Tobold's Blog
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Not enough data points

You know the MMO blogosphere is in a summer slump when the hot topic of the week is why WAR failed. The theories range from "because it was a WoW clone" to "because it just wasn't very good" to "because they failed to meet explicit promises". I find the latter two explanations more believable, but there is a fundamental problem with the discussion: The fate of a single game, or even a few similar games, provides not enough data points to make an accurate prediction of player preferences.

Syncaine thinks that World of Warcraft is a "unique snowflake", a perfect storm of unrepeatable circumstances. But if we believe that, than why should we believe that all other games are not "unique snowflakes" as well? Why would it be a bad idea to design a game based on the success of WoW, but a good idea to design a game based on the success of EVE? I'm pretty certain that if game companies decided to produce a bunch of half-baked EVE-clones, the result would as much a failure as the fate of the half-baked WoW-clones.

I don't believe that you can reduce the success or failure of a game to one single point. Certainly EVE is doing quite well, but is that *because* it has free-for-all PvP, or *in spite of* having free-for-all PvP? According to CCP's official own data, over 80% of the EVE players never ever leave safe empire space, so drawing a straight line from EVE's success to the potential success of future PvP games is somewhat spurious. Neither do I believe that you can take a single feature of WoW, lets say it "being easy" or "soloable" and pin all of the success of WoW on that feature. If anything, the relative failure of "WoW clones" shows that even game designers are unable to find the secret sauce recipe of success of a game and then copy it, even if given millions of dollars to try.

I do not believe that most players play a specific game for one specific feature and reason, but they tend to look at the game as a whole and decide whether they like it or not. They might *buy* a game because of hype, but they certainly aren't going to play it for long because of hype. For example I would say that I don't like first person shooter games, but I still try them from time to time, and occasionally I find one I like and play through, like Call of Duty or Bioshock. Even my MMORPG preferences aren't that easy to categorize: Yes, I like WoW, but I didn't like a lot of other games that were similar to WoW, for example LotRO. And yes, I didn't like hardcore sandbox EVE very much, but I do like A Tale in the Desert, which is more hardcore and more sandbox than EVE, albeit in a different way. And when I quit playing WAR, it wasn't because of PvP, but it turned out that PvP in WAR was still the part I disliked the least. It would be difficult for me to take a list of features from an upcoming MMORPG and accurately predict whether I will like it or not.

If anything, the best predictor for me liking a game is quality of execution. Again, that isn't an absolute factor, A Tale in the Desert is not a very polished game by any means. But when I pre-ordered Final Fantasy XIV without having even played the beta, or when I'm certain that I will buy Star Wars: The Old Republic, it isn't because these games have this or that feature, but because I have a certain trust in the companies making these games that their games will be reasonably polished.

Now I don't want to claim that "I think this way, so everybody else must think the same way", which is a typical fallacy on blogs. But that is exactly why the whole "game X succeeded/failed because of Y" discussion should be taken with a grain of salt. In most cases the reason proposed reveals more about the author of the argument than about the game he is discussing. If anyone really would be able to find a specific reason for the success or failure of existing games, then why are game companies obviously unable to learn from successes and avoid failures? Talk is cheap, developing a MMORPG is expensive, so a game developer should be not only more qualified but also more motivated to find the reasons for success and failure, yet obviously they can't.

Any single MMORPG has such a huge amount of features and characteristics, that it would take statistical data mining of thousands of MMORPGs to measure the popularity of each single feature, if that was even possible. As mushy as it is as advice, the best approach is still just trying to make "a good game", without even trying to identify what worked and didn't work in previous games. MMORPGs are a greater whole, larger than the sum of their features, and the features of a new game fitting well together is a far better approach than putting in a feature just because "this was popular in WoW".
Check out the most recent issue of Game Developer Magazine, Design of the times feature.

I think this post is also helpful

WAR was an Edsel (the car). It had a lot of good interesting ideas, but some of the fundamentals were missing and the structure required for a successful MMO was compromised. Accessing its RvR endgame was overly baroque, they didn't do a good job of introducing people to that endgame, the games progression was too slow and people lost interest before they even had a chance to see the endgame was dysfunctional.

So, no functional sticky content, no good way to get people into it even it if existed, and barriers to keep them from even getting to the endgame.

Zynga games are in part successful because they have made an art form of getting people through the introduction and to the actual game while leaving interesting them in the actual game at the same time. Instead of the current Zynga game front ends, imagine what would happen if they used a boring marginally relevant 10 minute introduction. Zynga would wither and that's essentially what WAR's pre endgame progression was. Add to that a dysfunctional endgame and it's not surprising it died as a subscription based game.

As an aside, it's not a surprise that WoW was designed by a lot of hardcore Everquest raiders. Pardo's group knew what they liked about EQ's raid and they had a decent feel for what was keeping people from getting to or getting excited about that endgame. Apparently unique to Pardo's group at the time was the idea that they actually wanted non-hardcore people to be able to access and be excited about the same high end content they were. Compare that to the more common exclusionary attitude where people demand barriers to entry as a way of distinguishing the perceived elite nature of their own play as opposed to arguing for aggressively looking for ways to get a large audience excited about the kind gameplay they enjoy.
Well, we did learn a few things over the years, didn't we ?

We learnt that polish is important.

We learnt that precision movement and movement animations are important. Players need to like to move around in your game. The very basic gameplay needs to be fun. If it is fun enough, people even don't bother with 'grinding'.

We learnt that a hype in the beginning will need to meet the actual game in the end. Players need to be prepared to play the game in the way the developers intended. Trailers are often non-helpful here.

We learnt that PvP may be disliked in theory by some people, but rarely do they quit for PvP reasons (WAR, EVE, AoC, ...) ;)

We learnt that the game has to offer different activities, but shouldn't cater to more player types that reasonably possible. At some point the developers will have to try to convince the player, that activity X is fun and not offer a way to circumvent it.

We learnt that for activities that require more than one player (like PQ, or open-PvP) there needs to be design in place that guides the player towards these activities. Otherwise there won't be enough players to do the activities.

We all learnt that the only way to create a good MMORPG is to create it and iterate, iterate, iterate .. until it feels right.

We learnt that MMORPGs need time and money. A lot of it.
I'm interested in seeing how the DC Universe MMO will pan out.

Mostly because I'm curious if the un-popularity of Champions Online, had to do with the "switcheroo" they pulled on the opening day after open beta, or if it is more the fact that people don't want a superhero MMO. Will DC do well because of the license (originally CO was supposed to be the Marvel MMO, from my understanding at least)?

From my opinion, one of the biggest factors in making an MMO is how it controls. Actually, for me this is true of any game. As soon as the controls are bothersome, I get tired of the game.

Castlevania:SotN, Super Metroid, Portal, Ms. Pac-man. All of those games are fun to move around in. Even WoW, is fun to run and jump in.

Also, to me one of the biggest failures of Champions Online, is having only one starting zone.

What do you think? Should an MMO have multiple starting zones?
Tobold said "I pre-ordered Final Fantasy XIV without having even played the beta".

I was going to do that. Then I got into the beta. Now I'm not even sure I'll buy it at all.
Bhagpuss, but you have a very unique set of criteria for MMORPGs, which isn't very "mainstream". There is very little correlation between whether you like a game and whether the average player will like the same game.
Many people in my WOW guild say that the one thing that keeps them playing - even though they are bored with the game - is the other people in the guild. In economic terms WOW has achieved a very strong network effect (

In my opinion that is why a game as good as wow or even slightly better will fail. It just does not have the user base at launch. To "beat" WOW a game has to overcome the network effect of WOW. Once that is achieved the new game will in turn build up a strong network effect thus setting the hurdle for new games even higher.

Because of this I believe that there will only be one very large MMO per genre (and that is why I think the next-gen MMO from Blizzard will be Starcraft based)
They explicitly said that it won't be Starcraft based, but be based on a new IP.

If you spend some time you will probably be able to find the quote.

My opinion about it: I think that is a great idea.

PS: Tobold: What do you think about the new difficulty in the Cataclysm beta? Blizzard tuned up damage of normal mobs by up to 400% :)

Is this a sign that they turn around on some former design principles ?
400%!!! Oh no! That one mob will now take 2 years to kill me instead of 5!

If this is across the board, then leveling will at least be interesting again, but at maximum level, it means nothing.

Now if you couple that with raiding gear not being such a huge improvement over blue gear, only then would we see that actually meaning anything.
Have you seen the whining in the forums, Pangoria ?

Highly amusing :)

Paladin level 83:
If I pull two Jaspertip borer level 83 in deepholm they will kill me if i don't use any healing or cooldown.
Stone Trogg Fungalmancer comes in packs off three, and they will also kill me without cooldowns.

I found it interesting that the mob increase in power starts at level 65 and goes up gradually. I think it is a good idea that soloing at higher levels is less trivial and requires food, potions, bandages, and some thought.
I also noticed that and we perfectly agree on that one.

And when the two of us agree on something, it is really time Blizzard acts, I think :)
@Nils, no I hadn't, but that is TOO funny.

I can't face roll level! Oh noes!
The reason WoW was a "unique snowflake" was because it had a huge playerbase just on Blizzard's name alone at the beginning, and most of that playerbase was hardcore enough to put up with some of the issues it had at launch.

Once it hit a critical mass and started to become a pop culture phenomenon and not just a gaming phenomenon it attracted lots more people who aren't "gamers" most of the time. Combine that with the fact that it has gotten more and more casual friendly over the years, and has a giant development budget so it can pump out new content, and you've got a winner.

Thats why something like WAR will never compete with WoW, and why they were stupid to try. Now, WAR had problems(horrible grind in tier 3 and 4, broken siege/fortress mechanics, and so forth), yes, but those we reasons for people like ME to quit, and thats not what a game needs to beat WoW. WAR could have been every bit as good a game as WoW and it would've done better than it did, but I wager it still would've got at most 10% of WoW's playerbase over the long term (even if everyone that ever bought a box kept playing they'd not be much over 10%).

Rather than have an enormous budget designed to compete like a game like WoW, MMOs need reasonable and attainable goals and a development plan and budget to match them. Games can go on for a LONG time with small budgets, but if you bet the farm on a huge release and a million players, you're in trouble.

That being said though, most of the games were consider failures are still running and only a handful really shut down for good.
There's one thing to give Blizzard here:

Every feature they put in their games have been tested, polished and "done well" . They don't put half-baked things in their games, period. However it also means Blizzard don't "experiment" a whole lot either....making big revolutionary changes is just not what Blizzard does.

In contrast, other companies have this thing where they do "something well" [which is their selling point usually] and then add features for the sake of having them without testing,polishing or even considering their impact on the "game as a whole".

WAR's PvE is exactly that, people would say WAR's PvE sucks terribad but that "it's better than nothing"...yet this is EXACTLY [imho] what made WAR leave a sense of dissatisfaction with the game as a whole. Heck chances are the RvR would've been BETTER if they just dropped the PvE altogether and told you "you will RvR or die".

I believe even EVE illustrates how making changes systematically and adding features with purpose and thought [and testing them] makes for a better game.

Seriously, if you're going to add crafting into your MMO, do it with purpose or don't do it all. Half-baked crafting systems that don't play a role and/or have not been thought out properly and/or don't integrate with the economy...drop it, it makes the game feel tacky, unfinished and "random" .

Same applies to PvP, PvE, Classes, Races , Customization , Dungeons, Quests etc etc. Don't add things because you "think" players expect it.
The big thing that sticks out to me about WAR was the timing. It released just before WotLK came out. Lots of WoW players, bored from the pre-expansion lull, gave WAR a try while always planning on going back to WoW when WotLK came out. So they had very high sales (for a non-WoW MMORPG), but very poor player retention.

It seems so obvious that's what was going to happen, I wonder if they didn't plan the schedule of WAR's release intentionally. The game pulled in over $100 million in revenue in its first year, and can't have cost anywhere near that. Financially, it was a huge success. Maybe that's what they were going for.
Every perfect creation falls eventually. The cycle of rebirth demands that World of Warcraft must die and that something better must grow in its place. I think even Blizzard knows that and expects that their new MMO they are working on will be competing with the MMO that surpasses WoW for customers. I forsee a future where people make a living as full-time virtual world craftsmen and politicians. The virtual worlds of Norrath and Azeroth are only rudimentary precursors of what is coming.
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One voice out of many, it wasn't different enough to me. How many old style "sword and sorcery"/D&D type of MMO's are out there already? I've had my fill honestly.

It would be a different story had they taken the WH40K into MMO land. I might have been interested in playing a sci-fi based MMO outside of Star Wars.
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