Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Here's Where The Story Ends

Yesterday brought the somewhat sad news that Cryptic is shuttering its player-made content platform, The Foundry. Both Neverwinter and Star Trek Online used the engine to allow players to design, build and populate instances for other players to explore and enjoy.

I never tried the STO version but I did spend some time running Tipa's re-creations of classic EverQuest zones in NWO. My review of those experiences, particularly Tipa's "Newfallen" dungeon, positively gushes:

"It was great! At the end, when you get the chance to review and rate the Foundry you've just completed, I gave it five stars. For an old-time EQ player the nostalgia factor is through the roof. The physical reconstruction of Befallen is exemplary"

Tipa herself used regularly to review Neverwinter Foundries on her own, much-missed blog, West Karana. I loved reading those. Probably more than I would have loved playing them. The standard, as you'd imagine, was variable but there were gems to be discovered.

I'm a lot more familiar with EverQuest II's simplified take on the idea. There are nine posts tagged "Dungeon Maker" on this blog, dating back to when it was introduced as part of the controversial "features expansion, Age of Discovery.

I really liked the Dungeon Maker. I used it a lot when it was new and for quite a while afterwards. I made three full dungeons, all of which were quite silly and rather jolly. They were fun to make and  run.

They didn't take long to put together. I don't think any of them took me much longer than a Sunday afternoon. They were quick to run, too. I published them all in-game and they got some play but most people had their mind on something more than cute dialog and silliness when they opened that Dungeon Maker window.

As Telwyn put it in a post about the closure of The Foundry:

"Sadly MMO players being what they so often are, min-maxers to the extreme, exploits were found and the system was heavily nerfed reward-wise... Players also made pits full of monsters that you could easily slaughter with ranged attacks from safety above as a way to speed farm experience."

Almost exactly what happened in EQII. From my own post on the latter days of the Dungeon Maker:

"The dungeons gave no loot per se, only a special currency, but the mobs you killed inside them did give xp. Very good xp. At least, it turned out it was very good if the dungeon-maker stuffed a few rooms with high-value, weak mobs, all piled up to be AE'd.

The most efficient mob slaughterhouses quickly rose to the top of the Dungeon Creator rankings and for the longest time almost all you could hear in /lfg was people forming groups to speed-run them. They had no story, no dialog, no script, no entertainment value of any kind. They were the definition of repetitive tedium but they were efficient so people did them. Over and over and over again."

It may not have mattered all that much when all games were offline and single player. If you want to cheat yourself, go ahead, knock yourself out. Who cares? In the context of a persistent shared space, though, where, whether you like it or not, elements of competetive play exist, such behaviors have an impact that can't be ignored.

In every case I've seen, developers, who one might, at best, call naive or optimistic, introduce systems and mechanics that experience and history should tell them will be exploited. And they are. Abusively, repeatedly and shamelessly.

Over time, if left unattended, these systems become a running sore. Some players gleefully indulge but far more grimly accept. When the widely-accepted understanding is that efficiency comes from doing something dull, repetitive and meaningless, that becomes the meta.

The demographic that enjoys and employs the tools in the way the developers intended - the creatives who put their own time and energy into making what they believe to be entertaining content and the explorers who consume it - find themselves heavily outnumbered by the achievers, who simply want to find the shortest route to the biggest reward.

At its worst, as happened in EQII, the exploits threaten to become a black hole that sucks the life out of the entire game. At which point the nerfs begin.

The developers always try to save their babies and they always fail. A succession of revisions incrementally reduce the attractiveness of the game mode, irritating both those exploiting it and those who want to see it gone, alike. Ever-resourceful, players find a way around the roadblocks. The nerfs intensify. Eventually the entire mechanic is reduced to a rewardless shell. That solves the problem: no-one makes any more content, no-one consumes any. Game over.

In EQII, I can confirm the Dungeon Maker died long ago, at least as a practical source of experience or reward. Holly Windstalker's Producer's Letter from December 2014 gives chapter and verse.  It's still there, should you want to see it. I ran one of my dungeons just now and it still works. You just don't get anything for doing it except the pleasure of my so-called jokes. Other than that, the Dungeon Maker's  mostly used for storage these days. You can stash a lot of house items in a Dungeon Maker dungeon.

I don't know if The Foundries in the two Cryptic games reached that nadir of decline before Cryptic pulled the plug. I don't play either game often and on the odd occasion I do I certainly don't visit the leaderboards to see if anyone's made any new dungeons lately.

The reason Cryptic give for closing The Foundry doesn't have anything to do with misuse or exploits, anyway. All that was dealt with long ago. It's merely that there's no longer anyone left working for the company who knows how the thing works. I imagine very few players are using it any more, either to entertain themselves or others. If it was still popular it would be worth training someone to keep it going.

Player-created content is an excellent idea in theory. It gives everyone more to do and it costs the company less. Unfortunately, players are, as always, their own worst enemies. There's no hope whatsoever that a substantial number won't ruin things for themselves and everyone else if they get the chance.

All of which sugests to me that game developers should think harder before introducing these systems and take much greater care to close all the loopholes beforehand. Yes, I know players will always find exploits no-one thought of but in most cases they're finding ones that anyone could have thought of. And should have.

Gaming has an incredible wealth and depth of talent just waiting to be tapped. No need to outsource or pay - all the resources you need are already there, playing the games, and they'll work for free. In fact, they'll probably pay you.

SOE/DBG's Player Studio shows how a more successful iteration can work. It, too, has had its problems, especially in recent times but it's still there, hanging on, and now Daybreak seem to be ready to blow some of the dust off and hang out a fresh shingle.

Maybe the Dungeon Maker will never make a comeback. Maybe submissions to Player Studio will continue to pile up and process slowly. It's still a better outlook than The Foundry's going to see, more's the pity.

As Wilhelm points out in the comments at TAGN, maintaining legacy systems can be a trial and an expense. On the other hand, closing them down can make you look a little desparate. Here's hoping Cryptic's parsimony doesn't signal the beginning of a trend.


  1. I remember the City of Heroes Architect system. Also full of xp farms. In their own way quite fun to run from a massed xp efficiency perspective.

    I always thought the simplest and most brute force, yet effective solution was to xp cap the dang things. If I recall correctly, that was what CoH eventually did. I forget how exactly, if it was per mission or time-based, and a bit of Googling mentions Tickets, which I do recall a pretty fast ticket cap implementation at some point.

    Limiting xp earned daily would immediately, if inelegantly, address the issue though. Those who just want to earn stuff up to the limit can play through their one fast mission quickly, like a daily chore (since they make chores out of everything anyway), and everybody else could enjoy slower paced multiple missions with actual content/novelty/care put into them, up to the limit.

    1. There must be dozens of ways to set these things up so they're efficient, attractive and not game-breaking. XP capping, a set number of uses per day, diminishing returns, standalone rewards systems... What's amazing is that no-one ever seems to see the problems coming. I must have seen the same thing happen dozens of times now. I wonder if it's not intentional. Maybe there's a simple calculation going on behind the scenes based on how much extra income is generated by these exploitable systems in the short term, how long that situation can be managed before it begins to have negative impacts and how severely the service/mechanic needs to be nerfed before it ceases to be of value at all. Not to be cynical about it but it might be easier to believe it was a cunning plan than that no-one foresaw the outcome.

  2. I think it is more a sign of the unrealistic and unbridled optimism of the MMORPG player base, and the strangeness of the genre, that leads to such emphasis being placed on specific features and the belief that features... and the games themselves... should last forever.

    In my industry, ending support and shutting down features that are not worth the cost of maintaining is pretty common and people don't decry it as though the company is dying when it happens. And we get a lot of pressure on the features front. You think some yabo shouting on the forums day after day about their favored feature is a trial, wait until WalMart tells your sales rep that the company cannot bid on a $12 million deal with an ongoing annual maintenance contract unless we support some crazy feature at our own expense. (That tale, one of greed, lies, and stupidity, ends with the moral "Never ever do business with WalMart.)

    But an MMORPG cuts a feature and it is laziness and greed, a sign of the end times for that game, proof yet again that they don't know their audience, and half a hundred other things, while any feature a game declines to add is proof of a lack of vision that is obviously hampering the company and keeping the game from growing to its full potential. And yes, these are generalizations. But they come up often enough, usually from the same people, to practically be tropes of the genre. As gets pointed out, "EVE is dying" has been a thing since a few months after its launch back in 2003.

    All of which doesn't add up to much of a point, other than the fact that these are businesses and if people want them to survive over time then sometimes tough choices have to be made. Features cost money to support over time and sometimes stand in the way of other features that are more important to a given game. Making those sorts of choices are games finding a way to survive, not games dying.

    1. I think this is going to be a perennial problem because there's a fundemental disconnect between online goods and services and the real life versions. I grew up in an era when it was the norm to rent a tv set, not buy one. Renting the thing was a service but the thing you rented was an object. So long as you kept paying the rental you had the same tv. No-one made you upgrade or update it. If it broke they'd send someone to fix it.

      If it couldn't be fixed *then* you would have to give it up and they'd most likely replace it with a better one, but at that point, psychologically, you knew it was over. You had closure, as we used to say in the 80s. What you didn't get was the rental company tweaking your tv set while you still owned it, so one week you could watch a particular station and the next week you couldn't.

      No-one, not the players or the developers or the businessmen or the merketeers, really knows what online games are. They're this uncanny hybrid of goods and services that don't sit comfortably with anyone, not yet. Maybe eventually enough people will have lived with the concept for long enough for it to settle but personally I somewhat doubt it. As biological entities we may not be capable of adapting to this level of meta-reality. Even if we're capable, the evidence would suggest many of us aren't willing.

      I do think the line about lack of "legacy knowledge" is, at the very least, disingenuous, though. As you point out, if it's commercially expedient knowledge can be bought. They just didn't want to say "not enough people use this feature and it's not cost-effective for us to keep servicing it for the few who do". And "not enough people" is always a warning straw in the wind...

  3. Oh, and I forgot the obligatory mention about players obsessing about progression in any game where character progression is a thing, usually by choosing the most efficient routes to progress. We have seen that time and again. Players optimize to suit their own goals.

  4. I've never tried EQII's dungeon maker. Had I known before now that you can make your mobs talk I probably would have.

    I had quite some laughs courtesy of your screenshots. :-)

    1. That was (is) the best feature. I had a lot of fun with it.


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