Wednesday, July 22, 2009

MMO - capturing the magic

Very recently other former players of the Planetside Outfit Band of the Hawk and I re-upped Planetside to try playing it again. It used to be one of my favorite games and I repeatedly used Gamenikki.com as a platform to rage against SOE for many of the brain-dead management choices. While other MMO's of the same time period, such as World of Warcraft and City of Heroes continue to grow and expand, Planetside has stagnated. While other MMO developers worked to update their clients to work against newer versions of Microsoft Windows, and in the case of NCSoft / Paragon Studios, hired a third party to insure platform support for Linux / Unix based systems, SOE did no such thing. Planetside won't run in Windows XP Service Pack 3, or any version of Vista, without enabling the Windows 95 compatibility mode. That's both interesting, and disturbing, for a game that was released after Windows Xp hit the market.

While playing Planetside I started to wonder what it was about the game that felt so special so many years ago. While I've ranted before about the destruction of the full military campaign in favor of a session-based play style, there was something more to it than that. There was something more special than hundreds of players crashing together over a single base.

The answer, surprisingly, came from outside Planetside and in City of Heroes. One of my policies with City of Heroes is that I don't create any new avatars until an existing avatar has hit level 50. Having just leveled and Ice / Rad to 50 I went to work on a new Dark Armor / Energy Melee tank. I also was testing out my recently completed triple SLI platform under Cedega... and as I loaded into Galaxy City on a fresh installation... the first thing that hit me was the music. It was a soaring, heroic, theme. The layout of the lower levels, designed to keep new players to the game contained to a specific area, teaching them the rules of the game world.

Later on I went with a group attempting the Sara Moore Task Force, and one of our team members had never been the shadow shard before... Our team leader, while having been on Shadow Shard TF's before, didn't know about the Mole Point Warpgate Shortcut. So much of the task force was spent teaching these players the tricks of the Shadow Shard...

Which was about when the answer came to me. What made Planetside so special so long ago, was that it was so new and unfamiliar. Nobody else had tried to do an MMO-FPS on that scale. Nobody else has attempted anything... on that scale. Not even Tabula Rasa succeeded in matching the scale of Planetside. Every new weapon, every new vehicle, every new cert point... changed the face of how you played the game. SOE's decision to chase after the UT / Quake market with session based play irreparably harmed the game, destroying the player base. Today, the few players left can pretty much get away with anything in Planetside.

Other MMO's kept building and expanding their worlds. As much as I dislike World of Warcraft, it's marched upwards with it's new lands, new dungeons, new challenges, new items, and so on. The Everquest series has grown as well, with regular expansions, proving that SOE does know how to expand at least one type of game. Niche MMO's, like Eve Online have grown as well. City of Heroes, once Jack Emmert was kicked out, mixed a Korean Micro-payments scheme with a traditional monthly pay scheme to become one of NCSoft's most profitable titles. The money earned on various booster packs didn't go to waste either, as the money was invested back into Paragon Studios to fund rapid expansion of the development team. As City of Heroes goes into it's 16th free expansion, it's already managed to match, if not surpass, all of the features it's former lead developer never delivered, and only promised to deliver in Champions Online. WarHammer Online is another game that continues to expand and grow, with new character classes and new lands.

One of keys to keeping a subscription base, as I can determine, is continuing to capture the magic that made somebody like the game to begin with. I think the principle holds up well outside of MMO's. Many Multiplayer shooters, like Counter Strike, Unreal Tournament, Quake, and Doom, have retained long lives in their markets by offering up community created maps, weapons, and characters. Valve Software caught a metric ton of flack over announcing and demonstrating Left 4 Dead 2 before there was software developers kit for the first Left 4 Dead. Over 40,000 accounts have joined the Steam Group promising to NOT buy L4D2. I think the point stands that multiplayer games need fresh content to continue to survive.

I think F.E.A.R. Combat and Far Cry stand as two excellent examples of Multiplayer Combat that faulted over when players just couldn't find new content.

Planetside? Well. It didn't grow. The age of the game is readily appearent the minute somebody loads in. It's a sparse, barren world. The bases have remaind the same. The planets have remained the same. As much as I liked the game, it's gone absolutely nowhere in literal years. It just hasn't managed to recapture any of the magic that set it apart so long ago.
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