Lead Designer of Nothing

July 30, 2004

The amount of material that gets written about video games on a given day is pretty staggering. The big news sites (IGN, Gamespy, Gamespot) have a very dedicated staff of writers who produce, on the whole, not terrible material. They also get a bevy of features from the development houses themselves. IGN likes this a lot, and regularly runs “Sneak Peek” columns from folks working at MMOG development houses. One such column appeared this week at IGN entitled Mourning Peek #36.

In it the lead designer for Mourning, Dan Antonescu, uses the opportunity he was given to talk ostensibly about the PvP system in his game. Instead of talking about PvP, he goes on at great length about a common problem in the MMO metaverse. Development is a long process and when the end is near publishers push the product out the door more quickly than it should be, leading to a shoddy game. Okay, I’ll buy that. He breaks it down for some of the more frustrating launches of recent memory (AC2, SB, SWG, etc..). Again, I don’t disagree. All of those games were rushed out the door too quickly, and there have been a number of editorials written to that end. I don’t see what this has to do with PvP, but okay.

Then it gets weird. He mentions a whole bunch of other MMOGs, like Eve, E&B, TSO, ATITD, and CoH. And he calls them crap. To Quote: “Earth & Beyond (announced as closing), Neocron (the first “FPS” MMO), Eve Online (“awesome” offline leveling feature) and Planetside fall under the doom of sci-fi MMOs, from which only SWG had a real chance to break out (but unfortunately didn’t).” Whaaa?? Maybe you’ve heard about a little game called Anarchy Online? According to SirBruce AO may not be one of the biggest games of all time, but it’s pushing 50,000 people with a much anticipated expansion in the works. Sci-Fi games are not in any way the touch of death. Also, I resist the implication that Eve isn’t doing that well. They seem to have found their niche and are doing their own thing. Neocron and E&B are not the best games, to be sure, but Planetside? PS is a fine game. SOE is just charging too much for it. Planetside’s slow strangulation death is the result of a slow loss of players because of the high pricepoint. It has nothing to do with the setting. The Sims Online, okay. That’s probably one of the biggest mistakes EA has made in many years. I agree there, but…”A Tale in The Desert was a really interesting MMO, but unfortunately, its lack of combat (which was one of its main good features, but also its doom) and lack of advertising and resources forced it into anonymity.” Okay designer guy. Sure, sure. Anonymity and lack of advertising. Buddy, it’s a game with no combat, in a non-fantasy or s/f setting, where the basis is …wait for it….crafting! It’s a niche game within a niche market. And it’s doing great! eGenesis has done their thing, done it well, and have a loyal playerbase that is waiting with baited breath for the Second Telling. If I’d been told a year ago that there were over 5,000 people that wanted to play a game where you used flax to make stuff, I’d have been mighty surprised. And yet, it’s true.

Then, he really annoys me. “Only City of Heroes alone seems to have gone well, and mostly because of Americans’ love of comics, not because it is a groundbreaking MMO title.” Okay…where to start…? Sidekicking? Innovative costume design and character customizabilty? Interactive and exciting combat? Extremely well balance player power accrual? Sidekicking? A consistent and reliable sense of empowerment for the player? SIDEKICKING? Okay, it’s all right. Calm down. No worries. Good design is good design, even if this guy can’t see it. And again, sir, what does this have to do with PvP?

“None of the above MMOs were a real success. Why? Because, regardless of how good and complete their designs were, background and implemented content, they lacked controlled PvP!!!” Wow. Okay, you sure showed us. Except…Shadowbane, for all it’s flaws, was a core-concept PvP game. The game itself had technical issues, but their initial design certainly held water. Also, what do you mean by success? Financial success? Well, by that measuring stick you’re talking about a non-existant creature. Everquest and Final Fantasy XI are the two most popular MMOs in North America. If we (wrongly) assume for the moment that there is no overlap in the playerbase, there are 900,000 people playing those games combined. Even given the fact that a number of the people that play one likely play the other as well, the vast majority of mmog players (as made up by that population) play in games that have no core PvP elements. Say what you like about EQ, Everquest is primarily a Player vs. Environment game. The vast majority of people who play EQ never kill another player, or even try to. The number of people on the Zek servers is a small percentage of the overall playerbase. FFXI doesn’t even really have a PvP element. The Ballista competition is the closest thing and resembles basketball more than PKing. So, sorry, I don’t really agree with you there.

Okay, so now he’s started to talk about PvP. So, what does Mourning have to offer in the way of PvP? Let’s see, his next sentence is… “Moreover, the last two years brought us sad news about many cancelled MMOs.” Huh? What? He goes on to say that publishers cut corners on the development cycle by concentrating on looks and cutting out gameplay. After all, content can be added in after launch. This is a point I myself have made once or twice. Then, he just ticks me off. “Who’s responsible for this? The developers? Or maybe the publishers? Unfortunately for you, the MMO developers and publishers have the perfect excuse; if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it! So, the real answer to that question is YOU, the gamers.” No, actually it is not. I’ve heard this point made many times, and I’ve never agreed with it. People purchase products expecting them to work. Essentially what you’re saying is that people shouldn’t buy products until they work perfectly. Kind of an odd tack to take for a guy working on a product that (I bet money) isn’t going to be perfect when it releases. It is not our fault for purchasing games when they first come out that end up being lemons. It is the publisher’s fault, and the producer’s fault, for allowing a half-formed game to enter the marketplace early. It is the job of a producer to be able to hold off the publisher until the game is done. Moreover, it’s his job to make sure the team is working in such a way as to ensure that the publisher will not start to get the release-day willies. It’s the publisher’s responsibilty to realize that game creation is just that, creation. Creation in the corporate world requires three things: A deadline, a budget, and an adherence to quality. It is an old addage for any type of project that you can only have two of those three things. So don’t go blaming your failures on us, developer boy. It isn’t our fault your producer sucked, or that the publisher jumped the gun. We just bought the damn game.

He then ends the piece with a poorly written statement that gamers are looking for content, not just shiny boxes. Thanks for that. I’m sure none of us stupid players realized what we were missing in our lives before you spelled it out for us.

Antonescu’s article is frustrating, insulting, and just poorly written. The article says it’s about PvP, but instead of a discussion about something he’s actually familiar with he goes on a game bashing spree at the expense of previously released titles. I’m not going to defend SWG for its shoddy release and crappy content. I will point out, however, that they’ve done it. They released the game, it’s live, and despite all the myriad flaws that it has they continue to hover around the 200k mark for subscribers. I can bash games all I want. I’m some guy on a website. This was an article from the lead designer on a competing MMOG. Maybe, just maybe, some editing and moderation might have been in order.

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