Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Get your Story out of my MMO

With all the WoW and SWTOR news, something just hit me. I knew this was true, but it didn't really set in until now. It's been seven years since WoW released, and SWTOR is about to launch as the same exact game!

The same black and white, two-faction faux war with safe and "contested" zones; the same action combat with the same pace, hotbars, and skills; the same solo quest grind with the occasional dungeon run; the same poo-pooed crafting system that has little consequence to players; the same "hyrbid" classes which really aren't hybrids at all, but rather 3 min-maxed role specializations that are the Holy Trinity through and through.

And then, as if lack of innovation isn't enough, Bioware is going to completely eradicate players stories. The "fourth pillar" already existed in MMORPGs: there wouldn't be countless blogs devoted to retelling events that players experienced if "story" didn't exist (and unsurprisingly, Eve has the most numerous and varied story blogs I've ever read).

Let's assume Bioware is the leader in crafting video game stories. They create the most compelling canned stories anyone has ever written for a video game. They are still Bioware's stories! They are not player stories. Stories are born from extraordinary events. What would a SWTOR story blog look like? "Last night I had this really humorous and emotional dialog scene with these NPCs. I chose this light side option that resulted in an awesome cutscene!" The comments will read: "me too". What is worth telling if everyone experiences the same thing?

By the way, developer story has been done numerous times before; Bioware isn't doing anything new. Speaking from experience, FFXI had fun in-game cutscenes with your character in them and told some really amazing stories. But contrary to SWTOR, FFXI also put players in challenging situations and let extraordinary events transpire that morphed into player tales.

Developer stories, like graphics, are a selling point, but not important once the playbrain takes over. Games are systems. Choices are identified, outcomes are weighed, predictions are made, and then the brain gets a little shot of endorphins if it guessed correctly. MMORPGs are immensely layered and complex systems with an added layer of socialization. The interaction with other, irrational human beings spices the systems to the point of addiction. Humans crave knowledge and social interaction. Developer stories are an initial motivator, a driving force, an excuse to start down the path of playing a game, but they are not an ends of a game.

That's a lot of tall talk, but look at the numbers: "Only 10% of avid gamers completed the final mission, according to Raptr, which tracks more than 23 million gaming sessions." As expected, once the game system is mastered, the vast majority of players don't care about the "story" and see little reason to continue playing.

If SWTOR has the same systems we've all mastered seven years ago, and everyone is trapped in instances not experiencing extraordinary events around which to socialize, what is the point of playing? This seems like a way to charge $15 per month for KOTOR 3.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mojang up, Minecraft down.

The success of Minecraft severely damaged its development. When minecraft went viral and became a cash-cow, Notch decided to make Mojang into an honest-to-goodness software company. Mojang would make less money from rapidly improving Minecraft than from creating new products and selling them to new markets--markets which are augmented by the existing Minecraft fanbase.

The community would've done Notch's work for him if he let them. He could have started shifting the development of Minecraft to a model where the base game is a sandbox into which content makers can plug in different kinds of mechanics. But Notch didn't do this, he implemented a few nice, bigger features (like biomes) and a lot of piddly stuff (like more flowers, dyes, and such). Contrast Minecraft's content level with Terraria's: Terraria has been public a small fraction of the time, yet is continually adding new content and significant outstrips Minecraft in most meaningful measures of content.

Here's an example of where business gets in the way of game design and fun when it could have just as easily stayed out of the way. Here's where what is short-sightedly best for a company is not what's best for a game.

It also highlights the fading "games as platforms" trend. Notch could've turned Minecraft into a great platform for mods, but instead he has spent a significant amount of time implementing features that could've been designed and implemented better through the work of the modding community. The Minecraft community is large and the number of modders doing great work suiting the game towards different playstyles continues to grow. People have done all this work before Minecraft even had a real modding suite--these people had no sanctioned tools for modding, yet they did work of higher design quality and with fewer bugs and issues than the new content implemented by Notch himself. Imagine what they could do if they were given the full support of development tools and APIs specifically for their use. Minecraft would be a platform for a myriad of amazing games. Now people are doing that anyway, but the progress is significantly slower and Mojang actively impedes this progress through implementing more features that only a fraction of the community care about.

Minecraft passed up on the long-term business decision of becoming a platform upon which hundreds of good and fun games rely and instead opted for the short-term route of continuing Minecraft development conventionally and deallocating resources from it to work on other projects. The damage this does to Minecraft's future is palpable and frustrates me every time I play.