Saturday, 16 November 2013

Build Your Own MMO : Landmark, Trove

So. Trove. What the heck is that all about?

Is Trion setting out to steal a march on EQNext Landmark ? Did they look at what SOE were doing and think "Hey! They missed a trick there - it doesn't look enough like Minecraft" ? Maybe someone just saw GW2's Super Adventure Box side-project-that-grew and thought "I could do better than that".

However the seed got planted something weird is growing. It seems the whole MMO genre is melting before our eyes right now. Someone crossed the streams and we're all caught in the feedback.

I was already struggling to understand Landmark although the recent hour-long Livestream did clarify some things. Off-puttingly, unfortunately. Only one race and it's Human? Bleh. Hunting creatures for resources not in until after launch? Pshaw! Most of my questions remain unanswered but still, Landmark starts to look almost conventional compared to Trove, a game which I am not even going to attempt to parse at this stage.

There's clearly a trend developing and I'm not at all clear on how I feel about it. For years  big and small game developers alike churned out quest-driven theme-park WoW clones seemingly by the dozen. There followed a brief and heady rush of games supposedly driven by Dynamic Events. It was frustrating at times, exciting at others but I always felt I at least knew where I was. Seemingly overnight that's all changed.

When a snowball rolls dowhill...
The biggest and almost certainly the most far-reaching development is the sudden willingness of games companies of all sizes to go full-bore into Build Mode. If that just meant a corporate landgrab for the huge audience of would-be world-builders that Notch uncovered that would be one thing; a sideways slide from Theme Park to Sandbox is never more than a swing of the pendulum away for the genre in any case.

It's not just about the building you do inside the MMO, though. The current wave of MMO developers all seem to have undergone some kind of mass conversion to collectivism. Having decided their customers would all rather be building castles than delving in dungeons they've extrapolated from the micro to the macro and decided to contract out the entire job to us. Don't just build stuff in the MMO. Build the whole damn thing!

At one point in the Trove video a Trion dev says "We have no ego". They'll take ideas from anyone. They're not proud. Scott Hartsman pops up to tell us about the "magic" that happens "when developers and players are interacting". Like Terry Michaels and Dave Georgeson over at Sony Towers the Trion Team believes it's never too early to get players involved. Your Game Developer Needs You! Go sign up right now. Oh, if only those ancient Greeks had come up with a letter before Alpha we could get in there even sooner!

So square it's hip

Before the majors jumped this train it was already steaming down the track that Kickstarter built. Let's just hope there's no washed-out bridge waiting somewhere down the line. Ah, but those arguments over the whole crowdfunding concept are well-rehearsed. We're all just waiting now to see how things turn out.

There's a huge difference, though, between pulling out your credit card to chip in on the development costs of an MMO you fancy playing some day and what SOE, Trion and to a lesser extent Perfect World/Cryptic are hoping to persuade you to do for them. When you break it down, a Kickstarter project isn't much more than a gussied-up pre-order. Mark Jacobs isn't asking you pay him a few hundred dollars so you can spend a few hundred hours building art assets for Camelot Unchained in your free time. (Although there were so many options on the proposal I might have missed that tier...)

And this is where we get to the crux of it, for me at least: time.

It's true I'm not sold on the whole "wisdom of crowds" thing. Like Wilhelm I find Dave Georgeson's acknowledgement that "Sometimes we ask questions that we know can only go one way." reassuring. Maybe it's the Everquest in me; I prefer my developers to have Vision, with or without the trademark. It's also true that I'm aware of the potential issues with fair reward and exploitation that could arise from some of these crowd-sourcing systems.

Those aren't the aspects of the current direction of travel that are making me feel increasingly wary and uncertain. No, it's more that I'm by no means sure that where we're heading is somewhere I want to go. A decade and a half back I came on board for an experience that amounted to a fantasy roleplaying game equivalent of Nathan Detroit's oldest established permanent floating crap game. The venue and the house rules might change but somewhere, day or night, you could be sure there'd always be a party LF1M.

Now, I purely love housing in MMOs. I think some form of housing should be in every game. There's little I like better than ending a session by putting down a few trophies, /sitting by a cosy hearth and logging out. I like crafting things for my house, farming mats, being given furniture by grateful NPCs for whom I've done some small service. Carrying a dining table out of a forest may not be high adventure but it certainly is roleplay, and I do still believe these are at heart roleplaying games.

Looking for work? Well, not really...

I'm not even entirely averse to a little tinkering around behind the scenes. I enjoyed EQ2's Dungeon Maker for what it was, which wasn't all that much in the end, and for a while I entertained fantasies of telling a few tales with Neverwinter's Foundry. The reason those fantasies never took form is because of a little epiphany I had a while back: I want to play MMOs not make them.

Building art assets, constructing scenery, writing and plotting scenarios - even with the whizziest, most user-friendly, intuitive tool-set imaginable it takes time. A lot of time. It took me many weeks working many hours a day to complete one Neverwinter Nights scenario. Back in the 1980s it took me almost as long to finish a text adventure using The Quill. These projects were highly engaging, deeply involving and ultimately very satisfying but they were also exhausting and incredibly time-consuming.

The more I think about it, the less I want to repeat that process. I'm in my mid-50s. I no longer see an endless corridor of years receding away from me to an invisible vanishing point. The prospect of spending hundreds of hours working on virtual vanity projects no longer appeals the way it once did. As for being paid for my efforts, as the Player Studio offers to do, a model which, if successful, will no doubt be emulated widely, well I already have one badly-paying job; I don't need another.

None of which is meant to suggest that I'm not interested in dabbling in such things, in short bursts, now and again, as long as it's amusing. I get creative urges. Often. The thing is, I already have an outlet for those: this blog, which eats up enough and sometimes too much of my play time already.

So it's fair to say that I'm wary of the way things seem to be going. There's a push towards open-ended, user-generated content and collaborative development from one side and signs of a pulling away from directed, level-based content on the other. And yes, the recent flurry of schemes to skip over levels to get to the end game is another part of the ongoing dismantlement of the traditional MMO.

Meanwhile, I signed up for the Trove alpha. If you can't beat 'em...




6 comments:

  1. I get where you are coming from (I still have some unfinished Neverwinter Nights modules lurking in the resources of my computer for example) .

    Personally I like the existance of good moduling tools (and OGL in PnP games) as while I personally don't have the time/inclination of using them extensively, others do, and this can lead (IMO) to more, more varied, and better content, as well possibly new companies to arise (in prominence) , like Obsidean did with NN and too many examples with D&D's OGL.

    That being said, if MMORPG"s become more and more bins of bulding blocks instead of virtual worlds, I'd consider that a problem. While I think MMORPG's should move away from the 'console game/'boss-level mechanics, going Minecraft and Sims is too far to the opposite end.

    But good to hear you will continue your blog in any case, I enjoy reading it :)

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  2. Thanks!

    I guess the upside is that there could be some good-quality content produced that we otherwise might not see. The problem I have with that, though, is that when it comes to quests and storyline, for me player-made content, even if it is actually of higher quality than regular content, doesn't carry the same authority as Official Product. It's rather like fan fiction.

    Unless there's some way to integrate player quests and instances into the ongoing story, it's going to feel, at best, like one of those "Shared World" anthologies where a bunch of writers contribute stories set in the same milieu, usually one created by another writer entirely. I never found those very satisfying.

    The same problems don't really apply to art assets or items, though. Those could integrate seamlessly I would imagine. And then there's the possibility of individuals or teams building entire stand-alone MMOs. That's an intriguing prospect.

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  3. I guess the best case scenario is that this ends up like fanfic or the blogosphere. Many will dabble maybe, and a few will manage to produce excellent works that gives pleasure to many.

    The problem is the amount of time and effort needed, but there always seem to be a few people who'll put that in for whatever reason, either sheer enjoyment, or hoping to display their talents and get a break in the industry.

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    1. One possible, positive outcome could be the emergence of collectively created and managed virtual worlds. Neverwinter Nights saw a good deal of that and some very impressive work was done with what weren't ideal tools for the job. It depends on how the tools are licensed, I guess. The EQLandmark toolset is claimed, eventually, to have the theoretical potential to allow the building of MMOs as large and complex as EQNext itself but I find it hard to imagine SOE is going to sanction unlimited commercial use at that level.

      Not-for-profit collectives, however, could well be on the cards. I wonder if the Project 1999 people might build old Norrath with new graphics?

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  4. You forget that Trion already has Dimensions in Rift before Trove and Diemnsions are by far the best housing in gaming at the moment as far as realism and art go.

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    1. I could hardly forget about Dimensions - Mrs Bhagpuss spent weeks building a huge village from scratch and spent more on the materials for making it than it would cost to subscribe to Rift for a year. The result was very impressive and yes, probably more "realistic" than most of the alternatives, at least for a given value of realism. It's certainly a decent housing system but I wouldn't say it was the best available. I dabbled with it for a while but it didn't really do much for me. I preferred both EQ2's and Vanguard's versions. Depends what you want your housing for, I guess.

      From what little we know about Trove so far I don't really see much similarity to Dimensions but until we get to see more of how it actually works and plays it's hard to be sure.

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