Tag Archives: lotro

My five favourite MMOs

In the spirit of yesterday’s post, here are my five favourite games that are MMOs.

It’s hard to analyse MMOs in the same way as non-MMOs, because there are so many other factors that affect one’s fun – the quality of dev support, the quality and frequency of new content, the friendliness of the community, the critical mass of players that makes a world feel lived-in, and so on.

Still, here are the five MMOs I’ve enjoyed the most – and, in some cases, miss the most.

  • World of Warcraft

Yeah, yeah, WoW is the opiate of the MMO masses; it’s old and tired and whatever. I don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong: I fell out of love with Blizzard a couple of years ago, and I haven’t been inclined to cut them much slack since them. But despite my dissatisfaction with what WoW has become, it’s impossible to forget the years of happiness and fun it’s provided, or the way it’s shaped an entire industry and brought it into the mainstream.

When WoW was shaping up for release, our SWG guild put its money on EQ2 instead. Most of us weren’t Warcraft enthusiasts, didn’t much care about WoW, and many had a history with EQ that made EQ2 look amazing. When WoW came out, we were snobbish about how ‘ezymode’ it was and how it just gave you stuff on a plate – while we went back to retrieve our corpses again (and corpse runs in EQ/EQ2 were not the simple thing they are in WoW!) and earn some XP to pay back what we’d lost by dying.

And then slowly we all trickled across to WoW, and we realised just how damn good it was. Most importantly, more than any other game at the time, WoW cut away the bits of the MMO gaming paradigm that weren’t fun.1 “I’m a game,” said WoW. “I’m supposed to be fun. Stop doing those stupid grindy chores in other games, and come and play me.” And we listened, and we did, and most of us never looked back.

World of Warcraft

  • Lord of the Rings Online

LotRO is very much a game in the WoW-ish themepark model, but it’s far from just “WoW with a Tolkien theme painted on”. Its crafting system is more interesting (and more relevant), the game’s ambience and atmosphere are absolutely perfect, the narrative does an excellent job of keeping you involved in the story and making you feel integral without overriding the canon, the seasonal festivals are fun and setting-appropriate (instead of just feeling like our holidays pasted onto a fantasy world), its geography is excellent, and the community is generally peaceful, friendly and mature. And it’s got a) what’s probably the single best F2P implementation I’ve seen in any subscription game, and b) the best wardrobe/cosmetic gear system ever. The game design is great: each class feels special, with unique mechanics and clear differentiation – playing a WoW warrior, DK or paladin all feels much the same; playing a LotRO loremaster, minstrel or runekeeper does not.

It’s not perfect, of course; in particular, the animations and movement engine feel unresponsive, which drove away pretty much everyone I was playing with. The housing system is clunky and lonely, and reportedly unlikely to be improved. And there’s been some unhappiness with the direction of the Turbine Store, like the immersion-breaking $50 hobby-horse mount. Those aren’t dealbreakers for me, but sadly I don’t rule the world (yet).

But If I could wave a magic wand and make all my friends and guildmates want to play one MMO; if I could make everyone I know and want to play with congregate in one game — LotRO would, without doubt, be that game. I’m only not playing it now because nobody else is.

(It also has my single favourite MMO class of all time, the Loremaster. That class was made for me, and I really wish more MMOs had classes like that.)

Lord of the Rings Online

  • Star Wars Galaxies

Oh, SWG. I am so conflicted about you.

SWG was really my first MMO love. I’d played UO years before, but not in a particularly involved way, and I’d missed the whole EQ craze.

SWG was so very flawed. It was massively buggy – for instance, you’d quite often lose half your inventory when you crossed an invisible zone line and it wouldn’t come back for a couple of hours, which was irksome to say the least. And being very sandboxy, it didn’t take long to run out of things to do for those of us who hadn’t quite got the hang of making our own fun yet. All up, I only played for eight months or so before being lured away into EQ2 and then WoW.

And yet SWG had so much going for it that no other game has matched. Its Star Wars atmosphere was perfect – much more Star-Wars-y than SWTOR, to be honest. The game mechanics were interesting, the Galactic Civil War actually made open world PvP relevant (and thus people actually did it for reasons other than ganking lowbies!). The game encouraged roleplaying and storytelling with non-combat classes like dancers and musicians. The housing system was excellent. And the crafting – oh, the crafting. The crafting was basically perfect, and hit pretty much every single one of my buttons as far as crafting goes – and unfortunately it’s set an incredibly high bar that no game has since been able to match. I regret leaving SWG behind, more so now than ever – the classic case of “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”, really.

I’m very happy to discover, though, that there’s a team of volunteer devs developing a Star Wars Galaxies emulator/private server project, at SWG Emu. I haven’t checked it out yet, as I’ll need to find my original game install discs, but this might be my only chance to get my SWG fix again.

Star Wars Galaxies

  • Glitch

Glitch was a magnificent experiment from a startup studio called Tiny Speck. It launched as a browser-based MMO in 2009 and ran until December 9 this year; they simply couldn’t find a way to make it a viable concern. It also didn’t help that they were tied to Flash, and thus their future in mobile gaming – which would otherwise have been a perfect fit for Glitch – was limited.

Glitch had a sense of fun and whimsy like no other game I’ve ever encountered. Almost entirely combat-free, it revolved around exploration, social and emergent gameplay, and crafting. You gathered cooking materials by nibbling piggies, milking butterflies, and squeezing chickens. The fact that there’s no longer a game where you can milk a butterfly makes the world a sadder place, in my opinion.

Glitch

  • DC Universe Online

I can’t believe I’m putting this on the list, but I actually think DCUO belongs here. (This is the spot where I had about five contenders, all with pros and cons, and eventually I decided DCUO came out on top.) I played it constantly for a couple of months in early 2011 and then dropped it like a hot rock, focusing at the time on all the things it did wrong, and not giving enough love to the things it did right.

So let’s get that out of the way up front: it was a great game, ahead of its time, that was hampered by a horrible console-compliant port, utterly inadequate multiplayer features and a user-hostile interface. (The month-long downtime due to the PSN hack didn’t help, either.)

At the same time, though: it pioneered AoE keybound looting and the limited-toolbar MMO style, its movement engine was the most fun I’d had just running around in any game since WoW’s flying mounts (and it hadn’t been topped until I discovered Firefall’s jump jets), the combat system was unique and even healers got to beat stuff up, instance play supported duos, the instances were fun and interesting, the setting was true to canon, and it had Mark Hamill voicing the Joker. Flying over and around Metropolis was just amazing, and the game deserved a lot more credit for its good points than it got.

DC Universe Online

  • Honorable Mentions
  • All of these games were in competition for the fifth slot which eventually went to DCUO:

    • Star Wars: the Old Republic – would have been on the list, were it not for the limited replayability contributing to a player exodus and stale endgame. As a levelling game, it’s superb and would have been at the top of my list, but the fun stops suddenly when you hit 50. Well, it did for me, anyway.
    • Firefall – without a doubt my favourite surprise of the year, this MMOFPS will almost certainly be on my 2013 favourites list. But right now it’s still in beta, and they’re adding content and changing things quite radically and frequently. It’s unreasonable to assess the game right now, because it’s definitely not a finished product.
    • RIFT – I had a lot of fun in RIFT this year, but it’s just not compelling enough to draw me in when I’ve already got other themepark MMOs on the go. It lost the competition for my time against SWTOR, then TSW, then GW2 and now WoW. I like it well enough, but apparently I just don’t love it.
    • EVE Online – spaceships and lasers; what’s not to love? Well, the community full of toxic asshats, for a start. But more importantly, the existence of easy RMT takes something away from the game. I could spend twelve or fifteen hours mining like crazy to make myself half a billion ISK, or I could spend fifteen dollars in the EVE store and net myself half a billion ISK with about three mouse clicks. Don’t get me wrong, EVE’s still fun, but the existence of RMT (and my introduction to it very early in my EVE-playing career) takes away any incentive to do pretty much any PvE in the game. Add to that the fact that the only way you can improve your character is just to wait for RL time to pass and there’s little incentive to play EVE as anything other than “oooh look at the pretty spaceships”; it’s lost the risk-vs-reward factor necessary to make it a game.
    • The Secret World – another game about which I’m conflicted! TSW’s writing is the best I’ve ever seen in an MMO, the setting is refreshing and novel, the character progression system is very flexible, the missions are compelling and the investigation missions in particular are just amazing. Unfortunately, it’s plagued with a lot of challenging, grindy combat that dilutes the awesomeness down to merely ‘okay’, and it lost the competition for my time and attention. I’m not done with it, but I’m also not feeling the itch to go back any time soon.

So, I imagine some of my choices are pretty unusual — but it’s also true that many MMO players get fixed on just a game or two, and fleshing out a whole list of five can be a bit hard. What would your five favourite MMOs be?

  1. Like XP loss or XP debts for every death. Like corpse runs where you respawn alive but your gear’s still on your corpse waiting to be retrieved, in the middle of all the mobs that killed you the first time when you had all your gear. Like needing a full group of players, including a tank and a healer, just to be able to kill same-level non-elite mobs. Like having to run almost everywhere in a world full of monsters you can’t solo because taxi points are few and far between. And so on.

Taming the jerk brigade

Trolls: Shadowrun, WoW and D&D Style

Trolling on the internet is nothing new; it’s long been a given that the internet is full of asshats. There’s a reason many people cite “Don’t Read The Comments” as Rule 1 of the internet. Online games are no strangers to this effect; sites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty are proof enough. We can’t police the entire internet, but we don’t have to put up with our communities becoming – or remaining – toxic wastelands full of bullies and trolls.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. One of the best examples of the wrong way is, I think, Blizzard’s moderation of the World of Warcraft communities. There are a couple of problems with their approach:

    Forum alts: You’ve always been able to use a level 1 throwaway alt for posting on the WoW forums, which diminishes any accountability and allows the trolling-inclined to be jerks to their heart’s content. Blizzard’s attempt in 2010 to enforce RealIDs on the forums was ill-thought-out, but requiring a consistent forum identity wouldn’t have been an unreasonable move and, I believe, would have cut down on the most obnoxious forum behaviour. Plenty of other game studios do it, and it works just fine.

    Speed of response: When you report harrassment, it takes Blizzard a long time to do anything about it. For example, Genowen at Untamed Hellcat recounts an incident where she was repeatedly harrassed by an entire guild, yet multiple tickets achieved nothing; it took two hours on the phone to Blizzard to see any action. Three days (or more) of harrassment while waiting for Blizzard to step in is simply unacceptable, and gives far too much power to the bullies.

    Lack of commitment: What do harrassers get, in WoW? A three-day ban if they’re really egregious? How often are people permabanned from the game for being asshats that make everyone consistently miserable? That’s right: pretty much never. Blizzard is too willing to forgive their customers for making other players — other customers — miserable.

So that’s the wrong way. What’s the right way?

Honestly, I think it just comes down to “being willing to put your foot down”. This responsibility is twofold, I think. In part, it’s the community’s job to enforce its own standards, which means more of us need to be willing to speak up and say “shut up, you’re being an asshat” when people are making the community toxic. And we need to do it on behalf of the people being victimised or harassed, not just in our own defenses when it happens to us. This is the spirit informing Navi’s Anti-Asshat Week, which I heard about via Stubborn at Sheep the Diamond, and enthusiastically endorse. LotRO’s a good example of this; it’s renowned for having a relatively pleasant community, because the community self-polices and good behaviour is rewarded while the jerks are generally shunned.

But it’s hard – it’s exhausting – to fight the jerks every day when you’re there to play and relax; doubly so if you’re one of the gaming minorities like women or gay gamers whose mere existence is used as hate speech. The ultimate responsibility lies with the game studio, IMO, because they’re the only ones who have the power to enforce actual punishment on people who aren’t swayed by whatever social pressure the community can impose.

I can think of a couple of cases of this done right in recent memory. ArenaNet attracted a lot of attention by banning the first wave of racist, homophobic bullies from Guild Wars 2 within a few days of the game’s release, back in August – and then they took to Reddit to explain why, with specifics when banned players challenged them. Their opening statement:

We want to clear up some of the confusion about GW2 name and behaviour suspensions. To keep Guild Wars 2 a pleasant place to be, we take action against racist names, hate speech and other unacceptable behaviour. We have suspended some accounts involved in the use of offensive character names or inappropriate chat. The number of account blocks is miniscule: less than .001 per cent of our total player base.

Of course, a number of commentators pointed out that ArenaNet had little incentive not to ban players, since their revenue model relies on box purchases rather than subscriptions — although this doesn’t address the issue of lost revenue from microtransactions the banned players might otherwise have made. Still, I have to admit that it warmed my heart to see bullies and trolls being dealt with sternly — and called out for their inappropriate behaviour when they complained. Pleasingly, some banned players even admitted they’d been in the wrong and apologised for being asshats — something I never expected to see, personally.

Red 5, the developers of Firefall, are another studio doing it right. The Firefall Beta Test Agreement includes the following clause:

6. You agree to be nice to everyone else playing the game. No foul language, no insults, no griefing, no cheating, etc. Red 5 Studios, Inc. retains the sole right to determine if you are being a jerk, and to take action on your account, which may include the loss of the characters, items, and any other virtual property within the game that is associated with your account. You may appeal this action through the informal process in clause 5.

I beamed when I read that for the first time. No shying away from the issue, no weasel words; instead we get a straight-up acknowledgement that being decent to other players is the required behaviour, not a statistical outlier. And I don’t think it’s a coincident that Firefall has a pretty decent player community, either. I haven’t heard anyone complaining of being banned, the incidence of general asshattery in zone chat is pretty low, and the forums are both lively and low on abuse. It doesn’t hurt that Firefall’s devs are actively engaged with the community, of course; they talk frequently with their player base, post frankly on the forums, and are happy to join in more casual and friendly discussions as well as the serious meaty developer posts. All of this adds up to an active and pleasant player community; people have little incentive to be toxic assholes to their fellow players, and it’s clearly stated that they’ll face heavy sanctions if they transgress.

I suspect it’s too late for games like WoW and communities like the XBox Live community so depressingly chronicled at Fat, Ugly or Slutty. The atmosphere may well be too entrenched to shift, short of massive (and massively unpopular) intervention on the part of the companies with the power, and those companies’ long-time silence and inaction has set a precedent they may not be able to break. But examples like GW2 and Firefall demonstrate that we don’t have to tolerate assholes in our part of the internet if we’re supported by game studios with the will to keep their games non-toxic and jerk-free. Here’s to ArenaNet and Red 5 and the other studios choosing to take a stand for their communities. Call it naive, but I dream of a day when level 1 forum alts and constant harassment are a cautionary tale from the past, not a reality thrust in the face of all too many of us who’d rather just game in peace.

The argument for addons

I was struck, when awaiting SWTOR’s launch last year, by the vitriolic debate for and against addons that raged within the fan community. Some fans — and I count myself among their number — were keen on addons; some hated the very thought of them.

Me, I love addons. I like the ability to tweak my interface to present me with the kind of information that’s important to what I’m doing. If I’m spending a few weeks grinding faction, I want to be able to see my faction standings onscreen without opening my character sheet. If I’m raiding, I want not just raid frames but easily-viewable buffs and debuffs and other important alerts. If I’m recruiting I want more social tools to hand. And I have a big monitor; I’d much rather keep that info onscreen instead of having to open up windows repeatedly to find it. I want to be able to put my action bars where I want them, and have different bars of different sizes depending on their function. I like being able to put all the elements where they suit me, style them how I like them, and hide the bits I don’t want.

For example, my WoW UI, Cataclysm-vintage:

My WoW UI, Cataclysm-vintage

Allowing players to move and resize interface components (in the style of LotRO, SWTOR, and RIFT) goes some way towards meeting the most basic needs of UI customisation, but it falls far short of allowing proper UI modding.

There are a number of reasons I like addons, both personally and on general principle:

1. Comfort

I don’t mind a single-player or multiplayer game with a locked-down UI because those games are generally limited experiences – you get in, you play, you log off. But MMOs are ‘home’ for so many of us – we log in to chat, to relax, and to socialise (and to do ‘chores’ like gathering consumables or doing dailies) as well as to actually play. The success of MMOs relies, in the long term, on players feeling ‘at home’ in their ingame environment, and UI comfort is a huge part of that. There’s a big difference between a hotel room and my own house, and uncustomisable UIs feel like the hotel rooms of the gaming world.

2. Accessibility

One of the reasons why I’m pro-addons is that they help solve accessibility issues. Not everyone is able to play with a stock UI, whether it’s vision impairments that mean you need elements bigger and more visible, hearing impairments that mean you need subtitles or onscreen warning instead of alert sounds, or physical impairments that mean you can’t move the mouse around easily while clicking so you need mouseover macros or click-to-cast addons — or some other issue. A robust addon engine means that, while devs aren’t off the hook in terms of addressing accessibility issues, players with uncommon needs or specific impairments have a much better chance of finding a solution that lets them play the game in comfort.

3. Customisation

We don’t expect everybody to play MMOs the same way or for the same reasons, and different playstyles need access to different controls and different information. It’s like buying clothing — “one size fits all” usually doesn’t fit anyone apart from those people who are within one standard deviation of the median. 1 The stock UI simply can’t be all things to all people, nor meet the needs of every facet of the (hopefully large) user base. Addons can help to make the game experience a lot more pleasant for people who fall outside the catered-to “norm”.

4. Reversion

Sometimes developers make choices that are simply ugly to your eyes, or leave you scratching your head wondering what they were thinking. (Personally, I think the unmodded original WoW UI was a simply terrible design that really doesn’t hold up to the huge screens of modern gaming computers, for instance.) Allowing addons that modify the interface means that hapless players can undo the dev choices that seem insane to them.

(Unsurprisingly, some devs are so attached to their precious interfaces that they cite the “user experience” as the reason they’re disallowing addons. Pal, if your interface design is so great, your players wouldn’t want addons to change it. Take the hint, yes?)

Customising the SWTOR UI

5. Inspiration

A vibrant addon-creating and -using community is effectively a volunteer workforce refining and playtesting the best (and worst) interface changes that addons can offer; the developers are then free to incorporate that sort of functionality into the game proper — which is good for everybody, as native features are almost always smoother and faster than those from third-party plugins. WoW has a long history of incorporating the most popular addon functionalities into the game itself, and I think other games miss out by not doing the same.

Countering the counterarguments

Unfortunately, all too many people have a kneejerk DO NOT WANT reaction to addons; to them, “addons” are synonymous with “elitist assholes who use DPS meters as a tool to put other people down”.

Certainly, every game community has its share of assholes, but despite the common arguments, addons don’t make the community toxic. Community size (plus its demographics and the basic asshole-amplifying nature of the internet) makes the community toxic. Gearscore, Recount and Omen didn’t make the WoW community a horrible place – 12 million players (and poor community policies and the proliferation of “level 1 forum alts” did that). Addons are just tools, and I can honestly say that my community experience in WoW, RIFT, TSW or LotRO (which all allow addons) was not any worse than my experience in SWTOR or GW2 (which do not).

The bottom line

What it boils down to for me is that having addons shouldn’t make life worse for the people who choose to play without them, but not having addons does make life worse for people who want (or need) to play with them. Provided I’m able to do my job in group play, and I’m not an asshole, it has no impact on anybody else whether or not I’m using addons.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to download some addons for RIFT.

  1. And this article is, totally tangentially, an interesting look at why off-the-rack clothes fit so badly.

When copying is a good thing

It’s no secret that plenty of games in the MMO space borrow from each other, and from their community. Each new game is, in many ways, a response to the games that have come before — and, of course, many of us bemoan that fact, or deride new MMOs as WoW Clones, and so on.

And yet it’s not at all uncommon to play a new game, stumble across a feature, and think “oh, ffs, [Game X] did that so much better; this is so clunky!” Or, more often, stumble across the lack of a feature, and be frustrated that “bah, [Game X] managed to get this right three years ago, why isn’t everyone doing it?“.

It’s terribly unfair of us, of course, to criticise games on the one hand for being too similar, and yet to complain on the other when New Game Y is missing the convenience features we’re used to in Old Game X. But apparently it’s human nature, so here are a few off the top of my head:

  • Looting: DCUO gave us one-key AOE looting. RIFT, WoW and SWTOR now have AoE loot; TSW and GW2 have keybound loot. Other MMOs are still catching up, but few games have matched DCUO’s looting convenience. Every time I kill a mob in SWTOR or RIFT I lament again the lack of a loot key – TSW and GW2 have spoilt me.
  • Selling junk: RIFT has a “sell vendor junk” button on every vendor window. Why doesn’t every game do this? (In fact, why even have vendor junk?) GW2 followed suit. SWTOR comes close with your ability to send off a companion to sell your junk for you. WoW solved the problem with addons. Other games missed the boat.
  • Character customisation in game: SWG had a brilliant “image designer” system back in 2004, people. LotRO caught up with the release of Barbers in Book 12, early 2008. WoW matched them with barbershops in Wrath of the Lich King, late 2008. RIFT only brought in stylists a month or so ago, and SWTOR still doesn’t have them. TSW launched without it, but is implementing them shortly; GW2 lacks any kind of in-game character customisation and ArenaNet’s said nothing about it.
  • Crafting: It’s no secret that I have strong opinions about how games implement crafting systems, but however else you feel about it, SWTOR did one thing brilliantly right: crafting from the bank. RIFT wasn’t far behind in implementing that, and players everywhere loved it, yet GW2 launched without it (as did TSW, though that was probably an inevitable effect of its crafting system).
  • Group-finding tools: I’m not sure whether WoW was the first to implement such a feature, but despite criticism it revolutionised gameplay for many many players. There are those who don’t like group finders, but they make it much easier to find groups for the majority of players, and especially in games with low (or spread-out) populations, one could argue that they’re vital. And yet they don’t seem to be a priority for many games at launch, oddly, despite grouping woes being one of the single biggest turn-offs for player retention.
  • Customisable UIs: WoW obviously set the bar here with its addon system (although it wasn’t the first by a long shot), and other games followed suit. Even games without addons allowed players to move and resize stock UI elements for their own comfort. Some devs, on the other hand, seem to be very precious about their beloved UIs, refusing to allow players to customise their layout in any meaningful way (which is a bad move on accessibility grounds, if nothing else). BioWare, thankfully, wised up with SWTOR and implemented a system like LOTRO and RIFT; ArenaNet, on the other hand, are very resistant to letting players customise GW2’s (intrusive and unfriendly) interface. It’s certainly not winning them any friends in my neck of the woods, I can tell you.

I’ve probably got a whole bunch of these wrong, in terms of who first pioneered an innovation, but the key point is not “who did it first” but “why isn’t everybody doing it now?”. I understand that devs want to set their game apart, but eschewing features that make gameplay better, more convenient or more satisfying is really not the way to do that.

So, what have I missed? I’m sure there are plenty of other features that should be industry-standard by now — and aren’t.

What makes a good MMO setting?

The recent Shadowrun Online kickstarter prompted a bit of thought on my part, as — unlike to most Shadowrun fans — I’d always felt that Shadowrun would lose a lot in translation to MMO-land. 1

So what does make for a good MMO setting, when you’re talking about existing IPs from books, movies, television and existing non-MMO game franchises? I’m not sure I know, but I do think there are some important factors to consider. (Note that all these apply to themepark MMOs, rather than sandbox games, as they’re a rather different beast.)

Books! Image CC-licensed by A30_Tsitika on Flickr

1. What makes the original IP engaging?

This is something my tabletop gaming GM 2 and I have often thrown around as a criterion when thinking about what makes for a good roleplaying campaign, 3 and I think it applies equally to MMORPGs. Think for a moment about the original IP (especially for books/movies/TV) — is it interesting because of the adventures (or personalities) of the protagonists? Or because the setting itself is interesting? Could you imagine another group of characters having an equally interesting time in that world?

Most original tabletop RPG settings succeed against this criterion (because it’s their job to provide interesting adventure and challenges for any group of characters); TVs and books and movies are more of a mixed bag. As an example: Star Wars and Star Trek both succeed, because the world is full of interesting adventure for anybody. Doctor Who, on the other hand, fails; there aren’t that many Time Lords out there, and for everyone else, life’s going to be pretty mundane. There are some cases where the story is about the protagonists yet there’s a rich backdrop behind them (such as Farscape, Firefly, or Babylon 5), but in general most character-driven stories aren’t likely to be very interesting for the people in the background.

2. Is there a power scale?

Unless you’re talking about entirely sandboxy games where players make their own fun, you need a sliding scale of antagonists. You need mooks for the characters to wade their way through, and you need Big Bads who pose a serious threat to civilisation/the world/your way of life, requiring cooperation to take them down.

This is where horror and fantasy settings shine, of course; whether classic high fantasy like the Lord of the Rings or modern fantasy horror like Buffy, the monsters can always be bigger and badder. By comparison, other genre staples like espionage thrillers or procedural crime stories fall down here — who would characters in an NCIS MMO actually fight? Other ordinary humans? That doesn’t sound compelling.

3. Does the setting suit MMO story needs?

Because of the way quest-driven MMOs are constructed, you need to be able to assume that most characters (not players) are willing to let questgivers tell them what to do, whether because they’re all motivated to be heroes (as in typical quest fantasy) or because they’re the kind of people who will accept orders from their superiors (for instance, military types).

Again, this works in most fantasy settings, because the archetype of the fantasy hero saving the world is fairly strong; even if there are plenty of characters who break the mold, it’s reasonable to assume that protagonists are heroes or champions, and to write quest and story dialogue with those assumptions front and centre. If your setting is full of characters who look askance at disinterested altruism or blindly trusting in The Man, though, that puts a lot of constraints on how characters are motivated to do your quests. This is a criterion that dystopian settings like cyberpunk and espionage tend to fail; in a grim and gritty near-future where people will do whatever they have to to survive (such as Shadowrun or Dark Angel), hoo-rah heroism tends to look somewhat out of place.

4. Does the setting constrain normal MMO mechanics?

“Death” is the obvious problem here. In high-magic fantasy settings a plethora of revival spells make sense; in science-fiction futures, cloning and personality transfers are a reasonable explanation. But in low-magic low-tech settings, you need a plausible way to explain how Joe isn’t dead any more.

LotRO got around this problem cleverly. Healing magic in the canonical setting is slow and subtle, and has no provisions for returning from death (unless you’re Gandalf, and even then he had to get help from Eru himself). So Turbine re-cast traditional health pools as Morale; when you run out of Morale you’re not dead, you’re just too demoralised to continue, and this of course allows for healing and buffing effects from those who improve your morale (such as Minstrels and Captains).

But this dodge won’t work for every setting — it’d be jarring in a pseudo-realistic urban fantasy setting like Buffy, for instance. And there are plenty of much-loved science fiction properties that don’t have handwavium-levels of technology to allow for functional interchangeable clones, such as Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica.

Similarly, if the setting comes from an existing tabletop game or video game, does it come attached to game mechanics that don’t translate well to MMO gameplay? WotC’s D20 system is a good example here — it’s the mechanical system behind tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and fidelity to it served singleplayer computer games like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic very well. But it didn’t translate very well to an MMORPG, where players have different expectations of the gameplay. Dungeons & Dragons Online — a sloggy clickfest — is living proof that mechanics permanently attached to a setting can be a millstone around the neck of an MMO based in that setting.

5. Does the setting still make sense when there are ten thousand protagonists?

This is where Star Wars Galaxies ran into problems when people started unlocking the ability to create Jedi characters — set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, it was hard to explain away the existence of half a dozen Jedi, let alone a server full of them. SWTOR avoided this issue; in the Old Republic era, there are canonically thousands of Jedi, and seeing a party of Jedi working together (or even a space station full of them) isn’t jarring in the same way it was in SWG.

A setting passes this criterion when you can imagine that any character could do what the protagonist does — Star Trek, for instance, succeeds handily because we know that there are tens of thousands of Starfleet officers out there; there are thousands of witches and wizards in the world of Harry Potter. There aren’t that many Time Lords, though, or Vampire Slayers, or D’ni, or Tarzans. When a setting features a single protagonist whose uniqueness is the linchpin of the story, it’s almost inevitably going to fail as an MMO – what works for the Chosen One becomes nonsensical for the Chosen Ten Thousand.

…Obviously I’m not an MMO dev,4 and MMOs are based on fresh IPs as often as not, but at least these rules help to remind me that “no, that might be a great book but it’d make a terrible setting for an MMO” when I’m having pangs of wishing I could adventure in my favourite fictional worlds.

  1. I do have reasons for this opinion, but they’d be something of a digression. That’s a post for another day.
  2. Who may very well be the best GM in the entire world. Seriously, you other gamers only wish you had a GM this great.
  3. Because we are obsessive nutbags about gaming and RPGs.
  4. More’s the pity.

F2P: SWTOR, you’re doing it wrong

Inspired by the recent discussion of SWTOR’s move to free-to-play in the blogosphere, I went looking at F2P offerings from other MMORPGs. While implementing F2P is often a good move for an MMO’s revenue, I think Bioware have got the wrong end of the stick with SWTOR’s model, and I’m honestly concerned that it’s going to do more harm than good to the longevity of the game.

(I’m not actually obsessed with F2P MMORPGs, contrary to the recent spate of posts. It’s just a hot topic right now, and there are a lot of interesting discussions happening thanks to SWTOR’s recent announcement.)

If you look at the different games with F2P options (shown in the table below, or neatly formatted on a standalone page), you’ll see a lot of similarities. Almost all games restrict your character creation options, for instance, usually in terms of access to classes and number of character slots. We’ve got no information about SWTOR’s plans in that arena, but there’s been no mention of such limitations yet. And most restrict at least some of their levelling content (which is the meat and potatoes of what a game has to offer to all except the most involved players), yet SWTOR has promised to give all theirs away for free.

Free-to-play, as a concept, exists to get money from customers who aren’t willing to commit to a subscription. A good implementation of F2P will encourage non-subscribers to give you their money. A bad implementation will encourage current subscribers to stop giving you their money. If current subscribers are looking at your upcoming F2P and deciding they can afford to unsubscribe, it rather suggests that you’re giving away the wrong stuff for free. And I’ve heard a lot more people saying they’ll go from subscription to F2P than the other direction.

SWTOR’s publicity and advertising all focused around its impressive quest content, story and character development, and fully-voiced-and-animated NPC dialogues. And yet Bioware has decided that that’s the stuff they’re going to give away for free, while restricting the raiding and PvP endgames (which are, let’s be honest, the parts of the game that are most interchangeable with other MMOs) to those who pay up.

Unless Bioware plans to implement extremely stringent limits on the number of characters a free account can have, 1 I don’t see this ending well for their balance sheet.

Other thoughts from the blogosphere on the same issue:

Financial analysts, on the other hand, seem to think this change could make SWTOR more popular than WoW. Good luck with that.

Follow the link for the full table of F2P comparisons.

  1. Which will be seen as a bait and switch as any mention of it has been omitted so far, and will thus provoke a lot of unnecessary hostility

The false economy of Free-to-Play

I spent a while this weekend in The Secret World (surprising, I know), which is currently having a one-month-iversary free play celebration weekend. That meant that the chat channels in the first few zones were full of people trying out the game, and most seemed very positive about it. That said, there were a surprising range of sentiments about the costs of subscribing.

Image credit: Twid @ Wikimedia, licensed under CC-BY-SA

The most common refrain I heard was “I won’t bother subscribing, I’ll just wait til it goes free-to-play” (often with the addendum “because Funcom games always do”). That was closely followed by “the lifetime access pack isn’t worth it, it’ll be free-to-play soon”.

Given that a Grandmaster Pack (which bestows the lifetime sub) costs the equivalent of 13.3 months’ subscription, that’s a gamble that TSW will go fully free-to-play in a year or less 1 and it’s assuming that the free-to-play mode won’t lock you out of content you’d otherwise want to do.

Now, different games have different free-to-play limitations. SWTOR, for instance, will allow you to complete the entirety of the quest content, and will just restrict the number of instances, PvP warzones and space missions you can do every week (and restrict you from raiding). 2 LotRO, on the other hand, only opens some questing areas to free-to-play users; if you want to progress further, or explore more widely, you need to unlock regional quest packs with microtransactions in their store. (As well as a range of other restrictions.) Many games restrict free-to-play players to more vanilla classes and races, leaving the interesting and exotic stuff for the subscribers. And almost every F2P game restricts your character slots, bag space, bank balance and/or concurrent auctions/sales if you’re not a paying subscriber. For comparison, check out the free-to-play models offered by SWTOR, LotRO, EverQuest 2, DC Universe Online, City of Heroes, Age of Conan and Star Trek Online.

So “waiting for F2P” is a gamble that it is coming sooner rather than later, and that its implementation won’t be so restrictive that you’ll feel the need to pay anyway. Remember, the whole point of F2P is to lure you into paying, and one way devs do that is by restricting what you can do as a free player. Which is fair enough — they’re not a charity, after all. In most MMOs, if you’re a non-subscribing player, buying access to all the features of a subscription costs as much as months of subscribing.

Now, if your gaming time is already full and you just can’t see you’d get value for money out of yet another MMO sub, or your budget is creaking and you can’t afford it, that’s another matter (and waiting for F2P seems an entirely sensible choice). And F2P modes work well for people who get very little regular gaming time — you’re not wasting subscription time and you can still get months of entertainment out of the limited content they offer for free. But if you’ve got the money and you’ve got the time – and you like the game – why not pay for it? Waiting for a free-to-play implementation that may never come seems like false economy to me.

  1. And for comparison’s sake, Funcom’s other two MMORPGs both took three years to offer a free-to-play option.
  2. Which is why I’m concerned about SWTOR’s implementation of F2P — there aren’t enough restrictions to encourage a free player to subscribe. I don’t think it’s going to do good things for their revenue.

SWTOR and the F2P tango

Well, today’s big news in MMO Land is that Star Wars: the Old Republic is going free-to-play. That will gratify all the doomsayers who predicted failure for the game, and said “see you when it goes free to play in six months” — whether or not this represents a failure, it will certainly be perceived as one by many commentators.

Of course, one could argue that it was an oversight – or, perhaps, a stubborn adherence to an outdated model – that SWTOR wasn’t a free-to-play-game in the first place. Few big releases these days don’t include at least a cash shop of some kind (as TSW does), if not an entire free-to-play or buy-to-play model (as GW2 does). SWTOR was very much an “old school” MMO, and at the time of its launch many commentators claimed that if it failed, it would signal the demise of the subscription model MMO altogether.

I’m not actually convinced about that. The people who make those claims are, I suspect, those for whom $15 a month is a substantial purchasing decision. But that’s always been a factor; a monthly subscription hasn’t stopped WoW from succeeding. Most of us feel that $15 a month is worth it for the amount of entertainment we get from a good MMO, but there are plenty of people who don’t agree; the buy-once-play-forever model of Guild Wars 2 will suit them down to the ground.

But contrary to public perception, a game going free-to-play isn’t necessarily failing. The value of F2P isn’t in luring cash-strapped or thrifty customers (because let’s face it, they’re not particularly valuable customers); it’s in giving enthused players more ways to spend money.

The LotRO cash shop

As Tobold argued a year ago, MMORPGs are “too cheap”. The average American 1 spends $58 a month on their hobbies; for a dedicated MMO gamer, there’s just nothing to spend 75% of that leisure money on, without a cash shop. If you give people an outlet to spend their money, they will – when LotRO went free-to-play in 2010, its revenues tripled. Now, LotRO’s implementation of F2P was one of the best I’ve seen 2 and these days there are a lot more MMO cash shops competing for their share of player dollars, but the principle still stands: if you give gamers a way to give you more money, they will.

Along those lines, I’m personally a fan of the F2P + subs + cash shop model, because it lets me choose how invested in a game I want to get. I’m far from alone in this, but there are many gamers who cry that cash shops are terrible things and even their mere existence is an indicator that a game is terrible, especially if the cash shop exists as well as a subscription fee. It’ll be interesting to see just how much negative feedback BioWare attracts for their decision.

The thing that strikes me in all this is that SWTOR going free-to-play now looks like an admission of failure, whereas if it had launched as free-to-play, it would have looked like a canny business decision. SWTOR’s inability to succeed at the old model doesn’t prove that the old model is dead, but it certainly gives the naysayers a lot more ammunition.

  1. Okay, I’m not American, and neither is Tobold, but it’s a handy metric to use.
  2. …but that’s a post for another time