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.

News From FanFest: New Shineys

Next up from the vids out of FanFest are a couple of short trailer-type pieces showing off some upcoming graphics upgrades. Finally the nebulae will be getting an overhaul, and the new ones look really great.

The next one shows new turret elements and animations. Also a big upgrade from what’s in the game now, but less immediately obvious for somebody jumping in.

News From FanFest: Captain’s Quaters

The following two videos show the tail end of a presentation from FanFest, talking about the features introduced to EVE with the new character creator, and what’s coming. The second of the two is a gloriously low-res preview of the Captain’s Quarters, which is the first piece of Ambulation getting rolled out. It’s not a substantive addition in terms of content, but it’s a start.

The interesting thing here is that the Captain’s Quarters is a replacement for the current in-station screen, which is rather a nice touch, I think, in that it cosmetically enhances an existing gameplay element without really subverting anything that already exists or introducing a huge time-waster, which is the real danger than Ambulation presents. If you add a bunch of stuff for players to do outside of their ships, that takes away from the core, ship-based, EVE experience. CCP seems to be aware of this (they’ve discussed it in the past) and are moving cautiously.

The Captain’s Quarters ought to hit test within a few weeks.

New Faces

I’ve been playing EVE sporadically all week, but hadn’t had the chance to play with the new character creator until the weekend. Finally, I have my new avatars.

Overall, I am extremely pleased, although I think there needs to be more ‘stuff’ – more options for hair and clothes in particular. But the engine is extremely powerful, and the whole package is smoother and better filled-out than it was when I fooled with it on Singularity.

The selection of clothes is going to be something of a problem. Not so much now, but when Incarna goes live, it’ll be an issue if every avatar is wearing one of the three different outfits in one of three different colors. You can pick and choose the pieces, so it’s not quite so bad as I’m making it sound, but we’re still going to need to see some mechanism for bringing new customization options into the game.

I would hope that this will happen via the existing economy, meaning that ‘outfits’ or costume pieces would be actual in-game items that need to be manufactured and transported by players, but time will tell – I’m sure CCP has put some thought into this. I just hope we don’t wind up with something as dopey as a cash shop where you pay $2 for a virtual shirt. Any such system will be incomplete, of course, unless it includes assless chaps.

And before I forget (as it went unmentioned by me for about two months,) if you’d like to try out EVE’s shiny new character creator, I’d encourage you to click through one of my banner ads, or follow the link HERE for a free 14-day trial. If you elect to turn one of those trials into a subscription, it helps to support this site.

Failing the Challenge

Tipa at West Karana reminded us last week of her MMO Challenge. Which is, in short, to pick one MMO, stick with it for a whole year, and ignore everything else. The idea being that you don’t really get the full MMO experience if you dabble in a bunch of different games.

I pointed out at the time that she was quite right, and waved a hand or three at limiting myself to just one game, but it’s never worked out. I’m just not the kind of player that can play just one thing, and this dates all the way back to my tabletop days. I think I stuck more or less exclusively to WoW for about five months, but that’s where I stopped. I have failed at Tipa’s challenge.

What I have managed to do, since the original challenge, is narrow my selection a bit. EVE, which I am currently playing, and Age of Conan, which I am not but plan to get back to, are my go-to subscription games. Titles like DDO, LotRO and EQ2X are too attractive as free-to-play games for me to ignore entirely. And I have a lifetime sub to Champions Online, so I’ll be checking in on that again later this month. That’s my roster. Other games of which I was fond or that I played for a while, like Vanguard, City of Heroes, Guild Wars and WAR, I’ve written off permanently.

And I don’t intend to partake immediately in any of this year’s offerings, including Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’ve even cooled off a lot on Guild Wars 2, which I was pretty hot for a few months back. But if there’ll be an exception, GW2 will be it.

That’s because of the free-to-play phenomenon. It used to be that the available F2P offerings were all junky Asian grinders with predatory cash shops and a design and visual aesthetic that I just can’t stand. That’s not true anymore – we now have high-quality F2P titles built to big-budget Western standards. Consequently, it takes a lot to get me to pay a subscription fee these days. EVE and AoC offer me what I’m willing to pay a subscription for, while other titles do not – and that emphatically includes World of Warcraft.

But that brings me back around to the challenge. If you only could play one MMO – call it your desert island game – which one would it be? I suspect that for most the answer will be the pallid but agreeable WoW. For me, today, it would be DDO. I might have a different answer tomorrow, but it would be one of the games on the roster above, regardless. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

An Unpopular Sandbox

It’s been a long while since something Tobold write inspired me to write a post of my own, but we have one today. Tobold’s point is that sandbox MMOs tend to be less popular than themepark MMOs. This is correct as far as it goes, but drawing that conclusion from the facts available ignores an elephant in the room.

The point that gets missed a lot in these kinds of discussions is that “PvE” is not incompatible with “sandbox”. Tobold points to the oft-repeated data point that 80% of EVE players stay mostly or exclusively in Empire. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing sandbox-type stuff, it just means they’re not dabbling in EVE’s version of FFA PvP. The themepark in EVE is more or less limited to mission-running, which, while an important part of the game, is scarcely the whole of what’s available, even in Empire. I would venture to say that very few Empire-based players stick exclusively to missions, while just as many never much fool with missions at all, and most such players mix mission-running with other stuff such as mining, research, industry, trading, or even PvP – remember that corp wars allow for PvP in Empire, and there’s also factional warfare to consider, although I don’t have a good grasp of just how popular that may be now.

Sandbox games are less popular than themepark games, but observing the fact does not imply a general rule that this must therefore be the case. Indeed, such a conclusion ignores the biggest and most visible single element in the hobby – World of Warcraft.

There’s general agreement that the MMOs of the generation before WoW were better sandboxes than those that came later. The reason is obvious, and that’s WoW itself. It accrued huge success, but is that success because it’s less of a sandbox? Even bearing in mind that WoW, as themepark-oriented as it is, still has some sandbox elements left? I would argue that WoW, as bitter as many of us might feel toward it, has a whole lot more going for it than just its themepark nature – good controls, a sense of humor, a big mostly seamless world, good writing, vivid art design… I could go on. I think it’s both a tremendous stretch and very superficial to say that WoW is popular because it’s a themepark.

Certainly, the perception is there, fueled by WoW’s very success. Other developers, chasing the WoW money with big-budget titles, stick to the proven formula. Sandbox games may be innately less appealing to a broad audience, but we wouldn’t know, because nobody is even trying. The only developers pushing the sandbox envelope are rinky-dink little indie houses whose games have little chance of even middling popularity anyway. It’s a false causality.