Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

28 April, 2016

A call for more diversity of games
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 8:20 PM

Another reader-suggested topic today:

Imperien Cypher suggested:

With the notable exception of Eve-Online, every new MMO I’ve played since the late 90s has felt like a glorified tutorial meant to teach players the ropes before the competition actually begins… Which, sadly, never seems to happen.

On that basis: Are gamers today too “soft” to handle an MMO with the kind of PvP which was the norm in the M59/UOL era? By that I primarily mean tangible death consequences in the form of “exp death” and/or “full looting” appropriate to a given game’s mechanics.

TLDR Version: Is the MMO genre doomed to remain a “Sacred Haven” until the end of time?

I think there’s two answers to this question, although they are related.

The PvP answer

Speaking specifically to PvP games, I think that it’s time we admit that hard-core PvP games like Meridian 59 are a niche interest. A very fun niche interest, don’t get me wrong. But, the combination of free-for-all PvP, full looting, and death penalties just feels like too much for most people. And, it’s quite apparent that other games cater to the people who like this better than MMOs do. MOBAs and competitive FPSes seem to do competitive player vs. player or team vs. team fights a lot better these days.

The big reason for this is the persistent part of the game. If you lose in a MOBA, you take your reduced winnings and you queue for the next match. If you lose in a hard-core PvP MMO, your character probably got weaker. This leads to a feedback loop where your weaker character is now less capable of facing the enemies that just defeated you. If you take away the weakening of the character, then player characters only get more powerful and the solution to a fight becomes “zerg the enemy until you win.”

You can mitigate this somewhat by letting people set aside resources for a rainy day. Both M59 and EVE do this. In M59 you could pay to store equipment in a vault, and if you died you could go get your backup set of equipment to continue the fight; however, your character still took some (probably small) penalties to your stats, and eventually you would run out of stored equipment to use to fight against enemies. In EVE, you have insurance on your ships and you can have jump clones in different locations with different types of ships. But, again, eventually you might run out of viable options to fight (although you might still have significant capability that’s simply too far away.)

And, to open up old wounds, we have the history of Ultima Online the the split between Trammel and Felucca. Once the “carebear” side of the game was made available, it stabilized the populations that had been declining.

I think it’s safe to say that the old hard-core free-for-all PvP that some classic games had is not likely to return in force. Not to say it’s impossible, but a game would have to have a very specific niche in mind that it wanted to cater to. So, hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think games are going to be have less hard-core options in the future. EVE Online may be the last big game we see supporting such a philosophy.

The general answer

But, I wouldn’t give up hope entirely. I think one thing we need to move away from in MMOs is the idea that “one size has to fit all”. We don’t need to please every person with every game. In fact, I think going after niches is the best way for us to keep MMOs relevant.

After reading my post from yesterday, a friend of mine who plays Final Fantasy XIV with me said that he wasn’t necessarily all that excited about more focus being put on social interaction. He likes to play games at his own pace and doesn’t feel particularly enthusiastic about talking to strangers in the game. Although, in this MMO past, he did make good friends who he maintained contact with; and obviously he’s friendly to me in the game.

But, my response was: that’s fine! Current games cater to the solo mentality just fine. You can play a lot of FFXIV solo with the occasional need to jump into a dungeon, but that can be handled by using the duty finder to find other people to run the dungeon with you. And, obviously this type of design has been very successful for the game. But, I think we have to admit that FFXIV’s success comes from copying WoW to a large extent. For a game that doesn’t have a brand name as successful as Final Fantasy to compete with WoW, a different strategy needs to be taken.

So, this is why I think a focus on more social aspects, because I think this would be another way to keep people interested in a game. Of course, you still need to have a good game. However, I’m fully aware that this design decision will alienate some people who don’t want to interact with other people in game.

The glorious future

I’ve been saying for a while now that niches are the way forward for MMOs, and I believe that more than ever now. Trying to cater to too large of an audience has not worked well for MMOs. But, delivering a game that better caters to a group of enthusiastic fans is going to be more successful than trying to create a broad but potentially incomplete experience that leaves people cold. That’s why I see hope in the truly independent groups doing interesting stuff, because that’s how MMOs will have any chance to continue and thrive.


  1. “Are gamers today too “soft” to handle an MMO with the kind of PvP which was the norm in the M59/UOL era?”

    Yes. Next?

    Seriously, the reason those mechanics were deemed acceptable at the time was primarily lack of an alternative. As soon as alternatives became available the very, very great majority of interested parties took advantage of them. Two decades of consumer choice has created the current market position, which is clearly that non-consensual PvP with significant, deleterious consequences is not commercially viable.

    Tl:dr – can’t sell people something they don’t want to buy.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 29 April, 2016 @ 12:17 AM

  2. I agree totally… niche MMOs are the way forward!

    But what happens when your preferred niche is a persistent virtual world with economic simulation, maybe even with politics thrown in!? :)

    Black Desert has brought a breath of fresh air to genre for me. Not just the visuals and seamless world, but so many ways to progress non-combat skills as well. The knowledge system (and Amity mini game) is an amazing thing as well.

    However, it’s not *really* a sandbox economy. But I look at how deep this game is and what a gargantuan effort it takes to build, and weep a little because if MMOs are niche, we’re not likely to very often see this kind of scope…. when it is SO close to perfection (for me)!

    What are your thoughts on this game, and also can existing tech and middleware help indie devs create games this wide and deep? Or is art really still the bottleneck anyway?

    Comment by Lazrin — 29 April, 2016 @ 3:53 AM

  3. The gloss I would put on the PvP aspect of MMOs is that it is a different kind of experience than one gets in head-to-head games. The latter are great for competitive players facing other competitive players on a level playing field.

    MMOs offer this, but also introduce environmental aspects to competitive play, such as home turf advantage or surprise setups. In addition, the one thing MMOs excel at is wolf-and-sheep play. Eve, for example, does this by offering mostly safe areas with smaller rewards (generally speaking) and lawless areas with greater rewards. This gives the “sheep” reason to venture into dangerous areas and forces you to always be on your guard, a feeling that some people enjoy (I am one). Meanwhile it gives “wolves” – competitive players – the tools to stalk and kill.

    That said, I would not dispute that it’s a very niche interest. But there are certain experiences that only MMOs can provide. So I agree (as I did in my comment yesterday) that to survive, the MMO genre needs to return to its niche roots.

    Comment by fenjay — 29 April, 2016 @ 11:28 AM

  4. bhagpuss wrote:
    Seriously, the reason those mechanics were deemed acceptable at the time was primarily lack of an alternative.

    Oh, come now; I expect better than that from you, bhagpuss! The reason those games did well is because they catered to the audience of the time. As the person posing the question hints at: M59 had a PvP-free ruleset called “Sacred Haven”, and unlike when UO split between Felucca and Trammel years later, the PvP-free shard was the least populous by far.

    Tastes have changed significantly in the years since then. People who prefer those types of hard-core rulesets still exist out there, likely even in equal numbers as when M59 was shiny and new. The big difference is that the market has changed so that catering to them is no longer the most profitable way to run an MMO.

    The other big change is that people are absolutely unwilling to give PvP a try. UO had a relatively large audience for the game at the time, and people tried it out even with PvP. But, I know people who won’t try any game if PvP is even listed as an option.

    Lazrin wrote:
    What are your thoughts on [Black Desert Online?]

    I have not played it, but I have read up on it and had some friends play it. Richard Bartle wrote a short review, where he called it “broader than it is deep.” That matches with my observations. It looks like there are a lot of interesting things to do, but the different systems don’t interact with each other as much as most systems do in other MMOs. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but I suspect we won’t see people hooked into the game as long as we saw people play WoW, etc. I mean, it only kept Richard interested for a little over 10 days /played.

    [C]an existing tech and middleware help indie devs create games this wide and deep? Or is art really still the bottleneck anyway?

    the problem is that MMOs aren’t one-size-fits-all. Unless you’re planning to clone existing games (and we’ve seen how well that doesn’t work), it’s hard to use standard solutions to create an original game. Note that BDO uses a custom engine to handle the situations the game requires. It’s also interesting to note that BDO was released in Korea in 2014, and was released in 3 other markets before being released here. In other words, you’re seeing a well-tested engine that went through 1-2 years of changes before coming here.

    Perhaps the lesson to learn from this is that Korea may be more receptive to new types of games. The west may be forever lagging behind if the markets remain as they are.

    fenjay wrote:
    This gives the “sheep” reason to venture into dangerous areas and forces you to always be on your guard, a feeling that some people enjoy (I am one). Meanwhile it gives “wolves” – competitive players – the tools to stalk and kill.

    The big caveat here is that sheep won’t put up with abuse. They need to feel that they have a chance. The one thing to always remember about players in MMOs is that they can ultimately always quit the game, thus denying you revenue from them. If you force sheep to go beyond their comfort levels and they don’t feel rewarded for doing so, they will leave the game if there is no other compelling reason for them to stay.

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 April, 2016 @ 4:15 PM

  5. I’ve no illusions that, given the average modern gamer’s unwillingness/lack of ability to deal with in-game adversity, a modern MMORPG with a M59-ish ruleset would be a “WoW Killer”. It follows that I fully agree that “niche” is the way to go if such a project was ever to see the light of day.

    Hopefully this will happen before we – the first generation of MMORPGers – become too old to manipulate a mouse effectively.

    I’ll take my leave on that note as seeing the words “consensual PvP” in the replies has triggered an intense sense of EQ-era revulsion in the pit of my stomach.

    Thank you kindly for taking the time to respond to my question, Psychochild.

    PS: Great comment, fenjay!

    Comment by Imperien Cypher — 29 April, 2016 @ 10:53 PM

  6. Thanks Imperien!

    I know the “wolves and sheep” issue is fraught since a lot of people have had bad experiences with it in other games. I think it can work, but it’s tricky to get right. I say this as someone who is more often a sheep than a wolf, so I hope that adds a little heft to my assertion, being mostly free of gratuitous self-interest.

    It’s easier to nerf into the ground than to get right, though, so many games have chosen that route. To get right, there must always be counterplay (a way for the sheep to react or pre-emptively act) to avoid the consequence, and the rewards should be commensurate with the risk. It can generate feelings and experiences that most other modern experiences can’t match, such as legitimate “shakes” and adrenaline, and the ability to hone player skills on both sides in what feels like a more natural or immersive context than many games can provide.

    Comment by fenjay — 2 May, 2016 @ 9:59 AM

  7. Whenever I bring up PvP death consequences (which I’ve been doing for damn near 20 years) the assumption is that I’m talking about the ability to shear the sheep when, in actuality, this would impact the wolves far more.

    When Meridian first launched the “Wolves vs Sheep” dynamic was known as “PKs vs Hunters”: A random PKer would strike someone down, angry broadcasts were made, and a posse of hunters would go after him.

    More often than not this resulted in the PKer’s death which, thanks to the way the game handled dying, meant that he’d lose hps/stats (read: Experience) and whatever loot could be picked off his carcass – His losses were AT LEAST equivalent to that suffered by his initial victim… Often much more.

    In addition, the character now had a bad reputation so whenever he’d appear online the hunters would gather and seek him out for a little old school vigilante justice.

    This worked exceedingly well for quite some time: Random PKing existed but was kept under control by the playerbase since the hunters invariably outnumbered PKers. This dynamic also had the effect of keeping guild wars from lasting eternally. After a few hours/days of fighting one side usually emerged victorious and things got back to normal.

    This balance came to an end when “logging” became widespread as it allowed players to avoid the consequences of dying. Why would hunters put significant effort in tracking down a PKer when the usual result was seeing him log off before dying? In time the PK population rose, the hunters dwindled, and the game transformed into a fragfest with logoff ghosts littering most zones – Even the once brutal guild wars became a pissing match (often lasting weeks/months) between mules bitching at each other in Fams.

    So while I fully agree with fenjay in terms of immersion, adrenaline, and “shakes”… It should be noted that the true long term beneficiaries of tangible PvP death consequences wouldn’t be the wolves but the sheep & shepherds.

    PS: I used M59 as an example here but I could just as easily speak about similar scenarios playing out in games from EverQuest onward.

    Comment by Imperien Cypher — 11 May, 2016 @ 12:51 PM

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