Modern Warfare was a great game. It took an aging concept, put it in a modern setting, gave it some very memorable characters, an redefined reinvention. Modern Warfare 2 was a decent follow-up, but it seemed to me that the set pieces were more frequent, the situations were more dire, the settings were more hazardous, and most helicopters that flew or tried to rescue someone crashed in a fantastic cacophony of churning metal, flying debris and a giant ball of fire. Modern Warfare 3, frankly, was ridiculous. The set pieces seemed to outnumber the amount of time players actually had control of their character, and this time, every rescuing helicopter crashed, and the passengers always survived unscathed.
I am using the series as an example, but it seems to be that first person shooters (single-player obviously, not multi-player) are more about the fantastic spectacle and less about the challenge. At first it was some form of explosion or crash or ambush. Then it morphed into larger set pieces with collapsing structures and manic car chase sequences. Battlefield 3 took it up several notches by collapsing skyscrapers during a devastating earthquake, and oh-so-shockingly, the protagonist survives the building crashing on him. I can go off on a tangent here and talk about why every first person shooter hero seems to have skin made out of Adamantium, but that is a topic for another post.
Maybe I am using a frame of reference limited to the FPS titles I have been exposed to in the last year, but the pattern is pretty apparent to me: make a massive spectacle, a sequence so insanely improbable and outlandish that one can’t help but marvel at their screen. I think the only time that a set piece actually gave me goosebumps and fit very well into the story arc was *SPOLER ALERT* in Crysis, when the mountain slowly deteriorates in the distance, shaking off skyscrapers-sized boulders and the colossal alien ship encased within rears its extraterrestrial head. /*SPOLER ALERT* Outside of that, every time I lose control of my character because they need to narrowly escape death in one fashion or another, is a nuisance and hindrance more than anything else. But then again, perhaps the worst type of spectacle is the one when you actually do have control of your character during a spectacle sequence, because you don’t know if dodging bullets and dispatching baddies in a meticulous fashion should be your top priority or watching the insanity of the spectacle unfold.
This was supposed to be a “thought of the day” post, so allow me to be succinct: the fact of the matter is that first person shooters are increasingly more about the spectacle, and less about the challenge/story/experience. And with the never-ending race for creating the next best engine, that is not likely to change any time soon.
There are a few things I want to talk about today. But in order to do that, I need to establish some context. Damn context. Gets me every time!
First and foremost, 38 Studios’ lead designer, Ian Frazier conducted an internal test. He had testers play Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and complete the game in a “speed run”. Since speed run sounds (intentionally) ambiguous, this is how it is defined:
“That means easy difficulty, skip all cut scenes and dialogue, sprint everywhere that’s sprintable, fast travel everywhere you can, don’t do any combat you don’t need to do… that all took around 200 hours, and that was a speed run.”
That is actually an astronomical number. In a day and age where single-player versions in video games take 3-4 hours to complete (hello modern Warfare 3!), a 200 hour video-game is an unprecedented, shocking and welcome event. Of course it is also said that the main storyline should take only 30-40 hours (which is between 15-20% of the 200 hours) to complete. So the 200 hours of gameplay is largely dependent on how much of an overachieving completionist you really are.
The second piece of contextual information you need is that since August 2011, I have invested about 14 days of playtime into my main character, a Night Elf Hunter in World of Warcraft. 14 days is approaching 350 hours of played time in WoW. This implies I spend around two hours daily playing WoW.
Beyond the Context
MMOs, by design, require you to invest a significant amount of time. The meta-game, at every level, is designed around grinding. If you want the best PvP equipment, you must grind points in PvP. These points are further gated by a weekly cap, so you cannot play for a hundred hours in a week and get the best gear in a week. Professions, PvE content, world events, daily quests, transmogrification, and just about every other in-game mechanic is designed around perpetual grind. The reason for this is simple and possibly forgivable. No developer in the world with a finite team and finite resources can create content fast enough to be consumed by the player base. Months of coding, tweaking and planning can be completed in a 20-minute dungeon run. I don’t like the fact that i have to grind everything in an MMO, but as a lifelong fan of the genre, I understand the rationale.
Lately though, it seems that this design decisions seems to be penetrating single-player games, particularly RPGs.
Take Skyrim for example. Prior to the launch, there was a statement by one of the developers that the quest system in the game would technically spit out an infinite number of quests for the player to take on. One example of such behavior was the Thieves Guild, which could send you on a wide variety of jobs across the land. The jobs were randomly created and you could pick from one of several mission types. A second example were jobs made available through barkeeps and innkeepers in towns and cities. These randomly generated quests could send you to go kill <insert antagonist> at <insert location>. Technically, you could have an infinite number of quests in your log. However, I personally found this to be incredibly lame, as it seems to add unnecessary, artificial padding to an otherwise great game.
I enjoy a complex RPG with a deep, compelling storyline and well thought-out lore. Dragon Age took me over 106 hours to complete, and I veered into every nook, cranny and cramped dungeon corridor I could get into. I was elated to find that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning’s “speed run” will take you over 200 hours. But after realizing that only 15% or so of that is the main storyline, I can’t help but wonder how much of this game is fluff activity that yields limited to none player satisfaction.
My point is very simple, MMOs should certainly try not to artificially inflate content, but I don’t think that is likely to change any time soon. Single-player games, however, don’t need to pad content with unnecessary grind mechanisms, random quest dispensers, and fluff, unpolished content simply to get more player hour mileage out of the title. 10 times out of 10, I would prefer a tight campaign with side-quests that have meaningful premise, meaningful consequences and meaningful rewards, than “the ability to complete an infinite number of quests”. I am hoping the the later is not the case with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning when I open the box and install the game tonight. But I guess I will let you know in 200 hours of playtime!
“The Holy Trinity of Modern Shooters” or “Do AAA Developers Care About Critical Success or Commercial Success?”
The Holy Trinity of Modern Shooters
I haven’t played a shooter in nearly two months. I finished Modern Warfare 3 the day it came out, not because it was oh-so-good (it wasn’t), but because there was a story that has been in the making since 2007, and I wanted to see it to whatever (largely bitter) end. I also played Battlefield 3, which was shockingly similar in premise, up to and including playable Russian operatives, but moderately more enjoyable and equally unlikely. Gears of War 3 is sitting somewhere around my Xbox, ready to be played, but I think at this stage, I am just tired of shooters.
It seems to be that shooters these days rely primarily on the three factors:
An on-rails experience: Everything these days seems to center around playing the role of the developer’s puppet, a well-trained mouse making it’s way down an elaborate maze while an invisible hand guides it and ridiculously over-the-top set-pieces fuel it.
Over the top action sequences: You can survive bullets to the face, you can outrun a nuclear explosion, you can survive at least three separate helicopter crashes, you can jump from the tallest buildings without breaking bones. And while we are at it, why is it that 90% of the time, the chopper that was supposed to rescue you, crashes right before, during, or immediatly after the rescue attempt?
Shock value: This is perhaps the most critical of these elements. Every major shooter suffers from the need to create the biggest shock value, a controversial scene that will create airwaves, and fuel the next the right-wing anti-video-game-pundits tirade of why video games lead to artificial insemination or explosive diarrhea while simultaneously burning holes through our social and moral fabric.
Do AAA Developers Care About Critical Success or Commercial Success?
At this stage, I am just tired of the endless clones that result from the unholy amalgamation of the afore-mentioned three factors. Oddly enough, the best games of 2011, Portal 2, Bastion, Skyrim, did not need to resort to these elements in order to be critically successful. So perhaps all these developers care about at this stage is commercial success. Critical success and audience satisfaction be damned.
I am not trying to say that this is the only motivation. I am sure as a labor of love, most developers feel they are creating something of value that will be remembered for some time to come. The latest trailer for Rainbow Six: Patriots is a stark reminder of this. There is a scene where a civilian is instructed by a terrorist cell to go to Times Square to detonate the vest or his wife will be killed. Team Rainbow intercepts this man, realizes there is no time to diffuse the bomb, makes the split/second decision to chose the life of one over the lives of many, and throws him off of a bridge with seconds to spare. The bomb detonates before the poor bastard hits the water.
The developer jargon accompanying the trailer says the game will confront the player with similar tough choices, which begs the question: do they understand what ‘choice’ means? Choice implies that I have two or more ways of resolving a situation, and each of these paths has it’s own set of advantages and disadvantages. If one choice ends in one man dying, and the other includes him and everyone around you (including you) dying, is it really a choice? My point is that the entire thing is created for pure shock value, and the illusion of choice is stapled to it to give it illusion of meaning.
An article I read recently by a gentleman called David Burroughs on Sabotage Times called into question the need for such shock value, how it has diminishing returns and how it ultimately doesn’t add anything of value.
Is it right to expect the player to abstain from ‘murdering’ the ‘people’ in the airport when the only means of communication awarded the player is engage with the game and shoot, or do nothing?
Can something as intentionally controversial as ‘No Russian’ carry any real weight when the entire narrative is experienced down the barrel of a gun?
This is a very subtle but significant point. The whole point of the No Russian mission was to paint a picture of the atrocities of war, and how it would affect us if the horrors visited upon people in warzones were inflicted upon the ‘civilized’ world in a single act of mindless madness. But how can something like that carry any weight when the narrative involves you committing the atrocity. The whole point of identifying with the victims is to be able to paint on a face for the antagonist, but when you are the perpetrator yourself (or at the very least a silent observer) how do you create the impact? Ostensibly, the whole idea then, is to create controversy, an act filled with such a horrendous premise that developers know it will attract the ire of critics almost universally. And perhaps they welcome it. For no publicity is bad publicity, right? Except this strategy has exponentially diminishing returns.
Ever wonder why a small child getting blown up, while on vacation in Europe, in Modern Warfare 3 didn’t create nearly as much hype?
I have “quit” WoW a grand total of… well actually I have lost count at this point. It is a great game, one that has been the cause of many a triumphs and digital glories, but also one that stagnates over time and becomes too “casual-unfriendly”. I have also come to realize that WoW is a great game if you are at the top of the food pile, the 10% or so of guilds that raid regularly, accomplish goals and manage to dent the world in their own way. If you don’t have a guild to run things with, you’re either on your own, or you are playing with a rather large contingent of blithering idiots who can’t tell their two handed mace from their short sword.
Over the course of time I have started to run out of time. In college, I could get back from classes, do a bit of work, raid for four hours on a stretch, play a little more, and still have time to go out with friends for a couple of drinks. Now there are several days when I can’t play anything because everything is packed in so tightly, there is no wiggle room. It has been brought to my attention on a few occasions that I “need to learn how to say ‘no'”, and I “need to lessen the load on my plate.” But all of that is easier said than done when you are involved in as many things as I am.
The ‘gain’ vs. ‘fun’ Debate
WoW, by the end of it had become a chore. I logged in every day, and because of the lack of time, I would try to maximize my ‘gain’ in the game. Veteran MMO players will understand this. There is a very thin line between maximizing your gain from the game (be it loot, gold, experience, or anything else that somehow advances your character in some dimension), and just having fun. Years ago, leading a guild, downing the toughest raid bosses was fun, because I had all the time in the world to spare. Now everything was centered around the maximum gain. I realized soon that I hated what I was doing in WoW. I would log in every day, finish the compulsory dailies, and try strenuously to find a half-competent group to run a 5-man with, followed by some AH manipulation and then log off till the next day.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
It was monotonous, boring, and more than a little tedious. By the end I was just trying to justify paying for the subscription in-game, because I somehow owed it to those measly $15 to put in my time and advance my character in whichever small way possible. And during all this, I wasn’t having any fun at all.
So that is why I quit.
“…we already accept inventory mechanics in which 100 metal ingots take up as much space as a ring, bears sometimes carry swords and multiple hides but have only a 50% chance to have one leg or tooth on each corpse, gold bars are worth less than gold coins, and gold coins take up no space.”
Zubon recently made a post about looting and how convoluted this mechanic is in our favorite MMOs. He touched upon limited inventory space, a thorn in my side for as long as I have played MMOs. Industry standard-setters like WoW are the worst culprits of this disease. When you kill a foe, you much walk up to its body, click it, manually transfer all items to your inventory and move on. Zubon argues, and I agree, if the experience I get goes directly into my character’s level, cash is deposited directly into my coffers, why is it that I need to manually pick up that Great Axe from the squirrel I just downed? (The absurdity of which merits another post.)
Both looting and limited inventory space are archaic and dated concepts in MMOs. Looting is nothing more than a senseless time sink, nothing good comes of it for the player, and it doesn’t serve any other purpose than the alleged psychological advantage of knowing you just teabagged the corpse. I am being facetious, but the point stands: looting is obsolete, and unless it serves some actual purpose, such as salvaging in EVE Online, I think it needs to be automated to allow players to a) get the most out of their experience and b) remove one of the most repetitive, mind-numbing aspects from contemporary MMO gaming. I bet if I put up a poll asking MMO players if they would like to physically loot bodies or just have the items dumped into their inventory, the majority would choose the later.
I know I often champion the need for immersion, but once you have looted that useless piece of junk from the 85,657th body, immersion can suck it. With the advent of new technology, mechanics and the continued metamorphosis of the MMO industry, I believe it is imperative that developers take another look at these dated concept, and remove/revamp those that force players into incessant grinds and repetitive gameplay.
This was bound to happen. We are exactly four weeks, unless my math is off, and it usually isn’t, from the release of Cataclysm (EDIT: thanks for the confirmation, Tobold!) The blogosphere is abuzz with opinions regarding the end of Wrath and the pending beginning of Cataclysm.
A lot of things are now happening in the player-base simultaneously.
The End of End-Game Raiding
First and foremost is the boredom, either brought about because your guild has been farming endgame for a while now, and there is literally nothing left for you to do anymore. Or because they never got to end-game, and they are so close to “greens that are better than purples” that they see no point in raiding. In any case, fewer and fewer people are motivated to engage in end-game raiding, especially if the primary motivation is loot, because said loot will be obsolete in less than a month.
The Lazy Subscribers
Another is a sense of lethargy for some players, regardless of their endgame persuasion, they are just tired of the existing grind and just need something new. This group includes players like me, who, for one reason or another, just cannot bring themselves to play another few months leading up to the sparkly new content that will once again spark their interest. I let my subscription run out about two months prior, not because I had conquered all content, or because there was nothing left to do. I got tired of two things. First, the inability to raid with my friends because my geographical location is nine hours ahead of EST. Second, because despite my love for WoW, I find myself increasingly aware of the endless grind for better gear. Once you make it to level 80, the only way forward, especially in PvP is to farm more loot. Whatever the case, I won’t be back before Cataclysm.
The Overzealous Overachievers
This is a special band of individuals who go into hyperdrive mode when an expansion nears. They have neat little lists of all the things they want to accomplish before the new content hits, especially if the new contents changes or removes some of the older contents. The list items range from normal (explore all the kingdoms) to completely luck-based (obtain a raptor mount from Zul’Gurub) to the utterly insane (Complete LoreMaster when you never even touched one of the two vanilla continents). These are the people that (probably) spend the most amount of time in the pre-expansion hit world.
The Biggest PvPenis
And finally, PvP explodes as more and more players are logging on primarily through force of habit, only to realize they haven’t much to do online, and then join the BG queue to fill that void in their hearts known as pre-expansion blues.
Everyone is talking about the expansion in one context or another it seems.
Syncaine has a post up about the differences he sees between Ultima Online and World of Warcraft, the most prominent of which, it seems to him, is the tendency for WoW to “prevent bad things from happening to players”. In the interest of partiality, it should be said Syncaine’s opinions notwithstanding, he hasn’t played WoW in quite some time. I remember the older days of vanilla WoW, when everything was blatant and well-pronounced grind, and while I understand where Syncaine is coming from, I would much rather prefer the, uh, I suppose hand-holding for the lack of a better word, than corehounds that spawned every 18 minutes, and running UBRS 40 times to get your guild keyed for Onyxia.
Spinks wonders whether the WoW formula will eventually cater only to the ultra (turbo?) hardcore raiders, and more people will continue to dip briefly into F2P titles before something else half-interesting comes out, endlessly repeating that cycle. I do agree with this point to an extent, but I think it needs to be refined a little. I don’t think people get tired of raiding, or WoW would have died out in 2005. I think people get tired of raiding the same content, a phenomenon to which Blizzard has consistently responded with new content patches introducing new instances and/or expansions.
Psychochild, as usual, has an incredibly well-thought out post about the problem he sees with the MMO industry today. Although his list is comprised of some very broad concepts, what resonated with me a lot more was Wolfsheads comment underneath the post. He says:
“You’ve made some great points! For me, the big culprit is unambitious and risk averse game designers — they create the rules and they set the agenda. The buck has to stop with them. They are the slippery pied pipers that the players follow via a steady diet of rewards and incentivized gameplay.
People are simply experiencing MMO fatigue. I believe MMO bloggers are just echoing the dissatisfaction of the MMO community in this regard. This is a complex subject and there are many forces at work which are contributing to the general malaise out there. Just as the Roman Empire fell due to many reasons, so too are MMOs in decline for many reasons. Here are a few off the top of my head:
1) Lack of Choice – Where are the quality niche MMOs? How is it we live in a 500 channel universe for television but we only have a few AAA+ MMOs to choose from? Obviously, good MMOs cost a heck of a lot of money to create. We’ll have to wait this one out while the costs to produce MMOs comes down much like what happened to the music business where anyone with a computer can produce a studio quality album.
2) Lack of Innovation – Players are bored with essentially the same content (dressed up as “new” expansions) being offered to them. There’s a reason why most TV series — even good ones — don’t last more than a few years. There’s a reason we don’t use cell phones that are 10 years old too. Unless you are selling toilet paper, every business must innovate to stay alive.
3) Lack of Player Freedom – MMOs have morphed into big budget single-player video games with Hollywood cinematics that have more in common with Zelda and God of War than Ultima Online and EverQuest. Players must stay on the rails. The story always ends the same. No deviation. Also, where is the dynamic world we were promised years ago?
4) The Rise of Demographics and Metrics and Based Design – MMOs are now designed to appeal to the widest possible demographic. While this is good for the bottom line and there are some good things about this, there are also a lot of negatives such as dumbed-down gameplay, welfare epics, etc.
5) Convenience Based Design that Panders to Time-Starved, Short Attention Span Gamers – This is all about money and related to #4 above. Instead of the player conforming to the virtual world, now the virtual world must conform to the player. The result is solo friendly MMOs. Travel is almost instantaneous and rendered pretty much meaningless via portals and dungeon finder tools. Loot means nothing as well as it basically grows on trees in most MMOs.
6) The Death of Community – Thanks to solo friendly MMOs, people barely chat anymore and why would they? Community and playing online with other people was one of the big selling points of MMOs years ago, now it’s just a marketing ploy. What community is left is dominated by vulgar jokes and general idiocy on the Trade Channel.”
I particular like point # 5, that convenience-based design which panders to time-starved, short-attention-span-gam- have I talked about Larisa’s post yet?
Larisa, being Larisa, instead offers a list of reasons why WoW is still one of the greatest things to happen to gamers and nerds (a double-whammy category that I am a proud member of, as is, I am certain, Larisa) worldwide. A lot of her points are personal, unique experiences, but then again, that is what online gaming is all about: experiencing the same world through the lens of the people we interact in it with, and through the lens of our own distinct backgrounds, ideologies and experiences.
I am not an American. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize the brave men and women who fight for their liberties and countrymen against an enemy so entrenched in the ancient ways of warfare, no civilization has ever been able to subdue them. The War on Terror is a messy, horrid affair. It is bloody, there are casualties and ultimate sacrifices are made on a daily basis.
When I picked up Medal of Honor, and perused through the marketing lingo with such bold catch phrases as “realistic military shooter” and “play today’s war firsthand”, I was intrigued. The original Medal of Honor landed you, in Saving Private Ryan style, on the beaches of Normandy. It was a terrifying affair, and one that permanently imprints you with the utmost sense of respect for the insanity, the violence and the sacrifices the Greatest Generation had to go through to topple the Third Reich. My expectations, understandably, were quite high for this latest installment.
Instead I got a bunch of bearded jocks who trash talked their foes, fought an unrelenting enemy without so much as breaking a sweat, walked around in plain sight without getting spotted, reigned death upon their adversaries while jamming to heavy metal, and proclaimed themselves the “not the hammer, but the razor edge that will decide the war”.
The troops that stormed the beach on D-Day seemed like a band of brothers, patriots till the end, fighting for what’s right. This new game made those respectable soldiers seem like a bunch of dicks who got some new cool toys to play with and they genuinely took pleasure in wiping out the enemy. My point is that the new installment, in its pursuit to be a cool, “trendy” military shooter, instead came off as a lame attempt at capturing the war through Michael Bay’s lens with an equally abysmal cast of forgettable and fake characters.
The reboot sucked, and the final nail in the coffin, in all likelihood, will be in three days, when Call of Duty: Black Ops launches, and headshots MoH like the fucking noob it is.