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Ever-evolving and Changing Worlds…

MMORPGs are the ever-evolving and changing worlds. At least that’s what they used to be. That was a major selling point back in the 1999-2006 era. We would purchase an MMO, subscribe, and play a game knowing that it was going to keep growing and changing over the years.

Now MMOs have a number of issues keeping them from ever being an ever-evolving world. They might be a 3 monther without any sort of vision or a F2P title with design goals aimed at increasing cash shop sales rather than increasing things to do in-game.

I find myself remembering back to the day where I was happy to pay money — subscription or otherwise — because I was paying for the game to keep growing and developing. Now the same concept feels more like I’m paying for them to fix the game. The difference between fixing the game and growing the game is one word here in a blog post but massive in its repercussions for gameplay and the experience in a game.

MMOs are launching in a state of disarray. When was the last time you played a MMO at launch that felt truly ‘done’ or ‘ready’? For most people the answer will be a resounding, “Never!” Features are missing, bugs are prevalent, content is underwhelming, character development is non-existent… I mean seriously, some games launch as the next big raiding game and don’t even have a single raid in the game at launch.

Am I okay paying to fix a game? That’s the questions we must ask ourselves in 2015. That’s a question that sadly reaches even beyond the MMO genre and into anything asking players for money before it is complete.

Returning to the idea of ever-evolving and changing worlds, it has become clear that MMOs are being designed on a ‘start to finish’ plan. The entire picture is being sketched out on some dry-erase board somewhere and put into a design document. “Our players will start at level one, quest to level 50, do some dungeons, raid, then we’ll launch more raid dungeons and pvp gear options to keep them playing.” I just summarized the last 10 MMOs in one run-on sentence, and some people are being paid huge salaries to come up with that crap.

Launch a world that grows organically. That can only be done when a virtual world is created and control is handed off to the players. Development should only be loosely planned by the developers and flexible enough to adapt to the dynamic nature of real life. If your design doc is so rigid that it can’t accommodate change then you’ve likely built yourself a me-too MMO that will last for 3 months before the pattern is figured out and people quit. You’ll have bored us before we even could play long enough to get bored.

If your world isn’t ever-evolving and changing then, in my opinion, you’re not really a true MMO. You have a shell of a product with no soul or sustainable direction. If you’re charging a subscription for this shell then you’re the reason people think the sub model is bad. If you’re F2P then you’re one of two things: (1) Still trying to prove the model actually works, or (2) Building a business model instead of building a game. I think it’s smarter to just go back to how the industry got started.

Problems with The Repopulation’s Business Model

The Repopulation is the latest MMO craze. It’s the upcoming “crowdfunded” sci-fi sandbox being heralded as a SWG-like. The sandbox nature and especially the crafting are being lauded as huge reasons to jump in and buy the game. Oh, you thought the game was free? It will be. Sort of. It’s another one of those early-access grabs where the game is already available for purchase and you can get early access and lots of “account perks” if you sign up now. Do I sound jaded? I am.

I’m not at all convinced that The Repopulations free-to-play model will work. It’s not the fact that they’ll have a cash shop. It’s the types of things they’re brushing off as no big deal. Below is the FAQ from the official website.

Will The Repopulation Require a Subscription?
No. It will be a Free To Play title with income being generated from an in-game cash shop and optional one-time membership fees.

What Will Be In the Cash Shop? Will It Be Pay To Win?
We will not be Pay To Win. It is our feeling that free players are an important part of the user base and they add to the community. We don’t want those players to feel that they are at an unfair disadvantage just because they haven’t paid. While there may be things like skill gain increase boosts, we’re looking at lower increases than the 100%+ than has become standard in modern MMOs. We also don’t plan on adding items of power, such as potent armor, weapons or fittings. We do feel that players should earn whatever they get. That having been said, we do have to generate revenue in some way.

So what does that leave?
Account perks for one. Things like extra bank, inventory or character slots. Cosmetic items such as different armor or weapon looks. Non-combat oriented cosmetic or convenience items such as new hairstyles or furniture may also be available. We’ll explore and adjust as necessary.

Here’s what comes with the early-access membership levels:

earlyaccess

Let’s first look at the surface level issues.

  • Skill Gain Increases – These go against the nature of a game where you are supposed to earn skills by PLAYING. Playing means you interact with other players. Interacting with other players means you build a community.
  • More Bank Access – This type of game is all about inventory control. This becomes a must-purchase for any serious player. Must-purchases in a F2P game are the first sign of a poorly designed business model and great indicator of a game destined to fail.
  • More Character Slots – Another huge fail. SWG restricted players to one character. One character means you developed a single character and had to choose how you would interact with the rest of the population. This created interdependencies. This was INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT to the game’s overall design.

Now let’s look at one of the biggest issues most people will miss completely: Selling Cosmetic Items.

Who here remembers SWG well? Remember how entire paths of playing revolved around creating cosmetic items? Clothing was everything. Clothing, for the most part, added no stats. It was a way to look cool. Entire player malls were set up to sell cosmetic items to give you that look you wanted. Whether you were a slave dancer who wanted something risque or a professional who wanted a tux, it was sought after by the players. Image Designers changed your look, hair color, etc. So much of SWG was cosmetic, and it was all tied to the real players spending their time to help other real players obtain this as a good or service. A game like The Repopulation needs control of character customization in the hands of the players.

Simply adding cosmetics to the cash shop in a game like The Repopulation isn’t simple at all; it’s game breaking. If this is their avenue for generating long-term revenue for the game then only a fool would think it’s as shortsighted as a few minor items.

The Repopulation needs to be a buy to play game. They need a box price. They need a pre-order bonus with items you can hang on the wall of your house to show you are special. This doesn’t have to be a subscription game to succeed, but it is already destined to fail if they follow this F2P model without the utmost care. Right now I see a recipe for a game destined to fizzle out in less than a year.

Gold for Game Time

It was only a matter of time before WoW adopted a system like EVE’s PLEX or WildStar’s CREDD. Gold for Game Time is a means by which players can take in-game currency/effort and exchange it for the ability to keep playing.

Most people usually like these types of systems. You can have a subscription for $14.99 a month or you can play the game a lot and use gold. Sounds like a win-win, and really in most cases the systems are great. There are points to be made that it helps the in-game economy to not be saturated with currency (thus making currency worth something if no major currency sinks exist).

I have a few personal issues with trading gold for game game.

Fudges with Immersion

I’m one of those old codgers sitting in my rocking chair shouting at the kids to get off my lawn when it comes to immersion. I’m all about creating that virtual world where the community lives and thrives off of the dynamic interaction of each individual. When a system like this is implemented, suddenly the reason for everything shifts away from in-game systems to this external system.

Yes, players will still go through the motions and take actions intended to generate cash, but their reason for doing it will have changed. This seemingly minuscule and perhaps even hair-splitting point to many is a monumental shift for me.

Developmental Changes

When developers know that gold can now be exchanged for game time then gold is suddenly no longer a system internal to the game. The in-game currency starts to affect their bottom line. Decisions about development and the course of the game will now forever be impacted. It’s like when a game goes F2P and developers are no longer interested in creating the best content possible to keep people playing; rather they work on creating the best way to get people to buy something.

The whole idea isn’t a sure thing in WoW, but even if it is I’m not saying this is bad. These systems work.  They really do change the game, though.

MMOs Need Opportunity Cost

The comments discussion in my post about why players are trending toward soloing in MMORPGs revealed a concept to me that I think has been neglected for far too long. It’s the idea of opportunity cost.

Opportunity Cost is the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. In other words, it’s the benefits you could have received by taking an alternative action.

MMOs need to present players with options and choices leading to opportunity cost, and it needs to happen regularly. This isn’t something you choose at character creation when you pick to be a Warrior over a Cleric. This isn’t something that can be so easily rescpec’d or undone. Opportunity costs aren’t the penalties or the permanent choices some people think of when veterans like myself wag our fingers and talk about death penalties. Opportunity costs are giving one thing up because you prefer something else — the key is that you gave something up.

I’ve discovered one way to do this is to create bonuses and positive gains for all play styles. Soloing should have huge rewards. Grouping should have huge rewards. Both should be incredibly enticing for players. “Should I group, or should I solo today? I just can’t decide!” That’s what I want to feel.

Developers and armchair enthusiasts like myself have often turned to the idea that you have to reward grouping to entice soloers out of that mentality. The result is that soloers feel punished for not being rewarded for playing the way they want. There’s a perception of ‘missing out’ on something despite not wanting to participate.

The perception of missing out must exist for all play styles. Groupers must miss out of something that solo players can get, and solo players must miss out on something groupers can get. There must be benefits players have to forgo in order to obtain benefits from playing the way they choose — the key here being that benefits exist for all.

Choices. It’s all about choices and how players must not be given everything or feel that there is only one way  or path to be rewarded.

Camelot Unchained Class Q&A with Mark Jacobs

Mark Jacobs and the team working on Camelot Unchained have released their very first class design document. This information comes as part of their goal to have a transparent design and development process. With this first class document — The Viking Warrior Class (Drengr) — comes information on a major part of the class system called Paths.

We were able to ask Mark a few questions about the design document. As always, the questions we ask when we interview a dev (even a friend like Mark) are the ones we want answered most — even if it means throwing a few tough ones in there — and the questions we feel our readers care about. If you have additional questions for Mark please feel free to leave a comment. He reads what you have to say and might even comment himself.

Keen: In the Path system you have stated that going down a ‘path’ unlocks ‘achievements’ and that they are entirely (or majorly) cosmetic type stuff. To be 100% clear for our readers, is it right then to assume that choosing a Path is not a means to unlock new abilities like Thor’s Lighting Smash Attack, but instead would be something more like ‘because you use crushing attacks you now glow purple and red with lightning and blood’?

Mark Jacobs: That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work! You just explained it better than I did the first time, when we presented the document to our Internal Testers for their initial review.

Keen: The path system seems like a clever way of disguising levels. “Looking for a Drengr with x Thor milestones” sounds like a spiced up way of saying, “Looking for a level X warrior with DPS spec”. I know that I have oversimplified this for the sake of asking this question, but is this the overall intention of the path system — to create a means of giving players a way of stating what kind of character they have built?

Mark Jacobs: Once again, you are correct, but with one slight modification. Since we don’t really have a vertical leveling system, but rather a horizontal one, I would describe it more like “Looking for a DPS warrior who has unlocked Thor’s Lightning Smash Attack, Mjolnir’s Revenge, Goldilocks for the Win! (just kidding), etc. With the Path system, identifying yourself when you are LFG becomes just a wee bit easier.

Keen: Path Banes and Boons (PB&B) seem to completely contradict the idea that a path does not unlock talents or skills, etc — especially if non-optional. It’s one thing to use a hammer and get better with a hammer, but another to use a hammer with the intent to unlock PB&B’s. Can you clarify how these banes and boons can exist within this path system and not play a major (if not complete) role in the choice?

Mark Jacobs: That was one of the points I discussed with the IT folks on our Forums. Now, if those B&B unlocks could be achieved by non-Path players, it works out fine. In that case, the B&Bs would be tied to amount of time in-game, power, or some other condition(s) that would track across all Paths. But, as you say, if the B&Bs are tied solely to progression along the Path, that might be a problem. That’s one of the reasons my initial thought was to have these B&Bs open to all Drengr, and not tied only to Path progression. This is definitely one of those points that we are going to be in deep discussion internally as well as with our Backers over the next few months and beyond.

Keen: There seems to be a lot of progression elements for the player to focus on: Weapon choice, skill usage, skill crafting, runes, banes, boons, potential skill degradation, bonding, stats, and now paths. (Did I miss anything?) Are paths meant to be a way of organizing all of these things to give the ‘general populous’ their path of least resistance to a play style by providing a common denominator?

Mark Jacobs: That’s the beauty of the horizontal system we are trying to build here. We can’t rely on the traditional verticality of leveling systems to give the players more and more powerful stuff as they progress in the game. OTOH, if we have a lot of different ways that players can progress, we can always keep adding small things to the game without breaking Rule #1 for Camelot Unchained, which is that new players have to be able to be competitive in RvR from day one.

As far as them being a path of least resistance, I would agree, but not just for the general populace. If we can create really cool and interesting classes and Paths, then even some harder-core players might be immediately attracted to one or more of them. With the mostly open-ended nature of the class/Paths, they could start their adventures in our game focused on one Path, and then tweak their build as time goes by.

Keen: I can’t help but think of old school Ultima Online here. You have a skill cap of sorts with the potential to choose any combination of skills. You can max out a few or dabble in several to build whatever type of character you want. Back in the day, players used to give names to certain combinations of skill point allocations: Dexxers, Hally Mages, etc. Despite the fact that non-cookie cutter FOTM builds were great, people seemed to always go for these templates. Are you worried that players will identify too closely with a ‘build’ thus reducing the perceived ‘openness’ of Camelot Unchained’s character system?

Mark Jacobs: I hope not. The fact that we will not have cheap and easy respecs will certainly limit the FOTM builds, but as you point out, that’s not the only possible problem. I do think that some players will perceive certain builds as being “the” build for certain situations, but if we have enough Components in the game, and in turn enough varied and distinct abilities, that won’t be as much of a problem (we hope). Keep in mind that without PvE, and with large-scale battle and sieges being a huge part of this game, I think it will make choosing the “best build” a bit more difficult. OTOH, if our Backers and players are happy with a “best build” tradition, then that works too.

Keen: Do you hope that most players will use and embrace the path system or create their own sub-class?

Mark Jacobs: A mixture of both would make me very happy. If our Backers and future players think that the Path system and the classes we create are worthwhile, then that alone will mean that we have done a good job. If, after playing the game for a while, we have a mixture of heavily focused class/Path combos as well as player-made combos, and players are happy (as per above), then that would work for us too. As I’ve said since I created my first online game, no matter how smart we think we are, the players will always have their own opinions, and will also be, at times, smarter than us. We just have to try to create a great system, and then react based on what we see, hear, and experience as we and they play the game. That is one of the reasons we are releasing this document now, as well as why we plan on having much longer Alpha and Beta test periods, with a much larger group of Backers/players than most other MMORPGs have.

As always, thanks to Keen and Graev for this interview and support of this and other games I’ve been fortunate enough to work on over the decades.

Thank you Mark for taking the time to answer our questions!

Be sure to read the Viking Warrior Class Design Document for more information.