Daily Archives: August 31, 2010

A Call to Arms

A post over on Wolfshead Online caught my attention this morning (he hasn’t posted often recently, but when he does, watch out!). Though I did not play EverQuest for any significant amount of time (less than a year total across it’s entire history), what he does state in regards to the upcoming EverQuest Next needs to be recognized, and is valid for any MMO – present or future.

I wouldn’t ever argue the importance of EverQuest, or the impact that it has had and still has on the genre; as one of the “founding” games of MMOs, the decisions made in its design have had far-reaching impact. And, given the market at the time, its design made sense despite the fact that it’s not generally considered friendly to casual players (by far the lion’s share of the MMO market). Most importantly, I agree that EverQuest Next is SOE’s last chance at attaining relevance in the genre.

In some ways, the post is a shopping list for “Build the Dream MMO Everyone Keeps Talking About”. There are some points I’m just not sure can be achieved. But maybe I’m wrong.

What is important are the major points he makes about what needs to be changed in the next round of MMO development, and to be honest, I agree with him wholeheartedly. MMOs over the past few years have lost something of their magic, and have headed in a direction that I don’t entirely think is a good one. Yes, this includes Lord of the Rings Online.

Kill the Scripted Experiences

Enough is enough; if players want a tightly scripted experience there are dozens of high quality games available from which they can choose. Lose the sanitized, on-rails experience of WoW and it’s derivatives, and give the power back to the players to create their own experiences. Drop out of the rat race of get-gear-so-you-can-get-better-gear-rinse-and-repeat. Limit the game’s dependence on instanced content; instead of only providing players with a tightly controlled experience, allow them to create their own experiences as well as enjoying those provided by the developers.

Do I think EverQuest Next needs to be a sandbox game? Maybe. Do I think themepark MMOs are bad? Obviously not; LotRO is, and will be (for the foreseeable future), my favorite game. Ever. It is the game to which I always return. But I have a themepark game in LotRO. I don’t need another; if EQ Next hopes to succeed, it has to break from the trend of coddling players by slowly feeding them highly scripted content. It just can’t compete.

Community. Community. COMMUNITY.

It cannot be stated enough. Community is by far and away one of the most powerful, important aspects of an MMO. And yet it is constantly one of the most underrated. Which is ironic, considering that these games are designed around a multiplayer environment. Somewhere in the recent past, the criticality of community got misplaced. Personally, I lay blame on the runaway success of (you guessed it)…World of Warcraft. Not on Blizzard so much, but on WoW‘s rise to utter domination in number of subscribers. There was just no way for any company to anticipate, and then handle, the kind of success that WoW achieved, seemingly right out of the gate. As they became overwhelmed, Blizzard neglected the policing of their community and took a fully reactive approach to customer service. “If you have a problem, tell us and we’ll try to fix it. Otherwise…”

And as WoW saw its inevitable crop of clones, the focus on community fell further and further down the list of priorities. Why invest in community? WoW has an abysmal community and look how much money it makes!

Obviously, community is important. Even Blizzard knows this, despite the fact that WoW is recognized as the cesspit-in-the-middle-of-the-slums when it comes to community. Look no further than RealID, and its obvious intent of cleaning up behaviour on the forums, as proof positive. Sure, it blew up in Blizzard’s face, but the fact that they made an attempt means they know it’s a problem that needs solving.

Community, in my mind, has always been LotRO‘s greatest strength. Be it the nature of the lore and world, or the balance between solo and group content the game has achieved, but there’s something about LotRO that encourages and maintains the best community of any MMO I’ve ever experienced. But again, if EQ Next is to succeed, it needs to take community to the next level. This includes things like truly empowering “volunteers” (a participant with more tools or power than your average player, but less than an official GM) and hiring live GMs to police the servers and run live events.

And it also includes highly encouraging grouping; not the way it’s done today, through instances designed for X number of players, but by making the world itself dangerous enough and challenging enough that players actually want to group up. For anything. And everything. Sure, provide for solo content, but make it secondary, and make it easy enough (single game world?) and beneficial enough (multiple advancement paths? scaling experience/loot gain? something *gasp* new?) that players want to band together.

Quest Not for the Holy Grail

This is the point on which I agree the most. Ditch the quest as the primary activity for players in a “virtual world”. Quests do a few things very well. Top among those things are the delivery of story. Also is creating a sense of scale (as in the relative power and place a player has within the world). Lowest on the list is creating a sense of involvement.

Sounds a bit counter-intuitive, right? But consider the current, standard “quest mechanic”; it is a democratic, Equal Opportunity, “All For Everyone” system. All players have access to the same quests (unless it is paid content in a Free To Play game), and therefore the outcome of a quest can have no lasting impact on the world. Players can’t permanently kill a Signature monster in LotRO because that monster must be available for future players to kill. And yet, as the major activity in which players are involved, every quest must appear to be of the utmost importance, and epic in scale. Otherwise, why would we bother? It’s a paradox we’re stuck with as long as quests are the sole focus of a game.

Quests are finite, static things; there is no way for developers to keep pace with the players in the content-development-vs.-content-consumption lifecycle. Players will always outpace developers, and they (the players) will always document every step of the way, robbing the game of its mystery and surprises. When quests are the end-all-be-all of a game’s activities, we end up with three things:

  1. Instances/Raids
  2. Reputation Grinds
  3. Bored Players

The first two being designed to mitigate the last. Repeatable content and grinds have become the de facto standard for maintaining player involvement, and hence subscriptions. When that’s the manner in which you engage your players, the process and goal of creating a living, breathing world becomes secondary. At best.

In Conclusion

I want to be clear – none of the above is a criticism of LotRO, or any other current MMO for that matter. These games are all successful; as a player, I enjoy them. I love them. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be playing them (and writing about them). We’re not talking about current MMOs, we’re talking about EverQuest Next. The next generation of MMO. The above points, and Wolfshead’s entire post, are things that SOE needs to take into consideration if they want EverQuest Next to truly succeed.

However, these are also points that current MMOs need to keep in mind as they move forward. These games are ongoing concerns, built for the long-haul and designed to run for years. Which means they need to stay on top of the shifting trends in both market and design. Turbine should be watching EverQuest Next very closely, because, to be perfectly honest, there are only three things keeping me in LotRO at the moment – the lore, my kinship, and the sightseeing.

See what’s missing there, Turbine? It’s not the gameplay. I can get that kind of experience almost anywhere. And it’s not the story. To be frank, the story for LotRO has become something of a mess; it’s fragmented, downright confusing (I have well over 40 quests active at the moment), and, with the exception of the Epic Quests, utterly forgettable. Which is tragic. This is Tolkien’s world we’re supposed to inhabit; the seminal work of fantasy for generations, and one with the greatest depth and creativity imaginable. Nothing about it should be forgettable. I still love the game, but not primarily because of anything from Turbine’s efforts.

Should SOE address Wolfshead’s post, and give us what he’s asking for, I’d say Turbine and every other developer would have a real contender on their hands. And SOE would find itself back near the top of the heap; maybe not in terms of subscriptions (Who cares? Niche games have proven time and again to be very successful), but likely in terms of leadership, vision, and customer loyalty.