Thursday, April 14, 2022

Cost Benefit Analysis

at Parallel Context has a thought-provoking post up, poking away at that hoary old flogging-horse, fun. Wilhelm at TAGN, meanwhile, has a weapons-grade, mad as hell and not taking it any more rant aimed squarely at everyone's least-favorite spaceman, Lord British.

At first read, the two posts don't seem to have all that much in common but I was struck by the way they both reveal a little of the darkness that lies in "giving people want they want". Or should that be what they think they want?

Looking back to the dying days of World of Warcraft's Wrath of the Lich King era, Redbeard brings back some of the mixed emotions aroused by the fast-moving changes Blizzard brought to what has always been a slippery and ever-shifting genre. The surprise, if there was one, should have been that we didn't see it coming. 

The myth about sharks is that they'll drown if they ever stop moving forward. Mmorpgs are the same.

I was almost done playing WoW, my first time through, when Blizzard introduced the earliest iteration of the automated group-making tool. Mrs Bhagpuss and I had been playing for just over six months by then and we'd both seen about as much of the game as we cared to. She'd already stopped logging in. I think she'd gone back to EverQuest II

I hung on a little bit longer. I was waiting for the patch that introduced the Group Finder. I was very curious to see how it would work. I wasn't expecting it to change anything for me, personally. At that point I'd never pugged a dungeon in WoW. I'd barely even been in a dungeon in WoW and I had no plans to start. I was waiting to see how the innovation would change the game itself and by implication the genre.

In the event it took me just three runs to decide that a) the LFG tool was a clever and useful addition to the game and b) I had no interest in ever using it again. I could also see that it was a genie that would be very hard to cork.

For someone who had already just about had enough of Azeroth for the time being, far from opening up a whole new era of possibility, what it did was confirm my feeling that it was about time I found somewhere else to be. I moved on but I was very well aware that no matter how far or fast I was moving I wouldn't be able to outrun history. You can't unhave ideas. Automated group-making had been loosed upon the virtual world. Nothing would be the same ever again.

The Sparkle Pony, as Redbeard goes on to say, marked another turning point. At this remove I can't remember (Or be bothered to check.) if Blizzard was the first major player to introduce paid-for mounts into a Subscription game. I know Sony Online Entertainment did the same because I was there when it happened but whether that was before or after The Ensparkling I don't recall.

And it doesn't matter. Whoever did it first, soon everyone was doing it. And why wouldn't they? It turns out people like spending money on stuff that doesn't exist, even if they have to pay an entrance fee to get into the store. If you were making games to make money wouldn't you do the same? If people want to pay you twice, why not let them? 

Well, I guess one good reason would be if those same people ended up losing faith in your game's ability to entertain and amuse them and took their custom elsewhere. That didn't happen even though many said it would. 

Oh, I'm sure there were people who stopped playing and claimed it was because of all the shiny ponies sparkling up the streets and maybe sometimes it was even true. I mean, I left EQII's live servers for the tumbleweed emptiness of the Test server mostly because I got into a snit about the flying carpets that came with the Desert of Flames expansion. Or I said I did.

It was a factor, just like the coming of the LFG tool to WoW was a factor in my leaving that game. It just wasn't the main reason I left. It was, as these things so often are, a handy excuse to do something I'd been wanting to do anyway. 

It was also not forever. It so rarely is. Not for me, anyway. The plethora of retro and restart servers everywhere you look these days, coupled with the endless marketing drives to bring back former players to just about every mmorpg there ever was, suggests my yo-yoing loyalties are anything but unique.

Observational and anecdotal evidence suggests the membrane holding players inside or outside the current bubble of any mmorpg is becoming ever more permeable. The whole business model used to rely on locking paying customers down. Now it's increasingly about keeping the leash loose enough so they don't feel the tie until you tug.

Every barrier that comes down weakens the next, too. Those sparkle ponies seem almost quaint now. Strike the almost. Crowded places in just about every mmorpg I play (And most I don't, I imagine.) look more like carnival parades than whatever they're intended to suggest. As recreations of fantasy cities they bear about as much resemblance to even an imaginary reality as Disneyland's Main Street USA does to any American town you can actually drive through in your own car.

It's easy enough to see it all as a degradation of some kind of preternatural authenticity that existed before but is it? Was there ever anything more to the experience than what we brought to it? Aren't we just bringing different things, now? 

It's another of those "You say you want it but you don't" moments, only this time it's "You say you don't want it but you do." Money talks, as the saying goes, and what it's saying is "I want a Pony!"

Or a spaceship. In castigating erstwhile elder now turned pantomime villain, Lord British, Wilhelm brings in another rockstar dev, Chris Roberts, as a point of reference:

"I am not a fan of Star Citizen, but this announcement has made Chris Roberts palatable by comparison.  I don’t believe CR will ever be able to deliver on all, or even most, of the promises he has made, but he is selling a dream and has something tangible in alpha and has managed not to get bored and wander off mid-project.  If you were to ask me if you should buy a spaceship in Star Citizen or give money to Lord British, I’d say knock yourself out with the spaceship."

This really struck me as a crucial paragraph. A lot of people don't like Chris Roberts and his Star Citizen money press, largely on the grounds that the game he's been promising to make for years can and will never become a reality. I have always thought that misses the point.

Star Citizen isn't a game. It's a showroom for imaginary spaceships. There probably are people genuinely still waiting for a full-function mmorpg to emerge from the endless development process over at Cloud Imperium but I would hazard my best guess they aren't any kind of majority. 

Star Citizen is a toyshop. People buy shiny spaceships there and go Vroom! Vroom! in their minds. Space Sparkle Ponies if you like. And people do like. They like very much, which is why Star Citizen keeps making more money

In some ways, not having a real game to go with them makes the whole thing more fun. It's like me when I played Riders of Icarus. All I really wanted to do was log in, get my next amazing mount, ride it around the city for a while, take a few screenshots and log out. The fact that I knew there was an actual game there just put me under pressure to stop having fun and do some damn work. Go and do some levelling. Play the actual game. That, among other things, was what led to me drifting away.

In that sense, you might think that Lord British's titanic vagueness over what game, exactly, he intends to make "on the blockchain" shouldn't be all that much of a red flag. It is, though.

Here's the difference, as I see it, between Chris Roberts and Richard Garriott: Chris Roberts really likes spaceships; Lord British really likes money.

Which is not to say Roberts doesn't like money, too. Of course he does. We all like money. But he's pretty clear on what he's selling. If you pay him for an imaginary spaceship that's what you get. If you buy an NFT of a spaceship, as Tipa's been wondering, just what exactly does that get you that any mmorpg or cash shop can't sell you already?

I'm assuming here that NFTs are involved in Lord British's plans somewhere down the line, along with Play to Earn and all the rest of the buzzwords. 

The single, obvious advantage of selling sparkle ponies and spaceships "on the blockchain" rather through a regular cash shop is, as it seems to me, the license that gives you to charge orders of magnitude more money for them. I can see why that's attractive to some people. Mainly the people doing the selling but also those who think a thing's value lies in how much it costs. There are names for people who think that way. None of them are kind.

Given the lead time required to make a new mmorpg, there's every chance all this will be over by the game comes out, if it ever does. I guess that won't matter much. By then the last drips will have been squeezed from the low-hanging fruit and the whole caravan will have moved on to the next mirage, taking Lord British with it, likely as not.

Leaving us all to play happily with our ponies and our spaceships in the actual games that take actual money for imaginary toys. And even if some of those games are still just sketches of a promise of a dream, they'll still be more real than anything "on the blockchain".

Fun is where you find it and we already know where to look.


  1. Very much so. Chris Roberts went into Star Citizen selling a spaceship game dream. That is what he has talked about, promised, and so on. He might be out of his mind, but he painted a picture people could hang their dreams on.

    Lord British is not bothering to sell anything like that. His announcement was a business model, his vision was how he was going to extract cash from end users. Who is supposed to get excited about that? It is just a crass attempt to cash in on his name and some current buzzwords.

    In the end, while I don't think CR will deliver all he promised, LB isn't promising anything at all. Where is the fun in that?

    1. All the pictures in the post here were taken in my two "free fly" weekends or whatever CIG call their promo events. Honestly, if you removed all the hype and overblown promises, there's already about as much mmorpg there, ready to play, as many games start with. I had a pretty good time, put in quite a few hours and I would definitely play more if only I could navigate the blasted ships more comfortably, which is a reflection of my skill rather than any problem with the game design.

      By comparison, my few hours in Shroud of the Avatar, which at the time had launched officially, were confusing and unimpressive. I didn't dislike it but it was hard to see why you'd want to play that particular fantasy mmorpg rather than any other. Star Citizen, on the other hand, did actually feel like an original experience, even if it was still limited in scope. It also felt like it had been made by people who were interested in what they were doing, something I probably wouldn't have said about SotA.

  2. I can't help but think of Carbot's This is World of Warcraft when I read this post. There's a point farther downstream (about 1:40 in) when the main character looks around and sees people on their outrageous mounts, and then at the 2:00 mark getting plucked up and put down on a conveyor belt to an instance, and nobody interacting with each other. With TBC Classic out now and the advent of Wrath Classic on the horizon, we've already begun the path once more toward that same result, although I think we're getting there faster because people have brought a Retail (or modern MMO) mentality to a game never designed for that.

    1. There's a My Life Story song called "You can't uneat the apple", which I take to mean you can't unlearn what you now know. That's the problem for all retro servers - people arrive with both preconceptions and memories. Classic was great for a few months because, I think, it attracted a lot of people who actually hadn't played much retail WoW recently and were trying to re-create their experiences from fifteen years ago.

      I haven't played BC but from what I've read, particularly from you and Shintar, I get the impression the audience is now very much the kind of people who were already playing Retail before Classic, even if they weren't all that happy with it. I would guess the great wave of nostalgia has swept past, taking most of the genuine ex-WoW players with it. I also suspect BC didn't really have enough of a nostalgia factor for that demographic to whip up a second wave.

      Whether WotLK does or not will be interesting. It was WoW's populist high-water mark, I believe. There's a possibility it might attract a less raid-focused audience, at least for a month or two. Probably not, if I had to guess, but it will be interesting to see.


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