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    The Decline of MMOs by Professor Bartle.

    • Professor Richard Bartle at the University of Essex wrote a paper in 2013 that in some ways echoes many of the issues we have had in current MMOs, but the paper is for someone with my educational background, significantly lacking in sources and reads more like an article than a scientific piece of work. Perhaps the paper was mostly a way to promote his consultancy work and not really ever meant as a scientific paper.


      That being said, there are many interesting points mentioned by a man that has been incredibly important in the creation of our favourite game type, so let's take a look at a few of those points.


    The author of the paper we are going to talk about is Professor Richard A. Bartle, co-writer of the first virtual game world, the MUD. There is no denying that as a MUD and MMO player, I have the uttermost respect for the man. You don't become a professor in game design by not liking games.


    The paper is called "The Decline of MMOs" and can be found here: http://mud.co.uk/richard/The%20Decline%20of%20MMOs.pdf


    I am not a professor, but I have played MMOs for as long as they existed and prior to that the text MUDs (MMOs before we had 3D graphics). I have also created content in both dikuMUDs, in MMOs using the Hero Engine and tried to written my own gameplay engine in Unity.


    The pupose of the article is primarily to provide a link to his interesting paper, but we are also going to look at a few of the points through the eyes of an avid, even hardcore MUD/ MMO player.


    We're not gonna go through all of Bartles paper, but I have selected a few areas that are easy to tackle in a short form. Just like Bartles paper ommits sources other than references to himself, I will go ahead and just use myself as primary source - It seems this is a privilege us veterans have. Many of the points I will make has already been written down previously by myself in other articles or posts, but for those who are new, let us go for it anyway.


    The following presumes that Bartles premise of the article is correct, namely that MMOs are in an actual decline. Wether they are or are not, is not debated here and we go by the premise of the paper.





    Development costs

    MMOs cost too much money to develop.

    There are no objections here. Incredible amounts of money is spent, which makes risk-taking and experimenting near impossible. Why did they hire John Cleese to do voice acting for Elder Scrolls? - Maybe a relatively cheap marketing tool, but to me, there is nothing in the world that is better for marketing than a great game and word of mouth.


    Too many clones

    Most MMOs play exactly the same as one another. [...] If your quest-creation tool only allows 11 different types of quest, your new MMO will only have 11 different types of quest (and it will, definitely, have quests).

    This is something I keep repeating quite often, that we've done this before. That is fine in most cases, the real interesting thing here is the mention of the tools being used and that the tool in many ways define your game. Remember that old lens-flare effect in Photoshop back in the 90s? Every logotype and picture featured a lens flare for a while and you can bet your shoes on that if the tool makes it incredibly easy to create fed-ex styled quests in the style of slay 10 rabbits or collect 10 flowers, there will be plenty of that in the game. It's a fast an easy to create faux-content.


    Player expectations

    Trained by experience. This follows from the fact that so many MMOs are clones. Players play an MMO and observe it to have particular features. They play other MMOs and observe them to have the same features. They come to believe these features are intrinsic to what it means to be an MMO, although actually they’re probably not.

    We keep seeing this where players ask for features available in other games. My approach has always been that a game of poker is played like a game of poker. You don't expect to be able to win with a full house when you play chess, do you? A new game is a new game with different sets of rules. That being said, there are things that works and things that simply do not work. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, but perhaps replacing hardware buttons with a multi-touch-screen might be a good idea?



    Lack of understanding of design

    MMO designers don’t appreciate the power they have. They wind up doing design-by-numbers, unaware of why things are the way they are, just that things are that way. Many don’t even know what worked in the past, let alone what could work in the future.

    There are so many things done in MMOs by lesser developers or designers that they put in the games "just because" with no or little afterthough why it is there. An example I constantly bring up is the user-interface design.


    In every new "WoW clone" you'll find a character portrait with your characters status up in the left corner of the screen, below that your groups status, and in the top right corner you will see a round mini-map.


    The roundness of the mini-map I can forgive. They moved from the square design of the then revolutionary EverQuest XML interface and wanted something that felt new, so they made the mini-map round instead of square, even if it reduced it's usefulness, while it still takes up nearly the same amount of screen real-estate. There are very few round maps used in the rest of the world, for that simple reason. If you find a round map that is not a representation of a planetary body - show it to me and I would love to put one on my wall!


    If a user interface detail is important enough to be presented at all times, then it should be visible at all times
    When the UI for WoW was designed, we still played on 4:3 screens, which meant that most items on the screen were close to our focused vision. With todays widescreens, the corners of the screen is moved into our periferal vision areas and you have to shift your eyes or even your whole head to see the corners. If a user interface detail is important enough to be presented at all times, then it should be visible at all times - Namely in the focus area of your vision. Refreshingly in Elder Scrolls Online, most UI parts have been cut down, but they still put the group window up in the top left corner. If the health of your group is of no importance, so we don't need to see it all the time, then why show it at all? - I personally feel it is a very important part of the gameplay and would naturally then place it closer to the middle/bottom to ensure that it is visible for the player even during stressful times, when your periferal vision decreases significantly.


    There is the reason the HUD on a fighter jet is small and in front of you, instead of spread out around the cabin.


    Now this was only talking about the UI, there are many other areas where things are done with not all that much afterthough - Take the fed-ex quests for example. If they do not drive the story and only serve a puropse of giving you a meaningless mission to advance your character through the areas, why do you nearly always have to run back and deliver things to the original quest giver? Surely to increase immersion and prevent needless repetitiveness, this could be handled differently, by for example pigeons, outposts, traders or messengers. A few games have tried this at times, but many keep falling back into fed-exing to artificially slowing down progression and exploration.






    Text MUDs exhibited far, far more individual difference than do today’s MMOs.

    It is magnitudes easier to write content for a MUD. I write over 100 words per minute and to create a generic MUD area, you need the following:

    A short description: "A thick forest".

    A long description: "The thick forest is looming over head and the underbrush makes it slow to move with twigs and thorns constantly scraping your legs. To the east you can spot a clearing among the trees and a feeling of freshness is in the air."

    Exits: "West, East".

    Interactions: "Listen, smell, touch, push, drag, look"

    Interactable objects: "Tree stump"

    NPCs or MOBs "Inherit animal { 'Squirrel', 'Cute and furry', '100hp', '10power'}"


    Boom. Done. That took almost exactly one minute. Naturally you'd want to polish the area more if it is of importance, but at least I created a piece of forest. While modern world creation tools could create a forest just as easily, the creation of the squirrel could take several days to model, animate, texturize and add sounds.



    Size Doesn’t Matter

    Player impact. When you’re one player among 250, you’re more important than one among 10,000: you’re a somebody, not a nobody. The game is more fun and retention increases.

    I slightly disagree with that statement, mostly because we have this magnificent private club we call a guild and because we like to fight other players. 250 is never going to be enough for a team like ours, but it might be great for other things - When I played MUDs there were rarely more than a hundred people playing and that was great.


    What for me is more troublesome with the large servers is the instancing that anonymizes the players and removes any and all consequenses for alienating behaviour as well as ensures that "you dont matter".


    Some game designers seems to have through that we don't want to matter, that being visible to other players is a deterrent, like in Guild Wars 2 where they made us all anoymous. In The Elder Scrolls we are also quite anonymous, but that seems to be more for roleplay reasons than the irrational fear that people will not consume content (PvP) if they can be recongnized. (There seems to be quite a few GW2 devs on ESO, so they might have carried over some of their ill-founded fears though, and I am half-wrong about the roleplaying part).



    Remove the Elder Game

    The great appeal of Star Wars: the Old Republic was its emphasis on story. When players reached the end of their character’s story, that was a high point; what followed was a huge anticlimax.

    I don't think a single person I have talked to disagrees with this. The single player story driven gameplay of SWTOR was amazing. But when that was done and you went to take part in the galactic conflict, the servers lagged, the raids were buggy and limited and the gameplay was a repetition of the games predecessors, just worse.

    EVE Online has no elder game [...] the whole game is that elder game [...] and that in theory it’s possible for one to win adds meaning. If it worked like the typical realmversus-realm elder game and had permanent factions that could never be eliminated, that one, tiny difference would render all conflict ultimately meaningless.

    In EVE Online, the players are the content and everything you do matters in one way or another. There are constant carrots that lasts for years and the game allows you to play it in any way you'd like. There is never, ever a stop to the carrots and the story. Surely some people might stop playing because they no longer desire the carrots, or they feel there is nothing more to offer for their specific playstyle or desires, but the game itself nearly never limits you and allow you to actually win. And then keep going after that. And win again.


    While I prefer a much more action based gameplay, EVE Online is as close to our ideal MMO as you can get - The players make the world and there is no limit (nearly) to what you can achieve or experience.



    Let designers design

    Allow for revolution. MMOs evolve, but sometimes evolution isn’t enough: revolution is required. The reason that Minecraft was developed independently wasn’t because the idea of a voxel-based world hadn’t been thought of by designers at big studios, it was because these deigners weren’t allowed to explore the idea.

    Before every MMO launch, or every alpha/beta we play, I keep mentioning it: Evolution of gameplay is not close to revolution in gameplay. To keep veterans interested there has to be significant evolution, or a revolution. In most cases, the evolution is merely cosmetic and Battlefield 4 is still Battlefield 3 and it's still Battlefield 1942. However, Battlefield 1942 was close to a revolution compared to Quake or Doom, but anything after that was just an Evolution.


    We don't mind Evolutions, but they have to be significant steps. To use the above Battlefield as an example, Battlefield 4 was not nearly enough of an evolution (levolution) for us to not feel quite cheated on our money.


    Another example of evolution that we often talk about is Rift, which we felt was an incredibly polished and well made game by passionate and talented people. It was however, still World of Warcraft in a new costume, which naturally is not viable in the long run for seasoned gamers. We do have to admit, that they made their game so well, that we almost, almost forgave them for only slighly evolving in a new dress.

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