Monday 12 January 2015

Game Design #18: The decline of MMOs (And how it applies to wargames)

I came across this article on the decline of online MMOs, and it struck a chord with me with regards to wargames.

I've posted before on the increasing "commercialization" of wargame rules; where rules are designed primarily to drive miniature sales, with accessibility second, and gameplay depth and historical realism a very distant last.   While some of the article was MMO-specific (i.e. classes, leveling, and endgame) much of it applies directly to wargames design.

The article says MMOs were once an exciting, interesting genre, but now they lack immersion, originality, and they cost too much.  The games play the exact same way.  Players are being trained to want experiences they don't really want, and designers are discouraged from experimenting.  Among other gamers they are viewed as unsophisticated and exploitive, with a pay-to-win approach that encourages corruption.....  This written for online PC MMOs, but I instantly thought Warhammer-Bolt Action-Flames of War when I read this...

A point it makes is that MMOs (and wargames) don't appeal to everyone.  However most companies (especially those with an attached miniatures line) want to make their money through volume - appealing to as wide an audience as possible.  However you can have a profitable game with an smaller group of enthusiasts rather than casually-interested crowd who buy into a game, then leave for the next "shiny" thing.

Infinity vs 40K example: In Australia, (where prices are proportionately higher than say UK) a 40K army (Space Marine Strike Force Ultra) will cost upwards of $470.  A Infinity starter box will cost $50.   I estimate I've bought $1500 of Infinity products, swayed by the tense gameplay and tactical depth of a relatively complex ruleset.   On the other hand, I have been so alienated by GW's increasingly shallow rules and exploitive business policies I haven't bought one of their products in the last decade.  A "rulebooks only" company with a narrow focus approach but a strong following is Two Fat Lardies, who focus on historical authenticity.

The causes of these negatives are not always the same - for an MMO it is marketing costs, polish and having to justify a budget. For wargaming, I'd say it is:

Selling a miniatures line. 
This is where the money lies.  The more miniatures each player must purchase the better. If you can force him to repeatedly buy new armies due to constantly updating the "balance"of armies to make some more/less desirable, so much the better.  Not only does the rules drive miniatures sales, but an attractive miniatures line also promotes the rules - people want a way to play with the shiny toys!

We demand cake!
Once we get used to polished, glossy rulebooks, it's hard to go back. A $40 hardcover is now the norm, compared to the small $10 B&W stapled booklets of yore.

I'm not so sure about finance, but I am a bit concerned sometimes with the use (and over-use) of Kickstarter. Namely, how small/start-up companies pitch a vision, then seem to randomly (and increasingly frantically) throw out stretch goals to match the pledges - and sometimes make their project bigger than their capacity to manage.

Too many clones
The MMOs tend to play exactly the same as each other, regardless of genre. Superhero, fantasy, sci fi - it's all the same with a different skin.  Wargames are increasingly doing the same - Warhammer (which is the "World of Warcraft") has spawned commercial big hitters like Bolt Action, Flames of War;  as well as other GW games like LOTR, Necromunda and Mordheim and many more from the now-defunct Warhammer Historical line - which in turn influenced games like Black Powder.

Mass battle rulesets tend to follow 2-3 distinct styles.  Naval and space wargames are completely interchangable.  Aerial games tend to all follow similar written move systems derived from 80s games like Blue Max. 

There are only so many ways you can do "move, missile, melee, morale" and there will be some natural similarities or perceived "best/simplest" ways to do things.  I.e. evolutionists point to the fact all birds have wings as "proof" of common bird ancestor.  I'd suggest all birds might have wings as it's one of the most effective designs for flying.  So some overlap is to be expected - there's no point of originality for its own sake.

This may be a fear of failure - there is less risk with a proven ruleset -which explains why designers like Andy Chambers, Rick Priestley and other ex-GW designers have only ever made 40K remakes in their independent careers.  Even indie companies like Two Hour Wargames and Ganesha are essentially remaking the same game over and over with a new cover and some "special rules" specific to the genre.

Player Type Imbalance
In MMOs, players are divided into "achievers" and  "social" players. Wargames follow a similar division.   The "competitive" crowd want to play established games like Warhammer or Flames of War; the "social" crowd tend towards more scenario or narrative based games. I'd say we wargamers also have a third group - the "historicals" who enjoy the historical aspect of gaming.

Having similar rules mechanics is a boon for a competitive gamer - a good 40K player can transfer his skills to Bolt Action and quickly start winning.  Social gamers tend to be more adventurous with rules, but tend towards simpler mechanics so they can focus on the story.  Historical gamers tend to want an accurate representation of the period games, and as such they tend to be more tolerant of complex rulesets.

However, the "quick buck" for a miniatures company is the competitive gamers, as they can be easily "lead" to buy one army after another, simply by virtue of adding advantageous rules.  Social gamers tend to be more flexible (i.e. repurposing old models) and tend to be less wedded to a particular games system, rather the social aspect of tabletop games. Historical gamers tend to be focussed on a pet project or era; a focus on often-lopsided scenarios or refights of battles means they are also less swayed by the particular miniatures/rules designers and tend to pick and choose.   

Player Expectations
In a MMO, the fact so many games are clones "trains" a player to expect a certain experience or set of mechanics.  Likewise players are trained by their experiences. If a player's introduction to wargaming is through Warhammer 40,000 (and there are a LOT of us who were) they are likely to have certain preconceived ideas about what a "wargame" or "The Hobby"(tm) should include.

If a game differs in a few aspects, players will give it a chance - if it differs too much, players may decline to play it as it differs too much from what they've been trained to expect. 

Players can be "trained" in other ways - a company can sell half a rulebook, and remove the other half to sell later as a "supplement" (this is 'good' - it is 'supporting the game'). It is established practice to sell a rulebook without key rules for the armies/factions it was designed for, necessitating an additional purchase.  I think you'd agree the Japanese were an important protagonist in WW2. Do they appear in the core rules of Bolt Action, the #1 WW2 platoon game? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Short-term vs Long Term
Most players won't bother to see beyond the short term. If there is short term pain (i.e. learning new mechanics/tactics) and long term gain (a engaging, deep WW2 experience) they will tend to eschew it for short-term gain (use familiar rules) and long term pain (a unrealistic WW2 game that plays like space fantasy).  They will then likely decry their short-term choice for having the same annoying features as the old game - the ones that caused them to want to try a new game/genre in the first place. 

Expanding audience - casual vs hardcore
In an attempt to widen the audience to "casual" or "younger" players the game often treats players casually.  The company sees the players as a time-limited resource that needs to be "milked"(for miniatures/codexes/supplements) for a limited time period; rather than a long-term investment. 

Wargaming (makers of the PC game World of Tanks) tried to release a strategy game which flopped. It wasn't a bad game, it was just competing with Company of Heroes, a very popular title in the same genre.  Wargaming identified the reason for CoH's success as its strong connection with players, who promoted it, discussed it and defended it. CoH was so effectively promoted by its fans that Wargaming's rival game sank without a trace.  Accordingly, Wargaming then made their consumer relations their #1 staffed department - and had huge success with World of Tanks.

Depth is Difficult
A lot of players (and even worse, designers!) complicated depth and realism with complexity.  A game can be simple, but have a lot of depth (take Chess, for example). You don't have to sacrifice playability for a deeply tactical game.  A realistic, meaningful game need not be complex. Neither is a complex game is not automatically "deep" or strategic.  A good game allows players to make lots of decisions, whilst taking little time or effort in resolving those actions.  However, simplifying things is always harder than adding things in.  For example - Infinity has excellent core gameplay with its "reactions" system but is in danger of being swamped with too much extra content - special rules, weapons etc.  


I think a change in how wargames are produced is on the horizon - in fact a sea change is underway.
PDF publishing
PDF-based publishing with online sites like the "Wargames Vault" allow rules designers to bypass complex and expensive conventional publishing.  This allows creative people to get their rules out there with a minimum of complexity, cost and risk.
I'm not so keen on one recent side-effect, the rise of the wargame "DLC" - playtest rules you pay for.  This dubious practice, pioneered by the videogame industry, sees rules devs sell "beta/alpha"(i.e. incomplete, unedited, unbalanced product) rules for a premium, so you can help them "develop" the game.

3D Printing
Not quite as revolutionary as evolutionary. I remember tons of articles gleefully predicting the rise of 3D printing rendering traditional methods obsolete, and "bringing down" GW and similarly unliked industry behemoths. That was years ago.  It hasn't happened, as the cost/quality just isn't there.   It's impossible to ignore its potential, though. As this technology matures, it will only become more widespread, and give gamers themselves to create and share the miniatures they want - both to support an existing rulebook or inspire the creation of a new one.

This has certainly stimulated the wargames industry.  New games and miniatures are flooding out,  old games are being revived and repolished (some of which should have stayed dead) and even peripheral industries like terrain companies have started up.  I'm not sure it is sustainable long term though - I'm kinda waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Sensible Revenue Model - not the "Arms Race" 
Releasing an ever increasing array of supplements and army books can be seen as "supporting"a game system but can also be bad for it. These books tend to have new and improved armies, which supersede old ones - good for selling minis as it creates an 'arms race' - where you need to constantly swap armies or buy the "new"units to remain competitive. However this can be toxic in the long term - witness the increasing exodus of disgruntled GW players to other systems - so much so that entire companies (Warlord, Mantic) are pitching products at this large, ready made consumer base. But are they simply going to repeat GW's mistakes?

A product should not need artificial demand created for it -it should stand on its own merits - if it's good enough, and sensibly priced, people will buy it.

Points Systems
Long the bane of the social gamer, these tend to bring a 40K mindset with them.  Many (especially historical) companies make a deliberate philosophical decision not to include them. However the fact remains, a well-made points system allows a wider target audience without compromising gameplay.  (If your aim is to sell minis, then of course DO NOT allow players to proxy/stat up their own random models - better yet, only include the rules in the minis' own official blister pack)

Game Design as a Art (or Science)
There seems no real incentive or recognition for creative rules design.  Success often seems defined by how many rulebooks get sold - or perhaps awarded by a site which heavily promotes a game (Beasts of War award their sponsor Bolt Action an award of best miniatures game?).  Usually the games company itself is promoted over the designer i.e. a "Mongoose" game (unless the designer is ex-GW - all that means though is a guaranteed 40K remake).  Origins Awards almost seem given out by random lottery at times. Whilst there are a few very thoughtful rules designers out there, many games seem to ignore critical opportunities to enhance the game (such as defaulting to an IGOUGO activation sequence, adding in unbalanced scenarios randomly, or not considering the impact of terrain) or repeat mistakes made by previous games, simply by slavishly following "tradition."  Compared to extensive studies of literature, theatre, photography etc - game design has nothing to measure itself against.  Whilst you can often find interesting ideas on random blogs and threads through the net, I'd love to see a centralised "think tank" site frequented by professional, "indie" and even wannabe rules designers.  That way you might get less games repeating previous games mistakes and more "new ideas" that aren't just recycled old ideas. 

Anyway, congratulations to those who waded through the wall of text!


  1. Damned. I didn't see the wall. It is a very good analysis. Do you mind if I reproduce part of it on my blog?
    I am definitely with you on the GW-like rules out there because most of game designers worked or played with such system and can't move far from it.
    I am more on the scenario and relax gaming than power gaming, and quite ok to stop buying new toys once I reached my goals (what I wanted to play) and try to use my list even if unbalanced or no more up to date against new lists, new FAQ, ...

    1. Sure. If you do any posts, link your blog through - I'd like to hear your thoughts.

      I suspect you might fall into the "social" gamer class - I'd say most people who come past this blog are mostly this category....

  2. I agree with most of your points but I have found one other problem with today's wargaming: options. This is normally a good thing but as there is a game to cater for everyone's tastes, the harder it is to find an opponent for your chosen game!
    It used to be Warhammer Fantasy or 40k at our club years ago with a few other systems for a brief change. But then came Warmachine/Hordes, Infinity, Malifaux, Bushido... The list goes on!
    Options are great but there is a side effect.

    1. True! Part of the appeal of 40K etc is the ease of getting a game, and finding opponents. You pay a pretty high premium on that convenience, though.

      (I reckon I could make an army for each of the games you mentioned for less than a single 40K army!)

  3. There you go:

    1. Is there a section on tabletop games? I've browsed it before and thought it was videogames and apps only....

  4. Nothing to comment on yet, since I'm too sleep deprived but I thought this was a good post with some calls to action rather than just complaining about what's wrong.

    I do wonder at times to what extent it's chicken and egg: Do designers make "40K but with.." because it's easy to do or do they make it because that's what people buy?

  5. +1 from this Social Gamer also!

    I hope the new EU Tax laws regarding digital products is just a storm in a tea cup and passes quickly with sensibility reining. I would hate to see it impact the rise of pdf publishing, which I agree is a key step forward. Assuming that it does, I'm looking forward to the next iteration which would be ebooks with embedded videos showing rules mechanics at work.

    The points system thing is a perennial question isn't it - annoyingly I understand both viewpoints and agree that they are relevant in different contexts. However I really liked CoC's mechanism to maintain 'balance' (which of course is exactly what every field commander is trying to avoid and get there 'firs test with the mostest') while avoiding the vagaries of min-maxing. Neat.

    Finally, I think its great that we have 40k gateway games to take those poor GW infected souls (I was one of them in the past, I admit it...) and show them that Historical gaming can be fun and very rewarding. We can then shift them to rules which reflect their new period more effectively.

  6. I saw an interesting comment on TGN in their discussion about the new Warhammer changes where one gamer said the thing he liked best about Warhammer was the constant changes. He felt excited about keeping up and riding the wave of 'newness'. This to him was the draw of a 'well supported' game.

    This is an alien concept to me and one I hadn't heard before. I wonder how predominant it is amongst GW's target audience.
    Almost every wargamer likes 'new' I think, look how many companies start by producing a 28mm Napoleonic range. Someone must buy them even though there are already 100s of alternatives available.

    Ancients players switch to the new kid on the block in droves and proclaim it the best thing eva! with monotonous regularity (I believe that this is because ancients gaming is so dull and devoid of tactical thought that they're desperate for something to breathe interest into their period, too cruel?)

    I have varied interests myself, seldom driven by a set of commercial rules though, more often by some book or film that has inspired an urge to game a period or, more recently, by computer games and how to translate them to the tabletop. My latest is a tabletop version of an MMO no less.

    If you were to set up a games designer forum I'd be in. Unfortunately I fear it would go the way of the one on the Wargames Website where the designers have been driven out by the non-designing bloviating tossers banging on about their pet peeves. A place to avoid.

    Anyway, more good, well presented thoughts from you as always. I look forward to the next one.

    1. I haven't seen that on the Wargames Website yet. Is that dependent on the boards? I mostly frequent the Modern and Scifi boards though.

      Each gaming period tends to attract a different breed of crazies and Napoleonics can be particularly bad about armchair lawyers.

    2. The Game design board is in amongst General.

    3. That is why the Ignore User function has been added.


    4. I think the new kid of the Block is more a function of the "achiever" type of gamers than of some ingrained "dullness" of ancient gaming (BA in Ancient History and Archeology, playtester for Phil Sabin Lost Battles and also for Richard Berg GBOH here...). People playing more or less for competition after a while reach the limit of their rule set and want something new because they lack interest in the period and tactics and they need something else to master (and feel important in the process). Then there is a lot of hype because once they switch on a new system they need other players to follow to keep the tournament circuit viable.

    5. "I saw an interesting comment on TGN in their discussion about the new Warhammer changes where one gamer said the thing he liked best about Warhammer was the constant changes. He felt excited about keeping up and riding the wave of 'newness'. This to him was the draw of a 'well supported' game."

      I think there's something right about it. Even if people complain about all the endless changes to the rules and armies, in fact the changes are one of the things which keep them interested in the game.

      Without the changes, the game would easily become stale, especially to competitive players - once all options have been explored, all combos min-maxed, and the ultimate army built, there isn't much more to do for many.
      And then poof, there goes another edition of the rulebook - time to re-read the rules, adapt, experiment with new armies and strategies. Interest in the game is kept, gamers don't drift away to other games/hobbies.

  7. Nice post as usual!

    On the subject of clones and appealing to wider audiences, I think another point of view to consider is that of collectible card games. There was the boom of hundreds of titles after the widespread success of Magic, most of which failed and years later we have a few still successful games mostly fueled by the community of competitive players and variants (e.g. "living card games") that go after other consumers. Among those that failed there were some very inventive designs. For instance, the Star Wars CCG by Decipher and the first Netrunner card game, also designed by Richard Garfield. Curiously, I have read reviews of Netrunner that claim that it failed because the basic decks and a few boosters were enough for a fun game, so people did not rush to buy so many cards (and maybe the asymmetric setup didn't appeal as much for competitive play, but that's me guessing.)

    I'd also add to your list of solutions other ways of merging digital and "analog" play besides PDF books and 3D printing. Companion apps that help playing the game or act like mixed digital/analog tutorials might lower the barrier of entry represented by a novel set of rules, for instance.

    1. I agree with Paul that rulebooks will improve with embedded video gameplay examples (have I posted about that somewhere? it might be in a yet-unpublished game design ramble) seem the next step forward. Corvus Belli have done a good job with their YouTube channel.

      I've only casually flirted with CCGs so I don't write about them.
      They deserve their own whole article on their financial model though....
      I've seen a few PC+tabletop wargames but they haven't "taken off." I do see potential for managing between-game stuff like campaign advancement, exp etc in a Mordheim game.

      There don't seem to be any systems that "need" it though. I think it's a technology looking for a role.

  8. " gamer said the thing he liked best about Warhammer was the constant changes. He felt excited about keeping up and riding the wave of 'newness'. This to him was the draw of a 'well supported' game."

    This is quite common to wargames and videogames. I've been told by a few games designers they were told to "split" a completed rulebook so the game would look "supported" by "new content." A win-win for the company who trains them to think that way.

    "...I believe that this is because ancients gaming is so dull and devoid of tactical thought that they're desperate for something to breathe interest into their period, too cruel?"

    I personally see little interest in lining up two armies opposite each other in neat rows, on a table devoid of terrain, then move them to the middle and roll dice until someone breaks.... it's why Napleonics has also gotten the swerve (besides the crazies Ivan mentioned)...

    1. "A win-win for the company who trains them to think that way."

      I'm not so sure it's the companies training the customers. From the late 1990s at least, probably earlier, players abandoned CCG and RPG lines in droves when those games announced they were going to end their production lines. Announcing that a book or card set would be the last was a great way to not even break even on it.

  9. This is why I like small-press 15mm sci-fi games, from FUBAR (free and sweet) to 5Core/Five Parsecs from Home (excellent, innovative and quite cheap). The dated WH40K/WHF IGOUGO slog is getting old, the only reason to play it is that fellow players are very easy to find.

    Also 15mm miniatures - apart from FOW and the like, most 15mm mini production is done by small, agile, innovative companies who offer interesting products at a low price, and you can mix and match your army from various competing vendors. You can build a 15mm army for the cost of a WH40K squad...

    1. "5Core/Five Parsecs from Home (excellent, innovative and quite cheap)."

      You're Ivan's alt account, right? ;-)

    2. No. Just a big fan of these rules.

    3. I was only kidding - the author (Ivan) had just posted above you both times you praised the 5Core rules!

    4. Hah, yeah. Actually, Omer goes back to the FAD4 days :)

  10. Good post, as per usual, that put into words some similar thoughts that I've had as well. I think with the younger generation coming from video games where regular updates are common and even expected it follows that some analogue game makers will try to follow that model. Except of course, having physical media makes it more challenging. At least if cards etc are involved.

    Also, as a side note on your comment on evolution. While all birds likely share a common ancestor the wing itself has of course evolved among several species in parallel (convergent evolution). Even odd mechanisms like the bioelectricity of the electric eel(s) have evolved twice, completely independent of each other.

  11. If you jump ahead (post #21 or #22?) the I've noticed the really "big guns" all seem to follow similar commercial models.

    By the way, thumbs up to another person who likes Lightning Strike (if only someone would actually put out flying Gundam-esque minis say 15mm tall...)
    Grrr. DP9 deserve to be shot the way they bungle an awesome IP....

    1. Yeah, I've been following this train of thought of yours and I think there's a lot to it. Unfortunately. :(

      Yeah, DP9 make great stuff but don't seem to know what to do with them! Having two large rpg lines just fade out and die like that is such a shame. And even though they're trying to revive Heavy Gear (no word on JC of course) it doesn't seem to go all that well with first SJG getting the chance but it turning into vaporware and now Arcrite Press seemingly doing the same. Frustrating to say the least! I'm currently in the process of hunting down HG and JC books to fill out my rpg library.

    2. I'm sure they'll "KickStarter" something. Sigh. It's a bit annoying seeing established companies using KickStarter as a kind of pre-order device. With the prices they charge, you'd think they'd have no problem with cashflow... (..or perhaps "because of"...)

      Hey, do you know where to find the mech construction rules? I wanted to make my own HG mech and someone said a JC book had a points system, somewhere, that probably could be fudged....

    3. Hehe! Well, in DP9's case I think they're small enough to actually warrant kickstarting. I just wish they would stop let the gold they have slip through their fingers!

      I think the vehicle construction system is in the JC Companion but the one in Heavy Gear Technical Manual might supersede it. I'm in Japan for a while so don't have access to my books at the moment. :)

    4. Hmmm, I might just give up on Heavy Gear when my Robotech stuff arrives - I'm guessing any individual with good enough taste to like Lightning Strike HAS to like Robotech (or Macross, as the nerds properly title it)

    5. I actually pledged for Robotech but in the end decided to go for Deadzone instead (as that is what my friends were interested in). Suffice to say, with hindsight I've regretted my decision. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on the game when you get your hands on it - I might get a starter box if it looks like fun.

    6. I liked the terrain, was so-so on the minis, but read the Deadzone beta rules and decided it wasn't worth it for the terrain alone.

      But even if the Robotech rules suck, we have Veritechs! Jets-that-are-mechs - it's the two coolest things in the world combined. I mean, who doesn't secretly admit Starscream is the best transformer. Optimus who?

      ...and hopefully Robotech GAMES will be free of annoyingly squeaky-voiced anime heroine singers...

    7. For me the game is pretty fun and the models range from ugly to pretty cool, but the main reason I got into it was for the campaign play (Necromunda nostalgia!) and because my friends did. However, the campaign turned out to be reeeeally lackluster and of the original six of us who invested only three have actually played it. :P

      In the end I feel that I don't have time and energy for a game that is pretty fun with a couple of models that are pretty cool when I have stuff like Infinity to play instead. Another major drawback is the fairly boring setting that doesn't inspire me at all - as opposed to Robotech/Macross which is awesome! :D

    8. Your thoughts seem identical to my concerns, only I did it before buying (we poor single-income dads tend to be a cautious lot!)

      Infinity needs a proper campaign system. No, Paradiso wasn't "it".
      I understand balance concerns, but limiting upgrades to +1BS, and +2 of the other stats shouldn't be too game breaking. Heck you could even "cap" them so someone at 15BS couldn't improve.

      Have you come across any threads where someone has reverse-engineered the Infinity points system? Cos I'm wanting to play weird war II with the rules...

    9. Part of me wants a Necromunda style campaign system for Infinity and part of me doesn't. Although I'm sure it could be made to work and be fun I'm more and more getting the feeling that it wouldn't actually suit the game all that well. I imagine these spec-ops units being put together on a per missions basis rather than hanging out together going on missions. I don't know... I'm split on the issue. :)

      I know people have reverse engineered the N2 points system as it's being referred to all the time on the official forum, but I've never bother to track down the actual list of points. I'm sure the same thing will happen quickly with N3 as well, if it hasn't already.

  12. I think Infinity has "jumped the shark" with just so many weapons, special abilities and equipment (180+) that its now "it's not your list, it's your memory".

    I think it's too late for a Necromunda-Infinity.

    I'd like a modern-warfare version of Infinity. It would be a good opportunity to strip the game back to basics and prune back the excessive special rules.

    1. Now that is a great idea! While I'm one of those people who don't have much trouble with all the special abilities etc I certainly recognize it as something that makes it harder for new people to get into it and the rules in general, I certainly think it would be very interesting to see the core system used for another game/setting.

    2. I think with the new weapon rebalance you could almost use it for moderns with little adjustment.

      I'd like a modern-horror like the PC games STALKER or FEAR with telekinetic/psychic powers but otherwise pretty standard gear, abilities and equipment. Kinda strip the game back to its "roots" before it got bloated by supplements.

  13. I tweeted this post to my followers.

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