Series Info...Biting The Hand #30:

Pet Peeves...

by Jessica Mulligan
July 23, 2002

It has been a couple of slow weeks for the industry; little news to discuss, not much happening in the community. My guess would be that everyone is busy getting the hype machines ramped up for the Christmas selling season, which traditionally starts in early September, reaches a fever pitch around mid-November and becomes a shrill banshee shriek about December 15. Get your earplugs now and avoid the rush.

Me, I’m getting ready to go to the hospital so the doctors can inhibit the swallowing reflex, shove a camera down my throat and see what my stomach and small intestine look like. While this process is intellectually fascinating, it is also emotionally irritating and disturbing. In other words, it puts me in just the right frame of mind to write this column.

Therefore, I thought I’d take some time to discuss a couple of my current industry pet peeves. I’ll probably ramble a bit; be warned.

That Online Game Definition Thing

By which I really mean defining the language and terms we all use when trying to describe a game with tens of thousands of subscribers, the ability to host hundreds or thousands of players simultaneously in the same world iteration and in which the player character, the game world and the effects of each upon the other have a duration greater than the current play session. I don’t know about you, but I’m plain tired of typing “massive-multiplayer online role-playing game.” Even writing the acronym ‘MMORPG’ is unwieldy, not to mention the embarrassment of trying to rip through it at a speaking engagement; nothing so impresses an audience as sounding like Porky Pig stumbling over a word, whilst starting the bald guys in the front row on a spit shine of the skull.

Therefore, I am creating a smaller, friendlier moniker for these games: Persistent Mass-Multiplayer, which can be written as PM2 (clever knock-off on the mathematical term ‘squared,’ eh?) and pronounced “Pee Em Two,” “Pee Em Squared” or “Pee Em Ess,” which is what thinking about all these acronyms gives me.

OK, maybe we’d just better stick to “persistent world.”

Broadband access is not a business model.

Now that the US markets are in the process of imploding and people are viewing anything that comes out of the mouths of technology company executives with disdain and suspicion, naturally the buzz is all about technology, i.e. broadband. Before I rant, let me state again, as I have so many times before: Broadband is not a business model for games in and of itself.

My biggest worry about broadband is that people who ought to know better are pushing like mad in hopes that it will become the new buzzword for “get rich quick,” just as “dot-com” was not so long ago. When people who know better (or should) start waxing lyrical about the brave new world of gaming we’ll have when more people have broadband access, my first comment is usually either “Stop lying, please” or “That was a pretty stupid thing to say.” It is on par with the old .com, pre-2001 land rush days, when the business model was “We plan on losing hundreds of millions of dollars providing free content to the Internet to capture eyeballs. We’ll figure out later how to make money off those eyeballs and we’ll all be richer than Bill Gates.”

We’re still coughing up blood from that kidney punch – as I write this, the Dow and NASDAQ are at pre-1998 levels, having lost tens of billions in value in the space of the last ten days. The newscasters are already calling it the Crash of 2002. One would think we’ve had enough of that kind of insanity for one decade.

Apparently not. Many publishers, and generally ones that haven’t launched a persistent world or other subscription game yet, breathlessly discuss the possibility with any news media person willing to sit still for it. Not all; both Electronic Arts and Infogrames, for example, are being cautious about their statements and that is all to the good. I wish more companies were like them, because their cautious and reasoned statements are being drowned out by the white noise from the rest of the pack.

The value proposition for broadband online gaming as a business model supposedly comes in three forms:

  • Hey, just think of the cool games we can make when we can use all that bandwidth to transfer more data!
This is confusing ‘stuff’ with ‘quality.’ The equation here seems to be DNPX=GOG, or “More data transferred multiplied by the number of simultaneous players equals a good online game.” This ignores the fact that raw data transfer itself does not a good game make, as broadband users of some current online games will tell you. If a game is boring to begin with, just shoveling the bits faster isn’t necessarily a virtue.

It is also unnecessary; give the players the right tools and game mechanics and they’ll make their own content, even if that content is just hanging around with the team and chatting. I’d go so far as to say that what players want isn’t more bits per second of content, but more bang for the buck in the play experience. I’d also go so far as to say that there are quite a few designers today who still can’t tell the difference. It doesn’t mean ramming static full-motion videos down their throats or adding so many game mechanics over time that even Stephen Hawking would have trouble min-maxing the game. It does mean enabling players to create more of their own amusement without depending on the developers to provide it.

This is not to say that developers don’t have to add content over time; the occasional new land to explore, or character class or race to play is necessary to long term growth. It just doesn’t have to be Moby Dick every month – although considering the quality and stability of the content in most online game patches, I think the players would settle for an episode of Three’s Company.
  • Hey, with an ‘always on’ broadband connection, we can download the games to the consumer and bypass retail!
This one has a certain element of truth to it and is the one most likely to come to fruition some day, but there are problems. For one, the technology is still catching up with the ability of developers to crank out content. The basic DSL and average cable modem set-ups can transfer more bits per second than the standard 56 kilobit per second dial-up connection, but that is a relative thing compared to the size of games today. The basic DSL connections offered by the telcos average 128 kilobits per second on uploads and 384 to 768Kbps on downloads for between $30 and $40 per month. You can usually get twice to four times the download rate, 1.5 megabits per second, for around $60 to $80 US.

Cable modem subscribers are in a different situation. The modem is usually capable of receiving data at 1.5 Mbps and sending it at anywhere from 500Kbps to 2.5Mbps. However, cable modem users share 27Mbps of download bandwidth and around 1.5Mbps to 2.5Mbps of upload bandwidth between up to 500 subscribers at a local neighborhood headend, so the more people connected, the less bandwidth to go around. If the headend is fully subscribed at 500 people and they all are banging away on the Internet at peak hours, the bandwidth available to each user can potentially degrade to… 56Kbps. Hmmmm…. To be fair, in general you’ll probably receive better transfer rates from cable modems than dial up, at least until the headend fills up with MP3 and video junkies.

On the other hand, PC games, including persistent worlds, tend to be huge; even compressed, they take up entire CD-ROM discs. Trying to download a 500 to 600 megabyte file at 768Kbps over a distributed network such as the Internet can take hours, and that assumes an optimal connection to the Internet and a clear, unobstructed path from the home PC to the download site. Over time, as more content is added to the online game, the size of the download and/or update patches grows. For example, Microsoft/Turbine Entertainment’s Asheron’s Call has featured major content updates every month since the October 1999 launch. By the time the “Dark Majesty” expansion was shipped late last year, the patching process for new subscribers of Asheron’s Call stood at between five and seven hours for dial-up user and between one and two hours for broadband users. Time is money, as they say.

Now, think about those prices we discussed earlier; they are twice to four times as expensive as a dial-up connection. We already see consumer resistance to the concept of paying additional money for services beyond basic Internet access fees today, and the cost of broadband is edging up. Sure, the basic cost of the bandwidth to download the game can be absorbed in the cost of the game or tacked on to it; at today’s rates, it probably costs most hosts between $1.25 US and $2.00 US for a 600 MB download. I can see the hard core gamers using this kind of purchase option, but what about the average gamer or even the average joe? The broadband providers are having enough problems just getting them to subscribe to broadband access; by some estimates, only about 1.5 million of AOL’s subscribers have some form of broadband access. It is interesting to note that AOL’s target consumer is the average joe.

It also ignores the fact that going to the store to pick up the game is something of a social experience. For example, on the day Dark Age of Camelot arrived at the retail stores in October 2001, the entire office where I was consulting at the time left at lunch time and went to buy the game. And not just the day shift; almost everyone from the swing and graveyard shifts came in and they went as a group. I swear they had as much fun that first day just going to the store and coming back with the box as they did installing the game and subscribing to play the game.

All this probably means that buying and downloading the game online is a viable alternative, but it looks like it is going to be stuck in the groove with the same hard core gamers we have today, at least for the next few years.
  • Hey, by having broadband with its ‘always on’ connection and ability to transfer more data quicker, we’ll thusly build better games and more people will be likely to try and pay for online games!
I’m not even sure I need to say anything about this conclusion. It is based on acceptance of the first two points above as fact, when they are really unsupported suppositions. It smacks of the same “Build it and they will come” proposition that turned the Internet and World Wide Web into the Graveyard of Lost Money. It also has the same inherent fallacy: confusing distribution of data with quality of content.

The whole thing makes me want to shout, “Hey, design better games and it probably doesn’t matter what rate the data comes in!”

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