Saturday, February 4, 2012

This Blog's Status

I wrote much less often in recent weeks. Here's what's going to happen in 2012.

As you know, I started looking for a new job this year. To my honest surprise this was quite a job in itself because apparently employers really liked me. This resulted in traveling all over Germany in the last few weeks and, yesterday, finally deciding on which of the jobs I liked most - after some haggling. The result is a new job which begins in March and pays some whopping 40% better than the last. It's not like I need the money, but hey, I'm sure I'm going to find a way to spend it ;)

As for the blog, this job will necessarily, and actually hopefully, require more time investment than the last one, and before it starts I will have to move to Northern Germany. And this means that the blog will be updated less often; at least in the beginning. This isn't such a bad thing because, as you know, I don't play MMORPGs for quite some time now and I don't really see this changing anytime soon. I will, of course, pick up Guild Wars 2 and all other AAA-MMOs, maybe even Darkfall 2.0 at release, and I will write about them. But I'm also skeptical.

Here's a purely subjective perspective on MMOs, and my history with them. My first MMO was WoW and I was, like many others, truly in love with it. I was also deeply convinced that MMOs would, over time, become ever better at the simulation. I remember that I was troubled by the fact that 'bosses' could not be stunned by rogues, for example; it was inconsistent. I did understand the gameplay reasons, but I, also, was sure that these kinds of inconsistencies would soon be addressed by Blizzard. Maybe they would make stuns, generally, dependent on the size or endurance of an enemy? Call me naive because I was.

The more I entered the realm of MMOs, and ultimately game design, the more I understood that a game is just a designed activity that people like to pay money for. Sure, not all such activities are called games - but this describes what a company starts out to design when it wants to make money with a game. This process of understanding what a game is, was itself a rewarding activity and as such I spent more and more time blogging about MMOs than actually playing them. But, eventually, this had to stop. With the release of Star Wars it did. Nowadays MMOs are not rewarding activities for me anymore. When I look at them I don't see a fantastic place but rather an attempt at keeping the logical, emotional, social and 'executional' parts of my mind busy without being directly 'frustrating'.

But without the magic, without the fantasy, without the possibility to 'learn' something which isn't just a rehash of something I already know, MMOs are just empty shells with no ghosts. Now, part of this is nostalgia - we all know that. But a part of this is also the deep conviction that a MMO which doesn't rub game mechanics into my face and relies on player-generated content, instead of designer-created content, could be fascinating again - if only because I have never played a AAA-MMO which relies on player-generated content: a virtual world. I've only played WoW, its clones, and a bit of Eve; and Eve is a flawed diamond; I don't call it a AAA-MMO.

I am convinced that eventually designers and investors will understand that player-generated content (not player-created content!) in virtual worlds is much, much more profitable than those (superficial) designer-created narratives without a good arc and without even good actors. Sure - there's a gem here and there - but mostly the stories in games, especially MMOs like Star Wars, aren't epic: they are manufactured by so-called "game designers" who mass-produce narratives for little money after having taken a single course in creative writing.

Anyway, here's what this means for the blog. First, I will continue to blog about anything that crosses my mind, including politics and economics. Second, I will continue to write about major milestones of the MMO-scene. As for the frequency, this will be scaled down; maybe even to just one post a month. But I'm certain that there will be periods when I blog much more often.

So, no, this is not the end. It's just a transitional period until one company, eventually, creates a place whose magic is renewed every day by the creativity of its inhabitants.


  1. Congrats on the job.

    I am convinced that eventually designers and investors will understand that player-generated content in virtual worlds is much, much more profitable than those (superficial) designer-created narratives without a good arc and without even good actors.

    I am convinced that that is not, nor will ever be, the case. :)

  2. Weird, just this afternoon I was thinking about narratives. I was wondering why I could get so giddy every time I got near level 50, especially if I was near the Searing Gorge or Badlands, but with all the cool stories in LK and Cataclysm, I don't much look forward to getting to those zones. I think by most measures the newer quests are better than the vanilla quests, but they are missing something. They tell a dev story, but they are meaningless to me. When I'd get a quest to go poking around the Burning Steppes for some golems, I knew that before long I'd be sent into Blackrock Depths, an instance I loved, and a stepping stone to UBRS, Stratholme, Scholomance, and other places which I enjoyed running.

    Somewhere between dev stories and players stories are quests that engage the player, make them anticipate the next thing around the bend, something which they will greatly enjoy. A great story can be told over and over, a good one once, and a bad one should never be told at all, but something beyond the stories are what really connect with players.

  3. +1 Azuriel :)

    As I already commented on one of your posts, you can see what TV has become compared to what the initial hopes were. No doubt there will be niche/indie projects which are very interesting, but all the *Massively*MOs will not be.
    On the good side, development tools will keep improving, so the indie titles will probably look quite good.

    1. At times I thought that I had become cynical ... Clearly, I'm an optimist compared to the likes of you ;)

  4. User Content being more profitable then hand-crafted content? Unlikely. You don't see "fanfiction" beating writers on earnings.
    Potentially profitable? Definitely. Some company might find their niche there eventually.

    But user content is not "zero cost content". To make it even potentially profitable you have to take risks and invest your time. Cost of developing user content tools and supporting them is non-significant.

    There are problems with scaling up "crafted" content production, but scaling problems surface in user content too. You need robust filtering to point users to "profitable" user content (different depending on however you decide to monetize it), not some "press button for instant reward" instant gratification that will give them their fix then have them drift away.

    1. User-generated content, Shalcker, not user-created content. I actually dislike user-created content. The easiest example of user-generated content are PvP or coordinating with other players.
      While user-created content is e.g. a mod or a scenario created by a user outside the actual game.

    2. Ah, that makes more sense... but shouldn't you look toward something like Facebook games then? "Guaranteed to contain humans"!
      Or maybe further evolution of Glitch concept.

    3. FB games are terrible simulations, mostly. And I absolutely do like good graphics. ;)

  5. The only other game coming out that I think you should keep an eye on is Pathfinder Online. It seems to be a different type of MMO combining sandbox style gameplay with a fantasy setting. Eve with swords basically.

    While it might not be a AAA MMO it certainly has AAA developers working on it. It seems to be able to avoid having to launch as a AAA MMO to be profitable because alot of it's content/lore is already out there on different Pathfinder game.

    It might be worth a few blog posts so here's a link.

    1. I read some of the developer blogs: How to make an MMO on a shoestring. How many such projects ever see the light of day?

    2. I know Pathfinder. And I like the general idea, obviously. My experience with such games, however, is that they swing too much into the other (non-WoW) direction. They don't focus enough on the immediate gameplay, focus too much on the simulation or, the worst of all mistakes, try to clone past games while at the same time criticizing WoW clones.

      Games with a stronger focus on player-generated content and the simulation aren't automatically better. E.g. players still need to have something engaging to do whenever they log on.
      Nostalgia doesn't produce great games; learning from the past does.

      When Pathfinder has come a bit further I will certainly comment on it.

  6. I think that making a decent MMO is incredibly tricky, especially post WoW. That's borne out in practice in recent years, with nothing really satisfactory being released since WoW, Guild Wars and LOTRO and I expect many would argue with those. Really we need something like Skyrim but online with 10x the content & 10x the polish. But that would cost more than SWTOR did.

    1. I believe the main reason why no MMO has managed to replace WoW is that they can't manage to make a better combat system. WoW combat can be played with almost no skill involved allowing players to easily learn the system but has so much depth to it that there is a huge difference between Veteran players and a New players even in the same gear. The other major thing is how well combat flows. When your playing WoW you never feel like your character isn't responding how you think it should with the abilities it has. Swtor and Aion both struggle on combat flow imo. Rift struggles with ease of use and had to remove long term CC and slows in order to make their combat somewhat balanced.

      Simple combat with long term depth that flows which isn't almost exactly like WoW is very hard to achieve.

    2. What I find though, is that when they do make a game with a bit different combat system (which is just as responsive as WoW's), many of the WoW-people don't like it anyway (DCUO for example). I think for all of the complaining about WoW, there is just as much complaining if certain elements are not enough like WoW.

    3. @Kelinda, I disagree. It's not the fight mechanics but the boss mechanics. Even a noob in the same gear against a target dummy pulls close to the DPS as the best of the best (especially on classes like mages). It is not hard to learn a class and do well in it.

      What ends up seperating the players is the dance of the boss mechanic or the twich in PvP. And as further proof I've know great raiders that stunk in PvP and great arena players that failed at raiding.

  7. The problem with basing your future MMO on user generated content is that the user experience can vary enormously.

    As a game company that is relying on subscribers (or a % of players purchasing virtual goods), do you want to put your financial success in the hands of your audience?

    I've seen a lot of negative blog posts recently about loot, achievements and developer generated goals. But it should be recognised that such goals have been historically successful at creating communities of players that band together (through necessity) to win the rewards.

    Conversely, my understanding of many PvP games is that ganking is like a ponzi scheme. You endure being ganked/robbed because one day it will be your turn to rob someone else. So far, so good.

    But imagine the day that CCP determine that Goons' (legitimate, TOS-abiding) behaviour has capped subscriptions at a niche level and EvE can grow no further? Or that people get tired of being griefed and unsubscribe, leaving a net loss of subscribers?

    TL;DR: In your user generated MMO, what is there to ensure that your users create an (on balance) positive experience for each other?

    1. Bernard, I'd actually remove PvP completely at first. Read Syncaine on the PvE Sandbox: this is the way to go. It combines the two basic strengths of modern computer games as compared to non-computer games:

      1) the computer doesn't care about losing.
      2) people from all over the world can play together (social game)

      As for the developers' desire to guide the individual player's experience, well, you just need good rules. Of course, a less guided experience is harder to design. E.g. it's harder to make sure that there's always something instant to do when a player logs in.
      But it's also a much more rewarding experience; both for the player and the investor because the longevity of player-generated content is significantly longer than that of designer-created content.

  8. "Sure - there's a gem here and there - but mostly the stories in games, especially MMOs like Star Wars, aren't epic: they are manufactured by so-called "game designers" who mass-produce narratives for little money after having taken a single course in creative writing."

    It's sad to see that you've taken such a cynical view of gaming. I used to enjoy your blog greatly; while you were never a 'rainbows and unicorns' type of guy, you did provide insight into the gaming world and had genuinely amusing posts. Now, all I read of yours is hate and vitriol. You may be aiming at a new demographic and sadly I'm no longer included. This blog has turned into Wolfshead Online v2.0, with the author standing on his mountaintop, spewing his own acidic brand of 'truth' amongst us plebes.

    Best of luck, Nils. I wish you well on the new job ... and remembering who you used to be.

    (edited so it could be put in the right comment spot, not under Bernard's)

    1. Well, Targeter, I actually enjoyed Wolfshead since I first read his blog. I'd turn this around and say that it's sad that you feel that the above post is full of 'hate'. I certainly don't feel hateful; rather disappointed. All the things I thought MMOs would become when I first played WoW, they never became. Instead, evolution turned the other way.

      I envy everyone who can derive fun from those stories in SW:TOR. And I am sad that I cannot. As to staying who I am: don't worry, if money could change it, it had changed it some time ago.

    2. Coincidently, i've been reading about evolution lately. And you mostly get evolution with things dying.

      Strong designs survive by "guessing" which way climate changes, mostly by living on borders of different ecosystems, able to use both but not too heavily invested in either - so that when one quickly becomes dominant and the other diminishes, they can adapt to that.

      And while that happens many great designs, perfectly fit to exploit one ecosystem, which disappears from under them, go extinct.

      Using that as analogy, at this point i don't think WoW can change enough to adapt. It has too long development cycles, and after all talks about that they were unable to change that. Even if their direction is right, which i doubt, they cannot turn fast enough, with all small things accumulated over years to exploit subscription/endgame raiding model slowing them down. Something like woolly mammoth. :)

  9. Well, I didn't read all comments, so maybe I've missed something -- but is there a shred of evidence anywhere that the game with 'user-generated' content as opposed to designed-set goals will be more successful?

    I know I'm unlikely to play it -- I didn't play Minecraft, I played very little Eve, etc.

    I like set goals like "defeat Deathwing" (that is not to say I'm still playing WoW -- I'm not -- quit mostly over nothing at all interesting to do outside raids). I don't see "control X 0.0 in Eve" as a goal as a question is "what for?" (for me). "What for?" for Deathwing is really simple -- defeat the toughest challenge in the game / reach the 'Game Over' screen.

    Yes I know Minecraft made an amazing "return on investment", but I'm fairly convinced that no matter how much you polish that concept with "production values" you won't get much more money out of that -- and the author only got a lot because there was literally nothing to complete with.

    So what I am saying is that I think "in the real world" there might be no audience for a really successful "player-generated-mmo" -- and "really successful" in this case I guess is "more than Eve".

    Um, I'm fairly certain I'm rambling and not up to re-reading and re-phrasing right now -- so back to original question -- is there a shred of a proof somewhere that "player-generated-content" MMO will be competitive with "themeparks"?

    1. Since you're asking for a "shred of proof". Both Eve and Minecraft have been incredibly successful compared to themeparks developed with this kind of budget. Ultima Online was incredibly successful in its time. At the same time there hasn't been a triple-A virtual world in 10 years now.

      Is that a 100% proof? of course not. But it's certainly more than just a 'shred of proof'.

    2. Since I mentioned both Eve and Minecraft in my post, I didn't really expect you to circle back to them.

      You said it yourself -- Eve is flawed gem -- and I more than agree. It's far, FAR, more about metagame in RL than about the game-in-game.

      And Minecraft is basically the most you can get out of that concept, imo, and it's been 'done' already. I am fairly confident that e.g. Rift is much more successful than Minecraft financially.

      So no, I won't take those two as "shred of evidence" that you can make player-generated-content-mmorpg more successful than, say, Rift (financially). Unless you maybe thinking about Eve-thingy where RL-metagaming is king -- and then I'm not sure there can be more than one of those either.

    3. I guess we will have to wait and see then. There has been a buckload of financially successful, but ultimately failed (considering the exspectations) WoW clones in the last five years. If we could get only one single AAA-PvE sandbox, we could see how it performs.

    4. Hate to say it, but "financially successful" is more or less the only thing that counts for AAA money, is it not?

    5. Age of Conan was financially successful. WoW was phenomenally successful. AAA-money is looking for phenomenally successful while trying to make sure that the product is at least successful.