Saturday, May 17, 2008

Niche Games and the Economics of blah blah blah 2 – System Requirements

When last we left my “Niche Economics” ramblings, I was yammering about how games were getting smaller and more focused on a specific target audience. There will be a WoW-killer … when Blizzard decides they’ve made enough dump trucks of money off of it and says “that’s a wrap, folks” or makes the next big game everyone wants to play and culls their own customers from one to the other.

Related to my observations about the market are recent comments by Syncaine and Bildo about the state of Age of Conan’s system requirements. AoC requires higher-end systems to run on. Unlike WoW, you can’t just get by with a cheap computer, you’ll need high end graphics with lots of memory.

Is this a problem?

No and yes. If the niche of gamers AoC is shooting for are the high-end PC gamer group, then no, it’s not a problem. Bildo actually bought a new PC for it (work-related for him as well). Sounds like Syncaine’s system is already set up to support it. I think my system would probably run it fine. Gamers that tend to like higher-end games also tend to support their hobbies by upgrading their machines regularly. I know I spend way more than a sane person should to keep my system running smoothly including new video cards and whole new PCs if I need them. I haven’t worn shoes in three years, but the trade-off it worth it.

Just kidding about the shoes … flip flops are shoes, aren’t they? :)

The system requirements are a problem, however, if Funcom is trying to get an audience the size of the World of Warcraft’s. Video game development is software development: a company builds a program for a set of users and hopes the money made in supporting those users and providing them with the stuff they built will far exceed the expenses the company incurred in creating it.

A long time ago, I was in the market for a new PC. Pentium IIs were in their heyday and Pentium IIIs were a newfangled technology. As a new PC buyer, I went with the Pentium III. It had an AGP video card in a special slot and all these high-performance widgets to make it run really well. Around the same time, a game came out called Heavy Gear II. It was brilliant. It had an engaging storyline, some really neat single-player missions and an online component where you could meet and fight other players in various combat maps. It remains the best PvP experience I have had to date and some of the most fun game play I’ve seen. And yet no one has heard of Heavy Gear II. That’s because Activision created the game which required PCs with the AGP cards, not the Pentium IIs which were still in full swing. Activision inadvertently doomed the game to a small audience by requiring the more advanced systems to play it. The lesson: most computer gamers will not upgrade their systems to play a video game. There were many titles to choose from and if a game wouldn’t run on the PC the gamer had, they wouldn’t buy that game. Activision took it that Heavy Gear II was a failure and thus never bothered with Heavy Gear III.

Long story short (too late!): if AoC caters its game to high-end users and there are enough of them interested in playing the game, it will do fine. It won’t come close to denting WoW’s numbers but it will be a financial success and keep running for a good long time. Not every game should feel compelled to try to beat WoW’s numbers. Given the history of MMOs, someone will but I don’t think that’s going to be any time soon or with any titles I’ve yet to see.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Terrain as the Enemy

I’ve been playing around in Forochel, the new zone for LotRO’s Book 13 Update. I’m still enjoying it. Last night I adventured around the area a bit. Most days it’s pretty clear there but last night there was a giant snowstorm across most of the region. It was so thick, you couldn’t really see except about ten yards around you. It turned a relatively simple task (locate bad guy camps to set fire to) into a challenging time. I didn’t find the last two tents because I couldn’t find the off-ramp to the second camp in the raging white-out. It was brilliant! It’s like trying to survive in inhospitable terrain and the zone itself has a way of sucking you into believing it at every turn.

Here's snippet from a dev diary on the new zone:
The concept of using the Environment as an enemy has been floating around the LOTRO Dev team for a long time now - as far back as the Lonelands development period. We toyed with this notion a little bit with Tâl Bruinen (brambles and rocks in the road) and the High Pass (rare monster-driven blizzards). In Forochel, we're taking that concept a few steps further.

The other day I ended up with a chilled debuff. The debuff would make me susceptible to frost damage (which many of the mobs in this area have). Untreated the debuff would last an hour. The nice thing is the debuff could also be cured with a simple fire. Stand by a campfire for a short time and the debuff goes away. I suspect hunter campfires or the player-made kind would also work. You can also give yourself a resistance buff by standing next to a steam vent for a number of seconds (thirty or so, I’m guessing).

While zones in many games show a great deal of ingenuity in the visuals of the place (the restricted zones in City of Heroes or the tropical rains in Stranglethorn Vale in WoW) this is among the first I’ve seen where the zone itself is a dynamic adversary. It really helps immersion when you can see that storm coming and you can’t just ignore it. Where is the nearest town? Can I built my own fires if I need them? Where can I go for safety or are there precautions I can take to make life easier and still quest?

It’s important to note that the buffs / debuffs are not so overpowered that you can’t just keep trying to get things done. One of my gripes with the wound system they have is that they’re really too much like wounds. You’d be recovering for a week with a real wolf bite and some of the wounds inflicted by mobs in Evendim, for example, seemed just as lengthy and problematic. But dealing with the Forochel’s weather is part of the fun and makes being there is exciting as the climate shifts around you.

One gripe I have about many zones in LotRO are the positions of mobs along (on top of) roadways – stealthed mobs in-particular. Nothing sucks like spending a fortune at level thirty-five for a horse only to have Turbine snatch it away from you on a regular basis via one-shot dismounting stealth mobs on roads. Yeah, I know it’s not realistic to keep mobs off of roads – I don’t care. Either make it MUCH harder to dismount me or remove the bloody things: travel is already lengthy and expensive enough in LotRO without adding the insult of making me run on foot every hundred feet because of stealthed mobs. If dismounting is an issue for the Ettenmoors (the PvP zone in LotRO) then make it easier to do in there. I’d be fine with that. Fortunately, Forochel doesn’t seem to have the problem of too many mobs on roads. The mobs near roads are not stealthed and are fairly easy to avoid, making travel a ton more enjoyable for those of us inclined to ride the mounts for which we paid so much. Off-road travel is still a crap shoot, but that’s to be expected.

Forochel is not only a great zone in terms of visuals or topography (although both are great) it’s dynamic nature makes it an interesting place to be. The zone stikes a great balance between realism and game play. From he night sky in the north to the rugged forest in the south – there are interesting things to see everywhere. I’m looking forward to more exploration in Forochel and I hope Turbine keeps the great ideas coming for future zones.