Thursday, January 29, 2009

Five reasons MMOs are broken article by Tom Chick

Let me just start by saying that I think articles like this by people like Tom Chick only contributed to the downfall of printed gaming magazines like Games For Windows. With that out of the way, I present my opinion.


Five reasons MMOs are broken

It takes no small amount of audacity to look at the most commercially successful genre of video gaming and call it "broken". But that's exactly what I'm doing. Assuming the first priority of game design is to create a good game, massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft have failed spectacularly, opting for commercial success instead of creative integrity, entertainment value, or compelling game design. If I were a shareholder, I'd be elated. Instead, as a guy who plays video games, I'm continually disappointed.

Yes, World of Warcraft failed every single day of the last four years by entertaining millions of people. You may think it takes audacity to make your broad statement, but I think it simply takes a lack of intelligence.

5) The problem: subscription fees

The business model behind MMOs drives the content, much like magazines (big glossy pictures!), episodic TV (tune in next week!), and blogs (5 reasons that [insert controversial statement]!). The main reason you won't get a better game design in an MMO is that it's created for the primary purpose of getting you to play regularly and therefore pay regularly. Every element of an MMO needs to prevent you from canceling the regular charge to your credit card. MMOs that attempt that other business model - the dreaded micropayments beloved by Koreans and Electronic Arts - are even worse for how transparent they are.

A subscription fee imposes creative limitations. It also carries a lot of psychological baggage. Signing up for a recurring fee keeps players from sampling - and certainly committing to - more than one or two MMOs. Paying a one-time cost for a videogame is much more friendly to those of us who want to sample lots of games, and therefore much more friendly to the industry at large. It's much easier to pick up a few games at a time, or even to make an impulse purchase, when you can just leave a game lying around until you're ready to try it. But subscription fees shut out alternatives. There's even an element of guilt that comes with a subscription fee. Like having cable, you might feel compelled to play because you're paying and not because you're actually enjoying it.

What needs to be done to fix it: The subscription fee is brilliant, insidious, and tremendously effective. It is single-handedly responsible for the immense success of MMOs. I have no idea how to overcome that sort of fiscal momentum. I have no answers here.

There is no reason to fix it. The subscription fee pays for the overhead required to run the game, continuing patch and content development, and other costs associated with keeping the game running. There are so many examples of games that have been pushed to market and abandoned, glaring bugs left unfixed because the budget is gone and the developers have been moved to something else. You cannot do that with an MMO, or it dies and you make nothing.

If people have issues paying subscription fees or feeling obligated because they do, well, that's on them.

4) The problem: aggro

There is no analog for this in real videogames. It's a clunky contrivance, presumably created to keep life interesting for the poor schmucks who get stuck playing the cleric. But this awkward concept is the source of many of the gameplay tropes that keep MMOs from being interesting. Consider how the classes for an MMO are designed around the concept of a tank holding aggro while a DPS class attacks the target, a mezzer holds back adds, and a healer heals the tank, all while the players manage some invisible under-the-hood aggro values that determine which player gets attacked. None of this was in Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, or Ladyhawke with Matthew Broderick? Why is this the starting point for every single MMO battle?

This artifice plays a large part in building game worlds. How often have you sidled through some enemy camp hoping to skirt the aggro radius for a monster? If you weren't so conditioned to navigating aggro, you'd feel pretty stupid walking around, hidden in plain sight, while orcs shuffle through their idle animations twenty feet to your right and left. Remember when you were unsullied enough that it occurred to you how retarded this was? Those were the days.
What needs to be done to fix it: Search me. Someone hurry and invent a new gameplay model that doesn't rely on aggro.

Are you daft? Go ahead and pull your head out of your ass, I'll wait.

Aggro - short for aggravation - is a made up system for dealing with a very real phenomenon.

How do you replicate the way a real life bear reacts to a group of people tromping around in the woods near its young? What would a real bear do? It would probably attack whoever was closest to its young first, right? Then who would it go after? The next closest person, as a matter of convenience. Unless someone was running away, then it might attack that person next to prevent them from escaping, or it might attack someone who was shouting at it to draw it away from his injured buddy.

In MMOs, aggro represents the same variables. Aggro radius represents an artificial way of replicating how far away an animal or monster would notice someone walking near it and attack out of fear or malice, or in other words, perception.

Every sample listed does, in fact, have examples of aggro. Gimli, Aragorn, and Borimir taunting the troll in Moria so that it attacked them and not the hobbits. Fighters in D&D keeping the monsters from attacking the rest of the party (which, by the way, is where MMOs got the concept of their classes and aggro from). Matthew Broderick getting attacked by everything because his douchy-ness made him a target. (OK, I twisted that one slightly.)

In fact, how do other game genres determine which player gets attacked over another? Aggro. The guy shooting draws more fire than his partner sneaking above in the rafters. The guy with the heavy machine gun draws the other teams fire first. Aggro!

3) The problem: button lock

Skills, levels, gear, talents, and blah blah blah are required to add depth to MMOs, but they're based on such razor-thin margins of where you're allowed to go and what monsters you should be fighting at any given time that the gameplay comes down to wanking around with numbers for hit points, damage, refresh rate, mana, and so on. Apartheid by math. As a result, the typical battle in an MMO is a matter of staring at an icon that indicates when your skill will refresh. Stare, wait, press. Stare, wait, press. Stare, wait, press. Okay, now loot. Next! All that wondrous combat animation gone to waste, unwatched. All that potential immersion and world building, reduced to a row of tiny buttons.

I like detail. It keeps me interested. I just don't want it shoved in my face during what should be the most exciting part of a game.

What needs to be done to fix it: Can someone replace all the math with action? Is there some way to do this? Is it even possible? Or should I just stick to Diablo?

Button lock is actually a problem. Rather than enjoy the graphics and animations, I have to pay attention to cooldowns on buttons, health bars, and other distracting GUI elements.

The only solution that I can come up with cannot yet be satisfactorily implemented in a game with so many people depending on timely information being transmitted to and from a server. Therefore, it's plausible that 0thers in the industry have also contemplated this problem and solution and come up with the same roadblock: Based on current technology, it's just not feasible at this time.

The solution? Get rid of the majority of the GUI. When I am ready to attack, I raise my sword slightly. When I swing, I move something other than a mouse to do so interactively. When my character is ready to swing again, I can tell by the fact that he has moved his weapon back to the ready position. Different movement causes different attacks. When I am injured, I can see that I am injured. When my arm falls off, I know that I need to be healed by the priest. When I fall over clutching my stomach and vomit, I know I've been poisoned. Everyone is working towards this level of interactivity, but we're just not there yet.

2) The problem: static worlds

So you kill a boss and then three minutes later he's respawned and walking around waiting for the next guy to kill him. Heck, he might just attack you again if you don't hurry out of there and turn the quest in. At which point the quest giver thanks you and delivers some text implying that something has changed, only to turn around and talk to the next guy as if nothing had ever happened. Unlike single-player games, MMOs are baldly frozen in a static state. Princesses are never rescued, villains are never slain, evil is never vanquished. The thousands of players on any given server are all heroes, each unable to effect any sort of meaningful change in the world, forever unable to save it because that would just screw up everything for the next guy to do the quest.

What needs to be done to fix it: Beats me. You can't very well have evil get vanquished by the first hero to come along. Is this just an innate problem by virtue of the word "massively" in the genre?

Again, you're bitching about something that we're just not able to do with our level of technology. This is akin to me complaining that I wanted to take a lightspeed cruise to Alpha Centauri on my honeymoon, but had to settle for Hawaii instead. The technology simply isn't available.

And it's not like developers aren't already taking baby steps towards this end. Guild Wars puts people in different times during their games history, depending on how far along the quest lines the players have progressed. World of Warcraft recently started doing the same thing. Hero's Journey - if it ever gets published - planned on not only allowing you to complete quests and move your story along, but to fail them as well, and still be able to continue with that failure.

1) The problem: you can't play with the people you want to play with

This is the single biggest failing of MMOs. For all the talk of community and social gaming and massively multiplayer, the average MMO makes very specific demands in terms of whom you can play with. Grouping depends heavily on what level you are and where you are in a quest chain and sometimes even your skill level. It's difficult to build an MMO community around people you know if - as is most likely the case - they have different playing habits.
And yet there is no better reason to play an MMO. As with almost any game, an MMO is better in a group, and it's even better if you know the group, and it's best of all if they're your real world friends. But here is the irony: there is no genre of videogaming more hostile to gathering with the people you know than MMOs. For shame.

What needs to be done to fix it: Something. Anything. For pete's sake, if I can't play with my friends, I'm just going to go mess around with horde mode in Gears of War 2.

This is not actually even a problem with the genre. This is a ridiculous point. I can't name one multiplayer game that I always got to play with my friends when I wanted. Counter Strike? I'd often end up on the opposite team, or not able to get into a server my friends were on because it was full. Diablo? Sorry, only so many slots available. You can't even tell me all of my friends would fit on one Gears of War server.

MMOs are actually far ahead on that count. If you log into WoW and you never get to group with your friends, it's because your friends don't actually want to play with you. Otherwise, nothing stops them from having a character your level to play with, or bringing their higher levels characters in to help you out.

Should you wish to write top five lists, perhaps you should start with the top 5 reasons Tom Chick don't know dick about MMOs.

1 comment:

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