BioWare’s Schubert On MMO Past Vs MMO Present

By Nathan Grayson on October 18th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.

A long time ago, in a galaxy that was still this one, Star Wars: The Old Republic lead systems designer Damion Schubert was one of the principle minds behind Meridian 59, a bonafide pioneer of MMORPGs as, well, things. Since then, he’s worked on Shadowbane and The Sims Online, among others. During GDC Online, however, he gave a talk regaling tales of Meridian clone invasions and other such emergent madness interspersed with rather comical regrets (Fun fact: It was the first 3D MMO. It also launched without mouse-look). Afterward, we sat down for a chat about how MMOs have changed since Schubert first helped hand them a lunch bag and usher them onto the bus back in ye olde 1990s. And while his eyes lit up as he reminisced about Meridian’s good old days, he was also quite adamant about his preference for SWTOR’s story-driven approach over, say, EVE-Online-style emergent madness. All that and more after the break.

RPS: You discussed that crazy clone invasion thing during your Meridian talk, which was really interesting by virtue of the fact that it was possible at all. Your game was very conducive to those sorts of things, because it wasn’t as structured as MMOs are now, aside from maybe EVE Online. Is that something that you miss?

Schubert: Yes and no. In many respects I feel like my entire career led up to Star Wars, because this is an enormous opportunity and an enormously awesome product and whatnot. I like to make big, monumental things, and Star Wars is certainly that.

The thing about Meridian that made a lot of the things that I talked about possible was the fact that it had a small population. The reason why something like that wouldn’t be as significant on World of Warcraft is because it would get lost in a population of 3000 or 5000 people. In Meridian 59, with a population of 100 people, 50 new people that come in with identical names, it’s impossible for you to miss it.

Similarly, the assassination game was able to work because the world was small enough and everybody knew each other. It was possible for you to have a good idea of what was going on, who was where. You’d have guild members helping you. That was possible because the game was small. That created design possibilities that, at the very least, would be a lot more challenging inside of a game like Star Wars or Guild Wars or WoW.

RPS: I imagine your core design philosophy is markedly different these days. Back then, players could legitimately be special in the grand scheme of the game world. Now you have to make them feel special in spite of the fact that they’re jostling for position with millions of other people.

Schubert: The thing about Meridian 59 is that we had no real concept of different player types. We had no real concept of, there might be people who don’t like to player-kill. We just assumed that if you don’t like to player-kill, you’d go and play The Realm.

To be honest, Ultima Online kind of shipped with that philosophy as well, which was, “Crafters don’t mind player-killers in that universe.” It wasn’t really until EverQuest came along, in my opinion, that we started as an industry to do a good job of saying, “Hey, player-killers, you go over here. People who don’t like to player-kill and want to be social, you go over here.” Now we’re in an age where there’s a lot less of the… You can get accidentally killed because you’re in the wrong space. It’s more about, “Hey, if you want to PvP, you have to opt in.”

That being said, you can still do some really cool stuff with that, but with a population that self-selects. For example, someone could totally do the assassination game, but it would probably be closer to a battleground experience than what we had in Meridian, which was a game that goes on for three weeks.

RPS: Are you happy with the way MMOs have grown up overall? I mean, they’re certainly more player-friendly now, but that’s also pulled the rug out from under a lot of those wild possibilities. 

Schubert: As a general rule, I am for the most part pleased with where the genre goes. I do think there are some opportunities that are waiting for a team to pick them up. We now see a lot of different directions. Guild Wars does a good job of doing the PvP experience. It’s an opt-in experience, but it’s very focused on that. It’s an experience where everybody has agreed to play that game. That’s not really so different from the assassination game. To some extent, also, the faction game, the token-carrying game is pretty much the relic system in Dark Age of Camelot.

I don’t know if they copied us or came up with it on their own, but a lot of these ideas are simple enough that someone can do it with the mechanics that they have. You see a lot of the ideas coming back around. Especially the ones that aren’t problematic. As I’ve hinted at, the name-flagging thing that we did was pretty much the same name-flagging that Ultima shipped with. It’s very similar to what EverQuest had in the very early days when they tried to do player-killing as well. MMOs are going to have more of a focus, in general, on saying, “Hey, we’re going to do this well.”

The big one that I’m surprised nobody has picked up is building another Ultima Online. Building another farming/crafting-centric thing. We have PvP, we have story. UO had a couple hundred thousand people. Star Wars [Galaxies] had a few hundred thousand people. And that’s before WoW brought in huge numbers to the idea of MMOs. So it’s a huge opportunity. But I’m not in a position to make that game.

RPS: It’s interesting that you’re working on The Old Republic now. It’s heavily, heavily story-focused – sometimes even to its own detriment. Meanwhile, you’ve got firsthand experience with the amazing stories players can create just by interacting. 

Schubert: The general gist of it is that the way that I see it, there are three kinds of stories inside of games, inside of MMOs. One is the narrative story that we deliver [as developers]. The second is what I call a mechanical story. An example of a mechanical story is, “We got the raid boss down to two percent and then Bob stepped in the fire and we all wiped.” It’s a story that has nothing to do with who the boss is or anything like that. It’s entirely about mechanics. Then you have the social stories, which are purely, “Janice is sleeping with Bob and Steve doesn’t know.” Which also happens inside of MMOs.

Now, those last two kinds of stories are much stickier from a social point of view. But BioWare’s expertise has always been with the first kind. To be honest, with the exception of Meridian and UO, everything since then has had those stories – just not told very well. We felt that it was our bread and butter. It was something that we had a lot of expertise on, and could really do something better than anybody else. I think in that realm we really succeeded. Almost all of our reviews talked about the fact that we nailed the story and pretty much. I honestly believe we raised the bar. We raised the expense of doing those in the future for most other companies.

That being said, there were a couple of uncomfortable conversations I had to have with the BioWare guys when I showed up. “These are great stories that you’re writing here. It’s cool that you have that Darth Vader moment where I’m your father, and so on.” All that stuff. The great BioWare twists that you know and love and remember. But it’s never going to be as good as, “The guild master’s wife is sleeping with the healing lead,” right? Because those are real people.

RPS: It’s oddly fascinating that you can be in this crazy Star Wars universe with homicidal robots and laser swords and Rancors and the slug monster crime lords who love them, yet still value something comparatively mundane so much more highly.

Schubert: The way that I like to think about quest content in general is that it is kind of a failsafe, if you will. People tend to quest alone or with light groups in low-threat environments. Most of that play experience is… kind of soothing? It’s almost like popping bubble wrap. As a result, you don’t get those mechanical moments most of the time. You don’t get those mechanical stories because the combat is relatively easy.

RPS: Right. You’re sort of just going through the motions, but you rarely ever die.

Schubert: The mechanical moments tend to come when you put yourself in high-risk situations. When you’re in a dungeon or a flashpoint. When you’re in a PvP match and you kill somebody or almost kill somebody but don’t pull it off. Those moments where the rules allow something exceptional to happen. In a game with as many hours as an MMO, all that story stuff can’t be exceptional moments.

In terms of mechanical stuff, the other thing is that, as a game designer, if you depend on social and mechanical stories as being what’s awesome, you’re effectively depending on serendipity to provide the player with good stories. You’re hoping the player has an awesome mechanical moment where he almost survives. You’re hoping that he gets into an interesting social situation. If the player never does either of those in The Old Republic, he at least has these movie-worthy moments that come from the game, that are certainly better than any quests from our predecessors.

RPS: These days, though, people seem to be getting a bit tired of questing, and I think developers are starting to react. Obviously, there’s EVE and its new extension, Dust. Meanwhile, I spoke with SOE’s president, and he basically said that his company’s going all-in on player-driven content. That questing’s become old hat now that players have been doing it over and over for so long. 

Schubert: That would not be BioWare’s general point of view. We are primarily a content company. We are going to find new and interesting ways to make content and deliver content to the players. We have a higher premium on creating content that’s designed to be replayed. Our class quests, it makes no sense to replay them unless you create a new character. But we try to make good content for the flashpoints. We find that the story does some neat things for us.

I actually like, quite a bit, most of Guild Wars 2. But there’s no question in my mind that we feel less like grinding than they do, and a huge part of it is just the context that the story gives you for doing everything. There’s very few situations where it feels purely like you’re just watching a bar go up, right? That’s something that, personally, I’m pretty proud of. We managed to ship an MMO with a fairly long level curve, but where it doesn’t really feel like it drags or like it’s really grinding.

The more systematic you go, the more the content and the action of doing the content all starts to feel the same after a while. The human brain seeks novelty. Especially when you talk about the length of time that people play MMOs, because it’s not just that we want to suck away subscription dollars. That gets even less true as more games go free-to-play [Note: this interview was conducted before BioWare announced SWTOR's free-to-play restrictions]. We want you to be a vibrant part of the community. We want you to be in the fabric of the community. We want you to have cool things to do with other people. We want other people to see names they recognize when they log on.

We want people to have lots of stuff to do, but if they don’t have something interesting or novel come out of it, then what’s the point? The more mechanical you go, the question is, how do you ensure that there are those moments of novelty that are memorable, that the player appreciates? We lean on content quite a bit for that. That’s a very BioWare approach, our game design approach.

RPS: Obviously, though, if you lean on content, you’ll eventually run out. A lot of MMO players grab a game and just blow through that first chunk of content. So how do you react to players who get disenfranchised because they run out of content really quickly? Other than just saying, “OK, we’ll make new content, but it’s going to take a while,” I mean?

Schubert: It’s one of our biggest challenges. Part of what’s interesting about this is that there are very few players that have actually run out of content. They run out of content for one class. There are still seven more class stories for them to go through, and all of our class stories are pretty good.

That being said, we saw an unexpected thing when we launched. I actually built the level curve of the game, and I wanted it to be a certain number of hours. We landed right on that number of hours for how long it takes to level up, as far as our average. Which is good, but how fast they were doing it in real time was much faster than we expected.

That speaks to what you were saying, which is that, more so than other MMOs that I’ve worked on, people were just sitting down and playing the story all the way through. To some extent, I think that we were hoping they’d go and restart with other characters. Instead, a lot of people got to the end and they wanted a bit of a break from the BioWare experience. A 100-hour-plus story is pretty long for a BioWare game.

So the interesting thing, to me, about free-to-play, which we’re talking about, is that I think that’s going to be fairly conducive to an environment where players might bounce back for a while, do another one of those classes, and then bounce out again. The other thing, with the legacy system… Do we need to make that stronger in order to encourage you to get in and see that content? Because that class content is our best stuff. Like I said, most of our players have only seen a fraction of it.

RPS: Right. But I think that’s because, back when The Old Republic was first announced, it was billed as not just Knights of the Old Republic 3, but 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. People went in expecting that each class was going to be a completely different story experience. Not going to the same zones or anything ever. Whenever they ended up revisiting a lot of places after already putting in so many hours, I think they got burnt out.

Schubert: Yeah, I see that point of view. That said, first off, that’s completely un-doable, that amount of content. But more to the point, it’s really important that people quest together. A huge part of that is the multiplayer conversations. The multiplayer conversations are awesome. But for those to work, you need to give everybody, at least on the same faction, the same quests. The bounty hunter can bring his point of view, the agent can bring his point of view, to that conversation.

I feel that sense of sameness, and I certainly understand that. Part of the point of the legacy system is that you can use that to get the experience boost you need so you have to do less of that repeat content. That’s clearly part of one of our goals for the legacy system, to make it less necessary to retread stuff that is that shared content. There’s clearly more content than you need to do. There are entire quest hubs I just don’t do when I replay characters, and you need to do even less of it if you PvP, if you run flashpoints, if you do warzones. I hear what is being said, but I think that that is a situation where players can self-select to solve the problem.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

, , , , .

70 Comments »

  1. Hoaxfish says:

    I feel it’s almost unfair to label him as “Bioware’s Schubert”, when the only MMO really made by Bioware is SWTOR.

  2. Didero says:

    Sounds like the dude should be making co-op games, not MMOs.

    Also, it strikes me as a bit odd that first he’s saying he wants to focus on content in MMOs, and a while later he’s saying that you can never make enough content for an MMO.

    • frightlever says:

      I would guess he’s inclined to instinctively defend his game’s focus but there may be an element of cognitive dissonance at play.

      • Baines says:

        I got that feeling from Shubert’s comments in general. I don’t know if he is towing the company line, or if he simply believes these things.

        Like when he talks about there being three types of stories, he puts the focus on developer written narrative and seemingly downplays mechanics-based stories and social stories. (He particularly seems to sell mechanics-based stories short, and doesn’t even address how they can cross with social stories.) He talks about developer written narrative being BioWare’s specialty, how reviews praised it, and how he feels that they raised the bar in that area. But after all this praise about the narrative focus, he mentions how he had uncomfortable conversations with BioWare guys about how their developer narrative stuff will never measure up to some of the social stuff that will happen.

        He’s also very light on the shortcomings of such a narrative focus. He mentions reviews praising BioWare’s narrative, but doesn’t touch on the other things the reviews were saying. He kind of touches on people playing for a week or a month and quitting, but seems to be attaching the wrong (or at least a lacking) reason to why, and that the SWTOR guys didn’t see it in advance only shows how detached they were from their audience.

    • Phantoon says:

      Maybe he sees it as the only way to stay in business? Can’t fault the guy for being old fashioned when he’s been here since the beginning.

    • Edradour says:

      I dont get your point, hes saying that you can never make enough content for mmos and thats absolutely true, you can’t.
      In a perfect mmo Everytime the first person reaches max level/clears all dungeons/raids or whatever on the hardest difficulty there would already be the next piece of content for him to explore

      The only thing anyone can do is try to create content fast enough that it can be patch in as about lets say 50% of the community have done all the old stuff but you can never make “enough” content

    • TimMc says:

      I think 90% of MMOs should just be coop campaigns.

      Either an MMO is based on player-created content like Eve Online or Second Life, or the dev’s were just greedy idiots thinking they could get long term payback from a title. The reason MMO’s die is because lack of player influence and user content.

      No matter how long a dev works on content, people will finish it and it will become stale. Giving users tools to create content guarantees it will constantly be fresh.

      • DonDrapersAcidTrip says:

        Yeah pretty much all MMOs now are just singleplayer RPG story’s like Final Fantasy with co-op and a lot slower and more tedious leveling. I don’t see the appeal at all in that, at least not paying monthly for years on end for that, to me it seems to completely miss out on the what genre is capable of. Seems every big new one to come out now they keep harping on how great their cinematic storylines and voice acting and all that shit is. As far as taking lessons from all the interesting things UO and Galaxies did I don’t know that anyone in history has ever missed the point harder. I don’t want to be forced down some programmer nerd’s terribly written fanfiction quest chain, identical to what everybody else is doing. I want to inhabit a living world and let my own story write itself. These guys just don’t get it.

        Somebody just remake Ultima Online already.

  3. Unrein says:

    I’ve thankfully reached the threshold of my Diminishing Returns of MMO Enjoyment with Guild Wars 2, and feel no compulsion to ever play another quest/progression based MMO ever again. It took a lot of money, but I am finally cured! To hell with Guild Wars 2, WoW, SWTOR and all the other shitty, stagnant do-this-do-that-to-progress FedEx MMO “RPGs”.

    • sdancer says:

      Fun enough, I found SWOR a lot more enjoyable after the first two weeks of GW2.

      • Laurentius says:

        Because despite certain hype both games are incredibly grindy, every cool element of GW2 is bared by hours of grind, every cool story twist of diffrent class in SWTOR is hidden by hours of grind, seriously these games marks dead end of MMORPG.

        • Nick says:

          I’m really not sure what the fuck version of GW you are playing that has grind in it.

          • Kenny007 says:

            lol, I’m inclined to agree. I accidentally hit level 80 when I decided to use up my crafting materials I had earned while exploring.

          • Laurentius says:

            The one that whatever i decide to do there are alwayes bars: money, levels, etc. Both in SWTOR and GW2, most of the content the devs are so proud of anouncing to players is barred by hours of grind, This is general fualt of games, can you imagine other medium that is so restricitng its customers of things they actually paid for ? Do i have to make 20 pushups everytime i’m turning a page in book, or do i ahve to listen five times in the row to whole music album before i can skipp to the track i like ? These are traits of games though and mmorpgs are worst offenders, promising great things and then slowing ,tieng up players from reaching them with idiotic designs.

          • Premium User Badge

            jrodman says:

            Leaving aside the idea that “grind” the way you are doing it just means “repetitive gameplay I don’t enjoy”, there is no reason to suggest guild wars 2 has repetitive gameplay bars that block access to content. The game lets you do basically anything you feel like to “advance”, and that advancement is all you need to access nearly anything in the game.

            So, I’m going to say you’re just plain wrong.

            Unless you hate exploration, combat, crafting, pvp, and so on, then sure it’s all a grind, but that’s the entire game so you’re not being blocked from anything, you’re just complaining you don’t like the game at that point.

          • Ruggan says:

            Sure, you’re right – there’s PvP, exploration, crafting, and combat. That being said, I can’t really praise the implementation. Everything is structured and tiered and similarly laid out, and there’s not much interest to be gained there – once you’ve done it once, you’ve done it. Take exploration, for example: vistas are awesome at first, but after a few you begin to realize that they’re an empty achievement. What is the player exploring for? Perhaps to get a cinematic view of the area, or for experience awarded, but what’s the real draw of that? There’s nothing that keeps you hooked, and the player has no real reason to continue exploring aside from an inherent completionist desire or a need to level.

            I’m not trying to be entirely negative – GW2 was entirely fun for the first 20 hours, and I certainly got my money’s worth. However, when I think of what draws me to an MMO, it’s the allure of social interaction and truly player-driven content, the hope for some level of spontaneity and the possibility of having an impact on those around you – otherwise, just play by yourself. Beyond the minimal impact you have on others in GW2 during group events and PvP / RvR, people are just running around in their own world as glorified fetch-quest messengers. I think that’s the criticism many people are trying to levy when they call it “grindy”. Regardless, it wasn’t able to hold my interest.

          • SageGaspar says:

            I think the fundamental disconnect is that some people just plain like exploring. That was why Skyrim was like crack to me — I didn’t care about checking off locations on a checklist, I was just roaming the world seeing neat things. And I’m the same way in GW2. Every corner of the map is stuffed with neat things to see, and the reward for finding a neat cave or uncovering a hidden event is the exploration and the event itself.

            In contrast some people are more concerned with the numerical percent of map completion, running around from spot to spot until you get your location ding or check off that vista then hustling over to the next one. When viewed from that perspective it is just another grind. Sometimes I find myself doing that, but to fix it I turn off all those icons on my map the first time I visit a zone. It makes a big difference to me just picking a direction that looks cool rather than bouncing between dots on the map. I’ve been playing for a month and a half pretty hard and I am only at 50% map completion having thoroughly explored all the zones I’ve been to.

          • Ragnar says:

            I think Schubert actually nailed it when he said:
            “I actually like, quite a bit, most of Guild Wars 2. But there’s no question in my mind that we feel less like grinding than they do, and a huge part of it is just the context that the story gives you for doing everything. There’s very few situations where it feels purely like you’re just watching a bar go up, right? That’s something that, personally, I’m pretty proud of. We managed to ship an MMO with a fairly long level curve, but where it doesn’t really feel like it drags or like it’s really grinding.”

            GW2 felt grindy to me from the beginning. Yes, you can do anything you want to level up, but everything short of exploration felt like a grind. The quests come off as chores and busy-work, where you just watch a bar go up, and the combat (as an elementalist at least) felt very repetitive, to the point that combat itself became a grind. By the time I was lvl 7 I was already bored of the quests and combat.

            Playing the Imperial Agent in SWTOR didn’t feel like a grind (though admittedly I only played a few days, up to level 12 or so). It’s probably because the interactive dialog at the start and end of each quest got me interested and made me feel involved (once I turned off the light/dark indicators), and it felt like I was playing a single-player game, like KOTOR 3, with MMO combat mechanics. Which, of course, make it instantly inferior to a real KOTOR 3, but still more engaging than most other MMOs I’ve played.

  4. x1501 says:

    In my view, the guy sounds absolutely clueless. Here’s a randomly picked example:

    “[T]here are very few players that have actually run out of content. They run out of content for one class.”

    While technically correct, this statement has very little to do with reality. In TOR’s case, while you do get a good number of class-tailored cutscenes and even a couple of unique mini-areas for each class, the vast chunk of your alt leveling experience will still consist of you going through all the same static planets and doing all the same non-class quests all over again. Repeating 90-95% of the leveling content from another class’s [very similar] perspective can hardly be considered a truly new experience. It certainly is nowhere as fun and engaging as discovering and doing through all that content for the very first time.

    The interview is full of clueless answers like this one. His claim that Bioware has zero interest in player-created dynamic content seemed particularly bizarre, seeing that their slavish adherence to single-handedly finding “new and interesting ways to make content and deliver content to the players” was one of the biggest reasons that led to Star Wars: TOR’s spectacular downfall.

    • Jenks says:

      I didn’t finish the story for a single class (jedi knight) before my “free” month ended, and I didn’t feel compelled to resubcribe to finish it. I would love to see the statistics on how many people had a similar experience with the game, where multiple classes are meaningless because a single class isn’t interesting enough to complete.

      The immersion breaking nature of MMOs absolutely does not mesh with a narrative driven game. When you have a quest to kill a villain, and when you arrive you see a line of players waiting for the villain to respawn, you have a shit narrative experience. The story itself is nothing to write home about when compared to single player games, and the hotbar MMO gameplay is obviously awful compared to any other genre. Multiplayer interaction via gameplay and economy is non existent when compared to properly designed MMORPG worlds. Why would anyone pay $15/mo for this? Why would I even spend time playing it for free?

      If they really think it’s the players’ faults that they aren’t rolling more characters to soak in the entire greatness that is SWTOR, they are beyond deluded.

      • Laurentius says:

        Exactly, i would have more fun playing Pazaak (card game from KoTOR) with oter players and NPC if they included it, then killing robots or other mobs for hours. They know players will run out of content eventually , so they hide it behind hours of grind and still expect it to work. It’s not going to happen.

      • Phantoon says:

        Of course they’re deluded. Bioware claiming everything is the player’s faults for not enjoying it or finding fault with it (Mass Effect 3, dumbing down in Mass Effect 2, the existence of Dragon Age 2, etc).

        Entitlement, anyone?

        • Ragnar says:

          In defense of Mass Effect 2, I just replayed 1 and 2, and found ME2 much better. ME 1 has a much better overall story, sense of threat and urgency, and has the only video game sex scene I actually enjoyed, but I found everything else better in 2. Sure, the sex scenes in ME2 are a massive step back, and there’s no excuse for the terrible, immersion breaking summary screens at the end of every quest, but the writing is much better, the characters are more interesting, the locations feel better designed, and the gameplay is faster and more exciting.

          I don’t miss the inventory management as finding new weapons and upgrades in the world still activates the equipment improving pleasure center, and I don’t miss reducing the skill trees down to 4 since now the skills feel a lot more meaningful. I call it streamlining as opposed to dumbing down because the old mechanics didn’t really require actual thought. I preferred playing ME2 without using the pause feature, and found that deciding how to optimally dispatch each group given my squad’s limited powers on-the-fly took more thought than anything

          That’s not saying that I want every RPG to be like ME2, but for the action-third-person-cover-based-shooter-rpg genre I think it was a massive improvement over ME1.

      • Atrak says:

        Spot on! The class stories were kind of interesting but were a thin layer resting on top of hours and hours of repetitive stale, mmo-hotbar combat. The sub quests were the normal theme park style mmo fair with voice acting instead of quest text. The game itself just wasn’t interesting enough to keep me playing it to enjoy the story. It simply used the now outdated rule of time sinks to stretch out experience that otherwise would have been a normal length RPG.

    • Premium User Badge

      Erithtotl says:

      Not to mention isn’t Bioware almost as famous for it’s amazing player driven content-based Neverwinter Nights games as it’s developer-created stories?

  5. Jenks says:

    “…questing’s become old hat now that players have been doing it over and over for so long.

    Schubert: That would not be BioWare’s general point of view.”

    Extremely disappointing when I first read it, but after rereading the entire interview, it is clear that Schubert is a company man. Even if Bioware has learned that this is not the right path for an MMO, it’s not in an interview with RPS in the months leading up to its F2P launch that they’d reveal it.

    “Sorry folks! We botched the core design of this game so badly that it’s unfixable short of creating an entirely new game. Come try it out next month when it goes free to play and spend some cash in our shop!”

    • Phantoon says:

      Well, a bit of honesty would do them good here, since they’ve come across as jerks leading up to this. Remember how they said SWTOR would be the best game ever and they would never ever ever make it F2P because it would never need to be any anyone that said otherwise was a homophobe?

      Yeah.

  6. PostieDoc says:

    I agree with him that someone should make a new MMO based on what Ultima Online stood for when it came out.
    It was a world for you to live in how you liked. No Quest Markers, there were dungeons but you could just walk in and out of them as you liked.
    I played mainly as a crafter and it was hard work to reach GM skill (100/100) originaly which made it all the more rewarding if you did persevere to get there.
    PKs could be a pain but it opened up opportunities for players to band together to form a posse and hunt them down.
    I miss Ultima Online (before they split the world in two killed the game for me).

    • Kenny007 says:

      Agreed.

      “The big one that I’m surprised nobody has picked up is building another Ultima Online.” Truer words never spoken. UO was my first MMO, so I’m a bit bias, but every MMO I’ve been in since has gone down the route this interview subject seems to prefer and I can’t stand them for any real length of time. The capability UO had of providing real, unique stores was second to none.

      Countless stories of theft, both of a Robin Hood type nature (stealing offensive spell reagents from PK mages) and more malicious types (stalking people in difficult dungeons and pouncing on their corpse when then inevitably fell).

      Actual espionage against other guilds.

      I even ran a scavenger hunt in town (find a book I dropped on the ground somewhere) for a 25,000 gold prize. This was actually how I left the game for good; spent my large gold pile running various contests like the above that newbies would jump in on a for a small entrance fee (500 gold IIRC).

      It’s simply amazing how theme park MMOs have seeemingly won out over the sandbox. It’s even more a shame that I’m not entirely sure today’s typical MMO player would be able to stomach both the freedom and the consequence that a sandbox MMO can provide. Things like open PKing had a strange way of regulating themselves in UO; just as many folks were interesting in PK hunting and bounties as there were those looking to just grief and kill. Nowadays, it’d likely be PKs abound and some sort of teabagging emote.

      • Brun says:

        It’s not really surprising that theme park won out over the sandbox. At the time when themepark really took off (EQ and WoW), the sandbox wasn’t really palatable to a large audience, for the very reasons you just described – in short, because the sandbox isn’t very forgiving for the gaming- or MMO-illiterate. People weren’t going to like paying to access a game – paying for access to fun, essentially – only to find out that the realities of the sandbox mean that only a small percentage of players have all the fun, often at the expense of others. EQ and WoW in particular were designed to reel in larger audiences, and the sandbox model couldn’t do that.

        Slowly but surely I think the sandbox is going to start coming back – we’re already seeing it with EVE and soon PS2. But the reason for that is two that those large, MMO-illiterate audiences bought into the MMO world by those themepark games is now MMO-literate. The sandbox is now palatable – even desirable – to them.

        So I guess the TLDR is that the success of the themepark MMO has a lot to do with its suitability for large audiences that are unfamiliar with MMOs. As time goes on though, these audiences will become more familiar with MMOs and will start to crave something a little more refined, like a sandbox.

        • Premium User Badge

          ffordesoon says:

          Which is the same thing I’ve been saying about the Kickstarter nostalgia boom in regular old cRPGs to anyone who’ll listen. Appealing to a huge audience was never a bad idea, however good or bad the games that came out of that idea were. But a huge chunk of that audience was always going to long for something less casual and more involved after a while, because they became – to paraphrase you – cRPG-literate.

          In both cases, there have been moderately successful outliers with fiercely loyal fanbases, and in both cases, publishers have been too focused on emulating the biggest hit to realize that emulating the moderately successful outliers while giving people a more polished experience than they can is the real way to victory. The difference is, a killer single-player game can be funded by a Kickstarter in a pinch. A killer MMO can’t, really. I mean, they can be, er, kickstarted by Kickstarter, but at the end of the day, there’s not enough money in KS (yet) to fund a great MMO, and even if there were, the people who might be interested in backing it are still unwilling to sink any time into MMOs, whether or not they’re substantially different from the norm.

          I think the next big trend might be sandbox MMOs with more servers and smaller population caps on those servers. A big part of Day Z’s appeal is the level of intimacy a fifty-person limit confers.

  7. GSGregory says:

    “The big one that I’m surprised nobody has picked up is building another Ultima Online. Building another farming/crafting-centric thing.”

    This is not true in my opinion with the total recreation of the original SWG being done and with the amazing korean made mmo Arche Age currently in its 5th beta stage.

    If you want info on arche age look at http://archeage-online.com/ or look for youtube videos.

    From what I have seen and read it does many of the things swg did and takes it to another level. A whole player controlled continent is one my favorite parts. That means player houses, city’s , castles ect and those aren’t precreated locations either they are player crafted.

  8. Bobzer says:

    My biggest disappointment with MMO’s now is that to be mainstream and popular is to be themepark. I finally got decent enough internet (yay Ireland) to experience the very end of what looked to me like a golden age of MMO’s. Ultima, Galaxies, Camelot, I’m sad that I barely managed to miss out on these, I’m sure there is a bit of rose tinting going on but there is nothing else like them.

    In my opinion themeparks completely miss out on the point of an MMO, what is the point of thousands of people playing together if what you’re playing is pretty much a co-op rpg with a party of 5 or 6 people at a time? All these thousands of other players are simply in the background doing their own thing, to be ignored. Their function is to be a chat room tacked onto the side of the game while giving the impression that there are lots of people living in their world. They are the other visitors in the park, only noticed when they do something ridiculous like walk around shouting or take a dump on the floor.

    No publisher wants to touch sandbox with a 10 foot pole which is a shame because no matter how underfunded or badly developed games like Roma Victor, Darkfall, Mortal Online, Wurm are(/were), they’re the only ones that actually get what an mmo is about, thousands of players, each able to make a difference in a living breathing world they shape.

    EvE is the only real successful out there and while GW2 has imo shifted the themepark genre in a way that makes other players matter themeparks might as well be co-op instances with a virtual lobby, the state of the mmo market at the moment is a travesty.

    /rant

    • GSGregory says:

      http://www.swgemu.com if your interested in galaxies. And refer to my above post for arche age which is a giant mix between everything but has a main focus on the sandbox and crafting.

  9. Baardago says:

    Reading this made me feel like playing that game.

    … Meridian 59, that is. Not SWTOR.

    • Psychochild says:

      Game is still running. Mostly as a hobby of the original programmers. http://meridian59.com/

      I ran the game for 9 years under Near Death Studios. Great game and definitely a lot of lessons developers should pay attention to as MMOs evolve (or die) in the near future.

      Oh, and the code just went open source as well, if you feel like looking at what kept the old girl going. They haven’t released the art assets, though.

      • Baardago says:

        Huh. Sorry to say it, but that link doesn’t seem to be working.

        Googling for Meridian 59 and going straight to their main website doesn’t get me anywhere, either. Weird.

        Of course, I might as well try when I get off the work PC and head home. It’ll work, then.

        I would love to take a look at the source code… but it will all look like egyptian hieroglyphs to me, ’till I learn anything about coding.

        Good to know it’s still running, though.

    • MentatYP says:

      Ah, the heady days of Meridian 59 and Ultima Online. I was in the beta for both of those games. Really felt like something incredible and exciting.

  10. Borborygme says:

    “It’s almost like popping bubble wrap”

    lol, i’m gonna use that one

  11. pupsikaso says:

    Wow, this guy is completely disconnected from reality. He’s saying that GW2 is more grindy than SWTOR? What a joke! There’s nothing but grind in SWTOR, it’s just like vanilla WoW used to be, all the same quests in new zones. Whereas in GW2 there’s basically no grind at all. You just go around exploring zones, killing stuff on the way and you just level up without even noticing.

    • Phantoon says:

      Well, to his defense, it IS a grind. It’s just masked so well you don’t notice it until you’ve maxed the map twice. I can say with absolute authority that 30-40 is the worst leveling.

      • Tuor says:

        I spent a *lot* of time in WvW, so I didn’t notice the grinding a whole lot, but it *is* definitely there. Due to the way the quest system works in GW2 (where you just do certain stuff in a certain area) and the connection with that and exploration, the grinding doesn’t feel quite like grinding, even though it is. I think that was a pretty clever choice by the game’s devs.

        • Salix says:

          I understand it’s a subjective thing but surely if it doesn’t feel like a grind then it isn’t actually a grind and is more like, you know, playing and enjoying the game?

        • pupsikaso says:

          I agree with Salix. If you take the definition of grind to be repeating the same set of actions for a prolonged period of time for some kind of reward then every single game created is “grindy”. (Even pong. You move the paddle the same way over and over until you !WIN! YAY!)

          However, most people take a different meaning of “grind”. For them it means when you’re doing something you don’t necessarily want to do in order to be able to do something you DO want to do later on. Like trudging through a boring leveling process in order to be able to do something fun at a higher level.

          By this definition to me GW2 has no grind, since I do whatever I want any time I want and I get awarded XP for pretty much anything in the game other than structured PvP. So I progress through the game without ever doing things that I don’t want to do but am obligated to if I want to get to what I DO want. Thus, no grind.

          • Tuor says:

            I guess I can understand that sort of definition. I think for me it’s that sometimes it does feel repetitive, and other times it doesn’t. Whereas with WoW and, more recently, TOR, it felt that way nearly all the time. So that’s what I meant by it feeling only sorta grindy. But yes, if you use that definition, there’s little or no actual grinding involved.

          • Ragnar says:

            I too felt that GW2 was very grindy from the start, while SWTOR wasn’t.

            SWTOR’s quests and character story were enough to hook me in, and the combat felt justifiably essential to completing the quests. Maybe I got lucky in that way, but it felt appropriate, rather than a chore. It certainly helped that I played an Imperial Agent, and thus was always thinking in terms of what I should do to better Imperial interests without being too obvious about it.

            GW2 felt like a grind from the beginning. Kill X until the bar fills up, gather Y until the bar fills up, do Z until the bar fills up. Yes, you had your choice of X, Y, and Z, but none of it was compelling except for the exploration. The narrative story didn’t interest me at all, and the combat got boring a lot faster (though maybe I would have found another class’s combat fun).

    • xsikal says:

      I like GW2, but I’ll be honest; it does feel like grinding to me. Less because it’s hard to level and more because the personal narrative driving everything feels very flimsy. More often than not, I’m only going to renown hearts to finally clear the map, so I can move on to the next map and do the same thing.

      I don’t PvP, which probably does not help, but despite the ‘no-quest’ take, it feels like every zone is pretty much the same thing, and the story so far is not sufficient to push me past that feeling.

      SW:TOR had class stories of varying quality (some were very good, some not so good), but the last question of the interview really nails the problem; having done one class on either faction, it was impossible to avoid the fact that it was incredibly tedious having to do the same side quests you had already done previously.

      • Premium User Badge

        jrodman says:

        I wouldn’t agree that the personal narrative is “driving everything”, although I will agree it is flimsy.

        I think it was a clever idea but not that well implemented.

        I’m much more fond of exploration and trying out events.

  12. BruceFnLee says:

    It’s incredible how clueless MMO developers have become. The idea that any given player should be able to experience all content in an MMO is ridiculous. Where’s the difficulty? Where’s the skill tier? When I was a kid I never got to max level in Everquest because I simply wasn’t good enough and I was more interested in exploring the environments that had an ancient, mysterious feeling. I was scared to go open the next door in a dungeon because I knew I’d get killed and be set back but I always did anyway because it was so intriguing.

    All recent MMOs are shit IMHO. They all hold your hand and guide you through the game. It’s brainless… you enter a new zone and you take one look at the provided map and you already know the layout. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the sense of exploration? At this point it seems like MMOs exist to serve a false sense of achievement. These developers all talk about community and then subvert community at every turn. In EQ community rose up and was great *because of a lack of features* such as maps and trade systems.

    • Phantoon says:

      I think they’ve all forgotten what “massively” means.

    • pupsikaso says:

      I wouldn’t call them “features” but more like “crutches”

      • x1501 says:

        Crutches?!! But I’m a single father who works 3 jobs, raises 8 children, and has to walk 5 miles in snow to get to the nearest computer to spend my 11.5 minutes of weekly free time on playing MMORPGs. As a paying customer—and a patriotic citizen—don’t I have an inalienable right to experience 100% of the game’s content without wasting my time and efforts on memorizing area layouts, studying boss mechanics, traversing through landscape, or learning any other rules of the game? You hardcore elitists make me sick.

        • BruceFnLee says:

          Poe’s law almost prevailed here. I was confused for quite a few moments. Good job.

          I wonder what the last major MMO was in which any given player couldn’t easily reach max level and experience all the content.

          • Laurentius says:

            People actually would play them, not just masochists. Oh and by people i mean general consumers of media. Video games with their ridiculous restrictions on how they can be consumed hit a dead end but devs are trying to break stone wall with their heads. I can jump right away to last track on the album, last page in the book or last scene in the movie, or when i finished them ican skip thing i didn’t like to parts that i liked but in games ? No way, there is only one way to do this, that is idioticly restricted.

    • Brun says:

      See my comment below, system crapped out on me.

      • BruceFnLee says:

        Continuing to use EQ as the example, EQ maps were a form of data mining done by the community. The player-made maps had an inaccurate treasure map feel to them. It was wonderful and added to the community in every way. You had to go looking for them if you wanted it, you didn’t just hit M and run off to your objective. I think you make a strong point about data mining but I don’t think that that reality is something that necessarily must get in the way of mystery, intrigue and exploration. As in the case of EQ and the maps, it can actually enhance the fundamental aspect of community. When it comes to actual gameplay mechanics the same can be said. The deeper and more intricate a system of gameplay is, the greater the ceiling for understanding is. This understanding is acquired by some players and shared with others, strengthening the community. Also, I’m not a WoW hater but I never had that sense of mystery in WoW. It felt very laid out to me. No sense of danger, no sense of mystery.

        • Brun says:

          The mysterious feeling from WoW came only on my first two characters leveled to 60, which would have been in 2005 and 2006, respectively. So very early on in the game’s life, when most people weren’t “plugged in” to the community of data miners and researchers (which did exist but was relatively limited at the time anyway). WoW was also my first MMO, and I had been a huge fan of the RTS franchise, both of which probably enhanced the novelty of the experience.

          A lot of the things that WoW added that you see as “crutches” – things like objective trackers on the map, the Dungeon Journal with full detail on boss abilities – were things that the community was already relentlessly creating as addons or data mining for websites. They were things that any player would have already obtained from community sources. And while some people argue that those things hurt the community, I disagree, mainly because the process of obtaining that information was pretty mindless and disconnected. Click a few buttons for an addon, copy/paste a list for boss strats, etc. Most people never contributed in any way. Merging that information into the game as a feature just removed a few extra button clicks from players’ lives.

          EDIT: Oh, and to get a real map of WoW’s actual landscape (not the hand drawn one that appears when you press M), you still have to find community sources. I believe the same is true for GW2 as its maps are also hand-drawn to some degree.

          • BruceFnLee says:

            I hope this doesn’t come off as douchey but if you hadn’t experienced any MMO before the time of WoW and EQ2 then it might be a little difficult for you to understand the enormous difference in not only community but also in difficulty and sense of mystery.

          • Brun says:

            It’s not the first time I’ve heard that. However, I don’t think that my perspective is discounted simply because I didn’t play MMOs until 2005. For comparison, I’ve played 4 MMOs post-WoW (Guild Wars, Age of Conan, SWTOR, and GW2), and I agree that I never got the same kind of warm-and-fuzzies I got from my first time playing WoW. The trend has definitely been downward in the mystery department, as you said.

          • Ragnar says:

            That could apply to any new game experience:

            The first time I played an arena FPS game, Unreal Tournament, was exhilarating, and I’ve never felt that excited and tense in an arena FPS game since (though I did feel the same sense of excitement, tension, and fear in my first two PvP experiences in WoW).

            I had seen my friend play EQ prior to that, and watching him play was like watching paint dry. But I felt a sense of mystery when I first played WoW. None of my friends were playing it yet, and I didn’t know anyone, but I found plenty of parts of that world that were interesting, and drove me to explore further. Rolling a Night Elf, I enjoyed merely exploring the starting zone – leaping off the world tree’s branches, and then from rock to rock, to see how far down the waterfall we could explore, knowing that it was probably a one way trip – and every new zone brought with it new interesting areas to explore and discover. Even after playing WoW for a few years, there was still real beauty in that Night Elf starting zone, if you wanted to go and look for it.

            Would I feel that same sense if I went back to WoW? Probably not. I’ve gotten too used to thinking about it in min-max terms, figuring optimum builds, damage rotations, XP gain, etc. It’s even worse if I play with friends, as they tend to view every quest as just a checklist, and don’t care about the lore or the story. In short, I’ve been conditioned to play to beat the game rather than play to simply enjoy the game.

    • Jenks says:

      Preach it, BruceFnLee. I couldn’t possibly agree with you more.

  13. Brun says:

    Where’s the mystery? Where’s the sense of exploration?

    It’s exceptionally difficult (if not impossible) to preserve the illusion of mystery in the modern MMO world due in large part to data mining and the simple popularity of these games. I used to get that “mystery” feeling in WoW all the time, but once the game got popular and everything started getting data mined there was very little “mystery” left.

    It’s an inevitability when you have such popular games. People are going to pick them apart, and exposing the guts of the games kills their “unknown” quality.

    EDIT: Comment system must have crapped out, this was supposed to be a reply above.

  14. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I agree with some commenters here that it seems like mr. Schubert is a bit out of touch with the way an MMO (SWTOR in aprticular) is experienced in some respects.

    On the other hand, I really liked the first bit on Meridian and if it were marketed as a not-so-massively multiplayer online (insert genres) game then there probably is space for such a game.

  15. Premium User Badge

    ffordesoon says:

    The problem with a story-focused subscription MMO (which, based on the restrictions Bioware’s put on their content as far as F2P goes, seems to still be the case with SWTOR despite its allegedly being F2P) is that there’s not meant to be an ending to the story. The model precludes it. You’re supposed to keep ponying up the dough for the game every month until you die or the game dies, so the the people working on the game can keep working on it until they die or the game dies. It’s all endgame, no ending.

    Which is insane. All stories trend toward inanity, and it’s the creator’s job to keep that inanity at bay for as long as he or she can. Which doesn’t work forever, even in the very best case. The longer the story, the greater the risk of inanity. That’s why all stories need endings; you’ve said everything you needed to say at a certain point, and the good ideas stop when you go past it.

    That’s why I’m stunned that all these people who clearly want to do a story-focused MMO haven’t realized the potential of an MMO with an ending. In other words, they should plan out a five or ten-year story arc for the universe, move it forward bit by bit every week or every month, and then pull the plug when the story’s over. If people want to play the game for longer, well, too bad. If they’re that invested, hand the keys over to them somehow. “We’ve told the story we wanted to tell. Now write your own.”

    The point is, always leave them wanting more, it’s better to burn out than to fade away, etc.

    imagine if The Secret World had followed this model. Every week, you get on and find out what the Conspiracy is up to, piecing the story together bit by bit. At the end, all the players in the world fight all the Old Gods simultaneously as the world crumbles around them, and they either stop the apocalypse or don’t, and players have some epic memories either way. Wouldn’t that be better than the sad little melancholy whimper Galaxies went out with?

    Either give players the tools to write their own stories, or make all that questing feel like it meant something in the end.

  16. SaintShion says:

    Meridian 59… man I played that for 2 years. I was even one of the clones on server 108. We wouldn’t communicate with anyone, outside of simple emotes. Only person who would talk was Clone01, who communicated with everyone in broadcasts saying how we come in peace and all is well (he was 20 HP, meaning no one could attack him), all while he was scheming with the inner group of clones that were the first ones on the bandwagon. All of the legit clones would would only talk to each other in group chat. It was the sketchiest bunch of outcast people collected from all the servers. We didn’t have a clear goal other than sowing discord, at least none that I ever heard. I was more of a bandwagon recruit than anything. I was friends with a bunch of the heavy hitter server 109 PKers (some of whom even lent me their characters at times) — so I got in on a lot of server migrations, and crazy events like this. Everyone assumed we intended to conquer the server, so we got a lot of people refusing to do business with us or killing us preemptively. Most of us were just digging the silly nature of the whole invasion. We kept lists of “True” clones (ones that were recruited from other servers), and didn’t deal with clones that were outside that group. Anyone who talked or betrayed the group would be outcast similarly.

  17. Laephis says:

    Just wanted to add my voice to the list of people frustrated by MMO devs who just don’t get it. I’ve played my last “story-based, quest grinding, fixed-rails themepark” MMO and won’t touch another one until someone reboots the genre and starts building off the legacy that UO/SWG left us. SWTOR was the final nail in the coffin. When an ancient single-player game like Ultima VII offers more interactivity than the most modern MMOs, things have gone horribly wrong in this timeline. I want my virtual worlds back, dammit.

  18. crinkles esq. says:

    Nathan,

    Meridian59 was an early *graphical* MMORPG, but it and its ilk were really just outgrowths of the text-only MMO games: the many variants of MUDs, MUSHes, and MOOs that inhabited the early internet via telnet connections. Those are the true pioneers. Many of these games were more feature-rich than their graphical children, and by-and-large were more socially-driven. Part of the reason was that often in these games the players were also directly involved in the content creation of the world. Many MOOs even let players build functional objects with an in-game scripting language. There was no such thing as quests, other than goals created by yourself or the other players you were role-playing with. [Though long past their heyday and peak userbases, many of these text-only MMOs are still available online if you search around]

    Schubert describing BioWare as a “content company” makes it clear to me that they still operate as if they are making single-player games. In truth, they are. They don’t take advantage of the possibilities of massive numbers of users, and doing so is counter to their business model. If they let users create content, their paid-for expansions, items, et al would no longer be attractive. That is not innovation; they’ve simply jammed a single-player model into an online game. I can’t fault them for sticking with what they know, but I think sooner or later the genre will leave them and their outdated concepts behind.

  19. The Random One says:

    “Schubert: The general gist of it is that the way that I see it, there are three kinds of stories inside of games, inside of MMOs. One is the narrative story that we deliver [as developers]. The second is what I call a mechanical story. An example of a mechanical story is, “We got the raid boss down to two percent and then Bob stepped in the fire and we all wiped.” It’s a story that has nothing to do with who the boss is or anything like that. It’s entirely about mechanics. Then you have the social stories, which are purely, “Janice is sleeping with Bob and Steve doesn’t know.” Which also happens inside of MMOs.”

    Haberdash. This division is completely meaningless. Completely mechanical stories exist, but most player stories (or ‘emergent gameplay’) come from interpretation of the game’s mechanical systems through the developer’s settings. Day Z wouldn’t be as famous as it is now if it was about scavenging spaceships – the fact that the player characters are people strenghtens their connection to the players. Plus, ‘so-and-so is sleeping with so-and-so’ doesn’t seem to me the kind of gossip that you hear in a community where you are unlikely to share a zip code with anyone else, so his example sounds to me like “I’m aware that player gossip exist, but I have no idea of how it actually works despite that being more or less my job, so I’ll borrow a poorly fitting example from general life.”

  20. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    There’s a few MMOs that seem to be following the UO lineage to varying extents.

    Stuff like Wurm Online, Haven & Hearth, etc. for your crafting-heavy styles, Mortal Online and that other one I can’t remember for PK-suffused malarkey.. Other stuff too, I don’t doubt

  21. Incanus says:

    SWTOR was really mediocre, at best. It was the gameplay. Too easy, not enoyable, not strategic (like WoW was between it’s release and the end of BC/beginning of WotLK).

    But replacing MMO’s that have become lousy by something like GW2? o_O. I think it’s a joke. GW2= absolutely no challenge at all solo-wise. Group wise, PVE, it’s a mess. The informations on screen during battle are completely drown in giants and unnecessary visual effects, that’s awful, sometimes, with 10 people battling, you can’t even tell what’s happenning.

    The gameplay itself (the core of a MMO for me) is..bleh. Combats are wayyyyyyyyyy too quick. 3 shots and BAM the mob is dead? WTF. I mean it’s not quick, so difficult, it’s hyper quick AND very easy. So easy, it’s boring. Elite mobs? Easy. Personnal (bland) storyline? Easy. Dungeons? Mess but it became easy too.

    Besides, even a completionist/mad explorer like me in MMO have absolutely no incentive to explore. Why? Because there is nothing interesting tied to. The story is …bleh, they pretend there are no quests, but eh! it’s total hype, quests are there, it’s just that they are not written (i remember great quests in some of the other MMOs), they are just quick and forgotten events.

    It’s like a giant theme park with no meaning, an artistic design that can be resumed with “photo-realism bleh (and we don’t know how to use contrast, btw), a mediocre gameplay and people running all around without any incentive to talk to each other.

    At least in WoW, at the beginning, some PVE content was so hard that you HAD to group, to think, to plan, to establish strategy, to change your way of playing.

    So yeah, i’m all for new MMOs, but please, not GW2 style, and not “easy and forget” style. Give me a bit of challenge for Thor’s sake (and by challenge, i don’t mean “i have to go into a military style guild to do boring stuff with 40 other anonymous chatting on teamspeak for 4 hours!