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An Ongoing Tribute to my own lameness.....

General random thoughts about gaming, both within and outside of the MMO genre.

Author: Jimmy_Scythe

Hardcore Gamers

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Sunday July 20 2008 at 1:51PM
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Fuck Hardcore gamers.

This is the line I used to begin a thread in the pub last week. I actually think that it must have set a record for shortest time to deletion. I got banned for a day over this post, and rightfully so. But I did mean every word. I've had some time to mull over my post and revise it considerably. Not only have I made the message less personal and more anonymous. I've come to realize that the situation isn't quite as pessimistic as I believed at the time of writing. None of this, however, changes the fact that the direction, and public perception, of gaming culture is driven by the so-called “hardcore elite” crowd.

We all know the gamer stereotype. Pale. Fat. Unemployed. Supremely unfamiliar with either the touch of a woman or the scent of soap... Spending all day, everyday camped in front of an overpriced electronic toy, or PC game, that's designed specifically to amuse preteen and teenage boys. The reason this image infuriates us as gamers is because it doesn't even describe most of us, let alone all of us. Unfortunately, it does describe a small, vocal and very visible number of us.

So how small of a minority are the hardcore gamers? To begin with, you have to track the number of gamers that there are. In the United States, it's estimated that about 65% of all households own a console or a PC that they use for gaming. According to an NPD survey, only about 65% of those gamers play games online. That translates to about 120,900,000 people. Of that number, 50,778,000 are women. Even more shocking, 85,800,000 online players predominately play puzzle, card and arcade games (think Pac Man). 48,750,000 online gamers only play “family-oriented games and only about 79,950,000 consider themselves avid PC gamers. There's some overlap in those numbers, but consider that there are probably only about five million people playing MMORPGs and another couple million playing Halo or Counter-Strike in the U.S., then throw in the fact that almost half of all gamers in the United States are offline, playing Madden or Guitar Hero, and you begin to understand just how small the “hardcore” gamer population really is.

What's really sick is that the hard core are actually proud of this minority status. Hardcore gamers seem to be under the delusion that being able to get 2000 lines in Tetris, 50 to 1 kill ratios in Counter-Strike, Tier 100 epic gear in World of Everclone, etc., somehow entitles them to a MENSA club membership. That somehow the interactivity of video gaming makes it a more intelligent medium than Books, movies and music which all have THOUSANDS of years of refinement and actual artistic depth. Yep, the hardcore play games and that makes them smarter than all the Literary English and Fine Arts Ph.Ds on earth. As fuckin' if. Just because you set up velvet ropes around yourself doesn't mean that you're special. Unfortunately, those velvet ropes attract the kind of shallow, status seeking fucknuts that ruin everybody else's fun.

The arrogance factor of the “hardcore” actually has two parts. The first being with games themselves. To a greater or lesser extent, we all play games to feel a sense of accomplishment. This has been true for centuries. It's the whole reason why sports are such a huge part of high school. Games give us a sense that we're competent and allow us to demonstrate that competence to others. Games also give us a very clear and concise way to compare ourselves to others. Most of the hardcore will go on for hours about how stupid it is for some “dumb jock” to use basketball as a measure of self worth and then turn around and brag about their stats and achievements in whatever game they happen to be obsessing over this week. And maybe this offers a key as to why there's so much hate directed at specific games. If you aren't playing the same game I am, I can't determine how you measure up to me! This is why those “dumb jocks” were so condescending to anyone that wasn't on the football team. If you didn't play football, you didn't rank. Not surprisingly, the chess club did the same shit.

The second element of hardcore arrogance is what I like to call nerd angst. It goes kinda like this: In order to cope with social rejection in the face of extreme social anxiety, the nerd constructs a delusion that everyone else is just jealous of his/her intellectual gifts and obvious superiority. To this end, they seek out other nerds and do things that are deemed “smart,” usually involving massive amounts of basic arithmetic, reading or both. Secure within this small support group, they and their new friends gleefully spiral downward in a cycle of ever expanding alienating behavior in the face of social alienation. Tragically, most never grow out of this. The worst case scenarios end up as the snarky, hateful forum warriors and asshat chat spammers that define the public opinion of gaming culture.

And that's a bad thing because not only have the hardcore taken something that many people enjoy and turned it into a colossal pissing contest, but they also push potential gamers away from the hobby. This is compounded by the fact that the demands of the hardcore have fueled trends that have lead to massively inbred game design and further distanced this hobby, not only from the mainstream, but from what made gaming fun in the first place.

You do remember fun right? It's that sensation that made you want to continue playing a game even when it was impossible or unending. It was what separated playing games from working on an assembly line. It's the reason that normal people play games. But not hardcore gamers.

As an example, let's look at the length of games. Hardcore gamers demand games that go on for AT LEAST 60 hours. Of course, even if the game does have over 80 hours of content, the hardcore “elite” still bitch that the game was too short because they burned through it in less than two weeks.

Fun Fact: Most people Don't even watch 60 hours of a single TV series. Most TV shows are broken up into manageable chunks of 30 minutes to an hour. Hell, one season of a prime time drama may only go on for about 10 to 15 episodes which translates to about seven and a half hours max. Aside from The Simpsons, name one TV series that went over five seasons. In short, the hardcore are demanding that everyone spends more time, in one week or two weeks no less, on one game than they do on a single TV show over the course of said show's entire running length. And if someone is unwilling to commit that kind of time, then hardcore gamers label those people as retards with ADHD. And since Hardcore gamers are the most vocal, developers cave to their demands and make monstrously long games that they know the majority of gamers won't bother to complete. It doesn't end there, and a quick glance at the schizophrenic demands of the hardcore will give you some truly fascinating insight into why core gaming is in such a sorry state.

Anything about a game that's too different the hardcore labels as "lame, gimmicky, bullshit." Any attempt to make a game more accessible to people not already entrenched in any given genre they rag on the game for being "dumbed down." Any attempt to streamline an interface or control scheme for smoother play gets accused of "lacking depth." Any game that hits all the conventions of a genre is poo pooed as a "clone." it really doesn't matter what a game does because the hardcore will fabricate some asinine reason why this or that game isn't filling the undefinable void in their life. I wonder if they've ever considered that problem might not be with the game?

I can only think of one other entertainment medium that produces contend based on the demands of a vocal minority: comic books. Despite the best efforts of people like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman, comic books still occupy a slimy, superhero fanboy ghetto. If the medium had spent time aiming for a more mainstream audience and developing the medium as an art, rather than catering to a few loudmouth man-children for the better part of fifty years, you'd probably be able to buy quality comic books in regular bookstores. As it is, you have to don a trench coat and hat, turn your collar up and hope that no one recognizes you in front of the rather ratty looking shop the specializes in comic books. If the gaming industry continues to follow the demands of hardcore gamers, this same situation could happen to us.

But there is good news. There's been a recent explosion in casual games. What's more, Wii Sports actually moved more consoles than Halo 3 or Metal Gear solid 4. We're also seeing a lot more artistic games such as Everyday Shooter and fl0w. The industry is finally figuring out that there is more money to be made by catering to the general public than a handful of socially awkward, arrogant, misogynistic, shut ins with borderline asperger syndrome. And it's about damn time!


I Am No Longer Killing The Gaming Industry (As much): Ask Me Why

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Sunday July 13 2008 at 12:37PM
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I gotta level with you, it isn't just the number of games on the Wii and 360 that lead me to purchasing them. My decision was also based on the fact that I could rent games and buy them used. Renting and used games just aren't an option for the PC. The simple fact that I can't rent or buy used, limits the number of PC games that I purchase. The offset is that I can get most of my PC games through direct download or subscription services.

For me, this trend kind of snuck up while I wasn't paying any attention. I still rented console games from Gamefly, bought used games from GameStop and bought my PC games on clearance. But I bought my last two consoles... new. What's more, I downloaded a lot of virtual console games on my Wii as well as a few classic Playstation games from the Playstation Store for my PSP. I even purchased The Orange Box, Everyday Shooter and Beyond Good & Evil through Steam. Suddenly, I'm not killing the industry by being frugal anymore. Suddenly, I've become something of a download-aholic.

Yeah, many direct download games are old, but good games are good games. The NES version of Contra is just as good today as it was in 1988. People are still playing Quake 3 and Counter-Strike 1.6. Over the years, there have been too many great games released for anyone to have played them all to completion. The Wii and the Playstation Store have allowed me to go back and catch several games that I missed the first time around and relive some games that I haven't played in years. 

Think of it this way: I don't have to wait for the postal service. I don't have to drive across town only to put up with unattended kids running around the store and screaming at my feet. I don't have to deal with apathetic assholes behind the counter making it a point to display how much I'm inconveniencing them by having the nerve to ask a question or <gasp> actually buy something. I don't have to worry about scratched disks or CD Keys. I don't have to deal with a limited selection of what's in stock. I just have to wait for the download. And normally that's less than an hour. Three to four hours tops.

The convenience of direct downloading is often complimented by a lower price. Steam had UT3 available for $30 two weeks before anyone else. The most expensive downloadable game on the Wii, Virtual Console or WiiWare, is about $15. Most classic PSOne games at the Playstation store go for five to ten dollars. Seriously, Steam put Bioshock and Assassin's Creed at $30 about three days before most retail stores in this area brought the price down.

Consider that I currently subscribe to Gamefly. For about $25 I get to check out two games at a time from the entire library of games for nine different consoles. Out of those nine consoles, I own seven. Well actually, I own four but since three of my consoles are backward compatible... You get my point though, that's a lot of game. Since it takes about a week for me to send back a game and receive the next title in my game que, I usually get to play about four games, from beginning to end, a month. If it wasn't for the postal service, I could actually play more games than that. How much do you figure Microsoft would charge a month for unlimited, instant, online access to every game in their console brands library? Sony? Nintendo?

And that brings me to Gametap. I had a trial subscription to Gametap when it first came out. I liked the large library of retro games that they had and how easy the whole thing was to use. I hated the fact that I had to call their customer service department to cancel rather than just being able to do so through their web page, which was the deal breaker for me. I must be the only person that cared since the service has grown in leaps and bounds since its debut. Ten dollars a month or $60 a year gets you unlimited access to 950 (retro) cosole, arcade and PC games. Currently, you can play 140 of those games absolutely free. I'm definitely thinking about subscribing and I can't quite shake the feeling that all gaming is going in this direction.

Not that games on demand is a new idea, mind you. Way back when, certain fortunate gamers could pay $15 a month for The Sega channel, unlimited access to Sega Genesis games via their cable provider. Years before that, Atari had a similar service called Gamline that allowed people to directly download Atari 2600 games from a special modem. Ditto for Mattel's Intellivision. Good ideas never really die and now that the internet is in most homes, games on demand is a very inexpensive reality.

Oh, the industry won't go subscription over night of course. But I wouldn't be surprised if the next generation of consoles didn't come with any drive or cartridge slots at all. I'm guessing that the next group of consoles, both set top and portable, are going to offer direct download of the games. Removing the retail aspect entirely.

This is something of a double edged sword though. Sure, it gets rid of piracy and helps keep the price low since the publisher doesn't have to pay for packaging or shelf space, but renting and buying used games becomes a thing of the past. This system also leaves out anyone that lives in an area where broadband internet isn't available. From a business perspective, cutting out those that don't have broadband isn't a big deal since we already know that there are millions of people worldwide that do have it. Reclaiming the secondary markets of rentals and used games isn't a bad thing for game publishers either. How long have game publishers and developers tried to shut down or get royalties from operations like Gamstop? At least since such secondary markets began.

With retail, the publisher makes a profit off of every unit sold. Ditto for direct download. Subscription models are a little bit trickier. Part of the reason why Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo don't offer their retro games on a subscription service is because it turns the console gaming business upside down. Instead of a developer paying a huge licensing fee to the console developer, the consoles subscription service would have to pay the developer to carry a particular title. The amount of payout could be adjusted according to ratings, or advertising revenue, but it would mean that the big three would have to pay for their line up rather than being paid.

Direct download, however, has a different problem for consoles: Since there won't be any rental chains buying the games in bulk, the number of sales will actually take a very quick nose dive. So it'll eventually boil down to making the subscription model work somehow. And the subscription model as already been proven effective via MMORPGs.

In a way, I blame MMORPGs for this industry shift. If it hadn't been for the subscription based business model of MMORPGs, then game publishers would just laugh and point to failed services like The Sega Channel and go about their business as usual. But if MILLIONS of people are willing to pay $15 a month just to play one totally boring, gawd awful game (most MMORPGs are terrible and I'm not alone in this opinion) then imagine what they'd pay for a whole library of really good games! And thus subscriptions and microtransactions for extra content became industry buzzwords.

So the only real question here is whether this will save the consumer money or ultimately cost more for the consumer in the long run. Gametap beats the both Wiiware and the Virtual console when it comes to price. The Playstation store, Xbox Live Arcade, and even Steam cost more in downloads than a year of Gametap. What's more, Gametap hosts many games that Xbox Live Arcade and Steam charge eight to ten bucks to download (BloodRayne, Beyond Good & Evil, Deus Ex, Neo Geo Fighting games, etc.). But what happens when Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo enter this space? Is it really such a bargain when you're paying $500 for the machine and another $300 a year ($25 per month) for a subscription? Would you be still be saving you money if you owned all three consoles and subscribed to all three services? I already know that there are many tools, who consider themselves “hardcore,” that would drop $2,400 for games in a heartbeat, but those people are definitely in the minority.

From a development point of view, very little changes. The industry will still be hit driven with everyone trying to rip off the highest rated games. Hype will probably die down to the level of ordinary TV industry buzz: A welcome change to the fanboy zealotry that currently plagues gaming culture. I also think that games ratings, kind of like TV ratings, will give developers better insight into how to make better games.

Even though all of this is still about five years away, I haven't quite decided how I feel about it yet. I really like the idea of actually owning my games and being able to play them whether I'm hooked up to the internet or not. I want to be able to play my favorite games years and years from now after any sane ratings system would have discontinued support for the game due to lack of interest by the public. I also don't like the idea that these services would be able to monitor my gaming habits, even it was totally anonymous. But if it saves me money... And it's the only way to play games.... Well....



Instead of a MMORPG: Orcs & Elves

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Sunday June 15 2008 at 4:33PM
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So I recently picked up the Nintendo DS version of Orcs & Elves at Gamestop for ten bucks. For those of you that don't know, this was ID software's second foray into the cell phone gaming market; The first being Doom RPG. So when I first heard about this game being ported to the DS wrote it off as nothing more than John Carmack's fuck you letter to Nintendo. That may have actually been the case, but the port turned out really, really good.

Speaking of Carmack, this entire game was actually a one man show. Although  I'm pretty sure he had someone else do the artwork, the engine and level design are Carmack. This surprised me for two reasons. To begin with, I was under the impression that John Ramero had done the bulk of the level design work for Doom 1-2 and Quake. The second reason this surprised me was because of how well balanced and paced the levels of this game are. On further reflection, the second point isn't really all that shocking when you consider that Carmack is a genius graphics programmer and, by default an accomplished mathematician. If anyone could keep an RPG level curve in lock step with the challenge, it would be a man that can juggle statistics and do advanced calculus in his head.

If you look at the original cell phone game, you'll notice that the DS graphics got a major touch up. This game doesn't push the DS hardware by any means, but it's not a total eyesore either. The game actually pulls off the retro look effortlessly. If you've ever seen games try to be retro, you'll know that it can be done wrong.

The gameplay is turn based with every step being one turn. you're allowed to switch weapons and change your facing for free, but once you attack, quaff a potion, cast a spell, or take a step forward or back, all the other mobile features in the dungeon get their turn to act. It sounds pretty boring on paper, but if you actually play it you'll be amazed at how briskly the game chugs along. The whole thing has more of the feel of an FPS than an RPG, despite the fact that you gain levels and abilities as you continue.

Story? Well... There really isn't one... The setup is that you're an Elf who, with the assistance of your talking wand, have traveled to meet a Dwarven king only to find the mountain crawling with  monsters and the spirits of dead Dwarves. And with that you set out to discover whats going by journeying through the mountain's ten levels and killing every living thing you encounter.

and that's really all there is. A short, satisfying dungeon crawl that will make you feel like you're ten years old again. If you've been playing computer games since the mid-80's, you'll get a warm fuzzy nostalgic feeling. If you cut your teeth on Final Fantasy 7, you'll probably return this after about two minutes of playing it. I'd urge you to stick with it though. The game gets hella challenging in the later levels. Plus, it'll only take you about two hours to complete. So if you're looking to get an RPG fix during your lunch break at work, this is what you want. There's currently a sequel available on cell phones if you don't get enough here.

At any rate, this game has everything I love about RPGs in a highly concentrated form. It isn't a hard formula to figure out really. Why modern RPGs and MMORPGs can't seem to grasp this, I'll never know.

Why There Are So Many F2P MMOs

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Sunday June 8 2008 at 4:00AM
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So some company buys the rights to either a failed or an old Asian MMO, do the bare minimum of localization and sets up servers in the Caribbean or the Philippines where server space and bandwidth are cheap. This normally doesn't go over too well since the internet infrastructure of Korea or Taiwan is actually much more compact (faster) than that of the rest of the world. My ping to the Virgin Islands, for instance, is probably a lot higher than any given PC baang's ping to downtown Seoul. But when you consider the profit margins, you can't blame these companies for recycling Asian games.

The budgets of most item mall Asian games are nowhere near the ridiculously huge amounts of their Western counterparts made at around the same time. That fact leaves me scratching my head as to why more indie developers haven't entered the MMO market. In a genre where EVERYONE has an opinion or idea about how to revitalize and revolutionize the genre, not one garage developer has seriously stepped up to show the rest of the industry the way. With so much to gain and so little to lose, why not?

This week I'm going to talk about the big myth of MMORPG development. That's the myth that small developers are at a disadvantage. The budget myth. If you sit back and think about it, you'll come to the conclusion that small development houses have several advantages that big development houses don't have.

Let's start with the idea that you need to have at least X million players in order to be considered successful. Success is way more complicated than an arbitrary number of subscribers. My definition of success can be expressed as an equation: (Profits > Development + Overhead) = Success! The gap between profits and everything else is the real measure of success. WoW may have the largest number of subscribers for any western game, but Maple Story made $29 million in the U.S. last year. I'm guessing that it probably didn't cost anywhere near $29 million to make and run Maple Story. So long as you make more than you spend, you're successful.

From this perspective, it's easier for the little guy to be successful than some huge monolithic gaming conglomerate. Think about it. A big production has to run like hell to close the gap of their production and overhead costs while a small setup can pay for their initial production plus overhead within just a few months of release. What's easier to make? $30 thousand or $30 million? This isn't Greek that I'm speakin' here folks.

Don't forget the overhead that these games require. Big studios like Blizzard and SOE have huge server farms that they run themselves. That's a lot of money for electricity (mostly air conditioning), tech staff to watch and maintain the hardware, maintenance and security of the facility itself, storage media for database backups, and the list goes on and on. Consider that each server on the original EverQuest was actually a cluster of 20 machines; WoW has 200 servers in the U.S. alone. That should give you an idea of how costly a big budget MMO can be. Small developers can make small worlds that run on one server cluster composed of two quad core servers, leased for about $900 a month. If your entire game population isn't going to be any higher than 72K players, why break the bank?

How did I arrive at the 72K population? Long ago, I played on a private server (no I will not tell you how to find it), run off of a single quad core machine, that was able to host 1,500 players at peak hours. Now if we double that, we get the standard three thousand population that we're used to seeing. But if we determine that each player only plays for one hour ON AVERAGE, then the maximum population for that server would be 72K. Of course, most F2P players are probably on for about two to two and a half hours a day which brings the total population down by half.

And this time factor sheds light on another consideration of population. Big budget titles generally attract hardcore players that spend four to eight hours a day playing. This places the average server population much lower; somewhere between 9 to 18K players. Divide up WoW's ten million player population by those numbers and count the servers that WoW has world-wide. The larger and more dedicated the player base, the less money you'll be making per server. To simplify even further: The bigger the production, the smaller the profit margins.

Most F2P games are item shop games which means that it's all about customers served rather than subscription numbers. It breaks down like this: Sell around $60 worth of virtual merchandise per player on average. It's the standard retail model with no overt pressure to buy. Let's see... 36k players... Multiplied by sixty... that comes to $2,160,000 dollars! And the server only costs $900 a month? Wait, it gets better.

Most big budget, AAA games like to ride the cutting edge of hardware performance while F2P games usually have last gen graphics or lower. There's a really large number of people that are incapable of reading the system specs on the box. These people also don't look for the system specs on download sites either. Subscription games have to pay someone to tell all these people what they should already know. F2P games, on the other hand, run on damn near every computer without a problem. So big budget games have a limited possible audience for their games and have to suffer though tech support hell for a couple of YEARS after launch. Tech support, that I might inject, requires buckets of cash.

F2P games are downloadable affairs while big budget games are usually boxed retail. Mainstream subscription games have to pay some big box retailer or online download service, such as Steam, for shelf space. Item shop games may have to pay for bandwidth, but they can just as easily distribute through Bit Torrent or release the client to demo aggregate sites like Big Download.

So let's sum up what we've learned so far:

Low Production Costs – Last gen, or lower, graphics, means that you can crank out your game with a small team in a very short amount of time. Theoretically, a team of 5 people, using an engine such as Torque or Blitz3D, could work on such an MMO and have it ready within two years without spending anything but their time. If the people on these boards would put half as much effort into making an MMORPG rather than bitching and fighting about the genre then they would each have their own game in about a year.

Low Start-up and Overhead – With only one or two servers plus a web page, you can open a F2P MMORPG for less than five grand. It would cost four times that to open a dollar store in a bad neighborhood.

Large Profit Margins – Even with a significantly reduced subscription model, like RuneScape or Dungeon Runners, you're looking at a huge percentage of profit to overhead. Five bucks a month from a (paying) population of ten thousand comes to $600,000 a year. On a one server game, you're only paying around twelve thousand a year to keep the game running. That's one hell of a lot of gravy! And with an item mall, the profit margins can actually get larger...

Low Risk – Like I said before, the amount of money required to open a small MMO is laughable compared to other small businesses. If your game tanks within a month or two, your losses are minimal. You still have all the code from your last project so it's a simple matter of reskin, tweak and re-release until you get it right.

So what's the downside? You can be buried by your own popularity. If your game is really good, then your population will expand faster than you can. You can turn this to your advantage, but only if you sell out. This basically happened with Runescape. The population was growing so much that they had to incorporate in order to keep the game running. A popular game is going to attract the attention of buyers with fat bankrolls. If you don't sell, your game is going to die a horrible sudden death due to the creeping costs of added infrastructure.

Of course, with so much money flowing on the low end, who cares if you never break more than 50K players? There's a huge price tag attached to swinging for the fences. The highest price paid is creativity. We need more indie developers trying to carve out niches with games that they want to make rather than clones of the same old shit.

The result of your efforts isn't going to be perfect, or even close to the level of quality that you expect. Anyone that has ever pursued a creative past-time knows this. The painting is never to your liking and the story is never truly finished. But always remember that you don't need to be great to make a living at what you're doing. In fact, you don't even need to make a living at it. You just have to love what you're doing and keep doing it. Besides, even a shitty podcast can gain 50K subscribers. How many people do you think will like the same things YOU like?


Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Sunday May 25 2008 at 1:41AM
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I personally have never used bots, macroing or multiboxing, but while playing MMORPGs I'm normally on autopilot. The game is more like a graphical theme thrown over a yahoo chatroom. Why? Because I don't have to give my full attention to what's happening on the screen. Every now and again I may have to click over to a different mob and initiate attack or spam a skill button, but I'm more entertained by the conversations in the chat box than the life and death struggle my character is having with "large radioactive undead rat" #3475. When conversation in game, mostly spent discussing banal internet drivel rather than situations arising from gameplay, is more entertaining than the game itself then there's a problem.

MMORPGs are boring. Not a constructive statement but it'll serve as a sketchy thesis. After endless hours of playing MMORPGs, I can't think of a more repetitive and monotonous way to pass the time. Yes, other genres have you doing the same things over and over again. The difference is that other genres require either a physical or strategic component that creates variation. Let's expand on that.

Tetris has both physical and strategic components. The strategic component comes from five different shaped blocks that fall from the top of the screen and you have to fit them together like a puzzle. When you fill a whole row, that section of the well is emptied, giving you more room. The strategic element of the game is complemented by the fact that you can see the next block that's going to fall after the current one lands. The physical component is introduced by the speed at which the blocks fall increasing over time. So you're repeating the same action over and over again, but the pieces vary and the speed ramps up with every block dropped into the well. This means that you have to pay full attention to what you're doing or the well fills to the top and you lose.

An MMORPG has neither a physical nor strategic component. You see a mob, you click on a mob, you wait for awhile and the mob dies. In rare cases, you my decide to press a few hotkeys for abilities or health / mana pots, but the pace is consistent and doesn't require any level of dexterity. Strategy is also a non-factor since you are always grossly overpowering your enemies. If an enemy is too difficult for you to defeat, you just go one-hit easy mobs until you level up a couple of times, and / or get enough money for better gear, and then go back to kill your original target. If you're already at the level cap you go and get more players to take down the big baddy you're trying to farm.

All the gameplay in MMORPGs is divided between combat and crafting, both of which have all the interactivity of a slot machine. Okay that wasn't fair, combat and crafting have slightly more interactivity than a slot machine since you're allowed to stack the odds in your favor before doing anything. In the case of crafting, you simply have to wait for success since you have nothing to lose but time.

This lack of involvement is then compounded by an experience system that's designed to monopolize your time. You get a quest to collect five wolf tails, go kill wolves until five of them drop "wolf tail" items and go back to the quest vendor for a reward of some kind. Twenty levels later: You get a quest to collect fifty giant space hamster teeth, go kill giant space hamsters until fifty of them drop "giant space hamster teeth" items and go back to the quest vendor for a reward of some kind. The difficulty is the same. The fights are exactly the same. The only difference is the number snipes you have to hunt and the amount of time you need to invest in order to upgrade your character's stats and gear. A time investment that increases exponentially with each level I might add.

What's that? You say that your character gains new abilities and the monsters become harder to fight? Bullshit. Killing the generic level 1 wumpus is just as easy as killing the generic level 60 wumpus. Don't believe me? Go search for "bots" with the title of any given MMORPG. If that's a little too unsavory for you, search for "macros" with the title of any given MMORPG.

Keep in mind that these macros and bots were not made by hardcore or professional programmers. These were hacked together by everyday people that played these games enough to know the content by rote. You can tell me about how a person that bought a level 60 character with all epic gear doesn't know how to play that build, but you can't tell me that it takes the hundreds of hours that you spend grinding to the end cap and acquiring epic gear in order to learn how to play.

None of this is really new. Most of these problems go all the way back to the MUDs of old. Like modern MMORPGs, MUds had macros, bots, and multiplayers. Many of the more common macros were eventually made into MUD features in the same way that early MMORPG macros have become standard UI. The most glaring example in MUDs is the 'wimpy' setting. With this command, you can set the number of hitpoints at which your character will flee from combat. So if HP dips lower than say... 30% then your character runs away to safety. With macroing, you can set it up so that the character will automatically quaff health pots at certain HP levels. The fact that many players, to this day, feel the need to automate a considerable amount of the gameplay is a pretty good indication that there is a serious flaw in the game design.

Botting and macroing also served a different role altogether. Macroing and botting made it easy for one player to control a whole party of characters instead of just one. Multiplaying, Multiboxing in MMORPG terms, is frowned upon but not despised to the same degree as botting or RMT. Those that object to multiplay / boxing are under the impression that the practice is largely to give the multiplayer's main an unfair advantage in regards to progression. I subscribe to a different school of thought that believes multiplayers are just trying to make the game interesting. Managing an entire party singlehandedly is more difficult, by an order of magnitude, than managing one character. Even so, the fact that players have to go to this kind of extreme just to make the game interesting is another red flag that MMORPGs are lackluster games.

You know, looking back on all my previous entries, I notice that very few of them focus on MMORPGs entirely. I guess part of that has to do with the fact that I don't play MMORPGs that often. Another part is the fact that I see more potential in the genre than actual results. But the number one reason why I haven't written about MMORPGs is that I just don't like them very much.

I've wrestled with the why of that last statement for quite some time now. I played pen and paper RPGs. I like single player RPgs. I like multiplayer RPGs such as Diablo 2 and Neverwinter Nights. I even enjoy Rogue-likes, and it takes a special kind of nerd to truely appreciate that sub-genre of RPG. Ultimately, it all boils down to MMORPGs not requiring the same level of involvement that the previously mentioned styles of RPG require. Hell, even without bots or macros, many MMORPG players admit to doing other things while they play.

Could you honestly do the dishes or cook while playing KOTOR? How about Dragon Quest VIII? Baldur's Gate? Of course you couldn't. You would have to pause the game or wait for your turn during combat or something. A good game engages you the entire time you're playing. MMORPGs, by and large, are not good games.

Burning The Candle at Both Ends

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Sunday May 18 2008 at 1:47PM
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So today I'm going to tie together some ideas that I've been kicking around in these blogs. Not all of them, but many. As a disclaimer, I won't be doing anything with immersion or realism. I will however be talking about player interaction, which is the main selling point of the MMORPG genre.

Those of you that have hung out on the forums here know that I prefer multiplayer offline games to anything online. I would much rather have a LAN party with a few other people than be online with 63 retarded dickheads. I realize that game developers feel differently and that's mainly due to the fact that all 64 dickheads, myself included, had to buy a copy of the game just to play online. LAN games can get away with [illegal] copies of the game due to the fact that they are very pointedly OFFLINE!! Yes, piracy is bad but so is playing big brother with your customers. Remember when Command & Conquer came with two CDs so that  you could give one to your friend? Remember when Diablo would allow you to do a LAN install on a friends computer so that you could play the game together? Yeah, so do I...

Console games have also suffered this trend. Not only does every asshat playing a given Xbox Live game have to own the game, but they have to own the console and have an active subscription to Xbox live. When Socom came out for the PS2, I was totally pissed that there wasn't a four player, split-screen co-op mode. Two sequels later with a third in production and this feature still isn't even being considered for the series. There are some exceptions. Tribes: Aerial Assault for the PS2 had a split screen mode that let two players go online from the same machine and I'm pretty sure that Halo 3 lets four players onto Xbox live from the same machine.

It's really strange that living room multplayer has died out. Some of my fondest gaming memories are from split screen games of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. I actually talked the wife into playing Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance with me one night and we ended up playing through the whole damn thing. And BG: DA required both players to be on the same screen at all times. The GameCube version of Phantasy Star Online had an offline, four player split screen mode. It can be done, but it's more profitable to sell one game per player than allow people to interact with each other face to face.

So what does this have to do with MMORPGs? More than you might initially assume. MMORPGs mean that each player has to have a computer, the game, all the expansions of the game, and a subscription to the game. Yes, you can lug your monolithic electric abacus over to your friends house, hook everybody up to the same router and party live, but that's one huge pain in the ass. On top of that, everyone has their nose buried in their own monitor so the experience is roughly the same as playing with voice over IP. WiFi and portable solutions take some of the pain out of setting up, but the "gaming laptop" remains a mythical creature and portable consoles like the DS and PSP fall into the same traps of their online console cousins. Although to be fair, the DS has a large library of games that can be played by four players using only one cartridge.

With the inevitable migration of MMORPGs to consoles, there's the possibility of getting the best of both worlds. With all your character information stored on the game server, all you really need is a user name and password to play. Yes, you'll still need to pay the subscription fee, but now you can play in the same room as the rest of your party. Mix this with my entries about static parties and it all starts to fall into place.

You could technically do this with a PC, but it would require either KVM switches or the use of gamepads, neither of which are very likely when it comes to PC gamers. Yes, a PC gamer may spend assloads on a 54" wide screen monitor, but he / she wants all that visual real estate to him / herself. Nevermind the advantages of being able to know what your teammates are doing at a glance. Although, some FPS games are starting to employ online split screen just for that advantage.

I'm willing to bet that some of you are about to mention that you normally party with more than three other people. With consoles, this isn't as much of an issue since you just connect them with an ethernet cable and use two TVs side by side. Eight players, one room and full situational awareness. As a side note, if you need more than eight people for your everyday or static party PvE then you're probably playing the game poorly.

What about Raiding? Well... If you think about it, this actually simplifies raiding quit a bit. A 64 man raid turns into a 16 squad raid. You could go a step further and have eight live teams of eight players each. That's considerably easier to manage than trying to herd 64 cats toward your raid goal. Believe it or not, players that are in the same room together can coordinate their actions much more effectively than players over voice chat. I know because me and a few friends have dominated public CSS servers when we were LAN partied. Placing the monitors next to each other in such a way that we could all just look over and see where the other player was at helped considerably. BTW, this little bit of organizational advice works for PvP as well.

The money from MMORPGs has always come from the subscriptions. The box sales may provide an initial cash boost, but the long term money is in the number of subscribers. With an option to allow multiple players to access the game from one machine, everyone can get what they want. Developers can get their subscriptions and gamers can get a few evenings a week with their friends. Besides, we already know that most MMORPG fans won't play this way. The pain of actual human contact is almost too much to bear for most of them as it is.


Realism... O RLY?

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Thursday May 8 2008 at 2:34PM
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Before we begin I just want you to know that I'm not going to retread the tired argument that MMORPGs are mostly fantasy games that have little in common with reality and just stick to criticizing the broader idea of realism in games. There's a small vocal minority that seems to think that games should be closer to real-life who are also impossible to please. Even if you created a peripheral that administered location accurate, mild lacerations every time their avatar was struck with a sword, it still wouldn't be "real" enough for them. Beware of these asshats because it was people just like them that killed the flight sim genre.

Most of us don't want reality in our games. We're perfectly happy with the gleefully over the top antics of Counter-Strike and the arbitrarily unrealistic play mechanics of Battlefield 2. We'd rather that the proceedings look authentic than play authentic. We love CoD4, even though we can heal from any wound in about five seconds flat, because the atmosphere feels the way we imagine a real battle would feel. We totally dig Rainbow Six Vegas for its nod to Tom Clancy authenticity even as it allows us to stand ten feet away from an enemy firing an Ak-47 and live. You see, most of us don't really want the glacial pace that results from the absolute realism of something like ArmA. We want to be HEROES who can absorb bullets like so many titanium sponges while charging forward launching flaming, exploding chainsaws out of our sniper cannons of doom!

Hell, even America's Army cuts so much slack with reality that you can employ suicidal tactics and win. If you want to play something more realistic there are things like paintball, airsoft, and the Society For Creative Anachronisms. You just can't get more real than doing something in real life. Not that I think you should join the military and do it for real that is...

And that brings me to another point about realism. You can't have it without fear. Let's take a couple of real world examples. Here's some short footage of a skirmish in Fallujah. Not exactly the same as a round of Counter-Strike is it? Here's some more CQB in a single house over in Iraq. Notice that not only is it extremely slow paced, but the soldiers actually give a damn. You simply cannot achieve that kind of tension in any simulation.

I know that some of you probably had a hard time watching that last video, but I did have a reason. The point being that even if we add a small amount of pain, nothing short of the possibility of death will make a player act in a way other than completely suicidal and unrealistic. And seriously, we don't want the experience that those soldiers were having. We don't want the experience that the pikemen at the Battle of Hastings had. We don't even want the experience that Gladiators in Rome had. We want diverting childhood power fantasies that take us as far away from reality as we can get.


Do We Really Want or Need A Persistent World?

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Sunday April 27 2008 at 7:04PM
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So last week I talked about static parties and got a pretty positive response. Those who hadn't done static parties before, and there were certainly a lot of you, wanted to try them. Those that had done static parties advocated for them. That's all cool, but it leads to a really interesting question: Why do we even need the massive part of the MMORPG thing?

I've tread this ground before and keep coming back to it. If the only reason you play is to hang out with friends, PvP, or meet new people, then is the persistent world really necessary? Having played several non-massive online RPGs (Diablo, Phantasy Star Online, Neverwinter Nights, Monster Hunter, etc.), I honestly think that the persistent world is the second biggest reason, next to guilds, that MMORPGs suck.

Yeah, I'm sure there are few of you sharpening the teeth on your chainsaws and cleaning your deer rifles in preparation to hunt me down for muttering that, but put the arsenal aside for a minute and just think about it.  You can meet people in a town hub or lobby. NWN was able to host 90 players on one server and some FPS games are capable of hosting 150 players at once! Portal together a bunch of instanced PvP capture points and you have RvR without the auto-attack snorefest that is current MMORPG combat. Even if an instance can only hold 64 players, what's the largest raid you've ever been in? 25? 40? Hell, you can even have auction houses with fully instanced games. There was really no reason why something like Diablo couldn't have let players sell the items that they acquired to one another through and auction house system. Well... Aside from the fact that the auction house hadn't even been invented at the time that Diablo 2 was released that is.

So we've already established that nothing is really lost in a fully instanced MORPG, but what is actually lost because of a persistent world? Well, mostly you lose individual bandwidth. MMORPG developers try to compensate for this by using expensive server clusters and some truly obtuse netcode. But even with the most cutting edge equipment and programming, you're still stuck with a tic based game. This means that much of the game is on autopilot in order to limit the amount of traffic both to and from the servers. Furthermore, persistent worlds dilute the actual content of the game with unnecessary downtime and travel time. How much time in an MMORPG do you just spend sitting on your ass waiting to heal? How much time do you spend just getting from one place to the next? Again, this is to help limit the amount of traffic to and from the servers. You also lose a considerable amount of what makes an RPG compelling in the first place. Primarily, you lose the story and the logistical planning. Since all you have to do is spam potions, heals, or sit around until your health regenerates, you don't have to plan ahead as to what you take with or how to approach this or that group of mobs. Since the game is just one large series of quest vendors, the only story you'll get is from the flavor text of the quests. That's a poor substitution for the branching story lines and dialogs of Morrowind or KOTOR.

With the heavy weights of the persistent world thrown off, online RPGs have the freedom to engage in storyline and bring back several elements that seem to have been lost from MMORPGs. Cut scenes, branching dialog, puzzles, damage that doesn't go away until you actually heal yourself, requiring character to eat and drink to stay alive, true real-time OR turn based combat, you get the picture.

Anyway, I'm sure that a few of you feel otherwise so please, explain to me exactly what it is that persistent worlds bring to the table. Please tell me the advantages of persistent worlds that make up for all that they remove from the game. In short, tell me why you think I'm wrong. I'm sure that there are many of you that do. Of course, many of you are holding on for that living, breathing, alternate reality to escape into forever. It will never happen.

Game Responsibly

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Friday April 18 2008 at 10:36PM
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So I've been thinking a lot about time and MMORPGs. If I could choose one thing to completely tear on MMORPGs about, it would be the time commitment that these games demand from the very outset. If I could choose one reason why more people aren't playing MMORPGs, it would the amount of time that players are expected to put in per session, week, month, year, etc. But to be fair, why in the hell are we letting a game monopolize our schedule?

We don't let single player games consume our lives when they require 80 to 100 hours to complete. We're just fine with catching TV shows on a weekly basis. We don't even have a problem with waiting a year for a movie sequel. So why do we feel like we have to rush to the level cap and acquire all the epics in X amount of months?

Just why the hell are people puting 20, 30 or 40+ hours a week into MMORPGs when those hours aren't actually required by the mechanics of the game? If you leave a quest half done, won't it still be there when you log back in? Won't all those levels and shiny things be rendered worthless in the next expansion when the level cap gets raised and the next tier of epics comes out?

The cause of all this time wasteage is twofold: raiding and guilds. The lesser of these two evils is raiding. The longest raid I've ever heard of lasted 10 hours and that's about even with the amount of time that most  people put into SuperBowl Sunday. If six to 10 hour raids only happened once a month, or even once every week, I don't think anyone would mind. It's when we throw in raiding guilds that the games devouring your life whole and begin feeling more like a sweat shop than a hobby.

For the record, I am anti-guild. You can tell me that your guild is different and how not all guilds are Machiavellian communities for the betterment of "geek football," but it doesn't hold a very much weight. The bottom line is that the player is expected to martyr themselves for the good of the guild by putting in a set amount of time and remaining on the guild's beck and call. If your guild is different then you need to hang on to it for dear life because it's one in a fucking million.

For the most part, guilds are about convenient grouping and loot. In theory, you're supposed to be able to call on your guild to provide party members in the event that a quest that you're working on requires more manpower. You are expected to offer the same help to other guild members in return. The net result is that everyone advances faster and gets more loot. Additionally, if the guild is big enough, you have access to high-end content that requires large numbers of players which, in turn, affords you the opportunity to get more valuable loot. In short, guilds are motivated and powered exclusively by greed.

The emphasis on loot means that guilds attach their status to their stuff and establish social hierarchy around level and gear.  This inevitably contaminates the surrounding community, creating a compitition to put  "those elitist pricks" in their place. Now, we have a situation where new players are forced to seek out a guild in order to get the levels and loot that signifies adequacy within a given server's community. This is generally at odds with most players motivations to enjoy the gameplay or to simply have people to hang out with in game.

Maybe it's time that we approached these games differently....

About a week ago I posted a thread about static parties and asked how many people actually engaged in them. I got a pretty  mixed reply. Most people had never been in one, but had heard of the concept. Others had been trying to get a static party together over the internet for years and failed. And finally there were one or two people that were in static parties and had alts set aside specifically for the purpose. So you're probably asking "WTF are static parties?!" I'm glad you asked.

A static party is simply a group of players that get together at a specific time and group using characters mades specifically for that group and nothing else. For instance, a group may meet on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for two or three hours per session. This group will also use characters that were made for this group. So everyone is free to play the rest of the week if they want, just with alts and not with static party characters.

Static parties are something of a regression to the table top RPGs of old. The main differences being that you aren't leaving the house and you probably aren't roleplaying either. This doesn't make it any less nerdy, but it does make the game way more manageable time-wise.

Think about the advantages for a minute. No more waiting for hours LFG. Minimal drama due to the smaller number of players and the fact that you aren't playing every single day together. Having limited the game to a set number of hours a week, you now have time for other activities or even <gasp> other games. The game that you're playing will last longer and be considerably less stressful since you aren't racing toward some vaguely defined end-game. You get all the advantages of grouping without having to rely on a guild that cares more about how you serve their needs than how they can help you out. After a few sessions, your party will be a well oiled machine calibrated to your group's specific play style.

That last one could arguably be done within a guild that practiced every day, but static parties will reach the same results with much less pain and irritation. And ultimately, this emphasis on the journey rather than the destination is what can make static parties more enjoyable than the way that MMORPGs are normally played. Rather than playing for the acceptance of a given game's community, you're playing for completely for yourself and the three to seven people you bring with you.

Before I get the flood of "why not play an regular multiplayer RPG" replies, let me explain that your static party is still free to interact with the rest of the community. If you want to team up with another group, help someone in trouble or just add a random PUG, you're completely free to do so. You're still playing an MMORPG after all. The only thing that's changed is the amount of time you spend playing and the fact that you're playing to enjoy the game and not stroke someone else's epeen.

Also consider how much more effeciently your time will be spent in the few hours that you play. A group that meets for four hours on Wednesday and Friday will put in 32 hours a month. In one year, they'll have put in 384 hours. In those hours, they will have spent zero time looking for group. They will have spent less time getting wiped because they will be intimately familiar with eachothers play style, roles and tactics. They will have 30% more loot and experience, on average, than other players with equal game time because the static party is always grouped. Most importantly though, a static party will still have plenty of game content left to experience after a year whereas everyone else will be bitching about how bored they are because they've already capped and done everything. Do I even have to mention the fact that you probably won't be able to play any single player RPG, aside from Morrowind, for anywhere near that amount of time without running out of content.

Raiding for epics? With the money you save up after a year why bother raiding for them? You'll be able to get them straight out of the auction house or craft them from materials that you can get in other ways. Battlegrounds? Eight players working as a single unit seems pretty effective to me. You really don't miss out on anything by being in a static party. Well, maybe hearing some douche screaming about how you just got 50 DKP Minus....

Let me sum it up with an old parable.

Baby Bull: Hey Pappa, lets run down to that field, fuck a couple of the cows and run on back here!

Papa Bull: No son. Let's walk down thar and fuck 'em all.

A Question of Audience

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Friday April 11 2008 at 2:26PM
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I've been pressed for time this week, so I did this weeks blog in audio.

You can listen to it here.