Reporting In From 'MMOG' Land

by Mark Crump on June 26, 2004 @ 7:04 p.m. PDT

I’m going to take a break from directing my rants towards one development team and instead examine the commitments persistent-world games require, and some steps current and future games are taking to resolve them.

The time commitment MMOGs require is unique in the gaming industry, and this time commitment is a limiting factor in enabling friends to play together – pick any other genre, and 2 friends can usually have a meaningful game experience; that won’t happen in an MMOG. Here’s an example: if I have a friend who plays Battlefield, at any time he and I can hook up and have fun. The limiter here is general play skill. He may be a better player than I am because of how often he plays, but that doesn’t stop us from playing the game together. In an MMOG, that won’t happen because my playtime has made me a level 50, but my friend who doesn’t play much is only level 3. Therefore, when he and I hook up, the play experience – if there even IS one – is severely gimped since we’ll either be experiencing content too challenging for his level, or the content will be too trivial because my high level character easily defeats the monsters.

The second limiting factor is the monthly cost. No other game genre requires a monthly cost to play; companies may sell you hosting space if you want your own server, but you can play for free if you don’t need those services. There are plenty of people I know who would play an MMOG, but the $13 a month for something they may only play 5-10 hours a month isn’t cost effective for them.

So, what’s the solution to these problems?

The first problem, the inability for a casual player to game with a hard-core player, requires a change in design philosophy. Two current games, Dark Age of Camelot and City of Heroes, have taken steps to resolve these issues. Dark Age of Camelot’s is the simplest implementation. Once you get to level 5, if you group with a higher-level player the game makes adjustments to your to-hit rolls and mitigates the damage you take from monsters. What this means is that instead of just standing there sucking up xp; you’re actually contributing to the group. This feature just went live last week, and while I don’t have any statistics to judge how effectively it works, from talking to group members they’ve been hitting monsters they weren’t able to previously, and I’ve been healing them a lot less. The problem with this, though, is that while the game adjusts the “to-hit” and “damage taken” rolls, other key abilities – like healing and tanking – will still be dependant on character level, so it’s not helpful in that regard.

City of Heroes’ implementation isn’t as straightforward, or automatic. What CoH does is allow a high level character to be a Mentor to a lower-level character, who then becomes his Sidekick. There are some limitations there too: you need to be level 10 to be a Mentor, and your Sidekick must be at least 5 levels lower than you. The Mentor must then right-click on his Sidekick, or use a keyboard shortcut, to bring up a menu that makes him your Sidekick. The Sidekick’s damage, Hit Points, Defense and Accuracy are all boosted to this new level, but he gains no new powers. Also, a Mentor can only have one Sidekick.

The problem with both of these systems is that they only address ½ the problem, leaving support-based characters SOL. While it’s not fair - and most likely difficult to code - to give “boosted” characters new abilities, having healing and support spells get a temporary boost would help a lot. It might be as simple as having boosted healing spells heal a set percentage of a characters health, instead of a set HP amount. For instance, if your heal spell normally heals for 100hp, but Thud the Tank has 2000hp, that heal is as effective as a band-aid on a severed artery. However, if you are getting a boost in abilities, that heal might land on Thud for 500hp, significantly aiding him.

Now that we’ve got discussion of casual and hard-core players out of the way, let’s address the costs associated with these games. With the exception of one future game, Guild Wars, which I’ll be addressing in a moment, every online game charges you roughly $13 a month to play, so in addition to a healthy time commitment, you’ve got a financial commitment as well. Back to the Battlefield example: some co-workers and I were kicking around the idea of renting dedicated hosting space from EA so we could have our own playground. By funny coincidence, by the time we divided the cost amongst ourselves, it came to roughly $13 – the same price as an MMOG game, but that’s more to do with the math of dividing the server cost amongst 3 people than EA’S pricing structure. I ended up passing on doing this because I didn’t play the game enough to warrant tossing extra coin at it, much the same reason one of them quit playing EverQuest. The important thing, though, is we were thinking of this to improve our game experience, not just to be able to play at all. Granted, bandwidth, hardware and support costs for these game are high, but if you take a game like EQ – with roughly 400,000 players – they are making about 5.1 million dollars a month from EverQuest, or about $62 million dollars a year. I highly doubt it’s costing 5 million a month to run EQ, but I could be wrong. When you buy an expansion, usually the cost of the box covers the development of said expansion, so the hope is the expansion pays for itself. Dark Age gets credit for releasing two free expansions, a housing expansion and a complete overhaul of the RvR system, in addition to the two retail expansions. EQ on the other hand, has released 7 retail expansions over 5 years, and the free content has been restricted to a handful of zones. I’m not going to criticize either company for the costs of the game and whether or not the “free” content is plentiful; to be honest I have no idea what their costs are, and both of these companies are at least attempting to give some free content. The current business model of MMOG’s has set this pricing structure as the norm, but Guild Wars is out to change all that.

I’m a firm believer that the MMOG market is currently a niche market, and all the publishers are chasing the same $13 around. There are a lot of posts on message boards from people asking if game “a” is worth canceling game “b” for, and people stating they are waiting for game “x” to come out so they can quit game “y”. The combination of the hefty time and financial commitments make playing multiple MMOGs not feasible. Playing more than one of these games is like having two relationships going; one suffers at the expense of the other.

Which is where I think Guild Wars is going to revolutionize the industry. I covered the game a while back as part of our E3 wrap up, but I’ll summarize some of the key points here.

Firstly, there is no monthly cost associated with Guild Wars, making it the first persistent-world game to take this gamble. ArenaNet is planning on releasing retail expansions every 6 months or so, and there hope is that you like the game enough to buy the new content, which helps pay to the keep the game running.

Secondly, Guild Wars attempts to close the gap that’s created by differences in player level. Their combat system is based heavily off of Magic the Gathering, where you can have a deck of powerful cards, but a skilled player with a less powerful deck can still kick your ass. When you level up in Guild Wars, you’ll get more spells, but you are still limited to bringing 8 spells into battle. ArenaNet’s description is that higher-level players will simply have more options going into battle; my hope is that these options don’t overwhelm the lower-level player. It wouldn’t thrill me if a high-level “option” can one-shot me. We’ll see how this works out in the end, but from what we’ve seen ArenaNet is working on reducing this risk.

It’s my hope that more developers take steps to reduce the time commitments. I want to stay up all night playing a game because it’s so addictive I can’t walk away, not because I need to “put my time in” to catch up to my friend’s level, or worse, have a friend who just started get turned off from the game because the level differences between us make playing the game together simply not fun. It’s great to see Camelot and City of Heroes take steps to mitigate this difference. EverQuest is working on reducing some of their own time sinks, the need for individual players to get flagged for certain zones by allowing a guild to get flagged instead, automatically granting those flags to all guild members – this is still in development, though, so we’ll see how it turns out.

I’m also hoping Guild Wars completely revolutionizes the pricing industry by removing the monthly cost associated. It definitely will bring new fans to the genre, especially ones that were scared off by the monthly costs.

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