Series Info...Biting The Hand #16:

The Passion Play

by Jessica Mulligan
January 8, 2002

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, I’m 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:

Dear Ms. Mulligan:

In your last online issue, you asked for suggestions regarding issues we (the readers) would like to see covered. As a 40 year old hardcore gamer, I would like to hear someone in the industry address one of the most irritating aspects of modern gameplay. Especially in MMOGs such as EverQuest and Asheron's Call. The issue is boredom.

I have played online since Doom first emerged. I have played Doom, Hexen, Doom II, Quake, Hexen, Hexen II, EQ since beta, AC since beta, various MUDs, The Realm, and others.

I have quit them all. I simply cannot take anymore mindless Hack 'n Slash for no particular reason. I stayed with EQ for several years simply because of the social aspects. I gained several good friends in there and I use to log in to talk to my friends. The game simply became something to do with my hands while I was visiting. It (the game itself) had no interest for me AT ALL for the last year I played.

EQ is a chat room with graphics. AC is a chat room with graphics. I did NOT buy the Luclin expansion, nor do I intend to. I bought the two earlier expansions, each time hoping that they had finally figured out what went wrong. I was disappointed both times. The other expansions were nothing but more and better eye candy.

I have not tried DAoC and I have no intention of wasting my money and time on it. From everything I have seen, and reports from other gamers, DAoC is a slightly more eye-catching, *slightly* less tedious version of EQ with some team PvP thrown in.

They hired a cast of actors. They made the props, and did a beautiful job of it. The built a set of breathtaking proportions and surreal beauty. The artistry of EQ, and to a lesser extent AC, are beautiful to behold. Real eye candy. THEN THEY FORGOT TO HIRE A WRITER!

Eye candy is a lot like real candy. With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas coming up, this is a good time to mention this. Real candy (and cakes, and cookies, etc.) are wonderful at first. But after days and days of a steady diet of treats, even the most addicted child is going to want some meat and potatoes. An adult will have an even shorter attention span when it comes to sugar coated snacks.

As an adult, I am tired of eye candy. I want some meat and potatoes. I am BORED with eye candy that tried covers up the fact that there IS NO GAME HERE. There is only mindless Hack 'n Slash. Go out and murder people (or animals), rob their corpses, sell the loot to buy more and better weapons so you can go out and kill even richer people and bigger animals, so you can sell richer loot and buy even better weapons. Checkers is less boring than that. At least it has a point.

A true RPG is about more than that.

I do not want another incarnation of "Quake with Swords". I do not want another FPS with some RPG aspects. I want a STORY LINE. I want an INTERACTIVE world. I want to build a CHARACTER, not spend my time honing an ever finer edge on my virtual killing machine.

And yes, I would like some graphics with that please. Nothing elaborate. Doom graphics would work fine. Some people are still playing Daggerfall. Did you know that? Five years later, with graphics that most children today would sneer at, and it is still being played. Because they WROTE A STORY. And then they let the player step into it.

I know that you can't get THAT immersive in a persistent online world. But game companies could do one hell of a better job than they have been doing.

Will SOMEONE please tell these short-sighted children who design and market MMORPG games that eye candy alone CANNOT hold the attention of anyone over the emotional age of ten? There are some adults out here who would enjoy an intellectually challenging game with more options than simply cookie cutter characters and blindly running errands for non-interactive NPCs.

Please excuse this rant. But I had to tell someone in the industry, and you were unfortunate enough to offer to listen:) So, as a subject, do you think anyone in the MMORPG market is going to get a clue in the coming year?

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 couldn’t.

This isn’t 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 won’t 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 I’m 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 weren’t 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 "Pioneer’s 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. We’d huddle together at GEnie’s Sysop conferences, exchange information on what worked and didn’t, tell war stories, and joke and laugh. We laughed a lot in those days. And innovated. And had fun, because dammit, it’s the game industry and games are supposed to be fun.

Somewhere along the line, that passion has changed. Sure, there’s 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 we’re 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 that’s 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 that’s just not it. The truism we’ve 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 you’ve made, with a group of friends. Hey, what’s the use of doing something cool and unique if you don’t 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; you’re 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. They’ll 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 Developer’s Conference, one of my slides was always titled, It’s The Socialization, Stupid! The audience for those talks was always standing room only, yet it seems that one critical point still hasn’t sunk in.

And that’s 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 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 I’ve neglected to list here. The point is, there aren’t 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, we’re 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 isn’t 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; I’m not sure another wouldn’t last even longer.

Well, at least it’s going to be an interesting year. Terrifying, but interesting.

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