Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Clone wars

In the previous post I spoke about games getting a bad review because they had a feature the reviewer particularly disliked, or were missing one he considered must-have. In this post I'll talk about games which are more or less having identical sets of features. The clones. The clone wars title is not just a Star Wars reference, but is also because I think that the clones are killing each other.

Why do we have clones? Lets zoom out a bit, and have a look at the development of a product, any product. There are two major starting points for any development of a new product: Either market pull, or technology / design push. Market pull is when somebody notices a demand of the market, and develops a product to supply this demand. Technology / design push is when somebody has a bright idea for something new, and develops it without the market asking for it, hoping that demand will form once the product is on the market. Clones are typical market pull games. Somebody notices that for example World of Warcraft is making a lot of money, and wants a piece of the pie. He puts up some money, hires some developers, and tells them to make a game for the same market that WoW occupies.

The best case scenario for that results in a game like Runes of Magic. It is obviously a WoW clone in many aspects. But the devs realized that to compete with WoW they needed some unique selling points, so they added things like housing and dual classes. And the business managers of Runes of Magic realized that because they couldn't afford to make RoM as big and polished as WoW, there was no way to get people to pay the same as they did for WoW, and went for a Free2Play microtransaction business model instead. Runes of Magic is doing pretty well.

A more typical bad scenario is the devs having no idea what exactly makes WoW work and where one could sensibly add to it or modify it, and just producing a copy as good as they can. Basic gameplay identical to World of Warcraft, but with the budget being much lower the game is smaller, less polished, and with more flaws and bugs than WoW or Runes of Magic. Add some business people who believe that people will pay $15 a month for anything, and going for a monthly subscription business model, and you have a recipe for disaster.

And I think it isn't World of Warcraft that kills the WoW clones, it is Runes of Magic. A game like Runes of Magic can survive from the people who got bored with WoW, or who don't like to pay a monthly subscription. But those people will have a choice among several different WoW-like games. So the clone which is somewhat better done, offers a few new features, and is cheaper, is going to beat the less good clone that asks full price for nothing really innovative.

This year I already played several betas of games where I do think that they will be an utter failure. A game which slavishly tries to copy all aspects of WoW, mixes a few unoriginal and not really compatible features from other games in, and hopes you'll pay a monthly fee for that. Another game which plays more like Tabula Rasa, just working less well, being less fun, and having less good graphics. Even if the scenario is post-apocalyptic and not aliens, seeing how badly Tabula Rasa did, I don't think this one will make it.

And if I can see a game will flop after an hour in the beta, I wonder why the people who make it can't. Are they too close to their own creations that they can't see that another game is doing exactly the same but much better? Or are the devs simply lying to the investors, knowing very well the game will not live long past release, but unwilling to give up the monthly paycheck? Why are there so many bad games released, and I don't mean games that just don't appeal to some gamers, but simply bad clones with lousy workmanship and no innovation?
In the automoble industry you would never pay a CEO who doesn't love cars.

But in the game industry you often have CEOs who don't play games and especially they don't have the time to play an MMO the way it is played by the customers.

A WoW addict with some management skills and a few hours per day to invest in his CEO tasks could well be a better choice than the 24/h working CEO who knows everything about management, but doesn't even like MMOs, let alone the people who play them.

The best CEO would probably be somebody who played an MMO extensively for a few years, played it casually for a few more years and now wants to earn money.
Anybody wanna pay me to produce the "next big thing" ? :)
The most major issue with design is the lack of vision. The second is the business model.

To me game design is like art, the moment you start copying others you have downgraded yourself to nothing but a bearded, untallented fool, scrapping money off tourists. And the flip side is that the moment marketing people, financial analysts and advertisers start telling you that turtles are cute so you need more of them in your skateboard game you become nothing more than a money whore aka Madonna et al.

To me only small companies have the vision to bring innovation to the scene but they lack the funding. Blizzard was once small and it made great games, CCP is small but it fights on, adventurine is small but their fans may be their downfall.

Problem is that so many great games were made full of bugs and by low tech means but the moment the game company makes money and hires business minded people they fail. Because art is not a mathematical problem there is no formula, art is art you either have it or you don't. No matter how much money you throw at the graphics engine and the tree drawing etc Total War will never be as good as the first Medieval and Oblivion will never have the atmosphere of Daggerfall.
The truth is in the middle I think, Draxi.
You need the creative art that game design is, as well as the analytical coolness to think about it.

What made Blizzard big is the knowledge of their competitors. They looked at them and LEARNED. They encourage people to play other MMOs, not only WoW.

They decided what is good about other games, how it could work together. This is a creative process!
After that they produced the game and reiterated the try-and-error approach until the game feeled good.

Actually they also added a few simple, but important things, like the idea that it is more imporat that the game runs smoothly than that is looks good AND (very important) what kind of art design could look good while also running smoothly.

WotLK was revolutionary if you look at the quest design (if only the exspectations hadn't been THAT high!). They made a LOT of things right, but they suffer from a few problems:

- They are overly confident nowadays (understandably, but extremely dangerous)

- They didn't polish WotLK as much as they should have! (It was still above industry standard).

- The idea to add yet another 10 more levels, the respective talent tree and the massive focus on arena and resilence are slowly destroying the game (ripping it in two halves: PvE/PvP). These have been wrong decisions from the top of the command chain. More creative solution should have been researched.
On one side everyone wants to play original games. But if you take a look at what's selling you come up with a list like this:

Direct2Drive's Top Ten (6/14 - 6/20)
1. The Sims 3 - Electronic Arts
2. The Sims 3 (Mac) - Electronic Arts
3. Ghostbusters: The Video Game - Terminal Reality
4. Prototype - Radical
5. Civilization 4: Complete Edition - Firaxis
6. Fallout 3 - Bethesda
7. Aion: The Tower of Eternity (Pre-Order) - NCsoft
8. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - Infinity Ward
9. Mass Effect - BioWare / Demiurge
10. Call of Duty: World at War - Treyarch

Six sequels and one movie based game. So while people demand originality they buy the same old games time and time again. No wonder tons of copies are made.

Seeing how sequels sell, publishers won't be fast to invest into new gametypes. The money at stake to make an mmorpg is in the millions and to invest that in a new concept is a high risk operation.

I do believe that an excellent WoW clone would sell well. I also believe that it's near impossible. The game has seen a decade of work to get it to the state it's in now. You can't just make a similar game in a few years. So yes, you have to limit your ambitions. Start from the core game and add some nifty, original things.

Luckily we still have the indie and small team market to provide us with new concepts. The money at stake there is a lot smaller so the risk is smaller so it allows more room for novelties. With the money to make one huge MMORPG you can support a lot of indie games, spreading your risks.
If you want to compete with a good product (either by cloning it, or by trying a new concept), you'll have to come up with something which *at least* has the same quality and preferably is cheaper.
Unfortunately everyone fails (or doesn't want to, but then they're not competing) to even reach that minimum requirement.
"The best CEO would probably be somebody who played an MMO extensively for a few years"

"The most major issue with design is the lack of vision"

Given the train-wreck that was Vanguard, I'd argue that vision and a love of games are not enough in a CEO. Management skills, although boring, are #1. You can have as much vision and love of the genre as you want, but if you can't land the project on time and on budget, everything else is irrelevant.
The same you could say the other way round:
You could produce the product for 90% of the calculated costs due to your brilliant management skills. If it is a dull game that copied features of other games without fitting them together, your game will be a failure. You need both.

If the communication, the mutual understanding between the management and the customers doesn't work you always have a problem. In every market.
I think I should be a bit clearer on what I meant. I have no problem when a company looks at other games and takes ideas, inspiration is an integral part of art. The issue I have is when designers have a view of how something should be and then some top level executive comes along and twists the idea to a meaningless shell.

Blizzard has taken inspiration from other games but they have also abandoned quality for "junk entertainment." Now it is more about epix to the masses, no reputation grind is worth it except for Hodir, after two visits to Naxx there is no reason to step in another heroic and people don't complain because when grind was involved it was poorly done being too long and too repetative.

What is worse is that they can do better. Their quest design got better but the way they do their dailies is hit and miss. Some bosses are fun and others look as if they took the abilities of every other boss changed the colours and pasted them into the new one... Here you go challenge.

When I am one of the 11 million paying 15$ a month for a single game I expect nothing less than perfect. They raised the bar we gave them money now they cannot just cater to kids hungry for shiny epix because their marketing department said that kids need more purples.

If popularity is the judge of everything then we must admit that since billions of flies prefer them crap MUST taste great.
You critizise the core game (PvE)mechanic of WoW, Draxi.
And I do agree.

But they perfected it with in WotLK. What would you like to change, except for the whole mechanic? This core of WoW works for many people.

If I had some influence at Blizzard I'd actually try to add another core to WoW: Sandbox mechanisms.

Wow is big and successfull, because they have it all: BG, Arena, Level PvE, Dailies, Raids, Dungeons, Itemgrind, Roleplay, ...

But they really miss a sandbox machanism.
Just copy paste a little bit f
oorm Eve Online or even WAR (but please with more depth), Blizzard.

If only to try it out for your next MMO. What could you possible lose ? .. and you could win what WoW really needs: Some fresh air, because level 90 and respective talent trees would probably not work. I know that my talent trees are already too bloated and my abilities are already too copy/pasted from other classes.
Blizzard has taken inspiration from other games but they have also abandoned quality for "junk entertainment."

In a market where people aren't willing to pay for luxury entertainment, it is hard to criticize the business sense of creating junk entertainment. I'm sure one could make a much better game with a $100 per month subscription fee, but who would pay that?

I do agree with Nils that it would be interesting to see an open world, non-linear, sandbox MMO made by Blizzard.
Since Tobold himself blessed the sandbox approach I started to think about it a little bit. ;)

It would be pretty easy to motivate it:
After the Lich King is beated Alliance and Horde are on their own - no enemies.
Guess what happens ;)

You can revamp the entire world - including BC Content and Azeroth; something players always wanted.

The whole world is for level 80; if you want to play the old world you are phased out. Thus blizzard can keep the lvl 1 - 79 content the same but once you hit 80 you phase from the past into the present (perhaps at will).

War is everywhere. Horde and Alliance compete for ressources. Both sides have grind quests and epic quests that empower bosses that they have put into the new/old raid dungeons.

For example: Horde controls Molten Core, The Molten Core Boss (an orc e.g.) grows stronger the more horde for him. The more ressources they deliver. The other way round for an Alliance Boss in BWL.
The improvement of the bosses should be real slow. This way Blizzard can keep it balanced. There are enough raid dungeons. Therefore it's not problem to make half of them raidable for Horde and the other half for Alliance.

Now you have a good PvE raid content - and also enough content for massive PvP action. Many zones could be made open PvP zones at 80 (with a high, but limited number of players able to join the zones, like Wintergrasp in 3.2).
They can fight for the control of these zones and for its ressources. The better your side is at PvP, the easier your time at PvE. Alternatively they could just improve the PvE rewards if you control a lot of zones, but this would be less immersive.

Unfortunately this won't happen. Blizzard will "drive it safe". At least that's what they are gonna tell themselves. They will produce more of the same .. and one day they will ask themselves: What has gone wrong? When did we lose it? Why are we not the market leader anymore?
For people like Tobold, who like an economic sandbox game more then open-world PvP:

Every major city or village could have people who own shops according to their profession. The position of Master Enchanter of Orgrimmar (for example) could be auctioned (really good money sink) once a month. During this time this guy can make the NPC shop owners sell his suff - but he would have to compete with the master enchanters of other towns. The money he makes could be his.

He gains a fraction of the repair money that this town makes. (The more people come to your town because the shops in this town are so good, the more will want to repair themselves while they are there...)

In addition he gains one or two special town-specific enchantments during his time as master enchanter that he will be able to perform only while the master enchanter.

Whole guilds might form to support some guys to become the master enchanter, master tailor, etc.
By offering many goods for a reasonable price more people would buy at their town and they would make a profit if they are better than the other people in the other towns.
For money they could buy (invest into) portals for their town that people could use to teleport to other continets (where they also control a town :)

Towns could be made free PvP zones and the guys controling the town could buy guards (who should really be a force to reckon with). Now introduce some incentive to not die in a town and some incentive to kill somebody in a town and .. *dreaming*

Money would suddenly become important WITHOUT the problem of gold farmers.

What do you think? Any loopholes?
So much could be invented, if those people would just try to be creative for once, I sometimes think ;)
Svan: Vision won't save you if it's a bad vision. That's what killed Vanguard, at least as much as the bugs. (Its also why I don't share anyone's excitement about Brad McQuaid. EQ hit some lucky hotspots but he doesn't really understand how or why and he certainly isn't about to repeat it with some totally new and up to date set of ideas.)
Draxi, what you say is true of any business, it's not "art" vs "business" it's more like, being small enough to be flexible, creative and innovative, vs being so big your bureaucracy won't let you be flexible.
It's often the downfall of many large businesses, as smaller competitors take over. It's why guys like Gates and Ellison tout the book "The Innovator's Dilemma"
Beyond art, there is also a ton of science and psychological experiments behind games.
Now as to why are there crappy games? In every industry there are people who create discount versions of products. Or even deal in "junk". Why should the game industry be any different? Of course less nice games will be made, because there is a market for it: that market consists of people who can't afford "top shelf" games. Poorer people and most of the world falls into this category. Witness even Blizzard cannot charge in China what they charge the West. They would never have the money to keep WoW on top if they had to charge us what they charge the Chinese.
And that's the issue. People can't afford the best games, or nice cars, or other nice things, but still need them. And some companies realize they can make a less nice version of a product for those customers. And why should they not? It sounds all high and noble to say we should only have the best games and products, but really what that means is poorer people won't get MMOs made for them. And I imagine people who make less than me (or whose parents do) might want to play an MMO as well.
Now the complaint that some people think they won't be free2play or microtransaction, but instead charge what wow charges, yet still suck and are obviously a discount game, well they will fail and investors will wise up.
I do believe that an excellent WoW clone would sell well.

I don't believe that. Clones only sell if original product has some glaring deficiencies .WoW is invulnerable to clones

I also believe that it's near impossible.

That is correct. It is impossilble to make better WoW than Blizzard does. Blizzard never innovates ,its technology is dated, they never push any boundaries (aside of numbers)- but what they do extremelly well and why they succeed - they take old designs and polish them to be most fun, most accessible and most attractive

You cant out polish Blizzard. That is their only know how (and the one which made them #1 game developer) , and they do concentrate on the "fun game" part of that quite a bit .
"Another game which plays more like Tabula Rasa, just working less well, being less fun, and having less good graphics. Even if the scenario is post-apocalyptic and not aliens, seeing how badly Tabula Rasa did, I don't think this one will make it."

Fallen Earth? I know the NDA probably precludes you from acknowledging this, but I have heard similar things about the game at least in its present form. It's a shame that design ideas that might have seemed good on paper flop in execution. And unlike television or film, a clever edit or transition won't save your project. Instead, the developers make do with what are inherently flawed mechanics, hoping against hope they can find a good experience among the morass.

Then the game releases, the internet takes pleasure in brutally criticizing it, some investors lose 20 million dollars, a studio closes, and blogs like this are written to ponder why it all happens so often. Sigh.

I'm not sure the vision was all that bad, but the implementation sucked. You'd go through 10 levels of good content only to find that it had simply run out: they hadn't finished it and were aiming to patch it in later.

The bugs were a pain, but I don't think they were the killer, either. The game simply wasn't complete when shipped. Not incomplete as in WOW lacking raid content at launch, but incomplete as in bog-all to do after L20.

To me, that's a primarily a failure of project management - they clearly hadn't completed what they intended to by launch. Another symptom is the repeated changes in direction the game underwent as it went through beta. That's the time for tweaking and bug-fixing, not major changes. n

None of this is to say "the vision" was flawless, simply that I don't think it was the main cause of failure.
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