Tuesday 8 September 2009

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.

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