Punditry is dumb. Switching to developer mode!

Tired of Punditry

Sandra and I have run out of steam as MMO pundits. Again. The problems are that 1) MMO punditry is basically saying the same things over and over, but, 2) nobody really knows the secret to making super amazing awesome games.

I recommend reading “Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer”. It’s a great read about why pundits are so often wrong, and why blogging about common-sense things has serious flaws.

WoW Should Have Died

Let me put it another way: our industry’s “common sense” tells us that WoW should have flopped when it launched. It was the most expensive launch fiasco we’d ever seen!

Common sense says you don’t recover from mega-sized technical disasters. As evidence, we have a long slew of failed games before and after WoW, which we write off as “Oh, of course they failed, their launch was poor.” We still believe that getting the launch right is critically important to a AAA-level MMO’s success.

But WoW’s launch was horrible. Their server tech was a failure. An utter failure that got worse with every box they sold. Even six months after launch, more people were complaining about the game than enjoying it. It was hemorrhaging money and players and good will. Perhaps you remember when Penny-Arcade rescinded their Game of the Year award due to all of WoW’s technical problems and server instability?

The point is this: if WoW had died right there, we, the MMO industry would have just nodded and said, “Well of course it died! You can’t flub your launch! That’s just common knowledge.”

But WoW got better.

And now of course we nod and say “Well of course it did! That game was so well-polished, and the company was so well-respected, that players put up with even large amounts of failure!”

So hey, great. Guess what? We have a common-sense answer for anything that happens. Whether WoW flops or it succeeds, we can just nod our heads and give some reason why it happened. No matter what happens in the industry, we have a quick common-sense explanation as to why. We aren’t learning anything.

We Learn So Poorly

But make no mistake, WoW did in fact change our way of thinking about MMOs: the industry went “holy crap, everything we knew must be wrong, because look how successful WoW is!” Remember when the creative director of Warhammer Online got into a bit of punditry of his own?

“I can’t tell what is flaw and what is genius in WoW, so I don’t want to get sucked into copying things in case I get the wrong one,” the amusing Barnett continued. “‘No one’s going to play our game unless it also had elephants!’ No. Don’t be swayed. And stop playing World Of Warcraft.”

His answer was that we should largely ignore WoW because we don’t understand why it’s so successful. We MMO developers already know how to make successful MMOs, in our heart of hearts. Trust our instincts! Use the Force!

This common-sense advice was fairly widespread, but there was a different common-sense reaction that was even more common: all old MMOs are irrelevant now, so start your design by cloning WoW, then go from there if you have time left over.

Sadly, neither ignoring nor copying WoW has led to much success. And yet those were the common sense answers to what to do about WoW.

It seems that if we bother to learn anything from new information, we change too far: we flip from one truism to another, unable to see the gray in between. Before WoW happened, we believed that players needed to be forced into groups — that without hardcore group mechanisms, players wouldn’t create the strong social ties that kept them paying. After WoW launched, we completely threw that out. Baby, bathwater, sink, and house. Grouping went from a necessary evil to “wait, you’re making it easier to level in a group than to level by soloing? What the hell is wrong with you?!”

We made a complete reversal. And it was all “common sense.” It just seemed so obvious that we should do that, given what we saw in early WoW.

So Tired of Common Sense

Common sense, it turns out, is like those old aphorisms: we have “Look Before You Leap” and also “The Early Bird Gets The Worm”. These contradictory bits of truth can apply to anything we want. So no matter what we think, we can always convince ourselves that our decision is based on good solid common sense. Doh.

I’ve railed against a lot of these “common sense” answers for years. I like to think that my analyses are a little less lopsided than average. But do I really know that? No. And I’m sure my beliefs are riddled with different flaws.

So on the one hand, I’m confident that I know more about making MMOs than some random gamer, or even a newbie MMO developer. But I’m not confident I know so much about making MMOs that my advice is foolproof. I don’t believe there is anyone alive whose expertise with MMOs is foolproof. We do not have a Van Gogh of MMO making. Actually, if you use painting as a metaphor, we’re still figuring out the damned color spectrum. We don’t even have a full palette of paints!

I would encourage you to read that book — it’s very interesting stuff, if a little depressing. I think that book is what tipped us over the edge — we’d been only reluctantly punditizing for a long time, and this kind of made us go, “Our opinions are not really so valuable that we should feel obligated to push them on other people.”

And when you don’t think your opinions need to be shouted from the mountaintop, it kinda puts a slump in your punditry activities.

Punditry Mode Is Stop

So we’re taking a hiatus from long articles about how other games work and why they are so wrong. Oh, I’m sure there will be some snide remarks here and there, but <yawn> WoW did this blah blah blah Lotro did that, they’re so dumb blah blah blah. Let’s not do that anymore, okay?

However, I still want to talk about MMOs. Writing about MMOs helps me figure out what I actually think. And in fact, I have a lot to say about MMO design and coding right now because I’m making one from scratch. So Elder Game is now going to be a blog about my new indie MMO, currently code-named Project Gorgon.

This is bad news if you think Elder Game is at its best when talking about what WoW did  right and what ST:O did wrong. However, if you’ve liked the in-depth analyses of specific game systems, you’re in luck, because there’ll be lots of those, plus high-level discussions of coding pipelines, tools, and processes.

Developer Mode Is Go

Over the past four years, Sandra and I have actually prototyped quite a few MMOs and MMO-like entities. They all had the same pattern: we’d start them during a lull in our contracting, then we’d get a juicy game contract, and when the contract was over, the project had gotten cold. So we’d wait a while, then start a new project. Rinse, repeat.

Why did they die? Because when we got back to them, we realized they kinda sucked. Taking time away from them made it easy to see the major flaws. That is, up until the last one: it didn’t seem majorly flawed when we got back to it.

This last prototype, code-named Frontier, is the MMO we talked about on the blog before. Even after a long hiatus, it still feels fresh and interesting.

Gorgon!

So the Gorgon project picks up right where Frontier left off: it is still a 3D MMO with a Unity client and a Java server. (But it has enough differences in scope and design that it didn’t make sense to keep calling it by the same project name.)

What makes this one different? Why won’t “Gorgon” get mothballed like the other MMOs we’ve attempted in the past? Well, the number one reason is that this is no longer a side project to do while I’m bored. I’m now dedicating a full 50% of my time to this MMO, and I’m not taking any extra contracts on the side. (I’m still deeply involved with FlashGameLicense.com, though, which is why I’m only doing it half-time.)

Sandra’s Hiatus

My guess is that Sandra won’t be showing up on the blog for a while. She’s as tired of punditry as I am, and she’s only going to be occasionally helping out with the Gorgon code base. Gorgon is really my baby, because Sandra has her own insanely aggressive projects she’s focused on. (They tend not to be directly MMO-centric, so she doesn’t want to blog about them here.)

See You Friday…

So the plan is to have a new post each Friday about Gorgon — the design, the tools, the process, the hurdles, the anguish. Oh, the anguish. And I’m kinda keeping some of the financial details in the dark while they’re getting hammered out. But let’s just say I have many surprises planned.

The first Gorgon post will be on Friday, and will discuss what sort of game Project Gorgon is. (Hint: it does not contain any gorgons.)

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18 Responses to Punditry is dumb. Switching to developer mode!

  1. I don’t know that Elder Game was necessarily at its best when talking about what WoW did wrong, but I have always felt that Elder Game was one of the best at articulating what WoW did wrong because your development perspectives. Anyone can have an opinion (mine: WoW got away with an unacceptable launch because they had the AAA solo market largely to themselves at the time), but relatively few of us have actually balanced classes in a live MMO.

    That said, I look forward to hearing about your new project, and hopefully playing it someday.

  2. Ysharros says:

    I’ll just echo what GA said above. Alternately, I may steal your entire post and use it as my own “why I’m tired of being a blogging pundit who isn’t even an MMO developer” post, minus all the actual MMO-developer bits you have, of course.

    Keep writing. I may not know a pipeline from a lanyard but I’m still interested.

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  4. Nils says:

    Blogging about MMOs is like many things in life: messy.
    You can never be sure of what you say, you can never be sure about what others says, your intuition can be wrong, you can feel about things completely different than the ‘casual’ guy, your best logic may be correct, but irrelevant. You can’t usually test anything and still: not doing it, isn’t a solution, either.

    So, you just made blogger mistake #1 and announced regular updates? I look forward to them !

  5. Ted Chen says:

    I actually found some of the punditry posts enlightening (eg Graphical Updates are Dangerous), especially when it brought in production and business aspects, mixed in with the developer/designer centric viewpoint. I’ve use those posts as a mental checklist to make sure I’ve at least considered and ponder those points before moving on. I might not agree with them 100%, nor may they be even accurate several years from now, if you talk about specific MMOs, but that’s not the point.

    I guess you could still convey the same amount of information without going into pundit mode, but please don’t slip into the usual myopic developer mode where you only talk about the newest shiney thing as if it alone can solve all the problems you’re facing.

    P.S. I myself am developer centric, hence why I read EG – to slap myself silly for forgetting the bigger picture.

  6. Stabs says:

    Thanks to you both for writing very interesting and enjoyable blog posts. Am looking forward to Project Gorgon.

  7. Charles Ellis says:

    Since I began reading it I’ve enjoyed EG’s posts across the whole spectrum from punditry to system design discussions and behind-the-scenes info about what you have worked on in the past, so thank you both for that. I’m excited about this new direction for the blog and especially look forward to any details you feel are worth sharing about coding/architecture issues you encounter along the way.

  8. BryanM says:

    I’ll make a bold prediction: Guild Wars 2 will usher in an era where we no longer look at Dragon Warrior 1 remakes-in-a-bar-with-other-people, as special and worthy of an allowance. Plus, a proper GTA Online is the final wide niche to fill.

    And maybe, some day, I will stumble upon a random blog post somewhere about Magic the Gathering Online, instead of about some game that can already afford network advertising whenever it feels like. The winner of the beauty pageant already has enough attention, but isn’t necessarily the prettiest princess in the room. Just talking about That Thing is like throwing an award show for actors: they make millions of dollars and everyone wants to sleep with them, but somehow, that isn’t enough?

    … and how can you not have gorgons? They make everything better. Everything.

  9. Sandra says:

    BryanM: That’s zombies, not gorgons. Everything is better with zombies. (But we already have a server named Zombie.)

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  12. Mavis says:

    I have really enjoyed reading you – your the person who makes me think most about mmorpg design as a simple player.

    I’m glad your still going to be writing something.

  13. BryanM says:

    Sandra: You and I are very different people.

  14. Tinman_au says:

    Glad to hear you’re doing an MMO again, I still miss AC2. Is it too early to apply for beta :o)

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  17. Fig says:

    Eric,

    I’m a long-time reader of your blog, and I have to say, it’s refreshing to know that there’s at least one developer out there who hasn’t lost touch with reality. As a gamer, I feel like I’m part of a whole generation that was left behind in the post-WoW cash-grab, and I feel alienated by an industry that now cares more about budgets and bottom lines than making enduring games. As you said, hindsight is always 20/20, and I’m tired of hearing the same recycled excuses from the same smug sources as to why MMOs are all the same nowadays. We’re all equally blind, and parroting economic theory and market data won’t change that.

    To be honest, I’ve always preferred your articles on your development projects anyway, because they’re part of a solution to the problem of pundits, clones and irrelevant MMOs that has bogged the industry down for almost 7 years now. I think it’s pretty obvious that the major industry players are abandoning the PC platform, and so it’s people like you that are leading the way for the MMO developers of tomorrow, and actually helping things evolve. It’s only a matter of time until the next wave of independent MMOs hit, and when they do, I think a lot of people will be surprised by their success.