Archive for the ‘Gaming’ Category

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WoW: the last blockbuster MMO?

July 15, 2008

I apologise for the tabloid-esque title for this post, it was actually inspired by an interview with Alex St John at MMOGamer. No’ I’d never heard of him either, until I read the interview, but he seems to have pretty good credentials – he was one of the people responsible for the development of DirectX and is CEO of a hugely successful digital distribution gaming platform, oh yeah and apparently, although he doesn’t say this explicitly, he was involved in persuading Richard Garriot to take his Ultima series into the online sphere and we all know what happened then. So all in all then I believe he’s someone worth taking notice of, particularly when it comes to predicting the future of gaming. His specific quote in refernece to the world of MMOs was:

“We’re going to see a generation of MMOGs that are much lighter, are delivered online, are microcurrency and ad supported, and evolve more dynamically. I think the era of WOW like MMOGs will quickly be displaced by lighter, more versatile communities that don’t require vast server infrastructure”

Now, it certainly isn’t the first time this kind of idea has been bandied about, but its timing seems apt. Age of Conan, despite remarkable sales figures, hasn’t fared so well critically now that players have had time to get their hands on it and the recent announcements concerning WAR are less than reassuring. Does this mean the whole concept of the multi-million blockbuster is flawed in the post-WoW world or are these problems specific to the games mentioned above? Will the cuts to be made to WAR at launch actually be beneficial to the game or, as the complaints against Age of Conan demonstrate, does a game need huge scope as well as depth?

Alex St John, coming at it from something of a business perspective, believes that the benefit of ‘lighter’ MMOs, which I think by this he means browser based, or at least very low spec games, with no or optional subscription, is that developers can build a loyal community with less commercial risk, and that once that community is big enough more content can be added to build depth to the game. Certainly MMOs like Maplestory, Flyff and Cabal are experiencing popularity in the western markets if Xfire’s charts are anything close to representative, although how this is translating into profit is less clear.

Looking at the wide range of reasons players cite as problematic in Age of Conan there seems to be some sense in beginning an MMO with a small, niche community as multi-million dollar games need big audiences and the bigger your audience the more people you have to keep happy and this seems to stretch developers beyond their limits. For the sake of convenience let’s assum that Richard Bartle’s four player types are representative of your ‘blockbuster’ MMO audience and map out some of the most commonly expressed criticisms of AoC:

Achiever – like LotRO, there is a dearth of content at the upper levels, weapon stats that have little affect on gameplay, bugged raids.

Explorers – only one starter area that lasts the first 20 levels, high respawn rates giving players little time to ‘relax’ in a given area, instancing.

Socialisers – little variation in armour models, almost compulsory single player gameplay in early levels, very tough mobs, poor chat interface.

Killers – siege warfare not working, massive class imbalances, problems with the combo system, poor PvP system.

Okay, so it’s a little contrived, but it could be read as an argument against targeting the broadest audience. Just take a look at this poll from the AoC forums. No it’s not absolutely statistically sound, but it seems to sum up most of the problems. It’s aesthetically pleasing and has a good storyline but many of the mechanics don’t work and the customer support is pretty awful. Does this mean that WAR is doomed for failiure, a fate that might prove Alex St John’s prediction true, certainly it might scare off future developers and damage the industry? Or maybe Mythic’s decision to cut some content will actual benefit the launch of the game as Keen points out on K&G’s blog as long as the content they do provide is top-notch.

History has proven that there are always genral problems with new MMOs, usually the launch, which AoC certainly suffered, but as people are quick to point out there were issues with WoW’s launch too. But given that many first time MMO players came to WoW some time after the launch, the latest batch of MMOs may well be the first time they’ve experienced these kinds of problems which when compared to the content rich and stable experience of WoW might ultimately prove too offputting. Could it actually be that WoW has set the bar so high for the mass audience MMO that future titles will face a huge struggle to maintain large audiences and how will that affect Blizzards next MMO? Or do games like LotRO prove that an MMO can do well even if its audience is relatively small by WoW’s standards?

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Now I am the Master: what MMOs can teach table top RPGs

July 9, 2008

There is a downside to playing two MMOs and trying to write a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, that is having very little time to do anything else fun. Hence the length of time that has passed between this post and the last one, which I believe was some time back in, er, March. There was also the small issue of getting married and going on holiday and all the organisation that entailed.

Anyway, I’d heard a while back that the D&D 4th edition was flirting with some online elements, which, according to the official site, includes the opportunity to actually play online as well as more predictable features like character visualisation, character records and access to the rules. This video below show’s you the kinds of things you can get up to with it.

Although I haven’t tried out the 4th ed rules myself, judging from the reviews it isn’t only the digital features that demonstrate the influence MMOs have had on this version of the game. According to reviews, both positive and negative, it’s borrowed a lot of the core concepts that characterise MMOs, well at least those of the WoW-mold anyway, such as the Tank, Healer, DPs trinity, metagaming and character optimisation. Understandably this has raised the ‘roleplaying’ question, does the MMO influence preclude character personality or can they live together side by side? I can’t really get a sense of just how much room there is for genuine role-playing in the rules, the reviews hint at very little in the way of guidance for this element, but I do think WotC have taken an interesting approach to tabel top role playing all the same. Whether or not it will actually bring in the MMO crowd or not is probably down to the way it’s marketed as much as it is down to the system and that I can’t comment on.

The reason I bring D&D 4th ed up is that I plan on using a few MMO mechanics in the WFRP campaign I’m about to start running. Unlike D&D 4th ed, however I’m going to try and use them to enhance and reward the role-playing experience. One thing about WFRP is that combat plays a relatively minor part of the game (or at least it does in mine), so alot of the time players are interacting with NPCs or with their environment which in many cases can feel a lot less satisfying than ‘killing the bad guys’. All RPGs, as far as I;m aware, reward xp to players for ‘good roleplaying’ but this is usually a general reward given at the end of a session or adventure as opposed to xp given for specific examples of good roleplay. Also, it isn’t usually specified what good roleplay constitutes, which while giving GMs flexibility can leave players confused about what they should be trying to acheive.

I was quite inspired by this discussion about character motivations on the Fantasy Flight WFRP forums. Part of the difficulty players face when roleplaying in RPGs is not being clear about what their motivations are or how they tie into their personal history. I don’t ever think that a character’s motivation should simply be about survival or making money, these should be means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I asked my players to come up with rough background ideas for their character’s which I then elaborated. This has the added benefit of allowing me, as GM, to bring their own histories into play as storylines in themselves. For example the PCs meet because they are looking to solve their own personal tragedies. I know some WFRP GMs like to make their player’s characters to be expendable, but I beleive they should sit at the heart of the story, that way they feel less like chess pieces, which is another problem that tends to arise with gritty realistic RPG settingsd more like they have, and more like they have some influence on the world they’re in .

The players have clear motivations, tied to objectives they want to acheive, meaning that it’s easy to hand out xp for acting in a way that’s relevant to these objectives. I’ve given them a helping hand by writing down four or five behaviours that will be rewarded with a range of xp in the range of 5-10 points. This xp will be handed out during the game and hopefully the players will feel a sense of progression and at the same time be encouraged to do it more frequently. On the other hand other xp rewards will be tuned down so as to prevent the PCS advancing too quickly. My first concern is that this might break the immersion experience, but I’m hoping it will be no more noticeable than dice rolling. My second concern is that my players turn into a bunch of RP power gamers, using every opportunity they can to grab xp through elaborate roleplaying, which ti be fair could be a lot of fun.

The other thing I’m planning on adding to my campaigns are mini-games. The ‘analogue’ nature of RPGs, especially when miniatures aren’t used, can make some GM decisions seem rather arbitrary, whereas mini-games allow for a degree of formal structure without it dominating the entire experience. The example I’m using in the scenario I’m currently writing uses a snake and ladders concept in a chase scene. The PCs can still use their abilities to overcome certain obstacles, but there are general rules that affect all players.

The benefit of these mechanics is that players feel like they’re getting a continuous stream of concrete rewards for playing the game the way I feel it should be played, which I hope will encourage them ti try harder to play it that way and also get them more deeply emotionally engaged in the campaign. Once it gets going I’ll let you know how it goes.

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The Great PvP Debate

March 8, 2008

The PvP debate is not by any stretch a new phenomenon in World of Warcraft, but some of the recent announcements made by Blizzard concerning the rewards that will come with the next patch and an e-sports dedicated server suggest that PvP will play a bigger part in WoW’s future. If players had a sneaking suspicion this was the case, the evidence becomes even stronger following last week’s report on Activision on Gamasutra. At the Goldman Sachs Technology Investment Symposium 2008 Conference (sounds like fun, eh) Bobby Kotick, Activision’s CE, bragged about the future success of his company following on from their merger with Vivendi. Of particular interest to this debate is this quote “They [Blizzard] have a model that is very well developed, they have a very keen understanding of their audiences, and they’re just scratching the surface of opportunity in a lot of areas” and “The business has grown so much… that [Blizzard], like us, have tried to prioritize opportunity, and that probably has been at the expense of expanding [average revenue per user] to the few million hardcore, rabid hobbyist enthusiast World of Warcraft fans who would pay substantially more than probably what they’re paying today for enhanced services like character transfers.”

There have been some pretty shocked reactions at Kotick’s assertions about WoW and the MMO industry, particularly his statement that it would cost anywhere between $500million and a $1billion to successfully compete with WoW which has been derided on almost every blog I’ve read on the subject. So what is Kotick on about in the quotes above? The bit where he says ‘they’re (Blizzard) just scratching the surface of opportunity in a lot of areas’ sounds very much like a nod to the continued emphasis on PvP. The second quote however seems to suggest that Blizzard are realising that they’re pissing off some hardcore players by making rewards (which let’s face it are the heart of the game for most players) easier for less hardcore players to get their hands on, leading WoW Insider to ask the question: are raiders obsolete?

There are counter arguments of course (here and here) and Blizzard *are* gradually making raiding easier by removing attunements, improving badge rewards and even nerfing some raid bosses like Magtheridonut but there is no doubt that PvP rewards are getting better, and it’s easier to do battlegrounds and join an arena team than it is to get a 25 man or even a 10 man raid together. Raiding is costly (potions and repairs), requires dedicated blocks of time, a lot of setup time and organisation and requires success on the part of players, very little is gained for ‘losing’ to a raid boss, other than experience.

As Tobold rightly points out, there is no fundamental reason there are a lot of WoW players doing PvP, it’s just that it’s easier to get better items because you odn’t need to go through the hell of trying to organise raiding parties week in and week out and pay the earth in gold for potions and repairs. Tobold sees the root of the problem as the difficulty players have in getting committed groups together, which is undoubtedly an issue, but only the start of the solution. Sure you’d quickly find 10 or 25 or even 5 players do tackle some group content, but what if you wipe seven times on the raid/instance boss (or even worse, the trash)? Cameron on Random Battle thinks an entirely seperate WoW PvP game is the answer.

For me it isn’t so much about the rewards that players get, but the ease with which they can get them, this is the beauty of PvP, you win even if you lose. Blizzard would do well to design raid rewards so that they players get something worthwhile even if they only take out the trash. Take Gruul’s Lair for example a small pots Karazhan and Zul’aman 25-man raid. The trash should drop enough gold to cover wipe repairs, say 250 gold between the first three trash ogres and should also drop a selection of potions and flasks (or maybe just the ingredients required for them) that could either be sold on the Auction House or kept in the guild bank for future raids, this might annoy alchemists a little, but I know for a fact there is often a shortage of flasks and pots on the AH, at least there is on my server. If this continues to be a problem, make the pots/flasks specific to an instance (like the Ogri’la reputation rewards). My first rule would be: make sure trash covers the basic costs of raiding. Even if the raid group doesn’t down a boss, they shouldn’t feel as though they’ve actually lost anything. Raid bosses should give staggered rewards, so if the party manage to take out Kiggler the Crazed and Blindeye the Seer then wipe they should get gold to cover most of the cost of the wipeand maybe a BoE blue or two (for less advanced players or for disenchanting), if on the second attempt they manage to take out all of Maulgar’s Council but wipe on Maulgar himself, the gold rewards should be significantly higher as should the potions or ingredients, maybe another half decent blue as well. Taking out Maulgar would of course drop the desired epics. With a raid boss like Gruul, the party should be rewarded even if they wipe based on the percentage of hit points he has remaining. For example, at 25% 125gold and 2 pots/flasks, at 50% 200 gold, 3 pots/flasks a blue BoE item, at 75% 250 gold, 4 pots/flasks, two blue BoE items etc. So my second rule would be: reward improvements against raid bosses even if they are not defeated.

Sure, this idea could be exploited by players who have the instance on farm, but limiting the number of times you can get these rewards would go someway to solving this problem and yes there would be more gold floating round the WoW economy but I’m sure Blizzard could think of a new time/gold sync to soak it up (player/guild housing anybody?).

The other point I wanted to make was what the hell was Kotick on about when he talks about “the few million hardcore, rabid hobbyist enthusiast World of Warcraft fans who would pay substantially more than probably what they’re paying today for enhanced services like character transfers.” Does he seriously think anyone would pay a higher subscription fee for this kind of ‘service’? A one off payment, sure, but $20 instead of $15 – no way. What hardcore players would like is to have their dedication recognised, not get taken advantage of for their loyalty.

I can almost picture the scene:

WoW player 1: ‘See that Tauren in the T6 with the legedary weapon’

WoW player 2: ‘Yeah, what about him?’

WoW player 1: ‘Total noob’

WoW player 2: looks confused

WoW player 1: ‘hasn’t got an enhanced services premium account, see?’

WoW player 2: looks confused

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The Origins of Fantasy

February 29, 2008

I just finished watching The Worlds of Fantasy, a three part TV series on BBC4 exploring the history of fantasy lierature, you can view it here on the BBC iPlayer for the next 5 days, although I’m not sure if people oustide the UK can access it (somebody put it on Youtube, please). The first episode deals with children’s literature and children heroes, Harry Potter is naturally included although not as much as the beginning of the programme smight imply, and also Alice (in Wonderland), Peter Pan and lesser known heroes From Alan Garner’s books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service) and Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels.

I don’t think I’m alone in looking forward to the episodes that deal with adult oriented fantasy (expecting to see lots of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Peake and Howard, would also be nice to see Weiss and Hickman, but I’m not holding my breath [see my last post]) as anyone who’s read my blog will know that I think fantasy is a genre is still far too strongly assocaited with kids.

The argument underlying this epsiode was that fantasy emerged in the 19th century alongside a romanticised notion of children as pure and naive beings and as the twentieth century progressed the heroes of these books became more like the children or teens of their respective times. Okay the argument was a little more subtle than that, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels written in postwar Britain the four heros used slang that was apparently decades out of date, but what their jaunt through the wardrobe did do was make the trauma of wartime displacement into a form of comforting nostalgia where the battle between good and evil was fought between magical beings and the inevitability of triumph was not in question. Clearly it was much easier to write this after the war than during it when the outcome was less certain. In this light Harry Potter with its nostalgically old school setting is a great comfort to kids and parents alike who are scared to send their kids outdoors for fear of stabbings and paedophiles!

It’s hard to be objective about this episode as I was happy enough that this genre was getting any coverage at all, what bothered me was that the childhood themes they discussed could be applied to non-fantasy childrens’ literature, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven share the naive and romaticised spirit of adventure as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories and show some infighting between the children in the group, yet they are set in an idealised but very recognisable Britain. When it did get to grips with fantasy as a style, it focused on the writer’s motives so we got a lot of sniffy complaints about C.S. Lewis’ use of Christian allegory and a bit about Lewis Carroll’s desire to present childhood innocence, but not why he chose fantasy as a vehicle for this message. We get even less on J.K. Rowling’s or Philip Pullman’s reasons for using the fantasy genre, which would be very interesting to hear about. Alan Garner mentions out of body experiences and using his imagination, but doesn’t describe his clear fondness for the British and Welsh mythology that permeates his work, nor the landscapes in which his books are set.

The whole thing felt a little safe for BBC4 (i.e. middle class, highbrow) – let’s focus on general historical themes that normalise fantasy literature, rather than focusing on what makes it so different to other fictional genres. What makes the series feel even more BBC4 is the fact that they’re focusing only on fantasy litertature and not other mediums such as film or games that if anything have helped bring the genre popularity with much broader audiences than books alone.

These issues aside, I wonder what they’ll make of adult fantasy literature? Howard’s stories reflected their time only in as much that they were part of the pulp fiction trend of over the top and violent stories with tough macho characters. Maybe the rich settings of characters like Conan and Bran Mak Morn gave them a sense of authenticity and heritage that was lacking in the typical macho lead which cried out to young men in Depression era America. Was it any coincidence that Tolkien was keen to construct a mythology for Britain just as the Empire was sliding away? Moorcock was inspired by the 60s counter-culture, his heroes had more in common with Howard’s than Tolkien’s often brooding and of dubious morality, but his wrtiting was generally more cerebral and often lampooned the stables of the genre itself. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what they come up with.

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Who’s the biggest geek?

February 28, 2008

I excitedly posted about the soon to be released World of Warcraft Minis on my guild forum a few weeks back, to which I got only one response. So I was pleased that Rock, Paper, Shotgun dedicated an entire post to the subject. What was most apparent was the seething ambivalence that surrounds spin-off merchandise. Many of the responses in the comments section displayed a distinct for not buying tie-in merchandise and a n admission of shame if they claimed ever to have boughti it. Even, the author of the piece, Kieron Gillen sheepishly admitted he was snobbish towards fiction based on computer game IPs.To save you reading through the comments here are a few that stood out:

“The only bit of supplemental games related cruft I’ve ever bought outside of my callow teens is the new Warhammer 40,000 Dark Heresy rpg game book thing. No intention of ever playing it, just liked loved the background fiction it presented in its words, pictures and layout. It’s really quite classy, and, as a result of being so impressed, I’ll probably wind up accumulating all the other background books as they dribble out over the course of the rest of the year. Curiously, and this references the peculiar snobbery about the whole business, I’d never buy any of the novels or other frightful tat, though.

“I used to read D&D fiction before I came to the realization that it was mostly quite dreadful.

“I once made the mistake of Wiki-ing Dawn of War. Having never played anything in the 40k universe outside of the rather thin on the ground (story wise) Space Crusade when I was about 10, I spent the next few hours clicking around and soaking it all in. That I was actually supposed to be revising at the time was of no concern. Cracking stuff, in a very cliched, popcorn way”

“And the miniatures? Maybe. I’ll see how I feel when they do come out. It’d be nice to have a one of Thrall (<3), but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal.

As I admitted in my post about Warcraft fiction, I’ve felt exactly the same kind of condescension towards game based novels, but I’m still curious as to why that’s the case. My first thought is that sci-fi, fantasy and gaming are all subjects that are looked down upon by mainstream society. Yes gaming is gradually pulling itself up, but there is still a fair majority of genrally middle aged and up types who don’t get it and the popular media still portrays it as the passtime of choice of the lonely antisocial teenage male. Fantasy is accepted if it’s for and about kids, but the second it’s aimed at adults it’s seen as the choice of lonely antisocial twenty or thirty something males. So given the lack of credibility with which these genres are taken it’s as though the fans make up for it by creating a strict hierarchy of the credible and the uncredible. It very much reminds me of the ‘Geek Hierarchy’ diagram that was floating round the web a few years back. I’ve helpfully added a new box to it…

The quote above that most caught my eye was the last one “…but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal”. This statement in a world where the album artwork from Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ album is expected to sell for £2.5million. Is it that for a generation of gamers anything that isn’t programmed with AI and immersively interactive isn’t considered worth paying for, or is it an extreme form of conservatism in the vein of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’? To filter Benjamin’s argument down to its basic point, he suggests that because the traditional artwork was unique in space and time it was unarguably ‘authentic’ and that the act of reproducing it so any old person could have a replica hanging from their wall and that this ineffect reduces the ‘aura’, in other words the authenticity, of the original. The strange thing is that computer games are commodities, digitally reproducible commodities at that, they are far from being unique pieces of artwork. But to be fair authenticity is a relative term, after all a unique pice of art is still a manufactured work. Authenticity in popular culture refers to the most original medium, in the same way that film adaptations of novels are usually seen to be inferior to the novels they’re based on. Books and models based on games are seen to be inferior to the games they’re based on. Perhaps the reason why is that these kinds of IP extensions are seen by the fans as milking the franchise, by dispassionate third parties in order to make money and therefore because they’re commercially driven as opposed to passionately created  they threaten to dilute the original work. And perhaps the other fear is that once you start buying the spin-offs you won’t be able to stop, but that’s another story.

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World of Lorecraft

December 31, 2007

Being too busy to play WoW really sucked, I actually missed Azeroth/Outland as well as worrying about how far my guildmates had progressed ahead of me in the raiding stakes. I mentioned in my last post that WoW/Warcraft has a huge transmedia presence and I decided in the absence of WoW time that I was going to investigate it in more depth, so I picked up the first three Warcraft novels, Day of the Dragon, Lord of the Clans and The Last Guardian. I have to admit that I was fairly ignorant of the history and lore of Azeroth, I’d played the original Warcraft RTS game way back in the early 90s, but not being a big RTS fan hadn’t touched the sequels. Like many WoW players I’d picked up little bits of Warcraft lore from quests and tidbits from websites, but was truly shocked when I discovered that Medivh of Karazhan fame was once the physical host to Sargeras, a corrupted Titan – the beings who formed and defended the universe from demons – and essentially the ‘Satan’ of the entire Warcraft saga. I always struggled to remember which of the marks of Kil’jaeden and Sargeras were of most value, now of course it’s very obvious. Having read and enjoyed the books I moved on to Warcraft III and although I’m only on Thrall’s campaign it’s been great to follow Arthas’ descent into madness, and undeath. One of the aspects of Warcraft III that most impressed me is the way in which the story is foregrounded. According to the Wikipedia entry to Warcraft III one of the complaints launched against the game was that players weren’t given a choice about Arthas’ fate, but to be honest I found it far more entertaining and epic to participate in his unfolding tragedy.

One of the biggest obstacles to successful transmedia is the problem of ‘specialism’ – the implication that an IP or brand’s success with one medium or product might not be replicable in another medium. Warcraft was a successful game series, but did that mean that it would be capable of producing good fiction books? I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t a little snobbish about buying books based on a computer game IP and I’m not remotely shy about the fact that I’m a gamer. It’s not like I even have a problem with fantasy literature, I read it more regularly than any other kind of fiction, it’s just that there’s a mental obstacle when it comes to taking the narrative from one medium and moving it to another, film adaptations of books are often treated the same way by critics. In all honesty the Warcraft books are not Tolkien, or even Moorcock, they’re probably not even Weiss and Hickman, but they’re not intended to be, they’re intended to flesh out a fantastically rich mythos and at that they’re very good. Which is not to say they were lacking in the story department. Lord of the Clans had me reading into the wee hours of the morning in order to see just how Thrall gained the trust of his washed out species and took them across the sea to Kalimdor.

I’m sure there is still much I have to learn about Warcraft lore, I’ve read through The Sunwell trilogy and have just finished the first book of The War of the Ancients trilogy and then I’ve got the World of Warcraft novels to read, then I have to track down the new WoW comic. In between Warcraft novels I’ve been reading Ted Castranova’s latest book Exodus to the Virtual World and he discusses some interesting ideas about ‘lore’ in virtual worlds in particular he states that ‘a well designed lore allows every player to find her place within it. The lore excludes no-one.’ This isn’t a million miles away from what I suggested back in July, that in virtual worlds people need to be able to orient themselves in order to give their presence there some kind of purpose. The lore I’ve picked up from reading the Warcraft novels and playing Warcraft III has actually changed my mindset when playing WoW. I play on a PvP server (Horde side) and although I’m not an especially aggressive player when it comes to taking on the Alliance, I feel less animosity toward these one time allies and I’m really enjoying taking down demons and servants of the Burning Legion far more knowing that they are truly thoroughly corrupt, it certainly makes Ogri’la dailies more fun anyway.

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MMO figures and Raph Koster (again)

December 28, 2007

Christmas at last, which means that I actually have time to sit down and write a post. First thing I want to talk about is this post by Raph Koster and this response by Tobold. I’ve written stuff about MMO figures in the past and although I tend to agree with Tobold on this one, I admit that Raph is making a valid point about the gaming industry in general, I just think that he has a particular goal in mind and that this goal has theu nfortunate distinction of winding gamers up. So what is Raph on about?

Take Raph’s new project, Metaplace, it’s clearly an attempt to break out of the ‘walled garden’ MMO concept of which even the ‘casual’, browser based MMOs he mentions so frequently are guilty, it also eschews multi-gigabyte client downloads and claims that users ca build whatever virtual world they like. Now, why would he come up with an idea like this? Well, the answer is clearly, accesibility. Raph wants to make an MMO (or at least provide the software for an MMO) that will appeal to as many people as possible, and from reading through his GDC Prime presentation this appears to be his goal for the game industry as a whole. I don’t think this is a bad thing and I particularly liked the way he highlighted how badly successful women can be treated in the largely male dominated world of gamers, yeah that’ll teach you to be attractive Jade Raymond…

I have done several presentations about gaming, MMOs, virtual worlds etc. to large multinationals over the last year and while they can just about get their heads round Second Life, the second you show them a picture of an orc or a dragon or whatever you generally lose them. Sure, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass can top the movie charts but playing a game where you pretend to be a character from one of these IPs is a whole different kettle of fish (unless you’re a kid, then it’s ok). So I understand that when Raph states that Habbo Hotel has a userbase that rivals WoW, he’s trying to normalise a genre or a medium that to most people is still quite weird. I understand that this sounds weird to gamers, can people really be so behind the times that they are oblivious to the steady growth and popularity of gaming over the last decade. The answer sadly is ‘yes’. I think it’s actually worse in the UK than it is in the States, where at least WoW crops up regularly in popular culture. This attitude towards gaming goes some way to explaining why Second Life has persisted in the media for so long despite its relatively low number of active users – it presents a very human face versus the WoWs, EQs, LotROs etc. By claiming that gaming/MMOs are now about branding (when have they ever not been?), celebrity and lifestyle maketing Raph is using langugae that is familiar, if not entirely unambiguous, to a mainstream marketing audience. Add to this Raph’s insistence that you can make great ROI on browser-based casual games vs the triple As of gaming-dom then Raph’s entire stance becomes apparent. I’m also unsurprised that many of the MMOs Raph namechecks are aimed at or have predominantly pre-adult user bases – as I’ve already mentioned it’s far more acceptable for kids to play computer games than adults, in fact I know some adults who won’t even admit to gaming in their workplaces for fear of ostracisation.

I certainly feel that games publishers/developers limit their audiences and can be more experimental with revenue channels, but I can also see why Raph’s spin on things can get gamer’s backs up, despite our growing numbers we’re still considered an odd lot – the lonely, male, loser stereotype predominates – and then along came WoW which proved all the naysayers wrong, has inserted itself into popular culture (moreso in the US than Europe I’m afriad) and is inherently social, and even then it’s being dismissed as second place to some crappy browser game with shit graphics and an audience of faddish 8 year olds who’ll happily gravitate to the next big thing in three months time.

And I think this last point is something Raph should remember. Facebook might be huge now, but so was Myspace three years ago and Friendster two years before that. Already I hear people I know saying that they’re bored of Facebook, that there are too many useless applications cluttering up profile pages. Relatively new MMOs like Club Penguin, Barbiegirls and so on have yet to prove themselves over the long term and although Habbo has made it past the seven year mark I have rarely encountered concurrency greater than a few thousand suggesting it might have an infrequent if large user base. At the moment the way in which ‘eyeballs’ are measured is very crude, but as more money is invested in these mediums they will become more sophisticated and then these kinds of figures will struggle to stand up, while the figures for a game like WoW will look very impressive indeed. It’s interesting that the new Nielsen Ratings of time spent already prove that Second Life users spend far more time in Second Life than Facebook users spend on their pages, the same can only be truer for WoW.

I’d like to write a big long paragraph on transmedia, given what Raph presented at the GDC Prime. WoW is one of the most interesting  transmedia MMO brands out there, what with a TCG, novels, a new comic, toys, boardgames and a film on the horizon. It’s certainly up there with Halo in my opinion and given its openness to popular culture I can only imagine it becoming more transmedia-like as time goes by. As much as Raph is keen to push the games industry in a more progressive direction he should probably focus on the fact that in the AAA world of MMOs WoW remains the exception not the rule.