Does making an MMO change a game developer forever?

Remember Blizzard Entertainment? The genius developers behind Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft 3? Beloved by all, adored by their fans, could do no wrong?

What ever happened to those guys?

Blizzard have had a hell of a rough ride since they launched WoW, and they’re far from alone. Other developers have foundered or fallen at the hurdle of an MMO, and with yet another SWTOR scandal today, Bioware – also beloved game developers – look like they’re going the same way.

In a really interesting piece today, Chris at Level Capped explores the question of whether creating an MMO costs even the best game developer far more than they originally realised

MMOs require and give totally different vibes than single player games. MMOs are massive undertakings from the developer’s perspective as well, taking millions of dollars, years of development, gigabytes if not terabytes of assets, and warehouses of hardware to maintain just so players can log in, check their auctions, and log out. We talk about the “hype train” that delivers hints of a new MMO, then confirmation, then asset leaking and developer interviews, and which culminates in a massive Internet pep-rally designed to get people on-board for the release of the game. This starts at least a year in advance, and in the case of companies like BioWare, Blizzard, or NCSoft, it becomes hard to avoid official marketing materials or interviews, and harder to avoid community buzz.

This is where we start to see the real cost of making an MMO: the psychology. Gamers are dedicated. We’re all hardcore. We’re like the girls in the pictures of The Beatles concerts. We laugh at how intense Twilight fans are, but we’re just as rabid about wanting our hobby to take us to some undefined Nirvana that we’re actually willing – at some point in our gaming lives – to put our eggs in someone’s basket because the song they sing to us is so tonally sweet that we can’t imagine life without it. Promises are made, and enthusiasm spreads. We’re caught up in the hype, and we totally forget that this company has no clue what the hell they’re doing!

Sure, they’re technically proficient, and we can be assured that the product won’t be an absolute cluster-fuck, but in the case of BioWare and Blizzard, people totally hung their expectations on WoW and Star Wars: The Old Republic based on those company’s single player products. People believed that neither company could do them wrong, and neither company did do anything wrong from a technical standpoint. Where things invariably went south was in the management of expectations. Hype is what hurts MMOs early, because hype is words and concept art; players are left – and expected – to fill in the blanks with their own desires.”

Making an MMO is a hell of a daunting task, and no-one has yet figured out how to do it without ending up with at least a large portion of their playerbase hating them. Hell, in CCP’s case they’re essentially at war with a portion of their players.

It may be that it isn’t even possible to make an MMO without becoming hated. As a single-player game creator, a developer is an artist, a director, a storyteller. As the ongoing owner/operator of an MMO, they’re a government. And in general, people don’t think that much of their governments.

I wonder if we might eventually see the dichotomy here result in a new model of gaming – one where a developer creates an MMO, but then hands it off to an entirely separate company to run it. Thus, the first can be passionate, artistic, and talented, where the second is competent, understated and efficient – a civil service for the MMO’s world, if you will.

What do you think? Will Sir Humphrey Appleby eventually end up running WoW?

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WoWBook? WoW+? Cynwise expands on WoW as Social Network

A week or so ago, Cynwise wrote a post talking about WoW’s evolution in the current era of the Internet, which touched on a lot of interesting points about social networks and how WoW’s design could evolve.

Now, that post itself has evolved, into a thorough look at how WoW and other MMOs can and should develop in the age of Facebook. After all, as Cynwise says, one of the big golden promises of the MMORPG was that you could play in the same universe as your friends, but thanks to guilds, servers, and various other impediments, the reality is far from that claim

“World of Warcraft’s infrastructure requires players to create accounts on specific, mutually exclusive servers. If I roll on Durotan, I cannot interact with players on Drenden or Moonrunner, and vice versa. Each server is effectively its own independent social network, limited in scope, much like old-school BBSes were. This made sense in 2004, but in 2012 social networks are broader, which is the whole point behind Real ID/BattleTags grouping. Warcraft is moving players towards a cloud-based existence, where your server matters less than your friends list. I personally think this is a good thing, because no matter how nostalgic I am for the old days of BBSes, I enjoy the present day reality of a global social network …

Let’s take a simple example, a player who wants to play both Horde and Alliance. She joins nice guilds on both sides of the same server and enjoys spending time with each group. But depending on which character she chooses to play, she either has to choose one social group or the other. This doesn’t have anything to do with guild perks or reputation – imagine a social network that forced you to choose between talking to one set of friends or another when logging in, and see how popular that would become. It’s not enough to be able to talk individually. “

I really hope that the poor, underpaid guy that Blizzard pay to sit and keep tabs on the MMORPG blogosphere (let’s face it, we know they must have at least one) spends a good chunk of time reading this post. I’ve never seen Cynwise’s central question – “How can WoW change to survive the post-Facebook age?” articulated so clearly, and whilst he doesn’t have a solid blueprint – yet – he does an excellent job of not only articulating the various problems but also proposing solutions for them.

And for the rest of us, it’s worth reading this post because it’s likely to be prophetic. Cynwise has nailed a key element of any future MMO that isn’t doomed to looking like a throwback – certainly, I’d be astonished if Titan wasn’t designed around social principles. And he’s doing some interesting thinking about not just directly Facebookifying WoW, but also translating the strengths of WoW via the things that make social networks great.

I’ll be interested to see how the conversation develops around this one!

How do you think MMOs will evolve in the Social Age?

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No SWTOR addons, please!

I’m an addon junkie, I admit it. I’m not as bad as Johnnie, who has to sync any machine he plays WoW on up to his online addon repository in order to actually be able to operate the game (true story), but I’m pretty enthusiastic about the things. I’ve got a highly optimised setup, I read articles on user interface design to improve my WoW UI, and I’ve even dabbled in writing addons myself.

Which is why I found Tobold’s unusually impassioned post today, in which he fervently wishes that SWTOR never, ever gains addon capability , so interesting –

“if there is one thing I’ve learned from 7 years of WoW addons is that the overall effect of the addons tends to be negative for the community and the game.

The most anti-social addons are things like Gearscore or various damage and performance meter addons. I wouldn’t mind if SWTOR had a built-in functionality which would somehow show my performance, but only to myself, with the goal to improve myself. But in WoW these addons were primarily used to point a finger at people who for some reason had a slightly lower level of gear or damage output. They were exclusion devices, with people organizing raids asking for “minimum Gearscore 6785”, which happened to be exactly their GS, so they could be carried by people with better gear. These ePeen measuring devices in my opinion did more harm than good to the community of World of Warcraft.

Another type of addon commonly seen is the performance-enhancing addon. A healing addon like Healbot makes group/raid healing a lot easier than the standard interface. And addons like Deadly Boss Mods give advance warning of incoming special abilities from boss mobs, which make the “dance” a lot easier. So what could be wrong with that? What is wrong is that by making these functionalities dependent on a third party addon, you can’t be sure that everybody is at exactly the same level. Performance-enhancing addons are like performance-enhancing drugs in sports: You might consider them “fair” if you assume that everybody uses them, but as soon as you consider that some people for some reasons don’t use them, it becomes obvious how distorting they are. “

Tobold really has an interesting point here, and after reading it, I can’t decide what to think. Personally, I’ll play WoW without addons when you pry them from my etc etc etc – can you imagine trying to play a rogue without buff/debuff timers, squinting at the tiny boss unit frame to determine if my Rupture’s running? Or playing a tank without any indication of which mobs are currently attacking whom other than where they’re running? I can’t. It’d be horrible.

But on the other hand, is Tobold right? Are all those addons that I love actually destroying my game?

I’m not sure what to think.

Are addons a blight on MMOs? Should WoW go addon-free?

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