Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

8 November, 2010

OMG, why do MMOs suck so bad?

There’s been a small surge in people discussing the problems with MMO games lately. There are a few variations on the theme, but it comes down to the old, “where’s the innovation?” People are complaining that MMOs haven’t advanced, that they’re stuck in the same old gameplay, and one source even saying they should be more like action-orientated console games.

So, once again, let me stifle a weary sigh and let’s take a look at this issue, shall we?

The chorus

I originally found this issue via a diatribe over at Bio Break against the bloviations of Richard Foge, a recently hired game designer at Undead Labs. Screaming Monkeys got it right in that Foge is really talking about RPGs vs. action-focused games. And, Undead Labs has made no bones about the fact that they are making a “console MMO”, so Syp’s claims of console elitism is probably not incorrect, but it shouldn’t be surprising. (I suspect that Foge’s post falls under “master troll” or, more politely, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” After all, it got several people linking to the site without a formally announced game yet.)

Andrew, hater of round numbers, posted on Systemic Babble that he’s also been seeing things this way. MMOs are in the doldrums for him, and he’s rediscovered single-player games. He references a post over at Pumping Irony that was written in support of Foge’s console action-game paean. He feels that MMOs have become too simplistic, with even EVE Online and its notorious learning curve boiled down to “click and wait on every level”.

I’ve come not to bury MMOs…

Note that I also grew up as a console gamer (Atari 2600, NES, SNES, N64, PS1, Dreamcast, PS2), but I definitely found that I enjoyed PC gaming more once I could afford a computer. I felt that the PC could offer deeper gameplay, more variety, and more opportunity for independent developers. I’ve only bought a Wii this latest console generation, ignoring the XBox 360 and PS3 not all that interesting. (I could probably do a Fogeian rant about how modern console games have left me feeling unfulfilled, starting with a the line “I don’t like console games, but I like the concept of plopping in a game and playing with friends on the couch.”) Obviously I see MMOs in a different perspective than Mr. Foge does.

I also don’t think MMOs have to be all-consuming experiences. Like Andrew, I’ve found an enjoyment of non-MMO games, particularly discounted single-player games and especially Flash games. People already complain about the demands that MMOs make on one’s time, so it’s nice to be able to not have to play them obsessively; this is one reason why I like DDO, because it’s a game I can pick up and play at my own pace without worrying about a subscription.

For this article, I’m going to avoid the whole “what is an MMO?” issue for now. If you want information on that, look at the past six year of posts on this blog for context. Although, I think that some of these issues dance close to the fact that without some element that make MMOs what they are, it would be easier to address some complaints.

Also, note that I’m definitely not a big fan of the status quo. I’ve been bored with WoW since before it was fashionable. I’ve lamented the fact that MMOs have become stagnant and the design has become rote (and I’m in good company there), I’ve offered instructions on how to slaughter sacred cows, and I’ve chosen the life of an independent game developer mostly because the industry proper offers so little in the way of real ability to push things forward. So, while I might seem to be putting up a defense of the status quo here, it’s because I enjoy the status quo, but that I understand the limitations. My goal here is more to point out where I believe the landmines are hidden to prevent others from charging into them headlong.

So, what are the limitations?

Limitation #1: the Technology

MMOs run over the Internet. And, while we might have been able to hide some of the problems, the fact remains that the internet can be maddeningly inconsistent and unpredictable. The first lesson anyone actually running an MMO learns is that there are literally dozens of failure points in getting a game to run. The truly frustrating part is that some of those points fall outside the direct control of either yourself or the player trying to run the game: a typical internet connection runs through a dozen or so points between the user’s computer and your servers, and a problem with any of them can cause the game developer headaches.

You also have the client-server nature of the game that relies on the internet, however. As Raph Koster famously wrote, “The client is in the hands of the enemy.” The more you rely on the client, the more opportunity for cheating. The more you rely on the server to be authoritative, the more you put your gameplay at the mercy of latency. This is the reason why “action” type gameplay has not really been embraced, because latency makes it difficulty to have the server adjudicate split-second timing. We see the seams in some of the MMOs that do try to push the envelope; just the other night my GF and I were having trouble grabbing a ledge in DDO because although we seemingly made the jump on the client and even grabbed the ledge for a split second, the server disagreed and we were bounced off and fell. It’s similar to how you can seemingly dodge a ray attack in DDO and still take damage, because the server didn’t quite agree you moved out of the way fast enough. But, relying on the client to be authoritative means that cheaters will somehow always dodge those types of attacks.

So, when Foge wrote, “What about MMOs? What if we replaced all the math with action?” that means Undead Labs has solved the problems with latency or they’re hoping that nobody ever cheats. The reason why stat-focused RPG type game design is used is because it’s highly resistant to latency. Action-focused gameplay tends to fall apart pretty bad when you hit a nasty latency spike. And while FPSes might deal with that fine, things change in a big way when you’re talking about a persistent character in a persistent world. However, note that online FPSes have been relying on hit probabilities and “hidden numbers” to deal with latency, they just don’t give it the trappings of RPGs.

Limitation #2: the Business

I’ve gone over this many times before. In summary, if you have millions upon millions of dollars that isn’t your money and you convinced your investors to give you money based on the fact that WoW has a ton of players, you’re setting the expectation that you’ll do something to attract WoW-sized audiences. That probably means the person signing your checks expects you to do something that looks like what WoW did.

Really, I can’t harp on this enough. I was chatting with someone trying to raise money for a rather innovative MMO project, and his lament was that the VCs he was talking to didn’t understand his needs. “Ask for $10M…” he said, “…and VCs will tell you they’re only interested in investing $50M and want 10x the return you estimated,” I finished as he laughed and said I was exactly right. It’s hard to say you’re going off the beaten track when the terms say you need to show a big return that only the beaten track has been able to produce.

I’m not sure how Undead Labs was funded, but I assume that the promised something to someone, somewhere. Even if it was the company founders promising their significant others that the time and money invested into the company wouldn’t threaten their personal lives (too much). I suspect that the focus on a console MMO is because they think that’s part of the secret to appealing to a different group of gamers not already catered to by many current games.

Limitation #3: the People

As the Sartre quote goes, “Hell is other people.” Scott Jenning’s blog is named from this idea that other people are broken and there is no patch on any MMO to fix them. MMOs would be great if it weren’t for all the other people; unfortunately, its those people that make the game an MMO instead of a rather silly single-player game.

Cheating is a huge issue for this reason. Some people want any advantage and will take it no matter how much it hurts others (even in a PvE-focused game). Others delight in hearing the anguish from other frustrated players, so they pile grief upon grief upon them. In some rare cases, people might not even be aware of doing something wrong, believing that if something is possible then it is allowed; others cynically take this as a rallying cry for why they should be excused from their obviously abusive behavior.

It’s a frustrating trend that MMO gameplay has focused on excluding others and allowing a player to solo to a large degree, but it’s understandable because of the problems with interacting with others. It’s frustrating because when a group comes together it can make for an incredibly awesome experience. I really enjoy playing with the people from the OnedAwesome guild that Massively put together for DDO. But, I’ve also had my share of PUG horror stories from that game.

So, when Foge wrote, “How about some actual guild goals? Not, ‘We’re doing this raid to get our healer caught up on gear,’ but instead, ‘We’re going to raid the power plant because if we clear it out we can get power to our community and get our communications network online,’” I suspect he didn’t foresee the griefers who train extra zombies to hinder taking the power plant. Or the asshole who packed C4 into the car bomb but didn’t put any detonators in. Or the person who can’t drive worth a damn grabbing the car and running it into the nearest lamppost before they even get to the power plant. Or the people who go along then go AFK just so they can get credit for liberating the power plant without actually having to put in any effort. Or… well, you get the idea. When you’re sitting in the same room playing a console game with said idiot, it’s easy to reach over and smack them or tell them to take their stuff and go home. When you’re online, things become a lot more impersonal.

Finally, sometimes the audience just won’t easily accept something new. As I said in a previous post, exploring new types of fun necessarily means that the interim is going to be less fun in general. You have to travel through a valley when going from the top of one hill to the top of a taller one.

Problem #4: the Designers

To be honest, this is probably the least cause of problems in MMOs. I’ve seen a lot of legitimately fascinating concepts proposed for MMOs; for example, I’ve suggested eliminating levels and the holy trinity, but I’ve not heard of anyone taking that to use in an MMORPG, let alone offering me a consulting contract to expand upon the principles of either of those articles. I’ve also heard of a lot of interesting concepts that fail for various reasons: it doesn’t address the technology issues, doesn’t properly appeal to investors, or doesn’t test well with existing audiences. One of the most recent people to contact me wants to focus on improving A.I. and encourage role-playing; definitely not simply trying to clone what WoW is doing. Will the game succeed? Hopefully. But, it’s just an example of some of the potentially exciting things that people might like to do if it could find investment and an audience.

Yes, some designers advocate the status quo and are happy to follow well-worn paths in order to avoid being seen as the trouble-maker on a team. Sometimes designers are too wrapped up in their own ego and want the recognition that comes from having a super-popular game, so they ape the market leader to try to shoot for the stars. Other designers don’t want to put their own ideas on the line to succeed or fail, feeling it’s better to copy existing gameplay and thus blame failure on something besides their own designs; it takes a rather bold designer to be willing to see their own ideas succeed or fail. Or, perhaps the designer is working on a game that is doing well enough, introducing a radical change echoes Star Wars Galaxies‘ unpopular NGE. But, I think these cases aren’t as common as many people think.

The historical perspective

Sometimes you just have to understand historical context of games to really understand some of the root issues. Allow me to pull some quotes from Mr. Foge’s rant and share my perspectives.

“In my mind I always pictured piling into a car with my friends and tearing off into a massive world. They would lean out of the car, shooting and swinging bats.”

As I understand it, this is what APB Online was supposed to be about. However, I blinked and seemed to have missed it. The game had several other problems beyond any possible design-related ones, but it might be good to take a look at what caused APB to stumble.

“The FEELING of interacting with the world has always been stronger for me on consoles; it’s what they’re made for.”

Consoles were created as a more affordable, single-purpose computer for the family. To put it another way, consoles are cheaper and easier to use than a PC. This has lead to different types of games finding different levels of popularity on consoles vs. PCs. The reason I grew up a console gamer rather than a PC gamer is because the Atari 2600 was cheaper than a Commodore 64 or IBM PC, and upgrades were much less frequent. I discovered the beauty of PC gaming in the university computer lab and when I got a job after college making decent money.

Also, according to Richard Bartle’s four types of players, Achievers (which form the majority of the audience in modern MMOs) like to act upon the world. Explorers, which are known for consuming content at a faster rate, prefer to interact with the world. Sadly, us Explorers aren’t catered to as much as the Achievers are. One project I worked on did want to focus on catering to explorers, but sadly that project never came to fruition. So, hopefully the new game Foge is working on will cater to explorers more.

“MMOs aren’t even close to keeping up with cutting edge videogames from a gameplay or presentation perspective.”

Gameplay lags behind because of the restrictions I mentioned above. Presentation lags behind because the MMOs present a much larger world. LotRO takes up 12.9 GB on my drive and covers a large part of Middle Earth. Has any single-player LotR game covered so much land in so much detail? Compare this with 6 GB taken by Left 4 Dead which doesn’t cover nearly as much land mass as far as I’ve seen, although it does have a good amount of detail in it.

“Not numbers and spreadsheets behind the scenes, but you actually hit that thing with your weapon.”

The reality is that in any simulation on the computer, it ultimately boils down to numbers behind the scene. Rolling a 1d100, adding modifiers, and comparing against a target number is a lot easier to calculate than seeing if one curve (representing the weapon you’re holding) intersects another curve (the enemy you’re trying to hit). This matters a lot when you go from having one player hit a few monsters to having hundreds if not thousands of players hitting a few hundred or thousand monsters at a time. It also matters in that the first calculation is a lot more latency-tolerant, as I explained above.

“How about if you could actually dodge out of the way of enemy attacks?”

Try Asheron’s Call or Dungeons & Dragons Online; as I mentioned above, you can dodge out of the way of enemy attacks… as long as the server agrees you did. DDO even lets you play with a control pad according to the loading screen tips! Even though we all know that mouse and keyboard is obviously superior. ;)

What it all means

Again, this isn’t a call to throw our hands up and just accept MMOs as they currently exist. I have faith that MMOs can still live up to the wonderful reality I imagined when I first saw the text describing a magical land inhabited by other people appeared on the university computer terminal. It’s just frustrating to see people rush off in one direction where you know it’ll likely end in a dead end, thus delaying or retarding any progress that could be made.

At any rate, it’ll be interesting to see what Undead Labs comes out with. Sadly, unless the console bug bites me I probably won’t be able to enjoy their offering. But, we’ll see how enthusiastically people play the game and post about it on the various MMO blogs I follow.

What do you think? Is the future of MMOs action-focused? Will real change come from people who ignore the lessons of the past? Will we see improvement from people who have been looking at the online medium for a while? Or are we doomed to seeing a ton of WoW clones in the near future?

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  1. You said everything that I thought. And you put a lot more effort into saying it than I did into thinking it!

    Comment by Carson — 8 November, 2010 @ 3:16 PM

  2. “Or are we doomed to seeing a ton of WoW clones in the near future?” We’re always doomed to see a ton of WoW clones in the near future. And the distant future. That’s not exclusive with seeing genuinely new and good ideas.

    I don’t think change will come from those who ignore the lessons, but from those who learn the lessons and then see how new technology can help them break the old rules which defined those lessons. For example, someone might figure out a better way to allocate responsibilities between client and server to allow for more on the client side but without much more chance or damage from cheating. Or have the server running the same calculations, with override power, to keep the client honest.

    Comment by Klepsacovic — 8 November, 2010 @ 3:51 PM

  3. I’d like to see more evolution in the other direction actually; slower, more tactical (even turn-based) combat and systems. I think we’ll see more actiony stuff in the future, but I think there’s plenty of design space to explore without pushing the tech boundaries.

    Comment by Tesh — 8 November, 2010 @ 3:51 PM

  4. You should write a book or something. ;-)

    “Is the future of MMOs action-focused? Will real change come from people who ignore the lessons of the past? Will we see improvement from people who have been looking at the online medium for a while? Or are we doomed to seeing a ton of WoW clones in the near future?”

    All of the above, one way or another, in the next 10 years.

    Comment by Ysharros — 8 November, 2010 @ 4:49 PM

  5. As many times as I had to read Foge’s article to write my defense of it, to me he comes off as very much an Achievement-oriented player, so that’s very much what I expect out of his game. Or to quote a line out of today’s blog “Undead Labs might surprise me with their untitled Zombie MMO and make something that would reasonably pass as a massively multi-player game. But what I am expecting is a large-ish world ala Red Dead Redemption with a more over-the-top version of Dead Rising 2?s game play, and a population ranging from 16-24 players in your game world at any given time.” As much as I enjoyed the exploration–what there was of it–in RDR, I would much prefer an even larger world like we expect in traditional MMORPGs.

    Despite often complaining, I’m “ok” with what MMORPGs currently are, but that means as I said in my blog you linked, I no longer “love” them as they are not living up to their potential yet. Not even coming close. With the increasing costs involved, they may never. We’ll see. I at least see hope out there for more exciting variations of the current format, specifically Guild Wars 2, but I also fear that the compromises made to tailor it to the MMORPG crowd might hold it back as well.

    Comment by Scott — 8 November, 2010 @ 4:55 PM

  6. Miscellanea and linkage

    [...] However, other people are writing good stuff. I’m not trying to get hired by Psychochild or anything (in case you were wondering about all the link love) — he’s just very clever and writes very well about very interesting things. [...]

    Pingback by Stylish Corpse — 8 November, 2010 @ 4:58 PM

  7. He feels that MMOs have become too simplistic, with even EVE Online and its notorious learning curve boiled down to “click and wait on every level”.

    Mmmm… not “have become”, but “always were” I think is more accurate. I could do a hell of a lot more, and more frenetically in the MUDs of old; at least the DIKU/Circle/custom ones I played.

    Regarding EVE, it’s a beautiful vision that really fails hard when it comes to game play. I’m fascinated by the world, but when I’m actually playing the game through the interface I might as well be playing Farmville. Mechanics are important to me; it doesn’t need to be fast-paced necessarily, but it does have to be interesting to manipulate.

    Comment by Andrew — 8 November, 2010 @ 5:31 PM

  8. Funny that people are lamenting the state of MMOs just as I’m doing the same for myself :)

    Comment by unwesen — 8 November, 2010 @ 5:42 PM

  9. I’m a fairly new (indie) developer on the MMORPG scene, and to say the least your article is spot on.

    At the moment, I’m working on an MMORPG that maintains some common gameplay themes but introduces a variety of innovations. To be honest, the fact that mainstream MMO’s are so generic is great for me. Implementing something even slightly innovative is seen as a great step when compared these AAA games, and helps make my game stand out without much effort.

    Attracting an audience is easy because MMORPG players seem to be starved for innovation. I’m happy to try and fill that gap ;D

    Comment by Matthew — 8 November, 2010 @ 6:37 PM

  10. Angst for the Memories

    [...] Psychochild has a great essay that provides a sane counterpoint to my cough drop-fueled rantings. World of Warcraft ← I [...]

    Pingback by Bio Break — 8 November, 2010 @ 6:49 PM

  11. You’ve made some great points! For me, the big culprit is unambitious and risk averse game designers — they create the rules and they set the agenda. The buck has to stop with them. They are the slippery pied pipers that the players follow via a steady diet of rewards and incentivized gameplay.

    People are simply experiencing MMO fatigue. I believe MMO bloggers are just echoing the dissatisfaction of the MMO community in this regard. This is a complex subject and there are many forces at work which are contributing to the general malaise out there. Just as the Roman Empire fell due to many reasons, so too are MMOs in decline for many reasons. Here are a few off the top of my head:

    1) Lack of Choice – Where are the quality niche MMOs? How is it we live in a 500 channel universe for television but we only have a few AAA+ MMOs to choose from? Obviously, good MMOs cost a heck of a lot of money to create. We’ll have to wait this one out while the costs to produce MMOs comes down much like what happened to the music business where anyone with a computer can produce a studio quality album.

    2) Lack of Innovation – Players are bored with essentially the same content (dressed up as “new” expansions) being offered to them. There’s a reason why most TV series — even good ones — don’t last more than a few years. There’s a reason we don’t use cell phones that are 10 years old too. Unless you are selling toilet paper, every business must innovate to stay alive.

    3) Lack of Player Freedom – MMOs have morphed into big budget single-player video games with Hollywood cinematics that have more in common with Zelda and God of War than Ultima Online and EverQuest. Players must stay on the rails. The story always ends the same. No deviation. Also, where is the dynamic world we were promised years ago?

    4) The Rise of Demographics and Metrics and Based Design – MMOs are now designed to appeal to the widest possible demographic. While this is good for the bottom line and there are some good things about this, there are also a lot of negatives such as dumbed-down gameplay, welfare epics, etc.

    5) Convenience Based Design that Panders to Time-Starved, Short Attention Span Gamers – This is all about money and related to #4 above. Instead of the player conforming to the virtual world, now the virtual world must conform to the player. The result is solo friendly MMOs. Travel is almost instantaneous and rendered pretty much meaningless via portals and dungeon finder tools. Loot means nothing as well as it basically grows on trees in most MMOs.

    6) The Death of Community – Thanks to solo friendly MMOs, people barely chat anymore and why would they? Community and playing online with other people was one of the big selling points of MMOs years ago, now it’s just a marketing ploy. What community is left is dominated by vulgar jokes and general idiocy on the Trade Channel.

    Comment by Wolfshead — 8 November, 2010 @ 8:13 PM

  12. Good post.

    Makes me miss the old text based games. And I wonder if there is still something that we can learn from MUDs/ MU*. One of the reasons that they became popular in the first place is because the codebase was open source and there were some standard libs and maps available — it was very easy for someone to open a new MUD if they could find some volunteer staff, put some time into customising it, and find some hosting.

    Compare with now, when you’re talking hundreds of millions before you can ever really get started. And as you say, it’s no surprise that people don’t want to go off the beaten track.

    Comment by Spinks — 8 November, 2010 @ 10:35 PM

  13. There’s a bit of a minimeme about in MMO blogs of late blaming “accessibility” for the woes of the genre. A current of that runs through the position against soloability and short play convenience. It also tinges discussion about the Good Old Days and the True Path of MMO Design, as if there’s a chosen subset of elite gamers who are the only ones who can truly understand or appreciate MMOs. Those dirty soloists or casuals, morons and slackers, newbs and noobs… they can’t really play these things, can they?

    Might I suggest that accessibility isn’t the problem? It has expanded the market and made niches more likely than ever before. No, it seems to me that the problem with a wider MMO market is, as always, the people in it, from *all* strata. The market isn’t a homogeneous bloc of UO/M59/MU* early adopters any more, and the stresses of different opinions is making more than a few cracks in the weave of our hobby. That’s just growing pains, though, not the end of the world.

    The technology will get better. The market will adapt to smaller, nichier projects, and as Wolfshead suggests, smaller “garage band” MMO projects will be increasingly commoner. People will always be people, though, for better or worse. Gaming with others, especially anonymous others, will *always* have its problems. That is unavoidable, and not really solvable. To keep out the riffraff, you either need a super nanny state and an extraordinarily controlled climate, or gated communities run by more local petty tyrants.

    The freedom we sometimes ask for naturally comes with those who abuse it. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a more diverse market with niches for everyone, no matter the taste. It will happen eventually, if there’s enough time before the zombies take over in 2012.

    Comment by Tesh — 9 November, 2010 @ 12:19 AM

  14. As long as Mr. Foge and his companions understand the various challenges (ably outlined in the post), and mean to attempt to address them in some meaningful way, I’ll wish them all the best. If they don’t… well, reality has a way of smacking the unprepared around quite hard enough, I don’t feel much need to pile on.

    As with many others, existing MMOs have been pretty boring to me for quite some time. (I was complaining about the lack of innovation in MMOs on Lum the Mad’s forums, however long ago that was…. 10 years ago?) I still give nearly every new title a look, but my patience has worn thin: I rarely make it beyond level 10 before the “I’ve played this game before” feeling overwhelms me, and I’m done. Unfair, I know, but reality nonetheless.

    To answer the question posed at the end of the post, what I expect is that 98% of the MMO titles released will be WoW clones, from AAA to indie. Triple-As can’t take the chance due to the investors holding their leash, and indies don’t have the capital to handle the tech challenges of getting creative in most of the meaningful ways. My plan is to continue to search for that 1 in 50 that will do something different. It will likely fail, due to lack of exposure, “inadequate” graphics, technical issues they are unable to resolve quickly enough, whatever… but at least I’ll have gotten a chance to try it.

    Comment by DamianoV — 9 November, 2010 @ 6:48 AM

  15. As an aside: I should point out Vindictus from Nexon: Free To Play, “Physics Based”… tagline is “Real Physics, Pure Action”. Whether it meets the definition of MMO or not, it does appear to illustrate some of what might be able to be done in terms of an Action RPG. (I have yet to try it myself, no idea how well it meets the criteria.)

    Comment by DamianoV — 9 November, 2010 @ 8:44 AM

  16. “Dealing With the End of the World” or “Four Weeks to Cataclysmic Events”

    [...] as usual, has an incredibly well-thought out post about the problem he sees with the MMO industry today. Although his list is comprised of some very [...]

    Pingback by Are We New At This? — 9 November, 2010 @ 8:45 AM

  17. Great read. Thank you.

    While thinking about these obvious barriers, my mind began to wander – what if someone made better tools to make MMO’s? I’m not a programmer but I haven’t heard any major new engines, etc. that were or are being developed to streamline the process. That’s why I am asking you =)

    Aren’t a lot of them built on old systems, or FPS systems that weren’t meant for that scale to begin with, or in house created systems for the specific project?

    I just always believed that having the right tools is essential. Do developers have these?

    Comment by Isey — 9 November, 2010 @ 9:49 AM

  18. I think there is a good chance that Foge’s imagination may be mugged by reality and that particular blog post will disappear one day when that zombie MMO comes closer to launch. For purely site redesign reasons, of course.

    The future of MMOs is an interesting one. It won’t be in sub-based MMOs, since that’s a revenue model that is struggling (unless you are WoW). It’s likely to be in browser-based titles that have as few barriers as possible to play but some hook that brings in the dollars. If you are thinking of pure innovation, it would come from low budget titles, but every success story will step over 100 corpses of failed titles. Growth is going to occur off the PC – the first next-gen console MMO that hits its straps is going to pull in serious money – and I’m sure someone will create a massively successful mobile MMO.

    As it currently stands I think too many devs ignore the lessons of the past, which is one of the problems. Also, I think the MMO industry is likely in for even more bloodletting as AAA budgets grow to the point where they can’t actually find enough players to make them profitable. SWTOR, I’m looking at you.

    Comment by UnSub — 10 November, 2010 @ 12:54 AM

  19. Darkfall does all of the stuff you and Foge talk about.

    FPS-ish fantasy combat, huge world, player controlled, all of that, and all of it pulled off amazingly well given the budget and size of the dev team. Cheating was an issue, lag still is at times, ‘not enough sand’, this is OP/UP, all the normal stuff.

    And while the game is doing well, it’s certainly not going to challenge EVE, let alone WoW, anytime soon in terms of subs, mostly (IMO) because what many MMO players THINK they want and what they REALLY want are two very different things. Many WoW players wish for more freedom, but when given it, go right back to having their hand held with a safety net all around.

    I highly doubt the console crowd is a hidden resource of such gamers, but we’ll find out shortly.

    Comment by Syncaine — 11 November, 2010 @ 11:23 AM

  20. What’s worrisome about this is that your reasons ultimately state that it’s because they suck due to factors that will never change:

    1. Latency, despite broadband. It’s not going to change appreciably.
    2. Players are evil.
    3. Venture Capitalists are evil.
    4. Maybe designers are evil but it’s really not their fault.

    Design can at least change. Human nature can’t, and neither can the net hardware, not easily.

    Comment by Dblade — 13 November, 2010 @ 10:45 AM

  21. Been busy working on the game, so haven’t had time to comment. I have been reading the comments, however. As a side note, see Ysharros for official Psychochild fan club information. ;)

    A few selected responses.

    Andrew wrote:
    Mmmm… not “have become”, but “always were” I think is more accurate.

    I assume that at some point you were fine with them being simplistic, however, enough to want to write about them for a long time. That’s why I said “…they have become too simplistic.” Now the million dollar question is if this is because your tastes are maturing, because you’re already used to the typical gameplay, if MMOs are becoming intrinsically more simplistic, or some combination of the above. As a developer, I must figure out what I can do to satisfy your needs while making enough money to eat.

    Spinks wrote:
    One of the reasons that [text MUDs] became popular in the first place is because the codebase was open source and there were some standard libs and maps available — it was very easy for someone to open a new MUD if they could find some volunteer staff, put some time into customising it, and find some hosting.

    I think it’s also an issue about the audience and skill sets needed. A large majority of people who played the old text games were technically-inclined if not actual programmers or programming students. It’s was easy to find a few like-minded people to start up your own game, and it’s easier for the left-brain types to write text than to make pretty pictures. As online games have catered to a wider audience, we’ve lost a bit of this ability. I still think text games are a legitimate way to develop multiplayer game design skills and coding ability.

    Tesh wrote:
    There’s a bit of a minimeme about in MMO blogs of late blaming “accessibility” for the woes of the genre.

    No, I think there’s a meme about people lamenting that MMOs are focusing overmuch on accessibility and not providing them with what they really want. It’s easy to write this off as elitism, snobbery, or nostalgia, but I think it goes a bit deeper. Everyone wants to follow the leader, and even Brad McQuaid showed that lightning doesn’t strike twice if you’re focusing on the hardcore audience. When I see someone lamenting the loss of the fun times in EverQuest, I see it in the same light as someone lamenting the loss of Saturday morning cartoons many of us grew up with.

    Isey wrote:
    …what if someone made better tools to make MMO’s?

    There were some tools promoted as being suitable for MMO development. Big World and Hero Engine were two big ones. But, the issue isn’t just tools or engines, I think at this point the technical challenges are perhaps the least vital at this point as long as you’re willing to make certain compromises (latency-tolerant designs, limited players per shard, etc.) The bigger issue is still just creating enough content to have enough of a game. And, while tools can make a big difference, there’s still a lot of work required to get concepts into reality. Just look at the install sizes of your MMOs. I just uninstalled Age of Conan from my 300+ GB drive partition because it’s 27 GB footprint was taking up too much space. And, that doesn’t even include the work that goes into creating the gameplay portions on the server side!

    Further, more powerful tools tend to be more specialized leading to homogeneity. Consider that a nail gun can place nails faster and a good old claw hammer, but you are limited in how easily you can swap between nail sizes. And, try to remove a nail with a nail gun. :)

    Unsub wrote:
    As it currently stands I think too many devs ignore the lessons of the past, which is one of the problems.

    I think that problem extends well past MMO development, unfortunately. Which is frustrating as I’ve spent many years learning from the past and listening to people who trod these paths before me. As far as I know, WoW was developed without any significantly experienced MMO developers, just experienced single-player developers and some players of previous games; I fear the lesson people took away from that fact is that experience and knowledge isn’t necessary.

    Syncaine wrote:
    Darkfall does all of the stuff you and Foge talk about.

    And, as usual, anything Darkfall did Meridian 59 did first. ;) It had the added limitations of needing to run on a 28.8k modem on computers (clients and servers) from over a decade ago. But, the gameplay was very action-focused and competitive. But, there were some fairly important flaws to deal with.

    …mostly (IMO) because what many MMO players THINK they want and what they REALLY want are two very different things.

    I’ll agree there. It’s dangerous to listen to the loudest voices because I don’t think they necessarily represent a large enough group to base a typical game on. A niche game with limited overhead can do pretty well, though.

    Dblade wrote:
    Design can at least change. Human nature can’t, and neither can the net hardware, not easily.

    Perhaps I’m a die-hard optimist (*cough*), but I’d like to think human nature can change, or can at least be subverted for a little bit. I also think a lot of the issues I bring up should be seen as challenges to overcome rather than reasons not to even bother. But, I think it’s important to know that these challenges exist. I get the feeling from Mr. Foge’s post that he doesn’t understand why MMOs are like they are. I got the impression from reading his post that he was yet another designer who thought somehow the issues that have played other games simply don’t apply to his project.

    We’ll see.

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 November, 2010 @ 4:41 PM

  22. Psychochild wrote “As far as I know, WoW was developed without any significantly experienced MMO developers, just experienced single-player developers.” Really?! I can easily believe that the team didn’t have people experienced in issues that are characteristic of *massively* multiplayer systems (e.g. sharding or auction house market stability); as far as I know, there weren’t all that many such people running around. But only single-player developers? The broader Blizzard organization certainly had experience in persistent multiplayer online games from Diablo I and II. I don’t know a convenient way to check how much of Blizzard’s Diablo experience fed into WoW, but if Blizzard really did exclude all their experienced multiplayer people from the WoW team, I’d expect that that’d make a good enough story that I’d've heard of it before now. Especially since I was under the impression that WoW was a huge project for Blizzard, so big that keeping it from drawing in some people with Diablo experience might’ve required a pretty clear policy priority.

    Comment by William Newman — 15 November, 2010 @ 11:39 AM

  23. I guess I should clarify that when I say “single-player” I mean games with a single-player component, meaning non-MMO games. I view Diablo and Starcraft as primarily single-player games with multi-player options; although the multi-player aspect probably became more dominant, especially for StarCraft, there was still a focus on the single-player option that is missing in most MMOs. While I think Blizzard’s experiences with multiplayer options on early versions of helped them in WoW, it’s not quite the same as getting someone who helped build an MMO who understands the requirements of a persistent server, customer service, community management, network restrictions and optimizations, multiplayer game design, etc.

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 November, 2010 @ 2:45 PM

  24. “And, as usual, anything Darkfall did Meridian 59 did first. ;)”

    Eh, maybe. M59 was first-person, but I don’t think anyone would confuse it with being ‘actiony’ :). But my point was not that DF did if first, but rather that it’s building on what M59 and others did, and that in 2010, a lot of what you talked about originally is actually possible. (The collision detection for something like an arrow in Darkfall is sick for example)

    The real issue is that most devs are focused on how best to deliver instant rewards faster, rather than delivering better gameplay.

    What really sucks is most players are more interested in faster rewards over better gameplay as well, with Farmville being the point-blank example, but far too many MMOs also included here.

    Comment by Syncaine — 16 November, 2010 @ 2:23 PM

  25. Syncaine wrote:
    …I don’t think anyone would confuse [M59] with being ‘actiony’ :)

    Actually, it was very action-focused, and moreso initially. The client checked locally for what you hit based on where you were facing. It was sometimes hard to fire into a melee with a bow because you could hit allies as well as enemies in some situations. This was pretty amazing given that it had to run on 28.8k modems and the server was a “beastly” 200 MHz machine.

    The problem is that people exploited this to create crude aim-bots. So, the developers simply gave that ability to everyone. Some people lament this, saying it took away a lot of the skill required for the game, but it stopped that type of cheating easily enough.

    So, when I talk about the problems of internet games? Yeah, I kinda know what I’m talking about. ;)

    Anyway, I’m not saying you can’t do action-focused gameplay, but that there are tradeoffs and problems to address. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of developers run headlong into these problems then act like nobody else has ever had to face the same thing.

    Comment by Psychochild — 16 November, 2010 @ 5:56 PM

  26. “I’ve seen a lot of developers run headlong into these problems then act like nobody else has ever had to face the same thing.”

    My game is unique and different because I have bird-people instead of elves. Given that my game is unique and different, obviously everything I do would be new to anyone, whether they are experienced developers or not. And since the problems are new to everyone, anyone with smarts can solve them just as well, experience or otherwise.



    Comment by silver — 17 November, 2010 @ 3:22 PM

  27. I suspect over the medium term latency will drop enough (and server-side predictive code will be made clever enough) to enable acceptable action-oriented MMOs on consoles. For one thing, those are technical challenges, and as such they can yield to technical solutions. And for another, the big console game developers (in particular the people who make the hardware who also make games in order to push sales of that hardware) can see WoW’s great success — they’re motivated to replicate that success on their platform, and they’ve got the money to invest to make that happen. (Note that it’s also likely to be a Sony/Nintendo/Microsoft because it’s harder for third-party developers to do MMOs on consoles, due to the high frequency of changes to MMOs versus the time-consuming code review requirements of the console makers.)

    As to the idea of going the other direction, of making a game that’s deeper and less about fast-reflex action play, I’m all for that. I’m pretty much an archetypal Explorer, and I’d love to see an MMO that truly understood and implemented that kind of gameplay. I have ideas of my own for how to accomplish that, with a concept paper for one game and a multi-page design doc for another. So a not-so-much-Actiony MMO gets my enthusiastic approval.

    That said, such a game likely starts off in failmode. Games that are less about easily-comprehensible concrete actions (hit object with stick for 100 points) and more about abstract satisfactions (understand the connectivity and before-after relationships among the elements of a crafting process, or help two people decide to make a second go of a troubled relationship) are always going to be harder to comprehend by designers, harder to implemment by programmers, and harder to appreciate by gamers.

    For an object lesson in this, I refer interested readers to the example of the MMORPG called Seed. Seed was going to be a game of exploration and diplomacy, where non-violent activities like crafting and research and player elections would be the core gameplay. It lasted a couple of months. Seed launched early to try to make enough money to finish coding; it ran from May 2006 to September 2006 before closing. See , , and to get a feel for just how hard it is to make a critically and commercially successful MMO that doesn’t try to clone WoW.

    This doesn’t mean I think people shouldn’t try. Again, I have designs of my own in this direction. But I think there are very good reasons why experienced developers prefer to set their sights on an “actiony” console MMO.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 21 November, 2010 @ 1:29 AM

  28. “Seed was going to be a game of exploration and diplomacy, where non-violent activities like crafting and research and player elections would be the core gameplay. It lasted a couple of months.”

    On the other hand, “A Tale in the Desert” has been that MMO for several years now. I wonder what they did differently.

    Comment by silver — 22 November, 2010 @ 12:22 AM

  29. If that was a serious question, my impression of ATITD has always been that it wasn’t intended to be a commercial money-maker — more of a “if it makes money, great; if not, I’ll still keep running it.” Seed seemed to be more of a purely commercial venture, with higher costs in anticipation of higher revenue that never materialized.

    If that’s close to the mark as an analysis, then the trouble would seem to be the old complaint that it’s just too expensive to make a true commercial MMORPG. To supply all the features and content and shininess that current MMORPG players expect, you need a team of paid developers; that level of cost usually means spending someone else’s money; and “someone else” normally expects their investment to make a profit, which means minimizing risk, which means not trying generally untried forms of gameplay.

    (And sometimes, as in the case of Star Wars Galaxies, it actually means gutting an existing game with “unusual” features to try to mutate it into a clone of more financially successful games.)

    I genuinely don’t like sounding so cynical. I’m usually more focused on opportunities. But I’ve had much of the optimist beaten out of me over the years by the herds who refuse to see beyond what is to what might be, which they call “being realistic.”

    Sure, I’d love to see MegaTraveller implemented as a MMORPG — heck, I’d give up my current job to be lead designer for that one. But when most gamers can only mock the mere suggestion of a MMORPG without levels, without “holy trinity” classes, and without a obsessive fixation on “aggro management” as gameplay; when no publisher is willing to fund such a game; when no successful development studio is willing to self-publish such a game… why keep pushing for it?

    If your goal is to make a living making games, at what point do you say, “OMG, MMOs suck so bad… but there’s nothing I can do about it” and just focus on making another doomed WoW clone to keep food on the table for another year?

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 22 November, 2010 @ 10:21 PM


    A blast from the past, Dani Bunten Berry speaking at the 1998 GDC about the issues with online games. The more things change….

    Plus, this was the year I got into online games. Ow, now I feel old.

    (Hat tip to Sara Pickell for sending me the link.)

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 November, 2010 @ 2:38 PM

  31. If your goal is to make a living making games, at what point do you say, “OMG, MMOs suck so bad… but there’s nothing I can do about it” and just focus on making another doomed WoW clone to keep food on the table for another year?

    After about 2 years …

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 26 November, 2010 @ 3:06 PM

  32. The Agency… I Hear It Will Feature Duke Nukem and Harvey the Rabbit

    [...] And it isn’t that I am down on the team developing it.  Nobody is saying their job is easy.  I mean, a twitch based shooter as an MMO… and on the PC and PS3 to boot.  No matter what some zombie lovers say, this ain’t easy. [...]

    Pingback by The Ancient Gaming Noob — 9 December, 2010 @ 11:35 PM

  33. we doomed to seeing a ton of WoW clones in the near future

    Comment by Bobbo — 24 January, 2012 @ 2:14 AM

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