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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

The Six Stages of MMO Community Development - Part 2 of 2

Posted by UnSub Friday February 29 2008 at 1:19AM
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 Part 1 is here.

---

Stage 4: Outrage!

The NDA drops (or enough people have been let into closed beta for the NDA to be useless)! Everyone can see the full MMO feature set! And suddenly it turns out that not only is <feature X> not in release, but that they changed <feature Y> from the description 12 months ago and that it now has <feature Z> that obviously no-one wants and the devs wasted time on! A lot of exited community members return to post 'LOL' and not come back, while the forum warriors take their battles off the closed beta forums and into the public arena. Some posters immolate themselves with spectacular rants that get them permabanned, while others grumble and find enough in the MMO to keep them.

A few players are genuinely happy at what the game provides. No-one cares what they think.

Forum activity during this time goes into overdrive. Between the LOLs, the rants, the pitched battles, the new posters asking "is this gaem any gud?" things are at fever pitch. The phrase, "it's only beta" will be used as to bludgeon dissenting opinions into submission with terrifying frequency or as an excuse that means little.

During this stage, the community is like a bunch of children who have been promised fairy bread, cake and sweets just as soon as they arrive at a magical fun park. On arriving, the children will find that there is only fairy bread and sweets of one colour, the cake is a lie and the fun park only has three rides they can go on. Some children will not take this discovery well.

This stage renders any community building in the other stages moot. Seriously. A community manager can have things running as smoothly as possible prior to this stage, but it will mean nothing unless the game developers deliver everything they promised exactly as everyone has interpreted it to be promised. Since this is impossible, the existing community will schism, schism again and generally multiple schism until those dissatisfied with the 'final' form of the game leave. There's a good chance that even the staunchest forum warrior, who has frequently written 1 000 word rants dissecting criticisms levelled against his beloved MMO dream, will abandon the game at this point if they don't like the feature set. At the same time, the trolliest troll may choose to hang around because suddenly things look interesting to them in-game. Your pre-release community is not your post-release community and this stage is when that kicks in.

The most common question during this time will be "when does the game go live?" (if that hasn't been announced, because people want to know how long they have to 'fix' things) or "HOW COULD YOU LIE TO US, YOU LYING LIARS???".

Stage 5: Acceptance!

The game launches! Those who were playing for free but don't want to pay leave. The forums are often rebooted. Only the faithful or the really hateful remain. Post counts may need to be padded anew. New players join who wouldn't touch a beta with a 10 foot pole, bringing new forum warriors with them and also repeats of suggestions from back in Stage 1.

Forum activity becomes more managable and the Customer Service staff actually start to care about the community, because they've become less leeches than customers (or at least leeches who fork out some cash each month). People are playing the game, so things are quieter.

During this stage the community behaves like they've just got married. Sure, their choice may have some flaws and may occasionally irritate them, but they've seen enough good (or: the MMO has a hold over them) to commit for a while. Criticism is generally gentle (barring and marriage game-breaking bugs) and both parties are seeing how things work out between them. Of course, if another slinkly little MMO comes along with that look in its eye, that commitment may strain... but for now, they're giving it a shot.

The most common question during this phase is "when is <this problem> getting fixed?", which is sometimes stated as "when is the expansion / next patch coming out?".

Stage 6: Stasis!

The MMO has been out for a while. How to play guides have been written and your garden-variety powergamer knows the quickest way to maxlevel with at least three different classes. All hidden content has been found and posted on websites, while all secret tactics required to defeat special situations have been narrowed down to a learn-by-rote formula. There are still some forum battles and no doubt contensious issues (usually related to class-balance and what is "fair"), but the community is settled.

Forum activity has probably reached a constant level, barring any new announcements that delight and / or terrify current players. The redname developers will have established a reputation (warranted or not) within the community and in-jokes abound. Post counts are padded on the official forums as some sort of game-outside-of-the-game, often when the person can't play the MMO.

The community at this stage behave like the regulars at a coffee shop. Each will have their likes and dislikes - some will love telling their dislikes to the counter staff day after day after day - but for whatever reason they've chosen to keep coming back. They'll have the game just the way they like it and it's usually a combination of inertia and familiarity that keeps people returning. Of course, changes to the menu or what coffee is used could see some of these regulars not come back, but eventually offering them the same old pastries every day is also likely to see them leave too. Good luck in balancing that out. Overall however, the community is comfortable.

The most common question during this phase is "when is <The Next Big MMO> coming out?".

The Six Stages of MMO Community Development - Part 1 of 2

Posted by UnSub Friday February 29 2008 at 1:17AM
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I've been through several different MMO communities and have come to the conclusion that all MMO communities go through the same six stages of community development. It's not always a direct path and sometimes things aren't so clear, but I think the stages below cover pretty much every MMO community I've ever seen.

Stage 1: Birth!

The new MMO is announced! Nothing is actually finalised, but all the promises sound great! New people flock into the forums (mostly to try to guarantee an early beta slot and / or post 'FIRST!' messages) and the excitement is palpable! Why, this MMO will be the next big thing! Lots of people join and immediately start boosting their post counts.

During this stage, your community will act like giddy schoolgirls, tittering and giggling to themselves and gasping with excitement as new information comes out. Lots of suggestions about what the game needs should have will be posted by players who may or may not know better.

The most common question at this stage is "will this game have <feature X>?" written by people who desparately want <feature X> in the game, regardless of whether it would fit or not.

Stage 2: Boredom!

It's been a while since the MMO was announced and the community is frankly bored. Perhaps the MMO hasn't released enough information recently, or the weekly dev profile no longer holds its shine, or the Questions of the Week get chewed up and spat out in seconds, but people are really just hanging around, waiting for something to happen.

Forum activity drops during the boredom stage as some people go away to find something more exciting. Those who remain often end up rehashing the same questions / issues (e.g. how awesome it would be for this MMO to have full PvP / oh no it wouldn't / oh yes it would carebear), creating spam threads or derailing other threads to turn them into spam threads, generally just to increase post count. People will still make suggestions, but they are probably just repeating what's come before. The forum warriors have established the battle lines by now and and whip up a forum war in a mere 3 posts... which is fine, because it 1) gives them something to do and 2) ups their post count.

During this stage, your community (the ones who stick around, anyway) will act like a group of travellers stuck in an airport lounge while their plane is delayed indefinitely. The same conversations get repeated. Awkward silences are common. Everyone gets antsy.

The most common question during this phase is "when is beta starting?".

Stage 3: Resentment!

Closed beta is announced! Long-time community members refresh their inboxes once every fifteen minutes to check if they've got an invite, then spend the next 14 minutes going through their spam filters just in case! Players who get into the beta get to have a secret and can be all silently smug about it, while those who didn't really wished they'd spent more time upping their post count. New players join the forums, in case they get lucky enough to snag an invite while exited members return to post a few new replies to show that they really were part of the community all the time.

Forum activity goes up during this time, driven by the desire to know more about what's going on in closed beta and by a desire to do more than read about it. Private messages fly everywhere, asking, "Did you get in?". Long-time posters are scrutinised to see if they drop off from posting. Everyone suspects that they are the only one not in beta and that everyone else is having a great time. The tension builds.

During this stage, the community (swollen with hangers-on who just want to get into closed beta) will act like a group of travellers stuck in an airport lounge while their plane is delayed indefinitely, except that they've been forced to wear blindfolds. Everyone knows that some other people have been let onto the plane, but most of them are still waiting. The strength of this resentment is equal to the length of time in Stage 2 multiplied by the number of forum warriors currently not in beta.

The most common question during this stage is a tie between "how do I get into closed beta?" and "when is the open beta starting?".

---

Boy, this got long! I've split it to break the wall of text - Part 2 is here.

A Good Summary of Champions Online to This Point; Also, A ChampO Trailer

Posted by UnSub Saturday February 23 2008 at 12:08PM
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Massively.com's coverage of Champions Online has included a good summary of the project as it stands right now.

Also, Cryptic has released their first ChampO trailer. Having watched it, I enjoyed the production but the content was lacking. Still, it was a trailer to promote ChampO as it was announced, not to show off any in-game systems.

 UPDATE - you can download the trailer in several version from the Champions Online website. I watched the high quality version and the comic shaded graphics look very good in motion.

The website for Champions Online officially launched a few days ago, and it kinda feels like coming home. The forums are full of excitement and potential, a lot of old CoH players (and by 'old' I mean 'pre-beta forums' of 2001) are there and people really want to see what ChampO has in store. Given that it is meant to launch in Spring 2009 means that the wait until beta starts shouldn't be that long.

Of course, a huge question mark hangs over what ChampO will be exactly, how it will work and whether or not an 'action MMO' will turn people off or not. Personally, I'd love a MMO that I could run around in and had combat like it was a 3D fighter, but we'll see. Also, the promise of full powers customisation is huge - I'm sure there are some powers that just won't be feasible to develop for that certain player minorities will clamour for (e.g. full shapeshifting, character stretching, power mimicry, etc).

So where does this leave City of Heroes / Villains? With 12 months to keep players, that's where. While the ball is in Cryptic's court, if word gets out that ChampO isn't that good or turns off traditional MMO players, then CoH/V will probably be safe enough. Time will tell.

Some other interesting things came out - Jack Emmert talked about his learnings / experience with CoH/V pretty openly at the GDC 2008, which he can do given now he's not as bound that that francise's fortunes. I'd be interested to hear the full talk - the article seems a bit mashed up and confusingly written - but it's interesting to hear a lead developer's frustrations about their own work. Jack also appeared at a GDC panel alongside Matt Miller (aka Positron, lead dev on CoH/V), which would probably have been an interesting experience for both of them. On the other hand, I found a number of Jack's responses funny.

To round out - there's a rumour that Perpetual Entertainment will shut its doors permanently today. For a MMO dev who had a lot of publicity for a while, it's interesting to see where it ended up. It's two announced MMOs - Gods and Heroes and Star Trek Online - were never seen by the public and it's middleware engine has to be in limbo. I wonder if Bioware will pick it up?

UPDATE - Massively.com has another viewpoint on Emmert's CoH/V history talk at GDC 08. It's much better written than the Gama Sutra article, but the Q&A at the end is obviously paraphrased (I say 'obviously' because I've never seen a Q&A where at least one side doesn't ramble, while this section is very punchy) to the extent that they'd be pretty easy to use out of context.

Kinda Sorta Official Champions Online Announcement

Posted by UnSub Monday February 18 2008 at 11:41PM
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Hero Games has officially announced Champions Online... well, kinda sorta. The relevant info:

"The meat of the announcement is that Cryptic is indeed going to be coming out with a Champions MMORPG called Champions Online, probably due out in 2009, though that is a WAG on my part. In an interesting twist, rather than Cryptic licensing the Champions Universe from DoJ, they are buying the Champions and Dark Champions IP (except Harbinger of Justice), and as part of the deal are licensing the rights to print RPG books for those IP back to DoJ in perpetuity (and DoJ doesn't have to pay for it).

DoJ and Cryptic will be working closely together to help insure that any changes to the CU for Champions Online get reflected in the CU books that DoJ will be publishing. Both content-wise and appearance-wise.

Important Note: Cryptic is NOT buying the Hero System IP, just the Champions and Dark Champions IP.

Another Important Note: Champions Online will not be a Hero System MMORPG. My understanding is that Hero is planning on releasing a guide to allow players of Champions Online to recreate their characters in the Hero System at some point after CO comes out, but that it will NOT be using the Hero System itself.

Cryptic has also licensed the Hero System from DoJ so that they can use HERO terminology to describe things. Cryptic has also said that their plan is that CO will have an unprecidented level of customizability in character creation. There is the chance that if Cryptic and DoJ agree that the level of customizability is up to the standards of the HERO System the game may also get hung with the title of HERO Online. Though DoJ retains the right to say "no" on that.

One of the design features that Darren mentioned that Cryptic is looking at implementing that would allow you during character creation to create your own nemesis.

There is also every chance that there will be DoJ produced books that have bits and peices that will be useful for the CO players. Behind the scenes type things.

Oh, and Important Thing: DoJ will be getting access to Cryptic Studios art for publishing in their books."

"There was some stuff and some nice looking screenshots from the Game Informer article:

# The game has classes, but every class has access to every power. Class defines how many points each power costs for your character.

# Graphics are a 3D/cell shading hybrid that Cryptic calls "comic shading".

# The underground arena circuit allows PvP.

# Only heroes at launch. Dark Champions as an expansion later.

# Fully customizable characters AND powers AND movement types(floating,running on four legs).

# Secret identities.

# Customizable arch-nemesis. If you ever decide to kill off or incarcerate your AN, you get to create a new one.

# The game will take place world wide, not in just one city.

# Planned zones: underground cities, dinosaur-infested island, secret desert military base.

# The game has been created with Cryptic's proprietary game engine called "Game Tech".

# The game will also include voice dialogue and cutscenes.

# Scheduled for a 2009 release."

The reason why it isn't the official official announcement:

"You'll be able to find it on the official MMO website, the Cryptic site, and here... on Wednesday the 20th, when it's being officially launched at GDC. We were able to make an early announcement at DunDraCon, but other than that we're not going to be saying anything online, either, until Wednesday."

Having seen the pics of ChampO in the Game Informer article, it looks a lot like CoH, but much prettier. Also: dual lightsabers laserswords.

Guess I wait until Wednesday then...

The Grey Economy: MMOs, RMT and Credit Card Fraud

Posted by UnSub Monday February 18 2008 at 11:20PM
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MMOs have a dark spot around them that few people like to talk about in depth, fewer people like to admit using and that few MMOs are safe from. But it's a serious problem for the industry as it costs them millions of dollars, forces them to ban revenue-generating players and is increasingly leading to MMO companies having to deal with dismissive credit card companies.

The problem is external RMT (which I've seen as an acronym for 'real money transfers' or 'real micro-transactions') providers and the parasitic relationship they have with MMOs.

Blizzard recently won an injunction against an aggressive external RMT provider that a lot of people misconstrued as some sort of big victory against external RMT. It really wasn't. The RMTer settled and agreed to the terms of the injunction (basically to leave WoW alone) and thus far has gone quiet. However, as best as I can tell, if the external RMTer decided to move their operations out of North America, set up shop elsewhere (their domain comes out of China anyway) and start again then the Court of California is arguably not going to have jurisdiction over them.

It seems that Blizzard went in against a small-yet-vocal external RMTer who folded rather than fight against them in a long legal battle. Perhaps Blizzard will use this win to try to take on other RMTers, but it will be interesting to see what happens when an enternal RMT provider decides to dig in and force a court to decide what exactly those terms of service (TOS) and end-user license agreements (EULA) actually cover as well as if external RMTers have a legal right to be in-game. (I'm aware that a WoW player is taking on IGE, but that lawsuit is still ongoing.)

But that was just one external RMT operation. There are loads more and lots of them are smaller and will move quicker. They can set up multiple web storefronts in order to offer their services online and if one gets blocked, another clone site can appear very quickly. Lots of RMT operations come out of countries with cheap labour rates (e.g. China, Eastern Europe, South-East Asia) meaning 1) it's not hard to find people to farm the game in order get currency / items to sell for RMT and 2) they sit outside the scope of North American law and its findings.

But you probably know all that. If you play a MMO, you are probably used to getting RMT spam in one form or another. It's a huge business - IGE states they were worth $220m in legal documents - and one that generally sits under the radar in a kind of grey economy. The usual suspect in this case are trial accounts, which are free and widely available for some MMOs. Certain methods are becoming more common in MMOs for dealing with trial account spam - restricting communication types, limited access to certain areas - but that is only a solution in the  short-term because ways are always found around it. One way (and a way that is allegedly costing MMO devs a lot of money) is the use of credit card fraud.

In short - if you need a full account to spam effectively, then you buy a full account. Online credit card fraud isn't just limited to using fake / stolen credit card numbers (although I'm sure that is there); it's also using credit card charge back facilities to bascially play for free. Although I'm sure some unscrupulous players have been doing this ever since pay-to-play was born, the issue is that external RMT farmers can do this on a large, organised scale. I have no idea what the maximum number of accounts that one credit card can buy, but any number will be enough for a few months' use. At the end of that period (i.e. the maximum length of time you can charge back), the farming characters have their possessions emptied onto new paid accounts and turn into spambots with no restrictions because, hey, they are paid accounts. The old farm characters get burned on spam protection measures, the account gets locked and the RMTer authorises a charge back through their credit card supplier.

Yes, that credit card number is now unusable for that MMO, but there are other MMOs to farm where the credit card will be accepted. If you've burned the card at all the MMOs your operation deals with, you can always seek to get a new credit card from your friendly financial institution who's bills you always pay on time.

All of this sees money flow out of MMO development and into external RMT organisations thanks to players who happily pay real money for virtual goods. Now, the common tactic is to criticise the users of these RMT services who are responsible for creating the demand, but that's shortsighted. In MMOs, where time = progression, there will always be those who wish to shortcut the process or don't legitimately have the time to keep up. So they spend money to make up for the time they lack or grind they wish to avoid. Typical MMO design, especially those games who desire a pseudo-working in-game economy complete with auction / consignment house, encourages farming to drive the economy - farming for RMT is just a version of farming, after all. 

The solution to all of this isn't easy. A MMO with no in-game economy would be safe from all but powerleveling spam, but most players want to be able to get new items from shops or drops. Not allowing any sort of trade within a MMO would also work (i.e. gold and items still drop, but you can't trade them to other players) also stops RMT spam / operations, but I don't think players would be happy with it. Draconian enforcement systems could be implemented to stop RMTers and those who buy from them, but monitoring such things is costly and always risks banning legitimate players (as was the case when players who legitimately bought duped items were banned in EQ a long time ago).

In my opinion, the only way MMO companies can drive external RMTers out of the game is to price them out of the market. Since MMO companies can't drive the prices external RMTers pay up and make it too expensive to operate, the only way I can see this happening is for MMO companies to offer their own authorised internal RMT channels. These would be straight purchase channels - no auctions for real world money (which only gives RMTers a channel to work through anyway) - where a player pays the MMO dev studio a fixed price for in-game currency, levels for their character, even items they want. Provided the price charged by the MMO company is less than the cost of an external RMT operation in providing the same service, such a move will see external RMTers driven out of the MMO because it is no longer cost effective to operate. (Duplication bugs would need to be stomped on hard, because that would be the only way external RMTers could compete.)

I know that such an idea will be unpopular in certain circles and does disadvantage casual players with low-incomes. Such players would have to hope for random drops to roll their way to get what they wanted. It will also relegate the in-game economy to hyper-inflation, since large sums of in-game currency could be literally created out of thin air by the devs. But it's the only way I can see of having a chance of driving out external RMT from MMOs before it tightens its grip further.

Cryptic Picks Up Champions Online, LOLz @ Marvel / Microsoft

Posted by UnSub Wednesday February 13 2008 at 11:22PM
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Announced as part of the cover of the next GameInformer comes this gem:

"If that’s not enough, we have the first look at Cryptic Studios’ latest superhero MMO, Champions Online. The City of Heroes developers are taking on PCs and consoles, too, letting us all unleash our inner heroes—or villains."

So, Marvel / Microsoft dump the Marvel Universe Online title and would seem to leave Cryptic out in the cold. What does Cryptic do? It works its pen-and-paper RPG contacts and grabs the rights to one of the better known superhero RPG rulesets. While I'm sure not every bit of work Cryptic did on MUO could be salvaged for MUO (and contractually they might be blocked on some things) all the people they've trained up in working on a superhero MMO for PCs and consoles get to go back to working on a superhero MMO.

The fact that Champions Online will come out on a console and that MUO was meant to be released on the Xbox 360 probably will see Champions Online out on the Xbox 360... possibly before MUO arrives (if it ever does).

How thick the irony.

I hearby shorten Champions Online to ChampO (CO is too close to CoH/V) and look forward to finding out how flexible it will be in character design.

Marvel Universe Online Officially Dead; Wouldn't Be Profitable Enough

Posted by UnSub Monday February 11 2008 at 9:46PM
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It's been broken as a story in a few places, but an interview with Microsoft Game Studios head Shane Kim has revealed the official cancellation of Marvel Universe Online, Marvel Comic's MMO. It appears that both Microsoft and Marvel have decided to walk away from the project with the reason being:

"When we first entered into the development and agreement of the development of Marvel Universe Online, we thought we would create another subscription-based MMO. And if you really look at the data there's basically one that's successful and everything else wouldn't meet our level or definition of commercial success."

It's exceptionally hard not to jump to the conclusion that the "one that's successful" is World of Warcraft. If that's the level set for success, then I have to assume that Microsoft Game Studios is never, ever going to get a MMO released and will probably cancel 99% of its titles under development. It's estimated that WoW generates an annual revenue of over $1 billion dollars and an annual profit of $520 million (those are projected figures; according to other info Blizzard, driven by WoW, actually did a bit better than that in 2007). I think I can safely risk what little credibility I have and say that WoW is the most profitable MMO ever. It could even be the most profitable PC game ever, because it's still earning huge bucks.

Comparing anything to WoW is not a fair basis for comparison for success. It's the outlier of outliers in the MMO world, having huge player numbers as well as using a subscription-based payment model. Oher MMOs might have millions of players, but they typically don't also have sub-based models that drive revenue. Subs-based games can be very profitable, but tend to have a smaller number fo players. WoW has the best of both worlds.

There are some alternative thinking that could be in play, also around player numbers. It's possible that MS Games Studio requires their games to sell millions of units in order to be successful (just like their top selling console games) - this certainly isn't guaranteed for MUO, which would require more money to develop than a single player game. Perhaps Marvel weren't sure their game would gather at least a million players, which is a pretty rare thing in the MMO genre anyway. The numbers to support the development of a MMO are already pretty shakey, especially since 'sure-fire' hits like Star Wars Galaxies or Vangard: Saga of Heroes can come nowhere near meeting market expectations.

In the end, I think the decision to cancel came down to risk. Console-based MMOs are risky since they have rarely been done. PC MMO players may not have come to play a MMO built for consoles. Alternate payment models like real money transactions (RMT - I know some other places call it 'micro-transactions') are not that popular among Western gamers and also putting that to Western console gamers who don't play MMOs... yes, it's a risk.

But these are risks that should have been pretty clear from the start. If anything, the MMO market has become even more attractive to release games in, and if MS / Marvel thinks that releasing the next iteration of Marvel Comics Online sometime after 2010 is going to make things easier for them, they are sadly mistaken. MUO was announced post-WoW and I can't see that the MMO market as having structurally altered past that point in a way that would dramatically invalidate MUO's development (although Vista flopping might have helped put the breaks on a Vista-exclusive MMO for PCs).

Strategically it also seems like a dumb move by MS Game Studios. It leaves MS Games Studio without a next-gen MMO for either Vista or the Xbox 360, leaving Sony much closer to getting into the cross-platform MMO area first with The Agency. MUO was meant to finally add a MMO for the Xbox 360, but this kind of cancellation just adds to my hunch that the Xbox Live architecture can't handle massively multiplayer scaling particularly well. The cancellation also makes MS Game Studios look incredibly flakey when it comes to MMOs - they've killed or off-loaded several MMOs (like True Fantasy Online or Vangard) that they'd spent money on developing without ever seeing a return on investment.

The news also makes me feel sorry for Cryptic Studios. I'm a fan of their output (City of Heroes / Villains) and really wanted to see them release something new. Since the MUO teaser is still up on their website, I'm guessing this official announcement probably took them a bit by surprise, even if they knew it was coming. It also changes the perspective of their sale of CoH/V to NCsoft - assuming they don't have to pay any money back to MS / Marvel, they probably needed an inflow of capital to further develop some of their own MMO properties. A rumour exists they'll be announcing something new on February 18 - I hope they do. I'd hate to see Cryptic close after showing so much potential.

All in all, this just adds another sad chapter to history of the Marvel Comics MMO and its third cancellation. Someone's really not trying here.

On Age of Conan's Nipples, Violence and Maturity: One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

Posted by UnSub Sunday February 10 2008 at 10:28PM
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After much commenting about how various versions of Age of Conan would be different depending on the region you played it in, Funcom announced that they'd received a Mature 17+ rating for Age of Conan for the US that allowed players to see nipples on female characters. Reaction to this finding has been pretty favourable, but that's to be expected in a genre dominated by male gamers who like seeing naked women. The link indicates that full nudity is out of AoC at that rating, indicating that perhaps full nudity code / models exist within AoC.

On the flip side, no comments exist about Germany's censor board's apparent preference to tone down the violence of AoC within their region. I have to assume that this regional difference is still going to occur.

There is a side issue here of feature regionalisation of MMOs that I'm not going to go into, but could see MMOs differ widely by region and already happens for MMOs operating in China. What I am interested in is how this decision is being hailed as some sort of victory over censorship and how AoC will get to ship as a 'mature' game.

The problem with this line of thinking is that 1) Funcom obviously submitted a 'full' version (it's still in beta development, so it can't be a true 'full' version) to the ERSB who passed the game at an M17+ rating, so it still slid in under the censorship regime rather than in defiance of it, and 2) the video game industry is going to continually have problems with the general population if it equates nipples and blood as what makes a game mature. Don't get me wrong - it's nice to see that the ERSB isn't putting the skids on a game just because there are nipples in it. But it doesn't help the industry when such games are held up as what is considered mature content.

I haven't played AoC, so I can't tell if the so-called maturity this game is meant to possess surpasses just blood and nipples. I'd hope that, for a game to be truly mature or deal with mature issues, it gives players the option of choice in their play decisions that would allow them to explore some new ideas or to walk a path they otherwise couldn't (and no, bare-breasted demon maimer doesn't count as such a path). Although a hard thing to define clearly, I see maturity as a state where players have a choice of options, are responsible for their decisions and the consequences of what comes out of those decisions.

This is potentially difficult for a MMO to develop around, but certainly not impossible. If players want to play as the utter dregs as humanity, then they should be able to, but there should be in-game consequences of that kind of play. Likewise, if someone plays as a paragon of virtue, that play style should also be acknowledged.

To keep things in perspective, it took Western society hundreds of years to accept literary works that included sex and violence within them (outside of the Bible) and it's taken decades for movies to progress to the point where we have the modern censorship system. Video games are undergoing the same kind of journey in a much shorter time frame. But at the same time, video games as an industry have relied a lot more on violence to shift units and have very, very rarely attempted to tell a meaningful story or provide adult choices in-game. In books and movies, sex and violence are often used as tools to move a story forward; within video games, violence IS the story most of the time.

Don't get me wrong - I'm happy that Funcom can sell AoC in the US as close to their original vision as possible. I look forward to playing it. But there are risks for the MMO genre of announcing AoC as the first great mature MMO, but all the general public sees is a topless amazon who's dripping in gore from the triple decapitation she's just executed.

Games that MMOs Should Learn From - Syndicate, Vagrant Story, E.T.

Posted by UnSub Friday February 8 2008 at 2:35AM
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Following on from my earlier list of games that MMOs could learn and build on, here are a few more games that really could really help add to the MMO genre or serve as a warning to it:

Syndicate (PC / Amiga): Few games have built a world as thoroughly as Syndicate did. Every time I read that GTA was the first game to really capture that feeling of a big city, I'd think back to watching civillains walk around the maps in Syndicate, seeing cars wait for traffic lights to change and generally acting like it was a living city.

Then I'd have a mini-gun firefight against rival corporate troops, sending civilians screaming for cover before destroying the cop cars that were sent in response to the disturbance. Ahh, vulgar displays of power...

Syndicate (which could be an awesome MMO in and of itself given some tweaking) offers two things to MMOs: 1) having a good approximation of a 'living city' that reacts to your actions and 2) offering multiple solution paths to missions. Some MMOs have taken steps to dress a map up as though it is a living city - City of Heroes / Villains springs to mind - but to my knowledge those cities have been a bit poor in reacting to the player. You can't generally blow up a car or scare the NPC civilians (or alternatively repair the car and hop in it so you can drive around) - the world doesn't really react to what you do outside of pre-scripted results to missions.

Offering multiple solution paths is also rare in MMOs - typically its slash your way to the big bad guy before killing him too. In Syndicate (and I won't pretend every single map allowed for multiple pathways to achieve your goal, but a lot did) you had access to multiple tools that you could use to succeed - it didn't matter if you were subtle / stealthy or staged a full-on assault provided you achieved your goal. Most MMOs seem to be reliant on a player playing through a mission exactly as the developer intended rather than letting players pick their own path.

Vagrant Story (PlayStation): Leaving aside the excellent story and gameplay contained within Vagrant Story, it's the brilliant item and crafting system that could easily be lifted into a next-generation MMO.

In short, within Vagrant Story, it is the weapons and armour that level up rather than the player. If you spend all your time fighing zombies with a sword, that sword gets stronger versus zombies (or whichever of the different power attributes that zombies possess... iirc, it was Undead and Humanoid). That's probably pretty straight-forward. However, you could also combine weapons and armour at the Blacksmith that would then take on the attributes of the items you combined. Not everything could be combined to make what you wanted - two daggers combined became a better kind of dagger - but it was a complex system that theoretically made all types of weapons and armour useful because you could always combine it to make something (hopefully) better.

I'd like to see more MMOs allow customisation of weapons and armour, while also allowing players to convert their items back into base materials that can be combined in new ways to create new things. The metal in a breast plate is also metal that could be used in a sword after all (within a fantasy "we don't care about metallurgy" context, anyway). It would also be great if weapons could 'learn' from the opponents you fought and start to provide bonuses against those kind of enemies. Most MMOs have a pretty disposable item economy - get a sword, use it until a better sword drops, dump the old sword, repeat - so it would be a change to make it worthwhile to hold onto weapons for a longer period of time.

E.T. (Atari 2600): Considered by many the worst game of all time and responsible for Atari's first bankruptcy (which in turn fed into the video game crash of 1983), the lessons of E.T. should be tattooed on the inner eyelids of every game developer considering developing a MMO title (even if it doesn't have an established property involved) and every publisher rubbing their hands together at 'hot title' .

The critical factor behind E.T. failing as a game was time. Howard Scott Warshaw, the programmer, wrote the game design in two days and programmed it in five weeks in order to meet a shipping deadline for Christmas of 1982. No time was available for programming some of the more "sentimental" ideas that would have better tied the game to the film while player testing was skipped entirely. If Warshaw had been given a more reasonable timeframe - between five and seven months - he'd have created a very different game and one that might have met Atari's sales targets.

It should be noted that E.T. actually sold 1.5 million units - that'd still make it a very successful game in today's market on a units sold basis - but what crippled Atari was that they'd manufactured 4 million units for sale. So E.T. the game failed because it wasn't given enough time to provide a quality experience while at the same time Atari management saw it as such a sure thing they overestimated demand. History shows the result of such hubris.

Don't get me wrong - I think MMO development actually needs to be more stringent in meeting deadlines and MMOs shouldn't take years upon years upon years from the time they are first announced to the time they eventually ship. But fixing the release date and demanding that the game ship no matter what on that date is just a recipe for disaster.

You can read a fuller account of E.T. the video game's history on its wiki page.