The big MMO development catch (suits always get this wrong)

I often held my head in disbelief how can developers cater to some groups of players, making the game worse for everyone else. Now, when I spent a few weeks with a single-player game where the player is the only player and game modes exist, it became clear.

Multiplayer games are inherently competitive, even when they are formally not. While in a single player game the progress of the player is his own only and even mentioning further progress is considered “spoiler”, in multiplayer games, the players compare themselves to others not just because of “keeping up with the Joneses”, but because it’s needed to be able to play together.

In such setting, the progress cannot be defined against the content, only against other players. For example Arthas, the final boss of Icecrown citadel is now a soloable vanity mob with no rewards of value. Back in his heyday (early 2010) he was the ultimate boss and firstkills of him was worthy of mass-viewed videos. His strategies were learned and his drops were valued prizes of the best. I still remember killing him, despite it was somewhere in the summer, not when he was fresh.

The important thing is that today’s soloable vanity boss is the very same Arthas. What changed is the progression level of the players around him. This isn’t a thing in solo games, if I grab an oldie from 2010 which I never played, I can play it like it was 2010, assuming I didn’t look up spoilers.

This causes the inherent competition: Arthas does not have inherent value, defeating him and taking his loot is valued only against the progression level of others. In January 2010 it was awesome, in the summer it was decent, today it’s irrelevant. This is the mindset the players are in, regardless the devs like it or not. This is why yesterday’s hot zone is a ghost town.

In this inherently competitive community, catering to a group (helping their progression) automatically damages the progression of other players. For example if the WoW devs would double the damage of gnomes, all the non-gnome players would be outraged, despite their avatars and the content they are facing didn’t change. What changed is their relative position to gnome players. After the change, a casual gnome player has higher DPS than a top non-gnome. Raids would want gnomes and all competitive players would roll gnomes and soon even pugs wouldn’t take non-gnomes, despite the content was and still is doable without them (just like they demand overgearing for normal raid pugs).

Now, probably not even a WoW dev is dumb enough to double the damage of the gnomes, because – even if he is unaware of the above – he is implicitly feeling that such gnome-buff would be wrong. However the devs – or rather the suits behind them – doesn’t have such problems catering to other groups, like “casuals”, “whales”, “time-rich players” or even botters (by not banning them as they pay subscription). They don’t seem to realize that by doing so, they damage the relative progression of other players (even if they are technically not changed) and decrease their satisfaction with the game.

Developers have to understand that anything that affect the progression of anyone affects the progression of everyone. Giving welfare to one group is equal to decreasing the progression of the rest of the players. Allowing progression methods unavailable to others (like botting, playing 10+ hours) directly hurt the progression of these “others”.

This is why devs should – from the beginning – stick to a niche, a group that has shared ideas about the game and cater to them. If changes happen in the focus in the name of “expanding the playerbase”, the result is necessarily the decreased satisfaction of the old playerbase, even if technically they aren’t affected. Let me give a clear example: if the dev wants to cater to a casual playerbase, then limiting the weekly playtime to 21 hours would be a very good idea. However a suit would come showing the amount of angry forum post about it and say “hey, let’s also cater to the time-rich, not like it affects the others”, and suddenly he gets better PR and better next quarter subscriptions. However the original casual base who are no longer competitive and are viewed as “scrubs” by the community for their “shit gear” are less than happy. Along comes the suit, demanding catch-up mechanisms and welfare gear, and suddenly those who put in no effort at all are competitive and everyone else is mad and leaving. Then of course the suit will consider the game “beyond its prime” fire the developers and only keep a maintenance crew to run the servers, oblivious to the fact that the game would still be strong and earning 3x more if he would allow the devs to stick to the 21 hours per week rule.

Summary: since MMOs are inherently competitive, the devs must anger those who are not the targeted group and accept the fact that they will leave to keep the targeted group. Catering to a non-targeted group will damage the relative progress of the targeted group and make them leave.

Finally some good news!

Bloomberg reported that 120 people were arrested in China for developing PUBG cheats. The legal term is “disrupting computer networks”, but it doesn’t matter, the point is that the cheat makers are behind bars and likely remain there for years.

I’ve been long saying that abusing games is a criminal activity that should be punished just as seriously as cheating in a casino or rigging a major sports event. This is a multi-billion dollar industry, messing with it is causing huge monetary loss to the companies and significant income to the criminals.

Now, what’s interesting is that China was the first country where such measures were implemented. It’s probably because of its illiberal system. In the West, just because politicians – or even the people – think something should be illegal, there our lots of hoops to jump before the rule is actually implemented – and that’s miles away from being enforced. Just look at Trump and his Muslim ban.

But at this point, the first domino fell and this cannot end any other way than global criminalization of video game cheating – or at least cheat development, but that doesn’t matter as 99% of the cheaters use commercial cheat program. Why? Because otherwise this situation will provide a huge advantage to companies that are based in China. There is a reason why Tencent, the biggest Chinese game distributor participated in the raids: the Chinese police is much more likely to enforce the law if the criminals hurt China than if not. Just check the loose enforcement of the North Korea embargo. So a China based company would get at least the Chinese cheatmakers and distributors locked up, while a Western would not, that would be a huge incentive for game companies to move to China. The West could only stop its game industry to exile if they offer the same protection: locking up cheaters.

PS: if I was a Western lawmaker, I’d approach from “Harrassment”, declaring cheating against an opponent, causing him stress by defeating him unfairly a form of abuse.

Graphics and lore does not have to be great. But it must be inoffensive.

I’ve found PUBG duos, which is probably the best gem I’ve encountered since the blue gear raiding, this is my project now. Why? Because it cuts directly into the social core belief: having a partner, having a team makes you stronger (reality: teaming with M&S makes you weaker). While it’s only the beginning, but my results are much-much better than in Solo and my Solo project ended up in top 100.

Anyway, before I’ve found it, I was looking around survival games and watched videos of The Long Dark and Do Not Starve. Well, I almost vomited. Who on Earth thought that this graphics is OK:

Who the hell thought that a story where – no matter how well you play, everything sucks and at the end you’ll get eaten by a bear is OK?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not fan of adding more bytes just to add more bytes. Gameplay is always more important than visuals. I often play low graphics settings to make sure the game doesn’t slow down. But there is huge difference between simple and disgusting. For example look at this open source revival of a 1995 game:

It’s as simple as it can be, but it’s functional and inoffensive. You don’t feel sick just by looking at it.

If you think I’m just making up excuses while secretly want AAA graphics, look at Wildstar! That thing had AAA quality graphics, yet 10 seconds of watching it was enough for me to decide that I’ll never touch it. No amount of money helps if your art department forgets that it’s not making “modern art” for some snob gallery but a game for people.

It doesn’t matter how good the gameplay of The Long Dark is if the scenery is so horrible that I can’t force myself to play it. Hint: Frostbite on the frigid wasteland is the same mechanic as heat shock on the lovely tropical island. Exactly the same game. Just the second can be enjoyed, which isn’t a negative for an entertainment product.

The ultimate question if you want to design a non-clone game

There’s been a lengthy discussion on Raph Koster’s blog about the price of games. It is clear that games have more “bytes” (content, quality) in them than before, that warrants the price increase. We are sort of agreeing that this is a consequence of games being clones of existing games, having only “more bytes” as unique selling point. But then we hit the academic discussion of what is a clone and it started to get lost in “is a new feature new or just a scalar which was zero before” kind of arguments.

These arguments appear when there is no clear answer and we are all fishing in the murky waters. I have a clear answer now. It’s not about scalars, graphics feature equality, rule implementation time or whatnot. It’s about the most fundamental property of a game: its players.

My clone rule is: Game A is a clone of Game B if serious amount of its players abandoned B to play A and/or would play B if A would shut down. It is an extension of Raph’s “every genre is just one game” rule: A and B are fighting over being that one game of the genre. If the games are different, there is no such fight. If EVE would shut down, its players wouldn’t turn into WoW or LOTRO subscribers overnight. However if WoW would shut down, LOTRO, RIFT, BDO, ESO, TSW, EQ2, DDO would likely get a large player bump, showing that these games cater to the same audience.

With this, we can clearly answer the question “is PUBG a CSGO clone?”
Nope, since CS:GO didn’t lose players when PUBG risen (it’s been stagnating around 360K for 2 years), they are very different games, despite the similar content. Hell, the content is so similar that one game could be completely written using only graphics assets taken from the other game.

PUBG is a perfect example of a new genre: the battle royal game. I’m sure there will be many clones, many very different in content. For example a turn-based trading card game. But it’ll still be a PUBG clone if it keeps the game rules of PUBG:

  • Short matches with no other persistence than matchmaking ranking
  • Lots of players, everyone vs everyone (small teams vs lots of small teams)
  • Just one can remain
  • You are not rewarded for killing others, just for surviving
  • Hiding from others is possible

Of course – and this is the very point – the above rules are my beliefs and can be wrong. The real test is that the imagined trading card game is taking players from PUBG or not. It can be a bizarre idea to think that a turn-based trading card game can be a competitor of an FPS, but it implies that people are attracted to mechanics and content instead of rulesets. If one believes that, he must ask: where were these PUBG players a year ago? Because sure as hell not in CS:GO. If they like FPS mechanics, they must have played some FPS game but no FPS game lost 2M concurrent players over the last year. My guess: they came from all walks of life, most of them didn’t play FPS. I didn’t play FPS in the last decade. My success on PUBG also shows that FPS practice isn’t needed for someone to be a good PUBG player. I would dare to say that a random EVE player would fare better in PUBG than a random Halo or CS:GO player due to the “everyone vs everyone” and mindset.

Ergo, if a dev is set out to make a new game, he must answer the question: “do my players come from a specific game”? It’s OK to compete with other games, but one has to be aware of it. He must verify this answer by data. He should ask the alpha/beta testers, kickstarter backers, early access buyers the question: “what were the 3 games you spent the most time last year”. If a big group gives the same answer, he is making a clone, even if he doesn’t want to. Then he must ask if it’s reasonable goal to beat that game. If not, he should probably think about a redesign by dropping the features used by the Game A players and focusing on features used by players from not one specific game. Or, maybe its high time to refund the backers rather than going bankrupt a year later when the game doesn’t get wider audience.


PS: my PUG duo project is going much better than I’ve expected:

A League of Legends project has no point

As I’ve retreated to League of Legends to have a project – namely an asocial, rational strategy that provides wins without “skillz”, I noticed something that I’d laugh off a few years ago: every single game, win or lose, I’m called a scrub. If we lose, it’s my fault. If we win, I’m carried by awesomes. As I’m rising nicely in rank, this must be factually untrue. Anyone can get lucky in a particular game and get carried, but not dozens of games. If you are rising constantly, you are doing it right.

Don’t think of Master level rising, it’s a new account, so I’m rising in Silver, which isn’t much, but it’s better than those who are not rising in Silver: my average teammates. Nor it’s a complicated strategy, I just place more Wards + Zombie Ward than the rest of my team combined, thanks to warding jungler item + Sightstone. The whole zone is lighten up, the enemy jungler and roamer is always pinged.

My original plan was to mix this with “passive Nunu when the team has new champion users, aggressive Rammus when not” play. But I realized that it won’t work. Not in the sense that I couldn’t climb into the top 10%. Maybe I can even climb into the top 1%. But it won’t matter. I am sure that every single player I encounter during my rise will honestly believe that he carried me. Why? Because they believe that it’s about KDA. Or rather, they want it to be about KDA. I have two proofs for that.

The first is the negative reception of my PUBG guide. I didn’t get into the top 10% or top 1% in PUBG. I got into top 0.01%. I got better results than all the famous streamers. I had top 10 ratios only achieved by hackers and pro players. The answer of the “community”: “lol ur no gud cuz itz boring”. I have no expectation that the infamously primitive LoL community will respond better. So most players won’t follow my strategy, even if they accept that it works (no one in the PUBG forum claimed that my results are not real).

The second is that how could I succeed where the devs and all the pros failed? There is a “strategy” advice that every pro agrees on: “get a team and play as a team”. All the championships are done by teams, there is no solo queue there! Yet, when devs introduced a unified flex queue that allowed pre-made teams to fight against solo randoms – with the expected outcome – the outrage was so big that they had to reintroduce solo queues. These players believed that playing the game the way the pros play it is wrong and they should be shielded from the “unfair” tactics of … forming a team in a team game.

Ergo, let’s imagine that my plan works and I get to the top 1% and enough players are adopting it despite the social stigma of “being low” so this will become dominant strategy. All I’d get is a patch that makes looking up teammates impossible (like they are identified as Summoner 1, 2 on the pre-game screen) and a zombie ward nerf. Because they don’t believe that it’s personal “skillz” that matter, they want it that way and aggressively respond to anyone questioning their mantra. And – as the flex queue abandonment shows – the devs will cave.

Now, I don’t think this behavior is new. Then why did my WoW projects were huge and popular successes? Why I gained at least infamy in EVE? Because my projects were – oddly – social. The WoW guilds were actual guilds where people could join. Sure, not the “social” types who chit-chat all day, but people could join. Even outsiders admitted that it’s working as I had “people who love me” (this wasn’t the case, but that’s how socials translate any group activity). Having 150 “friends” in my guild is a huge success in their eyes. Having a top 0.01% position is “meh video game score for no skillz play”.

There is no point in continuing League of Legends. Also, I don’t really like it. I have to find something else, something that involves building a team or at least a “community” a group that follow some form of play.


Talking about teams. One of the complaints of the PUBG players was that I played solo, while the “big guys” play duo and especially squads. I thought that it’s just bullshit, but I started up the game and played one-one game on each mode with intentionally dying as soon as possible to get me rated and then calculate the player sizes from that. Well, color me surprised:

The question is, without a partner to hide in toilets, can I play PUBG duos or squads? I went to find out:

Not bad for a first game on a new version after 2 months hiatus. Of course it was an 1200 rated game against morons and newbies, but still, I think I stay for a while!

The genre change after 10 hours of Subnautica

When I first encountered Subnautica’s genre switch, I was upset. But luckily I’m also a fan of solving puzzles just for themselves so I’ve stayed. Most players don’t. Steam Spy says that Subnautica had 200K players in the last two weeks out of 1840K owners, that’s 11% (the launch hype helps). PUBG has 20M/27.5M, that’s 73%. I’m not comparing the total numbers, but the 11% to the 73%. It seems that PUBG buyers are much more likely to continue playing than Subnautica buyers.

Playtime total: 184 hours average, 120 hours median for PUBG per player. 25.5 hours average and 10.5 hours median for Subnautica. So a median PUBG buyer (the “random dude”) plays 12x!!! more with his game than a Subnautica buyer, despite both are buy-to-play games with similar price. The Subnautica buyers stop playing exactly when they get into the “witch altar zone”.

Why? Is it badly written or ugly? No, that’s the dunes. The problem is that the gameplay of the first 5-15 hours is significantly different from later part. That’s not the case in PUBG: your first n00b game is exactly the same – just easier – than a 2200 rated game you play in the top 100. What does a player do when he starts playing? He dives into the ocean to get materials. Copper and mushrooms for batteries, quartz for flashlight, sulfur for repair tool, silver for habitat builder and larger air tank, creepvine parts for a knife. Oh, and fish to eat and purple fish to get fresh water. Then he start seeking fragments which are laying around like materials to have a better base. And more materials to build it. And even more fragments and materials to build ships, small and large. The “original Subnautica” gameplay is searching for stuff on the ocean floor and building stuff from them.

But after these hours, the gameplay fundamentally changes. The player no longer collects materials and build things. He pursues clues – assuming he does and doesn’t just look up spoilers. The gameplay that got him hooked is gone. There is no more reason to collect any more materials. There is no more reason to dive to the random ocean floor to find something. Anything that isn’t clearly an alien structure or a huge skeleton is uninteresting and irrelevant. You speed through zones without caring about them because they cannot offer anything you need.

That gameplay doesn’t appeal to most players, so they stop playing. They don’t curse and ask for refund because they had 5-15 hours of fun out of the game and theoretically they can continue to do so and some people use their imagination, like building a hotel by the Cove Tree. However most just say “meh, it’s not fun anymore” and move on. So it’s not really a “bait and switch” as the buyer gets some of what he asked for. A few hours of diving into a beautifully made alien ocean with treasures to claim and dangers to dare.

But there could be much more! There are whole zones what the ordinary player doesn’t even see. These zones could be scoured for materials and bases built there. There should be objectives in the dunes, the crash zone or the mountains. Not just driving trough, looking for alien obelisks to lead to clues to the cure.

Progression should extend the gameplay and not replace it! Seaglide extends gameplay: now you can swim faster, but you will not use Seaglide all the time, you will still swim afterwards slowly to search. Seamoth extends it even more. You get a new option of movement, but it doesn’t replace Seaglide or swimming. Bioreactor and growbed replaces gameplay: you never catch fish or seek sunny/hot place again.

This doesn’t have to be this way. All it needs is to redesign the late game to match the early: to demand resource collection and building to get to the next step. We should actively participate in making the cure instead of just doing a favor to the Sea Emperor to earn the cure from her. For example the research facility should be flooded and offline, providing no data, this could be a task to gather materials to patch the hole and build a pump and power it to drain the facility before the watertight doors of the inner room open and give access to the next step of the story (like a key to the power plant). We could build a supercomputer with lots of microchips to analyze the complex data in the sanctuary, providing necessary blueprints. We could build a drill to clean up rubble that blocks the entrance to the power plant which is otherwise inaccessible. We could collect or breed lot of fish to craft a “huge fish torpedo” that can be launched from Seamoth or Prawn at a leviathan who catches it, becoming well fed and peaceful for a day. And so on, and so on, keeping the story only as background element and making the progress on what it was in the first 5-15 hours when players were still enjoying the game: collecting materials in an alien ocean, dodging dangerous creatures.

While I’m still a firm believer that the game needs a hard mode, matching the late game to the early on all modes (with level-appropriately difficult material requirements) would greatly increase player enjoyment. Unfortunately, it can’t be made as a mod, because devs announced no modding support even planned.

Death by gasopods and the necessity of death penalty

Before I published my ideas about a scalable challenge mode for Subnautica I wanted to test some stuff that needed a clean game and since it included the oxygen abuse the speedrunner used (if you enter a base which has no oxygen, you get a save with oxygen instead of getting no save and respawning on the last base when died), I started a game in “survival” mode, that has tiny death penalty: you respawn at the last base, losing the items you collected since then.

I soon died go gasopods. Gasopods are mildly annoying creatures in the starter zone who release gas bombs if approached. You can easily avoid them, you can run away the bombs before they explode and you can run out of the gas when starting taking damage. Well, they are in the starter zone for a reason.

I completed the game in 125 hours on the hardcore mode (1 life only). I did not die to gasopods. Nor to Reapers, Ghosts, Dragons, Warpers, Crabsquids, lava and other mean bad things. How could I die in the starter zone?

Because I couldn’t care less to look around for gasopods. Because I was busy doing whatever I was doing to notice the gas bombs. Because I didn’t even pay attention to the HP meter. Why? Because I didn’t care, because there was no risk. The death came as surprise, but not as shock. I was somewhat annoyed for losing like 5 minutes of “progress”, but that’s it.

When playing in hardcore mode, I looked around all the time. I minded my surroundings because meanies could kill me and take away dozens of hours of progress. I didn’t look at the other screen without pausing first. I didn’t build or harvest without making sure that the area is secure. I didn’t walk around without my repulsion cannon.

In short: I was there. I was immersed in the world. I was swimming in an alien ocean looking for resources instead of “grinding mats lol”. The danger made it real. There was no place for sloppiness or “hold my beer” class nonsense.

Death penalty is necessary for the World to be a World. For the dangers to be real. For the player to pay attention to the surroundings. To care what kind of creature comes around (as opposed to dismiss them as “thrashmobs”). After dying to simple gasopods, I have no doubt left that a game without death penalty is a bad game.

PS: the rising star of the gaming scene, PUBG has a pretty strong death penalty, you are removed from the actual game and you lose rating. Yet, it’s a rising star with much more players than the “inclusive and accessible” games without death penalty.