February 2009

Doubt Thou The Stars Are Fire

How PvP works:

Step 1: Global war between bitter enemies rages for years and years and years


Step 2: As part of that war, someone tries to join one of the warring parties, and after paying his entry fee is told “thanks, no thanks” (this being a common scam, since the side in question is, well, griefing the entire game as a hobby).


Step 3: Said someone says “No, wait, I’m actually an alt of one of the leaders of your enemy alliance. I can help you.


Step 4: Response to said someone: “Hmmmm…. You don’t say.


Step 5: Weltanschauung


Step 6: Kriegsnachwirkung


Step 7: Ragnarok


The day before…


And the day after.

I’m sure there’s a few design, development, and community implications to be learned here. Just how much power do you want to give your players to screw each other over, anyway? Because with unlimited power comes unlimited hijinks.

Rituals Of The Betrayed

I have seen a lot of layoffs these past few years.

I have survived a number of them.

I have fallen to a few of them.

I have talked to far too many friends, on the phone, through email, through IM, over beer, watching them tear up from the sense of failure and betrayal.

Too many. Goddamned too many. In a sense, it’s easier when it’s you.

I am tired of watching impotently as my friends fall to yet another corporate earnings report and mandated change in direction and any other euphemism you care to use for “we screwed up and are damned if we’re ever going to take any responsibility for it”.

There is a deadly rhythm developing to these horrible events. The drumbeat of rumors weeks prior, the dead look in the eyes of the people who know earlier and can’t say, the worry in the eyes of everyone else as they furtively check networking sites and job listings and send emails on their private accounts.

It’s always the same. Always the fucking same.

And the people responsible – no, not the managers who actually have to wreck people’s lives up close and in person, but the higher-ups who actually made the screwups that led everyone to the cliff – they’re Out Of The Office. Off To Meetings. Not Here Today.

Responsibility. It’s a nice long word, rolls around in your mouth. Says a lot. Isn’t said much, in any way meaningful.

The part of the ritual that always gets me? The Official Statement. There always is one – the people in charge of PR can’t just let it go (or else they might be let go themselves!), they always have to weigh in with the usual Our Hearts Will Go On malarkey.

And that’s why it always gets me. Because it’s always something to the effect about how “these unfortunate events” weren’t really critical. It’s not important, those people we let go. They’re not that important. We didn’t really care about them, you see. It’s unfortunate, sure, but we have great things in store, just you watch! We’re not set back in any way, no sirree bob! Everything’s GREAT!

Everyone knows it’s what companies say – everyone knows it’s what companies have to say.

And it’s the final act of betrayal. That final kicking dirt on the guy as he heads out the door with his action figures and Best Employee Of The Year trophies in a box that was helpfully set out in the hallway the night before. Because it’s not enough that you let that guy go after he gave his all for your bottom line, it’s not enough that you had to force him out into an economy that is anything but welcoming. No, not only did you wreck his life and reward his loyalty with a pink slip and a packet about COBRA coverage, you then got to announce to Teh Intertubes that in the grand scheme of things he wasn’t really that important.

You know what? Everyone reading those releases knows it’s a ritual. And it’s a ritual that sucks. It’s IMMORAL. It lies. It lies to your customers, your stockholders and the employees that remain in fear of their continued livelihood.

It’s the final gratuitous act of betrayal. It always happens. And it always sucks.

I remember when I had one of those *on the radio*. I had been let go from a dot-com company in mid-collapse, in 2001, and escorting my shocked and awed arse out the door was a press release that said that those let go were “underachievers”.

Thanks, guys! I’m sure that’ll look good on my job application. Underachiever Class of 2001. Way to reward working long hours and surviving layoff after layoff and wondering when I’d be the next.

Corporate loyalty is a LIE.

Maybe someday I’ll be in a position to change that.

Or maybe I’ll just keep impotently raging into chat windows.

Fixing MMOs Is Hard

Tom Chick: MMOs are broken! Fix! The Narrator: No, you mean WoW is broken.

And now we have:

Trembling Hand: Oh come on, they’re broken, fix plz.

So I thought I’d share my jaded, broken-on-the-wheel-of-pain response to the above. A caveat: if someone released a game with all 10 of those points implemented, I’m sure it would be awesome. However — the devil, as always, is in the details.

Thus, I’ll hit these out of order, because some of them are such obvious truths it’s hard to disagree with (even for me, and I’m a professional curmudgeon.)

10) Launch when it’s finished

Yes, that’d be swell. When is finished? When the game is fun? That’d be great. When you run out of money and are going to lay everyone off unless you shove it out the door prematurely? True more times than I care to remember, including some eventual market successes.

But yes, in an ideal world we’d be free of budgetary pressures and, through beneficent overlords careless with cash, or even more unlikely, proper and experienced project management, a game would be developed well, QA’d throughly, beta’d for both fun gameplay and crippling bugs, and release on time and on budget.

Heh. Hah. muahahHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAH. There, I’m done now.

8 ) Make subscriptions cheaper

Hard to get cheaper than “free”, which is rapidly becoming the price point for a lot of new games. But yes, asking for a credit card is a pretty crucial hurdle that is difficult for a lot of games to surmount. So, sure, cheaper is good. Hopefully you can afford to keep that team running and throwing cash at them so they don’t have to release things early!

7) Quality of life 4) Don’t make me grind

Totally agreed here, on both of these. In fact, I’m tempted to combine them and call this the Blizzard Rule. Namely: if your players are playing your game and suddenly think “you know, I could be having more fun playing World of Warcraft right now”? It’s time to break out the “maintenance mode” budget spreadsheets.

3) Make combat smarter

It’d be great if we could. Unfortunately, the Internet intervenes.

Both in terms of lag time (the more complex the interaction between client and server during a time-critical action like, say, combat, the more lag breaks the immersion, or more accurately the outright lie that you’re actually engaging with a game in realtime as opposed to a half-second or so delay) and in terms of, well, people on the Internet aren’t that enamored with complex things. Take Dungeons and Dragons Online – which has precisely the type of combat the original poster proposed. DDO is not, by any stretch, a market success. Now, that’s probably not due to the complex combat system – but by that same token, it didn’t exactly close the deal for selling the game either.

Players, in the aggregate, tend to enjoy simplicity. Sorry. No, really, I’m sorry, I’m the guy who likes insanely overcomplex rules systems. Unfortunately you and I are outliers.

1) Make the worlds more engaging

Also make them fun. And finished. Also, profitable. Anything else? Oh yeah, blue. They should be blue. Blue is cool.

OK, enough sarcasm on that one. Yes, plenty of games fall down in inducing a sense of wonder or even a sense of place that’s critical for the success of a virtual world, probably through a tunnel vision imposed on deathmarching your way through an insane production schedule so you can “release it when it’s finished” before the entire company is laid off. And a lot of that is due to the unoriginal design of many games tasked with “cloning WoW”. It’s really hard to make a coherent world when you’re working off a xerox machine of game mechanics and interfaces.

(By the way, there is not a single MMO designer on the planet who wakes up in the morning with “I’d love to clone WoW” as his or her personal dream. There are many executives, however, who wake up EVERY morning with that dream. Protip: Executives outrank designers.)

By the way, if you’re keeping score, I start tossing bombs in earnest right about…. now.

2) Ditch classes and levels

If I had a quarter for every armchair designer (or actual designer for that matter) I’ve listened to that began their “How I Would Save The MMO Industry Singlehandedly” speech with “ditch classes and levels”, I could fund World of Progressquest singlehandedly. It’s the quickest way to indie cred: instead of saying you really like Angry Johnny and the Killbillies, you say you really wish someone would make a game just like Ultima Online (which effectively had classes and eventually patched them in explicitly) or Asheron’s Call 1 (which had levels as well as implicit classes) or Game No One Has Ever Heard Of But Makes A Ton Of Money And Has No Classes (but does have levels and an insane soul destroying grind) or My Favorite MUD No One Ever Heard Of But It Totally Ruled. Saying “I wish someone would ditch those damn levels and classes” isn’t proposing a game design. It’s proposing the absence of one.

Unless you have a pretty compelling alternative for explaining how people can develop their character without being intimately familiar with the game’s rules (which, mind you, are almost never well documented in any MMO, it’s like some sort of conspiracy industry-wide to refuse to hire a decent web team), you’re simply taking all the design work you’d already have to do in creating skills and abilities, and instead of building them into coherent class sets yourself are saying “screw it – let the players do it. They know better anyway. Plus there’s none of that annoying game balance to worry about! Everybody can be everything, amirite?” (Oh wait, you have this really complex series of checks and balances to make sure you can’t screw up your character or become God of the Tankmages that will mean the game will take 2 years to learn instead of 1 year. Right.)

Ditching levels and classes won’t magically eliminate The Grind: Ultima Online was a horribly, horribly grind-tastic game (hello, GM Blacksmith TWICE, cry for me) and World of Warcraft is pretty grind-free despite being chock full of both classes AND levels.  It’s simply another rules system, and by its nature an inherently more complicated one, both to design and more importantly, to play. That doesn’t mean it’s BAD – there’s plenty of successful MUDs that do very well with mature skills-based systems. But just tossing that out as “well, hell, why hasn’t anyone ever thought of this besides ME” ignores, among other things, the fact that this gets proposed and wildly argued over and finally shouted down violently by the experienced and probably drunk senior developer in every MMO designed to date.

Of course, just rehashing D&D over and over again is pretty insane, too.

5) Make mobs smarter

It would be ridiculously easy to make mobs smarter. “Hey, I need to always kill the guy healing people. No, really. Screw you, taunt skill. I’M KILLING THIS GUY. Oh, I’m getting some friends to help. In fact we’re going to loop around from behind to take them by surprise. AND WE’RE NOT STOPPING TILL WE WIN.” It would be the equivalent of That Dungeon Master Guy you all hate who takes great, sadistic, and Aspergian glee in making sure “his” players always die horribly.

This is not an experience people will pay for. Game design, in many ways, is convincing players that they won a struggle against imposing odds. It does not mean actually creating imposing odds.

Also, I have seen metrics prove conclusively, time and time and time and time again, that in a game that *does* have monsters with decent AI and that use strategies that require some thought to defeat, that players will avoid them in droves and seek out the ones with the most brain damaged AI possible.

Players dislike challenge. They SAY they like challenge. They lie.

6) Encourage grouping

Yeah, let’s not go there.

9) Listen to, and engage with, players

The players are often WRONG.

What’s more, they will lie to you.



No, really, their class is horribly underpowered, any fool would know that if they only played the game and that bug you’re talking about is really a feature and anyway you shouldn’t remove it because our entire side is underpopulated so it’s only fair.

The players are not the ones at financial risk if your game fails. They simply move on after consuming all you have to offer.

Of course the players are also often right. There’s a whole discipline of development which revolves around figuring out which is which. At least until they figure out they’re the least paid people at the company and move on to junior worldbuilder so they finally get some respect in the break room.

But engaging with players entails the willingness to do some very fundamental things which, to date, have been unpopular with both developers and players.

* Telling players they are wrong.

* Telling dev teams they are wrong.

* Telling players and dev teams that YOU have been wrong.

* Being honest with both players and dev teams.

* Not taking sides with one against the other.

* Not playing favorites with certain players or groups of players.

* Not playing favorites with certain devs or groups of devs.

* Not building up your own personal reputation at the cost of your teams or your community.

* Having skin thick enough to deflect radioactive waste.

* Having the ability to process thousands of often contradictory voices, cleanly, quickly and professionally, without hearing them in your head as an insane cacophany driving you to murder small children.

If you’re not willing to do that – all of that – then the point you ignored will be the point that will hoist you on your petard and do more damage to your community than if you had never engaged with them in the first place. And that is why most dev teams of late just take the path of least resistance and not bother. Because it’s SAFER.

But yeah, you should totally engage with your players, because, hey, they are kind of the reason you’re there. Just be aware you’ll screw it up and cause more harm than good. Also be aware you’re not the first.

So… yeah. Hopefully this gives some idea of the long and brutal path between good intentions and attempted implementation.

It’s HARD, yo.

Warhammer Online Releases Big/Small Numbers

Embedded in EA’s quarterly report this afternoon:

Warhammer® Online: Age of Reckoning®, an MMO from EA’s Mythic Entertainment studio, ended the quarter with over 300K paying subscribers in North America and Europe.

The good news is that 300,000 is not a shabby subscriber level to be at — probably well ahead of such competitors as Age of Conan and City of Heroes.

The bad news is that they needed 500,000.

For the number two spot, Jacobs reasoned that “Warhammer” would need at least a half-million subscribers, which he guessed was close to what “Final Fantasy” and “EverQuest 2” have now. “Let’s just say north of half a million would mean we’re successful. Now how a far north? I wouldn’t mind being a little bit cold.”

Well, given the drop from 750K to 300K, I suspect there have been some particularly arctic moments. And given the general state of the economy – and of Electronic Arts –  things will only get chillier.

The industry needs a hit from a company not named Blizzard, please.

But, You Know, Bisexual Vampires Are Totally Cool

Sanya Weathers on… um, lots. Mostly about That Girl In Vent You All Know. But also about Twilight!

The sound of your voice is like a vampire’s fang. Not that we believe in vampires, unlike you. And seriously, side note, grow up. The Twilight books are shitty fantasy lite for twelve year olds who are afraid of sex. None of the Cullen boys could get it up with a vacuum pump and a squad of fluffers, from what we can tell.

Sadly, That Girl still has better gear than I do.

Irony Is Tasty

“Soldiers heading to Iraq use simulations like today’s video games in order to prepare for war,” (Illinois Governor Rod) Blagojevich said in a statement. “That may all be OK if you’re a mature adult or a soldier training to fight, but is that really necessary for a 10-year-old child?”

Milorad “It’s A F*cking Valuable Thing, You Just Don’t Give It Away For Nothing” Blagojevich, legislating morality.

Betcha You Can Guess #1

Via GigaOM, DFC Intelligence’s top 10 global list of MMOs – by income generated.


1: OMGCHINA. It’s not broken down in the figures, but my suspicion is China is a pretty hefty portion of World of Warcraft’s revenue stream as well, despite the revenue per user being significantly lower. The Chinese MMO market dwarfs the Western market, both in subscriber numbers, and more importantly in revenue. China’s the new Korea. It’s tempting to say that “someplace else will soon be the new China”, but it’s difficult to imagine unless all of Europe becomes obsessed with Diablo 3 or something. It also means that the Chinese market is very vulnerable to collapse if that audience moves to something else (again, see Korea, where many users have moved on to FPS games).

2: Installable client is still the king in terms of revenue, which is somewhat surprising – and promising, it means that much of this market is still being driven by the “hard core” willing to download gigabytes of data to try out a game. As web installs catch up this could open the market still further.

3: This may be an artifact of DFC tossing up their hands and going “I dunno” at trying to guesstimate income figures, but recent high profiles have all interestingly fallen into the same “tier” of $50-150m annual income. LOTRO = AoC = WAR = Runescape. Note: one of these had a somewhat lower budget than the others…