Tobold's Blog
Friday, April 22, 2011
Don't criticize Farmville!

I was shocked, shocked I'm telling you, to find out that some of the people loudly criticizing Farmville had not played that game for the minimum required 100 hours. You'll need at least that much to unlock the yellow cucumber farming, and that totally changes the feel of the game! How can anyone claim that Farmville is not a good game without having given it a proper 100-hour trial?

I've been hearing arguments of that sort for different games a lot over the years. It is a widely used strawman argument against all sorts of people writing about games. The reason is very simple: By "allowing" only people with tens or hundreds of hours to criticize your favorite game, you already made sure that the pool of reviewers consists only of diehard fans, thus skewing the score in favor of the game.

But as Brenda Brathwaite, of Wizardry and Jagged Alliance fame, says:
Focus on second-to-second play first. Nail it. Move on to minute-to-minute, then session-to-session, then day-to-day, then month-to-month (and so on). If your second-to-second play doesn’t work, nothing else matters. Along these lines, if your day-to-day fails, no one will care about month-to-month, either.
That is true for MMORPGs as much as for other games. A MMORPG consists of small repeating units nested in each other. A game has several zones, zones has several quest hubs, which each have several quests, quest consists of several combats, which consist of several button presses. If you have played through one zone, and tried out the available non-quest content like crafting and public quests, you've seen enough of the game to predict over 90% of its repeating content. You will know the very essence of the game, and it is that which counts for knowing whether you like a game and whether it is any good.

It is Easter. If somebody would tell you that you can't properly judge the MMORPG you are looking at, because the game gets so much better during the Christmas holiday events, you'd laugh at him. Why would anyone make a game that sucks for most of the year, and only gets good at the end? But that is exactly what some people say about MMORPGs: The leveling game is claimed to be not representative of the "real game", which is endgame raiding or PvP. But how much of a masochist would you have to be to endure hundreds of hours of bad and boring gameplay before being allowed to play the good stuff?

Guild Wars already told people who didn't want to play the leveling game that they could skip it and play PvP with instantly created level-capped characters. And some future MMORPG will do the same for raiding. Before that happens, as long as games are integrated, they need to be judged on the unskippable part. Because as Brenda said, "if your day-to-day fails, no one will care about month-to-month". You might rave and rant against rewievers not having played the game for the minimum required hundreds of hours, but the real problem isn't the reviewers here: The average player simply isn't going to put up with that much crap before deciding to quit a game. If after several play sessions the fun is still just a vague promise on the horizon, the game has failed, and the player quits, regardless of how great the endgame might be.

If I'm supposed to run through a maze, the maze has to be fun. I'm not just there for the cheese at the end. The cheese is a lie, and consists only of purple pixels.
Isn't the problem that, with most mmo's that the only skill you will learn while leveling up, is how to do damage?
Is it unfair to complain about a games cooperative parts, when most of them happens after those long hours (at end game, raiding/dungeons ect.)? And reversly isn't it fair enough to demand of a reviewer that they try out that part of the game before making a judgement?

How would you implement tanking and healing and cc'ing into a leveling game, while ensuring that new players can still find groups 6 months in? And a year in?

I remember you once complained about people complaining about the new lfd option in WoW (call to arms), without presenting any alternatives.
What would be an alternative? A raiding only, game? Having learning grounds where you get your xp by performing your roles part regardless of level?

Isn't the point of the complainees that you have to have an end-game where people who are at the same level (but have had some time to learn the game) can meet, and yet you need to reset that end-level so new players can catch up?

What i'm trying to say, is that I love to tank (and heal), but I really have no way of judging a game until I reach end-game because it *does* change dramatically for tanks and healers, and so far, there has been no alternative presented (that I am aware of) where you get to get to the good parts -the team play, without having to go through the leveling part.
I'd call that bad game design. You don't give people hockey training and then expect them to be good at football. Thus the good solutions are either making the leveling game more representative of the challenges of the endgame, or admitting that you artificially tied together two very different games, and allowing people to just skip to the raiding end game. Just like Guild Wars does for PvP.
Careful with your quote. It is an advise for developers, not for players!

In fact, a player I'd always advise to keep playing a little longer. Many games are jewles if you spend enough energy to check them out. Most roguelikes, for exmaple.

Moreover, the anticipation of future fun is fun in itself. I know the standard defence of "I already have a job". But it is wrong. To work hard for something in an MMORPG (or any game) can be fun. Humans like investing much more than consuming. The question is not whether investing and planning and anticipating is fun. The question is who your time horizon is. If you spend 1 hours a wweek, a 40 hours grind is too long for you. If you spend 4 hours a day, a 40 hours grind can be just great; especially if executed together with your friends.

The concept of designing games as a chain of seperate, inherently fun pieces is deeply flawed.
By extension: The concept of designing games as inherently fun is deeply flawed.???

Sorry, but being inherently fun is the definition of a game.

The cheese is a lie. Playing unfun games for the promise of a "fun" reward at the end is inherently flawed.
Well, we disdagree. Not surprisingly, I guess. ;)

Can you tell me how leveling to level 60 has been inherent fun? Why did so many millions do it?

Weren't most single player games MUCH better at offering inherently fun gameply?

I know I went to lvl 60 to explore the world and to check out all these awesome talents. I didn't do it, because my 1321th fireball was as much fun as the first.

The leveling process itself was 99% not inherent fun. And I am pretty sure if you asked somebody to do it without talent trees and without telling him there is a world out there - without the entire context: He'd call you crazy.

(Last comment on this to not take over discussion. Have a nice easter, Tobold and everyone else :)
This comment has been removed by the author.

I had lots of fun levelling my toons through Azeroth (and beyond). Not because of the bolts or the backstabs, but because of the fun world. For me (I'm narrow-minded I guess) it was still fun the tenth time. It had nothing to do with the expectations I had for my toons – it was fun in itself.

Gameplay-wise, online games tend to fare badly against single-player experiences, but there are other aspects to "fun" than just the sequence the buttons have to be pressed in.
How much of a chance should you give a game then? For example, the tutorial part of a game is usually tedious, as you might only have one or two attacks. This is truly not representative of the majority of the game, where you will have a lot more to choose from, adding a tactical element that wasn't there at the start.

Would you say that persevering with a boring tutorial to get the the part of the game you like is pointless?

I understand the point you're trying to make, but disagree that some games don't benefit from a big time investment before they "blossom". Personally I find I need to spend hours on a strategy game before I can really appreciate the intricacies of it. For a reviewer to criticise a complex game like that after 30 mins of play would be foolish.
But as Brenda Brathwaite, of Wizardry and Jagged Alliance fame, says...

Jagged Alliance 2 was a semi-interactive RNG 'game' (and I'm using the term loosely here) featuring a couple of guys shooting at each other with .38 pistols, until one of them gets lucky and accidentally hits someone. No tactics, character development or dialogue whatsoever.

Wizardry 8 was even worse - a monotonous hack-n-slash clickfest about killing oozes in a nondescript cave with basic melee/shooting attacks.

So yeah, I agree with you and Brenda. Extrapolating one's first gameplay impression over the totality of game's length is a perfectly valid way of judging its worth.
I think WoW itself is a good argument for why Brenda Braithwaite isn't a great authority for MMO design.

Combat in WoW (second to second play) is actually very well executed. It's snappy, characters have lots of abilities they can use, and it's fun. It's a very solid piece of design and implementation.

PvE mobs are pretty dull but that's not because the second to second design is bad.

Another example is that some zones are more fun than others. Sure, in the ideal world they would all be winners but just because you dislike one zone doesn't mean the next might not be amazing. So minute by minute play can be varied depending on your current level/ zone, it isn't a smoothly scaling gameplay.
Seconds or minutes are certainly too short to evaluate a game. But if you didn't have fun in a complete game session, and then again no fun in the next, why on earth should you stick with a game? 10 hours are certainly more than enough to expect *some* fun.

And yes, I do have fun leveling characters in World of Warcraft. Which is why I have lots of alts.
I've written a complete answer to your post.
Nils, who said anything about Tobold being a proffesional game tester? Tobold simply wrote, that the whole "You need to play 100hrs" argument " a widely used strawman argument against all sorts of people writing about games", not only PRO-Reviewers. I write that I didn't like the game because it was boring as hell for the 50hrs I played it, and then if the only argument of a fan is "Yes, it's boring, you should've play it 50hrs more!" then fine, maybe it gets better after 100h, but that doesn't change the fact that the game design is wrong. If even a hardcore fan says the first 100hrs are boring, something is wrong.
Actually, your hockey analogy has a better comparison -- it's like drilling the team on skating, passing and shooting for six months... and then taking one of those players and throwing him in as goalie.
I agree with Tobold.

The average player simply will not put up with mediocrity for very long. If the game doesn't hold their interest, they will stop playing it.

Will SOME players put up with it, in hopes of finding the jewel at the end of the tunnel? Sure. Some players think perma-death and no save games are great ideas too.
But, the average player will not.
The thing I never really liked about WoW is that grouping at low levels was never worth it. For some reason, its always: solo if you want more xp, group if you want better items. But levelling gets you better benefits anyways than items, so you might as solo your way to the top. Maybe if group xp wasn't penalized as much, and possibly boosted such that you get as much xp while grouped, you could encourage group gameplay as early as possible.
EG and EVE say hi.

Oh, and DCUO is (apparently) super fun for seconds, minutes, hours. How's that working out for them?

The real strawman is taking a (questionably successful) game dev and applying what they said to a genre they don't work in. As SOE is learning right now, you don't design an MMO like you do a console beat-em-up (or a shooter) and expect great results.

If anything, I'd argue you should reverse that statement and design an MMO like that. If your yearly/monthly game is flawed, you have a pretty terrible MMO no matter how much fun someone has in an hour/minute/second.
I think where the issue comes in for MMOs is that your character increases in power and acquires new skills. Some skills and abilities are fun and the class, or spec doesn't really take off until then. For me in WoW my warlock doesn't get fun until I am drain tanking and grabbing as many mobs as I can. I can't do that when I start.

In a game like Rift the nice thing is that tanks and healers are good to have at low levels for the rifts. That being said for a game like Rift, which is very, very close to WoW, if you're not excited about the graphics, rifts or the soul system then it doesn't make a lot of sense to switch away from WoW.

I do feel that this post is somewhat directed at Rift, as I read how much Tobold said he played the game. I would call him on his opinion if he said that Rift sucks because it is just like WoW, and then continues to play WoW. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out Rift plays a lot like WoW. If you don't like the new features Trion added in, then you're probably not going to find a good reason to switch games. That being said I have enjoyed Rift immensely and I have liked how the rifts have changed as I leveled. I think that I am not alone in enjoying phase 1 of the River of Souls either. I'm really looking forward to see where the game as a whole goes.
I think I sit somewhere in the middle between Nils and Tobold on this. I think that if you are reviewing a video game then yes, you should commit a decent amount of time to it. I don’t have a magic number though, sorry.

I know for instance that in Battlestar Galactica Online the reviewer from Massively was given more or less everything free from their cash shop. At E3 BioWare had “pre built” characters showing off specific dungeons and encounters so people would see what that part of the game was like. Game developers and their PR people know that certain parts of video games are more fun than others to most people, be it instant gratification or what have you. So a lot of companies will give well established reviewers access to the end content by skipping ahead, it isn’t unheard of. This allows them to review the majority of the game content without the time sink.

However that doesn’t mean that WE, as gamers, cannot decide if a game is fun or not in the first play session. In fact I dare say the game MUST be fun in the first play session. I’ll use the Christmas analogy. I have two kids and while last year was not my son’s first Christmas, he is 3; it was the first that he was old enough to understand, prior to that he didn’t have the anticipation. He had to experience a Christmas before he could anticipate it’s coming next year. I fully believe that this Christmas he will be even more excited for it, but I couldn’t expect him to be excited until he experienced it.

You can’t tell a group of people “the game gets better” and expect them to stay. I bought a PS3 specifically for Final Fantasy XIII. I played it for about 10 hours and hated it, but a friend told me it gets good after 20 hours. Since I LOVE the FF series I played for 25 hours and guess what, my feelings towards the game didn’t change 15 hours later. In fact I was more frustrated.

That’s long enough.

(Meant to post on Nil's blog but I kept getting errors)
While I'm all for a game getting *better* as it goes, as the player learns the intricacies (preferably via a smart learning curve), I agree that it should be good out of the gates.

Also, the old "it gets better" canard seems to echo the "it's better if you watch it three or four times" argument for movies. There's something to it, but one, if it's not at least good to start with, there's little reason to persist with it, and two, movies are short. RPGs, especially the sub MMO variant... not so much.
First the cake and now the cheese, isn't there any food around here?!?

I don't believe that Brenda's assessment is completely accurate. As is the case in most software design you can't simply focus on one area, get that done and then move on to the next area. If you do that you end up with a patchwork mess. You have to take a holistic approach and re-evaluate each component frequently.

The overall point is valid though - you can't just ignore the minute to minute play.
I'd like to echo Syncaine's comment, actually. If your days/months/years in a MMORPG is flawed, then it doesn't matter is your seconds/minutes/hours is fun.

MMORPG's are financially built upon those long terms, so it is feasible and even likely that these types of games don't offer as much to the player not willing to put in that kind of investment. For those players, MMORPG's are simply not for them. Most MMORPG players are looking for that kind of long term goal to work for, may it be the end of a raid boss or a leveling curve.

Some games challenge this. Two examples that come to mind are City of Heroes and DCUO. DCUO is built like a beat-em-up game, and though it is fun for a good period of time, it has already started to lose steam due to players blowing through content like a hot knife through butter and not finding any long term goals to work for.

City of Heroes took another route and (up until recently) had little to no end-game content whatsoever. The point of the game was the journey from 1-50. I'll be honest, 42 was the highest I've ever reached in that game. Can you say I did not review it properly then? Because I experienced many of the level 50 missions on my level 20 Controller due to having high level friends. 95% of the game was available to me, and finding no reason to get to 50, I didn't.

I agree a game needs to have a way to bring players in and make them enjoy the game when they first walk in. That was part of the design philosophy in rebuilding the starting areas in WoW. But that becomes irrelevant when the player's goal is to punch Deathwing in the face.
Fun is an extremely overrated measurement for MMOs.

Two reasons:

1. We have no agreed definition of "fun". It seems mostly to be used as shorthand for "something I like to do", and is next to useless as a marker for discussion.

2. "Fun" is just one of a large number of motivators underlying the choices people make. We do many, many things for reasons other than that they are "fun". We do many things that we would say are not "fun". Why select this particular motivator as the be-all and end-all for MMOs?

I play MMOs for many more reasons than "fun". For example, I play because MMO gameplay includes a lot of repetetive actions and repetetive actions are soothing and reduce stress. I also play because I stand up all day at work and my feet hurt so although I'd like to go walking in the evenings I'm too tired; travelling through a virtual world works well to negate my conflicts over staying in or going out.

I have scores of these reasons for playing, few of which I would label as "having fun. I'm pretty certain that the success of MMOs relies heavily on satisfying other needs and desires than the simple quest for a fun time.

I agree that most people will not be able agree on what "fun" is. But more often than not people will be able to agree what "no-fun" is. Some like PvP, some like crafting and that's cool. At the same time most players will be able to agree that "kill ten rats" quests and "1-2-3-1" combat is a "no-fun".

P.S. I loved "repetitive actions are soothing" example. :)
At the same time most players will be able to agree that "kill ten rats" quests and "1-2-3-1" combat is a "no-fun".

I think that is a fallacy. "Most players" play kill ten rats and enjoy MMO combat.

With quest its like this -it gives me a goal and satisfaction of accomplishment. I just go explore the landscape and also accomplish something

If I have to kill 100 rats - yeah I will be bored. but i go trough new area, its interesting, heck because I am explorer I would explore it anyways, killing rats on the way is just pleasant bonus

With mmo combat... well I consider its pretty fun if its made good. I am accomplished pvper (in FPS and RTS) and I like playing vs other players. I dont think that WoW combat is much less fun inherently than mount and blade or counter strike

There are things which makes it less fun, but combat on its own is great
Would you sit through an average film for a fantastic ending or walk out halfway through complaining that it won't get any better?
It is indeed an interesting dilemma, because while I would agree that WoW is fun from a moment-to-moment basis, I would also agree with people who suggest that the endgame is more or less a completely different game than 1-84. You can always make more alts if the endgame is not for you, but at that point, why are you playing an MMO at all?

That said, the notion that one cannot form any opinion at all of any game based on any amount of play is ridiculous. People can dismiss your opinion if they feel you haven't invested "enough" time, but opinions are just that: opinions. I would not consider a review of Rift based on 10 hours of the game to be authoritative, but nor would I dismiss it out of hand - it would be treated with the same grain of salt I would give even the diehard "100 hours and counting" Rift reviews by people who have a WoW axe to grind.

This applies to just MMOs though; I expect any single-player game review to be written only after the ending credits, else I waste my time reading it.
Azuriel said...
"You can always make more alts if the endgame is not for you, but at that point, why are you playing an MMO at all?"

Because questing and PvP and the AH and crafting and everything else in the MMO is fun? Just because I don't have dedicated multi-hour spans of time to raid doesn't mean that I shouldn't play the rest of the game at all, does it?

The rest of your comment I completely agree with, by the way. Nice way to say it in a nutshell!
I agree with your comments but still think some problem is due to the imprecision of "good game"

If an Asian grindfest takes 2000 hour of grinding to get to a very enjoyable endgame, then you need to spend 2000 hours to see if it is one definition of a "good game." But you don't need to spend 2000 hours to decide if it is a good product for a game company to try to sell to Westerners. Let alone whether it is something you personally want to play.

I also think that great games can have literally fatal flaws. One relatively minor change to the existing WoW - say RL$ sales of biS - could make it fatally flawed for a lot of people. ( EVE players/non-consentual PvP are that for EVE for some. ) I.e., can an MMO with a great "end game" have a leveling part so bad that it makes it a bad game?

I used to enjoy leveling alts (not really 80-85, inflexibly linear.) I think the "at max level, now you can start to play the game" design is no longer working that well for Blizzard. Certainly making raiding enjoyable for fewer people without providing them with something else to do sure does not seem to be working out well.
Great post. The farmville analogy cracked me up, but that's b/c it's so true.

As for people saying long term is more important than short term, they're probably wrong. Short term game play really is the foundation of any game. You can't build a great longterm game on a bad foundation.

There is also the correlation that if you have the same developers designing an entire game, then there is no reason to expect a game's ending to be that great if the beginning stinks.
"Playing unfun games for the promise of a "fun" reward at the end is inherently flawed."

My most favorite thing I've read in several weeks, thank you Tobold.
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