Your Next: Shall I Compare Thee?

As much as we like to complain about the treadmill, character progression is one of the things that makes RPGs of all kinds special. Applying this idea to an MMO carries with it some unique challenges, especially when working to a business model that relies on the same people paying every month. What’s that? Why yes, I am still playing World of Warcraft, why do you ask?

An MMO needs ways to hook players in; these aren’t games intended to be played for a month before moving on, we need to be motivated to stick around. This has been achieved with great success in the past by attaching systems of exponential numerical power growth, with the downside that the increase in power needs to feel significant and satisfying, always.

Of course, like almost all game design, it’s just a psychological trick, but this particular trick has proven so successful that some people consider it a mandatory feature. We know it’s flawed, sometimes it make us angry for offering ourselves as tribute, but then we shrug and ask ‘How else are you going to keep players interested?’.

This stance leads to some uncomfortable questions about our motivations for playing these games, but we’ll skip those for once in favor of posing a question:

If there is no numerical power-based progression, what motivation can there be for players to repeatedly engage over a relatively long timeframe?

Your Next: Not All Bad

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that it’s much easier to articulate what we don’t like about something than to express what we do like. ‘It’s broken’ is easy and ‘it works’ isn’t much of a quality judgement, but ‘it’s good’ takes a lot of qualifying. This could be part of the reason that critics who identify as ‘angry’, ‘grumpy’ or ‘cynical’ have attracted legions of followers, whereas I would struggle to name any critic who presented themselves as ‘optimistic’ or ‘enthusiastic’.

Now that I think about it, there is comic book vlogger Amy ‘Enthusiamy’ Dallen - while she doesn’t serve as much of an exception, she is super cool enough for a mention. Just doing my part to redress the balance.

While I try to maintain a default position of optimism I have been as quick to criticize some games as anyone else.

With all that in mind, I have decided to take another look at games I often disparage to find something I would like to see included in EverQuest Next or Landmark.

Your Next: Back to WoW

I consider myself to be a late bloomer when it comes to online games, unlike many of the EverQuest and larger MMO community who can claim a proud history peaking into the last century, at that time I was woefully ignorant of its existence.

Despite spending my teen years playing tabletop games and CRPGs I missed the first MMO boat entirely, even to the extent that when a friend described Star Wars Galaxies to me I thought he was winding me up.

It was only when World of Warcraft began its transition into its all-consuming behemoth form that I discovered the well-worn path to the now civilized frontier.

Like so many of the games grotesquely swelling playerbase I was drawn in immediately, bumbling around without the assistance of veteran friends or online guides, occasionally being genuinely confused about which characters were players. I can still remember the feeling of surprise when I found the auction house, and walking into Orgrimmar blew my mind.

So that was it for the next several years, barring brief dips into new MMO releases, until the release of Guild Wars 2 where I found a new home. I’m still convinced that the success of GW2 was due, at least in part, to Kung Fu Panda. Yeah, I’m still bitter about that.

Your Next: What's an MMOBA?

The MMORPG genre is no spring chicken, and it’s certainly not the darling of PC gaming anymore. The past ten years have seen advances in online gaming that we couldn’t have imagined in the 90s, and it’s a testament to the quality of games like EverQuest and Ultima Online that have stood the test of time and maintained loyal player bases to this day.

When I start with a paragraph like that, you know I’m going to be talking about something that will upset some of the old school. Such is the unfortunate reality of progress, some people like things just the way they are.

While it’s great to look at what came before for inspiration and guidance, if all we do is retread old ground we’ll never discover anything new; there are those who clamor for change while stifling any deviation from established conventions. The worst part is that sometimes we can’t separate what we have liked before, from what is the best fit for now.

Last week I noted a few of the ways Magic the Gathering is influencing the systems of EverQuest Next and Landmark, this week I wanted to talk about another influence: the MOBA genre.

Legion of Heroes: Mobile MMO With Heart

I'll admit I was skeptical of how an MMO would work on a phone. Nightmares of aged and horrendous UI designs from failed MMOs circled my dreams the night before I tried out Legion of Heroes, and I wasn't sure what I would face the next morning. The fears were put to rest upon starting this game from Nexon M, and I'll admit there were more surprises than expectations met.

Your Next: Playing Cards

Often this column is only very loosely formed around EverQuest Next and/or Landmark, and I sometimes feel a little guilty about that. I’m prone to getting wrapped up in ideas and discussions of broader trends, when I’m sure that many of you would rather have a chat about those cool games we’re all excited about.

So this week, I’m not going to get derailed by what’s going on in the industry at large, even if it’s thinly wrapped in the context of EQN and Landmark. I don’t think this is the place for it, and other people have already done a much better job of it than I ever could.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, look for the word ‘gamer’ in the mainstream press. In fact, it’s probably best not to, it’s just embarrassing.

Instead, we’re going to talk about some great things that are happening in the development of EQN and Landmark right now! I know you don’t come here for news either, so hang tight and brace for opinions.

There’s been an update to combat in Landmark, and with it some of the basic ideas that form the foundation of what will follow; not just in Landmark, but in EQN also. It’s great to see more of the systems being fleshed out, and I’m personally very happy with the way this one is going. Slowing the pace of combat and adding more opportunity for tactical decision making is a positive step, and the systems used to do it are encouraging.

Creating depth without becoming bogged down in complexity is always a great challenge in game design, especially with horizontal character advancement, and it looks like SOE has some great sources of inspiration in place to facilitate it. Specifically, we can already see the influence of Magic the Gathering on character building:

  • Collecting more options can be very helpful, but isn’t required to engage with the content

  • Enormous variety is possible, but you don’t have to understand or even be aware of everything to be strong

  • Conversely, by understanding how the different elements can be used together a player can become more powerful through understanding, not just by the numbers on their gear

  • While it’s possible to make a very strong build, the large possibility space means that nothing is the best solution to every problem

Your Next: The Shoulders of Giants

SOE is getting less and less shy about calling EverQuest Next a new kind of game, and personally, I’m glad. Challenging the tropes of MMOs has been the overarching goal of EQN since the team were sent back to the drawing board in 2011. They were smart enough to see the pattern of huge releases with disappointing retention. I don’t think any of us want that for the next product in the lineage of EverQuest.

Your Next: That's No Moon

When logging into a new MMO for the first time, among the complaints about server issues and general vitriol, I would be willing to wager five whole American Dollars that the global chat channels would feature some kind of argument about World of Warcraft. Even if the argument is about exactly how bad it is, or how much abuse its players deserve, even the redundant ‘WoW-Killer’ discussion (yes, some people still think that’s a thing), I guarantee it’ll come up.

Why shouldn’t it? The MMO landscape has been shaped and sculpted by the existence of one game for so long, it’s been distorted to the point where some feel it’s the only shape that’s even possible. It’s shaped not just the games that have been made, but the very context in which we consider them, even before we really know anything about them.

Your Next: Gambling Problem

Many of us are suffering in silence; we pace about dilapidated rooms and shy away from the sunlight. We are the MMO addicts, we just want to chase the dragon. So we bounce around the official sites, news sites, reddit and fan sites - poring over every last shred of news for that hit we all need, here on the hype train.

I can tell you, for example, that Storybricks' Engineer Brian Schwab’s postmortem on the AI of Hearthstone is available for free on the GDC Vault. It’s a fascinating look at his approach to creating a ‘tag’ based AI system that’s designed to be intuitively manipulated. Sound familiar?

Of course it does, we can’t help ourselves.

Imagine my excitement when, in a brief exchange on twitter, the Director of Development himself Dave Georgeson made a point about MMO design in response to an article by the devilishly handsome Veluux over at EQHammer, that I believed to have been abandoned. Stay tuned to find out what it was!

This week, just like all the other weeks, I’ve been scouring the internet to find any fresh morsel, wondering what is it about the MMOs we love that cause us to feel that pull? What is the reason so many of us never quite get over our first MMO experience? Is it because of the sense of wonder it provided, before we knew how all the pieces fit together, before we started making spreadsheets and earnestly debating with strangers on forums about what kind of death penalty is objectively superior? I hope so, because that way we can get it back.

There is another point worth considering, the cynical among us could point to the hype train and the often borderline exploitative ‘retention strategies’ that draw comparisons to the Skinner Box. I have a tendency to point these aspects out when I feel the need to lash out at things beyond my control, but I also consider myself an optimist, and that’s why I firmly believe there’s more to it.

The drive to be lost in a fantasy world is strong in many of us, I grew up reading the Discworld series of novels by Terry Pratchett, and I have read every one without ever worrying what loot would drop at the end.

But... games! We exclaim, trying not to sound pretentious, games are different, an interactive experience requires feedback. Without progression players would just quit, they’d have no reason to keep playing.

Forgive me, my awesome readers (all two of you), when I say that in my opinion a novel is a far more interactive experience than almost any video game. Just look at the graphics, think of all the work we do to make up for that.

Alright, I’m half joking about the graphics thing, but when it comes to being drawn into an experience, the experience of being immersed in a different time and place, holding out for that particular purple helmet to drop is nothing compared to feeling such acute empathy for a character brought to life by our minds and a sequence inked shapes on paper.

I believe story is important. Of course, we all know that context is the basis for our motivations. I don’t think it’s possible to argue with such a broad idea, but it does seem sometimes like those responsible for making online games might have gotten confused about the best way to create that context.

Sorry to keep going on about Destiny but, well, there it is, it is there. If there’s one thing you can say about Destiny, it’s that it exists. A titan standing astride the console market, blotting out the sun to cast a pallid, dreary malaise over everything beneath its mighty sales figures. Bravo, capitalism in action.

The reason I bring it up is because the main criticism of the game is based around how tepid the story is, how it seems to flinch from making any kind of point about anything, and only using language that looks like it had to make it through several committees and focus testing cycles before being approved.

With such a hefty reported budget to match the resources and reach of a studio like Bungie, we can only assume it wasn’t considered important. Or worse—that it would be somehow distracting or off-putting to players.

Diving Deep: Journey Into The Sims 4

The Sims 4 released on the PC last week, nearly one year after it was first revealed. The lead-up to its release was a flurry of mixed emotions from longtime fans of the series; between concern over missing features (compared to Sims 1-3), the shift from an open world to single lot environment, the small introductory neighborhood size and more.

While I've certainly invested a lot of time into many other series such as EverQuest, Elder Scrolls and Civilization, the Sims franchise takes the cake for having devoted hundreds (or more *cough*) of my life to. I've been playing The Sims longer than any of my children have been alive (the eldest of which will be able to get his driver's permit next year). Let's just say my excitement for the announcement of The Sims 4 included many exclaimation points, and after my first 49 hours of playing it, I'm quite happy with the game, despite its spotty issues and omitted features.

This review is going to be extremely lengthy and touch on every aspect I've experienced thus far.