Editors Note: This article was originally posted on my personal blog a year ago. I consider it to be one of the best pieces I’ve written in support for and advocacy of MMOs, Crowfall specifically. As a result of the current state of Crowfall and to make it easier to reference (I am shutting down that personal blog), I’ve brought over the full post and done some minor editing to it due to the time it was posted. I plan on following this post with a more pointed commentary later this week.
This is going to be a fairly lengthy post, far longer then I typically write. I apologize in advance if I lose a few of you due to its length, but let me assure you its worthwhile to stick it out to the end. The topic I am exploring today is one that means a great deal to me. I’ve written similarly constructed arguments before, but they always seem to fall short on delivering the message to newer generations of MMO gamers. More importantly I feel the need to call out this specific batch of crowdsourced “indie” developers for a very specific reason; To highlight why this fundraising technique is so crucial to saving the MMO genre. Having lived and played through the inception of MMOs all the way through today’s various iterations of the genre, I feel especially qualified to both notice and comment on it.
Many an MMO veteran has spent time comparing the game they are playing currently to some fond memory of the previous generation. More to the point, the focus has always been on comparing specific game systems and the evolution of those systems through time. We argue over the various positives and negatives of a system, but let’s be honest, game makers today are victims of the demands of their constituent players. When a game of old became a mega-hit (EverQuest/World of Warcraft), it encouraged outside external investments in the MMO genre. While at first this seemed to be a great thing for the genre (after all more AAA efforts can’t be bad right?). What we’ve seen, however, are the dire consequences of publicly traded gaming companies answering to shareholders first, players second.
When we look at all of the failures and missteps of the MMO genre in recent years, it can typically be tracked back to a specific decision, a specific system or mechanic, or perhaps how the game monetized itself. Gamers might cite those systems as reasons to why a game failed, but it’s the behaviors caused by that design choice that I believe are truly to blame. A contributing factor to all of this, is the market demands on investment returns. Appealing to the greatest majority of players might mean potential monetary returns greater then without those conciliatory changes
When you start comparing IP’s and even the specifics of a game system, it’s hard to really fathom why one game might succeed and one might not. WildStar emphasized the end-game raiding that World of Warcraft players aspired to be a part of. Yet that same focus seemingly betrayed it; few casuals found the environment or drive to become one of those raiders very appealing. So why exactly is this all so important? I think oddly enough, I found my sentiment echoed in one of the greatest 90s movies of all times:
Ian: If I may… Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now [bangs on the table] you’re selling it, you wanna sell it. Well…
John: I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before…
Ian: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Sadly, the same seems to be true of the MMO genre right now. The need to make money is certainly not something that is going away any time soon in gaming. Companies, especially MMOs more so than other genres, require a constant income to afford the upkeep of servers and the ongoing development that powers them. The problem inherently lies with whether the company should bother. Just because you could turn the Elder Scrolls IP into an MMO, doesn’t mean you should. No one seemingly stopped to think if they should; were people really asking for this to happen?
MMOs that ultimately fail or fall apart are guilty of consecutively integrating and then splicing the “best parts” of the genre that came before it. This is where the genetic flaw was introduced. The copy and pasting of successful systems into the next iteration. The small flaw ultimately becomes a total cascading failure in the DNA of a genre that can’t be corrected by simply trying to patch your way out of it. You’d need to backtrack to the original introduction of a system and see where it all went wrong. It’s usually far too late by then to save the title.
Mass appeal is certainly at the center of the problem we face. Titles must appeal to a large enough base to grab the support necessary to thrive. As a result, game design choices were made to cater to the increasingly casual player market. As systems made gameplay easier and less time demanding, a player’s commitment to games readily shrunk with it. I don’t know if many people reading this remember a time when EverQuest was referred to as “EverCrack”, but it was an honest problem with some gamers. Time spent in the virtual world rivaled that of the real world. Today, that might be seen as a negative to outside investors.
A major problem exists in my referencing EverQuest or any of its aged brethren; conjuring forth memories of the old world order of MMO gaming causes many gamers to feel completely alienated. It’s not that these games had some revolutionary take on gaming that today’s games do not. I think it’s subtler than that. Yet the passion felt about these games cannot simply be discarded as nostalgia. I discovered what I believe is the answer as I slowly watched Crowfall, an admittedly niche MMO experience, begin to take form after its Kickstarter.
More With Less
A recent and lengthy quote by Thomas Blair gave me the ammo needed for this article. I felt it was noteworthy on its own, but I included the entirety of the quote from the forums because of the insight into a specific older-generation MMO.
One of the cooler aspects of early SWG I look fondly back on was the 3 distinct gameplay spheres, the Combatants, the Crafters, and the Entertainers. Think of the spheres like a giant Venn Diagram. Each sphere had their own gameplay and relied in some fashion on the other spheres. In the broadest of strokes:
- the Combatants would use gear the Crafters would produce
- the Crafters would use credits from the Combatants to fund shops, cities, resource purchasing, rare components
- the Entertainers would cure Combatant wounds, and provide appearance customization to the other spheres.
There were other skill setups that fell under the parent spheres, like Doctor buffing fell into the Entertainer sphere, and Resourcers fell into the Crafter sphere but both of their gameplay was different than the primary professions. (Also both of these gameplay styles were emergent so it was pretty awesome to see them sprout up)
The glue that kept all these spheres working together was deeply rooted in 3 rules:
- Everything wears out,
- Accounts only have 1 character per server, (effectively 1 char per account)
- A player can only buy so many skill boxes per character.
It is amazing how broken the spheres became as the first 2 rules were eroded over time (ironically “because it would make the players happier”)
Crafters took a huge hit from the veteran reward Anti Decay Kit. (This also introduced the escalating arms race with items, new items had to be much better to be considered for usage)
Crafters / Doctors / Entertainers took a MASSIVE hit from multiple characters allowed on an account. Entire gameplay spheres once required by the Combatants became “alts”, only logged in for brief periods to Buff/Craft an item.
*sigh* lessons learned the hard way from working on the Live team.
I really hope on Crowfall we can make some of the more niche roles primary roles and not relegated to alts. (Yes I know, multiple accounts, but the barrier of entry is higher than a “create another character” button. Also if we can get some active gameplay/gameplay that timewise competes with combat time we can thin out the amount of alt crafters)
We chose not to go with a fixed number of points for a couple of reasons. Mainly the depth of the trees and scale of time will have players dedicated to a play style, there really is no reason to further gate via a hard cap. If you want to spend the time you can find some nice perks at the beginning of each playstyle’s paths though. (For example you might want to pick up a few skills in the basic crafting tree for the ability to place a Vendor Thrall in your EK to sell all those rare additives you don’t want. Your Vendor Thrall might cost waaaaaaay more in rent and not look like a badass demon, but you get a taste of the functionality)
A lot to take in right? Let me pull one specific component out of this that I think is incredibly noteworthy. One character per account. That’s completely unheard of in MMOs. Even in EverQuest days they allowed “alts”. Yet Star Wars Galaxies fans remain entirely passionate about that game, even years after its departure from this Earth. The notion that players are forced, before they’ve even experienced the game, to make a decision with permanent ramifications on how they approach the game is utterly unique. It’s also a bit unforgiving if you decide you don’t like what you selected. Yet the decision to limit players clearly created niches within the game that players happily filled. Did people complain they couldn’t be everything at once back then? Perhaps. Yet the idea that every player was potentially unique and needed within their respective server was also likely to be equally as powerful in influencing players to stick with it.
Modern MMOs have always allowed players to play as whatever they wanted, sometimes giving players the option to run around as 8 to 10 various alternates on top of the original character. Why did they allow for this? The reason circles back to the money component of MMOs. More characters equate to more time spent playing the game which equates to even more subscription revenues. Everyone wins right?
Money, The Root of All Problems
This is the crux of the real problem. The transient and easily discarded nature of our virtual personas has radically altered how we perceive our virtual selves. We can easily change if we don’t like how some aspect of our virtual character is. I don’t want to be a warrior anymore, no problem, roll a different class! That transient nature, however, has created an entire caste of MMO player that willfully and gleefully discards an MMO for another when a new one comes out. “I” have no attachment to this character (any of them), and thus my attachment to the game is also likely equally as disposable. Thus they happily switch games without a second thought and almost never return.
Is all of today’s MMO hopping simply because today’s gamers have shorter attention spans? Because today’s game are worse than before? Because today’s gamers are budget constrained? I think again the answer is subtler than those questions allow for. No, I think today’s gamers are transient because every modern “convenience” that evolved from the early MMO iteration has created an environment where players feel little if any attachment to their character or game. The DNA of the game has been spliced so many times that the combination of various game systems catering to the casual player are the norm. A norm that includes catering to the whims of children with short-attention spans.
A few specific examples of game systems that I think have contributed to the decay of the MMO genres DNA;
- An insane ability to quickly level to “max” power (don’t want to spend a lot of time getting there? no problem)
- The allowance of multitudes of “Alt” Characters (make a bad decision? no problem)
- Homogenized Character Roles (classes/purposes/etc; wait my character isn’t the best at doing everything?)
- Market-places or Auction House systems (save you time, no need to interact with other humans!)
- Solo-able PVE or PVP content (even more viable alternatives to playing and relying on others!).
- Group Finders (you want me to waste time talking to the people I’m going to play with?)
- Multiple Guilds per Character (utter blasphemy… loyalty means nothing these days, to a game or a guild!).
Oddly enough this list coincides with a wildly popular “nostalgic” feeling players had back in the day. That feeling is that community and your reputation was much more important in the past then it is today. Today we have “community managers” and social media, so clearly that means we are taking community important right? Wrong.
Community isn’t something you can hire into. It isn’t some social media strategy. It doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of guilds (nor can you try to place it on them by adding leveling mechanics to guilds). No, a community’s existence is based on a game’s commitment to forcing players to rely on one other in a game. And no, I don’t mean relying on someone to show up for a raid, though honestly that’s the closest some of today’s MMOs come. No, I describe reliance as a game’s willingness to keep players from advancing all on their own. The construction of a virtual massive world should be intended as a playground where people readily adopt a role within your game and support one another.
Thomas Blair’s post was a salient reminder for me, that having not had the pleasure of playing SWG, why the community was so passionate about it. Crafters from everywhere flocked to the Crowfall forum based on the simple fact that SWG designers might be involved in it. The contributions of these players to the forums was everywhere when I first stumbled onto the forums. As 2016 wraps up, the dreams of a crafter’s paradise are real. They’ve replicated much (at least what we’ve been shown so far) of what made SWG‘s crafting so meaningful.
Everything in my list was made to make players happier. EverQuest players complained about the inability to level up by themselves. Of the horrific amounts of time it took to level up or for the penalty they suffered by risking playing with someone they didn’t know. They perhaps didn’t notice that while all of their struggles were going on that very subtly a community bond had been formed. The community powered that game through almost two decades of history. By today’s standards, EverQuest achieved nothing more than a niche status. At its peak it had what, 250,000 subscribers? Yet, perhaps that’s the lesson to learn from its success.
Crowfall started off early on with some questionable choices. It passed on the idea that players needed a game-provided currency, and entirely discarded the idea of a central market place. Yet one of the immediate flashbacks players commented on was the fun they had bartering and talking with others as they traded goods in the tunnels of Eastern Commonlands in EverQuest. The idea that removing a modern MMO convenience, the auction house, would bring players back to interacting with each other? That was a very early game decision by the Crowfall team and a very subtle step back in time.
Community has been a recurring theme on the internet gaming blogs since I started writing 3 years ago. It’s come up numerous times, every single time in regard to one of the items in my list. Do communities sell a game? Nah. Communities keep a game feeling alive, though. It’s pretty clear what can happen when a developer builds the game from the ground level up and discards the notion that all games must include what previous generations of games did. As Ian stated, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” I for one believe that Crowfall stopped to think if it should.
Will Crowfall be successful, taking into account its unorthodox crowdfunding approach, at supporting a robust community? That is ultimately a question that may become answered as the game moves into its alpha and beta stages this coming year. I for one see very good indications that this is the title that may make the industry question everything that it held true. At the very least it seems to have made the necessary decisions to challenge the transient gaming population into questioning what’s really important to themselves. That would be progress in my book.
So where do we go from here? Tough love for the MMO gaming community seems to be warranted. Most new generation gamers haven’t seen these old systems before. They’ll fight it. It’s similar to taking a kid camping for the first time, out where a cell phone can’t be used. They don’t understand. Developers will need to ignore the kicking and screaming (and it’ll be loud!). Modern conveniences are hard to give up for someone who has only grown up with them. They complain about communities but can’t see why they haven’t taken root in any of the games they’ve played.
Sometimes developers have to stick to their guns, even when everyone tells them they are wrong. Sometimes they see something you can’t. Sometimes making everyone happy simply means you’ve failed in creating what you intended. Blair’s comments contained that cautionary tale; “because it would make the players happier” and what it meant for SWG. In the end, our hope lies with this new generation of MMO. It might be the last.