Tag Archives: Crowfall

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?


Emergent Storytelling Reigns Supreme

This is a collaborative post debating merits of emergent storytelling vs. static storytelling between yours truly and Roger from Contains Moderate Peril. After reading this, make sure to check out his side of the debate!

When it comes to MMOs, emergent storytelling is king.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good static story. The choice driven narrative in The Witcher series is as compelling as the linear experience of The Last of Us. For a single player game, it’s still the way to go. Emergent storytelling is improving for single player games like future XCOM-like releases, but they still pale compared to a hand-crafted story. The reason for this is single player games lack the human component. We’re still not close to AI that can mimic humans. But if there’s one thing that existing MMOs don’t lack it’s people. It makes the genre what it is.

Think about the most memorable stories in MMORPG history. Lord British’s assassination in Ultima Online. Felling the Sleeper in EverQuest. World of Warcraft’s Corrupted Blood plague. Eve Online’s heist (and basically everything else in that game). For MMO-lites, Rust has long been a source of entertaining stories. These events are so special that they transcend the worlds from which they originate. The common denominator between them is players using (perhaps abusing) the game system in unforeseen ways.  You literally can’t make this stuff up. That’s the potential of emergent storytelling.

emergent story eve heist

It’s true that to fully experience emergent stories, you need to be there when the event occurs. For the regular person, that’s not feasible. Gamers also work or go to school and can’t be available for something cool that’s happening in a video game. Fear of missing out affects a lot of people, given how many choices we have for entertainment. Playing a game where that’s a constant threat can be stressful. The flip side is that every login, it’s possible you will experience something memorable and unique. Maybe you’ll even be the one to initiate it. There’s no end to the storytelling in an open-ended system. Contrast that with a static story that will eventually end, and I think it makes the risk of “missing out” completely worth it.

Most of the events also tend to revolve around loss of some kind. Eve Online makes news based on espionage or massive wars, leading to the loss of property for players. Even the family friendly World of Warcraft’s most newsworthy happenings revolved around a nasty plague and disrupting a funeral. These are the things that make headlines – but I think that’s because MMORPGs have largely relied on PvP for emergent gameplay thus far. Non-MMO multiplayer games, like Minecraft, have demonstrated that players can impress us with cooperation as much as with conflict. Unfortunately, MMORPGs in that realm (like Landmark) haven’t made it very far. And in terms of PvE gameplay, public quests in games like Guild Wars 2 and Rift have been too predictable.

Ultimately, there is a lot to be gained by emergent gameplay. The point of the above is to show that thus far developers haven’t gone far enough with it. World of Warcraft blew everything up with its focus on solo play and quests. MMORPGs are expensive to produce so that’s been the blueprint for a decade. Thanks to the beauty of crowdfunding though, developers can now take risks to differentiate. MMORPGs like Star Citizen, Crowfall, and Chronicles of Elyria will (hopefully) deliver some exciting emergent options.

star citizen emergent gameplay

The core element is focusing on freedom of choice. I realize that’s easier said than done. The balancing element that also narrows the scope is consequence. Everything is possible, but everything has a price. It’s from this choice and consequence that people create these memorable narratives. Whether MMORPG developers like it or not, people play pivotal roles in storytelling both by their absence and their presence.

1) Absence – AI is predictable. Predictability does not lead to good stories. Good static stories circumvent this through scripted events to weave their tale. The problem is that these events work in isolation. When players are running around the world, that changes the experience in unseen ways. The absence of real players is usually critical for the storyteller to deliver their goods as intended. But MMORPGs are not solo affairs. Why focus on stories best experienced alone when the medium itself is built around multiplayer?

2) Presence – Humans are anything but predictable, especially when relatively minor consequences and internet anonymity gets thrown into the mix. MMORPGs should use this to their advantage. I’d argue that playing Eve Online is boring at best, but experiencing Eve Online’s multiple PvP systems is thrilling. Give players the tools, and they’ll create history. Again, just look at the massive success that is Minecraft and all of its copycats. Whether it’s building and destroying or cooperating and conflicting, it’s the people that make the MMO genre what it is.

Even language itself changes in unintended ways thanks to the players. MMO first timers might be overwhelmed by all of the genre’s jargon. It can feel practically like a foreign language. What’s cool is how this language naturally evolves to create terms or abbreviations that didn’t exist prior. Language may not be flashy, but altering the way we communicate fascinates me. And we have MMO players to thank for that.

I’ll close saying that games like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: The Old Republic offer good stories, but I’ve never seen them talked up besides from those who have experienced them. By contrast, I do see single player stories talked up. That’s all because it’s a strength of that focused medium. I say leave static storytelling to those single player games and push MMOs to invest in systems that allow players to tell their own stories and build their own legends. MMOs were built for emergent storytelling.

Like any good debate though, there’s always another side to the story. Check out Roger’s discussion in favor of static storytelling at Contains Moderate Peril.


2016’s Crowdfunded MMOs

More than any subset of gamers, MMO players fall in love with a game’s potential. We’ve also been burned the hardest, making for a oddly cynical yet idealistic crowd. These two facets of our identity make for an interesting reaction to crowdfunding campaigns on places like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. As potential backers, it’s fair to question the practicality in backing an MMO’s campaign. Crowdfunded MMOs in 2016 weren’t quite as exciting as some years’ past, but this article didn’t get to 1,400+ words with nothing to show.

How did the below campaigns perform? Is the money that people requested even enough to fulfill their design goals? Are the timelines for delivery remotely reasonable? Is there enough experience on the team to even deliver the technical challenge that is an MMO?

Despite these questions and more, five games were able to meet their funding requirements in 2016:

Chronicles of Elyria

Chronicles of Elyria crowdfunding

Raised: $1,361,435 on Kickstarter

None of the 2016 crowdfunded MMORPGs promised a more unique experience than Chronicles of Elyria. Hell, it might be more ambitious than anything else on the horizon outside of Star Citizen. Players will see their characters age, die, and even perform activities when offline. NPC quests will be replaced by player mission and contracts. Combat will be twitch based so the team is also effectively promising low latency, even in large battles. The development team wants to create a truly living world and all of CoE’s features come back to that core idea.

The pricing model is fairly unique too. When a character dies (living on average one real year), players will need to pony up $30 to transfer their soul to a new host. Other factors can improve or reduce one’s lifespan, but basically this is a $30/year subscription fee. Seems pretty reasonable to me if Soulbound Studios actually delivers on their promises. And I Kickstarted CoE, so I hope it does! The biggest concern is that developing a complex sandbox like the Elyria team envisions involves a lot of upfront work. Creating an offline NPC system that won’t induce massive player rage isn’t a breeze either. A million bucks seems like a lot, but that’s really just a stepping stone for a game changing MMORPG like this one. The feature at greatest risk is the twitch based combat. I expect some regression to a hybrid model like in Elder Scrolls Online.

Dual Universe

Dual Universe crowdfunding

Raised: €565,983 (approx. $600,000) on Kickstarter

Dual Universe promises a sandbox in one centralized, persistent universe where economy, politics, trade, and warfare are all player-run. Sound familiar? The game creators seek to create a single monolithic server where players can live out their roleplaying desires in space. Any type of character is possible, and tons of possibilities abound for how players can impact the world. Skills even train in real-time. The Kickstarter reads like a bullet point feature list for Eve Online.

The key differences are direct planetary interaction, voxel-based building and construction for immense freedom, and combat seems to be more planet than space driven. Delivering everything they state on their Kickstarter page by launch in 2018 is ambitious, to say the least. It’s taken Eve Online over a decade to get where they are now. While technology certainly makes “catching up” faster and easier, planetary combat is significantly more complicated than space combat. I’m also concerned about the audience size, given that Eve Online has never been a behemoth in the genre. Visualization of characters and voxel building will attract new crowds on their own though. The chance to start on even footing vs. Eve’s decade plus vets is also attractive for new and veteran MMORPG gamers alike.

Edengard

Edengard crowdfunding

Raised: £41,535 (approx.  $51,000) on Kickstarter

Edengard is a yet another sandbox MMORPG, this time styled in a post apocalyptic world similar to Fallout and Mad Max. The core gameplay revolves around rebuilding civilization. Players will be able to build their own towns from scratch, fight other players for territory, and build characters with 17 unique skill trees, all with procedurally generated content in a persistent game world. This is an ambitious project, one many others have promised before. We’re basically talking about upgrading Rust into a fully functional MMORPG, and that game has sold roughly 5 million copies at $20/pop. To say I’m skeptical would be an understatement.

The Poland based Huckleberry Games is apparently towards the tail end of development and thus only needed a relatively small capital infusion. That explains why $50,000 could get Edengard into a playable state. Hitting that amount with 128 backers is worrisome though, as it doesn’t signal a wide audience. They’ll also be launching on Steam Early Access within the next few months. On the plus side, Edengard has been in the works for over four years now so there are some videos that showcase what could be a solid game. Based on previous launches of similar concepts by similarly sized studios though, I expect this to linger in Early Access for at least a few years. Hopefully the team will stick around until then to fulfill their vision.

Dragon of Legends

Dragon of Legends crowdfunding

Raised: CA$ 20,380 (approx. $15,500) on Kickstarter

Prior to this Kickstarter, the developers cut their planned persistent world MMORPG features. So why is it on this list? They still plan to deliver something similar to Guild Wars or Destiny, which generally qualify as MMOs. I’d also rather be overly inclusive than exclusive. There will be a hub to interact with a bunch of players and instanced based areas to play through primary content with a group of up to twenty players.

Combat is ARPG hack and slash style with several different abilities depending on faction and class. Similar to many MMORPGs, players can also gather resources to craft complex goods. These can then be used by the player or sold for a nice a profit. It’s unclear whether the team can deliver all of the planned online features with such a small budget (even if they find venture capital or Canadian grant money as planned). I’d guess Dragon of Legends ends up being launched as a single player game, with multiplayer to come later down the pipe. That’s assuming the single player game is reasonably successful to begin with. We might end up with something like player hosted games accessible from a general lobby like in Grim Dawn. That would drop it out of the MMO space but at least deliver promised multiplayer.

Screeps

Screeps crowdfunding

Raised: $11,493 on Indiegogo

Despite its budget, Screeps is by far the coolest MMORTS I’ve ever read about. Players control their own colony using JavaScript to issue commands. They’re also limited by their CPU usage. Essentially to play Screeps well, one will need to program well. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of options by normal MMO standards. The fact that players gain an immense level of freedom through programming their own actions more than offsets the minimally apparent scope.  Unlike other MMOs that need to raise hundreds of thousands in order to succeed, Screeps has already launched on Steam (NOT Early Access). The reviews are pretty great too. If you’re an MMO fan looking to brush up on your JavaScript skills, look no further than Screeps.

Kickstarter Continuations

And some MMORPGs ran continued crowdfunding campaigns in 2016. Project Gorgon raised almost $20,000 on Indiegogo to supplement their $75,000 on Kickstarter in 2015. Crowfall launched an investment based campaign that is set to close in a few days. Instead of simply paying for a future product, investors in the MicroVentures campaign actually purchase a (minuscule) amount of the revenue generating pie. It’s raised almost half a mil, putting Crowfall’s total funds at over $10 million. Some may take this as a worrying sign that Crowfall is running out of money. On the contrary, there is just a lot that goes into making an MMORPG that promises as much as Crowfall. Whereas I expect every other game on this list to cut features, I expect Crowfall to launch with the vast majority of their stated list.

Failed MMO Kickstarters

A number of other MMOs attempted Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns in 2016. Most were run by rather clueless developers. No screenshots, no videos, no history, and no experience means no money. People aren’t going to support a developer or team, without anything on the table, that expects to make an MMORPG from scratch for some paltry figure like $25,000.

The only notable failure is Hero’s Song. Headlined by Daybreak Game’s former president, John Smedly, Hero’s Song promised some interesting features. Basically, players could randomize their world based on a number of unique factors and open it up to “MMO mode”. Patrick Rothfuss was also on board to create the backstory. For those unfamiliar with him, he’s basically one of the heir apparents to “George RR Martin” in the fantasy world. Unfortunately, they only met half of their funding goal and closed down shop earlier this month. It should just go to show that if these veterans can’t deliver an MMO-lite experience for $100,000, you should be wary about someone offering five times the features at the same price.

 


MMO Retrospective: Shadowbane

Shadowbane MMO Retrospective

Back in 2003 I thought that Shadowbane was going to do for free for all PvP MMOs what Dark Age of Camelot did for faction PvP. Other than nasty bugs, poorly optimized code, and some serious server issues Shadowbane delivered exactly what I wanted at the time. That may seem like I’m being sarcastic, but I was honestly able to look past the technical issues for such a unique experience. I wasn’t alone with that sentiment either. A not-insignificant number of players with similar interests joined me in heralding Shadowbane’s launch. This was finally an MMORPG where players could shape the world.

True Freedom

The vast majority of cities were in fact owned by guilds, which were in turn run by players. It was they who decided the layouts and buildings of their settlement, not game developers. Sure, there was PvE in the form of generic monsters to kill, but that content only served as a appetizer to the main course. Maxing your characters level wasn’t the goal in Shadowbane, maxing your nation’s territory was. In fact, maxing your characters was actually pretty difficult. Shadowbane used a soft cap system where players’ powers would plateau well before the actual hard cap level. It allows players to continue progressing without developing insurmountable advantages over more casual players.

The combat itself was nothing particularly revolutionary. Standard hotbar combat, really. What was cool was that instead of designing abilities around PVE encounters with taunts, and heals, and damage aggro, the classes in Shadowbane were designed around player warfare. Some classes preferred open battlegrounds, some preferred sieges. To exemplify how specialized roles were in Shadowbane there was a even a class focused around destroying walls. No catapult? No problem. Just send in “Frank the Wall Killer”!

For the most part, playing Shadowbane felt like you were constantly stockpiling arms for an upcoming historic war. And really war was exactly what the playerbase wanted. We were players who read epic fantasy novels, imagined battles with hundreds or thousands of participants, and wanted nothing more and then to take part in it. The thing is, when the wars actually came, everything seemed to fall apart.

Shadowbane’s Demise

This was where Shadowbane’s technical issues really started to ruin the experience. Players would find their town under siege and unable to even log in to defend it. Computers and internet connections would strain to keep up with all of the data being processed from nearby players’ actions. It dampened the entire experience (putting it lightly). In hindsight that shouldn’t have been too surprising. Even with relatively stable code, we’re just now getting to the point where servers can handle the massive load of such large battles. Technical issues weren’t the only thing that spelled doom for Shadowbane though.

In fact it was the very freedom of player rule that would make it so unappetizing. You see, eventually every server got to the point where one nation essentially ruled over all. As was inevitable in a game almost purely about war, the majority of guilds would eventually watch their cities and their allies cities topple to the ground. As much as building a city from scratch with fellow friends motivated players, losing it demoralized with a strength ten times greater.

Those with the will to fight back and reclaim their homeland eventually saw the futility of their ways. Not only would stopping a now even stronger foe be impossible without a major political shift in the rival nation’s members, but there simply wasn’t much else to see when a group “won”. Everything in Shadowbane was built around war, but all wars must come to an end. When the dust settled there wasn’t much of a game left to be had. Having seen basically all there was to do, it was no wonder that players were left without any reason to stick around.


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.


AFK Progression in MMORPGs

Actively playing a new MMORPG has really got me thinking about how I spend my time. Although I love the concept of virtual worlds I tend not to stick around very long because mechanics tend to feel very rehashed. Black Desert Online does rehash a lot of typical Korean features such as heavy grinding and the worship of RNGesus. It also brings a lot of new or underutilized features into the fold, which is why I’ve stuck around. One of these features is away from keyboard (AFK) progression. Creating a proper AFK MMORPG isn’t easy though as a game needs to balance automated progression with an actual reason to play.

In Black Desert Online players can engage in a few activities that progress their character even while they’re AFK. The two most prominent of these are fishing and horse training, both of which can net significant sums of money. Earnings don’t match the results of active play but are a nice way for casual players to somewhat keep up. I really appreciate this progression that occurs while I’m doing other things. Horse training and breeding in particular has added a unique set of goals for me to accomplish. Without the AFK option, I wouldn’t have near the patience to try it out. I also enjoy that actually playing the game will net significantly more progression (in both money and levels) so the game isn’t purely playing itself.

Black Desert AFK Fishing Rewards

Black Desert Online

Unfortunately, Black Desert encourages players a little too strongly to stay online, even if doing nothing. Workers mining and chopping trees won’t repeat jobs if the the player isn’t online to play taskmaster. Regeneration of energy, which is used to craft goods, grinds to a halt while offline. In this aspect, Black Desert takes two steps forward and one step back and is my biggest pet peeve with the game. My computer has to be on and logged in 24/7 to make full use of AFK progression. That’s right – if I log out for any reason these AFK activities stop. Even worse, as someone who needs energy and employs tons of workers to gather raw materials, my crafting progression basically halts while offline.

Ideally, Black Desert would solve this by allowing players to set offline actions that would repeat until stopped for some reason such as getting killed or the server going down for maintenance. I don’t see that happening though and it’s definitely a negative for an otherwise unique take on AFK progression. Either way, Black Desert is far from the first to showcase its talents as an AFK MMORPG.

Eve Online started the whole AFK progression idea over a decade ago. Players learn skills in the game in real time (whether logged on or off). Every skill corresponds to the ability to do something cool in Eve Online. Everything from manufacturing to placing buy/sell orders to piloting capital ships requires some real time investment. It’s one of those core features that led to players dubbing it ‘spreadsheet simulator’. Planning out skills and timers became an integral part of progression in Eve Online. For the first several years of the game, skill training could not be queued so players would even set alarms to avoid wasted time. Luckily the dev team has since added skill queuing, but Eve is no less a numbers and planning game.

Eve Online AFK Skill Training

Eve Online

Crowfall is following Eve’s lead by making the bulk of character progression a real time, AFK affair. Crowfall does improve on Eve Online’s pure AFK skill training by allowing players to gain basic proficiency from playing. It will essentially act as a tutorial for gaining the basic concepts of a skill or archetype and skip a boring intro period gated by real time. Similar to Eve, the payoffs for earlier training will be much more efficient than later training. For example, In Eve Online the skill Gunnery would add +2% rate of fire per level regardless of if that level took 2 minutes or 2 days. Crowfall appears to be doing something similar. It means new players won’t fall too far behind and the game will reward exploring multiple play styles.

The point of Eve Online and Crowfall’s AFK progression system is twofold. First, hardcore players can’t get too far ahead because skills are limited by real world time. Second, without the need to ‘level up’ constantly the players are free to do what they want. However, MMORPGs need progression. Without progression in MMORPGs, players tend to leave. It’s one of the bigger criticisms of Guild Wars 2 (which, funny enough, was not an issue with its predecessor).

The form of progression in Eve Online is earning Isk, the game’s currency. It’s been a while since I’ve played Eve but I remember that being one of the most boring MMORPG experiences in my lifetime. Mining ore and killing NPC ships were the basic money making activities. Neither really kept me from falling asleep. I eventually started making money through market orders which improved the game, but also gave me less of a reason to actually play outside of occasional fleet battles.

Although the dev team for Crowfall has answered many questions about their vision, it’s unclear how the finished product will turn out when it comes to active progression. There seems to be many similarities with Eve Online in terms of gathering raw materials and killing weak monsters to build up. I’d rather see primary gains from things like pillaging enemy lands that encourage more enjoyable activities rather than building up to the fun.

Crowfall AFK Skill Training

Crowfall

On the far end of the AFK progression spectrum are browser MMORPGs that fully embrace playing the game for you. MageRealm is a decently high production browser MMO. The main selling points of the game are delivering a full MMORPG experience with no download and automated combat/movement. Just tell your character where to go and what to do and the game will take care of the rest. Obviously this hinders the overall depth of the game quite a bit, but it allows casual players to keep up from work, home, or pretty much wherever. But if a game primarily plays itself, is there really any point to it?

I really do like AFK progression when it’s integrated well. That’s been done to some extent now but still leaves a lot to be desired. Ideally the perfect AFK progression and leveling system would meet these requirements:

  1. AFK Progression occurs whether or not I am logged in.
  2. I can progress my character’s levels, skills, and wealth further, to at least some extent, by actually playing.
  3. The game rewards my logging in and playing significantly more than my not playing.
  4. The game rewards enjoyable and/or risky activities over mindless repetition for advancement.

AFK progression has its place in the MMORPG world, especially those where PvP is a focus. It allows for constant achievement and advancement despite real world scheduling conflicts. But creating a game that’s fun whether logged in or not? That’s a challenge I think developers have yet to fully overcome.