Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Losing is back

Something interesting is happening in the gaming culture: The concept of losing a game against the computer is back, and many people enjoy it. Not just in indie games like FTL, but also in remakes of old school games like XCOM. Ionomonkey is trying XCOM on "classic" (aka hard) difficulty with the ironman option (no reloads), and he is on game 19, having lost 18 games already.

Modern MMORPGs tend to not have a loss condition. There are even PvP rules in many games where "losing" is defined as getting less points than the "winning" team, but both sides being better off after the fight than before. I have sometimes amused myself in games like World of Warcraft with getting a character to somewhere level-inappropriate by dying my way through a zone. That dates back to the WoW beta, where I once walked a level 10 undead into the dwarven starter zone, to the utter surprise of many people there. During WotLK I had a low-level character fishing in Northrend. In Star Wars Galaxies I used to suicide as a form of cheap teleport back to town.

Unfortunately you can't just remove "losing" from games, you can only change the definition of what people consider to be losing. When you can only progress in a MMORPG, never lose xp or levels, losing tends to be redefined as "not advancing fast enough any more". With a variable definition of what fast enough is. People stop playing games not because they lost, but because progress has slowed down or come to a stand-still. I'm not level 90 yet in Mists of Pandaria, but I already hear people complaining about how they can't just progress through dungeons any more, but are "forced" to do daily reputation quests. Blizzard already nerfed the reputation system because of those complaints. But in fact you can't lose a daily quest, you can only get bored of them before having done enough to reach a certain reputation and reward.

With the next World of Warcraft expansion 2 years away, that poses an impossible problem to developers. They simply cannot offer fast progress over 2 years, because they couldn't possible create enough new content which would become accessible with each step of progress. Whether it is daily quests or raiding, the endgame by definition is one of repeating the same content many times, which sooner or later feels like "grinding" and ultimately like "losing".

But if losing is back in single-player games, maybe it can be brought back into MMORPGs as well. In the original Everquest you could lose levels and equipment. In a game that has that, slow progress looks comparatively attractive. I don't think that is something that can be introduced into a game like WoW (what happens if you lose a level and can't wear your gear any more?), but it might be a good concept for a future MMORPG. Leveling up could become meaningful again if it wasn't something that happened automatically with no way of regressing. Communities would strengthen, because external danger drives people together. Grouping with random strangers wouldn't be the default mode any more, because it would be safer to play with people you know. Concepts like a "leveling guild" would stop being void of meaning.

I don't think there is room in a MMORPG for a "game over - you lost" screen. But a harsher leveling experience, with the possibility to lose xp, levels, and equipment is something I can very well imagine. If XCOM can still work today, why not such concepts from previous generations of MMORPGs?

Making game where dying slows/reverses leveling requires the people to enjoy/want to spend their time on leveling. But this can not be fun because there can not be enough quests in such a game - it can be only grind of either repeatable quests or classical mob killing grind. Without sense of progress (or the carrot of better stuff to do when you are done with levelling) there is little to look forward to and the whole exercise is pointless.

Sandbox makes it easier for developers as they do not have to create as much content but most of such games also contain PvP (eg. upcoming Darkfall: Unholy Wars) and conflict is what Tobold despises and avoids. Hard to say whether purely PvE sandbox can be made, but making enough sand for such game to be fun would IMO even exceed themepark MMos.
"If XCOM can still work today, why not such concepts from previous generations of MMORPGs?"

Because a typical player of the previous generation of MMORPGs was totally hardcore compared to today's typical player. MMOs back there were niche games, and this concept works only with niche gamers who like stuff like that. No chance this would work with the typical MMO player today.

But I can understand that. For many people, gaming is a form of entertainment, and not the most important one. It competes for free time with other forms like reading books or playing tennis. What do I lose when I read a book? When I lose a tennis match, do I lose my tennis shoe? Losing our stuff in entertainment is not really common. (Okay you can waste your time reading a bad book or break your tennis racket.)

Thanks goodness for market economy, a place for different types of games.
I suspect that such a game could work in an MMO, but that it would end up being a niche game at best. Too many players are used to the current MMO environment to change their habits, in spite of their complaints. The reason why I say this is that despite the complaints about WoW, when a new expac drops people come back when Papa Blizz whistles. If people were really tired of the WoW-go-round, they'd stay away. But they don't.

I suppose that's why I raise an eyebrow at the complainers that I see online, because they never truly vote with their money.

Different games, different gameplay, different audiences. A roguelike MMORPG is an interesting idea, but it would have to be diluted, i.e. failing a dungeon would mean zero progress rather than perma-death. You can't really go the whole roguelike ironman route in a team game. And even in roguelikes, everyone hates serious level drain almost worse than death.

I think that the recent resurgence in roguelikes is another symptom (or cause) of a more mature gaming attitude to losing. But I suspect MMORPGs will be the last genre to be affected by it.
You provided the answer yourself - the raider crowd demanded that reputations be nerfed to make it easier to gear for raids. For true humor read the epic EU forum thread where people where screaming that BC was the best expansion because you had to clear all those gates. As with most things, people like the idea of time-consuming, grindy content but not the actual implementation.
The major problem is designing a system where "losing" does not end being identical to "rerun the same content once more". If you hate running heroics for the n-th time, will you really like re-leveling your character for then n-th time?

And game designers seem to have a problem finding a solution to "long-term" content: in WoW they clearly said that they were using dailies to prolong the endgame because they could not come up with a better idea. Permadeath, item or level loss on failure, they also work in the same way: force people to rerun the same content. So you could say that they will not be coming to MMOs because they are already there in another form.
Vanguard thought people would like that too. That's overly simplifying the games issues but very few people moved to that. To put it another way, I remember the situation that you cited directly back in my EQ days where I lost a level and couldn't wear a shiny new weapon I'd just gotten. I was so frustrated I stopped playing for a week. MMO's are a game. A game should be relaxing, sure there should be some challenge but I don't think I (or gamers in general)should have a love/hate relationship with my game. However, I also think there's room (even in the MMO genre) for all kinds of games that address different desires. Heck vanguard is still going, Darkfall, eve, right on down to WoW and GW2 with they're very player accessible content.
but most of such games also contain PvP (eg. upcoming Darkfall: Unholy Wars) and conflict is what Tobold despises and avoids

I don't think it is the conflict or the losing which is despised. I do think it has more to do with a sense of fairness. Unfortunately sandbox PvP is almost exclusively unfair, with a prepared attacker preying on a weaker and unprepared victim.

You can see that demand for fairness also when people discuss PvE games like XCOM. They are okay if they feel they made a bad move and died from it. They start screaming if they die to a bug.
Losing can as you say be many things. Quests could have long cooldowns, and if you failed it by some criteria, you'd have to turn your attention elsewhere. Dying could mean being locked out of an entire zone for a period of time. Consequences, without providing the sense that you're actually moving backwards.

In regards to X-Com, it is engaging me in a whole different way than any MMORPG has ever done.
I don't really think losing would work in WoW. It certainly didn't work at the beginning of Cataclysm. The raiders loved it, lots of other people hated it.

Personally I love when a game gives you the flexibility to faceroll your content, or up the challenge. Its one of the things I liked about Tera. You could kill your 10 foozles. Or grab a BAM, and see how far you could take it.

In Mists, I'm enjoying the slightly enlarged mob health pools. Killing one thing isn't hard. Just takes longer than I remember in previous expansions. Plus they have more abilities. So taking on 2 or 3 at a time usually requires a few more buttons than 1-1-1-2-3. And occasionally I do die (usually when another one joins in)
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In Mists, I'm enjoying the slightly enlarged mob health pools. Killing one thing isn't hard. Just takes longer than I remember in previous expansions. Plus they have more abilities. So taking on 2 or 3 at a time usually requires a few more buttons than 1-1-1-2-3.

I'm finding myself using CCs and cooldowns more out doing the dailies. It's refreshing.
Tobold: The "fairness" is a mirage, especially in MMOs. You always have different level, different gear, different player skill, different team skill. Arenas based on ELO are not what MMO is about.

Darkfall is based on that fact- that there is never a fair fight in MMO. They do not try to force it in some kind of "arena" minigame. Instead you can choose the level of risk compared to expected reward. Want to have lower risk? Stay close to allies, travel in groups, wear lower tier equipment that reduces your efficiency by 5% but price is 1/10 of higher tier, keep out scouts, bank often. The fights may not be fair, but they are always different, often unexpected, and in the end you will always bring back something from them, be it victory, experience or at least "levels" from skillups which can never be removed from you. And if you lose something? Compare it to repair costs on gear. Amount of wealth I have owned was rarely decreasing, most of time only increasing throughout.

The whole thing of "lack of fairness" is simply a different viewpoint on things. I think I understand your view but I am not sure you understand this one. You seem to think that people playing such games are retards. Well, there are many that are, but there are many who are great guys. And as you have written in your article, the best think about these games is the friendship within your group/guild due to literally standing against everyone else. Maybe this could be done in PvE game but I highly doubt it.
Well, part of the problem to me is that my first run through of X-Com took me two days to finish. That's two days with sleeping and doing other things (but playing pretty heavily), not 48 hours of playtime. Which is maybe enough time to get to level 20 or 30 in WoW if you know what you are doing. The scale of the games are totally different.

And then of course there's the basic fairness issue. In X-Com, you can lose, but you can also win. In an MMO, you can't win. It never ends. If you can't win, then why can you lose?
I'll probably get slapped with a wet fish for saying this but losing has always been there in Eve.

I wonder though if losing is a universal value or a generational value. Those of us in our 40s were brought up on Chess, Monopoly and so on where there are losers. To a generation brought up on Free Realms will losing have appeal?

It comes back in some ways to the educationalists' debate over competition and cooperation. There was a strong movement in schools in the UK (and I assume elsewhere) in the 60s and 70s to remove competition in education. Less exams, more coursework, collaborative exercises, less emphasis on competitive sports. It's now seen more or less as a failed experiment, an attempt to make people into something we're not (social, cooperative and uncompetitive).

It's possible that we're about to witness a similar collapse of a massive social experiment in the realm of gaming.
I bought Mists and took holiday for the release, but haven't actually played it for more than an evening yet - because I'm busy playing a game in which losing is factor.

My guild was formed in Ultima Online and moved over to WoW when that launched. Now most of use are on a freeshard which accurately pinpoints the time we had the most fun in UO:
Here's the thing: if I lose a day's worth of progress in my MMO because I lost a fight, I'll be asking myself this question: which would be more fun? Doing that day's work over, or reading a book, catching up on NetFlix, going outside and talking a walk, etc.

If the MMO can't make a convincing case that doing that day's work over would be more fun, they are in trouble. My MMO needs to be a game, not a job.
Compare death penalties with bungee jumping.

If you wanted it to be a great experience, you would be disappointed to find out that they put you in a simulator instead of allowing you to jump from a real bridge.

However, if you wanted to bungee jump for 3 minutes just before your evening meal, you were happy to find out that it's not a real bridge.

In other words: Risk increases felt reward only if you consider the experience worth it. Distractions, what most of today's MMOs are designed to be, aren't worth a lot to most people.
Although I think a lot of MMOs would lose their audience if they penalized them with significant losses, I'd be impressed with any MMO that included that as an option (either on a server or otherwise designated region for players who wanted to do a hardcore mode and accepted the risks). I often think about how I'd love to try a hardcore permadeath option, but the truth is I lack to time and energy to dedicate to such an endeavor, and most MMOs are fundamentally built around a different style of play. DDO has/had a hardcore crowd for a while that played voluntary permadeath in one sounds cull until the first lag death.
Have you heard about Realm of Mad God? It was fairly successful. Bullet Hell MMO with permadeath.
to quote one of my favorite comedians.

"you cannot be bad at reading a book. or watching a TV show. but you can be bad at playing video game and the game will punish you for it, by denying you access."

it takes a special kind of mindset, to enjoy being punished by your entertainment of choice and not a lot of people had it even back in the good old days. otherwise, cheat codes wouldn't be as popular, hell they used to sell book guides! with cheat codes! (now you can get them for free of the internet) wanting convenience and ease is NOT a new phenomenon of this generation of gamers. I remember using god mode in original Wolfenstein.

the reason single player games can do this, is because punishment mode is not the only mode they offer, so people who like being punished and start over? can do so. while people who just want to play through the game? can do so as well. you cannot do that in an non-niche non-tiny mmo, not really, simply because you cannot have these people playing together and keep the game enjoyable for all. not to this extent.

People keep tying these interesting ideas to open PVP, and I'm simply not having it.

I vote with my wallet, like everyone I know. Which is why Darkfall is niche, why EVE can't beat SWTOR numbers despite being a bigger 'success', why games like Mortal Online or Earthrise never got the sales cash injection they were counting on to sustain development.

The War Z is coming out and I couldn't spend more than a few minutes browsing the forums without being completely disgusted by the overwhelming amount of PVP-focused attitudes, eager and frothing at the mouth to find/discuss ways to grief. The few folks asking for PVE servers have been told to go home... and you know what? They will. Along with their wallets.

I quite like the idea of a PVE server. If I wanted open PVP, I'd go play DayZ. But I don't. Seems like a real waste for the two games to exist, doing the same things, just each better than the other in certain aspects.

Two games competing for the same market, when you could have two games competing for different markets... This makes sense, right?

I don't think they even realize. It's kinda like the Blizzard comments about how only 50% of players of Starcraft 2 actually go online. One of the developers noted that they need to try and do things to make it easier or more appealing for those players to get in to the multiplayer.

That's a clear sign of someone who doesn't get it.

What do EVE, Darkfall, UO PVP, and all the others like them have in common? If you want to succeed, you have to group up with others and/or pick dramatically weaker targets. The level of challenge you face is varied by how closely you play with backup, in your herd.

How is this different to single-player? You DON'T have to group up to succeed, and you can scale your difficulty such that you get a choice in the level of challenge you face.

Therein lies the difference. The social metagame is a game many of us do not want to play. We want to play by ourselves or with close family/friends who may or may not be available at the same times as us, but the shared experience gives us something to talk about.
@Nils: risk/reward is a great point, but I would define "risk" in a game as compelling mechanics that are fun and challenging.

Tobold has touched on how do you make a game the right challenge for everyone...this is an area that single player games are at an incredible advantage over mmorpgs.

I love XCOM not only because the gameplay is compelling but because it gives me complete control over the experience. I have 2 games going: A classic ironman when I have a couple hours, and a progression normal easymode for when I have 30 minutes.

The reason I'm not playing mmorpg's anymore is that none of them offer a compelling pve experience I can enjoy between work and dinner. Rift has done the best with their IA's but they still have the same tired mechanics we have all grown weary of.

FFA PvP games will always be niche, although I believe that making MMOs to fill the gaps is currently better business model for smaller developers than trying to make yet another WoW clone. They will never get WoW numbers but hopefully the market can sustain few of them.

Forums of games whose mechanics allow "griefing" are always full of retards/social rejects. Chest beating, stupidity, trolling, internet courage. In real game these are absolute minority and you do not have to interact with these. I was "griefed" only once in 2 years of playing such a game, yet I was helped by random strangers multiple times when I was a newbie.

The argument with single player and grouping being necessary is a good one. The game is simply niche, for those who like this, or for those who can survive in challenging surroundings by themselves. Like those who ironman XCOM.

I think the biggest positive of these games is the motivation of playing the game. There is a lot of people who have played MMOs and have little incentive to play the next big one as they are all the same. Why to go to WvW in GW2 when it does not matter if your side wins or loses? Why to get zerged there? Why to grind battlegrounds full of random idiots? Why to grind mobs or do yet another escort quest to get levels which only lead you to the same mobs with more HP? Running the threadmill is what it is. It was fun first time, but it loses appeal next time. This is why people QQ whenever new MMO gets out.

For me the danger everywhere and consequences you reap for your actions, together with the possibility to influence the world meaningfully (if you conquer a town you can live in it, it is yours) gives me motivation to log on and do something. Also, because there are no hard coded goals, and thus when someone "wins" the "loser" does not really have to consider it as his real loss, you do not have to be the top 1% to have fun in such a game. Most of people who played such a game have problems playing other MMOs because they lack the motivation and the consequences.

The low numbers of these "hardcore" games are logical, yet IMO they are far from the maximum potential. There is IMO a lot of people who would enjoy playing them but 1) do not know about them (advertising niche product efficiently is very very hard) 2) the games have lower quality and little polish compared to the biggest titles (low budget etc) 3) FFA PvP sounds scary for those who never tried it 4) general negative vibe around them - be it media (Tobold :) ) or forums (full of retards). Over the time, if there are decent games (like DF:UW hopefully will be) this can get better but still, niche is niche and will be niche.
"Those of us in our 40s were brought up on Chess, Monopoly and so on where there are losers. "

Actually some of us were brought up with pen and paper RPGs which are collaborative so there probably aren't losers.
There certainly were losers, Spinks. As people came to grips with AD&D and the others there were two main styles of GMing: Monty Haul and Killer DM. The poster module for the latter was a dungeon called Tomb of Horrors which was filled with deadly traps, many of which had no saving throw. I remember one tunnel that was not actually a tunnel but a Black Hole, if you went down it you no save disintegrated.

All pen and paper RPGs at that time had permadeath. Some like Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu made a virtue of character destruction - it was impossible to survive long term.
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