Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Action, Interface, and Communication/Community

A few otherwise unrelated tidbits from podcasts have me thinking about how the design of current MMO's may be affecting their function.  Specifically:
  • The folks at OotiniCast have been discussing gaming peripherals of late.  It started with a conversation about gaming mice with ever increasing numbers of buttons (I actually own one of these, a story for another day), keyboards with macro keys, use of controllers/gamepads to run your PC like a console, or even keypad replacements that move your non-mouse hand to a device that can't type.  The common thread is that all of these things take your hands off the typing keys - if you want to type in chat, you're literally taking your hands off the controls to do it.
  • Action combat continues to be the buzzword in recent big budget MMO's.  Never mind that having ground effects players have to run out of has been in MMO's for years now.  Never mind that increasing numbers of games are taking away auto-attack features in favor of requiring a click or keypress for every single swing and adding in some sort of dodge-roll mechanic.  (Aside - if you're making a game, I get that you need to build hype, but don't expect me to be impressed if your game has the above features, since they are pretty standard these days.)

    The beta reviews of the FFXIV relaunch are remarking that the game's global cooldown - 2.5 entire seconds - feels long in an era where it's usually half that in other games.  The common thread is that the pace and level of interactivity required by modern MMO action combat makes it especially likely that you will pay if you do take your hands off the controls.
Some portion of this may be unavoidable.  Players are quick to criticize both combat systems that feel non-responsive and the downtime that gave players in eras gone by more opportunity to sit around and chat.  Perhaps the issue is that we're still working on the technology that would make integrated voice chat less bad - it's telling when so many people voluntarily install, run, and sometimes pay for third party voice software. 

Even so, I wonder if all of this isn't part of what is driving the sense of limited community in modern MMO's.  I've been running group flashpoints using the group finder on some of my low level alts in SWTOR, and I do make an effort to say some things in chat, but I'm very conscious that this is likely reducing my performance if anyone is watching that closely.  Maybe none of the characters in my groups are in guilds that are recruiting, or maybe my performance is that bad, but it does seem striking to me that I have yet to be offered a guild invite when grouping on an unguilded character. 

How can you have community if you can't communicate? 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Incentives Driving 3-Month MMO Tourism

Psychochild has a post up suggesting that the current churn amongst MMO's can be blamed on soloing - he phrases it more diplomatically, but his identified cause of the problem is that people are not forming community "social fabric" because they are not grouping, and his suggested fix is to somehow make grouping more attractive than solo play.  There's little I could say directly on this topic that hasn't been said before (including by myself in 2009), but I think it's worth taking a minute to examine a tangent - the incentives that drive modern MMO tourism.

Incentives for and against being a tourist
My central thesis for MMO incentive analysis is that incentives can be effective in changing player behavior but are highly ineffective in changing player preferences.  What incentives are at play for and against a player's decision to depart a game after the hypothetical 90 days?
  • (Real World) Money: Unless you fall into an edge case in the business model, the amount you pay will correlate with the amount you play.  If the game has a monthly fee, that cost is obvious, with a financial incentive to quit the game as soon as possible in exchange for $15/month added back to your disposable income.  In some cases non-subscription games have a high one-time start-up cost followed by no recurring expenses, but for the most part the studio has a strong incentive to continue to get something out of people who are signed onto their servers consuming their bandwidth.  
  • Diminishing Returns for Progression: Whether the game is rewarding you with the next chapter in its story, the next increase to your character's level, or especially the addition of new abilities that significantly alter how you play the game, most key rewards in MMO's are decidedly finite.  The longer you play, the more likely that you end up on the "treadmill" of working to obtain slightly stronger gear to face slightly stronger mobs instead of more interesting rewards.  By contrast, just as your time in your existing game is getting less and less rewarding, starting over in a new game means going back to the fun end of the incentive curve. 
  • Attachment: Even a solo player is going to feel some attachment to their character after dozens of hours /played spread over weeks or months.  Here is where Psychochild has a point about "social fabric" - if you have real friends and attachment to the community, that may be an incentive not to leave a game that you would otherwise be done with.
So far, so good for Psychochild's approach - two key incentives to leave a game can potentially be offset by a social incentive to stay.  So where is the problem?

One Unwilling Raider's Tale
To draw from my personal experience - I'm a dirty soloing MMO tourist so clearly it's all about me - I can say that the incentive system worked as intended for me in World of Warcraft circa 2005-2006.  I had run out of levels to gain and quests to solo, but I had gotten to know the folks in my guild (which actually made the oft-attempted transition from relatively open recruitment of leveling players into a reasonably successful 40-man raid guild).  My choices were to quit the game or start raiding, my personal incentives at the time favored the latter.  So I changed my behavior, and off I went to kill Nefarian.

What did not change was my preferences.  I would rather be spending my gaming time working on less difficult content - the kind that can be beaten in one evening by a PUG.  Instead, I did something I fundamentally did not enjoy, that required reporting to play at fixed times and spending non-raid nights preparing - far too much like a job instead of a game for my tastes. 

As soon as there was a second MMO where soloing to the level cap (well, almost) was viable, I canceled my WoW subscription and headed off to the newly launched LOTRO.  I've returned to WoW repeatedly given the opportunity to do so on my terms - i.e. new expansion content I could solo or new easy group content that I can experience without a fixed schedule - but I've never gone back to the raiding game that I never liked and only played because that's where the incentives of that particular era lined up.

The Downside of Choice?
In addition to all the other things Blizzard did right, WoW had a key advantage - as the innovator who brought solo play to the MMO space, Blizzard had a few years in which a player like myself didn't really have meaningful alternatives, short of going back to single player console games.  Blizzard did not need to worry about losing my money after 90 days and they were able to use that dependable stream of revenue to finance a better game for everyone. (Albeit with a disproportionate focus on new raid content.)    New games today don't have this luxury. Instead, more than one game with solid potential has been gutted when its population fled early and its staff was trimmed to match. 

Philosophical questions aside, I am not a player who has a preference for the type of gameplay that fosters strong "social fabric".  Now that I have a family, I have time constraints that would prevent me from doing so even if I wanted to.  The odds that you will find some incentive so strong that I will change my behavior to something that I don't want - and may no longer be able - to do in today's crowded marketplace are near zero.

And thus my advice to Psychochild is simple - it's not 2006 anymore.  There are enough online solo-friendly options these days that it's a waste of your resources to offer a solo option and then undermine your efforts by trying to make it somehow less attractive than grouping.  If you want a niche game that focuses on grouping, don't waste your developers' resources and your players' time by offering a less attractive solo option that will ultimately lose out to all of the many games that do solo content better. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mid-April Outlook

It's been a few months since I posted a round-up/outlook post, though I suppose some of what I've been doing can be inferred from what I've been posting about. 
  • I finally got back to the level cap in WoW a few weeks back, and I'm not opposed in principle to continuing on into the endgame.  The problem is more practical - where in my schedule to find time for this stuff.  The current expansion sounds like it is doing some interesting things in terms of story tied to daily quests (i.e. hit a new tier of rep, see some new plot).  The problem - not new to this expansion - is that I can get story of similar quality from other games without the grind requirement.  I never finished Cataclysm's Molten Front storyline, and I'm told that LOTRO has a similar feature around rebuilding a city in Rohan that will probably fall off my plate for similar reasons. 
  • DDO remains a back-burner project for me, but it's one that I actually pick up from time to time (albeit usually just for one evening if the mood strikes me).  My character has some interesting things coming in his next few levels, and it's possible that his entire build is going to be blown up by a massive overhaul to the game's enhancement system that is now in early development.  If I can get to level 20 before that happens, I will have the option of true reincarnating to start over as a build that works with the new rules.  I'm willing to call this a goal, though I don't know if it will happen. 
  • A year and a half into its run, SWTOR seems to have settled in as my current MMO of choice.  I have long-term concerns about the game's business model, but in the short term I have only scratched the surface of things that interest me in the game. 

    My Trooper is now halfway through the (brief) expansion story, my Agent will probably follow close behind, and I could see spending at least some time at endgame on one or both of these characters.  (Aside: One small but significant difference between SWTOR and other MMO's is that all reputation scores are shared amongst your legacy and mirrored across factions - both characters add to my legacy reputation while playing through the new content.)  

    Given enough time, I could imagine someday completing all six of the remaining class stories.  My next two 50's should be my level 20 Sith Warrior and either my Jedi Consular or my Sith Inquisitor (both currently level 12) to complete all four class buffs for my legacy.  The fact that I can look at my character select screen and legitimately consider clicking the "play" button next to five separate characters in the same game is something that I can't imagine in any other game at the moment. 
  • I don't know that anything new is likely to make its way onto my schedule in the near future.  If I had to pick a wild card, though, based on current info, I'm surprisingly intrigued by the relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV.  Perhaps this is more of a game that I WANT to like based on the IP than a game that is likely to be suitable for my gaming style.  Perhaps the magnitude of the improvements to the game won't live up to the hype.  I sat out the game's first launch and I probably won't be there for day one of its second launch, but I could imagine giving this game a shot sometime later this year if the word of mouth goes well, especially if they offer some form of free trial. 
What are you all looking forward to these days? 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Week Post 2.0 In SWTOR

SWTOR's patch 2.0 has been around for a week now - along with the expansion for those who pre-purchased early enough to comply with EA's "early access" ultimatum. (Aside: I have heard no outcry, or even mention, of this unprecedented marketing move amongst the SWTOR sites I read, so presumably this tactic is here to stay.)  I chose to hold off in favor of waiting until the next time I would be subscribed anyway to play on alts, in order to qualify for the lower subscriber pricing. 

The timing mostly worked out for me, in that the extra week was enough to get my Operative across the line to level 50.  A few observations from the intervening week:
  • Class Changes: Like most MMO's which award a point per level to spend on a talent/skill/etc tree, the SWTOR team faced the challenge of how to deal with adding five new points for the five new levels.  Their solution was uninspired - they added five points of generally uninteresting filler requirements to each existing tree to ensure that the five new points would be consumed getting back to the character build you had prior to the expansion.  My Operative felt especially hard hit, having just gotten to the point where she could have some off-tree points before the patch, only to immediately re-invest them back into her main tree. 

    This irritation aside, I don't have too many complaints on the class fronts.  There were some tweaks, in particular to some of my medium use cooldown (~60 abilities) on both my Vanguard and Operative.  Both seem to play mostly alright. 

    The other (mostly) minor annoyance is the addition of uncontrollable giggling to my Operative.  This audio cue is intended to provide players with a better indicator that they have gained a resource type used for certain special abilities.  Unfortunately, it does make you sound like a homicidal school girl, giggling every time you knife a foe.  I've chosen to play my Operative with some light and some dark so I guess it doesn't entirely kill my chosen characterization, but I've had other players comment on the giggling and it is a bit of a jarring addition.
  • Currencies come and go: Each planet players encountered during the leveling game previously had its own planet-specific token currency.  The good news was that you had zero incentive to hoard the things to get better gear on the next planet.   The bad news was that you might finish the planet without enough to purchase what you wanted, and end up with multiple rows of unspent commendations in your currency tab.  (This was especially problematic for non-subscribers, who currently cannot lift the penalty on NPC vendor prices by any means other than subscribing.  Werit's datamining suggests that this unlock may be coming in the future.)  Now all the planetary commendations through level 50 stack, which effectively reverses the good and the bad.  Now you can save up, but you have an incentive to wait for higher levels to get the best possible gear.

    In other news, all old endgame currencies (four that I can recall) were merged down into one legacy currency, and there are now three new tokens for the new endgame (the lowest of which can be earned in some of the older content).  I suppose this is no better or worse than anyone else has done it - at least SWTOR has a currency tab so all these things aren't taking up space.
  • Pleasant surprise on stability: For a patch of this scale, 2.0 has seemed remarkably stable.  Downtime to deploy the patch was minimal and servers came up ahead of schedule.  There have been some cosmetic bugs, like world bosses spamming red text to the entire planet, but I've seen much worse from releases with far fewer moving parts.  Kudos to the team for what looked like a smooth launch from where I sit. 
  • A Non-Spoiler Word On Spoilers: Technically not at all related to 2.0, but I've found myself strangely willing to read spoilers for my class story.  This seems counter-intuitive, but also in some ways empowering.  To the extent that the game is a work of interactive fiction, knowing the major plot outcomes (if not necessarily everything that is going to happen along the way) means that I'm making an informed decision on what kind of story I would like to see.  I don't think that knowing all of the major decision points hurt my enjoyment of the tale any more than knowing the outcome of the Lord of the Rings trilogy or other tales harmed the enjoyment of the path it took to get there. 
 Next stop Makeb, and we'll see how this new planet fares. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Fruits of SWTOR Double Exp

SWTOR celebrated the run-up to its new expansion with four consecutive double exp weekends (but no non-weekend days), and I used the time to work on my Imperial Operative.  I advanced from level 19 to level 45, completed half of Chapter 1, all of Chapter 2, and skipped the entire first planet of Chapter 3 due to having greened out all of the content before I arrived.  In the process, I claimed the Agent/Smuggler class buff and 40 presence for my legacy.  As is often the case when an exp bonus changes my crowded gaming calendar - bear in mind that I was up against the wire to hit WoW's level cap - the underlying exp curve has some quirks (deficiencies?). 

As a matter of principle, I don't see much point in experience boosts - especially such massive ones.  You get exp for playing the game, you either are or are not enjoying the game, and if you are enjoying the game then why make the game end more quickly?  (Shintar wrote on this topic part way through the promotion.)  Typically, when you see me grabbing at exp, it's more because there is something I'm less fond of that stands between myself and exp. 

In SWTOR's case, the challenge is that Bioware spent large amounts of time crafting great story content scattered amongst eight classes.  Short of extremely drastic measures - such as four consecutive double exp weekends - you will need to complete shared generic content for your faction, which is generally less interesting and does not change on future characters, to make your levels.  If you are also playing as a non-subscriber - which I do sometimes in SWTOR - you have even less leeway to skip content due to several stacking penalties on your exp gain.

As a result, the point of playing the double exp for all it was worth was not to skip content - though I did skip entire planets (while focusing my questing efforts on planets I saw less of during my first playthrough).  Rather, the point was to save the content for future characters.  That I will mostly likely be positioned to play the new expansion on both factions, using my previously level 50 trooper and my soon to be level 50 agent is a side bonus. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Re-Capping Pandaria

I stopped what I was doing to go get the last chunk of exp from a pet battle daily.  It seemed appropriate.
My mage finally hit level 90 in World of Warcraft, reaching the new expansion's cap roughly six months after its release.  I had sat out the original launch of the expansion in favor of tending to a newborn, and was rewarded for my patience with some major sales over the holidays that let me snag the expansion and a 60 day time card for $35.  I then proceeded to spend a fair chunk of that game time working on Pet Battles (with a collection of 426 pets, nearly 70% of which are rare quality).  With a day to spare, I finally got around to getting back to the level cap.

When I discussed my earlier troubles getting interested in the expansion, several commenters suggested that the later zones were better.  Indeed, I skipped over nearly half of the continent to dive into Towlong and the Dread Wastes, which do have stronger stories.  Throw in a level or so worth of exp from pet battles and archeology, a level or so from running random dungeons, and I was able to get to the cap despite covering a relatively small portion of the content. 

I did see a bit of the farmville minigame - it seemed like progress was largely blocked until you have access to level 90 dailies - and otherwise I spent my last day of prepaid time using my newly re-unlocked flying mounts to clean up some odds and ends out of my quest log.  (This included the Pandaren elemental pet tamer series - the final pet taming quest I had yet to complete - which requires either a flying mount or a player willing to taxi you to the locations.) 

It's really early for me to have much of an impression of the endgame, but I was surprised at how much my experience playing the game improved upon regaining the flying mounts.  Blizzard isn't wrong that the ability to swoop in trivializes many quests, but that ship has long since sailed.  If anything, Pandaria's abundance of quick daily quests scattered around the landscape is especially suited to flying in and out... or especially unsuited to being forced to do without flight for five levels. 

I came into MMO's in November 2004 due to WoW's solo PVE game and I still enjoy solo PVE in numerous other MMO's.  Thus, it was a surprise that Blizzard has somehow managed to make the process of leveling something that was standing in the way between myself and the content, rather than something I looked forward to.  I am interested in many of the things that I have yet to do in this expansion but in some ways I'm not sure that I'm looking forward to the inevitable follow-up expansion that will likely be announced at Blizzcon this year.  I'm not sure if that's an endorsement or a condemnation of Pandaria on its merits - I suppose time will tell.   

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Fun While Playing To Win

The Tales of Tyria Guild Wars 2 Podcast closed up shop last week with an interesting and insightful comment on the state of MMO's - the idea that games can't just be fun in the abstract, but need to be fun when you are playing them to win. 

Bridger and company aspired to world-competitive levels in GW2's world versus world non-instanced PVP combat.  They found that the most effective strategy in this format is to form up into the largest concentrated force possible, to ensure that you can quickly kill off your foes, capture your objectives, and move on to the next point.  Defensive measures that might otherwise have served as force multipliers to help smaller groups hold off the masses through sound strategy - such as siege engines - were inadequate. 

Bridger's comment was that any game can be fun when you're messing around with your friends - a past example involved splitting his entire guild into five-man groups just to see how many different "orange swords" conflict icons they could light up on the minimap simultaneously.  To be worth playing competitively, however, the game has to be fun when playing to win.  Sheer force of numbers as a dominant strategy simply wasn't fun. 

I can't speak to the merits of Bridger's claims, having never even played Guild Wars 2 (that I continued to listen to his podcast after deciding not to bother picking up the game is pretty much my highest endorsement).  That said, I find it compelling because it fits with what we see across the genre. 

In many cases, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the design of gear grinds, daily quest grinds, random group (PVE or PVP) grinds, and all the other things that modern MMO's use to attempt to drive player engagement.  Some are buggy, some are excessive, and but many are technically well implemented and most are fun in some form if you are running them with your friends - that would be why they're your friends.  Where MMO's may be falling down is in the experience of a player who is playing the game to win - to contribute as much as they can to their raid group or just to beat a personal best time to collect their daily rewards. 

I often write that incentives have been highly successful in changing player behavior and highly ineffective in changing player preferences.  As Bridger notes, the underlying game itself has to be fun or burnout will be inevitable.