December 2011


A very quick post before I head off for a few days. Goblinworks second blog post is up where the area of the world for initial gameplay for Pathfinder Online is explained. Divided into a hex system, it is about 133 square miles in total, with three NPC factions already present, (making for a nice paper/scissors/rock scenario). To compare this, the entire world of Azeroth at launch was about 80 square miles. Throw 4500 players per month for the first seven months and I think the game has the potential to build up pace quite nicely. There is also a crapton of room available for future content development. The world is there for you to see. No mysterious land masses rising from the depths of the ocean needed.

Check it out for yourself and I’ll go into it in more detail with my thoughts next week.

A reader who is thinking of starting his own blog contacted me recently for advice. ‘Dear Adam,’ began the email. This was already a nice departure from the usual ‘Fuck you cuntface’ which I seem to receive on a regular basis. He then went on to describe in length what he was thinking of doing. I wrote back and said that it sounded very nice, and that he should start it up. Then, if he was progressing nicely and was posting with a regularity that didn’t coincide with each lunar eclipse, I’d give him a good plug for his site. His reply thanked me, and then proceeded to get to the nitty gritty of his problem: he had already written a number of as yet unpublished entries but he didn’t want to publish them yet because they were, in his opinion, too good.

” … If I post these, nobody is going to read them because nobody reads my blog. So I want to get people to read my blog before I post the really good stuff …”

Yes, I said. But in order to get anyone to read your blog you need to post really good stuff in the first place. Either that or pick on the biggest blogger you can find and hope to bait them into starting a blog war with you, (worked for me numerous times). He then offered to post them on my blog under his own name, an offer which I refused as I like to keep my readers focused when issuing me with death threats. Can’t have all the hate being diffused, that really wouldn’t do you know. And then who would moderate his comments? You don’t want me to as I let any old idiot on the site to make a fool of themselves, although I did delete a couple of particularly stupid ones this morning.

It’s tricky this blogging game, getting yourself established and finding a nice group of people to hate you enough to regularly comment on your site. Gevlon is a master at it, but that’s just because he’s a big meanie and we all know he only pretends not to like Christmas. I can just picture him on Christmas morning, sitting under his tree with the lights twinkling, and him rubbing his hands at glee at all the lovely presents which he convinced his readership he’d never open. Ha! Spoilt that one for you, didn’t I, Gevlon!

Anyway, I’m going away for Christmas to a nice little luxury resort that bans children within 500 meters of the place and has assured my wife and I that if any staff member even looks like uttering a dreaded holiday greeting they won’t only be sacked they will be summarily executed. I’m going to pack a cooler full of oysters, salmon, prawns and marinated steaks and take a case of good Italian prosecco down with me. I’ve also promised the good wife that I will leave the computer at home. Little does she realise that this will just mean that I’ll take a dozen books and I’ll ignore her anyway.

But I’d like to take the occasion to thank each and every one of you who have clustered around my blog this year, like fruit fly around a rotting durian. Hopefully next year circumstances will allow me to install a fixed internet line and I can get back to playing and blogging about games that you all seem to give a shit about.

Earlier in the year I gave my number one reason for not playing the future Star Wars MMO as the fact that most of the playerbase would play some form of Jedi. And from what I can gather in my purusings around the web, this seems to be the case. I’m not in the game myself, I’m not going to play it, but I sure as hell am going to comment on what other people are telling me. And what they’re saying is what quite a few of us predicted; Bioware copied WoW when WoW was broken. It’s going to explode out of the gates but I reckon it’ll have a 90 day life, if that. Very silly of them to release it during the holidays when players can overdose on playing time and chew through content. Because content is what this game is about, and with long storylines and lots of cut scenes, I’m quite certain that very few players will be able to stomach going through it all a second time.

And that is because this is a single player RPG slapped into a MMO universe. Gordon has come up with a bunch of flaws that are interesting in of themselves. But what is really telling are his good points about the game.

“… But I don’t want to be completely negative. The ability to select from different answers in conversations, even if they really have no impact of meaning whatsoever, is very fun and unique in the MMO world …”

In an MMO world, maybe, but in a single player RPG this is so standard as to be not worthy of comment. And it just proves my point that SWTOR is a single player RPG. And because of that it will have a definite shelf like. I mean, I love Skyrim, but don’t ask me to make a different toon and play through it all again. I know what that would be like; I’d rush through the whole thing and try to get to certain bits that I had missed the first time around. Going through the motions.

From Gordon again:

“… Likewise the whole Dark Side/Light Side mission options are very enjoyable plus the general maturity of the content is refreshing (it’s nice that you see a lot of moral ambiguity in the Republic story lines, for instance) …”

Sounds nice I suppose. But why is this so unique to an MMO? I mean really, what has this MMO done to advance the genre or improve on things that have gone before? I’m sure that everyone playing the game is having a great time, but while doing that they are ruthlessly chewing through content in a game format that was out of date three years ago. I’m having a great time in Skyrim as well, but there’s no way I’m going to be playing it in three months time.

I’ve just heard the sad news that Hitchens has lost his battle with cancer. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his work he was one of those rare breed who switched from the left to the right as he got older. As Churchill said,

“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re 40, you have no head.”

Hitch was a big influence on my writing and my critical thinking. And my drinking. He will be sorely missed.

So here’s a smattering of a few nice ‘Hitch-Slaps’ as they’re called for posterity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been playing Skyrim for the last couple of weeks. It is undoubtedly the best single player RPG I have ever played. The wonderful thing about the Elder Scrolls series is not just their level of craftsmanship, but the lessons we can learn for the video game industry as a whole.
Skyrim, as other games in the Elder Scrolls series before it, is a theme-park game with sandbox elements. There is a main storyline, but you as the player are free to diverge from it and happily spend your days crafting bits of armor and rearranging the books in your little home if that is what you desire.
The books found in-game are an ongoing feature of the series, and Skyrim is no exception. Some of you may be aware of a study based on information in the books which breaks the fourth wall. If you aren’t then I urge you to read it. The parts to this are here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

In this analysis, the writer explores the idea that the player in the game has an effect on the game-world that goes beyond merely playing through the content. The effect is metaphysical, in such that through the texts found in game it is revealed, for example, that the inhabitants of the world are affected each time the player reboots the game to avoid an unwelcome end. The inhabitants cannot articulate their concerns, but their historians have an inkling that someone or something is “playing” with them. They know that time is being altered and lost in some way.

This is taken a step further when the player meets the character of Vivec in Morrowind. Vivec is an NPC who is aware that he is merely a character in a game, and because of his awareness he is able to free himself from the bonds of his in-game limitations. This he communicates to the player through a series of books to be found in the game, the thirty six lessons of Vivec. Thus he also knows of the player, and their god-like role and effect on the game world. In effect there is no wrong way to play the game. If the player wishes to min/max their abilities, to save and reload when things don’t go their way, to limit themselves to have more of a challenge, to modify the game code itself, all is acceptable. To quote Kateri from her final post in that series:

“… A game is a created reality, and TES invites the player to invest their imagination in that reality, and to interact with it. To shape it as they see fit. They release tools to mod it, so any player can make themselves an all-powerful god. Cheating? Wrong word. It’s part of the game. It is allowing the player to change their world.
And so it makes sense that Bethesda create ingame lore that plays with these ideas of so-called cheating, of power and agency, of warping the world around you. If the devs are the Godhead, then each player is immersed in their own god-dream. But the good player, the ruling king, is a lucid dreamer. If they can master the dream-game, if they can gain enough power, or cheat, or create their own reality in the Construction Set – this player has not just beaten the game, they have *become* part of the Godhead. Of the creative process. CHIM…”

Fascinating stuff. But if a player is a god, if there is no wrong way to play a single player RPG, where does that leave an MMO based on the same criteria? Let us now imagine the Elder Scrolls series as an MMO. While it makes sense for one player to be a God playing within his own lucid dream, it makes no sense at all when multiple Gods appear in the same dream. Now we move from there being no wrong way to play the game to there being no right way. Skyrim only works when there are an infinite number of alternate universes extrapolating on the same idea. Place a second player within the same game, make it multiplayer, and the whole thing comes tumbling down. The game no longer works as intended. Having thousands of Gods or ‘heros’ in the same world only serves to invalidate the reason for them being heros. Even more when you realize that you leaving the game, after all of your world changing hero status, will leave no effect at all. There can be many worthy characters within a game world, but there can only be one God overlooking the entire dynamic, if the God itself is bound in some way by the limits of the game universe, (ie the devs are the Godhead and each player is in their own unique God-dream.)

The starting area of Tortage in Age of Conan is routinely held up as an excellent example of a starting zone in an MMO, but it is merely a good example of a single player RPG which happens to be set in an MMO universe. Apart from multi-player quest lines, there is no need to interact with another player in Tortage, and it could be cynically said that these quest lines were made multi-player to satisfy some sort of semblance of an MMO. Once the player left the starting zone and ventured into the world of Conan, the game fell down, precisely because there was no more content on a scale that was found in the opening 20 levels. Age of Conan is two games in one: a well-designed single player RPG in Tortage, and an ill thought-out MMO for the rest, where the devs unwisely assumed that the players themselves would somehow generate content in a theme-park world. Likewise, the only conceivable reason for the new Star Wars game to be an MMO is that this is the only way for the company designing the game to recoup their development costs and show a profit.

Placing a theme-park RPG in an MMO environment merely defeats the purpose of the game itself. In an MMO you populate the world with players and bring it to life. But if every player is a God or a hero involved in their own ‘unique’ storyline of saving the world from this and that monster then the whole thing loses any sense of validity and you are reduced to mindless quests and repetitive tasks.

One of the major quibbles that I have with SWTOR is the fact that they have borrowed so heavily from other MMOs; to the point where many experienced MMO players consider it to be something akin to “WoW in Space.” The devs on SWTOR don’t appear to want to learn from previous game’s mistakes. Their propensity is to simply copy what has worked before. However, what worked five years ago may not apply to today’s market. Games do not exist in a vacuum, and technology, social attitudes of the time, and player expectations all influence the success of a game in a particular time and place.

Which is why the new announcement from Goblinworks regarding the Pathfinder MMO title is so intriguing. In it they list a number of areas which they want to follow in development. Not all of these are new; SWTOR for example has made quite a lot of use of middleware technology. But it is the culture behind these ideas which is of most importance. And Goblinworks appears to be determined to learn from past MMOs and to not only avoid their mistakes but to take game development in new directions.

So when I read this announcement I wonder if we just might be getting what we have long asked for:

At launch, and for the first seven months following, we will cap new paying players at 4,500 per month. Four thousand five hundred new paying players monthly. We expect to keep only about 25% of those players on a long-term basis, so after we factor in attrition of each month’s signups, we end up with 16,500 paying players at the end of that seven-month period.

Making a game that starts with 4,500 players and grows to 16,500 players is much, much easier and vastly less expensive than making a game designed to accommodate a million players on day one. We’ll be able to focus on a relatively small part of the world at first, expanding it only as we need to.

After the first seven months, we’ll raise the limit on new paying players to 12,000 per month. That will remain our goal for the next couple years of Pathfinder Online’s life cycle. Factoring in attrition, by the end of the game’s third year of operation, we expect to have about 120,000 paying players. For many MMOs, that number would be considered a failure, but because of our lean development strategy, achieving that number of paying customers will mean success for Pathfinder Online.

Details aside for the moment, this is thinking outside of the box. And above all it is an attempt to set up a game to succeed as opposed to positioning yourself for an epic load of failure. I can see issues with this of course, the major one being that MMOs are a social game and players like to bring their friends which this will restrict. But when you add in some more of their goals such as a non-instanced world and possibly only one server, then things start to get very interesting.

We have long lamented the fact that the ultimate expression of MMOs got bogged down with the super theme-park style display. To be honest, after Ultima Online it has been a long and slow rush downhill to where players are akin to lab rats pushing buttons to get rewards and an emotional hit. The achievement system is the ultimate expression of a game without soul and players with no mind of their own. To be honest I don’t know if this will work. But I love that at least they’re trying a different approach.

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