Thursday, October 23, 2008

Massively Single(?) Player Games

With the announcement of Bioware's Star Wars: Old Republic MMO it seems that the prevailing trend among triple A MMOs is towards a much more singular experience, one in which a player may spend hours in a persistent, online world without so much as talking to another human being. Warhammer Online, whose developers and critics alike, touted the public quest system as a way of making grouping dynamic and intuitive has ironically led to situations where those in groups don't actually interact with each other. Having abstracted away any need to organize a group among other people, the "group" becomes little more than the people who happen to be in a certain geographic area at any given time.

Another future MMO thinking along Bioware's lines is the Star Trek Online from Cryptic studios. Here instead of a companion character, the player has his own companion bridge of friendly NPCs. While not controllable in the same sense that Bioware has hinted its companion characters will be, these NPCs will accompany the player during both space and land exploration

A current example worth considering is Spore and particularly its new space addon pack. Spore was presented as a massively single player experience and in that regard it excels in populating the game with user generated content. The space addon goes one step further, allowing players to create their own quests for others in the space stage of the game, which are then disseminated to the worldwide community of players. You'll never directly interact with another player in Spore but you will benefit from the collective actions of millions of others; and these efforts will in time create more dynamic, interesting content than the largest team of MMO developers could ever hope to achieve.

This idea of more accesible single player experience within a massive world isn't new - Guild War's henchmen system pionered it in the MMO space - but the focus upon it as a game feature, a selling point of the experience, is. Earlier efforts have been presented as sort of apologies for the drawbacks and limitations of group play. The focus on companion characters as an integral part of the player experience changes the social dyamics of gameplay. Presumably your character's weakness demands that you interact with other people, become invested in their stories, in order to advance your own. What happens when its just me, myself, and irobot?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It's the Economy Stupid

In game economies is a relevant topic given the failure in nations' economies worldwide in the last two months. What started with the collapse of the housing bubble in the United States has expanded to a serious failure of the credit and lending industries, leading to the ironic situation of a fiscally conservative administration taking steps to nationalize the banking industry. The same story is being repeated throughout much of Western Europe and southeast Asia.

In game economies, however, don't have Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae to cause widespread problems. For the most part, speculation in game is limited to "buy low, sell high" in commodities markets with perhaps more elaborate and interesting examples in games like Second Life which involve RMT (real money transfer). Having little experiences in those games, I will talk about my experience in World of Warcraft as an example of a functioning and complex in game economy.

World of Warcraft is, now five years after its launch, a truly massive experience with many different aspects that a player may engage in, sometimes to the exclusion of others. There are some who focus on the high end PvP arena game, others who have never step foot in a PvP battleground, and still others for whom the game is the bleeding edge of raid content. Given a sufficient amount of time, most players will have experienced the majority of what the game has to offer, even if they then proceed to dabble in a relatively small subset of it.

Driving and connecting these systems is an economy of scarce goods. The economy is vital to the continued life of the game and any MMO of similar construction. By its successful implementation, the developers can lessen their own burden of generating content. The structure of the economy itself will give players motivation to return day after day, whether that be to work on a crafting skill, do daily quests for gold, or participate in a raid. Almost all the activities a player might engage in outside of strict role play scenarios is motivated or at least facilitated by the search for scarce goods or the means to get them.

The way this is implemented - loot tables, quest rewards, crafting/gathering professions, the auction house, PvP honor/battleground rewards - forms an organic, self-sustaining whole. So long as the rewards on the high end are sufficiently hard to obtain, and others so random that no amount of time or effort is guarantee that one will obtain them, there will always be something to entice players to log into the game. In this I am not claiming that the motivation for "phat lewtz" is primary for players but that it is the organizing principle around which most of the game (and most of its peers) was created. Consider that nearly every quest in the game has either a gold or item reward, that the high level PvE content, more than player skill, demands a cache of rare gear and expensive consumables in order to complete. Even the PvP endgame has its own treadmill of item based rewards with arena rating and points for tiered gear.

As a last example, consider the economy in Diablo II. The developers of Diablo have always recognized the allure of finding rare items and they built a dynamic system to facilitate players' search. Much like the first incarnation, Diablo II was repeatedly compromised leading to widespread duping of even the rarest items. Yet, the duping didn't break the game; the game as played changed to accommodate it. The vibrant player economy of Diablo II stands as testament to the well thought gameplay mechanics which enable them and the underlying motivation of the grind.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"You're a Winner"

Somewhere between he 458th and 459th Pindleskin run, I began to doubt my sanity. Fighting the same boss monster in the expansion to Diablo II over and over, eyes peeled, yearning for, a glint of gold on the ground, I realized that this wasn't fun anymore. Killing the same bosses over and over for unique and rare item drops had lost the tension it once had. Diablo II like most action RPGs and almost all MMOs is built upon the premise of the slot machine. You input your time, exert a modicum of effort, and wait in anticipation to see if maybe this time a random number generator will make you a winner. And like any form of gambling, whether it be the one armed bandit or World of Warcraft, a lot of people can't get enough of it. I'm one of them.

It would, however, be a gross generalization to reduce any of these games to such a simple formula. The lore, the gameplay mechanics themselves, the community in and surrounding the game, all of these contribute to experiences that in their best realizations are greater than sum of their parts. For some, one of these elements is the primary draw, sufficient to hold their interest even with the absence of the other pieces. For me and I suspect most other players, each of the elements of the game take on greater or lesser importance as one plays it. I have been drawn back to Diablo II several times after it's release and each time I have begun playing with an eye towards the story and exploring new classes. Gradually that interest shifts towards the item system, until one day I find myself with an account full of characters that exist solely as disembodied bags for my main character.

To play these types of games for any extended period of time requires something to continually draw the player back, a carrot which one can never quite grasp or at least not enjoy for long. Seen then over the long term, the grind/gambling analogy seems appropriate. Developers know this and one can find this mechanic as a sort of universal in the MMO space even if it take radically different forms in games like Planetside, Eve Online, and World of Warcraft. The constant pull exerted by the grind and the mechanics which instantiate it, makes these games financially viable and gives the developers a chance to develop more content to feed the player base's insatiable desire. Still, there are free MMOs; this isn't just a ploy to separate gamers from a monthly subscription fee. The grind serves a purpose over and above a business model. In our modern age I suspect that these games have become, in some cases, a proxy or at least additional stage for social advancement and recognition.

But enough of the navel gazing. I'm just an average gamer, currently playing World of Warcraft and enjoying it immensely. This blog will be an exploration of issues surrounding the MMO space, particularly as embodied in my continuing experiences in World of Warcraft. I plan to take a somewhat broader, more nuanced view of the issues than some of the fansites/blogs on the internet. I hope you all enjoy the articles and please comment; I'd love to feedback in future posts.