Out With the Old, In With the New

As players line up for SWTOR early access like tovarisches waiting for toilet paper, tonight marked as grand a farewell as could be arranged for an altogether more fearless and ambitious game set in the same universe. Star Wars Galaxies, whose chief liability was that it was saddled with the tiresome Star Wars IP, is no more.

Bioware’s $300 million behemoth will be off to a roaring start, of that there is no doubt. Perhaps it will have better endurance than I expect, based on how far I got in the beta. My inclination, today, is to be negative about it, but I’m trying to look on the bright side. What that bright side boils down to is that Bioware is the best thing to happen to the Star Wars franchise since The Empire Strikes Back. They have done their best both to produce an experience as high in quality as possible, and to conform to the market expectations mandated by their enormous budget. It’s a title that could take no chances, and does not. SWTOR is by no means a bad game, but that it exists as it does is a sad commentary on the state of MMO design. Eight years ago Star Wars’ place in the MMO space lie with a game too revolutionary for its own good, so innovative that the Lucas goons had to put a boot on its neck to force it to conform. That effort did not entirely succeed, and even to its last day it was a game far richer in possibilities than SWTOR will ever be.

Somewhere, lurking in the depths of the bleak ocean that is MMO development, there is somebody working on something that learns the lessons – good and bad – taught by Star Wars Galaxies. Someday we’ll have the game that does for MMOs what Skyrim does for single-player RPGs. But that day is not today. Today is SWTOR’s day, and as players warm to it, especially players who remember what SWG was and what it could have been, the thing to remember is that every cent they give it it is another cent worth of validation in the echo chamber that surrounds George Lucas that what was done to SWG, the stifling of innovation in favor of conformity and derivation, was the right thing to do.

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Big-Budget Busts and the Sandbox Continuum

Bhagpuss has a nice piece expounding on what I said yesterday about content being more than just quests. He points out, quite rightfully, that EverQuest II has just the sort of content I talked about in its standout housing system. One might make the case that Star Wars Galaxies had (or has, if you like, for another few weeks,) the better implementation of housing because it was persistent out in the open world, but either way it’s a sterling example not only of non-quest (or quest-like) content, but of a sterling sandbox element in a nominally strictly PvE-oriented themepark game.

The truth is that any MMORPG is a sandbox to some extent, and the presence of this element largely determines the strength of the virtual world therein. That there are games commonly lumped into the MMORPG category with virtually no sandbox elements whatsoever (Guild Wars and D&D Online being good examples,) is a testament to the flabbiness of that term. A game like World of Warcraft, with its decent virtual world but weak (and weakening) sandbox elements is the exception that demonstrates the rule.

There’s nothing that says this has any bearing on popularity, of course. We have no reason to assume that sandbox titles in whatever genre appeal to the mass audience. Except, of course, for Minecraft. And for The Sims, the best-selling PC game of all time… by a lot. And in the MMORPG universe there’s EVE Online, sometimes #2 behind only WoW, which is a breakout success despite opaque systems, lack of avatars, a famously ruthless population and a history of developer blunders. No, no evidence anyone wants sandbox games at all.

Now, I think that an immersive virtual world shooting for Sims-level sales is is setting its sights really, really high. Targets that far into the stratosphere imply similarly stratospheric budgets, which is something I don’t especially favor. But you have EVE and SWG which were put together for peanuts, too, and more recent niche titles like Wurm Online and Darkfall that seem to be holding on and developing, too. Even the unambitious but polished-to-a-mirror-sheen Rift reportedly cost $50 million to develop. That’s a lot of money, but in my view Rift, while a fine game in many ways, fails to deliver the experience of a real virtual world. Utterly.

Where’s the money going? When you can make an EVE Online or a Star Wars Galaxies for what would be pocket change today, why aren’t we seeing the critical mass in small development efforts needed to toss out a few more titles that stretch the boundaries of the MMORPG? Well, a lot of it gets blown in the perceived need for “polish,” whatever that means. Is the Sims 3 polished? Mrs. Mengle will tell you that that unstable fucker has as many problems as any other piece of software she can name – including Vanguard. And it’s not even ambitious, it’s just an evolution of another game that was.

I suspect that the problem is that the investment capital that could have funded a dozen modestly budgeted games is going toward games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is almost certainly going to be a financial failure if it cost what we think it did to develop. You can produce a virtual world for far, far less. It might not be as “polished;” it may have bugs and it may not be fully realized at launch. But it could also give its players something that current titles don’t – and that, from where I’m sitting, potentially includes a great deal.

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.

EVE Advancement and Why It Matters Less Than You Think

Massively is reporting that CCP will be offering a new EVE boxed retail package on October 19 in North America, the “Commissioned Officer Edition.” Bundled along with this will come a new in-game implant that will ‘significantly accelerate’ skill point acquisition for the initial play period.

It’ll be nice to to see EVE with a presence on retail shelves. New players will no doubt find the skill acceleration reassuring, but unless the increase is genuinely spectacular, it really doesn’t amount to much. The implant essentially offers +3 to all attributes, along with a +20% damage from turrets and +20% rate of fire for missiles, up to a maximum pilot age of 35 days. I think this is non-problematic for a couple of reasons, but I’ll get to that.

For those who don’t know, EVE has no ‘levels’ in the traditional way. Instead there are a whole bunch of individual skills. (How many, you ask? I have no idea, offhand. But they number in the hundreds.) Each skill can be raised as high as rank 5, and each either allows you to do various things (fit and use ship modules, generally,) or gives you a bonus to a specific activity (or both.) This is broadly similar to the way advancement works in Ultima Online and Darkfall and, I’m told, Star Wars Galaxies before the NGE ruined it for everybody. (I’m quoting, here – I don’t have a horse in that particular race.)

The difference in EVE is that skills do not advance merely by using them. Instead, they must be trained. This process is automated once you have opened (or “injected” the skill) and happens in real time. When you buy a new skill book and inject the skill, it’s listed in your character sheet at rank 0. To train it, you right-click it on that list and select ‘train skill.’ How long it will take to train depends on the level of the skill, the rank being learned, and your character’s scores in whatever attributes are relevant to that type of skill. The higher the attribute, the faster it trains.

Training times scale up dramatically as you work up to higher ranks. Rank 1 often takes only 10 or 20 minutes, perhaps less. Rank 2 takes from 40 minutes to about two hours. Rank 3 can take a whole day. And this is for skills of level 1 or 2 – the really high-level skills can take weeks or months to train.

Again, this happens in real time, and it happens whether you are logged in or not. This means that your character continues to improve even when you’re not actually playing, which has all sorts of ramifications that I won’t go into here. It’s one of EVE’s distinguishing features.

New EVE characters start with about 150k skill points, with a temporary buff (the ‘Rookie Skill Training Bonus’,) which grants a 100% increase to skill learning time that lasts until the character reaches 1.6 million skill points. If you choose to play through all of the tutorials, you also get a bunch of skill books for free that you’d ordinarily have to pay for (a couple of which have costs in the millions of ISK.)

Because of the scope of the skill selection, there’s not really a hard place in the progression where you’re considered generally competent. However, many corps require new members to have a minimum of anywhere from 5-10 million skill points. Super-Veteran characters might have as many as 100 million skill points, or even more.

At first glance, this seems an insurmountable barrier to the new player. Even once you’ve gotten up to that 10 million skill point level, the vets will have gained more skill points as well – with the added benefit of top-quality implants to boost their attribute scores, the price of which puts them out of reach for anything like a newbie. The gap’s really not going to get much smaller.

However, this is deceptive in a couple of important ways. Firstly, advancement is very much set up on a scale of diminishing returns. Improvement tends to be incremental. So the guy with 20 million skill points isn’t going to be twice as good as the guy with 10 million, depending of course on the specifics of the skill build. And adding ships and modules to the equation introduces a lot of additional variables. The 10 million point character with a well-fitted ship is going to hand the 20 million point guy flying a junkheap with cheap modules his ass.

Second, warfare in EVE tends to be asymmetric. Generally, nobody goes looking for a one-on-one fight… and with numbers on your side and in the right ships, it typically doesn’t matter how many more skill points the other guy has. Witness the wealthy and powerful CEO of Quantanamo Corporation getting ganked by a small group of no-names to the tune of a 50 billion ISK loss (which he laughed off in a classy way.)

Thirdly, a skill point total in the many millions of skill points necessarily indicates a lot of skills in a lot of different areas. You can be competent, even remarkably so, with a lot less than that – and there’s a reason that 5-10 million skill points is generally considered where you want to be. You can be comfortably capable in a couple of different areas even a bit under the 5 million skill point mark. Granted, there’s a lot of room to improve from there, but 5 million skill points will give you access to many of the game’s avenues of activity.

So big skill point disadvantages aren’t really all that big a deal. However, getting to that point of initial competence of 3-5 million skill points can take what seems like a long time to the rank newbie, especially so if they don’t figure out what skills they want and how to set up their skill training queue efficiently pretty quickly. It can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months at the extreme end of this – and because EVE skill improvement happens in real time, you can’t rush the process simply by playing a lot.

To that end, I think that anything that helps news players get into that 5 million skill point range is something to be encouraged. Tying it to a retail box is an even better idea, since that limits the number of existing players who will take advantage of the new implant to create alts on new accounts for the purpose of mischief. So while there is, predictably, some whining over it, CCP seems to me to have demonstrated again that they actually know what they’re doing.

Obligatory Notice: If you’ve never tried EVE Online, you can click the banners at the top right of this page, or in the page footer, to get a free 14-day trial. If you find yourself signing up for a subscription, I get a little something from CCP, so you’d be supporting Ardwulf’s Lair as well. EVE is one of the best MMOs out there and I encourage readers to try it out if they haven’t already.

Game vs. World

I haven’t listened to the latest Shut Up, We’re Talking yet, but one of the topics covered is SWTOR and the alleged 50 novels worth of content Bioware is saying will be in the game. While I don’t doubt that it may be true, and while I expect SWTOR to be a very good game (ironically, it was Mass Effect that sold me on SWTOR more than any residual love for the embattled Star Wars IP,) I have to think that all this structured content misses one of the points of an MMO.

Any MMORPG is a synergy of two main threads, the game on the one hand and the virtual world on the other. Largely due to the overwhelming (and misapplied) influence of World of Warcraft, whose great leap forward was equal emphasis on the game part of the product, we’ve seen almost all new titles de-emphasize the virtual world, while neglecting to notice that World of Warcraft didn’t.

EverQuest’s big flaws tended to be on the game side of the equation – as a virtual world, one of the key appealing aspects of an MMO, it was spectacular. Newer games, citing better gameplay as their reason, add restrictions as to what you can and can’t do, thus limiting their worlds and marginalizing the ability of the player to inhabit the virtual space. This started with WoW, but WoW launched with an extremely solid foundation for a virtual world (at least partially a relic, I suspect, of the early, more “clone EQ” phase of development,), and later development hasn’t undermined that much – although Cataclysm might.

There are exceptions – SWG was one before the NGE, and EVE Online remains one today. Fallen Earth (whch I still haven’t tried) might fall into that category, and one hopes that Darkfall will take that direction. Gameplay will only take you so far – players will eventually get tired of it even in new guises. It’s the virtual world that keeps players involved. But these (with the exception of EVE, which cannily markets to a wider audience than other MMOs) are all deeply niche titles. There are partial exceptions like CoH, EQ2, LotRO and AoC. But many mainstream, triple-A games like Warhammer and Aion, as well as things like Runes of Magic and have truncated, shallow virtual worlds – Warhammer in particular might as well not have bothered. The trend seems to me to be in this direction, and maybe it’s unalterable at this point, but I have to think it’s one reason why people fled from those games in droves after the first month or two. It’s not so much that they cloned World of Warcraft (neither game is a true clone of WoW in my opinion, and both actually have better-functioning gameplay insofar as PvP is concerned,) but that they missed the hook that keeps players in titles like WoW, and even EverQuest after 10+ years.