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MMORPG.com PAX East Panel - Part III

General Article By William Murphy on March 25, 2011

You can read part 1 and part 2 of our PAX Panel Recap here and here, but to save some space let’s dive right into the next question from the thousand or so in attendance.

The player at the mic asked, “There’s a focus on epic raids, epic encounters, and yet most of these fights only have 20 or 30 units on the screen at once.  Why hasn’t there been a game to include thousands of players in one fight at a time?”

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Quick to answer, Scott Hartsman replied, “Is 700 good enough for you?  That’s our biggest event so far, you ought to try it.  Oh, and that’s at level 8.” 

After the laughter and applause subsided, Colin Johanson added more seriously, “The big challenge with thousands of characters and players on screen is all from a technical side of things.”  What can players’ computers and video cards support?  What can the server technology support?  He said that ArenaNet they think they’re designing a game that will be able to have giant world versus world combat in the “Mists” PvP with thousands of players fighting against each other, keep sieges and the like are all part of that.  He also thinks that ArenaNet and Rift won’t be the only games that can sport massive numbers like that.  Colin thinks that’s a natural evolution of the technology available to us, and that the “epic” fights are only just beginning. 

Craig Alexander went a different route, stating that for Turbine and games like DDO or LotRO, the massive participation they’re aiming for comes in the form of guild systems where players are all working together to achieve common goals.  He thinks that aside from the epic battles, there should be a focus on more social means of progression that can deliver content and help players feel a part of something larger.

Curt Schilling piggy-backed onto that saying that he remembers when raids of the EQ era involved 4am corpse-runs.  But then developers perfected instancing, and using that technology became the next big thing for every studio.  And while he believes that used in the right way and in the right places, instancing can have its place he feels MMOs are about a bunch of people coming together to work together or against each other.  Keep sieges give him a panic because he remembers the trouble Mythic ran into with Warhammer.  He concluded by saying that a player’s first experience with any system, large or small, needs to be a positive one.

Brian Knox then stated that while having massive events and battles are ideal, developers need to remember to keep the game meaningful at a one player level too.  He believes that games need to make each player feel unique, effective, and a part of something larger and that it can be very difficult to balance this with the larger scope of world or server-wide involvement.  Each player’s actions must feed into a specific function, or you wind up with a thousand plus people standing around feeling useless.

Jeremy Gaffney agreed in a way by saying, “In the real world mass-PvP kind of sucks.  It’s horribly unbalanced, and perma-death really sucks.  I think there are a lot of issues trying to coordinate thousands of people at once.  The user interface needs to serve that, the game designers need to be able to drive the content there, and the technology needs to be there.”  He believes we’ll see this start to be perfected as the “next generation” of big releases hits, but that developers really need to make sure to still focus on the one-to-one experience too.  If you can get that right first, the rest will follow.  Craig Alexander of Turbine next added that a big part of the whole design is creating content that’s scalable so that many different sizes of groups can partake in the content without feeling left behind. 

“A lot of times we ask for things that maybe they don’t really want,” said Curt Schilling.  He brought up the way in which MMOs have made it so that players can log in and still do things by themselves if they only have a little bit of time.  While not a whole lot of players asked for this, it’s quickly become something every new game must offer.  The playing alone together concept is something that’s become necessary in recent years and doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

Our next question was another goody: “At what point do you start listening to the feedback on forums?”

Jeremy Gaffney states, “We run a lot of stats, I mean you have to.  Once you get a certain mass of players you have to.  A very, very low percentage of the players go to the forums, and a lot more read the forums but don’t participate.  It’s very easy to get false positives.”  The question is what is really “pissing players off”, and what might be a coordinated attack on something in the game by a group of like-minded players to sway the game one way or the other? 

Brian Knox cut in to say, “A really good community manager is key.  When you find a good one, you hold onto them.”  Of course Brian might be biased our other panelists noted, since he is indeed married to his CM, but that’s neither here nor there. 

Curt Schilling said that he’s in a unique position, because although he started a game studio he’s still a player.  He reads the forums, he participates, and he reacts like a player still.  He said that “we love that you care enough to post, but sometimes it’s not something you necessarily want to cut and paste on Facebook.  It’s not always kind.  The key is finding the difference between someone asking for something one person wants, and something a lot of the community wants.” 

James Ohlen said that BioWare is going to rely a lot on metrics, outside of the forums.  They’ll be tracking what players actually do in game, how they fare in encounters, and then they’ll compare this to the feedback on the forums to make sure something really is an issue before jumping the gun and addressing it based on a few rowdy forum posters.  Scott Hartsman agreed, saying that the best place to find out what’s working and what’s not in your game is by taking a listen in on the server chat.  If something’s broken, you’ll hear it first within the game.  Ultimately though, Scott said it’s all about being reachable in a number of ways not just the forums. 

Our next question was about the way in which different Internet Service Providers are weighing the possibility of capping data usage, or blocking traffic, and in general tightening their grip on their subscribers and how that will affect our pastime.

Scott jumped in first pointing to his vacant scalp saying, “Six months ago I had a full head of hair.”  He laughed and went on more seriously about how they recently spent a lot of manpower on sorting out port usage for Rift with hundreds of different ISPs to make sure players could play their game.  He said that to these companies, when Rift launched, it was a brand new stream of data they’d never seen before so therefore it must be a bit torrent and they were shutting down Rift’s access.  It’s a really big problem, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer.  He said that if Trion and other developers didn’t have access to the internet that they do have, most of the innovations we’re seeing would cease to exist.  He really hopes that there’s a better way to fight piracy than capping users’ data. 

Curt Schilling simplified the issue saying, “We really just need the government to butt out and allow the games industry to regulate itself and the internet to regulate itself.” 

The next question then was, “A lot of MMO gamers use these games as a form of escape.  I want to sit down pop open a beer and kill a goblin.  How worried are you really about drawing social media and things like Facebook into the gaming experience?  Do you think it will take away from the immersion?”

Scott Hartsman began by talking about Rift and its Twitter integration.  It’s there to be used by those who want it to share screenshots, achievements, and the like but by no means is it mandatory.   They’ve seen it used from the individual level to entire guild Twitter accounts that broadcast their stuff that way.  But it’s always optional, and should be like most ancillary game features of that nature.

Curt said that when it comes to escape that’s how he always viewed them.  For him, it was where he didn’t have to be “The Pitcher”.  He could just be a gamer, and then he found that as his guild began to know who he really was they couldn’t care less about his real life job.  He believes that MMOs and gaming in general are an incredibly powerful and positive thing for kids and people as a whole when they’re done right.  And it’s ultimately up to the user, and what we saw with the Battle.net fiasco was that people want to keep their anonymity or at least a certain amount of it.  So when it comes to integrating things like Facebook or Twitter, it always needs to be a personal choice. 

Jeremy then brought up the interesting phenomenon that is Zynga games, and how they’re very polarizing.  He said there’s two types of people: “There are those playing it, and there are those who are sick of the little lost fawn showing up in all of their friends’ status reports.”  He says that people want to keep in touch with their friends, but they don’t want to be spammed, they don’t want to be used for game advertising.  He thinks that the AAA studios will be trying to hit that balance a little better, but that right now it’s a bit of a mess.

“I think you’re going to see more and more social tools come out of online games,” said Colin Johanson.  He believes that as companies make their games more like worlds, and players make more and more friends, the need to interact will become more apparent than it even already is.  He thinks what MMOs need to do is bring the good aspects of the social experience of something like Facebook into the game, without all the annoying and frustrating aspects.  It can and will grow the sense of community we have in these games, but how it does so is still up in the air.

Curt rounded out the discussion by saying that there was a time when geeks were just relegated to the basement stereotype, but that now we’re becoming the majority rather than the minority.  “If you can download an app to your iPad and have it cross-referenced to your iPhone and your Mac, then yep… you’re a geek.” He said his kids are growing up with games and technology now, when before he had to sort of search it out.  Brian Knox added that ideally the focus should be more on community and not on marketing and so long as developers remember that, the social networking part of MMOs should be fine and well.  And lastly, James Ohlen said that as long as the game is fun first and foremost all the rest of the little things can come second. 

That’s it for Part III of our PAX Panel Recap.  There’s one more segment to go.  Do you want to know what Curt Schilling has to say about Hot Elf Chicks?  You’ll just have to check back later for the fourth and final installment.  Thanks for reading!

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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