Monthly Archives: July 2016

Das Tal’s Alpha is a Story of Sabotaging Greatness

Over the past few days I’ve been sinking my teeth into the Das Tal alpha test. And it’s been fantastic – not because the game is anywhere near launch ready but because the groundwork is laid for an incredible and innovative MMORPG. This is a game that turns combat, player interaction, and leveling on its head. It resembles multiplayer survival games like Rust and ARK: Survival Evolved combined with a two dimensional combat mashup of League of Leagues and Guild Wars. Unfortunately, while Das Tal evokes a refreshing blend of many successful multiplayer games, it falls short of delivering a great multiplayer experience. But it’s just an alpha test, and after playing it I’m excited to see where this game ends up next year. Believe me, that’s not something I say very often about alpha tests.

Das Tal aiming

Das Tal advertises itself as the MMO where MOBA meets sandbox. Character movement is controlled via WASD instead of a mouse typically used in top-down MOBAs like League of Legends. At first I wasn’t a fan, but combat turned out to be slower paced than expected. The WASD controls allowed for more precise attacks, which is critical for oh so many reasons.

First, there are no auto attacks in Das Tal. Every attack must be manually aimed. Lining up an attack, especially a ranged shot, can be difficult between all of the character movements. Second, all abilities hit all targets in an area whether foe, friend, or self. This really takes positioning to the next level. One of my favorite PvP fights was against a mage channeling a healing aura. I blinked into his aura, stayed close, and let him drain his energy on healing both of us. Without any remaining energy for abilities, my opponent fell easily. All of the positioning and manual aiming makes combat rather challenging in a group. Or at least, I assume it would. Das Tal’s group support is absolutely abysmal at this stage and is one of the game’s biggest flaws.

As far as I can tell, there is no way to actually form a group with other players. You can’t trade directly with them either. Really, the only way you can interact with another player is to attack them. It’s incredibly frustrating to find players willing to cooperate who simply can’t because the game doesn’t allow for it.

Das Tal ingredients map

Throughout the game world, resource points spawn which can be claimed and contested by players. These points, along with enemy drops, are the only source for materials needed to level up, craft new gear, increase abilities, and advance your character in any way. Thus, one might feel that grouping up to secure these resources would be a smart survival strategy. In Das Tal, the only way to facilitate that is to let one person claim the points, split the loot manually, and then drop it on the ground. This isn’t 1998. These features are simply not optional for an MMORPG of any kind. Das Tal must create mechanics that not only encourage grouping, but actually allow it. History has shown that everyone is a target in an open, survival PvP MMO. If players can’t band together to survive then it’s going to be a sad, lonely road to /uninstall.

Clans are supposed to serve as the primary social interaction. Events seem to run frequently and territories lay in wait to be conquered, all of which serve as endgame content. While that’s great, I ascribe to the belief that the core gameplay elements must first and foremost be enjoyable, clan or no. It’s also worth noting that individuals in a clan will conquer resource points for their clan instead of themselves. I believe this allows anyone in the clan access to the resource point’s loot. So that’s sort of a way to group, but it’s like asking me to get married on the first date.

Where resource spawns succeed is in creating dynamic focus points to engage players with one another and/or against local mobs. Every few minutes, messages display alerting the player of a nearby resource spawn, with each unique area providing distinct resources. So if multiple players want obsidian to craft a better staff, the scarcity of spawns will create natural conflict. The winner after five minutes of this king of the hill battle will earn solo access to loot the resource point. Of course, Das Tal offers full looting of player’s corpses so sometimes the real danger doesn’t begin until trying to store one’s glittering prizes. The player’s stash is the only place safe from antagonistic interference.

Das Tal resource control

Speaking of which, the stash is a very strange device. There are many potential stashes littered throughout the world’s makeshift towns, but a player can only store items in one of them at a time. This gives off a nomadic vibe, as players must constantly seek new homes in search of higher quality resources and better skill trainers. And the full risk of a nomadic lifestyle comes with it as players can lose all of their items transporting them to a new stash. You can imagine my surprise when I first found this out, trying to drop off some loot in a place far away from my home base. Luckily, I didn’t encounter any aggressive players on the road to town. In town was a different story.

While trying to stow away my inventory (the managing of which is rather cumbersome), I discovered that absolutely nowhere is safe in Das Tal. Another player, hidden in a bush, assaulted me. I managed to dance around long enough to store everything, but the writing on the wall was clear for such a feature. I’m not looking forward to the griefers’ inevitable camping of stash spots if the current system remains in place. Small safe zones simply must exist for players to craft, manage items, and talk without fearing death. I love the tension that Das Tal’s open rule set creates, but tension is only fun with an even ebb and flow. Constant tension does not make good game design.

My other complaints were pretty minor. Some resources spawned in inaccessible points. Level notifications took up too much real estate when they popped up in battle. Players were oddly split between two servers, despite relatively low populations. The insane frequency of mob spawning often frustrated when simply trying to loot the last five dead mobs. The benefits of each increased ability level are completely unclear. Visuals, sound effects, and animations reminded me frequently that I was testing an alpha product. But despite all of that, Das Tal exhibits a certain charm that many of today’s top MMOs lack.

Das Tal inventory stash management

Player levels don’t matter that much and only serve as a maximum power mark. What really matters is the ability levels of the selected weapons and armor skills, which combined act as the player’s class. Like Guild Wars, players are limited to equipping only a select number of abilities (up to 10). This creates no shortage of decision making when building a synergistic skill set. I spent most of my time wielding a staff and switching armor between robes and leather. Both armor types felt different, fun, and viable. It’s the perfect trinity. Learning and advancing skills requires particular resources but never felt like a grind because of the skill based combat, player threat, and frequency of drops. The best thing I can say about my experience during Das Tal’s alpha is that it felt rewarding.

Das Tal is not going to be a mega popular hit. Its hardcore, open world PvP will appeal to a niche audience. But that’s not something MMORPGs should shy away from. The days of a one size fits all MMORPG are long gone, with nearly every online title including some form of MMO gameplay. Das Tal realizes this and never tries to misrepresent itself as something it’s not. The only question is whether they can create a system that is still fun for weaker, newer, or clanless players.

Those interested in the game can still try it out for a few more days. Registered users can get a free Das Tal alpha key from mmorpg.com. The alpha test runs through the end of the week. If you’re reading this too late for that, first you should follow us on Twitter. Second, you can visit the Das Tal website to sign up for future alpha tests.


Most Played Free MMORPG of 2016

MMORPGs are constantly evolving due to the very nature of the genre. Developers release updates, players come and go, and some thrive while many struggle to survive. This leads to frequent dynamic population shifts. It begs the question which MMORPG is doing the best now? The answer is almost certainly still World of Warcraft, so I decided to shift the question to “what is the most played free MMORPG?” as of July 2016.

Calculating Most Played

Unfortunately, very few MMORPGs release public details to help us figure out which MMORPG has the biggest population. At best we get total account registrations, which is pretty meaningless compared to active players. To determine average player counts involves a lot of digging and a lot more estimating. In determining the most played free MMORPG, I’ll be using reddit, Facebook, YouTube, Google, and Twitter to compare relative values of MMORPG popularity. Relative popularity is great to simply rank what’s likely the most played MMORPGs, but I’ll go a step further and include estimates for peak player counts.

With numbers that are so secretively guarded that would seem like a difficult undertaking. Luckily, two MMORPGs are very public about their concurrent users counts. Eve Online and RuneScape both offer easily accessible concurrent player count details. I’ll be using the social and search presence of these games to create index values. From there, I will average these values and use them to gauge other MMORPGs’ peak player counts by multiplying by RuneScape and Eve Online’s peak player counts.

Most played free MMORPG chart

Chart depicting estimates of peak player counts for most played free MMORPGs.

More details about the methodology are the bottom of this blog post. The important thing you need to know is that using these methods, I was able to estimate peak player counts of Eve Online and Runescape to within 5% of each other. Granted, two games do not make a statistically significant sample set but it does make an enjoyably significant sample set!

Top 6 Most Played Free MMORPGs

I researched a number of MMORPG to determine the most played between all of them. Instead of throwing away all of that data and leaving only the winner, I thought a top six list of MMORPG populations would make for a better read. Games are ordered by estimated peak player counts.

6. TERA

tera 6th most played free mmorpg

TERA is a title that most people only respect because of the combat system. However, that combat system creates opportunities in PvE dungeons and PvP combat that are impossible with traditional MMO combat. It can be a bit grindy, but there is more than just one reason why TERA is still doing well years after release in a crowded market.

Facebook:  315k likes
RI: 0.29
EI: 1.06

Google Trends: 3
RI: 0.43
EI: 1.00

Tweets: 493
RI: 0.31
EI: 1.57

YouTube Views: 74,302
RI: 0.22
EI: 0.57

Subreddit:  18,700 subscribers
RI: 0.29
EI: 0.29

Average Runescape Index of 0.31 and Eve Index of 0.898.

Interested in playing TERA? Click here.

Estimated peak player counts for TERA: 28,016 – 29,849

5. MapleStory

MapleStory: 5th most played MMORPG

MapleStory is the Korean MMORPG that keeps running strong. Over a decade old at this point, the developers continue to find new content to entice players to stick around. It’s main unique calling is the 2D platformer anime art style. No other online game has successfully emulated the style well enough to take away from MapleStory’s amazingly high population count.

Facebook: 945k likes
RI: 0.88
EI: 3.17

Google Trends: 3
RI: 0.43
EI: 1.00

Tweets: 306
RI: 0.19
EI: 0.98

YouTube Views: 139,000
RI: 0.41
EI: 1.07

Subreddit: 17,470 subscribers
RI: 0.27
EI: 0.27

Average Runescape Index of 0.44 and Eve Index of 1.30.

Estimated peak player counts for MapleStory: 40,558 – 42,367

4. Blade and Soul

Blade and Soul 4th most played free mmorpg

Blade and Soul is the latest big MMORPG to launch as fully free to play. The action based combat serves as the primary draw, but it’s unclear whether the other features will be enough to keep the game’s current position. My guess is that by 2017, Blade and Soul will no longer be in the top 5 most played free MMORPGs. For now though, let’s enjoy 4th place!

Facebook: 184k likes
RI: 0.17
EI: 0.62

Google Trends: 5
RI: 0.71
EI: 1.66

Tweets: 295
RI: 0.18
EI: 0.94

YouTube Views: 519,178
RI: 1.53
EI: 4.01

Subreddit: 27,206 subscribers
RI: 0.42
EI: 0.21

Average Runescape Index of 0.60 and Eve Index of 1.49.

Interested in playing Blade and Soul? Click here.

Estimated peak player counts for Blade and Soul: 46,486 – 57,773

3. Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 3rd most played free mmorpg

This a weird hybrid of free to play and buy to play, but since a free to play version of Guild Wars 2 does exist, I felt that it was fair game to include. Heart of Thorns wasn’t particularly well received (mainly due to price), but I’m confident that ArenaNet will redeem themselves. And things aren’t all bad if these estimated player counts are anywhere near accurate.

Facebook: 1.115m likes
RI: 1.04
EI: 3.74

Google Trends: 5
RI: 0.71
EI: 2.5

Tweets: 999
RI: 0.62
EI: 3.19

YouTube Views: 165,846
RI: 0.48
EI: 1.28

Subreddit: 129,024 subscribers
RI: 1.98
EI: 2.00

Average Runescape Index of 0.97 and Eve Index of 2.54.

Interested in playing Guild Wars 2? Click here.

Estimated peak player counts for Guild Wars 2: 79,245 – 93,400

2. RuneScape

RuneScape 2nd most played free mmorpg

RuneScape actually provides player counts, it’s technically free to play, and by my calculations it is definitely one of the most played free MMOs out there. It’s also the oldest of the games on this list, beating out MapleStory by two years. RuneScape is continuously updated, accessible, and traditional yet progressive enough to capture old and new fans alike.

Actual peak player counts for RuneScape: 96,289

1. Star Wars: The Old Republic

SWTOR: most played free mmorpg

Like a lot of free MMORPGs, SWTOR also includes a premium subscription model. It was also originally released as a paid title but has since followed the freemium path. These numbers seem to suggest that it was a wise decision to transition to free to play. I don’t see any game on the horizon that will knock SWTOR off it’s pedestal.

Facebook: 2.497m likes
RI: 2.33
EI: 8.38

Google Trends: 6 (Star Wars The Old Republic + SWTOR)
RI: 0.86
EI: 2.00

Tweets: 2,259
RI: 1.4
EI: 7.22

YouTube Views: 199,860
RI: 0.59
EI: 1.55

Subreddit:  58,903 subscribers
RI: 0.90
EI: 0.91

Average Runescape Index of 1.22 and Eve Index of 4.01.

Interested in playing Star Wars: The Old Republic? Click here.

Estimated peak player counts for Star Wars: The Old Republic: 117,472 – 125,107

Do these results surprise you? How accurate do you think I am? Do these quantitative analytical posts appeal to you?

And if a publisher wants to spill their player count secrets to indulge an internet stranger in their prideful player estimates, feel free to reach out!

Methodology

All right, so the post is technically is “over” but my simple explanation of the numbers didn’t do it for you? Read on for the finer details…

For both RuneScape and Eve Online, I used peak player counts from 7/12 – 7/18. RuneScape gave a count of 96,289 and Eve Online a count of 31,199. These are the numbers that are multiplied by the average RuneScape and Eve Indices. To explain in more detail, I’ve included an example: Let’s say “Example MMORPG A” has half the reddit, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google numbers as RuneScape. That would make for an average RuneScape Index (RI) value of 0.5. Let’s say those same numbers give us a 1.25 on the Eve Index (EI). I would then estimate peak player population at 38,998 (from EI) to 48,144 (from RI).

I combined reddit, Facebook, YouTube, Google trends, and Tweets to get a search and social media picture across more stable elements (reddit/Facebook) and trending recent elements (Trends, Tweets) with YouTube somewhere in the middle. Subreddit subscribers and Facebook page likes do change over time but are relatively slow. For tweets, I used hashtags related to the game for a period of a week between 7/12 – 7/18. With Google Trends, I looked at 2016 numbers using 2004 – present as the time range to keep an easily consistent index. Finally, for YouTube I ranked videos in the past year by views and selected the 10th ranked video. This seemed to be a sweet spot for where the game itself was heavily responsible for the views as opposed to one off success videos.

I did not use SteamCharts because not every game is on Steam. It’s also unclear what percentage of players use Steam vs. the client directly for any given MMORPG. I did not use Twitch because viewers are heavily skewed by the streamers themselves.

With Blade and Soul, I used the Google Trend numbers two months after release instead of the month of release. I believe this is a more accurate representation of the current population and if anything is still too high.

I did not include the more broad spectrum of the genre such as general free to play MMOs like Warframe or MOBAs like League of Legends. Only “true” MMORPGs were considered and researched. These stats are perhaps a bit west leaning, but I would consider these worldwide player peak estimates. Obviously high levels of estimation negatively impact precision, but I will say that I feel pretty good about the rankings of the games.


Riders of Icarus: When Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough

Nexon’s Riders of Icarus is the latest free to play Korean MMORPG to make it to Western shores, having launched into open beta (see: soft launch) this month. Similar to the older Dragon’s Prophet, Riders of Icarus allows players to tame many monsters from the game world to serve as pets or mounts.

Flying on a Pegasus during the tutorial for the free to play MMORPG Riders of Icarus

Dragon’s Prophet was a game with a lot of cool ideas that fell apart due to a severe lack of polish and quality control. My hope was that RoI might provide the strengths of Dragon’s Prophet without its stumbles.

It did turn out to be more polished, but I’m not sure that’s enough.

The (very basic) basics:

I wouldn’t say Riders of Icarus is a bad game. It’s just not a memorable one, and in this day and age, that can be a fatal flaw.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s cover the basics.

Riders of Icarus begins with a story-driven tutorial sequence that seems to be trying to hit every possible RPG cliche in as short a time as possible. While it borders on self-parody at times, I’ll at least give the developers credit for trying to make the tutorial something more memorable than the usual kill ten rats quests.

Of course, this is somewhat undermined by the fact that you’re returned to the stock standard grind of killing boars and picking flowers the moment you enter the greater game world.

The combat in RoI is a little strange, a sort of unhappy medium between action combat and traditional tab target play. In fact, you game gives you a choice of action or traditional control schemes, though I quickly learned that the standard mode is the superior choice. Simply enabling mouse look does not action combat make.

Combat in the free to play MMORPG Riders of Icarus

There’s a simple combo system, but don’t expect the combo-heavy play of games like Blade and Soul.

On the whole, RoI’s combat is not unpleasant, but it’s also nothing special. This is a difference from Dragon’s Prophet, which had excellent combo-heavy action combat.

Similarly, Dragon’s Prophet had an interesting (if too limited) selection of classes, with some fresh takes on old archetypes, but RoI’s classes are both few in number and incredibly generic in design.

The graphics are decent, but nothing special. The character models have a nice look and are a bit more realistic (or less unrealistic anyway) than I’m used to, though of course the female armor is anything but. The soundtrack… exists. The voice acting is corny, but I’ve heard worse.

I got the impression there was actually some fairly deep lore behind the game, but nothing is really explained, so I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. Maybe things become clearer later in the game.

One thing I will say in RoI’s favor — and one way in which it thoroughly outclasses Dragon’s Prophet — is that the translations are far better than in most other import games I’ve played. I’ve noticed no major grammatical errors, and all the text and spoken dialogue sounds fairly natural.

It’s a bit sad that this qualifies as exceptional, but here we are.

Also, considering Nexon’s reputation as a company that does its level best to bleed players dry, I was impressed by how tame the cash shop seemed to be. Maybe things get worse later, but at least early on, the monetization of RoI doesn’t seem too bad at all.

An assassin character in the free to play MMORPG Riders of Icarus

On the whole, RoI is quite polished. I did not encounter any major bugs or other beta hiccups.

However, it’s also quite stock standard, and really the only thing that sets it apart is its taming system.

Gotta tame ’em all:

Fairly early in the game, you will gain the ability to tame various critters from around the game world. The taming mini-game is very basic and seems to be based more on luck than on the player’s input, but you tend to succeed most of the time regardless.

Most of what you can tame is fairly standard fantasy creatures — wolves, boars, unicorns, and so forth — but you do get a few more exotic choices. I quite enjoyed the woodland joey, because nothing says heroism like riding into battle atop a sparkly kangaroo.

Each creature has its own unique stats and abilities, and you can also find rarer monsters that are more powerful. To start the differences between each creature are pretty subtle, but I got the impression their strengths and weaknesses become more pronounced as they level up.

It’s not clear to me how mounts and pets level — sometimes they’d ding just as I was sitting in town reading a quest — but they level quite quickly, at least to start, so it shouldn’t be too hard to keep your stable on-level with you, even if you’re collecting a lot.

Most of the mounts I tamed actually didn’t seem to increase my movement speed all that much, which is a bit disappointing. Presumably higher quality or higher level mounts would be faster.

The woodland joey kangaroo mount in the free to play MMORPG Riders of Icarus

Mounted combat is supposed to be a big selling feature of Riders of Icarus, but in the time I played, I was not able to do any fighting from kangaroo-back.

RoI’s pet system has some annoyances that Dragon’s Prophet lacked. Whereas each tamed dragon in the latter game served as both mount and pet, RoI’s mounts must be converted to combat pets, and the change is permanent.

RoI’s pets and mounts also have limited stamina pools that are depleted by doing basically anything. When the stamina is exhausted, the pet or mount automatically despawns. I believe the intention of this system was to encourage players to level a variety of minions, but it still seems an unnecessary annoyance. If I want to spend all my time riding Sir Mittens the Sparkle Kangaroo, why shouldn’t I be able to?

Also, while Dragon’s Prophet allowed you to acquire a flying mount almost immediately after character creation, RoI makes you wait much longer — incredibly brief and on-rails previews don’t count in my books. I can’t say when you first take to the sky exactly because I lost interest before reaching that point, and Google is at best unclear on the matter.

And this is where I start to get ranty.

When good enough isn’t good enough:

The MMORPG field is at this point fairly saturated. If you want to succeed, you need to do something to stand out.

A story cutscene in the free to play MMORPG Riders of Icarus

Not all games need to be some blockbuster juggernaut. You don’t need to be all things to all people. It’s okay to be a one trick pony with only one unique feature.

But if you’re going to do that, you’d better make your one unique feature front and center and all times. You better do it better than anyone else.

And that is why Riders of Icarus leaves me cold. There’s entirely too much waiting and too many limitations on the taming system. It feels like something that was awkwardly tacked on to a very standard quest grinder, rather than the focus of the game.

Maybe things get better later on. Maybe if I’d toughed it out a bit longer I would have started taming dragons and soaring through the sky and having the epic aerial duels I envisioned when I first heard about the game.

But life is too short and there are too many games out there for me to waste my time wading through hours of generic play to get to the good stuff. I’m not going to take it on faith that the game gets good eventually.

If your game offers something unique, something special, you can’t hide it. You need to make it the focus of the game from the start. Star Wars: The Old Republic doesn’t make you spend a few hours leveling before you get to the class stories. The Secret World allows you to access its investigation missions and ability wheel right out of the gate. World of Warcraft… well, WoW makes you wait for most of the good stuff, but WoW can get away with murder.

An assassin character in the free to play MMORPG Riders of Icarus

Dragon’s Prophet at least felt like a game that was genuinely trying to be different. It failed miserably, but the aim seems to have been there. RoI aims for (and reaches) the minimum bar of playability, but stops there.

Again, it’s not a bad game. I’ve certainly played worse. Ten years ago, Riders of Icarus would have been a game worth your time. In a world with relatively few MMORPGs, RoI’s polish and generally decent gameplay would have made it worth playing for at least a little while.

But these days it’s just one of a sea of barely distinguishable titles, and it’s hard to find a reason to play it over any of the many other options. It has only one unique feature, and that feature is too small a part of the game and too bogged down by quality of life issues and other hiccups.

Riders of Icarus is an okay game. It’s probably good enough. But these days, good enough just isn’t good enough.


We Love Pokemon Go Despite Hating Everything About It

Pokemon Go has certainly taken the world by storm. Nintendo’s stock has risen a tremendous 44% since Pokemon Go’s release last week.

Nintendo stock up 45% from Pokemon Go

Nintendo stock up 45% since the July 6 NA/AU release date of Pokemon Go.

The augmented reality (AR) game is certainly making news, both good and bad. It’s encouraging people to walk, which fantastically combats increasing worldwide obesity rates. However, not all is well as criminals used the game to locate groups of players to rob late at night. It’s also steering focus away from the real reality, making a Pokemon Go related car wreck seem inevitable. Nonetheless, Pokemon Go is clearly the latest hit in the gaming universe. It’s funny too because it is full of things we as MMO players and gamers in general say we hate.

Grinding

The core gameplay of Pokemon Go revolves around walking to Pokestops to gather pokeballs to catch Pokemon that wildly appear while walking around. When the wild Pokemon appear, the player flings the pokeballs in order to catch their prey. To level up these Pokemon, players must catch more of the same ones to acquire the necessary materials. There’s no real critical thinking involved, either in the capture or evolution mechanics. Thus to become a legendary Pokemon master you will simply embark on an epic adventure of repeating the same activities over and over to raise the seemingly unending combat power (CP) value. Meanwhile in other games, people bemoan comparable methods of grinding to progress.

Tutorial

It’s incredibly frustrating for a game to hoist activities on you while leaving critical components of those activities unexplained. Pokemon Go isn’t very complicated, but it’s also not very intuitive. Trial and error and logical deduction will eventually teach everything, but the game explicitly explains very little. The game shouldn’t really necessitate guides, and yet lengthy articles such as this one on tracking Pokemon are continually cropping up. Core systems such as the aforementioned Pokemon tracking, combat, and gym PokeCoin generation are left to the user to simply figure out. Players can get by without these subtle nuances, but they’ll be at a disadvantage without that knowledge.

Hardcore Commitment

MMOs requiring hardcore time commitments are falling by the wayside. Pokemon Go, however, can only be fully experienced by those who put in serious effort. The endgame of Pokemon Go takes place in the gyms around town. Players align themselves to one of the game’s three different teams to conquer and defend local gyms from teams of opposing colors. To conquer these gyms, players must use Pokemon with high CP in order to compete with other trainers. Holding onto these gyms at certain points of the day will reward gym guardians with PokeCoins, the game’s premium currency.

Pokemon Go Gym

Pokemon Go Gyms, the only place where combat takes place.

Players can also store Pokemon at friendly gyms but only if space is available. Players can make space by training at the gym but will ultimately require high CP Pokemon in order to do so. To realistically acquire PokeCoins without paying, a player is going to need some strong Pokemon. As already discussed, that’s only possible through grinding. This creates a cycle where the rich get richer. Even ignoring the items that only PokeCoins can buy, not being able to participate in realistically winnable battles can be frustrating for those without a hardcore level of commitment to Pokemon Go.

Pay to Win

To be fair, I’m personally not labeling Pokemon Go as a pay to win game. Players cannot purchase untenable power. The size of one’s wallet does not impact the need to go out and grind Pokemon captures. Reaching Pokemon master status will always require a certain level of “work”.

That said, the PokeCoin store’s inventory is full of time saving advantages such as EXP boosters, egg incubators, and Pokemon lures. Assuming equal time commitments, a paid player will quickly outclass a free player. The balancing mechanisms here are teamwork and the maximum levels and CPs of trainers and Pokemon, respectively. Eventually a free player can catch up to a paid player, but early gym dominance simply adds to that difficulty. Many players deride “time = money” cash shop purchases as pay to win so it’s worth pointing out.

(Sub)Optimization

Pokemon Go is surely not a friend of environmentalists. The game drains battery at lightning speed. Minimizing is not an option, lest Pokemon go uncaptured without optional push notifications. I’ll give the bugs and server issues a pass because it’s nothing new to online game world launches. The design decisions and lack of optimization options need to be brought up though because it impacts the long term enjoyment. A game isn’t very fun when it won’t work because it killed the power source (i.e. your phone). It’s similar to major PC releases that cause slowdowns and video lag due to poorly optimized code.

Love Transcends Hate

Let me sum this up in way MMO veterans can understand. Imagine if you took everything that made World of Warcraft a worldwide sensation and did the exact opposite. Pokemon Go would be the result.

world of warcraft pokemon go opposite

Flip World of Warcraft upside down, get Pokemon Go?

That said, the game is clearly addictive. I still have it installed and open it up during my regular walks. It’s probably the most social game I’ve played in a while. It’s pretty obvious who is clearly capturing Pokemon alongside me, so it’s easy to strike up a conversation. (I’m eagerly awaiting the first marriage proposal to arise from this game.)

The simplistic capturing mechanic, achievement addiction, exercise encouragement, nostalgia, teamwork, and augmented reality all make for a wholly unique experience. It’s quite simply why we can love a game when we hate so much about it. I’d argue the game element isn’t even that good, but we’re willing to overlook a lot of faults when the full package delivers this much fun.


The Enemy Is Pay to Play, not Pay to Win

There was a time when lengthy ruminations on MMO business models were a staple of the community. You’ll still see people arguing the merits of free to play versus subscription from time to time, but it doesn’t have the vigor it used to. The industry has mostly stabilized, and while some games still maintain mandatory subscriptions, these days free to play and buy to play are the norm.

A warlock character in Neverwinter, a game with a very overbearing cash shop

That means cash shops are now the new normal, and there is always a great deal of anxiety around them. “Pay to win” is the frightful term whispered in the dark corners of the MMO world, a dark specter that destroys games by allowing people to exchange real world cash for in-game power.

But is it really so terrible, though? Because the more I play MMOs, and the more I think it over, the more I think we’ve been afraid of entirely the wrong thing.

On pay to win:

This thought began germinating in my mind a few weeks ago during an ill-fated return to Trion’s MMO shooter Defiance.

Pay to win is an incredibly nebulous term with no set definition, but at least a good number of people would probably say Defiance qualifies as pay to win at this point. Randomized packs bought for real cash have a chance to include legendary guns that are at least as powerful as the best items earned through gameplay.

And you know what? It didn’t affect me at all. I never even noticed it making any difference. The game felt the same to me as it did before those powerful cash weapons became so ubiquitous.

Then I hit the wall as the result of a perfect storm of grindy gameplay, over-tuned encounters, and my own poor planning. Due to my previously casual play, I found myself unable to progress the story without weeks of grinding, which I’m not interested in doing.

DLC content in the MMO shooter Defiance

In my desperation, I considered turning to the cash shop for help, but I realized even that would not be enough. I might luck into an awesome legendary gun… but it’d still be scaled to my level, just like all drops in that game, and I’d still need to level some ways to be able to tackle the content I wanted to. I might have an advantage, but it wouldn’t solve my problem.

Thus the realization dawned on me that not only was I okay with Defiance being a little pay to win, but I actually wanted it to be more pay to win. If I could buy myself a 5K EGO character in full epic gear right now, I would. Gladly. (Are you listening, Trion?)

And that got me thinking about the whole concept of “pay to win.”

Not a lot of big name games offer huge advantages for cash, but plenty of the games I play have blurred the lines a bit. The Secret World offers signet boosters that can provide a significant gain. Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft have legalized gold-selling. Defiance has its aforementioned lockboxes.

None of this has ever impacted in me a negative way. They’ve all made me squirm in discomfort when they were added, but within a few weeks I forgot they even existed.

I’m not saying these things don’t offer unfair advantages. Of course they do. But so do lots of other things.

The ugly truth that no one in the MMO community wants to admit is that MMORPGs are by their very nature incredibly bad at offering fair competition or measuring individual skill.

The character Cass Ducar in the MMO shooter Defiance

There are so many ways you can get ahead in an MMO other than being good at the game. You can mindlessly grind your way to outleveling or outgearing challenges. Better players can carry you. You can just be lucky with RNG.

Another thing no one wants to admit is that you are not a competitive player. At least, you’re probably not. MMOs are not full of people competing to be the best. Like most things in life, they’re full of an ocean of mediocre players (like me, and probably you) and a tiny, tiny minority of people who are actually the best.

The sad truth is that if you play an MMO, there’s pretty much always going to be someone more powerful than you. Probably a lot of someones. At the end of the day, does it matter how they got to be better than you?

This was why I stopped caring about cash shop gear in Defiance. Yes, a wallet warrior might beat me on the scoreboards. But so would someone who’s just played longer than me, or had better luck on drops than me, or who just happened to be the first person to the Arkfall. I had no way of knowing which option it was, and at the end of the day, it didn’t matter.

Think about how many people buy carries to the best rewards in WoW. It’s a fundamental part of the game economy by now. Raiding guilds support themselves by industrialized selling of carries. In this manner, absolutely anyone can earn the very best gear, cosmetics, mounts, and achievements.

Even I’ve done it. I didn’t earn that Grove Warden mount my Night Elf is riding around on through any skill of my own. I just dumped a lot of gold on some raiders.

The Grove Warden moose mount in World of Warcraft

You can argue I still earned that gold through gameplay, so it’s okay, but I don’t really see how clicking a few buttons to do my garrison missions is any more worthy of reward than going out and actually earning a wage in the real world.

I suppose to some extent it all ties into that pernicious fallacy that free time equals skill, but that’s a rant for another day.

The only place where it’s worth worrying about pay to win are PvP games that would otherwise offer a level playing field. If Heroes of the Storm suddenly added a cash shop item that increased your hero’s stats by 20%, that would be a problem. But for the average MMORPG? Pay to win is an illusion, a bogeyman we’re all scared of but are almost never impacted by.

I’d personally still prefer cash shops focus on cosmetics — my Defiance example notwithstanding — but that’s just not the world we live in.

That’s not to say cash shops can’t cause problems, though. We’re just scared of the wrong thing.

On pay to play:

Generally the term “pay to play” refers to MMOs that require a traditional monthly subscription in order to play. That is one example of what I’m about to discuss, but for the purposes of this post, I’m choosing to broaden the terms.

A hunter-ranger character in Neverwinter

When I think of the negative experiences I’ve had with MMO cash shops, it never has to do with power or what other players can gain by paying. It has to do with obligation, with a lack of options.

When I stopped playing Neverwinter, the cash shop was one of the big things that drove me away from the game. And while you could argue that it’s an example of pay to win, that wasn’t really the issue.

I reached the point in Neverwinter where there was basically nothing I could do to progress my character without either paying cash, or grinding until my eyes bled. And it wasn’t a one time fee I could pay and then be done with it. The game systems were designed to require steady infusions of cash, indefinitely, for you to keep playing and progressing.

It’s the endlessness of it that’s the problem. I don’t mind paying for a certain specific item or service. I can even live with paying to overcome a certain restriction or to unlock a certain feature. But when you reach the point when you’re playing the game with your wallet more than your character, that’s when everything starts to break down.

Subscription games are also an example of this, though a significantly less destructive one. At least they lay things out clearly: They’re upfront about the need to pay regularly, and the amount you need to pay is consistent and usually reasonable.

But the core problems remain. You’re repeatedly paying for the same stuff. You can’t play without paying. The game becomes a constant drain on your wallet, and there’s nothing you can do about it short of giving up the game entirely.

A skilled raid carries lesser players to free moose mounts in World of Warcraft

This is what we should be worried about, and I think this is at the heart of a lot of concerns about pay to win. Nobody wants a world where games are played through cash shops more than anything else. That’s when the fun is drained from the game. That’s where it all falls apart.

Simply trading cash for power, while viscerally distasteful, is not all that harmful in the end, at least for most games. It’s only when monetization begins to take over all of gameplay that things get ugly.

Thus, the enemy is not pay to win. It’s pay to play.


Virtual Worlds Ironically Lacking in MMORPGs

When I played Ultima Online for the first time, figments of my imagination began bleeding into a reality. A game now existed in which I could truly live an alternate life. In many ways, it transcended the simple game tag and provided my first virtual world experience. I expected many immersive, virtual worlds to follow. After all, MMORPGs were only entering their infancy in the late 90s when Ultima Online launched.

ultima online housing good for virtual worlds

Wait? You mean I used to be able to see the OUTSIDE of player houses too?

For a time, I felt this virtual vision was coming to fruition. Several titles around the turn of the century created something more than a game. They created vivid, breathing virtual worlds. Nowadays MMORPGs feel a little too much like games. It’s a little disappointing because the genre is a fantastic springboard for creating believable worlds filled with player controlled alternate identities. Maybe this is a case of rose tinted bias, but I think it has more to do with the modernization of MMORPGs, the rise of casual gaming, and minimal creativity in adapting to those changes.

Time Investment

The biggest downside of true virtual worlds is that they require a lot of time to really appreciate. My free time allotment when in school allowed me to really dive into the alternate realities developers had crafted. Spending some extra time trying to decipher where to go for a quest in EverQuest didn’t feel frustrating. It just pulled me deeper into the world.

In today’s gaming climate, a quest-driven MMORPG would find itself with a pretty limited audience without obvious World of Warcraft style quest markers. That’s largely because somebody with a limited schedule wants to feel like they can accomplish something in thirty minutes. And somebodies with thirty minutes to spare are in the majority. This creates situations where developers create short feedback loops to fuel the MMORPG achievement addiction. And that has some long term implications that run counter to crafting virtual worlds.

star wars cantina image

It wasn’t perfect, but Star Wars Galaxies cantina performances pulled players into its virtual world.

You see, in order to create a believable virtual world, it needs to follow certain properties of the real world. One of the general properties of the real world is that in order to be successful, one needs to put hard work. It should follow then that one’s character must put in hard work in order to achieve virtual world success. “But Bro, I play games for fun not to work”, you say. Guess what? I do too!

Notice in the above paragraph the use of the word character instead of player? In general, I think developers (and publishers, probably more importantly) focus too much on what’s worked in the past. Character progression is typically a 1 to 1 ratio of character to player effort. If a character cannot progress without the player, then MMORPGs are pigeonholed into casual advancement. This is why I love MMORPGs like Eve Online, Black Desert Online, and Crowfall building AFK progression systems. It frees the player from working for all of their success and places much of that burden of the character.

Additionally, hard work is not inherently boring. If I want this blog to do well, I need to put in the effort and write a lot. My success is linked to hours spent writing, promoting, socializing, and other blog-like activities. I enjoy these things (or I wouldn’t be here). If active character progression is time consuming but enjoyable that’s OK. Unfortunately, MMORPGs tend to emphasize repetitive tasks AKA grinding. Whether it’s quest grinding or mob grinding, the negative effect on the player is the same. This is why I love dynamic events in games like Guild Wars 2 and hope to see the concept continue to evolve.

Eve Online's skill queue responsible for its strong virtual world

Spreadsheet simulator isn’t so bad when it lets my character, not me, do the heavy lifting.

Great, unique concepts like AFK progression and dynamic events push us closer to believable virtual worlds. They advance characters through the character handling the boring heavy lifted instead of the player. Equally important to character progression is the world’s evolution. Enticing players with the promise of a persistent world, MMORPGs subversively promise a world that behaves differently due to the player’s participation. This is largely not the case.

Persistent, Virtual Worlds

A persistent world technically means little more than a near 24/7 online, virtual game world for the player to access. MMORPGs do in fact provide that service, but persistent worlds seem to take themselves a little too literally. In the vast majority of the genre’s games, the worlds do not change. Players defeat the same quests, mobs reset, everything important gets instanced. A player’s character has nearly no impact on the persistently static worlds of most MMORPGs.

A true virtual world should change based on character actions. My immersion breaks pretty easily when GIANT DRAGON X gets defeated for the thousandth time on my server. Infinite resources, best in slot legendaries, static economies, and instanced content sever any remaining semblance of immersion.  This doesn’t make modern MMORPGs bad games. It makes them bad virtual worlds.

Ultimately, immersion is why creating a true virtual world is important. Virtual worlds immerse players into inhabiting an alternate persona. This is a platform created that can continuously evolve as the player plays their character. The opportunity to interact with real people who can do real things should enhance that experience. Yet, the systems available feel anything but immersive. I enjoy progression and socializing in MMORPGs, but right now I play single player when I want immersion. That shouldn’t be the case.

I’m not saying immersion is a prerequisite for a good MMORPG. They are games, first and foremost. The genre is vast and there are many ways to entertain. I’m just saying MMORPGs are dropping the ball in an area where they had a distinct advantage fifteen years ago. Bring back actual virtual worlds, and they’ll reclaim that “believable alternate reality” throne pretty quickly.