August 2013

Every so often a blogger will be pushed to come up with something to post and they will fall back on the old reliable, “Let’s have a look at my site stats and analyse them, won’t that be interesting!”, the kind of thing that makes your eyes bleed. But invariably the blogger will come to the posts that have garnered the most hits and they will be surprised by the results, usually finishing up with saying something like, “I put all that work into posts A, B, and C, and they got no traffic at all, and then there were posts X, Y, and Z that I banged off without a second thought that readers went crazy for, how the fuck does that work?” Because what bloggers want is to be able to identify and then bottle that ability to write stuff that captures imaginations and takes off in unexpected directions. But you can’t, because this shit is random.

Randomness. It’s an elusive little sucker. So then why do we as bloggers, or more accurately, as commentators on the world of MMO gaming, why do we expect game designers to not have the same problem? Because they do. They put out features that they’ve slaved and agonised and researched to death only to see them full flat, and then they shoot off something to plug a hole and it goes crazy of its own accord. Want an example?

The auction house in WoW. Not much thought went into the design of the auction house, they probably didn’t have time to. “For God’s sake, just give them something where they can sell their stuff and buy other people’s stuff and do a basic search for what they want! We’ve got 25 man raids to design!” And some pretty simple coding and design turned into something that the game designers would never have dreamed of. Had they fussed over it and tried to formulate a precise gaming plan of how it was all going to work then the results may well have been far less successful. But the playing community took it and ran with it and the results are there to see.

Two things. Firstly, if you restrict your design to what you know and imagine then that is all you will ever have. It’s like moving to a new city to find a new job. You can organise a new job before you arrive, and that is fine, but you will restrict your job options to only those that you can presently envisage, thus eliminating all the random options that your new place of abode might have thrown up at you. Secondly, randomness. Did you see the word back there in the previous sentence?

Randomness is all about putting lots of things out there, like blog posts, in the bet that enough of them will turn out to be big winners. Seeing as we can’t predict winners, not even in something really small and inconsequential such as what blog posts will be successful, then this is a pretty neat way of achieving success in a game, or any field for that matter. This has been carefully formulated by Nassim Taleb in the book, ‘Antifragile – How to live in a world we don’t understand’.

So how could game designers make this work for them? It’s a big question, because I believe that whoever can properly interpret the rules for anti-fragility found in Taleb’s book and apply them to an MMO will hit the big time. It’s a big book, and a simple idea that is complicated in its execution, primarily because it goes against so much of what we have learnt to believe is the right way to approach solving problems and being innovative. And making a successful MMO is a complex task. I’m going to reread the book, and as I do so I’ll try to apply it to how it could work for an MMO. And then hopefully some game designer will steal my ideas and do it for real so we can all enjoy the fruits of that project.

Can Everquest Next succeed then when compared to this hypothesis? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. They need a healthy dose of randomness first. Will this post become my biggest hit generator? If I could tell you that, I’d bottle and sell it.

I’ve been sitting on an idea for a while, trying to sort out my thinking. I’m talking many months here. But the latest Everquest Next announcement and reactions from the blogging community have managed to crystallise some things for me. Syncaine is not impressed with the new announcement and is predicting a SWTOR level of fail. Azurial is less harsh and ends his post with some hope that it might be playable, but he’s pretty much on the same page. The surprising thing for me was that Wolfshead got excited about it and posted for the first time in a year, but perhaps that was due more to him wanting to get something out there. I’m in the Syncaine/Azuriel camp in that I think this is a whole lot of smoke and mirrors. The strange thing is that they didn’t pull the wool over the eyes of the live audience at the presentation, nor on the official Everquest forums, but the blogging community as a whole seems to have shat itself in fawning pleasure. Strange. Perhaps next time the presenters should fill the audience with bloggers.

There has been much focus from certain bloggers over the last couple of years as to what works and doesn’t work in a true MMORPG. I have written about many of these myself, but let’s go over them once again just to be clear.

What Doesn’t Work:

Story. This should be kept to single player games. And if story doesn’t work then take out cut scenes, instance-related content, and most quest systems. Story is detrimental for the simple reason that the content will expire and more will need to be generated. It’s like a drip-feed for zombified players. If you hear a game designer talking about the need for an “ever-changing world” then you need to run away screaming.

Heros. If everyone is a hero then I want to be the truck driver. Or, I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have someone like me for a member.

Dumbing it down. This is broad and can mean many things, but a great example is what happened to rogues in WoW, my personal tragic MMO experience. From making poisons, lock-picking, stealth based on ability and skill, and many more things, we went to duo-wielding axes and healing ourselves.

Being able to solo content. If you’re going down this road, you don’t have an MMO.

No Fast Travel. Trivialise your world and you will trivialise your game.

No Gimmicks. I am sceptical about EQN because of the amount of noise surrounding this parkour component they’re talking about. Yes, it’s certainly not as bad as the voice acting debacle with SWTOR, but it amounts to the same thing. There is no gimmick that will make your game. Your game will not be different from the others because of this gimmick. Your game will probably suck. Why? Because we’re talking MMOs here, children. We’re not playing Angry Birds. And while a gimmick will work fine in a simple browser-style game, it ain’t going to count for diddly-squat in the mire of an MMO.

I could go on. But you know what I’m talking about, especially if you’ve been reading my blog for a while. So what does work? I believe that there are two things:

Community. Strange as it may seem, in a game designed around the fact that there are lots of players, it is the strength of the community that will hold your game together. Damage the community, trivialise the community, undermine the community, and any short term benefit that this brings will have a negative effect on the MMO in the long term. You don’t keep logging into the same game, day after day after day, for gimmicks. You log in to see your mates. And hang out with them, and experience the world with them.

None of what I have written so far is new. But the next thing is. This is what I have been trying to formulate in my head for quite some time now, but it took an outside catalyst to make me see the light. Here it is:


Tomorrow I will explain.