning Crusade. Wrath was just going to be more of the same, so I (like a lot of people), saw Warhammer as an opportunity to move onto another quality title. One focused primarily on PvP which has always been important to me in gaming.

We all know how that story ended. And when it did, and I found myself playing WoW again. And the inspiration that motivated me to write about MMOs faded as my anger towards WAR slowly died out.

Ironically, my enjoyment from WoW peaked a few months into the new expansion. Many problems still existed, but I’ll credit Blizzard with making the overall game more accessible to people. The net result is that there are lots of things to do in the end-game and the repeatability of a lot of that content held my attention for much longer that I expected.

Ultimately, my prediction that I would play Wrath for a much shorter time than the previous expansions turned out to be true. I quit WoW for the second time in June, after only 7 full months of playtime. The unexpected part is that I enjoyed that time more than I enjoyed any period in the previous 3 or 4 years.

Fast forward to today. I still enjoy MMOs. I still enjoy playing MMOs. I still enjoy reading about MMOs. And I’m not actively playing any MMO. I’m like a desperate single guy looking for a new girlfriend. I don’t want to be single, but I don’t want to date ugly chicks either.

And so, as a homeless MMO gamer, I decided to take the blogging mantle back up. Suprisingly, the long break and detachment from playing any MMO has left me with quite a bit to say about what I want from MMOs. Expect around one post per week from me for the foreseeable future.