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The Beatnik Box

Examining the concepts behind "meaningful play."

Author: Beatnik59

How Free to Play Dies: The Case of City of Heroes

Posted by Beatnik59 Tuesday September 18 2012 at 8:51PM
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It has been three weeks since the announcement by NCSoft that they would be closing City of Heroes.  Much of the initial hype surrounding this closure is dying down.  Those who are committing to playing the game through are playing.  Those who are committed to saving the game are still active in the effort.  Unless something happens, the game will end at some point, most likely towards the end of the year.

To those who are not emotionally invested in City of Heroes, I can understand that you might not care about the closure announcement.  It is not your game.  But I do think that the closure of City of Heroes is important for you to consider.  After all, how would you know if your game was closing tomorrow?

The reason why the City of Heroes closure is important is because there was nothing to suggest on the 30th of August that the game wouldn't continue as usual on the 31st of August.  The game was profitable, earning $800,000 a month over expenses.  New content additions were about to be published.  Developers were excited and active.  New character options in the item store were offered just a week before.

As a result, people bought items in the item store on the 30th of August, because they wanted to enjoy them for a long time.  People cancelled their subscriptions on the 30th of August, because they thought they would come back in the winter.  People also renewed their subscription on the 30th of August, because they wanted to enjoy the game and be a part of its future.

Little did anyone know that the 30th of August would be the last chance any one of them would ever have to make these decisions.  And little did any of them know, on the 30th of August, that they were playing a dead service and paying for items on a dead service.

City of Heroes was killed by a board room full of consultants in Seattle.  When the decision was made is not known, but within the first few daylight hours of August 31st, cash transactions were taken offline in the item store, subscriptions became unavailable, the forthcoming publish was scuttled, and Paragon Studios was closed.  This was followed by an announcement, the only official announcement and the only announcement we've heard so far, telling the players about the decision, telling players that the subscription options were not available, telling players that their time to buy item store items has already passed, and that they should expect the game to be taken offline within months.

And three weeks later, nothing has changed.

I predict that this is how games will die in the future: with little warning, with drastic upheaval, and with little concern.  The days of the "graceful sunset" are over, because the games aren't monetized in a way that will allow them to age gracefully.  No longer are players going to get the telltale signs that a game is fading: the development slowdown, the server merges, the forewarning.  Instead, games will be killed while they are still healthy and pumped full of development dollars, because this is the only way the new monetization schemes can work.

The reason is simple: nobody wants to pump money in a cash store for a dying game.  People impulse buy from a cash store when they are under the impression that everything is alright.  Cash stores and tiered account structures work when players aren't bothered by grave questions, like "how long is this service going to last?"  You buy the XP booster because it's no big deal.  You buy the costume piece because you want to wear it when you choose.

But when the days of a game are numbered, I can't help but believe that people start to think--really think--about the value of the things they buy, and the calculation seldom works in the publisher's favor.  When the health of the game is in question, players cannot help but see the truth about the nature of the MMO business model: that the things we enjoy will be taken away.  The things we enjoy and purchase will, at a time not of our choosing, cease to exist for reasons wholly unrelated from our enjoyment or willingness to pay.  At the point when this becomes painfully clear, every purchase decision becomes a "big deal," and--perhaps--a vain waste of money that could go towards something more substantial, like casino tokens at a local riverboat.

I draw the analogy to the casinos for a reason.  There is something rather suspect about how this industry makes its money, selling you a basketball only to take it away in the middle of the night.  When the publishers come to take their basketball away from us is anyone's guess.  But if the experience of City of Heroes is any indication, they'll come without warning, for any reason they see fit.

A Re-Examination of Casual and Hardcore

Posted by Beatnik59 Monday April 26 2010 at 3:11PM
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MMOs are complicated things.  They are like a great unknown continent that explorers from all walks of life are attempting to explore.  We wouldn't have sites like Terra Nova if MMOs weren't worth analyzing from an intellectual perspective.

MMOs are also very powerful, expensive, and money making endevors.  Just like in politics where it is common practice to distort or at least blur the truth, there are enough reasons for the leaders in this industry to lie, or at least cover up the truth.

The way we sort through the lies to get to the truth--at least in terms of social thought--is to look at the language used when defining key concepts.  It often contains a greater truth, but one that can become distorted over time, especially when it is in the interest of an industry to distort the truth.

It doesn't take an expert to realize that there are two types of players recognized by this industry: casual players and hardcore players.  The fact that we on these boards use these terms with the frequency we do is evidence that we, too, have accepted this categorization.  But do we actually know what these categories mean?

We typically think of casual players as individuals who don't spend a lot of the time playing MMOs.  We see them as individuals who have careers, family obligations, and a fat wallet.  We have been told that this demographic is the one that the industry wants to serve.  The games they prefer are ones that allow them to accomplish a lot in a little amount of time.  These players are not against spending additional money on RMT, especially if it helps them accomplish things that they wouldn't otherwise be able to accomplish.

Then there is the hardcore player.  We have been told that the hardcore player devotes a large amount of time playing the game.  We are led to believe that they are against RMT, because it devalues the time they spend in the game.  We are told that they prefer virtual worlds and are against linear games.  We have been told that, unlike casuals, they are roleplayers, but are also achievement-oriented players who are obsessed with game success.

Ultimately, the difference between casual and hardcore has been reduced to the amount of time playing the game.  Casual players can only play for a limited time, while hardcore players devote a large amount of time to playing the game.  However, play time, I suspect, does not adequately explain the differences between casual and hardcore players.

For example, take a college student who receives City of Heroes for Christmas while he's between semesters.

He has nothing better to do, so he plays it constantly for a whole month, logging in 16 hour days on it.  He gets several characters to maximum level, earns several million influence, and has impressive enhancements.  When the new semester starts, he goes back to campus and leaves City of Heroes.

The typical definition would place this person in the hardcore category simply due to the amount of time he spends playing the game.  But this is not entirely accurate.

Yes, he plays a lot, but only because there's nothing better to do.  He plays City of Heroes to pass the time until something better comes along, like his semester at school.  He plays the game, but he isn't emotionally invested in what goes on there.  That's why simply looking at hours logged on a game can be deceiving.

Let's take another person, a banker, who receives City of Heroes for Christmas.

He plays it a couple hours every day after he gets home from work, but when he plays, he takes great care in making sure his time is well spent.  He checks out the forums to figure out the best build.  He researches and produces articles for Paragon Wiki while pretending to write out emails.  He arranges his teams in advance over Teamspeak or IM, so that when he gets home from work he can level up quickly and get the best gear.  He buys influence from brokers with his fat credit card so that he can pwn in Recluse's Victory.

The conventional definition would define this person as a casual gamer, simply because he only plays for an hour or two a day.  Yet can we really say that this person is approaching the game casually?  He is obsessed with the game.  Even when he's not playing the game, he's thinking about the game.  Playing, preparing to play, and all the things he does that are related to the game are not ways of passing the time, but are seen as investments of time.  That's because the person is emotionally invested in what he's doing: the true distinction between casual and hardcore.

See, the very language that we use to describe gamers says a lot about who they are.  The words "casual" and "hardcore" are words that we use to describe substance abusers, and this is where we need to start in order to understand the differences between the two.

While alcoholics often drink a lot of booze, they don't have to drink a lot  to be an alcoholic.  The reason someone is an alcoholic is dependent on why they drink alcohol.  If they need their regular alcohol "fix" everyday in order to function, or they build their lives around their alcohol use, that alone is indicative that they have an emotional attachment to alcohol that goes beyond typical use.

Similarly, just because someone drinks a lot of booze doesn't mean that he is an alcoholic.  He might be drinking a lot of booze because he has nothing better to do, but once he has something better to do, he stops.  While it might not be a good thing that he drinks a lot, he hasn't formed any emotional attachment to alcohol.  You can't categorize someone like this as an alcoholic like the one who can't get by without having booze.

See, I have a rather strong suspicion that the industry really doesn't want "casual gamers," and the games that have been developed really aren't designed to placate "casual gamers."  They want the hardcore--or better yet--they want to turn casual gamers into hardcore gamers.  But it is difficult to see where I'm coming from unless we start to unpack what casual and hardcore really mean, and the distinction between the two is more fundamental than the amount of time each spends in the game.

"Fluff RMT": What the Producers' Know, but Won't Tell You.

Posted by Beatnik59 Sunday February 21 2010 at 11:03PM
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I haven't written one of these in awhile, but I think I'll start with a topic that's been getting a lot of play on the forums and the blogs: item shops.  Now I'm not going to get into whether or not game publishers should be running item shops, and I'm not going to tell you to start or stop shopping at the RMT store. 

What I will tell you is that I think a lot of us get it wrong when we claim "I have no problem with RMT when it's limited to fluff items, but when it comes to items that give an edge in combat, no way!"

Frankly, publishers are fine with that philosophy.  In fact, they love it when you take that stance.  They do, because they know that they can make a whole lot more money selling fluff than the gear you prize so highly.  They do, because they know that when it's all said and done, the fluff matters, and it matters in a way that combat gear will never match.

In some ways, the difference between "fluff" and "performance enhancing" RMT is a lot less distinct than we make it out to be at times. For example, take CoH. For $10, you can get a bunch of colorful emotes when changing costumes. Is it going to make your character pwn? No, but it makes you feel more like a superhero if you have the lightning-charged costume switch. There's another feature called "fortune" in the pack. It gives your character the ability to give a randomly generated perk to other players. It isn't a performance enhancing perk, because it doesn't enhance your performance. But it sure is a nice thing to be able to give.

Things like costumes, emotes, and fluff powers aren't going to impress the combat engine. They aren't going to make you a heavyweight with the loot tables. But you see, people don't play these games to impress the combat engine and the loot tables. Instead, we play the combat engine and the loot tables to impress people...other people. You know, the ones blasting LFG in the public areas. The ones we group with in PUGs. The ones we want to get into our guilds. The ones we pwn in PvP.

What the publishers know is that the "fluff" is in many ways more important to players than the "performance enhancing" stuff. We don't min/max and stack bonuses so we can look like dorks. We do that stuff so we can get the stuff that looks good. That's because we play in an environment that is very visual, but also, very prone to boredom. The fluff makes the character exciting, immersive, and entertaining. It makes us feel like we are there and that we are unique. It makes us fun and it's fun to have. A good piece of stat-enhancing loot is like a wrench: it's useful, but it's not very fun. A good piece of fluff is like a crown of glory.

I'd argue that the "performance enhancing" stuff is less unbalancing than the "fluff," because you still have to go questing to get the fun stuff. But what's the use of tools when all the fun stuff is available exclusively in the RMT shop?

People who think fluff is fine to sell in the item store, but stat-enhancing gear is not, really need to think about not putting the cart before the horse. If you think about it, we don't play these games to enhance our stats. We enhance our stats to get the fun stuff that makes us stand out and be interesting to see and interact with.

But if all the stuff that makes us special is available in the RMT store, no amount of min/maxing and stacking is going to make us stand out. Maybe to hardcore stat-geeks, but not to the rank and file. All you'll be is just another lam0r alongside xXDEATHDEALERXx, inSaiNE4Life!, and all the other folks who don't seem to be very interesting to play with or be around.

And seeing as how, ultimately, we would prefer to be a player that people want to be around--one who is fun to see and to play around--is it any wonder why RMT is selling "fluff" rather than the sword of pwnage?

The sword of pwnage is only good for pwning the same boring MOBs.  The exclusive cool looking helmet that was given out at  "Pwnocon 2010" and is available for purchase at the item store for a limited time only?  That makes it all worthwhile!

PvD: The Underutilized Alternative Antagonists

Posted by Beatnik59 Friday October 17 2008 at 10:04PM
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When I started playing online roleplaying games on the mainframe at college, there wasn't much of a divide between the players and the producers.  In fact, the players were the producers in a very real sense.  The founders of the MUD or MUSH would of course implement the major systems, but players were allowed to create large chunks of the environment using robust scripting languages.  Similarly, the founders would also be the most avid and active players of their own creation; oftentimes playing central (or not so central) figures in the world that moved the narrative along.

We don't have this sort of player and developer connection in today's studio-driven MMO culture.  The impact players have on the game world is constrained; certainly not trusted to create chunks of the play space or develop central narratives.  The developers also are absent from the play space; preferring instead to turn the servers on in the morning and let the systems they design entertain us without their constant intercession.  When the developers do decide to get involved, they usually do it in the form of patches or expansions.  While we used to get some cameos from Lord British in UO, and some big help from Pex's live team in SWG, developers or paid MMO staff are almost never called upon to contact the players directly in the game world.  When they do, they usually do it incognito like in EVE, and almost never take charge of an encounter or plot twist.

You see, I know a lot of you are sick of fighting the same MOBs with the same AI.  PvE is there of course for a very good reason; it's the game players play when there is nothing else they can do.  You see, not everyone can just pick up and go PvPing.  The vast majority of players aren't set up for PvP like the big time guilds are.  So people end up just PvEing, since this is the only game that everyone can play.  It allows players the freedom to do it like they want without being forced to do things they can't or won't do.

PvP, however, is equally tiring.  Either you play in "PvP reservations" or zones that take away all the visceral and tactical elements we enjoy, or we go to full world PvP; which means that people get ganked into early cancellation by twinks who have no desire to add anything to the experience for everyone.  Even the twinks, too, get bored; because once they've figured out the FOTM, combat is no longer a challenge.  If they are a different class than the FOTM, they get upset that the mechanics are stacked against them.

Both PvP and PvE are predictable and boring after awhile, because in both of them, the outcome is decided before the first blow ever happens.  In PvE, the outcome is decided in favor of the MOBs statistics relative to the player's, and since we can tell in advance how difficult a MOB will be, there's no surprise.  In PvP, the outcome is decided in favor of the player with the greater mechanical advantage, and since we can tell by visual cues how great each player's mechanical advantage may be, it's again boring and predictable.  The only way things can remain fresh and unpredictable is if you can't know or predict the mechanical advantage of the enemy; or if you can, the enemy can change.  The only way this can be done is if the enemy has developer commands; commands that help scale the encounter to the level of those who are engaged in it.

See, on those few occasions in SWG when I saw a live event, I saw an amazing thing.  Players from all around jumped in and participated.  TS/vent players helped out non-users.  Noobs and vets fought side-by-side.  No trash talking or childish behavior was engaged in.  Players instantly roleplayed--even if they weren't roleplayers--because the scene was so immersive.  In short, I saw what the essence of an MMO should be: players with a purpose outside of grinding levels or increasing kill/loss ratios.

So I honestly think that PvD, or "Player versus Developer" content, is the best form of combat content.  It is also, unfortunately, the least utilized.  Perhaps because the publishers feel they spend too much already on human resources, and would rather have their developers churn out bad patches and nerfs.  I agree that MMO publishers waste a lot of HR in post-launch.  A lot of the staff of a post-launch MMO never write a line of code.  Most are PR people, customer service people, producers, or other administrative types.  As far as the programmers are concerned, I think what they do is important, but their prerogative to change the game post-launch should be curtailed, and the ability to design interesting live events should be increased.  What I'd like to see is about a half-dozen actors that do nothing but create interesting scenarios on the servers for those that encounter them.  It could be as easy as manning an epic moster in the middle of town.  It could be as complex as a short story arc initiated when a person stumbles into town half-dead.

PvD is what we had at the beginning of online roleplay, and it's what we should have now.  It's unfair to ask players to pay a premium price just to battle scripts all day like in single player games, as it is unfair to expect players to everyone else's content--either as a roleplaying partner or a victim in PvP.  But PvD?  That's something everyone can have fun with when developers take an active role in setting the tone and creating a lively world.

Free-for-All PvP: What are You Willing to Do for It?

Posted by Beatnik59 Saturday July 5 2008 at 8:25PM
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Okay you PKers, you griefers, you 8v8ers,  you realize that your PvP sucks today.  I feel for you.  Now I don't consider myself a hardcore gangsta ganka like you all, but I like a good open-world PvP rush every now and then.

But here's the thing that we've forgotten: the game has got to be more than PvP to make it a good PvP game.  In other words, you aren't going to have the sort of PvP you want and need without giving roleplayers something in the game, crafter/industrialist types something, the explorer-types something, the enchanter/buffers something, and the social-types something.

In other words, the game--and everyone in the game--needs to make the game a worthwhile place for everyone to be.  This is even more important when we talk about FFA PvP with or without full looting.  Because if nobody is going to respect anybody else's playstyle, there's no reason for players to subject themselves to your ganks.

See, I suspect that the reason PvP got hammered in recent years is because PvPers saw no use for things that weren't PvP related.  In other words, they didn't play in character, they used scripts, bots, and multiboxes, and the only characters they interacted with outside of their guild were at the tips of their swords.  In short, they didn't play to make the game work, but only played to make the game work for them and their guilds.

Now of course, there is no rule that requires anyone to roleplay, refrain from unattended bot use, and type to people using /say instead of sticking with the T/S and Vent set.  Then again, there's no rule that publishers have to give us FFA PvP.  So I guess I'm asking you PvP folks what you are willing to do to make a FFA PvP game work?  Or rather, what are you willing to do in order to get a FFA PvP game?

Are you willing to refrain from unattended bot and script use?  In other words, are you going to forego your buffs and enchants on demand in order to help make the game work for the enchanters and buffers?  If not, why should the enchanters and buffers support your FFA PvP?

Are you willing to engage in light roleplay when in town or in taverns and homes?  Now we aren't talking about "thee" and "thou," but are you going to at least make the attempt to make your responses something immersive rather than "me and my high school buddies were grinding and getting drunk at our should have heard what we did over Teamspeak?"  If not, then why should the roleplayers support your FFA PvP?

Are you willing to interact with people outside your guilds, participate in town life, and help out strangers?  If not, then why should people outside your guild, the people trying to build the server community, and the strangers support your FFA PvP?

Because in my experience, the PKers were some of the biggest violators of the spirit of the game, and the suspension of disbelief in the UO, AC1, DAoC, and Pre-CU SWG days.  They ran bots, powerground, outright refused to engage in any "IC" play, and didn't have any dealings with anybody outside of their guild.

In other words, the PKers were like loggers felling trees left and right without ever replenishing the forest.  Eventually, not too many trees were left, and the wardens (the publishers) started placing restrictions on logging.  That's what happens when we assert our right to clear cut everything in sight.

So how do we replenish the soil?  We have to do things that we don't ordinarily do, or aren't comfortable with, so that all the other folks have reasons to stay.  That means everybody makes the attempt to maintain the suspension of disbelief, which means trying to stay "IC" as much as possible.  That means not marginalizing other professions by using bots and scripts.  That means participating in the server community more than simply participating in PvP.

And why am I asking you PKers to do this?  Because you are asking other players to do things they don't like to make your game better (PvP), and with FFA PvP with full looting, you are asking them to tolerate an awful lot for the sake of your enjoyment.  Therefore, it seems only fair that we PKers be just as tolerant for the sake of our victims' fun.

We have forgotten that, not only as PKers, but as gamers generally.

An Open Letter to the Munchkins Among Us

Posted by Beatnik59 Sunday June 15 2008 at 7:32PM
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The boards these days seem to say the same things: "we're tired of this quest-based, linear, WoWesque theme MMOs are going through now."  I can't say I blame them.  I, too, want a good game like Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies.  In terms of design, they were great.  If we could get players to play them correctly, they might be around today.

One of the things many around here claim is that a sandbox is great because it has no rules.  I beg to differ.  A sandbox has rules, and it's up to the players to uphold them or the sandbox dies.  Even EVE has rules, and for the most part, players uphold them.  Otherwise, the game would tank.

We don't use terms like munchkin or twink these days.  Probably because the games we play make no distinction between munchkin or twink play, and regular play.  The goal in the games today is to advance as quickly and efficiently as possible, because there isn't anything else to do. 

But back in the early days, we were given a set of tools as players and subscribers to craft our world.  If you think about that, it's a very special thing to be able to do.  We were the ones, collectively, that were responsible for "making the game work."

We failed.

The moment I realized that sandbox was doomed was about the middle of 2004.  That was when a dancer/musician in Star Wars Galaxies got a GM award for "most helpful player."  There was only one problem though.  The player wasn't even at the keys, and hadn't been at the keys for months.

The character ran on a repeating script which endowed all who saw the character's performance for ten minutes with a buff.  This was initiated when the servers went up, and the character was performing until the server went down.  The character became so popular that all of the other entertainers on the server had no patrons.  Everybody wanted the buff, and everyone went to where the buff was at.

I've met some entertainers in that game that were really fun to see, and made going to the cantina work as a nice immersion device and anti-grinding measure.  Probably the worst thing that could happen to that profession, and this genre as a whole, is when they got that stat enhancing ability.  Because all of the sudden, nobody cared about making the game work for everyone.  They just wanted the buff, and they didn't care if they went to an entertaining player or an artificial script to get it.

Now in all honesty, I really don't think the GM knew what he was doing when he gave out the award.  He probably saw constant crowds around this character, and thought this character was a good entertainer.

But what was really shocking for me was the response from the playerbase on the boards.  It seems that most players in SWG really thought the buffbot was the most helpful player, because the buffbot buffed thousands of players a day at all hours.  Also, they thought the entertainers who entertained at the keys were lazy or selfish for not setting up the bot in the same way.  To the players who depended on buffbots to grind, the spirit and intention of the game--at least the cantina game--was of little consequence.

Buffbots are not unique to SWG.  Asheron's Call had them too for enchanting and portals, and they were just as popular.  I heard the rationalle for buffbots a thousand times, "I pay for the right to have a bot," or, "I just can't risk not having a buff or an enchanter on call."  But there was something about 2004 in SWG that was different.  For the first time, players en masse rejected the intention of the design for the sake of contrived convenience.  It showed me that the majority of powergamers had no use for a virtual world with all it's nuances.  Players did not want to be burdened with the responsibility of making the game world work, and saw the game world as an unnecessay obstacle to what they really wanted: PvP and PvE dominance.

The publishers say that they want to attract the casual player.  However, it seems that everyone I talk to on these boards seem to complain about the time spent grinding, and the herculian task of doing raids.  If anything, the games today are more hardcore than I have ever seen, if one defines hardcore as putting in serious hours.  The fact is, these games get subscription revenue because of the serious hours necessary to play.  This doesn't change between linear and sandbox.

What has changed are the players, and what the players are willing to do to make the game work.  Specifically, players don't want to be bothered with the duty of maintaining the suspension of disbelief, and they feel fully within their rights to metagame, twink, stack, OOC, macro, or complain about any mechanic or subsystem that prevents them from min/maxing on demand.

And now you PvP folks come to the boards and say your PvP sucks, and you want FFA like Ultima?

We'd simply go back to making bots, munchkinizing our characters, camping for loots, AFKing, and griefing RPers.  Enough of us couldn't handle the responsibility of resisting these things before, and I suspect that we wouldn't be able to handle it now.  As a result, all the interesting and good players who made the games work in SWG, AC, and UO went to games where such things wouldn't be a concern anymore: games like WoW. 

Hence, is it any wonder why we have no more complicated script functions, no interdependency, clinical cookiee-cutter character options, bland instances masquerading as worlds, and hardly any RP tools like character customization and emotes?

Sandbox games take compromise on our parts for them to work for the players that are arriving there.  That means not to go rushing off to the macrobot if we can't get a buff right away.  It means indulging a bit of light RP when you are waiting around, if only to maintain the suspension of disbelief for others.  It means not complaining if we can't get into the fight right away because we have to fix our armor, or heal our stats.  It means fixing our problems without guildalts, and shared accounts.

And seeing that we probably aren't willing to circumvent our well-worn ways of twinking out our game, I don't see the next sandboxes being much of an improvement over the earlier ones.


"Strong Guild" Games, "Weak Guild" Games, and Accessability for the Subscriber

Posted by Beatnik59 Sunday December 9 2007 at 12:40AM
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Guilds are a subject I am quite interested in analyzing from a political and sociological perspective, especially in terms of the things designers think about when it comes to designing guild systems.

t seems to me there are two ways to think of the guild's place in an MMO, and by "guild," I mean player made and run organizations (as opposed to factions, which are developer made and self-running organizations).  I think it's important to note though that just because the organizations are player owned and operated doesn't imply that guilds create greater accessability for players.  In fact, I tend to think player made organizations can create accessability challenges for the line subscriber.

One philosophy is that the game should center around guild membership, and pursuing guild goals.  Guilds get exclusive content written in the game specifically for them, and only players that are members of guilds get to access the content.  This is what I call the "strong guild" system.  Examples of "strong guild" systems are CoH, EQ2, and EVE.  In CoH/CoV, base building and crafting is limited to supergroups only.  EQ2 has writs, status systems, and exclusive content available to guilds only.  In EVE, player made organizations can own in a quite real sense large chunks of territory.  In a strong guild system, in order to get access to the content, a player needs to join a guild.

Another philosophy is that the game should center around the player, and not the player's guild.  There is nothing that guilded players get in terms of content that isn't available to non-guilded players, except maybe a mutual guild war system, maybe a community structure, and some communications tools (guildchat).  This is what I call the "weak guild" system.  Examples of weak guild systems are Star Wars Galaxies, and Ultima Online.  Now I don't mean to imply that the guilds in weak guild systems can't be important to the player's experience, and to the game atmosphere.  What I mean by a "weak guild" system is that they don't get exclusive content that is unavailable to the non-guilded player.

Now my thoughts on "strong guild" versus "weak guild" systems is that in the strong guild system, guild recruitment and membership cannot help but be critical to a player's game.  You are either in a guild, or you are not getting the full enjoyment out of the game.  It makes guild membership and recruitment a serious affair, and in a certain respect, a player's game is to a large extent in the hands of the guild bosses in a quite real sense.  My thoughts are that it creates strong bonds within the guild, but weak bonds with those outside of the guild.  In a sense, the player's community is not the server at large, but the guild.

In a weak guild system, guild recruitment and membership is more of a matter of choice, rather than necessity.  One can enjoy the game in the fullest sense with or without guild membership, and so the guilds tend to play more of a supporting role, rather than a central one (a convenient place to find group members, or get supplies).  Guild membership and recruitment is rather casual, and in a certain respect, guild bosses are nothing more than "clerks," not power brokers.  I'm thinking from my experience in weak guild systems, the players have a more loose relationship within the guild when compared to the strong guild games, but a greater network of relationships with those outside of the guild.  In a sense, the player's community in the weak guild system is not so much centered around the guild hall, but with the server as a whole, or with the factions.

Now I've come up with four basic "rules of thumb" when it comes to the relationship between guild quantity, and player accessability.

1) The larger the guilds become, the fewer guilds there will be.

2) The fewer guilds there are, the fewer choices players will have.

3) The fewer choices players have, the more the guilds can afford to be selective.

4) The more selective guilds can afford to be, the more players will not be selected by any guild.

It seems to me that in a situation where there are a small number of large guilds, the ability of the guild to provide for all of a player's needs are greater.  However, it also seems to me that when the guilds are larger, the number of guilds cannot help to be fewer, which imples fewer choices for individuals, and less competition between guilds for members.  If there are only six guilds on a server, the chances of finding one that will accept a player are less than if there were six hundred guilds.

Therein lies the accessability problem with guilds, and the more developers rely upon guilds to do important game functions, the more accessability problems arise.  I think its because of a lot of bad assumptions on the part of developers about the relationship between guilds, community, and accessability.  Four bad assumptions come to mind:

1) There is an assumption out there that "a strong guild system makes a strong community."  In other words, without guilds, there will be no interaction and cooperation between the players in the game.

I think that the stronger role a guild plays in a player's experience, the stronger their guild community will be; and the weaker their ties to players outside the guild will be.  So instead of having a strong community atmosphere, what you end up having is a bunch of strong communities in an antisocial atmosphere.

2) There is also an assumption out there that MMOs need to stress gaming with people, and guilds facilitate this.  In other words, you can't have an MMO without having guilds in the game, and even if there were no guilds, people would form groups that resemble guilds on an informal basis.

I think that people will spontaneously find friends, enemies, and find a home on the server without the guilds telling the player who their friends an enemies are.  In fact, I personally believe that guilds stifle game relations between players, and moreover, make people who aren't even playing the game part of the player's game.  You could be on Ventrillo with a guild member playing EVE, while you are playing City of Heroes.  You can get kicked out of a guild in City of Heroes for saying something that doesn't go over well with a person who never played City of Heroes, but plays EVE as part of the guild in EVE.  Likewise, you could choose to ignore all the players in City of Heroes who use TeamSpeak, or who don't use voice chat at all, because you and your guild rely on Ventrillo exclusively.

3) There is also an assumption that all players in an MMO are already in guilds, so by adding "guild only" content, nobody is excluded.

If everyone is running around in a guild, it could mean one of two things.  Either the guilds aren't that important to enjoying the game, and therefore, they are open to all; or the guilds are crucial to a player's success, and therefore, only the ones who are able to get into guilds are playing.  It seems to me that the addition of content given exclusively to guilds creates the latter circumstance, far more than the former.  If guilds become crucial because of content, then getting into a guild that can facilitate the content now becomes more of a game requirement.

4)  Facilitating a strong guild system gives guilds an incentive to recruit, so if one guild denies a player, another one will.

This is perhaps the most dangerous, and the most widespread assumption.  Guilds have their own criteria which determines who they recruit, and who they do not.  Nor is a guild going to take in people they do not want to take in, merely because the game encourages them to do so.  If major chunks of the game rely on other players admitting you into a guild, then those major chunks of the game are outside the control of the subscriber, and the provider who gets paid by the subscriber.  I think the safest assumption to make is that if content is determined on the basis of belonging to a guild, then there will be people who will not, and may never participate in the content, because they are not in a guild, and never will be. 

You see, when you have a guild system, you give players the power to include and exclude others based on preferences that are ultimately beyond the ability of the developer to influence.  The only thing developers can influence is what being part of a guild entitles you to get, from a content standpoint.  If it means an enhanced game with special content, then developers cannot ever guarantee that their subscribers will ever experience the content.

Somewhere along the line, the MMO devs just thought guilds are essential.  Probably because guild members keep forcing the issue in every game they want to play.  Many MMO devs today have come up through the guild system, and many of them have members in customer service, as GMs, and as media people from sites like this one.

Seeing as how games these days are smaller, and more niche, they oftentimes need to get support from the guilds to hype, or even fund, the game.  The relationship between the guilds and the games have become so strong, it is hard to even know where one ends, and another begins.

From my perspective, subscribers pay the provider.  Subscribers are invited by the provider.  Providers actually have a real vested interest in the satisfaction of all their subscribers, whether they have tags, or not.

Guilds and clans though are unwilling and unable to be responsible for the welfare of all subscribers.  They are for their own interests, which may conflict with the interests of other subscribers, and by extention, the MMO provider.  The subscribers as a whole do not pay them, nor are guilds held to the same legal and professional standards as an MMO provider to provide an enjoyable entertainment service.

Not that any MMO has even tried to design a game without a player guild system.  It is one of those things that got implemented in UO, and really hasn't ever been dropped, or reconsidered.  Frankly, if a game revolves around the guildhall, then the providers cannot guarantee an enjoyable experience to every subscriber, as it may very well be the case that not every subscriber will be welcome in a guild that has the ability to facilitate the fun.

So then, if a subscriber cannot or will not find a guild, then the provider will lose the subscriber for reasons wholly unrelated to what the provider is able to correct.  It costs a guild nothing to reject a subscriber.  It costs the provider revenue if guild recruitment is interfering with a subscriber's enjoyment.

If 60% of your subscribers are in guilds, and 40% are not, then if you make guild membership more of a factor in the ability to enjoy content, you'll lose the 40% that are not in guilds.

The Problem With Immersion (or How Can You Market 1000 Hairstyles?)

Posted by Beatnik59 Friday September 21 2007 at 2:18AM
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It's been awhile since my last blog.  Right now I'd like to approach a problem that has been creeping up upon us since 2003.  The problem, as we all know, is immersion.  The games have been becoming less "worldy" and more "gamey."  Progressive zones, linearity; all of those things that remind us from time to time that the worlds we see aren't real worlds are now a staple of MMO design.  I see a lot of posters on talk about how the industry needs to give us more immersion, but making and selling immersion is a challenge.

We all want more character customization options, bigger terrain, housing, objects d'arte, etc.  The problem with all of that is that it's very labor intensive to create new art, fully rendered maps, or a robust enough 3D morphing application.  Combat, loots, balance, and all of that is important too, don't get me wrong.  The difference between "immersion" coding and "mechanics" coding though is the difference between the icing and the cake.  Without the mechanics, all you have is Zwinky, and so if you have to cut some corners, you have to take it out of all that "neat stuff" we used to expect in MMOs.

Besides, you have to think about the problem from a marketing standpoint.  Think about that list they always put on the website with all the features.  How do you really give the consumers a perspective on immersion, when they really won't know about it until well within their gaming experience?  1,000 hairstyles won't sell a game on its own, but promises of  "fast action combat" do.

So given the high costs of development, and the relative unimportance of immersive elements, it's no wonder why immersion is disappearing.  And I, like you, think it's a shame.  I still believe that the power of the MMO is found in its richness.  It certainly isn't the multiplayer aspect.  I can get all the multiplayer I want on X-Box Live, Counterstrike,  and Diablo II--and not only that--but peer to peer multiplayer works better than MMO multiplayer.  You can screen your own players, and game within constraints agreeable to all parties.  Group play also has more meaning in peer to peer, since you can actually get something resolved within an evening when all of you are together and in the mood to play.  It certainly isn't the length to complete the game.  Sim City and mamy RTS and TBS provide just as many hours of play, if not more, than MMOs.

But I would argue that the richness, the details, the immersive elements are the things you can only get in Massive Multiplayer Online.  Its not for the sake of playing on a team.  You want that, play Madden on X-Box live.  It's not about separating winners and losers.  Counterstrike is free, and it's much easier to actually determine such things.

In a sense, playing an MMO is a personal journey, played together.  The limit to how well an MMO can be a personal journey is directly related to the degree a player can make the journey personal.  It could be as simple as one's own personal "hideaway" at a place so obscure, nobody would ever run into it.  Of course, in order to make it possible for everyone to have their own "hideaway," you need a pretty big map; one that is so large, you can get lost.  This all takes development time though, and development time on things where the actual payoff isn't well defined.  Same goes for clothes, hairstyles, character customization, and housing.  Yeah, it's neat to have, but when is the last time you heard a complaint about hairstyles, clothes, customization, or large worlds?  You don't, and that because of the other reason the industy isn't giving us immersion: we don't appreciate it when it's there.

Every time the devs add immersive elements, they pay the price.  Not only are new art and animation resources some of the most expensive and time-consuming aspects to develop, but they hardly ever go over well with the peanut gallery.  "Why are you working on this when (insert class here) has been broken for two patches now?," or "you want to make the maps bigger?  All I do is travel, and it's boring!," or "we don't need this foofoo crap dancing and clothes!  I came here to fight and earn phat loots."  Given the high cost of bringing us immersion, and the low payoff, it's no wonder why immersion is taking a backseat.

A word to the wise though.  There are only a limited number of things that can be done to keep combat fresh, and only so much they can dangle the loot carrot, before the whole rat race becomes meaningless.  When that happens, the only thing that is going to keep people logging on and maintaining a subscription are all of the "worldly" elements that are disappearing from our games.

Dying Worse Doesn't Make Living Better

Posted by Beatnik59 Wednesday August 22 2007 at 2:14PM
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This is from a BBS post I made some time back.  It was in response to someone who felt that MMOs have gotten too squeamish about death penalties.  The thought was one that I hear a lot lately: the games are much too sanitized to be meaningful.  By making corpses subject to looting, or making death more "painful," we can reestablish the meaningfulness in the games like the games we used to know, like Ultima Online.

However, as much as we'd like to, we can't go home again.  I hear it a lot, and I too said to myself at one time, "if only someone had the guts to bring out the viceral game like Ultima Online, nobody would ever need another game."

We have a very romantic and idealized notion of that game, but we have to keep in mind that the culture of gaming was different back then.  In those times, many of us didn't even know what an MMO was.  We came to UO as individuals, and formed a community of individuals in the game.  Guilds were almost an afterthought, and fast internet connections were rare.  Chat was done longhand, using the game server as the facilitator of every important interaction between players.  Official forums were not around initially.  The secondary market and third party influences were not as prevalent.

In short, it was an MMO in its purest state, with little to nothing from outside Ultima Online influencing what went on within Ultima Online.

These days, players really have no need to create a community within a game.  They bring their community en masse with them in the form of their guild or clan, which is self-sustaining, self-reinforcing, and abides by its own standards of conduct.  People that they already know, already trust, and who look at the game as just another activity to play with each other within.  Interactions between the members are insular, meaning that it is privately facilitated through AIM, or more likely these days, voice chat, across many different games.

Unlike those days in Ultima Online, guilds are no longer a thing that the game facilitates.  It exists wholly independent of the game, with its own websites, and its own communications network, and its own notion of membership that is centered around the TeamSpeak server as the social hub, and not the game server.  Unlike those days in Ultima Online, gamers today do not band together spontaneously into guilds out of necessity.  Rather, they come to the games already guilded, and approach the game methodically to maximize the guild's presence in opposition to everyone else.

In a sense, the problem with the harsh and high stakes game many here in the forums argue for, is that it presumes that everything that influences the outcomes happen within the context of play, and that individuals play these games.  That was indeed true in terms of Ultima Online way back in the late '90s, because we didn't have the sort of gamer culture, and outside influences back then, like we do now.

Today, what determines in-game success or failure is only partly determined by what goes on in the game, and I would argue, the least important factor.  The ones who tend to do better in the "risk versus reward" scenario don't play as individuals, but a mass of accounts who log on as needed, heap up wealth in communal accounts, and do whatever it takes to maximize their combat prowress in a very calculative, methodical, and efficient manner, for the sake of producing tangible symbols of their superiority in all areas.

And I am not even saying that it is wrong to have ambition for these things.  The problem is though that most of the things that determine success or failure in the games these days have actually very little to do with the things that go on in the game, but rather, all of those things that influence the games from the outside, be it farming, professionalized guilds, teamspeak, forums, macros, etc.  Its the sort of stuff many think is the essence of being in an MMO, but what I would argue, cheapens the MMO.

What made Ultima Online so good, and so exciting, is that the only thing that influenced the game was playing the game itself, and not playing to all the outside factors that made some players better than others.  Each player saw himself as an individual, a hero, and a character.  Not some interchangeable and disposable commodity playing a position in what some have called "geek football," for the sake of some gamehopping, 200 member geek football club.

We say that we want a stiff death penalty for losers in PvP, so that it causes more realistic behavior on the part of players.  But it seems to me that when we argue that we want full looting, that the desire is not to create a death penalty, as much as it is to create a killing reward.  And what do we want to reward?  Specialized, PvP builds designed to "play a position," on a raid team with maximum statistical efficiency, membership in an established gaming community you can bring with you to your game, so you don't have to build relationships with outsiders (or even have to type, for that matter), and the ability to sacrifice any attempt at balance, realism, and depth for the sake of kill/loss ratios, and the transfering of wealth from the ones who are playing the game, to the twinks just gaming the game.

In a sense, it wasn't the harsh death penalties that made UO so great.  It was the beautifully naiive players and the purity of the experience that made harsh death penalties workable.  Bringing back the harsh death penalties today won't bring back that purity.  All it will do is push players away from the game, and toward the metagame, like in EVE Online, or The Sims Online.  The result is a game where conflict isn't fun anymore; it becomes personal, and something that no longer counts as recreation for many.

I wish we could go back to a time when we weren't so serious about these games, and played them like we did back in the late '90s with UO.  The problem is, somewhere along the line, we as players have forgotten how we used to play UO, and EQ, and I'll repeat something I told the Vanguard fans awhile back.

Back in the old days we didn't have "DKPs."  We didn't have the bandwith to logon to private clan coms.  We took people as they were, took chances, and roleplayed.  It was easy to find groups back then and have fun, because we didn't organize our games, our friends, and our time there as a whole like a business investor or a professional sports team would.  We never let the "business of playing" interfere with the play.

Times have changed though, and we have lost that ability to put the game in perspective.  Now we have "PUG bashing," and "voice freezeouts."  We have more excuses why we shouldn't group with this or that particular person, than why we should.  Our worlds, our friends, and our tolerance for wasted time (as if the whole point of an MMO isn't to waste time in the most enjoyable way possible), has become small.  Therefore, it is no wonder why the games have become small, and the death penalties have become small.  MMO gamers have become too stuffy, too judgemental, too clanish, and too obsessed with status to handle a game like UO these days.

And why?  Because back in the UO days, we treated it as a game.  Today however, with all the seriousness and clinical obsession with efficiency, it looks less like a jovial pasttime, and more like a boring lecture in statistics and management science.

Making death mean something is not going to bring back the passion, when there is nothing passionate anymore in how we choose to approach play.  That's why making designs resemble UO aren't going to bring back the spirit of UO, or the meaning UO held for us.