Tobold's Blog
Monday, February 17, 2014
Rails and memories

I played a perfectly good new MMORPG in beta this weekend. But after trying 4 classes with 4 races and 4 paths in 2 factions, I was already bored with the game. Like in nearly every other MMORPG released in the last decade, everything was on rails: You get a quest right after character creation, and then its quest, quest, quest, until you reach the next zone, where it all starts over again. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Or presumably ad raideam, which isn't much better.

And it struck me that when I think back on all the MMORPGs I played, that my memories are never about those stories on rails. The things I remember are rather those moments of emergent gameplay, the kindness of strangers, doing stuff you aren't supposed to do at that level, and all that. The canned quest stories are most of the time trite and not very memorable. People remember Mankrik's wife not because of the quest story, but because of the effect it had on Barren's chat.

What I find even worse is that modern MMORPGs appear to be designed to minimize social interaction. Every class is completely independent and needs nobody until the level cap. In fact over the weekend I was sometimes annoyed to see other players, because there were challenges that required you to kill a certain number of monsters within a time limit, and those only worked well if you were alone without other players killing "your" spawns. That independence does funny stuff to class balance: As your ability to level pretty much depends solely on your damage output, a healer or tank these days has the same damage output as a dps class, making the latter somewhat nonsensical.

While the game I played was perfectly crafted and well executed, I believe that like most modern MMORPGs this playing on rails contains the seeds of its own destruction. Even if you add side-activities like crafting, housing, or jumping mini-games to the MMORPG, there are only so many quests a person can do before becoming bored. And it isn't as if there was a huge difference between doing quests in one game or another, there is just a handful of quest types, most of them involving killing X mobs or clicking on Y glowing spots. Even if the game is new, the combat system is somewhat different, and the game looks different, you find yourself in the same old sequence of running around and killing mobs day after day after day. The large majority of players will be bored with any of the new games that work like that after 3 months. And then the shrinkage of player numbers creates a negative network effect and economic problems. A while later the game goes Free2Play, then you hear of layoffs a few years later, and ultimately the game closes down.

While I learned not to trust too much in Smed when it comes to actual delivery, I do believe that he is right when he says that the future of MMORPGs is in sandbox games with more emergent gameplay. In the end, that is what memories are made of. The rails will be forgotten.

The rails and the independence are necessary for the game to be "accessible".

If you give the players meaningful choices, the bad players will make bad choices and then quit the game which is CLEARLY responsible for their lack of progress.

If you make player interaction necessary or even beneficial, bad players won't progress as no one will team with them.

The only way to let a moron or slacker progress is to always tell him what to do and to completely protect him from player-player interactions.
The future is more sandboxy but sandbox games require commitment and time demands which exclude casuals. They are also very hard to get into (without some intro quests to introduce you with how to play and provide suggestions on what to do). For those reason I think themeparks will remain the mmo-home for casuals.

What will change is we'll see more games with a themepark core with some optional sandbox components, offering emergent gameplay yet still providing a fallback position for casuals.
Recently I've been playing Mush, a free browser game from Twinoid.

You (semi-randomly) get to be one of 16 named characters aboard a disintegrating and poorly equipped spaceship fleeing the Mush. The Mush are a mind-controlling lifeform who seek to infect others and/or destroy the mission. Mush hunters are chasing you, but more importantly two characters are selected randomly at the start (once everyone is unfrozen) to be Mush.

With one or two action points every three hours (they do stack!) there is more talk than action, but if you have a good crew it's pretty interesting. On my fourth voyage now, and it looks like the ten surviving crew should finally have a human win.

It depends on who's playing (kind of like an MMORPG PUG in the old days_. If there are more than one or two inactives, it's boring and doomed. There tends to be a bit of RP because of the pre-generated characters.

Mush is *definitely* not for everyone, if you're interested check it out, and google mushpedia or forums for more information. Anyone who is playing should at least commit to logging in daily for a week or so.

The model is FTP - you can pay for extra skill slots and if you pay EU10 once you get a permanent bonus - I could see myself going for that if I'm still playing in a month. It's fine for free players too though. Having only one skill slot by default might seem limiting but in fact it's not that important. As a beginner, you couldn't really take advantage of the gold mode anyway!
Let me repeat a comment I made some time ago: EQNext is trying to be a better GW2.

While GW2 dynamic events are scripted and repeat over time, there is no rails. With a better technology (storybreaks) maybe be possible make dynamic events that are not scripted and repeatable, but emergent.
I believe some other blogger said the game gets more sandboxy as you progress through the zones. Having played a few times I can guess if you played that many characters over one weekend you likely didn't get far enough to see the sandbox parts.
This is all very well but it's worth remembering that one of the most successful MMOs of recent times has been the relaunched FFXIV, which is very much a traditional model MMO. It's all too easy for those people who are bored with "quest, quest, quest" to forget that a) there are other people who've been around the genre a while and yet still thoroughly enjoy questing and b) new people discover the genre every day and for them the "same old same old" is nothing of the kind - it's all new and exciting.

We'll see if sandbox games are the future for MMOs. Personally I doubt it because the evidence of the last century or more of popular entertainment suggests that when it comes to mass markets people want to be entertained by professionals rather than make their own entertainment. I think sandbox MMOs do and always will make for fantastic entertainment for hobbyists but even with the example of Minecraft in mind I remain to be convinced that undirected, opportunistic gameplay will have a lasting, mass appeal.
I don't disagree much, but that does not advance the conversation so advocatus diaboli:

All MMOs will fail - they will probably have layoffs/transfers and then close down. It's the product lifecycle. Most that don't start out as F2P will get there as that is the prevailing MMO monetization paradigm. Companies sell fashion for 12 year old girls even though the lifespan is weeks. So there is nothing per se wrong with an MMO that has an average of a three month stay. As long as the number of customers times $/customer compares favorably with the costs, then it is a profitable product.

Note also that the average time in EVE is 6-7 months (two thirds of WoW; WoW customers are longer term than the ephemeral EVE pilots) So getting 3 months is not that bad.


Although I would like a sandbox albeit for non-sociopaths but I am not sure there are any - or at least AAA - in progress.

I agree with Gevlon, minus the belief that being bad at MMOS means you are stupid or a slacker. I'd suggest it just means you don't like it enough to invest the time, which is far saner than putting in enough time to please Gevlon.

You can't have a 200 million dollar sandbox game. There aren't enough people willing to put up with that kind of game because they don't find the rewards worth it. So you need the rails to provide structure. But the rails suck and soon or later becomes tiring even for the most dedicated player.

So it's the ultimately unsustainable rails model or the niche sandbox model.

Like I've said before, MMOs are niche. The faster the genre collapses back to its natural state the better for everyone. The people who genuinely enjoy the genre can enjoy games designed for them, not someone else, and the casual who needs a tarted up MMO can go find the hundreds of games with vastly better gameplay to enjoy. Everyone wins.
A few years ago I was an older-than-average player of LEGO Universe (LU.) It essentially was a hybrid.

You rode the quest rails until you claimed your own building plots and unlocked programmable logic for
your creations. There were always mini-figures to level, daily quests, holiday festivals, mini-games, small group battles and instanced “Dragon” fights in order to collect building blocks and better gear. In the end you got to create content on your plots that could then be visited or “played” by others.

If building wasn’t your thing, you could ignore it and play through the 20 or so hours of canned content and then start enjoying player creations. There were many player castles to storm (some more imaginative than others) and creative carnival rides to explore. One of my own plots featured a mini-game. Your mission was to deliver crabs to the beach for a crab boil. Simple enough, right? However the remaining feral crabs were out for revenge and staged traps along the way.

Although targeted at a young audience with ridiculously restrictive chat, the game was fun and challenging if a bit simplistic. (Programming complex models were a bit glitch-y too.) I think a hybrid such as LU could be quite successful. If I had to guess, I would say that LEGO just undershot the age of their target market, or it was just too soon. Did anyone else check this one out? I’d love to see a Minecraft / Warcraft match-up with similar functionality.

PS – Great blog Tobold.
It's a good thing that games minimize the need for social interaction. If social interaction was forced, I wouldn't enjoy playing as much. I don't like it when I can't have fun because of other people. Feeling like other players are obstacles to my enjoyment. In a game that does not force social interaction, I can play with friends when I want, as I want.

I'm very skeptical about mmo sandboxes. They tend to either have other players as the content, setting people against each other in conflict. Or they end up as variants of 'our village against the wilds' type of gameplay where a few non-participants or griefers screw it over for everyone. Or they end up as popularity contests, and fuck that. None of these game modes at all appeal to me.

I liked Glitch. Are there any other games like that out? 'Here's a big open world, go wherever and do whatever you want, no one else can harm you, steal from you, or prevent you.'
I like the social interaction. If there isn't any, what's the point - single player games are better from everything other than the social perspective.
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