Game Hours Tracking

As a gamer, do you use one of the various tracking clients, and if so, how much attention do you pay to your numbers?

I’ve developed the somewhat anal-retentive habit of keeping track of hours played. Originally I did this using XFire, but when that got bought by gold selling scum I dropped it and switched to Raptr, which thoughtfully imported all my Xfire data. I don’t pretend that it’s completely accurate – Raptr, for example, does not report Vanguard, and I have never gotten it to successfully recognize Minecraft, either. And equally certainly, not all of my hours get reported even when Raptr happens to be running; it occasionally logs me out, for example, and sometimes numbers add up funnily.

Still, those numbers are interesting to look at. According to Raptr, I’ve played more World of Warcraft than anything else. This is almost certainly true, but those hours were accumulated over a period in which I had a lot of time to play and seemingly reported every minute of it. I would say Team Fortress 2 is probably number 2 in actuality, but neither Steam never seemed to track my hours correctly at the time, and I haven’t played much of it since I started using Raptr.

Amusingly, Warhammer Online was #2 on the list for a long time, and at the height of my disgust with it I was sort of working to get it out of the top 5 by playing other games. Not in any organized way (or it would have happened quicker than it did,) but it was in the back of my mind. EverQuest II took over my #2 spot just recently. It’s now 40+ hours over EVE Online at #3 and likely to stay in that spot even when I return to EVE eventually. If you also count my tracked hours in EQ2X (14, which is a lot less than I actually spent playing it,) it’s still number 2.

Vanguard, Skyrim and EVE

Ad astra per aspera, I said in the last posts comments, so it’s fitting that we now move the discussion from fantasy sandboxes to the stars – from Vanguard, considered by many a failure as a game, a sandbox and an MMO, to MMO gaming’s most successful sandbox, EVE Online.

Every fantasy MMO is based on Dungeons and Dragons or some other game that was in turn influenced by D&D, including Ultima Online, a title lambasted for its problems in its heyday but now held up as a suspicuouly rosy sandbox icon. Like Vanguard, EVE is a game I love but have deep issues with, and unlike Vanguard has a history of growth and prosperity despite a rocky beginning. But EVE, too, has its lessons to be learned from Skyrim.

That EVE is the most successful sandbox in the virtual world space cannot be disputed; it has true emergent gameplay and a near-infinite variety of ways one can approach its gameplay. But it does have its failures, both in the banal nature of much of the gameplay and in its failure to provide immersive elements.

By that, do not misunderstand me; EVE is very immersive as MMOs go and more so that most. But the universe of EVE is only minimally interactable: asteroids are depleted and wormholes are closed by player action, and the market is shaped almost entirely by in-game activities, but it’s only in this last aspect that it truly fulfills the potential of the virtual world. NPCs are static photos that never change or move. Stations are great monolithic that are only destroyed in videos that don’t reflect gameplay. Players can build and destroy structures, but is that alone such a huge step up from copper nodes in Elwynn Forest that despawn when you deplete them?

Tabletop games have a unique asset that video games lack: a human gamemaster to administer the universe and react to events. Computers aren’t there yet, but a game like Skyrim shows me that a convincing simulated environment isn’t so far away as many of us think; Skyrim has its glitches but it’s pretty freaking close. It’s something few MMOs even attempt anymore.

The developers of EVE had the notion that you should be able to get out of your ship and interact with more stuff. In practice that turned out to be fairly half-baked, to be honest, and longtime EVE players rallied against it when it seemed to be competing for developer time against the core gameplay. EVE is balanced around that core gameplay, and taking too many players out of a vast space much of which is already empty would be very, very dangerous. So the solution was to minimize the appeal of off-ship activity and shunt the more exciting stuff off to a different game, Dust 514. The goal of integrating EVE and Dust is pretty audacious, but more ambitious still would be a game with a smaller space but more room for characters to operate within it. And you can’t subtract space; EVE players would throw a justified fit.

As with Vanguard this is a failure in fundamental design, one that probably cannot be addressed with ad hoc later development. You’d have to design the game around a mixture of starship and off-board operations from the get go. And no, Star Trek Online, a game that incredibly fails in more places than EVE and Vanguard combined, did not succeed in doing that, and in my opinion didn’t try very hard to.

This is ironic because EVE is one of the few games not defined by its adherence to the D&D paradigm that conventional MMOs almost invariably follow fairly closely through a long lineage of adaptations onto silicon. EVE descends from Elite and thence from Traveller, a game designed by people who didn’t know all that much about D&D but were well-schooled in the possibilities of science fiction, and who had been blown away by Star Wars a year earlier.

The irony cuts deep because Traveller is very much a sandbox game from thirty years before that term was ever applied to video games. Instead of D&D’s structured, linear adventures and campaigns you had tools to develop a universe and set the characters loose in it. You could run a sandbox using D&D, but that was never the expectation. In Traveller, even the adventures forced you into a sandbox.

EVE – Traveller‘s descendant in the modern realm of online virtual worlds – got a good chunk about what Traveller was all bout right, but it left out two-thirds of the possibilities. The Traveller party would never spend all their time in their ship; it was a home base and a huge asset but also a source of tribulations and difficulties. It’s hard to imagine how an EVE where you might lose a ship and be stranded doing odd jobs on some backwater planet and have to work your way back up to one might even work – in Traveller it was a common adventure hook, and getting a ship and the freedom to roam the stars – or plunder them – that came with it was a major goal.

It might be tempting to think of such an MMO as two discreet games bolted roughly together, as Star Trek Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea are, although one would hope that one of the faces wouldn’t be quite so gallingly weak. But even two games in one that were equally good would be a failure to really reach for the stars. No, you’d want seamless integration between the two in a setting specifically designed to encourage it – one much like the rough implied Imperium presented in the Little Black Books in 1977.

Making such a setting truly interactable would be a huge challenge. It would be a setting with all the possibilities of an EVE combined with the possibilities of the other two-thirds that never saw development. Vast planets, although not necessarily a vast volume of space with thousands of stars that would spread players too thin. A single subsector, eight by ten parsecs, would be enough to start, and you could accommodate thousands of players in all the nooks and crannies of its worlds and asteroid belts and starport dives. You’d have to be clever about populating it with NPCs, alien critters and AI starships, since the simulation cannot be even close to perfect, and you’d have to be very careful the let both the player and NPC parts of the universe evolve on their own, organically and synergistically with as little manual moderation as possible. But clever design can hide a lot of soft underbelly, and Skyrim makes me think it’s possible.

As much as I talk about fantasy MMOs, that there is my dream title. Traveller Online, and a lot of the guts that you would need are already there in 34 years of lovingly developed tabletop product; algorithms for procedurally generating worlds and stars and ships and guns and freaky alien stuff. Sure the science in it was stale as hell even in 1977, but popular science fiction (as opposed to SF in the written word) hasn’t really evolved that much since the days of Flash and Buck.

It could be done. To the stars, my friends, along a rough road.

Too Much Game, Too Little Time

I’ve been gone from EVE Online long enough that I haven’t the least idea what I was working on back then; to the best of my recollection I left just before the Captain’s Quarters launched. When I logged back in yesterday I found myself in my old haunt of Rens, though, which is familiar territory.

I’m probably in the minority on this, but it’s my opinion that the whole “Walking in Stations” business is essential for the continued growth of EVE; that CCP has kept adding new dimensions to the game is one reason it’s continued to thrive, and this is an inevitable step. The feature as it exists today is, alas, just a novelty. Further work on it appears to be taking a back seat for now, though.

This is good in the sense that CCP is re-focusing on the space game, but bad in the sense of opening up this important avenue of play; the additional gameplay that Dust 514 will bring to the table could be another if it weren’t for the seemingly ill-considered decision to make the title a PS3 exclusive. Availablity on the PC platform might have brought players of the shooters that thrive on that platform into the EVE community and possibly, in time, into EVE itself by crossing over the two titles. Confining Dust to the console shooter ghetto puts a roadblock in the way of that.

In any event, though, I picked up in the general neighborhood of where I left off with jetcan mining in a crusier, in a nice out of the way 0.6 system. I’d worked my way up to Mining Barges at one point, but that was with another character on a different account that I’m not about to reactivate. So if I want to go that route I’ll need to work up to it again.

But that’s an if. As much as I love EVE for not forgetting what an MMORPG is supposed to be, it’s had a lot of trouble retaining me. I blame my own lack of patience for this; it’s not as though I’ve ever lacked for in-game goals, and my character has the skills and the ship needed to tackle level 3 missions if I so desire, and those can bring in quite a lot of ISK. I’d think more than I would doing jetcan mining, which for me pulls down about 1-2 million ISK an hour.

EVE’s going to have to work hard to convince me to stay given my current schedule, lack of free cash and the large number of free to play titles that may be individually less interesting in the long term… but there’s so very many of them. I do plan to come back to stay eventually, but now’s not the best time to do it. Plus we have Star Trek Online going f2p any week now, Guild Wars 2 probably some time next year and the non-massive Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim, the latter only a few weeks off.

Still, I plan to enjoy myself while I’m visiting New Eden.

A Return to New Eden

Victor from Games and Geekery has jumped into EVE Online for the first time. Stargrace has jumped back. EVE’s been under some fire since the Monoclegate debacle, to the point where CCP laid a whole bunch of people on other projects off. And there’s a 5-day “return to EVE” thingy going on right now, until November 7. All that and my recent blatherings about immersive virtual worlds tempted me into taking up the offer.

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.

Happy Birthday, EVE Online!

EVE is eight today. I’d never noticed it before, but it almost shares a birthday with someone else. Plus there’s goodies. Make sure to read the label.

Congrats to the folks at CCP who developed EVE aso the leading edge of the MMO world, and who have kept it there. And congrats also to the players and community who have kept it strong and growing over a period that few (if any) other MMOs have managed to equal.