December 31, 2008

Don't be the first, be the best

The other day, I was talking to a friend about Dark Age of Camelot, a game I didn't try until 2007, even though it's been out since 2001. I was complaining to my friend, a longtime DAOC fan, about how frustrating I'd found the quest journal. Right off the bat, it bothered me that there was no functionality for sorting quests. I consider the ability to sort quests based on location and difficulty the bare minimum, and even my favorite WoW mod doesn't do everything I wish it did.

What really got to me though was that it didn't have a highlight, checkmark, or some other way to easily tell which quests were completed and which weren't. I spent a lot of time scanning through the text of all my quests to see which ones to turn in, and I'd often miss one, which made me do a lot of backtracking to towns I thought I was done with. Since questing is one of the most common activities in the game, I think it should be one of the easiest actions to perform.

My friend listened to all these criticisms patiently, and then said, "Yeah, but DAOC was the first game to even have a quest journal! They invented it!"

I thought about this for a minute, and tried to figure out if he was actually right. Then I decided that while this was an interesting piece of history, it made no difference whatsoever. Even if I'd known that information when I was still playing the game, there's no way that could have helped me be less frustrated with the feature.

Live games require constant improvement

DAOC is almost 8 years old now, which is an impressively ripe old age for any videogame. But it costs the same amount of money per month that brand new games do, and is therefore a direct competitor of all those new games.

Innovation is a beautiful thing, don't get me wrong. When a game comes out with a cool new feature, it tends to get major points and earn them customers, as well it should. But once a competitor takes your great idea and improves it slightly, players can't be expected to know or care who came up with the idea originally. Game features are held to a standard of excellence which is generally getting higher and higher over time, as new games make small innovations.

Luckily, as long as your game was a good one to begin with, the amount of small improvements you can make over time is almost limitless. EVE online does a great job of relentlessly making improvements to their game. If any scifi game is going to take away marketshare from EVE, it's not going to be because its devs got complacent and let their game get crusty.

Of course, it should go without saying that the word "improvement" is a subjective one, and not all changes will be viewed positively by players. Successful changes to a game make players feel as though the game's been distilled into a more ideal version of itself, not that it's been changed into something else entirely. Players should be left thinking "how did we ever live without this?"

As designers, we need to make sure that our games improve over time, because players ultimately only care about whose game is the best, right now. This is a good thing for all of us, because it means that an upstart game really does have a chance to take players away from the presiding juggernauts. All you have to do is make a better game. It may not be easy, but at least it's fair.


Eolirin said...

Since you've brought attention to these again, I hope you don't mind me pointing out that your conclusion is only halfway true; only players that are looking for a new game to play care about what's best, *right now*. People perfectly content with their game don't really care if someone else is doing a better job, they have no reason to leave; there's history, they've got their friends, and the time investment in starting over is prohibitive besides.

That means that because of networking effects, it's theoretically possible to run into a situation in which it doesn't matter if you do it better; once you've got a big enough game, or a set of big enough games exist, the market cannot support new players without peeling players off of those other games, but those players are too content to be peeled off by anything short of revolutionary advancements. At that point being there first is all that matters, not because of any given feature or even set of features, but because you managed to attract an audience before it became impossible to do so.

Hasn't happened yet in MMOGs, but if you look at Google or Facebook/My Space or Youtube, you can see that sort of effect in action.

Mike Darga said...

Ah, that's a really great point. I totally agree.

It's possible that WoW would turn out to be a game like this, but we won't really find out until somebody does a better job, which might not be for awhile =)

Eolirin said...

Nah, WoW's not big enough to prevent sustainable growth in other games. I mean, it very well could end up never being surpassed because there's not enough market to support two WoW sized games, but things like EVE keep growing, and new game launches typically have enough players to do very very well if they manage to hold on to them (which, thus far they kinda haven't, but that's a different issue).

Mike Darga said...

Yeah, I believe the box sales of AoC and WAR mean that people willing to give other games a chance, but it also means we're doing a terrible job at living up to WoW quality.

It's a much better problem to have than what people were afraid of, though, which is that WoW is just an inescapable player vacuum.

Eolirin said...

Actually, it's clearer to put it like this: Building a better game cuts off part of the newbie stream for older products, but networking effects prevent some of that; any new game needs to build a critical mass before it'll be able to impact new player streams in other products. If there aren't enough people looking for a new game, critical mass is impossible to build. So you need a large pool of somewhat disenfranchised players or you need to expand the market.

This basically means that WoW is pretty much untouchable. There are too many people already there for another game to ever really impact it's newbie stream; things will slow down but nothing is going to really cause people to stop joining short of mass defections of the elder population or the early game becoming painful in comparison to the elder game - and Blizzard has been very good about making sure that doesn't happen; smoothing the level curve with every expansion and now Cataclysm's refining all the early content. But there's still room for other products to reach a critical mass that can sustain populations and growth.

The really big question is how many games can exist at those critical point numbers? It's gotta be a finite number.

Mike Darga said...

Yeah, but that's perfectly ok to me and to anybody that IMO has reasonable expectations for their game.

As long as WoW keeps attracting new people to the genre, but it is possible for those players to be enticed away by niche games, then everybody wins.

I can't remember if I posted this in a real post or if it's in a draft somewhere, but I always say that WoW's a successful sushi restaurant, and the rest of us are the very happy cats that live in the alley behind it =)

Eolirin said...

That's certainly a good way to look at it, especially if you're building games in the dikumud branch.

I think there's room for more restaurants though; they just have to do something that's not sushi. :) I kinda wonder what'd happen if you had something EVE-like without the pretty severe issues that EVE has with UI and new player experience; something with more hooks, that's easier to get into. That there's positive growth for EVE is impressive, not just because it's atypical for the industry, but also because it's got such a brutal learning curve. Makes you wonder what'd happen if they had an easier time of attracting people and had had a bigger starting population.

I muse a lot about what something like that would look like. It's an interesting thought experiment. But we definitely need games that have different core focuses than what the industry's been obsessing on. Stuff that focuses more on socializing and exploration as gameplay mechanics.