As the glare begins to dim a little on these new lands we have somehow found ourselves calling Magus Falls, light begins to dawn on just why some MMO developers have become so fond of their "cadences"; the drip, drip, drip of content in small packages that we saw exemplified best in ArenaNet's Living Story but which appears throughout the genre in various guises, from EVE's six-weekly "expansion" schedule to EQ2's seemingly inexhaustible calendar of "Holidays". Anything to keep the customer playing and paying.
For some inexplicable reason I began Saturday by reading some of Marc Jacobs' Foundational Principles for Camelot Unchained. CU (working title) is not an MMO to which I have paid much notice in the past and I haven't followed its development with any close interest. I'd never read these principles before.
Several things struck me as I skimmed through the lengthy perambulations. Marc Jacobs is a good communicator and an excellent self-mythologist, that was the main takeaway, but then so many superstar game developers are. It often makes me wonder if they're really in the right business. That aside, it was his apparent willingness to leave money on the table and let dissatisfied or just plain bored customers walk away that got my attention.
The Camelot Unchained website is peppered with bold statements and brave claims to this effect:
"We respect your commitment to a subscription-based game; in return, you won’t see thinly-veiled grabs for more money. Everything you need to succeed in Camelot Unchained requires skill and effort, not an open wallet."
"...we are an RvR-focused game and if you are not feeling it that night and nothing we have interests you, well, it’s time to take a break..."
"I want the freedom to take some risks with this game without enduring sleepless nights as I worry about whether a feature (or lack thereof) will alienate too many players, anger the boss, piss off the investors, etc."
And so on and so on. It's a coherent and rational plan and so far it's raised almost four million dollars. Star Citizen, on the other hand, another game whose development I have barely been following but, if what Derek Smart tells us is true, (don't go there..) is aiming to be quite literally all things to all players, is rounding the final corner on $100m.
As Saylah at Mystic Worlds observes in passing, Chris Roberts' behemoth already has some 900,000 backers signed up and waiting to play. Come launch day (whenever that might be) that number could reasonably be expected to grow into the millions. Mark Jacobs is bullish about the degree to which that isn't likely, necessary or even desirable for his game, which he anticipates "even if successful has no chance of threatening Dark Age of Camelot’s peak subs (250k)".
Saylah is understandably enthused by the chance to live, fully if virtually, in another world or in this case another universe. "It's hard to explain to anyone who's not passionate about gaming, MMOs and/or space sims why people continue to invest so heavily in this project. For many of us, SC has a dream list of features, combined in a way that no company has ever attempted before" she says. She goes on to describe what must be many an MMO player's dream: "The atmosphere, graphics, attention to detail, realism and cinematic soundtrack is breathtaking to behold. No one's pictures will do it justice. The way they knit your introductory experience together, it feels like waking up in a future where man has conquered the stars."
It's what I thought I wanted, once. The chance to lose myself in another reality. To be there. It's a wish, though, that like all magical wishes, comes with a warning. Mercury expresses it well when he writes at Light Falls Gracefully about the freedom that comes from accepting someone else's rules: "There is a certain something that is called into being with the arrival of the holiday events at year’s end when the rules of everyday life are put up on the shelf for a while. As a child, these times were magical: decorations, a festive atmosphere, and a fundamentally different tone to the rhythm of life filled my little body with wondrous awe. Nowadays, the magic lies in pretending that I am not a responsible adult and that these figments of our collective imagination are somehow the real thing."
Heart of Thorns has proved much more involving than I imagined it would be. Before it landed I had arrived at something close to equilibrium in the allocation of my gaming time. I had a stable of titles I was paying some attention to and while GW2 consumed the predator's portion there was still time to flit between half a dozen other MMOs and make something that could, in a poor light, be taken for progress there.
This is a familiar experience. Every time an MMO in which I'm emotionally invested drops a large update it wins focus from all the others. It's a time of great excitement but it comes at a cost. Everything else slides. When several games decide to overlap their major updates time won't stretch to accommodate them. One will win.
And that's how I came to understand that content drought isn't necessarily a bad thing. In a way it's like breathing out. It took ArenaNet's six-months of purdah and pre-expansion crunch to create the space for me to break the pattern of habit and open out my horizons again. I'm actually happy we won't be seeing any more Living Story updates this year and quite probably not before next spring.
I have a long, long list of MMOs that I want to get back to, to re-invest in, to play. Even updating the clients and logging in would be something. There seems to be a lot of that around at the moment - Tipa, reminding me about Landmark, Wilhelm dipping back into LotRO, Stargrace firing up ArcheAge... Plus the conveyor belt never stops. There are already half a dozen new candidates I'd like to give the once-over, although not necessarily the ones on Syp's list of conversation starters.
I'd welcome some downtime just for all that although I know I'll probably have to wait for Wintersday and Frostfell and all the other quasi-Christmas celebrations to pass first.
Mark Jacobs isn't unduly worried about players like me, those who have itchy feet and eyes elsewhere. He says of his avowedly niche, specialist offering: " If on some nights it isn’t what you are looking for, well, that’s okay, your realm’s enemies will be still waiting for you when you get back." And, barring the game going dark for good, they always will.
These days that feels closer to what I want. Not a world that feels more real than the real world, where missing a day feels like a small death; more a room in a mansion filled with rooms, all warm and waiting for my return, with my things all safe where I left them and a small stack of welcome-home gifts waiting on the mantle for me to open.
In the end though I don't get to choose. When the game takes over the game takes over. That's why a little drought sometimes can quench a thirst.