Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Tabula Rasa - The end of the shooter MMO?

As I mentioned recently, the basic principle of combat in a classic MMORPG is a comparison of numbers: health vs. damage over time. Other games with combat, for example typical shooters, don't have such a huge influence of character stats on damage. In a shooter whether you hit or not is more often a question of how you aim than the results of some stat-based formula. Nevertheless some games tried to combine shooter elements with MMORPG elements, for example Hellgate London or Tabula Rasa. Hellgate London will close its servers on January 31, Tabula Rasa one month later on February 28. Are shooter MMOs dead?

The problem with questions like these is that there are relatively few games, and thus relatively little data points. It is totally possible that there is a large demand for good shooter MMOs, but neither Hellgate nor Tabula Rasa were good enough. But then, I kind of liked Tabula Rasa, especially the instances, and wouldn't say it was a terrible game. Is it a statistical fluke that over the last 10 years games with swords sold better than games with guns, or is there a fundamental incompatibility of MMORPG gameplay and shooting?

The reason why that question could be important is future games. The Agency will be a shooter MMO. Star Wars: The Old Republic will have both (light) swords and (laser) guns. Are these future games going to take a hit just because of the weapons they use, or will we see a game break the curse of the shooter MMO? What do you think?
Isn't Planetside still up and running? That's sort of a FPS MMO.
Tabula Rasa is shutting down not because it is a shooter, but simply because it is not a good enough MMO.

The combat is awesome, innovative and exciting.... ummm... and that's about it. I subscribed and then unsubscribed simply because the game is too shallow, I got bored of shooting the same mobs over and over, with no really variety. It wears thin no matter how cool the combat system is.

The fact that it is shutting down makes me sad because I would love to have seen a non-fantasy MMO do well, but it is not to be with TR.

Look at WOW, look at the amount of cool stuff you can do, that's the benchmark. It doesn't matter if you are fantasy, sci-fi, shooter, whatever... if you're not up to scratch as an MMO then forget it.
Actually.. if fantasy MMOs modeled combat as accurately as FPS games, I doubt that they would have the subscription numbers today. Imagine playing a rogue if you really had to aim for the kidney instead of clicking a button called "Kidney Shot". Or if a mage had to avoid barbequing his warrior friend instead of the enemy he's fighting. A perfect example on how hard such combat would be is an old game called "Die by the Sword", where the movements of your mouse directly translated into movements of your sword.

That's why fantasy MMOs abstract away the finer details of combat. And as EvE has shown, the same can be done with projectile weapons, beam weapons and even missiles. The Rainbow Six series even demonstrates how you can have both stats and free aiming. While the concept of a targeting reticle can lead to a case of Imperial School of Marksmanship syndrome, it's not necessarily a bad thing if handled correctly. Rainbow Six showed how. An experienced character was less affected by accuracy-impairing effects such as flashbangs, movement or injury, and recovered faster after the distraction ended. A newbie could hit bullseyes on a shooting range, but only experts can do the same in the heat of combat.

IMHO, there's nothing inherently wrong with shooting that makes it unsuitable for an MMO.
I have to agree with maniac. Content is king in MMOs (at least with current business models), having to aim manually to hit instead of letting an RNG decide is just a way of interacting with it. I'm not saying that the way of interaction doesn't matter though, different people prefer different playstyles. If there was hardly any content in WoW for example I'm sure that game would've faltered too.

I haven't tried Tabula Rasa myself, but that's beside the point really. How you deliver content doesn't matter as long as you give your target audience something to do, and judging from what I've heard from others Tabula Rasa lacks in that regard. I might be entirely wrong though, but that just adds more credibility to the statement that word of mouth matters. ;)
Hellgate was bad. So was Tabula Rasa. The moral we can take home is: half-finished MMO's are bad.

However, I'm sure we'll see more of these "it's not like WoW so it failed" posts from you in the future, to continue your personal crusade into making all future games into WoW.
I guess you meant to say "mmorpg games with swords sold better than mmorpg games with guns" because if you added up all the Halo's and GTAs and CoDs and Half life's and so on I am pretty sure they outsell WoW and it's ilk. There is certainly a market for "games with guns", there is even a healthy market for multi player games with guns. What then is the missing factor that seems to kill off massively multiplayer online ROLE PLAYING GAMES with guns? I remember in the early days of WoW reading about former Counterstrike clans which dissolved because many of their members left to play WoW. Anecdotally at least this suggests that there isn't necessarily a great barrier between folks who like to play shooters and folks who like to play mmorpgs. A recent trend in online shooters has introduced mild rpg elements where you unlock new weapons and abilities as you play. In a sense these games are moving towards mmorpgs. Many of them even have multiplayer PVE (Co-op mode) as well as PVP play (versus mode). All that needs to be added is a persistent world, which is where "The Agency" seems to be aiming for. It is interesting to note how games like Call of Duty 4 handle progression - you unlock new weapons and abilities which give you a wider range of ways to play but aren't really more powerful than your starting abilities. this offers a path to progression without unbalancing the game.
WoW has guns! Stupid hunters are always trying to shoot me. Go plink away at someone else.
There was an other Shooter-MMO around. A SF-Setting from an german company. Necron. WoW + WAR = Guns.

The question is: self-aiming? And what buisness-modell? The Agency will be free to play, right?
Planetside as been on the brink since it was released, I'd say it hasn't been shut down just as a side effect of being under the SoE umbrella and on the station one pass system. If PS was a product of an independent studio it most likely would have closed down ages ago. why I think these game don't do well is the subscription based model of MMO and the leveling curve. Why would someone pay a monthly fee, spend hours getting there character to a point where they can 'compete' with other players when they can just pay a one time fee for say team fortress 2, have instant gratification.
its sad, the Tabula Rasa is a great mmorpg... should change to free to play instead close... :(
Planetside was a wonderful game when it launched... it's just unfortunate Sony completely manhandled the game. Tossing out a staggeringly incomplete expansion a handful of months after the game was released (to the point where it was, if I recall, the beta testing started after the expansion already went gold) that was so poorly done and incomplete to the point that all of its sparse content was basically ignored entirely by the playerbase killed a lot of goodwill, hamfisted balance fixes (nerfing the TR maxes into uselessness for several years, the whole concept of BFRs, etc.), and genuine imbalances left long ignored (the NC's Phoenix being the only indirect-fire weapon infantry can use, and an incredibly reliable one) quickly drove off the rest.

Which is, and was, a damn shame. The first few months of Planetside were some of the most fun I ever had gaming, let alone MMO gaming. Its failure for reasons completely unrelated to its premise and setup probably prevented others from trying similar; there still hasn't really been a PVP MMOFPS of Planetside's intended scope since. Has there?
As others have mentioned, Planetside has managed to sustain a small player base and was a fairly competent MMO in its earliest manifestation. I had a tremendous amount of fun playing it in the beta, an experience which brought me back to glory days of the original Tribes.

If you want an example of the possibility of a true shooter MMO, look at Resistance 2's online coop multiplayer. Up to eight players engage in what amount to instance dungeons, each taking on traditional MMORPG roles like DPS or healing (though of course couched in Battlefield type character classes), and each culminating in boss encounters. From all accounts it is executed extremely well and I think serves as a ready model for a more thorough going implementation in some future MMO.
Perhaps it's about what aspect you copy from shooters and what aspect is taken from MMOs. FPSes seem to be doing well by taking the progression elements of earning xp and unlocking special weapons/achievements. Doing FedEx quests in first-person don't appear as attractive by comparison.

What good elements of MMOs could be copied by FPSes?
Some of my coworkers are big FPS fans. They just don't get why I like to play MMO's like WoW. To them there is just too much time-wasting in MMO's. They don't want to grind, they just want to quickly get into the action and shoot stuff. As well, one of my coworkers pointed out that there are just too many games great non-MMO games that offer multiplayer action for free so why pay a monthly fee to an MMO?
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However, I'm sure we'll see more of these "it's not like WoW so it failed" posts from you in the future, to continue your personal crusade into making all future games into WoW.

One goal of this blog is to explore *what exactly* works or doesn't work in a MMORPG. It is incredibly crude to reduce that to "is like WoW" or "is not like WoW". WoW is an incredibly complex product, which has some very good aspects, but also a lot of aspects that are far from perfect. The discussion of these various positive and negative features of WoW and other games provides endless content to this blog.

If you think I'm on a personal crusade to make all games identical, you are very much mistaken. WoW isn't even mentioned in this post, I could as well have been talking about EQ or AoC or WAR. All I stated was that if you list the top 10 MMORPGs, you'll find lots of games with swords, and few with guns, and I'm offering one of many possibilities why this could be the case.

If you're just here to make disparaging remarks that have nothing to do with the content of the post, I'd prefer if you moved elsewhere.
Call of Duty & other Console FPS games are doing quite well, if anecdotal evidence is a sign of things. I actually know quite a few people who play FPS/shooter games more than MMO's. The difference is that it's twitch-skill based versus stat & gear based, and that there's no monthly fee (well, for the PS3 at least - is there some sort of fee for the XBOX?).

I've been playing a little Resistance 2, and been enjoying it. Even if I am an old fart like Tobold.
I think it comes down to technical difficulties and marketing. Making a game where aim matters doesn't scale very well (It's one thing for the server to track 6 people precisely enough to make your headshots. 60 is a whole different level). Making a stat based shooter is just stapling on a MMO magic system with different looks.

If you're making a shooter MMO, you need to market to FPS fans. What is your selling point for them? Huge battles, assuming you could overcome the technological restrictions, would end up simulating WW2 warfare, where you're killed by unknown fire before you get to the interesting parts. Might be great for those who want that level of realism, but I don't think that niche is big enough to keep you afloat. Persistent stats/character growth? Small group vs. group fighting? All done already in a regular FPS, why do they need your MMO? Are you going to try to make a stat based system and market to people that like FPS's but suck at them?
is there a fundamental incompatibility of MMORPG gameplay and shooting?

Not really. I think it is more of a matter of finding the right taregt audience and covering enough gameplay elements that would make them happy. Tabula Rasa did some thigns really well, but fell short on a some other game elements for the more traditional MMORPG audience. And they did not really target a new audience for their game.
World War 2 Online is still going strong, and about to deploy into China. Though to call that a FPS MMO is a little bit misleading being it's more a combined arms simulation of the second world war in Western Europe. It proves though that if your unique, and there's an audience (doesn't have to be a mass market one either), a MMO game can survive.

I enjoyed TabRas, but other than the Scenarios which were excellent, the game felt a bit samey and couldn't compete for my attention from other games and interests.

I fear MMOs such as TabRas are following a boom and bust pattern. They get great initial sales thanks to the new interest in MMOs WoW is responsibe for, but they don't have the ability to keep those players interested when they already have hundreds (or thousands) of hours invested into WoW. Resulting in a large downturn of subscribers. WAR is suffering much the same at present, and is in danger of shedding more and more players in europe thanks to the once busy RvR areas becoming rather dead. WAR needs players to fight against (and with), else its just a mediocre PvE game.
The reason why I stopped playing TR wasn't because it was a shooter MMO. Rather, it was because it was _not_ a shooter MMO. There is no aiming in TR, you roughly point into the enemy's direction and the weapon locks on to it, giving you up to five degrees spread. Add to this that the most efficient method of killing things is crouching, behind some cover to reduce incoming damage, and suddenly the high-praised "dynamic combat system" becomes way, way more static than any other MMO I've played to date.

Tabula Rasa might have had some shooter elements, but they were brutally supressed and replaced with a generic MMO round-based combat feature. That's what turned me away.
Oh, yeah - three more things: Crouching doesn't allow movement in TR, the fastest way of shooting is keeping the mouse button pressed, and there is no dodging bullets or rockets whatsoever (because your opponents lock on to you as well), essentially the most optimal movement is no movement and some tiny repositioning between enemies, in rare occasions.

I went back to playing proper shooters after I realized TR was nothing like one, and never looked back. The only thing shooter-like in TR is that you have weapons that shoot bullets, that's it.
Planetside was one of the best games ever - for a short time until you realized that many concepts have been broken and fighting within the same bases over and over again was getting boring. But when it came out, it had insane bridge fights etc, and I still hope for a game that will try something like this again. It was far from perfect, but still unique until today.

If you've never played it, here is a nice article on RPS for a very special Planetside moment:
The thing about shooter MMO's is that they aren't fun. Tabla Rosa, Hellgate, Planetside (was the best, and that's not saying much). Before I got hooked into World of Warcraft I spent most of my time playing Counter-Strike and Battlefield (5years easy). I hardly touch them anymore because WoW is just more fun for me.

If I was going to create a MMOFPSRPG I would stop working on the RPG portion and work on getting the shooter portion done. Mobility, ease of firing, and adding in that crucial mouse look shooting. I believe Counter-strike does both of those the best.

The MMOFPS games that have been out fail because the shooter portion of it isn't fun and the mobility of the character is clunky. Those 2 things are integral to success.
I want to give another shoutout to Planetside as something that was very close to what I wanted an MMO FPS to be. I had some unbelievable moments in that game, taking and defending bases, towers, and bridges. I still remember a few different times cresting hills and just looking down on HUGE battles that looked like scenes out of a Star Wars movie. Socially, it was also my better experience in an online game. I ran with the same outfit (guild) for....over a year I think(Blue Lions) and I still remember the names of a lot of those people.

Of course, any time I ever tried to show anybody else how awesome the game was, I'd end up running around for 25 minutes looking for any type of fight and finding nothing. I had a friend who referred to planetside as "the game where I mowed grass all the time". It definitely had issues, but man was it awesome when things clicked.
For one thing, Tabula Rasa really "half-assed" the shooter component. There was no aiming, no dodging, so it really boiled down to standard MMORPG combat (and very simplified, at that), but just with a different 'face' on it. I would've liked to seen the game as a real shooter.

Most people I talked to who tried Tabula Rasa really liked the futuristic setting, but ultimately there just wasn't enough game there to get their $15/month.
Speaking of SoE games, another popular (at the time) game tried to introduce shooter elements in order to make combat more fast-paced and "exciting". It very nearly cratered the game. What game was that? Star Wars Galaxies, and the shooter elements game in the form of the NGE. Subsequent patches and content release would re-introduce the more traditional RNG combat as an option.
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