Lessons Learned from MMOs

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I don’t claim to be the most avid online gamer, there are a lot of games I’ve never played.  There are only so many hours in a day after all.  Still, when I do play various games I try to pay attention to what seems to work and what doesn’t; and learn from that.  Not just things I like, but what other players seem to enjoy (especially things I didn’t consider); but also things that just don’t seem to work.  When I come across something that seems to be a problem, something players generally don’t like, I try to think how I might solve it.

Star Wars: Galaxies

I’m going to start by going back to an older game, Star Wars Galaxies.  Just to be up front I loved this game!  There was a lot about it I personally liked and while it wasn’t the first MMO I’d ever played, it was probably responsible more than any other for getting me really interested in them.  I love the large worlds you could just freely roam around in and explore.  I loved that your character wasn’t forced into a faction, you could pick a side if you wanted or be a more mercenary neutral.  I enjoyed that you could create your own home, your own store and business, even with friends or a guild create an entire town that others could visit.  There was so much in SWG beyond combat and quest to do, from crafting robots, consumables and even huge space yachts and frigates; that you could always find something to do.  I think, in part because of these qualities, the game had a social aspect some other MMO’s lack.  There was plenty of both opportunity and reason within the game to meet and interact with other players on a social basis.  For me, all these things added to the fun of the game and I was among those players who continued to play right up until they shut the servers down on 15 December, 2011.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

So when Star Wars: The Old Republic was released I was a little skeptical (and partly because I felt SWG had been shut down because of the release of SW:TOR).  You just couldn’t help comparing the two games and I doubt I’m alone in that.  Its probably not surprising then I had and still have mixed feelings about the game.  There were things I definitely liked.  The new companions with their individual story lines was a plus that added depth to the RPG aspect.  But you had to pick a faction, there was no more being neutral or switching sides.  Smugglers always fought for the Republic and Bounty Hunters for the Empire.  There were no more player built houses or towns, and you couldn’t set up a shop.  Crafting was a lot more limited, and gone were all those neat drones and gadgets you could make in SWG.  You automatically got a space ship but you couldn’t decorate or otherwise modify the interior, you couldn’t even decide where your companions bunked… all that was fixed.  In short, outside of the storyline quests there was a lot less to do.  There were some beautiful locations (and some really creepy ones including a planet with what are basically zombies / ghouls) but you weren’t really as free to explore as you were in SWG.  Yeah, okay, so I’m comparing the two games a lot… its hard not too.  There’s a lesson in that as well, sequels always get compared to whatever went before, so you better make them outstanding.  Overall, I just didn’t like it as much and didn’t keep up with my subscription.  Later I got a notice that if you hadn’t played your character in awhile its name might be changed, which I thought was both really weird and annoying.  Not saying I’ll never play again (assuming my characters haven’t been deleted which given I payed for special gear and stuff would REALLY annoy me) but I’m not in any rush to get back to it.

And yeah, if they brought SWG back online, I’d be back in a flash.

More recently I’ve been playing two other online games, World of Tanks and Wizards 101.  These are two very different games.

World of Tanks

World of Tanks works on the free-to-play model and its possible to play for as long as you want on a free account and enjoy the whole game.  That makes it somewhat unique and I think its one of the biggest positives of the game.  As you might guess, its a game about tank combat, and that’s pretty much all it is.  If you aren’t into driving tanks and shooting at other tanks then there’s not much here for you.  But, if you are into that it can be a lot of fun… at first.  I had a really good first impression of WoT, the controls are pretty straight forward and the game isn’t overly complex so it doesn’t take long to learn to be a decent tanker.  With lower Tier tanks you can make silver pretty well and if you take the time to train up your tank crews before upgrading your tank you can actually build up some pretty lethal tank crews by the time you make it to Tier 5 or 6 tanks (which is mid Tier in the game).

The problems start becoming clear after you’ve been playing for awhile.  I’ll put the problems into two broad categories, game play issues and support problems.  One of the biggest game play issues is team killing.  It is possible to damage or even destroy tanks on your own team accidentally, or on purpose.  Some players seem to delight in attacking their own team, some are just kids who don’t seem to know what they are doing and shoot at everything.  Wargaming.net, the creators of World of Tanks claim they’ve solved the problem by implementing an automated system which compensates you if your tank is damaged by another team member and can issue automatic bans for someone who destroys a team member’s tank.  The problem with this is, it doesn’t really work and is subject to being exploited by troublemakers while often punishing the victim.  Worse Wargaming.net have made it pretty clear they’ve washed their hands of it and will NOT do anything nor listen to complaints.  Not exactly conducive to a good gaming experience or gamer confidence.  The second big problem is hacking.  Every MMO is subject to some hacking, usually from gold sellers spamming.  But WoT has a lot of hacks allowing players to cheat.  You may not realize it at first, I didn’t, but here are some things to watch for.  If you attempt to target a tank and suddenly your targeting reticule starts jumping around, odds are they’re using a hack cheat.  If you attempt to “lock on” to a tank and it immediately unlocks and tells you to target someone else, also probably a hack; especially if this continues to happen every time you attempt to lock onto that tank.  There are also cheats allowing players to shoot at you through solid terrain, or see you in spite of camouflage.  There are other cheats, but you get the idea.  Worse, Wargaming.net doesn’t seem interested in doing anything to prevent these hacks.  This would be bad in any game, but in a competitive game like WoT where your battle performance affects your ability to train your crew, improve your tank, etc. it really tends to spoil the game.

As you might guess from the above, the big support problem is the general lack of it.  The game company just doesn’t seem to care.  Maybe they don’t, maybe they do and just don’t know how to deal with the problems, I don’t claim to know.  I do know hacking is a problem any MMO faces and it is a BIG problem.  Gold spammers are the most prevalent form, but as with WoT, there are all kinds of cheats out there and a company that doesn’t aggressively shut these hacks down may not have much of a future.  But its even worse if the company allows even the appearance that they just don’t care.

Despite its problems World of Tanks isn’t a bad game, but it could be better and it definitely needs better support and solutions to its problems.  If you play for free then well, you don’t have a lot to lose other than some free time.  But I wouldn’t recommend spending any money on the game.  If enough people feel that way, you have to wonder how long it will last.

Wizards 101

Then there’s Wizards 101 by King’s Isle.  Wizards was intended to be a kids game aimed at a younger market and no doubt a lot of kids do play.  But in my experience as many adults play as children… and not just parents of kids.  The game is just plain relaxing fun.  It mixes features in a combination that is fairly unique in MMO’s.  For example, general game play is handled with quests and grinding much like you’d expect in a game like World of Warcraft.  But combat is handled as “wizardly duels” that is essentially a trading card mini game used to resolve combat.  There are also other activities such as crafting, farming and pet training.  You also can buy (or craft) one or more houses for your “wizard” and can spend a surprising amount of time decorating them.  There are many “worlds” to explore and ongoing storyline that weaves through out the various worlds that adds to the appeal.  Wizards isn’t a “serious” MMO in the way that say World of Warcraft is, it was definitely created with a sense of humor and fun in mind.  Groups are limited to a max of four wizards at a time, so there are no 10 or 25 man dungeons as there are in WoW.  Personally, I’m grateful for that, trying to fill a 25 man raid was always a pain and sometimes even a 10 man was tough to get together.  Most are also shorter, something you can do in an hour or so (though more recently they’ve added some that can take 5-6 hours to complete, which I have mixed feelings about).  The graphics are pretty good overall and there’s a lot in the game that is entertaining visually, from the antics of some pets, to sometimes impressive graphics of various “spells” your wizard can cast.  Its a game I would recommend giving a try.  You can play a very limited amount of the content for free, the rest will require a membership and you’ll also probably want to buy some “crowns” (the in game currency for the special stuff) so it will cost you something to play.  They do have a lot of sales on both memberships and crowns so if you watch for it you can get a year membership at about 40% off or a pretty large amount of crowns at a significant discount.

Lessons Learned

So what have I learned from this, beyond giving a very general review of four games?  To begin with I personally enjoy games that have a social aspect.  I think the social aspects help build a game following, people invest not just in the game but in the friendships they form there and that often keeps them coming back just as much as the content may.   I like games where there is more to do than just combat, including things like crafting, farming, building things, and exploring.  I’m not always in the mood to blast something into ashes, so if all a game offers is combat I’m not likely to play.  While a game that offers me more play options may will still get my time (and money).

Don’t force your players into roles unnecessarily.  There’s nothing wrong with having factions and guilds and so forth in games, but why force a player into a particular faction arbitrarily?  Why not give them more freedom to choose what factions, alliances, etc. their characters / toons make?

Free to play is a great way to entice new players to try the game, but if you don’t make sure to limit this then why would anyone ever pay to play?  If people can avoid paying to play they will and then how do you keep the game going, much less turn a profit?  On the other hand things like booster packs, special options, etc. can be a great way to add additional revenue to a game (I think Wizards does a pretty good job of this).

All games have problems, but pretending a half way solution solves a problem is sometimes worse than no solution at all.  WoT could solve the team kill problem simply by removing the ability to damage tanks on your own team, its not a feature that really adds to game play and since it has become such a problem issue wouldn’t removing it be a simple and effective solution?  While its probably impossible to prevent all hacking of a game, when it becomes widespread cheating and the cheats are easily found you’ve got a problem that can threaten the game.  That level of cheating / hacking is something any game developer needs to make a priority to shut down.

And lastly, whatever else you do or don’t do; don’t let your players get the impression you just don’t care.  After all, if you as the game developer don’t care, then why should the players?  If they don’t care, they probably won’t pay and the almost certainly won’t keep paying to play.  In commercial game development that’s going to be the kiss of death eventually.

Shout Out

In addition to playing various games I’ve also been following Adrianne Curry’s Twitch cast and watching her play games like Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and King’s Quest.  If you don’t know who she is, you can check out her Twitch page here.  Its been fun watching and also seeing what other people in the chat room think about the games she’s playing.  As an aspiring game developer, paying attention to what other people like and dislike in a game is going to be key in any future success I hope to have.  So its been a neat opportunity to be able to watch her web casts.  If you’re curious, sign up and drop in sometime.

Wrap Up

Well, that’s it for this week.  The comments section is open, so feel free to tell me you think I’m a genius or off my rocker (possibly both, sometimes its hard to tell the difference).  Just keep it civil is all I ask.  And as always, keep being creative!

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