Good evening ladies, gentlemen, hobbits of all ages, otaku, furries, assorted lunatics and Nate “Bup” Liles!!! For today’s entertainment our host has selected that we listen to a roundtable of armchair MMO developers! Yes, that is right, Lusipurr.com’s very own general counsel “Lane,” international man of mystery, onetime paramour of the Jade Empress of the lost city of P’nai P’tah on Atlantis, and Irish jam band enthusiast, is joined by several other renowned armchair MMO developers for a roundtable discussion.
Also on our panel today are Harry “teh h4rdcore” Veterano, who has been playing massively multiplayer online games since he and his two friends hooked up their Tandy computers together in the late 80s after an all-night Mountain Dew and Dungeons and Dragons binge! Along with Harry we have Celeste Novicci, better known to the viewing public as “Casual Celeste,” “Celeste the Pet Collector,” and “Oh my God did she seriously just run IN to the giant fire-breathing dragon?”
Rounding out our panel is an actual game developer, the eminently well known “Spiritwalker,” lead systems designer for a very popular MMO. Because we are all giant fuck-off nerds here, we will not refer to him by his given, Christian name, because what is the point? No one would recognize it!
Shhhhh! It is beginning!
Spiritwalker: Good evening lady and gentlemen, thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk with me. That is right, the tranquilizers should be wearing off. I hope you do not mind, but we have had to restrain you for your own protection. If the straps chafe, just say so and my attendants will be happy to see to your base, creature comforts.
Lane: I was told there would be delicious cake?
Spiritwalker: Haha, sure, but first you have got to clear waves upon waves of trash before you face me in single combat, at which time I may drop a piece of delicious cake… or I might just drop a rutabaga. Who knows? Random number generators are fun.
Lane: I find I already wish to strike you.
Spiritwalker: Haha, that is no way to treat your ol’ buddy Spiritwalker! Celeste? Harry? Are you two aware of your surroundings yet?
Harry: Oh my God you guys, this totally reminds me of that time in Ultima Online when that one boss cast a poison cloud over us and…
Spiritwalker presses a button on his chair arm; a powerful shock is delivered directly to Harry’s groin. Harry doubles over in pain.
Spiritwalker: I am terribly sorry, but you know what they say, ‘spare the volts, spoil the dolts!”
Celeste: You monster! You cannot do this?
Spiritwalker: Oh? Did you not read your end-user license agreement? Paragraph K, subsection (1)(c), “Snowstorm reserves the right to capture, abduct, torture, mutilate, force to participate in prisoner’s dilemmas, force to solve complex equations, or place into gladiatorial combat any signatory to this agreement.”
Celeste: Some guy in Trade Chat told me EULAs were not legally binding.
Spiritwalker: Lane? Chime in any time, buddy.
Lane: Trust me, I’m a lawyer. What he says is correct. And if my guess is correct, we are somewhere over international waters… we are on their turf, Celeste.
Celeste: Wait until my Livejournal hears about this!
Spiritwalker: Honestly, no one cares about you. They only pretend to be your friends in hopes that you will post nude pictures! Haha, internet nerds, am I right?
Lane: Sadly, sir, I cannot quarrel with your logic.
Spiritwalker: Enough humorous banter. Our viewers have probably started downloading porn or something by now. We are here to talk about how we, evil online game companies can bilk you out of even more money. See, we like that you enjoy our little games so much that you devote so much time to running along every little treadmill or obstacle course we put in front of you… and for what? Bragging rights to other nerds?
Lane: Who are you to judge how I spend my leisure time?
Spiritwalker: Hmmm? Oh, sorry. I tuned you out because I was thinking of my fleet of yachts and pleasure barges. But my question is: have we made the games too easy? Are they really just fun attractions at this point, devoid of challenge or a test of your skills?
Celeste: No way! We tried to run this raid the other night, Vault of the Shadow Nightmare, and we totally spent thirty minutes wiping on the first boss! It was this giant cliff and we kept running off of it, but we just could not damage it.
Harry: Oh my God are you serious? My guild cleared that a week before it was released. We paid some Russian guy to hack in to the servers for us and did it blindfolded, just because of how easy the game has gotten. I really wish that they would make another MMO like Everquest. I loved being a 20-year-old college student with tons of free time. Because I could spend more time in there doing fun stuff like running all the way across the world on quest chains that took six months to complete, I could obtain better stuff and feel superior to everyone else. Now everyone who has a few free hours a week can play the same game I do, and I find my ego threatened.
Spiritwalker: Well, this may sound surprising, but we are not entirely deaf to your pleas. But we worry if we go back to that, our game will return to being a niche hobbyist’s idea of fun, and the millions of people that aren’t 20-year-olds living on student loans probably should get to play the game as well.
Lane: That does not mean, however, that games must be entirely easy. Gradations of difficulty within the same content provide an easy way to allow skilled groups to seek a challenge, whereas more casual players can also experience the content.
Everyone else: Shut up.
Spiritwalker: Fine, fine, but that only applies to certain aspects of the game. What about death penalties?
Harry: Man, I remember in Everquest when you died, you really died. You spent the next 30 minutes hanging around a town begging some high-level character to help you go get your stuff back. And if you had to log off or your mom came in and pulled the plug or your Internet connection died, you just LOST your stuff. But I never had to worry, all I did was stand around Freeport in my awesome gear and get lots of /tells asking how I got it all. It was great.
Lane: Wow, your ego really cannot get any larger. I mean, it is good to have hobbies you are proud of, but maybe you should not tie your self-worth to a digital avatar.
Harry: SCREW YOU, NOOB! You just want stuff to be on easy mode with no penalty for dying!
Lane: Not true, but death penalties are counterproductive bits of game design. In terms of playing a game, there should be some risk one must wager in order to gain a reward. Players that engage in a ranked PVP match, for example, risk their own ranking by engaging in the fight. Failure to win results in a loss of rank; the risk and reward are equivalent.
Spiritwalker: But what about people that play non-competitively and do not care about rank?
Lane: Anyone playing in a group also risks the failure of the entire group by dying during some sort of activity. The penalty for death is not personal, but shared by the entire group. Much like an individual player on a team sport does not “lose” the game by failing to play well, the members of a raid or whatever pay when one member is slacking. This spreads the risk out over the group and encourages cooperation and helping everyone perform to a certain level.
Harry: That is dumb. If we have to do that, we will always be limited by bad players. I am not losing out on my phat lewtz because some nub stands in fire.
Lane: I think you are missing the point of cooperative play; your only reason for playing is to pad your own outsized ego. The idea of collective effort for collective gain escapes you, and I pity the group that must endure you.
Spiritwalker: So what about solo players? Or people that just like to explore, or play a certain role?
Lane: It comes down to a limitation of game systems. “Themepark” games with pre-defined progression paths and transparent systems are necessarily less friendly to solo players, explorers, crafter, and so on, because most of the progression is tied to some sort of endgame. Other games might focus heavily on player-versus-player combat, whether in an open world or in a series of pre-defined war-games. Still, the progression path on each is charged. “Sandbox,” games on the other hand, are probably more suited to this style of gameplay.
Spiritwalker: Well, we would ideally like to get as big a subscriber base as possible. Cannot we design a game that appeals to both types of players?
Harry: They already did. It was called “Dark Age of Camelot” and it was awesome and my nostalgia bone is just throbbing to play it again.
Lane: I think you may be romanticizing the past; certainly, at the time, you probably had ways in which the game could improve, and now only look back on it fondly because it contains features you wish your current game had. It might be possible to create a sandbox game that also includes heavily-scripted, premium endgame PVE and PVP content, but the amount of programming necessary to achieve something like that would require an enormous initial investment, and if this panel has shown anything, it is that MMO gamers are fickle little whiners that will change their opinion at the drop of a hat.
Celeste: I know that everyone is ignoring me, but hear me out. Unlike Harry, I have a job and kids and a husband that occasionally likes for me to cook dinner with him. It just is not possible for me to play the game like Harry does; it takes time to develop skills, time I do not have. I prefer a more relaxed playstyle, but I also want to see the cool stuff at the end!
Spiritwalker: Should not that endgame content be exclusive, however? Not everyone gets to play in the pros, after all.
Lane: But that is my point! I may not be a pro ball player, but I can take my bat and glove and head down to the park and play. I can join a local amateur league and get my fill. The point is that both the pickup player like Celeste and a pro player get to play the same game, just at vastly different skill levels.
Spiritwalker: So how can we tailor our game so that pros and casuals can co-exist? If we set the difficulty bar at a low enough level that casuals can compete, professionals will find the content too easy, get bored, and cancel subscriptions. If we set the difficulty bar too high, the inverse is true: only the truly hardcore stay subscribed. Either way, we lose money.
Harry: Man, even if you set the bar in the middle it is still too easy for me!
Lane: The prick is right.
Lane: I know he is an offensive dickhead, but broken clocks are still correct twice a day. Setting the bar “in the middle” only serves to frustrate middle-level players who cannot overcome it, and still keeps extreme casuals from being able to play. Instead of a binary system, we need a risk-reward system.
Spiritwalker: I am listening.
Lane: Take the death penalty, for example. Let us say that there are five things a player can wager with concomitant levels of rewards. A player can form a raid with his guild and risk it all, that is, character death is “perma-death,” but in return, the rewards can be extraordinary. And why not? If a player continues this type of risky behavior, eventually, something will kill him, and he will have to start over from square one!
Spiritwalker: That sounds like it might make him quit in rage.
Lane: No one is forcing him to risk everything; if that sounds too draconian, lock him out of that character for a week while a “ritual of resurrection” is being performed. We could also do a “risk most of it” type of level, wherein the player risks a piece of gear. If he wins, get gets the gear back plus a new high-level item. If he fails, he loses the gear.
Spiritwalker: Also frustrating, but certainly not game-ending…
Lane: Or a third level, wherein the player stands to gain a less-powerful but still desirable piece of gear, with the risk being that if he fails more than five or ten times total in the entire encounter, he is locked out of that raid for a week.
Harry: I… I think I like this…
Celeste: And what about me?
Lane: Well, casual players or players looking to learn the fights can forego the high-powered items for the “regular” or fourth mode of the instance. You do not get the good stuff, but the penalty you suffer is fairly minimal: pay some gold to repair your gear and remove some stat loss, or even a minor experience debt that must be made up before the end of the week.
Celeste: I do not know, I am a pretty bad player…
Lane: … which is why I would propose a fifth and “novice” setting, wherein players that are struggling can forego all rewards except for the absolute minimum (something like Valor Points or Badges of Justice). That way, players can experience a more forgiving encounter, but they will get less.
Spiritwalker: I like it; it satisfies the requirement that death mean something while providing appropriate rewards for the amount players are risking.
Lane: If you give players the choice to tailor the difficulty of their game to their own specific level, you increase general happiness. Sure, it requires slightly more work to create and maintain five separate levels of encounters with concomitant amounts of gear, but it would increase player happiness overall.
Spiritwalker: Excellent! I am glad we had this discussion, but I see my chopper has arrived.
Spiritwalker stands and tosses a key into the middle of the table.
That will open your manacles. The first one out may save the others… or leave them to die. I leave the choice to you.