Challenging the Concept of Challenge

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Or, the truth about MMO gaming….

Since I started blogging, I’ve read a lot about how players want to be challenged. A good amount of this conversation has circulated around World of Warcraft and the WotLK difficulty drop. I always accepted these statements as understandable truths but lately I’ve been questioning just how true they really may be.

Do we play MMORPGs for the challenge? A lot of you will probably say yes and I’d have to disagree with most of you.

To better explain, let’s look at the definition of Challenge:

“A test of one’s abilities or resources in a demanding but stimulating undertaking: a career that offers a challenge.” – Dictionary.com: American Heritage

Compare that definition to the current “challenges” of most popular mmos: pressing the right keys at the right times, staying out of the glowing shapes on the ground, try not to let the monster hit you, and put in enough time.

There’s more than that for some players but I think that about sums up the average players “challenge” in an MMO. The usual justification is that “it takes skill to play your class well.” Yeah, maybe, bust most MMOs don’t really require you to play your class “well” to succeed. They require you to fulfill your requirement which, we all know, doesn’t necesarily mean doing anything even near well.

By and large, MMOs follow a more time = more reward formula. Skill and challenge really have nothing to do with that. In the pursuit of equal opportunity, challenge has been lost in translation.

What does challenge mean to me? It means having to pay attention to a fight the whole time or risking death. It means more than auto-attack, 1, 3, 2, 2, 2. It means taking risks and making decisions that could make or break an encounter. In short, it means a much less forgiving game. For some players, dedicated raid/guild leaders and PvPers to name a few, that formula holds up. For the rest, time and repetition are the “challenges” they’re meeting.

But do we really play MMOs for the challenge of them? I sure hope not, otherwise we all went into this thing organizationally deficit, which, taken as a whole, is probably true (getting a group of people together is part of what makes a group leader’s job more of a challenge than most other aspects of play).

MMOs fill a different gap in our gaming lives. They provide a feeling of moving from one place to another, progression, that gives our gaming purpose. They give us a social outlet that gives it meaning and value. They give us a meta-game, a distraction from the day to day, and something to devote or intellectual resources to.

If I want “challenging” gameplay, I’ll turn to a game with difficulty settings. When I’m playing an MMO, I don’t expect any more challenge that knowing what buttons to push when and where not to stand — until that special little player comes along and pushes me outside of my bounds. The truth of why PvE will always top PvP in popularity is that most people in this genre want an MMO for what it is, a slightly dumbed down RPG they can experience with other people. And that’s not so bad.

Edit: I just read a recent article at Ferrel’s site, Epic Slant, that made me want to clarify something. He made the point that, yes, learning new encounters can be difficult. There’s no doubt about that. The reason I still feel that, on the whole, modern MMOs present little is that most people do not go through the effort of learning encounters themselves.  I wish more people would, I wish that I would, because it presents a far more exciting encounter until it’s mastered. There’s a social expectation, however, that counteracts that desire. The expectation is that you’ll either a) know what’s going to happen ahead of time; or b) keep up. That expectation pressures people to follow instead of learn.

WoW bought forth a massive influx of database sites so it’s no longer necessary for people to learn encounters on their own. The learning curve is drastically reduced for the vast majority of gamers because as soon as a guild or two clears through the latest dungeon, a strategy is put online that details everything subsequent groups are likely to encounter. Plus, for a guild with VoIP, only one person really needs to know the encounter well, and they can just tell the rest of the group what to do. Unfortunately, I also think a good chunk of gamers just want the gear upgrade at the end, too. Why bother with the frustration of learning the encounter on your own when the fight is just a means to an end anyways?

Perhaps a better statement is that modern MMO end-game is as challenging as players want it to be… most people just want it easy.

WAR vs. WoW pt.2: Mythic and the punch, kick, jab

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It’s been a little while since I drafted the first part to this set of articles and I figured it was about time for me to bring you the other side of the story. In part one, I focused on how the precedents WoW has set will hold WAR back from a level of success it might otherwise achieve. It’s true that many of current pack of MMO enthusiasts will have gotten their first taste of the genre with WoW. Mark Jacobs has even stated that he’d be happy if WoW had 100 million subscribers because it would open up the market. The issue, however, is that most loyal WoW-ites will have certain expectations of new MMOs coming into the market. WAR, in the ways outlined in part one, doesn’t quite match up with those expectations.

Does this mean that WAR stands no chance? The answer to that question depends on what WAR is out to achieve. Does it stand a chance in usurping WoW’s role on the market? No, definitely not. At this point, no one game will do that within the first couple of years it’s out. What they are out to do, is stake out their own area of the playing field and to hold onto it with everything they have. Mythic understands that they’re not going to get ten million players this year; however, it is the western market that they seem to want to make their mark in, and is it reasonable to expect 10M western players over WAR’s lifespan? No. The good news, however, is that they don’t need ten million to succeed.

So what do I feel will push WAR towards success? Well, the first thing is that…

Mythic is targeting the Western market.

A large portion of WoW’s player base hails from Asia and pays by the hour. What that means, is that the vast majority of the game’s profitability is due to the monthly subscription model of Blizzard’s western customers. In Asia, MMORPGs are a huge genre, especially WoW. Players are used to having to pay less, or nothing to play them. It’s normal there. In the west, the vast majority of all games require no monthly access fee. Therefore, when faced with the prospect of paying fifteen dollars a month to play a game, we demand quality. Both WoW and WAR can deliver on that, but…

The WoW formula has never changed.

Since release, and in the foreseeable future (read: Wrath), the song has remained the same. You work up to the level cap, grind reputation, grind dailies, and grind dungeons, until the next best thing comes out. Rinse, wash, repeat. While some players enjoy this style of play, a lot of others are feeling pretty burnt out. Right now, burn out is at its highest level, right before the expansion pack. With WAR set to launch in less than two weeks (!!) they have enough time to pull some of these tired players away.

In conjunction with point one, this is how Mythic will make its dent in WoW. It’s unreasonable to think that a western game will beat the subscriber numbers of a game operating on both ends of the spectrum, but if Mythic can steal away a good portion of the western market, they’ll leave Blizzard, and its investors, reeling. Now, don’t get me wrong. WoW is a good game for what it is. On the other hand, the behemoth needs to drop down a peg for the betterment of everyone. Furthermore, on the WAR front, the more westerners they get from all of the competing games, the more comfortable EA and Mythic will be in investing financial resources into free patches and x-pacs. If Sid67’s write up is even remotely accurate, I have a feeling that Mythic can garner enough support to see themselves as a strong competitor to WoW in the western market.

WAR at release is the stepping stone to further innovation

I’ve also covered this point a little bit in the past. I’m not saying that I see WAR reinventing the wheel here; however, I do see WAR surprising us as we go forward. It’s in their best interest. Already, we have new, innovative, features such as open groups and PQs. We must remember, that WAR was built with the next five years in mind, so I think it’s reasonable to think that Mythic has some tricks up their sleeve that they’re saving. In all honesty, I think that their current innovations, focus, functionality, and state of the game will already earn them their own fair share of the market. Unless something goes horribly wrong early on, we can look forward to WAR getting progressively better with each passing patch.

WAR brings us cookies but with frosting

Okay, so I wish I had some cookies. Darn work for not offering them! Anyways, while WoW’s formula is remaining the same, WAR is taking ingredients from them and other MMOs, tossing in their own special cool-juice, for a unique, and tasty result. They take the tried and true staples of MMO gaming and put them in a fresh environment with their own brand. Yes, you have quests. Kill 10 of X. But, before you kill 10 of X (and no, this isn’t a real quest), grab this huge catapult and launch some big rocks into that building over there. And when you’re done with that, dump some boiling oil on some stunties! Now, to chafe them even more, burn down their village! MWAHAHA! Oh yes. WAR may be teen rated but their content is a little more… brutal. And this idea occurs throughout Warhammer Online. I’ve talked previously about how it’s cheap for older games such as WoW to use other people’s ideas, but WAR is a new game and can use them to push the industry forward and not hold it back.

WAR takes raiding to a new level

In part one, I discussed how traditional raiding isn’t present in WAR. Shortly thereafter, I had an epiphany (okay, the light bulb flickered on… for a minute or two) and wrote another article on how WAR actually redefines raiding as we know it. A bright commenter brought up a great point: in WAR a large part of the raiding game is created by the players. Huge RvR battles will constitute raids in and of themselves. The challenges and variations will ensure that these never get stale and will likely not be so easily replaced. Considering this, it’s easy for WAR to implement horizontal expansions that expand the RvR raiding game, adding depth and longevity to its lifespan. Add into that my points from “WAR redefines raiding” and you have the makings for a game that allows raiding to become more accessible to the average player, more challenging to all, and available to either both RvR’rs and PvE’rs alike. Breaking down walls is something WoW hasn’t been very good at in the past couple of year. They were in the past and they’re trying in some ways still, but WAR has them beat hands down.

WAR wants you! (in the story)

The lore in Warhammer is deep. Really deep. It’s been out there for decades being built upon, and twisted, and has grown into a monster so big that it couldn’t all be included in the game. A lot of it is though. What’s not there, such as other continents, landmarks, NPCs, etc.,is fodder for future epic quest lines and, ultimately, expansion packs. I know a lot of people are really into the story behind WoW but, as someone who’s never played any of the RTS games (not my preferred genre), I missed out. I read the quests. I read the story online. I even read most of Day of the Dragon by Richard Knaak. Forgive me for saying, apart from Knaak’s book, the story is pretty shallow. Blizzard could have done far better in fleshing it out online and especially in the game. It’s just poor compared to what it could have been. You almost never feel involved with quests, there’s very few truly engaging epic quest lines (there are some), and to see any of it come to fruition, you need to be a hardcore raider deep in the end-game. I’m sorry, I know some of you got to experience more of it than me, but I’m of the firm belief that a game should be able to stand on its own. Players shouldn’t be forced to play three other games or read a novel to get involved in the story. I tried… I really did and I’m sure I’m not in the same boat here.

In WAR, the quests are well written and generally give you a sense of urgency to get something done. No MMO will have every single quest be God’s gift to story telling but WAR at least does it ten times better than WoW and that’s what this article is about. Even if you don’t want to read the quest text, the game brings the story to you through the Tome. The chaptering system evidences this. In WoW, the premise lies in that you’re the hero out there to be the champion of Azeroth; the focus is on the single player for the vast majority of the game. It doesn’t work. For everything you do, you make no impact on the world and there are a thousand other people who’ve already done it. In WAR, you’re a member of an army. It’s not about you, per se, but about your role in the realm, the war, and the ultimate victory you fight to achieve. If you want story that will pull you in without having to spend dozens of hours doing things other than playing the game, but also give you the option to get even more lore elsewhere, you want WAR.

M-SMORPG or MMORPG?

Perhaps one of the most relevant aspects of WAR that gives it an edge over WoW is that it puts the multi-player back in MMO. In WoW, it’s common practice to solo most of the time because the game mechanics actually support it. Unless you have someone power leveling you through content, or are facing a particularly tough challenge, it’s quicker to simply solo your way through the non-instanced content. In WAR, you get an XP bonus from grouping. On top of that, you gain influence from mobs your group mates kill, so there’s even more benefit from working together. Additionally, RvR is balanced around group encounters, so if you really want to be successful, you’ll want to form or join open groups and warbands whenever possible. You’re not forced to go one way or the other, however. Choose the path that’s best for you. A lot of players from WoW will find this difference to be quite the shift from what they’re used to. It brings MMO gaming closer to its roots and, I believe, for the better.

Given the choice, what would you choose: a Massively Solo Multiplayer Game or a real MMO?

Ladies and Gents, the list could go on and on. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure there are things that I had intended to put in this list that have slipped my mind momentarily. What it comes down to though, is that WoW and WAR, while directly competing, will coexist. WAR will put a dent in the western market and WoW will still dominate and pronounce its dominance with numbers inflated by the eastern market. In all honesty, I don’t think that I’d want WAR to get as huge as WoW because look at what’s happened to their community. Sure, there are some great people that play the game, but may goodness help you if you want to ask a legitimate question on the realm forums.

What I would like to see in the short term, and believe will happen, for all of the reasons above and for all the potential this title has, is for WAR to be the second highest earning MMO in subscriptions on the market. I think that’s realistic. It’s not just a matter of me being a WAR fanboy (guilty) or a WoW QQ’er; like I said, I like WoW, but sometimes the underdog needs to win. When the little guy comes out on top, it gives inspiration to the masses and it’ll make a better (gaming) world for us all.

Edit: If I recall any other pertinent observations, I’ll post them down here.

The importance of WAR to the MMO market

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I was checking out Da’ Bloody Twenty over at Waaagh! today and noticed that Mythic head Mark Jacobs has created his own blog! This is great as it gives players a direct line to contact him and a way to see what’s on his mind. He just began posting yesterday and came out firing. One of his first posts was about how important the success or failure of WAR is to the MMORPG market.

I encourage you to read the full article but here’s the first big section on what it would mean if WAR were to fail:

So, knowing all this, why do I think that WAR is so important to the MMORPG market? Well :

1) If WAR fails, we won’t have the excuse (as some devs have had) of not having the money or the license.

2) If WAR fails, investors will rapidly look to other business models for MMORPGs especially ones that require less of an investment and development cycle to bring to market. We may be coming very close to the tipping point where investors have seen far too many games fail on release and even more of them fail to even launch for them to be comfortable investing large sums in this market. They will prefer to invest in safer things, like large-scale, cold fusion reactors.

3) If WAR fails, players will see yet again another MMORPG fail to live up to its promise. Given the high expectations and tremendous pre-sales we are getting, the fall will be that much harder to take. One of the problems of having high expectations for a game is that if you fail, the fall will be much longer and will hurt that much more when you hit pavement.

4) If WAR fails, publishers will be even less inclined to take on Blizzard whether it’s WoW or their next MMO. This will drive more developers out of the market and fewer AAA, subscription-base MMORPGs will start. Just look at how few MMORPGs are in development at studios (as opposed to getting outside financing) today. Does anyone really think that if WAR is a failure that this will increase the number of MMORPGs in development? If you think so and you happen to have a few spare million, I’d love to sell you some oceanfront property I own in Idaho.

These are all very true and relevant points. I personally wouldn’t see it as the end of the market if WAR were to flop (not that I think it will, at all) but it certainly wouldn’t be encouraging to investors. Right now, WAR is the “next big thing” and it has a lot of promise due to the financial investment and backing the game has, as well as the infrastructure of the EA for distribution. WAR is doing very well right now, if they don’t deliver, players and investors will feel the burn alike.

All in all though, so long as Blizzard is raking in the cash, I can see game companies wanting to try for their piece of the proverbial pie.

OTOH, if WAR succeeds:

1) Investors will flock back into the market. Investors don’t mind taking chances if there is a decent chance of success and if WAR can break the 1M barrier in terms of monthly subs, investors will get excited about making lots money in this space.

2) The whole “Only Blizzard can do it” mentality will go away. The deeply ironic thing about this is that after DAoC was a success publishers/investors said over and over again, “If Mythic can do it, anybody can!” Nothing but love right back at ya baby!

3) The subscription model will be validated (again) to be alive and well in North America and Europe. This model has been pronounced dead more times than Kenny has been killed in South Park (well, maybe not but I love to get a South Park reference in there, I loved that show).

4) Publishers will be willing to take more chances in this space again.

More good points, MBJ! I’ve said it in the past, the more quality games we get on the market, the better it is for all of us. If more investors contribute and the “Only Blizzard can do it” mentality gets shattered, that’s a real possibility. MMOs make up a very unique genre in the gaming world. The subscription model encourages developers to continually improve upon their initial product and to keep the players, and thereby the investors, happy. Add risk encouragement into that equation and you have the makings for revolutionary mechanics that will push the industry forward. We all know that these mechanics can fail just as easily as succeed but such is the path of progress.

All in all, Jacobs’ blog makes for some interesting reading. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this one.

WAR vs. WoW pt.1: WoW will hold WAR back

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In this edition, we will examine the impact that WoW has had on the MMO market and on Warhammer Online’s future. Community is important; how will the Warcraft community affect WAR’s subscriber numbers? The title gives my predictions and below you will find my justification. Next time, we’ll examine how WAR can/will fight back and why all will be right in the world of WAR.

Over the past couple days, I’ve put a lot of thought into the impact that WoW has on the MMORPG community. There’s been some definite positives and stark negatives. If it wasn’t for WoW, WAR may not have ever made it to development. Then again, it may be because of WoW that WAR may not reach its full potential and achieve the subscriber base it deserves.

On one hand, WoW has opened up the market. Because of it, more people are involved in the MMO market than probably ever would have been. Investment in the genre is way up from where it was beforehand and, now, we have the hope of more and better games to fill our shelves for years to come. We should all be thankful to Blizzard for this.

On the other hand, WoW is the grand barrier preventing other games from achieving comparable success. The subscriber amounts alone cause many gamers to label other, lesser earning MMOs, failures. Somehow, a subscriber base of 50,000 people isn’t considered high anymore. There are many other reasons too, some of which I believe will have a direct impact on our yet to be released favorite game.

WoW players have been spoiled.

World of Warcraft was released in 2004. At that time, it was far from bug free; however, millions of players never experienced that version of the game. In fact, I’d bet that most of the current players have yet to experience more than a few bugs in their total playtime. Since WoW has opened up the genre so much, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s a lot of people’s first MMO. Because of this, when players come over to WAR, or any other game for that matter, they’ll expect to see a game at the same level of polish that WoW currently showcases. For these people, WoW is the standard other titles need to live up to. In the area of bugs, it would be amazing for any game to achieve this. Bugs are a fact of life; they are critters to be squashed over the lifespan of an MMO. You can bet your bottom dollar that when WAR launches, the World of Warcraft forums will be exploding with people screaming “it’s a bugfest! WAR FTL!” no matter how polished Mythic can get it beforehand. It’s unfortunate but almost certainly true. Which brings us to point number two…

A lot of WoW players are doom-callers.

Let’s face it: a certain portion of the WoW player base complains about everything. I’d imagine it’s like this for every game, actually, but I know WoW, and in WoW, whenever there’s a class change, it’s the end of the game. Whenever the servers go down, players are claiming to cancel their subscriptions. Whenever a developer sneezes, the world is irretrievably thrown into the void. Why is this? Well, people get attached to the game as they see it. For these people, when they come to WAR, if it doesn’t fit for any reason, they’ll taint the internet with their disdain. You’ll see these people all over the place shortly after launch, naming everything that makes the game wrong for them and applying it universally to anyone who might be interested in trying it out. That’s really a shame, in my opinion. Right now, a lot of WoW players have never even heard of WAR. The first time many of these people do, it will be on a WoW forum or fansite where they’re bashing it because WAR is not WoW. Starting a new MMO is a big decision. You’re usually giving up the one you’re playing at the time and making a leap of faith in purchasing and subscribing to a new product. Bitter players will keep others away.

WoW PvP has soured many people against the idea.

WoW started off as a PvE game and had PvP thrown in afterwards. As a result of this, they’ve had to make big changes to the way many classes work. Within the past year or so, they’ve been placing a heavy emphasis on Arena combat. They’ve even tossed in Arena rating requirements on gear. Many PvE’ers are feeling neglected as Blizzard pushes towards turning their combat system into an e-sport. What does this lead to? People having a bad taste left in their mouth towards PvP in general. This isn’t good for a game whose main appeal is RvR combat; however, that doesn’t mean Mythic is down and out. What it does mean though, is that Mythic has (and always has had) an uphill battle to pull these players away. Their plight is made even more difficult as many of those have turned heavily to PvE, alts, and raiding, as a result. Which segues us into point three…

WoW players will expect raid content.

The raiding treadmill has become the standard in World of Warcraft. Granted, many players are tired of this method of advancement and are happy to have an alternative; however, many others enjoy it. They dedicate hours and hours to research and practice until they take down their raid boss. To date, Mythic has focused mainly on the RvR aspect of their game. Now, RvR is awesome and leads to PvE in several different ways, but WoW has set the standard for what many players will expect to see at the endgame. WAR is breaking that standard. Now, in truth, I believe that if a raider took the time to get to 40th rank in WAR, they’d probably enjoy it and stick with it. These players will more than likely count it out before they even try it. It is true that only 1% of the hardcore raiders generally see the endgame raids in pre-nerf state; however, raids will still be expected by even casual dungeon crawlers. WAR is offering 6-man dungeons that are tuned to be quite challenging by maximum rank. Due to WoW, and other preceding games, anything less than 10-players will strike many players as non-raidlike. So we find yet another precedent at least reinforced by WoW that will prevent other players from looking further into WAR.

WoW plays dirty

WoW isn’t afraid to steal ideas. Allow me to rephrase, WoW isn’t afraid to take other’s ideas and “make them their own”… if by their own, they mean calling it something else. Perhaps I’m being rash, I mean great games are made by taking good ideas from other games and making them better, right? The only issue is, WoW isn’t a new game. Comparatively, it’s actually pretty old. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s doubtful they’ll be breaking any big barriers in MMO gaming. Likewise, I doubt they’ll change their general formula very much either. They have a new MMO in the works, so at this point, it’s about money. You have it and they want it. If you subscribe to another game, that’s money not in their pockets. So, at this point, when they’re implementing things such as achievements into their game, when competitors are offering something similar, it’s to crush the competition, and if fans happen to like it, even better. Let’s also not ignore that they’ve chosen to implement siege vehicles, destructible buildings, and zone-wide open pvp right at the time a competitor comes around offering the same things. It’s a deliberate attempt to devalue the efforts of others. WoW is a cash cow and Blizzard wants to keep it that way. They’ll be content to bar every other MMO from great success until they offer another of their own to continue the trend. WoW has no reason to be afraid of repackaging the ideas of others. It’s a means to an end and, heck, their whole IP is based on Warhammer. Originality is not their strong suit.

WoW has done great things for the MMO genre but its community and parent company are significant ties that will bind Mythic from the success it could reach. Do I think any of the reasons above will stop WAR from reaching one million players? No. Four million? No (Server populations are what matter, anyways, not overall population as per the enjoyability of a game like WAR). None of the above are brick walls to success. What they are, however, are hurdles. Make no mistake, this is a long race and Blizzard has a head start. Will Mythic be able to launch into first place right out of the gate? Certainly not. In time though, they could be a huge competitor that will give WoW a run for its money. In order to do that, they’ll need the support of the community to spread the word and they’ll need to market all aspects of the game. RvR is a big selling point but it shouldn’t be to the near exclusivity of their other amazing content; when they do that some players will undoubtedly read “niche game” between the lines. They’ll need to pull in people from all walks of RPGs, from the hardcore PvP’er to the hardcore PvE’er.

I honestly believe that they’ve got what it takes. Personally, I’d like to see the behemoth taken down a couple of notches. Not because I don’t think it’s a good game, though. In all honesty, despite my burnout and all of its failings, I still think that it’s a quality MMO; I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I’d like to see it drop down so that other games can really shine. It should never be a “one title rules all” market. If some of their subscribers populate WAR or any of the other MMOs out there, it can only be for the betterment of the genre as a whole.