Lawful Neutral: The future of MMO game design in a streaming gaming world

    
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It’s been an interesting few weeks for gaming. We saw the announcement of Google’s game streaming service, Stadia, and then Apple’s subscribe-to-access game service, Apple Arcade. The services differ, but they get to the same basic place: pay a flat fee and get access to all these games.

Google and Apple are not the only players in this space. Amazon is rumored to be developing a service; Microsoft has a similar service, and so does Sony. There are other services out there, but for ease of discussion, I’m going to focus on Google and Apple. This movement isn’t all the rainbows and sunshine that these huge corporations make it out to be. There are concerns about what this means for gaming as monetization impacts gameplay. But first, let’s establish who’s paying – and who’s getting paid.

Who’s paying?

I’m basing this on speculation because there aren’t many details out there yet for Apple Arcade or Google Stadia. If we compare the streaming/access model to similar services, we can come up with a reasonable expectation of who’s paying for what, when. We know that there will be a subscription fee for consumers. Similar services start in the $10 a month range, and streaming services like Netflix edge above that. We can assume that this lands us in the ballpark of somewhere between $10 and $20 a month. Anything more than $20 a month and they’d be excluding a large demographic with no appetite for that big a recurring subscription.

It’s also reasonable to expect that developers will have to pay to join these platforms. I don’t have a measure of how much developers will have to pay to be part of either platform, other than more than $0. Apple and Google already charge fees for submission to their respective app stores, so we can expect an access fee here as well. Beyond that, Google and Apple have both made a big deal about their platforms. They will want consumers to have the best possible experience using them. That means quality control of what can and can’t get on their respective platforms. Even a small access fee is a easy way to weed out shovelware and generate some revenue to boot.

Additionally, developers will likely have a series of up-sells available for them from each platform. Both platforms are likely to offer premium placement for developers to help them get “discovered” by more people. It’s also a safe assumption that both platforms will offer in-depth player analytics for extra fees. Google promises that it’s “committed to protecting and respecting privacy” when it comes to Stadia, which isn’t as reassuring as Google thinks it is. Apple made similar reassurances, but privacy isn’t the concern for Apple as much it is for Google.

Who’s getting paid?

This is where a lot of the anxiety over this game streaming platform comes into play—who’s actually getting paid, and how. Google and Apple are expecting their platforms toprint them more money. They will get paid, even if no one else does. But several industry vets have expressed concern for how developers get paid. David Brevik of Diablo fame said on Twitter:

It’s hard to disagree. The speculation right now is that Apple Arcade is going to pay out to developers by the minute, like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which pays authors by pages read. Google will likely pay out in a similar time spent in game fashion.

Mike Rose, founder of No More Robots, says this is already happening. “In the last 6 months, I have been contact by over a dozen different services, who all want to put No More Robots games on their upcoming platforms,” he tweeted.

“But here’s the catch: None of these platforms want to pay anything upfront. Instead, they want to pay us ‘per number of hours’ that their users play our games, compared to how many hours their users are playing games overall. Which is obviously going to be *shit* for indie devs. Now here’s the real problem: If bigger studios begin adopting this style of platform — which they already kinda are with things like Xbox Game Pass, Discord Nitro etc — it forces smaller devs into a position where they may *have* to start being a part of these platforms.”

What’s the impact

It’s going to be a little hard to assess the impact on game-design as a result monetization strategy, but I also think it’s inevitable. One of the replies to Brevik’s tweet listed out broad design trends based on monetization strategy. Twitter user EvilKimau argued that games like subscription games have lots of “wasted time” (what we might call designed downtime) so that it took you longer to do things, and you kept your subscription up. Arcade pay-per-life games were brutal and you died a lot, so you paid more. Free-to-play games nickel-and-dime you to no end because… well, it makes a lot of sense. Free-to-play titles want to rush the player onto the next purchaseable moment – sometimes by cutting out downtime, other times by putting in the down time and giving a convenience item to blow by it.

What we’ll see is the predatory, psychologically manipulative techniques that we saw spring up in free-to-play games, combined with designed downtime from subscription games. The game loops will be longer.

For single player games, this could be fewer save points and difficulty spikes immediately before the save point, forcing you to replay a section two or three times to complete it. It wouldn’t be enough to make you frustrated and quit, but it would be designed to maximize as much play time as possible. I think we’ll see heavy-handed usage of FOMO – the fear of missing out – as a means to drive longer playtimes in games.

For MMOs, this could mean a lot of random events with desirable loot that incentivizes camping for hours waiting for an irregular spawn timer. I think we’ll also see a lot of time-limited events with unique rewards. We’ll also start seeing player rewards for total time in game, and some gear or events that are locked under X amount of time. We’ll see systems like that on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis which provide rewards for time in-game. “Play for at least 10 hours over the last month to get your free lockbox!” Login rewards will be useless as incentive going forward in a world that generates its revenue by the minute. Developers will reward players for logging in and then staying logged in.

But don’t get too excited: Lootboxes and lockboxes aren’t going anywhere and will continue to infest games like the roaches they are. We’ll just see lootboxes that unlock after a predetermined amount of time in-game. Instead of the convenience items that we see in free-to-play games, we’re likely to see more items that unlock after time in-game, like gear and cosmetics.

The unfortunate future of game design in a streaming gaming world. Developers will design every system in the game to keep you in the game as long as possible. They will optimize for time-in-game above every other metric because that’s how they put food on the table.

Every other week, Andy McAdams braves the swarms of buzzwords and esoteric legalese of the genre to bring you Massively OP’s Lawful Neutral column, an in-depth analysis of the legal and business issues facing MMOs. Have a topic you want to see covered? Shoot him an email!

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Jim Bergevin Jr

MapleStory 2 already uses the time logged in method for daily rewards.

But what I really want to know is when we stopped owning the products we purchase? I can go to my bookshelf and fire up any game on there from the last 25 years and play, even though both the dev and publisher may have been gone for a decade. Why do we as gamers have to give up our consumer right of ownership in the 21st Century?

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

I don’t know what will happen, but it sure is interesting (and terrifying) to watch.

I grew up hearing stories of how the noble and righteous PC defeated the evil mainframes and freed us from the admin landlords and their totalitarian and rent-seeking ways.

Long has the old evil slept and plotted, licking its wounds and gathering influence. PC is weak, pathetic, marginalized… How could a rag-tag mob of custom case builders challenge the mighty virtual stream?

I really don’t know, but if I were going to put money down, it’d be on the PC neckbeards. One does not simply kill the platform that drives so much innovation. We still need low-level R&D, and I think both client and distributed computing still have roles to play.

PurpleCopper
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PurpleCopper

What prevents game companies from just streaming their own games on their own cloud infrastructure instead of someone else’s cloud? Seems like for MMOs (or persistent online multiplayer games), streaming has alot of positives with few negatives.

Now for NON-mmo games, it would seem that streaming has more troubling implications.

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Schmidt.Capela

Costs. You need as much bandwidth as a service similar to Netflix, which is already far more costly than what you usually need to run an MMO; atop that, you also need low latency — which increases the cost of the bandwidth — and enough processing and graphical power to run one copy of the game for every logged user. It’s damn expensive to build that much infrastructure, and more so if you are doing it on a global scale.

In short, it’s one heck of a high-stakes bet for anyone that doesn’t already have all that infrastructure in place; a wrong move can make any such company go out of business. It’s why the companies currently attempting to move forward with large scale game streaming are ones that already have the infrastructure in place, like Google.

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Sally Bowls

“own cloud infrastructure” – cloud is a huge investment. I can’t see any game company who would be cost effective to do their own cloud instead of Amazon/Microsoft/Google. Now they could rent cloud servers from A/M/G without using a framework like Stadia. But if they are going to go cloud, might as well go all in.

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Sally Bowls

As with a number of issues, this trend is not just gaming or mainly gaming. Yesterday, there was an article that said tech was reversing a decades-long trend; that cell phones were going to start coming with less memory. If more videos, books, and music are going to be streaming, then you don’t need as much capacity to download. If they are streaming their audio and video, it is not a big stretch that they also rent games from a subscription streaming service.

And there is a big advantage for gaming to be able to upgrade cloud servers instead of clients.

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Anstalt

As with free-to-play, I simply refuse to play games with terrible monetisation strategies but more importantly, games with terrible gameplay as a result of the monetisation.

This certainly makes it harder to find good games to play in this modern age, but not impossible.

What gives me hope is that, in this day and age of increased psychological awareness and predatory business practices, there are still developers out there who are making good games with honest pricing and those games are still selling well.

I am wondering if the move to streaming services / subscription services might well begin a new age of the middle-ground development houses. The last 15 years has seen this section of the games industry shrink dramatically, either because they couldn’t compete with the big guns on graphics and thus couldn’t sell well, or they were simply bought out by the bigger players. We live in an age primarily of AAA studios who are too risk adverse and a plethora of indie studios struggling to make themselves known. I miss those middle-of-the-road studios who command decent budgets but nowhere near AAA. They are the studios I remember most fondly, the studios that were very innovative but who still managed to put on a decent amount of polish.

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Greaterdivinity

There are so, so many issues on this front that need to be cleared up, but these are more questions for the developers/publishers and the streaming platforms than anything we can really impact.

I’m honestly excited at the concept though. I know it’s pie in the sky, but my mind is aflutter with all the possibilities of an MMO that’s designed around cloud systems rather than peoples own low-spec machines.

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Schmidt.Capela

For reference: anyone here old enough to have played the console version of “The Lion King”? Did you like the monkey level?

The increased difficulty of the monkey level was a direct request from Disney for a similar reason; they wanted to make it so most players would be unable to get through the halfway point in the game just from renting it once (in order to create an incentive for those players to purchase the game instead), so they forced the devs to increase the game’s difficulty, and the one place where it could be done without throwing the balance of the whole game out of whack was the monkey level.

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Sally Bowls

Huh? Apple has not announced a streaming service. Apple Arcade is a subscription service. You can play the games offline. It is not streaming. It has no place being discussed in an article on streaming gaming.

A lot of the comments on the Google announcement, which was absolutely about streaming and new technology but not necessarily subscription, criticized subscriptions. Apple Arcade, which is a subscription service and not streaming, gets criticized about streaming. /sigh

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Fervor Bliss

Have a hard time not comparing this too books and music. With music I heard there are more musicians making a small living that did before the market changed. With books the same with self-published authors, more authors are making a living.

I do not know what the future will bring, but it always seemed to me quality is rewarded.

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Tobasco da Gama

To be honest, MMOs are the only genre I could see myself using a game streaming service for. They’re already — barring a few more actiony exceptions — designed to accommodate high-latency players, and even the free-to-play ones generally push “optional” subscriptions on players. The ability to divert resources from rendering optimisation (since most current MMOs are big-tent games that need to run on potatoes) to graphical fidelity must be attractive to MMO studios as well.

But singleplayer games? Nah, forget it. No fucking way. I want to own those.