It's not you, It's me...

It probably wouldn't happen today...some years ago I was sat at my computer patiently waiting for a zone to load. I had just bought the retail version of an MMO of which I had been in the beta. It was actually the sixth or seventh time I had tried to load that zone...I had gone for dinner at one point and returned to find it still hadn't finished loading. I had been met with crash after crash and for the rest of that month my attempts to play were generally an exercise in frustration, but for some reason I kept trying. I put up with the bugs and issues because I saw a great game trying to get out from beneath all the issues. That game was Anarchy Online, and it is probably why I am here today, and why I have the job that I have...

...but if that were to happen today I am not sure that I would have shown that patience...

Why is that?

...So as an extension of that the question for this post is about how you approach your games, and your MMOs...how much of a chance do you give a new game and what do you expect from it?

Disclaimer time...

Firstly, and perhaps most important to say ahead of the rest of this post, a disclaimer. I am not in any way saying I miss the days of buggy and unstable MMO releases! The one major thing we all have to aspire to in this day and age, regardless of style, game-play or approach is to have a stable launch and for users not to have performance issues. My example above was from days when we didn't have expectations, we kind of felt like pioneers, and we were willing to put up with some rough edges...that has changed, and most of that change is for the better.

We should expect, nay demand, that our modern MMO titles aren't plagued by technical issues, because we should be judging them based on their game-play, and that is the real meat of what I wanted to explore today...

...it starts with a question for all of you...

How much of a chance do you give an MMO?

When you make the decision to try a new MMO how long does it have to captivate you?

We all generally get a free month to try the game included in the purchase of the game. That is more than enough time for most to make a decisions, and we see most players make the decision faster than that. So how long do you give it?

What does a new MMO game have to do to capture your imagination?

What are the factors that you look for when assessing whether this is a game you want to keep playing? Is it the early content that needs to really grab you, or is it what you have heard about the end-game, is it the setting and the atmosphere, or the need for something new?

There are a lot of factors that can be at play while you are trying out a new MMO.

I want you to want me...

From observation one of the major differences here tends to be whether any given player enjoys the journey of a game, or is primarily driven by the need to get 'to the end'. Ignoring the fact that 'the end' is somewhat of a misnomer in terms of an MMO, this is an interesting distinction.

From chatting to many, may MMO players down the years, 'Journey' type players seem to have a much greater tolerance for trying a new game, and since they aren't in a rush to get to the end game they will judge a game on the content and diversions they find along the way. They don't see the progression as a barrier to them getting to the part they enjoy, they see it as the enjoyment. In many ways this group of players is both easier and harder to please.

Why harder you say?

Well, because they want everything to great along the way. If you get the wrong balance between the easy common quests, or the 'filler' quests, which have always tended to exist in the current and previous generation of MMOs, and the more involved complex quests with cool encounter, then this type of player will notice that discrepancy. Since they don't see anything as needing to be 'filler', because they don't see it as a means to an end in the way same other players can, then they can expect more from each individual element.

This effects how they judge the content. It is also why it is important to 'pace' your content. What do I mean by that? I mean that you have to ensure there are interesting things along the way. Players should get to do cool dungeons along the way for example. They should have plenty of interesting and involved quests to do alongside the more straight forward ones.

'Goal orientated' players on the other hand do see the content as a means to an end. They want to get to the end game, as that is where they consider 'the fun starts'. They base that on their experiences with previous MMOs and that is an important aspect we will get back to in a little bit.

This difference is one of the considerations and challenges we face with making these games...

...you see part of the challenge is that we, as developers, generally have far more communication from the 'goal orientated' type of gamer. While they don't necessarily make up a majority of a games player base they usually do make up a majority of those active in the feedback channels. They are more vocal on forums, they are more involved in providing feedback, and generally have more to say about your designs because they take it seriously and want to discuss things like class balance, encounter mechanics, reward progression and such like.

Which is great for feedback on those areas...but it also means that we run the risk, as designers, of getting slanted towards that viewpoint. That the end-game is all important and the journey is just a tool for getting players there. We run the risk of buying into that and you might forget that people need to have their imaginations fired along the way. You run the risk of forgetting the things I mentioned above that might disillusion certain types of player.

Now the end-game of any MMO is undeniably vitally important, but it also isn't all that a game is, or should be about. The bulk of the content as an MMO matures will for sure focus on the high level players, as that is where most players graduate towards over time. However the best MMO titles also remember that you have to have cool stuff happen along the way, the clever ones will also use those experiences to provide you a little insight into the cool stuff you can expect at the higher levels. So while we do, and should, focus ongoing development towards where the bulk of your players are, the original game, what it starts with, has a completely different set of considerations...

...because here is the real meat of the issue at hand. I asked at the start how much of a chance you give an MMO when you start it. However an equally important, and possibly more telling, question is what standards do you judge it by?

New kids on the block...

A new MMO, by definition, will not have as much content, as may options, as strong a feature set, as your current game that has been out for two, three, five or ten years. That will play a part when we start to play a new game. Do we actually remember what our expectations were for a new game, or have they been raised by the post-release updates for the existing games?

Do you tend to find yourself judging it based on the amount of content choice you have in say World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, or as an extreme example for the old timers, Everquest (and its dozen or so expansions).

Yes, we all try a new MMO because it has something that we think we might get from it. That something will vary from player to player. We all have different motivations when it comes to our MMO play styles.

...but does our previous experiences with an MMO improve or taint our ability to enjoy a new MMO?

For example you might have really enjoyed the journey through a given MMO, but then found the end game content was what truly excited you. That was where you had the best, and most recent, experiences of the game. For you, that has become 'where the fun is'. You then try a new MMO, and since you know how fun the end-game can be, you now aren't so keen on repeating the journey...even if the journey was as good as the one that was found in your original game that got you there in the first place.

Do you then approach the content differently and have a compulsion to rush through to get to an end-game that might not be as fully featured as the end game of an older, and more content matured game?

Might we actually be doing ourselves a disservice as players?

Or do us developer types have to adjust and adapt and maybe think of games that have a different kind of journey? Should we look to different forms of a journey that don't obsess about progression in a linear fashion? Will it drive some very different forms of MMOs to come, or are people more at home with the familiar?

These are very important questions for developers, and ones that will drive a lot of the decisions about how to structure the next generation of online titles.

So what do you think?

How much of a chance do you give a new MMO and what standards do you judge it by?
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