Friday, January 23, 2009

2008 The end of the MMO?

Many people are looking at the lackluster performance of last year's MMO hopefuls and sounding bells of doom for the genre.  While I *DO* think the genre is in trouble, I think most of the commentators miss the real reasons.

In "Kill Ten Rats: Tao of the MMO" the author suggests that the subscription business model is at fault.  While I am all for experiments in business models, and in fact we are doing something very different at Rebel Monkey, I don't think his argument holds much water.  In the same breath he talks about his friend dropping $200 on Steam games.  At $15 a month, thats only $180 a year's worth of gameplay.  By the time/value equation that many pundits are saying will drive leisure spending in the down-turn, thats a bargin!

BUT its only a bargin if you are actually being entertianed.  And that I think is where the true short fallls have been.  Lets look at some of the less then spectacular showings of last year....

"Age of Conan".   This game had promise.  Although ultimately the same questing-grind as every other MMO, the quests were at least fresh and original and didn't feel like you were doing the same things over and over again.  In addition the art direction was simply stunning. This is mreo then eye candy, this directly plays into the "explorer" mode of gameplay.  Finding a new, different, and gorgeous vista open out before you with every new area you came across made that an unusual pleasure in AoC.

Unfortunately, AOC failed to live up toits promise in two ways.  The first was technical, released before it was technically ready it generated a floodof customer service issues that Funcom was ill equipped to handle.  Furthermore, Funcom made the classic MMO mistake of failign to grasp that, when you eneter the service business, customer service is the heart of the business.  Their CS support was inadaquate, hastily thrown together, and reeked of condescension and lack of respect for their customers. 

In the end, it was bad management that doomed AoC more then anything else.

Warcraft.  To be fair I never really expected Warcraft to be very successful.  While the GDW Warcraft miniatures table top game is a stand-out in its space, miniatures have *always* been a niche within the niche of wargames.  It really didnt strike me as a property with much "legs."  Havign said that, Mythic has dopne a nice job with it. 

Squint and what Warcraft really is, is Dark Age of Camelot: The Sequel.  They have perfected their RvR concept that first appeared in DAOC and moved it from an endgame experience to an important and integrated part of the leveling up process.  Its is  also painless PvP and thus the only fun I've ever had IN PvP. 

Unfrotunately, in the end, it suffers from a number of core MMO problems.  The ever-war that cannot be won or lost but just tilted back and forth grows tiresome and boring.  Its a story of battle after battle without there ever being a real purpose or conclusion.   The Public Quest idea is a nice one, but as you go up levels it gets harder and harder to put together pick-up groups to do them.  The zones, while havign soem superficial variety, are  in the end uninteresting and do not inspire the same exploratory "wow" factor that AoC did.

I DO have to give mythic credit for understanding they are  in the people business and showing more respect for their custoemrs then FunCom.

In the end, I think MMOs ARE suffering, but not from their busines model but rather from a lack of real progress in game structure.  The only successful formula in entertainment is "do domething different."  And it is here IMO that MMOs have really suffered.  Whatw e have seen are, at most, tiny steops and evolutions.  Take a look at the language MMO players use to describe their MMOs.  The word you hear most often is "Grind."  "Grind" is NOT a fun word.  I don't knwo why MMO develoeprs havent clued into that yet.  If anyone EVER says they are "grinding" your game, you have just failed to truly entertain.

And that, IMHO, is why the genre is collapsing.  I give some props to the MMOS of 2008 for trying new thingsm but in the end, they just arent enw or different enough.  Rather they are refiniements on gameplay that the players have seen before, done before, and are tired of.

My prediction is that the next break through MMO will do gameplay very differently from MMOs of the past.

Who knows, it might be us ;)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rebel Monkey Darkstar test and Web fun

Just a  short note,

Now that our web app is coming together we were able to give our Darkstar servers a bit of a work out last night  Results, though still preliminary, were very positive. With about 12 people going in and out of game sessions with 3 to 4 players per session everything worked, nothing died, and we saw almost no Darkstar server load.

With any luck we should be able to move to testing an order of magnitude more players in the next week.

Meanwhile, some thing we've learned about Web2.0 along the way.

(1) The Netbeans 6.5 profiler is totally broken with regards to Glassfish 2.0.  Really,  people, this is NOT good.  The current release of two products central to Sun's Web 2.0 strategy don't work together.  Even worse, there is silence on this fact such that we wasted a week trying to figure out what we were doing wrong before we gave up and went to a commerical profiling solution.  And for any Sun folks reading, a quick translation: a week in a start up is about the equivalent of 2 months of development Sun time.

Sun is my alma-mater and I love it, but I gotta be frank: this is NOT the way to win customer loyalty to your software products.  The NB profiler is really about the only thing NB has going for it when compared to Eclipse.  Breaking it is a bad bad thing.

(2) Bayeux is a bad joke.  Its a messaging protocol designed by people who know nothing about building secure online systems.  Its biggest weakness is that it is ONLY a client to client protocol.  A clue for any Bayeux people listening... that makes it almost worthless in the online game space, chat space (where you want to do server side message filtering) or almost any other at all sophisticated web app.  We're struggling with it now but we will be replacing it soon with a custom built, true Comet based message hub that allows us to push messages from the server as well as from clients and in general have the server involve itself intimately in the message stream..

Other then that, our hodgepodge of web technologies is working out fairly well.  I'll be submitting a talk to AGC where I will dissect what we've built, what we used, and all the lessons learned.  I submitted that talk to CGDC which is earlier... and they turned it down.  Which frankly astounds me.  BUT of course the blindness of CGDC to the online game phenomenon is part of what made AGC happen to begin with so maybe I shouldn't be so surprised.