Tobold's Blog
Monday, August 23, 2010
A random bunch of thoughts

Title says it all, I have a bunch of random thoughts on MMORPGs in my head, and don't really want to write a separate post for each of them. So instead I post my incoherent ramblings in this post.

Scott Jennings reports on insider information from the crash of All Points Bulletin, in which it is said that investors lost $100 million on that game. I am somewhat stunned by that number. Not that I don't believe that a MMORPG can't cost that much. But because I estimate that a man-year in game development costs between $100,000 and $200,000; that's not just the salaries, but includes all the additional costs that employing somebody entails, like his office and computer, or taxes and contributions. So if APB cost $100 million, and we can assume there were no large capital investments involved, we end up with between 500 and 1,000 man-years spent on making that game. Lets go for a higher cost and lower man-year estimate, 600 man-years to make the game: That means for example 200 people busy making APB for 3 years. And then they come up with THIS? How badly must a project be mismanaged to turn 600 man-years into a game which has so little content and so many technical flaws?

Yesterday Teppy, the "Pharaoh" and man behind A Tale of the Desert, announced that he was happy about having a high number of concurrent users playing the game: 389 of them. There is a function in-game where you can check the number of subscribers on the server, and it is currently about twice that. Then there are players in the free trial, but even all together that adds up to something like 2,000 players. Even if all of those subscribe, you end up with a gross revenue of just $300,000 a year. It is safe to assume that ATitD didn't cost $100 million to develop. In fact you have to wonder how they manage to even just meet the operating costs and salaries. And while it isn't the prettiest game, it still manages to offer a huge world, and more different modes of gameplay than most triple-A MMORPGs. And it has been running for many years, with new additions all the time. How come we get such good low-budget games on the one side, and huge costly failures on the other?

One thing A Tale in the Desert has a lot is events, either organized by players or by the developers. This weekend I participated in two "digs", one organized by a player, the other being part of a contest from the developers. Now during the dig somebody mentioned that it was something which would be difficult to explain to an outsider, as it appears to be extremely boring: For one hour a bunch of players stand around a hole in the ground, and click on it a few times per minute. But of course just looking at the core activity really doesn't describe what a dig is very well. MMORPGs often have simple click activities, like fishing in WoW, which are nevertheless often quite popular. There are a lot of aspects *around* the core activity, which make a seemingly simple and boring task more interesting. One aspect is the rewards you get from the activity, in the case of the dig the medium and cuttable stones. In the second dig, the one with the contest from the developers, I even managed to get into the top 21 diggers, and also luckily won one of the 7 lottery prizes, plus the prize every participant got; so I went home with the stones I dug, a medium diamond, 49 papyrus, and 49 slate. Another aspect is meeting people in game: In A Tale in the Desert there are several "tests" you need to meet other people for, and at the digs there were quite a lot of people who made a level by that. And the first dig ended in another player event being organized on the spot, an "acro line" where people were training acrobatics with each other for yet another test.

What is remarkable when you switch from a big game like WoW to a small game like ATitD is the change in the quality of the community. Although of course World of Warcraft *does* have mature and friendly players, the general atmosphere is much spoilt by the less well-behaved people. Thus the WoW community has a rather bad reputation, the official forums are considered a cesspit, and on many blogs you find constant laments on how everybody else is an idiot or an elitist jerk. Compared to that, the high level of civilized behavior in A Tale in the Desert is stunning. For example all the stones gathered in a dig are collected in one huge chest, and at the end of the dig all participants form an orderly queue, and the dig organizer hands each player an even share of the stones collected. It is hard to imagine players of World of Warcraft forming an orderly queue with their avatars while loot is being handed out, and there being no fighting. Even chat in ATitD is helpful and polite, in spite of covering a whole region.

Now one theory is that smaller communities are always better than larger communities. But I'd say that is only a small part of the answer. Game design also has an influence on player demographics and behavior. Although I don't have any hard data on that, I'm convinced that the ATitD community on average is older, and has more women. LarĂ­sa recently made several posts on how it is to be a woman and over 40 in World of Warcraft, and hardcore PvP games have an even younger and more male demographic than WoW has. But a game which is more tranquil, and is more about building than about killing (except for the occasional sheep), is likely to attract a demographic which is less dominated by testosterone.

There is an idea floating around gaming blogs that young men are playing hardcore games, while the fabled "middle-aged housewife" is playing idiotic Farmville. Playing A Tale in the Desert helps to dispel that notion. A Tale in the Desert is hugely complex, much more so than any hardcore MMORPG you might think off. And some players, which are definitely *not* male teenagers, are playing in an extreme hardcore way. And that is not even for personal advancement, but often for the communal gain, as gathering resources for unlocking new technologies is a huge task. There are guilds formed especially for that (in ATitD you can be member of several guilds with different purposes), and last night in the Sterope research guild chat somebody mentioned stopping work on a research project for the day after 8 straight hours, because "I am not THAT hardcore". To which I replied that 8 straight hours seemed very hardcore to me. I rarely do anything for more than one hour in this game, there are so many different activities, and I like to switch between them.

Meanwhile my World of Warcraft activity is dwindling. As I set up parental controls to opt out of RealID, I now get a weekly report on how much time I spent in WoW, and last week it was only 90 minutes. That time was mostly spent running the occasional random dungeon with my druid, who is level 67; or doing the "Tamagotchi mode" of WoW, that is doing transmutes with a daily cooldown and looking after a few auctions. Even the WoW blogosphere has a "waiting for Cataclysm" stance, with more people discussing future changes than what is actually going on in the game. While I do like discussing the effects of major changes to a game, and how they affect player behavior, I'm not all that interested in discussing details like abilities in future talent trees which anyway might still change from beta to release. So its a bad time to blog about WoW for me. Fortunately there are other games worthy of my attention, until everybody goes back to WoW in November.
The most amazing thing about the recent launch of EQ2X is the extremely high level of rational, literate discussion in the level 1-9 channel (effectively the global chat channel). Debate there is non-stop, lots of differing opinions from lovers of the new F2P EQ2 to haters to doomsayers and naysayers and all shades inbetween.

From experience, I'd have expected this to be acrimonious, bad-tempered and illiterate. Instead it's just the opposite. And while the theory-crafting seminar rolls on 24/7, many newbie questions are asked and answered willingly, accurately and with good humour.

It's almost like the game is being played by mature adults!
It is all about community. If people feel a sense of belonging to the community and having to depend on others it is quite natural that they behave nicely. Basic psychology. Something I miss in game design nowadays.

Size of the community plays an indirect role here. No more.

I remember one guy in Vanilla WoW who played ninja with some loot of a green dragon (open world boss). He got excluded from every activity on that server and quit about a week later as far as I know.

I never heard of anybody else who did something like this on that server.

Had it happened 6 months later he had changed server I guess. 1 year later he had renamed his char. And 4 years later he hadn't even had to do anything, because he would never again have to meet the people he betrayed.

Fighting anti-social behaviour with rules and laws only works so far. It is much easier to make people feel like being part of a community that depends on each other.

It is actually the same thing with criminals. You can have more police, more rules, harsher laws and it will become better, but not by much.

Or you can make them marry, get a child, get a good job, some friends and they will never steal again. Even if they still don't earn much.
I was reading a post on the ATiTD forum where the poster commented that number of subscribers has dipped with each new tale.

I think that's predictable, there's a limited number of times that anyone would want to start again from the beginning, however many new pieces are involved.

(I did quite like the fishing though, was tempted to forget building stuff and just wander round and research fishing on my own :) )
Smaller organizations can do more than larger ones as well. 10 developers do not do twice as much work as 5, because they need to spend more time coordinating, which means maybe you need an additional manager, or with more developers better source control software and design software, etc. The more people to manage, the more chances for things to go wrong, and also the harder it is for anyone to make effective change for the better. The inertia and bureaucracy stifle it. ( Not to mention the damned waterfall model! :) )

So, a small organization can come up with a moderately successful game that can pay for itself and for future upgrades. A large one cannot, it has to be a boom or bust, just to cover its costs let alone keep many of those people employed after go-live.
"A Tale in the Desert is hugely complex, much more so than any hardcore MMORPG you might think off."

It seems to me that WoW is much more complex, just based on the number of words it takes to describe all the aspects of the game. ATitD may have a hugely complex tech tree progression, but that's just one aspect of an MMO.
chnaged: In ATiTD many of the different techs are almost like complete games in themselves. You can't really compare it to a tech tree in any other MMO.
Most of what you do in WoW is combat in some variation: Solo, group, PvE, or PvP. Apart from that there is resource gathering, which only has two different methods (fishing and node harvesting), and crafting, which doesn't have any gameplay at all.

ATitD has hundreds of different resources, and every gathering or production method is different. Even the simplest one are different, gathering clay is different from gathering wood which is different from gathering dirt. And the more complicated ones are complete mini-games, like blacksmithing, where you hammer a metal block into a given shape with various tools. Or charcoal production where you need to control air, wood, and water to keep the oven hot without exploding.

On top of that there are 7 schools, each with an initiation test and 7 major tests. That is 56 completely different games right there. And the major tests can take weeks to finish. For example the Test of the Oyster Catcher has you solve Lights Out Puzzles to find pearls, with which you then have to solve a Mastermind Puzzle of 14 (!!!) pearls in a necklace.
Thanks for the clarifications. I see it's tough comparison.

Unfortunately I don't have time to try ATitD, but I'm curious whether some/none/all of the mini-games have a reaction-time component. For example, WoW has a rather tough mini-game: the Shartuul event which requires all kinds of real-time combat tactics.
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