Saturday, 6 February 2016

H1Z1: Take 2

Yesterday Daybreak Games announced that H1Z1, their already-aging but still Early Access zombie survival game, will split in two. Reaction has been predictably negative, as reaction to just about anything with DBG's name attached tends to be. Thanks, Smed.

Keen sums up the general feeling with the very title of his post on the subject: WTF is Daybreak Doing? The very idea of marketing and selling the same game in discrete packages to different audiences is outrageous, desperate, just plain nuts.

Really?

I've thought for years - probably since around the time Planes of Power codified the raid end-game - that many MMOs could, very effectively and sensibly, be partitioned off into segments and sold and marketed separately. I used to say back then, often, usually to a thudding silence, that Raiding, just to take one example, is and should be a game in itself, not a whole second game bolted on to the end of a perfectly good existing one.

As a non-raider playing EverQuest at that time, I'd have jumped at the option to play on a non-raiding server with its own development team, dedicated to producing and maintaining non-raid content. Over the years we've all seen how MMOs have to try to provide entirely separate, unconnected, often mutually destructive progression ladders to satisfy cadres of players who have no time, respect or interest for each other. We've seen how well that works for everyone.

Balancing the whole game to meet the needs and requirements of Raiding, PvP, RvR, open world PvE, instanced group PvE, soloing, leveling, roleplaying, crafting, housing and decorating etc etc etc turns almost all long-lasting games into rats' nests of dirty compromise. Diminishing resources end up chasing increasing demands, serving legacy interest groups that frequently contain the game and the company's bitterest critics: players who profess to hate the game they're playing and what it's become, yet still won't leave.

It's not as if splitting a game into two parts (or three or a dozen) is even anything new. It's been happening ever since Ultima Online span off its consensual PvP/PvE shard,Trammel back at the turn of the millennium.  When it comes down to it, how different is having two versions of H1Z1 for sale in the digital store from a game having PvE and PvP servers? Or indeed, as EQ and EQ2 used to do, having four different PvP ruleset servers, half a dozen varying PvE ruleset servers, F2P servers, Premium servers and even a Pay-to-Win server (remember The Bazaar?).

Just about every MMO I've ever played that's been successful enough to hang around for a year or two has gone down this route. Almost the only exceptions are the few that operate on a single shard like EVE, and even that's a poor counterpoint, with CCP spinning their IP across multiple games on different platforms, while sharing the same universe.

The idea that having two versions of H1Z1 will negatively impact development resources is just fatuous. Development resources in MMOs are already fatally compromised and always have been. ArenaNet, operating what is unarguably one of the genres bigger and more successful MMOs right now, has a massive development team and yet they profess, perpetually, to be heavily stretched.

The current extensive and much-needed WvW revamp had to wait years beyond the point
at which everyone could clearly see it was urgently needed, simply because resources were not available. Each new, major game development, change or project cannibalizes resources from all the others, spawning anger and resentment in every group that, often rightly, feels its own needs are being ignored.

Splitting a game like H1Z1 into two entirely separate games may not alleviate any of that stress. It may not produce any additional resources or make anything happen any faster. It may not make players feel any happier that their chosen format is getting a fair shake compared to its mirror.

It may not, in other words, make anything better but I fail to see how it can make anything worse. At the very least it adds some clarity. If you want an open world zombie survival game, you can buy one and play it without having to work around a bunch of fight-to-the-death FPS crazies. And vice versa.

What if you want both? Well buy both. It's two games. You want two games? Buy two games. That, as we all know, is the point, because, as we've seen from Trion's recent inelegant (okay, ugly) revisions to their payment model, the latest in a lengthening line of attempts by MMO producers to row back from the supposed commitments they made to "Free To Play", a model whose mechanics and modes most of them seemingly didn't fully grasp at the time, getting MMO players to pay for anything is hard.

I'm the worst possible example. F2P has been fantastic for me. Hardly any MMO locks anything that interests me behind a paywall these days. All the bits of the game that I relish - exploring, leveling, pottering around in low level zones imagining I'm myself aged about eight, just after the last coat in the wardrobe gave way to snowy pine branches - they're all there waiting for me to enjoy them for nothing.

Like most people, so it seems, I don't spend anything in most MMOS. Not on premium perks nor in the cash shop. Great for me until the game closes down. And I don't want the game to close down. Any of the games. I understand that bills have to be paid and I sympathize with companies that need to come up with ways of making that happen. Especially unambiguous, straightforward ways, like selling me content in discrete packages - DLC, Expansions, Games.

So, if splitting MMOs into their component parts and selling only the bits that interest people to those people, separately, turns out to be more financially rewarding for the people making and maintaining those games then so be it. I don't have any ethical objections.

The big question, of course, is whether it will bring in more money. Maybe it will just split the same audience and make no difference. Maybe it will put some people off, who would like to play both styles but balk at paying twice for the privilege. We'll have to wait and see.

It seems to me, though, to be an experiment very well worth trying. If ANet announced tomorrow that they were going to split the revamped WvW from the base game when it launches and sell it as a standalone with separate development I'd be open-minded. If they announced they were going to spin off an open-world version of GW2 with one-time events, no raiding and no pseudo end-game I'd be ecstatic.

Harder, of course, to pull something like that off in a game that's up and running, which is why Early Access, that period when we players get to watch the band rehearsing before the real show starts, is a better time to try something like this, see how it flies.

Many MMO fans, particularly the more jaded, have been agitating for years for the genre to move to a tighter, more focused, niche-based approach. This is something of a move in that direction and worth encouraging for that reason alone. It probably won't change much but if it should turn out to be successful it may have influence. If there's one thing MMO companies do understand, after all, it's how to borrow each others' clothes.

So, good luck with your new twins, Daybreak. Now can we have some kind of update on EQNext?

12 comments:

  1. I'm probably not typical of your readers, but the reason it upset me is that H1Z1 was supposed to be coming to the PS4 (the zombie survival H1Z1) and now it seems like only this PvP, COD-style, zombie-free eSports variant will be headed there.

    OTOH I haven't spent any money on the console version so they can do whatever they want; I don't have to purchase it. Still, I WAS kind of looking forward to H1Z1 on console.

    I was glad that folks who bought H1Z1 Early Access are being given both games, though.

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    1. I missed that little detail. That would be annoying if PS4 was your preferred platform. Did they give a reason?

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    2. Well in searching for direct sources rather than the buzz of the community, it looks like Just Survive may come to console eventually:

      "On console, only King of the Kill will be offered, at least for launch this summer. A Daybreak games representative told GameSpot that the plan is to bring Just Survive, or some form of it, to console...eventually.

      "We're working on our plans for bringing Just Survive out of Early Access and to console, but no details on timing or additional info at this time.""

      Source: http://www.gamespot.com/articles/h1z1-coming-to-ps4-and-xbox-one-this-summer-pc-ver/1100-6434540/

      So maybe all hope is not lost, but H1Z1 was teased for PS4 way back when the console launched. Maybe I just need to be patient.

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  2. PS your link to Keen actually links to the H1Z1 page.

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  3. Your second link doesn't link to Keen's blog, instead it links back to h1z1 (You accidentally pasted the first link instead of the link to keen's blog)

    As for the actual content of the article.. I'm torn, I don't have enough faith in publishers (and developers) to actually have this sort of thing be beneficial for the players. I imagine they'll just spread sections of the game for increased (short term) profits, and not actually expand the teams to facilitate making content for multiple titles.

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    1. I'd be amazed if this particular case results in more resources overall. DBG don't seem to have the capacity for that at the moment. In general, though, you'd think it would be possible for a game to have, say, a shared art/design department producing assets for two teams producing specialized content using those assets in ways appropriate to different audiences. At the very least it ought to make things like skill balancing a little less chaotic.

      In practice, though, I wonder how different that is from how different teams currently work on, for example, PvP and PvE in an MMO. That's never seemed to go smoothly. Whether the increased distance from making them into standalone games would help is hard to say. As I said, though, it could hardly make things worse.

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  4. The trend of splitting MMORPGs into discrete games has been going on for some time now. This is why we have MOBAs (PvP), ARPGS (pure PvE progression), survival games (crafting/base-building) and so on.

    H1Z1 is just following where the market is going.

    - Simon

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    1. That's a good point. Syp was asking on Massively today what the point of survival games is, which is something I often wonder, but thinking about it, they are indeed one aspect of wider rpg gameplay separated out. I'm not entirely sold on the idea because I'm someone who likes a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but then no-one seems to be making a game that's all just the bits I like. If they did I might feel very differently.

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  5. I agree with the points you make here. Splitting H1Z1 down the middle is an odd choice, to be sure, but I don't see it as a bad thing. Even as an outside observer, it was very clear to me that H1Z1 has been trying to court two very different kinds of player. I think it makes good sense to divide the game in two and focus on giving each group the experience they want rather than smashing the two playstyles together as a bastardized hybrid.

    Also it is worth noting that, as far as I know, both versions are still planned to be F2P once they finally launch, so while the double dipping on sales might apply for the final months of early access, it's not going to be a factor long term.

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    1. Actually they've added a bit to their FAQ that they aren't planning to make either game F2P now, and I think that's really where a lot of the ire comes from - that they are splitting one game in two and then charging full price for both of them.

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  6. I think the part you most lose out on, like I said in my own post is how much work can and is done to benefit all the areas. You have the same game engine and obvious problems, design of characters and enemies. Weapons, art assets and a lot more. I feel like with making separate teams you are just asking for greater confusion and overlapping work wherin with a single team with a more overall goal would be able to delegate better. There is definitely a limit of trying to do too much though but H1z1 doesn't really have that issue like say, gw2 has.

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