Massively Overthinking: Niche MMOs vs. everythingboxes

Let's fight about Raph Koster's new game!

    
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Earlier this month, veteran MMORPG designer Raph Koster announced that he’s finally making a new MMORPG, with a suite of top devs and a fat stack of cash to do it. While the pitch has been a little vague and maybe more designed to attract investors than fans right now, some of the goals are pretty clear: It’s being built for a “broad range of players […] whether their preferred playstyle is exploring, adventuring, socializing, crafting, or player versus player combat.” Says the official blurby, “These diverse communities can each play the game in their own way, or cross over with one another, delivering diverse play experience and enriching the world.”

Nevertheless, the announcement brought up an old argument here in the community, an argument we characterized as niche vs. the everythingbox as far back as 2014. While some MMO gamers want a game with everything so lots of different types of people can play, others are absolutely convinced that only games that – to quote one commenter – “stay in their lane” and focus on doing one thing well have a chance. It’s a topic we’ve touched on several times through the years, but it seems like a good time to muse on it again, especially since Koster’s a developer who’s not only done the research on really broad games but actually built a few successful ones.

So let’s fight about Raph Koster’s new game! For this week’s Overthinking, I’ve asked the staff to weigh in, first on how they feel about Koster’s pitch and chances in the MMO market, and second on narrowly focused MMOs vs. those with much broader appeal and content.

Andy McAdams: This is an interesting question. I think if anyone has a chance of pulling off a successful everythingbox, Koster is the guy to do it. The pitch is too vague to say much more about right now, so we’ll just say that he likely has the best chance of making it work.

Now as the for everythingbox vs. niche — I think the everythingbox is the way we are moving… as a general rule. The most consistently successful MMO on the market adopts this approach with a little bit of everything for everyone, but maybe not necessarily everything that we would want from it. That being said, it’s also completely unreasonable to expect any new MMO to burst onto the market with everythingbox creds on Day 1. I expect a more narrowly focused initial release that gradually expands into an everythingbox. If Raph tries to deliver the world on Day 1, assuming he ever gets to release, he’s very likely to create a less polished and more unsatisfying experience. I think he, and anyone developing an everythingbox, has to start with a narrow focus and expand out to make sure they an enjoyable, sticky experience to fund the rest of the box.

I don’t think there’s much value in “staying in your lane”; niche games will always be a one-trick pony. That puts a lot of pressure on doing that one thing well, without any other things to entice people you have to be one of the best at that one thing consistently to remain relevant. If you fall out of favor with your singular crowd you are courting — well, ya boned. It’s a risky strategy for long-term success of a game.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I don’t mind that MMOs sometimes try to appeal to everybody. In fact, it’s nice to have a wide variety of things to do in a game. Sometimes you want to be the hero. Sometimes you just want to pick flowers or poke around at the crafting table. There is one thing that I wish more MMO’s would do with respect to narrowing focus, though: either be a PvP game or be a PvE-focused game. As a mostly PvE player, I find it’s incredibly irritating when your character gets nerfed because of balance problems that have nothing to do with the way you play the game.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think I will be a forever fan of MMOs with broad appeal and lots of different types of content. Can one game attract everyone? No, of course not; people whose goals directly conflict (I want to kill you, but you want to not be killed by me) will never be happy all in the same game. But the majority of players like to dabble in a couple of different gameplay types that can easily overlap with other player groups in an ecosystem designed for them to do so. It’s not that I mind small or niche or indie games that do their thing; it’s that I am skeptical when people insist full-fledged AAA MMORPGs must also “stay in their lane” – that leads to poorly fleshed out virtual worlds and very narrow (and risky) playerbases being catered to.

Koster has long been one of my favorite developers who put together two of the best games in the pre-WoW era of MMOs, both of which were virtual worlds with broad appeal and diverse playerbases, which is exactly where I like to romp. He’s stayed MMO adjacent all these years, watching and predicting and yep, learning. When we covered the Ultima Online chapters of his most recent book last year, the two parts that struck me most are the two that seem most relevant here: First, that Koster learned a lot about player behavior and PvP design over the course of the early years of UO, and he seems unlikely to make the same mistakes. And second, that it was always the tech, not the vision, that held back MMOs. “At some point, reality will catch up to our designs from 1995,” he wrote. Maybe we’re there now.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): One of the reasons I like games with a cash shop and open PvP is their reputation. Games like that turn off a large chunk of players, and a lot of those players are the type that I find pretty annoying. Having that niche lets me play with more like-minded individuals. I know I’ll be in a group that enjoys the same type of gameplay and accept the reality the game sets with its system. I remember a player complaining in Black Desert chat about how he and his girlfriend kept getting PKed and how it was ruining their night. He then went on to say how it’s unfair that he couldn’t unwind because players wouldn’t let him. Server chat basically laughed him off pretty hard, telling him to go play another game or something more forgiving. I agreed with the playerbase on that call because the game’s designed for a specific type of player.

MMOs with mass appeal attract all sorts of players, and there are players I simply don’t like playing with. Having a niche doesn’t completely solve it, but it’s a good enough stopgap to make sure I can play with the players I like to/tolerate playing with.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Mmm, this crunchy old chestnut again. My feelings haven’t diverged too much since March, though Koster’s experience certainly brings some new things to the table. I suppose his idea of what an everythingbox MMO would look like would certainly be guided by all of his experience, but the proof will ultimately be in the actual pudding instead of describing how creamy and delicious said pudding is planned to be.

Otherwise, my feelings are generally the same in that having a clear and concise vision of what your MMO is and what types of players it’s meant to draw in always seems the best bet. That said, having a wide-scope game be successful isn’t completely beyond the pale (looking at you, Final Fantasy XIV), it’s just harder to pull off with so many divergent desires for a game to cater to and the general perception that an everythingbox is just another WoW clone. Still, if anyone can “pull a Yoshi-P” it’s possibly Koster. Time will tell.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I have played games Raph Koster had a hand in and have long admired his writing on game design. And I like games that are both complex and complicated. That should make me hopeful, right?

I hope it turns out to be the interesting and complex virtual world many of us have been waiting for. It is just so hard to get the “everything burger” right, and it is hard to look forward to something that might be 5+ years away.

Note that I am steering clear of saying “sandbox,” opting for “virtual world” instead. “Sandbox” means different things to different people, and sometimes it is shorthand for “we skimped on content.” I understand that the players can be the content, but they have to be given the tools to do that.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): With a name like Raph Koster pushing it forward, the game is bound to get up to the “pre-alpha,” “early access,” “give us money to help test” phase at least. Past that, though, who the hell knows? We continue to have old-school devs pop up out of the woodwork and claim they are now going to make the game of their dreams – and our dreams too. I’m honestly tired of it. With the wealth of games in existence that I can play today, I just don’t have the willpower to care that much about what might, someday, in the future, possibly be a good game. When you’re ready to show me a game – and I mean a game, not a few renderings and concept art, not a bunch of systems loosely tied together with bubblegum and duct tape – but an actual game? Then I’ll be ready.

Now, the everything box versus the highly focused game – I’m actually leaning toward the everything box. In the recent past, I would have said that a more narrowly focused game is the future. Yet, having played games like Crowfall, I’m just not so sure anymore. The original concept of Crowfall really pulled me in. I thought, “This is going to be exactly what I want!” But now that I’ve played it, I don’t see it anymore. As I’m playing, I constantly wonder where the real game is going to manifest. I read the game updates and news about the next big system the team is adding. I look at the roadmaps of how it plans on everything coming together – and it just feels empty. Now, this could be a result of Crowfall being a PvP-oriented game, where the thrill arises from GvG and similar combat, but it still feels empty. I see how there can be crafters and gatherers in the guild, but I just can’t see it expanding to the point that I would feel like I’m immersed in a real, living world. I am beginning to feel like I need the everything box, where players of all types come together to do their own thing independently (doesn’t make sense, but it does!).

Tyler Edwards: I don’t have enough personal experience with Koster’s previous games or knowledge of his current project to have an opinion of it one way or the other, but I can comment on the issue of narrow versus broad-focus games.

I have been pretty clear for a long time that I am very strongly in favor of MMOs becoming more niche and focused. It’s simply common sense that a jack of all trades is a master of none. The more different types of gameplay you try to include a single title, the more shallow and less enjoyable each one will be. In the days when subscriptions were the norm and playing only a single game was the way most people approached MMOs, it made a bit more sense to try to have a broad appeal to prevent people wandering, but now most things are free to play and almost no one plays only one game at a time, so there’s really nothing to be gained by trying to be all things to all people.

Of course you can go too far to the other extreme and make a game that’s too one-dimensional — a little variety of content is good — but having a clear focus is important if you want to deliver truly quality experiences.

And do note that there is a difference between a game with a clear focus on one goal — like story or PvP — and a game that has a variety of options on offer but heavily privileges one over the others. World of Warcraft focusing on raiding while making only a token effort toward catering to other playstyles is not an idol to emulate.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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Toy Clown

I’m a big fan of Raph Koster and have followed his career since I’ve been playing MMOs, which is when UO booted up. Whatever he does, I’ll pay close attention to.

I also feel that the games that have something for everyone, but don’t force the different playstyles to play together do the best on the market. For example, the big hitters have something for everyone.

The MMOs I’ve always enjoyed the most had a really good mix of themepark and sandbox features and with PvP designed in a way that it was avoidable. The games I had the most fun with were UO (loved and hated the game), SWG (absolutely my fav of all time), ArcheAge, and BDO pre-P2W days. I loved them because they were living, breathing worlds with fun crafting, housing, and immersive features that added a layer of depth to RP and also encouraged players to interact beyond silent grouping for dungeons. These MMOs weren’t static like themepark ones are, but rather dynamic because the gameplay was driven by the players, allowing a server full of gamers to create living, breathing histories over time.

I get excited just thinking of what Raph could be up to!

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Chris Ochs

The real problem is money. Raph raised a good first round, but it’s no where near enough to create a functional everything game by the time you factor in hand crafted content.

Bigger rounds almost never follow smaller ones in the game industry on the same game while in development. Selling the dream and your name is just so much easier then selling the reality. Once you have something concrete, it’s all about that. And with an mmo the concrete starts to come into focus way before the game is in the hands of players, making the whole thing even more difficult.

Which is why big budget games are made by big studios that can afford to finance it themselves.

So IMO an everything mmo out of the gate is nearly impossible for a new VC funded studio. Regardless of who is behind it. I think you have to start smaller and then hit some success and build on that. So over time you can create an everything mmo sure, but at release I don’t see it. Not for a new studio.

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Anstalt

I’m a fan of Raph, loved SWG and have read his selected essays and his theory of fun for game design. I believe he is incredibly talented but most importantly, he is actively trying to advance the genre of MMOs, and the art form of games in general.

But, sometimes he tries to push the envelope too far. In an art form as young as computer games, there simply isn’t the existing knowledge base to know whether his ideas will work or not. Metaplace was a great idea on paper, but in reality it clearly didn’t work out.

From his few press releases, he seems to emphasise learning lessons from other genres and his own experience. That gives me hope that he’s not going to go crazy, but simply build a game using the best bits from the whole gaming world.

Niche vs Everythingbox…..

My opinion is that if you’re going to make a niche MMO, actually make it and target it properly. Devs are making niche MMOs (which have less appeal and lower retention) but trying to run them like an everythingbox. It doesn’t work, so just stop it. If you’re making a niche, make it and run it for a few years and then close it and build the next one. Acknowledge the fact that your playerbase is going to dwindle quickly and be prepared for it.

An everythingbox, on the other hand, suits a larger playerbase and results in a much stronger community which in turn increases retention. These are the games you can run for a longer period and improve them over time, because you’re going to have the money and time to do so.

The problem with everythingboxes?

God damn story! Systems are actually relatively cheap to build (though hard to design). A single programmer can actually build whole systems of gameplay by themselves, and with a visionary like Raph designing the game, those systems should all slot together well and help to create an awesome virtual world.

But, as soon as you start trying to make quests and story, all your money goes down the drain. You lack the time and money to get the systems finished and polished. This is where modern everythingboxes fail: they’re all themeparks that waste tons of money on quests.

To put it in perspective, SWG was built, from scratch, in under 18 months with 1/4 the budget of vanilla WoW. Imagine what could have been achieved with additional time for testing and polish! And that includes the license fee! In addition, Raph now has an addition 17 or so years experience to learn from, so he doesn’t even need to invent new systems, he can simply take systems that have already been used successfully and put them together in a comprehensive way.

It’s always bothered me that modern games don’t just use mechanics from 10year old games and stitch them together into something epic with modern graphics. For example, I’d love a GTA game that also included skating from the SKATE games. The mechanics are pretty easy, SKATE ran on the Xbox360 so it can’t be that intensive on resources. Or, how about an RPG that’s crossed with a city builder, so that we can actually control towns and cities and let them grow over time, plan out new routes and place inns/smithies etc. The city building mechanics would only need to be a fraction of the complexity of something like Cities: Skylines.

So, why not have an everythingbox with lots of stuff? If we’re being honest, most MMORPGs are pretty damn basic on mechanics, all the money gets invested into quests/story and graphics.

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Armsbend

I love both equally – provided I am that niche the niche game is pointed towards.

Alyn
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Alyn

“That’s what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.* Games teach you how aspects of reality work, how to understand yourself, how to understand the actions of others, and how to imagine.”
― Raph Koster, Theory of Fun for Game Design

Keep these words near and dear, gamers.

Random MMO fan
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Random MMO fan

Raph Koster is right, a game which allows players with every kind of interest to enjoy it can be the most popular one and can last for longest amount of time. The niche MMOs, especially the ones focused on PvE fighting, will continue to decline in longevity because more people will keep finding more optimal ways to shorten the annoyance of leveling and fighting dumb PvE bosses using various tools like add-ons, YouTube guides, or just paying for leveling services where someone else will level your character in fastest way possible. Sure, you might enjoy doing quests which require you to kill billions of boars which may sometime drop a certain body part but the reality is, most people do not, same goes for boss fights – after the initial experience people will just treat it like a boring job they must suffer through to maybe get extra piece of gear so they can screenshot it or post in chat about it, feel good about it for few minutes then forget about it next day. And reality is, even if you enjoy these kind of things, the content creators just can’t produce this kind of PvE raiding and leveling content fast enough. Not even Blizzard could, and not dozens of other companies who created their own WoW clones.

So yea, if the MMO developer will now want to create the MMO which would have a healthy amount of population for longest amount of time – they need to try and allow for as many player styles as possible: PvE, large-scale PvP, housing, socializing tools like player music playback and extensive amount of player emotes and extensive housing systems, extensive crafting system which would be supported by player gear which can be permanently destroyed or stolen – ALL of them are equally important, and the game needs to be as “attractive looking” in terms of visual effects as possible (this is very important for people who are into cosmetics or RP or just general socialization) and to keep engine and server infrastructure as optimized as possible to allow for largest amount of players at the same location to be visible and be able to perform actions (important for large social events and especially for large PvP fights). Sadly most game developers do not even try doing this since it does require a very large amount of money and people to develop and to support, but maybe Raph Koster will have enough dedication and support to pull this off successfully.

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Deadly Habit

What about the niche ‘everythingboxes’ like say Haven and Hearth, Salem, or Wurm for example, where it’s a true sandbox to make your own fun with no real limitations outside of mechanics with high risk and reward, but no real forcing people down lanes or play style choices beyond their own machinations?

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sophiskiai

My main problem with Everythingboxes is balance. braxwolf mentions PvE versus PvP balance in the main post, but I think it goes further than that – 1v1 and skirmish PvP, large scale PvP, solo PvE, group PvE, hardcore raiding, all of them have different gameplay dynamics and different balance requirements. The more you focus on game and class balance for one type of play, the more balance is thrown off for many of the rest.

And if you try to balance multiple modes of play by giving character skills either different numbers or completely different functionality in different game modes, then you’ve greatly increased both dev workload and bug possibilities while also making things confusing for players trying to move between one mode and the next.

One of the reasons I dislike games with a focus on raiding is that raid balance tends to act as a massive gravitational well distorting the balance for everything else.

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Dobablo

My new rule is anything with boxes is automatically evil.

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Bryan Correll

This must be your worst nightmare.

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PanagiotisLial1

We already have fully niche games – they are the single player/multiplayer games.

That is one big difference with modern and older mmos. When you played mmos in the past you felt you played something different and more wide compared to your single/multiplayer games collection. As time passed they begun to sink slowly to the point diablo and diablo -likes for example are considered a mmo.

I am all-in for the everythingbox(hybridbox is my usual term) but some people of course do not like it since niche games is what they are used to it and want. So I think there should be both.

Now for Ralph Koster and any of the old guard of virtual world developers I think he and they can pull it off. Problem is so far we usually see older developers use their popularity and give general ideas/guidelines instead getting actively involved(eg Richard Garriot while I like SotA it mostly isnt his game and that is visible both from his involvement and the way things work). One factor may be that they are just a lot older now and take more an administrative role without necessarily being great administrators.

Truth being said we need everything box and we need games with large living virtual worlds worth exploring. When was last time you cared on exploring a little further and even risking to do so, in your favorite mmo?