Archive for MMO Design

How UO Changed The Culture of MMOs

There are those who think that perhaps Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian are lying about the campaigns of terror, hacking, and bullying that they are currently encountering (and thanks to Tadhg Kelly for inventing the term Gamergate Truthers to describe them – it’s easier to say in polite company than fuckwads).  I daresay that anybody who has ever set foot in the Customer Service department of a major MMO for more than five minutes has pretty much no doubts whatsoever.  Because those guys see it all.  Every day.

It used to be worse.  Much worse.  My first MUD, CarnageMUD, had to ban several players for attempting to hack, bully or keylog other players.  Meridian 59 was worse, but it wasn’t until Ultima Online that we really saw how dark things could be.

Early days UO was chaotic for a lot of reasons.  The game was much more successful than they anticipated, and they had to scale up very quickly.  It was also very, very buggy, which created all manners of headaches for players and developers, and some incredibly novel ways to exploit and abuse your fellow players.  It also was, bluntly, a social cesspool.

MMOs always vary wildly in tone from game to game and server to server, but early UO was a place where it seemed that everywhere I went, you’d encounter the most awful crude sexist, racist, homophobic, juvenile crap that you can imagine, both on the boards and in the game.  And early UO was birthed on what was somewhat of a libertarian vibe — Origin let way too much of that crap slide, with the idea that you could always just kill the jerks.  The problem was that no one was as good at PVP as the jerks were, and even more problematic, the jerks didn’t really feel all that traumatized when they died.  It was the cost of doing business, where business was being a jerk.

At the time, there was serious concerns in the budding MMO industry.  UO was not a very nice place.  There were not a lot of women players – hell, there were not a lot of players who had thin skin.  But our visions in those days wasn’t just for a couple hundred thousand players – we wanted the genre to see millions, or even tens of millions of players.  But you were never going to get there if you were being called a ‘faggot’ every ten seconds.  I remember in those days actually feeling despondent.  Maybe the vision of an MMO just couldn’t scale above a certain size.  Maybe the dream was dead.

You should not need thick skin to play a video game.

With all due respect to Raph, in my mind there is no person who has been more important to the development of MMOs as a viable consumer product, historically, than Gordon Walton.  He came to Origin from Kesmai, one of the few companies that dabbled with large-scale multiplayer gaming before Ultima Online and Meridian 59.  And he had the scars to prove it.  His contribution was simple: he was able to convince every level of the organization that change was necessary – and possible.  He did so with the single most succinct definition of a griefer I’ve ever heard: A griefer is someone who, through his social actions, costs you more money than he gives you.

Well, when you say it like that, we all felt pretty stupid for letting these jackasses hang around for so long.

Ultimately, his message was that the culture of the game had to change.  Community services were beefed up.  The team developed tools that allowed players to report abusive behavior and allowed CS to review the chat logs of trouble incidents (fun fact: in a not-insignificant number of cases, CS would ban the person who filed the complaint, as it was clear the player was attempting to goad his target).  Origin also built what may have been the industry’s first community relations department, in order to rescue the tone on the boards.  And the team did the Felucca/Trammel split, creating a safer adventuring space in order to attract a less cutthroat brand of audience.  And then they began working on a Zero Tolerance policy for general assholish behavior.

Which was tough, because in those early days, the CS tools were still roughly akin to rocks and twigs.

But it worked.  UO was, most assuredly, saved by changing its culture more than any other change it ever made.

EverQuest managed to learn from UO’s mistakes and corrections, and had a zero tolerance policy from the start.  They had some rough patches — early MMO developers were continually astounded at the ingenuity of griefers determined to ruin each other’s good times.  By the time WoW came around, the formula was pretty pat.  Sure some MMOs have struggled with fuckwads, but these struggles have tended to be brief, because now MMO developers know that it’s just not worth keeping their $10 bucks a month.

The modern MMO has a full-time staff, usually of dozens of people, hopefully working 24 hours in order to identify problem behavior — including not just harassment like this, but also issues like gold spamming, botting, cheating, etc — and escort those people out the door as quickly as humanly possible.  It’s kind of like being a bouncer at a strip club.  You may get your hands on a dancer’s ass, but you’ll likely be out in the parking lot within 2 minutes.

We spend MILLIONS of dollars doing this.  Millions that as a designer, I’d sure like to spend on more game content or features.  But it is the cost of doing business.  And its working – there is probably no online, synchronous, co-ed gaming place that feels as protected and as safe for women and other minorities.  Everquest 2 reportedly has a 60%/40% gender split.  Same for WoW.  Compare that to the 85/15 split playing GTA IV.  Or the 90/10% split playing League of Legends.  Or the 92%/8% that call themselves Call of Duty fans on Facebook.

The walled garden MMO is a uniquely safe place for female gamers to play with male gamers.  Which is something to be concerned about, given publishers seem to be losing appetites for making MMOs in the wake of no one being able to replicate World of Warcraft’s lightning in a bottle.

Make no mistake – MMOs have strong advantages in controlling their cultures.  We house the servers and pay for the bandwidth.  We frequently have subscription plans to help pay the costs of a CS crew.  Most communications in these games between strangers is done in text chat, which is cheap to store and easy to search.  And the generally long lifespans of the character arc in these games means that getting kicked out of the game will lose a ton of character progress and rare items – sure, that level grind sucks, but perversely, it also creates an investment of time in that character that most people are loathe to lose.   MMOs changed the culture from the top down.  And that was easier.  Doing this for the larger gaming culture will be inestimably harder.

But the most important step was realizing that the culture had to change.

“The Loss of an Online Home”

Remember yesterday, when I suggested that the person who thought that WoW should be shut down anytime soon was smoking a big ol’ bag of crack?  It turns out that it could also result in front-page CNN news (well, it was front page before Miley Cyrus taught the world what ‘twerk’ means).

After 10 years and a significant drop in user numbers, Disney has decided to instead focus its resources on the more popular “Club Penguin” virtual world, which has about 200 million registered users. “Toontown” will be shuttered September 19….and many long-time player…are dealing with the loss of an online home.

MMOs, it turns out, are incredibly hard to shut down, largely because of the emotional resonance that the game has with players.  Even former players who no longer play can get upset at the disappearance of what was once a central part of their lives, and this can result in distrust for the publisher of said game on future endeavors.

“I think ‘Toontown’ is unique in that its long-time users literally grew up with the game,” said Yee. “It’s a little like me telling someone that they’re tearing down ‘Sesame Street.’ Or that they’re tearing down the neighborhood playground where you used to play.”

It’s hard to tell if this makes things easier or not.  The other point of view is that you are less likely to miss things you’ve outgrown.  Also, kids are much more likely to easily jump to a new shiny thing, and less likely to start outraged petitions that call attention to it.

WoW Hints at Potential Free-to-Play Future, Supposed Industry Insiders Get Silly

So Blizzard has confirmed what everyone who has actually seen the numbers behind a free to play game have actually suspected – they are in the process of debating whether this is the right time to take the game to be Free-to-Play. Not really a surprise when they’ve already confirmed that, whatever their next game is, it won’t be a subscription-based MMO (and if they are thinking of anything even remotely novel, using WoW to test their technology and design ideas isn’t a terrible idea). I’m so happy to hear a developer actually come to this from the basis of, I don’t know, information, that I’m going to choose not to quibble with Tom Chilton about a couple of places they claim to be uncertain where they really don’t need to. Instead, I’m going to train my ire at, of course, the anti-monetization community that has congealed on Gamasutra, much the way that old milk congeals if left unchallenged too long.  So let’s fisk!

I know this maybe to much to ask, but what if it made a graceful exit instead of “whoring” itself out?

I know this may be too much to ask, but what if we reserved the term ‘whoring’ for when a company actually, I don’t know, ASKS FOR MORE MONEY FOR THEIR PRODUCT?  If WoW were to go Free-to-play, they’d probably have something like 4-6M people show up, and even if they offer a premium option like SWTOR and LOTRO, the majority of those players will pay nothing to play, and the grand majority of those players will pay either as much as they do now, or less. Blizzard would also likely abandon the upfront cost to play (i.e. the box), which would push the price down for casual gamers even more.  But that would be ‘whoring’ because they might be asked to pay five bucks for a character slot that most MMO players don’t even need or use?

What if they just find away to gracefully shut itself down and find a way to honor long term players instead of this.

What if, in order to ‘honor’ your favorite bar and your circle of friends, I burnt down the bar and put all of your friends in the witness protection program?  Look, the game still has 7M subscribers, and likely still has huge concurrency numbers every night.  Taking away something that those gamers find fun to aspire to what you feel is a nobler time is, well, really freakin’ stupid, as well as a great way to get sued by your shareholders.

Maybe only in my fantasy world. But maybe even in a business sense if they played it any other route they could have a magnificent opportunity to boost their brand and reputation, besides doing what we would expect from a industry that only speaks in dollars and cents.

Or maybe they can prove they aren’t all about dollars and cents by giving away a game that at this point has about fifteen years of development behind it FOR FREAKIN FREE.  Again, because this appears to not be clear to anyone, but: MOST GAMERS WHO PLAY FREE GAMES WITH MICROTRANSACTIONS ACTUALLY CHOOSE TO PLAY FOR FREE.  As mentioned previously, World of Tanks boasts that they monetize at an unusually high rate — that high rate being 25%.

I’m curious if wow would have catered to its original player base, instead of reaching for a wider audience every step of the way, if it would still be going strong (see EVE online)

If WoW raids still played like they did in Vanilla WoW, the game would have utterly fallen apart by now.  Back then, a tiny fraction of players were doing their endgame content, and a truly tiny portion was actually finishing it all (I think I saw an analysis that less than 0.5% completed Naxxramus when it first came out).  Going more casual friendly with their endgame content is, ironically, the only way they could have continually fiscally justified making it.

As for overall, well, the game is approaching 10 years old now, and I hate to break it to  you, but 10 years is a long time to play a game.  Most people find other hobbies and interests over the course of an MMO’s lifespan and wander off.  Finding new blood is essential, and an MMO left to its own devices actually becomes more impenetrable as it ages.  Now, some games have very strong bounceback patterns (i.e. people come back because their heart is still there, or they want to check out an update).  It turns out one of the things that is the strongest deterrent to that behavior is… having to type in a credit card number.

I think they should take more responsibility for turning the game into something that was not sustainable.

If one wanted to start the discussion that a content-oriented raidgame is not sustainable, that’s a good discussion to have.  But that’s not what’s being argued here.  What’s being argued is that WoW, by going more casual-friendly, made the game LESS sustainable.  But virtually every major shift they’ve made has actually focused on making the game MORE sustainable.  Broadening the reach of raids, implementing the token system for gear, working hard to get entry level players within reach of top-end players, and replacing skill trees with their current system are all changes that were designed to make their content easier to create, reach more players, and make it easier for guilds to backfill new players into important roles.

Look, I’m not saying that WoW made no mistakes – there are certainly things I would have differently.  But MMOs are best when they have a full, bustling population and communities are vibrant, and you are constantly fighting against inherent churn that is natural to the genre (because players find other games, other hobbies, or discover girls, for example).  Sustainability STARTS with getting more people into the front door.

Those Unwilling To Learn From History Are Doomed To Repeat It

At least Wildstar is willing to try something different.  While I’ve been on the plane to GamesCom, both Final Fantasy XIV and Elder Scrolls Online were kind enough to elaborate on their billing model — which is the classic subscription model.

Elder Scrolls Online has this to say:

“Charging a flat monthly fee means that we will offer players the game we set out to make, and the one that fans want to play,” Firor told the website. ESO will also include 30 days of play with the purchase of the game. “Going with any other model meant that we would have to make sacrifices and changes we weren’t willing to make.”

Here’s what charging a flat monthly fee actually means:

  1. Fewer players will try your game.
  2. The majority of those players will pay more money than they otherwise would have.
  3. Perversely, you’ll still end up making significantly less revenue.
  4. Also, the subscription model will put pressure on players to leave the game as soon as they feel like they are ‘done’ with the game.

The last is perhaps the sneakiest problem with the subscription model.  First off, it sets off a desperate need to maintain subscriptions at all costs, which means doing sneaky things that hurt the game experience to keep players logging in one more day (remember housing maintenance in UO?)  Secondly, there’s a very real and tangible problem around the launch windows of MMOs.  As different players stagger to the endgame content at different rates, they’ll discover there’s not enough other people there to do the content.  At that point, they have to make a choice – wait for guildmates to become raid-capable, or go back to their old home.  Since at this point, they have no idea if your endgame content is even any good, the gravity right now is to go back to the old MMO they already know and love.

In a free-to-play game, there’s a lot of bounce back.  We don’t care if a free-to-play player wanders off because he’s finished all of the content that’s available for him to do.  We don’t have to act like a jealous girlfriend because he’s wandered off to play other games.  We just have to put out content that’s good enough for him to actually want to ‘bounce back’.  Which is to say, its a much kinder business model for a games universe where players have a million low-cost gaming alternatives.  Including, I note, a whole bunch of other F2P MMOs.

The Final Fantasy Director is even more pointed in his criticism:

With free-to-play, because you’re selling these items, you’ll have months where you sell a bunch of stuff and you make a lot of money in that one month. But it’s all about what happens during that month. Next month, the person who maybe bought $100 worth of items in the last month could purchase nothing at all. You don’t know what you’re going to be getting, and because you don’t know what you’re going to be getting, you can’t plan ahead. You don’t know how much money is coming in. If you can’t plan ahead, then you can’t keep staff, because you don’t know if you’ll have enough money to pay the staff next month.

I don’t know.  Somehow, League of Legends has managed to solve that problem.  I suspect it’s because free-to-play has earned them a swimming pool full of money.

Look, is F2P more difficult to predict?  Sure.  On SWTOR, for example, we’ve missed our predictions significantly every month — we keep guessing too low!  This isn’t a case of us being bad at it, it’s a case of us being ultra-conservative on these guesses.  It turns out that once you actually have data on buying behavior, its not that hard to figure out what people will spend for next month, based on what you’re releasing.  Some months will be lighter – and then some months we sell Ewoks.

We hear a lot of people saying, “Star Wars is free-to-play now, it’s great!” But then you ask them if they’re playing free-to-play Star Wars and they say, “No, not really playing it.” Everyone talks about how great it is that it went free-to-play, but then you ask around and really, there aren’t that many people who are playing it since it’s gone free-to-play

Anecdotal evidence, as it turns out, is not the best way to make multimillion dollar business decisions.  We’re doing fine.  F2P has opened up SWTOR to millions of new players, and given us the revenue to do some truly audacious things. (Note: PAX Cantina Events visitors, look forward for audaciousness!)

Look, I’m not saying that SWTOR’s F2P plan is perfect, or that there isn’t another billing model out there that’s even BETTER for the consumer.  I will say, though, that when Blizzard, the industry leaders of the subscription-based genre are unwilling to release any other information about their next game other than there’s no way it will be a subscription-based MMO, maybe it bears some thought as to whether they know something you don’t.

Yer Killin’ Me, Wildstar

It probably comes as no surprise that I have discovered religion about Free 2 Play in a big way.  It’s very clearly the way that the future of the genre is going, and any new competitor that enters the space is going to face immense competition from the rest of us that now provide a pretty substantial amount of gameplay for free.  Right now, WoW is the only successful subscription-only MMO in the west, and even they seem to be sticking their toe in the pool.

So I’ve been interested in what new MMOs will do.  Neverwinter Nights and Marvel Heroes both shipped or are shipping with free-to-play business models, which is good.  It means the game design will work much more seamlessly with the billing model, rather than being shoehorned in at the last second.  It also means they get to avoid the stigma of ‘failure’ that comes from a hasty conversion.  Perhaps the most painful part of transitioning SWTOR from subscription to Free-to-play was reading all of the commentary describing us as a failed game, when all of the internal numbers we had showed that F2P completely reinvigorated the game.

So I’ve been waiting with baited breath to see what the two big ones, Wildstar and Elder Scrolls Online, are going to do.  ESO is still being coy, but Wildstar announced their plans yesterday… and there’s an option to play for free!  This is awesome, because Wildstar happens to be the game I’m most looking forward to right now.  Rejoice, right?  Not so fast…

Do I have to buy the game?
Yes, WildStar must be purchased in order for you to play the game.

Ergh.  Free-to-play is all about making the game accessible – getting more people into the front door.  SWTOR’s success here is no fluke – DDO reported that their concurrent players increased 5x.  For LOTRO, the number was 3x.  If anyone wants to see the effects of Free to Play on logins, check this chart. Not having maximum game accessibility at launch, when NCSoft will most likely be unloading their best marketing effort for the game, is a missed opportunity for WildStar, especially considering they are attempting to get an all-new IP off of the ground.

But there’s more…

Maybe they just want to play for free, maybe they’ve been burned by a subscription game before and dislike the model.  OK, we hear you – for you guys we have C.R.E.D.D.  This is an item that can be purchased online at the WildStar website, and can then be bought and sold with other players in-game.  This trading happens via the Commodities Exchange – basically a stock market that lets you trade C.R.E.D.D. to other players for earned in-game gold.

So for those of you who don’t want to pay a subscription fee: you can use your first month of gameplay to earn gold while playing WildStar. When the next month comes around, instead of paying the monthly subscription fee, you can use gold earned in-game to purchase C.R.E.D.D. from other players on the CX. Boom, you cash in a C.R.E.D.D for a month of game time. You can continue this cycle over & over again, enabling you to “play to pay” for WildStar.

If you think this sounds familiar, you’re not wrong (with one core difference – you can play EVE for 14 days for free, and the upfront cost for one month’s subscription is equal to… one month’s subscription).  Whether or not the billing model of Eve’s economic-spreadsheet driven libertarian paradise is right for a fledgling mass market MMO remains to be seen.  But I doubt it.

The secret of most free-to-play games is that, for the most part, they actually are played as free games for the majority of the playerbase.  World of Tanks actually boasts that a very high number of people pay to play that game – at 20-30%.  They aren’t wrong.  The dynamics in play in Free 2 Play are that a lot of casual players aren’t willing to invest their time or credit card number, but devotees of your game will.  But the only way to be able to afford CREDD is going to be a heavy player, then figure out what CREDD is, then figure out where it is on the auction house, then figure out whether or not I’m getting ripped off.  This is not a casual friendly experience.  Instead, the people most able to play for free are going to be the people most willing to spend money for your game!  If this sounds backwards to you, you’re not alone.

All of this is before you get to the uncertainty that is tying your free play option to the health and success of your gold economy.  A major inflationary event, such as a dupe bug, can result in CREDD being priced on the internal market at prices far above what a latecoming new player can ever hope to acquire.  Again, game devotees should have no problems.

One of my mantras about being a free-to-play game is that, in order to call yourself that, your evangelists have to feel good about telling their casual friends, “Yeah, you can totally play for free!”  For the game to go viral, the game needs to be substantially free.  You do need to put in price points in the gameplay – I hear paying rent is nice, and it can be argued that many free-to-play games have missed that mark on certain points in their pricing model.  That being said, WildStar doesn’t describe themselves as a free-to-play game, which is good, because neither will their customers.  Which in my mind, is a real shame.

 

Black Gold’s Shiny New Microtransaction Model

I’m all for innovating inside of the monetization space for games, but innovation implies better, and I’m not sure this applies.

Black Gold Online’s file save mode will record your playtime data, showing all materials and equipment looted in that specific timeframe. Players will be given a choice to purchase that specific “save” if you wish to acquire all of those items… This system aims only at paying for rare materials and high level equipments: Basic materials and equipments can be looted immediately without purchase.

I believe this translates to “you have to pay us for the right to actually keep any rare loot that you’ve found.”  Doing this on some level isn’t unusual: SWTOR and Dungeon Runners limit the ability to equip epic items you find (one purchase unlocked the right to equip those items in both games), and Team Fortress 2 and Guild Wars 2 will drop chests that can only be opened with microtransactioned keys.

Of course, it’s difficult to tell for sure, since I’ve read it 3 times and, even with the helpful examples, am not exactly sure that I’ve gotten it right. That being said, anytime a customer base doesn’t UNDERSTAND your business model, they’re going to be extremely reluctant to give you their credit card information.

Just Mostly Dead…

The primary problem with the concept of Permadeath in MMOs has always been in a vast disparity between the emotional connection that different kinds of players have towards their characters.  For hardcore roleplayers, their characters are a work of art and passion, personas built over hours, days or months of collaborative playtime with their peers.  For the type of cold-blooded murderer who likes to bathe in the pixellated blood of noobs, though, their avatars aren’t very important.  They are a tools, a means to an end, a hammer in the toolbox used to bash in the hopes and dreams of the innocent.  PK them?  OK, we’ll just make another.

Can this equation be changed?  Perhaps  The Castle Doctrine is in theory trying, by introducing a new server called ‘perma-permadeath’, a game mode where, once you die, your account is actually frozen out of the game.  Even, the article notes, if you are killed by traps you lay out yourself.

For what its worth, I’m not hopeful.  Death penalties directly correlate to the amount of risk that players are willing to take.  The general noobification of death penalties in MMOs is directly related to that – the response to overly punitive death penalties is for players to stop taking any sort of chances and risks and instead play the safest, most conservative gameplay in the game they can find. And while they do this, they will usually complain about being bored.