Monday, June 25, 2012

Have We Out Grown MMOs?

That's a question that came up last week or so. Johnson makes some good points and arguments, and I don't want to piggy back too much off of what he says. So, go read it, come back, then go below the fold. Underneath is one of my rambling "thoughts on game design" posts. So, keep that in mind. It is rambling and not proofed.

Oh, before you go read it though. Remember, June 27 is a GW2 stress test. Some of us will be at work, or something close to work, so we won't be able to play it. You could say that we've out grown mid-day stress tests.

I think that one problem is that experimentation is frowned upon now in group play. I remember early in World of Warcraft's development trying to tank early instances in hybrid specs. It was painful, but doable. Imagine today trying to experiment. You either hope your random LFG doesn't notice and vote kick you, or you know that you're playing sub-optimally for no reason other than it doesn't take a genius to click all the talents that look like a giant shield.

Even in games like Guild Wars 2, Guild Wars and The Secret World, experimentation as likely to be rewarded. The player base does not want to risk wiping because Bob wants to try tanking with a sub-optimal tank spec. And, God help you, as a healer if you take a different approach than expected. Oddly enough, the more random, less community-centric your grouping, the more you promote experimentation, because you don't feel bad slowing strangers down if your DPS rotation is off.

You can see that in table top gaming too. You are moving more and more towards cookie cutter type lists that throw synergies in your face and make it clear that an army, deck or squad are supposed to work a certain way. Breaking from that mold is counter productive, unless you are simply adding a dominant strategy that hits like a ton of bricks. Drafts from Magic actually have that built into your general pick order strategy: Bombs, Removal, Evasion, Aggression, Krap (or BREAK).

I am not going to say it is because players are dumb now, or that they simply want things spoon fed to them. Rather, I think that people want to be creative, and game designers want to reward you for being creative. All games are designed with synergies planned into them. When you find a neat combo, a tester, designer or other person on their team designed the puzzle pieces to fit together that way (except in very rare cases). Now, I think, designers are just getting rid of that illusion with key words, triggers and plain old: "Boss Bob gives all Mechanics +2 to Fix" to make it impossible to miss. It is smoothing the learning curve, while hopefully, adding depth in the deep end of the pool, since they need to waste fewer design resources holding your hands.

That, I think, is what is making games feel like we've out grown them. Games have come a long way in a decade or so. That learning curve is now smooth; tutorials are well made. Not only that, games have adopted conventions that we intuitively look for. I know what WASD will do; I check to see if Q and E strafe. As more games adopt these common conventions, we ease new players into learning the game. This means that experienced players don't have that first game lost feeling that we associate with our earlier MMO and table top experiences. Remember THAC0? Yeah, that was a bad idea. Aren't we happy it all just goes up now?

Our approach to solving problems in games has greatly changed. It used to be a trial and error game play, where players combined resources and ideas to over come mobs. I remember chain fearing and off-tanking difficult pulls with a Void Walker. We were clearly under geared, but it was do-able using our cool downs and abilities well. Today, we would have simply Googled the instance or been kept from entering due to gear gating. Gear gating ensures players can blunt force most problems.

This is good for players; if we had wiped a dozen times instead of having a decent command of our characters, it would not be fun. However, players want a challenge that goes beyond simple gear checks. You can do this by making combat more intensive and action oriented, but games that have done that are normally not wildly successful. You can do that by making bosses more complex; players circumvent this by simply asking players for ridiculously high gear levels to challenge the instances instead of the regular level. Those who go there randomly suffer the "Screw Oculus,"  /leave problem. Though, to be fair, Oculus had loads of its own problems besides fake difficulty.

So, I don't have an answer. But, I don't think that it is that we have out grown the gaming, so much as that the internet has rapidly changed how we interact online. If it were just our generation out growing it, we'd see new games emulating the sand box and heavy player interactive style of MMOs past succeeding. Instead, we are seeing the continued rise of so-called theme-park MMOs. Even Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World are simply theme parks that have found new ways to keep the rides fresh.

Designers have yet to find the sweet spot where things are challenging but not frustrating. Initially, the challenge was awareness and knowledge. Players, as a whole, consider that to some degree a sort of fake difficulty, since we often can't see the cues. That's why we made things like Deadly Boss Mobs and other mods that have giant lights point out to us when a conditional is triggered so that we never miss it. What's worse, is that the normal "difficulty" curve doesn't work for today's audiences. You can't throw a thing like Spikey Tiger at the player and expect them to persevere early on. So, I don't know how to make games feel like they used to, but part of it, I think, is getting players to actually play with each other instead of next to each other. A problem I may tackle later this week.



Our Free Speech Sidebar today: The attempt to reargue Citizens United failed at the Supreme Court today. In short, the government is still not allowed to use the force of the government to prevent you from publishing something that may or may not influence an election; nor, as a more narrow ruling in Citizens United could have reached, can the government prevent you, and others you agree with, from pooling resources to publish or air your opinions if the government thinks the political message may influence an election. There are legitimate ways to reduce the influence of hard and soft money in elections, letting the government squash speech it dislikes is not it, though.

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