The Passion Play
by Jessica Mulligan
Aside from the daily dose of spam that everyone seems cursed with these days, I get a bit of email about the column. Although I get my fair share of "U bL0w Go&ts, biyotch!!!!!!" missives, most of it is of pretty well thought-out and logical.
And occasionally, I receive one that is so full of passion, Im inclined to share it and respond publicly. Below is one such email, received in answer to the last BTH, asking readers if there were subjects they wanted covered for observations and predictions for the new year. The author asked to remain anonymous, but gave me permission to print the full text:
That email impressed me. It is so full of passion for online games, for the wanting of them to be better, that I got pumped up. What I wanted to do was point the writer to a game that had what he wanted, someplace where he and his friends could be regularly more involved than the standard fare of click-click-click*kill*ding!
And, in good conscience, I couldnt.
This isnt just an isolated complaint; the subject is being bandied about elsewhere, too. For example, online game player and observer Myschyf recently posted a similar complaint over at The Chosen. It struck such a raw nerve with developers that they flocked to discuss the issue in forums there .
The thread admirably covers the important design and play issues and what people will and wont buy in an online game and, god help me, I found myself actually agreeing with some points made by ranter bad-boys Jinx and Watts, which surely means Im going to hell in a little red wagon. I highly recommend the thread.
Reading the thread, though, my mind kept coming back to that word passion. It took me back to over a decade ago, when people like John Taylor, Kelton Flinn, Cathryn Mataga, Richard Bartle, Bridgette Patrovsky, John Weaver, Mark Jacobs and Scott Hartsman were creating and managing the 2nd generation of MMOGs. This was before the commercialization of the Internet and before the infusion of big money into the process; you had to have a passion to do these games, because you certainly werent going to get rich developing them.
And passion we had, in great, big dripping buckets-full. When the average MMOG received zero development dollars and we were betting on the come and hoping that royalties would pay the bills, it was all we had to go on. It was like living on the frontier, where each day brought new challenges and the unfocused or slow of foot dropped by the wayside; what John Taylor once laughingly called "Pioneers Disease; where do you think these arrows in body came from?"
And you had to listen very carefully to your players. In those days, the average access fee was over $5.00 an hour; if you willy-nilly nerfed something in the game, the players let you know by first screaming loudly and then voting with their feet. Wed huddle together at GEnies Sysop conferences, exchange information on what worked and didnt, tell war stories, and joke and laugh. We laughed a lot in those days. And innovated. And had fun, because dammit, its the game industry and games are supposed to be fun.
Somewhere along the line, that passion has changed. Sure, theres still plenty of passion for design and gaming, but something happened that, as a collective whole, make us turn these things into fairly boring leveling treadmills. It seems to be less about having fun, now, and more about the intricacies of The Game. There are several causes, not the least of which is that were in an evolutionary period of development and online game management, but I submit that two of the culprits are money and ignorance. In online games, they seem to go hand in hand.
When Ultima Online demonstrated in 1997 that an online persistent world could charge a flat rate and still make gobs of money, the other major publishers finally took serious notice of the genre. One element they realized was missing from MMOGs were professional budgets and professional development teams. The solo game business taught them that eye candy was a key ingredient and that was something almost all persistent world games lacked pre-1997. "Well, heck," they said to themselves, "we know how to fix that!" And out trundled the wheelbarrows of cash to pay for artists and programmers and designers except the designers, almost all of which had never designed a for-pay game before. This is like Ford hiring a guy who once built a really good Soap Box Racer to design the next model Mustang.
And thats where the ignorance came in to our industry. Note that ignorance is not the same as stupidity; the people that fund and design these games are anything but stupid. What many of them are, is just ignorant, which means unaware or uninformed. You see, they keep thinking that the game is everything, and thats just not it. The truism weve used for years in the industry is "The players come for the game and stay for their friends." Players have a passion for playing, for creating something permanent is the playground youve made, with a group of friends. Hey, whats the use of doing something cool and unique if you dont have someone to brag to about it?
The history of these games on a commercial basis shows this to be true, but to know that on a level that counts, in both the gut and the mind, you have to have lived down in the trenches. You have to have been a player in a for-pay online game, developed a community of friends and hung out for months or years. Heck, I was in the same Air Warrior squadron, The Carrier Pigeons, for over five years, and I know people still in the same RPG Guilds from back in the old AD&D: Neverwinter Nights period. You have to know from direct experience what for-pay players cheer over and what drives them insane. You have to know what they want for the micro-communities/Guild/teams they form. If you want your game to be around for years collecting monthly subscriptions, this knowledge is mandatory; how else will you know how to prioritize development of features and to provide the services they demand?
This is not to say that game becomes unimportant; there is a significant fraction of the audience that likes to go solo much of the time, power-leveling their character to the max possible. These are the folks that caterwaul when you nerf something and take away abilities or capabilities; youre destroying their enjoyment. However, after the initial flush of confusion and excitement, the primacy for the great bulk of the audience, the veil that covers the entire experience, is the friends, being part of the group and being there when they need you. Theyll gladly give you money every month if you just provide them the means to keep the team together and happy. Back in the 80s and early 90s, when I spoke regularly at the Computer Game Developers Conference, one of my slides was always titled, Its The Socialization, Stupid! The audience for those talks was always standing room only, yet it seems that one critical point still hasnt sunk in.
And thats the knowledge that is generally missing from the industry right now. Few companies have it available. Raph Koster, Lead Designer on Star Wars: Galaxies for Verant has it; he learned the hard way with UO after designing free MUDs for years. Gordon "Tyrant" Walton at EA.com has the knowledge, from his years of playing and then running the studio at Kesmai. If you look at the work these folks have done, they emphasize persistence, teaming and servicing micro-communities. Is it any wonder their recent works are money-makers? And Scott Hartsman, the new Technical Director on Everquest, he has it, too, which may presage some interesting changes in that game.
There are no doubt others currently in the industry that have the knowledge, but whom Ive neglected to list here. The point is, there arent many, not yet. And until we get out of the locked mindset of the game is the thing, get out of our creator-driven industry culture and start realizing that people play and pay for - these games, were not going to grow many, either. It is no longer enough just to put something out there; that worked in the period of 1997-2000, but the first-mover advantage is gone. There are a bunch of persistent worlds in development right now, and most of them appear to be the same old leveling treadmills that get boring fairly quickly. The first mover advantage that UO and EQ enjoy isnt available to these new games; it seems unlikely they will make a significant dent in the market. One can only hope that the broadening competition will spur some re-think and education.
So to answer the last question from the email above, whether anyone in the market is going to get a clue in the coming year: Maybe, but history would argue against it. Fostering community is not as easy as it sounds; keeping them after launch is even harder. But with the big license Star Wars and The Sims coming out as persistent worlds next year, who knows? EA and Verant have to know that these titles will attract a much broader audience than the hard-core gamers that now make up the industry, and the less hard-core the gamer, the more they want superior community building and customer service.
What I worry about is that both games will crash and burn. If that happens, we could slip into another Dark Age of persistent world development. The previous Dark Age lasted from 1991 to 1997; Im not sure another wouldnt last even longer.
Well, at least its going to be an interesting year. Terrifying, but interesting.