8 November, 2010
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?
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?