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    Contents Copyright 2009-2010 Arnold Hendrick

Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Eating Your Babies: APB’s Essential Failure

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on August 28, 2010

Realtime Worlds (RTW) now holds the dubious honor of being the world’s most spectacular MMOFPS failure. Baby eating was the cause.

Counting Noses

Sunday afternoon is normally a busy time for MMOs, especially in early August when school is out and summer vacation time is available for adults. APB had launched a month earlier (July 2, 2010). Its two English-language servers, Zombie and LaRocha, had a total of 1,970 players online, over 80% “paying” players (i.e., in pay-for-play regions). Six hours later, Sunday evening, the population was 2,334. Depending on play times and cycles, population in new games at busy times is 20% to 40% of total customers. This means APB probably had 5,000 to 10,000 English-speaking customers. APB supports French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish as well. Generously speaking, the game had 10,000 to 20,000 paying customers.

This customer base translates $1.2 to $2.4 million income per year (APB charges $10/month); but only if the game maintains its users. Checking two weeks later, population on Sunday afternoon on the same two servers was 1,221. APB had lost over 1/3rd of its active players! During that time RTW’s bankruptcy was announced. Gamers don’t abandon ship purely due to news from the financial pages. In fact, within the game a frequent sentiment was “Great! Maybe someone else will start fixing this!”

Experienced game industry veterans can read these tea leaves. APB was an abject failure – a success requires at least 50k to 100k customers. A game that took $80+ million to make at a studio that burns through $20 million a year needs over 200k customers to keep going and please the investors.

A 64-bit Technical Success

By technical standards, APB is impressive. If your PC is a 64-bit multi-core monster and your 1+ Mbps broadband doesn’t drop or reroute packets like hot potatoes, the game performs impressively. You run, jump and hurdle fences in a large city district with 79 other players and hundreds of NPC civilians. Far more impressively, up to one driver and three passengers can travel together in a fast car that spins, slides, bounces and rams into other vehicles, including airborne vehicles that can launch themselves from ramps, roofs and overpasses. All three vehicle passengers can shoot, be shot at, hit moving targets while in motion.

Some people complained about the server-authoritative cars, but with a decidedly mediocre internet connection I found APB cars reasonably drivable. Like Gran Turismo or GTA vehicles, or landing a plane in a flight sim, they require a gentle touch.

A 32-bit Windows XP box can run this game, but not well. What is an impressive game on a $3,000+ Win7 PC (2.8 GHz i7 930 quad-core with 12 GB RAM and an NVidia 480 GTX) becomes sluggish, with odd pauses, on a 4-year-old $2,000+ WinXP PC (3.2 GHz Core Duo with 2 GB RAM and an NVidia 9800 GT). I suspect this is the source of many complaints directed at APB.

Given the huge success of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, hard-core gamers with bleeding edge hardware “should” enthusiastically embrace such a technical tour-de-force. Unfortunately this didn’t occur. Steep technical requirements are just the tip of the iceberg. APB hit something far larger, well below the waterline.

A Design Disaster

In APB “Rating” level (R-value) is a key measure of progress. Win or lose, a character gains rating level in the game. In fact, losing a big fight with multiple players gives ten or twenty times more “rating” than winning an unopposed solo mission. The tutorial gets you to R20. After that a player gains about 2-4 rating points per hour to R100, then 1-2 pts/hr to R200, and less than 1 pt/hr to R300, etc. After six weeks only a handful of players were beyond R300. A $50 initial purchase gives you 50 hours of gameplay, enough to reach somewhere between R100 and R200 unless you use cheats and hacks for faster advancement. Grinding through enough gun battles for R-level is one of four disparate and confusing advancement tracks. It is as if the APB’s designers took the worst parts of Warhammer Online’s advancement system and made them even more confusing, something even the most cynical designer might have thought impossible.

Ultimately, all these advancement systems provide a character with personal improvements that add hit points, reduce incoming damage and increase the healing rate. Overall an R200+ character “with benefit” is about 30% more survivable than an under-R100 novice. Those same veterans also get guns with upgrades that increase damage, accuracy and rate of fire for about 30% more firepower. Combine both (1.3 * 1.3) and veterans are 1.69 times stronger than newbies. The practical effect is that in a face-to-face gun battle, veterans can’t lose unless they fall asleep. In fact, even if the newbie surprises them with a blast into their back at close range, the veteran can turn around and return fire so effectively that the newbie still dies first.

In addition, with 75 to 150 hours of playtime, R200+ veterans have experienced most missions multiple times. In the process they learned the best places to hide, the fastest routes to rooftops, the layout of multi-level shopping malls, and how to use this terrain to best advantage. There is little chance a newbie can find any position of advantage against a veteran. There is every chance the veteran will find a superior position and take the first shot.

Next factor in the various hacks developed by enterprising entrepreneurs during beta. These went on sale (through the black market) the day the game launched. Aimbot hacks let players automatically zero-in instantly on a target. Wallhacks allow players to see and shoot through walls. Most recently gunhacks give every weapon the longest possible range. Realtime Worlds never developed good software solutions for these. Instead, they relied on players making video recordings of hackers, which Realtime Worlds CSRs (customer service representatives) would presumably view and judge who as cheating. Needless to say, this is the slowest and most costly way to fight game-wrecking hackers.

All these problems pale against a truly vast design flaw. APB allows players of ALL levels and hours of playtime into the same instance. Guess what? Players at R200+, with all their advantages, constantly slaughter low rating players. Those lower players don’t just lose a match or two. They lose miserably, outmaneuvered and outgunned, hour after hour, day after day. At 2-4 hours per day it would take over a month to reach R200+ and be “almost” competitive.

The typical gameplay arc PC and console games, “try, lose, learn, win,” takes ten minutes to an hour or two. The gameplay arc of APB is “lose every match miserably for a month, and then win occasionally.”

I witnessed the effect of this is an APB guild during the first month. They began as an enthusiastic group of role-players. Then they lost miserably against seemingly “unkillable” enemies who regularly outmaneuvered them and insulted them. They moaned about hackers and developed a “celebrate each kill” mentality. They tried to ignore mission defeats. But it’s hard to lose most of the time. Within the month I saw groups tending to hang out, chat and goof around. They spent less and less time taking missions and shooting weapons. More and more members drifted away. Last time I looked participation at my regular gaming times had dropped to half, with one or two more vowing to quit that week.

Baby Eating

A game design is a “baby eater” if high-level players constantly defeat low-level players. APB is a classic example of this. Incoming “baby” players experience nothing but defeat as veterans tear them apart. Despite claiming that a special “threat” system would create “fair” matches, the actual system completely failed. Vastly unequal matches were commonplace in APB. This resulted in no positive word-of-mouth encouraging games to try APB. Instead, discouraged novices spread “bad vibes,” in the form of complaints about everything from real culprits (such as the matchmaking system) to irrelevant issues (a lack of “realistic” gun recoil).

In the final weeks before bankruptcy, Realtime Worlds desperately patched and “fixed” APB. Unfortunately these were minor tweaks to weaponry, outfitting and matchmaking adjustments that did nothing to prevent “baby eating.” Perhaps the senior RTW designers were so in love with the original concept that they couldn’t see the horrible reality. Perhaps there wasn’t the time and resources to make wholesale post-launch changes that fast. The inability of those designers to see the problem during beta was fatal. After launch they were reduced to rearranging deck chairs and conducting one last tune from the sinking fantail of the Titanic.

Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, What Would You Do?

About 18 to 30 months ago, the proper decision would have been launching a preliminary version of the game with core gameplay. A small, simple game would have been appropriate: allow characters with guns fight on foot in one reduced-size city district. The subscription business model with very modest fees ($3-4/month, instead of $10 or $15) would encourage realistic user behavior. Such a game would quickly demonstrate whether players were coming back or more, or leaving in droves. If they were leaving, developers could experiment with everything from gameplay to matchmaking to business model until something worked. Until gameplay builds a proven audience, no amount of AAA “chrome,” from vehicular travel to character and vehicle customization, to UI polish, will make an MMO loser into a winner.

Unfortunately, outside the field of social network (“Facebook”) games, few MMO developers and publishers have the courage to perform real-world billable betas with “incremental” development. Management usually lives in the fading mindset of “big launch” boxed products. I’ve encountered innumerable game marketing managers and VPs claiming that sufficient budget can make any MMO a success. Similarly, I’ve met countless game designers convinced that his or her grandiose design vision will be a smash hit, if only they are given the time and resources to “do it right.”

Even if game studios and publishers avoid these traps, outside financial backers and venture capitalists may insist on it. The “money men” are not game industry experts. They rely on the advice of others. This source of this advice ranges from the teenage gamer next door to “industry experts” who “graduated” years ago from studios and publishing companies into the ranks of paid consultants. Sadly, too many of these experts remain in a time warp, believing that modern online games must be sold like “big launch” PC and console games of the 1990s.

Another pernicious influence on game development is selling investors using a “cult of personality” gambit. In this enthusiastic pitch-men (or women) puff the reputation and trot out well-spoken, well-known industry figures to give the company or game sufficient “gravitas” to land another $10 or $20 million in investment. Examples of this include John Romero at Ion Storm (Daikatana), Will Wright at EA/Maxis (Sims Online), Brad McQuaid at Sigil (Vanguard), Richard Garriott at NCsoft USA (Tabula Rasa) or Dave Jones at Realtime Worlds (APB). In reality, as some of these people quickly point out, it takes a dedicated, skilled and experienced team of 50+ to make a great MMO. A “front man” who spends most of his time with investors has little opportunity for more than a token influence.

The best road to industry success is to start with an honestly led, well-run, experienced development team. Release early and iterate toward success on a five year or more arc. If your business model relies on recurring revenue, like most MMOs, bet on gamer word-of-mouth and a slow marketing drumbeat over “big launch” events.

If faced with rescuing APB today, a different strategy is needed. My first move would be splitting development into two teams: ‘live’ and ‘relaunch.’ The live team would be tiny, concentrating on dealing with hackers and making tweaks to “maintain the faith” of those still playing. The great majority would go to the relaunch team. Their prime goal: find and execute the fastest possible solution to “baby eating” gameplay.

One possible path is an instance system that absolutely prevents higher-powered players from fighting lower-powered players. How? Segregate players into low, middle and high level instances. Absolutely prohibit higher level players from entering lower instances. Lower level players can “play up” into higher levels whenever they wish. As lower players advance, they are gradually “pushed upward” into higher level instances. Of course, this requires a good way to measure player ability, which never easy in a team-based FPS.

Another, easier path is overhauling the advancement and equipment system. Give novice players the absolute best single weapon at the start, as well as top-level character enhancements for the best survivability. As a player advances, give them access to alternate enhancements and alternate weapon options. Allow high-level players to explore different options. This is not a new idea. It was used with success by Planetside, one of the first MMOFPS games.

In either case, the new “baby savior” system would need a new server to test and ultimately house the new gameplay. A solid relaunch effort would require new “content,” such as a new region of the city, new character clothing options, new vehicles, and new weapons, to help interest previous players and hold onto existing players. Combating hackers and “baby savior” gameplay will not make APB an overnight success. The right fixes simply allow a profitable game to emerge from the current wreckage. Over time wise stewardship and a careful attention to gameplay and features could breed success, just as CCP grew EVE Online from 50k to 500k subscribers in seven years.

Posted in Design | 15 Comments »

Beyond Fantasies & Licenses

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on September 25, 2009

Overdosing on High Fantasy

Once I tried every new fantasy MMORPG eagerly. Lately, however, after a decade of such fare even my legendary patience is wearing thin. It’s a sad fact that too many MMORPGs are fantasy games. After about the fifth new fantasy world nothing is memorable, be it world setting, races or backstory. As I look back on dozens of fantasy games played in the last decade, often the worst are the most memorable, such as the stick-like semi-insectoid Tumeroks and squat, armor-plated Lugians, who lived in Dereth, a continent on the world of Auberean. Class options included “Hive Keeper” and “Feral Intendant.” (The game was Asheron’s Call 2, launched Nov ’02 and closed down Dec ’05.)

Fortunately creative directors appeared to have learned some lessons. Player races and classes now have exciting names and more visual inspiration in their appearance. Nevertheless, high fantasy themes with their predictable “kill ten rats” and “fedex” quests dominate. In close second are science fiction themes whose varied and fantastical premises are more confusing than Anarchy Online’s skill and equipment system.

The problem is that people financing games hate risk. Selling financial backers on overdone topics is easier than convincing them to consider something new. Glib marketers can point to the size of WoW’s fantasy audience (12 million) to justify any new fantasy game. The same marketer needs to work much, much harder to justify a steampunk game. There are no MMO success stories available (there is only one English language server for “Neo-Steam” and a handful of hopeful beta players wandering through “Gatheryn”).The glib marketer must work harder to make the pitch. His or her audience needs to already know Asian anime, where steampunk is strong, and how that shapes global pop culture. The marketer would need to show this influence appearing in places such as Disney’s “Atlantis” movie, “The Golden Compass” books and movie, and ultimately its penetration of into games, exemplified by the dwarves and gnomes in “WoW” and “Warhammer,” or the orks of “Warhammer 40,000.” In short, a simple “sell” suddenly becomes very complicated, with many potential “points of failure” throughout the pitch.

Most of this difficulty and uncertainty is avoided with a license. Once financial backers buy into a license they effectively commit to the game also. In essence, the license justifies the game’s funding. One result is staggering budgets: an estimated $80 million for “Warhammer,” over $100 million for “Star Wars: The Old Republic.” In addition, licenses are a two-edged sword for developers. A licensed IP (Intellectual Property) not only forces design constraints and production complexities, but also brings core audiences that might not match the developer’s game, or any game for that matter. Eric Heimberg discusses this in detail in “Designing For An IP” and  “Star Trek: The Hardest MMO IP Ever?”


Ingredients for Successful New Topics

The alternative to licenses is creating an original Intellectual Property (IP). Maximizing the success of an original IP has its own pitfalls. It is important to select topics with potential as movie, TV, book and toy properties. However, insuring attractive character visuals, or transferable and extendable storylines, puts the cart before the horse. The first goal is to maximize the IP’s success as a game. After all, movie rights to a hit game are worth infinitely more than movie rights to a failure. Having worked on more than one successful original IP, as well as some that weren’t so memorable, I have the following suggestions, followed by a series of examples.

1. Pop Culture Familiarity: The average consumer of movies, TV shows and/or popular fiction should understand the topic before they start playing. For example, in a pirate game a player expects to fight sea battles, have swashbuckling swordfights and acquire chests of glittering treasure. In a superhero game a player expects iconic characters in spandex or power-armor fighting larger-than-life villains who never quite die.

The combination of title and cover art must resonate with the pop cultural knowledge of the target audience. The more people who “instantly” understanding the topic, the broader the potential audience. Incidentally, I cannot claim credit for this insight. It was Sid Meier who explained it as we worked on the original “Pirates” game twenty years ago.

2. Play Expectations Meet Deliverable Gameplay: The game must deliver a play experience that satisfies and delights fans of the genre. Everything from common gameplay activities to visual style to world setting must “feel right” to those familiar with the topic. Cryptic/NCsoft’s “City of Heroes” is a classic example of how a superhero game meets fan expectations.

Gameplay failures are not always obvious. A significant problem in “Pirates of the Burning Sea” is the need to understand how sailing ships behave in relation to the wind. Maneuvering is well neigh impossible until a player learns, after which they must grasp broadside gunnery tactics (i.e., you cannot shoot in the direction you’re traveling). Perhaps this was self-evident to the designers, but it’s not obvious to gamers unfamiliar with naval warfare between 1650 and 1850. Even more unfortunately, this hard-won knowledge becomes increasingly useless as you advance in the game. Why? Because once you master the PvE AI, all PvE battles are increasingly easy. Meanwhile, PvP fights are won by whichever player best matches up the latest redesign of high-end special skills with costly end-game ships and their add-ons. In other words, newbies must learn complicated historical realities first. Then they gradually must put aside this knowledge as they “game the system” against AIs and in PvP.

3. Flexibility: Part of the value in making a new IP is its potential for licensing to other entertainment mediums, such as film, TV, books and toys. Of course evocative names and iconic visuals for characters and settings are needed. But even more important is sufficient creative scope and flexibility. Creators in other entertainment mediums also need  “working room” for their own characters, story, setting, theme and/or tone to achieve hit products.

4. Learn from the Past: Avalon Hill released the first modern board wargame in 1958, TSR released the first RPG in 1973, and sophisticated Apple II computer games appeared in 1980. During this last half century game makers have tried all sorts of topics. Hits of yesteryear are useful reminders of what can work, while failures provide insights into what to avoid. Members of computer gaming’s “old guard” (20+ years of experience) can be invaluable consultants or advisors. A few are even available for hire in various capacities!


Original IPs for MMOs


Contemporary Supernatural Fantasy

This is now a hot, mainstream category everywhere except gaming. What began with Anne Rice’s books in 1980s and the White Wolf paper RPGs in 1990s has become a staple of the SF&F bookshelves (Hamilton, Harrison, Meyer, Armstrong, Butcher, etc.), movies (“Blade” series, “Underworld,” “Twilight,” etc.) and TV shows (“True Blood,” etc.).

The opportunity and challenge of this topic is making a game that appeals to its original core audience: adult women. All but one of the successful authors in this field are female. They write about strong female lead characters whose magical/supernatural abilities lead them to face even greater supernatural threats. The truly evil ones are defeated while other “less bad” opponents become ongoing romantic complications. Depending on the tastes of the writer, the books range from sexy and sensual situations to near-pornographic sex scenes. All such material is invariably written by and for women, not men.

Novelists in the genre are varied and creative. Vampires and werewolves are just the starting point. Laurell Hamilton’s famous heroine, Anita Blake, is a necromancer who hunts vampires on the side – her “day job” is raising the dead to testify in court cases! Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan is a white witch who works as a supernatural bounty hunter. Kelly Armstrong’s Otherworld series includes a female werewolf journalist, a young witch from a “traditional” New England family, a necromantic medium who does semi-fake séances for tacky daytime TV, warlocks who run secretive mega-corporations, and a half-demon tabloid reporter who thrives on chaos.

Only a few major MMO efforts are tackling this topic, leaving plenty of room for competitors. The best known effort is Funcom’s “Secret World,” rumored to focus on story-driven solo-play typical of immediate successors to WoW. In fact, the varied character types of contemporary novels beg for team play. It is easy to imagine supernatural versions of the classic MMORPG archetypes: tank, damage dealer, healer, nuker, backstabber, crowd controller, kiter, etc. The topic is custom-made for great storylines and creative encounters in urban, suburban and rural environments. Asset construction can be cost-effective on multiple levels. First, the contemporary setting permits use of cheaper “off the shelf” assets. Second, action generally occurs in dark settings, reducing the need for detailed distant scenery. Finally, many supernatural opponents are nothing more than colorful variants of different player types.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Huge, hot topic.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Feasible if designers are well-read in the field.
Flexibility: Moderate.
Lessons from the Past: Gory games that ignore the core audience (adult females) will fail.


Historical Fantasy

Korean and Chinese developers have successfully mined Asian historical periods for hits such as “Silk Road Online” and “Westward Journey.”  Rooting a fantasy game in a specific historic period can be refreshing, especially when traditional RPG classes, equipment, enemies and setting are subtly adjusted to fit an historical period. This approach made the solo RPG “Darklands” successful fifteen years ago. Set in 15th Century Germany, the game used conventional RPG features to represent an era of witchcraft, robber-knights, alchemy and religious miracles. For more on the game and its setting see the wikipedia description and a summary at Game Downloads, an abandonware site.

What makes historical fantasies different from ordinary fantasy is the accumulation of subtle details to invigorate the game. Everything about the game, from character abilities to settings to opponents reflects the realities and myths of an historical era. When done correctly, the game feels fresh and unique to players, yet the historical setting offers familiarity and logic missing from pure fantasies (such as the unfortunate Asheron’s Call 2 noted above). Finally historical fantasies are easy to learn because they reuse many core game mechanics of classic fantasy MMORPGs.

The Dark Ages: In Europe from the 500s to 700s AD, amid the decaying wreckage of the Roman Empire, a fragmented mess of “barbarian” kingdoms slowly and painful arose. Early Christian missionaries and saints alternately accommodated and competed with older beliefs. It was an age of mythic heroes in epic sagas who fought for civilization and order. This era saw the actual historical characters who became Siegfired in the Nibelungenlied (source of Wagner’s famous “ring cycle” operas), “Beowulf” and “The Song of Roland,” not to mention the historical “King Arthur.” 

All these heroes were struggling to defeat chaos and create order – an ideal setting for a “sandbox” MMORPG. Innumerable realistic adventures and opponents can populate the game. Furthermore, all is not lost. By 800 AD Charlemagne formed first great medieval empire, uniting France, Western Germany and Northern Italy. The Carolingian struggle for unification offers many more story and plot opportunities.

Military technology of the dark ages was not unsophisticated. Warriors used iron swords and bows while wearing leather or metal armor. Magical powers can be represented by the miraculous acts of saintly Christian missionaries, of Celtic druids and Germanic shamans calling upon earth, animal and ancestral spirits, or scholars invoking ancient knowledge.

Late Medieval Germany: As “Darklands” demonstrated, the later middle ages in Germany, circa 1450, has many strengths. Although the game’s copyright is ensnared in legal tangles typical of fallen game companies, no copyright exists on ideas. Anyone is free to use 15th Century Germany as a setting for a new MMORPG.

Swashbucklers – The Three Musketeers: Another historical period with possibilities is the swashbuckling Elizabethan era (c.1600 AD). Gunpowder weapons were single-shot affairs, which meant fencing with a sword was essential in a fight. Pop culture expectations, formed by The Three Musketeers, yield fine opportunities for engaging design and stunning visuals. The world really can be full of desperate secret missions, with double and triple crosses amid ancient rivalries and new world treasure. Costumes range from elaborate court dress to the classic back-alley swordsman (or woman) with a feathered hat, long cape and high boots.

In addition to the famous works of Alexander Dumas, a recent series of swashbuckling novels by Arturo Perez-Reverte has gained an international audience. The latest volume in this series arrives this fall in bookstores around the world (volume 5 for English readers, volume 6 for Spanish readers).  It takes very little game design creativity to adapt classic fantasy character classes to the era. Early modern researchers and inventors can have “magical” devices, while Catholic and Protestant clerics can work miracles of faith. If literature alone isn’t enough inspiration, game designers can also look to a little-known 70’s paper and pencil RPG, “En Garde,” still in print today. It has a numerous creative ideas for jaded designers.

The Bronze Age: The end of the Bronze Age (circa 1200 BC) has potential similar to the European dark ages. In this era the “palace” style of civilized kingdoms backed by chariot armies collapsed spectacularly. In this period Troy was besieged and destroyed, the Mycenaean Greek kingdoms fell, and the great Pharaohs of Egypt entered their final decline. Historians cannot agree on what caused this – theories range from economic overspecialization to new military technologies to mysterious “sea people” invaders. Despite this, the great monuments, epics, gods and myths from the era remain with us, from the ruins of Egypt, to Greek myths, to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Innumerable “sword and sandal” movie epics have mined this period, not to mention the long popularity of the “Xena” TV series. The biggest drawback is that despite multiple valiant efforts, solo games set in the era, like “Titan Quest,” have not succeeded.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Varies, Three Musketeers has very good recognition.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Good – expectations aren’t too high.
Flexibility: High.
Lessons from the Past: Darklands succeeded; Bronze Age games repeatedly failed.


Covert Operations

A great MMOFPS/RPG hybrid could be made from Rainbow Six style clandestine military teams. The concept of small, convert military teams performing everything from surveillance to counter-terrorism “hits” is as old as military institutions themselves. Most western countries field such groups, such as the American Delta Force and SEALs, British SAS and SBS, Russian Spetsnaz GRU, etc. While a licensed approach is also possible, it is quite likely that Ubisoft’s “secret” re-entry to MMOs will use the Tom Clancy Rainbow Six license that proved such a strong earner in the past.

There are already numerous MMOFPS gams in development, starting with “CrimeCraft” released earlier this year. These products appear to emphasize traditional shooter gameplay: fast movement with quick, accurate shooting. They also emphasize PvP over PvE and generally use fictional urban jungle crime (“CrimeCraft,” “APB”) or science fiction (“Global Agenda,” “Huxley”) settings. To stand out from this crowd a successful Covert Operations MMO must emphasize character development, teamwork and tactics. For longevity as well as originality it can emphasize PvE over PvP.

In real life proper military covert operations are rehearsed in advance, then executed on a strict timetable. An MMORPG can be handle this by giving teams a missions with a practice area before they enter a challenging PvE instance. Conversely larger battlefield environments similar to conventional MMORPG “zones” can represent wartime environments with solo fighting and pickup groups. The real world today has such environments in Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia, to name a few.

Military-style teams offer numerous opportunities for character roles and abilities. Area-denial weapons like machineguns perform a unique type of crowd control, while standard infantry arms (assault rifles and sniper rifles) are classic single-target killers. Combat medics who patch wounds and dispense “keep ‘em going” drugs are healers. Grenades and rocket launchers are AOE attacks. Flash and smoke grenades “debuff” enemy attacks. Choosing your body position trades off between speed (running) and defense (prone).

Best of all, the topic of covert military action is well understood and perennially attractive to the prime demographic of online MMO players: males between 12 and 35. A successful game has obvious opportunities for licensing into other entertainment mediums. However, dealing with conflicts straight from the daily news runs the risk of hostile attention from “special interest” political groups.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Good.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Challenging – many other MMOFPS titles.
Flexibility: Moderate – real world military themes have limitations.
Lessons from the Past: PvP-oriented MMOs have great difficulty holding large audiences over the long run.


Secret Agents

Secret agents fighting clandestine wars, from James Bond to Jason Bourne, offer many possibilities for MMOs. I only know of one such game in development (SOE’s “The Agency”), whose development as been long and ill-starred (see a Wired news report for its difficulties earlier this year).

Unfortunately, secret agent games have technical issues. Vehicle chases and combat are an intrinsic part of the genre, including motorcycles, cars, boats and helicopters. Many of these mount weaponry, from smoke screens and tire-slashers to machineguns and rockets. In addition, stealth is a critical part of the game and difficult to portray well via game mechanics. The game settings need a “real world, globe trotting” feel. As a result, game development means expensive design and engineering work combined with a great many art assets for worldwide locations.

Enemies in secret agent games can be agents of hostile government, mega-corporations, international mafias, or terrorist groups. The beauty of secret agentry is that players cannot fight all-out battles. The goal of a secret agent is to remain secret!  Players can be penalized for too much carnage by escalating police and military NPC intervention. Players need to be rewarded for stealth and silent fighting, such as hand-to-hand combat, silenced guns, etc. The mission-oriented nature of secret agent activities is ideal for PvP play: PvP missions can be rigged so players or teams of equal level are pitted against each other.

While MMO secret agent games are extremely rare, innumerable licensed 007 console games have come and gone. Those which concentrated on shooting failed, while those with good stealth mechanics were far more successful.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Excellent – many famous movie series.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Technically difficult; expect large design, programming and art costs.
Flexibility: Good.
Lessons from the Past: Great gameplay is vital, as many failed 007 games demonstrate.


Alien Invaders

A variant approach to conventional secret agents is “X-Files”/”Men-in-Black” style secret agents, who defend the Earth from alien invaders. The “X-Com” solo PC games of the early 1990s had a very attractive contemporary rationale. Small fast-response teams were dealing with alien invasion scouts landing around the planet. Operating from secret high-tech bases, their goal was to capture aliens and their technology as well as kill them. As characters gain knowledge of aliens and their technology, they acquire new weapons and equipment.

Alien technology can be cast to fit all the needs of MMORPGs, not just shooting weapons. For example, defense “force shield” technologies could reduce damage from various attacks, rapid medical reconstruction can “heal” wounds and even resurrect the dead. Various forms of mind control permit the equivalent of “mez,” “fear” and “charm” magic. As characters advance they are sent on more challenging and important missions. Later they can engage in large battles against aliens on earth, on board invasion motherships, and ultimately on other planets.

In the past the primary cause of “alien invasion” games failing is uninspired gameplay. Innumerable action and “shooter” titles bear witness to the truism that nothing sinks a game faster than no game to play.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Good.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Fairly easy – but do not insult the intelligence of fans.
Flexibility: Good.
Lessons from the Past: Deep, engaging gameplay is vital to success.


The Role of Originality

“Original” Intellectual Property (IP) is never totally original. Familiar pop culture provides “boundary points” beyond which originally hurts rather than helps a product. The art of designing within this medium lies not in total originality, but rather evoking what people already understand in new ways. A successful “original IP” begins with a well-known topic rarely or never portrayed in MMOs. The game translates that topic into well-understood play mechanics, with careful attention to “realistic” details. The resulting “new” game world is easily understood, yet seems novel to gamers who have fought too many dragons with broadswords and fireballs.

Posted in Design | 4 Comments »

The Next Generation of Social Networking Games

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on July 9, 2009


Approximately two years ago a variety of social gaming companies geared up to build and operate a new generation of products: social network games. The most famous is Zynga, whose representative title “Mafia Wars” can be found on Facebook  and MySpace. These games are not delivered on disks, nor via downloads, nor by visiting a website. Instead a player can access the game directlyi from their Facebook or MySpace page. The games have been wildly successful, with 3-4 million people logging in to Mafia Wars every day. The game has been tried by over 12 million people.

Many of these games share common elements, including the same core gameplay mechanics. For example, Zynga’s Mafia Wars, Fashion Wars, Vampire Wars, Pirates, Street Racing, Special Forces and Dragon Wars are all very similar. Some distinguishing characteristics of these games are listed below.

(1) Instant Play: Games are accessible and often entirely playable within Facebook or MySpace. Players can enter the game instantly. While server loads and page refresh times occasionally cause freeze-ups, it’s a minor frustration that tends to plague advanced players doing a lot quickly.

(2) Solo Play: Core gameplay mechanics are entirely solo-able. A player selects actions that make them richer, stronger and more experienced, yielding a level-up. This in turn unlocks new actions that make them even richer and stronger, so they can level up again, etc. You can play whenever you want, but pace of gameplay is controlled by the time needed to recharage your action points. Initially a full recharge of action points takes less than 30 minutes, but as you level-up the time grows to hours and ultimately days.  “Constantly win, constantly advance” play distills to its essence the core element of traditional RPGs.

(3) Competitive Play without Losers: Most games allow players to “attack” other players, but the potential opponent list is randomized from all other players of the same level and the amount any player loses is trivial. Actual combat is never face–to-face. It always occurs while the defender is logged out. Competitive players build a won/lost record while non-competitive players can ignore these attacks.

(4) Involves Social Network Friends: You can “include” people from your friends list in your game. Each friend you “invite” becomes an automated henchman. If the friend also plays the game and levels up, their higher level means your henchman is stronger. Having such henchmen not only increases your strength but also unlocks special activities and equipment. Friend involvement allows the game to advertise itself in a regular stream of gifts and wall postings.

(5) Microtransactions & Advertising: Each game has its own microtransaction currency, which can be purchased with real-world dollars (typically via credit card). In addition players can acquire game currency by agreeing to various “trial offers” for everything from Dish TV service to Netflix. The game currency allows players to acquire powerful equipment and levels faster. There are also opportunities for traditional web advertising within and around the game.

(6) Gameplay Familiarity: Many games use the same “action points” mechanic. Players familiar with one game can easily learn a new title. In fact, the similarities are so great that customer cannibalization is already a problem.

(7) Graphical Limitations: Great static webpage designs are vital to these games. Both current status and game options are presented through a combination of static images, text titles, short phrases and key numeric values. A few titles use simple side-scroller or isometric graphics with simple animations.


Retaining a Competitive Edge

The main problem with the current generation of social network games is the ridiculously low barrier to entry. Building these games takes at most 1-2 man-years. Of course, nurturing an online game to large and lasting success requires careful attention to customer needs. The most successful developers all follow the “Continuous Development” and “Customer Development” methods preached by Steve Blank and Eric Ries. (For the strategy, see Blank’s book The Four Steps to Epiphany; for practical implementation in software development, see Eric Ries’ blog “Lessons Learned”)

To remain competitive, forward-thinking firms are increasing their gameplay sophistication. For example, Playdom’s Sorority Life incorporates paper-doll style dress-up avatars. Some game actions go beyond a simple choice and result. These actions invoke puzzle or hidden object minigames. A player’s success in a minigame affects the result of their chosen action. Other Playdom games incorporate strategic maps, with different actions available in different map locations. As a player levels up, they unlock new map locations with new actions. Meanwhile Tyler Projects is experimenting with animated combat sequences.

The larger companies in social network gaming are moving to the next level of development, operation and sales. Zynga is literally flooding social networks with advertisements for their products, above and beyond the “viral” advertising inherent within the game. Leading companies are plundering traditional computer game firms for talent. In June 2009 Mike Verdu, GM of EA-LA, became Zynga’s VP of Game Development while Brian Reynolds (of Civilization & Rise of Nations fame) became a Chief Designer. In the same month Playdom announced that EA’s COO, John Pleasants, became their CEO.

Games following “traditional” social network design formulae have already graduated from a “New Market” (as defined by Steve Blank in his Stanford lecture) to a “Resegmented Market” where niche customer identification, branding and marketing play major roles in company success.


The Next Generation of Social Network Games

The game business is one of continual invention. It takes just one or two very different and very successful games to create a “New Market” in Blank-speak. The design concepts of that game can be refined and improved in successive titles to create market blockbusters. In online gaming there is no need to create a new title – customer metrics can guide expansion and/or revision of an existing title.

Highly creative game designs are frequently built from gameplay features found in earlier products. For example, EverQuest’s gameplay is a combination of solo computer RPGs and online MUDs, both of which owe their origins to the paper game “Dungeons & Dragons.” EQ’s graphical approach was  borrowed from first-person shooters.

When recently asked what I would suggest for next generation social network games, I adopted a similar approach. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I elected to draw upon the vast treasure trove of great past games, suitability revised, improved and adapted for the social network environment. Curiously, games from  the golden age of paper gaming (1970s) and the early days of computer gaming (‘85-‘95) provide many paradigms of elegant, successful mechanics to inform social network game design.


Exploration Games: A little-known but greatly beloved boardgame, Source of the Nile, had players take the role of European explorers of Africa. The map started 99% blank, with just a few known areas along the coastline. A player drew cards and rolled dice with each move to discover the terrain in front of them, which was then marked on the map. The party could move by boat upriver or overland on foot. Natural disasters, disease and hostile natives slowly took their toll on manpower and supplies, requiring fine judgment regarding how far to push into the unknown before returning to civilization, getting credit for various discoveries, and financing their next expedition.

Dani Bunten’s masterful The Seven Cities of Gold for 8-bit Apples, Ataris and Commodores took this “move and discover” motif to the conquistador era of the 1500s in the New World. I seem to remember Dani saying that she’d been influenced by SPI’s Conquistador boardgame as well. In any event Seven Cities generated a different unknown “new world” each time for endless replayability. Explorers gradually uncovered terrain, made discoveries, met friendly or hostile natives, etc.

A social network exploration game titled, say, Christopher Columbus would make each player a global explorer seeking lucrative trade connections in distant places, yielding everything from spice to silk. Each expedition that returns home contributes toward leveling-up, allowing players to command bigger expeditions with a wider range of options for discoveries, diplomacy, trade and combat. Successful expeditions also earn profits that can be spent on better equipment, ships, caravans, etc. Naturally some of the best items are only available via the microtransaction game currency.

Socially players can share discoveries and trade connections with friends, or use “dirty tricks” attacks to hinder rivals. Technically the overall world map needs to be vast – more than any one player can ever discover. Each player only sees a scrolling window into the region around their current expedition. The remainder of the map is nothing more than a server-side database. Early versions of this game can metric various mixes of discovery, trade, diplomacy and combat. The game can be adjusted to target player preferences. If players enjoy overland exploration over sea travel,  expand land travel and simplify naval movement. If players prefer founding colonies and fighting natives or each other, the game could be slanted more toward European conquest and colonization around the world from 1550 to 1900.


Data & Function-Driven Adventure: Back in 1981 I was surprised when a small solo boardgame I designed won the industry’s Best Fantasy Game of the Year.  The game was “Barbarian Prince.” If you don’t want to follow the link and paw through its myriad details, in this game the player starts alone in the wilderness as the exiled “Barbarian Prince of the Northlands.” The player tries to survive and acquire sufficient strength to reclaim his throne. Each “day” the Barbarian Prince can try to travel to a new square (hex). Assuming he doesn’t get lost on the way, he will forage for food and frequently has an interesting random encounter. Part of the game’s charm was the wide variety of possible encounters and events, all based on which square was visited and how the dice rolled. For example, if the Barbarian Prince moving along a road encountered a swordsman, this might occur:

e003 Swordsman

You meet a swordsman adventurer. He is mounted on a horse with combat skill 6, endurance 6, and wealth 7. Sitting there on his horse he takes an active interest in your party. Your options are:

  die roll talk *evade fight


converse r341 escape mtd r312 surprise r303  


converse r341 escape r315 attack r304  


looter r340 hide r317 attack r305  


hireling r339 bribe (5) r322 attacked r306  


hireling r333 pass r325 attacked r307  


bribe (10) r332 pass r325 surprised r308  

* if your party has winged mounts and/or flying ability, you can use escape flying (r313) instead of rolling the die for the evade option.

Each “r000” reference above is a different rules section that explains how to resolve that action. For example, a bribe is successful if appropriate gold is given. If the bribe fails, a fight may result. Ownership of certain items may modify the results, e.g., owning a mount (horse, etc.) makes escape easier. In effect the entire game is a data-driven design supported by multi-variable result functions.

Obviously significant design changes are needed to make something like “Barbarian Prince” successful in a social network environment. Dice rolls need to be replaced by player choices. Random henchmen are replaced by friends from the player’s social network. Random encounter characters are other players in the game. A player could select “be a bandit today” to attack other players of a similar level.

Games like this require an over-arching storyline to engage and push forward the player. Quests work best if tied to the player’s level rather than map locations. Additional random encounters are still needed to make the game world seem alive and the player’s travel choices meaningful.

Another requirement for bringing such a game to a mass audience is evocative graphics. A good illustration for each encounter is infinitely superior to lengthy hunks of text. Simple pencil sketches are adequate starting for a first release. If the game is successful, they could be replaced with more polished and costly artwork.


Driving Games: The core of a next-generation driving game would be a 3D Flash application for driving your car around a racetrack. Lliterally hundreds of “indie” developed Flash driving games demonstrate that this is possible. If Flash proves unsuitable, there are other lightweight 3D platforms available.

The critical technological issue is that competiting cars cannot be driven by other players live. This cannot be a head-to-head realtime racing game.

Why? First, internet lag makes head-to-head driving very problematic, especially when cars are very close. There are no good ways to handle collision detection. Second, even if enough opposing drivers of similar skill can be assembled to start a race promptly, during the race drivers can and will drop out while others may “grief” via collisions, road blockages, etc.

The best solution is an AI drive for all opposing cars. These AIs operate best if they know a “perfect line” to follow through the racecourse. From this it is a small step to recording each player’s path through the course as they drive it. This enables a player to race “against” their friends after all, with an AI following that friend’s path and car on the course.

A satisfying car driving experience is not the entire game. Customer-driven development can determine which of the myriad gameplay options and rewards from other race games appeal most to social network players. These options are pre-race choices such as type and model of car, mechanical adjustments to engine, suspension, tire selection and more. Post-race rewards are equally important, and may include rewards for just finishing the race, placing better than the last race, beating a specific rival driver, or beating a specific team. Racing points can be accumulated toward a “level-up” license that unlocks new tracks and cars. All these pre-race and post-race activities can be done without recourse to special Flash applications.


Risk and Reward

It is easy to imagine grandiose visions for a social network game. Unfortunately, big ideas and big games take vast efforts to develop. This leads to the tens of millions needed for AAA console or MMO PC titles. Customer-driven development doesn’t happen during the traditional phases of prototyping, pre-production and production for such a big title. When beta finally arrives18-36 months later, major gameplay choices have been ossified by vast investments in 3D assets and level design. Most of the development money is spent, reducing beta inputs to tweaks and minor adjustments.

The social network game business allows invest in a much larger number of easier, faster games like the three ideas above. Whichever game proves most successful is rewarded with additional investment for gameplay improvements, expansions, graphic upgrades and interface revisions. In the continuous development world of online games, instead of big gambles on potential success 2-4 years away, a company can try out many cheaper games and build on a proven winner within the year.

Posted in Design | 3 Comments »

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 »

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 »