Retro Servers and A Light at the End of the Tunnel

Some folks are talking about how MMORPG blogging is dying. While there are indisputably more platforms these days on which to spread your word, and many of the old blogging folks have migrated at least some of their material to those platforms, the problem isn’t that blogging is dying. Blogs, in fact, are as popular as ever. The issue in our little corner of the internet is that MMORPGs are dying.

Or, at least, MMORPGs as they have in the past been considered. The immersive virtual world, instead of being pushed forward, has been pushed to the sidelines by big companies chasing big money. Such worlds aren’t dead, but they’re now doomed to become a niche within the much broader definition of “MMORPGs,” which these days includes anything that is either multiplayer or vaguely an RPG. When League of Legends falls into the same category as EVE Online, I’m afraid that the category has lost any meaningful utility.

In retrospect it almost seems that Blizzard and its cash cow have been followers here rather than leaders. How many companies produced MMOs that superficially copied WoW, but only the elements that they thought were marketable to the masses, while leaving out the virtual world that made WoW so seductive in the first place? Meanwhile Blizzard was doing the same thing to their own game. Of course, EverQuest came first, laying much groundwork for the genre, which turned out to be part of the problem — by producing a game whose defining feature was “like EverQuest, but easier,” Blizzard sold a generation of game developers on the idea that they key to success and popularity was “easier.” Nobody noticed all those other good things that a Blizzard more or less oblivious to the huge pile of money in its future had done before the game launched. The world that you could spend thousands of hours lost in went away and all that was left was “easier,” “better balanced” and “more accessible.”

Maybe that really is the way to success for an MMORPG, but if so nobody’s managed to do it on Blizzard’s coattails. Instead we have a game strangling itself to death slowly and a company seemingly unable to do anything about it, or even to correctly identify the problem. People being simply burned out on a game they’re explored very thoroughly is certainly a factor, but contributing to it is that each expansion has given players less and less world to explore and get lost in. Maybe the amount of physical volume is just as high, maybe there’s even more quests than ever, but all the little avenues of play other than the one that the devs give us have been slowly but surely stripped away or consigned to uselessness. Surely fatigue is important, but it would be less of an issue if WoW hadn’t lost an important element of what made it so popular to begin with.

We, the MMORPG fans who miss that big virtual world, have a couple of options. One is to wait on the chance that one of the next generation of virtual worlds will be what we want. I’ve mentioned my own hopes surrounding Star Citizen and EverQuest Next, and are some other titles as well, like ArcheAge and The Repopulation, that have potential. They’re all (save EQN) from smaller studios, but that’s okay — the market for this type of game needs to contract and developers need to stop chasing WoW money and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in development anyway.

Or we can hope for a throwback server, one that tries to replicate the experience of a younger game. But there are reasons why only one company even tries this, and why its attempts are halfhearted. The big obstacle is that there aren’t just five different versions of (for example) WoW: vanilla, BC, Wrath, Cataclysm and Pandaria. There are in fact hundreds of different versions, one corresponding to each step in the patch/update cycle. and of course you have two pieces of software to be concerned with, the server and the client. Which of the hundreds of versions do you pick? Assuming you even have archived versions of the software from that date? (SOE always maintains that it doesn’t even have that obsolete code, though you’d think that proper design principles would mandate decent version control.) The client today is vastly different from a version of the client from a random date six years ago, so you’d need to either distribute an old client alongside the current one of undertake a major piece of software engineering to make the current client work with both new and old versions of the server-side software.

This last is a dealbreaker, by the way. But let’s assume you even get that far. In that throwback version of the game there are surely cool things that have been lost today, but just as surely there is crufty, broken stuff that you’d want to fix — and it was fixed, one or ten updates down the line. Do you abandon all the good work that went into development of the live game during that time, in an effort to eradicate the bad? Eliminating changes the developers believed in at the time, defended in internal meetings and fought to achieve? Do you fix those things and effectively consign yourself to having a second development team working on a parallel game?

Now, you could theoretically see something like SOE has done in the past, most recently with the Fippy Darkpaw server, which is a fresh server with most of the newer stuff locked down or hidden, but even so there’s a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes, in the basic mechanics or in the functionality of the UI for example, that can’t be easily changed or rolled back, as indeed SOE does not. This is why you’ve never going to see a real WoW or EQ2 throwback server; because to do it right costs too much money and is too much trouble. The fundamental game mechanics have changed too much; it would be impossible to hide the new game under a visage of the old, as was done with EQ.

That leaves the last option, which is to hop to one of a variety of private servers that try to offer a retro experience. There are selections for vanilla WoW, old-school EQ and pre-CE SWG, offhand, among many other private server options, and if one of those is your thing you may find some happy times there. But these private servers can never really fully replicate the experience that we had “back in the day,” lacking the community and the live dev team that gives an MMORPG part of its dynamism. Private servers are also of, at best, questionable legality; the whole private server scene strikes me as a sleazy underworld awash in shady figures and dubious downloads.

Still, some private WoW servers are doing interesting things. Many have additional non-canon features aside from stuff like x100 XP rates, like significant rules changes or even entire custom expansions. Note that I’m reporting this based on stuff like the linked video above; I’ve only ever stuck my head into one private server and an generally very uncomfortable with the idea. Legal or not, though, clearly a lot of attentive work has gone into some of these. It would be nice if something could be worked out with the IP holder to allow legitimately creative modded servers to exist above board.

This is more or less the situation we have today with Minecraft, in fact, although that game’s suitability for both modding and multiplayer is in my judgement subject to debate. In the case of high-profile MMORPG titles like WoW or EQ such a situation would seem pretty unlikely. But Star Citizen promises something effectually very similar, with the ability to create mods and run private servers drawn in from the get-go. This will be a boon for those dissatisfied with some particular version of the game — they can just write a mod to roll the game back to some earlier version, perhaps with other modifications, and run the whole thing on their own private server, without the kind of legal worries that illicit private servers currently have to worry about.

So that’s my proposed solution — I’m pinning my hopes on EverQuest Next and (and maybe a little on Shroud of the Avatar,) with an ear to the ground on a few other projects, but Star Citizen, which hopes to make centralized server control by the publisher an option rather than a mandate, may be the Next Best Hope. I just hope I’ll have a PC able to run it.

Backwards Yet, Maybe, Forwards

Of late I’ve been spending a bit of very casual time in EverQuest. As long-time readers will know, I missed out of EQ in its heyday and have made only a few abortive attempts to get into it in recent years. This time around, having skipped the upappealing tutorial zone and diving directly into what appears to be the only remaining starter zone, it’s working a little better for me. I’m a bit out of my depth, but presumably time can fix that, if I keep playing.

I’m also futzing with the open beta of Firefall. I like it, although it’s occupying the same slot in my head that Planetside 2 does. I intend to keep fooling with it, although my current interest level (which is not extraordinarily high) inclines me to wait for launch rather than deal with the vicissitudes of beta.

Looking forward, there are two MMOish titles on the horizon that I’m exited about: Star Citizen and EverQuest Next. The former may not be officially an MMO, but a lot of the talk coming out of the Star Citizen group is pretty exciting, and as far as I can see today it’s close enough. I’m particularly interested in how the game is supposed to interact with player activity vis a vis the economy, as discussed in the linked video.

EQNext might be a full-throated return to the sandbox for SOE. We actually know a lot less about it than we do Star Citizen at this point, but hopefully that will change with the game’s formal reveal at SOELive in early August. In a typical stroke of luck, I will be camping at that time, but I’ll catch up when I get back a few days later.

Either or both could disappoint, of course. But they do stand a chance of pushing virtual worlds forward for the first time in years. The “MMORPG” term has basically outlived its usefulness as terminology, and as a category it has ceased evolving in any direction of its own, rather moving closer to other, safer styles of game.

EQNext, Not Next Year

Massively reports, and Wilhelm remarks, that we shan’t be seeing any information on EverQuest Next any time soon. The relevant SmokeJumper quote courtesy of EQ2Wire:

EQ Next is still being built within a black box. The *earliest* we are currently considering that we *might* reveal info is late this year. We’re being very particular about what needs to be in the game before revealing it to folks, so until that stuff is ready, we won’t be showing anything. (Screens you saw from a couple years ago are completely obsolete now and are not pertinent to the current game at all.)

SOE is actually pretty good at trickling information out to the public, if you are paying very close attention. Naturally some individuals took the mention of the project as a sign that release was imminent, leading to the idea in some quarters by 2012 that it was vaporware. Of course, I don’t have to tell my readers these things take a long time to develop and that SOE isn’t the biggest or the richest development house out there. It’s gonna take a while. If we assume that serious discussions started happening in 2009 (as seems reasonable) then given a typical five-year development cycle we should expect to see a launch in 2014.

When SOE said that a new chapter in the EverQuest franchise was being planned back in 2009, it was clearly only in the thinking stages at the time, and when they started to talk about it at FanFaire in 2010, it was still obviously very early in development. So not hearing any details soon is not a surprise. 2013 is clearly going to be the year of Planetside 2 for SOE. They are mounting a big push for it and it’s drawing a lot of very positive buzz. My guess would be that we will not, in fact, see anything substantial on EQNext this year, as Creative Director Dave Georgeson implies is possible in the quote above. By the end of the year, of course, the narrative in certain quarters will be that more info was in fact promised, and that SOE is again the House of Lies. But you can’t unlearn stupid.

We may hear something at FanFaire… er, SOELive this year, or possibly afterward. Maybe even a screenshot or two. But I think we won’t start to see serious information until 2013, and possibly not before SOELive 2013. As for release, I think 2014 is possible, but I’m not holding my breath. I’d say 2015, possibly even 2016 are more likely.

Fippy Takes Off

Could it be that there’s a surge of interest in EverQuest again? With the new EQ progression server launching February 15th, there’s already an unofficial forum and community site, and there’ll be a special SOE podcast to talk about just that going up on the 10th. I hesitate to call this a surge, really… but maybe it’s a little bump. People are talking about EQ again for the first time in a long while, and that’s kind of saying something, considering that Rift and Dragon Age 2 are launching in that same window.

There’s also mutterings in the MMO blogosphere about folks going back. Even I am thinking about subbing for a month, just to see what happens. So who’s all planning on taking crusty old pre-Kunark EQ out for a spin?

EverQuest Launching New Progression Server

Courtesy Massively, the news is out that in March SOE will be launching a new progression server for EverQuest.

For those who don’t know, the idea behind the progression server is that when the yet-unnamed shard goes live, it’ll be EverQuest, more or less, as it was when it launched back in 1999. This will be right around EQ’s 11-year anniversary. As time goes on, material from the expansions will be added. Details are in short supply just yet, but it sounds to me like expansion stuff will get added on a timetabel similar to the original x-pack releases… so, about six months or a year later, the content from the first expansion, Ruins of Kunark, will be pushed out, and so on for the 16(!) other expansions.

How much the play on the new server will actually resemble play as it was in March of ’99 is a question I’m not well-equipped to answer. How many ‘foundational’ changes has SOE made to the game that can’t be easily backed out now? I don’t know, although it’s certainly not impossible that the new shard will run on an actual old version of the game that’s been dusted off for this purpose.

I’m really not in the market for a third MMO at this time (my primary selections being EVE and, for a fantasy fix, the subscription-free LotRO,) but I have to admit to being tempted. It may be a chance to experience EQ in something close to the form it took back in the day, with all the endless grind and corpse runs and spawn camping. Considering SOE’s trajectory over the last year or two, it may be the last chance to do so.

In that respect, it’s very tempting, at least to try it out. Plus, I think it’d run splendidly on my laptop.

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.