Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 12, 2010
 
Revisiting The Vision

Both Keen and The Ancient Gaming Noob are writing about Everquest Next, and in particular the idea SOE has to make a new Everquest which has "all the good parts" of EQ1 without having the bad parts. So they are happily listing what the good and the bad parts are, and it quickly becomes obvious that their lists are different. And that is just one problem of the "best features of" approach. Personally I do not believe in MMORPGs being a list of features, but there has to be a larger underlying philosophy behind it, which in a holistic way makes the whole bigger than the sum of its parts. And funnily enough that idea is from SOE during their EQ1 days, where they called their philosophy "The Vision".

I don't know if "The Vision" was ever actually written down in an official document, or whether it was just a general philosophy which was referred to often, but never solidified. I've never seen an official bullet-point list of what "The Vision" consisted of. But from the various references to it, and by looking at the design of EQ1 (and later Vanguard, which claimed to have inherited "The Vision"), I could make out one key philosophy: The game world should be harsh, so as to make players band together to overcome its challenges.

This aspect of "The Vision" has specifically been quoted to defend some of the features players liked the least about the original Everquest: For example EQ1 had a lot of "downtime" between fights, where players would need to sit and rest up to 20 minutes to regain their mana to full. And EQ1 had "forced grouping" (although in reality there was always some soloing). "The Vision" explained that if you forced players to play together in a group, and then forced them to sit idle for 20 minutes, they would by necessity chat with each other, and the social cohesion would be a lot better. Even people who aren't aware of the history of MMORPGs and don't know "The Vision" often make pretty much the same argument, when they complain about World of Warcraft Dungeon Finder groups running through a whole dungeon in 20 minutes without ever exchanging a word.

Now I don't want to make absolute judgements about features, most of which have been discussed to death already. But I would like to remark that most features, even unpopular ones, have both good and bad sides. Forced grouping is highly annoying if you only have a short playing session or don't feel sociable that day, but I'm not exactly convinced that soloing all the way to the level cap is the best possible model either. I have long argued that especially for this "group vs. solo" issue both extremes are probably less ideal than some compromise in the middle, and that this compromise could be achieved by carefully tuning the group xp bonus. If playing in a group would be beneficial enough to make finding a group worth your while, but not so overwhelminingly better that people felt they couldn't solo any more, maybe we could make nearly everybody happy on that point.

With features being part of a larger underlying philosophy, I am not sure that you can even theoretically get all of the good parts without having any of the bad parts. While I was never a total supporter of "The Vision" to make the game deliberately unpleasant to get players to huddle together, I do have to admit that to some extent the idea worked. When you hear veterans reminiscing about the original Everquest, the social factors of making friends and being loyal to your guild often feature strongly. But it isn't obvious how you could get this strong social cohesion after you removed all the "bad parts" of EQ1, like forced grouping or the harsh death penalty, if it was the very harshness of these features that make players need each other and therefore stick together.

World of Warcraft has a very different underlying philosophy, which is fundamentally opposed to "The Vision". WoW is based on universal accessibility, guiding players towards the content, and fast progress. When I played Everquest it was said that the average player needed 2,000 hours to reach the level cap, in WoW today the number is more like 200. You can't simply take the "best features" from WoW and EQ1, mix them together, and get a good game. You need to decide on what kind of a game you really want to make, and dismiss features even from very popular games that don't fit with that underlying philosophy. Every game design decision has to fit with the basic design concept, whether "this worked well in WoW" isn't at all relevant if your concept is not the same as WoW's.

I do think that a good MMORPG could be made recycling "The Vision", and creating a game in which players depend more strongly on each other, and form stronger bonds. But you could only make that game by incorporating features which the average World of Warcraft player would consider being too harsh and unfriendly. And you would get all the lone wolves howling complaints about lack of soloability. You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs.
Comments:
"If playing in a group would be beneficial enough to make finding a group worth your while, but not so overwhelminingly better that people felt they couldn't solo any more, maybe we could make nearly everybody happy on that point."

You know Tobold, I am currently in FFXIV Beta and their current changes to GuildLeve system (complex dailies) have done just what you described. You literally get 10x exp when you group up with others to do said Leves, but soloing is always a possibility although much more boring.

Well, do people group? No, they don't. It's quite sad to be honest.

I don't know what causes it (I have some theories), but if this is what MMORPG genre has come to then my time has ended. If you can't make players group even with the massive incentives the game has currently, how can you ever do that (without forcing them)?

I won't pass judgment yet because I think the system needs few tweaks to work as it should, but so far it's quite a sad sight.
 
I'm not sure I was suggesting anything in EQ was necessarily good or bad in my post. I wanted to look at what SOE thought they needed to change for EQ2, to examine what they might have felt were the lessons learned from EQ and how they didn't always translate into winning features.

Left unsaid in my post, since I didn't want it to become a WoW vs. EQ2 pissing match, is the corresponding list of the lessons Blizzard learned from those same features in EQ. Those seem to line up somewhat with the features (lessons learned) list for EQ Next. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

As for the original "Vision" for EQ, that was lifted directly from Sojourn/TorilMUD, where the devs spent a lot of time trying to make the players play the game the way it was supposed to be played. Fine for a free to play MUD, not so good, at least economically, for a game that is expected to make money. The amazing thing is that EQ got over half a million people to buy into that vision at its peak. But then, there were not a lot of virtual world MMORPG alternatives.
 
So what if notorious lone wolfs complain? Even WoW isn't universally popular with every type of gamer. Excluding some groups from the game via extreme features those guys don't like is good, it creates varied gaming experiences instead of the n-th WoW-clone.
I only would like for such a game of forced grouping to not require too much time. Forced grouping is fine, but only if the game allows me to stay away for a day or too when I can't group because I only have short timeframes. I'll simply play some other game that time.
 
It's funny that you quote Keen on "what he wants," because I've never met someone who continually changes and clearly doesn't know what he wants like Keen. I think I could write a Java program that automatically generates random opinions to mimic Keen. It would look something like this:

6 months from launch:
"So I've seen some things from [Game X], it looks interesting."

3 months from launch:
"I'm really starting to get excited about [Game X] because of [completely random list of reasons to like a game, 1/3 of which don't make sense]."

2 months from launch:
"OMG! I just found out about [ridiculously specific flaw] in [Game X]! If they release it like that I'm not playing it!!!"

1 month from launch:
"So, remember [ridiculously specific flaw]? Well, either I misinterpreted it in the first place, have forgiven it, or randomly forgotten about it. And now I'm back to being super excited about the game!"

Launch:
"OMG, [Game X] is so awesome. [random list of reasons, half of which are reasons NOT to like a game for most people]"

1 month after launch:
"So I still like playing, but here's a few things I think I'd change. [list consisting of half flaws, half random things most people wouldn't think to change]"

2 months after launch:
"I'm quitting [Game X]. I just can't take all the [a few items from previous list]. Here is my game summary. [What follows is actually some of the most insightful commentary on a given online game]

3 months after launch:
"I've been thinking about what I really want in a game, and [Game X] made me realize what I really want is [opposite of Game X]."
 
Samus, that was funny. It's also true.

People don't know what they want. They should just keep quiet and play the damn game instead of making lists.

What you think you enjoy and what you actually enjoy are two different things.
 
While I do agree that Keen is a prime example of the whole overexcited hype to frustration public relations lifecycle of a game, that doesn't mean that he can't make some valid points.

And while it is easy to make fun of Keen, his stance towards a game is often not all that far from that of the general public. If on release a million people buy WAR and a month later two thirds of them quit, there apparently are quite a lot of Keens out there, and you can't just ignore them. You'll also have to ask in how far the hype and frustration is caused by overexcited youngsters, and how much of it is caused by game companies being strong on promises and weak on delivery.
 
Very nice post! You make a point I'm making for a long time by know: You need to know what you want before you make that MMO. Sounds trivial, but clearly isn't.

Take those levels of WoW. Are they supposed to be a tutorial? 80 were a little too much for that. (And ineffective at it, too).
Are they supposed to be fun? Hardly - otherwise Blizzard wouldn't make leveling faster and faster and faster.

Now to EQ: You should know how the game you create is supposed to be played and then encourage players to play it that way.

20 minutes downtime is a little bit too much for my opinion, but a minute or two from time to time is nice (classic WoW had this, when the tank waited for the mana users to drink mana up to full, which was needed at the next mob- group.).

If you want players to be able to play in short chunks, you need to have some content for that. E.g. rep grinding, (herb) farming, questing, DungeonFinder-like super-easy group content, WotLK-like BGs, etc.

If you also want to allow players to experience epic content, you should also provide content that takes a lot of time, because half an hour will never feel epic: No matter how great your game designers are!

Epic content are long BGs (complementing short ones), long dungeons (complementing short ones), long raids (complementing short ones), etc etc etc.

When it comes to social interaction you need to keep the one DungeonFinder lesson in mind: An automatic, soulless mechanism that organizes groups cross-server might allow players to see some content - especially if they have only little time. But it will also increase anonymity and decrease social interaction.

The most social interaction there is in life is organization of other people. Networking. That's also true for MMOs.

For me EQ doesn't stand for hard content or forced grouping, btw. For me EQ still had the vision of a consistent virtual world full of epic adventures, instead of a collection of instant-action, instant-gratificarion games (instances) that WoW has become.

Closing with a few remarks about Cataclysm (the near-future of MMOs):
Blizzard understood some of these lessons: Healers will once again be able to run oom. Rated BGs need to be organised by people, not a soulless mechanism. Players will need to find a dungeon before they can use the DF to access it.

After years of venturing in the wrong direction (from my PoV), the sudden stagnation of subscriber numbers with WotLK has shown Blizzard that accessability and easy(est) content are not the ultimate weapons in the MMORPG-competition. Perhaps SOE also learnt a thing or two.
 
Let me boil down The Vision© for you: focus on the core PC RPG audience. Vanguard did the same thing, but such a concept isn't financially viable anymore. If you want to extend The Vision©, it was the most immersive game i've ever played, especially in the very early stages of EQ, at least until the Luclin expansion. The irony is, every detail that made EQ so immersive, is considered bad design today and even i agree to that. I do not want to organize tracking schedules for open world bosses in the middle of the night anymore. I can not raid until 3am anymore, just cause if you don't, the bosses are farmed by some other guild on the server. This was fun 10 years ago, when my of the community back then consisted of young adults with lots of time and no commitments, but this was an anomoly. A perfect storm, a random occurrence, something that won't happen again anytime soon. You may have such an audience today, but no single product can funnel them into a server like EQ did.

If you look at how all genres are being simplified - and by that i mean features getting cut that made them popular in the first place for a one niche audience - The Vision© is dead forever. The Vision© will be reborn, when the audience is ready for it again and isn't dominated by spoiled casuals that want to be spoonfed with shiny purples - i am one of those now. I earned it in many 8 hour spawns of EQ. I don't want those again, but damn - those experiences are invaluable to rate current MMOs. I really do not want to miss The Vision© experience.
 
Good post and some good comments too.

I played Everquest from late 1999 onwards (I'm still playing it) and I often don't recognise the early game that people describe as being the same one I played. Take soloing, for example. I was playing maybe 40 hours a week back then and I didn't really even begin to join groups until a couple of months after the Kunark expansion.

I found EQ to be an extremely solo-friendly game from the day I installed it and have done ever since. I'd been playing for about three years before I was grouping more than I was soloing.

Downtime back then was something I saw as a positive, not a negative. Nowadays, in our non-stop, never rest MMOs, I frequently replicate the old EQ downtime by tabbing out after a few fights and web browsing. When soloing in EQ I used to play with a book beside me and read a few pages between fights, and in groups, as everyone else, I chatted to my groupmates. I prefer that by a country mile to non-stop combat or questing.

I think coldheat.de is on the money in that Verant/SoE saw the existing RPG audience (albeit through a MUD filter) as their target audience. I also think most of today's MMO "veterans" still reside solidly in that core demographic, which is, sadlty for us, no longer the target for large gaming companies.

It's a decent-sized niche, though, and Vanguard was perfectly pitched to address it. If VG had launched no buggier than the average MMO and playable on the average mid-range gaming computer I'm pretty sure it would be sitting there now with a couple of expansions under its belt and 150-200k subscribers. There's still room for someone else to do it right.

Oh, and in reference to Pacifista's NDA-breaking comments on FFXIV, if those xp rates stay in at launch everyone's going to be max level on all their jobs in about a week! I think it could just be accelerated for testing purposes - at least I hope so. I do very much agree that FFXIV is extremely relevant to this discussion, though, as we are all going to see in just over a month's time.
 
Oops! Apologies to Pacifista!

I missed the bit in the current iteration of the FFXIV beta where you can sign an agreement that allows you to talk about the beta. Kind of the NDA being down while it's still up...
 
I do not want to organize tracking schedules for open world bosses in the middle of the night anymore.

One thing here: You can have a non-instanced world and 'dungeons' without schedules and queues.

You just need to make the world large enough. Add a bit procedurally created content and reduce those teleports to a bare minimum.
 
I sort of feel that in some way, MMORPGs are dead.

The fact of the matter is that what made MMORPGs MMO was that they were bad. Trying to design a good MMORPG and you end up slowly but surely killing the MMO part.

It's just like you said: What made those oldschool games so great was that they sucked. To get that experience you had to play games that were poorly designed in many respects. There wasn't an industry at all, there were just specific games, so you didn't have any choice at all. Taking away choice is what let them work.

Now that the genre is more developed and there is more competition to make it more fun, those same elements that kicked it off will never be the same. They will be there, but not to the same degree.

And I hate to say this, because I almost universally hate the OTHER people who say it, but it was WoW that killed the MMORPG, long live WoW. I say that as someone who loves WoW and has great fun playing it too.

MMORPGs will still keep coming out, but they never have that same level of social interaction because it is untenable in the long run. I'm not saying all this as doom and gloom though, games will still be fun.

The only people that are on the losing-side are people like Keen who are nostalgia chasers, who relish that feeling they had and honestly think someone will be able to recreate it, without realizing it is gone and you should cherish the memories, but it isn't coming back. They are doomed to continue the hype-letdown cycle because they can't move on. It's a bad relationship that people try valiantly yet ignorantly to rekindle when there is nothing left.
 
And I hate to say this, because I almost universally hate the OTHER people who say it, but it was WoW that killed the MMORPG, long live WoW. I say that as someone who loves WoW and has great fun playing it too.

I don't think WoW "killed" The Vision type of MMORPG, but it gave people an alternative to it, and it appears that many people prefer that easier alternative. I think that is okay. And I don't even think that a new MMORPG based on The Vision would necessarily be much less successful than the original Everquest.

WoW did *not* "steal" the subscribers from previous games, it got a whole new and different crowd to play this new sort of accessible MMORPG, and most people of that new crowd were never even likely to play those harsh old school games. Thus the existence of WoW changes nothing in the viability of a new game based on The Vision.
 
It sounds like the Vision is for raids only. PVP and trade people would avoid that type of game. Isn't the point of an MMO diversity? -- a virtual world where different people can do different things? I don't do forced grouping in real life and would not prefer to do it in a virtual world either. Even hard core raiders won't group if the rewards are not worth their time.

A good game is a blanace of risk-reward. Since people have different risk thresholds and different ideas of what they want as a reward, an MMO needs to create space for all of them.
 
I'd agree with Samus, but I'd take the point slightly further because recently he's started taking the fairly easy (and wrong) approach of bashing WoW and it's community but at the same time he goes back to WoW for a polished, fun gaming experience experience . It simply boggles the mind that he rips into WoW and its players and then immediately states that he wants some archaic game design that is only good in his memory. Although I think the all time highlight for me was, after initially supporting RealID, after people found out his details the post was edited to something along the lines of "oh well, that many people against it can't be wrong." If there was ever a manifestation of the MMO community in general, it's Keen.
 
I don't think WoW "killed" The Vision type of MMORPG, but it gave people an alternative to it, and it appears that many people prefer that easier alternative. I think that is okay. And I don't even think that a new MMORPG based on The Vision would necessarily be much less successful than the original Everquest.

But that's what I mean by killed it. WoW killed the vision by offering a more enjoyable alternative. In the same way hamburgers killed eating insects. I don't mean killed as in it can't exist at all, just that it will never be a mainstream major player type game again. Having alternatives just makes that impossible.
 
Although many EQ Original Flavor fans attribute the social success of the game to mechanics that forced long-term grouping through downtime, the truth of the matter is that the audience for MMOGs was much smaller then. Not only that, but the members of that audience tended to be cut of similar cloth--geeks, primarily male, decent computers, fast internet connections, young, bright. Nowadays the target audience is much larger and encompasses a much wider area of the bell curve.

No matter how punishing the mechanics, that original EQ audience will never return.
 
>...a game in which players depend more strongly on each other, and form stronger bonds. But you could only make that game by incorporating features which the average World of Warcraft player would consider being too harsh and unfriendly. And you would get all the lone wolves howling complaints about lack of soloability.

You're right, it's called EVE.
 
I loved Everquest. I mean.... I LOVED Everquest. I loved World of Warcraft, too. I left EQ for WoW. But I never LOVED World of Warcraft. Let's put it this way, I have probably had a couple of dozen very lucid dreams that I was in Everquest and Everquest was real. I am not sure I have ever done that with WoW. My EQ character was me.
There is a real reason why EQ had this effect on me. EQ is much more of a sandbox type of game than Wow, and like you mentioned, the world is harsher and you want to group to make progress. I absolutely hated the naked corpse retrievals, the last minute downtime, the horrible GMs who were GMs so they could have God status, and the bugginess of the game in general. I also love the seamless world in WoW that Sony for some reason was unable to implement in EQ2. So I moved on to Wow. But there were absolutely magical things about EQ that WoW does not have and if they put the same sort of enthusaiasm into toppling WoW as Blizzard put into toppling EQ/EQ2, I think the new Everquest could be the most popular MMO. But if they half-ass it like they did with Vanguard, it will be another minor success. I want to upgrade to a new MMO so I hope they get it done.
 
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