No MMO is an island

by Fargy

A quick look at Massively Multiplayer Online games; their commonalities, their future.

MMO games are chaos in action. If you like watching a flock of birds wheeling against a flaming sky, or like to stare at the dancing flames of a bonfire you will find an interest in online games. I've written this short piece on some of the factors that cause the fire to die out.
Specific reference is made to Runescape, as I had the most experience there, eight years of playing as compared to two years with World of Warcraft and five years with Ultima Online. And a few other fits and starts with other games such as EVE Online.
I wish every MMO success but some of their means to success I disagree with; gambling for one example. Here I lay out some of my reasoning on alternatives, again specifically, Runescape.

No MMO is an island.

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players ~ William Shakespeare.

 

I'm Jakob Gamertsfelder, a lover of games, gamer by name and nature.

 

I'd like to have a conversation about online games of the MMO variety and in particular one called Runescape. It will be an attempt to broadly stroke out some issues and identify how some weaknesses could be addressed for a more positive future.

 

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Welcome to the world of MMOs.

Short for MMORPG, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Coined back in 1997 by Richard Garriot, the term is as clunky now as it was then. It referred primarily to Ultima Online, a game which is still played.

 

Currently MMO games are in a bit of a downturn. World of Warcraft is the most well known MMO and has been in decline, but still has 7.7 million players. Star Wars Galaxies was shut down due to the decline in its players, and the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Old Republic. SW: TOR had a booming start but interest quickly fell and the game moved to free to play.

 

Free to play is a model where the game attempts to hook the player initially and then get the player to buy game items during play. Stronger weapons, avatar customisation and so forth in games like Battlefield Heroes.

 

Mostly the reason given for declining player numbers is the increasing competition between games and because of new games entering the market. The release of Grand Theft Auto 5, on 20th Sept 2013, has seen the creators, Rockstar Games, rake in $800 million from one day of sales, bear in mind though they did spend $266 million creating the game.

 

So there is plenty of interest in games.

Why are older games losing players then?

Usually MMOs update and create new content, so why is that new content not keeping players?

 

It can be down to play-styles. League of Legends took the mass combat scenarios of World of Warcraft and made that a game in itself. Not startlingly original but what was a new approach was players can jump straight into battlefields. League of Legends has some 70 million created accounts and 12 million daily active players. Yet, it would not have existed without WoW.

 

These games are connected to the world via the internet and they are connected to each other in their styles, designs, player-base and problems. None is an island.

It could be that what seems to be new content, isn't.

A rehued or reskinned monster to bash is only technically new content.

What you want with new updates is something that very slightly increases the complexity.  So that established players have something new to learn but don't find it too confronting.

And at the same time you want that new complexity to add variety.  So that you have more possible draws for different player types.

An example of how not to do this is Runescape's Evolution of Combat, where combat became more complex and click intensive.  Which excludes players who like to chat via typing.  To socialise in the new combat you need to get a speech program.   Skype and so on.  Which raises security issues, and people don't want that when playing a game.

But much more than that...

Extra clicks are extra work.   EoC introduced extra clicks to chat and to combat, for exactly the same result as before;  chatting to friends or killing stuff.  No wonder players got peeved.

Runescape tried to fix this with a base level combat system that would allow a more AFK style, for those that play Runescape while doing homework or watching movies.  The retro fit didn't really work.  Players told Runescape devs about these issues tens of thousands of times during the beta of the new combat.

But the players Jagex listened to were a different group.

 

Let's go back to the beginning of why we game to try and ferret out some answers.

 

If we look at the reason why we play games; players respond with “ fun”.

The question then becomes; “ What is fun?”.

 

Raphael “Raph” Koster has the best answer and it's based on learning. If we are learning in a game, it is fun, once the learning stops, the game is dull. There is more to it than that, naturally, because to have one reason is too linear and the world of MMOs is chaotic.  I recommend Raph Koster's “Theory of Fun.” 

 

However there is always more than one ball in play in MMOs.  We are emotional critters, we like belonging and those ties can become extraordinarily close in MMOs.  My wife and I met in an MMO.

This is part of the concept of players being content for other players, essentially my wife and I used an MMO to write a romantic comedy for our lives.   That was ten years ago, and that shows how MMOs, and their related forums, are social networks.  Like pubs, but with lower dress standards.

 

Probably the best concept to explain the concept of MMOs is that there is none.  Tabula rasa, the slate is clean, the wall unwritten, Fates unwoven.

And perhaps by attempting to understand, segment and market the MMO, the egg layer is slain.

Now we need a theme song for talking about magical worlds, then onwards and upwards.

Everything old is new again.

 

Game designers and players can think that new content means a tougher monster with better loot that causes the old loot to become obsolete and thus motivates players to continue playing.

 

This is a common problem and has seen MMOs tend to gravitate towards 90% male populations at around the teenage years. Those players that tend to be more attracted to competition and “killing stuff”.

 

Yet most online gamers these days are female. In around the 30-40 age bracket. Zynga, Facebook, Bejewelled and Candy Crush Saga, are probably where these gamers are. Yet MMOs would strongly attract these customers, if done right. This imbalance in player populations is a strong sign that MMO game designers are not asking the right questions and not correctly hearing what players tell them. It also leads to them all competing for the same audience.

Two in the hand.

Two other issues that don't seem to get much attention are;

 

  1. Players are competition for each other, so there is incentive for players to not want the player populations to grow. However, on the upside, players are also content for each other, not just in competition but things like standing around having a conversation also count.

 

  1. MMOs have become more like infomercials than books or movies. Advertising in the game and pressure to buy the new microtransaction items distracts from the game content. It is like putting adverts in a Harry Potter book and wondering why readers lose interest. MMOs serve the same purpose, they are escapism. Nobody wants to escape to embedded advertising, native advertising, infomercials or whatever next week's slogan is. We are getting a little beyond that. Which is reflected in decreasing numbers of hits for online advertising, unfortunately the advertisers mostly think yelling louder and more often will fix the problem. Because there is still big money in online advertising, some $3.6 billion annually in Australia alone, which isn't a bad thing, it needs better management though.  It is this manic struggle to grab the ethereal that destroys what makes an MMO.

 

Runescape; a numbers game.

Runescape.

 

In the course of 2013, Runescape has attained 505,000 paying members. Which sounds good, until you look at the trends. A year ago Runescape had 1.8 million paying members. In September 2013 members are dropping at around 1000 per day. In July and August memberships dropped some 10%.

 

A trial membership scheme ended on 4th March 2013, so the continuing decline isn't from those players leaving.

 

Bans of players who cheat in order to make real money or train their avatar while they sleep, don't seem to be the reason either. Because after those bans, member numbers rapidly rise again as those cheats replace the accounts that were banned. However there seems to be a permanent nudge down of numbers after such bans, which indicates the bans may be eliminating innocent players.

 

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Talk to me.

To my mind Runescape has some communication issues. And one can totally understand how that can happen. The game has millions of players, yet game designers do not have much time. So as players vie to be heard by game designers what happens is that the most amenable are heard. None of us wants to be around unpleasantness, so players who are agreeable are more likely to be heard and most likely to ask least of game designers. This is purely a practicality of limited time, talking to hundreds of different people is impossible on any meaningful level, so people make decisions that limit their circles.

 It seems to be the case that only massive numbers of complaints generate change in Jagex philosophy.

The best example of this is the introduction of Evolution of Combat and the resulting bedlam on the forums.  Around a thousand customers at a time were on forums complaining.  It was a fascinating example of chaos when pages of posts were generated in seconds.

In response Jagex responded with the 2007 servers.  Apparently they had no later game versions saved.  Which to most players seemed like a lie.  Why would a games company keep no record of their different game versions?

The answer to that question is probably Jagex thought a very old version would cover those that liked creating private game servers of that era and also be a holding pen for players that were angry at the time but would eventually see the benefits of EoC and come back.  A game version close to EoC's time would have lessened the difference and would mean fewer players returning after their "tantrum" over EoC.

Credit where it is due...

The four Jagex staff that work with the Old School servers do a great job.  Ash, Reach, Nexus and Matt K, have an exhaustive method of obtaining player feedback.  They are inspirational.

Back to my complaining...

 

Another example of how Jagex talks is how the CEO, Mark Gerhard talks.  When the gambling initiative Squeal of Fortune was instituted Mark insisted that if you used your free daily spins you loved Squeal of Fortune, even the paying to gamble and buy in-game items part.  As a result he declared that 90% of players were loving Squeal of Fortune.

The free spins are a couple of spins you get daily to habituate you to using the wheel, and hopefully get you to gamble on it with real money.  The spins were thrown in your face upon login.  So players use them to get rid of the popup screen as well as get free stuff.   What is interesting is that 10% of players still didn't want that free stuff.

Mark Gerhard usually posts on Runescape forums about once a year.  Early in 2013 he declared the Year of the Player.  And then he vanished.  Players generally refer to 2013 as Year of the Payer as a result.

 

In Runescape's case all this is exacerbated by a Forum volunteer system that has to be the worst I've even seen. Forum moderators, commonly called Fmods, are rude and arrogant. No shop would survive with the service they give, and it is one of the reasons Runescape is failing. Effectively the forums are a shop front, with rude staff.

Why is this so?

The Fmod position is a voluntary one, players do it for free. But things are never free. What they are doing it for is the status and power. They get to police other players. That is their reward. Which attracts a certain type of person. They have to be intensely loyal to Jagex, the maker of Runescape, or they lose their position. Other players after the same position of power become obsequious and fawning, reporting rule-breakers at any opportunity. Even for minor things like posting in capital letters or in the wrong forum thread. It leads to animosity, the term is “wannabe mod” . And that's not fun, and we play games for fun.

 

Effectively communication with Jagex is dead. Unless it agrees with Jagex. There is the usual statement about constructive criticism, but mostly that old phrase is code for agreeable criticism.

 

Let's leave the communication issues and move on to harder stuff, the updates that are meant to keep Runescape new and interesting, and keep it fun.

 

Update me.

Runescape has a long history of updates, usually multiple in a month, over the last ten years or so.

 

Now the key for Runescape is that content was not forced. With player trade you could get most items from other players that played content you did not enjoy and those other players could trade with you for content they might not enjoy getting. This whole concept of trade is marked by one line of code. In 2007 that code was turned off. Players left and that year marked the high tide of interest in Runescape when we look at Runescape on Google Trends.

 

Trade is a game of its own. Like Monopoly but more interesting, more complex, more to learn.

 

The forced closure of trade, led to player created innovations, like Junk trading, however the damage was mostly done.

 

Which brings us to one of the big ticket items of MMOs.

 

Freedom.

You can create your own stories. Get away from the humdrum of your life, or it might be too dangerous to play outside at night, or you prefer the interactive immersion compared to more passive reading or movie watching.

 

Forced play-styles crop up again for Runescape in 2010 with Dungeoneering. Basically it was a copy of WoW's group dungeons play-style. With all the same problems, players griefing each other mainly.

 

Another forced aspect was that rate of experience gain for solo players was woeful. Tens of thousands of players protested but Jagex did not fix it for over two years.

 

MMOs are groups of players but that doesn't mean they want to be forced to group together.

 

Generally most players will spend most of their time doing solo activities, so MMOs are solo games, set in a, hopefully, bustling environment.

 

Which is what people want. The want Freedom but they also want to Belong. To be part of something greater.

 

So we have four catch-cries now; Freedom, Belonging, Learning and Communication.  

Bit cheesy, but it should help focus on what we want, which is to increase Runescape's future history from 300 days.

 

 

Take a number.

Let's take another look at what declining player figures mean for Runescape. The loss of members referred to earlier has meant 23 Jagex staff let go in July and August, with the end of September seeing another round of lay-offs which had 30 days consultation. Which means it's a bigger number than 23, which required no consultation.

 

Fewer Jagex staff means fewer jobs being done. More importantly, and invisibly, it will mean poorer morale. We can see how morale works by what looks to be ex-staff interfering with Jagex operations; specifically Twitter accounts hijacked and Runescape forum closures and limitations. One group was responsible for that, and they seemed to have knowledge of Jmods (Jagex Moderators) and their work environment and management.

Even the Runescape forums could go.  Other games are trying that now.  HiRez Studios did that in August 2013.

One can see the reasoning; our competency is creating games, not reading forums, let's outsource it.

Cutting the forums adrift may be a good thing, Jagex/Runescape isn't really using them that effectively.  My gut instinct though is that it would be unwise.  There are a few that post on the forums more than play the game of Runescape, in a sense the forums are a game too.

Pretty as a picture.

Let's list a few updates which are problematic for Runescape;

 

  1. Dungeoneering; forced group play-style, forced boss killing play-style.

  2. Squeal of Fortune; under-age gambling, which sells in-game advancement.

  3. Evolution of Combat; game update which wiped out several play-style choices and turned combat into a heavily item based activity. Again, tens of thousands of complaints during the beta, which were mainly ignored. Just as they were when Star Wars Galaxies did their Combat Upgrade some years ago. And Star Wars Galaxies is now no more.

  4. Screen layout and graphic changes which are not terribly important. Checkers seems to be doing okay for a game that hasn't had a graphics improvement in centuries. The game is the important thing, how the pieces look, not so much. Another issue with this topic is that combat became more click intensive, just as Jagex wants to move to phones etc., which are not so great at click intensive play on a cluttered screen with multiple buttons.

 

It's an oddity that in a game based on visuals, that the prettiness of the pixels isn't that important. It's the complexity that captivates.

 

Free Trade.

Runescape was the original free play model for an MMO. Combined with the lowest cost subscriber cost for members it was able to grow along with WoW during those heady years of 2001-2007.

 

What caused the 2007 trade embargo, was players. Players vied for each other for in-game items, statuses, achievements and so on, some players would cheat or pay for cheating to gain those items.

 

So it's understandable that Jagex staff may speak disparagingly of Runescape players, in private. It does illustrate one other point though. Crime and Punishment. Fake credit cards etc., cost Jagex real money, when players use them to pay for accounts.

 

In a way Runescape's popularity became a pain. Players flocked there to try and make real money, just like they did with Blizzard's Auction House for Diablo 3. Which causes a lot of problems, and which has lead to the closure of said auction house in the next year.

 

It is the global nature of these games that encourages this. In some countries a few dollars is a day's wage. In Runescape's case they have dealt with this sort of problem by blanket banning any accounts being created in Korea and China. Which seems to lack elegance. And shuts a market down completely.

Microtransactions are partly designed to soak up this willingness of players to spend more money to have advantages.  They fail in that respect because the balance is wrong and it drives normal players away, so that only those willing to pay for advantage are left, and when that happens it's less advantage when everyone pays.  When everyone is a superhero, nobody is.

Microtransactions also increase the cost of the game.  Increased costs mean fewer players.  Players soon work out they have to pay more for the full game, and then the new price effects demand.

The key to Microtransactions are that there should always be two paths, at least.  So that no player feels excluded, that if they want, they can obtain everything the game has to offer, by whichever method they choose.  Microtransactions tend to go for greed and in the end sell the most profitable items, which are those that give the most advantage.  Much like selling Olympic medals would decrease the popularity of the Olympics, selling in-game success ruins the popularity of other games.

The invisible social network.

 

This is one example of failed communication. Jagex has this huge social network in its players and seems oblivious to it. At one time a few years ago, their forums had 500,000 visits per week resulting in 250,000 posts per week.  A Runescape puzzle with an interesting word made that search hit the top search in Google Search.

Yet Jagex rush off to sign up to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and so on. As if channels of communication is communication. I've no doubt Runescape has the solution to its woes hidden in its players.

Runescape did hire 3 Youtube creators, they make various content about Runescape and have good audience sizes.  However, they bungled it slightly by including one person who talked about taking revenge on players when he had a position of power.  This, apart from the bungle, is a step in the right direction.  Recognition is a powerful motivator, we can see that in how hard Fmods work for no compensation apart from recognition.  It's that Belonging theme again.

However it needs to be broader.  Cliques are great to belong to but exist because of exclusion, the path to recognition should be clearly laid out.  So that any can achieve it.

These are not all of the issues at all. But let's stop listening to me waffle on and list some solutions.

 

Be the solution.

Runescape specific fixes.

 

Hopefully the prior discussion gives some justification for these ideas, and I'll avoid any expensive fixes.

 

  1. Open Rants forums to public view.

  2. Stop dividing players; e.g. High Level Forums.

  3. Severely Limit Forum Moderation.

  4. Talk to player groups; the unsupported German players for example.

  5. Stop banning players. Alternatives are obvious, as are reasons.

  6. Aim to talk to every player at least once. EVE Online does it. Jagex can.

  7. Focus on RS forums and in-game communication. Help chat channel created.

  8. Every game goal should have two paths, at least.

  9. Use runecoins in a trade/drop/skill system.

  10. Tax the Grand Exchange. Trade is a game the Exchange removed.

  11. Simple recognition system for forum posts being seen.

12. Talk.  Players that are talking aren't walking.

13. Teach customers how you want feedback, don't lock and hide posts or mute accounts to teach them how.

 

Exclude the Exclusion.

 

In a more general sense than Runescape ...

If you want an MMO to have the best chance of success, stop excluding people.

If your audience is primarily one age group, and one gender, you have failed.

Imagination is not age, nationality or gender specific.  Plus you end up squabbling over the same players with other MMOs like a flock of seagulls over scraps.

If you find, like Runescape, that you divide players, that you exclude players and that you have impolite people as your customer interface, you're gonna have a bad time.

Players are not Eliza Doolittle shaking her fist and exclaiming "Just you wait, Henry Higgins! Just you wait!".

Players talk.  Maybe not in refined English, but enough to be destroying Runescape in a highly effective way.

If you want to lose a 1000 customers a day, copy Runescape.

If you want to grow, 7 billion people are accessible.  Facebook showed that.  And MMOs are just as much a social network as Facebook is.

The key is try not to make the MMO small enough so that it's understandable.  Imagination needs unseen horizons.

 

 

 

Email from Runescape CEO Mark Gerhard, April 19th 2013

*copy of email from Mark Gerhard*
Hi Jakob,
Please don’t take this the wrong way but I have no idea why you were banned or who you are, the player support department deal with all bans. I get thousands of player emails a day requesting everything from items to be restored to their inventory/bank to being unbanned because they were actually hacked and the perpetrator ‘botted’ on their account.
The player support team ban literally millions of players a year for a multitude of offences ranging from cheating, trolling, scamming, botting, offensive behaviour, community safety, gold farming, real world trading, etc, ect.
You are welcome to create a new account/s if you agree to abide by the Jagex T&C’s and intend to be a positive contributor to the community.

I simply can’t read all the emails let alone respond to them however rest assured my assistant does however forward all player ban request to the player support department.

I am however saddened to read that you feel the game is being “policed to death” or that you perceive Jagex as your enemy. I don’t believe that is true and its certainly not our intention but I believe RuneScape’s longstanding success is directly as a result of actively protecting the games integrity and ensuring the community’s safety a philosophy I’m not prepared compromise on.
Equally I’m troubled that you consider SoF ‘gambling’ where in reality it is absolutely no different to the existing drop table mechanic behind killing any monster in RuneScape, I’m conscious a few players have called the creative implementation into question and I suppose it’s not a helpful comparison when other companies do indeed use a similar spinning wheel device for what is very clearly a real gambling service, the team have a project slated this year to look at changing the implementation.

Thanks,
Mark

Accentuate the polarity.

 

I'm one half of Fargrist and Vivathia. We were permanently banned by Jagex on the 13th September 2012 because of how we reacted to Squeal of Fortune. A gambling wheel for kids that also sells wealth and items while removing the MMO aspect of Runescape and making it a slot machine. 

I've no love for Jagex because of that ban. And I've no intention of ever playing Runescape again, while at the same time doing much to destroy Squeal of Fortune and anything similar. That project won't stop until that wheel has been spun for the last time.

Wanted to express that because it shows my stance in an open light and shows how Jagex has alienated players. To such an extent that even years later we still kick up a fuss. I alluded to that fuss earlier with the bugabuse site people (do not go there, it's dangerous). But you can also see that on the Runescape forums when players talk about accounts they've had banned years ago, and still want to reactivate. And then get their posts locked for asking.

 

That loyalty has two edges.

 

Penultimately, I would like to thank Jo Harrington, she's a good old bean.  Her article...

http://wizzley.com/will-australian-law-makers-spin-trouble-for-jagex/

 

Ultimately, I'm bloody annoyed at the wasted potential of Runescape. See Jane McGonigal for some ideas on why I feel that way.

 

http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html

 

Thanks for hanging in there, there is no TL:DR, because people that need them, have trouble reading STOP signs and I don't want to trouble them.

 

 

Jakob Gamertsfelder.

 

Other online gaming articles.

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Runescape has entered the Age of Bonds. Implementing a new system of microtransactions in a major way.
Anything is possible in virtual worlds. With a click of the keyboard we can summon dragons, ride whirlwinds, swing swords and hit the Quit button.
It's critically important to understand how to talk to customers. Sometimes it doesn't quite work.
Updated: 02/24/2014, Fargy
 
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Fargy on 01/15/2014

I was just today talking to a girl who talked her teacher and 7 friends to go to Spain for Christmas just past. She's 17 and full of life. She loved it, except there was food everywhere, mountains of paella and rivers of sangrea. She's considering gym work.

I hope you love it!

Here is an idea,

A tree of words under which we shade,
Letters fall like leaves.
Consonants
Like wind
Synonyms
Like sun
All the
Particles
Of all our
Knowledge
Like acorns
That grow from roots
Buried deep in ourselves.

Jo_Murphy on 01/15/2014

I am an English / Art teacher turned ESL English as a Second Language. I am about to g to Spain to learn Spanish and then I hope to teach Art Bilingually.
My thesis is about teaching languages through the arts.
It is fun! Jo

Fargy on 01/14/2014

What sort of students do you have? My sister is an English teacher, I accidentally bumped into some ex students of hers and they loved her for how much she helped them.

Teaching changes lives, I envy you.

Jo_Murphy on 01/14/2014

Esperanto would be good too

Jo_Murphy on 01/14/2014

I think you should regain your language! I am earning Spanish to become a bilingual teacher

Fargy on 01/14/2014

Woops. lol I was close with another guess of Esperanto Speaking Linguists.

English is my second language, Danish was my first, but sadly I lost it when we moved to sunny Australia and learned how to speaketh Aussie.

I'm happy what I write might be of some help. It makes me feel good, thank you.

Jo_Murphy on 01/14/2014

English as a Second Language? (LOL) Jo

Fargy on 01/14/2014

Hello there! And what is ESL?

You are welcome to plunder any and all things I write.

I sure hope ESL doesn't stand for Eccentric Scribbling Loonies.

Jo_Murphy on 01/14/2014

Hey guess what? I teach ESL and it looks like your articles will be the best bet for some of my lessons! Jo

Fargy on 10/22/2013

*copy of email from Mark Gerhard*
Hi Jakob,
Please don’t take this the wrong way but I have no idea why you were banned or who you are, the player support department deal with all bans. I get thousands of player emails a day requesting everything from items to be restored to their inventory/bank to being unbanned because they were actually hacked and the perpetrator ‘botted’ on their account.
The player support team ban literally millions of players a year for a multitude of offences ranging from cheating, trolling, scamming, botting, offensive behaviour, community safety, gold farming, real world trading, etc, ect.
You are welcome to create a new account/s if you agree to abide by the Jagex T&C’s and intend to be a positive contributor to the community.

I simply can’t read all the emails let alone respond to them however rest assured my assistant does however forward all player ban request to the player support department.

I am however saddened to read that you feel the game is being “policed to death” or that you perceive Jagex as your enemy. I don’t believe that is true and its certainly not our intention but I believe RuneScape’s longstanding success is directly as a result of actively protecting the games integrity and ensuring the community’s safety a philosophy I’m not prepared compromise on.
Equally I’m troubled that you consider SoF ‘gambling’ where in reality it is absolutely no different to the existing drop table mechanic behind killing any monster in RuneScape, I’m conscious a few players have called the creative implementation into question and I suppose it’s not a helpful comparison when other companies do indeed use a similar spinning wheel device for what is very clearly a real gambling service, the team have a project slated this year to look at changing the implementation.

Thanks,
Mark


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