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Older gamer-turned-developer. Currently working on Dystopia, a Half-Life 2/Source modification.
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7:31 AM on 11.04.2009

Originally posted on my personal blog.

I’ve got a lot of thoughts written down about the MMO genre waiting to be formed into articles, and with each passing year the collective pile of thoughts gets bigger and messier. What turned into a simple forum reply ended up being a giant ramble containing some of my thoughts and inquiries about some basic problems that seem to plague the western MMO industry currently.

A member of a forum I frequent asked about any MMOs using skill systems recently. Apparently Star Trek Online is using a skill system, which afaik is the highest profile game to do a skill system in a long while. Too long.

Honestly, the “diku era” (or frankly, the WoW era at this point what with the new role of quests and all) has to be coming to an end sooner or later. WoW isn’t the only big online success, and most of the other successful online ventures are wildly different and see fairly equal player retention. And most of these aren’t based on leveling or progressing roadblock statistics at all. It’s just a matter of time before developers begin realizing that copying WoW is folly and learning from their mistakes (however many of them need to happen, heh).

Frankly it’s a shame it hasn’t happened yet (not a global change, mind you – just one game to go out and try something new I mean) and it sort of speaks volumes about how big of a problem design and implementation is in the MMO industry, let alone creativity itself. It’s pretty amazing when we’re so devoid of new and interesting features that we begin salivating over something as bland as public quests. Quests that are specifically designed to be done with other players. In a genre that boasts being “massively multiplayer”. Brilliant! And it only took us until 2008 to think of this.

With designers being tossed around left and right, being called saviors one moment and scapegoats the next, they seem to be the easiest target to blame, but is it always solely their fault? I can’t imagine there hasn’t been any good ideas but rather that they all just get shot down due to being “unproven” or having an unknown development time or some such. I’d love to get a behind the scenes look of any given MMO’s development process, like what happened to an extent with Vanguard before it switched over to SOE (although that wasn’t on the best of terms).

Deadlines are another thing that interest me, as it seems WoW is pretty much the only MMO to come out recently that was allowed to take its time and become as well developed as it needed to be. Of course Blizzard is well known for this development style and continues to apply it in both patches and expansions for the game. It seems these days everything else is just developed as “quick, we have a deadline to be as good as WoW in one year! Hurry!”.

Failure after failure just leaves me with a ton of questions. Why do we end up with such below average games? Is it the design to begin with, or is the design solid and rather production is the root of the problem? Do deadlines stifle creativity? Do the poorly implemented features not get changed post-launch because it’s too expensive to replace them (that, while poor features, are indeed implemented – another major problem in MMOs as one loosely constructed feature can be the downfall of a game as all features are extrapolated exponentially over the course of the game)? Are these facets contributing factors to a poor launch/subscription base, thus creating an ongoing downward spiral towards inevitable failure?

Maybe producers need to just take their time and not immediately jump on the hype train the minute the developers have a single piece of artwork, thus forcibly accelerating the development process. Maybe the foul way betas are handled recently (i.e. as a marketing tool) is a contributing factor to the downfall of recent MMOs. As one gamer looking in from the outside, it just seems like a big tangled indiscernible mess. I’d love to talk with some industry veterans about what it’s like on the inside.

2:48 PM on 10.22.2009

I’ve never been a big fan of lateral thinking based puzzles, and this is the main reason I have always written off the Professor Layton games on the Nintendo DS and not given them any bit of my attention.

After beating Henry Hatsworth again, trying to recover where I was at in the Dragon Quest IV remake (I can’t for the life of me remember how to get inside the circular mountain range), and grinding out a few levels in the Final Fantasy IV remake, I decided to give Professor Layton and the Curious Village a try after a friend brought it up in conversation.

I have to say I am really glad I finally set my prejudices aside and finally gave this game a go. I’m completely enchanted by it and find myself hard pressed to put it down, even when stuck on a puzzle.

Often I think that games don’t require a lot of extra bells and whistles, and that the core gameplay concept is generally all that is needed – anything else is just for polishing it or making it more appealing to a wider market. I think Layton has proved me wrong in this regard, or at least surprised me. I’m sure that if this game was just a matter of loading it up and being greeted with puzzle after puzzle (the core gameplay), my prior assumptions would have been met and I would dislike the game. However, it has such incredible character and world building that I find the puzzles a pleasure to solve (even though they’re usually only loosely based on where you found the puzzle) and look forward to progressing the story, and of course seeing the fantastically well done cut scenes. The dialogue between characters is terrific as well, and the world is crafted in such a way to actually promote exploring it. Not to mention the character design is as creative as the puzzles themselves, and fits into the quirky world very well. Strange traits for a game based on solving a series of minigame-esque puzzles, but without them it wouldn’t be nearly the same.

I also like how the game really doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Layton and Luke find it completely normal to stop in the middle of chasing down a murderer to solve a puzzle about cats, and will make remarks about doing so accordingly.

Sometimes I will encounter a puzzle that has a very awkward solution and makes me feel more cheated rather than accomplished. However, this is understandable as the game has hundreds of puzzles, and even as someone who is not accustomed to these types of puzzles, they are few and far between (and I’m sure these few esoteric puzzles are probably different for everyone).

Solving puzzles will sometimes reward you with a collection piece for various over-arching puzzles (such as jigsaw pieces), a nice bonus reward on top of the feel of accomplishment. The coin-based hint system is also done very well and again promotes exploring the world. Much like Braid, the game focuses on getting you to solve everything yourself rather than simply giving you answers, and the meta-reward of feeling like you’ve accomplished something is ever present. Again – sometimes puzzles are so awkward that even 3 hints don’t help at all, but you’re never forced to complete a puzzle; regardless of how far along you advance the story, the puzzle will always be in a storage area to try and complete later on – a fact that more than placates completionists such as myself.

While I don’t think I will ever be actively pursuing mind-bender puzzle books as a source of entertainment, Layton has definitely presented them in a way that allows me to enjoy them – I don’t just complete them because they’re “in the way” of the rest of the game, rather the game itself makes the puzzles enjoyable – even though the puzzles are the game itself. An interesting situation. My hats off to Level-5, Layton and his apprentice Luke.

Time spent in relation to how well you play a game is an interesting concept. There are always people all across the spectrum - some become proficient fast, some slow. Even chess has young prodigies that can challenge older “hard-earned” grandmasters. And yet, experience itself is a huge boon even in a game where younger players can quickly catch up to older ones.

As a proponent of skill-based gaming, my stance has always been that your skill should simply be your skill, and time spent shouldn’t affect anything. Granted, time spent will always affect at least the meta-game (the aspects in a gaming environment not under your control, such as your opponents play styles and tendencies), but I’ve mostly only meant the extreme cases where games actually increase your ability to perform better through time-based activities. In an acronym: MMO’s, or massively multiplayer online games.

Although not all MMO’s have this feature, most do and it has become a cliché of the genre. You start out with a skill level of 0 in fighting, you attack and kill a rat, and you gain 1 fighting skill throughout the duration of the fight. Or 10 experience towards your next level (increasing your attributes and combat ability), or perhaps the rat drops an item that you can equip which makes you do more damage to the next rat you face. There are many methods that could be employed, but they all share the same time requirement trait. This is in direct contrast to traditional tournament games such as first person shooters, real-time strategy, or fighting games where you simply enter the match, play the match, and then leave the match with nothing of permanence affecting you in the next match (again, aside from possible meta-game aspects such as your mental state). Given this, these games are usually considered to be much fairer and thus much better competitive games as the only resources are raw knowledge and “skill” (knowing how to play the game and having the ability to do so). Of course, you have to expend a third resource to gain knowledge and skill, and that’s time.

After thinking about how many hours a lot of top tournament players will spend practicing a day in their chosen game, it seems a bit strange to keep my prejudice against the MMO system of skill gain. At the end of the day, what is the difference between a Starcraft player spending 12 hours a day practicing a match-up, versus an MMO player spending 12 hours a day to advance his character? If your character still requires out-of-game skill and knowledge to be played better in the latter system after he is “capped” (you are no longer able to expend time to advance his in-game skills), how is it any different to the former game?

Starcraft: Brood War is the most popular e-sport game currently.

Another dynamic in MMO’s that I believe I touched upon in another article is community status. Much more so than one-match-at-a-time genres, your role in an MMO community plays a huge part, as social aspects are a huge part of persistent world gameplay. One recent example of this is in EVE Online, where the group of players in Goonsquad managed to use their social presence to influence a key member in a huge rival alliance, which ended up with the total collapse of that alliance. Even though Goonsquad was enormously outnumbered, their community and social placement in the game allowed them to overcome a very large threat they may not have been able to deal with on the terms of the normal game rules (i.e. combat). In this example, the time investment leading up to this gain for the players would have been purely meta-gaming related. It had nothing to do with the players’ character skills, they all could have been freshly made and still have carried out this operation. It’s also worth mentioning that “the Goons” as they are known play many games, and have earned such a reputation that merely hearing about them coming to play your game, or on your MMO server, is enough to make some people quit or stay away from that game on that basis alone. Even when they choose to play a game that is based on time-based skill gain, their long-term gained social presence gives them an advantage in the meta-game. Ironically, EVE Online is the prime example in this regard as well: the method in which you train your character is by selecting a skill, and then the game tells you an amount of time until you get better at that skill - this time passes regardless of whether you are online or offline, thus your overall skill is directly related to your character’s age.

CCP’s EVE Online places more emphasis on community interaction than most games.

“Macroing” is yet another interesting concept the MMO genre brings to the table. This is the act of gaining character advancement in a game without necessarily having to pay attention to the game itself - basically, advancing your character “for free”. The time investment is either much slimmer (i.e. a “semi-attended” macro, where you can do something else and simply check back from time to time), to not having to invest at all (unattended macroing: your character “plays itself”, gaining skill in the process). Macros can come in many forms: from sticking a penny in your keyboard to hold down a key, all the way to a custom program made specifically to play your character with specific settings (also called a bot or script). Whether be it a macro, bot or script there is usually a fairly big time investment for the author to actually create the method employed. After he distributes it, there can still be a time requirement for the people who acquire it to learn how to use it, but it is much less given that they don’t have to actually come up with the concept and create the method by hand. In either case, there is time spent in the process of setting up your character to work on its own (saving you time in the end - spending time to make time). What’s interesting here is that while macroing is often called a form of cheating or exploiting, one cannot deny the fact that the player is using this to his advantage. Essentially, the player is becoming a prodigy - advancing in the game faster than other users. Remember also, even if the macro goes at the same pace (or less) than another user playing “legit”, the player using the macro can spend his time to strengthen his community role which, as discussed above, is certainly one way of becoming more powerful at a game.

Glider is one of the leading World of Warcraft bots used to advance characters and farm gold - the game’s currency. The program has become so controversial as to inspire lawsuits from WoW’s creators, Blizzard.

This is all relative, since in actual tournaments these things almost certainly wouldn’t be allowed. Of course, in most tournaments we do not have to worry about this - but now that the World of Warcraft Arena has become a tournament game in and of itself, it could be cause for concern that players may used some ill-gotten advantage to strengthen their avatars. Fortunately for that game, however, it’s not a very big deal to “max out” your character to a point in which he would be equal to others in tournament play, so it’s not an issue in the big picture. If a game does come along where the time investment is much higher, and it becomes competition worthy, it will be interesting to see how these cases could be handled. On the other side of the coin, the standardized “match-at-a-time” games are also starting to bring in some time-based concepts to the table: we are starting to see first person shooters where you gain experience, ranks, and access to more varied equipment based on your avatar’s skill or experience.

In the end, I think the bigger question aside from which version of time investment is superior, is what goal is the person asking the question trying to pursue. Even monetary gain can be had via both systems - tournament earnings versus playing letting bots run their characters, earning them items or money that they can sell for real world currency. It’s all relative to each person’s particular goals at the time of asking said question.

Multiplayer games and how they sustain their player population has always mystified me. Especially as a huge fan of independent games and game studios, and the common struggle to keep a low-brow indie title retaining players when it is necessary to the game’s overall health (i.e. a multiplayer game).

Being a first person shooter fan for most of my life as a gamer, this is by far and away the field I have the most experience with. When Quake came out, the hobby of hacking game files and creating maps for the older 2D FPS games had grown into something more as players started banding together to create bigger projects in the form of modifications, or mods. Quake mods encompass some of the most popular game types today, including Capture the Flag, Rocket Arena and of course Team Fortress. In those days, finding players usually wasn’t hard even if the players needed fairly advanced knowledge in order to get Quake and the mod up and running, and then configuring Quakespy, MPlayer or whatever server browser they used to find games. Still, even though they faced these technical barriers mods grew and flourished, some even surpassing the popularity of the original Quake deathmatch. Most modifications in this era were simple changes in the games rules. Although there were some “total conversions” (mods with custom artwork, audio and other assets); most fell into the more simple category, even the very popular ones. Mods are usually multiplayer as well, since they are created by people who are passionate about the game, and at this point those players are usually much more interested in the multiplayer aspect of a game.

Today, mods are better than ever, with some mods even matching retail games in both graphics and features. Mod teams often go on to pursue jobs in the game industry as a result of the skills they learn, and the mods they create are as fun, balanced and unique as ever. Accessing mods is a breeze as there are many websites that link them and mirror their files for download. Playing them is as easy as playing the game they’re a modification for. So why, then, is it so hard for mods to retain players when in the past they would retain a huge player base even when it was more underground?

One potential reason for the decline in activity – even after the rise in quality – of mods is that there simply isn’t an influx of players anymore. When Quake mods were big, Quake was big, and when Half-Life mods were bursting at the seams, Half-Life was winning awards at a staggering rate. Half-Life itself was even over-taken by one of its own mods which has since turned into a retail game: Counter-Strike. In fact, I believe it is now more responsible for the ebb and flow of mods than Half-Life itself. Now that the Counter-Strike player base has stabilized and is no longer growing at a fast rate, we have seen mods on the decline. Players are happy to stay where they are, rather than when they were new to the game and open for playing new mods. Thus, even though mods are at the highest quality the players have ever seen and much more easily accessible, it is harder than ever for them to retain players.

Mods aren’t the only multiplayer games that have seen issues, however. It has become increasingly hard for most games, aside from the few most popular, to retain multiplayer player bases. Ironically, the games that do the worst in this regard usually advertise themselves as multiplayer only - which should ensure that the multiplayer is better than other games. However, history has proven that the games that often get popular usually boast both a single player campaign as well as multiplayer, even if it means that the multiplayer will obviously suffer in some form as a result. More sales simply means more potential players, and players are much more willing to invest into a compelling single player experience than an unproven multiplayer game, even if the single player aspect of a game only lasts for the very beginning of its lifespan. Id Software even considered their multiplayer only game Quake 3 a failure, when it proved to be one of the best multiplayer FPS experiences to be had, even to the point of the Cyberathlete Professional League re-implementing it after trying other newer, more modern FPS games which all ended up failing. Of course, mods are a different story, but are also hard to include in this comparison since a healthy mod player base depends entirely upon the game it is a mod for – one could argue that Counter-Strike is a multiplayer only game and sees massive popularity, but we must remember that it started out as a mod for Half-Life, a critically acclaimed single player game.

Perhaps having single player is necessary if only to advertise the game to players, as if to say “buy me, at least you can be secure in the fact I have a single player campaign”? Although, this makes no sense as, again, the single player is simply a short storyline incursion usually halfway between a movie and a novel. A game only becomes truly long-lasting when it has a multiplayer component. So why does it seem that games need to have a single player component, and why are players so afraid to purchase multiplayer only games, even in this new age where having a computer basically assumes having an internet connection? This brings me to my next point, the MMO genre.

As if to prove everything I’ve said so far wrong, MMOGs came into existence, whose acronym says it all: Massively Multiplayer Online games. These games almost seem to ensure high player numbers simply by employing a subscription based model (even after purchasing the game box), as if to say “pay us money and we will continue to provide a multiplayer service”. While it is true that most MMOs see a much larger cost and development time (and thus should see larger player counts due to hype, advertising, etc.), the fact remains that to the untrained eye they are simply below-average games. Only very recently are we starting to see MMOs that break the mold and tell stories in compelling ways similar to single player games (however, ironically, the one that performed best in this regard, Age of Conan, was considered a failure mostly due to other issues), yet still MMORPGs have grown to having unimaginably large player bases almost without any rhyme or reason. The quality is almost a non-issue in comparison to “normal” games. The genre insists a subscription model, which many gamers claim they refuse to play on principle alone: “If I buy a game, it’s mine; I shouldn’t have to spend more money just to continue playing it”. Yet still these games manage to bring in immense numbers shadowing other genres. Even stranger still is that this genre is almost entire computer-based, when we are in an era of console domination.

Age of Conan was much friendlier to a non-MMO player, yet still failed to see great success compared to other more “ordinary” games in the genre

In almost every way it appears that the MMO genre is a complete anomaly when it comes to gaming trends, but of course there are very compelling reasons for these players to be there such as social aspects and a true sense of progression. Interestingly, FPS games are starting to implement some of these features in the form of friends list and actual rewards for playing the game for longer periods of time (such as Call of Duty’s system for unlocking new weapons and perks).

Another anomaly in multiplayer gaming that must be mentioned is a Warcraft 3 map that seems to break all of my aforementioned rules. While it’s no mystery as to why Blizzard’s RTS games retain large numbers of players, it is interesting that Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a custom map for Warcraft 3, has become a huge phenomenon. When refreshing the “custom games” browser in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne at nearly any time of day you will find an overwhelming number of DotA games populating the list. This game-in-a-game has grown so big that the playerbase devised its own set of rules and regulations (for lack of a decent set in the rather poor options playing a “custom game” gives you), even to the point of creating custom programs for this game, and the developers have even announced that they are creating an entirely new stand-alone game in the same vein as DotA. So how did this happen? While DotA was not the only interesting game type to expand and eventually grow from Blizzard’s RTS line-up (you just may have heard of a little thing called tower defense), one can’t help but wonder how it came above all others and not only survived, but flourished in the worst of conditions: unlike FPS game servers, where even they have a hard time supporting new games, Warcraft 3’s game hosting is abysmal in comparison, and DotA is a game that is very unwelcoming to new players. Yet still it has managed to flourish to the point of being a real world tournament game where players compete for money.

DotA sees commercial-like success as nothing more than a Warcraft 3 map

The mystery of what attracts players to multiplayer games is no less clear now than when I started. There are certainly some historically-proven safeguards a company can take to hopefully ensure players will play their game, which is a very important aspect when the enjoyment of said players relies on other players being online. Companies seem to be getting more in tune with what games need to support a community of players as well. Yet still, even today new communities spring up seemingly out of nowhere in the strangest of conditions where none of the modern selling points for games may be present. Some companies even seem to be harnessing this aspect of randomness, such as Valve releasing Steamworks, a new way for modifications to get more recognition via Steam. This actually works in their favor as, being that the mods are applications for Valve games, they will in turn end up getting more people to purchase the games needed to play the mods on if they rise in popularity. While on the same token, more and more multiplayer games are released still-born such as Savage 2 or Shadowrun. It will be interesting to see if this is a hurdle that can be overcome in the future or if the safe method of creating a single player game with multiplayer will continue to be the standard.

(Note: contains no spoilers, but does include my opinion on the quality of Fallout 3's ending. Also I wrote this a few days ago and have since gotten over it and started a new character up.)

Games with bad endings have always baffled me. Much like a novel with a bad ending, I don’t see why someone would pour so much work into the bulk of a piece of work and then botch the ending. Obviously, not all endings can be simply called “botched” - some may feel right to the author but not take off with the general public. This happens a lot with movies, and we end up with director’s cuts.

With games, it seems that most developers just don’t care about the ending. It may be a bit harsh to come out and say it like that, but I honestly can’t see the reason so many games have such terrible endings aside from simply a complete and total lack of effort. I don’t know if it’s because it’s at the end of the game, where budget or time constraint is most likely running the thinnest; or perhaps (although doubtful) it’s that once the player is done with the game their enjoyment doesn’t matter anymore to the developers, so as little time as possible is spent working on the ending. Or possibly that gaming is such an obscure, new form of entertainment that we simply haven’t found a good way to end a gaming experience, especially when it’s a good game. After all, in movies and books, having closure is good - but in games we often do not want the experience to end, which could feasibly impact our otherwise unbiased opinion.

In either case, I think having a good ending to a game is pivotal. Games with bad endings - even ones that I thoroughly enjoyed the entire way through - will leave a bad lasting impression on me, to the point of ceasing my recommendations of the game. This happened to me with STALKER, a game I enjoyed a surprising amount while playing, but the ending was so hideously insulting that I could do nothing but go into long rants about the game after beating it. It was so bad that I started picking on faults that I would have let go otherwise.

Fallout 3 has just done the same thing to me, and as a much more “high brow” game it really surprised and disappointed me. Whereas before completing the game’s main quest I was actually anticipating finishing and starting a brand new character, now after having finished it I don’t really have the initiative to go and actually do it. I’m not sure if this actually matters or not in the grand scheme of things as it’s a single player game, although it certainly must have some kind of effect. Something about Morrowind made me play that game on and off for almost a year, and I would pretty consistently bore my friends with new tales from “that FPS RPG with crappy combat”. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be pestering them to such an extent with Fallout 3, although it almost has the potential to be there - although the game’s longevity is mostly to do with off-topic items (such as dungeon repitition, something much improved in Fallout 3 if you compare it to Oblivion), the ending remains the primary reason I’m not back in Vault 101 right now playing with facial hair options. In any case, I’ll definitely be looking forward to any Fallout 3 mods, expansion packs or sequels.

I was reading mr durand's blog on interactivity and it prompted me to remember this interesting interactive movie I was linked the other day. Didn't see it posted here so I figured I would toss a link:

It does tend to break a lot of zombie survival rules, but it's certainly a neat concept.