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    Contents Copyright 2009-2010 Arnold Hendrick

Archive for June, 2009

How MMOs Designed Away Social Gameplay

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 26, 2009

In the heyday of EQ and DAoC players were incredibly loyal to their game. They logged in every day for hours.  They forged Long-term friendships. They often had a gaming schedule based that meshed with their “regular group” in their game of choice. Some RL marriages resulted. Care was exercised in what a player said, and to whom. A bad reputation made it hard to find groups or stay in a guild. Getting kicked by a GM for bad behavior was a real punishment.

From a business standpoint this was pure gold. People played EQ for years. Yes, it was possible for a solo character to advance. However, as EQ Necromancers undoubtedly remember, the painful difficulty drove many to seek groups whenever feasible. In this first half-decade player longevity was so common it became assumed. The game industry businessmen learned to equate major, successful MMOs with long term subscription income.

In November 2004 WoW introduced solo-able content. Aside from certain quests, instanced dungeons and endgame encounters, no grouping was required. Of course, one could group, and many veterans did so. However, given the time needed to find a group, and the significant chance it would include players with no group skills, min-max players correctly concluded that soloing was most efficient than grouping.

MMO designers around the world sought to imitate WoW’s success and made significant parts of their game solo-able. Conan and Warhammer were built on that philosophy, along with a significant number of quests in Lord of the Rings. Bioware’s The Old Republic appears to be built around strongly story-driven quests that vary by class, which implies highly solo-able content. Even Vanguard, supposedly an “old guard” game in the spirit of EQ, had more solo than group content.

Game players responded predictably. They tore through the solo-able content, reaching top level in a few months. The only remaining gameplay for them was PvE or PvP raiding. These required both character abilities and human teamwork skills very different from soloing. Those who wouldn’t or couldn’t make the difficult transition went on to another game. Games that sold a million boxes struggled to maintain 300k subs at the six month mark. The business side of game publishing was in an uproar – this wasn’t the long term subscription income they expected.

Recently my wife and I were playing through the higher-level PvE zones of Warhammer. We consumed all the quests and saw virtually all the sights of a region in a half dozen hours or so. All that world-building, mob-building and quest-building for a paltry half dozen hours of play? In the “bad old days” of EQ, not to mention the various Asian MMO grind fests, we spent dozens of hours getting to know a zone really well before moving onward and upward. The extra time gave us a chance to notice other players in the same area. We chatted, grouped up, and evaluated them as potential long-term gaming friends. In solo-able games you will go weeks without seeing anyone answer a tell, waves hello or ask to group.

Others noticed this phenomenon: see Wolfshead’s “Why Players Should Be the Ultimate Content for MMOs.” What is the design lesson? Obviously the level-up curve must be stretched out and take longer. But more importantly, games seeking long-term “stickiness” must make grouping vastly more rewarding than soloing. For example, greater rewards compensate players for the trials and tribulations inherent in grouping.

Exceptions or Enhancements?

An exception to this rule may be MMOs aimed at non-western markets, where play normally occurs in Internet Cafes. Teaming there occurs via real world encounters as players look over each other’s shoulders. Casual conversations and offers of help occur in the real world, completely independent of gameplay mechanics. Of course, gameplay that fosters grouping will inevitably foster these real-world encounters as well.

A similar exception may be forming around the new “social gaming” milieu. Here players enter the game via social networking sites like Facebook. Gameplay mechanics encourage a player to recruit friends. A player’s game awards are automatically displayed to those friends, and players can “gift” others with useful or even critical gameplay items. Within a year or two I expect social site “wall” links will connect players to larger downloaded games, with games reporting back to the social site a player’s activities, gifts, awards and standing.

But are these cases really exceptions? Internet cafes and social networking sites facilitate casual, friendly contact. They don’t facilitate cooperative gameplay per se. Only the game can do that. In effect, the cafes and social sites really serve to help people FIND compatible “game buddies” for groups or raids. Once people are together within the game, group gameplay must cement those bonds in the “test of battle.”


Posted in Design | 3 Comments »

Project Management for Game Development

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 15, 2009

Game developers often abhor project management when making games. The battle cry of “It shouldn’t ship until it’s ready” sounds great to gamers, but projects managers and businessmen cringe. How do you know if the changes, the extra features, will really generate enough extra income to compensate for the extra cost? Veterans from game publishing are especially gun-shy because they’ve heard it dozens of times about games that went on to weak sales despite the extra effort – if those games even finished at all (Duke Nukem Forever, anyone?)

 The sad tale of Tabula Rasa is a case in point. Despite a star-studded development team and deep-pocket backing from one of the strongest MMO publishers in the world at that time (NCsoft), six years of development yielded about one year of live operation before shut-down. Some reports suggest that translated into $106 mil in development for less than $20 mil in income (see “Tabula Rasa took Too Long”).

This is not a new problem. In the business world “projects” are business activities that have a clear start and end – like developing and running an MMO. There are well-established methods for organizing and running projects to keep them on schedule and on budget while achieving a certain level of quality and profitability. These methods are called “project management.”

The Project Lifecycle

According to the “bible” of project management (the PMBOK 4th Edition, published by PMI in 2008), projects have lifecycles. Here’s an overview of the major “Process Groups” in the project lifecycle:

 07i.Project Lifecycle v2

Initiating: Project startup, charter, initial scope, initial team formation, etc.

Planning: Defining work breakdown structure, determining resources, defining activities, scheduling, risk planning, communication planning, etc.

Executing: Resources perform the planned work, including QA.

Closing: Product acceptance, recording results, performance analysis and postmortems, release of resources.

Monitoring & Controlling: Oversees the other activities; typically concentrates on scope, cost, schedule, quality and risk issues; reports status to management and customer; insures proper business administration occurs.

As the diagram illustrates, “monitoring and controlling” occurs most heavily during “planning” and “executing” activities. In my experienc, “monitoring and controlling” is typically the most difficult activity, especially during “executing.” A well-understood development process helps, but a skilled producer who wisely manages development tradeoffs is invaluable. Sadly, the industry still has some producers who can’t monitor progress quantitatively. Without such tools informed tradeoffs are nearly impossible.

Notice that multiple planning-execution cycles are possible within a project. Methodologies such as scrum actually formalize this into 2-4 week sprints, with each team planning at the start of a sprint and then executing during the sprint. In fact, a miniature of that process occurs each day, with planning issues surfacing (hopefully) during the 15-minute daily status meetings.

Game Development Lifecycle

Game developers frequently talk about “continuous development” and the need to iterate and refine for good gameplay. Merging this with the business needs of games resulted in a commonly accepted lifecycle for MMO game development. A version commonly used for MMOs is:

 07i.Game Lifecycles v3a

Prototype: Select, test and use engines, tools, software languages and build processes. Define design concept and art style; create initial design outline & first draft design doc; create initial concept art, gameplay prototypes and 3D art/animation prototypes.

Pre-Production: Build two to three fully playable zones (levels) including rewards and advancement. Build one zone using the same methods used in production – its the only way to accurately gauge production costs. Complete key concept art. Finish design doc. Complete production specifications (for programming, design, art, sound and QA).

Production: Build all other zones and gameplay so the game is code complete, including all data entry and scripting for AIs, quests, tables, art assets, sounds, etc. This typically involves additional resources (often via outsourcing) all working simultaneously on various tasks pre-production specifications. Create specifications and prototypes for billing, CS tools, and update systems.

Beta: Tweak the game for better gameplay, find and fix bugs, operational chokepoints, resulting final software stabilization (i.e., “no more fixes unless it’s a show-stopper crash bug”). Finish the billing, CS, update and other support systems. This beta does not end on the launch date, but when the day promotional “open beta” begins

Live: Game operates 24×7, typically starting with a promotional open beta. This is supported by at least two tiers of “live team.” The short-term tier handles day to day operational issues for the weekly patch. The long-term tier builds monthly updates and longer-term expansions.

            Mapping Project Processes to Game Lifecycles

First, avoid the “noob” error and listen to the wise old Jedi (PMBOK 4th edition), “Process Groups are not project phases.”  Do not equate the “Initiating” process group with prototyping, planning with pre-production, etc.

It is possible to map the project lifecycle against the game lifecycle, with Project Initiation at the start of Prototype and Project Closure at the end of the Live. This could work for small projects such as casual games. However, for traditional solo games (with or without multiplayer components) and almost all MMOs, the nature of the work in each phase is different. Furthermore, entering a new phase without finishing important bits of the previous phase becomes the road to disaster (see “An intervention”).

For example, scrum methodologies work extremely well for prototype and pre-production. Here scrum’s backlog priority system is ideal of tackling the mass of disparate possibilities, needs and goals. Scrum is wonderful for combining creativity and flexibility into tangible results.

The production phase is different. Now the development group must manufacture literally thousands, often tens of thousands of small items (art assets, quests, mob layouts, AI scripts, UI components, etc.). Each item has a multi-step process for construction, approval, QA and testing. Scrum struggles with vast numbers of small tasks. It really struggles if each is a multi-step activity. In large games the wise course is traditional tracking tools, from spreadsheets and databases to the oft-maligned MS Project. Similar issues can apply during beta if thousands of inputs and bugs must be prioritized and appropriately handled.

I advocate viewing each game phase as a separate project. In PMBOK-speak the game is a “multi-phase project.” This reinforces the need to finish one phase before starting the next, thus preventing the “intervention” situation described above by Eric Heimberg. Starting a new project for a new phase allows a clear, clean “change in how we work” for the development team. Finally, a clean exit for each phase improves the developer-publisher relationship.

The diagram below illustrates this mapping of  multiple projects with their process groups to game phases.

07i.Game Lifecycles with PM v3

The multiple project iterations during “Live” represents a series of game updates/expansions, each treated as a project.

The diagram also shows that initialization and planning for the next phase starts during the later part of the current phase. For example, during pre-production the producer might need to find and qualify an art outsource subcontractor to help handle the mass of art assets needed during production.

Irrespective of my preferences and the above examples, professional project management methods can coexist with almost any development process, be it scrum, agile, iterative, waterfall, with or without attention to CMMI “levels.” The important goal is how the general rubric of project management, applied intelligently, can prevent games and dev studios from experiencing another “crash and burn” event. 

Posted in Production | 3 Comments »

Web 2.0 and MMOs

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 7, 2009

The End of Extravaganzas

The era of big-budget WoW-beaters is coming to a close. Yes, I know there are a number of would-be contestants still out there. Some may be profitable even if they fall short of 5+ million international users or 2+ million North American at the end of their first year. Any game that reaches and stays above 1 million subs in North America, or the income equivalent in microtransactions (MT), will be the success Conan and Warhammer tried to achieve.

The recent unhappy experiences of those two games illustrate the incredible difficulty of sustaining 500k+ subs in the North American market. A microtransaction (MT) model won’t solve this. In fact MT often obscure success measurement because MT operators do not reveal dollar income per month. At best they report total unique users and peak concurrent users from which income might be guesstimated. It is extremely revealing that most Asian MT MMOs have less than a half dozen servers for their North American market.

Everyone who loves MMOs, from Executive Producers down to lowly assistant associate junior game designers, will happily offer The Great Idea that will Sell Millions and Beat WoW. Industry professionals can assemble great IPs, veteran teams and big bucks behind plausible business plans for their Great Ideas. Nevertheless, the unfortunate truth is that most of these products will not meet plan because there is no way to guarantee a successful game. Look at the landscape of broken-hearted publishers: Ubisoft expected more from Shadowbane, Sony hoped for more from EverQuest 2, Lucas demanded more from Star Wars Galaxies, NCsoft need much more from Tabula Rasa, EA wanted more from both Earth & Beyond and Warhammer, Funcom promised more from Age of Conan. Microsoft has cancelled every MMO since Asheron’s Call 2 because they couldn’t make the business models work. I’ve got three shelves full of MMO boxed games going back a decade. Only a handful achieved or exceeded their financial expectations.

The problem, of course, is that people dream big. The “sweet spot” of achievable success for North American MMOs is 100-200k paying customers for the first few years. Two million paying customers in the USA is not really achievable, nor is ten million worldwide. City of Heroes/Villains (CoH/CoV) is a classic example of success without “gold plated features.” The game launched with no PvP, no economic system, no crafting system and minimal guild support. It didn’t even introduce capes for superheroes until after launch! However, it handled an innovative topic extremely well, offered enjoyable core gameplay, looked nice and had a reasonably slow advancement path. Almost nobody hit max level in first two months. This was a perfect match for the audience, many of whom were either non-gamers or solo gamers. Who were these newcomers? Fans of the topic, of course. Players have fonder memories and greater loyalty to their first significant MMO experience than almost any subsequent MMO. As a result CoH/CoV did well for years.

Modding Web 2.0 for MMOs

Social networking / virtual world sites like IMVU didn’t spend vast amounts of time and money creating an elaborate product that saw a half year of beta testing before launch. They got core functionality online quickly, saw what people liked, and modified/expanded from there. Obviously this has its limits, since that first incarnation affects subsequent audience potential. An underwhelming offering may fail with customers who would play a more polished product.

I do not believe successful MMOs can be built like web 2.0 sites. Maintaining 24×7 server stability is more complicated. Competition from well-crafted competitors is much greater. However, I do believe you can Just Say No to $50+ million extravaganzas. There IS a happy medium somewhere in the $10-15mil range for MMOs. That amount will buy competitive assets and gameplay. That amount is small enough to focus development on core features. Hard decisions will be made about what to include and what to leave for upgrades. There is no budget for vast worlds, extra races, optional classes and alternate monsters. Forget spending a half million dollars on an animated intro and E3 trailer.

If such a game achieves an audience of 100k+ paying customers it generates a healthy ROI that easily justifies expansions, sequels and upgrades. If the game meanders along with 30-40k paying customers break-even and modest profit scenarios exist. Meanwhile the developer and publisher can try something new the next time.

MMO development on this scale allows up to a half dozen projects for the price of one WoW-killer. If the dev cycle can be kept to 30 months (6 months each for prototype, pre-production, production, beta, and reserve) winners will be on the market and new games in progress before that huge WoW-killer launches to underwhelming responses and fiscal disaster.

Pitching this sensible grow-the-business approach is difficult to the venture capital “gang” on Sand Hill Road. They prefer elevator pitches for innovative technology that could be the next Google. Fortunately we are in an age of increasing fiscal conservatism where reduced risk has its own appeal.

Matching Topics To Philosophy

What kind of games are possible with a $10-15mil dev budget? Personally, I believe the best opportunities lie in games with new topics married to established game mechanics and gameplay. A new topic has design challenges, to which devs can apply existing MMO design concepts, art methods and software technology. It’s much harder to invent entirely new technology platforms, or make desperate dice-throws on untried game mechanics (“Let’s do an MMO without combat…”). If you concentrate your originality on the topic, designers can apply a their bag of tricks to the new environment, engineers can work with off-the-shelf engines, and artists will enjoy new challenges. Best of all time and budget restrictions give producers that invaluable mantra: “A cool idea, but beyond our scope.”

Another advantage of innovative topics is that you don’t necessary need a costly license. Again, CoH/CoV is a great example. They did a topic-defining superhero game without spending a dime on a license. In fact, as many designers know, licenses can be a burden (see Eric Heimberg’s “Designing For An IP”). All the project requires is translating what gamers love about the topic into an MMO.

The trick to picking good topics is to avoid the obscure ones. Sid Meier pointed out to me years ago, while we worked in the first Pirates game together, that popular culture informs player concepts of a game topic. For example, when making a pirate game, make sure it has fun ship battles and sword fighting, with plenty of loot to win. I could add all the historical accuracy I wanted about the Caribbean in the 17th Century, but without those prime ingredients the game would fail. If an MMO topic is so obscure that no pop culture conception exists, or gameplay doesn’t map to that conception, then a new topic must be found.

Finally, don’t be afraid to cancel the project if problem solutions exceed allocated reserves. Some projects simply will not be successful. The sooner failures are identified and eliminated, the more time and money is available for creating a success. However, one missed milestone is not a failure. Every development project should have a “reserve” for unanticipated problems. Finally, when a baby is stillborn, don’t shoot the parents (i.e., dump the developer). Good developers learn from their failures and often “rescue” useful bits for future projects. Remember, Blizzard built WoW from the wreckage of an earlier RPG project.

Posted in Production | 2 Comments »

Subscriptions vs Microtransactions

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 7, 2009

Wars of Religion, Redux

The argument between subscription and microtransaction (MT) proponents reminds me of the old PvE vs PvP debates years ago. Each side had passionate proponents. Each insisted their approach was better than the other side. However, business realities encouraged game developers to create titles that supported both PvP and PvE, although typically one must be emphasized (for example Warhammer emphasizes PvP while Conan emphasizes PvE).

Some people believe that MT is already the victor. However, cogent cases are still made for subscriptions. The always insightful Eric Heimburg has interesting arguments in Don’t Throw Out the Subscription Model. He argues that MT-based games require game operators to ignore the majority of players in favor of the minority who actually pay. However, looking under the hood at MMOs like Silk Road, Rappelz, Perfect World, or Runes of Magic reveals that the benefits of using MT-acquired items requires a deep understanding of the game’s systems. To land those wealthy MT-spending “whales”  the game casts a wide net of WoW-ish gameplay, hoping enough players stay long enough to learn the game well enough to buy things.

Another plus for subscriptions is their relative simplicity. Simply performing a microtransaction can be a gigantic headache. A player must alt-tab from the game to a website, there the player must jump through various credit-card or paypal hoops to buy “Diamonds” or “Silk” or “gpots” or “Zen”, only to find that can’t be used for anything obvious like a coveted +5 fire sword. Instead the player must alt-tab back in the game, figure out how to recover the recently purchased diamonds/silks/gpots/zens, take them to the auction house, sell them at a constantly floating rate for game gold, then exchange that gold at another constantly floating rate for the +5 sword. If it’s still there. So much for instant gratification, or even simple understanding.

On the other side. MT proponents justly point out that players are ready, willing and able to spent more than $15/month for a better gaming experience. Especially if this helps them look cooler, do better or advance faster. If the game operator isn’t ready to fulfill those desires, gold-sellers will happily take up the slack. The business logic is impossible to refute.

From a game development standpoint, it is much easier to design a game for MT at the start than to add it afterward. Retrofitting MT into a game designed for subscriptions is possible. Alas, getting a subscription-oriented design department to perform the necessary rework can be a hopeless endeavor, not to mention the potential for customer revolt. In fact, as any significant play of Asian MT MMOs will reveal, even a game designed for MT can have difficulties.

A New Peace of Westphalia

In 1648 after more than a century of religious persecution, bloodshed and depopulation, Europe ended constant Catholic-Protestant warfare at Westphalia. How? By setting up a system where both sides could peacefully coexist. In MMOs, it’s simply a matter of time before the business side forces designers to make subscriptions and MT coexist. There are hints of this in Free Realms. Like PvP and PvE, there is no reason why both can’t exist. The design tenants for such an accord are as simple as those at Westphalia. Of course, like Westphalia, there are a million nitty gritty details just as complicated as the various territorial realignments of 1648.

Personally, I am all for making MMOs as profitable as possible. Otherwise I might have no games to develop or play. Therefore I advocate a Westphalia for subscriptions and MT as soon as possible. Here’s my vision for it:

(A) Design games so that in-game gold can be purchased with real money without disrupting player advancement or core gameplay.

(B) Design a subscription plan that is a superset of the MT system.

(A) Design Adjustments

New game designs are already simplifying the MT purchasing system by eliminating intermediary limited-use currencies. Players can now buy the main game currency, the in-game gold. Better still, when the game operator sells gold they will eliminate black market gold farmers and sellers. This is because it costs the game operator nothing to “coin” more gold, while the gold-seller must pay farmers to “harvest” gold.

Of course, directly selling gold in-game does require design adjustments. Some items critical to advancement must be unbuyable. Acquiring gold can no longer be a factor in character advancement. But after all, shouldn’t XP, skills and levels be the proper “currency” of advancement? Didn’t WoW prove the value of limiting advanced equipment to characters of a higher level? Challenge the design team to create a game where a filthy-rich level 40 warrior (who spent the max on the best stuff) can enjoy grouping with a poverty-stricken level 40 priest (who spent extra time grinding or crafting to get equivalent equipment). Why even try to “balance” in-game economies that are inherently hyper-inflationary? Instead, make sure the fun and pleasure of the game don’t depend on how much wealth players have. The original design of City of Heroes and City of Villains is a great example of how to do this.

(B) Subscriptions in an MT World

Most MT systems have “package deals” where a player gets extra and/or bonus items for buying a higher dollar-value package. It’s simply good business sense to codify these “packages” into a “recurring monthly package deal” Of course, this “recurring monthly package deal” must be too sweet to ignore. Anyone who enjoys the game and has the spare cash available will want to get this deal. This makes MT a way station on the road to subscriptions.

How to make such a deal lavish without unbalancing the game? Does the game requires players to use ammo and/or heal pots (like Silk Road)? If so, offer players 30-day access to a special NPC with unlimited, free, non-transferable stacks of ammo. Character inventory limits still apply, so profligate shooters will need to return for their free reloads. Next throw in a non-transferable 2x experience multiplier potion that lasts 30 days. On top of that, give the players 500x their current level in gold pieces every 30 days. Oh, don’t forget to give players a few non-transferable pots of a unique clothing dye so they stand out from the crowd.

The actual deals included in a “recurring monthly package” will vary from game to game. Obviously it’s best if the game is designed around this possibility from the start. This maximizes the chances of players moving from F2P to MT purchases to recurring purchase (subscription). Even that isn’t the end. Remember to preserve a few reasons for subscribers to make MT purchases.

Posted in Design, Production | 4 Comments »

How the PK Mafia Ruins Business

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on June 7, 2009

No, I don’t mean gankers. The PK mafia I refer to is that school of game design which believe that the only “true” PvP game is the one where PvP death has a real penalty. The proponents typically urge very harsh penalties, as found in Darkfall (where all your possessions fall to the ground for the enemy to loot).

Some years back a school of thought argued that a “true” role-playing experience required fully open PvP (anyone can kill anyone else). The leaders of Funcom’s design department for Age of Conan must have been believers, since the only “official” RP server for Conan is also a PvP server. Curiously, I never saw a single PK on that server result from RP, despite spending months in a bloodthirsty, hardcore RP guild. I did see plenty of casual killing and suffered a predictable dose of gankings. Nobody bothered to “dress it up” with roleplay. They were too busy ambushing the next victim or getting to a safer spot ASAP. The only RP PvP fight I saw was a carefully arranged event by people who knew each other, like a virtual world LARP.

I am reminded of another school of thought from the 1990s. It espoused that players enjoy competition, therefore players can compete against each other for great gameplay. Why spend time and money on mobs and AIs? This more or less works for well-known card games, checkers chess, etc. It has been remarkably unsuccessful in full-fledged MMOs. Planetside, Neocron, Shadowbane, World War II Online, CyberStrike, Battletech (1990s online version), and many online flight combat games illustrate this. Many games today have PvP, but no widely successful MMO depends exclusively on PvP gameplay.

Nevertheless, designers still tilt at the holy grail of a game with great PvP. See Scott Jenning’s article “How To Make A Game with PvP Done Right.” The trick is making sure a PvP game isn’t a PK game.

The problem with PK-heavy games is that they are simply bad business. When questioned or surveyed, players say they want to complete against other players. A good designer listens to players, right? Well, a designer also must observe what happens inside the game. Really good designers can correctly predict what will happen based on their (hopefully) vast experience.

Every time players have a PvP fight someone loses. Gamers familiar with solo computer games expect to win. In solo play, the computer happily loses every game and never quits. However, if a player is losing, they become unhappy. Losing doesn’t give players a reward. Losing players feel sad. Losers don’t encourage their friends to come play. When a player loses enough times they ask “Where’s the fun in this?” If nothing else captures the player’s attention, Game Over.

When the easily defeated players are driven from the PvP portion of the game, the more skilled players are pitted against each other. Again, some are better than others. Depending on the game system it might be level, equipment, hand-eye coordination, computer speed, or internet connection speed. Whatever the reason, those at the bottom of the heap frequently lose. In turn they ask “where’s the fun in this” and quit. The PvP population slowly declines in a Darwinian spectacle of survivors driving away the “less fit.” Taken to its logical extreme, PvP ends up with just one player. In reality a variety of factors intervene to maintain a somewhat larger game population. Based on what I observed overseeing Air Warrior years ago, then again in Planetside and Shadowbane, those factors are enough to populate about one server.

The whole process reminds me of how mafias or gangs ruin neighborhoods. Anyone not part of the gang is gradually forced to join up, pay up or move out. As people move out, those remaining suffer more and more until everyone is either in the gang or gone.

There are design techniques that slow this “death spiral.” Mythic’s Warhammer is a tour de force of such techniques, including the interesting idea of “renown points.” Nevertheless, nine months after launch the game has gone through multiple rounds of server consolidation. Top level players continue dropping out with remarkable speed. Why? Because Mythic believed PvP and its close cousin RvR would be a durable, enjoyable “elder game” for people at max level. Unfortunately, on any given server you can hear level 40s complaining that either (a) the other side “always wins” or (b) the other side “won’t come out and fight.”

In an imminent update to Warhammer Mythic is resurrecting the competitively accessed dungeon gimmick they pioneered in DAoC with Darkness Falls. The original was brilliant. I expect the new “Land of the Dead” for Warhammer to temporarily reverse the spiral for a while. But eventually EA’s current incarnation of Darth Vader is going to visit Mythic with more bad news.

Warhammer’s difficulties are the tip of an oncoming iceberg. A horde of new MMOFPS games is fast approaching. Many of these games rely on PvP gameplay. I am strongly reminded of the dot-com era where “everyone” believed that game aggregators were the secret to large-scale business success in online gaming. This may apply to casual games, but today not one successful MMO is significantly enhanced by association with an aggregator. Where MMO aggregators exist at all, they continue because of their association with major MMO products, not the other way around.

The design lesson here is nothing new (again, see Scott Jenning’s article above). Designers and producers shouldn’t buy into what players say they want. Instead, observe how players behave and give them what keeps them playing and paying. Most of all, don’t create products where gamers lose. They just don’t like it.

Posted in Design | 3 Comments »