What Makes a Good Stealth Game?

It’s not a huge secret that I love stealth games. Really, I like almost any game where winning requires you be observant and get creative with the tools you have, but good stealth games tend to excel at this. After I talked about the stealth mechanics in MGSV, someone asked me why I like that game as a stealth game but not the old Syphon Filter series, or Ninja Gaiden. It got me thinking about what I like in stealth games, and what makes one good.

mark of the ninja 2

1.) Messaging.

I talk about messaging a lot. Messaging is the difference between dying randomly and dying because you weren’t paying attention. It’s what makes the first ten minutes of Mega Man X some of the most brilliant tutorial game design ever and so many overbearing, annoying tutorials so painfully bad. Messaging is super important in general, but especially important in stealth games.

Stealth games are cerebral games more than twitchy action games. It means they’re a lot more complex, and need to communicate how you’re supposed to interact with them in a reasonable sort of way. You need to be able to tell whether you’re about to be seen, or whether that guard is about to turn around, or how to know if you’re about to make a huge mess of things. You need to know where you can and can’t go, because so much of stealth gameplay is about traversal and thinking about how to get from point A to point B, often while avoiding obvious paths. Messaging is what makes that work. Lighting lets you know where you should and shouldn’t be, and you need to know where you can reach and where is off-limits, because oftentimes the best route is over or under the main path (more on this later).

More important are the little clues and the way the game messages things you can’t intuit. Thief introduced the light bar, which let you visualize how much light you were standing in (since you couldn’t look at your own body to tell). Stealth games tend to have HUGE animation libraries, showing everything from sleeping enemies to reactions to minor noises to investigating to various levels of alertness. Often you’ll have enemies be neutral or hostile depending on where in the map you are, whether you’re somewhere you ought to be or not, and you’ll get warned through animation and voice that you’re approaching a place they’ll turn hostile if you enter. These animations are hugely significant in letting you know how well you’re doing, and it’s why static cameras are so frequently the most disliked “enemy type” in stealth games: they lack nuance.


2.) Level Design

A good stealth game is a master class in level design. Levels in more linear games tend to look like long tubes if you zoom out far enough– the best gameplay in that kind of straightforward action game has you moving through a space where the escalation is controlled and paced appropriately, with respites and restore points timed out as necessary. Mega Man levels tend to be a great example of this done well. By comparison, good stealth game levels tend to look like fairly small boxes. Rather than huge sprawls, they’re interweaving meshes with key locations interspersed throughout. They’re incredibly difficult to make well, because each section has to have multiple ways in and out and many different paths while still giving you the ability to fire off scripting triggers and story beats appropriately.

It’s why I don’t like Syphon Filter. Most of the levels I remember from that series were linear, with single-room patrol puzzles where being seen meant game over, rather than actual spaces with multiple paths. It wasn’t a game about perception and movement, it was a game about pattern recognition, more akin to a bullet hell shooter than a stealth game. It didn’t provide choices, just demanded you find answers, which brings me to my next bit:


3.) Options.

Key to a good stealth game are providing options. Are you bad at moving quickly under pressure? Take the slower, safer route. Are you good at knocking out guards but bad at traversal? Go through the guarded route and take out your opposition. Maybe a little of both. It’s why some of my favorite stealth games are ones like Deus Ex or Assassin’s Creed, where (for the most part) you can choose exactly how stealthy you want to be, if at all.

One of my favorite stealth games was Hitman, specifically because despite the premise, it was best played as a significantly non-violent game. It let me play almost entirely non-lethally, save for the target, and in later stealth games I’ve prided myself on playing as non-lethally as possible. It changes the language of games for me from one of overwhelming offense in the face of violence to one of thoughtful conflict-avoidance and nonlethal approaches. Being able to make that choice (which is usually the more difficult option) feels meaningful, like I’m adding challenge but for a good reason. I can hold myself to a particular high standard, knowing that it’s self-imposed and not forced on me by the game.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think forcing stealth isn’t good for a stealth game; it’s the choice to remain unseen and unnoticed that really defines the genre, and leaves you to decide what happens if you fail. It’s why fail-on-being-seen is terrible, it robs you of that choice, no matter how narratively sensible it might be. Check out this segue into my next point:


4.) Expectation of Failure.

Bad stealth games throw you to game over or make you restart if you mess up, get seen, whatever. Good ones expect that you will mess up and give you ways to get yourself out of trouble. Entire mechanics are founded on finding a way out of trouble, and it means that good stealth games can make their stealth components MUCH more difficult. You’re expected to fail at some point, and then get yourself out of the pot that you put yourself in. Often, early on in the game, you’ll be put into a situation where you can’t avoid failure, to teach you how to escape and right yourself. It’s cheap if done too often, but incredibly effective (and good messaging) when done well.

You’re often much weaker than even basic enemies, or very easily dispatched by them, to make failure sting a bit (but never instantly end the game). The original Thief pitted you against guards that were both better than you were with a sword and far stronger and more resilient. A swordfight with a single guard would leave you badly injured and limping along, a swordfight with two at once almost always meant death. But, you could get by. You weren’t *guaranteed* to die, it was just very likely, so that time a pair of guards managed to spot you and pull swords meant you probably wanted to run, hide, and then work your way back more carefully. Staying and fighting was a choice, and if you were good enough and knew what you were doing, a choice you could make and come out victorious on the other side.


5.) You Are Special, But Not More Powerful.

Not special in mundane ways. In many shooters, you simply can get hit more times than your enemies can, and recover faster, so the end result is you are just bigger and better than most of what you fight. In good stealth games, you’re usually not bigger or better, but you have tools, or skills, or simply view the space in a different way than your foes. Height is an advantage, and you avoid roads in favor of rooftops (and have the skills to get up to said rooftops. You can open locked doors, or move quietly, or see in ways your enemies can’t.

As above, good stealth games are cerebral, so the tools you get are a celebration of brains rather than brawn. The exciting huge missile launcher and powerful giant axe are celebrations of brawn, the far more common celebration in games, but stealth games give you smoke bombs, and lockpicks, and water arrows so that you can prove that you’re smarter than your enemies, not stronger or tougher. It goes back to the choice thing– the very best stealth games let you choose how you want to play them, and that may not involve being stealthy at all.


I’m playing Metal Gear Solid V recently, thanks to a friend who told me I should look past the nonsense to see a really interesting, really compelling stealth game. She wasn’t wrong, it’s one of the most interesting stealth games I’ve seen in a while and takes a very different approach than other games I’ve played. More on that another time, though, I want to ride around on the elephant in the room for a while.


Holy wow is Metal Gear Solid a weird game. It’s worth noting that the last one I played was Metal Gear Solid 2, in 2001, when I was young enough to take the series 100% seriously. I’d played the ‘original’ MGS when it came out as well, and fully believed that it was a completely serious game meant to be played entirely straight. It meant that when MGS2 got really weird and kind of wacky, and started playing jokes that felt like they were mocking me for taking the game seriously (retrospect protip: they were), I bounced off of the game series, hard, and never returned to it.

I should break at this point to comment that, as a game designer, I don’t see anything terribly compelling or ‘genius’ about proving that you’re cleverer than your players. I tend to think games that rely on that sort of gimmick are kind of hacky, because you can literally create reality from nothing and twist it however you want. Doing something disruptive and unexpected and then subtly mocking your players for not being prepared for it is a kind of smug high-school-D&D DM-style behavior that I don’t think has a place in a mature industry. It’s like killing a player entirely at random and then saying “HAHA U DIED”. Crafting experiences that are predictable and internally consistent is the hard part of game design; your players are not your adversaries, and treating them as such is bad design. This is, notably, what separates Dark Souls from your high school DM, and why one of them is brilliant and the other you stopped playing games with fifteen years ago.

Anyway. Metal Gear Solid. What playing it now, fifteen years later lets me see is that the series is basically incredibly deadpan parody. It’s so deadpan that it walks the line between serious and silly on a regular basis, and makes both bizarre jokes and surprisingly heavy commentary, often within moments of each other. In the first ten minutes of the game, I’m treated to a first-person perspective on battlefield trauma followed by an incredibly odd character creation bait-and-switch that appears to be an incredibly elaborate joke played for no reason. The game has you create your character and then does precisely nothing with it. You look like Snake. You were always going to look like Snake. You spent however long in character creation for… versimilitude? A story point? A joke at your expense?


I don’t ascribe to the fannish theory that this sort of thing is a “genius” move by the series creators. It’s honestly kind of a cheap joke created at great expense, and one thing I will say about MGS is that it’s very careful about breaking the fourth wall– it’s how it maintains its veneer of being an entirely serious game, while no one is uncertain that, say, Saint’s Row is a parody. The couple of times MGS 1 and 2 broke the fourth wall were honestly pretty clever (hello, Psycho Mantis, one of the most creative bosses of my childhood). The character creation bit in MGSV mostly seems like a transition trick that came about late in development, after the multiplayer (and, I assume, its character creation system) was already up and running. You’ve got the character creation system already for multiplayer, and you need a good place to hide some loading from the camera, and hey, wouldn’t it be funny if… and there you go. Not genius, just expediency. Another trick to game design is looking like you meant it the whole time. Even better if people actually believe you.

The abject silliness ramps up, though, in a scene where you sneak out of a hospital with the help of a guy wearing nothing but a hospital gown. You get a lot of painstakingly deliberate shots of the guy’s bare butt as he sneaks around ahead of you, up to and including a moment where you lose him in a crowd and look around for him, staring at the bottoms of everyone you see, complete with zoom in and dramatic music as you try to recognize your comrade. There’s a lot of this kind of thing; I’ve been waiting for Snake and Ocelot to kiss for hours now, given that every single shot involving the two of them is ripped straight from a romance drama, and in one of the first levels you have a pseudo-touching reunion as you rescue a comrade that quickly becomes a one-sided patter suggestive of old lovers. Seriously, you have a scene where the guy you’re rescuing purrs out weird little “c’mon, say it for me, I’ve been waiting to hear you say it for nine years” comments while your character says literally nothing.



You may have noticed I’m using a lot of cinematography terms (shot, scene) rather than game design terms (encounter, level). It’s because MGSV is pretty heavy on the cutscenes, and they’re constructed (to their credit) with a lot of cinematographic know-how and skill. They draw from a huge variety of sources and execute them nearly perfectly, and it’s only if you know what’s being referenced that the use of whatever technique or style becomes jarring. I’ve watched a scene that, sans dialogue, would look exactly like a dramatic romance telenovela, except it was a couple of guys talking about a superhuman pyromaniac. It’s bizarre but compelling.

On the other hand, it’s not without its flaws. Pacing, for one, is atrocious. Scenes drag on and on for virtually no reason, and you have to jump through a lot of repetitious hoops. Leaving your base requires you to call a helicopter to pick you up, which takes a good thirty seconds or so EVERY TIME, and you still have to walk over to the landing pad and hop into the helicopter. This kind of thing makes sense out in the field, as a way to make extractions more interesting, but having to do it to start the next mission basically every time is inexcusable, especially because I then have to sit through another thirty seconds or so of the same “look out the window as the helicopter takes off” scene every single time, then the same “look out the window as the helicopter comes in to drop you off” as I head into the mission drop point. You do this a LOT.


I also find it annoying that literally every speaking character that’s lived more than a couple of minutes is a gruff male voice. A gruff male voice very similar to the last gruff male voice, complete with not-so-subtle hero-worship-slash-homoerotic-yearning overtones. I long for a female character of almost any kind (I’m aware that I’m going to be heavily disappointed/offended here), just for any vocal distinction at all. I’ve had entire conversations play out over radio where I have no idea who’s speaking, if it’s even Snake speaking, or what. I’ve started playing with subtitles on in the hopes that I’ll get some kind of indication of the speaker just so I can keep the dialogue straight (tip: doesn’t help).

The deadpan line between completely serious and abjectly silly is something that I’m afraid is going to sabotage the game later. Thus far it’s ridden a line really close to some very sensitive subjects (and I’m given to believe that it crosses that line later on), and the permeating silliness means that I don’t think the game will be able to treat those subjects with the gravity they deserve. There’s a difference between pushing the line and being disrespectful, and I don’t know how a game that turns everything into a bizarre sort of joke manages to be serious about subjects that deserve seriousness. I suspect it doesn’t, and I don’t think that’s to its credit.

That all having been said, the craftsmanship is excellent and I’ve had a dramatic escape from paramilitary squads at a hospital ultimately segue into a whale on fire eating a helicopter out of the sky before being rescued by my gay Russian cowboy lover straight into an 80’s training montage without any of that feeling out of place. Credit where it’s due, I don’t think many people could pull that off.

Also, I’m playing this entire game as a woman. FemSnake. It’s just… a hidden easter egg that I seem to have stumbled upon. Who knew?

What is a Game Worth?

Someone made the comment to me yesterday after my post about No Man’s Sky that their biggest issue with the game wasn’t that it was a bad game, but that they didn’t feel it was worth $60. I have some complex thoughts about this.

via http://www.techspot.com/article/771-cost-of-making-a-game/

via http://www.techspot.com/article/771-cost-of-making-a-game/

First: I feel like it’s not hard to wait a little bit and see what people are saying about a game, if you’re really on the fence about whether or not $60 is what you want to pay for the experience. Second, you have to decide for yourself the value of playing the game on Day 1 rather than some other time. For me, that sense of newness and discovery is worth a lot– I like to be able to tell cool stories right away, when everyone is still finding out new stuff. Other people don’t care about that at all, and would prefer to play a game when other people can give them tips to save time or ease frustration.

Third, I feel like we are, on the whole really bad at assigning value to games. Sales and indies and whatnot don’t really help this much.

A bit of math:

The standard $60 USD price point for games started, broadly, with the Xbox 360 era; about 2005 or so. Despite being categorically untrue, the accepted cost of games before then was $50. To compare it with another popular media, movie tickets in 2005 cost, on average,  $6.41 USD (source). Assuming no major fluctuations or advances (we’ll assume, perhaps incorrectly, that games and movies have not gotten significantly more complex to make relative to each other in 10 years), we can compare the cost of a movie ticket versus a game now. Movie tickets in 2015 in the US cost, on average, $8.43, a 31.5% increase since 2005.

As a bit of a standardizing metric, we can also compare that to the inflation rate, to see how much the “real” cost of movies has gone up. $6.41 in 2005 was worth ~$7.78 in 2015, so the “real” cost of going to see a movie went up about 8.3%.

Games have been $60 since 2005. Adjusting that for inflation, games *should* cost ~$72.82, but notably they don’t. If games had gone up in cost commensurate with movie tickets, they’d cost $78.86, almost $80. Instead, the real cost of buying a new video game has gone DOWN 17.7% in the last 10 years.

Both that ~$80 expected price point and the 17.7% drop in real cost are interesting to me, for different reasons.

First, that $80 price point looks really familiar. It just so happens (nothing ‘just so’ about it, this almost certainly isn’t a coincidence) that almost every “deluxe” edition game costs $80. You know, the ones that have some fun extras but aren’t a whole collector’s edition, and are some of the most popular pre-orders of major titles. Fancy that.

Second, that price drop seems telling. The “real” cost of games has dropped 17.7% to… what would that be in 2005 dollars? oh! $49.43, check that out. It looks like we’re paying less in real money for our games. This mostly wouldn’t make sense unless our assumption above about the relative difficulty of making movies vs games weren’t true, and, well, it pretty much isn’t. The difficulty of making a game has gone up less from 2005 to 2015 than the difficulty of making a movie.

“But Tam,” you say, annoyed by all this math because you still feel like you paid too much for a game, “that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t think the games I’m playing are worth $60, even if economically that price point makes sense!”

How much is showing off screenshots of your cool new game worth? Watercooler talk about what everyone is playing this week? Online conversations that you want to be relevant for? Not being spoiled? Can you put a dollar value on those things? MMOs can, and have been for years. There’s significant, quantifiable value in being able to play a game before other people, or being one of the first to play it. This wasn’t always the case, but now that Everything Is The Internet, it pretty much is now. It used to be that you had to buy a game when it was still on shelves, and if you waited too long it simply wouldn’t be available or you’d have to watch for it in the used games bin, which was pretty random (but you didn’t pay full price). It’s worth noting that when the used game bin became more reliably predictable, you started paying closer and closer to full price. Now, you can be pretty much assured you can buy it at a time that’s convenient for you, and if you want to play it when it’s relevant to most other people, well, you pay a “premium” (i.e. full price) for it.

If you don’t ascribe value to playing a game when everyone else is, then you can wait until it’s less relevant and get it on the cheap. Plenty of people do that. If you’re not sure you’re going to like a game, it’s probably best to wait, so that you can find out whether or not it’s a game you’ll actually like. If jumping right into it while it’s relevant is important to you, though, you need to recognize that you’re paying a quantifiable amount for that. For myself, I jump into story-driven games right off the bat because I want to see the story for myself and not get spoiled. In MMOs, I want to get in close to the start, because there’s an advantage to doing so. For other games, I care a lot less about that, and tend not to pick them up until much later.

On No Man’s Sky: Elitism is Valueless

No Man’s Sky is one of the most divisive games I’ve seen in a long time. Barring the unfortunate PC launch which left a lot of people with perfectly reasonable to high-end computers unable to play (myself included), it’s been a fairly smooth launch and the game works well if you’re either on PS4 or on a PC that runs it. Since I waited for the PC copy only to find that my PC wouldn’t run it, I had about a week before trying it on PS4 to see how the internet at large reacted to it.


Before I get into that, a bit on what I think of the game. No Man’s Sky is more or less exactly the game I expected. Like virtually everything else in its particular genre, it’s systemically heavy while content-light. In this case, I’m defining content as story, characterization, worldbuilding, setting, etc. NMS is full of widely but shallowly varied locations and, like other similar games, is mostly about playing with the various systems at play. Minecraft and Starbound let you build, Elite: Dangerous has complex flight mechanics, No Man’s Sky has detailed systems to procedurally generate flora and fauna on planets. It’s a great game if what you want to do is write your own story or simply play with a complex experience.

Following the general response to it, however, makes me wonder what many people expected the game to be. The trailer showed you basically everything you need to see; it’s not like there was some kind of bait and switch going on. You wander around vaguely in a direction, cataloguing your findings and collecting enough resources to keep on going. If you’re into that kind of thing, it’s GREAT. It’s also one of the only games I’ve ever seen that has a nice, seamless planetside-to-space transition with mechanics beyond “point in that direction”. It’s got a soothing, fun soundtrack and nice, surreal colors.

It gets a lot of hate. People criticize it for being too obviously procedural. People who wanted more simulation compare its flight mechanics unfavorably with Elite: Dangerous or Star Citizen. Both are said with the same tone of “if you like No Man’s Sky, you either don’t know any better or are wrong”. It’s a little sad.

I put a few hours into the game with Kodra. It’s not really a game for either of us. My biggest criticism is that it is really, truly awful at messaging– within thirty seconds of getting control of my character I was nearly murdered by floating robots that swarmed me, left with fewer little health boxes and no shields, and an empty laser. It wasn’t a good initial experience, certainly didn’t welcome me into the game. Some people love that, though, they want their games to tell them nothing and force them to figure out every little detail of the interface and what they should be doing and why. For that kind of player, bad messaging is freedom, and a chance to feel clever.

Here’s the thing about that, though: it’s absolutely cool to enjoy when games don’t tell you basic things and make you figure them out. Pattern recognition is satisfying and using entrenched medium knowledge to solve a problem validates the time/energy spent in developing that medium knowledge in a satisfying way. It’s like film buffs enjoying a film with complex cinematography because they’re bringing a wealth of cinematographic knowledge to that film, or a foodie with a very refined palate enjoying the difference between cane sugar and honey as a sweetener for their sauce. The problem comes in when you start to demand that of everyone else, where it’s suddenly not okay to like a movie because it’s funny and has explosions or because they like an oreo milkshake over creme brûlée.

No Man’s Sky isn’t a “simplified knock-off” of Elite: Dangerous, nor is it a “shallower Starbound with fancy graphics”. It’s doing different things from both of those games, and honestly it’s doing them fairly well. As I said, it’s not a game for me, but I see where it’s good and I can suggest it to people who I think would love it. I’m glad people are having fun with it and I want to hear their stories (and see pictures of either ridiculous buffalo with fairy wings or majestic brontosauri).

It’s okay to not like things, just, well, you know the rest.

Chroma Squad (Aggrochat Game of the Month)

Maybe you’ve listened to our latest show. It’s a pretty good one, but Bel forgot to put the stinger at the end so don’t worry too much about that. Anyway, it’s about Chroma Squad, and I’m not exactly shy about how much I like this game. It’s a serious contender for the best game I’ve played this year.


It’s silly, it’s campy, it’s fun, and it knows it’s all of these things and totally leans into it. It’s full of little nods to various things, it cheerfully breaks multiple fourth walls, and genuinely makes me laugh at how silly it is while also making me think and plan because it’s also a well-designed tactical RPG. A lot of media (I’m looking at you Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and countless movies) tries to go for a more lighthearted feel by replacing their main characters with children. This is fine if you’re going for a kid’s movie or game, but it’s nice to see something that manages lighthearted without defaulting to childlike.

In a lot of ways, Chroma Squad feels cut from the same cloth as the old Lucasarts and Sierra adventure games– lighthearted and fun but without child protagonists. The suggestion is that you can have fun and be serious as an adult — something that I tend to find lacking in games. I’ve talked about how weary I am of “games with emotions” defaulting to tragedy and sadness as their chosen emotion, but it’s always hard for me to find an example of a game that’s both good and emotive but isn’t just a cavalcade of sads. Chroma Squad, for me, delivers on that.

It starts with the premise, which I can’t even summarize without it sounding silly but fun. As an aside, “silly but fun” is probably the theme of the game, and it really delivers on that. Chroma Squad is a tactics RPG where you play as actors recording a sentai show. Basically it’s a game where you play as Power Ranger’s stunt actors and gradually get a better budget for cooler effects and flashier fights and monsters. Other stuff happens, too.


It’s full of fun little details, too. As you get more fans, you start getting paparazzi that peek in around the levels and take pictures, many of whom are cameos. The game was a kickstarter, so there are frequent loving references to their kickstarter backers throughout– it’s really apparent, as Bel mentioned, that the game is a labor of love. That joy really shows as you play it; you get the sense that the devs were having a lot of fun with it and want you to have fun with it too. It makes the game really charming, and made me happy to play it, as well as laughing along with its (occasionally incredibly terrible) jokes.

Having played all the way through Chroma Squad, I find myself really craving more happy games. Stardew Valley was another really satisfyingly happy game, but there are otherwise surprisingly few. I really just don’t have the capacity for the torrent of sads, and I don’t really need them to balance anything out, so it’s hard to find good, emotive games to play. Happy to take suggestions!

My pick for next month is Cities: Skylines, partly because I haven’t played a proper city-building game in a really long time now, and partly because I’ve heard so many good things about it and it’s a nice drop-in-and-play sort of game. We’ll see how we feel about it at the end of the month!

The Silent Protagonist and its Effect on the Psyche

Something interesting I noticed about myself, and I’m curious if anyone else shares this experience.

I grew up playing a *lot* of Zelda, JRPGs and point-and-click adventure games, particularly the Sierra style with the interaction icons. Many (most?) of these have silent protagonists, and in some recent discussions with friends, I’ve come to realize that this may have been a notable formative experience that’s flown under the radar for quite some time.

In a lot of these games, you play a character who “talks” to a lot of other characters. Really, what happens is that the other characters are prompted by you to monologue at length, and the things they say can become useful things for you to do later. When you have a (rare) choice to select some kind of response option, it’s generally abstract and it falls into one of two categories: the more common “which information do I tell you next” monologue branch or the less common “choose the right answer to proceed” selection.

I’d like to contrast this with certain other major types of RPGs, specifically the ones like Black Isle’s CRPGs (Baldur’s Gate, etc), Arcanum, nearly every Bioware game, etc. In a lot of these, even when NPCs are the only characters with speaking voices, you’re making conversational choices that define your character (and, while they may get you in trouble, rarely cause a point of no return where you need to come back and choose the “right” answer from the same dialogue). I’ve played a number of these, and while they are in many ways spiritual successors to the previous, “classic” type, there’s a really subtle difference that leaks in: how you feel (and what choice those feelings drive you to make) is relevant. Not just from a “the game progresses when you choose the right answer” perspective, but from the perspective that your experience is different based on how you express yourself.

Here’s where it gets interesting for me. The classic silent protagonist goes out and does a lot of things for a lot of people without expressing his or her opinion on any of the things being done. People ask you to do things, and you do or don’t, but you don’t weigh in on them, except privately. For me, this is the sort of interaction that defined my game-playing childhood, and it happens a LOT.

While it’s not a connection I made for a long time, it’s a pretty easy hop to get from that to a developed personality that very rarely divulges what it thinks about things even when talking to people. I’ve been called a good listener because I’ll pay attention to what people tell me without judging, because I’m used to prompting (virtual) people to tell me things and acting (or not) on the information received, but not expressing any opinion on the matter.

I find that, in a lot of cases, I don’t even *develop* opinions on things. I’m generally guided by very broad tenets, rather than specific opinions– as an example, I’m in favor of easy access to birth control not because I have a particular opinion on the politics or medicine involved, but because my general tenet of “live and let live” means that I’m in favor of people having choices about how they live their lives, particularly when it doesn’t directly affect me in any meaningful way. I strictly follow a number of rules that I apply to myself but don’t hold other people to, for similar reasons. There a link there, I think, to the nonjudgmental silent protagonist whose opinions on a given subject are inscrutable at best, absent most of the time, but who behave through broad tenets that are universally applied throughout the game– help people in need, don’t harm the innocent, etc.

It’s kind of problematic as well. Slipping into the “silent protagonist” mindset is easy, and tends to cause me to just listen to people and not offer feedback unless directly asked. I also have in the past had a very bad habit of filing people I talk to in terms of how relevant they are– are they a random person on the street or are they a close trusted friend and party member? Someone being “upgraded” is generally accompanied by a bit of mental fanfare and occasionally comes as a surprise to me, where I realize that a given person isn’t in the file I thought they were. This manifests frequently in the form of people I don’t think I know very well saying things to me like “I really appreciate your advice, it was extremely helpful” which is followed in my head with “oh shit oh shit oh shit what did I say to this person I hope it wasn’t anything really stupid” because, like the random beachgoer in Costa Del Sol, I said some things to someone, they seemed pleased with the result, and I put it out of my mind.

Even typing that sounds callous to me, like I don’t care about people, and perhaps it is– while I do care very deeply about people and want to help out where I can, I tend to have conversations, offer advice when asked, and not really think about it more– again like that silent protagonist interaction with an NPC– the protagonist’s input is silent and essentially null, but is effective nevertheless, as is my own. What matters is that the person I’m interacting with gets the help/listener/actions they need, and whatever opinion I (don’t) have on the matter doesn’t really enter into it.

I remember the advent of RPGs with a distinct player voice, where my character actually had spoken lines. I saw it in the King’s Quest series first, and was heavily detached from the characters in that series because they spoke, said things I didn’t think I would say, and expressed opinions, and rather than being the self-insert that the silent protagonists were, they were more like friends who I was helping out and guiding along. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the prior years of silent protagonists made me treat games like King’s Quest differently, where I silently watched and helped a character through a story but kept my opinions and thoughts to myself unless they were directly helping out.

I also remember getting into the more modern, “Bioware-style” RPG, with Mass Effect, the first one I played with a fully-voiced protagonist that I nevertheless dictated the personality of. These fit a weird sort of semi-self-insert, where I made the choices I would make, but they were spoken and done by a different person. I can’t help but wonder if these games coincided with me taking a more active role in my interactions with people– the timing is right but my memory for specifics is murky.

It’s interesting playing more explicitly silent-protagonist games now. The Persona series comes to mind, where the mostly/fully silent protagonist seems like a familiar shell to slip into, but doesn’t *quite* fit; I find myself mentally inserting my opinions and trying to express them (something the game seems to recognize and gives you the ambiguity to do, which is a big reason I like the games so much).

This blog is actually an intensely difficult venture for me, because it requires that I push back against years of childhood conditioning to listen and react to people but keep my opinions to myself unless asked, because they (in the game and in my head) aren’t relevant. Expressing an unasked-for opinion is a struggle unless I’m talking to my very closest friends (and sometimes even then).

Miniatures: Games Without Analogues

I really, really like minis games. I’ve talked about them a bit elsewhere, but I want to talk a little bit about why I like them so much.

There is, effectively, no other type of game that’s like a minis game. It combines math, tactical analysis, creative expression, collection, storytelling, and both theoretical and applied strategy in a single package. It’s tactile in a way that you don’t get in other games, every piece has a personality and I’m not bound by the designer’s visual choices or even the physical construction of a given model.

I get to find a sculpt that I really love and tweak it, turning it into a sculpt I love even more, then paint it in a way that works for me. I’ve commissioned quite a few minis from artist friends, and I get a handful of little works of art that I can then play a game with.

In a lot of ways, minis games are about interactive art. The minis themselves, the board you play on, the sculpts and background all work together with the game rules themselves to create situations from which stories emerge. The best minis games are ones that generate dramatic moments and nailbiting conclusions, stunning upsets and decisive victories. I choose my team of minis based on some combination of the theme and story I find appealing and the game mechanics and tactics that spark my interest. It’s rare that I get to blend both storytelling and mechanics in play– the closest I get are playing characters in tabletop RPGs, which I also love.

Unlike tabletop RPGs, though, I can change up my story every time I play, and it can be a fully-realized snapshot. I’m not playing a character that’s aspiring to a particular cool tactic and may take weeks or months of the same experience to reach it, with little change– I’m generating a force with a theme and a strategy that’s wholly realized before I sit down to play, and I can change it up next time I’m at a table, with a completely different set of minis if I so desire.

In a lot of ways, I get the same enjoyment out of DMing tabletop games; I can generate interesting characters repeatedly and pit them with or against my players, but there’s always a line. If I optimize a character too well and s/he overshadows or outright defeats the party, that’s not fun; I have to build in weaknesses to exploit and restrain my love for optimization. With a minis game, I can indulge, optimizing a list and refining it, and genuinely testing my strategic and tactical skills.

My favorite game right now is Infinity, which I got into because all of its rules were available for free online and the minis were gorgeous. I love the neo-anime style that a lot of southwestern Europe has been exploring in the last several years, and playing a minis game where all the sculpts have that theme is exciting. It’s also a sci-fi world that isn’t USA-centric, and in fact has a really fascinating history-of-the-future that I find both reasonably plausible and compelling.

The game is also one of the most tactically deep games I’ve ever played. Unlike games where you determine your strategy before you put minis on the table, then execute your plan and try to ensure your opponent doesn’t get in your way, Infinity requires that you look at the board state at every part of every turn to decide what to do next, and sometimes you just have to make a choice and commit to it, hoping the dice go your way.

I’ve also got minis that remind me of friends that I don’t get to see that often anymore, who have put their own artistic twists on my forces. It’s great, because I have the minis I’ve painted myself and am proud of, and I’ve got minis that make me think of a good friend when I put them on the table.

There is also nothing like seeing a set of painted minis on a table of actual, physical terrain, knowing that all of it was assembled and painted by hand. Kodra loves his board games, but for me I’ll never find little cardboard or wooden shapes to be as visually or tangibly satisfying as a painted mini that might have years of stories, victories, and defeats.

I have a mini, my favorite version of my favorite character in the Warmachine line, that a friend painted for me in 2008, back during the Mk1 rules. She could only be played in really large games, and my group never played games that large, so as much as I liked her, she never saw the table. She was a display piece for four or five years, looking pretty and collecting dust on the shelf while I didn’t play the game for a while and the rules changed to Mk2. A couple years ago I decided I would go to a friendly tournament, using a new model I’d just picked up that needed a controller. I wanted to bring a fully painted force, so out came my long-painted display mini, ready to see the table and some dice for the second time ever, and the first time in years. She had a brand new, shiny, powerful friend to command and I put her at the head of my force– a group of minis that had either been collecting dust for years or were brand new. She led my troops to a solid 3-0-1 victory in the tournament, and a second place finish overall. Now she stands tall on display, next to her big companion who helped her come off the shelf and get some table time.

You can’t get that with a bit of cardboard or wood that looks like 30 others in the box. She’s more than a glorified counter, she’s got a story all her own.

Now I’ve got to go paint a mini that I used in a recent game. He got swapped in at the last moment from the shelf, an awkward bare-metal addition to an otherwise fully-painted force, and defied probability to become my most valuable piece for the entire set of games I played. That deserves a bit of honor, and he’s earned a paintjob to fit in with his fellows.

MMO Futurism (Part 2)

Okay, so, I ranted a bit. It’s not all bad news. How do we revitalize the flagging persistent world MMO?

I want to approach it like it’s a design problem, because it kind of is. We need to know what we’re working towards. So, what makes an MMO? It’s a lot of things:

–Big, persistent world, capable of comfortably supporting 1000+ players at once.

–Character progression (levels, equipment, new abilities)

–Interesting group dynamics (often dungeons and raids)

–Customizability (in gear, appearance, progression choices, etc)

–Enjoyably repeatable content

–Setting and story that gives context to the big, persistent world

–Various forms of content, from combat to crafting to exploration to PvP

–(optional) Player interactivity in the world, the ability to leave a mark on the gameworld of some kind


Each of these have their own subcategories, things like “interesting enemies to fight” and “varied art assets” and “ways to express player fantasy”, but the above are the big ones. Without these, we don’t have a game that’s going to feel like an MMO. Design problem continues: for each one, how do we make something that feels new and appealing? Is it necessary for each one?

Big, Persistent Worlds And The Stories That Go With Them

I talked about this yesterday, and some games are skipping this entirely, but it’s key to our concept here. We want our neo-MMO to feel like, well, a world, not a game.

I want to do this by adding inconvenience. Sometimes the industry refers to this as “friction”. It’s the little things that you grumble at having to do but that, in aggregate, make things feel more real. A prime example is travel time. If you have to run for three hours to get from Qeynos to Freeport and can’t find a teleport, that is a massive inconvenience and a giant pain. It is also an adventure. It’s an adventure you skip entirely if you open up your map in Guild Wars 2 and jump from Lion’s Arch to The Grove. Convenient, yes, but doesn’t feel like a world.

Running on foot is boring, though. Hit autorun, wait. Maybe align yourself just right and go make dinner while you run. It’s boring because the stuff that’s actually worthwhile for you to do is at the other end, not in between. You probably outlevel all of the stuff in between, or you’re so far below the appropriate level that you can’t reasonably gain anything other than death. Hmm. This makes me think about player progression.

Another form of friction is decay. You see this in gear that needs repairing. Some (older) games have experience loss on death, now anathema to MMOs. Some games have skill decay– go without using a skill long enough and you get worse at it. We come back to player progression again.

A third type of friction is maintenance. If you’re hungry, you need to eat. If you’re tired, you need to rest. Resting too long is boring, though, because you’re just sitting there.

The last, most common form of friction is an economy. Things don’t always cost the same amount all the time, and you have to adapt to what objects are hotly desired or uninteresting right now. The more granular the economy, the more fragmented it is, and the more friction there is. A single, global economy for a game (or a single game server) will find an equilibrium more quickly than a different economy for every city, but traveling to different cities is a pain (friction!).

Why is all of this friction good? Because it makes the things you do meaningful. What we want in an MMO is an engine that we participate in that generates stories. All kinds of stories, from tales of heroism to new fast friendships to tragic stories of woe. We need the things we do to have meaning, so that we can generate those stories. The more friction there is, the more meaningful the small things we do are, and the more likely we are to create memories from them. I have traveled from Lion’s Arch to the Grove a hundred times, and the most comment the experience ever elicited was “ugh, this loading screen”. I can tell you ten stories about one run from Qeynos to Freeport, something I did over ten years ago, and while it’s easy to say “ugh, the bad old days, that sounds miserable”, the reality is that reaching the safety of Freeport’s walls after the effort of running cross-country as a weakling level 5 character was nothing short of magical, and is the kind of accomplishment that people would brag about.

MMOs have been reducing friction for a decade now, trying to keep up with WoW, which peels away friction to drive players towards the content they consider relevant and focus their playerbase. It used to take six months to a year to reach max level, even in WoW, and now it takes hours. Other games have followed suit, lest they be called “grindy”. In so doing, we reduce the number and types of stories we tell from things borne from our unique experiences to the crafted, scripted experiences of the game’s writers and designers. While that’s not a bad thing per se, it means that when you run out of written+designed content in a game, you’re out of stories. Your time spent in game loses context, and you’re more likely to leave.

Having a good MMO story isn’t just about the text in the game, it’s about creating a setting where stories can write themselves.

Player Progression

So, we fill up a bar until a number next to our name goes up and we do that until the numbers stop going up. We have levelled up. Basic player progression trope. It’s also a quiet death for MMOs.

You see, MMOs are supposed to be about playing with your friends. Specifically, one of your friends says “hey, this game is really neat” and you say “cool, let me try it” and you log in and you’re level 1 and hopelessly behind. You play with your friends and you take a vacation and when you get back you have to “catch up”. You started this game to play with your friend and then you can’t.

Levels in an MMO are a distillation of your entire breadth of skills and stats boiled down into a single number, that is the determining value of your character until it doesn’t go any higher, at which point it instantly becomes meaningless compared to other progression paths. It creates the “endgame”, where in every MMO, the game suddenly stops being about doing things and becomes about doing the RIGHT things, because if you’re not doing the right things you’re wasting your time.

It also separates us from players we might interact with who aren’t our immediate friends. We see someone who isn’t our level, and we shut them out of our minds. Maybe they’re much higher level than us, in a zone full of things our level. Why are they there? Are they just going to steal everything? Competition.

Let’s abolish levels. Easier said than done. What do levels get us? A concrete sense of progression, of measuring accomplishment, a way of evaluating relative strength, a simple requirement check to access certain pieces of content.

We can progress in different ways. EvE is a great example of this; a huge variety of skills to improve that increases breadth rather than depth. We can work on improving stat points individually, can work on building up skills, can work on being faster, smarter, stronger. All of these are things to do, and all of these are like mini-levels. The granularity is really helpful, here. You might have just started playing, and you’ve got 10 points in Strength, Agility, Intelligence, and Charisma, and no points in any skills. Your friend might’ve been playing for six months, and have 15 points in Strength, 40 points in Agility, 25 points in Intelligence, and 30 points in Charisma, with skills in a bunch of magic and sneaky tricks. If you focus on your Strength, you can be just as good as your friend with only 5 points, and you can start to focus on Strength-based skills. Without each level being a huge jump in power, you can hang with your friend despite that friend’s six month lead in relatively short order.

Instead of levels gating content, we use a different method– reputation. People have to know and trust you to ask you to do things, so how well-known you are becomes another form of progression. We can make this granular like the economy, too. You might stick around a little in a given place because they know you and they offer you more lucrative work. It stops being about “what zone is good for level X” and more “who will give me the jobs I want, and do I want to work on being better-known somewhere new?”

When the places that are worthwhile for you to go aren’t tied to a number, the whole world suddenly feels more meaningful and more, well, like a world.

Customizability and Various Forms of Content

These go hand in hand for me, because they’re both essentially about the same thing: tailoring your MMO experience to your tastes. You want to do the things that are interesting to you in the way you want to do them, and you want to look and perform the way you’d like. Whether you want to roleplay a reknowned pastry chef who dons ninja gear and hunts villains by night or you just want to smash whatever enemies you can find with an axe that must be on fire, you want your experience to suit your tastes. If you can’t find the right beard, or an appropriate body type, or the right class, it’ll sour your experience.

The trick here is to remember that it’s about customizing the experience, NOT about trying to drive players to a given single experience. In a game, everyone works towards the same end goal. In a world, there are a lot of people having totally perpendicular experiences whose only real intersection point is that they happen to be playing the same game. Having people who are in the game you’re playing who are having a wholly different experience than you are makes your world feel bigger, and makes the choices you make as far as your experience feel more meaningful.

Enjoyably Repeatable Content and Player Interactivity in the World

Two things that I also think go together. Enjoyably repeatable content is stuff you don’t mind doing over and over again. Maybe it’s fighting, maybe it’s crafting, maybe it’s exploring the world. Maybe you just like the feel of movement so you run back and forth or in circles, just enjoying how the controls feel. Player Interactivity in the World is when you can make a change in the world that affects not just you, but players around you. If you build a house somewhere, and it stays there when you log out and other people wander by, that’s player interactivity. The two go together because they’re about what you’re doing, moment to moment.

Devs like to talk about moment-to-moment gameplay because it’s one of the smallest units of play. A common sentiment is “if it’s not fun for thirty seconds, it won’t be fun for thirty hours”, and oftentimes this is true. From my perspective, this comes down to verbs. MMOs have very few verbs. There’s Use the Interface, there’s Move, there’s Chat, there’s Interact, and there’s Fight. Using the interface is when you shop at stores, or go through your inventory, or check your character pane. You’re not playing the game at that point, your looking at the UI. Move is straightforward, it’s how you walk or jump or fly around the world. Chat is similar, it’s you communicating with other players or NPCs. Interact is when you walk up and click some object in the world, to collect it, or turn it on, or off, or change something about it (usually for a quest). Fight is the one you do the most.

A big problem with MMOs is that only one of these is developed enough to be fun: Fight. Certain games (City of Heroes) make Move fun as well, and WoW accomplished fun movement simply by being far more responsive than any of its predecessors. That still leaves several verbs that aren’t fun, and we can improve that.

We also want our verbs to reflect our progression. If your Strength and Agility determine both your combat stats and your movement stats, you can alter those values to make a slow but brawny character who fights like a mack truck, or a fast, speedy character who jumps around and dodges. These are different, and should both be fun. Consider a really simple example. A big, beefy tank moves and turns more slowly than a dodgy thief type. If the two fight, the tank might take out the thief in one blow, but the thief can keep moving and avoid attacks. By making movement variable and tying movement abilities with stats and character skills, you get an experience that’s more varied and more fun, and once again, feels more meaningful. Varied, interesting movement adds a dimension to play that goes beyond “don’t stand in the fire” and can make stories by itself.

This also applies to travel– we can have different forms of travel with different strengths and weaknesses that make our verbs more fun. Walking from city to city along safe roads might not be interesting, but driving a speeding stagecoach and trying not to drive off cliffs between the two cities is much more fun.

Making the individual moments interesting and varied gives you good reason to repeat them, either to improve your performance or to try a different method. In an MMO, where you might play for months or years, the power of variability and being able to try different things is huge.

Interesting Group Dynamics

A touchy subject for a bunch of people. The key to satisfying group content is putting a group of players in a situation where they have to rely on each other for specific, direct interactions. It’s why role systems are so effective and functional– a role provides a set of specific, direct interactions that you can provide to your party while your party provides what you lack to you.

It’s this byplay that divides weak and strong group content in MMOs. Some of the worst MMO group content I’ve played was a result of a lack of solid, functional group roles; the experience just became a senseless free-for-all or some extremely fiddly interactions with badly-messaged abilities that might or might not interact with one another.

Content that requires a group adds a sense of scale to the game, that there are things bigger than just one player that are worth pursuing and satisfying to overcome.

Putting It All Together

A revitalized persistent world MMO is going to need friction to make actions meaningful and to bring players together. It’s going to need a wide breadth of player progression with relatively shallow depth, to both lessen the gap between players and allow them to play with one another and provide a greater variance of experience, lending more replayability to the content. It needs player verbs, and each verb needs to be independently interesting. It will need well-defined and compelling group dynamics, to give the game a sense of scale in encounter to go with the scale of the world.

It’s going to draw a lot of the old-school concepts and pass them through the lessons learned over the last decade, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I don’t know if we’ll ever see it, or if we did, if anyone would actually play it, but I think that’s where persistent world MMOs have to go if they’re going to play to their strengths and survive. They need to become highly customizable settings in which players have experiences that yield unique stories. That’s where we go from here. It’ll look weird, but hopefully good.

MMO Futurism (Part 1)

This week: deep, brutal cuts at SoE, that bastion of the traditional MMO-as-virtual-world. No one knows what’s happening over there, but it seems bad, and it doesn’t bode well for Landmark.

WoW got a shot in the arm with Warlords of Draenor, continuing the status quo. This is not dissimilar to pretty much all of the last few expansions they’ve released.

FFXIV continues unabated, quietly continuing to up their game and content catering to their existing fanbase.

Every other notable MMO has faltered in some way or another, and the ones that have seen success have been, shall we say, outside of the “traditional” norm.

A slight aside: when I talk about “success” in video game terms, I’m not talking about units sold, or dollars made, or Metacritic scores, or any of the data that people like to trot out when the topic of game success comes up. I’m talking about the one thing that matters to the devs on the inside: “Do I have a job X months from now?” where X is a number from 3-12+, depending on how optimistic you’re feeling. That is the omnipresent question, that is the nagging, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that prevents a dev, any dev, from ever feeling really comfortable.

MMOs should be good at success. They’re not supposed to be one-and-done, there’s supposed to be a continuing trickle of content, that drip feed that justifies the subscription fee. That is, after all, what the subscription fee is supposed to be PAYING for, and for a goodly number of games, that’s what you’re getting.

Don’t believe me? Feel like the subscription is fleecing you? Blame WoW. No, seriously. Take a look at the last year’s worth of content patches– not all patches, just the ones that add new non-trivial things for you to play. I’m using the official site as my reference. It’s currently February 12. The last content patch was November 13, the expansion launch. The patch before that was early September… of 2013. Before that, May 2013, then March 2013, then November 2012, then late August, 2012. Six content patches in two years. This is why you don’t trust subscriptions.

As a point of reference, I’ll use a game I feel like I get my money’s worth out of: FFXIV. Last patch was January 19th. Before that was late October 2014, then July 2014, then March 2014, then December 2013, and before that was the relaunch of the game in late August 2013. As another reference point, I was only just barely caught up with the last content patch by the time this current content patch hit, and that’s mostly because there are a lot of things I don’t bother doing in the game. In some things, like crafting, I’m four or five patches behind, and there are entire questlines introduced in the March patch that I haven’t even gotten to.

I don’t say any of this to compare MMOs, or make some claim about which games are worth subscription fees and which aren’t– that’s entirely a choice people decide to make for themselves; if a game’s content isn’t fun for you, it’s not going to be worth your money no matter how much of it gets made. What I’m more concerned with is what this all means for the future of MMOs.

Massively, now also defunct, posted an article about the “Best MMOs of 2014”, which quite pointedly commented that it was “nothing”. Aside from being an wholly unnecessary potshot at the hard work of a great number of developers across at least seven studios in the US alone, it speaks volumes about the current state of the industry. The tone of MMO reporting now seems to come in one of two flavors: bitterness about the current underwhelming options on offer, or continued gushing about the minutiae of a particular specific game. This, too, speaks volumes about the current state of the industry.

MMOs are stuck in a rut. They’ve been stuck there for years, and the only reason it’s lasted so long is because the MMO industry moves much, much slower than most of the other genres of video games. We haven’t had a quantum leap since WoW, and that’s ten years old. Also coming out at the time of WoW (in the same month, even!) was Half-Life 2. Call of Duty, the original, back when WW2 shooters were new, that was 2003, a mere year before WoW. We have had an entire console generation, one many people agreed was far too long, in less time than it’s been since a major quantum leap in MMOs.

You might be silently (?) railing at me, now, about some feature that really changed everything. Maybe it’s LOTRO’s housing and crafting (Ultima Online, 1997). Maybe it’s microtransactions (Project Entropia, 2003). Maybe it’s Rift’s spawned events (Everquest, 1999). Maybe it’s TERA’s action combat. You’d have a point on that last one, it’s within the last ten years that we’ve had the technology to pull something like that off.

Here’s the point I’m getting at: MMOs are stuck, badly, and the most recent highly successful model (WoW) is the last quantum leap that MMOs have had (in WoW’s case, making MMOs accessible to the mainstream) and is anchoring both the community and the development of new MMOs. There’s a nasty duality to MMO development right now– make it too much like WoW and people will complain that it’s a clone, diverge too much from WoW and players won’t find your game familiar– they can’t settle into it like a well-worn chair. Ask Bel what frustrated him the most about Elder Scrolls Online: I can tell you he went months being frustrated that he couldn’t set the game up just like WoW, like he’s used to.

There’s not a lot of MMO on the horizon. Eastern MMOs continue development, but are brutally cutthroat and rarely make it West (and are catering to a somewhat incompatible audience when they do arrive West), and Western MMOs are being pretty quiet or slowly fading into the ether. I only see a couple of paths out from here. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to engage in a little MMO futurism.

One of three things is going to have to happen for us to see new, successful (see above definition of success) MMOs:

1) One possibility is that people could start embracing new releases for what they are and start sticking with them for more than a month or so at a time. Seems unlikely.

2) Another possibility is that one new quantum leap — a breakout hit — could usurp the current status quo and usher in a new era of MMOs. I think this is what a huge portion of the MMO-playing community has been hoping will happen for years, and it’s why the trend of MMO-hopping became big in the last five or so years. It also hasn’t happened in more than a decade, and attempts at making it happen have fallen harder and harder as the expectation of quality rises and the games get more expensive up-front to create.

3) MMOs change significantly, alienating a significant portion of the community and catering to a different audience, shifting focus. We’re already seeing this in games like Borderlands, Destiny, Diablo 3, and others. They’ve taken all the key features of MMOs and removed all the rest, and many of them are excellent games, but they don’t satisfy that MMO itch for many.

I think #1 isn’t going to happen, not on a broad enough scale to help anyone. #2 might possibly still happen, but is a really dim hope. #3 is already happening, and it’s mostly games pulling from the MMO genre and adapting features and concepts to fit a different type of game.

Here’s the thing. MMOs were founded on the concept that it was really cool to be able to explore a really big, open world with your friends, and playing with your friends was as easy as logging into a central server, you didn’t need to set up your own server, invite only people you knew, or any of that. You could log in, meet new people, fight monsters, and when you got back the world had moved on without you so you wanted to catch up.

Nearly 20 years since the first major MMOs, it’s no longer special to have a game you can easily play with your friends. That’s a pretty basic requirement of every video game now, to the point where single-player-only games on major platforms are a novelty. Exploring really big, open worlds is old hat, we’ve long ago decided that the quality of content is worth more than the quantity, and filling up big spaces means lowering the fidelity of content from sweeping The Last Of Us masterpieces to “kill ten rats”. We’ve even found that, in an MMO, making content more complicated than “kill ten rats” comes with a whole slew of complex interactions that put a brutal quality cap on the content– something like The Last Of Us just isn’t possible when a thousand other people are doing the same thing in the same space as you.

It’s that last part that we’ve lost. MMOs have spent a decade chasing the single player, and after years of the occasionally dissonant approach of catering to players who want to play in a massively multiplayer world by themselves, some games have just gotten more honest– here’s the MMO experience distilled into something you can play exclusively with people you know, none of those pesky strangers clogging up your game. MMOs themselves have turned the idea of “more players” into a detriment rather than a benefit. If you’re in a space in an MMO and see another player, you’re not happy, because instead of being a potential ally, that person is competition. You don’t need them to succeed, so if they’re in the same space as you they’re taking your stuff. We no longer like forced grouping.

I’ve ranted enough for tonight about what’s wrong with MMOs right now. Tomorrow (hopefully!) I’ll talk about what’s right, and what a new, modern persistent-world MMO might look like.

Elite: Dangerous and The Game I Want To Play

I recently loaded up Elite: Dangerous and have heavily backed Star Citizen. It’s been an interesting ride on E:D, and it makes me think of the game I really want to play.

I love Firefly. I love Star Wars. I badly, badly want a game that lets me play out the fantasy of cruising through the stars with my friends, getting into fights and blasting our way out of them. I want to be navigating an asteroid field while Bel and Kodra fight off a boarding party, Rae is keeping my ship running, and Ash is shooting down fighters who are chasing us. I want to be the aerial support while my friends go treasure hunting on a hostile planet, chased by bounty hunters. I want to fly under a catwalk and catch my team as they flee an overwhelmingly powerful boss.

Elite: Dangerous gives me the flight part of this. I really enjoy the flying, and the space combat is really enjoyable. I also grew up with flight sims, so I’m familiar with flight controls. I want to play it with my friends, but I want something for them to do while I’m flying the ship that’s just as interesting.

The closest I’ve been able to come to this sort of experience is games like Battlefield or certain Halo maps, where you can be the pilot for a vehicle and race for mission objectives. I want that experience in a co-op PvE game.

One thing that I think MMOs have missed the boat on (so to speak) is the idea of travel as a skill, like combat. Getting from point A to point B is rarely interesting or exciting. At best it’s uneventful, and at worst you’re actively annoyed because something attacked you on your way to somewhere. I’d love to see an MMO with a suite of travel skills, allowing you to get from place to place in various ways and making the travel itself an adventure. Having travel be an adventure unto itself is one of the really big advantages of a persistent world, and a great way to meet new people and be glad there are other players in this giant game you’re in, and I think we’ve lost sight of that.

Long story short: starship pilot, LFG.