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.

7 responses to “A Call to Arms

  1. I have to disagree on some points, in Wolfshead’s post and your own. Are there elements of today’s MMOs that irritate me? Of course, lots. But some of these are tried and true, and proven to be popular among gamers. Gamers who might not necessarily be you or me, but you certainly can’t fault devs for wanting to cater to as wide an audience as they can.

    For example, I for one actually like quests and enjoy having them as my primary activity. On the other hand, like you, I dislike the rat race and the grind…but hey if it works it works. I’d rather have the chance to focus on the things I like doing in a game, than to not have a choice at all. And above all else, if I like a game, I want the creators of it to be successful. And you and I both know success is a relative term. Niche games find their own success, even if their numbers are nowhere near in the millions, because their goal is to reach a certain audience. But you can’t expect all developers to operate under this notion. The truth is, most AAA MMO developers don’t pour all their resources into making their game for only a couple hundred thousand subs. While the numbers EVE pull in can be seen as a success, we can both agree that if a game like, say, SWTOR pulls in those numbers it can be argued is a failure.

    I don’t always like it, but that’s the way things are. I think gamers are free to stick with niche games if that’s where they find their entertainment, but to expect or demand certain features from developers who have their own bottom lines to meet is a bit unrealistic, and also sometimes unreasonable. I am also torn when it comes to sayings like “reinvent the wheel”. I’m all for innovation and brand new ideas, but a genius knows a wheel works and doesn’t try to reinvent it. Instead, they take what works and make it better. Quite honestly, I’d rather see this than a reinvention.

    • I actually agree with you pretty much across the board. For THIS round of MMOs. It would be foolish of my to fault devs for building systems popular to a large audience; I’m realistic enough about the business side of gaming to realize that they are extraordinarily expensive to build, run, and maintain.

      BUT, they are this way because of the paradigm to which they adhere – Quests First and Foremost. Everything else comes after. Quests are great for story, but inefficient and ineffective for long-term engagement, because devs will never keep up, and when your long-term, dedicated customers are screaming for more high-cost, labor-intensive content, who are you going to focus on as a developer? You’re going to focus on the end-game, and what we get as often as not is a grind. That’s the only way they can keep up.

      If a game is built with the core design of providing other activities other than quests…well, I guess I’m just curious to see how a big developer would approach it and what they would come up with. That’s why I agree with Wolfshead. I went back and read my last few posts, and I think it’s becoming clear that I’m getting a little worn out by LotRO’s treadmill. I love the game, and I love the people, and I love my avatar, but I’m feeling the burn. I guess I’m looking at the next crop of MMOs, many promising more interaction and more impact and more choice (we’ll see how they deliver…we’ve all heard this before, and seen how it didn’t really pan out!) and wondering what might be, and what could be.

      I’d like it if EQ Next is a niche game. Downsize the budget, giving the devs a lot more freedom to experiment and less pressure to “hit one out of the park”. Smaller budget = less need for huge subscription numbers = more likely it turns a profit. A smaller budget could be the thing that saves the EverQuest franchise; if you’re not shooting for the moon and a million subs, you can make design choices that could prove visionary, because you’re not catering to the least common denominator. And if you focus your budget on building tools that empower players, that allow them to create their own stories (not necessarily User Generated Content) instead of resource-intensive, static content…well, you might achieve so much more with much less. At least, that’s my hope (dream) and I think that’s why Wolfshead’s post really struck me.

      It’s not that I’m faulting current games for being something or not being something; I can’t fault them for having their design rooted in what, at the time, was considered good, solid design. I guess I’m just looking to the future with a hopeful eye!

    • “But some of these are tried and true, and proven to be popular among gamers.” I agree with the second part of your statement, disagree whole heartedly with the first. Just because it is popular does not imply the current “on-a-rail” system is the better one, nor does it have any bearing on what may become popular in the future. You have to remember the MMO boom was AFTER EQ/AC/UO had their max exposurea. You have millions of people who haven’t even heard of first gen MMORPGS let alone experienced something other than the current rat races they are fed.

      Getting away from the features (class distinction, sandbox themed, etc..) that actually made those first gen MMORPGs have a sense of community (something current MMOs know nothing of) you want to talk about succes in terms of subscribers and $? Well what would be the point to try and make another treadmill game for SoE? They already have a terrible reputation even in their faithful, chugging out another WoW clone will only spell more doom for them amongst gamers. WoW has been done, and WoW does it very well. There is no point, either creatively nor economically to try and replicate it. They do indeed have high expectations and I hope for their sake they deliver something fresh because another themepark is not going to cut it for anything that has the name Everquest in its title. Not for the vets nor for those who are looking for something new.

    • I concede the point that while quests are great fun and good for story while leveling up, once the player reaches the cap the devs will have little to motivate them to develop more quests and instead focus their attention to develop content for max leveled players.

      For the most part, however, I think I’m quite happy with the way most games are in terms of low level progression. I don’t mind theme park and in many ways prefer it when I am given clear, concise goals to work on. A lot of times, it’s what keeps me interested and hence keeps me playing. I bitch about WoW and the treadmill a lot, but I honestly love leveling in that game even though I know as soon as I hit level 80 on my horde character I’ll probably lose interest.

      Perhaps what we all really want is a new way to approach endgame.

    • Don’t get me wrong! I really do enjoy my current games (LotRO, DDO, Guild Wars)…I’ve just found it a bit hard to motivate these past few weeks, and having stepped away somewhat (I still get a dozen or so hours a week…), it’s given me some room to take a broader look at what’s been going through my head, and what’s coming in the (hopefully) near future. I think I’ve come across a bit too jaded or dissatisfied…when that’s really not the case.

      LotRO is about the story – so quests make sense. And I enjoy working through them. There’s a sense of progression and accomplishment, though I stick to my assessment on the state of LotRO’s story lines…man, it’s a bit of a mess. They need to get back to what made SoA so compelling.

      I agree with Stiltz, though, that EQ Next cannot afford to be another themepark game – SOE doesn’t have the goodwill capital to try another same-old-same-old, and because EQ is franchise so revered and nostalgic to so many, the pressure is definitely on for them to push the envelope and release something really new and compelling.

      And I was thinking the exact same thing as I read your comment GeeCee…it’s the endgame that we’re mostly talking about, isn’t it? Sure, open world design could enhance all stages of the game, but would be particularly helpful and useful for extended the endgame.

      All this doesn’t make LotRO or WoW or any of the others lesser games. It does, however, mean that those games need to take a serious look at their roadmap and consider how they can evolve with the shifting trends. If not EQ Next, then Guild Wars 2, Rifts: Planes of Telara, SWTOR, or any of the next crop of games are certainly going to give Turbine/Blizzard/SOE/etc. some serious competition, particularly if they can accomplish their goals of increased immersion, interaction, and personalized story…

      My hope is that LotRO can accomplish this shift, and I have faith in Turbine. If I can see ways that new techniques for development and game mechanics could enhance the game, I’m sure Turbine has already seen them too, and is considering them. If not, I hope they call me!

    • Something happened to draw a lot of players after the EQ/AC/UO era to explain for that boom — MMOs became accessible. I’m always a bit mystified as to why we as gamers feel that’s a bad word. Accessible doesn’t necessarily have to mean easy, dumbed down or a bad community. It may mean catering to the lowest common denominator, but that in itself doesn’t automatically mean bad content is the consequence.

      It is probably a sad truth that most people will take their first MMO as a basis to compare all future MMOs they play. In that sense, WoW has changed the MMO landscape, exposing millions of people to their style of play. Like it or not, the market’s changed from those early days, the average MMO player today is not your average MMO player of the 90s.

      Community is another subject that pops up in these discussions. Before I go on, I want to say that I agree most communities in MMOs today are utter crap. But in this area I truly believe that we as players shoulder the bigger burden than the devs. I think developers can surely give us the tools to create a great community, but in the end the community is what we as the players make it, and no matter what tools we have it will always come down to personal responsibility and self discipline. Community’s definitely not like a game mechanic that can be tweaked or fine-tuned; all the devs can do really is ENCOURAGE a community, not make it, because ultimately I feel that’s mine and my fellow players’ job. As well, the devs will have very little control once we’re all out there. They can do some enforcing by punishing BAD behaviors to an extent, but this can only get you so far because the reality is, no one can force GOOD behaviors, which is what’s really desirable. Anyway, Look at LOTRO, the best communities are the ones that are just allowed to happen and flourish anyway. Even in games with bad communities, I find myself a nice pocket of like-minded and mature people to play with, and make myself part of a good mini-community there.

      Back to the discussion of SOE, I can’t even pretend to know what they hope to achieve over there, what they’d view as success, and unless one works there, I don’t think anyone can either. I do agree that companies trying to make a profit these days shouldn’t just try and brute force yet another run-of-the-mill typical MMO down their customers’ throats, because there’s so much competition in the market out there, people are going to turn away if you can’t offer a new angle. It doesn’t mean a new game can’t incorporate these “tried and true” methods. And yes, I’ll continue to use that term because you have to realize I’m not using it as a synonym for “better” as Stiltz assumed. Far from it; no one is more aware that popular does not mean better, but popular sells. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for companies to think outside the box, but it’s always a risk when you’re trying to appeal to such a fickle market who has become so indoctrinated by the ways of WoW. It’s a leap of faith that I personally might not be able to make myself take if I was in those shoes, and hence one that I can’t expect from a company that might have shareholders to answer to. I know, spoken like a true capitalist 😛

      What is success, you ask? Here’s my view: it all depends on whoever’s setting the goals. If your goal is to make a ton of money and you do, success! If your goal is just to make a product that you think people will love and you could care less how much money you make as long as you scrape by and you do, then also success! I’ll tell you what, if SOE has some clear goals for EQ Next, then all the power to them. That’s all that matters in my mind. Even if it’s a relatively modest goal in light of things, companies with specific aims are always the ones that are more effectively able to get things done.

      My personal feelings on EQ Next are sort of mixed. I’ll admit my experience with EQ is very limited, so I’m definitely interested in what they come up with. But strictly speaking for myself here, I probably would not try it if it was a strictly sandbox game. There are features in sandbox games I’ve played that I love, but to be honest, I do tend to gravitate towards theme park games. But I see nothing wrong with a sandbox with themepark elements, or vice versa. Why are we as gamers all so polarized on this topic, I wonder. A middle ground is what I personally hope for.

    • I hear ya.

      Success here (and in any undertaking such as an MMO) is definitely a relative thing…that’s really why I’m hoping that SOE can either 1. really give us something new and amazing that appeals to a large audience (most likely what they are shooting for, but extremely difficult!), or 2. keep the budget small, shoot for a more “niche” game, and take a chance on something new (and hopefully amazing!).

      Either way, they’ve got to do SOMETHING…they can’t afford another EQ2.

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