We were promised flying cars!

I’m sure you remember this commercial…Avery Brooks (AKA Captain Benjamin Sisko, Deep Space Nine) is complaining that we were promised flying cars by the next millennium, blah blah. If you enjoy reading a lot of science fiction (the older good stuff!), then by all rights we should have flying cars by now as well as a lot of other cool things. At least the PC is pretty powerful and we have the lovely Internet.

But not only are we missing the flying cars, we don’t have a kick ass Lunar base, man hasn’t set foot on Mars yet, and we certainly can’t teleport ourselves around. The virtual reality craze of the real early 90s was too soon, and fizzled out before computers and VR hardware had matured to a point to really be useful for much beyond making people motion sick and giving them eye strain.

The promise of VR and augmented reality (You have GOT to read “Dreampark” by Larry Niven) is still loaded with potential and could have a huge impact on entertainment, but we are not likely to see anything remotely worthy of interest in that field for another 20 years unless someone gets off their asses and throws money at some smart engineers and designers with a mandate to redefine immersive entertainment and bankrupt the likes of EA and Disney (Google anyone?).

Anyway, back to my topic. As far as I am concerned (and to answer the question of what I think about the industry), Online games are in a period of growth on the global scale (from a monetary perspective) but are also stagnating. So much so that I feel like we are beginning to deteriorate into a phase of decline that will require something absolutely amazing to reverse the direction of. Not only that, but the Western online games industry is in pretty sad shape while the Eastern sector is leading in growth, innovation, and creativity. In a mere handful of years, Asian developers will dominate the MMOG industry while all the “big boys” in North America and Europe will be scratching their heads wondering what the hell happened while they are filing their bankruptcy papers.There are several things I want to cover in this post, and I have cool topic names for each (ha-ha):

1) Market Alienation

2) Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

3) Mediocre Saturation

4) What happened to the RPG in MMORPG

5) Cannibalization

6) Game Training

Market Alienation

For some strange and bizarre reason, many developers and publishers do their best to alienate vast demographic segments of consumers.

Nerf

Nerf is a good example. How many times have you started playing some new and interesting MMO, invested hours and hours into your character, and then the devs decide to “nerf” the character class and make everything you have accomplished pretty damn useless, not to mention kill the fun factor. This bait and switch really irritates me. They SHOULD have gotten their game design hammered out BEFORE they started developing the game, and they should have playtested the hell out of it before letting people in. You can’t set up expectations, wait for people to invest their time and money, and then just weaken a class (or something) simply because it might be more powerful than something else. Why is it when things get “balanced” after the fact, it always ends up weakening something, instead of making the other things more powerful?

OMGWTF

The OMGWTF is similar to the nerf, but occurs on a much grander scale. I am not going to spend anytime writing anything about this here, except to give one good example. Star Wars Galaxies. Ask any player about the new changes, and you will see what I mean. Not to mention the fact that you will get to witness a gamer gnash their teeth and wail for about an hour as they rant and foam at the mouth.

Customer Service

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. Most MMO developers and publishers really don’t know what they are doing, and I suspect they are winging it the entire time. MMOs must be considered a ­service and NOT a product. Further, once you take a MMO live, you can’t just ignore it, the community, or maintaining and growing it. The horror stories of gamers getting screwed by developers and publishers, treated like chattel on the way to the slaughterhouse, or just plain abused by arrogant and egocentric game masters, developers, moderators, and so forth have become legendary. The next time you are in a room with MMO gamers, I dare you to say something like “Wow, I just had the best customer service experience at [insert MMO name here].” I bet that you will immediately be made fun of, and everyone will think that you can’t possibly be a gamer or know what you are talking about, because we all know that customer service in the MMO sector is complete crap (with very few exceptions).

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

PC Games are dead, long live the PC

Some idiot somewhere declared that PC games were going nowhere and the future was console games. This started a chain reaction…Microsoft jumped on the console bandwagon, and retailers everywhere started shrinking shelf space for PC games and increasing shelf space for all the consoles. As a result, PC game sales declined, console sales increased. Of course, this is arguable to some degree when you look at actual sales numbers over the past few years, but the fact remains that this has all created the perception that PC games are on the decline.

Take a look at game industry job listings. How many of them require experience on one or more published console games?

What is the big deal about consoles anyway? Why do consoles try to be PCs? Consoles are great for casual games and awesome for party entertainment…but PC games dominate when it comes to depth, sophistication, and online play. Yeah, I said online play. Sure you can plug in a broadband connection and a mic into your pretty little console and play with your friends. But seriously, you just can’t beat a PC with a keyboard for the real online games…MMOs.

Repeat this to yourself 100 times. “Consoles are for kiddies, Real men use PCs”. Now, go complain to your favorite retailer about the lack of PC games for sale, and then whine that there just aren’t any good games being made anymore.

The other irritating thing about consoles is that games with a big publisher and big money behind it, gets tons more shelf space…n boxes for each console. Geez. Half the time, the games with the most stock on the shelves are the ones that suck the most, but just happen to have a lot of marketing might behind it because the dumb publisher invested too much in the development of the game. So, we have fewer games to choose from, and success is created by marketing budget, not by merit or quality of the game itself.

Mediocre Saturation

I will scream if I see another new MMO announced that is some lame ass variation of another MMO already out there. If someone else has the balls to do another fantasy title with elves, dwarves, and orcs, it better have some real innovative gameplay and one hell of a storyline. Sure it can be done…I firmly believe that most of the MMOs out there are mediocre and if someone makes something GOOD for a change, it will make World of Warcraft look like small potatoes.

For now though, we have a large selection here in the West (you would be amazed to know how many hundred MMOs are being created in Asia), but very few of the existing titles (or newly announced ones in development) really stand out as unique or truly “next generation”.

What happened to the RPG in MMORPG

This is such a huge topic, it will get its own posting as soon as I have time to sit down and write it all out. Might even be a multi-part piece. I mention it here briefly though to give you something to contemplate.

Pick an MMO…

Do you see more out of character (OOC) chat and conversations, or in character (IC) chat? How many game features or functionality is available simply to facilitate or enhance role-playing (no, fifty dance emotes do not count)? How many tools are available in-game to manage player guilds and clans? When you have a problem and a GM or Customer Service rep shows up, do they role-play a bit and whisper to you about your problem to avoid killing the “suspension of disbelief” for your character and other players? Or do they just ask you what the problem is and tell you some scripted response or ask you to email a help ticket? Are there things in the game that just make absolutely no sense whatsoever within the context of the game story?

I am sure you can come up with a lot more questions in this line of thinking…how much role-playing is there really in MMORPGs. Have they simply become glorified hack and slash games with ever growing FPS/PvP elements and less emphasis (or even total lack of inclusion) on the social and role-playing elements?

Cannibalization

The fact is that the MMO industry is not growing very fast, and in some cases not at all. When a new game comes out, the majority of players migrate from other MMOs. Nearly all of the marketing for the new title is targeted at existing gamers, very little is spent on appealing to the mass market, or growing the industry. How many “new” gamers have you met in the last six months?

Anyway, it is nearly impossible to get an accurate number of the market size. People have multiple accounts in multiple games, and the marketing/money people tend to count each account as one individual person (including old and inactive accounts).

Start looking around at MMO marketing, news, related blogs, etc. You will find that most of it is targeted at and caters to gamers. Even worse, when something gets airtime on CNN, it is always presented as some strange and wonderful thing that only geeks partake in, like some sort of native mating ritual that is mystical in nature, but is certainly a sign of the future. I get ill when I think about the mass media talking about online games.

Game Training

This one really gives me the willies, and I don’t mean the good kind. Others have commented on this, and I feel like I should mention it again. The game industry is setting, establishing, and reinforcing expectations with young gamers. In a very short-sighted way, games are increasingly designed for people with very short attention spans. They have less depth and substance; it is assumed that gamers aren’t smart enough for sophistication or complexity; consequences for a variety of actions are minimized (the sting of death is trivial in a lot of games now); risks are diminished and rewards are increased (you too can own the +100 mega sword of death by clicking this button here!); and the list goes on.

Basically, games are being created for 2nd graders. New gamers are getting used to this, and they freak out if you hand them a manual, or say “learning curve”. Again, publishers and developers are completely missing the boat here. I remember when people said that Eve Online had a “really high learning curve” and was destined to flop. “It is too complicated and too niche” they said. Funny how that all worked out eh?

I used to like reading Dr. Seuss books when I was a child. These days I’d rather cuddle up to a real book that sucks me in, makes me think, and blows my mind. I’d bet there are a lot of gamers out there that have gotten fed up with the simple tripe we are getting fed these days, and long for the golden age of games that required a notepad or a journal to get through (how many of you played Myst through the end?).

I want games with complexity, depth, substance, and a rich tapestry of story. I want to interact with the environment and influence things. If the end goal of an MMO is simply to level and collect loot (seriously, name some MMOs that can’t be simplified into that mechanic), then it is missing the point of what an MMO is, or should be.

I’ll write more later. This is a busy week for me, I’m in the process of moving, and my plans for world domination are undergoing a rewrite, so I’ve got that to deal with as well.

Ciao for now.

11 thoughts on “We were promised flying cars!”

  1. Amen! The sad thing is, it seems like many people know these things – just not the ones that matter I guess. Must by why I’ve ended up in EVE, possibly the most complicated MMO I’ve ever played. I sort of assumed, as I found less free time for gaming, that I’d enjoy the light and easy to get involved in games – but instead I find I’m not satisfied with that and turned towards something that always keeps me learning.

  2. Regarding your bit on Nerfing. I think it’s a little short sighted to criticise a developer because they rebalance a game (whether they are successful or not is another issue).

    An MMO is not a static world, filled with static and unchanging players who use the same strategies over and over again. In an MMO there are certain things that you can design at the very start, but until the game is implemented amongst and used by the players, designers are never completely aware of emergent techniques that players develop in order to use their classes to the fullest, sometimes to the detriment of enjoyment by other players.

    Maybe you think I’m making excuses for players’ lack of skill, but that isn’t it. If a certain spell, skill, or class is overpowered because a bunch of people have figured out a way to make it nearly invincible, then it should be nerfed. I’m talking about situations in which other players have found no equivalent way to match or counter such tactics. In this case, there will be a large number of players who are at a disadvantage and they will enjoy the game less. An MMO developer generally works towards the enjoyment of the most number of people.

    Maybe it’s not fair to the people who have developed those skills. I understand that point of view. However, good game designers know that games must be balanced for an enjoyable play experience. If you make a mission too hard or too easy, the experience is either frustrating or boring. If you give too much power to a certain skill or class, then the experience becomes a tool to abuse other players or gain unfair advantage.

    At any rate, the point of my argument is that an MMO is not a static world, and no one should expect a developer to take into account all the creativity and the shrewdness that the players are capable of. If you wanted a static world where skills don’t get nerfed and the game is never rebalanced, then there are plenty of console RPGs to play.

  3. Brinstar I think what he is getting at is why do developers always go for the “let’s weaken a class” (Nerf)instead of “hey let’s make these other classes better so they can match up”. He clearly understands it’s not a static environment. The only realy justification for a “nerf” is if a skill is able to be exploited in a way not in tended by the developers. Simple overperforming should never be a reason for nerfing, when if they took a little more time they could go about increasing the abilities of the other classes.

    “Maybe you think I’m making excuses for players’ lack of skill, but that isn’t it. If a certain spell, skill, or class is overpowered because a bunch of people have figured out a way to make it nearly invincible, then it should be nerfed. I’m talking about situations in which other players have found no equivalent way to match or counter such tactics. In this case, there will be a large number of players who are at a disadvantage and they will enjoy the game less. An MMO developer generally works towards the enjoyment of the most number of people.”

    Again why not simply improve those other classes instead of nerfing one class…and destroying the time and fun invested by those people. In the same amount of time they take to develop a nerf for one class they could improve another class, release those improvements in an update, and move on to another class to improve. All it does is take a little more time.

    “Maybe it’s not fair to the people who have developed those skills. I understand that point of view. However, good game designers know that games must be balanced for an enjoyable play experience.”

    Again he hasn’t said the game shouldn’t be balnced, but why should it be balanced by Nerfing instead of improving?

    From my own observations in various games the biggest catalyst for Nerfing is PvP. It is VERY hard to balance for PvE and PvP what works fine in PvE can end up being too powerful in PvP, and suddenly a class that works fine for a lot of people who don’t do PvP is at the top of the Nerf list. I’ve honestly begun to think the only way the two can be balanced together is if they are treated as completely different games with entirely different rule sets for spells and equipment, but no developer has been brave enough to really take that out to it’s fullest extent. Anarchy online tried but failed (don’t do as much dmg to plaers, nanos work differently etc. ) it doesn’t help that their game engine is ollllld and mass PvP turns into a bit of a cluster. I think their next expansion is going to take it even farther though as they are introducing whole new PvP (Mechs witch can completely change your stats depending on what mech you have). that way they can start balancing the PvP with a completely different ruleset (I hope anyway)

  4. Brinstar I think what he is getting at is why do developers always go for the “let’s weaken a class” (Nerf)instead of “hey let’s make these other classes better so they can match up”. He clearly understands it’s not a static environment.

    Point taken.

    However, if he understood that an MMO is not a static environment, then he wouldn’t have advocated for the developer to release a game and leave skills untouched.

    The problem of making other classes more powerful to “match up” to an uber powerful class is that it’s difficult to predict what such widescale actions would do to game balance as a whole. Like a scientific experiement, it’s easier to change just one variable in order to make predictions as to what will occur in practice. In this case, the “one variable” is the class that gets nerfed.

  5. Rand ‘al Thor is right by saying that nerfing through advancing is better that nerfing through “crippling”. But methinks it is less work to give one certain class a negative nerf than to give a positive nerf to the dozen of other classes. Maybe that’s why nearly all nerfing goes to negative.

    In general: nice essay, Nicodemus. You are so right.

  6. Actually MMOs ARE static environments. There are strict rulesets that govern how the environments work and what interactions are possible between players and the environment as well as players interacting with other players. The only truly dynamic aspect of current MMOs are the players themselves.

    There is a dramatic difference between “balancing” and “nerfing”. Balancing is the implementation of minor adjustments and tweaks. This is perfectly fine, and should be done.

    Nerfing on the other hand, is dramatic, and has broad effects, usually detrimental in one or more ways. Nerfing is the result of lazy designers and developers, games that are rushed to market by the publishers/marketers, and lack of thorough testing and play testing.

    Part of my complaint here, is that nerfing occurs after the game has been released, and in some cases a lot of time since launch has passed. The problems that led to the nerf should have been dealt with early in the design stages, or if it was overlooked by an inexperienced MMO team (quite common), it should have been discovered during internal alpha testing, or in beta testing (especially during latter beta stages).

    Balancing makes things even, streamlined, efficient, and appropriate within the context of the world game and mythos. Nerfing is more like surgery with a spork.

    I also don’t think that player ingenuity should be penalized. I am sure that when Grog figured out that he could put a sharp rock at the end of a stick and then throw it to kill the wooley mammoth, all the other guys (Oog, Narl, Keel, and Vunk) that were still using clubs were upset and felt that Grog had an unfair advantage. But Grog doesn’t deserve getting his eyes poked out and his legs broken to make things even.

    This gets back to the game world though. Developers use the excuse “well, we didn’t see THAT coming, and we didn’t expect users to do x y and z, so we will have to nerf that whole thing now”. I think this is baloney.

    Either the player was smart enough to come up with some strategy or combination that is logical, works within the confines of the system and is powerful, or there is some oversight in either the design or implementation. In the first case, things should be left as is. Sometimes some people are more powerful or smarter than others. That is the way things should be (side note, read “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut if you think that everyone should be equal).

    I dunno. I guess what I am trying to say is that there should never be a need for nerfing to occur, and there should absolutely never be a cause for repeated nerfing to happen over the life cycle of a game. If the design is clean, tight, and tested, only minimal balancing will be needed. If the design is haphazard, fragmented, bloated, and done quickly, then expect a lot of changes, bugs, and nerfs.

    It is time for the MMO industry to adopt the same best practices and methodologies used in other industries for design and development. Just because you can patch an MMO at will doesn’t mean they should need to be patched often.

  7. ooh, good stuff there Dyardawen. I’m going to have to write more tonight to talk about some of your points. Fun fun.

  8. Hey Nicodemus can you send all this stuff to Cryptic Studios please? They need to get a clue ;-) They seem to be the most nerf happy bunch on the planet.

  9. No can do. I don’t think Cryptic is interested in paying my consulting fees or flying me out to their offices to tell them what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, and how to make things better. If they want free advice they can read my stuff here, but if they want my professional opinion and services, they are free to contact me and pay my fees. I’m not that expensive hehe.

    PS I like City of Heroes. My biggest beef with them is that I cant run around in CoH with my bad guy from CoV.

  10. “The problem of making other classes more powerful to “match up” to an uber powerful class is that it’s difficult to predict what such widescale actions would do to game balance as a whole. Like a scientific experiement, it’s easier to change just one variable in order to make predictions as to what will occur in practice. In this case, the “one variable” is the class that gets nerfed.”

    But you run the same risks of making an “oops” when you Nerf a particular class. Say you go and change the way some class defining skill works, in PvE because in PvP it is getting alot of complaints (or vice versa), and in the process you break that class defining skill for PvE AND PvP.

    They can no more predict the far reaching changes a Nerf on one class might have than they can an improvement in another class (well if the design teams would get their heads removed from their nether regions they could..but I digress).

    Nicodemus has a good point that the game SHOULD be balanced when it is released, unfortunately the developers at this point and time really have no say in the matter if they want to keep getting any funding from their publisher. So they rush their game out well before it should be, and it ends up unbalanced and missing features (features that are occasionally on the box..but not in game when you buy it).

    This isn’t a restricted to just MMOG’s either. In the last 6 months almost every single PC game that I can think of has had a patch released either BEFORE the game even hits the shelf or less than a week after. If that doesn’t scream rushed I don’t know what does. If you have to release a patch to fix a broken game before it even hits store shelves..you shouldn’t have released the bloody thing.

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