The Daily Grind: Is the future of online games dev really ‘conversation mode’ rather than ‘presentation mode’?

    
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The last chance.

Last month, PC Gamer ran a piece about Anthem and EA focusing on EA’s belief that the way the industry goes about releasing games is changing fast. “You’re moving from what was initially a BioWare game which would be somewhere between 40 and 80 hours of offline play to 40 to 80 hours of offline play plus 100 or 200, 300 hours of elder game that happens with millions of other players at scale, online,” EA CEO Andrew Wilson says, suggesting that Asia’s trend toward lengthy soft launches allows companies to grok how online games perform at scale, while Western companies have been slow to adapt. But they will, he argues, and that will change how companies like EA make games.

“You should expect that we’ll start to test things like soft launches—the same things that you see in the mobile space right now. And it also comes down to changing how we communicate with players. Our entire marketing organization now is moving out of presentation mode and into conversation mode, and changing how we interact with players over time.”

The article doesn’t use the term games-as-a-service, but that’s essentially what he’s describing. But MMORPGs have always run this way – it’s not new. It’s the rest of the market wildly pivoting to be eternally monetizable faux-MMOs that is causing so much distress for ponderous companies like EA. I thought this would be an interesting one to reflect on for the Daily Grind, particularly given the MMO community’s disdain for the soft launches we’re so frequently saddled with. I mean, isn’t “conversation mode” just a fancy way of saying “get the players to test and hone the game for us for months?” And is this actually what we want?

Is the future of online games development really “conversation mode” rather than “presentation mode”?

(Thanks, Murderhobo!)

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!

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Nephele
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Nephele

I think big publishers like EA might be missing something important. Online or offline doesn’t really matter. What matters is content and replayability.

If I look at my Steam Library, I have probably a dozen games there with hundreds of hours played. (Stellaris is at 1600 hours right now). While some of them can be played in online multiplayer, none of those hours came that way for me.

Over on my Xbox, I have a raft of single-player ARPGs that I probably have a couple hundred hours in at this point – exploring everything, completing everything, even doing the New Game+ stuff (when it’s good).

You know what games I don’t buy? Lame 40-hour shooter variants that feed you into endless repetitive maps where you’re doing the same thing over and over and over for points or loot boxes or whatever, other players or not. Publishers changing the way they market and launch those games is not going to make me buy them. Publishers releasing original and fun content with good ongoing play or replayability? That gets my money every time.

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Sorenthaz

Honestly, not all games need to be 40-80+ hour epics. Saturating the market too heavily with games like that just means most people are forced to pick and choose, often favoring their favorite companies/series. Means that potentially less games then get bought (or at least less are played) and pressure is put more heavily on devs to get one-hit wonders.

I actually prefer games that are short/sweet/to the point. Stuff like Devil May Cry 5 where you finish the story within 10-15 hours is great because the game can focus on being a pleasure throughout the whole run and not overstay its welcome unless you wish to pursue harder difficulties and grind up upgrades. Not everything needs to be like Skyrim or Monster Hunter World or Terraria where you’re pumping a truckload of hours into it beyond the main story or whatnot.

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Witches

In other words “games as a service is the new dlc”.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

“Also we are retooling our marketing division for tactical engagement. With rocket launchers. You ungrateful shits want haptic feedback? We’re going to get absolutely kinetic.”

The rocket launcher thing might be my mistranslation. Corporate bullshit is not my mother tongue.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

My initial take upon reading the original article was “Good. They’re afraid, and still stupid as ever”.

Their top-down marketing wall has been breached. They have to step out of their palaces and engage us. I like our Odds in this fight.

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Anstalt

Well, the quote is from the EA CEO so nothing can be trusted. EA just isnt very good at making games which is why I’ve been boycotting them for 6 years now and their corporate culture makes it highly unlikely that’ll ever change.

What this question comes down to, in my opinion, is one thing: vision

When a game designer / design team has a clear vision, thats when you stick with presentation mode. A clear vision results in a coherant game with all parts of the game working well together to achieve that vision. You don’t want the community to alter that vision as it will ultimately break parts of the game. A clear vision is enough, the only question is how well that vision of a game will sell. But, that is what the investors are for – the designer has to sell that vision and the investors act as a sanity check. Granted, investors are risk-adverse which is why we have stagnation in the AAA market, but if you can’t sell the game idea to investors then you’ll probably have a hard time selling it to consumers too, so you need to improve your sales skills or rethink some of the design!

If the design team don’t have a clear vision, thats when you want outside help, or “conversation mode”. Given what we’ve read of Anthem’s development, that seems to be what happened there. Nobody had a clear vision for the game, just a basic idea of a world / combat and being a service. Bioware didn’t know what the game was supposed to be, neither did EA, which is why it released incomplete and a bit of a mess. Some bits were good, some bits terrible, but it just didn’t mesh. Conversation mode (extended alphas / betas / early access etc) can give your design team some much needed feedback which can then help them out. However, the feedback you get tends to be about small, specific things – we armchair developers simply aren’t capable of considering all the ramifications of our suggestions and how they fit in with other systems.

From my experience with MMOs, I’ve got to say I prefer “presentation mode” and hate “conversation mode”. The only good thing I’ve seen come out of conversation mode is some small, quality of life changes. Beyond that, it’s mostly harmful for the long term health of a game.

I’ll give you an example from LotRO – the solofication of the game.

At launch, the game was fairly group-orientated. You got your first group quest within the first 30 minutes of gameplay and there wasnt enough solo content to hit the level cap – you had to group up or else you would have to grind mobs for hours. At launch this wasn’t an issue, but after 6 months there simply weren’t enough players leveling up at the same time so it made finding groups hard.

So, the feedback from the community was: “finding groups is too much of a hassle, I don’t want to be forced to do group content and it’s hindering my progression and enjoyment”. This is perfectly valid feedback about a valid issue.

Turbine then had a choice – do they stick with their original vision for the game and find ways to improve the game to solve the problem, keeping it group-focused? Or do they deviate from their original vision and simply go around the problem?

If Turbine had stuck with their original vision and remained group-focused, then their development would have included things like:

  • Group finders – to make it easier/more convenient to find groups
  • Cross-server grouping – so that there are more people to choose from when forming groups
  • Easier difficulties – not only is group content harder to organise, it’s usually more difficult too. But, it doesn’t need to be, so perhaps they would have made some group content easy, some medium, some hard etc
  • Tutorials – most MMOs do a terrible job of teaching players group mechanics
  • Scaling tech / buddy systems to make grouping up even easier

In this way, LotRO would have stayed true to the original vision whilst seeking to improve aspects of the game that players weren’t enjoying. This would have led to a positive evolution of the game. Instead, they did the opposite, they ignored the original vision for the game and tried to pander to the feedback. Tons more solo content was added. Old group content was removed and replaced with solo content. Remaining group content was dumbed down or simply reduced in size (i.e. 6mans turned into 3man). When Moria was released, there was almost no group content at all from level 50-60, it was all at endgame.

By taking this approach – moving away from the original vision of the game and trying to please the playerbase – they did indeed “solve” the problem. You could now reach the level cap without ever doing group content or running out of quests. However, by moving away from the original vision, they ran into a lot of unintended consequences which I believe harmed the game long term:

  • The depth of the combat system was ignored – LotRO’s original combat system is the deepest I’ve personally ever played, but it’s depth really only came out when you grouped up. By making most of the game solo, most players only ever experienced combat in it’s most basic form. They never got to see the depth and really connect with what was possible. This gave the impression that the combat was slow and boring, when the reality was it was amazing, but only in group content.
  • The community got worse – during Shadows of Angmar, the entirety of the community was conditioned to group up and talk to each other. The deep combat mechanics required decent tactics and communication. The side effect of this was an amazing community. When the game went solo, that all went out the door, we lost that common understanding and groups again became something to fear.
  • Players didn’t know how to play their classes – if you only ever play solo, you never got the experience the depth of the mechanics. This resulted in most players not really knowing how to play their classes. This then made PUGs even worse (which then amplified the problems with finding groups) but more importantly, it created horrible situations at endgame. Hitting the level cap and then wanting to join in endgame became a jarring experience as players new to endgame suddenly started getting their asses handed to them. It became a steep learning curve which put many players off, rather than a learning curve that had stared at level 3.

these unintended consequences only served to perform a further feedback loop, convincing the devs that group content was pointless and so they doubled down even more on being solo. For those of us who were there from the beginning, the game became unrecognisable, so far from it’s original vision that it was basically a different game.

I could write for hours on this subject, apologies for the big wall of text! I just really hate it when “conversation mode” results in games changing so much that they’re no longer the game they were designed to be and the lack of coherant vision stops the game from being fun.

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rosieposie

Our entire marketing organization now is moving out of presentation mode and into conversation mode

Good for you, meanwhile, I’m moving out of payment mode and into raised middle finger mode.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Lately, so am I. Been watching GTA streams on Twitch and not playing any games myself rather than pay any of these companies more money. Even ventured into that RL thing a few times.

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Danny Smith

Andrew Wilson, trustworthy man of the year and ally of the consumer. Surely he speaks only truths!

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Jeremy Barnes

Oh EA, spending more time on money on trying to explain why their POS games don’t sell than on improving their POS games.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

I rarely talk to strangers. “Two blocks down and one over.” “1:30.” “Yes, the streetcar will take you downtown from this platform.”

But never, “Can I give you $60 bucks for your empty bag and a promise?”

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Ashfyn Ninegold

An aside: I love the word “bucks” used for money. It’s such an Americanism:

One of the earliest references of this was in 1748, about 44 years before the first U.S. dollar was minted, where there is a reference to the exchange rate for a cask of whiskey traded to Native Americans being “5 bucks”, referring to deerskins.

In yet another documented reference from 1748, Conrad Weiser, while traveling through present day Ohio, noted in his journal that someone had been “robbed of the value of 300 Bucks.”

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rosieposie

Actually, the word is so cool that we have adopted it across the pond. It’s pretty common to hear the term ‘eurobucks’ in casual conversations.

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Robert Mann

Game devs and publishers will swing that way, people will continue to feel more and more that they are being burned by it… and the impulsive masses that cannot control their own actions and are being forced under threat of death will continue to buy (and refund in a rage) the games because they aren’t actually being threatened but they need an excuse for their lack of self control.

Welcome to the future, where even less of the population can be a functional adult!