What a big fuss for a name

The discussion about the Nintendo Revolution console renamed “Wii” doesn’t seem to end. Considering the outcome it was definitely a winning move.

It’s from the very beginning that this console is surrounded by hype. It began with the tiny box that seemed to be empty inside, then the controller (btw, in retrospective someone got it right months before it was disclosed in September), now the name. At this moment the Phantom console is probably more solid than this Nintendo thing.

There are speculations about the name not being real and they may be attendible. Nintendo is so crazy that you really cannot say what may be true or not.

But why do we care? It’s just a name, it may be enough to keep marketers entertained for a while, but, as players, I really don’t see what is there to discuss and why so many people are ranting aloud just about the name of a console. There is really anything else more interesting to discuss/joke about?

The real point is that the name is irrelevant. The best thing a console name can do is being recognizable and catchy. This “Wii” does both, even if it sounds silly. At the end only two things will matter and define the success or failure of the console: that the graphic is shiny enough to draw the brief attention of the average gamer and if the games are involving enough to survive the word of mouth.

Honestly a console is just a vehicle and it should be almost irrelevant for a player. It’s all about the games and the number and reputation of the companies that will accept to dedicate themselves to that particular console. In fact the LESS consoles we have around littering the place, the better is for everyone.

The name could be a failure and the console could still be a huge success. What is fun is that the future marketing strategies may be influenced by flawed principles.

Now the problem is that “wii” gives an idea of something tiny, modest, hard to notice. Much better would be a “WOOOOO!” (A Q23 classic “emote”)

What is a “wii”? A weep? The game industry needs to be aggressive and pretentious, not shy and inhibited.

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The site may be unavailable

cesspit.net domain expires in a few days and I’m trying to transfer it to dreamhost so that I don’t have to pay 20$ for the renewal where it is at the moment.

In theory the transition should be smooth since the nameservers are already at dreamhost and don’t need to be updated. But then I’m also used to all sort of problems coming up. So if the site vanishes it’s because I’m having problems with the domain. Most likely.

While I was poking things around I reworked the code of the “Category” block so that it takes less space and allows me to create more categories for the specific games, now shown through the button toggle. I also found a workaround to hide some categories from the block so that now I can add more topics without making the block take too much space and becoming unusable.

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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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Guild Wars: Factions – Goes live

(work in progress post)

The new stand-alone expansion is now available on NCSoft online store for the exact same price of the boxed version (49.99$). I’m trying to gather a full feature list with more details about the new game modes, for now there’s the official FAQ that explains what you can expect from the game. For other early details there’s also my previous glance.

Since it’s stand-alone you can choose to create a brand new account or add the expansion to your previous standard Guild Wars account:

If you add the new access key to the existing account all your characters will be able to access all the content from both expansions and you’ll get two new character slots, instead if you open a brand new account you’ll get four character slots but you can only enter the areas of one of the two campaigns. Considering that the new expansion adds new skills and items for all the classes it’s obviously suggested to choose the first option. It was also announced that this summer it will be possible to buy new character slots for 9.99$.

Launching the game for the first time I noticed that now all the classes have an unique look depending on the campaign you choose. So even the standard classes will have new face/hair combinations and all-new itemization. See this example about how the warrior class looks differently between the two campaigns.

I’m moving the first steps around the moebius-shaped tutorial zone. Sometimes the pup-up messages are too quick and I have already various comments/gripes. This is a quick list I’ve written down, most of these points are complaints carried over from the original game:

– The dialogue windows pop-up right in the center of the screen, obscuring who’s talking. It’s not possible to reposition this window and it would be a much better choice to have placed it more on the side of the screen, without covering the view.
– The party window is still too intrusive and ugly. It would really need an overhaul.
– Still no way to deselect your current target without selecting something else.
– I stull dislike the ground textures, with bad-looking transitions.
– Sometimes there’s a cutscene right at the beginning of a zone, it would be nice to ask the player to press a “ready” button before it starts, when the loading is complete. Preventing to miss the cutscene on long downloads (when I alt-tabbed back to the game the cutscene was over and I didn’t even know it existed)
– The chat bubbles still appear overlapping on the NPC’s heads instead of above them. From the distance in particular, the chat bubble point of origin should be the bottom instead of the center.
– Still huge rubberbanding around obstacles.
– Many monsters still have badly synced animations and “skate” on the terrain while moving.

As in the first chapter you start fighting ugly bugs (GW’s version of the “kill 10 rats”) and the tutorial is exactly what you would expect. I noticed there’s a white circle around the center of the mini-map that represents your aggro radius, I didn’t remember this in the original game but maybe it’s just my memory. I find it quite functional but it is also a limit of the game. No matter of the type of the creature or the situation, the mobs will always aggro at the exact same distance. It’s kind of a trend in Guild Wars, more oriented toward a game-y experience than an immersive one. As always 90% of what you see on screen is just prettiness without a role, for example you could see a building, but it is almost sure that you cannot enter it. It’s mostly scenery very well done, but still nothing that gives some depth to the game. Nothing that is really part of the game. Extremely abstracted.

My very early impression is that this new chapter is rather pricey but content rich. Not much changed from the original GW so if you found it bland this chapter won’t be much better. It’s not a different game, nor one much improved from the last time you played it. But at the same time it continues on what it did, many new skills to create new, orignial builds and the new PvP modes that sound more involving, with alliances fighting for the control of the territory. I’ll comment more about this part as I reach it, even if I’m worried it is planned too much around the dedicated guilds and not easily accessible for other players (which means I could never see that content). The character window shows the three factions that will give you points that you can then spend for yourself or add to your alliance pool. In this second case I think the alliance can use those points to take control of some of the PvP zones.

About the amount of content I also have a comment from EFlannum, one of the devs:

To put things somewhat into perspective our times playing through chapter 2 are roughly equal to the times we got playing through chapter one, there is overall less square footage in chapter 2 but more content per square foot. I would describe it less as an expansion and more akin to the old d&d gold box games, it’s a new standalone game experience built on the same engine and using the same ruleset.

This wasn’t necessarily the plan right from the start but it is what it turned into. Hopefully it all works out.

The game continues to confirm its setting-independence, as I wrote as I played the game for the first time, and this is confirmed by the brand new look of all the classes in the new campaign. It becomes some sort of metaverse of parallel words represented by each new expansion. So it’s rather probable that with each new one they’ll approach a brand new setting, like this one has an asian theme. Creating a mixup of history, myths and exotic cultures. A melting-pot of cultural influences and suggestions. A truly “fantasy culture”.

I’ll write down more comments and add screenshots as I continue to play.




This map screen represents the whole landmass of the expansion, if you look carefully you should notice two parallel blue/red lines that should represent the territory of the two rival factions that the players should be able to affect.









































































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!!

EQ2: the equipment damage rule

I wanted to comment this for a while, in the last update patch there was a change that created some discussions and complaints. Here it is:

– Upon death, the most expensive item equipped in each slot within 2 minutes before death will take damage. If an item was equipped in more than one slot, the next most expensive item will be damaged in addition to the most expensive item. A single item will not be damaged more than once per death.

To begin with, this explanation is rather twisted and the first reaction from the players was a question mark. What the hell does this mean?

Well, Aggro Me wrote a bit about this rule when it was still on the test server and not in its last reiteration. EQ2 has gone through many revisions of the death penalty and, following a funny and consolidated trend, it moved more and more close to WoW. Right now the death penalty doesn’t differ too much between the two games and even in EQ2 one of the most relevant elements is the fact that when you die your equipment gets damaged and you have to repair it.

Since the two games follow the same rules both also have to deal with the same consequences. In EQ2 the players have available a /slash command to bind to a key that would quickly unequip all your items. This “smart” workaround/exploit was useful because you could press that key when a death was imminent to easily avoid to get the durability hit on your equipment on death and avoid repair costs.

In WoW the players don’t have access to powerful slash commands, but the UI scripting language also allows to create buttons to swap equipment and mirror the exact same exploit. It is interesting now to compare how this problem was addressed in the two games.

In EQ2 the solution went through various reiterations that lead to that rather counterintuitive rule I quoted up there. In fact the first problem is that this workaround to fix the exploit breaks one basic rule: “a player should always be able to understand a change or use a new feature without reading the patch notes”. In this case not only the explanation isn’t that simple to understand, but the new mechanic is based on a timer that is invisible to the player. The two minute rule, plus its precisations, is nowhere “transparent” in the game. This two minute timer isn’t revealed to the player, nor it can be autonomously deduced. The result is quite simple: or you read the patch notes, understand exactly what they mean and remember them, or this mechanic would remain completely obscure and hidden. It is clunky and complicated, not really appropriate for something that should be kept simple and transparent. Intuitive.

How the designers arrived to that conclusion? Here’s the “designers vs players” duel in the form of questions and answers:

Q: The players use a macro to quickly unequip items when death is imminent to avoid repair costs.
A: The designers introduce a 2-minute timer so that every item equipped in that lapse of time would get damaged. Even if unequipped at the time of the death.

Q: The players start to complain because they are penalized when swapping equipment for other reasons, every item equipped within those two minutes would get the durability hit. With this penalty stacking on multiple items.
A: The designers tweak the rule so that only the last item equipped for each slot would get damaged.

Q: The players once again outsmart and exploit the rule bringing with them two complete sets. One is their proper set they should use, the other is a disposable trash set to which they can quickly swap before a death to have it absorb the penalty.
A: The designers tweak the rule so that the “best” item for each slot would get damaged.

And that’s the final rule. There are even cases where you deliberately unequip items to move through risky spots without risking your equipment. This rule doesn’t prevent this, but the players would need to remember to wait an imaginary 2 minute timer to wear off every time. It is simply counterintuitive and artificial. Aren’t there better design solutions?

As I said WoW shares the exact same mechanic and risks the exact same exploit, it’s is interesting to see how Blizzard addressed the same problem. Now the point is that we don’t even need to wait for Blizzard, because Blizzard’s design is extremely simple. It’s logic.

The players unequip items to avoid them to get damaged on death. How we prevent this behaviour?

That’s the starting point, and this is a roleplay game. The more it is consistent, the better. So what’s the simplest answer possible to that problem? It’s obvious: we forbid the player to swap equipment during combat.

See? It wasn’t hard and it even makes sense. It’s extremely hard to imagine a warrior in a full plate who swaps his whole armor during a fight. Preventing this lame equip-swapping behaviour would not only fix the exploit, but also make the game mechanic more consistent, believable and intuitive. If you try to swap a chest piece during combat in WoW you get a message telling you that you can’t do that action at that time. You need to wait to be out of combat, when it makes sense to allow the character to put on a different armor set. Is this brilliant design? No, it’s logic. It’s thinking from “within the game” instead through the artificiality of game design: you cannot swap armor sets at will while you are engaged in combat. It’s not a rule to close an exploit, I would be *surprised* if the opposite would be allowed.

This is not all. If we think to a combat situation there’s still the realistic possibility to swap some of the items. For example it makes sense to swap weapons even if you are engaged in combat. This possibility would be believable. And, in fact, this is once again how WoW behaves: while you cannot swap your armor sets during combat, you can still swap two kinds of items, weapons and trinkets. Which, incidentally, are exactly those two types of items that contemplate the item-swapping as a valid combat strategy that is part of the design of the game. (trinkets don’t even have durability in WoW)

I’m far from praising WoW. What I want to demonstrate is that Blizzard’s design isn’t something complicated and convoluted that comes from the minds of game design gurus. It’s just simple thinking, logic, linear conclusions. Observation. You think to a fantasy game, you imagine these warriors and you are supposed to simulate the game mechanics so that they go close to what you would expect. The problem of the consistence.

The only excuse I can guess on SOE’s side is that they didn’t have available an “in-combat” flag to use directly in the mechanic, forcing them to find another solution. But even in this case I believe it wouldn’t be hard to code something similar starting from what’s already available, like the hate-lists of the mobs (if the players is in aggro, he would be considered in combat).

It looks like SOE has inherited Raph’s “Out Of Character” design. The absurd idea that the game design is completely abstracted (alienated) from the setting and the world you simulate. The level of the mechanics independent from the metaphoric level. The result is a complicated and convoluted ruleset that simply makes no sense and just leads to more and more problems.

Of course I’m writing about a tiny detail here with a negligible impact. But it’s a way to reveal a much broader and dangerous trend. A design apporach that I consider harmful (for these kinds of games).

Off-topic: What happened to Scott Hartsman? I have three guesses:
1- He just stopped posting on the boards because he’s busy planning and scheduling and there’s no major release anytime soon
2- He was moved/promoted/downgraded to a different role or project
3- He left SOE

Hey, you know I’m suspicious.
(now I have the suspect he may go to fill the space left by Raph)

The noob experience

I noticed a piece of news about Ryzom and planned changes to the newbie experience and it triggered some thoughts:

The current “newbie land” system made of 4 separate islands, is completely changed and replaced by a unique island; and, the new players should also be able to find more help through new missions that will guide their first steps on Atys regarding the gameplay and the lore basics.

I don’t want specifically to discuss this game but just some general points. It is interesting because there’s a trend about consolidating the newbie zones and simplify a lot the offer in quests and content. For example it happened consistently in DAoC, with a progressive approach, and in the classic EQ with brand new “alienated” tutorial content that gets revised and redone from time to time. I say “alienated” in the sense that it’s like a different part of the game, like a “ship” that brings you later in the real game. A transition. The same approach was used in EQ2’s newbie island that is “somewhere else”. Almost a stand-alone game (“The trials of the Isle”).

The whole newbie experience is another crucial point in this genre because it brings up many problems, that get systematically ignored only to demand overhauls and redesigns later on. In fact I think Mythic hasn’t learnt from DAoC when planning Warhammer as I already commented about the introductory PvP model they have hinted.

Anyway, I can observe this general trend to restructure, consolidate and simplify the newbie content. This is probably the consequence of a “redistribution of the players” over time. Exactly what Raph explanied in this often-quoted chart (and that I commented specifically). The players behave like waves, moving uniformily toward the perimeter of the game, till they reach the dam and start to stagnate there (while the center exsiccates till it needs to be refreshed).

There are a few interesting concepts in there to consider, though. One is that I don’t think WoW will require a redesign anytime soon. What is different then? The fact that the game was planned and designed completely around the accessibility, something that noone else was able to reproduce well enough. WoW starts as a single-player game. The zone can be fairly crowded or deserted but the key element is that you are “emancipated” from the presence of other players. The game teaches itself, you follow along. There aren’t barriers to pass, you play it exactly as a single-player game, so if there aren’t other players the game doesn’t suffer. This isn’t only valid later on, but even during the off-peaks (that get always ignored in the design). So it’s a self-supporting part of the game and that is expected to work under much different conditions.

What have we learnt? I’ve written recently: the multiplayer part is a “natural drift”. The key point is that it is “spontaneous” instead of imposed. The idea of an connexion, a join. Or, as I defined it to go at the core design idea: a gateway. The single-player experience can be used as an efficient “gate” to bring the two parts together. To add the value of one, to the other. “Gated content” to make the impermeable barriers, permeable. To make the genre accessible.

Now there are a few other points to consider. One is how you can add new content to the early game. This is a common topic that gets frequently brought up. Recently I’ve seen Aggro Me writing about it. The content is always exclusively added at the endgame, following the linear progression model, opposed to a “systemic” approach. It’s a way to let the players surf the wave on the border and you have to regularly extend their space, adding “segments” through expansions and rising the level cap as a rarer measure. What about adding new content even for new players? It is not a simple consideration about the convenience (since there are more players at the endgame) but a risk. If you add new low-level content you risk to spread the players thin and fragment the playerbase too much. As we’ve seen in Raph’s chart, the noob to mid level content is almost always underutilized and frequently mudflated out of irrelevancy. It will be increasingly hard for the players to meet and enjoy the game together.

So are there ways to add new content for the low level players without damaging the game or change completely model? Of course there are. To begin with I consider stupid to erase and rebuild. You can work to reiterate the development, which would bring to very good results if it was actually done. Polish old content, refine the quests, update the monsters with new attacks and behaviours, loot, graphic, animations. Bring more life to what was too limited in scope. Then add more tie-ins, more connected plots, quests that link together and deepen certain paths. There is no need to stretch the content and fragment the players. There is no need to add ten more zones when the population clearly doesn’t support that choice. But you can bring new life to the old zones, not just reskinning a couple of mobs (Mythic has often this kind of superficial attitude), but with a more comprensive approach that delves in the content and makes it more interesting and complete. Something that could be positive not only for the new players who are presented with a better game, but also for the veteran players who may enjoy to reenact past experiences that were made more rich and would present interesting variations in the gameplay.

So it’s interesting work that could be done on both fronts: update and refresh the content already there and add new one that blends naturally with the rest. That completes it without dispersing. That is enriching instead of diluting. Instead of creating more and more and more space, you optimize, polish and reiterate.

The classic EQ has in the work another expansion that will be released later this year and that will have content supporting the whole level range, from level 1 to 75. I think it is a good idea but at the same time I cannot avoid to think what will be the role of the old content? Is this going to be the biggest mudflation event ever? If they plan for an autonomous expansion, particularly focused on the solo experience, they’ll finish to obliterate the old content, which is the exact opposite of what I proposed above: reiterate on what is already there instead of dispersing, fragmenting and diluting.

When you think to these problems you always finish to imagine some sort of adaptable server structure that can support dynamically the redistribution of the players along the lifecycle of the game. Guild Wars is the only game that specifically put these problems at the center of the design and the idea would work smoothly even to support the off-peaks. The players would be clustered depending on the need and the single servers would become multi-purpose instead of zone-specific, so that they would be actively used depending on the necessity. If the first day of release you have 99% of the players in the newbie zones, all the server would run newbie zones logic, when most of the players will be at the high levels, all the servers would run endgame zones logic, adapting dynamically and grouping the players to avoid both the desertification and the overcrowding.

Is that the best scenario? Not really, because abstracting the space means that the only persistence that is left is that of the players and not that of the environment. It would mean that there’s little to no active interaction, that the players only move on a static background and that the PvP is extremely limited. No consequences, no roles, no ownership, no management. No self-consistence.

Ultimately, from wherever I start to think about these problems and and possible solutions, I always land at the same conclusions. My tripartite model takes into consideration all these variables: the ease of accessibility through soloable content progression, a spontaneous drift toward the multiplayer without enforcing it, “gated content” to blend and interconnect PvP with PvE and a server structure that keeps the servers all balanced uniformly while solving the problem of the lack of persistence (just examined). The removal of the “levels” also helps a lot to close the circle while still retaining the role of the “cozy worlds”.

In particular my model follows what WoW does and then builds on it. For example at the end of WoW’s newbie zones there’s usually a quest that is more group-friendly. In the Dwarf/Gnome zone you have to go kill a named troll in a cave. It is common to find other players in there, sharing the same objective and group with them for a short moment (weak-ties) to complete that quest. It’s the first “multiplayer” step you do in the game, your preliminary grouping experience. But at the same time the quest is still soloable, if there aren’t other players around you can still carefully move through the cave and manage to kill the named troll. The group is a possibility that is naturally given (and spontaneously taken), but in absence of that possibility you can still move on.

This is the same approach that I follow (the second layer of the tripartite model) and that I extend to the whole game. All the content that is *mandatory* for your character progression is soloable, but at the same time adaptable up to four players. This makes it flexible, if you have more than four players you can split in two or more groups, noone is left out or put in front of a barrier. Noone is excluded. Parallel to this the content is then expanded to become truly group-oriented and requiring more than five players sticking together and collaborating (up to raids), but in this case the functional purpose of THIS content isn’t anymore tied to your own character progression but instead to a “world progression” and then “gated” toward the player vs player. So the design idea clusters the players from the single player up to large raids, it contemplates content for all these cases. With the key design goal to make the character progression always soloable and instead motivate the communal, group-oriented content through exclusively communal objectives (or “horizontal” personal character progression and personalization, like armor and weapons that aren’t stronger but with an unique look that defines a “status” without unbalancing the game).

The accessibility is there, the adaptable servers are there, the persistence is there.

Think to a twisted WoW’s model: the basic landmass where we have now the horde and alliance zones would become the open PvP field where the players and guilds conquer territories and raid cities and castles, a truly persistent environment. Ironforge and the other capitals would be detached from their location and become the “planes” in my model. Suspended and intermediating between that open PvP territory and the new PvE. “Hubs” where the players would gather and then begin their journey into the different PvE adventures (the dungeon instances). With the raids inheriting a different role. Instead of becoming the only way for your personal character progression, they would acquire only communal objectives that would finally affect the PvP world. Bringing to concrete consequences in the persistent world (evocating heroes and artifacts and triggering events).

Every time I reconsider those basic points I arrive at the conclusion that those solutions I’ve thought long ago are still enough satifying and innovative. I don’t know yours.

Laughing Out Loud (of the Monday morning)

It speaks by itself:

Vice president and general manager of Codemasters Online Gaming (COG), David Solari, has revealed a target of over a million players for the division’s upcoming Lord of the Ring Online (LOTRO) title and admitted intentions to compete directly with Blizzard’s genre-leading World of Warcraft.

“I think the goal [for LOTRO] would be over a million subscribers in the west,” said Solari, speaking at the COG LiVE event in Warwick, UK, yesterday. “World of Warcraft is such a benchmark now, but if something’s going to do it it’s going to be a Lord of the Rings brand that lets people play in that environment and experience that content. It’s got to have probably the best chance of competing with it.”

LOTRO, developed by US developer Turbine, is scheduled for a Q4 release. Demoed in fully playable form at the event by executive producer Jeff Steefel, the initial release is to include the content from the first Lord of the Rings book, The Fellowship of the Ring, with the rest of the trilogy to be added as the game evolves.

This goes right into the group with Campion (Eve-Online clueless producer who luckily quit shortly after release) claiming that Eve would have 100k of players online at the same time (and the servers supporting that without troubles) and Marc Laukien (MutableRealms clueless president) claiming that Wish’s target was at least 100k subscribers.

Why people in the high positions never have even remotely a clue?

Adding my own guesswork:

1M of players is laughable, 500k is laughable. Anything below that depends solely on the quality of the game.

Imho the best scenario they have is 150k to 200.

(I think I’ve been excessively optimistic, this game may never see the light of the day)

WoW: Cross-server battlegrounds

Gaming Steve has friends at Blizzard. And he doesn’t skip an occasion to repeat it.

So here some largely anticipated guesses about the cross-server battlegrounds that some of us were expecting and suggesting since beta:

Blizzard is hard at work right now creating new enhanced Battlegrounds servers. These servers will no longer be regulated to a single realm, but cross-linked across Realms to create an diverse PvP experience! Right now they are planning on linking 16 realms together per Battleground server for massive PvP action. You could imagine how this can really help out the Battlegrounds situation, not only will the queues go much faster but you’ll finally get a chance to fight across Realms.

And the best part? This enhancement is going to be released very shortly; most likely by patch 1.12 or 1.13 at the latest.

Then he starts to rave about worldwide tournament when I’m still waiting Blizzard to back up the claims during beta:
After the european launch we’ll give you the possibility to choose where you want to play.

The european launch was one year and a few months ago. The european servers are still inaccessible with an american account. And vice-versa.

Of course the problems of WoW’s PvP aren’t just about the queues. But to understand that you would need to have a clue.

Interesting to notice that he says the expansion release could slip to early 2007.

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