Don’t Save Me

Today, we are going to discuss the design of online games, to the tune of the international pop hit “Don’t Save Me” by Marit Larsen.

Yes, I am structuring a post around song lyrics. We are going to take the words and just run in a direction that the author never intended in the slightest. My high school English teacher would love this.

I say that I am twisting the intent of the song, but it is about relationships, which are really what we are talking about here. These are not just games; people have really passionate relationships with their MMOs, upsettingly so at times. People frequently stick with their games for longer than romantic partners, and unsubscribing looks a lot like a breakup, especially when you see the forum posts about how she’s changed, she’s not the game you fell in love with. Can’t we go back to the way it used to be, honey, back when we were happy? What do you mean you weren’t happy? I was happy. You never said anything. Why have we always had these communication problems? No, I don’t attack you whenever you say what you think… *ahem*

In fact, the structure of relationships with MMOs is remarkably similar to romantic relationships, with an initial seduction, period of infatuation, a while when you learn about each other and start adjusting to the other’s routines, a period of contentedness that decays into monotony, disappointment, increasing resentment, looking around for other MMOs, and then a final split that is either very noisy or almost completely silent depending on your style. Some people will linger on with the occasional attempt to make the old magic work again for a month or two, but it is just not the same.

Now that we have driven that metaphor into the ground, we can begin. Sing along at home!

You say
We must move forward
And I say
Let’s not go back
Once we were brave explorers
But this trail is a worn out track

Every developer seems to promise the Next Great Thing. Whether it is evolutionary or revolutionary, this game is unlike any that has come before it. Onward and upward to the next supercore game!

In fact, the next game is probably about the same as the last one, with a differently colored bell or whistle. Apparently, our ancestors have not only solved most of our design problems, they may have solved all of them. Otherwise, we would not have 8,000 versions of DikuMUD with pretty pictures.

I’m just sayin’, if you want to make the next Everquest, stop making Everquest. We already have that. We already have twenty versions of that. We have covered that ground. We can move on now.

Don’t chase that setting sun
Look what we’ve become

Because how quickly can you catch up with them? Remember, you are competing with Everquest and World of Warcraft right now. When a new game launches, people always say that you cannot compare where game x is on day one with where game y is now, after two years of development. We can’t, why not? I am deciding where to spend my $15/month, and I have two competing projects here. One is World of Warcraft with more than a year’s worth of polish, improvements, and content. Another is your game, which is buggy and has a memory leak but no content past level 14. At present, you are not another bad EQ clone, you are more of a bad clone of EQ’s tutorial. Oh, and all my friends are still playing WoW.

Don’t save me
I’ll save you the hassle
Our little castle
Is a house of cards
This empty heartache is pending
This is us ending

I do not think that you will be the one to deliver us all from the hands of SOE or Blizzard or EA or whichever company your fans are spewing bile against today.

I can sketch out how this will go, here and now, without even knowing which “next generation” game we are talking about. There will be a little castle, since it is a fantasy MMORPG. Gameplay will be relatively hollow, since you took the message of WoW to be that people like shallow, repetitive gameplay. Smash monster, get shiny, hit vendor, look pretty, smash monster.

The problem with houses of cards is that they topple with just a little push. What are you offering that differentiates you from every other fantasy MMORPG out there? Just a little nudge and your players are on to the next one.

The ones who will really turn on you will be those heartbroken ones, the ones who really bought into the notion that this was the Next Big Thing. They signed up for your mailing list before you were in alpha, and they had been writing about your coming glory for years. Your early advocates can become very bitter when it turns out that you are not everything they ever dreamed of, and quite frankly when has anything been everything you always dreamed it could be?

You say you were just kidding
And I say this is no joke

As I said, these are not just games. They stopped being just games at some point. People get emotionally invested in MMOs. They react quite strongly.

Oh, you did not mean it that way? Maybe you are taking the popular idea of going for pure fun, cut out all the BS. Yeah, remember what I mentioned about hollow gameplay? Once you have removed all those irrelevancies, what is left besides whack-a-mole? Also, while I love the lack of downtime, have you noticed how hard it is to form bonds between players when we are constantly fighting and clicking, with no pause to talk to one another? After all, that is all there is to do here, level and get the next uber gear.

We’ve grown and we’re not fitting
We’ve flamed now to a wisp of smoke

That was fun for a while, a long while, and at times we all just want to hit something. Eventually, though, most people move past that. There needs to be something else there. Learning a new system of whack-a-mole can be entertaining at first, even for a few months, but it flames out quickly if the game is not significantly different from the last thing I did. I have already slain armies of goblins and ogres; what else do you have?

Don’t turn the truth around
It reads the same way upside down

No, I said what else? Don’t just take the exact same stuff and put it in a new dress. EQ with better graphics, EQ in outer space, EQ with team-based PvP, EQ with less itemization, EQ with more itemization, EQ in a popular fictional setting, EQ in tights, EQ with RMT, EQ ad infinitum. Once we play the game, we know that we have played this game before, even if you have completely redesigned the UI. Players are going to mod the UI back to a familiar setup anyway.

Don’t save me
I’ll save you the hassle
Our little castle
Is a house of cards
This empty heartache is pending
This is us ending
so don’t save me
don’t you dare

Wait, haven’t we been through this one already? I could have sworn that we have had this exact conversation a dozen times. Wait, no, we now have two lines added at the end that basically say, “And I mean it!” Wow, that has really changed the formula.

Little by little
Sneaking upon
Until it’s too much to ignore

Who knows, someone will buy the hype. There will be a few people who will argue to the death that your game is new and different, and few have the stamina to keep opposing the same arguments and flames that appear twenty times a day. It could take people quite a while to realize everything that is wrong or the same about your game. It could even recoup development fees before the die-off happens.

Let’s leave in the middle
Before it dead ends I’ve been down this road
Don’t you dare
Leave me here
I’ll go looking elsewhere

But really, we know where this road ends. We kill ten thousand rats, get bored, and leave. We wanted to go on to the next great thing, but we are just running in place. Not only is your game another leveling treadmill, but it feels just like the old treadmill. We have reached meta-treadmill! People are spending years and millions of dollars on developing the exact same game, just trying to keep up with video cards and the press cycle. And then everyone goes back to WoW when the new expansion comes out.

Don’t save me
I’ll save you the hassle
Our little castle
Is a house of cards
This empty heartache is pending
This is us ending

Don’t save me
I’ll save you the hassle
Our little castle
Is a house of cards
This empty heartache is pending
This is us ending
so don’t save me
don’t you dare

And it keeps repeating. And repeating. Even though we both know better, we keep going through the same cycle, hoping this time it will be right, this time it will be real, this time it will finally be The One. Luckily, we know from those romantic relationships that people will keep making the same dumb mistakes over and over again, at any cost, because hope triumphs over experience. But please, even if it is easier to sell the corporate office on “World of Warcraft crossed with Animal Crossing,” try to move on. If you want to make something new, make something new.

: Zubon

Hey, WoW with Animal Crossing? That sounds like a great game, I wonder when the beta will be starting. I should tell my friends on the forums about this one…

5 thoughts on “Don’t Save Me”

  1. Bah. Firefox Beta 1 ate my post. To summarize:

    + publishers are the root of the problem
    + they probably haven’t heard of successful non-EQ mmo’s
    + the only mentionable released ones were Puzzle Pirates & ATITD, both self-published (with a free trial and no box cost)
    + we who would rather look into other games than raid MC two-score more times are a small market
    + small, visionary devs can’t afford to finish their projects without security in publishing

    I’m still waiting for the second coming, when Glitchless will rise from the dead and there will be a new Dawn.

  2. + publishers are the root of the problem
    + they probably haven’t heard of successful non-EQ mmo’s
    + the only mentionable released ones were Puzzle Pirates & ATITD, both
    self-published (with a free trial and no box cost)

    EVE? I guess it’s more EQ-like than PP and ATITD, but I think it’s
    also different enough to stand on its own. Their development approach
    is also something that I think is worthy of emulation by other small
    MMO compnies.

    + small, visionary devs can’t afford to finish their projects
    without security in publishing

    I’m not sure that the publishers are entirely to blame here; there are
    too many “small, visionary devs” that want to create something
    different, yet still on the scale (world and budget) of World of
    Warcraft or EverQuest II.

  3. EVE I’ll agree to. Their development approach is their strong suit. My one complaint about them is that “learning skills” are an obvious cash-grab.

    As far as smaller devs often being unreasonable in terms of scale, I can agree with that. I suppose another model that should be looked to for support is the GW/CoX system of dynamic open instance separation so they can keep crowding down despite area constraints.

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