Men are only as good as their technical development allows them to be.

It was upon listening to the Gamers with Jobs podcast #150 that I was struck by a thought on the current trend of development in MMOs.

The conversation had digressed slightly from the listener’s initial question about voice acting in games and onto the more general topic of ‘game character as actor’ and how games go about achieving this. While talking about why they had, in general, left out character facial animation in Bioshock when it clearly would have been complementary to the excellent voice acting in the game, special guest of the show Ken Levine said:

“If you can’t do it right, then you probably shouldn’t do it.”

In his opinion the short sharp motto that should be adhered to by any developer who wishes to produce a game that presents a high level of quality is:

“Don’t do shit you can’t do.”

In this case his example being the fact that 2K Boston removed facial animation from Bioshock because they felt they couldn’t afford to produce it to a high enough standard.

In another comment, which perhaps cuts more directly to the heart of MMO development issues, he points out that:

“There’s very few games that can afford to do everything well.”

Granted, at the time he was talking about games like Bioshock, but is this a lesson that MMO developers have yet to learn? I wonder if MMOs perhaps try to do too much for the initial release, and in doing so end up with a less than sublime release which has many broken aspects to it, which is actually more detrimental to building that vital initial foundation of the game’s community than if they had launched without those broken features at all. Any serious MMO is developed with the ‘long run’ in mind, they’re a very special genre of game which can keep players not only interested (because games like Starcraft and Diablo II manage this just fine) but also paying-to-play for many years at a time; would a potential strategy be to release a very solid core game, where the developer does the basics, but does them very well, on the understanding that they will then continue to add further elements to the game after release?

I’m not talking about content expansions here, or not exclusively content expansions, but whether an MMO could release with just the fundamentals that we have come to expect from such a game: a way to create a character, and a way to develop that character. If the production quality of that game was outstanding, of the sort of quality we’d expect from a console game where, until recently, show-stopping bugs couldn’t be patched out, therefore things had to work ninety nine percent of the time out of the box, would we be prepared to invest and play while we waited for the developer to concentrate on, say, a complex and innovative crafting system if the game initially just had a slick combat system in place? I think the answer might be surprising. Just consider how many players are happy to butt their heads against the same end-game raid content in WoW when it’s made even slightly accessible and provides suitable Skinner Box rewards. So many players, in fact, that Blizzard haven’t got the hardware in place to deal with the increased number of players now trying to enter dungeon instances, and “Additional instances cannot be launched” has very much become the mantra of the frustrated World of Warcraft dungeoneer.

Would MMO players accept a game that did one thing, but did it brilliantly well, with the promise of further elements of the game being added after the fact? Should MMO developers stop trying to do everything at once, because outside of Blizzard and SoE there probably isn’t one of them that can afford to do everything well?

I look at Second Life and wonder whether it wasn’t ahead of its time in many ways, and thus shows us the potential for an MMO to, at least initially, concentrate on doing just one thing well. It obviously tried to do something that the technology of the time was barely able to deliver to the end user, but because they concentrated on that one thing and made it the focus of their entire game, they produced something that kept a wealth of players interested and invested far beyond what the graphical and technical limitations of the game would lead one to believe was possible.

9 thoughts on “Men are only as good as their technical development allows them to be.

  1. Spinks

    I think the answer to this question is yes (ie. yes it’s fine for a game to focus on doing one thing well), but that one thing in a MMO had better involve giving players the scope to entertain each other … whether it be via competition or cooperation.

    Because if you’re a MMO and your ‘one thing’ is questing, then as soon as people run out of quests, they’re gone.

  2. Stabs


    Shadowbane tried to focus on the pvp aspect above all else and was never a resounding success. I think it attracted a lot of wolves used to preying on sheep in UO who didn’t enjoy a world of wolves without sheep.

    Horizons bombed by focussing on crafting. Crafting was so good and everything else was so meh that the game world was full of Master Swordsmiths with no one to sell to.

    Clearly surpassing WoW in one thing while remaining inferior in other regards is better than doing just slightly worse than WoW in every area. I think Darkfall which surpasses WoW in impact pvp will last longer than Aion which probably doesn’t surpass WoW in anything.

    Regarding game development there is a very uncomfortable triangle.

    Your investors want money back. Doing a Darkfall type development scheme is almost impossible for most games companies. (DF took so long that even its fans began calling it vaporware, launched with almost no hype or publicity, actually discouraged the typical flood of new players at launch by making the game unavailable for purchase). So for an investor in DF he received no return for 7 years then a small return in the launch year. On the other hand it’s a small return that will continue for a long time as the game will likely grow.

    AoC is more typical where they kinda knew they were releasing it too early but got a big splash of cash from box sales then left it up to the Live team to salvage what most customers felt was a disappointment.

    The third corner of the triangle is Marketing. Marketing want spangly graphics that make people at E3 go “oooo!” Of course spangly graphics are the enemy of massive player fights so AOC and War couldn’t do what they were meant to do in terms of massive fights because they were too pretty.

    The solution is for investors and marketing people to trust the games makers to make a damn good game that people want to play for years and not keep poking it.

  3. Stabs

    “was upon listening to the Gamers with Jobs podcast #150 ”

    btw you said podcast. For some reason that reminds me of soomething I was going to remind you to do. Can’t think what.

  4. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    In addition to Stabs’ examples of Shadowbane and Horizons, you can add Star Wars Galaxies to the list. I remember reading several times about how people got frustrated with SWG and said things like, “I’m not paying for potential, I’m paying for a finished game!” when talking about things like the state of skill trees.

    So, I don’t think players will in general sign up for a game just because it has lots of potential. I think a game aimed at the larger market needs to do a lot of things very well (or at least, “good enough”) or meet with crushing disappointment. If you’re talking about niche games (like Darkfall), you get a bit more leeway; then again, most of the cranky people aren’t likely to show up for a niche game, either.

    My thoughts from years of observation.

  5. Melmoth Post author

    @spinks: Indeed, longevity is certainly an issue. Although the number of people who have entered the raiding scene in WOW now that is more accessible would suggest that a large portion of that player base are happy to be repeatedly running a small subset of content over and over provided that the rewards are enticing enough, and progress can be felt to be being made.

    @Stabs: I’m not sure Shadowbane counts because although it did concentrate on doing one thing, they didn’t actually then do that one thing well. I agree that Darkfall will probably keep a more stable player base than Aion, because once people get to the end game of Aion they will realise that the PvP isn’t really what they want, they wanted WoW but with Angels.

    As for marketing, that’s always a thorny issue. Ignoring the whole slimy issue of MMO marketing as it currently stands, having just one major selling point for a game might make it difficult to sell. Having said that, I look at a game like All Points Bulletin and see them selling the whole thing based off of the character creator alone at the moment – they seem almost reticent to show-off any actual footage of playing the game – and yet the hype and interest around that game is still pretty impressive; therefore I’m not sure that marketing what I call a ‘modular MMO’ (where the game comes in small self-contained modules, a bit like when you buy supplements for your favourite pen and paper RPG) would be all that difficult after all.

    @Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green: They are all interesting examples, but they are all, as far as I recall, games which claimed to be complete and yet weren’t. So although they had concentrated on getting one part of the game finished, it was due to schedules and release deadlines, not because that’s the way they had originally set out to implement the game. Thus I feel that the players’ anguish was not that there was limited game-play, but that there was limited game-play when they had been promised a finished and fully realised MMO. Had these games, from day one, come out and said “What we’re trying to do here is so massive that we’re not going to be able to do it all at once and at the same time do it well, so this is what you’ll be getting, and here’s what we plan for the future” they might have been given more leeway.

    Possibly. I am more inclined to believe in your experience, but I don’t honestly think a game has really set out from day one to develop in this way and been honest and up front about it.

  6. unwize

    I’ve seen a couple of gameplay trailers of APB and it’s actually looking extremely impressive. I’m not sure if an MMO GTA is something I’d be particularly interested in, but APB is looking like it might just nail it.

  7. Melmoth Post author

    I’ve seen one video where they run around in the game, but it was as a part of showing off the end result of the character creation, and didn’t really demonstrate how the game works much beyond a few people shooting randomly at each other. If there are other videos then I’ve clearly missed those, tsk! Which reminds me, I must catch up with the various outputs from PAX sooner rather than later.

    On a similar note, is it just me or has The Agency gone very quiet recently?

    Realtime Worlds certainly seem to have the look of GTA all sorted; now we just need to find out how the thing feels. I could definitely develop an unhealthy love for a decent MMO GTA though.

  8. Melmoth Post author

    Oh my, that looks deeply lovely. If the game elements are as good as the game looks and handles, APB could be a long term subscription for me.

    Thanks for the link!

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