The original mission

Let me spend some words and connect some dots about this that I was thinking these last days. At what point are we with these game communities? If you read the quote that Lum has taken out (and the other) you can see that the scenario isn’t a very positive one. It’s not really what we would have portrayed, not what we would have wished.

Hey, that’s the same Lum behind the community. The “golden age” that I almost completely missed (and lament). What we learnt? Where we are today? Is this what we really wanted? Is this all we got?

Today’s communities like F13 exist on completely different premises, I think. The “meaning” isn’t anymore into a “referent” outside, like MMOs. That’s just the expedient for something else that became the real subject of the community itself. That is now self-referential. The community is more about itself, its own habits, characters and so on. Games can be an excuse. Ubiq would define this the “corner bar”. Lum also described perfectly all this in an article he wrote on the occasion of one anniversary of F13 and that must be still there, somewhere.

I usually lose interest and participation in those communities as that happens because I hardly integrate myself in those processes, and also because it’s not part of my original goal. See, the point is that I seem to be the only one left who still remembers the original goal. The original “mission”.

So what’s this original mission and motivation?

To that question I usually quote GBob: “Lum the Mad was riding high with his web site, forcing game companies to engage the player base in a real dialog”. But from a broader point of view I’d say that the mission is to “do our part”. Become part of the process. Contribute. Participate. That’s why I found the courage and arrogance to “invade” the forums and communities with my broken english. I never lost the sight on that mission. A mission that was supposed to be what we ALL had in common, what we all shared. Sensitize, discuss, polemize. Follow, help and accompany the process that can bring to better games. To be part of it somehow.

I’m the only one who’s still waving that flag?

Those communities were and are important. They may degenerate into cesspits, but you can find a lot that is valuable in there. Even if I don’t think, contrarily to what Raph wrote (about me, even), that this is a growing trend. What I see is that game companies actively suffocate that kind of dialogue because they think it’s an attack to their own identity, a risk. So we get empty community support, PR and all the current “politically correct” and “professional” behaviours that are concretely just a determinate removal of that kind of direct relationship that we fought for. A few like Raph are left. But they are now just outsiders and unique cases instead of a growing trend that we contributed to build and develop. The point is: we are losing that battle, if not lost already.

Why I’m not satisfied by current MMO companies?

Not because games are “flawed” and the flaws unforgivable, but because of the general situation. The gap between developers and the community is GROWING, not shrinking as we all hoped. Instead of training new blood, new enthusiasm and passion for this genre, we have what Megyn defined twenty years of incest. We lack a positive, constructive culture. We lack that kind of “humus” from where the developers of tomorrow will come. I ranted a lot in the past when I saw always the same names jumping from company to company and, from my point of view, lacking the passion and commitment that are a necessity in this genre. But it is also true that the problem isn’t just of the dev who decided to leave a company for another, but also of the company that made that dev flee because he wasn’t put in the condition to do his work at best. So the problem runs deeper.

What I’d like to see?

I’d like to see a game company that is more responsive and aware. More alive and human. That isn’t ashamed or scared of a dialogue with the players, but that actually promotes and encourages it. A company that pushes the evolution of the genre instead of being VICTIM OF IT. Anticipate the trends instead of being caught off guard. A company that can produce a game that doesn’t start to sink just one year down the road. With the ambition to stay and leave a sign. A dev studios that doesn’t need a new brand or flag where to hide behind every couple of years because they have burnt the previous one. And this isn’t just about game design, but also about technology. The technology must be more flexible and powerful. This obviously needs work and time, it needs traning, study and research both inside and outside.

But if this is true then why EVERY MMO company has two, three, four MMOs in development when they can HARDLY support one?

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Monsters’ movement patterns

I thought about this while commenting the EQ2’s video here below.

Have you noticed how in ALL mmorpgs ALL the monsters ALWAYS move just in straight lines? They aggro and run to you, or they flee, more or less randomly. In between there’s not much.

One of the things that caught my attention while I was playing God of War is how all the monsters had rather complex movement patterns that I would find hard even to describe technically. Complex rotations, retreats, fast dodges. They all look rather “fuzzy”. Not so easy to recognize and predict, in particular when you fight more than one at the same time.

That’s another element that has significant role in that game and one that completely misses in mmorpgs: the movement.

And another that I would really like being developed more, both aesthetically and for gameplay (different movement patterns during combat).

Add it to the “realistic aggro behaviours”, and mobs attacking in organized groups (unfinished post).

Think how much it would be cool to assault a goblin camp and have all those goblins start to fight in groups, parse the environment to take cover behind trees/tents as they fire arrows at you and while another small squad of three or four are running toward you to engage in melee.

And then you can work to “branch up” from a typical goblin mob to create a number of different variations, depending on the weapons and armor they use, their rank and so on. Instead of one mob type cloned everywhere, you would obtain a more organic environment that could offer much more interesting and deep gameplay.

This is again what the genre has still to offer. You just need to not stop at a very superficial level and “dig the myth”.

Then again, there are technical hurdles to overcome. This goes along with the lack of “physicalness”. The sense of contact, weight, solidity. In mmorpgs everything that moves is immaterial. You cannot reach out and “touch”. You just move through. Phantom-like. This isn’t just a limit for the emotes (cannot really “hug”, for example), but also for the combat, where you never really feel an impact. Stuns and roots are as far you can get. The monster cannot, for example, grab your arm and toss you away, or jump on you and keep you blocked under his weight. And if you are disarmed you are only losing the use of your weapon for a certain amount of time, you don’t see your weapon bouncing away and you don’t have to jump after it to use it again.

I think next-gen games will have to start to delve more on those patterns, see what’s doable and push some more the technology.

That’s innovation too. Without the need to look at other genres or fancy business models to experiment.

The romantic theory of game design (prototyping Vs reiterating)

It’s from a while that I believe that “prototyping” is an overrated design approach. I always believed that a game should be done exactly as it was imagined, as close as possible to the idea that sits in the mind of the designer. I believe in a strong “vision” and direction and I don’t accept that a “prototype” is going to tell me what works and what doesn’t. I think it’s just a way to get fooled.

In short I think that prototyping is a bad way to figure out whether an idea works or not, whether it’s fun or not. In fact I believe that the conclusions coming as a result of those tests will likely be misleading.

To explain myself better I could oppose to that approach its theoretical negation: take the worst concept and reiterate long enough, and I’m sure you can make something fun out of it.

That’s what I believe making games is like. You persist doing something that just doesn’t seem to work, trying instead to make it work as you imagined it. It’s a strife. A prototype will just tell you that the idea sucks. But persist long enough and I’m sure you’ll finally reach your goal, and suddendly everything will start to work exactly as you imagined. Making a great game that finally can be recognized by everyone else. “Recognizing” is the key because that’s the function of a prototype, and, still, it’s what that approach does worse.

I believe that “game design” is “working against the odds”. A designer is a fool that noone can understand what he is saying. Someone who speaks in a tongue you don’t understand. A stranger. But, one day, he arrives and shows what he meant for all that time. And a standing ovation explodes, like an epiphany.

Game design is an epiphany. It’s a concrete way to let people step in your head and finally understand and participate. It’s an happy end. A catharsis.

And you cannot “test” a catharsis. You cannot anticipate an epiphany. Those things only happen when there’s a strong will behind.

This is why I believe that game design should always start from a strong *necessity* and that should always follow a definite direction. It’s a volitional act. NOT experimentation. The experimentation is just for the scientist, for someone who cannot shape anything in his own mind. For a designer in search of ideas.

But the “true” designer isn’t in search of ideas. He has an overflow of ideas.

I believe that prototyping is necessary only in the measure it becomes an “enabler” for the reiteration: a prototype is often something self-contained, so offering the requirements for the reiteration to start and refine the model. It’s about execution, not about the concept. The concept is a “black box”. It should never be tested, never doubted. It’s… faith.

All this after the announce of Valve’s Portal. It’s not really something that Valve built, but more something that Valve bought (the company website is currently down due to high bandwidth usage).

I tried the concept demo (mirror) but I wasn’t so impressed. It gave me a strong nausea right away (due to the inertia in the walking movement more than the portaling stuff, most likely) and I had to stop just past the third or fourth room (the one with the boulders). It’s a quite simple puzzle game, without some dynamism it’s just about discovering the right trick to move to the next room. Immersivity is next to none.

Then dress it up with a retro sci-fi/realistic mood, add a portal-shooting gun, add some more dynamics elements, picking things on the fly and a more realistic physics system and… wow! It’s simply awesome.

Great idea to time this on the release of Prey, like if they are mocking them by using the portal technology for something way more innovative.

It’s time to go develop a netcode for that. Multiplayer madness.

Trapped in a cubicle with transparent walls

More things to say. In the previous post I underlined the other perspective. The fact that a “dialogue” can be a necessity of the developer with a priority over a need of the community.

Another important assumption is that the dialogue is collaborative, two-ways. For example in this case Lum wrote something, but it’s *me* who started a dialogue and it’s Lum that will kill it by not replying (a reasonable assumption).

You know? I really do HATE these latest trends with the “blogs”. It’s not a case that I’m still quite active in the forums. I dread a scenario where everyone has a place where to write and is entitled his own opinions. Everyone with his own ideas and beliefs, his protected, secluded space. Blogging is a danger.

Where the fuck is the dialogue if there is no real confrontation? If there isn’t a conflict, an exchange of opinions, a challenge? Where is the synthesis? The dialectic?

It’s like if we have all these blogs, but we all ignore each other. Like if we live trapped, each in his own cubicle with transparent walls, but you cannot move to reach out and actually have a confrontation. Everything passive, convoluted and, in the end, absolutely useless, meaningless.

This past week I’ve seen an amusing Argentinean movie hypothesizing a society where people don’t cook anymore. They simply order food from “Tiffany’s”. The food will arrive in record time, delivered directly to your home, still hot. They don’t make food, they fulfill your dreams. They can prepare every kind of food you can imagine, the exact way you desire it. In this kind of society noone eats together anymore. Every single person has his own particualr favourite food that is different from everyone else. In this society there aren’t anymore any kind of relationships because everyone is on his own, with his own personal desires, promptly delivered and fulfilled. No need anymore to deal with others, confrontate, find compromises. To the point that the only normal relationship will be the result of a mistake: two orders are accidentally swapped and the wrong food delivered to the wrong person, which will lead to two people meeting and then rediscover a kind of relationship that didn’t exist anymore (basically they make sex).

That’s pretty much the awful trend I’m noticing. We have all these blogs but it’s like a new way to completely ignore each other. Everyone just has his own personal space. Instead of creating a community or a culture, instead of participating together, we are just sailing toward isolation. We are losing identity, belonging to a group. Building something together.

And you know the trend. We are moving toward a future where each player will be able to create his own, personal mmorpg. What a FRIGHTENING NIGHTMARE!

If we don’t meet together anymore, if we don’t confrontate, if we don’t work together, well… we are going to lose everything.


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Gated content + Permeable barriers

Again on the concepts of “gated content” and “permeable barriers”.

In the second part I tried to explain that the idea of “gated content” didn’t negate the possibility to have stories, but instead enhanced it. But that’s just one inherited application of the model. Originally the idea wasn’t about “parallel worlds”, each with its own rules, progression and story, but about general patterns. Like “solo” play, PvP, groups and raids.

So not only the different parallel worlds are accessible because “contemporary” (with the player “gated” from one to the other), but the general patterns on which they are based are also “contemporary”. The player has a choice about which *type* of content he wants to experience. The rule is: experience the type of content you prefer without your character being penalized.

This is why I started to describe this model by analyzing the “endgame”. There’s no need for an “endgame” when finally all the different gameplay patterns that the game has to offer are always open. There’s no “before” and “after”. There are no obligatory passages. There are no barriers between the players that prevent them to group and enjoy the game together.

This possibility not only offers an open choice to the players without penalizing the characters they play, but it also leads to a game where the players will be much more inclined to take advantage of the different types of content the game offers. When you can easily “switch” between the different gameplay models, then you are also much more inclined to experiement with all the game has to offer.

Which is the real original goal behind those ideas: start with a familiar single player style of experience that a vast public can grasp and recognize with, and then “branch up” the game, progressively, slowly opening and disclosing all the different patterns and possibilities the game has to offer. Like the PvP sandbox. One part is used to “gate” the players to another without scaring them. Without crippling these possibilities with huge accessibility barriers or high prices of admittance.

Mass market, to me, means the possibility to absorb that public by making the game as accessible as possible. Without slapping them in the face with an insane amount of “noise”. The idea of “gated content” and parallel worlds is about the possibility to layer different complexity levels, one on top of the other, so that you can slowly convince the player to experiment and learn with all the various possibilities offered.

Which is why “gated content” and “permeable barriers” are strictly tied together and have similar purposes. Educate, “lead” the players through the complexity of a virtual world.

From another perspective: you cannot hope to have a commercially successful PvP game without a PvE side that slowly convinces the players to look over to the other part. The goal is to make that transition as smooth as possible, still without forcing the players, but instead *encouraging* them to switch freely between the parts. Following their own preference.

My idea is: if switching between the gameplay patterns is simple and without penalizations, then the players will be naturally inclined to “cross the lines” (the permeable barriers) and see what’s on the other side. And then consider where they want to be, making their own choice.

World traveler: “gated content”

I return again on the fancy term “gated content” to focus more on some concepts that were misunderstood.

It’s already frustrating not being able to convince the few who care to read what I write. Even more frustrating when I discover that not only I didn’t convince anyone, but that what I wrote was also completely misunderstood and that I’m being criticized for things that I didn’t even thought. In particular because I put a lot of effort trying to explain what I mean in the most clear and direct way. Receiving critics is always good, it’s less good when what I write is misrepresented. There’s no worse failure for me than that.

In these two articles I associated the definition of “gated content” to the “endgame” and the “world traveler” concepts. To understand things better you could also use this reference (tripartite model).

1- There is no “endgame” in this model because the idea of “gated content” erases a “before” and “after” in the flow of the game. What your character does and the different gameplay patterns he can have access to are defined by a personal choice. Your own preference. Not impositions. Not obligatory passages.

One of the steps to reach that goal is about removing “level mechanics” in favor of a skill system. The purpose here, as it is widely known, is to reduce the power differential, but, in particular, to remove the bad habit of using levels to decide the content that you can access and the content that is out of reach. With a skill based system there may be still a significant power differential between a newbie and a veteran, but it is at least possible for people to group together without the game mechanics getting in the way, crippling the experience you gain, limiting the loot you can use and not allowing you to be in certain places. The gap is narrower and more natural. The game doesn’t put artificial barriers between you and your friends. This is the part that should be more familiar of the idea.

The other part involves the content in the game. “Gated content” means that there are “contemporary” realities. The “world traveler”, aka the player, can switch between these realities following his own preference. While in other games you move from solo to groups and to raids, in my idea I separate the direct ties and make all those “contemporary”. As your character is created you can decide, for example, to solo, to group, to PvP or to raid. Do only one of them, do only those you care about or all together. It’s your choice. The game doesn’t force on you a pattern, nor it cripples your character because you didn’t do a specific thing.

2- I’ve been accused of being willingly to remove the story component from mmorpgs and since this cannot be more FAR from the reality, here some precisations in that direction.
Quoting myself again:

I NEVER wrote that the stories should be removed. This cannot be more false since it’s NOT what I think.

The point is that a mmorpg shouldn’t be about just ONE story with a start and an end, because simply that’s not what a mmorpg should do.

Story elements CAN and SHOULD be integrated in that “world traveler” model, aka the “gated content“.

EACH WORLD, or sub-world can have its story. The character IS YOU. You don’t need other characters to experience more stories, and those stories in those worlds CAN and SHOULD “end”. But not the game and not your character.

Each “gated” world, each reality, correspond to a different story that you can live. A different character that you can become.

The “game”, as the overall structure that supports and contains all these worlds/realities, never ends. The NeverEnding Story. The real ideal behind these games. It’s over only when there aren’t anymore ideas, when there aren’t anymore players who want to hear and be part of fantastic stories.

Instead the stories you can experience within each of these worlds WILL and SHOULD end. They can be linear and represent finite story lines. Maybe where to return one day when something new happens that destabilizes the temporary calm you achieved in a previous mission. When the designers of the game decide to move that particular story onward. You step in the gate and become once again that hero in that world. Like when you went back to Britannia with each new chapter of Ultima.

In WoW you cannot go in the Deadmines or Gnomeragon with a level 10 character. When the flying isle of Naxxaraxxwhatthefuck will be released with the next patch you won’t be able to see it and play there if you aren’t already part of a selected group.

Imho it make sense when your devs puts months of work to release a new zone to let it being experienced by as many players as possible. Instead of cockblocking it behind severe accessibility barriers.

With the model I’m describing you can. There are no barriers separating you from your friends. Everything in the game is offered. And it’s you to determine your experience by making your choice. You could just PvP, just soloing, just raid if it’s what appeals you. But it’s your own choice and all the other possibilities would be always open to you in the case you decide to try something else.

The “gated content” is a model used to actualize the possibility of contemporary realities.

The player “travels between worlds”. A world traveler.

You can travel to a world and become a knight, travel to another and become an adventurer, and then a merchant, an hunter, a member of a revolutionary movement that is trying to overthrow a regime, a partisan, a diplomat, a crusader, a paladin, a jester, a doctor, an exiled, a “stranger in a strange land”, a demon from another world, a spy, a noble, a soldier taking part on a large siege, a thief, a treasure hunter, an explorer, an archeologist, a wayfarer, a beggar, a mage in search of knowledge, a sailor, a pirate, a revered king, a fugitive, an outcast. A predator or the prey.

A level 50 character or a level 1. All these things at once.

No, you don’t “shapeshifts”. But the dwellers of these worlds can see and treat you in many different ways. They can have many different points of view and offer many different perspectives. In some worlds your powers don’t work, and in others they are much stronger.

These realities preserve their linearity if it’s needed. In the case of the world where you are part of the revolutionary movement maybe you cannot just start the revolution as you put your foot in that world. You’ll have to first organize things and all the rest that the story is setting for you. They can then be independent from each other or intertwined. For example you could need a special key to reach some place that can only be obtained from another dimension.

Such is the multiverse.

But the most important element is that there are no “you need to be this tall to enter” accessibility barriers.

If you want an even simpler definition think about a game as an aggregator of multiple, possible stories. That is my sandbox ideal. The early Ultima RPGs had already a beginning and an end, but in between they aggregated many different stories, characters and situations that you could discover, learn about and interact.

The defenitive solution to the endgame: “gated content”

There are a few concepts in here that I consider particularly important and that have been recurring in what I write. The beginning of the reasoning was an article about the future of the “endgame” over at Nerfbat and it became a good occasion to explain better two terms that I created and that I keep reusing. They are two general design principles that come as a result of my observations and I consider them important because they are more like philosophies that effect radically the way a game can be designed, even if on the surface they are easy to grasp.

These are the two terms and a general definiton for both, then I’ll go more in detail about the second:

“permeable barriers”. While the concept is rather broad and extended to the theme of the “accessibility”, my definition follows the idea of “lines drawn on the ground”. These lines define and regulate a space, but at the same time the player has the possibility to cross them. So they don’t transform into “cages”. Concretely the idea of permeable barriers offers a single character the possibility to change class, use different skill-sets, switch faction, travel between servers, develop special affinities and proficences and so on. All these “states” define what a character is and can do (think to a class), but they are never completely permanent and definitive and they can be reverted. The “betrayal” quest in EQ2, is a concrete example of the application of the concept of “permeable barrier”.

“gated content”. This is specifically about the “content” of the game. In particular it refers to the *types* of content, so, implicitly, the variety that the game offers. It’s an idea particularly suitable for a sandbox game, but not only. Each “gate” corresponds to a different pattern available. It is woth noticing that a “gate” here is a conceptual idea, not an actual gate in the game that leads to different sub-games. The main idea of “gated content” here refers to the coexistence of these patterns and the possibility of the player to choose what he *prefers*. One type of content doesn’t exclude or preclude another. Not only each type of content available isn’t forced on the player (you are at “x” level and have to do “x”), but it also always exists and remains accessible, valid and pertinent throughout the life cycle of that character. Without getting replaced. Instead of passing from casual content to hardcore raids as two distinct and exclusive moments, all these content types coexist as parallel lines. (btw, even here there’s a drift of the term, since I also use it for the accessibility when I use a type of content as a “door” on a different type. Not only to switch content types then, but also to integrate them.)

The first point is that the whole idea of “endgame” is silly. A division between two different games, the “main” one and the “endgame” has no reason to exist.

The very first question should be about which one is better and more appealing. In some cases (DAoC) the endgame is where the fun is, you have to endure the treadmill so that you can finally reach it. In other games (WoW) the “main” game is much more appealing, while the endgame is a complete change of pace that not many players enjoy (but tend to endure).

Why this division?

We basically have two ways to play the game. The only motivation to this distiction is that it adds “variety”. Okay. Then, if this distinction is about adding variety, a much better design choice would be about INCORPORATING that variety in the same model. So that you aren’t bound to a “before” and “after”, but instead the two patterns cohexist and you can switch them based on your preference.

The original model here is the sandbox. Or the idea that says that adding variety to a virtual world is a winning choice. The one that accomplishes more the “mission” of these kind of games and enhances the fun. The variety always adds to the fun when the players are NOT ENFORCED into a one-way, obligatory path.

So the idea to have different patterns available in the same game is not a good one. It is an *essential* one. But an essential one that needs to be presented to the players on the same level. And not separated in two moment. The “before” and “after”. Univocal and selective.

The “main game” in WoW, the one that is responsible to its success thanks to its accessibility and polish, is all focused on “progress”. Not just in character power, don’t let the appearance fool you. But also and in particular in “escalation“. This is something that WoW does MUCH better than EQ2, for example. Meaning the way it leads you around the zones and then progressively adding more and more elements, with the world really starting small and then branching up. Sense of wonder. It’s a sense of progression that follows the whole game and that really involves much more than the character. It involves the world outside and the way the game, step by step, adds elements to the puzzle. Brush strokes that progressively realize an impressive painting. This hooks the players better than everything else because the game not only gives you the correct amount of short-term goals, but also long term expectations and revelations.

There’s a problem in this model, though. It gets spoiled. The first time you go through it is really the best experience you’ve ever had, but once it is spoiled, the sense of wonder and perfect progression don’t work anymore. You can create alts, explore the starting zones you haven’t seen yet, but it’s never like the first time through. After three-four alts it even starts to get annoying. Blizzard is planning for new races and starting zones in the expansion but just adding those won’t work. It’s the model of the game that gets spoiled and you know already what type of progression and what kind of content you are going to see. “Reskinning” this experience won’t do the trick because the experienced player has already generalized all that type of content (kill ten rats, get ten pelts, these are generalizations). He knows already how things work, he knows already that type of “escalation”.

The game doesn’t impress anymore, it loses its original, strong emotional impact.

The strength of WoW, and the reason why it will continue to be successful, is that for the brand new players this type of perfect progression is retained at no loss. You could have started to play when the game was released or start to play now and you aren’t going to miss anything. The game is so carefully balanced that it will be preserved perfectly, while other mmorpgs age horribly and become nearly impossible for a brand new player to get into. Impassable barriers that isolate the “before” and “after” of the community. Which leads to a stagnation and the consequent slow drift into oblivion. It’s not just about the “retention” of the subscriptions. It is rumored that WoW has a rather bad retention but one year and half later and it still sells more than 50k boxes each month just in NA. Without new players a mmorpg doesn’t go anywhere and old mmorpgs don’t lose those new players because they look old. But because the accessibility of the game fell to pieces as a consequence of bad design choices and models.

Often the “good” endgame is about the PvP. The majority of the ideas on Nerfbat, in particular those that I consider valid, are about PvP. It’s not a case. “Stalling” is a good mechanic for PvP. Similarly to how the convergence is much more appropriate than divergence in PvP. If every couple of weeks there’s an alien invasion on the world that completely destabilizes the PvP scenario, the players would be pissed off. Because the best mechanic for a PvP environment is a “stall”. A fixed situation where then the players can manipulate some elements and play their game. But something under their control, not something impromptu or surprising. The “endgame” works in PvP because it is a stalling situation. Finally no other elements come to disrupt the conditions and the players “converge” in a similar situation. PvP needs this sort of “space” to exist. A set situation that reunites the players instead of dispersing them.

What’s the endgame in WoW? Well, you cannot gain anymore levels so what is left to do is improve your gear. As a design model it doesn’t seem really motivated, it is a silly idea. So why we arrived to it? The biggest game out there cannot be founded on something completely unmotivated, it would be crazy.Well, we arrived to that model not as a design choice, but as a productive one. A “progression” game is like football. You move horizontally, as a front. You cannot move backwards, it would be an heresy (see how hated are exp losses on a death). You are doomed to go on. At some point the game ends because the developers could add only so much content, it’s always a finite space (and randomly generated content is also still finited) so, eventually, you arrive at the end. And what then? What am I chasing? The “endgame” here isn’t a “necessity” of game design. It’s just a necessity of the production. An excuse so that, despite the game is over, the players could feel motivated to continue to play and pay. “Raiding” is in this case the perfect choice to bind that request with a type of content that is structurally redundant and vain.

Think to the “main game” as a bait. Once they “fished” you they can throw you in a bucket of water and keep you there for a long while. Raiding is that “bucket of water”.

The absurdity that I often underlined is that this model that is supposed to “preserve” content, since it’s the most precious and scarce resource in the game, does exactly the opposite. It *erodes* content and removes it from the game since it’s heavily based on the mudflation. Instead of valorizing ALL that the game has to offer, this kind of model just keeps devaluing and replacing constantly. As a continue, counterproductive reaction that finishes just to put a strain these worlds till they collapse.

So is this really the best model to use? Or maybe it is just a spontaneous drift and negative “maturation” (sophistication) of a genre that has lost track of its true principles and drive?

Let’s imagine a different scenario and let’s say that the content team has finished a small zone with all its quests, dungeons and overall story arc that unifies the various parts. A month later the zone is patched in the game but this time ALL the players can enter and experience it. The player who just bought the game and has been playing for a week as the veteran player who has kept an account for two years. And hopefully they’ll even play side by side.

This doesn’t mean that the sense of progression should be completely lost since all the content is always accessible. See for example these ideas. My idea is more like a collection of story lines. These can be totally independent or connected. But, while separated, they would retain their own linearity. In a game like WoW this already happens. There are story lines and themed quests, think for example to an instance and all the quests that are linked to it to form a story. Where that model doesn’t really work is in the fact that those stories (even a bit too limited in potential) are limited by level. If you skip a part, going back wolud be rather silly. So my idea is about freeing these storylines so that the content never gets obsolete and remains always interesting for the same character. With no distictions between the “endgame” and the rest.

And yes, at the end there could be those ideas vaguely outlined on Nerfbat. But not as a “BAM! endgame”. Not as a sudden event that completely changes the game you are playing. But as an evolution from the current model to one that contemplates all these possibilities right from the start. My idea of “gated content“.

The idea of the player (and character) as a “traveler of worlds”. Who passes smoothly (the idea of “permeable barriers”) thorugh different types of content (PvP, group, single player, raid etc..) depending on his personal preference more than external imposition.

I imagine the design concept of the “gated content” visually like a number of portals that can be opened and that lead the character exactly to that type of gameplay he is looking for. A number of “opened doors”. Possibilities available. The character is an “enabler” but the lack of a level system keeps the choice always “flat” and valid instead of higly selective. The “traveler of worlds” is the idea of a character that isn’t strictly defined, but a roleplay point of view. Ideally that character could enter a portal and become a level 1 guy. Or enter another portal and become a level 50. Or enter another again and become a merchant. The same from the point of view of the content. Dungeons runs, epic raids, PvP territorial conquest, tournaments, storylines. These elements should work like portals that should never be dependent on a obligatory, imposed choice. The game shouldn’t cage you into one pattern or one role. It’s the player who decides what he wants to experience.

In a sandbox all the options should be available and valorized. And not as in SWG where the game was trying to lock you in one role to preclude all the rest the game had to offer.

These realities should coexist as possibilities.

There are four main points that should be at the center and that I continue to repeat:

– Accessibility
– Immersion
– Gated content
– Permeable barriers

What’s the concrete consequence of all this? How concretely changes the game? For example the raid content wouldn’t be anymore the obligatory “endgame”, nor the only option you have past a certain point. The raid content would be just one *type* of content always available and always valid (and if you want to know concretely my idea of raid content, motivations, execution and reward, look here). Along with all the other types of content/patterns that the game has to offer.

Overcoming current trends – The vocation of virtual worlds

Hundred of new mmopgs are being announced and NOT A SINGLE ONE HAS ONE GOOD IDEA.

People are predicting now that the market will saturate. It doesn’t make much sense after the exploit of WoW but “believing in WoW’ would be like believing to the latest new trend. Instead trends are there to be broken, and from my point of view it’s beacause of WoW that there are now signs that the market is saturating.

This is what Jeff Strain (Guild Wars Exec Producer) has seen in this genre:

What people didn’t realize was that if you’re hard core enough to pay a subscription for a game you’re not going to do it with 2 games or 3 games or 8 games. You’re really only going play one game a year. What we saw was it was kind of stifling people’s ability to give them the freedom to go try a bunch of different games like you would normally do. Also once you got into it you were kind of forced to make this choice: either this is going to be a lifestyle commitment for me or I’m going to devote all my gaming hours to playing this one game.

There is truth in these comments. I’ve often repeated that this genre comes from an history of niche appeal. Hardcore players dedicated to THIS genre more like a “vocation” than just a general gaming culture. It was a world on its own, a world with an high price of admittance and that built its own community above the single title exactly because we all had something in common.

Now those communities are becoming weaker because the confines are blurred and this genre isn’t anymore a matter of an handful of a selected players. It is getting exposed to the large public and drawing the attention and legitimation of the non-specialized media. It is harder for a player to recognize himself in a group now. There isn’t anymore a strong identity for the mmorpg players. We aren’t anymore “special”.

The result of all this is two folds. The first part is that the market is expanding. WoW didn’t exactly demonstrate that the market is expanding at an increased pace, but more like that the market doesn’t have a defined dimension. If you reinvent it, it can be much larger, or much smaller. It is malleable, it cannot be “observed” or predicted. It doesn’t need outsider analysts because it’s a brand new space. And, as a brand new space, it has no rules.

But how WoW was able to rack up a large number of subscribers (not players, subscribers) beside launching everywhere? From my point of view, WoW isn’t an exception to the rule, it confirms it. I believe that WoW really reinvented the market but without changing its rules. It is often seen as a not innovative game, it just took all the influences in the genre and worked to make them well-olied, simplified. Removing the great majority of the Bad Habits and leaving behind the overcomplication that was plaguing the genre. It didn’t invented anything but it addressed exactly what the genre, and the market, needed: the accessibility.

The significant element in WoW’s growth is that it cleared the genre of its “hardcore” status. From there the conflict between “casual players Vs hardcore” that the game wasn’t able to solve.

In fewer words: WoW resolved the past of this genre, but it doesn’t represent its future.

We’ll have to wait for future titles (or former companies to wake up, but it won’t happen till it’s too late) to move past that point, to overcome the current trend, with a new one. It is obviously a path of obsolescence because the genre is immature and it still has a long way to go. You cannot sit down in a point because that’s not what it is needed now. And I’m in the minority saying that these virtual worlds shouldn’t become static oasis punctuating the history and evolution of this genre, but that they should move along with it. Accompany it. Fulfilling their unique vocation and quality.

At the very origin of all these considerations there is the fact that you need to have *an idea* to bring something to this genre. Do you want just a slice of the pie or do you know the ingredients that are missing? My impression, back to where I started, is that hundred of new mmorpgs are being announced but none of them seem to bring anything valuable to this genre. They seem doomed to become just short-lived comets generating a couple of threads on a mmorpg forum as they are launched to be then forgotten while trying to survive in their small niche in the following months.

These “lesser” mmorpgs try to survive in the interstices between the bigger titles, with the vain hope to become big titles themselves. But where are the premises to achieve that status? Where are the ideas?

This brings back to what Jeff Strain said above. The mmorpg market is a particular one. It’s not the same of single player games and follows completely different rules. This market is much more competitive because it’s not just a matter of placing a product, but a matter of winning an audience in the longer term. To create bonds with the players. To create a virtual world that can walk and evolve on its own, as a “vituous world”. Buy “shares” of that world, becoming part of it. Sharing an identity.

A lot more than being seduced for a few hours of satisfying playtime.

Some people, like Raph or Jeff Strain up here, believe that the only way to break this trend and generate a new one is to introduce a new business model that could break the accessibility barrier of the subscription fee. Discarding the very foundation of the mmorpg model. This could lure more potential players in, possibly for free (like the hypotetical game that SOE is supposed to develop right now), and then get money from different sources like RMT or content-on-demand. In a second moment this becomes even a strategy involving the content of the games: the plurality of genres (past the fantasy cliche) and the “bite-sized” games.

This is exactly the “Blue Ocean strategy” or, in simpler words, “thinking out of the box”. Change the rules.

I’m bringing all this up because I’m not in that group. That’s not the faction I’m fighting for. It’s not what I’d like to see. This doesn’t mean that I see that approach as faulty (but I also don’t see it any less risky), but it implies a shift of interest to completely diffent products. It’s not just a way to “present” the same thing.

Instead I’m here for the mmorpgs in their original premise (like: “the immersion” as a founding value). Of course not in their original bad habits and flaws. But I see a future, advancement and innovation in THIS genre. Not in a new one. I like this precise thing that I see right now as both faulty and promising. But I’m not a developer trying to find a new space. I’m just “a player” who is passionate about this precise thing. Investing in this.

If the market is competitive it doesn’t mean that it must be played out. That’s exclusively the perspective of the businessman. A subscription model isn’t just a way to sell a product. It is a way to define it. Part of what it is. You can reinvent the market but you cannot give us “what we want”.

There are always two different fronts. One is about expanding the market to new and completely different products, the other is about advancing a specific genre. I am interested and strongly believe in the second.

Now the point is: all those hundreds of new mmorpgs that are being developed don’t fall in any of the two categories. They aren’t new products, nor they bring new ideas.

I really don’t know what to think.

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ROADKILL!! (The doom of indie mmorpg companies)

Dave Rickey: There are a lot of lessons Eve can teach us. But let’s not go off half-cocked and learn the wrong ones. Eve’s business position is so unique, it serves only as an outlier, a boundary point that shows what can happen, when a game has a niche to itself that grows so slowly that it attracts no competitors.

Raph recently put together some predictions about this industry and people nodded their heads in agreement. I have many thoughts about this but it’s not easy to put all of them together in a simple thesis. I’ll throw some of the thoughts here and maybe I’ll find a thread.

The first point to consider is that I find those previsions vague. At some point I could imagine me commenting, “It went exactly the opposite of what you said.” and Raph, “No, it went exactly as I said”. Some of those predictions are plausible (like the online distribution), you could even argue that the scenario he portrays is already here. More like a description than a prediction. But the title says “next-gen”. Next-gen supposes that things will change and this is exactly the apocalyptic scenario that both Lum and Psychochild have perceived. A tone confirmed by Raph himself:

Looking out at the future, what I see is an extinction-level event.

That sounds quite different from a description of the current scenario, it implies some huge paradigm shifts, innovation, revoloutions. Exciting times!

Well, my predictions are much more shocking than that: things will remain almost exactly as you see them now.

If you observe the situation with a huge magnifier then everything you’ll see will also appear huge and exhalted, but the truth is that it all falls in the average “normality”. Raph seems to predict significant changes, in particular he focuses on the extinction of the majority of the large projects for the rise of the indie companies. A plurality of offers, tiny blocks of innovation. The “spring of all the new species”. Even a new growth of the PC gaming market!

My suspect is that Raph wrote that while asleep and dreaming. A pretty, positive scenario that he wishes more than one he expects, I think. Again we could argue that all this is already happening. But where is the prediction? If it’s just a relative point of view the discussion would be pretty much null, what you see as “huge” and “next”, I see as “small” and “current”. Without an objective platform we don’t go anywhere. That scenario is already here or it is an incoming revolution? Because if it’s already here then I don’t see it as “huge”, I see it as “negligible”. Are things really going to change significantly? And for who?

Who will say what is “next-gen” when it will finally arrive? Because my suspect is that everyone will have a different opinion. Everyone will be convinced to be right even if everyone says a different thing.

So let’s focus on the three points I find relevant to discuss, at least:
– The Big Guys will crumble under their own weight
– Smaller, indie companies will flourish everywhere with a plurality of ideas
– Everyone will be happy (the market will grow, there will be more space for individuality and the offer will be richer)

Do you really believe that this is going to happen or you just wish that it is going to happen? My opinion is that things will change only if you go look in detail at every small trend, pretty much as things can already be seen from many different points of view right now. This is why I say that nothing significant is going to happen anytime soon. The genre will mature. Maturity usually brings to specialization more than variety. I don’t think we’ll see a plurality, I think instead that we’ll see a consolidation.

See? Things are already much different and still the same, at the same time. I say there will be a consolidation but this implies that there will be failures, projects going nowhere. This scenario not only is something already happening under everyone’s eyes, but it may even fall in that first point about the Big Guys.

It is going to be extremely hard for medium-sized companies to compete in the mmorpg market. There’s a race for the leadership. The upcoming scenario is an oligarchy. A few, consolidated titles, with dedicated development teams. The great majority of the companies that found their own space won’t have an easy, quiet life. They will have to fight and there will be losses because those smaller spaces will become more desirable when the market will saturate. This isn’t a process of extinction, this is a process of selection and assimilation. It isn’t even a trend specific of this industry. The mass market implies an hegemony. It’s the Borg process of assimilation and transformation. Things that will be rejected will be excluded, but after the process started it doesn’t stop, like the excessive growth of WoW. Beyond the normality. There’s a point where it transforms in a flood, the mass market culture permeates and convinces. Conforms and uniforms.

Who will survive in this scenario? The indie companies or at least the smaller sized ones that won’t fit in the Uber Oligarchy will only survive if they don’t draw any attention. Live of breadcrumbs. When they’ll rise their head and draw the attention they will get assimilated or wiped away. Or a project is too tiny to be relevant, or it will draw attention and it will be eaten alive. This is what happens when you draw attention. The Big Guys and every mass culture trend never live of innovation. Innovation would kill mass culture. They live of assimilation. They slowly recycle what happens around them. In this scenario the indie companies aren’t “next-gen”, they are just food for the dinosaurs.

What is sure is that the dinosaurs will continue to rule this land and decide what happens on a significant level. Maybe the small companies will have the blind illusion of being the center of the world, but they will only exist as long the dinosaurs want, as long they get unnoticed, as long they remain negligible. As long they don’t harm. As long they don’t poke their heads out of their holes.

And in the case they try to do that… ROADKILL!!