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19 Mar 2016

Crowdsourcing MMO Design

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Today, I’m going to look at two related topics. The first came out of a new initiative from Carbine Studios called DevConnect, where the studio asks players for input on potential changes to WildStar. The first topic is about faction barriers – a subject that had grabbed my attention following Liore’s blogpost on it earlier this week.

Personally, I’m very pleased and encouraged to see Carbine open up in this way. It harks back to early days of WildStar’s development, where topics were shared and discussed amongst a curious and growing fanbase. WildStar Uplink, as it was known back then, led to one of my first blogposts about the upcoming MMO.

As for the second subject, that’s more about the current trend for studios to solicit feedback from players to help shape and mould the future of a game, and some of the interesting new mechanisms for doing so. While forums and social media might be a community’s bread-and butter, it feels as though studios would benefit hugely from an additional tool to call upon.

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17 Mar 2016

Why VR Matters to Me

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Not long ago, I was asked about my thoughts on virtual reality. I’d played EVE: Valkyrie, Elite: Dangerous, and Star Citizen on my Rift DK2, and I was sent a couple of questions. One of them asked if VR actually added anything to the experience, over and above playing them with a standard display. As I grappled with this, I realised there was much more to it than a simple yes/no, or even a ten-words-or-less. Allow me to explain…

Why do we play games? One theory is based around escapism – picturing ourselves as heroes on a fantastical journey, acting out scenarios completely divorced from our daily lives. Beyond books or film, a good game embeds us in the story, shrouding us in an experience where our imagination is encouraged to fill in the gaps. From what I’ve seen and experienced, virtual reality is an extension of this, making that experience – that fantasy – all the more potent.

But what if one person’s fantasy is another’s real-life?

Back in 2004, I collapsed at work. I remember how I felt; I kept swallowing, as if I was trapped on an airplane and couldn’t balance my ears. A high-pitched whine echoed around my skull, and a slow whooshing noise gradually built up, like a washing machine on the slow cycle. I broke out in a cold sweat.

Then, my vision started to break. I couldn’t focus on my laptop screen any more – my eyes seemed to be stuck rolling to the right. All the time, the noises got louder and the pressure grew. I felt like I was going to break.

And then, something gave. I slid off my chair and slumped on the floor. I don’t remember much of what happened next – apparently, I threw up in a bin. All I remember was waking up in the ambulance. Mask, blue lights, sirens, the works. Eyes still broken, so I closed them again. At the hospital, doctors struggled to find a cause; was it diabetes, or could it be epilepsy? But after describing the symptoms, I was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease.

Now, there are some cruddy sides to this: I’m prone to attacks without much warning (although I take medication to control it), and I’ve suffered hearing loss (with a risk of going deaf in later life). That aside, I’m also someone who is barred from driving. I’ll never know the freedom of going on a weekend tour down country lanes, or going on a road trip to unknown places. You see, what might be an impulsive whim to some is a fantasy that remains out of reach to me. Always a passenger, never a pilot.

Which is why virtual reality, and games like EVE: Valkyrie, are tremendously important to me. For a moment in my broken existence, I have that freedom to hit the road, or reach for the stars. I choose the heading, I gun the throttle. It is the closest I’ll ever get to being in control of a vehicle, without putting myself or others in danger. And even better, I can be the hero while doing so – I can be part of the team, learn from others, and be cheered. It sounds so simple it’s almost infantile, but that doesn’t reduce the potency of the dream.

This might be why I’m exuberant when I talk about VR games that I’ve played, as every single one is a new experience that I cannot relate to anything else. It means that I view the headset as some kind of magical device, instead of just a tool that allows me to drive a virtual car instead of a real one.

It’s also why the dismissive attitude around VR also cuts and stings more than it should. When people who have never tried the new generation of headsets start pontificating about how it’s a blind development alley that leads nowhere, it frustrates me. Here is a device which has given me experiences that others take for granted, and yet some want to snatch it away. You can’t have that. It’s a dumb idea, and it will never catch on.

I don’t think virtual reality is without problems. GDC this week has highlighted two of them – the impact of jump scares and dangers of online harassment – that make me think it will be some time before we have the tools to build MMOs using the device. But the potential is incredible, maybe not next year but five years from now, once the technology is ubiquitous.

Ultimately though, VR represents a dream that I’m desperate to see flourish, as it has the opportunity to be life-changing for so many people. Just as communications have brought us closer, virtual reality has the potential to break down barriers that most of us don’t know exist, but that some deal with as a daily part of their lives. To me, that alone makes it worth championing.

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16 Mar 2016

The Changing Face of MMOs

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Sometimes, MMO commentary feels cyclical. Back in 2014, we were musing how Blizzard’s cancellation of Titan signalled an end to the grand MMO genre. Now that Daybreak Games has shoved EverQuest Next out of a similar airlock, the same opinion is doing the rounds (although with a little less doom-mongering this time around). Some existing MMOs are continuing to hold steady, while others (like WildStar) are faltering. Meanwhile, the market feels dominated by semi-persistent quasi-MMOs, and  Eastern imports that have an established record.

This in itself is not surprising. A high-quality MMO with mass-market appeal is incredibly expensive to produce today, with budgets typically breaking $100 million. They’re also incredibly time-consuming to produce, often taking seven years or more. It’s no wonder these games look dated when they finally launch, considering the age of some of the technology.

On top of that, MMO genre veterans are some of the most fickle and divisive fans in existence. We simply can’t decide on what we want. Sandbox or theme park, PvP or PvE, directed or open-ended, instanced or open world. Each possible parameter has its cult of adherents that would willingly put anything that doesn’t measure up to fire and the sword. And woe betide any studio or publisher that slips up, as your transgressions – however minor – will always be brought up.

But here’s the flip-side: MMOs are like a second home to many of us. We sink years into these games, building friendships and lives in these digital realms. When the studio makes a design choice that shatters that world, or a publisher decides to pull the plug, of course you’re going to feel bitter about it. Now repeat that time and again over ten or fifteen years, and it’s no wonder that the genre’s created the personification of cynicism. It gets tiring to put down new roots again and again, and I honestly don’t blame people for wanting the perfect game to do it in.

Brutally, it’s unlikely that we’ll see another grand MMO, at least for now. Bill Murphy has an op-ed over at MMORPG.com, with some great insight into this changing landscape from the developer point-of-view. As Syp points out over at Bio Break, we’re likely in a contracting phase, where publishers avoid investing in the genre. The next wave of MMOs is likely to be from small, independent studios that focus on a particular niche aspect – titles like Crowfall (disclaimer: I backed the Kickstarter), Camelot Unchained and so on. Ardwulf makes a point on this – the advent of Unity 5 is helping studios to do the heavy lifting on the engine front, allowing them to focus on mechanics, systems and settings. The same is true of the Unreal Engine, powering small shooters and survival sandboxes alike. Where the infamous Hero Engine failed, others are picking up the slack.

So, where next? As Syl at MMO Gypsy put it, MMOs are here to stay, although the form that they take might well be different. They’ll certainly be smaller in size and scope, requiring less investment, fewer people and a shorter time to build – much like how EVE Online and Runescape started some fifteen years ago. The kind of games that start out small, but could grow to build a legacy.

I also think that battlegrounds and arenas will vanish as an aspect of MMOs. Over the next year we’ve got Gigantic, Battleborn, Paragon, and Overwatch, all fighting it out to become the next big competitive brawler. With all these offering to scratch a similar itch, is it worth trying to build that inside of an MMO, complete with all the inherent arguments about balance, seasons, and gear issues?

Radically, I think that the future may involve the player taking more control than ever before. Much as we used to run Quake servers in days gone by, and Minecraft servers more recently, I think we’ll start to see MMOs adopt some form of roll-your-own server. Don’t like the rules set in Ark: Survival Evolved? Rent one for a few dollars, and choose your own. It’s not that far-fetched to see this evolve into a hub-and-spoke model, using a central area to congregate with other players, and your own back yard to mess around with as you want.

So there you have it. The future of MMO gaming: tightly controlled and regulated PvP arenas on the one hand; quasi-MMOs that build persistent online experiences to established game types on the other; and fragmented, diverse, small-scale and experimental online experiences in the third, gripping hand. Nothing grand for a good ten years, unless it rises up from the small stuff organically. And huge community involvement, from building your own pocket dimensions, to designing new costumes, weapons, and more besides.

Cynical? Pah. I’m too old to be cynical.

 

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7 Mar 2016

The Stardew Valley Fallacy

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Recently, I’ve been playing Stardew Valley a lot. It’s a charming retro game, featuring a young hero who shuns being a corporate slave, trading it for a new life on his grandfather’s farm. But it’s not just about growing crops and tending animals; there’s a little bit of adventuring on the side, and the entire game is overlaid with this social aspect of helping the townsfolk and rejuvenating the village.

Part of the success of Stardew Valley is that it’s a stark contrast to what most of us are currently playing. The 8-bit art style and gameplay is evocative of Harvest Moon, a franchise that’s still yet to make it to PC, and uncorking a significant amount of bottled-up nostalgia. The slower pace also flies in the face of immediacy-driven or constant-trickle rewarding, with both crops and friendships taking time to nurture and grow. While Stardew Valley isn’t groundbreaking, it represents time well spent, which is all most of us are after at the pocket-money Steam price.

That ‘of-the-moment’-ness is also evocative of a less favourable time in online gaming. With Mists of Pandaria, it seemed as though Blizzard were cramming in similar gameplay to World of Warcraft, where we’d get an old farm and start building it up. The concept was added to in Warlords of Draenor, as we got our own garrison of minions to do our bidding. It felt as if the studio was trying to offer two-speed gameplay – dunegoneering for immediate reward, alongside being an armour-plated middle manager for longer-term gains.

Trouble is, what happens when those dungeons and raids start to feel old and stale, or no longer offer rewards? My own experience was a gradually shrinking gameplay session, where I’d log in, do stuff around my garrison, collect loot from my minions and send them out on missions again. It became a daily checklist – I wasn’t being a hero any more, but just  a supervisor on the factory floor. That’s not an adventure, it’s a job. Just add in some commuting mini-game, and you’ve got a regular nine-to-five compressed to half an hour of mouse clicks.

It also nuked the social aspect of online gaming. After all, why go to the big city when you have everything you need at home, all carefully optimised thanks to some guide you found? I didn’t see my gaming buddies any more. I no longer felt the need to stir things up in Stormwind. I didn’t randomly role-play any more. And, in the end, I stopped logging in. That, and the entirety of WoD felt like a self-indulgent diversion from the actual plot.

Now, I’m not saying that Blizzard can’t learn from previous expansions. My experience with the Legion alpha so far is almost like comparing chalk and cheese, and I’m enjoying it immensely. The subtle move to class order halls is also interesting, as it means you’re more likely to bump into other players while going through your game session cycle. Those  order halls will also have follower missions, and here’s where the cynicism creeps in. There’s a tremendous opposition to the existing WoD garrison format – of being a taskmaster rather than an adventurer – and it’s an opposition that I definitely share.

In Legion, the word is that we’ll still send our followers on missions, but that we’ll also lead them on those adventures instead of sitting back at the ranch awaiting their return. That said, follower missions haven’t been added to the current alpha yet, so there’s an element of the unknown here.

Anyhow, back to my point. When designing an MMO, there’s clearly a desire to look at other games that have high player adhesion and no real end-state. Management games like The Sims and Stardew Valley are one. Idle games like Adventure Capitalists are another. But if those games don’t gel with the core experience – of being the hero and going on epic adventures – then players are legitimately going to question why you’ve added them. And if those diversions start to replace those core experiences, so a player’s entire game cycle is taken up with non-core stuff, don’t be surprised if they go searching for heroic adventure elsewhere.

I’m more confident than normal that Blizzard knows this, as there’s been a lot of talk about bringing out the various fantasies, and making the classes and specs feel more heroic and true to type. This focus on different ways in which players can be heroic is a great thing, and it’s something I hope has been osmosed into other design teams. Give us different viewpoints of the heroic fantasy, instead of trying to climb the corporate ladder at Adventure, Inc.

Stardew Valley is quite happy being Stardew Valley.  WoW doesn’t need to be every game under the sun – it just needs to be great at playing out that fantasy of being a hero on an epic adventure with friends. Sounds simple, right?

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Comments Off on WildStar: Seeking an Artist
23 Jan 2016

WildStar: Seeking an Artist

Joven_Nebulous.150531.205314Over countless years spent playing MMOs, I’ve explored scores of fantastical virtual worlds, seen incredible creativity manifested in breathtaking beauty, and taken part in some legendary stories. Fortunately though, I’ve not been a solo adventurer, left to wander the wilderness alone; at each step in the journey, I’ve shared these experiences with an amazing person, who became so much more than a girlfriend, fiancée, and wife. In time, we’ve created and collected a fond assortment of memories from our time gaming together.

There’s the moment we entered the great city of Tazoon in Istaria, walking for an age along deserted roads to reach a vast metropolis so full of life that our computers ground to a halt. Or the occasion when, after weeks of preparation, we descended into the cavernous Molten Core on Azeroth for the first time, and faced the toughest challenges we’d ever encountered. Or the calm we felt on the ice planet of Ilum, looking up at the dark sky and watching the galaxy slowly turn around us. More recently, on the island of ARK, we went hunting for dinosaurs to tame, watching over their sleeping bodies night and day in case something rushed us from the jungle.

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Each one of these is a bubbled moment, a precious keepsake. But, beyond our shared memories and screenshots, there’s little to remind us of the time we’ve spent together. Sure, we’ve accumulated trinkets and toys from the games we’ve loved, but these don’t really describe the time we’ve spent together.

That’s why, with WildStar, we’d like to try something different. We’d like to commission an artist, and work with them to produce a piece of artwork that captures both the spirit of the game, and what we’ve gained from our time playing it. It would be of two characters (Joven Nebulous and Aurelia Valesran), and their pet Dagun, but further details such as clothing and location haven’t yet been decided.

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And the eventual goal? To have it printed professionally, framed, and hung on the wall in our home. The world of Nexus is a cherished place to us, and we’d like to create something a little more permanent to remember our time together. It might take a bit of time, but we feel the result will be worth the effort, and we’re keen to collaborate with whoever we end up choosing to get there.

Importantly, we’re interested in paying the going rate for this type of commission. We both understand that it will take a significant chunk of time to produce what we’re asking for, and we’re happy to invest in a piece that works for us. But likewise, we’d prefer artists with a track record of creating this kind of work, as we’ve been burned a few times and would like a degree of confidence before parting with real cash.

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Interested? Throw me an email at ‘me [at] gazimoff.com’, including details of your rates, timescales, and a link to previous completed commissions that you feel are relevant. Also include any questions you might have, and any other information you feel is relevant. We’ll review them, and promise to get back to everyone who contacts us. And, if you know someone who might be interested, please forward this to them.

Thank you, and best of luck. With your help, we’ll be able to make a lasting legacy of our time in WildStar. And who knows – maybe it’ll be your artwork that we choose for our home.

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