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The staff of gets together to bring you some behind the scenes insights on stories, the industry and the site itself.

Author: staffblog

Contributors: BillMurphy,MikeB,garrett,SBFord,Grakulen,

Crushing the Dream of No Levels

Posted by Stradden_bak Friday July 31 2009 at 8:07AM
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Last week, I presented the first of a number of cool features that many people want to see in a game, but that just aren’t likely to see the light of day in a new, AAA MMO any time soon. In my last blog entry, it was live content. This week, it’s all about a levelless game.

Now, before you angrily hit the reply button and tell me just how many games have done this in the past, or even what games are doing it now, at least take the time to skip on down to the last paragraph and read what I say there.

I read a lot about people looking for an MMO that doesn’t have levels, and I can understand why. Levels can be restrictive. They force players into small niches of other players of the same level, force players who bring new friends into a game to roll an alt in order to play with them, encourage linear game design where a leads to b leads to c ending with all of the “maxed out” players clustered at the “endgame.” Then there’s what might be the biggest complaint about levels, the fact that they create the feeling of “grind” for players and the feeling that anything below the level cap is simple hamster on a wheel to get to the “real game” at the end.

The problem is though that using levels is an easy and efficient tool that developers use to craft their games. Games, of course, need to be fun. They, and MMOs in particular, need to stimulate that part of our brains that makes us want to continue playing, and in the end paying for, the game. The easiest way to do that is to give us the feeling of achievement and a reward to go along with it. That’s what motivates us and keeps us doing pretty much anything. Why, for example, do you go to the office every day? Unless you’re very lucky it’s probably to get that paycheck every two weeks and maybe get a promotion (leading to higher reward).

Making the reward intermittent, as is done with levels, is even more effective. It’s the same principle that keeps gamblers gambling, looking for the payout. It doesn’t come every time, but it’s what they’re chasing. It’s the same principle used to train dogs. They do what we say, they get a treat, or attention or some other positive reward. We might not want to think about it that way, but that’s how it works. Don’t believe me? How many times have you, like I have, kept playing that hour or two extra just to “get to the next level?” That’s how they get ya.

Then, there’s the fact that levels make the overall game easier to balance, not just for PvP, but also in terms of the difficulty of monsters, quests or any other content within a given zone. Knowing that the player will have X amount of power when they enter Y area of the game means that you can tailor your content to them specifically so that they aren’t wading breezily through content or getting firmly and impossibly trounced at every turn. Add to that the fact that levels make it very easy for players to see and recognize their character growing in power, and the fact that it’s been successful in the past, and you have a system that’s difficult to argue against to the people making the decisions, and signing the checks.

Now, the current popular belief is that a skill based system is the answer to the woes of the level grind. The only problem with that is that a skill based system, where a character gets better at swinging his sword or casting a spell by doing so, is that it doesn’t hit the above mentioned pros. It is difficult to balance content (not to mention PvP), players don’t experience the “ding” reward, character power growth is gradual thus denying players the goal (and reward) of instantly achieving more power. This system does have appeal. It’s far more realistic in terms of a virtual world and does appeal to a certain demographic who look for more subtle rewards for their time and energy. It just doesn’t seem as though, in the mass market, that kind of player is in the majority.

I’m not saying that levels are the only way to go. I’m also not saying that skill based o other type advancement and reward systems can’t be successful. They can, and have. What I am saying is that it is a much more difficult and far riskier path to take, making them a less likely path for developers to choose, especially with an expensive, AAA title.

Review Scoring: Feedback Wanted!

Posted by Dana Thursday July 30 2009 at 1:07PM
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Reviews are the hardest thing for any site to do. It's a lose/lose situation. No matter what the score, someone is always going to be upset, so generally, our policy is to give the author of the review the clearest guidelines we can, then stick with what they say. They, after all, played the game with a review in mind and as much as we might like, we cannot all play every game. We have to trust the reviewer.

Right now, we use a scoring system out of 10. Generally, we tell our reviewers that they should look at it academically. In school, generally speaking, the scale looks something like this:

  • 10 = A+ (perfect)
  • 9 to 9.9 = A (great)
  • 8 to 8.9 = B (above average)
  • 7 to 7.9 = C (average)
  • 6 to 6.9 = D (below average, but not unacceptable)
  • 5 to 5.9 = F+ (failed, but not totally without redeeming qualities)
  • 2 to 4.9 = F (failure, with lessening degrees of redeeming qualities)
  • 0 to 1.9 = F (totally without merit)

That's the logic we use in our scores, but I freely admit it is not a perfect system. No system that applies scores to games, let alone games that continue to evolve and change like MMOs is going to be totally fair.

Fact is, no matter how hard our reviewer tries, there are only so many hours in a day and they cannot possibly do everything in a game. We can only pay them so much, and reviewing an MMO is a temporary full time job.

Editorially, we insist on at least three weeks with a game before we review it. That is longer than most sites, I believe (how the heck do some sites have a review ready on launch day?) and gives the game a fair shake.

We are also going to re-review games far more frequently moving forward. Whenever enough time or major updates have come by, or even if a company comes to us and says "Hey, it's much better, want to give it another try?" We're happy to give games second, third and fourth looks. These are not console games, they change and we'll constantly go back to try and bring it up to date.

Nonetheless, there will be imperfections. Obviously, the Darkfall review was bound to be one of our most controversial. Fact is, there is absolutely no right answer there. Every single possible number was going to piss off a third of our community. So, we did what we always do and trusted the reviewer.

So, I throw this out for everyone to chew on. How would you score games on Keep in mind the following rules:

  • It must be a numeric score. Not everyone uses things like letter grades, numeric scores are more standard.
  • It must be the same for our hype/rating meter as it is for the review itself.

Beyond that, we'd love to hear your feedback. We always want to improve and since the reviews are done to help people make informed purchasing decisions, I figure it's best to ask you all how you'd be best served by them.

Feedback away in the comment thread!

Crushing the Dream of Live Content

Posted by Stradden_bak Friday July 24 2009 at 8:59AM
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Every MMO fan has at least one design feature sitting in the backs of their heads that we wish we could see in the next big MMO release, but for some reason we’re always disappointed and left wondering why no one does anything new and interesting. Over my next few Staff Blog entries, I wanted to take a look at some of the most popular ideas that I’ve seen thrown around on forums and in conversations and take my shot at explaining some of the reasons that said features won’t be likely to show up in big studio MMOs.

I’m going to start off my dream-crushing rant with a look at the idea of Full, Live Content:

One of my fondest dreams for MMOs, and one that I’m sure must be mirrored by other fans, is for an MMO company to be able to offer live content as a regular feature in their games. The virtual world that I’m talking about would have GMs in-game, running events throughout the game world, on a regular basis. They would be able to plan one-time story arcs, react to player actions, interact with players on a level that goes beyond simple quest boxes, and more. It wouldn’t replace static content, but would be something extra. It wouldn’t be happening everywhere, all the time, but it would be happening somewhere.

The problem is, we’re never likely to see it happen beyond the current incarnation of the occasional in-game live event (that are getting rarer and rarer as time goes on). The reasons are pretty straightforward, starting with the fact that it is nigh on impossible to actually entertain a large enough number of people in this way to make the entire exercise worthwhile. It is very difficult to create an interactive, one-time, story driven event for more than a handful of people. Sanya Weathers actually sums this up quite nicely in her “RP Servers are Hard” column written two weeks ago. In it, she mentions the “ungodly amounts of time to design, plan, and execute” live events, and she’s right.

The logistics of trying to run live events 24/7 (or even 12/3.5 if you want to be generous), on what would likely be numerous different servers, boggle the mind. Then there’s the pesky fact that there’s no way to really be “fair” about the whole thing. The number of headaches that would arise for the poor team working on this game would be endless. Players who never encountered any live content would feel lied to and ripped off while the players who did experience the content would undoubtedly complain that so-and-so was given preferential treatment or that they weren’t given a large enough role in the event, or that the devs behind the keyboard were “cheating.” The list of possible complaints should have any possible Community Team member sobbing and rocking back and forth in the fetal position tearfully singing along to Barney’s “I love you, you love me” song.

Then, there’s the financial investment. I just can’t see a studio shelling out the cash for full-time live event staff. We’re not talking about one or two people here. Doing this effectively, throughout an entire world, possibly on multiple servers, would take a fairly substantial team a team that, financially speaking, could be working on the game’s next expansion.

In the end, it’s too much hassle, and more importantly too much of a financial investment, to ever amount to much of anything.

On the other hand, I do have an idea and a lot of you aren’t going to like it.

MMO companies these days are getting more and more gung-ho on item shop based games. No, this isn’t a shameless plug for my last staff blog entry on the subject (or is it?), but rather an exercise in seeing dollar signs where players should be.

Why not offer live content as a paid extra for players? Why not give players the ability to actually buy the time of a GM, or small team of GMs so that they can experience live content? Guilds, I would imagine, would eat it up. Solo players or small group players with too much time and money on their hands could experience something specifically tailored to them.

Yes, it’s a bad idea, but give me a better one. Seriously, in the comments, give me a better one.

Coverage this week, I am feeling better about being here.

Posted by garrett Tuesday July 21 2009 at 8:27PM
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Hi All,


Been chatting away with folks about Comicon this week. Sadly Iwon't be going, but it will be a fun show no matter what.

I am a little sad about Comicon as there is nothing expected to be announced about The Hobbit or the new Conan movie....sorry everyone.


This week we have some great stuff from Earthrise, Runes of Magic, and Wonderking Online.

We will keep an eye on Comicon news to bring you the best coverage we can about the event.

Next week we will have much more indepth articles from Comicon on Star Wars: The Old Republic, DC Universe, City of Heroes, and Free Realms.

Comicon ends the month of July and leads us into August with BlizzCon, PAX, GenCon, there are a lot of summer conventions.

Hopefully BlizzCon will give us a release date for Starcraft 2,,,,hopefully.

For now that is all the things we are working on, keep an eye out for more and send in any suggestions you might have for coverage and games.


A Thought about F2P

Posted by Stradden_bak Friday July 17 2009 at 10:01AM
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The idea of microtransactions as a way of life has been gaining traction in the world of MMORPGs, and as much as some of us would like to hide our heads in the sand ostrich-style, the pesky things keep on edging forward, looming on an ever tightening horizon, threatening to overtake our precious and familiar subscription model.

Now, that might be over-dramatizing things just a little bit, but with the recent Turbine announcement that DDO would be going the way of the item shop, and Cryptic’s recent revelation that microtransactions will be available in their upcoming release of Champions Online, the call of the item shop is getting harder and harder to ignore.

Now, I’m going to start this by saying that I’m not an expert in either finances in general or microtransactions as a phenomenon. We have other people for that. I will say though that whenever the topic comes up, I am reminded of something that a F2P game developer said to me at one of last year’s trade shows:

I had asked what the advantage was to having a microtransaction based game as opposed to the traditional subscription based game. At least with a subscription, I assumed, you’d be making money from every player in the game. Free players, those who don’t buy from the item shop, were to my mind just a drain on resources.

The answer I got to this stuck with me and got me thinking. He said that there are a number of ways to look at it, but that in the end, the players who aren’t paying anything are still playing the game, meaning that they’re providing “content” for paying players. These free playing players keep the game world from ever feeling dead to players.

Looking at MMO launches over the last few years, with few exceptions, this has been a complaint that I’ve heard over and over again: “The servers are dead”. When server population starts to dwindle, so too do subscription numbers as even those who enjoyed the game enough to stick with it and keep paying for it after launch begin to feel isolated. So why then, based on that alone, would companies not want to at least consider a free element to their games? From a business standpoint, it just makes sense.

So, with that in mind, what is it that makes so many of us turn our noses up at the very notion that microtransactions might one day (and sooner than we’d like to admit) become the dominant business models for MMOs? I think that there are lots of reasons:

  • We don’t want to see people ‘buy their way to the top” of any game. We see enough of that in our every day lives.
  • We’re afraid that games will start to be designed to suck as much money out of us as possible rather than to entertain us.
  • We think that while our $15 a month is reasonable, we’re going to have to pay way more than that to get the same level of service we got in a subscription based game
  • We worry that a quick trip to the item shop will replace a tough run through a raid in terms of getting gear.
  • We carry over a stereotype about F2P games being of low quality
  • We don’t like the idea of change unless we see a clear benefit

These are just a few of the reasons that I see, I’m sure I missed a bunch, and until some or all of these concerns are put to rest through experiencing this business model, there will continue to be resistance to the change from plays who just don’t think it’s a good idea.

Now, since I’m talking about microtransactions and I have a bit of space left, I have a bit of a rant to make:

Part of the problem with Free 2 Play games is that the industry and players alike KEEP CALLING THEM FREE 2 PLAY GAMES. They’re not free to play. Sure, there are free elements to the game, but they’re based on an item shop or microtransactions revenue model. Free 2 Play implies that you can get the game, the whole game, without paying any money and that just isn’t true. At best, it’s misleading and at worst, it’s actually contributing to the subconscious feeling of being somehow scammed when we hear about a F2P game.

What am I doing here?

Posted by garrett Wednesday July 15 2009 at 12:42PM
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I wanted to start a blog on what we'll be trying to bring you over the next few weeks in terms of artciles, interviews, and ideas. Plus, this is a place were you can respond in the forums on coverage you'd like to see here at

So here is a little preview on some upcoming articles: 

Aion coverage

Jumpgate Evolution Interview

Atlantica Online Interview

and of course......


What will the monster summer convention bring to MMORPG?

Well, Star Wars: The Old Republic for one thing....There is a panel about the game and we hope to have a few questions answered by our friends at LucasArts and Bioware at the show. Also expect plenty of coverage on Champions Online and DC Universe. The 2 comic book games are expected to be at the show with the latest information and walkthroughs.

Please understand, none of this coverage is set in stone and things can change on a dime. However, this is what we're working on bringing you at the moment.

So I hope this preview helps and I hope you reply with your thoughts on these games and others you'd like to see here at


Garrett Fuller

News Manager -


Grouping Not For Everyone

Posted by Stradden_bak Thursday July 9 2009 at 1:27PM
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I just can’t get over how some people complain that MMOs, both current and in-development, are including a great deal of soloable content in their games. I keep reading post after post of people complaining that, “if people want to play solo, they should just play a single player game.” The problem is, there’s a point being missed here. People who play an MMO and prefer to play solo aren’t looking to play a single player game. In fact, a populated virtual world is exactly where they want to be.

Players who choose not to group aren’t necessarily anti-social. In fact, they probably enjoy playing in the same world as hundreds or thousands of other people. These same people, given a group of friends playing, would probably be open and eager to group play, they just don’t want to open themselves up to pick up groups with strangers who might not share their idea of what the game should be. There’s nothing worse for a role player or character / story driven player than to get into a group with a power gamer, and vice-versa. It’s often like oil and water, mixing the two just leaves you slippery and wet.

If you think about the way the social world around us actually works, it’s all based around the individual, the solo player. Some people choose to involve themselves in activities and jobs that require working closely (grouping) with other people, while others would choose to socialize with only a few and participate in jobs and activities that offer more individual opportunities. For the most part in life, it’s a matter of choice.

People want that same choice mirrored back to them in online games and virtual worlds. I think that originally, the kinds of people who were drawn toward MMOs were the kinds of people who were interested in social interactions with strangers, getting to know new people online through games and forming friendships that way. As the genre has progressed and a more diverse audience

The idea of a game, even a multiplayer game, gearing their entire design around forcing their players to group is counter-intuitive and even alienating to a large demographic of players. If you think about it, the last time that you were forced to group was probably for some kind of class project or activity in middle or high school and I don’t know about you, but I recall those always being a miserable experience.

In the end, what I think that everyone wants is a game that put the individual character first, making sure that character can compete with all others, whether in a group or solo, leaving it up to the individual players to decide if they want to use that character to group with others, or to play on their own.

Warhammer Online is a great example of a game that was designed with a group play mentality that ended up suffering for it. Since launch, players have been complaining about the balance of individual careers in the game. Complaints like: Sorcerers don’t stand a chance one on one against a Witch Hunter were rampant. The problem? Warhammer Online was designed to create balance for groups of players, not individual careers. The basic premise of Warhammer’s design is that players will be working together in groups, whether in scenarios or in an open RvR environment, so that one on one balance would take a back seat to group balance. While on the surface this kind of design makes sense, the reality saw players interested only in their own characters at the expense of group play. When players don’t work as a team in a system that is designed for team play, it gives the illusion of an imbalanced game.

In the end, a successful game is going to be a game that caters to both crowds, a game that allows and even encourages grouping without strictly penalizing those who don’t want to participate. The bottom line though is that just because a person would rather not group, doesn’t mean that they don’t want to play in a world with other people.