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Building a Better MMOusetrap

Building a better MMOusetrap: Morality schmorality, where's me sword?!

EVE Online, Culture, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Opinion, Tabula Rasa, Building a Better MMOusetrap, Politics, Academic, Virtual Worlds

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men (and women ... and children)? Certainly most MMO players, or to be even more general most people who go on the internet know at least what they expect other people to act like. Certainly they would act like normal people right? Upstanding citizens, keeping the peace, helping old ladies across the street, buying girl guide cookies. But then if you have those fine folks, you certainly would have to have their counterparts, the criminals and scum-bags of the virtual worlds, preying on the innocent and weak. A sort of symbiosis has to exist even online, else you would either have complete anarchy, or pure utopia (and that sort of thing could never happen in a video game, eh Jack?) and neither of those situations truly juxtapose reality, they simply.

And that's what MMO's are supposed to do in some sense or another if I'm to believe what all the articles, thesis's, and marketing materials say. Even in the trailer for the upcoming MMO documentary Second Skin they say things along those lines. So you have to balance the good with the bad to have a virtualisation with reality, but then something is amiss, because it's certainly damned hard to be a bad guy online. Oh sure you can gank people in PvP, or use MPK tactics to train monsters on to groups, but those sorts of things make more of a dickwad than they do a truly evil person.

Something I hear flying around a lot these days, mostly in conjunction with RIchard Garriott's sci-fi MMO Tabula Rasa, is the idea of morality. But can there really be moral choices in an online world, where just about everything a character does is pre-destined, set on rails, and left to run its course on its own time table?

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Building a better MMOusetrap: The age old debate

World of Warcraft, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Age of Conan, EVE Online, Final Fantasy XI, Jumpgate Evolution, Lord of the Rings Online, MMO Industry, Warhammer Online, Stargate Worlds, Opinion, Star Wars Galaxies, Tabula Rasa, Building a Better MMOusetrap, Virtual Worlds

Is there room in the genre for things that don't fit in the normal schema of MMO games? There have often been problems plaguing Sci-Fi style MMOs throughout the years, be it the fact that they are too vast, or can't live up to the IP that they are built on, allowing the fantasy genre to reign supreme (with exceptions to the rule of course). For the most part players seem to 'get' the games built around fantasy easier, with the play style just making a lot more sense. I know from the players I have spoken to, it's just easier for them to run around and hit things with swords, than to be flying around in star fighters and raiding entire planets.

It begs to question if that will always be the case, and certainly looking at the line up for big MMOs over the next year it certainly looks that way. With FunCom's Age of Conan, and EA Mythic's Warhammer Online, both fit into that fantasy style, and work alongside games like LotRO and WoW with a metric buttload of back-story and lore (though obviously LotRO takes the cake on that aspect.)

What is it that causes this then? Is it the lore, or the swords, or perhaps the fact that fantasy is just more interesting to people than science fiction? Let's try to break it down...

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Building a better MMOusetrap: To topple the King!

World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, EverQuest, EverQuest II, Final Fantasy XI, Lord of the Rings Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Culture, Game Mechanics, Lore, MMO Industry, Crafting, Warhammer Online, Opinion, Tabula Rasa, Building a Better MMOusetrap

Can WoW be killed? This is the question on the tongues of my WoW playing friends since the announcement of FunCom's upcoming title Age of Conan has been pushed back another 8 weeks. Some think it's to polish it just that extra little bit, so that they can come out of the gates running, but honesty I think they just want to make sure they are putting out as high a quality game as possible. Really this idea of a WoW Killer, has been going around for a long time, and frankly I think the whole idea is a bit silly. Like my compatriot Kevin Stallard states on a recent edition of 'Ask Massively', there are games like Ultima Online that have been plugging strong for over a decade now, without any real notion of stopping soon.

Certainly over the years MMO's have risen and fallen from the top spot, it started off with UO holding the torch, then moved along to EQ and pretty much since it's launch WoW has held fast and continued to gain popularity. And with ActiBlizzard's recent announcement that the World of Warcraft has just broken the 10 Million subscriber mark, it's unlikely we're going to see them toppled any time soon. To take a moment and put those numbers into perspective, 10 million subscribers would be like if every man, woman and child in Belgium did nothing but play WoW all the time. I know I'd certainly take the next flight out to Bruges, and settle in next to the Muscles from Brussels playing my Shaman for the good of mother Belgium!

But really, I don't think that there is any risk of a WoW killer, not because I don't think that AoC and EA Mythic's Warhammer Online aren't going to be 'as good' or even be able to compete against WoW, but because frankly I don't think it matters. From what I've seen so far from both of these titles, neither one is trying to be a WoW clone, and I think that's the rub right there. Nothing is going to "beat" WoW, just like nothing beat UO or EQ, they simply lost subscribers to the new evolution of the genre. There are still a great deal of people who play the older titles, things like FFXI, UO, EQ, and so on, but most MMO gamers aren't tied to a single title. I bet you that of those 10 million WoW subscribers at least 30% play at least one other title, and most of them have probably taken part in at least one beta test for another game.

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Building a better MMOusetrap: PPOrnography in games

World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Final Fantasy XI, Culture, Exploits, MMO Industry, Opinion, Second Life, Building a Better MMOusetrap, Politics, Academic, Humor

Quick turn out the lights, shut your door, and unplug the phone... today we're going to talk about boobs. shh shh shh, I know, please keep it down, don't get all worked up, it's really not anything to worry about. I'm not actually going to show you any boobs, just talk about them, or rather about morality, censorship and the like in our favourite type of video games. As I'm sure you're all aware, as informed gaming news readers, you've read the latest load of tripe about our beloved "sex-boxes" and how they are filling us full of sodomisingly good times. Well, I decided to take a look at MMOs under the same plate, but before you fill the comments section with slander, and my inbox with hate, let me just say I think the fellow who wrote the article is a grade-A ass, but he did make me think about a few things.

First off, let's look at the ESRB rating that comes on most of our MMO titles, generally they are rated T (for teen!) but have the wonderful disclaimer of "experience may change during online play". Now frankly that's pretty much a carte blanche to do whatever they like, because if they get pulled into court they can just grab their Objection! sign and point at the rating. But I think that for the most part MMO game developers take a lot of strong steps towards keeping the playing environment relatively tame. There certainly aren't any terribly un-graphic alien lesbian love scenes in Paragon City, and last I checked, even though the Mithra are cute little cat ladies, there hasn't been any rampant cases of cross-species hot loving in Vana'diel.

I think what I'm trying to get at is, that game developers do in fact keep our online experiences as puritanian as they can (violence aside of course), because they don't really see a need to change their games into online porn. Certainly there are the usual video game metrics of unrealistic body types (for both the women and the men), and the fact that somehow the more armour a female character puts on, the more like a princess leia golden bikini (link is semi-NSFW) it looks. But other than that things are generally tame, that is, until it gets into the hands of the players.

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Building a Better MMOusetrap: Adventures in babysitting

World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Final Fantasy XI, Game Mechanics, Guilds, MMO Industry, Opinion, Player Housing, Building a Better MMOusetrap

Guilds are as much a part of online gaming as the overuse of horrible internet memes (Mr. Norris I'm looking at you, and your amazing roundhouse kick), and people who play far too long, and bathe too little. Some games call them different things, Linkshells, Corporations, and so forth, but at the end of the day they are all the same thing and serve the same purpose; to give online players a way to easily access content by joining forces with a group of (sometimes) like minded individuals. They are often a great source of fun, and can even lead to life long friendships outside of the game, and I personally think that the games I have played would have been lesser without them. But, along the same vein there are some days I'm sure we all have when we log into our game of choice, and find ourselves in the middle of a Battle Royale of epic dramatic proportions where we just want to click that quit button and run off to our own private corners of the game and stab/shoot/maim things.

Guilds are a strange and mystic creature, never to be truly understood, but for most of us also something we submit ourselves, and often try to create perfection. I don't actually think there is such thing as the perfect guild, because no matter who gets invited, who is in charge and who the big players are, there are always going to be problems. Some people will almost always form cliques inside a guild (or guilds inside guilds in some cases), and other people, try as they might just won't be accepted. Some people are loved by everyone and that works out well for them, but also, some people are hated by everyone and that works out for no one. Some leadership teams are too passive, others too aggressive, and there are always other problems that come up when things like loot and fame come into play.

There are a lot of different types of guilds, from family guilds where it's just a small group of friends and family who play together and use their time online to connect where they otherwise couldn't. There are hardcore raiding guilds, who lead the bleeding edge of content in whatever game they choose, like Nihilum and Death and Taxes in World of Warcraft (the raiding game I follow most), where they become not unlike the rock stars of their game. But the majority of guilds I've found in any game, are the ones who generally sit somewhere in the middle, holding up the status quo. They don't push themselves to be at the pinnacle of content, but are happy coasting along at their own pace, as long as it stays fun and interesting. These sorts of guilds often times have the most varied groups of people involved in their rosters as well.

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Building a better MMOusetrap: Starting over

Business Models, MMO Industry, Opinion, Building a Better MMOusetrap

So I have been talked into starting over an old game I quit over three years ago, deleted all my characters and vowed to never go back. Now, it's taken six months (or more) of convincing and pleading and begging, but the thing that finally sold me was "they made leveling a lot easier, it's not like it used to be."

That right there makes FFXI so much more exciting to go and play again, because as anyone who has ever leveled a character to 75 in that game knows, it was a full time job. I didn't want to go and do that all over again, forsaking the other games I play, my real job, family friends, etc etc (because, let's face it, we all do that from time to time, to get that one next level). But with the prospect of the leveling being easier, more casual friendly where it only takes a matter of weeks (or months) instead of years to get to 75 and have some fun, the game just seems, somehow better.

So that got me thinking about the other games I had left, and if they had made changes over the years to bring people back. Sure there have been the Resurrection Scrolls, and the Return Home to Vana'diel campaigns, and I'm sure countless others. But I'm not talking about promotions, but actual game changes, to speed up leveling, make crafting less of a headache, and allow people to join in, this late in the game.

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Building a better MMOusetrap: Burnout for the holidays

Culture, Endgame, Opinion, Building a Better MMOusetrap

Burnout is a topic almost every MMO player is familiar with, you or a friend reach that point where the game has lost it's wonder, and you just can't be bothered to login anymore. Sometimes the feeling goes away and you get back on the horse and carry on, or it stays and you leave the game for good, perhaps for another game, or you just leave the whole genre behind.

It's a topic that has been discussed before by a number of different people, by players, developers and journalists alike, and there never really has been a concrete reason behind it. Some people burn out before end game, some after months and months of end game content, and others last years, just to finally snap. I know I'm not going to be breaking any ground discussing it again, but it's something I've been thinking about covering for a while, and lately the topic has been hitting close to home. Every year around this time, no matter what game I'm playing, you see more and more burn out, and people drift away from the game. Some chalk it up to the holidays (the period between Yanksgiving (or American Thanksgiving for our US audience), and Decemberween (Christmas)) as the contributing factor, as people spend more time with their families, and their wallets. Others say it's seasonal depression, and once the skies turn to slate and the snow begins to fly, people just don't want to be sitting in front of the computer anymore.

Personally, I think it's a mix of both, as well as the fact that this is the time of the year we look back and take into consideration everything we have done throughout the year. I've always noticed people look at their time in MMOs in three distinct ways at this time of year.

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Building a better MMOusetrap: Why we fight!

World of Warcraft, Fantasy, Lore, Opinion, Building a Better MMOusetrap, Roleplaying

Dawn stretches its sleeping muscles and peeks out over the snow capped mountains, coaxing a faint mist to mist to take flight over a frozen lake. Animals of all shapes and sizes begin to stir and wake from a cold night's sleep huddled together in dens and burrows, and bird song threatens to break the night's quiet. A sharp echo snaps through the air as the heat from the rising sun causes the ice on the lake to crack and shift, marking the coming day as faithfully as a rooster's crow, and around the dog-leg in the road comes the faint tell tale sound of boots crunching snow, the clink of freshly polished armour, and a nervous laugh.

It is day break in the mountain valley of Dun Morogh, and the Wee Men march on the irradiated city of Gnomeregan. They have been made aware of the dangers that lurk in the caverns and halls beneath the mountains, and the horrific changes to the citizens that could not escape. Their blades are sharpened, spells learned and remembered, shields shined, and tools checked and re-checked. This is not a task they take lightly, as this city was once a place most of them called home. A place where their families lived, where they were born and grew, and where they had hoped one day to grow old and die in.

But all that changed the day the attacks began in the lowest parts of the city, and there was nothing they could do but grab anything and anyone close, and run for the surface. Now their lives are changed forever, forced into action they became the heroes that their city so desperately needed in it's darkest hour, the heroes that could have battered back the advancing forces and saved countless lives. Some simply call them adventurers, but they know themselves as liberators, saviours and champions to the causes so often forgot in todays world. Though in stature they may be small, in their actions and deeds they are giants.

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Building a Better MMOusetrap: Buildings, barrens and beyond (Part 4)

Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Building a Better MMOusetrap

Well it's been a month now that I've been going over this topic, so today will be the final part of the series. We have covered architecture, cities, and the landscapes that cover most of our virtual worlds, and today will be the final topic with raiding dungeons and instances.

First I need to clarify something though, the instances I will be talking about will be the type found in games like World of Warcraft, which are used primarily for dungeon content. I will not be talking about the instanced zones found in games like Guild Wars or Tabula Rasa, which are used to filter population through the normal areas throughout the game.

Raiding zones and dungeons are usually associated with end game content in MMOs where after you have made the grind to the top levels you can get together with 9 (or 39) of your friends and go hack and slash your way through a (usually) carefully designed area to take down either a single boss or a number of bosses. In WoW however, instances are used throughout the game to contain the five-man dungeons where higher quality equipment drops.

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Building a better MMOusetrap: Buildings, barrens and beyond (Part 3)

World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Opinion, Second Life, Building a Better MMOusetrap

Over the past two weeks I have gone over some of the base elements of architecture in massively multiplayer games. Touching on how architecture can influence a persons time inside a game, as well as how different types of players can actually begin to influence the environment.

Once a player leaves the cities with the games, they will begin to encounter more diverse and interesting environments and landscapes. The largest percentage of available space in MMOs is simulated landscape and natural scenery. From toxic-hued forests and jungles, to vast dune seas, and rolling grasslands, all the way out into the vastness of space and although the landscapes in the games oftentimes reflect the vistas we know from the real world, sometimes they are as if they were plucked from the dreams or nightmares of the players. However something separates landscapes in reality from landscapes in video games, and that is the fact that at the end of the day, most of the areas outside the cities in online games, are structured just the same as the cities themselves are.

Each area or "zone" is assigned it's own distinct character, and habitat and is assigned a specific level of difficulty. They often have only a few entries and exits, a handful of important landmarks and high walls surround the entire area. In this sense the areas function simply as an exaggerated room, with walls surrounding, one or two doors or windows to get out, and everything within set specifically to function only within that area. Espen Aarseth stated in his Allegories of Space about the game Myst:

"What looks like an open area is really a closed labyrinth with a few possible directions..."

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Building a better MMOusetrap: Buildings, barrens and beyond (Part 2)

World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Building a Better MMOusetrap

Last week we started to look at the architecture of MMO cities, and how they can impact game play. How developers use areas like transit zones, to herd the players, even if they players aren't aware. This week we will take a deeper look into the cities themselves, the people that inhabit them, and why.

Cities are often looked at in virtual worlds as a type of mall, where you can go and pick up the things you need, trade in or sell the things you don't, and maybe swing by the food court for a bite to eat. As such, players often treat cities very differently; just like malls you have different groups of people who want different things out of the environment. To some, it's a hangout place, the folks who sit around talking with their friends, using yell or in-city channels to spam their personal and most inner thoughts (WTS [Wang] x1 PST). You have those who look at it just like a pit stop, get in, do what you have to do, and get out. And those who abhor the cities entirely and would rather go out of their way to some small outpost just to avoid the unwashed masses, even if it means an extra twenty minutes.

I think developers can change this though, making the cities more like the ones we are used to in the real world. Places to rest, refresh, and socialize. In games like FFXI, the cities feel barren and devoid of life, with only the most necessary NPCs around to give out the quest and vendor your unwanted loot. There are frequently more empty, inaccessible buildings than there are ones you can go in. Where the opposite can be said about WoW, where there are countless houses for you to explore (albeit most of them empty), NPCs wandering around with no function other than to sell pie, and more vendors than you can shake a stick at.

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Building a better MMOusetrap: Buildings, barrens and beyond (Part 1)

World of Warcraft, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Super-hero, City of Heroes, City of Villains, EVE Online, EverQuest, EverQuest II, Final Fantasy XI, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Opinion, Building a Better MMOusetrap

I spent the last two years living in the UK with an architecture enthusiast, and we often got into debates about the functionality and aesthetics about architecture and design. As such I began doing a bit of personal research on the topic, but filtered it down into a view on my own extra-curricular exploits. It was through this that I found a number of papers related to architectural choices in video games and virtual worlds, some are now a little outdated as they were written in the early days of true 3D gaming, but some hold true even to today. The main point, being that the decisions being made by developers are not simply held to aesthetics, but often have classical themes of architecture and planning intertwined into the building of our online cities.

MMO architecture is something I think can define, both the enjoyment, and popularity of the game in the same way that the ease of use of its interface can cause people to love it or leave it. And I think designers and developers are starting to believe this as well, looking at the cities, towns, hamlets and mega-cities of games are starting to feel more like real places instead of just something that serves in game function.

This isn't something that is only tied into a single MMO genre either, games such as World of Warcraft, Everquest and Final Fantasy XI all draw on well-known fantasy architectural schemes, City of Heroes/Villains uses a lot of real world and comic influences, and games such as Eve Online tie into popular sci-fi conventions. That being said, these games are not simply drawing from norms, but also are utilizing individual ideas and designs, there are influences of lore and unique design in all of the above mentioned games.

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Building a better MMOusetrap: Can you teach old content new tricks?

World of Warcraft, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Super-hero, Final Fantasy XI, Expansions, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Endgame, Opinion, Building a Better MMOusetrap

A common outcry I hear when playing MMO's, has to do with expansions and their almost unfailing ability to devour original content, and let it die a pitiful death. It's as if overnight, the quests people had been grinding on, the bosses they have endlessly battled, or the items they had no longer matter. Everything you worked for up to this point, is instantly obsolete.

Most recently I have been talking with WoW players in relation to the release of The Burning Crusade expansion, and how those who were not in the forefront of raiding content before the expansion most likely will never get to see the old 40 man raid content. There have been all sorts of statistics thrown around since TBC came out that only 2% (or 10%, or 40%, etc) of the population of WoW actually got to make it into Naxxramas, with only a slightly larger number having made it into the 40-man wing of AQ.

This sort of thing isn't just afflicting WoW either, back in the day when I was playing FFXI, and new expansions came out (Chains of Promathia, I'm looking at you), there was a great deal of content from the original game, or the Rise of the Zilart expansion I hadn't seen yet. Now on its third expansion (Treasures of Aht Urhgan) and on its way to the fourth in Wings of the Goddess there are a lot of players who are crying out that they have so much left to do.

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