Thursday, September 25, 2014

Dear Past Me - Spot On

In November of 2010, almost four years ago, I wrote a post describing what I thought at the time was the inevitable future of MMO's.  The original post was taken down when I changed blogging sites, but digging through my writing archives, I managed to find it. It was written back in a time where I actually wrote all of my stuff offline, and then published it online - crazy, right? This week, we learned that Blizzard has canceled their most ambitious MMO project to date - Titan. There's been quite a bit of press this week speculating that this move marks the end of the MMO as we know it. I don't necessarily disagree.  I won't say the MMO is dead, by any means - but the nature of it, is changing. You need look no further than Destiny to see where the genre is headed.

And looking back at the post I wrote four years ago, I think I got pretty close.  What do you think? Here's the original post, unedited.


Your Favorite Game

November 12, 2010


This post pretty much just came to me this morning, and one it began to be formed, nothing would do but for me to put it down, so here it is.  I know, you can pick your jaws up off of the floor in the presence of an actual BLOG from me now.  But I would like for you to travel with me for a moment into the land of “what if”, and consider a play session for you in the very near future of your favorite game.  So in the ubiquitous words of Rod Serling.. Imagine, if you will…

It’s Thursday evening, the spouse is watching TV, the kids are entertained in the A/V room with that crazy new motionless controller, and the time is perfect for a little play session of your favorite game.  When the game came out, it was available on both the PC and the 360, and while the play experience is slightly different between the two versions, the controls are streamlined and simplified enough that the darn thing plays pretty damn well on either platform.  And you have the game on both platforms.  After all, you didn’t have to buy it at all – the game was completely free and available on either Games on Demand in XBL, or just a download in Steam.  But you’ve mostly played it on the XBox, and spent most of your money there.  There was $20.00 to unlock the second half of the single player campaign, another $30.00 or so on various pieces of equipment you can use in the campaign, and then another $20.00 unlocking a couple of map packs to be played in the multiplayer portion.  So the XBox it is, and you boot up the 360 in the office upstairs to play.

So now the decision is what to play.  Well you could play the campaign some more.  It offers both a single player version and a multiplayer co-op, where you can take a team of 8 through the campaign.  But you finished the campaign within a week of buying the game, and really, the meat of this baby lies in the multiplayer.  So you join the multiplayer lobby, and scan the list of games there.

There are quite a few.  Many of them are head to head matches – 4v4’s, 8v8’s, even a 64 player free-for-all kill fest that looks like it might be a blast.  And there are quite a few cooperative missions against the AI as well.  There’s some 4 person teams, 8 person teams, and one game trying to form an epic 25 man team against the AI game.  Good luck getting *that* one filled buddy!

All of the games have descriptions in their listings, and the descriptions are filled with the arcane lexicon of the game.  You need to have taken a night course to understand what all the abbreviations mean, but you’ve played the game enough to pick up on most of them, plus quite a few of them carry over from previous versions of the game.  You find a co-op game that already has 6 of 8 people joined, and from the description, it doesn’t appear that they want to complete the entire mission, rather they just want to farm for merits.  This is fine by you.  You also see it’s on a map that comes from the campaign, and you’ve played it yourself about a dozen or so times, so you feel pretty confident about that one, and join the game.  An 8th joins shortly after you, and away you go.

The team makes their way through the mission, doing pretty well.  At one point one of the team members runs off by himself, taking a so-called shortcut.  The team leader, the guy that hosted the game, shakes his head and informs the team to let the n00b die.  He does, but he quickly respawns, and properly chastened, rejoins the team and stays with it this time.   All of the easy AI’s in the mission have been defeated, and only the difficult ones at the back are left.  No time for those though, a fairly healthy amount of merits have been gathered.  The team leader informs the group he’s killing this game, and creating a new one so you can all do it again.  Everyone on the team quickly quits, and you’re back at the multiplayer lobby.  You see the team leader’s game reform in the lobby, but rather than rejoin, you want to spend some of those merit points you just earned.

You jump over to the store screen.  It’s quaintly called an “Armory”, but it’s just a UI screen like the multiplayer lobby.  In the store there’s quite a few items you can buy for your character using your merit points.  As well, there are a number of items you can spend Microsoft Points on to purchase as well.  You buy an upgraded weapon with the merit points, as well as a new pair of gloves.  And while you’re there, you figure what the hell and spend 200 MS Points on a set of shoulder pads that have pretty sick glow effect on them.   Equipping the new gear, you jump back over to the multiplayer screen, and see there’s still room in that merit farming team.  You join up, and away you go.

Approximately 28 minutes have passed since you booted up the XBox.

So now comes the fun part of our exercise – can you guess what game I’m talking about?  Is it Halo 6 – FINISH the FIGHT?  Maybe Medal of Honor 9 – Call to Glory But Duty is Already Here.  No of course by now most of you realize the game session I describe above is the inevitable evolution of the MMO.

Now of course I’ve perhaps exaggerated with some of the descriptions, but overall I honestly don’t think I’m too far off of the mark.  Let’s look for a bit at the big trends in MMO’s that we’re seeing right now:

No Purchase, Pay as you Go
Well this one’s just about as obvious as it gets.  Anyone that doesn’t realize this is the way you will acquire and play and pay for MMO’s in the future is still living about 2 years in the past.  In fact, with a few notable exceptions, that future is here now.

Shortening of the Time Spent Leveling
The part of the game that you spend leveling your character – once considered the hallmark of the MMO – has been getting progressively shorter and shorter over the past ten years.  Millions of WoW players already consider it the “ugly, necessary part you have to slog through before you get to the real game”.  Yes, that’s an actual quote from people I played with, and that was two years ago.  That attitude has only increased since then.  And most recently, we’ve seen plenty of games that allow you to shortcut this process even further in a variety of ways – from Recruit a Friend programs that multiply your experience rate by orders of magnitude, to out right purchasing of levels

The Single Player Campaign
Designers have long since recognized that there are two parts of an MMO – there’s the part of the game that you play leveling your character, and the part of the game you play at the level cap.  And among those players that actually enjoy the part where you level your character (an decreasing percentage amongst MMO players, by all accounts), well most of those want to play that part by themselves.  Players like myself – explorer types – those players that want to actually explore the world and experience what story there is – well they mostly do it solo – because a group inevitably means rush.  Even a friendly group doesn’t want to stop to read the text and smell the flowers.  You jump from quest to quest or mission to mission and there is always someone in the group that’s done it already, (perhaps even yourself), and to stop and smell the roses along the way just slows the others up, and no one wants that pressure, so you just do it solo.

Designers totally recognize this, and so increasingly the part of the game that you spend leveling your character is becoming a single player campaign – or at least a small group co-op campaign.  It’s tailored towards the solo player, or small group that is already friends, and agrees to stay together as they level, or to progress through the campaign at the same rate.  This experience will be full of story, and cinematics, and when you get to the end of it you’ll have a reasonably equipped character with which you can then play the meat of the game – the multiplayer.  It will, almost assuredly, also be completely optional.

The Multiplayer Lobby
The endgame of an MMO has for some time boiled down to two types of games:  your character joins with other characters in a team, and you can either pit your team against the AI’s (raids), or pit your team against another team (battlegrounds, scenarios, whatever you want to call it).  MMO designers originally left it to the players to form those teams manually, by chatting with each other in a zone wide chat channel.  But console developers had long ego figured out how to efficiently team people up, and much of that technology is now built directly into your MMO in the form of battleground queues, scenario queues, and WoW’s LFG tool.  These are at their heart nothing more than matchmaking services.

In the original incarnation of these mechanics within MMO’s they were designed to be passive, rather than active.  That is, you joined a queue, with the idea that you would do so while doing the main part of the game – the running around the world questing part – and then when a group was formed, you could leave the game, participate in the battleground, instance, whatever, and then when it was over you returned to your regularly scheduled gaming/questing.  But for a huge percentage of players, (I would posit the majority of current players in WoW, in fact), those multiplayer games have become the only game they are playing.  Millions of players are mostly jumping up and down and running around Dalaran, showing off their mounts and gear, and not doing much of anything except waiting for another instance or another battleground to form.  Then they take their currency gathered during the instance, and run over to the vendor, and use it to upgrade their equipment.  It’s quick, it’s fair (no more crying that your weapon didn’t drop at the end of the fight, you take your Justice Points and buy what you want!), and there’s no reason to think that it won’t become more efficient. 

And so yes I absolutely see a time where these matchmaking tools become more proactive, rather than passive, and players in fact host their own instances, with rules set up to run the instance in the way they want, and you can join one that is doing a full run, or join one that is only interested in badge farming.

So what’s the point?
This isn’t necessarily a doomsayer’s post, by any means.  As a player, I can’t see any reason why the genre shouldn’t go this way.  For myself, when I buy a Halo or Medal of Honor, I do it for one reason only – the single player campaign.  I play that game, and experience it, and enjoy it, but when it gets to the multiplayer part I put that game down and move on.  I’m just not interested.  When it comes to MMO’s, I love the leveling part.  I play that game, I explore the world, and when I get to the end of that game – if I get to the end, either I will start over with another character if the world was compelling enough, or I will simply find another world to explore.  I recognize that I’m probably in the minority of players that enjoy that portion of the game over the other part.  And even in the dystopian MMO future I depicted above, there will still be a part of the game that I can and quite likely will enjoy.  And in fact, that part of the game experience will probably be better than it is now. 

But in this recognition of the progression of the genre, there is perhaps a bit of melancholy because I honestly don’t think we’re that far away from a point where the hallmarks of a genre that once was distinct have been diluted away.  And we will reach a point where, in truth, our favorite game is not all that much different, if at all, from their favorite game.

Acknowledgments
I have to thank Spinks for her excellent post this morning, on the suggestions for improvements to the LFG tool, regarding the ability to indicate what exactly it is that you’re queuing up for, that set me down this course of thought.  She is absolutely right in the money, in my opinion.  There isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t be able to describe the kind of instance you want to participate in.  Multiplayer lobby rooms have had this functionality for years, and it’s an inevitable progression I think for the matchmaking services in MMO’s.


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