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Player vs. Everything

Player vs. Everything: The MMO clone wars

World of Warcraft, Business Models, Game Mechanics, Warhammer Online, Player vs. Everything

You can say a lot of things about a game you don't like. You can say that it sucks or that it's poorly balanced. You can say that the art direction is all wrong, or you can say that it's lacking in any number of features a good game should have. But sometimes a game takes flak for committing the most grievous sin of all: copying another game. One of the most commonly cited complaints about any given game is that they copied "feature X" from "game Y."

For some reason, MMOG players in particular just love to cite the classic "It's just a clone of (whatever)" when they're trying to challenge the very essence of a particular title. If a game is a copy (the reasoning goes) then clearly the designers are wholly uninspired, worthless, and incapable of creating anything interesting or original. It really seems to irk players who feel that their game is being somehow wronged when another game uses similar ideas. But is this really such a bad thing? Might cloning features, or even cloning games, actually be the best possible thing for the games industry?

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Player vs. Everything: The quirks of D&D Online

Dungeons and Dragons Online, Expansions, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Player vs. Everything

From the first time I stepped into Turbine's Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach, I was amazed by how well it managed to capture the dungeon crawling feel of the franchise that I knew, loved, and grew up with. With its fast-paced, pulse-pounding, and thoroughly satisfying combat, clever use of hidden doors and traps, and resource management mini-game of health, spells, and abilities, D&D Online provides a unique gameplay experience that no other MMOG can provide right now. One only has to listen to the vehement and impassioned discussion of the hardcore fans, found in any pick-up dungeon group, to realize that Turbine has something special here---something that World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online, EverQuest and Age of Conan, or even EVE Online simply can't offer.

However, is being unique and interesting enough to justify the price? On a recent Massively podcast, I mentioned that I've always felt like DDO wasn't worth the monthly fee, despite how much I love the game. The standard $15 per month pricing model is a one-size-fits-all label that looks a little too bulky on the city of Stormreach, for a number of reasons. Today I'm going to examine some of the reasons why a game which I find so interesting, exciting, and fun can't manage to crack my wallet open, and what I think Turbine could do to push the game a little further into the competitive territory of its gaming peers.

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Player vs. Everything: Starting over

Classes, Game Mechanics, Endgame, Opinion, Player vs. Everything

Most of us have spent a lot of time playing our favorite games. Chances are good that unless you're totally new to the MMOG world, you've got at least one character at some ridiculously high level, armed to the teeth, sitting on a big pile of gold amongst the trophies of your slaughtered foes. You might even be part of a guild and still play that character with your guildmates on a regular basis to go topple foes of ever-increasing power. It's good to be a dragon-slaying, world-destroying, gold-hoarding demigod of awesomeness.

That's why it's so tough to start over, sometimes. Whether it's rolling up an alt on your current game or picking up an entirely new game, it can be really frustrating to go from a bloodthirsty, battle-hardened warrior who wades into combat swinging an enormous, glowing two-handed sword to some level 1 nobody with a leather jerkin and a knife. All of your accomplishments on your old character seem pretty far away when level 3 wolves are having you for a light afternoon snack, and a brand new grind stretches out interminably before you. Is it any wonder why plenty of players don't even bother with having alts and stick to the game they like?

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Player vs. Everything: The retention game

Business Models, Culture, Game Mechanics, Player vs. Everything

The conventional wisdom in any service-driven industry is that it's far, far cheaper to retain an existing customer than to recruit a new one. This is especially true in the MMOG industry, where your business model is largely dependent on maintaining a long-term subscriber base. The concept also applies to transaction-driven and episodic games, where you need your customers to want to stick around and continue spending money. Box sales are great, but ultimately they're pretty useless except as an indicator of how many people actually bought the game -- returning players are the bread and butter of the MMO world.

In fact, that's exactly why companies are so interested in finding out why you're quitting their game. If they can fix issues that are making a lot of people quit, they can retain more customers and drive up their revenue. Surprisingly, Blizzard is the only company I know of which actually makes people fill out an exit survey in order to cancel a subscription. It's not that annoying and it gives them great information about how to make their game better for you (so if you're adamant on copying Blizzard, that's a good thing to copy). Unfortunately, Blizzard keeps notoriously quiet about their internal numbers like that. So why exactly do people quit MMOGs, and what can and should game companies be doing to keep you interested?

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Player vs. Everything: Online Games and Sex

Culture, Opinion, Academic, Player vs. Everything

As humans, sex is something that plays a very important role in our lives and personal experiences. It's a pretty universal and emotionally charged topic that can dramatically influence how we think of ourselves and how we view our relationships with other people. Even outside of the act itself, ideas about sex and human relationships shape the way we act, the way we dress, the way we live, and the people we associate with. Dealing with the complicated issues surrounding sex is part of the human condition. It's not at all surprising that sex is frequently portrayed in all forms of media which attempt to explore that human experience. However, are video games (and specifically online games) really ready to examine this topic?

There was a really interesting lecture posted by the videogame news blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun a few days ago in which Daniel Floyd discussed the topic of sex in video games. His key point is that if video games are going to attempt to explore the topic of sex effectively, they need to portray it in a way that ties it to relationships and intimacy. Watching the video made me start thinking about how sex is portrayed in MMOGs, especially with the recent launch of Age of Conan, a game that sold itself as a "mature title" with strong violence and sexuality. After a lot of reflection on the topic, I really don't think that mainstream online games are ready to explore sexuality, nor are they even capable of portraying it tastefully with their current limitations.

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Player vs. Everything: Why won't you just take a break?

Culture, Game Mechanics, Academic, Player vs. Everything

Everyone plays MMOGs at different speeds. Some people spend just a few hours a week playing, and some of us spend altogether far too much time on these games. I submit, for evidence, that 4-hour raids three nights per week is considered a "light raiding schedule" by most raiding standards. That's almost a part-time job, when you count the time you spend farming for mats and doing random other runs on top of that! Still, it doesn't matter how much time you actually spend playing -- anyone can get pretty wrapped up in their favorite game. Even a "casual" player can get to the point where they're just playing because it's what they do, instead of playing because they're having fun.

Whether you play for 5 hours each week or 50 hours each week, sometimes it's good to step back, take a breather, and get off the game for a while. Right? It seems so simple, so obvious. "Yes, of course it's good to take a break," you say, nodding along with me. "Just as soon as I get my Tier 9 Sword, Epic Firetruck, and Gleeful Gnome Pet, I'll do that. Though, I should really wait until my Tier 10 Sword and Mega-Epic Firetruck... and then help my guildies get theirs." Meanwhile, there's that nagging feeling in the back of your mind: Is this actually fun?

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Player vs. Everything: Age of Conan's newbie blues

Age of Conan, Game Mechanics, Leveling, Hands-On, Player vs. Everything

I've been playing Age of Conan a fair amount over the last week, trying to figure out if I like it well enough to continue paying for it on a monthly basis after my free month expires. The problem is that it's going to be my second MMOG -- the one I play when I'm not busy farming or raiding with my guild on World of Warcraft. Even for someone who writes about videogames professionally, when you start stacking up multiple subscriptions, things get pricey pretty fast. Usually, I keep two subs active at a time and write about what I'm playing.

Anyway, I've been trying to make this decision and I have a problem: I hop classes a lot. When you're talking about a 250 hour investment, you want to make sure that you pick a class you enjoy playing. To figure out what you enjoy playing, you really just have to try the classes out -- especially when the classes are as unique as the ones in Age of Conan. I've leveled two characters to the high teens in Tortage, and several more to the 10ish range. What I've decided, after doing all of this poking around with the classes, is that AoC's first 20 levels are about as frustrating as they can be once the initial sheen of "new game wonder" wears off. If you didn't notice it your first time through, just wait until you make your first alt.

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Player vs. Everything: Frustrated by levels

Game Mechanics, Leveling, Opinion, Player vs. Everything

I was reading through my usual round-up of blogs and news items this morning when I found an interesting post by Van Hemlock on the topic of levels in MMORPGs. More specifically, it was about how levels in games keep players from playing with each other. He discusses how ever since he started gaming in 1999, being a different level than the people he wants to play with has kept him from playing with them. Whether you're too high for the content to be challenging or too low to be effective, playing with your friends at different levels just never seems to work very well.

Van Hemlock makes an excellent point, and it's a problem in almost every single MMOG out there with two notable exceptions: EverQuest 2 and City of Heroes/Villains. Both of these games recognize the problem and attempt to circumvent it, but they do it in very different ways. In City of Heroes, you can move either up or down in level so that you can see high level content at low levels or go back and do low level content as a high level player and still advance. In EverQuest 2, it's strictly one-way. You can bring yourself down to your friend's level and adventure with them for alternate advancement experience. Is this really as big of a problem as people make it out to be, and if it is, why don't more games have systems like these?

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Player vs. Everything: Singing the praises of Vanguard

Game Mechanics, Launches, Opinion, Vanguard, Player vs. Everything

I have a confession to make: While I was waiting for the Age of Conan launch, I decided to dip my toes back into Vanguard for a bit. It wasn't as crazy of a proposition as you might think. I've always liked Vanguard. It was never the design that was flawed -- it was the execution. Vanguard failed not because it was a bad game, but because when it launched it was a horrible, buggy, crashing, slow, unplayable mess. I know this because I was in late-stage beta, and that experience made me pass over the game when the launch date finally rolled around.

However, a crack SOE development team picked up the pieces of the broken dream of "the Vision," as McQuaid called it, and they've been working feverishly to stitch them together into something both exciting and stable over the last year. Last week, spurred by a desire to just have some fun, I dusted off the copy of the game I bought this fall and rolled up a Necromancer. I didn't expect much. I was just killing time until the Age of Conan launch started. Surprisingly, Vanguard grabbed me. Without really intending to, I was having more fun in an MMOG than I had had in a long time -- so much fun that when the AoC servers finally came up, I was still playing Vanguard. All this week, while logged into AoC, I've been thinking about Vanguard. I'm seriously contemplating putting Age of Conan on ice for a while to go play Vanguard some more. I was enjoying myself that much. What's so great about this allegedly terrible game that I'm willing to play it over the brand new blockbuster flavor-of-the-month?

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Player vs. Everything: Could a turn-based MMOG really work?

Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Opinion, Player vs. Everything

Have you ever noticed how the combat formula for mainstream MMOGs has managed to remain surprisingly stable over the years? There may have been a few small advances: more skills to use (World of Warcraft), counters (Vanguard), twitchier gameplay (Age of Conan), and destructible environments (City of Villains), for example. But even in the games that make use of those newer concepts, the basic formula of the gameplay hasn't changed a whole lot since the days of EverQuest. We run up to the monster we want to kill, pop auto-attack, and start using whatever skills we have to take it down.

It has worked out just fine in most games (I'm obviously a fan of the system), but it's also pretty simplistic, to be honest. Combat tends to occur without a lot of strategy or feedback -- it's usually too fast for a lot of complexity. Even if you had a bunch of interesting skills, stances, and counters, it would be more annoying than fun because using them in real time would require remembering where they all were on your hot bars and clicking all over the place. Given all this, how could you possibly make combat more interesting without making it less fun? Well, I was reading an article the other day where a developer was defending his use of turn-based combat in a modern game, and started wondering how well it would work in an MMOG. If we slowed things down and made a turn-based MMOG, could we have much more complex and interesting fights? Would you even play a turn-based MMO?

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Player vs. Everything: Game-hopping like a madman

Fantasy, Opinion, Hands-On, MUDs, Player vs. Everything

Chances are good that if you read Massively, you either currently play or have played multiple MMOGs in your life. Whatever your reasons are, you're one of those players for whom "MMO" is a genre instead of a game. Not all players are like this. A lot of players get their start somewhere and then stick to that game for years, denouncing all other games as being incapable of being better than their chosen virtual playground. I used to be like that with EverQuest (can you tell?). For four years I played it pretty much exclusively, not even trying other games. But eventually, I got bored.

Thus started my lengthy and storied history of game-hopping. Traveling from world to world like some sort of virtual nomad, fueled by my love of the online massively multiplayer game, I sampled much of what the genre had to offer. While I eventually found a new home and anchor in World of Warcraft, it only served as a nice place to return to every few months. I still ventured out into each new and exciting world that various companies served up to me. They all had things I liked and didn't like about them, and I honestly have yet to play a game that I couldn't find something good to say about. Every online game has its own cool quirks that are pretty neat from a design standpoint. This is why it's tough to identify an objectively "best" game -- they're all so different! I thought today I'd talk a little bit about what I've played over the years and how I ended up with the many and varied opinions on the MMOG genre that I have.

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Player vs. Everything: Rebuilding EverQuest

EverQuest, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Opinion, Player vs. Everything

Ask any MMOG player about EverQuest, and you'll get one of three responses: either they loved it, they hated it, or they didn't play it (and don't want to). Nobody thinks that it was just a mediocre game, and a lot of people look back fondly on their time there, warts and all. There were a lot of warts. When I was chatting with Scott Hartsman at this year's IMGDC, he explained to me that EverQuest was rife with any number of "pain points" which later games were able to identify, fix, and build upon to make their own game better. Taking most of what was good about EverQuest and cutting most of what was bad was one of the things that helped World of Warcraft dethrone the game and take its seat as the number one MMORPG on the market.

However, not everyone agrees with all of the "improvements" that Blizzard made to the genre when they created WoW. The arguments over what should and shouldn't be left out of a great MMORPG continue to this day, and there's no quick and easy guide to what's MMOG gold. Plenty of companies are learning the hard way that cloning World of Warcraft isn't a winning strategy. It's a great game, but that doesn't mean it's the only way to play. My question for you all today is this: What if instead of EverQuest 2, Sony had given us EverQuest 2.0? EverQuest 2 was a spiritual successor at best to the original game (Vanguard is much closer to an actual sequel). If SOE had remade the DikuMUD-inspired world of Norrath, set in the same time period, with an updated graphics engine and the pain points fixed differently than WoW chose to do, what might it have looked like? More importantly, is it something you'd want to play?

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Player vs. Everything: Fear is the missing ingredient

Events (In-Game), Game Mechanics, Opinion, Player vs. Everything

When I was playing EverQuest in the Kunark-era days there was one item that stood head and shoulders above all the others for me: the Fungus Covered Scale Tunic (affectionately called "The Fungi"). It was the ultimate twink item, allowing you to regain your health at a rate unheard of in the days when long rest periods between each minor battle were the norm for solo players. The Fungi was something I lusted after, wished for, and dreamed of, but I was never able to actually lay hands on it during those days, due to the extreme difficulty of obtaining one. If you wanted one, you had to take a full party of maximum level characters into an exceedingly dangerous area, far from the reaches of civilization, and fight your way to a rare spawn deep in the ruined city of Old Sebilis. Very rarely, he would drop the prized Fungi, which you could then pass on to your low-level alts or sell on the open market for hundreds of thousands of platinum pieces.

Other than the fact that it was a fantastic twink item, what made the Fungi so compelling? It was that you really had to risk something to get it. EverQuest, with it's naked corpse runs, experience loss on death, and horribly dangerous dungeons, made adventuring into a real adventure. Getting to Old Sebilis required traveling across several dangerous and hostile jungle zones in the forgotten continent of Kunark, far from the nearest hub of civilization. Dying in the depths of Old Sebilis was a sickeningly punishing experience in those days -- something you avoided at all costs. When a battle started going sour, you could feel your hackles rising, panic setting in, and a real sense of fear that made victory that much sweeter and death a soul-crushing experience. Is that sense of fear something we're missing out on in the modern MMOG?

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Player vs. Everything: Age of Conan's 250 hours

Age of Conan, MMO Industry, Endgame, Races, Player vs. Everything

It's going to take you 250 hours to get to level 80 in Age of Conan. That's the big news today, and I'm not sure exactly how I feel about that. On the one hand, that tells us very little about the actual game. Saying you have 250 hours of content means nothing unless that content is fun content. On the other, it does let you know exactly what you're getting into as far as a time commitment goes (on average). It's also important to note that that's pretty close to World of Warcraft's benchmark, too -- most players can get from 1-70 in 6 to 14 days played. I think my first 70 took me about 7 and 1/2 days.

What's a good length of time for the leveling game to be, anyway? If you make it too long and drawn out, won't many players quit in frustration before they ever get to the top (EverQuest was notorious for having players that never capped)? Maybe. Let them level too quickly, though, and they'll quit if there's nothing to do at the top. Even if there is something to do when you're capped, for many people, leveling is the game. I'm probably one of those people. I hate structured PvP (like arenas) and while I dabble in raiding, I really have more fun leveling. So is 250 hours long enough to keep you interested? And why even tell us that in the first place? What does Age of Conan's 250 hours mean to you?

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Player vs. Everything: Putting raiding on your resume

Guides, Interviews, Raiding, Academic, Player vs. Everything

Ten years ago, the idea of putting something like being an officer in a hardcore raiding guild on your resume would have been laughable. When trying to sell yourself to a prospective employer, you want to put your best foot forward. The last thing you'd want them to know is that you spend upwards of 20 hours per week frittering your time away on something as silly as a videogame. Businesses want employees who are punctual, intelligent, analytical, and driven -- problem solvers and team players. What's funny, however, is that those are exactly the same qualities which a guild looks for in its raiders. Good luck trying to explain that to a non-gamer, though.

Fortunately, gaming is slowly becoming a mainstream activity. As the generation of gamers that pioneered the online gaming craze begin to climb into their 30s and 40s, a younger generation of gamers is just starting to graduate from college and enter the mainstream workforce for the first time. Unlike their older peers, these young men and women face a business world where their boss is as likely to enjoy playing World of Warcraft in his free time as golf. For the first time, it's possible that your hiring manager might actually view your dedication to your guild as a reason to hire you, rather than a reason to dismiss you. Does that mean that it's time to start putting your MMOG experience on your resume?

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