Wednesday, April 30, 2014

There And Back Again

Yesterday, when I was making some largely incoherent observations on leveling speed in GW2, Tobold was examining the topic rather more clinically in the context of the upcoming release of WildStar. The gist of his argument is one with which I sympathize, namely that if  company wants me to play their MMORPG for a period measured in years rather than months they might want to consider the pacing.

Unfortunately for Tobold, and me, and anyone else who hankers after the slower pace of our MMO salad days, the likelihood of any major game developer deciding to release a triple-A MMORPG in which the majority of the appeal relies on a two thousand hour journey from creation to cap appears remote. The developer meta for these things tends to thrash around in attempt to hit all the targets but for some while now the prevailing wind has blown towards accessibility. It's all about facilitating social play rather than giving players a giant mountain to climb and letting them get on with it.

The current orthodoxy holds that commercial success in the field rests firmly on supporting (or exploiting) the bonds players form between themselves. With that comes an overriding desire to ensure that players who come to a new MMO must at all costs be able to find, meet and play with their friends. There's also an assumption, which goes virtually unquestioned, that all players whether or not they come pre-equipped with a set of gaming buddies will, as a first priority, require a Guild or a Clan.

When new cultural forms arise incrementally and haphazardly, as appears to have been the case with online roleplaying games, sifting cause from effect can be tricky. I do wonder whether the pre-eminence of Guilds as the social structure for MMORPGs might not have more to do with the very difficulty and inaccessibility of the content in those early games than with any innate desire among the players for meaningful social contact. The difficulty of soloing in Everquest has often, in my opinion, been exaggerated, but it's beyond question that those who wanted to progress faster, more efficiently or further certainly benefited enormously from having a network of like-minded players for mutual support.

I do sometimes wonder what the hobby would be like now had it come into existence back at the stub end of the 20th century with the concepts and attitudes that underpin Guild Wars 2 in place rather than those that derived from MUDs. How would things have played out if back then gameplay in the very first MMOs had been designed scrupulously to avoid almost every aspect of competition? If every resource, from crafting nodes to experience and loot gained from killing mobs or completing quests, was not just shared around but handed out equally to anyone participating, regardless of the extent of their contribution?

What if, in addition to these communitarian principles, completing the actual content itself had been as simple and manageable as it is today? If a new player coming to a new MMO could expect to progress pleasantly, productively, efficiently alone, all the way to the level cap? Had things been that way from the beginning, had the infrastructure of the games themselves automatically provided everything a player needed to succeed, would players still have chosen to form numerous, discrete, collective organizations just to have an identity larger than the individual?

Perhaps ironically, the all-pervasive online social networks that have changed the culture far more broadly and profoundly than anything within gaming could ever have done scarcely existed when the early MMOs had their brief ascendancy. Even WoW's breakout success pre-dates the adoption of Facebook and Twitter as mainstream global communication media. The extent to which awareness of that always-on connectedness now informs the design decisions underlying all forms of entertainment would be hard to overstate. Had we not, in those more benign and kindly worlds that might have been, needed to create Guilds so we could huddle together for mutual protection, perhaps in the end we'd simply have imported our Facebook groups and Twitter followers instead, with much the same effect.

Somehow I doubt it. Gamers, especially those coming from the RPG end of the spectrum, seem surprisingly resistant to drinking the social networking Kool-Aid. I have my suspicions that in an alternative history of MMORPGs that began with the emphasis on inclusion rather than competition we'd now be looking at something very much like the culture of playing alone together we've been moving towards this last half-decade but without even the nominal nod to socialization that Guilds provide.

All of which brings me to Shards, the as-yet barely-existent glimpse of what might one day become a new twist on the MMORPG rope. It's brought to you by Citadel Studios (aka The Company Formerly Known As Mythic). The "teaser video" is largely useless but this Massively piece is more informative.

The idea of what we might call Minimally Multiple Online Roleplaying Games is an intriguing one. These player-run servers, catering for dozens rather than thousands of players, might be a route back to the good old golden age days of 2000 hour leveling paths and reputation that counts for something for the few hundred people who still miss all that. It would also, neatly for my thesis, preclude the necessity for Guilds, given that the population cap for the entire server would scarcely meet the requirements of a modern-day "small family guild".

John Smedley recently raised a similar possibility for H1Z1, SOE's soon-come entry into the ever more crowded zombie survival market and while no-one knows what Landmark will grow up to be, one theory is that it could become a "make your own MMO" machine. It's all just one more step along the path to niche, a path we now seem to be traveling down at such speed that last year's Big New Idea, crowd-funded MMOs aimed at special interest groups numbering in the tens of thousands, is already beginning to look old-fashioned and unwieldy.

I have to wonder, if we keep on heading in this direction, will we eventually find we've re-invented the single-player RPG? And if the StoryBricks AI is as good as they say it is, would we even notice? Then again, perhaps that's all some of us ever wanted anyway...


  1. For the origins of guilds and clans and whatnot, there seems to be, in my experience, a desire for humans to group up into teams or tribes and be part of something, even when the game doesn't really require it. Way back in Stellar Emperor in the mid-80s, while forming a team for a game was part of the structure, regular groups of players coalesced that would form up together every four weeks when a new campaign started. We put little signs after out names, so that even if were not flying in a campaign, we were still identified as part of the group. I was in the Arcturan Empire, which had an official text logo:


    Or something like that.

    Later, in Diablo, people in the chat channels would group up and form guilds, again with tags after their character names for identity purposes, despite the fact that there really was no game requirement that would cause a guild to be anything useful except as a social entity.

    In TorilMUD there was an almost punitive official guild structure that was costly and restrictive and required a charter to which everybody was mandated to role play to, and which for a long stretch offered no benefits at all... not even a chat channel. All you got was a guild tag after your name. But people still wanted to be part of the team.

    In the post EverQuest world, I do not think I have been in any MMO for long before joining a guild of some sort. Often it is just a guild of convenience that a few friends are in, to have a chat channel and avoid being pestered by people who feel that guild success is measured in absolute numbers.

    Anyway, in my experience over the years, people want such associations beyond any value they actually have in game. Back in early EQ I was never in a guild, I just grouped up with whoever. It was often the same people who were in the same area during the same time frame, but there was no official affiliation. So I didn't *need* a guild. But I appear to have wanted one. (Back then EQ was like TorilMUD where you needed a guild charter and direct GM involvement in creation, which conflicted with my desire to remain out of sight of the admins and GMs.)

    1. I suspect you're right. It certainly seems that people do feel more comfortable with a sign up that tells everyone what club they're in. I quite like it myself.

      My real objection to joining guilds is that they have a nasty habit of expecting you to DO stuff, which is fine when that tallies with what I want to do but not at all fine when it clashes, which is most of the time.

      And boy do I remember the old Guild process in EQ! As I recall you not only had to have the charter and the GM but you had to have ten people online in the same zone at the same time. EQ2 was slightly easier in that it did away with the GM but you still need six people at the Guild Registrar and they all had to be citizens of that City.

      Nowadays you can start a guild in EQ with a keypress and there doesn't need to be anyone in it but you, while as far as I know you still need six people in EQ2. Odd how the older game has leapfrogged the younger one.

    2. To me, what Wilhelm described for ToriMUD sounds as if people were actually after the achievement of making a guild more than the actual thing. make anything hard or expensive in a game and players wanna do it just to beat that hurdle? In social games it's fame and glory after all.

      I can only speak for myself and ever since playing MMOs with either no time for progression/endgame or no real reason to group up, I haven't grouped up or guilded for longer than err...a month. Sure, chatted with people on a friendlist but guilds? No. and I've never been invited to so many soon-to-die guilds than in GW2.

    3. Substitute "prestige" for "achievement" and that was certainly an aspect. These days "achievement" implies a "done" state, after which you might not care. Nobody created a guild in TorilMUD just to say they had done it.

      The TorilMUD guild structure had an expensive monthly per-player cost, so if you were in, you were expected to participate in guild activities... usually raids... that generated income for the guild. There were a couple of guilds which, if you flew their tag after your name, indicated that you were a fist tier raider that was capable of running the latest and greatest content.

      And in a text game where everybody has a first name and most people have a last name, having that extra guild tag made you stand out when you did "who sort" to see who was on.

      I think, at its peak, there were 8 guilds in TorilMUD, out of a population of a few hundred players. Each guild was limited to 30 people, but there was a huge penalty for having more than 24 for reasons never clearly explained. Now I think there is just one group that keeps a guild going.

  2. ".....especially those coming from the RPG end of the spectrum, seem surprisingly resistant to drinking the social networking Kool-Aid."

    bahhhh....we'll make a bird out of you yet!! :P

    1. Heh! I'm not avoiding it on any kind of principle, just on grounds of self-protection. I have a Twitter account and a G+ account too but I just know that if I start using them I'll never get anything else done. I was in a single Yahoo Group back in the late 90s and by the time I made myself stop using it I was up to two hours most nights just gibbering about nothing. If I added tweets and circles onto Feedly and my blog roll I'd be lucky to have half an hour left for gaming!

    2. Well whatever gives you the most satisfaction :) there are times when the laughs on twitter give me a lot more than gaming by myself.

      and I know you have a twitter account, I am actually following that ;)

  3. I still have a huge and strong sense of community with my old guilds. Really fun and formative memories from them. I don't get that as much these days but that is mostly because of the lack of my own involvement.

    Having multiple guilds in some of these new games just blows my mind =)

  4. Complicated and interesting topic.

    2000 hours to reach level cap is crazy.
    But that is the cause for the "Main" mentality.

    I took time until I started playing MMORPGs and probably the one I chose isn't even considered a MMORPG, especially by those old veteran MMORPGers.

    I was just tired of playing Diablo II and Warcraft 3 (and the DOTA mod) and I thought that maybe it was the time to try a MMORPG.

    The obvious choice would be WoW - it was from Blizzard and Blizzard games were not only very polished but also well supported.

    But I also had heard some talk about Guild Wars.
    Not having monthly fee aside (that I could easily pay by not going to the cinema as much as I was going at that time of being a Uni student) the reason I chose Guild Wars was the fact I could realistically play all the classes, while in WoW that would be a crazy time investment to not only level them up but then to gear them up.

    Not only that, mistakes in building the class would cost much more than in Guild Wars and nerfs couldn't be dodged by simple reallocation points and changing skills.

    About guilds.

    The large majority of the people I play and still talk to in game are the people from Guild Wars, my first "MMORPG" experience.

    I've played WoW for like 6 months, joined a guild and maintain 0 contact with them.

    At this time in my life I have no patience and desire to be involved in a guild or community like the I did 8 years ago. I like to have my tag, I like to have a guild that basically is an extended contact/friend list and that is it.

  5. I disagree with your premises, Bhagpuss. Developers don't make leveling faster to cater to Socializers, the do it to cater to Achievers. Just like people will consider a $20 pair of shoes better than a $50 pair or shoes (ignoring brand names), people think that getting to max level in 3 months is better than getting to max level in 3 years. Achievers want to get to maximum level fast, because then the "real game" starts.

    Developers want players to join guilds because connections to the social fabric retain players better than anything else. The common refrain from EQ players was, "I'm no longer doing new stuff in the game, but I won't leave because my friends are there." And for many MMO players, having the shared experience of playing a game develops deeper bonds than just making a friend request on Facebook. And, actually, I think a slower-paced game would probably encourage joining guilds more than a fast paced one would! In a slower paced game, you have time to chat with a passer by; but in a fast game you're bouncing from one xp goal to the next, and stopping to chat just hurts your xp/minute rating.

    As for your question about if early MMOs had been developed with GW2 sensibilities, I think that would have been the death of MMOs. The problem is that there would have been little to distinguish an MMO from a single-player game. The beauty of the original EverQuest wasn't in the gameplay. That gameplay was perhaps less engaging than even the simplest of the old wireframe dungeon crawl RPGs. Rather, the strength was that you were in a world populated with other living people. You could argue that it was the size and scope of the world, but even the older Elder Scrolls games had that; Morrowind came out before WoW did, after all.

    I think part of why MMOs are not doing so well these days is because they've tried too hard to mimic single-player experiences instead of giving players experiences unique to MMOs. You can solo to max level, you're the "hero" in an pre-scripted "epic" story, etc. We need to give players more of what they simply can't get in a single-player or even lightly multi-player title if MMOs are to thrive again.

    1. "I think part of why MMOs are not doing so well these days is because they've tried too hard to mimic single-player experiences instead of giving players experiences unique to MMOs. You can solo to max level, you're the "hero" in an pre-scripted "epic" story, etc. We need to give players more of what they simply can't get in a single-player or even lightly multi-player title if MMOs are to thrive again."

      Not doing very well by what benchmark?

    2. Take your pick. Let me suggest a few:

      Number of players in the largest game. WoW's subscriber figures are at best steady but well below peak, or dropping.

      Number of successful game launches. Admittedly this metric is partially due to WoW moving the goalposts of what "successful" means, but we've seen a lot less MMOs launched the past few years, and a big MMO canceled even before launch (the World of Darkness MMO). The critical reviews of TESO have been pretty disappointing; one major site gave it a 5/10. (!!!)

      Successor to the top MMO. UO topped M59 after a year. EQ topped UO after 2 years. WoW topped EQ after 5 years. Now we're a 9.5 years after WoW's launch with no successor in sight unless TESO is quietly selling amazing. Even Blizzard's own effort is stalled.

      The market for MMO developers. Having been through a job search recently, I can say that the MMO market for developers is pretty sad. I talked to a lot of companies, and there's no confidence in the market for companies to want to hire developers. In fact, two major companies (Turbine and CCP) have had significant layoffs in the past year.

      There are a few rays of hope here (SOE's Landmark and EQNext in particular), but for the most part it's pretty grim out there by most measurements.

    3. Bit late on the reply here - sorry about that. What I meant by "facilitating social play" wasn't really anything to do with the Bartle archetype. I meant the concern that's been openly discussed by the developers of several major MMOs I've played over the last few years that players who already know each other must at all costs be facilitated in being able to play together from the beginning. That has nothing at all to do with being a Socializer in game terms - it's more akin to selling tickets in blocks for a venue.

      GW2 invented the whole Guesting function purely so that on day one of launch no-one would be separated from his or her friends for a moment because of being pushed onto different servers by population pressure. Of course then they couldn't get it to work in time but that's a whole different issue. It's not new, of course. Long before GW2 existed if you were in a busy zone in EQ2 and multiple instances had spun up and your friend was in one and you were in another you could go to the Bell on the dock and move across to join him. The longer we go on, though, the more intensely paranoid developers seem to be about players being separated from their friends for a nano-second.

      When you look at the gameplay of modern MMOs then yes, it certainly trends heavily in favor of Achievers. When you look at the infrastructure choices, though, I see the very strong influence of social networking. Encouraging people to come to MMOs with people they already know from outside of MMOs (or from previous MMOs) seems to be a primary goal nowadays, certainly well ahead of any concept of them meeting new people when they get there, although I would say that appears to retain some attraction as a secondary goal.

      My perspective is probably atypical, though. I've never in my life stayed longer in an MMO than I wanted to out of feelings of connection to those still playing it (well, apart from Mrs Bhagpuss that is, but that's kind of a special case). I have, on the other hand, occasionally left an MMO (or a server) earlier than I would otherwise have done in order to get away from certain "friends" or acquaintances :P

    4. And a late followup reply! As for coming with friends, I think the goal here is to make sure you don't get separated from friends. If you come to an MMO and can't meet up with your friends as anticipated, you'll get frustrated. That could cause you to take a strong dislike to the game and possibly leave it.

      And, I don't think Mrs. Bhapuss is an exception. You just have a very select group of friends you'll play with that only includes that special someone in your life. :)


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