Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Month: January 2005 (page 1 of 2)

Pattern Breaking

A lot of talk has been happening about World of Warcraft, and what they did so right to enjoy such success. The general consensus amongst most observers is that, well, there just isn’t a lot new there. And so, unsatisfied with the response that people came because the game was simpler and dumbed down from standard RPG fare, people have been asking what is it about WoW that the hardcore gamers have decided is better? The same answers keeping coming up: the quests and the lack of a grind. Continue reading

The Carnal Guide to RPGs

Yeah, the Terranova gang is full of academics, . But dang, I sure find a lot of great links from them. Academics, it seems, know a lot of stuff. From a thread about Sex in RPGs, I present The Complete Guide to Unlawful Carnal Knowledge for Fantasy Role-Playing Games.

What GTA:SA Taught Me About Localization

So as 404 Games kick into high gear with ‘In Da Hood’, many people, including Terranova, have started wondering: what, exactly, do you get banned for in a hip-hop themed world? But I want to go into a more interesting digression: What San Andreas taught me about localization. Continue reading

Fighting Fire with Warcraft

Jamie Fristrom, whose been known to pontificate himself from time to time (when his blog is up and running, that is), had this to say:

But didn’t WoW itself fight fire with fire by taking the best features of the best MMO’s and combining them?

An excellent question. The copout answer is that, inside the games industry, Blizzard is a law onto themselves. But I’m not satisfied with that, of course. The books I’m distilling this line of philosophy from (Positioning and the 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by the esteemed Al Reis) are full of examples about how unbeatable titans like Coca-Cola, Xerox and Volkswagen screw up because they extended into new territory with a me-too product. So let’s dig further.

Continue reading

First, We Ban All the Whiners

For companies running an online game, one of the strangest concepts to learn is that Not All Customers Are Created Equal. In an MMO. one customer’s ten bucks is not equivalent to another’s 10 bucks, if the first is actually driving people away. This seems like common sense to anyone who has played an MMO for more than a week.

But it runs contrary to all business logic. Your first instincts is to think that The Customer is Always Right. Learning otherwise is almost impossible to do until an organization has a game running – until you experience the problems for a while, your first instinct is to Try To Save Them All. Some aren’t worth saving. 3DO went through that learning process. When I moved to Origin, the UO management team was in the middle of learning it as well. Then I came here, I found that both Wolfpack and Ubi were still getting a handle on the concept – despite having many other games come before them.

It’s just a lesson an organization has to learn the hard way.

The interesting thing is that the concept that maybe, just maybe, the customers AREN’T always right is starting to bleed into other businesses. Continue reading

Playing It Safe Means Playing to Lose

Here we are talking about how playing it safe in the world of design is a loser of a philosophy. To prove that I can link any disparate topics, here is a similar discussion about football. The esteemed Dr. Z (probably the best technical football columnist) writes about how some teams get so scared of taking a huge chance and instead lose quietly.

There are coaches who are always looking for ways to beat you, who will go for the throat. Give us 40 seconds and one time out and we’ll put points on the board, is their philosophy. These coaches have Super Bowl rings.

There are coaches whose playbooks are filled with things that can go wrong. They have a fine working knowledge of the terrors of the game. They coach not to lose. Yet they lose, maybe not over the course of a season, or a career, but they lose the big ones. Let me tell you about this latter breed.

The article was spurred by two incidents, in two seperate weeks, where fraidy-cat coaches were so terrified of an unlikely scenario (interception, fumble, sack) that they gave their kickers long, unlikely field goals in very hostile, pressure cooked circumstances, rather than try to throw a couple passes to get a little bit closer and make the kick a little bit easier

Continue reading

The Joy of Not Being Everquest

At first glance, you would have sworn that Earth and Beyond would crush Eve. Earth and Beyond had a huge team, an enormous budget, a spiffy marketing plan and a head start. It had a supremely talented team, including many responsible for various Command and Conquer licenses and others with MMO pedigrees (a rarity at the time). It had a winning idea – a modernization of classic games like Netrek and Elite with a massively multiplayer component. And, of course, most of all, it had the Electronic Arts label. And nobody beats EA, right?

A funny thing happened on the way, though. Somehow, on the way, E&B became “Everquest with Spaceships”, first in the mind of its execs and design team, and after that, in the mind of it’s fans. It’s as if, whenever facing a design crossroads, they asked themselves, WWEQD. “What would Everquest do?” Continue reading

Making the Funny Pages Funny Again

When I was a kid, I faithfully read the comic strips every day. Somehow, somewhere I outgrew comics (and given I design friggin’ video games for a living, that’s quite an indictment). I suspect it’s partially because I no longer have a tangible newspaper anymore, prefering to use online sources for my news. As such, I only read good comics that are available online: Dilbert (which is a lot funnier, once you’ve worked at 3DO), Penny Arcade (which is pretty funny whenever they’re not writing in-jokes that only they get) and Sinfest (which is pretty funny as long as he stays away from the cute pets).

Anyway, now I can keep track of the rest of those comics that I don’t read anymore with “I read the comics so you don’t have to” (edit: now the “Comics Curmudgeon”). Reading his insightful summaries on the strangeness in the comics is like getting in touch with old friends, while at the same time reminding me how happy I am that I don’t read these on a daily basis.

Redefining ‘Unconventional Weaponry’

I won’t be happy until we see some of these in Command & Conquer: apparently in the mid-90’s the US military was contemplating a ‘Gay Bomb’:

The plan for a so-called “love bomb” envisaged an aphrodisiac chemical that would provoke widespread homosexual behaviour among troops, causing what the military called a “distasteful but completely non-lethal” blow to morale.

Others up for consideration include a ‘Who? Me?’ bomb which would mimic flatulence, a swarm bomb that would draw swarms of insects on the opponent, a vampire bomb that makes enemy skin unbearably sensitive to sunlight, and a halitosis bomb which gives all the bad guys bad breath. Really, most Magic cards are more plausible than the ideas in this article.

Found via Ludology.


Fight Fire With Water

“You don’t fight fire with fire. That’s silly. You fight fire with water.”
— quote by Howard Gossage, Marketing Guru

The entry of WoW into the marketplace has, naturally, forced everyone else to react to some degree – totally expected, given that they are clearly now the online frontrunners, at least in North America. This has created a lot of discussion as to what their competition should do. The matter isn’t helped by the fact that we have a unique place in the industry. Most games are consumable, and as such, a fan of First Person Shooters might well buy Doom, Quake AND Halflife. Even if they choose only one for their online play, the makers of the game will get the full box price from those who chose to experiment. By contrast, those of us in the MMO space depend on that sweet, sweet monthly income. Most marketing and management departments at established game companies have trouble with this paradigm shift.

So what do you do when there is a market shift? How should Shadowbane, Dark Age of Camelot and Star Wars Galaxies react to the 900 pound gorilla in their midst? Well, the instincts of a businessman is to go where the new leader went – i.e. add some features from World of Warcraft and publicize it, in hopes that you can sate their wanderlust. This is fighting fire with fire. It rarely results in success.

When the auto market shifted from large cars to small cars, Cadillac put their name on a small car, the Catera. It went nowhere. When Polaroid came up with Instant Photography, Kodak tried to follow suit. Their excursions with instant photography went nowhere.

Instead, you fight fire with water. You go where the gorilla isn’t. You pick at it’s flaws. Eight years ago, many people, including some high ups at Verant, thought Everquest would get half of the success of Ultima Online. Surely, a no-name brand couldn’t beat someone who got to the MMO space first and had the weight of the Ultima brand, could they? And furthermore, they were SHRINKING the game, cutting out all ‘virtual world’ stuff that made Ultima Online so ambitious and exciting. Instead, they cut out all of the scary stuff, and focused and advertised having superior combat, quests and adventuring. And just like that, they beat Electronic Arts in a market segment that EA owned.

So the thing to do is to NOT just add WoW features to your game and advertise it. Sounds good, but what it really does is tacitly admit (at least in the purchasers’ mind) that WoW might be a better game than the one you have. But that’s not necessarily true. WoW is, at it’s core, a simple game. Most of these competitors have something on them. These guys need to be finding out what they’re doing better, shore that part of the game up, and then advertise it. It’s a good time to do so. WoW has introduced a new generation to MMO gameplay, but the warts are beginning to show.

As a case study, Shadowbane could have added features that WoW and EQ2 has, and advertised that as part of our recent expansion pack. Instead, we ran AWAY from WoW, focusing on the Siege gameplay that’s our heart and soul by adding a territorial control system that took that part of our gameplay to a new level.

Last week, we announced the launch of a new server called Wrath. Why? Because it effectively clears and resets the chess board, which is exciting and attention-getting for a strategy game. The results have been good – the new server has gotten a lot of attention, even from jaded MMO communities that the conventional wisdom says are all playing WoW or EQ2. The new server is packed.

There is no best MMO — all are good at some things, and bad at others. Find your own niche. Pick at the gorilla’s flaws. Fight fire with water.

Original comments thread is here.

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