The past couple of weeks has been wild as we dispatched writers to GDC in San Francisco and PAX East in Boston to gather up and bring back everything they could on the MMORPGs large and small on the spring convention circuit. In fact, as I type this, we’ve got Brendan in Reykjavik for EVE Fanfest too! So for this week’s Overthinking, we’re rounding up our coverage and then reflecting on the best and worst as we pick out what most excites, surprises, and disappoints us: First the roundups, then our thoughts. Read on!
As this year’s GDC coverage is winding down, I am finally coming to the topic I saved for last: community. MMOs are more than just multiplayer. We attract the “alone together” people more than the “FPS hero” crowd in our comments section for a reason; MMOs are virtual worlds. They’re a digital space inhabited by other people. We may not talk to them, but we watch and listen. Maybe we engage, maybe we group, maybe we guild. We do stuff in a shared environment because we think, or hope, we’re part of a larger system.
And this is why we need to talk about cross-platform communities and the strength of in-game, embedded community tools. As social media rises and mobile crashes against our PC fortress, increased console cross-play should be a reminder that we’re all gamers, and (some) developers are finally getting that.
Games alone won’t make the world better. They won’t even make gamers better. We publish some articles that certainly seem pretty pro-games, but we’re very upfront about the catches. One big one is on us, the players, and how we game. However, game designers can do a lot to help us.
“But that’s hard, expensive, and/or boring!” some of you may be thinking. And yeah, sometimes that’s true. But for both indies and AAA companies, not only are there organizations able to help, but there’s the potential for government aid in unlikely places. Games for good isn’t just a pipe dream, either. Some of the most (deservedly) vilified gaming communities have not only helped with their time but their wallets as well. Even before going to GDC this year we knew this, but a few panels I watched really helped it click.
Perhaps that was for good reason, though, as not only did I get some hands-on time with Summerset, but ZeniMax provided us with capture cards so we could show you what we saw and did. It’s very much an early look. Yes, there are elves, but also mind traps and a new tutorial for those just entering Tamriel. It’s just hard to say much more, though, since the demo felt like it was aimed more at press/streamers completely unfamiliar with ESO. Don’t worry, lorehounds, I know enough to help you avoid spoilers (so maybe avoid the first 10 minutes of the video).
I love stories. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I love stories not just for their raw entertainment value, but for their ability to teach. It’s not heavy-handed like being in class, but stories teach culture, customs, and character. We visit the past, the present, the future. We experience things through stories we might never get to experience for ourselves. War, I hope, is one of those things.
Andrew Barron, Director of Design at Bohemia Interactive Simulations, has seen war. And war stories. He’s also been in the game industry for awhile, both before and after his time as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan. He knows war, but he also knows war simulators. It’s actually his job to help build them. So when he says our games our violent, he knows what he’s saying, but the context for that may not be easily understood. However, once it is, you’ll see that not only do we have some games getting war “right,” but that there’s room for us to grow, and some people are already working on that in a way that sounds, well, fun.
But what happens if the cheating is unintentional? What happens when the bug is so ingrained into the system that even casual, lapsed players accidentally took advantage of it just by returning to the game? How would you react if, shortly after resubscribing to a game, you had items or experience points taken and had your account suspended or banned? These are the things CCP Games’ Senior Project Lead of Player Experience David Einarsson had to deal with when tackling the ghost training bug.
It’s no surprise that Ready Player One was constantly being referenced at GDC 2018, especially in VR, AR, and MMO panels. It’s not just because of the movie’s release but because the tech involved is seeing a surge of interest. That doesn’t mean we’re on the cusp, in my opinion, but it may be a thing we should start talking about.
And talking about it we did. As Bill Roper of Improbable and SpatialOS recently told me, “The next generation of online games isn’t going to behave like current-generation MMOs. […] We don’t know what a billion-person game might look like, but it’s likely to include a wide variety of playstyles, to reflect the diversity of its playerbase.” Even if you’re a cynic and don’t think SpatialOS will play any part of this future, Roper’s very much on the mark: Billion-person gaming isn’t going to be like our current MMOs.
As you may recall, I was given just a little time to hit up Snail Games’ ARK Park a few days before I left for GDC 2018. I was able to make it to the games’ launch party, but as I’d already played the game, it was mostly useful for talking to people involved in its creation between speeches/demos. However, afterwards, I was allowed to pass some questions on to Snail Games Vice President Tianqi “Sky” Wu about bugs, science, and the future of ARK. We have some exclusive information about that last tip, but don’t worry, no chief engineers, computer programmers, or lawyers were harmed in the making of this game. Well, not physically, at least.
SpatialOS: You’ve probably been seeing this name pop up more and more in the MMO sphere. Worlds Adrift, Mavericks, Fractured, Seed, MetaWorld, and Identity are just some of the titles we’ve mentioned that have sprung up to use Improbable’s platform. The company picked up more than half a billion dollars from Japanese company SoftBank, roped in MMO veteran Bill Roper, and got Jagex to announce its intention to use it in a future project. However Chronicles of Elyria recently noted it’s dropping Improbable’s baby, and both on and off the record, developers I spoke to at GDC 2018 had mixed reactions – assuming they’d even heard about SpatialOS at all.
What’s the big deal about the platform? What does it do? Why should developers care? Why should MMO players care? I attended a panel by Improbable and briefly sat down with CCO Bill Roper to try to figure it all out.
GDC isn’t E3. It isn’t PAX. It’s not even what I think stereotypical gamers can appreciate. But I think the Massively OP crowd is a different sort, and because of that, we can give you some content the other guys might not be talking to you about. Like data collection and monetization. They’re necessary evils, in that we armchair devs can generally see past mistakes rolled out again, but know those choices are being made in the pursuit of money.
So how do you make better games and money? Maybe try hiring some data scientists, not just to help with product testing and surveys, but with some awesome, AI-driven, deep learning tools. Like from Yokozuna Data, whose platform predicts individual player behavior. I was lucky enough to sit down with not only Design and Communication Lead Vitor Santos but Chief Data Scientist África Periáñez, whose research on churn prediction inspired me to contact the company about our interview in the first place!
With GDC 2018 in the bag, Casey McGeever is back from showing off Ship of Heroes and has a few reflections about the experience. Among many observations, McGeever talked up PopcornFX, which he said will be used to upgrade the visuals of Ship of Heroes’ effects.
He shared many takeaways from his meetings and panels, including “a move back toward subscriptions for MMOs,” a push back against toxicity in gaming, and efforts being done to put more players on the screen in online games.
And regarding his own project? “I did not see anything that suggests to me that a niche game like SoH will not succeed,” he said.
Of course, you could also get our take from meeting and talking with McGeever about this upcoming superhero MMORPG. We urged you to “keep your eyes” on this project and its scrappy team.
Plenty of panels at GDC are recorded and uploaded to the internet weeks after the event, including this one. It’s not quite the same as being there, as you miss a few things. For example, this year’s Ultima Online Post-Mortem panel was packed. It was international. It was fun, gross, nostalgiac, and sometimes groan-inducing.
And I’d hate to just summarize the talk, especially since some of you vets have heard these stories before, but since ya’ll couldn’t make it, I’ll do it. For you. But for this particular panel, not only will I try to summarize what was said before the panel will be viewable online in a few weeks, but I’ll dish out on the after-panel chat with Richard Garriott, Starr Long, Raph Koster, and Rich Vogel, including comments from the team on bad bans, kingslaying, VR, and the state of the MMORPG.
I didn’t play it, but I can’t be the only one who thought of the original tabletop when Funcom announced Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. Well, if you haven’t heard yet, surprise! It’s based on the same IP.
However, I have some bad news, MMO fans: Apparently while there was a plan for Mutant Year Zero to have a multiplayer option, it got the axe. Good news, though: Developer and “First Lady” from The Bearded Ladies (the developers behind the game) David Skarin said nothing is stopping them from adding it in after launch. Normally CGI trailers without gameplay make the press side of me roll my eyes, but I have to admit that, after seeing some actual gameplay, I’d probably enjoy some hands-on time with the title.