From “The Only MMO is WoW” dept.:

Scene from a WoW raid

There’s probably worthwhile studies to be done on the MMORPG phenomenon. The games of the genre are designed to keep you interested and engaged for thousands of hours. The game itself is a potential setting for the formation of a long-lasting community that could extend far beyond the game realm. MMOs have provoked real life violence. Prisoners are rumored to have to play them to support repressive regimes by bilking money from Westerners.

More than near any other sort of video game, MMOs have gravitas in the real world and a transformative effect on their players.

What Gamers Want: Researchers Develop Tool To Predict Player Behavior” advertises itself as a study of how gamers play MMOs. With such a study, the authors claim, “we are able to predict what a player in a game will do based on his or her previous behavior, with up to 80 percent accuracy”.

Intriguing. What kind of person crafts, or plays the market, or focuses on PvP? Are some people likelier to become community leaders? Who likes the follower role — are these people the healers? There’s hundreds of questions that could be asked.

This study, however, doesn’t focus on the players at all, really. It focuses solely on achievement. Not in a general sense, either: it’s a study on how people earn achievement rewards in World of Warcraft.

From the press release: “Specifically, the researchers collected data on 14,000 players and the order in which they earned their achievement badges. The researchers then identified the degree to which each individual achievement was correlated to every other achievement.”

So, this study didn’t focus on actual player achievements, like leadership, community building, teamwork, life/game balance, or anything. It correlated the Blizzard-defined achievement rewards, conditions that Blizzard chose because it was something they could track and would help keep players in the game by giving them specific goals.

This paper doesn’t study MMO players. It studies Blizzard’s efforts to guide WoW players.

Compared to 2008’s study of EverQuest II players, where they used extensive logs that recorded every action players took in the game, this WoW achievement-focused study looks weak.

What if Rift was modeled after EverQuest?

The awe-inspiring Harbinger of Regulos

If you took all the bullet-point features of Rift and compared them against all the bullet-point features of World of Warcraft as it was before its first expansion — Rift comes out fairly well. The appearance armor and dye systems which lets my rogue look like I want her to look STILL haven’t made it to WoW. And the rift system itself is a real game-changer, and there still seems to be plenty of room to experiment when building a role from souls.

But, I have my vanity pets. There’s the mount collecting. There’s the warfronts I’m grinding for PvP gear because I can’t queue for T2 expert dungeons for reasons unknown to me. There’s grinding dailies in high level zones in order to build some faction whose only purpose is to let me buy better stuff. Crafting is the usual AFK system. Macros simplify combat and healing. If add-on support is added on, we can expect Rift to instantly become just as agonizingly simple as WoW, not that either game is all that challenging to begin with.

I have no problem with that. MMOs are really intended to be social games first, and since you can’t ship an MMO these days that doesn’t cater to solo players of all abilities, challenge had to be left out of the equation.

Lord Soptyvr in the Beholder Maze

This last weekend I took a nostalgia trip, in EverQuest, from Qeynos to Freeport, walking the entire way. I wasn’t level five like the FIRST time I did the run, back in 1999. I brought my level 58 shadow knight along for the trip. It was a fun romp, took a couple of hours (stopping to see all the sights along the way), and I even died once, in Kithicor, because I just didn’t expect anything to be able to harm me. I was wrong, so very, very wrong. In keeping with the theme, and being bound in the Nexus, I took the Nexus portal down to Antonica and retraced my steps for a corpse run. This time I kept to Kithicor’s edges.

Look, I was just wondering if the dark elf camp in the middle of the zone would like my character, since she was ALSO a dark elf and a shadow knight besides? Short answer: No. They chased me back to Rivervale and I apparently died while zoning into the city.

While documenting this journey on Twitter, Justin Sanchez and I were discussing how Rift failed in capturing the EverQuest feel. EQ had meaningful faction, unique starting cities for every race (Erudites had two — Paineel and Erudin!), and starting experiences that soaked you in the lore of your particular race before you would ever come to meet someone of another race. The starting zones were built to naturally guide you up through level ten or so, but after that, the whole world opened up. Pick a direction and see what you could find. The first thing you would want to find would be friends.

Rift has taken enough from WoW. If it plans to be inspired further by another MMO, it should turn back to EQ.

Factions. The two faction system is particularly artificial. I know the lore — the pantheon of the Vigil brings back Guardian players, while the technomagic of the Defiants resurrects Defiant players. But both sides have the same roles and abilities and armor and everything else; it’s an entirely artificial distinction, especially considering the game lore states that both sides were equally at fault in bringing about the current state of the world, and if the sides sat down and worked things out, they could probably get an understanding, resolve their differences and, you know, save the world.

Properly, players should be able to switch sides or even join a neutral side. EverQuest allowed this through factioning (on the non-race based PvP servers, anyway). EverQuest 2 even has a formal system for betraying your faction, including the addition of a neutral faction AND a neutral faction city. Well, more of a hideout.

Cities. On the heels of objections to the two party system comes amazement that there are only two major cities, Sanctum and Meridian. This could (and hopefully, will) be solved in expansions. Even WoW only started with four cities, Orgrimmar, Undercity, Stormwind and Ironforge. EverQuest, started with how many? Felwithe, Kelethin, Ak’Anon, Kaladim, Freeport, Neriak, Oggok, Grobb, Rivervale, Erudin, Qeynos, Surefall Glade, Halas — I feel I am missing some. To those were added Shar’vahl, Crescent Reach, Cabilis, Thurgadin, Kael, Skyshrine, Plane of Knowledge, Katta Castellum, Sanctum Seru, Shadow Haven, and I know I am missing some. Does the castle in Twilight Sea count? The Outpost at Firiona Vie and the matching one in The Overthere. You could even bank and do some other business in Runnyeye if you built up your goblin faction.

It was these wide-ranging cities that gave the world of Norrath much of its charm. You’d leave your racial home, and the beasts would get more dangerous, the world a little darker. Eventually your cheery mood would turn to caution and terror — and then after a long time, the monsters would get manageable, and you knew you were coming back to civilized lands. If the locals liked you, you could have a new home for awhile — and if they didn’t, you could decide to start helping them and earn admittance and their grudging respect.

Rift’s world is torn apart by the intersection of the planes. There are no truly safe places. But as players push back against the darkness, couldn’t more cities be uncovered from newly recovered lands? Rift is enough like WoW already. It needs to open up and become a world, with meaningful factions, and varied starting experiences.

Daily Blogroll 5/13: Truth in Advertising Edition

Dragon Age Legends

One thing you gotta say about Dragon Age Legends: like the single player games upon which its based, in Dragon Age Legends you Get. To. Kill. DRAGONS. (Warning: link goes to Facebook). Unlike, say, Dungeons and Dragons Online, where I have yet to kill a dragon. The one you see in the tutorial is little more than a tease. It’s fighting a mind flayer, though, and we HAVE started killing those in our static group, but the name of the game isn’t Mazes and Mind Flayers Online now, is it?

Mazes, though — we’ve had more than our share of those.

Facebook RPGs like DAL (“The first real game on Facebook“) and Treasure Abyss (“Hey, we were here ages before those guys!”) have kept me sane when I haven’t been able to play any deeper games.

More game stuff after the break.
Continue reading Daily Blogroll 5/13: Truth in Advertising Edition

Semi-Annual Blogroll: Sheep may safely graze edition

The SOE sheep live in danger

I work a full day in the office, then strap my laptop to my back, pedal home and work a full night as well. It’s called crunch time, this is the third month of it, and work people pay me to do is taking priority over writing which nobody pays me anything to do. If I were working on a game, I could excitedly drop hints about it, but the only way you’ll see what I’m writing is if you need to be bonded. Or you happened to be a bond agent. BUT! If you ARE, well, we’ve got something pretty amazing for you this summer :)

On the plus side, that picture is part of my commute. One of the bennies about biking to work is that it’s more acceptable to just stop by the side of the road, outside someone’s house, and start taking pictures. If someone popped out of a CAR and started snapping shots, well, people would stare.

The Great Sony Hack of 2011

Big news these last couple of months has been the hack attack upon Sony’s PlayStation Network as well as Sony Online Entertainment’s customer data servers. This was a crime, perpetrated upon Sony and SOE by criminals, and they have essentially turned my PS3 into a brick, made them the object of a million rants and they are costing themselves and their partners thousands of dollars each minute the service is unavailable. It’s just a tragedy.

I feel Sony, though, is drawing this out needlessly. Sony has the best engineers in the world. I can’t believe that they couldn’t have saved their forensic data and plugged whatever security holes were used to break in in more than a couple of days. I don’t think anyone on the outside has any idea why Sony has floated May 31st as a “go live” date. I just don’t know.

But I worry. I worry about SOE and their games. SOE just recently had some pretty massive layoffs. After a strong start, their latest MMO, DC Universe Online, tanked on the PC. That can’t be good with such an expensive IP. Now that game is looking at a month and a half of nobody being able to play it. PC players have already abandoned it, and PS3 players will be playing some other game. So, DCUO is likely dead now. Vanguard’s handful of players can’t be expected to stick around, so that game is dead. SWG only had until SWTOR came out to live, anyway; ironically, pre-NGE SWG might have been different enough from SWTOR to co-exist. Anyway, SWG – dead.

Free Realms — unknown. I played it for awhile, but the constant money grubbing turned me off. I think kids will be happy to return to it after a delay, where adults might find something better to do. Plus, it had only barely launched on the PS3, so it’s ripe for a relaunch. Clone Wars Adventures – minigame portals like CWA can survive global thermonuclear war. They are the cockroaches of gaming.

Anyone who plays EQ is there because of all the games available to them, EQ is the one they want. It will survive. EQ2… and its F2P cousin, EQ2X… will survive, but look for massive server mergers; perhaps EQ2 will finally fold into EQ2X.

For the games in development, Planetside Next and EverQuest Next… I can’t imagine SOE will have enough revenue to continue serious work on these games. They have to focus on rebuilding their money properties right now. I feel SOE’s best hope is to separate from Sony, lose the mandate to put their MMOs on the PS3, and focus their efforts on a couple of really high performing games. I think it’s long past time for SOE to become Verant once again.

Skype is Microsoft’s new MMO!

The US Navy, via a program at the Naval Postgraduate School which I have totally visited (yay Monterey!), is soon to launch an online, collaborative brainstorming tool called MMOWGLI, which stands for “I Bet I Can Come Up With A Silly Acronym, Leveraging the Internet”. Anyway, “players” will be presented with some real world scenarios and will be able to collaborate with others on possible solutions using a graphical tool. Which is great; all the armchair admirals will finally be able to make their voices heard. Someone at work, when I mentioned this, said in response to the initial scenario of dealing with the Somali pirates that are harassing shipping off the coast of Africa, “shoot them all”. That could be an option!

I think it’s a great idea. I just hate that the term “MMO”, which we’ve come to use as shorthand for MMORPG – massively multiplayer online role playing game – being applied to any online activity involving more than two people. And what I hate more is the professional gaming press jumping on that same bandwagon, when they should really know better.

The worst are those places which try and explain that MMOs are games like WoW, except for this one. Kudos to that writer for also trying to compare it to a MUD, which it isn’t.

My old WoW guild

WoW loses half a million players, attributes it to a rounding error

So, news comes that WoW has lost a small percentage of their user-base, a marginal number of players that would total more than the active base of any other subscription MMO in the world.

Upshot is, their two year expansion cycle just isn’t working for them any more. People chew through all the new content in a few months (if that), and then drift off to other games, like Rift.

All these years, Blizzard has told us that this is how long it takes to come up with an expansion’s worth of quality content. It can’t be rushed, hurried or scheduled. It’s done when it’s done. But, now Blizz feels it actually could churn the stuff out a lot faster than that if it wanted to. It’s vowed to push Diablo 3 out the door sometime this year, instead of somewhere in this decade, their previous estimate. There’s a new sense of urgency coming out of Irvine, and I feel it’s long overdue. World of Warcraft IS the elder game now, and it has to move fast to keep relevant.

It’s not about the money — they have record profits, and if they ever feel they need more cash, they can add some more mounts to the cash shop and make an achievement for buying them all. For Blizzard, it’s about remaining the game that people think of when they think “MMO”.

We Heart Lucent Heart!

Masively Multiplayer dating sim Lucent Heart’s latest North American beta, “B.F.F.”, starts today. So here’s your chance to find your best guy or girl online, team up and kick some bully butt. I can’t say enough about this game. Everyone should play it. WoW-killer.

A fan who won a contest will be cosplaying at E3. So if you’re there, get a picture taken with her. Remember, if you’re lucky enough, you too could someday grow up to be a booth babe. It can happen!

Argh, so soon?

Time to hit the road and go to work. I miss blogging :(