Sunday, 29 November 2015

Light All The Fires

World of Warcraft is becoming infamous for its content droughts; those long months of blank canvas stretched between the tent-poles of bi- or even tri-annual expansions, when players in their hundreds of thousands lose focus, let their subscriptions lapse and wander off to other realms. GW2, the MMO that started out as the antidote to WoW but which is increasingly growing to resemble it, took its own first stab at the content drought concept this year, letting the game drift in a long, slow arc from the announcement of the expansion that was never meant to happen to the eventual launch of Heart of Thorns last month.

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.


4 comments:

  1. I'm not sure content droughts on the scale of WoW are ever a good thing, but I agree with your broad premise. There are simply too many quality games out there right now for it to be reasonable to expect the average gamer to fully devote themselves to a single title to the exclusion of all else.

    My feeling is that the desire to do so is a hold-over from when subscription payment models were the norm -- you need to keep people playing all the time so they keep paying -- but it makes little sense in a world where free to play and buy to play are the more dominant models.

    I know I'm very frustrated by the various ways WoW tries to "encourage" you to play the game all day, every day (usually in the form of many lengthy and unavoidable grinds), and one of the things that turned me off GW2 was the psychological pressure to keep logging in so as not to miss out on the Living Story, which ran exactly counter to the laidback attitude that had initially attracted me to the game.

    On the other hand, something I really appreciate about TSW is how its business model and design does not at all necessitate a monogamous MMO relationship. I can feel free to take a break for a few days, or even a few months, and not feel at all like I'm missing out or falling behind. And they manage it without year-long content droughts.

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    1. Blizzard really do seem to take their playerbase for granted when it comes to serving new content. I don't buy Keen's theory that they are intentionally managing WoW down to herd their fanbase onto new product but I do think they lack the sense of urgency smaller developers might feel.

      The mechanics used to get us all to log in every day deserves a post of its own. It gets on my nerves too although the bi-weekly schedule of LS drops was fine with me. It was the content of the drops I didn't much like. The almost universal daily log-in rewards are what I find irritating. In a game I'm playing every day anyway, currently GW2, they are pointless while in games I'm not playing that often they have an actively off-putting effect. I strongly dislike being bribed to play a game and each time I do log in, seeing those rewards makes it slightly less likely I will log in again any time soon.

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  2. What game is that with the guy and the radio tower?

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    1. The one with the guy in the desert is Fallen Earth. They really should be doing some promotion on that to ride the Fallout 4 wave. As it is I had to go check to see if it's still running. Which it is.

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