The MMO is Dead

In our last installment we discussed developers playing Blizzard’s game and failing. Tobold’s been arguing for a couple posts that the whole MMO scene is in decline. He has reason to think so, and I’d argue that the only real recent successes in online multiplayer games – and I’m specifically talking about League of Legends here – have learned things from World of Warcraft but found their own path. I’d argue that EVE Online has to some extent done the same thing, by building its own parallel market that, while it’s got a lot of crossover with the WoW audience, also has its own thing going on.

The paths of Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic lead to, at best, second place, in a playground whose borders have been put up by somebody else. Tobold’s right, but the underlying truth that he doesn’t mention is that the default state of everything is decline, and it takes vision, work and innovation (and luck) to overcome that trend and produce growth. Stagnation in the face of attrition means a slow roll downhill.

The only way to break the trend is to grow the market. If we want virtual worlds to succeed, we need to take them in new directions. Ultimately we need to look forward instead of looking to the past, but I think that the present situation, where a single game came in and dramatically inflated the market, is an unusual one. Shared virtual spaces were making great strides in the years between 1999 and 2004. And then, in 2005, the Blizzard juggernaut rolled in and progress slowed to a glacial pace.

You’ll notice that I’m not using the terms “MMO” and “MMORPG” here. Those are a convenient shorthand, but they’ve been diluted to homeopathic proportions. When League of Legends gets called an MMO and Global Agenda and All Points Bulletin are labeled MMORPGs, then I think something important has been lost by those terms. So we need new terminology, but that’s something I’ve discussed before.

We need shared virtual spaces that are bigger and better. More room to expand, more volume to occupy. We need to be able to build something lasting there and let people stay and grow for the long haul. More importantly, we need to abandon the big money dream of chasing somebody else’s audience, and a developer who’s willing to say “no, we are doing our own thing here”. This is hard. We need a group with talent and vision to take a small budget and turn it into something really ambitious that can start small and grow. Code Club AB gets this, and Wurm Online has a lot of what I’m talking about, but their interface is so clumsy that there’s not much farther it can go. Fatten up the action mechanics and character development, let a talented visual designer loose on the world and give it a real user interface and Wurm Online could go somewhere, but it really hasn’t made enough progress over the last couple of years for me to have much faith in it.

We need a Raph Koster or, hell, a Richard Gariott, who for all his nuttiness at least has vision. Or a Brad McQuaid, for that matter. Not literally those guys, of course… we need new ideas, and although I could make a case for Raph, the next visionary on the virtual world circuit is far more likely to be someone we’ve never heard of before. The tools available today dwarf those available in 2000, when everything had to be hand-coded, yet how many are reaching out to make something that looks great, plays well and pushes the frontier of virtual worlds forward? There are indeed a few that are trying, and maybe one of those will manage to do what all of EA’s hundreds of millions won’t.

Meanwhile, we have established properties that at least tried, even where they came up short. We have Darkfall and Fallen Earth, Perpetuum and Wurm Online. Soon we will no longer have Star Wars Galaxies, or, if Tobold is right, EVE Online. If you care about immersive virtual worlds, those are the games you should be playing. If you’re not that kind of gamer and WoW or one of its understudies fills your needs, then that’s awesome. A lot of those are good games, and I’ve certainly clocked many hours in them. I wish WoW’s players maximum fun, the game a long life, and Blizzard lots of ongoing revenue, because I’m not fundamentally an asshole.

Ultimately we have to move virtual worlds forward instead of endlessly circling the same success like sharks. We do not need an SWG or our imperfect, rose-tinted memories of it. We need something that transcends our terminology and shows us that all those words we like to toss around like “MMORPG” and “sandbox” are just pieces of something bigger and grander. What’ll that be? Hell if I know. But give me ten million and I might be able to figure it out. Meanwhile… let’s talk about it.

The First Look at Fallen Earth

I am still not ready to lay my cards on the table regarding Fallen Earth. I’ve been a bit frustrated with it, a bit impressed by it, and very reserved all around. A solid opinion has not yet coalesced. I did, however, play for a few additional hours over the course of the weekend and reached level 5, questing and harvesting and crafting in and around South Burb.

The biggest issues I have had so far are various logon, authentication and disconnect issues, which it seems like G1 is having a tough time with in the wake of the changeover. I’d thought that this was me and my flaky internet connection (I have someone coming out to look at it on Tuesday,) but it seems from perusing the forums that I’m not the only one having similar problems. Logon issues, whatever the cause, are hugely problematic and even damaging for an MMO, so this is something that needs to get resolved speedily.

I have nevertheless managed to log about five hours in total now, and what I see in the game, so far, is rough around the edges but extremely promising. It does not appear to have the sandbox potential of an early-era SWG or an EVE Online, but I could easily be wrong about that, and at the lowest levels at least it seems to be developed well enough on the mechanical side. I’m especially impressed with the focus on crafting; pretty much everything is player-crafted, even in the early game, outside of the very first set of crappy gear you get in the tutorial and first couple of missions.

You get a horse, for example, shortly after the tutorial, but it needs to be fed – vehicles in Fallen Earth have an endurance which needs to be replenished via horse-food or fuel or whatever. In the horse’s case, this regenerates glacially slowly on its own – it seems like it would take days to regenerate fully, and I’m not sure it would regenerate at all in the case of gas-powered vehicles. Nowhere could I find (other than the auction house,) a place to buy horse feed – you have to make it. Vehicles (including horses) are also persistent; they stay where you leave them instead of vanishing into thin air when you dismount. There’s a marker for them on the map, and you can go to a stablemaster and pay them to tow a vehicle in, but that can be costly.

Fallen Earth also has a nice post-apocalyptic vibe going on. It’s more Road Warrior than Fallout, which is something I appreciate. Goofy ultra-tech is kept to a minimum outside of the necessary in-game rationale for endless resurrections, and the immersion is pretty strong, especially considering the dearth of background music and environmental effects. The world is (once you’re out of the tutorial, which happens before you hit level 2,) shardless, instance-free and enormous, and the draw distance seems pretty high. There’s no housing, although it’s a feature that’s been promised. You can also play in either first or third-person modes; and unlike, say, Darkfall, the interplay between the two is not clumsy and both perspectives actually work.

The free-to-play model, though, is clumsy. The Fallen Earth marketplace is external to the game – clicking the menu item in-game takes you outside the client to the website – and it contains relatively few items, some of which are priced… oddly. Extra character slots, for example, are $30, the highest price I have ever seen for such a thing. Not everything is similarly high, though, and you can pay for everything, including subscriptions, through PayPal, which is nice. The idea seems to be to give people a taste and drive players toward subscriptions rather than microtransactions, more so than other converted western games. Those other examples have by and large moved away from this, but they also all have in-game marketplaces. An external store that requires a separate login will cut down on impulse buys and I think it’s a big hindrance. Whether this or whatever it evolves into will work or not is something that we’ll have to see.

It seems to me that what Fallen Earth needs is some love in the form of development dollars. The question is whether or not f2p will bring in as many new people as the developers hope. Although the early areas are chock full of people, I’m not sure it will; it appears on the surface to be a grind-heavy sandbox, and games like that have trouble getting traction in the marketplace. But, if they do, they tend to retain loyal and forceful audiences… which can even be pretty large, as EVE attests. Personally, I’ll take ambition over flawlessness, and Fallen Earth is a more ambitious game than anything that’s come out since, and more than anything on the horizon right now, with the possible exception of Guild Wars 2. More importantly, it’s one of those games that, even if it’s imperfectly implemented and (it seems) underfunded, hasn’t completely lost track of what an MMO is supposed to be. That is very rare. And it makes it worth checking out.

EDIT: Apparently I’m wrong about it being instanceless. I’ll be looking to learn more on this angle.

The Apocalypse at Last

I’ve been waiting for Fallen Earth to go free-to-play for a while now, but I didn’t manage to do more than patch the client and log in during the week. Saturday morning I actually got to play.

At level three in South Burb, I honestly haven’t seen all that much of the game so far. The graphics are “old fashioned,” rather than “outdated,” I’d say, and the gameplay is old school as well. I wouldn’t say that it’s pre-NGE SWG (such as I understand it) shifted to a post-apocalyptic setting, but I can definitely see where the comparisons are coming from. Fallen Earth is about the closest cousin around right now.

My preliminary opinion is that it’s imperfect but has a ton going for it. A huge, seamless (after the tutorial) world and very detailed crafting go along with shaky server connectivity, a slightly clunky interface and animations and character models that are far from the best I’ve seen. I’m also not sure how well the f2p model will work, as it’s been implemented here, but at least on the surface free accounts seem very viable, while the external (it bounces you out to the website) marketplace is suboptimal.

I will absolutely be playing more of this.

Fallen Earth is Free to Play on 12 October

Massively reports, alongside a dev blog post, that Fallen Earth‘s long-awaited free-to-play transition will happen on October 12. By “long-awaited,” I mean long-awaited by me; I’m been itching to give Fallen Earth a whirl for a while now, but I’m cheap and want to try it for free rather than shelling out for the current retail box, inexpensive though it may be. New publisher Gamers First also does the resurrected All Points Bulletin: Reloaded, which is another title I’d like to get back to.

Fallen Earth is mixing things up minimally with its model, too; there are four tiers, one of which is free, and on which a couple of the restrictions ease if you spend any money, and three different levels of subscription, the lowest of which (price at $9.99 a month,) is equivalent to what current subscribers get. The higher levels basically get progression buffs. It’s kind of a hybrid-of-a-hybrid, a cross between the currently-leading hybrid model (Turbine’s) with older subscription models. As someone willing to spend on such games but leery of committing to a subscription, I’m not sure it’ll work out all that well for me, but I’ll be curious to see how it does.

Legitimate Inertia

In Syncaine‘s post today, we find:

My comment yesterday about Warhammer 40k looking like WoW in the future was only partly based off the fact that, well, it looks like WoW in the future.

He may turn out to be correct, given the unwillingness of the people in charge of the last round (Warhammer, AoC, Allods, etc.) of MMO development to do much at variance with the WoW paradigm except cut away the parts that make it fun. But the current crop (Fallen Earth, APB, etc.) seems somewhat more willing to do so, given the middling-and-under success of those 2007-2008 titles.

Besides, I watched the Warhammer 40K trailer, and it reveals exactly what you’d expect it would about gameplay, which is to say, nothing at all. As such, it’s likely a little premature to start accusing the thing of being a WoW clone when that’s not at all clear yet.

His next point, essentially that following the WoW model is not the only way to make an MMO, is quite correct and well-put, even if it’s a point that has been overtalked over the last few years. Other paradigms already exist among modern MMOs, and at least one of them (EVE Online) has to be regarded as very successful, even if it’s still ‘niche’ when compared to WoW’s audience.

WoW has done its part here by not only lowering the bar to subterranean levels in terms of the challenge/reward ratio, but also by conditioning so many in terms of how quickly and effortlessly they should expect to progress.

Christ, not this again.

I will maintain that anyone who feels that WoW is utterly without challenge has either not played to lot of it or is being willfully disingenuous about it. The challenges in WoW are certainly very different than one finds in a primarily PvP-oriented game, starting with being approached cooperatively rather than competitively. That doesn’t mean there’s no challenge at all, even if some folks feel that without a PvP element no challenge exists. (WoW has PvP, of course, but I wouldn’t say that its challenges come from that part of the gameplay.)

The thing about WoW’s challenges is that they tend to scale, which is a virtue rather than a flaw, and one of the reasons for WoW’s vast success. The inept can find challenges appropriate to their level of ability and still make progress, while the smart, skilled player will breeze through those and push into stuff that is challenging, which mostly means a set of specific endgame dungeons and raids (which ones depends on when we’re talking.) This breaks down only at the very, very high end, when the most elite guilds put, say, ICC into farm status mere weeks after its release.

You have an entire subset of the MMO gaming population that believes the WoW pace of advancement is ‘just right’, and so anything that takes longer than a weekend to max out in is a ‘huge grind’, and if anything kills you more than once the game is impossible and not worth playing. Launch today without SOMETHING dinging every 10 minutes? You lack ‘content’.

Saying that WoW lacks grind is like saying that Alaska lacks oil – true only in the sense that there is more to be found elsewhere. But it’s a point worth touching on, as regards the unlettered masses who play only WoW; they have no outside reference point to compare it to, so of course the elements of WoW seem right to them – it’s what they’re accustomed to. This does not mean that the fun they are having in WoW is somehow invalid, and it certainly doesn’t mean there’s no ghrind in WoW – it only means that for some reason WoW players find the grind in the game acceptable.

At the same time, a lot of people are indeed complaining about the sameness of WoW play even as expansions continue to come out. This number, while small in terms of WoW’s total pool of players, is probably considerably higher than the total MMO player base across all games in the glory days which some remember with misty-eyed nostalgia. There is considerable dissatisfaction with various elements of WoW, and considerable and oft-stated desire to see something fresh.

But a developer can’t count on that, because many who keep saying they want something new and different shrug uncomfortably when it comes out and go back to the same old WoW with which they are familiar. I’ve touched on this before, and I suspect it’s what Syncaine is really trying to say – people say they want a new approach, but then find reasons to stay away from it when it shows up. For the average WoW player this is probably a vague feeling of boredom at the prospect of more of the same quests and incrementally-improving rewards. But people like Syncaine or myself do not have this excuse – if we want open-ended play there are games which offer it, which we can’t say we’ve never heard of.

The factor that Syncaine always seems to disregard in these posts is inertia, the tendency for players well-established in a particular MMO to stay there even after they’ve dabbled with other games. He dismisses this as ‘WoW Tourism’ but it’s really not a negative thing at all, although it’s an annoyance to players of unpopular games like Darkfall – it is, in fact, one of the defining elements of MMO play and the great strength of MMOs in the marketplace. Even as someone who plays a lot of different MMOs (as most readers of this post probably are,) can’t you see how somebody would be reluctant to leave their established characters with their long-worked-at progression for a new game in which they’d start from nothing? Not even entirely unwilling, necessarily, but isn’t this an obvious hurdle that new games trying to recruit from the existing MMO audience (i. e. mostly WoW players) will need to overcome?

I strongly suspect that if we were to compare hypothetical ‘ideal’ MMOs, Syncaine and myself would find that we have very similar tastes in most respects, the major exception being my distaste for the kind of cutthroat, non-consensual PvP that something like Darkfall offers So the issue here is not so much that our tastes simply differ, so much as that he doesn’t seem to accept the tastes of the mainstream as legitimate.

I think his (apparent) goal – of evangelizing for less mainstream games – is a good one and worth doing. I just don’t think he’s getting much traction by basically telling people they’re currently playing a game completely without any sort of challenge – something that’s obviously untrue, and apt to cause the reader to disregard the worthwhile overall message.