Friday, October 4, 2019

The Other Side Of The Door

Continuing the "riffing on the news" theme from yesterday and as Jeromai mentioned in the comments, Mike O'Brien has left ArenaNet. This is kind of a big deal, seeing as how he co-founded the company. He's been with it for what seems like forever. His leaving is almost like taking down the sign over the door. And yet in a way it's also kind of not so big a deal after all. We've barely heard a word from him for what feels like a couple of years now.

He's leaving to start a new company called Mana Works. There's a lot of that going on these days. Paeroka at Nerdy Bookahs has an excellent, fully researched post up with all the details on just who's going to be working there, along with some speculation on what they might plan on doing.

There's clearly a lot going on here that no-one's going to talk about. Paeroka lists the eight people who have apparently jumped ship from ANet to follow Mike O'Brien to the sunlit uplands of independent development. That's a significant defection, especially coming off the back of the massive job cuts imposed by NCSoft earlier in the year.

When we learned that NCSoft had brought the curtain (or was it the guillotine?) down on a number of unspecified new projects I wasn't particularly concerned or, indeed interested, other than for the usual human concerns over the impact it would have on the individuals concerned. As far as Guild Wars 2 was concerned, my feeling was that a renewed corporate focus on core activities could only be to the benefit of that game and its players.

I didn't know then and hadn't heard since, until I read it in Paeroka's post this morning, that one of those cancelled projects might have been Guild Wars 3. Now that does make a difference.

GW2 is seven years old. As we are all coming to understand, seven years is barely into middle age for MMORPGs. The market is saturated with games that date back a decade, a decade and a half, twenty years, even. We all tend to get worked up over the occasional "sunsets" but few of us give a thought for the plethora of games drifting through a seemingly eternal twilight, neither growing towards the light nor shrinking into the darkness.

A long while back ANet claimed they planned to run GW2 indefinitely as their only ongoing MMORPG (the original Guild Wars having been officially shunted into maintenance mode). All that dithering with "cadences"  and "seasons", shuttling between a "Living Story" and a "Living World", that was ANet trying to figure out how to keep the ship afloat. They had to. There were no lifeboats.

Except apparently there were. Mike O'Brien may have been building one that could have launched, sometime, on a course for an undiscovered land, which might or might not have come to be known as "GW3".

Baby, it's cold outside.

Well that, as they say, is a pisser. While it's self-evident that GW2 could, and no doubt will, carry on largely as-is for many years, my personal feeling is that its future lies in the cruise ship trade. It long ago ceased to be an expeditionary vessel, headed away from the safety and security of the shore towards an unknown destiny beyond the horizon. These days it's a super-annuated hulk, living out its days as a half-heartedly refurbished tour boat, visiting only the best-known, most familiar ports.

Whose to say whether a new MMORPG from ArenaNet would have been any better? After all, the fine promises Mike and his team made before GW2's launch came to nothing and his custodianship was, to put it mildly, uneven. Even so, I'd have liked to have seen it.

And maybe we will. The Mana Works website currently consists of a single page that reads "This website will return October 9th." I await that date with bated breath. There's also a sub-reddit, whose strapline, as quoted by Paeroka, reads: “We aim to create worlds to live in, skills to discover, and adventures to share with friends."

The Kotaku piece makes the point that the eight defectors, all of whom comprise the collective that "amounted to the early development team for a new Guild Wars project, potentially Guild Wars 3", didn't take any of the work they'd done with them. Like NCSoft would have let them!

I'm guessing that they also won't have any rights or access to the intellectual property that comprises the Guild Wars franchise, despite Mike O'Brien having co-created it all. As far as I can tell, gaming stil resides somewhere in that nebulous legal hinterland that was known in the comics industry as "work made for hire".

Years of legal battles, particularly by Jack Kirby and his estate eventually saw that tradition broken. Kirby lost his claim but new writers were able to sign contracts that gave them royalties and rights, sometimes including ownership of the characters they created, which they were then able to take with them to other companies when they left.

The upshot of that was comics writers and artists becoming millionaires. Also a lot of very bad creator-owned comics. Freedom does not always equate to quality. For good or ill, that kind of freedom only seems to accrue to video game developers if they're canny enough to own the company that makes their games. Which may explain why so many of them leve to start their own studios.

Onwards and upwards
Regardless of the legal issues, the Mana Works tagline suggests Mike and the rest of his freedom-loving crew will be staying in the virtual world business. Whether that's in the form of an MMORPG or a plain old RPG it's a fair bet it will have something of the feel of Guild Wars about it, even though I'm certain any overt references to that I.P. will be assiduously avoided.

As I was saying yesterday, older creators tend to polish and burnish their ideas. They don't usually spend much time or effort on coming up with new ones and why should they? Those that try usually end up embarassing themselves and alienating their audience. (Yes, I know I always link to that clip. That's because it's always true. Also because I'm old so I have no new ideas).

If Mana Works would care to come up with a small-scale MMORPG-like game that reminds us all strongly of games their CEO made in the past, well that would be perfectly fine with me. As I also said yesterday, there's absolutely nothing wrong with elder creators refining and perfecting their art for the pleasure and enjoyment of the audience that grew up with thier earlier works and would like some more, please. I'm looking at you, Brad...

If I had to bet on a horse in the non-existent race between Playable Games and Mana Works, on the equally non-existent evidence of what they're doing now and the rather more solid form book of what they've done in the past, I'd probably give it to Mike O'Brien by a nose. His project at least sounds less abstract and more feasible.

I hope they both make it over the finishing line. We could do with more passion projects by committed creators, regardless of their age or origin.


  1. Whaddya bet the odds are great that Mana Works won't work with NCSoft to publish anything? It's akin to NCSoft watching EA, Epic Games, Activision/Blizzard, and Bethesda getting tons of bad press and saying, "Hey, don't forget about us!!"

    I just shake my head at the eschewing of a long term strategy to "make money now!" that a lot of these companies have. I mean, there's a reason why Apple is such a huge company, and that's because they have a long term vision. I'm not convinced that a lot of these big game corporations have a coherent vision beyond three months out.

    1. I have quite a bit of sympathy with NCSoft over GW2. The game has been languishing in limbo for at least the last two years and it's hardly surprising they finally got fed up of watching all the effort go into putative new games that probably wouldn't see the light of day for five years, if ever, while the only product ANet have that makes money was being allowed to flounder and sink.

      That said, I very much doubt Mike O'Brien will want to get back into that bed any time soon. The question will be whether he tries to publish whatever Mana Works produces all by himself or whether he swaps NCSoft for another corporate overlord. John Smedley tried to go it alone in what seem like very similar circumstances and that didn;t work out so well. He ended up closing the studio, returning all the money he'd taken for PixelMages' only product and falling into the arms of Amazon.

  2. I wouldn't get too excited just yet. O'Brien's statement that he wants to make smaller games and the Mana Works tagline about wanting to create worlds immediately struck me as being at odds with each other.

    1. A mobile MMO world would be a smaller game! *ducks* I’ll show myself out.

    2. I don't see a major rift between "smaller games" and "virtual worlds". Rubies of Eventide, one of my favorite MMORPGs ever, was tiny by modern standards - you could have fitted the entire gameworld into The Barrens. There used to be quite a lot of MMORPGs like that. Endless Ages, one of the first MMOFPS titles, was very small. Crowns of Power was another one I liked that wasn't a big, sprawling world - just a few zones. I'm sure it can be done but I'm not expecting much.

      And after reading today's interview with Raph Koster at I am *definitely* not expecting anything that's going to appeal to me from Playable Games. I wish the interview had been up before I wrote my post. Quotes like ""When I look at what has happened with MMOs, it feels like it's really fallen into a template, and it's a pretty old template," Koster says. "Let's party up, let's kill some monsters, we'll level up, and then rinse-repeat." and ""There's this craving for alternate worlds that are richer than just hack and slashing your way through levels," Koster says. "So that's what we're out to build." make me think he's going to make yet another "the player brings the game" empty world with little or no professionally curated content. We have far more of those than we need already.

  3. Ah, Raph. I remember arguing with him on Usenet during the development of Ultima Online. While time has shown I was wrong about most of my points, I was right about player behavior. That is, enough people will just be jerks instead of 'roleplaying bandits, villains, etc.' to cause serious problems. The mass migration to Trammel when they introduced that shard showed that most players didn't like non-consensual PvP.

    After that -- and it may be my confirmation bias -- it always seemed that he never quite understood the typical MMO player and what they wanted. He's always seemed to be focused on creating "Hamlet on the Holodeck" (from the book) he's so fascinated about. I wish him success as we can always use more profitable MMOs that aren't just EQ/Wow repeats, but I suspect human nature will always take its toll on his games.


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