Bug Zapper: Turbine Edition

As you may have heard, Turbine is transitioning out of the MMO market and into mobile. I am somewhat surprised that mobile F2P is still a growing market, but maybe that is where the social media gaming money went after Zynga did its thing. Mobile devices are certainly a huge and still growing market, and you have many casual players in that space. It feels like a lot of people are competing for a few whales.

It makes me downright mad to see a studio that used to show such passion and talent for MMOs to be groveling for the scraps of mobile gaming.
Asheron’s Call, a game hovering on the edge of “not officially canceled” for a surprisingly long time (but certainly not under current development). Kill Ten Rats was effetively a LotRO fan blog for a while with all the active writers playing it. Ethic, chime in here if the dream lives on, but I’ve killed that goblin a hundred thousand times across a dozen games over more than a decade, and I can scarcely muster the energy to read about how it is being re-skinned as a different shade of orc in whatever the next WoW expansion is.

In the Western market, WoW is the juggernaut that carries on under inertia, able to print millions of dollars with any significant update but unable to further expand the market. EVE Online remains in a category by itself, seemingly quite sustainable within a comfortable range. Everyone else seems to be a hanger-on and/or niche market. I have nothing against niche games, and my dear love A Tale in the Desert is now up to its Seventh Telling under new management. Good for them. People love their games and create great communities, and they can keep going indefinitely so long as someone pays to keep the servers up. That is an advantage to players of smaller games: no big studio to decide that resources can be better invested elsewhere. You can even launch a new one of those like Project: Gorgon as a boutique game and get enough interest to make it worthwhile.

The title of this comes from the GU Comics running joke. MMO flies circle the bug zapper, and while LotRO lives to see another year, would you renew that contract in 2017? If Turbine is exiting the MMO space, wouldn’t you expect the MMOs to be sold to someone who wants that as their market segment?

But maybe your corner of the MMO space is vital. I imagine the Eastern market marches on? I cannot recall when I last logged into an MMO. I don’t know if I ever installed one on my new hard drive. My MMO era finished, and seeing Turbine do the same provides a sense of closure.

: Zubon

Humble E3 Digital Ticket

If you occasionally get a Humble Bundle, now is probably the time to get one. Just looking at the “pay what you want” level, it includes:

  • Psychonauts, which is good.
  • 40 treasure chests for Pathfinder Adventures
  • 500 coins for the Amazon appstore
  • content for 4 MMOs

And then more. And then more MMO and MOBA content in the paid levels, and more games, and some subscriptions and betas. And then there are some more of those games and betas at the “pay what you want” level. And some other stuff.

: Zubon

PvP & D&D

Today’s post from Tobold is about Dungeonmasters in Dungeons and Dragons, but the essential argument is the same as the one for PvP MMOs like EVE Online and for multiplayer content over single-player content. CRPGs and single-player games are consistent and sometimes mediocre. Multi-player content can be really horrible, but it can also be really great. If you are playing for the best times, which may or may not correlate with the best average times, you play with other people.

: Zubon

Time Investment

Phillip II: I can’t lose, Henry — I have time. Just look at you — great, heavy arms, but every year they get a little heavier. The sand goes pit-pat in the glass. I’m in no hurry, Henry. I’ve got time.
Henry II: Suppose I hurry things along. Suppose I say that England is at war with France.
Philip II: Then France surrenders. I don’t have to fight to win. Take all you want — this county, that one — you won’t keep it long.
The Lion in Winter

How do we feel about games whose competitive balance privilege the investment of time?

I do not mean games where you become better with experience. “Easy to learn, hard to master” is a classic design goal, and games without that learning curve often become dull quickly. Instead, I mean games where players can spend different amounts of time on the field, with points accruing to players/teams that invest more time. This includes bringing more players, playing for more time, or often both.

In contrast, think of a round of an RTS, FPS, MOBA, board game, or sporting event. The temporal bounds of the game are fixed, and the rounds are generally distinct. I can play as many games of StarCraft as I like, but I start each game fresh. If the other players are not there, I cannot keep rolling the dice in Monopoly to keep going around the board, nor can my football team show up at midnight to score unopposed while the other team is asleep.

Many computer-mediated games allow and even encourage this sort of play, especially where territorial control is involved, and the economics of the game may create this on a smaller basis if you can farm during off-hours to create an advantageous starting position. For example, your server’s score in GW2 WvW is largely driven by how many players you field over how much time, whereas GW2 sPvP at least tries to have equal players for equal time. EVE Online, Darkfall, Shadowbane, and Ingress are other games where bringing more players or continuing to play before/after the other team does allows you to win through superior time investment. You may be really good at the game, but you only have two hours per day to play, while the opposing guild might be college students who just finished finals (although you dominated during finals week).

On the one hand, it seems like something is wrong with such a game if superior time investment does not yield results. If you are trying to simulate a war, great ways to win a war include bringing more allies, bringing more economic resources, and sacking your enemies’ cities while their troops are elsewhere. On the other hand, now that I am long past the age where I have time to kill, why would I want to engage in competition where my competitors can score while I am not even playing?

: Zubon

To say nothing of the general MMO incentive to keep grinding.

Time to Effectiveness

This is true. In any PvP game (or game with a significant PvP element), a major factor must be time to PvP effectiveness. From the time I start, how long until I can be worthwhile to have along and how long until I am at parity with long time players? This is mechanical, numerical parity; you may still be lousy because of having no strategy or practice, but how long until I can shoot a bullet that does as much damage as the next guy’s?

In most non-MMOs, that was the instant you log on. A rocket launcher is a rocket launcher, a zergling is a zergling. Now more games have character advancement, so even a FPS might make you level. The better ones use a model like Team Fortress 2: you need time/money to gain options, not power (at least in theory; the “options” might be better than what you start with, but there should be trade-offs).

MMOs are notoriously bad because you need to level. Guild Wars 2 sPvP avoids this by letting you play at full effectiveness on day one, but WvW does not because a level 1 scaled to 80 is significantly less powerful than a level 80. His bullets do not do the same damage, and they will not until after a level and equipment grind, but the scaling means you can at least contribute while taking care of that grind through WvW. In EVE, you can join your friends and meaningfully contribute on your first day. I have been playing Ingress lately, where you can start contributing around level 5 and reach full effectiveness at 8, which was spread over a month for me and is doable in 20 hours or less of (highly efficient, possibly assisted) play.

For MMOs, this is indicative of the larger problem that you need to grind to play with your friends. MMOs are bad for playing with your friends. Their character advancement systems make it difficult to find a span within which you can bring veterans, newbies, alts, etc. together, and it only gets worse over time as the power differential between day one and the level cap grows. I played a bit of World of Warcraft but it never really caught me because I spent almost my entire time in that vast, lonely wasteland between level 1 and the cap.

If I play these games to play with my friends, I want to play with my friends. If I play these games to compete with other people, I want to compete on a level playing field.

: Zubon

Postive Sum, Zero Sum, Negative Sum

EVE Online and meatspace violence are examples of negative sum PvP. The stakes are what people bring into the competition, some of those stakes will be destroyed in the competition, and what the winner gains is equal to or less than what the loser lost. (Meatspace political lobbying is negative sum PvP for society as a whole.)

Tournament standings and poker are examples of zero sum PvP. There is a fixed pool of stakes, and your gain is exactly equal to someone else’s loss. Most status games (explicit or not) are zero sum, with status as a relative good such that one can only rise by displacing another. (The tournament itself can be a gain for competitors, but the fixed nature of the prize pools makes the competitive elements zero-sum. For me to get the first place prize, I must prevent someone else from getting it.) (Poker with a rake is negative sum for the players.)

Games are increasingly fond of positive sum PvP. Everyone fights, everyone gets a prize, everyone comes out ahead. In League of Legends, everyone gets influence (and winners get more). In Guild Wars 2 sPvP, there are no permanent costs, and everyone gains glory, rank progress, and achievement progress (and winners get more). (Meatspace economic competition is positive sum PvP for society as a whole, where winners are decided by producing greater value for less cost rather than by political lobbying.)

In all of these cases, we tend to discount or ignore the time spent. If you enjoy the game, spending time is not much of a cost, anyway. Time spent being entertained is the benefit, not the cost, although the time spent in-game almost certainly has a higher earnings potential than the cash value of the in-game benefit you gain, although you can potentially profit by poker. (In meatspace, the time spent may be the most important thing.)

Marvel Puzzle Quest tournaments use a mix of positive and zero sum systems. When you defeat an opponent, you gain points, usually more than they lose for losing. Those points add up to benefits (positive sum). There is also a ranked tournament structure with a fixed prize pool, where advancing necessarily displaces someone else (zero sum). Because you can spend in-game resources in the tournaments, the tourney competitions can become negative sum, although given rewards per win, you would need to be burning it fast, which can happen in the fight for first place.

: Zubon

Human Risks

Single-player gaming lacks the peaks that you get in good multiplayer gaming. It also lacks the troughs in bad multiplayer gaming. Your gaming preferences are going to be strongly influenced by how much weight you place on the most extreme experience versus the average experience and your relative weight of positive versus negative experiences.

If one really horrible thing can ruin your entire night, PvP will almost inevitably be a harrowing experience for you, and any multiplayer gaming is a crapshoot. Beyond just the effects of anonymity, wide exposure teaches you that some people are just genuinely horrible human beings. And they want to share that with you.

If you are the sort to laugh it off or counter-troll, the downside of PvP and multiplayer gaming is limited for you. If you seek conflict rather than avoiding it, the internet will always have more for you. If you remember the positive and forget the negative, the downside is temporary while the upside is lasting.

If you evaluate the quality of the evening by how many minutes you were having a good time, something like EVE Online will rarely be a good night for you. Scouting, mining, traveling… the median minute of play is pretty dull. Granted, the average minute of MMO play is poor relative to most other niches, but PvP gaming with lengthy downtime stands out as low average quality. If you evaluate the quality of the evening by the best minute in which you were having a good time, nothing is going to top PvP and multiplayer. If you place more weight on extreme rather than average experiences, even strongly negative events can be rated highly because you take the ebb with the flow.

A related factor is the context in which you will tolerate all this. You might tolerate perverse randomization but rage against human maliciousness. You might laugh off human stupidity but rage against poor design. You might tolerate poor design as long as the company is good. Introverts will have an extra weight against negative multiplayer interactions, because those are excessively psychologically taxing.

: Zubon

MMO Baby Fat

Keen has a post up asking whether Guild Wars 2 will surpass his “3-month” rule-of-thumb. He uses it as a metric for MMO success. How much of the launch population stays around after three months? If “most” have left, then Keen chalks it up to a bad-egg MMO. Rift, Warhammer Online, and the like seem to fall under his rule. The problem with his rule is whether it is even a valid measurement. Has any recent MMO passed 3 months under Keen’s rule-of-thumb?

The rule appears based on the mass egress of players at around 90 days. The first month, like a good drug, is free for subscription-based games. The second month begins the actual monthly tithe, which is darn near automatic in the minds of many players. It’s the moment where I would guess players on the fence decide to throw just a little more money at it since it’s just a fraction of the money already spent. It’s at the third month that I think issues, boredom, or grass-is-greener syndromes overcome the value of continuing to play. Players are implicitly asked the question of whether it is worth staying. Continue reading MMO Baby Fat