Hard Project: MMOs
You know, it’s a brand new year. And it can’t go worse than last year did for the genre that I sort of get paid to write about, because 2014 was a wash in terms of new releases. Every single big title that released in 2014 managed to screw things up something awful, and when you factor in Blizzard cancelling a title that realistically was never coming out anyway and didn’t have any impact on the industry unless you’re watching it like a hawk and speculating, you have plenty of people calling the industry dead.
It’s an absurd statement. The one bit of traction it gets, though, is that making an MMO is hard. Very hard. No matter how certain the IP you have to work with, no matter how much money you can throw at the project, no matter how experienced the developers are. MMOs, to a one, are hard projects. When you take things like a significant budget or experienced developers out of the equation, the project just gets harder, but it’s sort of a minor miracle that the dozens actually on the market actually exist, much less that they work so well.
Make a game you can play forever
Right away, that’s the challenge you face when you’re making an MMO. A game that players can log on and keep playing not just for another week but for another five years at the least. You can release updates, but not sequels.
Franchises like Call of Duty or various football titles might be able to keep you playing the overall franchise for years on end, but that’s with a new game coming out every year. The engine can be upgraded, rosters can be shifted, AI can be tweaked, and so forth. There’s no obligation to keep building the game for next year and the year after that on a foundation built multiple years ago. But if I want to keep playing Final Fantasy XIV in 2018 – and based on the past year of updates, I will – I’ll need every bit of new content to be an update to the same basic engine that existed in 2013.
Even the very idea of a game you can play forever pushes a certain structure. I’m meant to beat Dragon Age: Inquisition. I’m not meant to beat Star Trek Online. Things need to be slowed down and spread over a long period of time, because otherwise I’m just going to finish and move on, thus no longer playing the game or paying for it. Daily limits for progress have to be put into place. Content with a certain amount of built-in repetition needs to be there, because otherwise I finish and stop.
Right away you can see the problem. You want to design endlessly repeatable content that doesn’t feel like repetition and doesn’t bore the shit out of players. Then have them all playing it at the same time, forever.
The Internet does not work this way
Some stuff in single-player games comes down to bad programming. If a player has to dodge a fireball, you need to give them ample warning that it’s coming and the ability to move out of the way in time. No one would play a game wherein the warning that the fireball was coming only shows up after the fireball has already hit, because the game just wasn’t noticing the player’s inputs or actions for a few moments while it caught up.
At least, no one would play a single-player game wherein that happens. In an MMO, that’s just this side of totally plausible.
I know people who have been playing games for years that have to contend with the unpleasant reality of server lag affecting their every action. And it’s not all down to the company – no matter how much a single studio might do to minimize lag, the game relies upon the infrastructure of the Internet, which is entirely outside of their control. The more bare-bones the combat or other gameplay options become, the less vulnerable a game becomes to lag, but the less engaging it becomes for everyone, making the whole thing slow down to match the speed of its slowest player.
Not that even that will help you if your connection gets knocked out for some reason, like if you’re in the middle of a boss fight. Congratulations! You just lost a fight for technical reasons that have nothing to do with your performance, and because of the nature of the game, those consequences have to stick with you! Even though it wasn’t your fault!
Most games that have online play have it as an option, something you can play around with if you want. A given match of Titanfall might have me struggling to overcome lag and dying as a result, but having a bad round won’t cost me anything permanent in the game. But it’s possible to start a craft in Final Fantasy XIV using rare items, then get disconnected and lose the lot of them. Every single part of the game is based on an infrastructure that is fickle and out of anyone’s control
Everything is someone’s sacred cow
On the bright side, MMOs are no longer a new genre. They have existed since 1997 at the very least, longer if you want to count MUSH and MUD games as being functionally the same. So we have collectively had tons of time to see the things that don’t work and that the vast majority of players do not like.
The down side is that there is absolutely no mechanic in MMOs that does not have rabid fans cheering for it.
Seriously, you watch every game with open PvP follow the exact same route, and yet every time fans of that particular model will point to some other cause for the game’s steady decline and complete irrelevance in critical views. Allowing houses anywhere in the game world leads to the same problems, and yet people act like it’s the first time it’s ever happened. WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online and ArcheAge all launched to resounding thuds because they made the exact same mistakes that had been made years earlier, that were pointed out to developers, and that the developers did not fix because they wanted to appeal to the people for whom these were sacred cows.
Because of how the field works, everyone who’s making the games is a fan of something that they played. Designers have their sacred cows just like the players. And just like players, they can be almost incapable of figuring how how relevant their sacred cows really are to the rest of the world.
So you have an impossible game model held up by an impossible infrastructure in which you need to cater to multiple conflicting interests, which is equally impossible. That’s a hard project if I’ve ever seen one, all right. It’s a minor miracle these things ever work, huh?
But they do. Frequently. And that’s as good a note as any to start off the year with, that not all hard projects are impossible. They’ve got a long ladder of challenges, but when they do work, the results are pretty awesome.