Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Talking A Good Game: GW2

I spent much of this morning reading the transcripts of a massive interview with Colin Johanson and another, much shorter, interview with Mike Ferguson. The Johansen interview is a few days old and has been much discussed elsewhere. The Egg Baron focused on the information on the new Guild events and Healing The Masses has a detailed analysis of the WvW material.

Colin Johanson's previous interviews and pronouncements have tended to rub me up the wrong way somehow and this long series of ambling, amiable replies to some rather soft questions is no exception. Filter out the fluff, though, and it's very revealing in what it lets slip about the underlying mechanics and state of the game.

The Mike Ferguson interview is much shorter and very much more focused, but the same points keep coming through: GW2 is poorly-constructed and under-resourced. Here are some quotes:

"Population limits are an unfortunate fact of life with the current wvw design" (MF)

"...bigger we can’t do currently with our existing tech, those are the biggest maps we can make. It’s actually just an engine limitation which means fixing that is gonna be a nightmare." (CJ)

"It’s very difficult to increase the size of the maps due to technical limitations" (MF)

"It’s a fixable problem, but we need some time from a very specialized type of programmer for that job and they’re all currently busy with other tasks." (MF)

Does anyone know the way out of this mess?

"Right now there’s really not very much at all that we can do with the UI, like resizable elements or anything...it would take huge engineering [...] to pull off." (CJ)

"the same couple of people who are required to do a lot of the guild features, are the same couple of people who need to do all the server back-end... anything that involves large amounts of server messaging or things, those are always bottle necked by the very very best programmers we have who can work on that extremely difficult set." (CJ)

"Matchmaking has the same problem as everything else I just said, which is basically the same couple who have to fix that also".  (CJ)

"We’re always leveraged by how many engineers we have, that’s our biggest issue at any given time. It is “how many programmers do we have that can actually code anything?” (CJ)

And so it goes on. Read the whole thing for many more examples. It's always surprising to discover that something that has had so much money spent on it, took so many years to be ready and has been so successful can still have so much structurally wrong with it and have such limited resources to make improvements.

What we need here is some Blue Sky Thinking

At one point Colin Johanson happily latches onto a gushing assertion that, unlike most other MMO studios, ANet are "open with the process".

"You have to be able to get out there and be like “hey, you know we really blew it on this, we are responding to that and we are gonna change our plans because of that” (CJ)

Later, while addressing a question about the Karka event, he says

"You know for five years, we spent five years saying “If it’s not ready doesn’t matter, just wait and then we’ll put it out when it gets ready”. And then we got into the live space it was “we have to keep free updates going, we have to have this fun stuff going on”. It really didn’t give us an opportunity to stop and catch our breath, say like “is this the right thing to be doing, is this the stuff we should be putting in the game?(CJ)

Which is all very well, only aren't all these deep infrastructure problems you keep bringing up as the reason so many things can't be done the very same things you were building during those five pressure-free years? If it was "ready" when you put it out, why does so much of it not work?

And relax...
The takeaway from this seems to be that due to a lot of less than optimal design decisions made before launch, most of the first year of GW2's life is going to be taken up with trying to rebuild the house from the foundations up while we're all still trying to live in it. We shouldn't expect much, if anything, in the way of real new content, by which I mean new explorable landmass, this side of an expansion (the development of which is probably where a lot of the effort is allocated right now although no-one's being very "open" about that).

I remain sanguine. GW2 turns out to be an MMO like any other. It wasn't finished when it launched, it will never be finished. Bits of it work, other bits don't. Every time one thing gets fixed something else will break. That's MMOs for you. I get the strong impression that there's still something of a disconnect between the developers and their audience in these open discussions, but that's always the way. MMO players are a disparate, rag-tag bunch with countless conflicting agendas and expectations and trying to communicate with them at all must be a nightmare.

As for MMO developers themselves, the concept of hubris seems to be all Greek to them. Even the Greek ones (/wave Aventurine).

13 comments:

  1. Complexity.
    Non infinite resources.
    Limited time.
    Scale.

    Example - TP was working flawlessly during the BWEs. Broken at launch.

    Even the join party on overflow was working on the late BWEs and broke at launch.

    We reached a point in time where to get the smallest of advances like bullets having a trajectory and interacting with the corn over there requires exponential resources.

    Then we have games competing in the same market with other games that not only are less complex they had years to iron out the problems and add features.




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  2. Personally, as a programmer myself, I sometimes get incredibly defensive when people question "Bad software architecture" and whatnot.

    Code is complex. MMOs even more so. I can't even start to imagine the amount of dependencies the programmers have to worry about. And programmers are a really rare species in any industry. So on top of technical limitations, you have limitation on man-hours.

    So I just tend to the complacent side of the spectrum. You have a bug? You have a feature I don't like? If you say "Technical limitations, sorry" I'll just shrug and accept it. Of course this isn't saying that Anet doesn't have bad programming habits (They have to). But I do know They have worked very hard for many years discussing, debating, and designing their engine.

    And for me, knowing that is good enough. Especially in software development where no amount of work/talent can guarantee you a perfect software.

    -Ursan

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    1. @Ursan and Swoo Sousa - if I stop and think about the complexities involved I'm just amazed these games even exist. When we started playing Everquest all those years ago, just being able to run around in a three-dimensional image talking to actual people on the other side of the world seemed more like magic than any of the spells we were learning in the game. Like anything, we got used to it and began to take it for granted.

      The only thing that really surprises me is what short supply what you might call "real" programmers seem to be. I was aware that the huge developments in high-level languages and scripting tools meant that people who might be considered primarily artists and writers were now running the roost in content creation but it really surprises me to hear that a company the size of ArenaNet only has "a couple of people" who can do the real nuts and bolts stuff.

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  3. MMOs are never released when they're ready. They're released when they're 'good enough' (to keep people happy and buy time for the team to complete the rest).

    The unfinished-ness of the game is clear in other ways -- multiple Karma vendors in towns who sell nothing but the same 3 vegetables. The Home district not reflecting any changes from your story as advertised in pre-launch. Other things as well.

    Even in it's current state, I'm enjoying it, and that means more to me than how feature complete a MMO is. Though I couldn't tell you concretely how much of a game has to be 'done' in order to get me to keep playing it; I think that depends on the scope of the game.

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    1. It must be obvious from what I write here that I'm really enjoying it too. Bugs generally don't bother me much until they hit "lose your character forever" proportions. Just as well, because it's one of the buggiest MMOs I have ever played.

      I'm strongly of the opinion that MMOs should come out as soon as they're fun to play, not when they're "done". GW2 was certainly ready last August. Its success proves it. I'm already ready for an expansion though, because what I like best about the whole thing is exploring those amazingly atmospheric maps. With the amount of work needed on the basic systems, I can't see us getting one this year but I live in hope all the same.

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    2. I was so sad when I completing all the jumping puzzles. I love the easter eggs and little hidden areas -- that's what I'm most looking forward to in an expansion, since I'm a total Explorer-type.

      Did you catch the comment from Colin about something called 'Final Rest' which nobody has discovered yet? Sounds tantalizing!

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    3. I saw it but I missed the significance. Just looked it up. It's an ultra-rare drop, I think, not a location although it all seems intentionally vague. Could be both I guess...

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    4. Yeah, it appears to be a rare loot drop. Booo. =P

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    5. After the newest patch, it was discovered to drop from the Shadow Behemoth chest in Queensdale, creating a mini gold rush- but now there are a couple dozen on the trading post. The official story is that it always dropped from that chest, but extremely rarely, and the buff to chest drops with the new patch made it reasonable to find. (Compounded by how often the event was stuck before the last few patches, and how most people doing the event weren't level 80) Some suspect that the loot table was broken to never actually drop it.

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    6. I came home from work today to find Mrs Bhagpuss with something to tell me, which turned out to be that she'd just looted Final Rest from the Shadow Behemoth's chest. She had no idea what it was, not having been following the news (or indeed reading the comments here). She was mainly excited because the look is ideal for her new necromancer.

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  4. You really don't like Colin do you :P Poor guy lol.

    And the funny thing about "final rest" is that it goes undropped until this patch. Up until now Arena Net has just be "ho ho ho its a really rare drop ho ho ho its in a big chest". Then with this patch all of a sudden they are dropping by the hundreds from Shadow Behemoth... come on. I am usually not for conspiracy theories, but Arena Net got some explaining to do imo.

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    1. Heh! I don't dislike him but he always seems to be talking slightly at an angle from what he's actually saying, if you know what I mean. I often get the impression there are some PR smoke and mirror tricks afoot. I much preferred Mike Ferguson's style - I thought he gave some excellent answers to some quite awkward questions.

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  5. Then we have games competing in the same market with other games that not only are less complex they had years to iron out the problems and add features
    Cool Games for Girls.

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