Dual Wielding LFG Edition: Creating Community, Developer Side

Dual Wielding: LFG Edition— sometimes a topic is just too big for a couple of bloggers on their own. That’s when we send out the call, and see who steps up to help us with the challenge. This week, in a special LFG edition of Dual Wielding, we’ve put together a four person team to tackle the question, “what can developers do to foster community?”

And make sure you also read what Mersault, SylWolfy, and Aywren had to say on the topic!

A few weeks ago a conversation that began with my frustration with games like Tree of Savior and Black Desert that fail to explain key gameplay elements turned into a discussion about community—what creates it, binds it, and what developers could do on their end to foster it. Sure, this burden isn’t completely on the shoulders of the professionals working on the MMOs we play, but neither should it be ignored by them during the development process. Ultimately, I think it comes down to encouraging community by greatly rewarding group play without punishing solo players. It’s that simple.

Before getting started, I need to make a confession. To some extent, I don’t really care one hoot whether a game encourages group play or not because I prefer to play solo in my MMOs. Yes, I’m one those people who insists on playing a massively multiplayer game largely on my own. That isn’t to say I never interact with other people; I enjoy running dungeons using a group finder tool, queueing for battlegrounds, and if I see someone who needs help with a mission or elite mob I’ll jump in and give them a hand. However I’m just as happy the other 90% of the time when I’m playing by myself.

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Secondly, I want to address the subject that started the conversation, which is whether or not MMOs should bother explaining the intricacies of gameplay or if that should be a matter of crowdsourced information and thus a means of fostering community. To the latter I say poppycock. Yes, it’s true that when games are confusing or complicated and require relying on other people for answers that they can bring people together because of it, but that’s just lazy. If I’m playing a new MMO I expect the game itself to provide me with all the information I need to understand what it is about and how it is to be played at least for everything required in the first ten to twenty hours of gameplay. Higher level systems can be figured out by the community but fundamental gameplay should not have to be.

That said, there are other ways to create inherent difficulty within an MMO that requires people to work together in order to overcome the challenge. Take Black Desert for instance. Ignoring the fact that it’s one of the games that does a terrible job introducing new players to the intricate systems that make it such an amazing title, even once you have figured out these systems the game does not require reliance on other people. If anything, the game’s design encourages players to go it alone. For example, during my brief time with BDO I was helping out with a guild mission one evening that was meant to be accomplished by a group. The goal was to harvest a set amount of lumber as a team, however we were all in different places on the map and we all kept the wood we personally harvested. There was nothing about it that required a group, it was basically a single player mission on a larger scale.

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What Pearl Abyss could have done to create difficulty and necessity in that situation would have been to turn the mission into a group effort requiring multiple roles. The mission could have read, “collect X units of lumber and place them in your guild warehouse within Y minutes.” To reap the rewards a guild would have to divide the work—one team to gather and a second team to haul the lumber to the warehouse. To make it even more interesting (and challenging) they could include a combat element, either PvP or PvE in which a third team would be required to protect the other two. The rewards for completion could benefit both the guild and the individuals involved so that everyone is encouraged to work together to meet the common goal. Here the difficulty is not poorly designed tutorials (or complete lack thereof) but an actual thought out system that rewards groups working together.

On the other hand, I do not want to see mechanics that punish solo play because most of the time that’s how I’m actually playing and I’m selfish like that. Tree of Savior is unfortunately one of those games that does just that with its “last hit receives the kill credit” mechanic. What this means is that I, as a slow damaging Cleric can bash a cluster of cute little pigs on their collective heads for several seconds only to have all XP and other rewards stolen from me by that Ranger who thought he was being helpful by using multi-shot. The incentive to group then is to avoid losing credit for a kill, but this approach, where solo players feel punished for being alone leads me to resent the game’s design, not relent and group up.

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However in that same MMO, dungeons are a much better example of how it should be done. Well, almost. Once you’re able to enter the first dungeon, there is a huge XP bonus for joining a random group and a smaller one for entering the dungeon as a premade. Personally, I would have done the reverse so that people are rewarded for actually talking to one another and entering together. Considering players have to physically stand next to the entrance to use the random group finder it would be fairly easy to do. But I always ignore the cries of “looking for one more” by those forming a premade group because I know the XP is better queueing alone. Regardless, the XP buff encourages me to group up with others one way or another and if something similar were applied to grouping in the open world in place of the terrible last hit mechanic, you better believe I’d be looking to join others there as well.

I know none if this is a novel approach to solving the problem, and yet there are enough examples of MMOs that fail to encourage group play at the most fundamental level that I still think it’s worth repeating. And even as someone who isn’t always looking to turn MMOs into a social affair, I would love to see MMO developers get more creative in encouraging group play. Not the lazy kind that comes from bugs and broken systems which force community out of necessity, but intelligent and intentional gameplay decisions that reward the formation of communities while allowing solo players to have their fun as well. I won’t always be first in line to participate in those community building affairs, but I would be cheering them on all the same.

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Dual Wielding: The Future of MMOs Looks Remarkably Bright

Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”

(Be sure to check out Mersault’s take on the subject as well.)

Last Friday was a significant day for those MMO enthusiasts monitoring the state of the genre and those businesses behind the games we play. Everquest Next was officially canceled followed by the layoff of 60-70 employees of Carbine Studios. While neither came as a surprise to those following Daybreak and Carbine, the shock of those announcements was nevertheless felt throughout the community. While many folks were coming to terms with the fact that Everquest Next would never launch and others were mourning the significant loss felt within the WildStar community I suspect the majority of MMO players were simply concerned by what these two events were suggesting (if anything) about the state of the genre as a whole.

For some, the further crippling of WildStar and the loss of Everquest Next altogether was a sign of the genre’s impending collapse while others (myself included) viewed them as nothing more than the unfortunate but inevitable result of bad project management on one or multiple levels. I can sympathize with my friends who had great expectations for Everquest Next that will never be met and for those who fear the loss of the only MMO they have called home but I am confident the genre as a whole will go on in one form or another. In fact, I think the future is bright. We may not have any major AAA releases to look forward to in the next year or two but we do have a wide range of existing MMOs experiencing varying degrees of success with the promise of future productivity. And if I look far enough down the corridors of time with my rose colored glasses on, I see a renaissance ahead of us.

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Some see Tokyo as half full of filth, I see it as half empty.

 

What We Currently Have

Take a look at this list of MMOs or MMO-likes on Massively OP. The financial success or population stability of these games may differ drastically from one to the next but all of them are massively multiplayer and online in one form or another. Everquest Next will never see the light of day but after what we’ve seen from Daybreak since they were bought by Columbus Nova is it really any wonder that the project failed? However we are surrounded by many competent (and some semi-competent) developers and publishers still maintaining quality games. SquareEnix for example has been consistently adding quality content to Final Fantasy XIV for a couple of years now. Funcom, while having gone through financial woes is still nevertheless producing regular, high quality updates for The Secret World.

Other studios, like Trion, Blizzard, and BioWare may be stumbling more often than not as of late but nevertheless they continue to produce content that hundreds of thousands or even millions are paying to enjoy. Let’s not forget Bethesda either. While the initial launch was rocky, from what I can tell, The Elder Scrolls Online is doing better than ever and I’m seeing more and more players turn to Tamriel for their online adventures. Blizzard of course could send a representative to personally take a dump on the doorstep of each of their customers (something not all that different from what Warlords turned out to be) and they would still have millions of paying customers because whenever they do eventually provide new content it’s well executed and a lot of fun to play. Trion may be the current poster child for bad studio management but I think that reputation is unfairly ascribed and based solely on the ArchAge debacle that unfortunately never seems to stop. However Rift is still a solid (yet slippery) MMO that yes, should receive compensation for its content, and Trove is one of the best and most inventive MMOs to have been developed in the last couple of years.

Those titles represent the bulk of my MMO landscape but they are nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. Black Desert may not be the sandbox savior that no one should be expecting anyway but it is a fantastic game offering a wide range of gameplay options unseen in almost any other title developed within the last decade. It will likely never rise to the popularity of WoW but the fact that nearly every channel on every North American server is overrun whenever I log on suggests that this type of atypical ingenuity is desperately wanted by the MMO marketplace and I suspect other studios (probably Blizzard) will begin to copy and refine some of these concepts by adding them in to their own games or creating a whole new generation of MMOs. It won’t happen tomorrow, but I think the success of Black Desert could be a critical moment in the history of MMO development.

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Hang in there WildStar!

 

What We May Gain

Failure is a necessary part of revival and at the macro level there must be failures within the industry as well as successes to help move and shape the decision makers within each individual studio and publisher. And while the larger businesses will always lack the agility to move quickly in response to the demands of the marketplace, they will arrive eventually; the automobile (our cash) moves much quicker than the dog chasing it. However the point is that one or two failures within the industry should never overshadow the multitude of successes and the “meh, close enough”s that we see all the time. When it impacts you personally as it does the developers and players of WildStar, it’s a painful experience. But looking at it with the indifference of an outsider, the mistakes made by Carbine may very well beneficially shape the business and development philosophy of the next western studio that attempts an AAA MMORPG.

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“Help me Xbox One Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”

 

Where We Are Going

Looking at the games that have launched in recent years, there are a few trends I think we will begin to see more of that, depending on your point of view may improve or disfigure the genre. Consoles for one, will bring a lot of new players and therefore money into the genre. As such, games like The Elder Scrolls Online, Destiny, and The Division are going to be important to watch. While the latter two are not my cup of tea I’m excited to see the amalgamation of MMO systems with more broadly popular styles of gameplay. The Division in particular has brought our genre back into the mainstream and while it bears little resemblance to the internet dragons and ability hotbars of old, it does carry with it the spirit of roleplaying within a virtual world and acting in dependence on or in opposition to other players.

In the world of Kickstarter and indie MMOs we will continue to see specialization and niche titles because frankly, that’s what you do with a limited budget if you’re smart. This will be a kind of test bed for new ideas, the specialization allowing for studios to dig deeper into the particulars of their chose niche while perhaps providing entirely new systems and objectives for the larger MMO developers to draw from if they are wise enough to be watching. If I’m being entirely optimistic about the future of MMOs (and why shouldn’t I be?) I can see over the next decade a renewed interest in the genre due to the success of console ports that draw on tropes familiar to that marketplace colliding with the experimental playground of indie development and producing an entirely new generation of massively multiplayer games. There’s no guarantee in the parade of time and technology, but as for me, I think the future of MMOs looks very bright indeed.

Dual Wielding: Negativity in the MMO Community

Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”

(Be sure to check out Mersault’s take on the subject as well.)

There has been a number of blog posts written lately regarding negativity in the MMO community, and amongst bloggers specifically. I’ve read a few of these posts and from what I gather the concern is that the growing number dissatisfied players publically sharing their pessimism about the genre is either a sign of the end times or the cause of it. While there may be greater attention on this problem right now it’s nothing new; for as long as I’ve been reading MMO forums and blogs there have been complaints, dissatisfaction, pessimism, and open threats. There is of course the question as to whether it is escalating or not but honestly I couldn’t say. Quantifying negativity over time sounds like a dubious endeavor and so while I’m tempted to say yes, it is getting worse by a few degrees, I can’t say for certain whether I think that because it is, or if I’m simply noticing it more because it has become the topic de jour.

So what are some of the common arguments amongst those unhappy with the state and direction of the genre? I’m sure this list isn’t exhaustive, but here are a few of the most common:

  1. The motives of publishers when developing their business models (F2P, early access, etc.)
  2. The competence of developers to produce a quality game experience consistently.
  3. The direction the genre is moving—from sandbox to theme park, from hardcore to casual, from group dependent to soloable content, from social multiplayer to selfish singleplayer—pick your own poison.

Are they wrong about all of these concerns? Or is this all legitimate criticism of the genre and those behind it? I think it’s clear that to some degree whether or not you find any of these things disconcerting depends on what type of gameplay you prefer and which MMO(s) you are evaluating. Publishers and developers need to make money but the line between sustainable income and greed can be hard to define objectively; the quality of a product might have as much to do with creator competence as it does with the resources available to said developers. As for the direction of the genre, whether the changes that have already occurred are a gain or loss will likely be determined by those iterations that are yet to come.

If you were to say that’s a flimsy, non-committal answer you’d be right and that’s my point. That negativity exists is certain; whether or not it’s justified can only be determined in hindsight. The systems involved are simply too complicated and the available data too incomplete for the average blogger or forum goer to predict the success or failure of an entire genre. Especially when these voices are often few in comparison to the silent masses happily playing the games available on the market, completely ignorant of the warring words among those most engaged with individual games and the genre as a whole.

Or are they? That’s another question I’m not sure how to quantify; I know that negativity exists within the MMO community because it is being voiced regularly in blogs, on reddit, and on forums but what I don’t know is what percentage of the overall player base actually pays attention to these sources. I certainly do, but I think at this point I’m clearly a member of this “inner circle” of MMO players and so are most of the people I interact with who play MMOs. Outside of this community that is paying close attention to new releases and the changes being made to older titles, there may be a great number of MMO players actually enjoying these games with no idea that they are approaching the genre incorrectly.

Personally I envy those players because that kind of ignorance really is bliss. The time I was most satisfied with the MMO scene as a whole was when I was playing World of Warcraft during the Cataclysm expansion. No, that’s not a typo. I was happiest playing an MMO during the expansion that killed the game that killed the genre (or so I’ve been told). The reason? I didn’t know any better. I was playing an MMO for the first time and everything was new and exciting and I wasn’t influence by anything outside my own experience with the game. No one was telling me what the genre was supposed to be, and so I was happy with what I was presented.

There have been two expansions since then and as you might expect, my opinions of those expansions have been quite negative, especially Warlords of Draenor. Ultimately that’s where much of this negativity comes from, not because the changes happening are bad, but that there is change at all. I actually long for the days of Cataclysm because in my experience that expansion was good, it was exactly what an MMO was supposed to be. Is it any surprise that someone who began playing during vanilla WoW or Everquest or Ultima Online feels exactly the same? Our initial experiences forever influence our expectations and when those expectations are not met, we grow dissatisfied. For those of us who like to be heard, that means we take to the forums or blog.

However if I’m right in that so few MMO players actually read blogs or go to forums, then at least the genre is safe from dying simply because we all complained too much. In fact I think the ongoing evolution of the MMO tells a different story, that as the genre changes with the demands and desires of the marketplace as a whole—perhaps to the point we no longer recognize it as an MMO proper—the player base broadens and the number of people happy with what’s available also increases.

The changes happening within the genre could be an entire blog post of its own—in fact it will be sometime next month—but for now I’ll leave you with a few closing thoughts. If negativity within the MMO community is of concern to you, regardless of how you feel about the businesses developing them or the games themselves, stay away from those forums and blogs that feature only outlooks of doom and gloom. Either surround yourself with others who enjoy the genre and know how to write critically without exhibiting hopelessness or stop reading blogs and forums about MMOs all together. Just find the games you like and play them with the people you like. You won’t eliminate the presence of negativity within the community but you will remove its influence on your enjoyment of the games that brought us all together in the first place.