Circular Cruises/Five Conflicts

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This is the third of three "gaming rants" which I wrote, completely by coincidence, in March of three successive years. The other two are On User-Directed Narratives and Token Trading, Colored Locks, and Pixel Hunts.

3 Feb 2007 - This essay, more than the other two, has been updated to include latter-day information. As of the date below, I've played many more MMOGs and refined my conclusions - not changed them, you understand, just refined them.


Five Conflicts

29 March 2002


They say if you do something twice, it's happenstance; if you do it three times, it's a trend. This is the third year in a row where, completely without my realizing it, I think, "Gee, I have another large essay brewing on game design" and I look at the calendar, and lo, it's March. I'm really not sure what it is about March.

This one's a little different; it's about massively multiplayer online games, hereafter MMOGs. Some people add "role-playing" into that phrase, making MMORPGs, but we're going to be economical.

Specifically, it's about one MMOG, Anarchy Online, where I've been spending a fair amount of time recently. Anarchy Online - hereafter AO - is made by a company called Funcom, the same one mentioned in the Token Trading essay in connection with the solo game The Longest Journey. Funcom's name on the game was one of the things that led me to try it - but in itself wasn't enough. For a long time the game had a reputation as one of the most fatally buggy MMOG's on the market. PC Gamer, a magazine I trust, said it had great potential but they could not recommend it because of its bugs. Several months later, unusually for them, they recanted - they said, in essence, "Funcom has cleaned up its act and we think you should give it a try." So I did.

I don't mind making AO represent all MMOGs for this discussion, even though obviously each MMOG has its own unique traits. The reason I think I can get away with this is I believe that MMOGs share a set of common problems, and wrestling with these problems is something that every MMOG designer must eventually do, no matter what the theme and nature of their game.

I'm not saying AO handles these problems particularly well. They seem to have struck a balance that suits my style (although I continue to have gripes), and I will probably continue to give them my money as long as my interest in the game holds out. But I need to make that clear from the beginning: I am not holding up AO as a paragon, I'm not claiming they have solved all the problems or even solved any of the problems particularly well. It just happens to be the one I play. (Or the one I was playing in 2002, anyway.) Each of these problems undoubtedly could be expressed by an EverQuest loyalist, an World of Warcraft fanatic, or what-have-you.

The average player may not realize that MMOGs are a software nightmare. In general, if the persistent online "world" is rich enough and reasonably complex enough to keep people interested, it is a true pain behind the scenes. Just juggling all the player connections, keeping people a physical world apart in reasonable synch with each other's actions in real time, is a mind-numbing problem. To keep track of all this and the thousands of "game state" conditions at the same time - to keep track of all the player-to-player and player-to-computer interactions - is a frightening thought, and we should be thankful anyone attempts it at all.

But the average user neither sees nor has to think about this complexity. The problems which concern them - the problems which the MMOG designers must eventually deal with - are all higher-level problems, and they share a common form.

Basically, any MMOG has several groups of distinct players, each group playing for different reasons, hoping to get different things out of the game. This wouldn't be a problem, except that I believe some of these groups are in conflict with each other ... that it may not be possible to design an MMOG that pleases everybody, because of these conflicts of interest.

In other words, it may be that if you please one group, you will inevitably piss another one off.

SOCIAL VS LEVELER

To date, the conventional wisdom has been that if you just wanted to get into a MMOG to chat with other people, you could go to a chat room. I would like to challenge that wisdom.

For one thing, the general chat room is dead. Public chat rooms are a land of morons and blank stares, as people dodge indecent propositions and cybersex trolls trying to find some common basis to strike up a conversation with another human. General chat rooms are the electronic equivalent of a particularly sleazy variety of pickup bar. They are not a good place for a conversation.

In a chat in the MMOG environment, you automatically have a common basis, even if that basis begins by griping about what the game programmers did wrong this week (a very common gambit in AO). For that matter, the MMOG environment, if it involves any role-playing whatsoever, makes possible a completely "in-character" chat for those who like that sort of thing. So in-game chat has peculiar advantages. The other thing is that if a mission, quest, et cetera is not too demanding, you can chat while doing other things in the game - a nice way to get the maximum use out of that connect time.

Nonetheless, in practice the gamers tend to chase the "levelling ladder" - that is, focus entirely on advancing their character, getting more experience and becoming stronger and more powerful - and not really devoting any time to conversation or socializing. Even though every MMOG I've seen has touted its social aspects at one point or another, if they are like AO, they are social deserts.

Bars and restaurants and nightclubs and other meeting places are built into the structure of the AO world - they're all over the place, and they are almost always empty. Very little "vicinity chat" (i.e. audible to the immediate area where you are, and open to anyone to participate) is useful. Generally it consists of nothing but people trying to sell items or get some assistance.

I didn't have an opportunity to say more than five words to another player in AO until I joined a "guild" or "clan," which has its own private chat channel and sometimes has interesting conversations - although again the conversations tend to be mostly about the game or the game mechanics.

A social player may want to have, say, a conversation about movies or some other real-world subject while simultaneously playing the game. The game makes this multitasking possible. But very few people want to use it.

A social player may also want to use the game world to strike up a few friendships which take on an existence outside the game world. But this doesn't seem to happen very often either. In fact most of the AO players seem to want to keep a sharp division between worlds. (I was on the fence about this when I first wrote the above; now I am not. Now, several MMOGs later - I have adopted a firm policy of keeping my real-world identity strictly on a need-to-know basis.)

[2007: This seems the right place to mention an MMOG-of-sorts called There, which I beta-tested and played extensively in its first few months. There was a game without a game. It was a pure social enviroment that just happened to look and act a lot like other MMOGs - same methods of controlling your avatar, etc. I did not stay for the denouement, but at the time I left, my opinion was that There was not going to work. Far from encouraging the people who wanted pure socialization with no game, it ended up with the worst of both worlds - a social wasteland without even the structure of a game to keep people busy/distracted.

Second Life, which I also evaluated in its early days, seemed to me at first to have similar problems, but now it seems to have gone a somewhat different way. Which is not to say Second Life isn't badly flawed; but its flaws would have to be the topic of a wholly different essay.)

Some of my bias toward the in-game social aspect is that I type and think fast and thrive in a written medium. I've discussed this before. (In my current MMOG as of 2007, Guild Wars, there is a long-running feud between the people who are trying to get everyone to use external voice-communication programs as much as possible, and the people who would prefer to stick with typed text. I am in the latter camp. However, I don't know that the voice programs mean that more non-game-related chatting is taking place; mostly the idea seems to be that they make close coordination of team activity easier in combat situations.]

But I also think that a lot of it is that too many players are concentrating far too much on the levelling ladder, to the exclusion of all else. I am not the only person to notice this, nor to consider it a problem. Here's a quote from the April 2002 issue of PC Gamer, concerning the then-forthcoming MMOG Shadowbane, from Wolfpack Studios:

"Instead of having a level cap [i.e. a maximum level, or a limit on how high your various attributes can go per level], Shadowbane introduces a 'soft cap' - diminishing returns for each level you go up - as a way to de-emphasize leveling over group play.

"Says [Wolfpack co-founder Todd] Coleman, 'We'll try to ease players off the 'leveling treadmill' and into the community, which we think will be a much more entertaining experience in the long run.'"

Note that Coleman's primary concern seems to be that players who are levelling will not team up enough with other players. This isn't exactly the same as my concern, but brings us to the next conflict of interest ....

SOLO VS TEAM

Again, the conventional wisdom seems to be, "If you want to go on missions/quests/hunts by yourself, then why are you playing an MMOG? Why not just play Quake or Max Payne or some such?" And there's a certain amount of truth to this, which is why I don't mind when MMOG designers clearly show an emphasis on team play.

But there are people who play these and always do their questing et cetera solo. I am one of them. I believe in group social aspects, but I tend to function better commando-style when fighting or exploring. I don't want to have to worry about what other people are doing; I don't want to have to think too hard about where I'm firing or whose feet I might be stepping on.

On the other hand, one of the few times these MMOGs reliably take on good group-social aspects is when people form a team to go quest or hunt. Even I admit this.

Some MMOGs basically have no solo aspect. Others handicap their solo players to some degree. Todd Coleman admits of Shadowbane, "We give big experience-point bonuses to players who group. Since it's a multiplayer game, we want to entice people to become part of the in-game community."

I note only, in response, that there is more than one way to be part of a community.

Anyway, the point is that it is not always possible to please both soloists and teamers. If solo missions were made better, a loud and vocal group of teamers would wonder why the game was rewarding soloists by allowing them to advance just as quickly as the team players. There is a substantial group of users which feels that soloists in a MMOG are out of place and should be penalized, and again, I can't say they don't have a point. But as a soloist, of course, I have my own interests to protect.

The best any MMOG can hope for is a compromise. Ditto with the social vs. levelling aspects. It may look like it's possible to do both perfectly, but it isn't. I am willing to bet that less than a week after Shadowbane opens its doors, a substantial set of players will be moaning loudly about how levelling is crippled in the game, how the game wants to penalize everyone and how it makes the play unenjoyable. The power-levellers will not settle for anything less than becoming stronger and more indomitable at every stage. Diminishing returns are not their style.

It is amazing how competitively some people approach a fantasy environment. I'll come back to this in a bit.

[2007: By the by, I never did find out whether the Shadowbane experiment had any success. Certainly the game doesn't seem to be around today. I should look into that.]

HIGH VS LOW

The conflict which seems like it should be the most resolvable one is the ongoing difficulty in keeping both high-level and low-level players happy and interested.

I realized this very quickly in AO. The game plays completely differently, say, for the first thirty levels. Then the next thirty or so offer a different set of ongoing hassles ... and then finally there is a third plateau, lasting until the maximum level achievable (which is level 200).

The problem is, people who are coping with the pains of being a level-fifty character are not usually inclined to give advice or have much sympathy with the problems of being a level-five character. A level-five character doesn't have enough money, is having a real problem getting good equipment, or in finding missions/hunts that give him experience without offering far too high a chance of instant death. He is weak, he is still confused about many aspects of the game universe, he doesn't know where anything is and may not know how some things work. He is not likely to get much useful advice, either.

(I make it a point to always offer advice to low-level characters if they seem to want and need it, but since my guild tends to never have too many low-level players at any time, I don't get the opportunity very often. Also, possibly because of having been burned or because they detect an unfriendly environment, the new player is usually reluctant to ask.)

[2007: To a large extent this depends on the guild. My Guild Wars guild is extremely helpful to new players; we make a point of it. And yes, we do have a problem with convincing new players who have been burned in the past that they won't be shot for asking.]

But I digress. The point is, for a low-level character the point is to make the game just challenging enough that they are inclined to keep playing. The game looks very hard at the beginning; you need just enough encouragement that you don't give it up as a hopeless task.

Then you start to be able to actually do things - you learn the ropes a little, you know your limits, you find this isn't as bad as you thought. And suddenly one day you are a level thirty or forty or fifty character and you realize ... you're bored. All of the missions and quests are too alike, you've seen all the game has to offer, and if you have to go on one more identical "find the McGuffin" quest, you're going to throw up. What does the game have to offer you then?

The reason this conflict is less resolvable than it looks is that the low-level game and the high-level game are connected; things which keep the game playable for the low levels tend to reveal too much of the game's secrets too fast, and make the game peak too soon for the high levels. On the other hand, if you tune the game to reveal its secrets very slowly, then you disillusion a lot of the low-levels who feel like they're breaking their backs and not getting to see any of the good stuff fast enough. It is easy to be impatient at level five, especially when you're placed in contact with level seventies who are always talking about the riches and wonders they've seen, or quests in places you wouldn't dare show your face even if you knew how to get there.

[Guild Wars has a relatively novel method of dealing with this problem, by the by. The maximum level in Guild Wars is twenty, and you reach it very early. Almost all the real content in the game is designed for level twenty players, and the initial run-up to level twenty is kept deliberately isolated from the bulk of the play/storyline, as a training period.]

DUEL VS QUEST

Closely related to this high vs low problem is the "duel vs. quest" problem, also known as PvP or PvM. Of all the conflicts described here, this is the one that traditionally has the most vitriol tossed around.

PvP means player vs player. Players in the PvP school want a huge number of areas in the game where it is possible for players to attack, fight, and kill (and possibly loot) other players. They don't usually get as many places to do this as they want, because even the dumbest MMOG designers realize that if low-level players have nothing safe to hold onto - that is, if they feel anyone or anything could attack them at any time - they will not stay. Players like to start with a sharply limited set of dangerous things, and move into more dangerous areas as they feel comfortable.

AO handles this fairly well. Because AO is a universe with two major factions in conflict (Omni-Tech, aka the Corporation, vs the Clans, the hardy rebels), there are four kinds of zones on the game planet, each clearly delineated when you enter them:

100% zone - The only things that can attack you are computer-controlled members of the opposite faction ... which would only be a problem if, say, you were a clan player and you entered an Omni-controlled city; the Omni guards (computer-run) would attack you on sight. A novice player would find it very difficult to even GET to a city in the other faction's territory, and the more advanced players know what's what. So 100% zones are basically no-risk.

75% zone - Now "monsters" and other wandering wildlife which happens to be hostile can attack you. Missions and quests tend to be 75%; a player normally assumes that anything he encounters in a mission is hostile.

25% zone - Players who are aligned with the opposite faction can attack other players.

0% zone - All bets are off.

It's possible to play this game to your heart's content and never venture into a 25% zone, so you'd think this would be a reasonable compromise, but it isn't. The problem mostly concerns what's known as "mission camping," and since this is a good example of unforeseen problems that MMOG designers must plan for, bear with me as I explain.

Some missions are situated in 25% zones. (The missions themselves, once you get into the mission proper, are 75%, but you have to travel through a 25% zone to get to the mission.) These tend to be lucrative, reasonably rewarding missions ... in keeping with the increased risk you must undergo to take them.

The problem is that some of the more lucrative of these missions have entrances in known locations, and these locations tend to be "camped." That is, other players wait outside the exits, and when you emerge from the mission laden with goodies, they kill you. You may lose some loot, but more importantly, you lose all the experience you may have gained from the mission (since there is no way to "save" your status while inside a mission - you have to go back to town to do that).

The PvP advocates say, "Hey, this is a dangerous world; don't you want realism? On a real planet in the middle of a war you wouldn't have the liberty of safe-conduct back from your little mission ... too damned bad, eh?" PvP players tend to refer to PvM players - who only want to fight monsters and other computer-controlled entities - as "carebear" players (i.e. they want to be coddled and protected and never have to face real dangers or unknowns).

This ignores the idea of being able to choose reasonable risks, which means not picking fights where you don't think you stand a chance. A level twenty player doesn't stand a chance against a level 200, no matter how good he is. Ideally, a level 200 player would only pick on someone his own size, but that doesn't work - there is a known phenomenon of the "grief player," whose main joy and reason for playing the MMOG is to bully and make life difficult for other players. (Not all of these grief players, alas, are twelve years old in the real world. Some of them are adults.)

I have heard inflated rhetoric on both sides, from "remove all PvP areas and let the griefers cancel their accounts" to "make the whole planet 0% and kill all the carebears." Neither is likely to happen. The "carebears" also include the whole influx of new players, the lifeblood of a MMOG (where people tend to only play for a finite length of time and then leave). And the PvP areas are a vital selling point for the people who feel there is no joy in fighting a computer monster with a rather retarded AI - that the only enjoyable fight is one against a live opponent, and why the heck else would they get into a MMOG anyway? (The "I could just go play Quake" argument again, in disguise.)

Point is, the game designer has to walk a line between the two sides, or his game gathers dust and dies.

[2007: The MMOG which has come to dominate the entire world - World of Warcraft, which didn't exist when this essay was first written - gave a lot of thought to this problem. Blizzard had been around the block a few times by then and was aware of what they'd have to deal with. Since WoW, like AO, has two large-scale factions at war (well, cold war), the rules of when you can be attacked by other players mostly reduce to this: When you're in enemy territory, you are taking risks you would not take normally; you could be attacked by players of the other faction at any time. Since you generally don't need or want to enter enemy territory until you are fairly high-level, this is a good balance in terms of reasonable risks. But if you think this stopped the eternal griefer vs carebear name-calling, think again. What can be done to you when you're in neutral territory varies depending on whether you are playing on a PvP or normal server, and when I left WoW there were still plenty of people who thought all servers should play by PvP server rules (no holds barred, in other words), and plenty of people who thought the no-holds-barred crowd should be banned from planet Earth.

Guild Wars takes a very drastic approach - outside of controlled arenas/scenarios designed specifically for that purpose, there is no player-vs-player fighting at all. In fact, since almost the entire game is "instanced" - exploring parties get their own private copy of the area, with no other live players present - it would be impossible to randomly encounter other players in the wild to have a fight with.]

TWINKS: A DIGRESSION

Before I go to the last of my five conflicts - the biggest and most intractable one - I need to say a few words about what happens when the best laid plans of programmers go astray.

As I noted above, it's amazing how seriously some people take these games. I couldn't believe it when I first saw in-game items and weapons (i.e. nothing but a file containing certain player data) being offered for realm money on eBay. What's more, people were apparently buying. People were paying for the privilege of getting equipment for their character that they wouldn't be able to find or afford easily in the game through normal channels.

Some people consider this cheating. I don't know if I think it's cheating, but I do think it's awfully pathetic.

Funcom certainly seems to consider it cheating. A particular company that makes its living selling items and such for various MMOGs (believe it or not, there is more than one such company) is officially non grata in the game; any players found to be acting on behalf of that company are promptly banned.

Funcom has enough problems dealing with similar issues in its internal economy. In AO, it is possible to temporarily raise your statistics and thereby equip (place into active use) a weapon or item or piece of armor that you would otherwise not be able to use. The catch is, when the temporary boost wears off, you can still use the item - as long as you don't un-equip it.

This practice of "over-equipping" is extremely widespread and regarded by some as a necessity. (I overequip, but I only use things that I myself can "buff into." In other words, nothing beyond my own abilities to temporarily raise my statistics. Many players overequip into things they have to find a more powerful player to use - so if they unmount it, they have to run around shouting for help to get back into it again.)

The problem with this is that over-equipping affects play balance. It causes all aspects of the game - PvP, PvM, everything - to get out of whack. When you have a level five player whom someone has somehow buffed into equipment he shouldn't be able to use until level thirty or fifty, obviously that player is going to be able to do things, complete missions, he should not be able to attempt at that stage.

This means that gradually Funcom made the game more and more difficult, working on the assumption that players were going to be heavily overequipped ("twinks"). Those of us who played it relatively honest were therefore penalized by all the twinking going on.

Twinking means that PvP becomes even more of a bad bet for the player who likes to know the risks. You may think you are facing a player who is your own level, but you have no way of knowing what he's wearing or what level of gun he's using.

At the time this was originally written, Funcom was working to handicap over-equipping, presumably so that they could then begin restoring the game to something approaching balance. The surprise is that everyone wasn't cheering in the streets. Oh, no. Remember, some players take this way too seriously; their attitude is "I went through a lot to get this equipment that's way too high for me, and to find someone to buff me into it. This is the way I want to play the game, and you're pulling the rug out from under me."

It will never be possible to please everybody. The question is whether it is even possible to please fifty percent of everybody, in this contentious and - yes, I'll say it - rather geeky user base.

[2007: I'm sorry to say that the data-selling problem has not gotten better. No one is clear on how much Blizzard has actually tried to deal with the "gold farmers" which have plagued WoW from its inception. The over-equipping problem is peculiar to AO, but the "don't nerf my rare items, I worked hard to get those" issue is present everywhere. There is a general tendency to dislike anything which is seen as making the game easier for future players - even if the developers insist it's for better balance. "Hey, I did it the hard way, they should have to suffer just as much."

Guild Wars is designed to remove some of these problems - for example, all armor is customized to its user forever, so it can't be traded or resold - but they have not yet been able to breed a better caliber of player, nor make inroads against human nature.]

STATIC VS STORY

Finally, the big one. One day some enterprising MMOG designer will find compromises on the previous four conflicts, and will somehow manage to reach a steady state with those - visible progress is being made - but even then, they may not be able to solve this one.

In order to keep people happy, you need an evolving state; you need an ongoing story, massive change in the world, just to stir the pot. This is not as obvious when you're just starting out, or early in the life of an MMOG as the player base collectively gets oriented; but as the game goes on, over the next couple of years, it becomes a downright necessity unless you want a player base consisting entirely of newbies. Because the advanced players will leave unless there are some larger currents, some world politics or such, to attract them.

A high-level player wants a pied a terre, among other things. He wants to be able to own and control property in the game world. (This is a programmer's nightmare, again, and most games fall far short of it.) He wants to get involved in and influence something more major than these petty quests and errands over and over again. He wants some way to make money and/or experience that is on a larger scale. By the time you get to level fifty in AO, the number of missions - all drearily alike - you must run to advance a single level is rather daunting. Surely there's more to the world than this?

To note just one example: AO, as I've said, is a world at war. But it is not (yet) possible for that war to ever actually get anywhere. You can't, say, team up and invade enemy bases. There is no permanent change in control possible for land, outposts, et cetera; the DMZ on the planet map is always in the same place. It is not possible to assassinate members of the rival government or effect similar changes. Oh, the game admins do their best, staging unexpected events or attacks and so forth just to keep everyone guessing, but everyone knows these for what they are - temporary distractions.

On the other hand, can you imagine what would happen if real change were possible? Imagine if the clans got industrious and really did try to take over Omni cities? Judging from relative populations, there are far more clan players than Omni players anyway (apparently, nobody wants to work for Da Man). If this were a real war, not permanently frozen, I daresay the clans would have taken control of the entire planet ages ago.

Where does that leave a new player who wants to be Omni? How is it possible to give any sort of reasonable orientation, get new players to continue, when the map is changing? What about people who like having a certain comfort zone but can't get one? And we won't even mention the programming pain of a universe that much in flux.

In short, to keep players long-term, the game universe must evolve, but there are practical and commercial reasons - essential to keeping the game stable and a stream of new players coming in the door - why it can't.

I'm not sure there is a way to solve this. On the other hand, given that no MMOG on the market has a projected lifespan of more than four or five years, it may not be necessary to.

Why invest a lot in the long haul if none of it is built to last that long anyway?

Come to think of it, that sounds like the case for the electronic universe in general. That's what happens when you're in an environment where three years looks like eternity.

[2007: Guild Wars' answer to this is new content every six months, which does not address the basic problem of a universe which cannot change - it merely gives players a continual stream of new shiny objects. In addition to this not being a real answer, it strikes me as very hard on the developers. They also experimented, in one of their add-ons, with towns which could actually change ownership - which is hardly an answer, but at least they are making the attempt. No one else has even tried to come close to a solution. Yet.]


Copyright © March 2002. All rights reserved.

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