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Monthly Archives: February 2013

A couple of days ago Spinks asked the question can hardcore players destroy a MMO – I guess I’ve kind of given away my own view on the subject with the title of the post.

The two things about hardcore players are that they’re rare, and they’re vocal. It’s easy to overestimate what percentage of the player base are hardcore because these are the guys invested enough in the game to write blogs, run fan sites and beat their chests on the forums. They’re also the guys doing newsworthy stuff – nobody wants to hear about the guild that finally got around to running Gnomeregan two years after WoW launched, and the most riveting EVE stories aren’t about a guy who logged on, mined ore in a 1.0 sec system for a couple of hours and then went to bed. But the vast majority of players don’t raid and don’t go into null sec space, and may never even meet a “hardcore” player. They’re having fun doing their own stuff, which is (or should be) separate from the concerns of the godlike min-maxed guys who are fully kitted out with the latest, hard-to-obtain, top-of-the-line gear or starships. Having said that, there are four ways I can see that the hardcore can impinge on the experience of the lesser mortals:

The main one Spinks talks about is dominance – that the hardcore guys get such a lock on the game that there’s no room for anyone not at their level. It can be territorial dominance in a PvP game, or they could take over the auction house and drive any and all competitors bankrupt. That requires that there are enough hardcore players to be able to lock the game down – remember, there aren’t actually that many of these guys. If the game worlds is big enough, then the hardcore guys have to leave some land for others or they’ll end up too thinly stretched to defend anything (quote of the day: He who defends everything, defends nothing) Likewise, in a complex enough economy there are too many profitable niches for the hardcore to be able to control all of them. The hardcore will lock down the most profitable ones (and then compete with each other to make those less profitable) but there will be opportunities for some profit left for a more casual player willing to make a little effort to find them.

Secondly, they can mess up the game by strip mining content – that can mean camping a top farming spot 24×7 and not letting others get a look in. It can also mean by turning dungeon runs into speed runs where everyone is expected to be fully optimised, geared up and know the dungeon backwards, and guys who are actually there to get upgrades from drops or see the dungeon for the first time are not welcome. A decently designed game would not encourage this behaviour, because there should be other content for the hardcore with challenges and rewards that are more at their level. Unfortunately, not all MMOs are decently designed…

Then there’s the risk of elitism poisoning the community – where newer or more casual players are told to meet hardcore standards or GTFO. Probably worth making the point here that “hardcore” and “elitist” are not automatically the same thing. Some of the most dedicated players I’ve met have been nice guys, and some of the most elitist jerks I’ve met have been wannabes who would never be up to the standards of, well, Elitist Jerks. To some extent this is out of the hands of the devs, although effective forum moderation helps keep it in check and ‘normal’ content shouldn’t be built in such a way that elitist attitudes are actually justified.

Finally, the worst risk is that of dev pandering to the hardcore – where the lion’s share of development effort goes on content that is intended exclusively for a tiny minority of players, or where systems put their rewards out of reach of most players (new shoulderpads? Only 500 hours of rep grind with the new Too Tuff 4 U faction!). Basically, this is like the previous point except that it’s the developers rather than the payers who are saying, or implying, that the casuals should be more hardcore or GTFO. And the risk of doing that is that the NEXT thing they’ll be saying is “Dude, where’s our player base?”

The alt I’m currently playing most in Guild Wars 2 is Tullius Tremayne, a charr thief. Yup, my “stealth class” character is a seven foot tall, five hundred pound tiger-beastman-thingy in a trenchcoat. His primary weapon of choice is a brace of pistols that he uses to lay down continuous rapid fire, and my usual elite skill is the Charrzooka which temporarily gives me the use of a rocket launcher.

One of my guildies on a recent dungeon run pointed out that the charrzooka isn’t the most thief-like weapon possible. I told him “Tullius has charr stealth. Once they’ve been deafened by the explosions, the survivors will never hear him coming.”

So, in my last post I mentioned that Mark Jacobs and City State Entertainment are working on the “not DAoC honest so please keep EA’s lawyers at bay” Camelot Unchained. Since then, Mr Jacobs has been busily posting his ‘foundational principles’ which are probably what a business school graduate would call a ‘vision’ or ‘mission statement’ except they’ve got a lower level of buzzwordy bullshit than most of the MBA-generated mission statements I’ve had the misfortune to encounter. Which doesn’t mean I buy into them one hundred percent, but at least they don’t talk about strategically leveraging the synergy of exploiting neglected player dynamics in new and innovative ways…

Anyway, as the descriptions of these principles, are long, detailed, enthusiastic and occasionally almost incoherent, I am offering a Tremayne’s-eye view and summary of each of them here. If you like it, you can thank me later. If you don’t like how I’ve summarised them, take it up in the comments section (which I get to moderate 😀 ) If you don’t like the principles themselves, go have a pop at Mark Jacobs on his own blog if he ever gets around to updating it. I’m reliably informed that Mr Jacobs is big enough and ugly enough to stand up for himself 🙂

Foundational Principle #1 – Be willing to take risks, even if fortune doesn’t always favor the bold. In summary – they’re going for a niche and not including features just because it will increase player numbers if it doesn’t fit. The aim is to make a game that is the best fit for the style of game they’re making, and if that means it lacks appeal to players who like other sorts of game then so be it. The Tremayne view – I like niche games as long as they recognise that they’re niche games, budget accordingly, and actually find a big enough niche to pay for that budget while still being a small enough niche to be well-defined.

Foundational Principle #2 – RvR isn’t the end game, it’s the only game! In summary – there’s no PvE apart from a few very limited areas such as newbie training zones. It’s RvR or GTFO… apart from crafting and housing, both of which will be RvR-related in some manner. Tremayne view – it’s a niche game and it’s going to stick to its niche. Seems fair enough to me, and I’ve met enough players who are happy to live in RvR zones (or the GW2 WvW equivalent) that it looks like it could be a viable niche.

Foundational Principle #3 – You should always hold the hands of your little children while crossing busy intersections but… In summary – old school game that will dispense with a lot of modern conveniences that arguably have over-simplified games in an attempt to please the ADHD kiddies. Also known as the “damn kids get off my lawn!” school of game design, examples of things that will NOT be featuring in a Camelot near you are ‘follow the big glowy arrow’ quest helpers, overly informative in-game maps (go learn the terrain the hard way!), auction houses and free and easy respecs. Tremayne view – I’m all for designing a game to be challenging. I’m less keen on throwing babies out with the bath water, so while I like the principle in principle, care needs to be taken that some of the good ideas of the last ten years of gaming don’t get junked just because they were thought of after DAoC went live. I’m particularly ambivalent about not having an auction house per se. Yes, restricting the sale of crafted items to player shops adds immersion and might help build community, but it also makes it harder for a realm warrior to quickly tool up and hit the battlefield. Although I suppose it does create a niche for an enterprising middleman to set up a one-stop-shop weapons and armour supermarket for the slayer on the go…

Foundational Principle #4 – Choice Matters! In summary – lots of options for customisation, and consequences rather than flat-out prohibition as a way of restricting players. So unlike many other games your mage CAN wear a suit of plate armour, but it’s heavy (and you don’t have the strength to cope with it that a warrior who works out every day has) and encasing yourself in metal and then flinging lightning bolts around might not be the smartest idea ever. Tremayne view – this is another one I like in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult to get right without making some choices much more effective than others, in which case they stop being real choices and just become a “gotcha!” trap for unwary players. That goes double when allied with “limited respecs” as it can leave a player feeling stuck with a crappy build and wanting to quit. There’s a good reason that games have been moving towards making all player character creation choices cosmetic, and it’s because balance is hard. Kudos to City State Entertainment if they can make real choices that are balanced enough to feel like choices – and no matter how good a job they do, players will still zero in on a few builds that their theorycrafting ‘proves’ are slightly more efficient and that anyone who doesn’t choose them is a gimp.

Foundational Principle #5 – I Still Hate Gold Sellers In summary – ’nuff said, really. Tremayne view – me too. However, any game is going to have people who want to “buy win” and others will turn up willing to take their money, and who really don’t care if they shit all over the game to make that money. That being said, a niche game is less likely to be worth a gold-seller’s time, especially if the easiest ways of making gold such as farming PvE mobs aren’t available. Expect to see some attempts by the RMTers to monetise this game though, such as creating ‘easy kill’ bots that can be farmed for RvR kills and hired out to their customers, or straight power-levelling services.

So, Mark Jacobs has announced that after putting out a decent enough iPad tower defence-ish game, March on Oz, his next project is going to be a return to MMOs with Camelot Unchained

Mark tells us that this game is not exactly a spiritual successor to Dark Age of Camelot.

Apart, of course, from being a three way RvR-centred game with Arthurians vs celts vs vikings. No DAoC heritage there at all.

But seriously, apart from the snark there’s another way it resembles DAoC that has me more interested. The original DAoC was made on what was a tight budget even for its time – under $5 million, I believe. The aim for this game is to produce it on a budget of $10 million. That’s a twentieth of what SWTOR is said to have cost, and a fifth of the figures I’ve seen bruited about for Rift, which is generally regarded as the modern MMO paragon of tight project management. The man actually has what looks like a plausible plan to achieve this – by making the game almost purely RvR (with a side of crafting as the main source of gear) and having very little PvE content, he’s de-scoped a lot of the work needed for a more traditional MMO. That’s a shed-load of zones that don’t need to be built, an ass-ton of monsters that don’t need models and animation doing, and a hell of a lot of quests and dungeons that don’t need to be hand-crafted and then tested, tweaked and balanced for every possible party composition. It’s the most realistic plan I’ve seen for making a decent MMO for a smaller budget, and meets the fundamental project management principle of getting the budget down by keeping a firm rein on the scope.

If the future of MMOs isn’t going to be monster blockbusters with millions of players (and the history of everything except WoW suggests that it isn’t) then it has to be niche games built on a budget that the niche can afford. If it works, Camelot Unchained will be a perfect example of that. If it doesn’t, then maybe MMOs don’t have any great future at all because I honestly can’t see a plan C.

Massively has an interview with Mark Jacobs that makes for an interesting read. I’ll be watching this one.