« Hunger Strike 2 | Main | Gaming Major League, Part 1 »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


I'm willing to bet an obscure indie developer will get it right before the big boys.



"The entire hallmark of the MMOG genre is its persistence: to shunt people into non-persistent activities when they want to have fun, and to insist on making them grind when they want to make a mark on the gameworld, when they want to matter within it, is to indulge in an ultimately self-destructive sense of the genre's possibilities."


Strangely, this is kind of like life: when you want to have fun, you go off and do inconsequential activities, and if you want to change the world in a meaningful way, you grind away at something for a long time. Some players really love being in a world that's like life, but with kewl powerz. Others hate the idea of doing "work" for fun.

Also, I think the "grind is a state of mind" quote by the game designer is a common outlook for people in the game industry. Remember, these are the people who work insane hours for (comparitively) little money just because it means they get to "work in games." Is it any wonder that the videogame industry has the burnout/turnover rate that it has? Most people in the industry are only too happy to point out that nobody stays in games for more than a few years unless they _really_ love games. Perhaps the reason why there hasn't been a MMO world that has appealed to "the masses" is that, without exception, all of these worlds have a pantheon of game developers as Creator Spirits.

Timothy Burke

Good thoughts, Clockwork. I've thought something similar about game design--but I think it's even messier than that. I think you get people who would like to be "auteurs", Creator Spirits who can really enact a complete vision--but that the actual labor of making computer games so thoroughly diffuses and disperses a creative idea among the many people required to make the thing itself that a good creative vision will often be converted into generic mush. This is especially true with MMOGs. If you contrast it with filmmaking, where everything ultimately comes back to the director (when it goes right) and where all technical labor is subordinated to the director's control *and* is comprehensible to the director, it's striking.

On the other hand, I don't quite agree with your thought about the grindiness of achievement in real life, or at least it leads me to two further thoughts. The first is, of course, the more a game has the same temporal framing as real life, the less satisfying it is, just like any other cultural form. An absolutely "realistic" novel that portrayed a day in the life of a protagonist without any ellipses or omissions would be boring--though it might pose the interesting question, "Why am I reading this when I could be living it"? (Which is how some people react to The Sims, and in that case, it's kind of an interesting, generative reaction).

More importantly, sometimes in real life, achievement is NOT a result of the grind. I think more than anything else that's what occasions a lot of negative reactions to the way conventional MMOGs track achievement through the linear expenditure of time, and why so many players so obsessively work to maximize routines for gaining experience or money or resources in MMOGs. Lum the Mad once observed this on his late, lamented site, that MMOG economies often seemed governed by a quasi-Marxist labor theory of value, that all "wealth" derives from a linear input of time. In real life, sometimes we achieve extraordinary results through a flash of insight, a sudden burst of creativity, a fabulous idea that no one else has had, a quick-tongued response to a changing situation. In real life, achievement or success sometimes is less based on gradualism and more based on punctuated equilibria, on sudden leaps. There's no way in a conventional MMOG to have a sudden flash of insight; no way to have a good idea that no one else has had which then has a concretized effect on a persistent gameworld. You can have a good, creative idea--but only "off the books", with roleplayed tinyplots or by discovering an exploit that no one has found yet, or something similar. That's so *unlike* real life, especially the kind of entrepreneurial mentality that capitalist societies celebrate, that a lot of gamers go away frustrated.


As somebody who works as and with "creatives," I am all too familiar with how little having a flash of insight or a sudden windfall really accomplishes. 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, and all that. Even if you get lucky, and you just have that one amazing idea that you know will revolutionize the world, you've still gotta produce it, whether that be writing it down in a way that others can understand, carving it out of marble, or nailing every last bit of code. Then, once you've got it produced, you've gotta make people care about it. There's that old saying about how if you want to become famous overnight, just spend 10 years working for it.

Cool ideas are a dime a dozen. Good ideas are maybe ten dollars a dozen. Even if sudden flashes of insight were implemented in a shared game world (aside from being a pain to balance), there'd still be the grind to make it something everybody actually cared about.

Timothy Burke

In one sense you're right. If you want to pick the way to become comfortably wealthy, then long-odds things like treasure hunting, trying to beat the average returns on the stock market, or gambling are not good strategies. Steady investment of effort in a particular direction is much wiser.

On the other hand, sticking with real life here, the thing which distinguishes people even within the real marketplace is not just plodding along but also the slightly better insight, the clever idea, the new invention, the edge.

This transports (or fails to transport) to MMOGs in two ways. First, the way to get the edge in the conventional MMOG design (including SWG) is to plod *longer* and *more* than the other guy. The thing that distinguishes you from another player has very little to do with your cleverness, your invention, your ideas, your individualism: it's who played longest and most. I think that's not necessarily the case in the real world: that does not explain the differentiation you see in the capitalist marketplace or any other competitive arena. You can practice twice as much as Venus Williams but you're not going to be two times better than her at tennis. (Now of course such differentiation is also not always due to better ideas, better talent, etc.: it's sometimes due, especially in the marketplace, to cheating or to getting the rules altered in your favor--a whole different issue).

I think MMOGs are frustrating because they allow no real opportunity to have inventiveness or creativity translate into *persistent* effects in the gameworld. Yes, sure, you can beat another guy in PvP because you're a smarter player. You can come up with an amazing decorative arrangement of your house. (I was really impressed when players figured out how to get things mounted on their walls or sit on tables in SWG even though you could walk right through a table and there was no way to hang things on walls: what you did was drop stuff on the stairs in your house at variable heights and then move it around through the air bit by bit using the radial menu until voila! it looked like it was hanging on your wall). But cleverness in role-playing, in tactics, etc.: none of it manifests as a persistent effect on the gameworld. The only thing that does is playing longer and more than the other guy. That's not like real life, really it isn't.

More importantly, even if it were, that's not an especially good aesthetic vision for how you make a game fun and imaginative unless the point of the game is to produce a sort of Brechtian "breach" in a player's sense of himself and the world, to radically call attention to the alienated condition of everyday life. I remember Greg Costikyan advocating that at least some games should try to do this, and certainly Will Wright has from time to time sounded like this was one of his aspirations for The Sims. So it's not necessarily a bad idea, but I do think it's a bad idea for MMOGs. Going back time and again to spend hours in a cultural experience whose main goal is to make me feel a self-loathing disregard for the plodding experience of labor in the real world seems...a perverse artistic ambition, as well as a bad way to sell games.

Most people come to a MMOG, most particularly Star Wars, with the goal of living within a fiction, of experiencing from them from the inside. Now one of the basic problems is that most speculative, fantastic fictions are built around individual protagonists, and that simply doesn't scale to a MMOG. But even if you find a way to get people to be Rebel soldiers and everyday bounty hunters rather than Luke Skywalker and Boba Fett, you'll find that they are not terribly satisfied if "living the fiction" amounts to "doing a lot of plodding scut work". Doesn't matter if that's how achievement happens in real life: it's not what draws us to the possibility of living within a fiction.


Good essay, I've forwarded it around to the team leads.

There's endless amounts of discussion I could have on each of the points you cite--and I started to write the replies, but erased 'em all. :)


I've let my account expire (or at least it will expire at the end of this month, anyway) for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is the clincher:

It isn't any fun.

You know what's boring? Running. That's all you freaking do in that game, is run. And let me add *pointless* running. The majority of my time in the game is spent running between my house and the town because there's some insane rule that your house must be at least 1500 feet (i.e. one mile) away from town. So just to do *anything* in the game, you usually had to run multiple laps between the house and the town. It's designed to be a time sink, so you spend extra amounts of time in the game so that you can't level up as quickly as you'd like (thereby spending more time and money on the game).

Want to take on a mission to kill some rabbits? Time to run! Hey, I know, let's go check out that swamp. Running time! Hey, need some supplies for that house you want to craft? Get those jogging shoes on!

Screw grinding. The real problem with that game is the fact that it's tedious and boring. Who the hell wants to sit there and monkey-punch 210 wild rabbits just to reach an elite level skill? Don't forget that entails a crap-ton of running!

Also, there's just too much broken with the game right now. Things just don't make any sense. Smugglers need to raise their pistol skill in order to raise their underground *communication* skill (which doesn't involve pistols, btw).

There aren't any fun missions. No matter how you slice a mission in Galaxies, it's either

A). Deliver something, or
B). Kill something.

There are no puzzles to solve. There are no unique riddles or story-laden plots to follow (although they'd like to think that they've recently added some, which are currently *broken*).

Recently, they've added crafting missions and other unique mission types, but they mainly still involve delivering something, only you have to go pick up the parts, create the item, and deliver it.

There are no complex team-based missions where a Smuggler needs to slice the lock on the door, and then maybe the artist needs to craft a special item right there on the spot in order to fool an item-recognition scanner, or have an entertainer dance to distract a guard while your image designer disguises your fighters so they can sneak past and subdue the remaining guard and make off with the prize. You'll never see anything that elaborate in SWG, because it is a game of the mundane.


Bowler, to your point about running - I guess it was Star Trek that had teleporters. But even in Star Wars - it's funny to spend so much time on foot. I remember hearing that vehicles were a part of the game plan. Maybe for an expansion pack. But heck it's a world with deep tech, and they don't have public transportation or small vehicles? Or Segways?

I have some sense that while this incarnation of the game is lagging behind expectations, it's possible that SWG could be tweaked into something better. But then again, I had that same sense about the Sims Online and I haven't had a reason to restart my account there. Which leads me back to wondering if there isn't something entirely broken about the way we design and play MMOGs. The game form just doesn't seem to be compatible with my life. That's why I want to see a MMOG that I can play from a multitude of platforms - mobile phone, GBA, XBox, PC, email, web browser, dedicated client - same world, same game. Probably a few years off, but seems foreheadsmackingly obvious to me - if people are too busy to sit in front of their computer and rebuild gun muzzles, distribute the game to them, wherever they are. That might at least allow more people to participate in most MMOGs as they're architected now, with levels and experience requiring hours of investment.

This week I just returned from two weeks in Seoul, interviewing game companies. I found that they are having some problems with MMOGs there - the style of play surrounding levels and experience and skills just doesn't suit anyone who isn't willing to put in hours of sucker-punching rabbits and snakes to achieve power status. There's a pile of notes and photos from those meetings sitting on my desk - hoping to have it posted online within the next two or three weeks.


It sounds to me like Star Wars Galaxies just suffers from the two main problems of most other MMORPGs, but just suffers from them to a greater degree than most. And as usual, it's not really a problem with the very basics of the genre (being massive, multiplayer, online, and an RPG), the way MMORPGs fit into people's lives, or some way in which the game needs to be more or less analogous to real life. They're simply not enough like actual games.

The first problem is scale. When you start most games, regardless of whether they're action games, RPGs, platformers, or whatever else, you're sort of a superhero. You can fight with some degree of skill and use powers that are beyond that of the average human being. In MMORPGs, you spend months as a worthless little plebe that can barely kill a small fury animal, serving as a pathetic backdrop for the thirteen year olds that power-levelled to level 65 during summer/christmas/easter vacation. And the thirteen year old doesn't have it any better. Thanks to his dozens of hours of power-levelling, he's now at roughly half the strength of Dante, Hotsuma, Maximo, or Cloud at the beginning of their respective games. In other words, he's pathetic. You're starting off as a pathetic little weakling so you can serve as a contrast for the high level players whose characters are just slightly less pathetic. Star Wars Galaxies is just the best example of this because its license points out the sort of power that you SHOULD have as a high level player: you should be a jedi, plain and simple. But you aren't. And there's no reason for it.

The second problem is the lack of variety. For as long as there have been console RPGs, they have had minigames. When you feel like messing around instead of advancing the plot, you can play card games, board games, dice games, video boxing, horse racing, blitzball... all kinds of things. MMORPGs use the fact that they can double as a big visual chat room for you and your friends as a crutch. They feel that they don't have to put anything in there for you to mess around with because the genre already gives you something to mess around with, but they are very, very wrong on this point. Minigames like blitzball, racing, or some original card games like the ones in Suikoden III would probably be a lot of fun online, even if they're really simple. If you could gamble on them, they could even serve as a reasonable way to continue improving your character while you goof off. With more money, you can get better equipment, and with better equipment, you can make that tedious levelling a little easier.

But when you can get 300,000 subscriptions right off the bat without even trying just because you bought a content license, why bother? The genre's not going to improve a lot until there's a reason for it to do so.

C. Foust

First off, I've never played a MMOG, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about at all.

It seems almost a paradox: here you have what some makers of single player games would kill for: a world full of intelligent, unpredictable agents. Surely within this pool of interesting characters there will emerge a dramatic gameplay narrative. In reality, what do you get? A bunch of wanna-be rabbit punchers just trying to get to the next skill level. The problem here is that the rules of the game world overshadow any possibility for dramatic situations.

In reponse to DarkZero's point: being a "superhero" is a relative thing. In a single player game, the distinction is that you are stronger/faster/smarter than the computer opponents. In a MMOG, your opponents are other players, so it won't work to elevate the player's abilities. If everyone on Earth had the powers of Superman, Clark Kent's life wouldn't be worth telling. The dramatic tension is in the differences between characters.

Somehow, someone needs to make a character building system which is not so overtly mathematical and deterministic. It should be based largely on the players' own skills and minimally on the amount of time played.

Imagine: Two seperate players of a hypothetical game decide to become gunslinging outlaws, so they go out and start target practice to raise their skills. Player A is good at the target practice minigame, so his character's skills go up. Player B isn't, so his character remains a poor shot. He gives up on outlaw, and becomes a merchant.
Time passes.
Player A now has a dangerous avatar, and terrorizes the town, robbing and killing the inhabitants at will. Finally the other players are fed up and decide to attack player A on sight. Maybe player A is too powerful for anyone to defeat, but maybe, just maybe, mild-mannered merchant player B takes his pistol out of mothballs and is the one who gets that lucky shot.

The story above is just a simple example of how something interesting can happen when you release the player from the slavery of "the grind". Maybe a system like I've described is unworkable in practice, but I think it might be worth a try.


I'm another one that left SWG. I did that yesterday. I gave away 500k credits, a medium sized house, and a lot of resources to a friend. He said he'll probably go another month and quit too.

It's not for lack of interest in MMORPGs... I've played Everquest since near the beginning.

I have to say, I'm quite disappointed in how SWG turned out. I can tell that the SWG team must not have had anything to do with the EQ team, or they wouldn't have made the mistakes they did.

I could write a long list of things about why I think the game failed, but I think it'll just fall onto deaf ears. It's time to move on to something that's more fun.

If another company decides to look at the MMORPG area, take a cue from Everquest. A system that rewards players little by little, adding to the characters power over a long period of time works well.

Add a ton of content, and I mean a ton. Don't rely on your players for this, because that's not what players will pay to play. It's like going to the movies, only to find that once you get there, you're responsible for entertaining everyone else.

Rewards should be items, not just money. Money should be hard to get. Too much money will ruin the economy.


There's no denying that EQ is the key model, Dean. But at the same time, several of the things you specifically cite are also the things that people identify as the biggest problems. Adding to character's power over a long period of time increases the sense of grind, precludes any forms of PvP, and reduces access for more casual play. Rewards being items damages the entire crafting role.

Now, I am certainly not saying that SWG has the right answers to these dilemmas, but I do think that only doing what EQ did on these fronts will very much limit experimentation in other areas.

A very interesting and fruitful discussion would be "what can we do on those fronts without falling into those traps?"

Completely agreed on the content, though. :)

C. Foust, history has shown that such a game will not have the ex-gunslinger become a baker--he'll just quit.

DarkZero, on the mini-games thing, I'd suggest that SWG has the broadest diversity of activities in any MMO yet. What it is probably lacking is depth within all those activities.


Timothy Burke: There's no way in a conventional MMOG to have a sudden flash of insight; no way to have a good idea that no one else has had which then has a concretized effect on a persistent gameworld. You can have a good, creative idea--but only "off the books", with roleplayed tinyplots or by discovering an exploit that no one has found yet, or something similar.

That's not true. There is all kinds of room for sudden flashes of insight that get you all kinds of great things. It's just that we call these "server exploits" and "cheats". Of course, these get locked down in due time and maybe the player who discovered them gets banned.


Do you know what I want to see in a MMOG? I want to see an expiry date. I want to know that the game is going to have a beginning and a middle and an end. Every great game and every great work of fiction ends at some point. There should be a story arc that changes the world over time so that I have a reason to log in every day and see what's changed. I should be able to get involved in these changing events. There should be high-level, DM-run NPCs on both sides that give meaning and order to the lives of ttheir respective players. An Emperor DM telling the Imperials to attack X. A Mothma DM ushering the Rebels to secret base Y.

There should be epic battles that are announced in advance. Players log in and fight for their side. The results of those battles should affect which side controls which world. Eventually, there is a final month-long epic campaign to take over Base X and at the end victory parties for all and then the server gets reset. It would be like a television series.

There should be no RPG-like persistent experience-points and levelling system. This creates a barrier of entry to the wide casual market, which is your ultimate goal, financially. A linear advancement system that does not reset just means that late entrants will always be behind and people who only have a few hours a week will always be behind. (I've never understood this. It seems to me that your ideal customer in MMOG plays a few hours a week but pays the full monthly subscription. They don't put a heavy load on your servers but you get tha same income. MMOGs should be encouraging these people to play.)

Instead of experience points and levels, players should acrue items and bonuses more like they do in action or adventure games (mind you the game doesn't have to be an action game, I'm just saying that the special advantages should be easycome, easy go). Players who are dedicated will still do better in general casual players bue to skill but the casual people won't be so far behind. As Faust said, even the lowly merchant can get a lucky shot with the gun.

In other words, you either need a linear advancement system that resets easily (like Quake) or you need a non-linear system. Ie, every plus has a minus in another direction so you're always hovering around zero.

Right now, persistent seems to mostly mean "unending". It feels like 1984 "We are at war with the East because we have always been at war with the East." Constant unending conflict with no real ability to make a mark on the world.

I wonder if URU will fulfil at least some of these dreams...


Snowmit - take a look at A tale in the Desert. A bunch of us play this and it has most of what you mention, complete with what is needed for the players to end the game.

If you must have a combat game, this is not it. It is a pure crafting game done right. Lower level characters are wanted and searched for. The stuff a low level character makes is wanted by other character.

Timothy Burke

A Tale in the Desert gets mad props for some nice new ideas; I ultimately feel it still relies too much on a treadmill, but at least it's a different one. And yeah, the best idea might be that it ends at some defined point. What I'd really like to see is a MMOG that has contingent outcomes, one of which is the end of the gameworld because of something the players in aggregate did or didn't do. (And then the game starts over again). I keep thinking about what Asheron's Call 1 would have been like if the devs had been really radical with their monthly story arcs, if it had been possible for a nasty demon like Bael'Zharon to actually *win*.

I agree with Raph that SWG has tons of mini-games. I think the problem is that first, the incentive structure for playing them is poorly developed and that they often aren't sufficiently fun in and of themselves, and that second, they don't always work right. (Or in the case of some professions, work at all). But the minigame infrastructure is there, for sure.

I also agree with Raph that EQ's design is a trap, at least if one wants to take MMOGs beyond their limitations. To be honest, I think EQ's success is partially anomalous and results from good timing and inertia. It came out in a marketplace where it was the alternative to UO, where MMOGs were shiny and new, and people invested a lot of time in it before they realized what they were in for. I don't think a "new EQ" would succeed any better in this marketplace.

I think what we've learned in the last three years about MMOGs is:

1. Design small, in as modular a fashion as you can, so that you can go live with a tight, mostly functional design.

2. Consider trying something really different, because your hardcore audience is getting pretty restless with business as usual.

3. Don't design with a theme or subject matter that you're unprepared to service with appropriate game mechanics. I think City of Heroes is going to get hit in the solar plexus with this problem: from what I can see, their game mechanics have almost nothing to do with the conventions of the genre (superhero comics) that they're designing to.


I feel that the biggest problem with most MMORPG's (or rather, ALL OF THEM) is that they consider free time a skill. The person with the most free time to kill wins. It doesn't matter what the actual skill level of the player is.

The first MMORPG that requires that players actually HAVE SKILL will be a sure fire winner in my book. Then you'll get people who will play to get better. Sure there are chracter upgrades because of time spent, but I like when the time is spent by actually doing that particular skill.

SWG started out like this in my mind because of the skill based system (rather than levels). Its a great start but as soon as you come to combat its point, click, and wait. Sure you've got some special moves, but its just a queue system. I want to win a battle because my own personal REAL LIFE skill comes into play.

After a while all mmorpg's turn into "killing yellows"

I don't have the answer for how this can be accomplished though.


Falhawk, I'll reiterate what i said above, only more bluntly:

No skill-based persistent game has ever achieved a large market proportional to the time-based games, in over 20 years of designers trying.

The main reason that people leave is because persistence means that there's a positive feedback loop for winners, so newbies and more casual or poorer players get frozen out.

Timothy Burke

That would be one advantage of a persistent-world game that had a finite point of conclusion: behind the curve on this game, don't worry, the next train is coming.

I also think this is one of the places where measuring persistence largely or solely through the progressive alteration of each player's *character* is one of two or three serious core problems with time-based MMOGs. What if we had a paradigm shift, and thought about persistence *entirely* as a cumulative measure of what players in aggregate did within and to the gameworld? Where everyone was having fractional effects on the course of events? Then you could enter a game mid-stream, or be "behind", and still feel you were having a meaningful impact on what happened next.


There are just certain things that seem impossible to work around in a MMORPG; killing womprats ad nauseam, running from point a to b, grinding blaster barrels, etc. I'm not sure there will ever be a way to generate enough content to keep players happy. The 'virtual world chatroom' seems to still be the only current way for people to endure.

Those who ask for true skill-based MMORPG's do not know what they're asking for, or have never had their talented asses kicked to the curb in games like Starcraft or Counterstrike. No matter how good you are, someone out there will be so much better than everyone else that the demoralizing effect is crushing. While this is tolerable in the aforementioned games, I think it would be rather destructive for an MMORPG.

SWG has done well to offer in-game tools to ease some of the difficulties in these types of worlds: friend-finding, a decent macro system, apprenticeship, etc., though each has its limits in duration and usefulness.

I'm not sure what counts as minigames in SWG, but I'm sure I've tried most of them and the only one that has remained mildly interesting is 'making better armour than the next guy.' Fishing and hotel gambling have been far less engaging than just playing dice with a friend.

I think the player economy is more resilient than it's given credit for, especially with the usual endless supply of cash. None of it is being spent anyway, as there is nothing for crafters to buy. SWG could use dropped loot; cosmetic variety could probably substitute for actual diversity in objects.

Without perceived progress, the infrequent-socializers have no motive to continue playing. Explorers like myself - having seen the world, baked the cookies, slain the dragons, and with badges to show for it - need more ways to progress.

While I feel it's unfortunate how SWG's 'Jedi!-the final carrot' system has worked out, I'm just obsessive enough to try my hand at the job my oh-so-rare clue-giving device suggested (Image Designing... a personal stylist, more or less). Although I'm hesitant to give up my hard-earned mastered professions, there's nothing else to do.


I don't have an answer for how to manage advancement but I do have an idea for a model to consider. This is going to get kind of long. I'm sure most people are familiar with the basics of Magic the Gathering. You have a deck of at least 60 cards with rules for what you can put in it. You shuffle the deck and play a game. The end.

It is in the way that tournament play is organized that things begin to get interesting. See how it works is that every four months Wizards releases a new set. The order is one big set and then two expansions. Together, these three sets form a block, so one block gets released every year. There is also a 'core' set of more simple and basic cards that serve to teach new players the game and to fill in the basic requirements of a deck.

In a standard constructed tournament you are allowed to play with this year's block, last year's block and the current core set (core sets rotate less often). All told, this means that you'll have between five and seven sets of cards (each is more or less 200 cards) to work with.

Of course, you personally won't have that many cards. You'll have however many you can pay for and they may not all be very useful to you. Part of the skill of magic is figuring out which cards work well together and how to best use them. This means that there are some weak cards and some powerful cards.

There are also different rarities. However (and this is important) it's not always true that that most rare cards are more powerful than the most common ones. There are plenty of powerful common and uncommon cards, so you don't need to buy hugely expensive rare cards to make a decent deck. It won't be the best, but it's decent.

Winning in Magic is a combination of three factors. One is skill. It takes skill and knowledge to put together a decent deck and to play the cards intelligently. One is possessions. If you don't have the cards you need, it doesn't matter how good at the game you are. The last is luck. Because the deck is shuffled and you can have at most 4 copies of a card in a deck and the deck must have at least 60 cards, you will not always have the card you need at the time you need it. It is possible that a random newbie with a pre-constructed deck will take out the world champion, but not terribly likely.

As I said before, the blocks rotate every year, so no matter how skilled you are, you need to keep renewing your collection to stay current. This is a great money-maker but it's also a great way to protect late adopters from being torn to shreds. They only have to worry about getting the last two years' worth of stuff to be competitive. That, and learning how to play the game.

What does this have to do with MMOGs?

I think that as a model for reward it offers some good possibilities. Long-term players are rewarded because they have a built up set of knowledge and understanding that helps them quickly understand new sets and play with them. People who invest heavily in the medium term aren't too far behind them because they can pick up the skills relatively fast and they can get the cards as fast as they can afford them. Newbies aren't too far behind them because there is still luck and there are plenty of good cards available to casual players (ie, commons).

In a MMOG this would translate into player-skill focused (be that twitch skill or strategic/tactical skill or some combination thereof) interactions involving collectable, ownable but limited-lifespan resources with a healthy dose of luck to keep things interesting. Plus, reasonably powerful versions of these resources would be quite easy to obtain (ie, there are plenty of masterwork swords and they aren't that hard to find and they get the job done just fine).

This could look like all kinds of things. Imagine a fantasy world where the movement of the heavens would drain powerful artefacts of their power from time to time. If you built this kind of thing into the game, then it would be a feature instead of a source of frustration! It would also make the constant play balancing that MMOGs do part of the fiction of the world instead of just annoying. People might actually look forward to the changes with excitement instead of being angry that they got "nerfed".

Maybe in the science fiction world, companies are constantly tuning their energy shields to be immune to equipment, making the old stuff obsolete. The new stuff isn't more powerful than the old stuff, it just works, where the old stuff has stopped working. A constant cycle of upgrades, in other words.

Maybe the rare items aren't so much powerful as pretty. Ie "This enchanted sword isn't that much better than your enchanted sword, but there are only three like it, in the realm". In Magic, people pay extra for foil versions of regular cards. They have no additional play value but they are shiny! And hard to find. Maybe the rare items are only useful in a limited situation. They don't have to be more powerful, just differently powerful.

Thanks to the people who suggested A Tale in the Desert. I'm going to check it out and see what it has to offer.


"The main reason that people leave is because persistence means that there's a positive feedback loop for winners, so newbies and more casual or poorer players get frozen out." - Raph

"Those who ask for true skill-based MMORPG's do not know what they're asking for, or have never had their talented asses kicked to the curb in games like Starcraft or Counterstrike." - Vierzehn

You are both using a player-vs-player model for your analysis of a skill-based game, which makes me think you have blinders on. It doesn't have to be that way.

What Falhawk is saying is completely true: there is no way to win a battle with skill, merely time, planning, and resources. Should it be possible for a newbie to kill a monster by merely clicking it over and over again? Sure. But a hardcore gamer should be able to learn advanced button tricks and combos that can be used to not only end the battle quickly, but demonstrate a definite visual and artistic style to his combat.

My wife, who is not a hardcore gamer, loves fighting games because randomly pushing the buttons gets the same result (victory) as a "serious" player, but with the added joy of cool animations and a sense of style.

Aw heck, I could waste more time writing about this, but I won't. The fact is, the game design of SWG sucks. It's oppressive and boring. And any argument to the contrary is easily countered.

Apologies for the acidic text. It's hard to remain unemotional about something I had high hopes for.


I can sympathize some, Ted, regarding hopes for SWG. I think it might already be too late to fix.

But I was not talking about PvP at all, though I think my comment applies to it as well. A round of Dead or Alive gives the button mashers a fresh chance for (victory) with each successive match or opponent. Farming Krayts on Tatooine would be -monopolized- by the lone CH/rifleman or whatever who could click the combos best. I think killing gurrcats with a flourish would wear out its welcome pretty fast, too.

Apply skill-based play to crafting, and it gets even uglier.

There's already a type of skill that has arisen with MMOG's, that I can't see a way around, short of adding the functionality of them within the game itself. Those who are able to find and synthesize up-to-date information gleaned from boards, forums, hint sites, and networks of friends have extreme advantages in games like SWG. The official SWG forums are some of the busiest I've ever seen for a game, and they're not half as robust or interesting as the Dark Age of Camelot site was, with it's real-time fort possession maps, PvP leaderboards and .xml capability.

Again, this is another type of 'skill' that favours those with the most time to play, an 'edge' that is probably impossible to neutralize in any multiplayer game.


I can understand the frustration, but to say it sucks is overstating the point, IMHO. But of course, I am biased. :) I do think that one of the places where SWG is letting folks down is where they expect more than other games have supplied. (This isn't an excuse--we should have provided it). SWG is too incremental in a lot of ways, I guess is what I am sayng. It doesn't solve enough problems. And oddly, it seems to have gotten the answers to some of the tough questions right while failing to deliver some of the basics.

In regards to your specific comment--it's true that I did assume PvP; in part because SWG has a PvP element, of course. I think there'd be a valid question as to what degree people would back away from a skill-based game where the only competitive aspect was keeping up the Joneses. So far, there have only been a handful of persistent games that require high degrees of skill, and focus on PvE. EQ is one, though it's worth noting that there's a "break" where the skill levels in guild-building get to be so extreme that people stop playing. There's also Neocron, which not too many folks are playing. :(

Tim, how large an audience do you think would go for an RPG with no character advancement? One of the top reasons cited by SWG detractors is the fact that the advancement isn't DEEP enough; they want their stats to go up, to become godlike. While I understand that, I don't know whether the "but I want my character to grow uber" crowd would at all go for a system where characters didn't change significantly. Apparently SWG's compromise position sits uneasily in the middle, satisfying neither group.

Timothy Burke

You know, Raph, I really don't know. I think it's worth a shot, though. I may actually mess around with a sort of crude prototype design in alliance with a computer scientist, sort of an outgrowth of work I'm planning to do next year on emergent systems. What I think I'd like to try is a design where players were spending their effort to "nudge" a large number of prebuilt narratives in particular ways; if any group succeeded, you'd be on a new branch from which another large number of possible narratives could unfold. On each branch, the objective conditions of the gameworld would change.

So imagine a SWG where you login and go listen to rumors in a cantina, read the HoloNews, talk to other players, and get a general feel for what's been happening. Maybe you decide, from what you're seeing, that players allied with Jabba the Hutt are actively working to "nudge" a narrative where Jabba kills Valarian and absorbs her organization into his own. You think about it. You've been working with players who are trying to "nudge" the Empire into leaving a minimal presence on Tatooine. You have to decide: will a much stronger Jabba help or hinder that goal?

You find out from your investigations and a chat with other Rebels and anti-Imperials that player allies of Jabba are probably going to ambush Valerian in Mos Eisley that evening. You and your friends decide to help out, juding that a stronger Jabba will be good.

With your unplanned intervention, the anti-Valarians succeed (a few hapless players try to defend Valerian). She's dead. Unfortunately, so are you: this type of game would have to have permadeath. But since you're not spending endless hours building up a character, nothing wasted. The next morning, the server boots up the "Valerian dead, Jabba in ascendancy" branch of the narrative.

Jabba's thugs are now much more in evidence in every city; Valerian's thugs are gone. Valerian's property now belongs to Jabba. And word goes out in Tatooine's cantinas: Jabba is willing to do a deal with the Empire, if they're willing to give him certain guarantees. The scrambling to determine the next branch begins, and you join in, with your new character.

I also think that when you're offline, you could "invest" your character in certain kinds of repetitious activity that would have a much, much smaller fractional effect than active gameplay "nudging"--say, in this case, something like "Distribute anti-Imperial propaganda".


Timothy, speaking about "flashes of insight"...I have always played as a roleplayer, so I have always been able to have flashes of insight in mmogs...I will agree they are "off the books" though.
But what about a game like "A tale in the desert"? Isn't having "flashes of insight" in interpersonal exchanges the whole point of that game? You can even lobby to change the actual gameplay rules, even if the vote would harm the game...
Raph, I am a big fan of SWG, despite its problems. I think it does try to break the mold in various aspects. When I ponder about why I like it, I realise it is because I use SWG as a graphical front for my Roleplaying. So technically I am easy to please. My SWG friends and I don't need *any* content beyond in game skills, world, and immersiveness. We create our own.
Isn't the solution for the problem of content in an MMO truly to leave content on the hands of the players? Create a system where players create the content, somehow. Acknowledge in a more concrete form what the PLAYERS can bring to the game. I can't even imagine how such a system would work, but a game like "A tale in the desert" is a (baby) first step towards something like that...but this would mean that a "flash of insight" that I had in an MMORPG would actually mean something. Of course I am not the superhero, like in single player games, but at least then I *can* (officially, not "off the books") make a difference....

The comments to this entry are closed.

Subscribe to the mailing list!

* indicates required