Author Archives: The Bro

F2P is Individualism; P2P is Collectivism

In a genre dominated as much by raiding as it is by grinding for that next level, these two revenue models invite two different styles of play. Plenty of discussion has transpired on which is best, with fair reasons on both sides. Genre fans have debated each model’s merits ad nauseam. What hasn’t been discussed is which revenue model fits which social theory best.

Until now. I’ll be arguing why free to play mirrors individualism and pay to play mirrors collectivism.

What a crazy topic you’re thinking. Social theory on my MMO Bro? This isn’t some Nick Yee gaming science website. Nope, but it’s fun to contemplate motivations and personalities on a deeper level than the game mechanics themselves. So let’s break down each argument separately.

individualism vs collectivism

F2P is Individualism

F2P players are more focused on themselves. They want the most optimal deal on the market. Good free to play MMO games offer fun growth opportunities for completely free players, small spenders, and whales without diminishing the fun of the other groups. However, their low barrier to entry invites very transitory individuals. Without a financial investment, friends will drop as frequently as a theme park roller coaster. Every social list is doomed to an inevitable field of grayed out, offline users. This is because once a free MMO loses it’s appeal to an individual, another substitute awaits.

Pay to win also appeals to the individual. A select few may extend beyond that but only just so. An example here would be ArcheAge, where it’s hard even with a deep wallet to drive the narrative by yourself. These create oligarchic scenarios with a few people at the top running the show. Whether paying to win creates a dictatorship or oligarchy of winning, the focus is still on the few. Luckily video games like these aren’t the real world (at least universally) so annoyed players are free to hop off the real world money death train and move on.

Whether it’s a fair free to play model or a pay to win model, the individualist social theory persists. F2P players find fun in games in and of themselves. This doesn’t mean they’re anti-social, hate cooperating, or won’t help others. This simply means the focus is first and foremost on themselves. They don’t derive as much satisfaction from accomplishing tasks as a group, but instead seek personal benefits for such activities. Further exemplifying this mindset is the heavier focusing on grinding in a free to play game. Grinding is a low level mental task based on repetition with a reward of powering up individuals.

F2P players are more focused on their own growth, choose themselves first over communities, and make independent decisions.

P2P is Collectivism

Ever heard of the sunk cost fallacy? The more you invest in something, the less likely you are to abandon it. Are you more likely to abandon a game you’ve spent $200 in game purchases and subscriptions fees or one you’ve invested no money? This forms a core foundation for pay to play MMOs as a collectivist draw.

Pay to play games want to reward players at the highest level for participating in group activities. Whether it’s raiding in World of Warcraft, conquering Nullsec in Eve Online, or performing trials in Elder Scrolls Online these require near equal participation from a dozen to several dozen individuals. The cooperation and skill requirements in these games exceed the mindless encounters of say, a world boss in Black Desert Online. This forces a reliance on other players to accomplish high end goals. Thus pride in one’s guild or corporation develops as a result of such accomplishments.

When someone ponies up for a monthly subscription, they’re typically eschewing other potential time competitors. This gives the community more chances to interact with one another, and thus enhance a game’s gravitational pull. The bonds and friendships that such games create can be difficult to break. Further, players aren’t looking to break these bonds. The friendships and communities that arise from P2P games are the point. MMORPGs aren’t known for award winning mechanics, but their ability to bind people together is unparalleled.

P2P players are more focused on community growth, choose community first over themselves, and make decisions with consideration of and from others.

In Between

Like every rule, exceptions exist. Guilds formed of F2P players jump from game to game like individuals, but their guild focus aligns closely with collectivism. Many individual players get into a game like World of Warcraft for the story, the exploration, or the single player questing. They don’t care one lick about group progression and will pick up group if and only if it’s needed to advance. Life is rarely so simple to completely equate one thing with another. That said, the link looks pretty strong here.

Where do you fall on the free to play vs. pay to play preference? Do you see yourself more as individualist or a collectivist?

 

 


Rethinking MMO Death Penalties

back in my day leveling

Back in my day, dying was a complete disaster in any MMORPG. Anytime my health ticked down anywhere close to zero, I started to sweat. In Ultima Online, I risked everything on my body and in my backpack. In EverQuest, I risked delevels. In Asheron’s Call, death was a not so happy middle ground between the two.

Nowadays, death is a slap on the wrist. I wait around even less time than in a competitive game like League of Legends to respawn and rejoin the action. This largely encourages lackadaisical playstyles and lowers the common denominator across the board for ease of content. I think in a genre that largely caters to character skill over player skill, death is a key element to adding tension.

The problem is death has only been considered in rather binary terms. You either permanently lose progress (levels or items) or you don’t. Some MMOs use a temporary debuff system to penalize death, but these don’t really change player approaches. However, there’s another option for death that’s been used successfully in other genres.

Solution to Bland MMO Death Penalties

Instead of negating progress, (thus making a grind even grindier) or lowering stats across the board (thus making a grind even grindier) I propose temporary restrictions of abilities. In this system, recently deceased players will select one of three ability-specific debuffs to “pay” for their revitalization. These debuffs can include increased cooldowns to lowered effectiveness, canceling talents, or even removing an ability’s use. These penalties should be enough to force players into a new playstyle to progress optimally without completely ruining the character. As such, it’s important that developers balance for a wide range of talent/ability combinations, the debuffs last long enough to matter but not so long as to frustrate, and that debuffs cap out at a certain number.

If done right, death is all of the sudden an interesting mechanic. Sure, retooling is tough, especially with multiple debuffs running. But long term it’s entirely possible to stumble upon a new rotation or set of abilities that work even better than in the character’s “former life”. In games like XCOM, the death penalty is quite severe but exemplifies the dynamic level of adjustment that’s possible from changing key setups. Losing one’s best sniper in XCOM (where character death is permanent but squads are six characters large) doesn’t mean the game is over. It does mean you can no longer rely on the same strategies that have worked in the past ten missions.

This is the type of penalty I’d like to see introduced into MMOs (though with less permanence since XCOM ends whereas MMOs do not). It adds tension from its uncertainty as much as it does from jarring the player’s sense of complacency. It’s pretty rare for most players to change builds in MMOs once we find something that works. Death now forces a constant reassessment of setups without permanently altering our ability to play the game we want.


Character Skill vs. Player Skill

If there’s one key differentiator between MMO games and other genres it’s that character skill trumps player skill. Even in games with MMO-style meta progression systems like some MOBAs and FPS games, player skill will win out in all but the most unbalanced systems (I’m looking at you Star Wars: Battlefront and the Han Solo pistol). In MMOs, a level 20 character is straight up better than a level 10 character. There’s no way around it, and if there’s PvP involved then the lower level character better hope they don’t cross paths.

This is born out of the MMORPG subgenre from which the broader MMO genre originated. RPGs are first and foremost about progressing a character’s prowess (regardless of what roleplayers and story lovers will argue). Taking agency out of the actual player’s hands is certainly fine. It’s much easier to balance an experience around well defined numbers than it is between players with disparate brain powers and reflexes. This ensures a proper difficulty curve for everyone that plays the game. The problem is that this creates a disconnect for players in what constitutes as skillful play.

In the absence of player skill, many gamers equate leveling or leveling speed to player skill. Thus, they shun games with auto leveling like Dragon Awaken. These same players may even argue that auto leveling is boring, while ignoring the trivial nature of leveling in the vast majority of MMORPGs.

dragon awaken auto button

One of many places the auto button appears in Dragon Awaken

Eve Online is one MMORPG that completely removes the player’s ability to impact leveling speed by relegating advancement to a real time system. This frees up the player’s time to engage in other activities without concern for progression. Unfortunately, most people who end up trying Eve find that “leveling time” just gets replaced with “money time”. Eve players then turn to assessing the fastest way to generate income, which is part of what turns Eve into a “spreadsheet game”. There’s more to the game, but it doesn’t change the fact that progression is boring.

Regardless of whether leveling is accomplished via play, in-game bots, or real-time advancement, it’s always pretty mindless when removing player skill. Thus, I think some element of player skill must be present even when character skill is paramount. A good example of this system in action can be found in Dungeons & Dragons Online. Each dungeon offers multiple difficulty levels that cater to casual solo players as much as they do hardcore groups. Rewards are commensurate with the challenge undertaken so choosing to up the difficulty is actually worthwhile. This exemplifies a key balancing element between mass market appeal and satisfying the loyal, hardcore niche. It’s also why we should feel comfortable calling certain games MMOs even most gameplay is instanced. Doing otherwise limits a developer’s ability to find creative solutions to age old problems.

DDO Instances

I tend to gravitate towards the idea that developers should incorporate fewer binary elements in MMO death penalties. One such element is the all or nothing aspect of experience points. Typically, EXP is only gained from completing quests or killing enemies. There’s no partial credit. This runs counter to games in other genres where win or lose, you’ll gain EXP. Bonuses exist in those games for winning or performing well, but there’s always advancement for just playing. This method frees up an alternate progression paths where failure is OK. As is, failure is not OK in MMOs. And that’s bad.

Ultimately, I believe a hybrid vertical/horizontal progression model works best for MMOs where failure can safely exist. I’ve talked ad nauseum about the greatness of horizontal progression many times so I won’t delve too far into this. Suffice it to say that a one-two dopamine punch of progressing both oneself and one’s character simultaneously is twice the hook of progressing only one. If that sounds up your alley, maybe check out Fractured or Crowfall. I really like the ideas these developers are putting forth to improve how advancement has worked in this surprisingly stale 20-year old genre.

Character skill comes in many forms – from absolute power to diverse options. Either can provide satisfying forms of advancement. Unfortunately, such advancement often comes at the expense of player agency. Many MMOs have tackled the issue in different ways, but I think very few have hit the mark. As time passes, I expect more MMOs to find a happy medium between the player and the character.

Where’s your perfect balance between the two?


Sea of Thieves Highlights Our Progression Obsession

Sea of Thieves is currently sitting on a 5.2 user score on Metacritic. The vast majority of complaints relate to lack of content and/or progression. Mind you, progression has never been a consideration for Rare when developing their pirate themed MMO. They weren’t hiding anything, but come release a huge community railed against the design decision. The only “improvements” to be acquired in the game are purely cosmetic. While looking cool is certainly a driver for a lot of players, it doesn’t alter gameplay. And that’s the problem that Sea of Thieves is facing – the game grows stale fast. I guess it at least fixes the problem of wanting to make too many alts.

sea of thieves ship progression

Rinse, Repeat

Members of the community lodge complaints of nothing to do after only a few hours of play. And that may be true in a sense compared to other more grandiose MMOs. The directed activities in Sea of Thieves are limited to quests to kill skeletons, find buried treasure, or hunt down trade goods like pigs. There’s little variety to sate players desire to see something, anything change. That the game lacks statistical progression amplifies the routine nature of these activities. Rare counts on the dynamic nature of PvP to mix up this routine as other players can freely kill one another to steal each other’s treasure. And until the treasure is turned in at a specific NPC, it’s fair game for anyone else. The problem is that with the open sea sailing, there’s no guarantee you’ll find any meaningful PvP. Even when another player pops up on the horizon, it can often mean a one sided affair with a 4-player galleon crushing a 2-manned sloop. This describes the entire gameplay loop for Sea of Thieves.

It sounds overly repetitive, but is it? Diablo clones revolve around killing hordes of enemies whose diversity makes little impact on gameplay. Cooperative shooters like Vermintide task players on banding together to fight hordes of enemies with the gameplay variety coming from different maps. Even MMOs can seem rather repetitive once you peel back the layers. Quests rarely veer far off from killing X monsters and fedexing items for incapable NPCs. Sure, dungeons and raids inspire wonder – but usually only the first time around. The non-boss monsters themselves rarely demand players do anything different to fell them. So whether or not the enemies in most MMOs consisted purely of skeletons and skeleton captains ends up making little difference other than that very sense of progression. And like Sea of Thieves, PvP in MMOs tend to be pretty hit or miss. Sometimes the experience is legendary and sometimes it’s a waste of time.

Despite the general repetitive nature of these games, they’ve all flourished in their own respects. The differences all boil down to progression. Diablo constantly opens up new challenges based on acquiring bigger and better loot (or unique set bonuses). World of Warcraft always has a new raid challenge availability to test one’s mettle. Vermintide’s system provides a large stock of increasingly difficult challenges to undertake. Along the way, players increasingly feel more powerful. This is done through multiple methods of progression such as new abilities, better stats, new maps/levels/dungeons, new enemies, new talents, and new gear. The core gameplay loop can stay the same as long as something changes. Rare’s stated goal is to provide egalitarian stats where only player skill affects success. It’s a noble pursuit, but unfortunately they’ve lost sight of why progression matters.

sea of thieves ship progression 2

Progression Obsession

In fact, the game does offer a limited form of progression comparable with its contemporaries in related genres. As players complete quests and turn in treasure, they earn respect and renown amongst the game’s factions. This opens the doors to lengthier and more detailed quests. One could simply say that it’s just adding a few more steps to the existing quests, but that would unfairly discount the increased sense of risk and reward the player has earned for their efforts thus far.

Can Sea of Thieves survive without gameplay changing progression? We’ll find out as early as the next few months. Their content plans speak of adding a large suite of options to the gameplay loop – new areas to explore, new AI enemies, and weekly events. But by giving players a bundle of carrots without dangling the stick first, it creates two problems. First, everything can and will be accomplished immediately so what will there be to look forward to? Secondly, gamers enjoy the sense of pride and satisfaction from unlocking these opportunities in the first place. The sheer fact of having had to work for something that has made one’s character better leads to a “sunk cost” mindset that enthralls players unnaturally long.

Sea of Thieves looks like it’s going to end up as game to come back for every once in a while. I think for most people, the gameplay loop to acquire better cosmetics simply feels too grindy. While MMOs aren’t truly any better in this respect, they do hide it better. Constantly doling out new toys or arenas to play in is like a slot machine that pays out on a regular basis. Choosing to eschew progression in Sea of Thieves is a risky pursuit precisely because they’re forcing themselves to build truly novel, varied, and unique content to entertain players. Progression is easy and sucks gamers in (which is why we see it now in practically every gaming genre). If you want more proof, look no further than idle clicker games with literally no gameplay other than progression. The most popular of these, Clicker Heroes, constantly hovers around Steam’s top 50 most games played.

Personally, I believe the game would have been better off with unlockable (but balanced) classes or weapons. But that doesn’t mean Rare can’t bring their equitable MMO world vision to life. It’s just going to require dedication, frequent effort, and a ton of creativity. They’re certainly fighting an uphill battle, as I believe the number of current MMOs that could survive with Rare’s progression system could be counted on one hand.

Gamers are obsessed with progression, but if Rare can succeed in quieting their community’s discontent while maintaining their vision they will do more than earn some dough. They’ll lay the groundwork for an entirely new type of MMO. That alone has me rooting for them.

 


Bless Online – #Hype or /Ignore

Bless Online is the next big MMORPG we’re getting our hands on. The May 2018 Early Access date is quickly approaching, resulting in the plethora of MMO souls clamoring for more information. Is Bless Online worthy of a hype hashtag or will this be another game to safely ignore? No doubt fanbois and detractors will be at odds from now until the game’s final server closure. For the average Joe though, this is what’s worth looking forward to and what’s worth worrying over.

bless online bloody screenshot

#Hype

B2P

This happy medium bridges the gap between F2P and subscription and has turned out financial successes for Elder Scrolls Online, Guild Wars 2, and Black Desert Online. Regardless of what’s best for players, I do think this is the best model for Bless Online’s continued success. More revenue for the publisher and developer should translate to more content for players. Theoretically, it also means less scummy or spammy revenue generation tactics. Ideally, B2P results in fewer bots too. That’s been rather insignificant in my experience though.

No Loot Boxes

In an interview with MMORPG.com, the developers of Bless explicitly stated there would be no loot boxes. There will be the standard fare selection of goodies such as cosmetics, advancement boosts, and mounts but nothing that’s currently on the commonly accepted MMO no-no list. Of course whether or not they stay more pure or descend into Black Desert’s P2W practices remains to be seen.

Fresh Combat System

bless online old combat

Truth be told, we don’t know exactly what Bless Online combat will look like when Early Access launches on Steam. The developers are really pushing a narrative of a full rework for the game so we can only guess what that will entail. Currently, it plays like something akin to the combination of Guild Wars 2, Revelation Online, and Black Desert Online. It’s action oriented but with tab targeting. It also feels clunky with limited build options, so I imagine that’s what they’re targeting to “fix” rather than radically alter core gameplay mechanics. For example, there’s a combo system in Bless Online but it feels about as interesting as a standard ability rotation in World of Warcraft. If active tab targeting is something you’re interested in right now, I’d recommend trying out Revelation Online to see if it’s worth getting hyped over. Revelation handles “classic” tab targeting combat exceptionally well.

Horizontal Endgame

At level cap, Bless alters progression from a strong vertical experience to horizontal advancement. Guild Wars 2 manages this fairly well, but I think there’s a lot of room for improvement. My hope is that Bless Online’s endgame will reward players who see the value in switching builds depending on the situation (a big deal for its PvP centric gameplay). This does mean the development team has to be on the ball with balance changes, and that’s not particularly easy even for seasoned veterans like Blizzard. I love this idea in theory, and greatly prefer horizontal progression to never-ending item level progression.

Unique Racial Storylines

Apparently each of the game’s seven races will tell their own unique story. This reminds me of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s approach to storytelling. Reports from players on the Russia and Korean servers tell of a diverse questing system with a passable story. Whether this will translate well depends on localization efforts, but Bless Online seems to be going the distance by implementing full voiceovers. Good stories can go a long way for MMORPGs so if Bless Online succeeds here, they will be one of the few.

Party Buffs

hyped for bless online group buffs

Tyler Bro and I tend place different values on solo player MMOs vs. group MMOs. While we see the merits of each side, there’s no denying the industry has catered more towards solo players lately. Bless Online seeks to change that with their party buffs. Depending on the makeup of a party, leaders can select one combat and one non-combat affect to apply to all party members. Whether these buffs will actually encourage group play in any meaningful way remains to be seen.

/Ignore

Not F2P

The merits of B2P are clear, but there’s a serious problem with the model. With so many substitutes in the space, it can be challenging to convince friends to pay for and pick up yet another “MMO with potential”. My general preference now is something akin to Guild Wars 2 – a limited free experience and introduction to the game with enough gameplay to get players hooked.

Pay to Carebear

If you want to avoid PvP at max level, you are going to have to pony up regularly for a cash shop item. I doubt it will be too expensive, but it’s a noteworthy additional cost. Additionally, the game will clearly be designed with PvP in mind so PvE players may find content updates more lacking than something like the well-balanced Guild Wars 2.

Two Faction PvP

Bless Online is pushing a heavy PvP narrative, promising 100vs100 battles. That sounds great with the exception of no MMORPG has ever balanced a two faction system, which Bless will be using. Inevitably one side pulls ahead on a server and draws players who crave to winning. Games like Aion that have rewarded players on the “losing side” still haven’t succeeded in a truly balanced experience. I’d argue Dark Age of Camelot during its peak has offered the best massive scale PvP, and it did so primarily because with three factions, two of them can also gang up on one if the one pulls too far head.

Current State

The biggest concern is that we’re hinging a lot of hype on Bless Online’s ability to radically alter their combat system. As I mentioned above, combat right now is not a strength of the game. Fighting enemies feels rote and mundane. While quests offer diversity more than most F2P MMORPGs, they still lag behind immersive offerings such as Elder Scrolls Online and World of Warcraft. Bless Online did post about key changes last Tuesday, but the new dynamic combat system is suspiciously sparse. The The lack of concrete gameplay videos showing these massive overhauls with a month left to go should be concerning to anyone that’s followed an upcoming MMORPG before.

My recommendation is to avoid the hype trap but continue following the game. Bless Online could develop into a worthwhile experience, possibly even as soon as the Early Access launch. It’s just that MMORPGs are notorious for missing the mark, especially at launch.


Black Desert Online: When Pay for Convenience is Pay to Win

I’m thankful for Black Desert Online’s cash shop for one reason – it exemplifies the notion that paying to win cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. This is a game where if the cash shop was transferred to another popular MMORPG or if a different core system replaced BDO, I’d change my opinion. As is, Black Desert Online definitely falls into the pay to win camp. Their monetization model is particularly frustrating given the existence of several free MMOs that aren’t pay to win.

black desert online cash shop

BDO cash shop – spend time here or “lose”

The cash shop in Black Desert ostensibly sells convenience. There are very few “max power” enhancements, mostly limited to the ghillie suit that hides player name in PvP. Compared to something like ArcheAge where every dollar spent is an immediate power upgrade, BDO may not seem so bad. While the system certainly isn’t as egregious as ArcheAge, paying for convenience is a big deal when grinding is all that matters. And grinding is all that matters in Black Desert Online.

Power in BDO is and always will be commensurate with time spent playing the game. Two equal level players with as little of a difference as 20% in total AP/DP from items will result in a decidedly lopsided contest. And it’s not like items with higher AP/DP even come from completing challenging raids or winning equal PvP contests. They result from mindlessly grinding enemies for hours on end.

This is where pay for convenience turns into pay to win. Items in BDO’s cash shops grant EXP bonuses with costumes and looting speed plus miscellaneous stat bonuses via pets. The EXP bonus is a problem because levels in BDO are essentially infinite but increasingly slow to come by after level 50. The pets are where the real bonuses lie though. Monsters die by the dozens in Black Desert Online and all of them drop loot. Players must farm these either for rare drops or to gather silver from vendor trash to pay for existing equipment improvements. Pets pick up loot for the player and better pets (they can be upgraded) pick up loot faster. Manually picking up loot in BDO is a huge time waster so proper pet usage can increase grinding efficiency by approximately two to five-fold. And the only way to reliably acquire “pet power” is via the cash shop.

black desert online pets

Pets – the most important investment in BDO

There’s no denying that buying these items in the cash shop help players progress significantly faster. That’s one problem. The other problem is that open PvP enters the picture once you hit level 50. Mindless killing isn’t really worthwhile in BDO but killing to claim grinding areas is certainly is. And guess who is going to win those battles? The guys and gals that have been grinding the longest with the most cash shop gear. Remember, power in BDO is commensurate with time spent playing the game, amplified by the cash shop. So now the weaker players not only aren’t leveling as fast because they lack these “convenience” items, but they’re leveling even slower because stronger players push them to sub-optimal grinding spots. In BDO, the rich get richer.

The cost for optimal gear and the maximum number of the highest level pets runs about $400 – $500. This figure only rises as additional costs are incurred to further maximize efficiency such as weight and inventory upgrades. At least those are fixed costs. Assuming you don’t feel like $500 for peak efficiency bonuses on a time intensive grinding MMO is that bad, there are still items like Artisan Memories. These are used to recover durability on items that slowly degrade as upgrades inevitably fail in the RNG equipment upgrade minigame. Durability recovery via real money means less in-game money spent means more money for other things.

But hey, this is just convenience, right?