Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, January 05, 2011
How different is different?

Rift announced a release date for the first week of March, and from what I've seen in the third beta event, this might actually be a game that is ready for release. At the very least "more ready" than the last half a dozen MMORPGs that were released. Nevertheless that doesn't save Rift from controversy. Pete from Dragonchasers isn't happy with some of the early reviews of Rift, especially not the one from Massively saying that after just one hour "it was more than enough for me to realize I’ve played this game about a hundred times over the last few years".

The fundamental problem of that controversy is that Pete and the Massively guy aren't actually talking about the same thing. Pete is perfectly right in saying that Rift has a number of unique features, most prominently the "rifts" after which the game is named, but also the soul system, and that in one hour you can't possibly have fully explored all these features. But Massively is also right in as far as one hour if totally sufficient to tell you what type of game Rift is. Imagine somebody let you play a new game you never heard about for one hour: Maybe you can't fully judge that game after one hour, but you most certainly will be able to say whether it is a first person shooter, a jump-and-run platformer, or a turn-based strategy game. And if it happens to be of a genre you personally don't like, you'll be able to say that too.

Rift is what I'd call a "quest-based MMORPG". Massively calls it "on rails quest grinder", others would call it a "theme park MMORPG", cynics would call it a "WoW clone". All these terms are loaded to some extent. But whatever term you use, there is absolutely no doubt that Rift is the same type of game as World of Warcraft, as Warhammer Online, as Lord of the Rings Online, and as dozens of other games. The controls are the same, the basic gameplay of doing quests to kill ten foozles is the same, even the combat system of targeting and using hotkeys for various special attacks is the same. The difference lies in the details: The Rift souls system is different from the WoW talent system in the details, the Rift "rifts" system is different from the WAR public quests system in the details, etc.

What is actually surprising here is that some people are complaining about Rift being of the same type or genre of game than other MMORPGs. It is like complaining that the latest Call of Duty game is yet another shooter with similar gameplay, controls, and combat like other shooters, just with different locations and some minor variations of features. Or complaining that Mafia II resembles Grand Theft Auto. I'm sure the experts can discuss for hours the similarities and differences between Blur and Need for Speed, or between Dragon Age and Mass Effect. But outside of MMORPG reviews you rarely find anyone complaining that a certain game is of a certain genre, and not something completely different.

Personally I love turn-based strategy games. Now if I review a new real-time strategy game and spend most of the review bitching about the fact that the game isn't turn-based, the review will end up being pretty useless. And for Rift reviews that is exactly the same: A review that is only complaining about the fact that Rift is part of the most popular and most widespread type among MMORPGs, whatever you want to call that sub-genre, is pretty useless. Yeah, Rift is not a sandbox MMORPG, get over it. Rift is also not a first person shooter, not jump-and-run platformer, not a turn-based strategy game, and not a racing game. But nobody ever claimed Rift was anything but a quest-based MMORPG, so there is really no reason to whine that it isn't something else.

To review Rift, one has to accept the fact that it is of this quest-based MMORPG genre, and compare it to other games of the same genre. What does Rift do well, or even better than other games of the same type? What does it do not as good? What innovations does it bring to the quest-based MMORPG genre, and are these new things actually fun?

If, like the guy from Massively, you hate quest-based MMORPGs, Rift obviously isn't for you. But people like that should maybe spend their time reviewing sandbox MMORPGs, if that is the genre they prefer. There are some interesting questions to answer about sandbox MMORPGs, like why they are so extremely unpopular, and why in the few games with a "sandbox MMORPG" label that have more than a handful of players, over 80% of those players are actually doing quest-based MMORPG-like content instead of sandbox content. But only complaining about yet another MMORPG being quest-based instead of sandbox isn't actually helping in any way. Why aren't all these sandbox MMORPG fans reviewing Mortal Online instead of Rift?
I don’t think MMORPGs can be compared in the same way that other genres can. With other genres, minor changes can definitely make a difference, but MMORPGs require hundreds of hours of commitment as well as (often times) a paid subscription or some sort of cash shop. MMORPGs are so broad that the little gimmicks they throw in there to indirectly affect gameplay aren’t enough. In an FPS you can finish the story fairly quickly, maybe play a little multiplayer, and move on. You can’t do that as easily with an MMORPG, most people play only one at a time, so it’s perfectly valid that they’re compared to each other more than other genres.

I didn’t play much of the beta, but I did get the same impression most others are giving: It’s a well polished theme park game, obviously and unashamedly inspired by WoW and the gang. The nerve of producers who jump on the bandwagon is one thing (I mean, how much can you trust a game to excel when it was designed by replicating a competing and far more successful product?) but really where it matters is how it directly compares to WoW as the closest, most popular game in its class. I currently see very little reason for a newcomer to chose Rift over WoW unless the Rift battles, one of the few things to set it apart, become a major focal point. I doubt, though could be wrong, that there’s a significant number of people who would subscribe purely for the story and lore, which leaves WoW vets who may want more of the same gameplay with less of the Warcraft.

I’m fine with Rift taking some flak for being similar, because MMORPGs don’t play the same way for most people that other genres do, and small gimmicks aren’t enough to justify the similarities as well as the money and commitment.

Also, there (sadly) hasn’t been a quality sandbox game in a very long time, even if games like Mortal Online had the funds, they often skew their games way too far in one direction in order to monopolize the niche.
I agree with your premise, but as Hobonicus points out, the MMORPG genre is slightly trickier to pin down than others. Another point though that I think is relevant is how these new games market themselves. Now I cannot comment on Rift itself as I haven't been following this gam closely, but the fact remains that so many new MMORPG's market themselves as the next "God's gift to gamers that will change the way that gaming is played forever," when in reality they are just another quest-grinding on rails clone, with perhaps a single new idea that sets them apart.
As clearly demonstrated by the first two comments, players demand more innovation from MMORPGs than any other genre.

I think this relates to the time commitment. Players spend hundreds, even thousands of hours in an MMORPG. By the time you are done, you have played the HELL out of that type of game.

By contrast, how many hours do you typically spend playing other types of games? With a few exceptions, nearly every game on my Steam account is between 30 and 50 hours played.

If you had played through 10 straight FPS games which were all basically the same, you'd be screaming for some serious innovation before you'd be willing to play the 11th.
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such a long way to say "STFU"...

of course every person has the right to review what he/she has played no matter if he/she likes the (sub)genre or not.

for me the comment of this reviewer is totally relevant - it warns me that this game is not for me, presenting the reasons i would not like it.
Great post, and I agree. :)

About Rift in general it seems somewhat fresh to me. Yes I recognize most of the features but they are in some cases even improved slightly. And the Rifts and specifically the invasions, well then it's something that I really haven't experienced in any other game as of yet.

Right now I'm curious to see how PvP is implemented, and especially on a PvE server since that's the ruleset I prefer because I don't like to get ganked while questing.
@Hobonicus - "I currently see very little reason for a newcomer to chose Rift over WoW..."

I guess my take is that if I was a newcomer, I would actually consider Rift instead. You see... WOW has years and years of a head start. There's something to be said for starting on the ground floor as everyone else. When I think of WOW (or even Darkfall from the other day), it can be overwhelming to consider how you will ever "catch up" to all of the players who started when the game first came out. So if this style game suits my fancy, and by all appearances RIFT does, why wouldn't I want to jump onboard at the same time everyone else does?
I'm with several commenters already: it's the time commitment and continuity. If I plan to spend 20-40 hours consuming a game and then maybe never seeing it again, sure, make it a lot like the last one. If the developer's business model expects me to play the same game for years, and this one is a lot like the last one, I can keep playing the last one that also expects the same model for years. There is little sunk cost to switching from Diablo to Diablo II to Torchlight to Torchlight II; you beat the game, move on. If you play MMOs for a month or two then move on, "similar but marginally improved" is a great thing. For those two months.
I have to agree with SgtSlayer21 here. If I were a new player I would not start with WoW because I would never be able to catch up.

I can even say that after playing EQ2 for 6 years I wanted to start in a different game and I am going to go with Rift for the exact same reason. In WoW, I would be a noob amongst the jaded players. In Rift we will all be noobs.
I couldn't agree more Tobold. Just b/c rift is the same style as WoW, WAR, and LoTR, doesn't mean it's not a great game. After Cataclysm's content gets cleared, I'll be looking forward to another similar style game, as opposed to doing dailies everyday, and biding my time for teh next content xpac.

It's just lazy reviewing by Massively to dump so much on Rift for being similar to WoW. We already knew that, but thanks guys!
@SgtSlayer21 and Ikke,

If you are so worried about catching up to the older players and that's reason enough for you to not want to play the game, how do you think Rift would attract players next year? By then, other players who are like you would be avoiding Rift too because they couldn't catch up to you guys.

I'm not saying that you guys are wrong, but I'm always confused as to why some people put so much importance on starting date and so worried about catching up. I mean, MMORPGs would have level cap, so the older players would hit the cap, and then you can catch up as they can't be anymore ahead than you. And most of the times nowadays, it's not super hard to reach the level cap anyway. Unless it's badly designed like APB where newbies are constantly schooled by veterans to the point that newbies can't advance, it shouldn't be a problem. And if the newbies can't advance by design, well we know what happened to APB for having such idiotic design.

And on the contrary, I actually prefer a late start. Why? Because there's a good chance that games that are just released would still have bits and pieces that needed more polishing. I'd rather just wait for the game to be in happy medium and reasonably polished before jumping in and start spending my time.
Catching up in WoW isn't really an issue long term for most people. You can join half way through any expansion and end up raiding before the next expansion is out. If you're good and committed enough you can get in a good raiding guild, and then on the next expansion you'll be on a par with the best.

If you're not raiding, 'catching up' in competitive terms doesn't really apply. What you culd miss out on, obviously, is 'in-game lore' - nobody joining now will know how Azeroth used to be before the Cataclysm, or be able to chat about quest bugs, or get a Furbolg wand that works outside Ashenvale. But none of these things make you a 'noob' in any normal sense.
Good points though I don't think I would describe EVE as extremely unpopular. Much less popular than WoW and the like but "extremely"? That sounds like your own preference showing a bit.

One of the problems for sandbox games could be that there simply aren't many good examples out there. EVE is pretty close to it. And not everyone is interested in SF. FFXIV might have been going for the fantasy portion of the sandbox but they forgot to put sand in their box.

Sandbox is very hard to do and I think people are not realizing it. Neither those trying to make a new sandbox game nor those that dump on them. The sandbox or playground has to have enough toys, areas and variety to catch the interest of all or at least most of the kids. Creating a dozen different activities that a person can do any time, in any order, at will is hard. Then making the ones that impact others fair, makes it a nightmare.

Making a good sandbox game is not simple a design choice, it is still something being discovered. Not only do we not not how to do it for sure but I don't think the industry fully realizes that it doesn't understand yet how to do it right. WoW happened, everyone copied, iterated and everyone, even WoW, has improved in the last 6 years. The same hasn't happened yet with EVE. EVE happened. ATITD did similar but stayed tiny. FFXIV failed like a supernova. Perpetuum copied and is now a month old. We will see.

Eve isn't limited by being a sandbox game it is limited by being to extreme a pvp game and by being a SF game.
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@almondo: Your style of commenting by writing one-liners insulting the person you don't agree with, instead of actually argueing an opinion, is not welcome on this blog.
I don't think I would describe EVE as extremely unpopular.

I didn't. I reserved the "extremely unpopular" label for *pure* sandbox games like Darkfall and Mortal Online. EVE is covered in the same phrase, just a bit later, by saying that it has a sandbox label, but actually over 80% of its players are doing "quests" in safe empire space. At least that is what CCP says about their own game.
The massively article is a collection of 1st impressions by their people who've spent a little time in the beta. It is NOT a review, and to characterize it as a negative review when only 1 person among many had anything bad to say is to do a giant disservice.

And the guy who didn't like it all that much is a big Darkfall/sandbox afficionado, so of course he's not gonna like a more "themepark" oriented game.

I like Ardwulf's take on it best of what I've read so far.
I think Penny Arcade got to this one first, over four years ago:
If its all fine and dandy that it takes more than an hour to evaluate it, why doesn't the game note that on it's box, or instructions, or adverts, etc?

No, they don't hide that then you go about telling everyone that it takes more than an hour. It can't be both hidden and normal.
Well all the sandbox MMOs are pvp gank pits right now. MO had all the ideas I wanted in a game but absolutely atrocious execution. I expect it will be another year before it is even stable, if ever.

After much thought, I realize MMO fans are impossible to please. They want originality yet punish innovation for "imbalances". They hate wow clones yet expect new products to not venture far from what is comfortable. They are either hardcores or care-bears, never moderates. They want solo-ability yet demand guild halls. They want something new without having to abandon all the effort they put into their previous game. You can't have it all!

The problem is that MMOs appeal to several market demographics that all have different tastes. Guys, the future for MMOs is market fragmentation -- not some new behemoth that will appeal to everyone. Wow is an anomaly; its own centre of gravity. New products will thrive as niche players. We are in the twilight of the golden age of MMOs!
@Tobold: As I've said previously, I don't need to write a thousand words to make a point - it's just a 'comment'. And I still stand by what I said: you picked a single negative sentence out of a generally positive set of impressions and ranted about it - I see no reason or logic whatsoever in that.
@almondo: Well, I guess I should be honored that you aren't reading any other blogs than mine. Otherwise you'd be aware that I didn't "pick" anything from the Massively article, but was commenting on the controversy about that Massively article which spans dozens of blogs.

And if you call my comment a "rant" (quote from me: "But Massively is also right in as far as one hour if totally sufficient to tell you what type of game Rift is."), I wonder what you'd call the blog posts of other people on the subject.
It's Tobold's blog. That is the one reason I love it, he doesn't permit half thought out troll posts. His editing out the stupid comments cultivates a more thoughtful discussion.
Excellent post like always Tobold. I just have a request, please. There's more than just Sandbox and "Quest Grinders" and you should know that better than anyone else. One example is EverQuest it was not a Sandbox MMORPG nor it was a Quest Grinder. It has its own fans and that "genre" is no more and I bet you if a developer trys to make an MMORPG which is not a Quest Grinder nor it is a Sandbox. I call it Content Driven MMORPG where you are free to explore the "content" of the world with minimal hand holding and questing. It is not a sandbox too because there's a lot of PvE content.

I wish you'd talk about such a game model/genre and that's probably the secret reason on why most MMORPG fans (specially old schoolers) are disappointed by new MMORPGs.
I agree with Magson -- it was a collection of first impressions by all of the writers who work for Massively, not a review, and should be characterized accordingly.

I was puzzled by the outraged comments on Massively directed at the writer who played it for an hour and decided it wasn't for him, especially because it was really the only negative comment out of the bunch.

If someone isn't looking for another on-rails/themepark/quest-based/etc. MMO, than playing for 10 hours is not going to make that person like the game. It's not as if the writer in question doesn't play such games (from his writings, I know he plays and enjoys at least two), it's just not what he's looking for in a game, so he didn't play much of it. It wasn't as if he wrote a review or column about, just offered his thoughts when asked.

Honestly, the whole thing seemed kind of silly to me, especially when compared to the glowing coverage Rift has been getting on Massively.
Where did you see rant dude? Tobold just wraps up a trend and puts one very important question on the table: ie. "How different is different?" ...

Big problem the devs are facing now is that WoW managed to substitute the "MMORPG" abreviation with "WoW" :) .. to the extent that if a game has characters+quests+items+dungeons+magic -> that instantly makes it WoW clone. This is as silly .. but that's how it is. Tobold really asks, "Can you be different, without changing the basics for the genre?" Right?
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