Mittwoch, 3. März 2010

Open letter to MMOG developers

(I initially posted this on the writer hive of, but sadly got no responses at all. From what I have seen so far the writer hive is used for trolling. Until now I haven't found any common properties of entries that do get dozens of responses and those that don't receive any attention. The latter being about 90% of the pieces posted there. Anyway, maybe someone will enjoy this.)

Dear MMOG developers,

how are you? I am sad. Why am I said I hear you ask? Well, because you make me feel cheap, dumb and gullible. Seeing yet another MMOG fail at the beginning of the race and taking a look at the reasons why Star Trek Online is a D.O.A. product, I start to wonder. I sincerely think you need my help. And not just my help but the help of a lot of MMOG enthusiasts all over the Internet. You know, the internet? The platform you are trying to succeed in and where a lot of the people live, that you are attempting to cater to?
Here's a fun fact about the internet: if you actually just took one hour of your daily development work to get to know your audience, your competition and your market, you would make the most amazing game. Don't believe me? Well, I didn't expect you to. The decision is up to you: read on and learn at least one new point of view that will make your current project a better product or stop reading here and continue poking in the dark.

Still with me? Great, let's get started then.
Since you are still reading, I guess you are either one of the companies that is shooting for the next MMOG bestseller or one of those rare studios actually trying to create an immersive world that enriches the term "escapism", creating a legacy for both your future fans and yourself. I am not one to judge your motives and either way is fine with me. Even if you are one of the former, you just might provide us with a couple hundred hours of enjoyment. Now that we've loosely established your destination, let's talk about the path. Almost all of the following ideas are a conglomerate of opinions, criticism and suggestions available on the net, nothing observed by me exclusively.

First and foremost, take your time. I can't stretch this enough, because even in 2010 every company save for a few exceptions discard this most basic rule. And chances are, you are one of them if your company name doesn't start with a "B". "When it's done" is not an infamous gamer quote by accident. Releasing an unfinished product is like ripping a newborn from his mother's womb a couple of weeks early. Chances of deficiencies are high while the chances for survival are slim. Let me say it again. Take your time! Do only release the game in a state you and 99% of your team are satisfied with.

"But the publishers and the deadlines...", I hear you cry. Well, two things. First, get a competent person to be the link between your studio and the publisher. Somebody with street smartness, an impeccable understanding of the market and some solid marketing knowledge. Essentially, this person's job is convincing the publisher, that every additional dollar invested now is worth plenty of dollars later. And that every month or team member stripped now largely increases the chance of not even covering the development costs, let alone make a profit. A failed MMO is a stigma a developer won't lose easily and also makes the publisher look bad for forcing it onto the market prematurely.
If they don't believe you, present them with subscription graphs and cases analyses for the following: Vanguard, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, Aion. This is a fight you absolutely have to win, for yourself and the publisher, since they will refuse to see it that way until your efforts pay off.
Second, this is the point you'll have to decide if you're in it for a few quick bucks or actually make a game people will love and hold dear even years after the last official game server has went down. Of course you have got costs to cover, people to pay, families to feed. If you venture into the development of an MMOG, the most complex kind of game there is, and both you and your publisher expect a quick payoff, please refrain from doing so. Make a shooter, a RTS, a movie license platformer or an iPhone game. It will be better for all of us. If you are prepared for the hardship of several years of development on the other hand, go for it.

Moving away from development time, you might be interested in what you are supposed to spend your precious months and years on. Here are a few clues.
People do not care about franchises. If your game is good, it will attract tens of thousands of players quickly enough. If it is rubbish, even a Pixar Universe MMOG would hit rock bottom within a few months. There are about as many successful franchise MMOGs (e.g. World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings, Ultima Online) as previously unknown franchises (e.g. EVE Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Guild Wars). No brand name will guarantee you success if players don't get an experience worth their money and time. Just let Age of Conan, Warhammer Online and soon Star Trek Online teach you a lesson.

Learn from the past. There have been wildly successful MMOGs in the past. Not necessarily from a commercial point of view, but seen through the eyes of the fans, you know, those guys who really pay your bills. They were extremely innovative for their time and only withered due to the computer graphics craze of the last decade. If you want to make a game driven by player interaction, closely study Ultima Online and EVE Online. The economy systems in both these games are built on the shoulders of thousands of players. If you want to have competetive player interaction in your game, take a look at Dark Age of Camelot, EVE Online and maybe Guild Wars. None of these games has the dreadful two faction model every game nowadays seems to be so fond of.
No factions, three factions or countless factions, take a pick. But please get over the whole idea of, "Well, both of them consider themselves the good guys and the other side the evil ones, that's deep, right?" Because it is not. It is shallow rubbish. Two competing sides are the most boring a MMOG can get. Note that I also refrained from using PvE or PvP. Both these terms are pretty much outdated and the lines between them have blurred substantially. Chances are, your marketing department will use them in a wrong way and players will have wrong expectations what your product will be about. So be careful about throwing them out there.

Graphics also do not save your game. If somebody buys your game because it uses the newest DirectX 11 shaders to visualize the spray of some remote waterfall or the pollen hovering over a meadow during sunset, chances are pretty high, the same person will drop your product for the next graphics craze being released. We want long-lasting substance, remember? So go for a graphics standard 90% of your potential market can comfortable handle.

Presentation on the other hand matters. This is different from graphics. After seeing the same texture for the hundredth time, people will start to abstract and only notice new textures and colors. The once highly detailed graphics will blur. Presentation goes more along the lines of color concept and animation. Blizzard and Mythic have done amazing jobs with most of their zones in World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online, so take a look at those as examples for good coherent design.

The second part of presentation - animation - can not be stressed enough. One of the most common complaints about new MMOGs is about bad animations. Chances are, you will not be releasing a purely spaceship driven MMOG like EVE Online, so people will judge the way your world moves. Robot-like movement or stick-figure animations are a huge turn-off for players, because it will keep them from identifing with their avatar or perceiving their surroundings as alive. I recall reading a bit a couple of years ago. It was talking about the animation designers for the Warcraft games regularly taking trips to their local zoo to study animal behavior and movement. You don't need to go all out like they did, but get your animations sorted out and if motion capture is the only way, go for it. I am not saying you will need realistic movement of your tree branches, though. Remember, long-lasting substance, not highly detailed fleeting star.

While we're at the technical side of things, let's talk infrastructure. Loading screens are bad. No need to put this into perspective, it destroys game flow and is another big let-down when talking about immersion. And immersion is all games are about, right? Instanced dungeons and zones are fine, but both of these can theoretically be precached and entered without a loading screen. We're not in the 90s anymore, the loading screens need to be reduced to a minimum.

Now, everyone familiar with the server infrastructure of a MMOG knows that instancing is necessary to take care of the thousands of players on one server. But depending on your game, your backbone needs the capability to deal with the MMO aspect of your game. Most games fail at this. It's actually rather annoying that the respective developers don't grasp that a repeatedly crashing server due to large-scale player combat reduces the whole MMOG concept to absurdity. If battles of several hundred (or dozen) players is one of the key features of your game, then make sure your engine can deliver just that. Until know only a handful of games actually pulled this one off, so get this one right and you are one step closer to success.

The points mentioned above leave you a lot of freedom with respect to two major development key points. The what and the where. Or, in MMOG terms, the genre and the lore. From a lore point of view, we don't care if you go for space, fantasy, postapocalyptic, steampunk, cyberpunk, real world, super heroes, mafia, ninja, pirate or mythology related. Most of us have seen enough elves and dwarves for a lifetime, but wouldn't be able to resist if they were presented to us in a brilliant way.

However the subgenre sets the course for your game and your potential customer base. And as far as MMOGs are concerned, no subgenre has been dried out yet. Yeah, we've already seen plenty of attribute- and item-driven RPGs to date, but if you were to deliver something character-centered much closer to the roots of pen and paper roleplaying or LARP, it would sell like hotcakes. Or some multi-faction combat MMORPG with a focus on team/guild/alliance interaction. Learn from the past, mix it with your own creativity and the sky is the limit.
And please do not make the mistake of following current genre trends. Firstly, they will probably be gone when your game releases, so this will not be a selling point for your game. Secondly, the fraction of gamers to always jump on current trends will also jump ship as soon as the next best thing comes around. Not the ideal target audience for a game with long-lasting substance. If you want to do a third-person steampunk MMORPG with platformer elements, don't ditch it because postapocalyptic FPS are currently popping up left and right.

Well, my dear developers, I think I covered most of the things I had in mind. It's up to you to make the best of it. But please do not discard this before considering at least a single point from this letter. Your team, your publisher and your newly acquired fans will be thanking you, when your game rises like a phoenix out of the scorched earth that is the MMOG genre of early 2010.



Retrospective - Games finished in Jan/Feb

So as it turns out, getting rid of my last MMO subscription was a good idea. Suddenly, there was so much time to enjoy all the things I had missed out during my 5 year addiction. And those things amount to a lot as I have found out.

Let's start with games, shall we? During the first two months of 2010 I managed to finish 5 games and dabble in numerous others.

Mass Effect
I bought this only because a friend of mine recommended it to me during the Steam holiday madness. Until then it had flown under my radar completely. Turns out this one of the best RPGs I have ever played and since I have been sick of elves and the whole fantasy routine for a good while, Mass Effect gave me the chance to return to my science fiction roots. I found myself uniquely challenged by the moral dilemmas at least half a dozen times throughout the game, resulting in a slightly more Paragon character despite my attempt to go Renegade on everyone and everything. The narrative was great and although it struck me as odd to do the side missions when the galaxy was in danger, most of those side missions were worth my while.
I did have my issues with a few things though, the AI of the teammates being number one. Although "only" I played a soldier on normal, I had to finish a good majority of indoor fights on my own and would have had the same problem with the outside encounters too. Luckily I specialized on sniper rifles early on and managed to eventually frag everything from a lowly droid to a thresher maw with it.
The dialogue system is great although I thought the whole charm/intimidate mechanic would have been way more interesting, if they didn't go hand in hand each time. Hard to describe but I think if the characters are fleshed out well, some of them will allow for renegade reactions and other may spark paragon options. Both at the same time every time struck me as odd. This is a minor thing though.
All in all Mass Effect was a great experience and I hope I get to spend a lot more hours in this particular universe in the future.

Ben There, Dan That
Point'n'Click adventures. In the nineties I played all of the LucasArts games, Discworld one and two, Simon the Sorcerer and everything that ended with "Quest" and provided "Use" and "Take" as viable actions. Sadly, I lost all interest in this genre with the atrocious Monkey Island 4. I hadn't played Grim Fandango and Discworld Noir yet and until today those are missing from my gaming vita. A friend of mine got into the TellTale series of Monkey Island and Sam'n'Max last year, but to me, these games were abominations of the original games and I wouldn't touch them while in a hazmat suit.
"Ben There, Dan That" (BTDT) and "Time Gentlemen, Please" were mentioned quite frequently by RockPaperShotgun during the last months of 2009, so I picked both of them up during the above mentioned sale on Steam. 2009 also saw the release of a few highly acclaimed Point'n'Clicks, such as "The Whispered World" and "Machinarium". Was this the return of the dead genre or could these be regarded as enthusiastic necrophilia?
I finished BTDT on a laptop in maybe three to four hours during the reinstallation of my PC. I though it was genuinely entertaining and a fitting heir to their hilarious ancestors of the last century. It provided just the right amount of british humor, meta jokes and pop art references. The puzzles were both funny and easily digestible to spend a nice evening with Ben and Dan, the two unlikely heroes.
I can't wait to knock out the second game of the series one of these evenings and hope Zombie Cow Studios will follow up with a new episode sometime this year.

It is hard to talk about Braid without spoiling too much for people who have yet to enjoy it. Which is something I suggest everybody remotely interested in games should do.
I find the whole indie gaming scene deeply fascinating but only to a point where I don't have to buy everything that comes out and has a vocal fanbase. By now I own three indi games and have about ten on my wishlist. Most of the time they are cheaper than AAA titles, but only provide a limited playtime. Most of them are deeply creative and even revolutionizing, but a lot of times they are not entertaining at all or too hard to pick up. I will think buying an indie game over a lot of times, because the cost of two to five indie games make up the cost of a AAA title. And I know I will enjoy the hell out of something like Fallout 3 of Mass Effect 2 and get at least 50 hours of playtime out of either of them. I am not so sure about the five indie titles providing me with the same.
Now getting into Braid I noticed just that. I also picked this up during the Steam holiday sale and like Mass Effect 1, I got it dirty cheap. Having finished it I would have been okay with a 10€ price tag for an indie game. If I was to earn any real money on a regular basis, 15€ also would have been okay. I do not attribute that to the roughly twelve hours I got out of it, but to the experience as a whole.
While I am not yet sure where I stand on the story of the game (I get the accusation of the game being pretentious), the game mechanics are ingenious and I firmly believe several people working on this game would have ruined the ingenuity of Braid.
Adding a third (and even forth) dimension to a twodimensional puzzle platformer is about as clever as it get's in my book when it comes to this dear old genre. Despite it's occasionally complex levels, I managed to finish the game and that alone was a very challenging task. Even without any of the hidden content discovered. A few frustrating levels even had me motivated enough to come back on a daily basis until I had finally beaten them. I am glad to have played this and to me Braid is one of those titles every child (and grown-up) should play at one time during their gaming live.

Where do I begin? Imagine a highly polished threedimensional platformer on your favorite console. Throw in the whacky art style of the cartoon network series from the nineties. Mix that with a upside down read copy of "Psychology 101". Now you have Psychonauts.
This game is very colorful, freaky and entertaining on many levels. The humor functions on the same subliminal level of all those modern animated movies, that feature jokes for both the parents and kids, neither of which will get those punchlines targeted for the other group. The majority of the jokes are aimed towards a grown up audience and that's where the game works against it's presentation. The candy look probably gave a lot of people the wrong idea about the game, putting potential customers off.
Somehow I regard this game as the good twin to the underrated nineties game "Sanitarium". Both are basically focusing on the same topic, one from a grim gothic perspective of suffering, the other as an insane LSD birthday party with all the kids from the neighborhood. The unique design of each level keeps the suspense up until the very end and portrayed the nature of the human mind extremely well.
This game is a blast to play, even if you're not studying psychology. It's also a prime example of a working incorporation between story and gameplay. Mechanics and content working hand in hand. This should be an obligatory game for anyone studying or learning to be a game designer.

Knights of the Old Republic
Luckily, I installed this and it's successor as soon as my PC was reinstalled a while back. Two weeks ago I was anxious to finally breeze through Half-Life 2, a plan that swiftly broke apart (more on that another time). So I was sitting there on a lonely friday night, browsing through my start menu. 'Well hello there, Knights of the Old Republic...' 10 days later I finished the game, successfully conquering the galaxy as the new Dark Lord of the Sith.
It was nice to play this game shortly after having spend about the same amount of time with Mass Effect 1. It was interesting to see both the recurring mechanisms and ideas and the evolution of BioWare's games over the years. I am now even more excited about finally diving into Mass Effect 2 later this year and seeing how they have taken it to a next level.
Curiously enough I managed to reach the Sith end of the Force-o-meter fairly quickly. I hadn't even been named Padawan yet and I was already leaving a trail of burning corpses. I even executed Juhani before she had a chance to reconsider the light side. Too bad as I found out a bit later, she would have been a nice addition to the team. So I ran with Bastila/Jolee and HK-47 (my favorite NPC in that game) for pretty much all of the game, since I knew I had no chance to drag sexy Mission to the dark side with me. The other characters didn't appeal to me that much. I probably wouldn't even have chosen Bastila if it wasn't for her force powers. Her nagging was unbearable at times. I didn't quite get why they implemented the option to go Sith right from the start when it didn't influence the main plot at all safe for the last one or two hours.
From a gameplay perspective, the force powers dumbed the game down a lot and starting at roughly level 15 until the end of the game every encounter could be easily won be spamming area crowd control, area damage and area heals. Why the dark side version of Bastila has been implemented a lot weaker than her light side twin is beyond me. Most of the talents dark Bastila had were basically useless for the few hours you had left in the game. The only challenging fight was the very last one, which became a lot easier because I had almost all the grenades and health packs I found throughout the game saved up. The rest was just a hit and run exercise. Okay, I played on normal at that point, but I didn't notice any improvements in the difficulty when I switched from easy to normal towards the end of Taris.
From a presentation perspective I have to say that this game destroyed some of the Mass Effect magic. I wouldn't call it recycling, but a good proportion of the "Wow!" graphics in Mass Effect had already been tinkered with in KotOR. Mass Effect's graphic engine is newer or course. Why they dropped the kickass idea of the characters looks being altered by the good or bad side in ME1 is beyond me, but I have gathered that they reimplemented it for ME2, so I am excited about that.
Finishing KotOR rather impressed and at the same time reading a lot of whining how Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 didn't reach the high level of RPG that Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights provided, I am considering to revisit those titles at some point in the future. It has been a long time since I played Baldur's Gate 1 and all the BioWare games between that and KotOR have passed me by. At least I can't recall ever giving Neverwinter Nights a try.

And that will be it for the games I've played and finished during the last two months. Next up will be the titles I dabbled in and maybe a few thoughts on recent movies and TV series.