As Cloudy As You Think

Is it too late to start year-in-review talk? I’d think so, but then again, everything but Cataclysm is already out, so all the cards are pretty much on the table or about to fall. The year lacked impact MMO releases, but as Syp points out, this may be remembered as the year the major paradigm shift began, from subscription models to low-entry-barrier minipay games. It really began at least a year ago in the western market, with the conversion of DDO to minipay, and one can point to earlier examples.

Few would dispute this. But there’s an inevitable consequence that I haven’t seen much talk about. If the era of retail boxes and entry price points goes away, so too does the big-bugdet MMO in the vein of SWTOR, Tabula Rasa and APB. This may be a good thing, since innovation tends to come from smaller projects that give creative folks more room to stretch, rather than corporate affairs run by committees with dollar signs in their eyes. The big-ticket MMOs are all canned WoW clones, and this is why – investors want to see that there money is going into something proven to be profitable. Some investors aren’t averse to risk, but most are; so the indie project can probably scrape together the $2-3 million it needs, but in order to assemble $100 million in development capital you need to be able to point at existing successes and say “this is what we’re going to do.”

We think of subscription revenue as being where the real money is, which is true… in the long run. But those entry fees (or “cover charges,” as Winged Nazgul cleverly put it,) are where you want to make your development investment back. You don’t want to have to tell your investors “well, we’ll have the costs paid back in 13 months, and then all will be profit,” because to get those many millions you promised them returns at or shortly after release. Eliminating the cover charge also eliminates this method of settling the score. The megabudget titles will get rarer and rarer as the greatest existing success continues to wane.

So the average project budget for the hobby is likely going down, by a lot, over the next two or three years. This like most things has an upside and a downside. As fewer megabudget projects arise smaller affairs will rise to take their place – the gaming media has to cover something. Some will start to refocus on multiplayer games in general (as Beckett MOG has done,) while others will stay focused on virtual world-type products. And we should see an increase in innovation, from which the next overnight sensation could arise (just ask the Minecraft guy.) But we should also see a decrease in polish and in the development of heavily refined systems, possibly including scripted content.

We in the west are used to what we glibly call “polish.” We expect it, and go bananas when we don’t get it (witness the furor over FFXIV.) In the era of fewer WoWs and more Darkfalls, you can kiss it goodbye. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the old buggy days of EverQuest; now there are a ton of platforms and engines that small developers can use to build games, some of them open-source and therefore free. we needn’t sacrifice gameplay, but we’ll likely have to give up hand-crafted content.

At this point the word you’re looking for is “overdeveloped.” Lack of polish didn’t kill Warhammer, no matter what the navel-gazers among us may think. What killed Warhammer were fundamental flaws in the game from top to bottom. Every bit of scripted content in that game was a wasted development dollar. A real working virtual world and systems to interact with it could have been done with a fraction of the budget.

Does this mean I’m predicting the long-awaited return of the sandbox? Well, I’m not predicting anything – I’m speculating. But that could possibly happen.

The Virtual World is Not Dead

There’s a post over on Massively today asking the question, “Do you miss virtual worlds?” The body of the article touches on one of my pet topics, and my reply got so big that I figured I may as well bloat it some more and get a blog post out of it.

With the exception of Second Life, you’d be hard pressed to find a well-known MMO that isn’t an exercise in tightly-controlled carrot-chasing in one form or another, and the days of highly evolved non-combat gameplay systems seem to have gone the way of the dodo bird.

If I had anything like the time to do it this week, I’d record a podcast to rant about it. Because this point is raised with some regularity, and the writer always seems to manage to miss the giant starship orbiting at 4km and shooting rockets at him, trying desperately to get his attention.

The phenomenon cited by the author is quite real, of course. MMOs have become much more focused on the game rather than the virtual space the players inhabit. It’s tempting to blame WoW for this, but it’s really not Blizzard’s fault as much as it is that of the developers of other games who’ve followed in its footsteps, and tried to tread down the same path of Big Big Money. Developers, commentators and fans all seem to focus on WoW’s gameplay as the reason for its tremendous success. I take the position that, while it’s certainly a factor, the very credible virtual world world that WoW takes place in is also important – maybe even more important.

WoW’s gameplay is very directed, it’s true. But it also has a (mostly) seamless virtual world behind it, a robust emote system and a thriving simulacrum of an economy. There are even in-world events that happen, like that big battle in the Barrens that fires occasionally (It happens to fire when a quest is triggered by somebody, but that’s largely transparent to somebody who just happens to be wandering through and doesn’t know about it.) These are all components of the virtual space rather than directly attached to gameplay per se. Azeroth is a believable place to inhabit. Over the course of updates and expansions, WoW’s gotten away from this, using questing and instancing more heavily, to the point that now major sections of the world are not open, and virtually all level-cap play happens in instances. This wasn’t true when the game launched, and it suggests that even Blizzard’s team has tended to forget the importance of the virtual world.

Even so, for the casual player (i. e. most WoW players,) this high-level perspective is much less obvious, and folks working their way up through the levels to Burning Crusade, seeing only Old Azeroth, which remains (for now) very open, eventful and filled with neat nooks and crannies to explore. My fear for Cataclysm is that it’ll erase everything in the old world that’s not directly tied to the quest progression in the name of providing a more focused experience for new players – which will, I think, be a net loss for the world, and therefore for the game. We’ve gotten to the point where Blizzard is changing their game to copy other titles which themselves copied from WoW.

Which gets us back around to the supposed abandonment of the virtual world. As I said, this is a very real phenomenon, and one that works to the detriment of the MMO’s long-term appeal. But there are exceptions, aside from media darling Second Life, and that the biggest one is so consistently overlooked by people making this point is a source of ongoing irritation for me.

Western (i. e. North American and European,) commentators tend to focus on western MMOs, and pay less attention to the various Asian offerings. Among those western games, EVE Online holds very steady at #2-3 behind World of Warcraft, aside from occasional aberrant periods surrounding launches (and we’re in one of those now, with LotRO having gone free-to-play and Midget Bunnyhop Hentai Battles squatting out a new expansion.) Yet “sandbox games are dead,” and “nobody cares about virtual worlds anymore.” How is this the case when the second or third most popular title in the field is one that those terms fit exactly?

One could point out that EVE is an odd duck of a title in many respects, which would be true. It’s unusual if for no other reason than that it’s continued to grow over the course of its lifetime, whereas every other title has gone into a period of decline from which there has yet to be an escape. The near-universal scenario (the “MMO Lifetime Curve,” if you will,) over the long term has been a burst at launch, rapid growth for a while after that, then an inevitable peak, followed by a long, slow decline. Almost nobody would try to make the case that WoW hasn’t hit the last stretch of that curve yet. EVE has utterly defied it.

And yet we have CCP’s little game that lots of folks like to forget about, humming happily along in the top rank of extant MMOs, continuing to grow slowly but surely, with its open virtual world, sandbox play and player-driven economy. How come nobody thinks to copy that?

And don’t tell me EVE is a “hardcore PvP” game. Anyone who’s played it for any length of time knows that not only is that not true, the very definition falls apart in EVE’s case. About 80% of people never leave Empire – how hardcore does that sound? The threat of PvP is always there, sure, but actual shooting is almost opt-in, as somebody pointed out in a comment here not too long ago. Players who exercise proper caution will seldom if ever find their ships shot out from under them. And EVE utterly defies most people’s expectations of PvP (“people shooting at me,”) because while EVE is overwhelmingly PvP-driven, PvP can take many dimensions outside of firefights, and people can contribute to that not only without firing a shot, but without even making any real enemies.

The open world, the sandbox MMO… it’s alive and well and living in Iceland, and snacking on weird fermented fish washed down with Brennivín.