I played in the Star Wars: The Old Republic beta. I had some thoughts which I started to type out here, but let’s just cut the good and bad down to, “Meh. It was okay.” When it launched I tried making bets with people that it would be free-to-play in a year. I got a whole lecture from more than one person about how EA wouldn’t allow that because they invested so much money yadda yadda. Even after the lecture, they wouldn’t take my bet. Nobody took my bet.
Yesterday Electronic Arts revealed in an investor call that StarWars: The Old Republic has dropped to less than a million subscribers. They also announced today that it was going free-to-play this fall.
I think we all agree that this model of MMO is dead. Even World of Warcraft’s numbers are falling (can't find the article I read that says though, sorry) and their last expansion was 'lacking the luster' in my opinion. Eventually, maybe not anytime soon, but eventually they will go free-to-play as well. They could do something amazing this next expansion, but generally I think they already peaked.
Thing is, I don’t actually think it is the pay model that is more of a problem. I think the whole ‘quest, kill monsters, grind your level up, get better gear, rinse and repeat’ thing that is the problem. Seriously, it doesn’t matter what fiction or license you wrap around your game. It doesn’t matter how great a story you have behind why some guy wants to you traipse across hostile landscape to get him some MacGuffin. None of that matters because it still gets boring after a while. It is like they say about breasts, you’ve seen one you’ve seen them both. (Note: I think that joke may have been a bit inappropriate in this context, but it just fit so well. Also I am writing this while watching a documentary about Lenny Bruce.)
We have got to stop thinking that these games need this horrible treadmill. The Sims Online is great example of this problem; the Sims games were a license to print money. Electronic Arts decided to make a Sims MMO. Unfortunately they tossed out everything that made the Sims fun and successful and instead put in grinding and leveling mechanics. The result was a horrible failure. I don’t think they stopped to think that people would be happy just living in an online Sim’s world with their friends.
I think it is time we go back to the sandbox approach. Looking back at the MMO’s Raph Koster was trying to make with Ultima Online and the first Star Wars MMO, Star Wars Galaxies. Those games had a lot of problems. Oh my God did they have problems. Horrible database systems, they were many exploits, and lots of bugs. I played Ultima Online and I was even a customer service representative for Star Wars: Galaxies at launch, so I could go on and on about these problems. I think the problems and bugs that these two games had caused us to abandon these types of games in favor of the leveling and grinding mechanic. Everquest came out and started eating Ultima Online’s lunch. And World of Warcraft, essentially a polished up Everquest, came out not too long after Star Wars Galaxies and ate its lunch too. It’s not too hard to see how game companies said, hey these games are doing better than those, let’s make more of these.
Note Ultima Online is still going, now being run by Mythic. I haven't played it since Everquest came out so I have no idea what it is like now.
I want to give you two stories from Ultima Online. The first was this guy who set up a vendor outside of one of the major cities that sold the head of infamous player killers for exuberant prices. Basically, he fought player kills out in the world, won, took their heads and then sold them on this vendor. These player killers bought back their own heads because they didn’t want to be seen as somebody who got their butt kicked by this guy. How awesome is that. But look at all the game mechanics (tools and toys) that went into that:
- · A complex player vs. player system with reputations, where there can be player killers that prey on other players and can in return be hunted.
- · Having the ability to mutilate a corpse, which wasn’t a good thing either, I think there was a reputation penalty for doing that.
- · Having the ability to set up your own vendor in a public place that sold items to other players.
The second story is about a group called The Pacific MageTower that tried setting up a role-playing group that would generate content for other players. There were no mechanics that allowed them to do anything but they tried. These were people who just liked messing around in this virtual world. They didn’t’ want to go out and adventure. They wanted to create things for other players to do. I hung out with them for a while, but the work to fun ratio was too much for me. It was really difficult for them to do even simple events. For example, whenever they got the word out they were doing something, the player killers would hear about it to. Even having my guild, The KGB (Knights of Glory and Beer - A guild that is still active in various games btw), who were known for hunting player killers, there for protection it just wound up turning the event into a massive battlefield. Imagine if they had systems in place for people to build and create content. People love that kind of stuff. Look at Minecraft. Even as much as we make fun of Second Life, look at Second Life.
In line with that second story, let’s jump to Star Wars:Galaxies which was supposed to a sandbox game but it didn’t have any tools or toys in the sandbox. The planets were boring that just weren’t worth exploring. A sandbox isn’t fun because it is filled with sand. It is fun because you bring your toys in with you. You bring some Matchbox cars, Tonka trucks and plastic army men. Then you build things to make playing with those toys even more fun your tools and materials. You bring in a bucket and shovel, or at least a few Dixie cups and a spoon. You have your Legos and maybe add some Lincoln Logs. You build things with those tools, giant sand castles, that that plastic army can assault. You build ramps to jump things with your matchbox cars. Those things are what make the sandbox fun.
There was one thing in Star Wars: Galaxies that I wanted to mention. They build this system where you got some sort of combat fatigue after a while, but if you went to a cantina were an entertainer was performing it would reduce the fatigue and it would level up the entertainer. I like that co-dependency. I heard they were building another system in there were high level crafters couldn’t make the stuff they used to make when they were low level, but they would need those things to craft higher level stuff. That way there was a market for the low level stuff and a co-dependency between the low and high level crafters. Don’t know why it didn’t make it in, but I can imagine something like that would be hard to balance just right.
I’m not saying that we should completely get rid of leveling and skill trees in our games, but let’s makes grinding them unnecessary. Let’s not focus on having a treadmill, but rather having a world where the player enjoyed having their character live there because there are lots of fun things for them to do and explore.
Even if we just take those concepts and ideas from Ultima Online and polishing them up, thinking them through a little better and getting rid of the exploits. Not trying to insult the people who worked on those games, they were working in the edge on the gaming frontier and praying the technology could keep up.
I would love to see us taking the things we have learned in the last 10 years, the technology advancements and give this type of MMO game another shot.