Thank God I’m not gaming in 2003

World of Tanks, 2003 edition

Opinions.  The blogosphere is crammed full of them, and while that’s to be expected, what riles up the blood is when a clump of them start chain-reacting off of each other to the point where they start saying, “See?  Everyone thinks this way!”  Even though that’s not true, but hey.  It went over well with marketing.

A prevailing opinion that I’ve heard goes along the line of “The early days of MMOs were SO much better than the copycat/clones/rut we’re in now!” and people nod their heads to this sage proclamation and curse the fact that they have to game in 2011 instead of 2003.  Why must we suffer with such horrid afflictions as today’s gaming lineup!  Whyyyyy?

Now the balanced part of my mind wants to concede that there were many great things about “back in the day” of classic MMOs that will always be fondly remembered.  There was more experimentation of design and scope.  Fewer titles meant that the communities settled down and grew in one spot instead of hopping every which way.  People didn’t know better and adapted to the game design that was given to them.

But you know what?  The rebellious part of me says 2003 wasn’t as terrific for MMOs as what we have now.  As was 2002, 2001, 2000, and before.  Did they create great memories for you?  Splendid.  Did they see the birth of classic MMOs doing classic things?  Awesome.  But you couldn’t pay me enough to play in that era instead of today.

You think the quest grind is bad today?  Try simply grinding mobs endlessly for no reason other than a lack of other options.  Or the horrible death penalties.  The lack of real support for solo players.  The incredibly obtuse nature of game mechanics and stats.  The lack of free-to-play resulting in fewer gaming options on any given day.

Why?  Why would I go contrary to the rose-colored glasses crowd?  Because this is how history goes.  Yes, there are great things in the past that aren’t here today — or in the same form — but by and large the advances overshadow what we’ve lost.  Earlier video games in the 80s were certainly innovative, exciting, and drastically different, but for all the whining about the Call of Duty/Madden onslaught today, I don’t see anyone racing back to their Atari 2600s.  We’ve moved on.  It was nice and all that, but on the whole it’s gotten better.

Face it, devs have learned from the past.  And while you may be bemoaning how World of Warcraft molded the industry after its likeness and limited risk-taking and innovation (and I’ll concede some of that), WoW and the post-2004 crowd did a lot of good for the industry as well.  We’ve proven that merely copying WoW isn’t a recipe for instant success, and studios are most certainly branching out again with different models and ideas.  The quest system, dynamic events, full voice-overs, customizable appearances, public grouping, hybrid gameplay (such as STO’s ground/space combat), genre blending, business models, and most importantly, overall refinement have taken us out of an era that catered to a smaller, more hardcore crowd and handed the keys to the public to enjoy.  More people play MMOs today than ever before, and certainly way more than in 2003, and we’ve gone from a gaming genre that got mocked if noticed at all to one that’s fairly well-known and somewhat respected.  Kids play MMOs, since there are MMOs for kids.  Parents play MMOs with their families, because they’re understandable for all.  There are MMOs that reward long-term play and those that are geared toward bite-sized sessions.  There are sandboxes (plenty of them, in fact) and theme parks and sandparks.  There are hardcore PvP titles and carebear PvE games.  Side-scrollers, isometric, 3D, turn-based, real-time, anime, Western, just about any IP you could imagine, Hello Kitty.

Maybe it’s cool to automatically dismiss anything new that comes along and to chew on a stalk of wheat while growling about how incredible EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot was more than these new whippersnappers.  I don’t think it needs to be an either/or situation.  The past had a lot of greatness to it, but — and I feel this way wholeheartedly — so does the present.  I love these MMOs.  I’ve been playing them for almost a decade and I can’t get enough of them.  I like seeing new ideas and much more polished entries come along, and I sometimes feel like I’m one of the few people who does have great hope for the future.

I will say this — I do hope that devs everywhere will constantly be looking at the past to see what can be learned from it and what could be updated and brought into the present.  There were a lot of great ideas that got cast aside along the way in MMO development and deserve another chance.  MMOs can and should be influenced by more than just other MMOs, and that includes pen-and-paper games, other video games, board games, storytelling in other mediums, and the works.

I’m all for looking at the past with fondness and to learn.  I just wouldn’t want to game there.

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47 thoughts on “Thank God I’m not gaming in 2003

  1. I always laugh at people like that and say to the rose-colored-glasses crowd, “If those games were so great, why aren’t you still playing them?” I mean, we still play Monopoly and Risk, how many decades later? Why not UO and DAoC? Oh, because they weren’t that great after all.

  2. I always preferred killing stuff to level up rather than having to quest. I’m in the middle of leveling another batch of characters in EQ2 right now and I’ve been avoiding quests, mostly. I much prefer to roam around looking for named mobs and generally acting like a nosy adventurer rather than taking on an endless series of odd jobs for every half-elf with nothing better to do than stand on a street corner filing his nails.

    That said, I’d like the option. What I really hate is when MMOs restrict the xp you can get from just killing stuff to the point where you have no viable option other than to do quest after quest. Put the quests in, put the xp on the mobs, let the player choose his own path.

    Other than that I tend to agree that there’s too much rose-tinted-spectacle-wearing going on much of the time. And anyway, if you want the oldtime MMO experience you can pretty much still have it. Try Crowns of Power, Istaria, Minions of Mirth or even Ryzom. I love to drop into all of those when I’m in the mood but that mood doesn’t come along every day.

  3. The only thing I miss from the MMO past is the experimentation and risk-taking and the greater variety in basic combat mechanics.

    But when I look forward, I think we might be seeing that again soon.

  4. Completely agree. I have great memories from games like EQ and DAoC, but any time I’ve tried to play them again they just feel hopelessly obsolete and clunky. Our memories are funny things because the images our minds create are always filled in. When we remember the way an old game looked, our memory of it isn’t pixelated and clunky, rather we remember the way it seemed at the time combined with some judicious mental smoothing to create an idealized version of what we actually saw. I thought EQ’s graphics were amazing in 1999 . . . now they almost make my eyes bleed :P “Is that . . . is that the GROUND?”

    The past is good for fond memories and gaming learning experiences, but it’s not so great for going back to. The options we have in 2012 are nothing short of fantastic, and I wouldn’t want to go back even if I could.

    Well, not for gaming anyway . . . I wouldn’t mind going back and making some careful stock purchases and maybe wager on some horses or something ;)

  5. Or the horrible death penalties.

    Just picking this one.

    Do you think that great advances in game design theory have led to the unexspected revelation that players prefer to be punished less and that we now stand on the shoulders of giants? Or do you think that there are other things at work ?

  6. People cannot separate the game from the time in their life when it occurred and what it meant to them at that time, but that is human nature. Going back and playing EQ… which I do rather regularly… isn’t the same. It isn’t that the game is good or bad, it is that reality has changed, it has moved on, so that relative to the current moment the game simply is no longer a new and unique experience.

    I think the underlying message of a lot of the “games were better back when…” is really, “I want something that makes me feel like I did when I first played EQ!” The genre has advanced and been refined, but at a certain level it is still the same. I had some earth-shattering, genuinely new experiences in EQ along with hundreds of “Oh wow!” moments.

    In 2012, with all my years of gaming behind me, if I go into a new MMO and I get a couple of “Oh wow!” moments and a dozen or so “That’s cool!” situations, the game is probably pretty special. Many do not even get that.

    And that just sucks.

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  8. I’ve tried to write this a couple of times, and both times I’ve ended up sounding pretentious and probably a bit of a babbling idiot.

    I like rose tinted glasses for some things. When I pick up a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog, I remember how I felt when I completed the game. Although I don’t play platformers now, I still get similar feelings playing Sonic Generations.

    Likewise with Shenmue. It was one of the first 3D RPGs that I played, and featured voice acting heavily. I remember thinking how incredible the experience was, and I can draw a direct line from that game to SWTOR.

    It gives me a frame of reference. What I like, why I liked it, how I felt about it at the time. It helps me when I write about games today, because otherwise I think I’d be pretty emotionless and dull to read.

    That said, I’m all for innovation. I’ve welcomed the creature comforts of Warcraft, the huge strides in storytelling from SWTOR, the freedom of Minecraft, the dry humour of Portal 2. I’m not going to utter some cliché like we’re moving into the golden age of gaming, but as someone that can now play a game online anywhere I feel like I’m living the dream sometimes. My smartphone has more grunt than a PC from six years ago, is always online and has a stack of games installed. I feel like I fell asleep a teenager and woke up in some live-action Futurama.

    But you can’t have it all. There are occasions where modern games take backward steps, and I think it’s right to call them out on it. There’s occasions where things don’t deliver the experience we’d expect, or they’re not as satisfying as we’d hoped. You step forward with some game elements and step back with others.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes we need to hold up a mirror to the past. Sometimes to show how far we’ve come, sometimes to show how similar things are. And sometimes to show where we’ve lapsed.

    Hope this makes some kind of sense, and apologies if I’ve come across as preachy/patronising/arrogant/babbling idiot/all of the above.

  9. The death penalties in Everquest where one of the things that made me quit the game. The good old days? I remember standing in the middle of UO in the biggest virtual city saying “what do I do now?” The reply, of course, was “what do you want to do?” Why? Because UO orginally didn’t have any quests.

    The good old days of gaming? No thanks. And yes, I did play the game in the picture.

  10. Well said. The MMO genre is more diverse and inclusive, and to my tastes entertaining, than it’s ever been. As an aside, old MMOs don’t tend to age very well. A lot of the Atari and Nintendo games I used to play are still pretty fun. Going back to EQ is just sad.

  11. @ Nils – I think there’s a careful balance between enjoyment and torture when it comes to these systems. It’s certainly good to HAVE a death penalty, and I would never say otherwise. But like so many systems in early days of MMOs, they were implemented with very little experience or cross-comparisons to be had, and as a result came out on the bad side of “overly harsh.” Catering to players too hard ends up making a game not fun, because there’s no real challenge (everything’s handed to you) to overcome and no reason to avoid failure of any kind.

  12. @ Gaz – I agree with that. I’m certainly not saying today is perfect or free from critique. It’s good to keep devs on their toes, to keep examining the past for what could be brought into the present, and so on. I just generally feel that I’m more content and happy with gaming now than I’ve ever been, and I wanted to express that in as many words. I do feel like this is a great gaming age.

  13. Ok, I was originally quite tame and polite, but after participating in the stimulating conversation at Syncaine’s, I’ve got to come back and *headdesk* a few dozen times.

    There are things that are fair to dislike about the older games, but there are just as many things that are fair to dislike about current games that some older games did better. Gazimoff’s right when he says we need to also point out where modern games have lapsed.

    As for MMOs not aging as well as Risk or Monopoly, one of the reasons those two board games have done so well is because they have the same rules and the same feel as they did in the beginning. Sometimes the art changes, but that’s it. Find me a single MMO that has not aged well that still plays and feels like it did at release — you can’t because at some point in all of those games’ histories, an expansion was released that changed some of the basic things that created its original popularity while not attracting the people the change was designed to attract. Trammel made UO more like EQ, so people that liked UO pre-Trammel left, people that liked EQ stayed with EQ, and people that liked both stayed where they were.

    I couldn’t go back to play SWG even before it closed, because the game I liked had been gone for years. A better analogy would be to take out your risk board at a party, change all the rules to make it more like Monopoly, and see how many of your friends still want to play.

    And while it is great to log in to a game for the first time and get some direction and an idea of what is possible, it’s not better than an open-ended game, it’s just different. What would actually be better would be an open-ended game that offers story and direction to those that need it, but allows for players to completely ignore that story or direction if they don’t need it. Replacing one with the other is an improvement to some, a failure to others. Having both would be objectively better. And we don’t have a game we can say that about.

    While I’m happy I’m playing in 2012, it’s mostly just because graphics and performance and bandwidth availability have improved. Every improvement that you list comes with its own downsides. The genre hasn’t improved on the games of 2003 — it’s just swapped one set of problems for a new set.

  14. @Syp, so what you are saying is that there is a “best death penalthy” (to stick with the example) and the industry just needed some decade to figure it out?

    And you don’t think that the “average consumer” changing rapidly, e.g. due to the smartphone/casual-game revolution, plays a role?

  15. @Saucelah

    “And while it is great to log in to a game for the first time and get some direction and an idea of what is possible, it’s not better than an open-ended game, it’s just different. What would actually be better would be an open-ended game that offers story and direction to those that need it, but allows for players to completely ignore that story or direction if they don’t need it. Replacing one with the other is an improvement to some, a failure to others. Having both would be objectively better. And we don’t have a game we can say that about. ”

    Offline sandboxes are great at this. Even in olden games like Fallout 1 and 2 there was a set of rails to help introduce you to the game. However, I could also completely ignore them and do my own thing if I felt like it. More modern games, from the TES: Morrowind on up have tended to simultaneously offer more compelling shiner rides and better pure sandbox play (for those that want to make their won stories) with each iteration. Skyrim is being hailed as a new pinnacle, but I can’t vouch because I have yet to play it.

    For whatever bizarre reason, online multiplayer sandboxes from UO on up haven’t given you much of any directed content. “OK, well here’s an incredibly deep set of mechanics. Do whatever you think is fun with them, good luck!”

  16. shiner = shinier (“shiner rides” somehow sounds bad)
    won = own (“won stories” stories full of win???)
    And god knows how many other typos…

  17. @ Nils – Tastes change, sure. But games get refined over time due to a number of factors — audience, one defining game that cascades into others’ featuresets, different genres impacting each other, new platforms, advances in technology, etc. Does the industry have the death penalty completely figured out? Nope. But does it have a much better grasp on it than it did in 2003? I’d say for sure. Gamers didn’t have a lot of choice when it came to how friendly their death penalties were in the early days, it was just harsh or harsh. They sucked it up, dealt with it, and it became the status quo until successive games changed that status quo in favor of players. I think it’s for the better, because (among other features) it’s definitely made MMOs more friendly for a wider audience. I think that’s also what nettles some vets, because there’s that natural feeling of wanting to keep something that was once more exclusive that way, and frustrated that a former insular playhouse has become the romping room for many, many more.

    A counter-question — Where should MMO devs draw the line between trying to pull in a wider audience and keeping true to the spirit (whatever that may be) of what makes MMOs so great?

    @ Saucelah — I like what you have to say and wish to subscribe to your newsletter. I think the closest we can come to proving or disproving what you’re saying is to look at how EverQuest’s recent Progression servers panned out. It wasn’t exact, but it was probably the closest thing anyone could come to turning back the clock to experiencing an earlier era as it unfolded. There was a lot of noise about people returning, and I’m sure some had a blast. I’m not sure what could be drawn from that, but it was interesting to see those who were desperate for a taste of earlier times (whether they were there or not) hop on board.

    I think MMOs have improved on the whole since those times, more than just graphics and tech-related. We take so many of these little innovations for granted that were once revolutionary, but they’ve stacked up over the years to create a video game genre that is starting to compete with the single-player titles out there in terms of polish, mass appeal, and usability. We certainly have a way to go, but year over year, I’ve been having more and more fun with these games and appreciating how they’ve been advancing.

    What one thing anyone can agree upon is that there are problems with how games are now, that devs do need to be getting out of their comfort zones to try new things (or revive older, proven ones), and that we’ll probably never see a day where we can say that this industry is perfect.

  18. One more quick thing — I do adore classic MMOs for what they were (and, in some cases, still are). I admire what they brought to the field. I wouldn’t be doing The Game Archaeologist over on Massively if I didn’t, and I think that should say something for the healthy respect I have for these titles.

  19. @Yeebo you’ve pretty much explained why I don’t pay attention to gamers that insist that sandboxes all suck and that no one but a few “old guys” wants to play a sandbox MMO. Inevitably, I find those are usually the people with beliefs such as “sandbox = no content” which just isn’t true. It might be true of current sandbox MMOs, but that doesn’t make it part of the definition of sandbox as I understand it. Of course, it’s debatable if I understand it — I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about defining that word over the last month or so, made two posts about it that I still don’t think cover the subject, and still haven’t gotten around to writing part 3.

    @Syp: You can subscribe to my newsletter by following my wordpress. I do try to talk about broad ideas at least as often as I talk about Glitch, so some of it might interest you. I had a ton more I was going to type, but it was really reaching the ridiculous wall of text zone, so I’m going to put it there instead.

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  21. @Syp:
    Where should MMO devs draw the line between trying to pull in a wider audience and keeping true to the spirit (whatever that may be) of what makes MMOs so great?

    They should try to maximize return on investment. But in doing so they should not think about the evolution of game design* as something resembling the technological evolution. Game design isn’t really an exact science yet because it is too complex
    – similar to economics, but even more complex.

    When older games which were wildly successful for their time had used a specific design, they didn’t do so because the developers never thought about e.g. a lighter death penalty. There were reasons. Today’s designers need to understand these reasons, then consider the different situation of today, and then apply what they learnt.
    What they shouldn’t do is ignore the games of the past because nowadays games are somehow better by default. If anything nowadays games are a better fit for a different consumer. But even that is sometimes questionable.


    * design, not graphics, etc

  22. Nils said: “Today’s designers need to understand these reasons, then consider the different situation of today, and then apply what they learnt.”

    What makes you think they haven’t, Nils? Just because design has moved away from what you want doesn’t mean developers don’t understand the lessons of the past. If anything, the opposite is true – people really don’t like harsh death penalties and painful consequences. You can see this in everything out there, from console FPSs and their always-progressing “RPG” elements to casual games like Farmville. Bioware made a ton of noise about consequences to your story choices, and there’s far less than they initially promised. Did they change their mind? Not especially, but players didn’t like it. Take away the option to save before a conversation and people get very unhappy.

    Whether you like it or not, the lesson of the last decade is that the hardcore, heavy-death gamers are a relative minority. You can argue EVE as a success, but given the inability to know numbers of actual players (versus subs, which are VERY different things in EVE) that’s open to debate. Other painful sandbox-y efforts have been a rather dramatic flop in the grand scheme of things.

    I think your problem is that developers have learned the lessons better than you might have wanted. I can certainly sympathize that what you want isn’t considered profitable enough to warrant the level of development you might like (although I consider it ironic that the sandboxers who don’t get what they want are aggressively trashing the game that finally gave us story fans the game that we did). But games are expensive to make, and claiming the silent majority only gets you so far.

  23. Excellent post that I agree with completely.

    Which is why some thing about SWTOR bother me so much. With many of their decisions it’s as though they’ve ignored all MMO progress that has been made in the past six years. No cross-server Warzones, no LFG tool, no guild features, no combat log, no UI modification, very basic chat, no chat bubbles, Heroic quests (which have failed in every other MMO). I just shake my head and wonder what the hell they were thinking.

  24. @B: I have seen no evidence that designers have learned ANY lessons. It’s just as logically valid that investors and publishers have inferred lessons that weren’t really there, or misinterpreted what the issue was in the first place. Go back to my post and follow the link to Extra Credits that you clearly did not watch; otherwise, you would understand

    And it’s hard to take what you say seriously when you claim that Eve has harsh death penalties. Bear with me a moment and I will explain:

    EQ had harsh death penalties. If your corpse was in a tough place to reach, that corpse run could be game ending. And admittedly, If WoW or SWTOR had the same death penalty as Eve, it would actually be harsh, in that environment. Many of a character’s items take a lot of work and patience to obtain, and you can’t have more than one copy never mind buy another copy from another player.

    That’s not true in Eve. All your items are mass-produced and are essentially consumables. You don’t fly the most expensive ship you can buy, you fly the most expensive ship you can replace. The way someone plays Eve plans around that mechanic and that mechanic fits with Eve and is, therefore, no harsher than running out of health potions in your average single player RPG — sure, if you didn’t buy enough and keep dying at a tough spot, that sucks, but no one begins screaming about how using health potions makes them disappear.

    Basically, depicting Eve’s death penalty as harsh just shows a lack of understanding of the game, which doesn’t play like games where that penalty would be harsh. Projecting that mechanic into the games you play might very well make you dislike that mechanic, but it doesn’t mean that a game can’t be built around that same mechanic and make it fun. I didn’t get all that into Eve, but I get Eve, and there is no way you understand the game if you think dying in Eve is harsh.

    While we’re at it, the subs versus players argument works for every game; therefore, it is meaningless about any game. If every game out there had as many players logged in at any given time equal to the number of accounts they claim, every game would crash.

    Also, please name me one highly marketed, high budget sandbox game that has had a polished release since 2004, and I will accept that no one wants sandboxes.

    Also, please explain why single player sandboxes do so well if no one wants sandboxes.

  25. LOL. Right, Sauce. I don’t understand EVE.

    I was in EVE before EVE existed. I was at the very first EVE fan gathering ever held (hint: It was in a small cafe in Austin, not Iceland), I watched dominating corps rise and die before the game ever launched, traded words with Helgrim long before anyone started writing articles about his accomplishments, and pretty much thought Molle was a tool the entire time.

    Trust me – I know EVE. You obviously don’t, since you obviously misunderstand my “subs vs. players” argument. The point I was not about concurrent users, it was about the number of accounts each player has. I had 3. Pretty much every single member of my corp had at least that many, and my best friend runs 6. Whether it’s for scouts, industrial alts, mining alts, supercap holding pilots, awoxrs and spies of every shape and color, single-account players in EVE are the exception, far more than the rule. So, while CCP says EVE has somewhere between 350K-400K accounts, by the time you get through the multi-accounts and bots (which are beyond rampant in EVE), I’d be surprised if they had more than 100K actual, physical bodies who played the game.

    Now, to the issue of death penalties… All death penalties in games can be reduced to a single common denominator: Time. I don’t care whether it costs you equipment, experience, money, a long walk back – whatever it is, you lose something it took you time to accomplish in the game, and that time can be used to compare.

    Saying that EVE doesn’t have a harsh death penalty because people play around it is simply flawed. For one, people don’t always – either through carelessness, forgetfulness, or just ignorance, they will fly ships they shouldn’t or fly ships they should but do dumb things with them. But I’ll also turn your “applies to any game” back to you on this one, and hope that doesn’t require much explanation, because this is getting long-winded.

    So, all loss is time. How much time do you lose in EVE? Depends on how dumb you are. I once lost a quarter of all the resources I made playing over the course of 6 months because I undocked when I shouldn’t have, trying to run a blocade with a shiny new Noctis blueprint on release day. My buddy with the six accounts once got called away by his kids and lost nearly three billion ISK because a red happened to jump in-system right then. Ask the alliance that lost the first titan – that took an effort of hundreds, if not thousands, of man-hours to acquire and was lost to a well-placed spy – how not-harsh EVE’s death penalty is. I’ve never done it, but have certainly heard of people forgetting to update clones, and losing months of training time when podded. Trust me, not only does EVE carry just as much potential for a game-ending loss (and it’s happened – look up the Guiding Hand’s first big exploit. That’s Helgrim, BTW) as EQ, it’s FAR more likely to inflict that loss than EQ ever was.

    You understand EVE… Pfft.

  26. HAHAHAHA.

    I understand your subs versus players argument. HOWEVER, it is true that many subs in many other games are not players. Each might represent a discrete individual, but it has been shown that many are not playing, not even a single log in per month. If Eve players are willing to spend 30, 45, or 60 dollars a month to maintain multiple accounts, that doesn’t reduce the value of those accounts. It even suggests the game is more valuable to them than games where no one has more than one account. Rereading though, I can see how you might believe I misunderstood your argument.

    But given that between 1/4 and 1/3 of accounts on other games are not actually actively being played, it is the same as 3 or 4 accounts being owned by one person. Simple.

    I do understand Eve. And what you are describing is the Eve “1 percenters” — and since they are going for higher rewards, they are carrying greater risks.

    However, once again, I don’t think Eve is an example of what a sandbox must be. It is just one example. Eve does not give, what I would consider, sufficient direction to explain the game and its mechanics to new players. Hence why new players are automatically logged in to help chat — they know the game doesn’t give enough direction. Hence why many players feel they are “playing around” the death mechanics, rather than playing with it.

    As for being punished for being dumb, that’s a good thing. That’s how we learn. Part of the reason why there are so many people complaining about gamers who reach max level in WoW and can’t play the game is because they haven’t needed to learn a thing to get to max level (the other reason, of course, being that the end game is not the same as the leveling game).

    But again, all of this is incidental to the assertion that somehow designers have determined what gamers want. Perhaps they have. But there is no more reason to think that than there is to think that investors have decided they know what gamers want. And there is plenty of reason to think that they are wrong — how many theme parks with subscription business models have drawn in WoW’s numbers while remaining subscription games again? Oh zero? So why is that what gamers want?

  27. So why doesn’t the same “many subs aren’t playing” apply to EVE as well? If anything, the offline training means that effect is even greater in EVE. I know my accounts stayed active long into burnout periods just because I was still training, but the only time I would log in would be for a few minutes every month to change skills.

    And you’re still wrong about EVE’s death penalty. You don’t “play around it” – you pay it preemptively. You pay it by not flying something new as soon as you can afford it, and you pay it every time you clone jump to avoid risking expensive implants, and every time you have to flip to your scout alt because you’re trying to make a run through low-sec. Death penalty is, again, all about time – EVE’s is harsh enough that it costs you a great deal of time whether you actually die or not.

    I know this will come off harsh and arrogant, and it kinda is, but please take it gently anyway: Stop trying to argue EVE. You haven’t played the game enough to understand it, and reading a couple of blogs or playing the starter game for an hour or two while hanging out in the NPC corp chat really doesn’t give you the proper perspective.

    As for your last… Nothing has ever drawn in WoW’s numbers, and probably nothing ever will, and using it as a necessary bar for success is stupid. The sub vs. FTP model is a bad gauge as well – many of those that changed over, such as LOTRO, were doing fine as sub games, but the company saw a chance to increase the draw. Such an argument could easily be turned back around – how many people do you suppose would be playing Glitch if they added a $15/month sub fee?

    I understand your point – I really do – but you really aren’t offering any actual evidence. You are, at best, cherry-picking bits and pieces of coincidental data and making a lot of baseless claims about the broad environment. Easier death penalties and more accessible games didn’t suddenly pop into existence with WoW – EQ’s death and sandbox-y-ness was less than UO’s, DAOC was less than EQ, WoW was less than DAOC, and so forth. It’s been a very long, very consistent trend, and if you’re going to argue that somehow devs have been misreading player desires for the last decade – while the industry as a whole has been growing dramatically – you’re going to have to do better than “broadband happened to become common at the same time as WoW launched.”

    I really do sympathize, too – I’d actually like things to be a bit more challenging than they are these days. My big complaint with SWTOR is that levelling is too easy and too fast, we’re missing a lot of the content because of it. But it’s like arguing against reality TV – I’d trade every minute of American Idol ever for one more episode of Stargate Universe, and I can make very solid arguments as to why SGU was a better show… But it’s not what the vast majority of people want, and it’s not where the dollars are going to go.

  28. So essentially you are saying that death penalties have continuously gotten easier, except when I say that Eve’s death penalty isn’t harsh, in which case death penalties stayed harsh. Do you see the contradiction there?

    And death penalties aren’t really important to me, just an example someone else used and I ran with. I do think there should be pain when people do something stupid, so they can learn not to do something stupid when other people are depending on them to not be stupid, and that games that do not teach people not to be stupid do not encourage new social connections.

    I actually believe an entire game could even be built around permadeath, and I briefly outlined how in the past. And, despite permadeath, it would be a carebear game. In fact, permadeath, as I outlined the game, would occur eventually even if the player never once participated in combat or even if the player won every combat that came up.

    My argument is simple. There is not an evolutionary trend from the old games to the new. There is a sudden point where they switched one set of problems for another. We have not seen a highly marketed game with any of these features ever, so we cannot say that players do not want them.

    I don’t even listen when players directly tell me they do not want them. Inevitably, using permadeath as my example here, players will scream about what a terrible idea that is, but the mechanic would not exist in a vacuum. And the context they are imagining it in are the only contexts they know — and whether that context is WoW or Eve, permadeath would indeed suck. But an entire game could be built around that concept and be fun, and since that hasn’t happened yet, no one can say that permadeath always sucks and no one wants to play a game with it. Their inability to imagine that, their inability to even ask appropriate questions about the mechanic that might lead to that, is the ultimate reason why they are consumers and not designers.

    I very much believe games are an art form. I wasted a bunch of my life studying literature, and the same thing has happened time and again in literature. Generation after generation of writers have been told “don’t do this, readers won’t be interested in that” — even readers would have said that unfamiliar ideas were weird and they wouldn’t read them. And every time they’ve been wrong. And that’s why consumers are consumers and excellent writers are excellent writers. Excellent writers don’t ask themselves what the publishing companies want to publish; they ask themselves what they were told can’t be done and then do it anyway. And make it awesome. If they hadn’t in recent history, we wouldn’t have Nabokov or Barnes or O’Brien or Stoppard or any of a hundred or so innovative postmodern works which are a hell of a lot more celebrated than their contemporaries, even their contemporaries that have sold more books. And they will be remembered, preserved, and taught long after Dean Koontz has become a moldy footnote available at a few public libraries.

    So my point is that just because it hasn’t been done lately, just because it has never been done well, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Doesn’t mean that it says anything about what players want. Doesn’t mean it’s an evolutionary scale heading in one direction. The existence of companies like Nine Dots and Tiny Speck where designers with visions other than what the mainstream publishers believe in are fleeing to suggest that I’m right. The fact that investors are supporting these companies suggest that there is money that knows to just be money and let the creative types be the creative ones. And the beyond-all-expectations to Glitch’s first launch says that there are players ready to give money to reward that creativity.

    You can nitpick my details, but you can’t prove the opposite is true either. Time will tell. Perhaps I’m an optimist. But this time last year I would have said there was no game coming that would hold my attention for more than a month or two. And I’ve got three months in on Glitch with no sign of burnout or wandering attention. So I feel there’s plenty of reason for optimism, to believe creativity isn’t dead, and to believe there are investors that know better than to pretend to be designers.

    It happens in literature, music, choreography, and the visual arts. It will happen in gaming as well. If it starts in small pockets, so be it. But small pockets of success will attract the attention of the big money eventually. After all, EA was once a start up with weird creative visions about those newfangled computer games, and they had trouble finding investors who could understand their forward thinking. I’m sure there’s still a bunch of old white guys kicking themselves every morning for thinking those “kids” at EA were crazy.

  29. “So essentially you are saying that death penalties have continuously gotten easier, except when I say that Eve’s death penalty isn’t harsh, in which case death penalties stayed harsh. Do you see the contradiction there?”

    Yeah, because the fact that there are one or two games with harsh death penalties completely disproves the trend for the larger market. There can be exceptions without contradictions. Are you seriously going to argue that the broad trend hasn’t been towards more forgiving death penalties? I’d love to see actual examples and evidence to back that up, please.

    Nobody is claiming – ever – that there is NO market for harsh death penalties or sandbox games. But every trend in the MMO sphere has shown that it’s a relatively small portion of that market. You want to believe that every step of the market’s development has been coincidental outside influences that had nothing to do with the games themselves, that it’s just a matter of waiting for the right game to come along that’ll open everyone’s eyes, that’s great – but it’s an awful big stretch. And your point about literature and people who change things dramatically are well-taken… But they don’t apply. Not because it’s not possible, but that it’s unrealistic.

    The big difference is that software is expensive, and doing good software is mind-bogglingly expensive. You aren’t talking about one guy sitting down and writing the manuscript that will change it all – you’re talking about a team of dozens or even hundreds of people who, even in the worst case, make a pretty good salary. Yes, it’s awesome that Glitch has investors who believe in it – but how many of those investors would believe in it so much if it cost ten times as much? It’s fabulous that Glitch got way more users than they expected, but do you seriously see a case where Glitch could be profitable after a $50 million development budget?

    Because that’s what you say you want, and what you believe will change it all – a sandbox title with the big dollars and big investment and big polish. Holding up Glitch’s 30K or so users (reported as of October) as proof that there’s enough of a market to support an investment of that magnitude is not going to be terribly convincing. Everyone likes to point to indie titles and how innovative they are, and ask why Bioware couldn’t do the same with SWTOR. For one, the vast majority of indie titles fail, and do so badly, and everyone forgets them: For every Angry Birds, there are 500 utter failures that you’ve never heard of. But more importantly, the bigger the investment, the more risk-averse people will be. That’s simple human nature.

  30. I missed the line about how I never played Eve, and hung around in NPC corp chat. That’s funny. And aside from that clearly you’re determined to just be a complete ass and refuse to see any connections whether they are there or not.

    All the increased expense of gaming means is not that alternatives are impossible,
    just that showing the money that alternatives are possible will take longer. You still haven’t watched the Extra Credits clip, which is mildly amusing stubbornness, or rather small-mindedness along the lines of “I know how right I am so I won’t look at anything that might contradict that.” But publishers were once convinced that FPS games could not be successful without multiplayer. They refused to invest in FPS games without multiplayer, and they even sabotaged games in mid-development that lacked it. And they were wrong.

    If what players want is just games like WoW, then games like WoW would also be successful. So clearly they want WoW, but for anything else they want something other than WoW. The details of what that might be are unimportant, and you are stuck telling me that current games have to be the only way because past games weren’t as popular. You’re still not asking yourself the right questions. The appropriate question is “How can these mechanics be fun, what else would it take?” And since we’ve never seen anything that tries that, we can’t determine anything about what the results would be.

    And here’s some simple logic, follow with me now: let’s say the total investment for Glitch is 100k — and since it has already blown away expectations, we’ll call it a successful investment. That opens the door for someone to invest 200k, then 500k, and so on. Each one of those successes reinforces the next attempt. Yes, many indie games fail, but the successes do indeed change industries and move genres. And attract more money. Once again, if that were not true, EA would not exist. There were people that applied your attitude towards EA when it started, and they were wrong. I, for one, am glad you’re a gamer and not a designer.

    You’re still stuck on the games you know, and you are continuously applying these mechanics and ideas to them. That’s incredibly small-minded, and though I have enjoyed this conversation, I haven’t actually learned anything or been shown to be wrong in any way — all you’ve done is reinforce the idea that most consumers cannot imagine what they haven’t already touched. But frequently, when the thing that consumers swear they hate and do not want is released in a context they never imagined, they lap it up. Like most human beings, you are stuck in a rut, and believe that rut’s walls extend to the sky. They do not. Examine your assumptions, and if you have a creative bone in your body, you will find that those assumptions are meaningless.

    FPS games have a shelf life of around 30 days. It took about 5 years for publishers to stop sabotaging FPS games and allow a AAA FPS single player game through the gauntlet. It will happen with non-WoW MMOs as well, but with a shelf life measured in years rather than months, it will probably take a lot more than 5 years.

  31. And now we’ve entered the “Insult anyone who doesn’t agree with me as an ignorant, small-minded fool who just doesn’t get it” phase. If only we could all broaden our minds to break the shackled of the mind we’ve all locked ourselves in. If only we’d open our eyes and let you lead us to gaming’s salvation!!!

    How, oh HOW could sandbox proponents have ever possibly developed a reputation as obnoxious, arrogant trolls? The humanity of such horrible slander!

    P.S. You’re right that I didn’t watch the clip, but that was because I felt you had summed up the important points quite admirably. Thanks for turning that bit of respect into an insult.

  32. I didn’t realize it was “thinking big” to not be able to imagine things that could be rather than things as they are. I apologize for that.

  33. And I’m not a “sandbox proponent.” Hence why my desire to enjoy GW2 does not contradict anything I’ve said. Not believing sandboxes are permanently dead and that the genre will never go back to them is not the same as believing only sandboxes are worth playing.

    You’ve missed the point repeatedly, so forgive me again for not finding you all that intelligent.

    I’m simply not convinced that sandboxes are dead, I see no evidence to suggest an evolution, and I feel even if it takes another decade they will come back. Tobold, the biggest theme park only proponent I know writing on the web, gets it. Why can’t you?

  34. Is there room for compromise at the “sandpark” level? I don’t think sandboxes will ever have mass appeal for various reasons, but I’d certainly welcome more sandbox elements in a theme park structured-MMO (sort of how Fallen Earth/ArcheAge is approaching it).

  35. I believe that there is. And I believe that there is room for a sandbox that you would love as well, one with direction and story for players that prefer it, but one that has perfectly valid alternatives for those that find it impressive. There’s a bit of that in Glitch — there are quests, many of which are only linked to certain skills, but quests nonetheless. Some of my friends have completed them all and are champing at the bit for more. On the other hand, I counted yesterday, and I have 17 quests in my log that I’ve never started or have only completed part of incidentally while pursuing my own goals. Glitch isn’t an example of the type of game I’m thinking of, and some of what I’ve imagined may actually be beyond current technology. But it won’t be out of reach forever.

    I keep seeing people wishing for something like a Skyrim MMO — now I think that would be terrible. At least, right now. Part of why Skyrim feels like a living world while possessing story is actually quite simple, but hard to translate into an MMO environment. When you meet someone that wants you to rescue his sister from bandits, there are not 430,000 people lined up to save that same sister from the same bandits. It just wouldn’t have the same feel if there were.

    But I can imagine a dynamic side quest system, layered into a virtual world, where all the same types of quests that would be in LotRO, for example, are generated from a list of every NPC, a list of millions of problems, and a search for a location where whatever dynamic mob needed has recently moved in. These wouldn’t be as story heavy, but they would be built in direction. And need not be specifically programmed by a dev — though I don’t think such a system could be voiced. Not in the next decade at least.

    Anyway, sometime, not too far off, perhaps in about 50 years if you ask some experts, everything we know about information technology—and as a result, games—will cease to have any meaning.

  36. Well I guess it always depends on perspective. To some of us who weren’t playing mmos back in the day, these old games can be new again. I enjoy playing retro mmos because they are still fun, not necessarily because I have any basis of comparison between the old days and now. For me the old days were 3 years ago, when I discovered some of the games I still play today. I say whatever makes one happy.

  37. “You’ve missed the point repeatedly, so forgive me again for not finding you all that intelligent.

    I’m simply not convinced that sandboxes are dead, I see no evidence to suggest an evolution, and I feel even if it takes another decade they will come back. Tobold, the biggest theme park only proponent I know writing on the web, gets it. Why can’t you?”

    Oh, I get your point. I’m merely challenging you to support it – something you cannot seem to do with any actual data. You seem to think that just because I disagree with you, I can’t get your point and so I’m not intelligent. That’s a pretty pathetic argument.

    Do I believe MMOs need to move past DIKU mechanics? Certainly, and several of them are doing so. If you dig back in Syp’s archives I commented that I actually hoped RIFT would fail, because I feared what a big success would do to cement those mechanics. But we’re past the point of easy solutions. You allude to it in your last post – how do you put meaningful stories for individuals in a game which has thousands? You asked at the very beginning why single-player sandbox games do so well but sandbox MMOs don’t – and here you answer your own question. They’re completely different things. Multiplayer introduces problems that nobody has yet solved, or really has any idea how to solve. Single-player sandboxes let you change the world. Try that in an MMO – it’s simply not viable or sustainable. Anyone who stays dead when killed will never be seen by 99% of the player base. UO’s land rush is a prime example of this. The closest example working is GW2′s dynamic events, which lets you change the world temporarily. But under the covers it will still be the same “kill 10 rats” to move the events along, and I think SWTOR has shown us how well many people will accept colorful wrapping on the same quest frameworks. I find it endlessly amusing that the same people basing SWTOR for “not innovating at all, except for the story” will say how much they’re looking forward to GW2.

    Will games change in ways we cannot comprehend over the next decade? Of course they will. But seriously, sitting there stroking your little goatee and pontificating about it is meaningless, and certainly not the sign of some big thinking. Noting dissatisfaction with the current state of things is not the same as providing valid predictions for future directions. Claiming that current MMOs cannot keep people entertained for much longer is NOT the same thing as saying the sandbox is the future – it’s very possible that ten years from now, the MMO will be slightly less popular than the flight simulator is today.

    If you’re going to try and say HOW things will change, you have to offer up something remotely resembling evidence, or at least connect your predictions to reality. Every shred of evidence around today points to fast, casual games being exponentially more popular than the deeper, hardcore sandbox games. WoW peaked about 11 million. Farmville has EIGHTY MILLION. Old Republic broke release-day records for MMOs with about 1.5 million subs. Modern Warfare 3 sold nearly TEN MILLION in a single day. Yes, those are different games, but what are they compared to your sandbox? They’re relatively light, and fast to play. Skyrim, your go-to sandbox example of awesomeness (not ripping, I own it too)? 3.5 million. Glitch, your awesome example of the future? 30K. Second Life, arguably the truest sandbox in existence, has around 75K “players”.

    So, let me sum up again: I get your point. I simply disagree with it. I’m not arguing there is no market for sandboxes, just that the market is small and likely to remain niche. There’s plenty to back this up – a preponderance of of evidence that more players prefer more casual games compared to the sandbox, and don’t want to create their own content (which is my personal definition of a sandbox). I’ve tried to deal with that evidence, you’re arguing that things will change just because, with supporting points utilizing big dreams, handwaving, glittery unicorn poop, arrogant self-aggrandizing pontification about The People That Change It All, an example of this one time at band camp when producers were wrong about games in another genre, and insults. Being unimpressed by that isn’t exactly a sign of lacking intelligence.

  38. So then you’re not actually arguing with me at all. Great. This whole back and forth has been a giant tl;dr that wasted both of our times.

    Well perhaps not, because I’ve had to think about what it ultimately is I’m claiming. And to come at it from another direction, I’m saying you really can’t say “always niche” or “not possible.” As I said elsewhere: the only absolute I find absolutely true is that absolutes are never true. I’m saying that in order to say that sandboxes will always be niche and never popular, you have to predict technology and culture from here until the end of civilization. Looking forward, it’s impossible to say what games will be able to do in 10 years, never mind by the time I’m retired 30 years or so from now. Maybe 50 years until I retire the way things are going — and it’s actually reasonable to claim that in 50 years we will not even be able to function with the games and systems that are considered cutting edge releases — it’s actually reasonable to claim that none of us will be able to communicate with our own grandchildren.

    That’s generally my point. While I do think it’s possible some time in the relative near future that someone could develop a sandbox that is as painless—and accessible—with or without a big budget, as any theme park that has ever been and would have wider appeal—and I think there’s some assumptions about both genres that prevent other people from agreeing—I’m not saying it is a certainty tomorrow. No more than I said any of the things you presumed I felt about Guild Wars 2.

    If you think this is ridiculous, that’s fine with me. But I think rejecting it is the exact definition of small thinking, and that is the only reoccurring theme in my writing about games.

    So we are communicating on entirely different planes. Not that one is higher or lower — they’re just skewed.

  39. So all this was basically a debate simply because you refuse to treat the word “never” as hyperbole?

    Blood hell, there are days I hate the internet.

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