MMOs Are Dead, Long Live The Multiple MOGs

I know the true meaning of this picture is all the other MMOs attacking WoW until the giant in the center crumbles...

The Age of the MMORPG is over.

Amidst the much foreseen migration of players out of Wildstar to either nowhere or to the next new big thing Archeage, Tobold wonders where it’s all gone wrong. Why is it that these games aren’t attracting and retaining the numbers we’re expecting out of them?

He proposes two reasons for it:

The lack of new blood -real newbies flowing in to the MMO genre. which WoW captured in a big way, riding on the Blizzard brand name and subsequently a critical mass which turned it into a pop culture phenomenon

Way too many games now on the market – all competing for a limited number of players who have finite time to commit, some offering way more attractive prices than others

In a way, I think he’s right.

MASSIVELY multiplayer online roleplaying games are dead.

If we find ourselves only able to play MMOs who report a population of 10 million players, there is no MMO out there today that can suit you anymore. No, not even WoW. The king has toppled off its throne and continues to crumble.

It’s time to play MOBAs – League of Legends has apparently 27 million players online daily in Jan 2014 (how many of them are bots collecting free stuff, I don’t know, does it work like DOTA 2 where there is some kind of incentive to make multiple free accounts and keep them logged in for whatever reason?) – or maybe Candy Crush Saga.  46 million monthly, says the Forbes link.

If we chop off the unstated RPG from the word MMO, maybe you can tell yourself you’re playing an MMO when you play the above games?

If we dial down our expectations to a more modest ‘a million players or so,’ you can probably play WoW or GW2.

Nosy Gamer suggests that those are the top two MMOs played by Xfire users, and given that both have launched in China, I think it’s reasonable to assume that both have comfortably exceeded a million players globally and won’t suffer attrition down below the magic 1,000,000 for a while yet.

If we drop to *shock, horror, gasp* only several hundreds of thousands of players, then I guess you can play all the ‘dead and failed’ MMO carcasses out there that are still clinging on to life for some unknown reason only known to the developers and their bean-counters.

That’s the rest of those on Nosy Gamer’s Xfire list – SWTOR, Eve Online, Final Fantasy XIV, Tera, Aion, Wildstar, Runescape, LOTRO, Neverwinter, TESO – and charitably, perhaps TSW, DDO, RIFT, Star Trek Online, Everquest and the rest of the SOE lineup make the cut?

Or maybe they’re only in the 10k-100k players range, along with any other MMOs I forgot to mention.

Who knows? MMOs tend to stop reporting their numbers below a million, but curiously refuse to close down.

As Bhagpuss mentions in Tobold’s comments: “How are we defining failure here?… All of these and more certainly failed to satisfy and hold the attention of a particular segment of the MMO commentariat but that’s hardly going to bother the companies still raking n the money or the players still happily playing, is it?”

He’s right too.

And I think I’m right too when I say, you all had better just get used to this state of affairs.

WoW was a one-time phenomenon. It brought in players who don’t usually play MMOs. Hell, it brought in players who don’t usually play GAMES.

Many of those continue to subscribe to WoW comfortably, like a magazine subscription they’ve almost forgotten about or take for granted, and browse through the pages from time to time. Others, when they got tired of WoW, simply stopped.

If we’re lucky, some of them moved on to other games, having learned that they are not the work of the devil.

If we’re really really really lucky, some of them stuck with the MMO genre.

We have also seen demonstrated over time and across a whole sequence of games now, since WoW and Warhammer and whose latest consumption was Wildstar, a migratory flock of gamer locusts that pick up and play each new game for 1-3 months and then move on to the next new and shiny.

THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS.

This is the usual state of affairs for games, especially single-player games or just ordinary PC games that can be played both single and multiplayer, whose major money making strategy is the sale of the price of a box to players willing to pay a premium for it as it launches. They play it for a while, and then happily move on with their comrades to the next new game, plunking down $60-100 for the privilege of playing it during that vaunted hip and cool time where all their friends are talking about and playing it too.

If you find yourself attracted to this group, you’d best just get used to spending the money and moving on, cupcake.

That’s the price you pay for the excitement of launch (queues, bugs and all) and the ephemeral feelings of hope, promise, potential and dreams. Archeage is your next best bet now, it’s that way, hop to it.

Sadly for you, game companies are catching on and offering you oh-so-prestigious Founder price packages now.

In the distant future, we can look forward to Landmark, EQ Next (maybe), Star Citizen (maybe?) and Eternal Crusade (of which I’m personally on the Founder bandwagon, I expect to be disappointed, you can point and laugh later, it’s ok, Warhammer 40k fans are used to paying ridiculous prices for a piece of cheap plastic, if all I get is a CoH-like character creator that lets me play dress-up doll with WH40k colors, I guess I can pay $40 for that and the hope of pewpewing some guns with them.)

I’m also right when I say that you can rewrite your damn expectations of what MASSIVELY (not the website, the descriptor) needs to be, and settle down in one of many of the current crop of MMOs out there.

That’s what several thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people are doing, after all.

Seriously, think back to the most fun and/or most populated (those two do not necessarily correlate) MMOs you’ve ever played, and start counting.

All the people you can name, first of all, that you remember for their personalities and for being a meaningful part of your life.

Then count the rest on your friends list, your guild rosters (preferably those that were online at the same time as you) and maybe a rough estimate of the number of people you need running around you to feel an ebb and flow of life around you.

Please actually spend time taking a screenshot and counting name tags at some point for best accuracy.

Prior experience playing WvW in Guild Wars 2 suggests very strongly that most people are unable to estimate numbers with any sense of accuracy. (“OMG a zerg!” Then 5-10 people show up… Or “Oh, maybe 10-20ish people at this camp.” Folks get there and find 60. Ouchies.)

There are 33 people on the outskirts alone, not counting the disgusting clump in the center, which probably has anywhere from 40-55 players.
There are 33 people on the outskirts alone, not counting the disgusting clump in the center, which probably has anywhere from 40-60 players. Most people, in my estimation, define this as too fucking crowded. That’s only 100 people. 150 at best, as that’s the limit on GW2 maps.
26 players, not including myself. I consider this somewhat zergy, others will happily classify this as zerg.
26 players, not including myself. I consider this somewhat zergy, others will happily classify this as zerg or still too damn crowded. Personally, I expect this amount of players around me in a town center or capital, and maybe 10-20 more at best to feel that the place is bustling and has folks around trading posts / auction houses and crafting stations.
13 players visible here, not including myself. I find this comfortable, others might still find this zergy.
13 players visible here, not including myself. I find this comfortable enough to play with, and more or less, roughly keep track of in terms of positioning. Less so in terms of what skills each individual is actually using or firing, mostly due to my crap computer culling them, but clear enough to tell when someone has fired a knockback or has used a blinding field or some other combo-able field, and for me to act on it. With a better computer displaying animations, I think the number here would be trackable. Played CoH on a regular basis in a team of 8, after all. But 24 in trials was a bit too much. Others might still find this zergy, or maybe this is all the people they need to see around them on their travels or even in towns.

If you even manage to exceed 10,000, I’m going to be very surprised.

Far more likely, that number is going to be somewhere in the 100-300 range, or what I tend to think of as Dunbar’s Number when it comes to MMOs.

No one really needs a million players around them. It’s just an easy shorthand to assume that the game they like won’t close down just because there’s lots of people paying the game company and keeping them afloat.

Guess what. You don’t actually have any say in when the game closes down or not.

Chances are likely the game will close -someday- because all these things are finite and computer technology progresses inexorably onward, making things look and feel better and better and older games more and more unplayable to many.

But if you play -and- pay for a game that you like, there’s a bigger probability that you may be able to delay that day for a while yet.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll be having fun, in the game you like enough to pay for.

If you can’t seem to find any game fun enough, especially when we’re talking about dropping dollars on it, then I guess your lot is to accept that you enjoy migrating with the herd and the social experience more than any individual game.

Go find your community and stick with them. (Just remember that every herd needs new births from time to time to thrive.) Move from watering hole to watering hole with them, and maybe one day you’ll get enough of wanderlust and settle down in a village in a game that you do like.

And if you get tired of settling down, pull up roots and travel again. It’s not a one-way trip.

SWTOR: An Odd Marriage of Singleplayer and MMO

I’ve spent three nights in SWTOR so far.

The launcher did eventually finish, and to give credit where it’s due, it did veer up to around 3 MB/sec download speeds at odd hours for a short while. According to my friend, who is a preferred status player, his takes several minutes at most and certainly wasn’t the pathetic 100-200kb/sec that I was seeing. Which now makes me suspect that it’s simply free-to-play players getting the short shaft of the bandwidth stick priority-wise. Who knows.

Following the advice of those who commented, I made an Imperial Agent (twice, to compare Light/Dark storyline choices) and took them past the Prologue to around level 11. I’ve also started a Sith Warrior and played it in a duo with my friend’s Sith Inquisitor, whom he kindly rolled up to roll along with me.

beginning

Overall, I’ve been…pleasantly surprised, though to be fair, my expectations weren’t at all high to begin with.

Stuff I Liked:

  • Voice acting and Cinematic presentation of Quests

I get the distinct feeling they spent a ton of the budget on voice actors (and not enough on the nuts and bolts of gameplay.) It’s immersive to be given quests via conversation and dialogue options, though once I figured out the spacebar key fast forwards, it’s been tricky to resist the urge when I’m alone and have finished skim reading the subtitles already.

  • Aliens talk in alien speech with English subtitle translations

Immersion again, and it gave me flashbacks to one of my favorite oldschool games – Nomad, whom we’ve mentioned very briefly before.

  • Mob layout vaguely reminiscent of City of Heroes, in packs of 3-4 across the world

One of my guilty pleasures was always street-sweeping in CoH, where I’d just prowl my superhero around the streets and jump villains off doing their own thing. While SWTOR doesn’t have the elaborately posed and scripted mobs of CoH (eg. some mafia thugs giving another one concrete shoes and the victim hopping around with their feet stuck in a bucket,) it did let me jump from spawn to spawn causing mass easy carnage and recreate some of that feeling.

Downside, it’s a little hard to avoid aggroing and not killing anything. The fastest way to a destination seems to be going -through- mob spawns with fancy laser blasts, and that may get tiresome and repetitive after some time.

  • Well done tutorial tips

I liked the clarity and pacing of the early tutorial messages. While strictly speaking, I could have probably survived without them, I appreciate the sparkle and polish that offers help to truly new-to-MMO players. And knowing stuff unique to SWTOR (aka the precise icons used for quests, transportation, etc.) is always handy even to people who have played MMOs before. At around level 8-10, there’s an onslaught of tips that are a little less well paced though.

  • Zone transitions are very ‘open’ and lack loading screens per planet

A feature from the WoW side of the MMO toolbox, I believe. While I’m not as rabid as some about how this helps immersion, I just appreciate the lack of having to sit around waiting for the zone to load.

Stuff I Didn’t:

  • Default camera issues and quirky settings

Nearly threw up when innocently right clicking and mouse looking caused the camera to spin wildly with high sensitivity and lots of jerkiness. Eventually, by lowering the camera rotation speed all the way to zero percent or so, it got tolerable enough – though I was ready to follow a forums post that suggested editing the text file for even lower speeds if that failed to work.

I also spent a while fighting with the settings and having them reset to default before I figured out to hit “apply” and make sure the settings stuck. Autoloot and area loot was off by default – why, why, why? Every new character has to be keybound individually too, apparently, though the general settings do save. I would also kill for a keyboard shortcut to loot corpses – it’s so automatic now to press F to loot stuff (*coughs*) though I’d grant that the radius of area loot in SWTOR is fantastic and that GW2 really needs an area loot option.

  • Combat responsiveness is sluggish

WoW and GW2 are the kings of this. Press a key and you get an instant response. Now I’ve dealt with more quirky MMOs before, you get into a sort of pre-queue up the abilities situation with LOTRO and City of Heroes, Rift had their own global cooldown to get used to, Warhammer and TSW were slightly clunkier with their response times, but something feels quite wrong with SWTOR. I keep tweaking the ability queue times, hoping to get it set to a level I can adjust to, and I still end up pressing keys and having absolutely nothing happen at times. Including the rolling into cover key – which doesn’t help survivability, I can assure you.

It’s not awful unplayable, else I would have stopped. But it’s not anywhere near “good” or “average” either.

  • Hell, even Printscreen goes on vacation

What this thread said. Only about half of my attempted screenshots are coming out, which puts a severe dampener in any plans to take pretty pictures in this game, I can assure you. I got to Kass City, loved its look, and got a total of zero successful screenshots. I have and could FRAPS it, but really, why should I bother if your game can’t function well enough to take its own picture?

The elevators? You go right through them. Though there was that one time I fell through the world while doing it and got the lovely screenshot at the top of this post...
The elevators? You go right through them. Though there was that one time I fell through the world while doing it and got the lovely screenshot at the top of this post…

Stuff That Wasn’t Good Or Bad, Just… Odd or Interesting to Think About:

  • No neutral gear sends my min-max optimzer warring with the immersive roleplaying part of me

Yes, I hear that it is coming. So they say. The fact that it is not -here- makes the optimizer in me scream, “come on, you know Bioware, Paragon or Renegade all the way!” and want to stack the deck one way or another. Yes, I have also heard the real top of the line gear has no alignment requirements. Then what the hell is the point of giving points for this stuff then?

I used to play this MUD, see. It had good, evil AND neutral gear. And neutral was the best because it was so hard in that MUD to maintain a neutral alignment, accidentally killing one too many things of the wrong alignment would skew you one way or the other and all your nice gear would fall off you. Freedom of choice and consequences.

  • Nice single or duo player experience, but MMO bits felt tacked on

I had a decent time playing through the Agent prologue. It was immersive enough, there were some roleplay or at least conversation opportunities, and the story was fairly entertaining.

With a friend, I got the impression that this was -the- way to experience SWTOR, in a duo, where you got to see each others’ class stories (but still be able to keep track of the plot because it’s only two of you) and enjoy some of the random surprise of a group conversation where one might speak before the other. We were also cracking each other up with jokes about dead body disposal in the Sith Academy since between the two of our storylines, we were racking up quite a body count.

Friends don't let friends defy gravity and screw up screenshots
Friends don’t let friends defy gravity and screw up screenshots

And was it really necessary to have all that jogging through empty corridors and long stretches of road though? Standard quest flaw, once you’re done, you gotta run back to the quest-giver. Friend has 35% sprint at level 1, I don’t. He was nice enough to not use it after a while, but this metagame stuff just gets in the way. You’re reminded that you’re a second class F2P citizen, run along and subscribe or buy some Cartel Coins now, eh?

I appreciate it took lots of work to make 8 different class stories winding their branching way all the way up to level 50. I wonder how many people will actually bother to experience all of them, or even some of the twists and turns of Light and Dark side choices… and whether they’d get sick of the standard MMO kill 10 bog-rats grind before they manage that feat.

Flashpoints, Operations, Warzones (or ahem, Dungeons, Raids, Battlegrounds) … I haven’t tried them, so I might be talking out of my ass here, but they strike me as, WoW has them, so we better have them. They’re probably functional, but not, say, spectacular or a unique selling point.

It’s like the MMO stuff gets in the way of what could have been a very nice buy-to-play singleplayer or small group game.

Conclusion:

For what it’s worth, I’d probably still keep playing for the story a little while longer. Until such a point where I either get bored of the combat or simply can’t progress further on my own.

I did enjoy the Mass Effect style conversation aspect of the game. I’m just not sure how long that alone will hold me.

I’d actually rate it closer as a decent substitute to City of Heroes over something like Champions Online, in the sense that there’s a more substantial game here and more of a story. You can still be a hero or villain, even if not literally dressing up in costumes and masks.

I’m vaguely tempted to drop a couple dollars on the microtransaction market, if only for the convenience options, but I’m also rubbed the wrong way by them selling things like hotbars and the ability to color coordinate your clothes and remove your helmet. It strikes me as trying to forcibly push people into buying something from you, kind of similar to restaurants who do not serve tap water, so that there’s significant pressure on you to purchase a drink.

Would I pay for the game itself, up front? Unfortunately, at this point, I think not.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad game. The stories and voice acting seem worth going through. I haven’t had an extreme Star Wars allergy reaction yet. I don’t know if that’s good or bad news for true Star Wars fans, because it may either imply that the story writers did a good job in not unleashing typical Lucas movie absurdity, or that the fluff’s diluted down and generic enough for me to take.

It’s got significant polish for the price of free. Just, not enough if I actually had to pay for it.

Making People Group – GW2 vs The Old Way

I’m a month late to reading this post on Guild Wars 2, where Milady expresses an argument that defends “forced grouping” as having significant benefits for players to make social connections with each other, and suggests that GW2’s new system of incentivizing sociable activities makes the actions players take comparatively more meaningless than in the traditional forced group MMO setting.

I beg to differ.

You can motivate people by forcing them somewhere with a stick, or encouraging them to approach with a carrot. Personally, I know which one I’d prefer.

One liners aside, I’d agree that “forced grouping” does provide a compulsion to interact with others, and an opportunity (in that there is a captive audience) for those who would like to exercise the free choice to socialize with people.

However, there is another not-inconsiderable-in-number subset of players who do take issue with the compulsion and the “force” because it reduces their freedom of choice – to make game progress with whomever they want, alone or with others. By feeling like they have no choice in the matter, there’s even less incentive and desire to connect with others, beyond making use of them to get to wherever they want.

In a scenario like this, it becomes important to be able to tell these players apart and not befriend them overly, because you run the risk of getting stabbed in the back and having trust betrayed when they ditch you for greener pastures, possibly making off with all your items or what-not.

I’d argue that in Guild Wars 2, far from making social interaction an automatic meaningless reaction to get rewards – the aim of all the incentives, all the systems working in tandem, is to move past all that in-group out-group nonsense by making everyone on your server in-group.

Everyone is a potential person that you could make the free choice to open up to, chat with, and befriend. There is no lack of free choice with GW2’s system either.

I believe the degree of incentivization may be crucial as well in helping GW2’s system function appropriately.

The default option of many MMO players (especially if they’re trained by WoW) is to go their own way and solo. (Among just some of the in-built incentives to this option: not needing to wait for someone else, can pause or sidetrek at any time, no exposure of vulnerability to other players required.)

If you over-incentivize with a carrot, say if you gain a lot more xp in a group than you would solo, then yeah, you’d see lots of people clamoring to get into groups and travel together. But no deep social interaction occurs – people group, farm xp, leave when their objective is achieved with nary a word.

Some people may take advantage of this enforced audience to build social connections, through chatting, through personal exposure, through performing a group combat role well, through good leadership, etc. but there is free choice at work here. Others may very well not bother to connect.

Very soon, the over-incentive to group is perceived as “forced” grouping. I may want to solo, but I cannot progress my character at a good clip without “having” to group up. Free choice is lost. And then people complain.

There’s also the real force with a stick option. That’s the typical raid mechanic. If you don’t participate in this group activity that -requires- such and such amount of people, no progression for you. Or to take xp as an example: no xp when alone, you only get xp with others. Do you have any choice in the matter? Only a very binary one, play it and get the reward or not play and forgo the reward.

But what if you defuse some of the built-in incentives to soloing by providing (approximately) -equivalent- alternative options  to gain rewards with other players?

At any time, I can choose to walk away from other players and solo and gain a set rate of xp and rewards. In most typical MMOs, if I choose to walk towards other players to group, my set rate of xp doesn’t change much, or it may even go down – “omg, u’re killstealing frm me.” To maintain or slightly improve my xp, I’d have to pause, invite everyone to the same group, lead, converse, organize and keep talking – that’s an increased amount of effort for not very much reward.

Milady argues that putting up with this mild disincentive proves how worthy a “friend” another player is, because they’ve made the choice to value a social connection over self-progression. Fair enough, if your criteria for friendship is only with people who don’t mind un-optimizing themselves temporarily in order to connect with others. That’s one way of forming an in-group, only connecting with those who think more of the good of the group than personal gain.

But why would we want to lose out on the opportunity to build connections with the rest? Plenty of people balance both community good and personal gain.

In Guild Wars 2, the aim is to remove the disincentivizing barriers to grouping with others. If I walk toward other players, and help out on their mobs, I’m not taking away any xp from them, and I’m helping them kill faster, benefiting all. Social interaction doesn’t have to be a zero sum game – I put up with irritation in order to help you more? Both of us can benefit from the interaction in GW2.

Rezzing people is not the only way to gain xp in GW2. If it was, then yeah, I’d say that would promote meaningless exchanges because everyone would be racing to rez people for progress. Rezzing people is an option, and by performing it, you gain a reward. You could also happily ignore the dead person, and continue to swing away at the dynamic event boss, because when he dies, you get a big reward. That small reward for rezzing people just provides positive reinforcement, a ‘good job!’ signal for people who make the free choice to reach out and help someone – often facing the risk of coming under fire in combat to do so.

I actually think there are a couple more critical factors in this rezzing mechanic than just reward optimization encouraging automatic behavior. As Chris Bell proposes at GDC, social interaction requires vulnerability in order for people to become open to trusting another. Being defeated and about to die is about as vulnerable as it gets without harsher mechanics like the risk of item loss or permadeath. Naturally, you take note of those who come to your aid, rather than the rest of the masses who are still unthinkingly automatic firing at the boss. A little bit of trust and respect is built, paving the way for more chances at future social interactions.

I’d argue that by encouraging these sorts of iterative and positive small gestures in a game, it has a subtle effect on the entire community of the game. It becomes more welcoming, more willing to respond to someone in need and help, rather than taking the default option of treating others like a stranger who will bring more trouble than he’s worth. City of Heroes was a much nicer place when people ran around giving out free money to lowbies because they had no other use for it, instead of now being incentivized to hoard the cash to buy better loot for their characters.

As for the not-so-good apples, or those who put personal gain over anything or anyone else, Guild Wars 2 actively strives to ensure that they can never perform actions that harm others while doing so. Whatever they do, will still indirectly help others on their server.  That’s a far better design goal than tacitly permitting them to do harm.

Is it crucial to be able to tell them apart in order to judge who is worth being “friends” with? I don’t believe so, they likely have very little interest in getting to know you anyway, so they won’t make the free choice to open their mouths and interact, or even bother to travel together with you.

Guild Wars 2 is the next stage, the next experiment, in players socially interacting with one another. To move from a system that has less “I win, you lose” interactions, and more “I win, you win” ones. It’ll be interesting to see where it takes us.