Monday, July 13, 2020

The Impossible Dream

Naithin and I were having a bit of a chat in the comments on my recent post on the postponement (yet again) of Amazon's New World. We were talking about the hype cycle for MMORPGs, how it's changed over the years. I was remembering the way new games would be announced and then disappear behind closed doors for years, leaving whole communities to form then fall apart before anyone had the chance to play.

Naithin mentioned how he used to get frustrated by the lack of information and we both pondered over whether it was better that way or the way it is now, when games companies share every least wrinkle of the development process with the world and anyone with deep enough pockets can buy their way into "testing" almost before there's anything there to test.

I don't have an answer to that, other than the ever-satisfying "it depends". Maybe it would feel different if I'd just discovered MMORPGs a year or two back. Then I might be all fired up, eager to grab onto any little tidbit of  "insider" information, grateful for a glimpse of the magical world behind the curtain. After two decades of this stuff, though, it's getting harder and harder to raise even a glimmer of interest until I can finally log in and see for myself.

This morning I watched about twenty minutes of an interview with Steve Sharif of Intrepid Games, the company behind Ashes of Creation. The whole thing lasts well over an hour but I ran out of enthusiasm long before then.

I must have been interested in AoC once because I kickstarted the game not just for myself but also for Mrs. Bhagpuss. If I followed my usual pattern, which I'm sure I did, we should both be geting invites to mid-beta. At the rate things are going I'm guessing sometime around mid 2022.

Whether or not there'll still be a games industry, or a functioning society, by then is another matter. We might all be living in our own all-too-realistic post-apocalyptic survival sandbox by then. Even if I take a positive view and assume I'm going to be in a position to care two or three years from now, I don't believe I can summon up the enthusiasm to care now.

One of the most positive things about New World for me was the relative velocity of its development process. I pre-ordered it in the expectation that it would be available to play this Spring. At the time Amazon bumped that to the summer we all had more important things to worry about but even so I wasn't best pleased. Now that launch has been kicked down the road to next year I'm about ready to lose interest altogether.

As I listened to Steve Sharif going into inordinate detail about the structure of his company, the necessity of protecting his team from poachers and head-hunters and the prospects for future growth, I found it all both fascinating and supremely irrelevant. For an MMOPRG blogger and hobbyist, this kind of background detail on how the industry operates can be valuable and enlightening; as a potential AoC player, though, I quite literally could not care less. When can I play? That's the only question that interests me.

I'm in a little bit of an odd place with MMORPGs right now. I'm more thoroughly and convincingly embedded in several than I have been in any for quite a while. Over the past few months I haven't just been "doing my dailies" to pass the time, I've been "working on my characters".

Granted, these days the main route to character progression in most MMORPGs is doing your dailies but it's the way you do them that matters. I'm doing specific dailies for a known purpose and I'm doing them with diligence. As a result I have several characters in several games right now who are better geared, better prepared and all-round just better than I've had in years.

It feels good. It's satisfying to do and and satisfying once it's done. I get pleasure each day from seeing certain numbers climb higher than they were the day before and when I think back to how far they've climbed since last week or last month I feel a positive glow.

And yet. And yet I'm getting twitchy. It's satisfying, enjoyable, even fun, but it's not exciting. It's not surprising or amazing or revelatory. It makes me think, sure, when I have to go through my options in nit-picking detail to work out how to finesse another point or two of stat progress here or there, and analytical thinking is something I like a lot, but analytical thinking doesn't spark a sense of wonder. Not in me, it doesn't, anyway.

And that's the problem with looking forward to new games, or one of them, at least. All those early press releases and pencil sketches, the broad-brush, high concept overviews. The laying out of the stall in the marketplace with all the bright colors to the front. All of that stokes a sense of wonder, just as it's meant to do. That's why we end up kickstarting these things and writing effusive, excitable blog posts about them

And then the long wait sets in, bringing with it disappointment, disillusionment and the unpleasant disentanglement of fantasy from reality. Our fantasy, that is, from their reality. Or is the other way around?

Except for me it's a lot more confusing than that. My problem isn't only the way that promised magic turns into provisional mundanity, it's that most of what I want is ready, long before I'm allowed to play with it. Or, I should say, before I can afford to.

As I was listening to Steve Sharif discussing time zones and databases I was also watching him play the game. Whoever edited the interview had the clever idea of splicing it with an hour or so of footage of several Intrepid staffers playing Ashes of Creation as if it was a regular, released MMORPG. Not demonstrating or showing off its features. Just playing it.

Visionary Realms do the same with their videos for Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. Both of these games have been in development for many years. Both are still in pre-alpha.

It's evident to me from watching the footage that I would be perfectly content to pay a normal box price for either of these games as they stand now. They each have a world you can explore and characters who can go out to adventure in it. There are functional systems to let you progress and dress those characters. You can play with other people and communicate with them.

What are we waiting for! Let's get in and play! All those big-ticket, genre-changing features? We can have those in an expansion, can't we? Do we need them from the start? Better animations, smoother mechanics, class balance, bug fixes? It's an MMORPG, isn't it? Patch them in as we go.

In the old days there would have been no gameplay videos. I would have applied for any testing that was going but that would almost certainly have been under strict NDA and by the time I got in it would probaly be mid-beta. About the time I'm going to get in now, having paid for access, ironically.

Chances are, I'd have played in beta and had a great time and ended up saying beta was better. That has often been my experience. Thinking about it, I suspect that the reason I generally do find beta to be better is that I'm looking for a simpler game in the first place. The pared down, feature-poor beta experience is closer to my ideal MMORPG than the later, iterated, complicated, mature version is likely to be.

On that premise, being able to buy my way into very early development should be ideal. And maybe it would be... if I wanted to spend a fortune. Buy-in to pre-alpha for Pantheon begins at $1000 although "Pre-Alpha sessions are on hiatius at this time awaiting the next phase of Pre-Alpha to begin" and "Access to Pre-Alpha is granted only during active test sessions and may take up to the following business week to process."

Right now, the earliest you can buy into Ashes of Creation's testing is "Alpha 2", whenever that might be. Before Beta, at least, we can say that much with some confidence. It'll run you a minimum of $250. If you'd pledged at least $400 when the Kickstarter was up you could have made it into Alpha 1 but that door closed long ago.

And there's another problem, right there. Even if I was rich enough to blow hundreds, thousands of dollars on buying my way in, it would still be years before I got to play or I'd only be able to play occasionally, when the server happened to be up. That would make watching these internal playtest videos even more infuriating.

And the real rub? If the past few years are anything to go by, when these games do eventually open their doors to Open Beta or Early Access or, miracle of miracles, launch, they'll have taken so long getting there and built up such a history that most of the potential audience will long since have lost interest and moved on. The faithful will either already have burned out playing the alphas and betas they paid for or, if they've resisted temptation, will find themselves bitterly disappointed with the game they get, which won't begin to match up to the one they've been imagining all these years.

Is there another way? How would it be if, instead of promising several moons on the one stick, a developer aimed instead to make a simple, working MMORPG in a timely manner? A game which, when finished, wouldn't look so very different from what we see in all these "pre-alphas".

What if, with those reduced expectations, they were able to do the work in no more than two or three years, a time-frame which seems to be about par for those apparently enjoyable, playable "pre-alphas"?  Then the finished product might be made available, at a reasonable price, with a clear and accurate description of what was included, perhaps with some form of free trial, so potential customers could feel secure in what they were getting. 

And what if the company then continued to develop the game, adding further content in both free updates and paid expansions, improving and adding features, systems and content steadily over a number of years?

Could that work? I know it seems like a radical idea but sometimes you just have to take a leap in the dark...


  1. Slow organic growth by word of mouth is always better than shooting for the moon, in my opinion. I'm also not a fan of over explaining every game system and mechanic. I much prefer the older system of just releasing a complete "base" game and letting us all experience it together.

    When the entire game and its systems have been analyzed to death before the game even launches, it loses a lot of its mystery and new game appeal for me.

    1. Discovering and learning the new systems is a big part of the fun for me. Doing it in mid-late beta, a few weeks or months before the game goes live, is fine. I can make my mistakes where it doesn't matter so much and still be excited for getting into the finer detail when it does. Having everything already written up on wikis and all the optimum builds available in guides before the game even starts, though, that's not so much fun. I welcome that sort of thing eventually but I generally like to have bumbled one or two characters through by trial and error before I resort to letting people tell me how to play.

  2. I stopped watching new releases for MMORPGs. The development cycle for them is just so long. So after it is announced, my excitement will fade as it just takes forever for them to finish and it is a good possibility it is going to look or play vastly different than the original vision.

    On top of all that, many of these games start to feel the same to me but in a different setting. Rift, GW2, LOTR, and EQ2. So once I am playing a new game, the interest fades as I start to have the I have already done this feeling.

    Probably why I played SWTOR as long as I did as the setting was very different from a fantasy setting.

    1. I never really could hold interest for the years MMORPGs take to progress from initial reveal to availability. I tend to just make a mental bookmark and check in on them every 6-12 months, if that, to see how they're progressing. I don't really get excited until there's some kind of beta I can actually play. Then, of course, we get into the whole "if I try the beta and it's good, do I want to keep playing because I'm enjoying it or should I stop and wait for launch so as not to lose interest before it even starts?". There's no right answer to that one.

      On the topic of similarity between games, I'm in the opposite camp there. I do literally want a series of the same game in different settings. That would be perfect. I like EQ-style DikuMUD inspired MMORPGs. If a good, new one came out about once every couple of years I'd happily play them in serial indefinitely. Unfortunately, they now seem to come out about once a decade, if that, which is the main reason I find myself going back to re-play all the old ones.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide