Helping indie games avoid the cliches, and helping your guildies through the school of hard knocks

Professor Hugh is still on a break, so Johnnie the substitute teacher is taking the class. Please don’t throw things from the back row.

After yesterday’s discussions of great indie games taking on the big hitters, Rampant Coyote sounds a note of warning today, bemoaning games that rely too heavily on old non-innovative gameplay ideas.

“Guys & gals… indies… I love ya. I am thrilled to see new life injected into an old genre. But I want to see “new life” there, not just a budget “best of” rehash. As a guy who has played a lot of the games that you have drawn inspiration from – and a retro-gamer who still plays some of these games, often for the first time in all their retro glory: as far as I am concerned, you are absolutely competing against the past.”

Screaming Monkey praises the alt-game darling, The Secret World:

“… despite loving puzzles and giving them a lot of thought, I have cheated on at least one step of each investigation mission I have done save one. … But yesterday, I finally managed to complete an entire investigation quest from start to finish without looking at any guide or cheating in any way and it felt incredible. I really need to do this more often because it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in an MMO, on par with server first kills and the like”

Finally, two posts which I felt complemented each other very well. First of all, Vidyala at Manalicious provides a very thoughtful post (itself a reaction to a WoW Insider article) wondering whether it’s right to use PUGs as a ‘baptism of fire’ training ground for new raiders.

“The comments on that article are interesting because some of them say, “We tell our new healers to go practice in pugs.” Other people reply, “How can you DO THAT to your friends? I would hate to be in your guild,” etc. I’m actually 100% behind the first guy. You all know I’m not a stranger to pugging. Pugging is one of the best environments to learn to heal. You have an element of chaos and unpredictability that you’ll seldom find in a “safe” guild or friend run. Yes, it can be taxing and frustrating. Yes, you may leave some groups. But you will leave those groups a better healer than you went in”

This is a nice read alongside Apple Cider‘s contribution to Sheep The Diamond‘s Collectivism Project. Apple gives a very throughful and detailed discussion of to what extent the game motivates us to help our fellow players, and to what extent that motivation comes through friendship and community. It’s a long post, and well worth a read.

” A lot of player achievement can be attained through personal goals and thinking of oneself only; the bastion of group resources has been and will always be a guild. Ever since Blizzard introduced guild perks and rep, this has become much, much more apparent as well. Many of the structures that the game has introduced to make guilds important emphasizes collective thought. However, much like my feelings on hate language and respectful guild culture, I believe that collectivising your guild (and my guild) takes some work.”

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New games, big and small

Hugh is taking a well-earned rest, so the Pot is being stirred by Johnnie for a few days.

We seem to be at a turning point for MMOs right now. With the next WoW expansion cresting the hill, Guild Wars 2 on it’s way as well, and all the excitement over alternatives such as The Secret World and City of Steam, we MMO fans are spoilt for choice. More significantly, perhaps, each of the MMO creators is really upping their game, with even the smaller indie games offering unique bits of gameplay unrivaled by the big AAA titles.

As one might expect, the blogosphere is ripe with discussion.

“… for a browser game and that little loading time, the game intro looked very impressive. That impression stayed with me for the rest of my test. Of course, you cannot compare City of Steam with dedicated game engines with gigabytes of local assets. But I was still impressed by the visual quality. Loading screens between zones rarely kept me for longer than 5-10 seconds, and only once or twice did I have problems interacting with objects or NPCs right after a zone change; canceling and retrying solved this consistently.”

“… this may be the future of the genre. Perhaps not City of Steam specifically, but here is an indie developer doing its best to craft an MMO on a shoestring budget in a world of AAA companies getting 38 Studio’d. And what is impressing me here is that the “nightmare scenarios” we tell ourselves in the blog world might not actually be that bleak. I no longer feel that it has to be $50+ million budgets or bust. Whether it is City of Steam or another indie offering, I am now convinced the possibility exists.”

“Project Zomboid is a top-down (isometric I think it’s called), zombie-survival game with retro-graphics that assumes, from the start, that you will die. When, and how is up to you, but you will die. It’s a zombie apocalypse and they will only increase in numbers. The power will fail, food will spoil, medicine will run out. You will get bored, depressed, anxious, frightened, and even lonely. And then you will die. Sound’s pretty cheery!”

  • Keen at Keen and Graev is concerned over GW2’s streamlined PvP model, and whether the desire to cater to high-level eSports will adversely impact the rest of the playerbase.

“World vs. World is teetering on the edge of greatness and short-term intrigue. The history of this industry shows that it doesn’t take much for a MMORPG company to cater to the extremely popular, public, and vocal community rallying around the sPvP type of gameplay. If sPvP becomes more popular than WvW, which could EASILY happen, what will happen to WvW?”

Finally, don’t miss the chance for free stuff: the Nerdy Bookahs are giving away a couple of Guild Wars plushies. All you have to do is submit your best MMO scenery screenshot. If LOTRO is more your thing, head over to A Casual Stroll To Mordor where you can win a Legendary Edition Riders Of Rohan code.

What will be your new game of choice? Let us know in the comments.

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2020 Vision: A Peek into the Future of MMOs

This is a guest post whilst Hugh’s away on holiday.

It’s around this time of year that we traditionally look at the new MMOs due out later this year. This summer promises to be an absolute corker, with Mists of Pandaria, Guild Wars 2 and The Secret world all competing for our attention – and our wallets. There’s also the games hovering on the edge of our vision, like End of Nations and WildStar. It promises to be a great future for MMO gamers.

Today I’d like to try a little bit of an experiment and push our vision of the future a little further. Instead of looking at the next year or two, I’d like to focus on the turn of the next decade: 2020. What will MMOs look like? How will we pay for them? Will we have indie or Kickstarter-funded MMOs?

I’ve had a stab at some of these questions with my own thoughts, but it would be great for you to play along as well! What do you think we’ll be playing in eight years’ time? Either sound off in the comments or blog about your own vision of the future and share it with us all!

Super-Sized Blockbuster Versus Niche Experience

Until recently I held the strong belief that the availability of tools such as HeroEngine and Red Door would usher in an explosion of new, niche concept MMOs. Since then my opinion has changed: I don’t think we’ll see anything other than blockbuster-tier MMOs for the foreseeable future. There’s one simple reason for this: World building is expensive and underrated.

An MMORPG is, at its heart, a role-playing game. That role has to sit in a game world, with a believable storyline that players can interact with. Moreso, the game world needs to have a geology and geography that makes sense, while being populated with indigenous flora and fauna that seem suitable for the location they’re in.

It’s this need to generate content – story, world, creatures – that necessitates a large team. While a small team can put a small world together, possibly releasing an MMO a zone at a time, a larger world will naturally require a larger team to develop. It’s because of the sheer amount of creativity required that I think we won’t see many small-scale or niche MMOs rushing in to use these new tools.

As a result, I can’t help but think that 2020 will look largely like 2012 from an MMO standpoint. Until it becomes cheap and easy to create vast numbers of animated art assets and written conversation, I don’t think we’ll see a take-off in the number of MMOs being developed. That’s not to say there won’t be any, but that indie developers will need to think around the problem. This could be through world generation algorithms (such as Minecraft), or through more of a sandbox than a theme park focus.

Telling Stories

I think that the brightest future of MMOs lies within their storytelling. Blizzard, BioWare and ArenaNet are all experimenting with different ways of presenting the story to players. Whether it’s phasing technology that changes the game world, intricate dialogue with powerful voice acting or redesigning the quest system, it’s become a major focus for developers. As a result, I’m expecting to see great things in the future, both in terms of the stories and settings we play in, and in how we’re drawn in to those stories.

I’m also optimistic that we’ll see a maturing of the genre, producing deeper content that invokes more passionate responses from us and forces us into making tougher decisions. I think that as writers learn more about the medium they’re working with and the audience they’re writing for, we’ll see greater confidence lead to more controversial and daring plot points.

Of course, I could be completely wrong on this point, and that we’ll see the same old stories continually churned out to fans that are there for the raiding and the PvP, and not the stories that surround them. Time will tell on this point, but I’d like to think that we’re there for more than just the pew pew.

The Changing Hardware Landscape

By the time 2020 arrives, we’ll probably have gone through one or two processor revisions and possibly three graphics card lifecycles. The PC you’re playing on now will have been replaced at least once and possibly twice. Displays will be sharper than ever, with hardware ramping up to power that increase in pixel density. Games in the future will look even more incredible than they do now.

We’ll also be taking our games with us. MMOs will feature substantial mobile components to keep us at least partially involved in the game, whether it’s on our smartphones or tablets. Blanket availability of low-cost wi-fi, cheap mobile data and fast networks will mean that checking on our characters will become as common as updating Twitter or Facebook. There’s even an argument to suggest that a future social network will only exist inside an MMO.

But while technology improves, I think it’s unlikely to radicalise our game experiences in the short term. I think it’s unlikely that computer generated speech will replace good voice acting. Better displays will require more detailed models and textures. A large chunk of a studio’s effort is going to be spent just keeping pace with development.

That said, I think there are some technology klunkers that will probably fade away. The big one is 3D. When factoring in the cost of a 3D-capable monitor and the required hardware, most gamers are just simply not interested. The other technology is the touch-screen desktop monitor which, while it sounds great in theory, leaves you peering at a smudge-ridden display in practice.

The Battle for Payment

By the close of this decade there’s likely to be at least one argument that won’t be settled: the best way to pay for our MMOs. Despite the period of economic uncertainty we’re experiencing, the subscription model still seems to be working for some of the more popular games. Likewise, the free-to-play model is winning gamers over, with former subscription games finding a surge in popularity after switching to this approach.

Will paying for content become the dominant approach, with paying for access becoming a rare exception? Unlikely, although subscriptions are likely to be reserved for MMOs that are sure-fire successes with a playerbase in the millions. For MMOs living with riskier propositions, the free-to-play model is likely to become the preferred option. As publishers warm to the idea based on existing MMOs, and buoyed by the success of Zynga, I reckon we’ll see more developers head this way.

I also think that as we see more developers embrace free-to-play that we’ll also see publishers focus more on providing common payment and account management systems. NCSoft and Trion are both prime candidates for this, but I also think that EA will look to leverage Origin as a payment and authentication system for aspiring developers. But these developers won’t just spontaneously start creating MMOs.

MMO Genre Encroachment

We’ve already seen single player PC games such as Assassin’s Creed: Revelations get thoroughly lambasted for requiring an always-on internet connection to play. Not satisfied with simple one-time activations, publishers are now forcing players to play on-line even though there is no benefit to doing so. Even worse, if a publisher’s DRM system goes offline then the single-player game becomes unplayable, as exemplified back in February this year.

In response to the understandable backlash from the PC games playing public, publishers are now looking to justify this draconian approach to digital rights management through the introduction of additional multiplayer features. Bullet-point features such as item trading markets, sharing of user generated content and drop-in multiplayer are all great, but not when they come with such a high cost.

As we approach 2020, I think it’s likely that we’ll see traditionally single-player games look to pilfer from the MMO genre in order to legitimise the need for an always online connection, where the game is tied to a player account rather than just a serial key. I’m not sure if it’ll work, but I have a feeling that it’ll end up dragging the MMO genre into the mud.

This was a guest post from Gazimoff of Mana Obscura – if you enjoyed this post, check out Mana Obscura for more great thoughts on MMO gaming as a whole!

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