Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Trust Me - I'm An MMO Dev: Black Desert, GW2

2016 is turning out to be a surprising year for MMORPGs. At the end of last year it seemed that no-one was expecting much from the coming twelve months beyond another WoW expansion and not many people seemed particularly excited about that. After the tent-pole launches of 2014 - TESO, WildStar and ArcheAge among them, 2015 was a fallow year and 2016 looked like less of the same.

Then, in just the first quarter, seemingly out of nowhere, we suddenly find ourselves with three major AAA contenders: Blade and Soul, Black Desert Online and The Division. What's more, all three seem to be getting a warmer welcome than most new MMOs have had for a very long time.

Perhaps it helps that the first two have already long since been launched in other territories, meaning they arrive loaded with content, finished and polished in their systems and stable in their infrastructure - even if the localization leaves a lot to be desired. Still, successfully re-launching an MMO in the West after a less-than-stellar run in its country of origin is an achievement not to be taken lightly. Trion certainly made a dog's breakfast of it with ArcheAge and SOE failed completely with both Wizardry and Dragon's Prophet.

As for The Division, even though this is a genuine first launch, it's been in development so long I guess you might expect it to be ready by now, although precedent would suggest otherwise. For once, by most reports, all that extra time devoted to "polish" seems to have been well spent. It sounds as though the game's a lot of fun although I can't comment from personal experience because, while I'd quite like to give it a try, my PC would burst into flames at the first firefight.

There's more to come. Waiting in the wings are several triple-A titles from majors, including Bless and Lineage Eternal plus a whole slew of smaller but well-known and widely anticipated projects from independents that might just about see the light of a screen sometime before next Christmas. As ChaosConstant puts it over at Occasional Hero "So Many Games, So Little Time" - and he's only playing the old ones!

When was the last time you saw puddles in an MMO?

I started to think about this while I was running along the muddy roads of Serendia in BDO last night. If there's one thing you can safely say about Black Desert it's that it's going to take some time to come to grips with it. It's hardly the sort of MMO you can dip into for a quick half hour here and there. It sucks you in and holds you fast.

Blade and Soul, contrarily, works very well in bite-size portions. It's filled with neat, complete quests that take a few minutes and tidy, instanced dungeons that don't last a lot longer. It has bosses that pop conveniently, quickly, almost on demand. You can make solid progress in an hour or less.

GW2 used to be like that. It still is and yet it isn't, too. All the old pick up and drop content based around dynamic events and Hearts is still there but the direction of travel both pre and post Heart of Thorns has all been about commitment to lengthier session play. It started with the 40/20 hourly cycle in Dry Top, way back at the start of Living Story 2 and spiraled up from there until it culminated in the epic two hour, hundred player tour de force that is Dragon's Stand.

Wait a minute...why did I come this way?

The next, big quarterly update, due sometime in April, is intended to address this mission creep. Supposedly there will be a return to a more manageable, shorter, and, yes, more casual approach in future. Whether that is the cause or the consequence of Colin Johanson's departure we will probably never know. It seems counter-intuitive, however, given that the main thrust of development remains, for now at least, the intense, fiercely hardcore, highly time-consuming addition of extensive raid content to the game.

Perversely, perhaps, as a self-defined casual-by-attitude, I really like the lengthy sessions encouraged by HoT. All the major set pieces - the endless Day/Night cycle in Verdant Brink, the long build up and short release of Auric Basin and Tangled Depths and, most especially, the movie-length drama of Dragon's Stand - seem to me to offer a great combination of dip-in/dip-out casual play and full-session satisfaction.

Playing Black Desert, it's begun to dawn on me that I rather like a structure that allows for plenty of individualism and freedom of action and yet encourages me to spend dirty great chunks of time in game without really noticing the hours tick past. It is, of course, a famous feature of sandbox gameplay, be it PvE or PvP.

They also serve, who only stand and watch.

World vs World, for example, offers it on a grand scale. Night after night I "just pop in to see how we're doing" and end up following a Commander I like for a couple of hours. I can run with the zerg, in or out of squad, I can roam, I can scout or tag siege or just sit in a keep and watch the ebb and flow on the map. I can be useful and effective or useless and ineffective and yet if I'm the former I can still drop out at will and if I'm the latter no-one notices or yells at me.

What all these systems - open world dynamic events, realm vs realm warfare, sandbox exploration and trading - have in common is ease of exit. In a Raid or a Heroic Dungeon or even a segment of your solo Personal Story you have to see things through to the end. Quit half way in and you either let down your friends and guild-mates or lose the progress you've made and have to start over another time.

With so many, so very many, interesting, exciting, enticing, tempting new MMOs to explore the one immutable factor is time. Even if you're willing to sacrifice every single other aspect of your life on the altar of the hobby, (which, fortunately, very few of us are) it's still utterly impossible to do any kind of justice to more than a handful of games.

This is why I feel that, to be successful in an increasingly competitive market, MMO developers have two, contradictory options. They can attempt to coerce players to stick with their game and only their game by heavy use of time-limited or gated content, progression that relies on constant repetition and the imposition of a subscription fee, or they can trust that what they have to offer is sufficiently entertaining and involving that players will become caught up in it and stay because they're having too much fun to leave.

Both methods have been proved to work but I know which model I'd prefer to see succeed.



3 comments:

  1. While BDO does take a good bite out of your time, I like that it also has AFK activities I can do when playing another game. For example, sending out workers - they keep working as long as you're online and they're refreshed. Or AFK fishing - it's slow, but I gained a level and a half from doing nothing but staying logged in, plus the money I earned from trading in the fish.

    Even activities like trading, you can set your character to auto-run to your destination and do something else. I think it's a nice feature that will keep me playing even when I'm playing another game.

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    1. I'm afk fishing as I type this! Earlier, when I couldn't get fish I wanted for a quest, I mimimised the game, went and played WvW for an hour and came back to find it in my bag. It's embarrassing when my character is better at fishing when I'm not there to help her than when I am.

      I'm making full use of the auto-run feature, too. I was already using it on quests and now I've started to use it from the map to go from town to town. I'm all in favor of automation when it comes to stuff like this.

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    2. BDO is a weird beast, some activities just require your fullest attention, while there are still stuff to do when you need to step out. For example equiping a trade pack and auto-walking from Calpheon to Velia easily takes 1 hour or more, assuming you don't get ambushed by NPC bandits along the way.

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