Outta Synch

One of the beautiful things about MMOs fundamentally is the persistence of the game world with a dynamic playerbase coming and going as suits their interest and inclination. The more years I put into MMOs, the more stark some of the genre’s contradictions (any my reason for enjoying them) become:

MMOs offer a giant world for players to explore. Most players, however, stay on the beaten path, try to develop their characters as quickly as possible and bypass or discount significant portions of lore and content. As a matter of fact, MMOs that don’t sufficiently “lead” the player are derided as pointless sandboxes (roll file footage of sandbox debate). To top it off, MMO worlds actually aren’t all that big.

MMOs offer the opportunity to interact with thousands of other players all over the world. So what do most players do soon after joining a game? They join (or form) an exclusionary tribal group such as a “guild” or equivalent so they have a subgroup identity eschewing contact and interaction with said thousands, except where necessary. Of course, a game without the bleating thousands of “others” is “empty” and “lifeless.”

MMO economies and gameplay require player interdependence to advance in gameplay. Increasingly however, MMOs are catering to the solo minded player, or at least enhancing solo play to attract and keep the casual player in a meaningful gameplay experience.

MMOs provide opportunities for greater group advancement through player cooperation. Of course, too high of a player cooperation requirement and the game becomes “carebear.” Ironically, MMOs have increasingly developed more and more PvP systems to grow the playerbase and in most cases, creating almost a completely alternate character advancement path.

Not so ironically, most MMOs haven’t figured out how to foster legitimate altruism and cooperation. Most frustratingly for me, the vast majority of games simply wont allow anything close to a true mentoring experience between a more developed character and a more junior one. Most gear can’t be handed down for fear of disruptive economic impacts. Most games effectively block the grouping of higher and lower level characters to avoid disruptive effects of power leveling.

Ironically, all of these effects often conspire to actually make it pretty difficult to consistently have a meaningful group experience. The one area where all MMOs seem to fail is to provide a mechanism to maintain parity among an elective peer group. It is ordinarily only through heroic efforts that players who want to explore an MMO world as a consistent group can do so.

I happen to play regularly with a small static group of players across multiple geographies that I’ve known for a long time and genuinely enjoy spending time with (online or otherwise). When we launched our current endeavor, we all understood and imposed rigid play limits on ourselves. We had all had guildies or game friends fall behind or leave us in the dust as a result of different play budgets, play styles and resulting differential advancement rates.

In the vast majority of games, very quickly the distance becomes insurmountable and the laggard either becomes a castoff or drops out of the race. As I’ve ranted before, this fundamental “fourth for bridge” problem is largely an outgrowth of what are now fundamentals of MMO design:

  • use rock-paper-scissors character archetype to maintain balance and create interdependence,
  • xp=advancement,
  • spread the population out to avoid crashing the server, and
  • make advancement exponentially more difficult as development progresses.

So, in order to advance, you should group. In order to spread the population out, you need a reason to send players out of the starting areas. To make it attractive, each kill of type X should have a diminishing return on player advancement (i.e., level 1, 100 xp, level 10, 100,000 xp) which then requires more difficult mobs in more difficult zones so as to avoid stomping the noobs. It’s a vicious cycle.

It seems crazy that if someone in a group like ours which plays on average about 4-6 hours per week as a group (an almost zero outside of the group) risks falling off the train when RL constraints cause them to miss an instance run or a night’s organized questing. Why should we be forced to stand down while someone is busy, ill or on vacation? To me this is a significant stumbling block that the devs are going to have to confront sooner or later. For my group’s sake, I hope its sooner.

Get the Hell Out of My Way

So, in playing 3 MMOs right now (WoW, EQ2, a beta and on rare occasion, Eve) maybe I’ve bitten a bit more off that I can properly chew. Nonetheless, each offer something very different for me and often suit or require a certain mood to really enjoy properly. Even with RL commitments (especially during the week), its still nice to quickly drop in check on auctions, do some tradeskilling or even go for a wee grind or clean out the old quest log.

With the exception of a regularly scheduled midweek group run, midweek game time is generally unstructured and at a premium. The quicker and easier it is for me to get in to the game, the better.

Now most games and other apps seem to generally try to get out of the user’s way and let them get on with whatever they’re doing. For example, my winxp box at home boots fairly quickly and generally gets out of my way in a bearable amount of time. The machine I use at work however takes forever. Go get two cups of coffee and read the paper forever. Correcting for hardware differences, the work box still loses my a mile.

Our IT folks have our network locked down tighter than a drum as is their mandate, but I can’t imagine that the productivity hit we take justifies whatever added security measures they’ve taken. Fifteen minutes of an ordinary workday is 3%. For a service organization that bills its time, that’s 3% right off top line revenues. Or, if you face productivity targets like most folks do, that’s another 15 minutes tacked onto my day. Many colleagues at different companies who have equally or more sensitive information on their networks and also have significant resources devoted to their protection and none of them suffer the kind of log in delays we routinely experience. HOW can our process take so long?

The only explanation I can come up with is that these guys don’t know what the end user experience is like, or don’t appreciate the impact the choices they make have on everyone’s productivity. They don’t understand how important it is to simply get out of the user’s way.

I can only think that something similar must be going on at SOE as well. I’m continually amazed at how klunky and how long it takes to jump into EQ2. First the interminable filescan with its own progress bars, and this is before the actual downloading and updating begins. This process is so frequent and so annoying that literally half the time I just bail out and go play something else. Its just not worth it. HOW can it take this long to simply get into the game? Could the game have possibly changes so much since the last time I logged on a few days ago?

Now, I could understand if it a user hadn’t been on in a while and had a series of updates to download, but everytime? As an experiment, I tried to log into EQ2. I hadn’t been on in a few days, so I let the scan and update run. After a while, I finally saw the “PLAY” button light up. Of course, while waiting, I started this rant, so for Science purposes, I quit, restarted and timed my log in process after being fully updated. I started at 8:40pm. I finally received the “PLAY” button at 8:50pm.

Ten minutes after I pressed go. OR, if I only had an hour or so to play, I just blew 16% of my play time before I even got to choose which character to play.  HOW can this not have improved in over 2 years when SOE’s competitors seem to have it beat?

SOE, get the hell out of my way!