Zen Of Design

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

Category: MMO Design (page 1 of 36)

Time to Lego Penis

The Phrase ‘Time to Penis’ was the MMO answer to ‘Time to Crate‘.  It was coined by designer par excellence Jeff Freeman who sadly is no longer with us, and was used to describe the length of time, in a game with user created content, it would take for players to fell the game with phalluses.

Here’s a series of Tweets from a senior developer who worked on Lego Universe – the ultimate child-friendly user-created-content IP.  

And just how expensive was it to do regular penis sweeps?

The whole thing’s a fast, good read.

Crowfall’s Key Innovation and Why MMO PVP Fans Should Support Them

As of this writing, Crowfall has three days remaining on its Kickstarter, and has reached most of its financial objectives.  However, they are very close to some very cool stretch goals, including Oculus Rift support.  Click here to see the Kickstarter, and if you want to help out, act now before the Kickstarter ends!

It’s fashionable to point out disclaimers of prior relationships for articles like these.  In the case of Crowfall, I share this information proudly.  I’m old friends and colleagues of both of Artcraft Entertainment’s principals (as well as multiple other people at the studio).  Gordon Walton is one of the smartest, most influential leaders in the Massively Multiplayer space, and likely the best mentor and boss I’ve ever had.  Todd Coleman is fresh off of his stint working at Kings Isle (where he was the design id behind the very lucrative Wizard 101), and he’s as driven, insightful and laser-focused a Creative Director as you’re ever likely to find in the MMO space. He is exactly the sort of person you want corralling a crazy MMO startup into reality.  Put simply, the pedigree of the studio leadership alone should be enough to convince you to go back Crowfall if you love competitive Player vs. Player MMOs and truly next-gen thinking in the MMO space.

But I don’t want to talk about that.  I want to talk about what they’re actually going to build.

I worked with Coleman on Shadowbane as part of Wolfpack Studios.  I joined the company shortly before they shipped the game (to be honest, too late to impact much one way or the other), and I continued there working on Shadowbane and various other products until the game went Free to Play.  I joined up because it was a crazy ambitious vision for an MMO  – a game about building massive cities, and then going to war and burning them down.  It was a damned exciting vision.  I frequently joked that it was either going to be a ‘thing’, or it was going to be well worth having front-row seats to the results.

Shadowbane shipped to fervent excitement by the fans.  The day we shipped, googling ‘Shadowbane’ got more results than ‘Star Wars Galaxies’, despite us having virtual no marketing beyond board warrioring.  The idea behind Shadowbane is a gloriously big one, and judging by the success of Crowfall’s kickstarter so far, is one that still has resonance today.

Shadowbane did not stick the landing on their launch.  Technical issues marred the release – mostly due to the inexperience of the team, a problem that Crowfall should avoid – and it took some time to get the game stable enough to actually see how that core vision bore out.  And what we found was that the vision for the game was fun and exciting, but had a very interesting fatal flaw.  And that is that it never ended.

Shadowbane PvP was completely freeform – no precreated ‘sides’.  Instead, each warring faction was a completely player-created guild – often merging into alliances.  And the problem is that typically, one of the alliances would get so big and dominant that they’d completely steamroll over any new guild that started up.  Because your city tied to your success, steamrolling another guild’s city increased the gap, making it easier for the leaders to maintain control overall. The dominant alliance would typically become so dominant that peace would reign uncontested.  Which, if you’re making an MMO based upon the vigors of war, is a disaster.

The most interesting fallout to this, academically, was that one time a server got so bored having nobody to kill that the Alliance leaders decided arbitrarily to ban a player class.  For a week, all Thieves were Kill On Sight.  Which is cool in an emergent gameplay sort of way, but also reveals how the game was fundamentally sick.

The players got it too.  We frequently would have better logins on days we launched a new server than on the days we put up major patches.  Shadowbane players LOVE to have a fresh Risk map to start dropping castles onto.  When I left, we talked frequently about whether or not it was feasible to make worlds with a shelf life the core to the game’s design.    After I left, Shadowbane wiped the servers to kickstart a clean map feel again.  Outsiders were aghast, but the cheering of the playerbase was vocal and emphatic.

Shadowbane was not the first game to deal with this problem.  The first to do it well was World War II online, which had a similar problem where the game servers would end up locked in a situation where one side (the germans – It was always the germans) would have the other pinned into a miserable no-win situation.  WW2OL solved the problem a simple and elegant way – declaring a winner, and resetting the map.  Some observers were concerned that this would result in ‘taking away’ some of the earnings of the victors, or ruin the game by destroying the sense of persistence, but this proved not to be the case.  The winners were happy enough to get the bragging rights of victory, and the losers were just happy to have hope again.

Crowfall is not Shadowbane 2, but it is clearly deeply influenced by Coleman’s first game.  As such, I found the fact that Crowfall’s Kickstarter video spent most of their time discussing their fresh map solution – (“eternal heroes, dying world”) a true indication of the fact that these guys are shooting for next generation thinking about MMO gameplay far and beyond simply cloning WoW.

The ambitions built around these disposable worlds are a lot of fun.  Worlds are fully destructable, which means that the difference between a pristine new land and one ravaged by warfare will be made clear.  Also, the physics of the worlds can completely deviate from one another – the idea that some worlds may offer better resources, or have stronger rules of magic, for example, become possible.

Will it work?  There are no guaruntees.  It is a bold, ambitious, and breathtakingly exciting vision for a fantasy MMO – and yet at the same time one built upon solid design thinking and the hard crucible of experience.

Go check it out.


As of this writing, Crowfall has three days remaining on its Kickstarter, and has reached most of its financial objectives.  However, they are very close to some very cool stretch goals, including Oculus Rift support.  Click here to see the Kickstarter, and if you want to help out, act now before the Kickstarter ends!

The Political Metagame of EVE Online.

EVE Online continues to be the most fascinating game that I have no desire to play.  This article discusses the high level council/political game (the ‘metagame’) in length, and is a worthy read.

Although I had been interested in EVE and its stalwart community prior to reading about what has come to be known as “gaming’s most destructive battle ever,” it wasn’t until I saw game-maker CCP erect a physical monument in Reykjavik for those lost in battle that I got hooked. That was the first time I had seen any physical commemoration of an in-game event by any game company. This type of recognition of the EVE community is not rare for CCP, though, and emphasizing the devotion of their player base is important to the lifeblood of their product. The monument is not the only physical manifestation of the gaming universe that reflects the passion of the EVE community. 

As always, it’s important for me to link this chestnut when discussing Eve Online.

Elder Scrolls Ditches the Subscription Model

Well, they didn’t TECHNICALLY go Free-to-Play, so I can’t say I told you so.  It looks more like they are going with the Guild Wars model.  I can’t say I’m a fan yet – from what I’ve heard the game would sincerely benefit from the massive influx of population that would happen if they ditched all barriers to entry — but I guess I can see the merit in getting what you can from what is hopefully a reasonably large console launch.  Console gamers still need to be taught how free-to-play works, so this is arguably a necessary hedge.

I still bet the entry price falls to below $10 by the end of the year.

MMOs and the Fall of THQ

The AAA games industry has hysterically overreacted to the failure of anyone to capture the lightning in the bottle that World of Warcraft.  It’s weird – AAA studios seem completely and totally oblivious to the fact that EverQuest was quite successful with – what, 450K subs max? WoW at the time, if you recall, stated they merely needed to match EQ to be successful.  Analysts at the time used to say stuff like ‘there might only be 600K to 1M MMO players in the world – how could WoW and EQ2 possible coexist?’  Even then, the breakout success of games like Lineage in Asia suggested that something could come along and blow the doors off of things.

Going back through my blog in the mid-aughts, people forget both how slow WoW’s roll to 12M actually was, and also how stunning most observers thought it was at every major milestone.  I remember when they hit 1M and were clearly still on the uptick, a lot of people discovered the need to recalibrate their definition of success.  As one example, Star Wars: Galaxies (which launched about a year prior) went from being considered a solid and respectable success at 250K subs to one that the corporate overlords apparently figured needed a disastrous reboot in the form of the ‘New Game Experience’.  Because WoW recalibrated what success SHOULD look like for a major MMO.   Continue reading

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.

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Being Too Greedy Too Early

One of the things I’m very proud of when we monetized SWTOR, is how generous we were to the new users.  Players don’t get asked for any money before level 10 in SWTOR (roughly 4-5 hours of gameplay) – a design stance I had to defend hotly a few times.  My rationale: we had done focus testing out the wazoo on our newbie experience, and gotten the test scores as high as the various meters would go.  Why mess with a good thing?  As such, I tried to make it that the only change a free player saw below levels 1-10 was the button that opened the store.  Hopefully, by the end of newbie planet, you’ve decided you want to live there – then it’s appropriate to suggest some upgrades. Continue reading

More F2P Fisking

There sure is a whole lot of wrong going on over in this debate.

We both know that someone, somewhere has to pay for the game’s development, and for that idea to work out, you either need to hook some ‘whales’ who pay out a fortune and subsidise everyone else, or you have to constantly nag all of the players to pay for in-game items.

If I can give the gift of great gameplay to three times the number of customers because a handful of heavy users love my game so much they beg me for more opportunities to spend – is that really a bad thing?  And how is this really different from Golf shops that are subsidized by high rollers buying $10000 clubs, magic players buying Black Lotuses, or knitting stores who sell balls of yarn from rare endangered alpacas for $1000 per ball?  Why is this the one industry where people actually feel pity for the hardcore fan who wants to spend? Continue reading

“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.

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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! Continue reading

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