Saturday, 11 January 2014

All Mod Cons : EQNext, Landmark

One of the myriad polls running on EQNext's Round Table.

So far only 8% of respondents have stepped up to man the barricades with :

"Third-party mods should not be allowed at all by SOE".

It's an answer that tempted me at first but in the end I went for :

"I want to have customization options in the SOE UI, but I don’t usually use third party creations."

It's a less confrontational option, for sure, but it's one that might almost be considered antisocial. You could read it as a plea for fairness and an even playing field, but equally it might be taken as "You lot do what you want; just stay out of my way and don't ask me to join in". Well, there was a bit of that in my thinking as I voted, I won't deny it, but a healthy skepticism towards allowing user-made modifications in a shared, communal environment also seems like a socially-conscious attitude to take.

Whether approaching the metaspace of MMORPGs from the perspective of game design or virtual world building a certain consistency of experience would seem to be essential if the enterprise is to succeed. There's already a very wide range of unavoidable variations in what players see, hear and are able to react to as dictated by their choice of hardware and the quality of their internet connections. To allow a plethora of modifications to unsettle the foundations of the shared environment still further seems to risk knocking down the whole precarious house of cards.

How about a mod that tells people what you're really thinking?
The hoariest and thorniest issue in MMO design must surely be "balance". Can there be any MMO ever launched that didn't almost immediately find itself locked in a never-ending round of table-leg trimming? Sawing an inch off here, sliding a book under there in an increasingly desperate effort to get the thing to stand four-square. If developers find it all but impossible to balance the classes and abilities they themselves have made, how then are they ever going to achieve the stability and fairness they desire when any player could be utilizing dozens of third-party add-ons and mods or none?

The obvious riposte would be that the world's most successful MMO seems to manage so it can't be impossible. I played WoW for about four months. It's a good MMO and I enjoyed it. As far as I recall, I downloaded two mods. One blocked all duel messages and I forget what the other did but it was something similar. While I was playing I read about plenty of supposedly essential mods, the ones that run your healing for you or track nodes for harvesting or monitor the auction house and buy and sell at peak. I decided I could probably manage without them, carried on doing all those things for myself and it seemed to go alright.

Of course, I was mostly soloing or duoing with Mrs Bhagpuss, who wasn't using any mods either, and even back then four or five years ago, while leveling up might not have been the complete cakewalk it supposedly is now, the kind of content we were doing couldn't be described as particularly challenging. It would have been a lot different even had we attempted to play extensively in pick-up groups as we once did in Everquest I'm sure. When the Dungeon Finder came in, just as I was leaving, I healed a few low-level dungeons and got away with it but I don't imagine that would have remained a tenable position for long. Had we wanted to progress further and be accepted as group players I imagine we'd have had to get at least a few of the most expected mods.

Okay, so maybe that's not such a great idea...
It seems all but inevitable that as third-party mods become prevalent in an MMO two things have to happen: developers must take account of the most popular ones when designing and tuning content and players must adopt them if they have any interest in what might be called "competitive" play. Yes, if you choose to ignore the modding scene you can trundle happily along, soloing and playing with people you know, enjoying content that's meant to be taken lightly, but if you want to step up, if we can call it that, and play with strangers who will rightly expect you to play at their level of competence, well you're either going to need to be a lot better than they are or you're going to swallow your pride and your idealism and use the same autonomic assistants they do.

So on balance I'm wary of mods. They represent a potential arms-race both between player and developer in the eternal struggle to either trivialize or balance content and between player and player in the equally endless conflict of interest between the dedicated and the dilettante. Being wary, however, does not mean being completely close-minded.

Long before WoW set the agenda I used a few mods on and off back in Everquest. Some of them I'm using still, like Mapfiend (and its successor EQ2Map come to that). I also still prefer the modded xp bar in EQ that lets you see your xp in detail. For a long time I used a mod that allowed you to set set off an audio alarm triggered by a given phrase. Among other things I had it set to ring a bell when invisibility began to fade. Saved my life so many times.

A mod that would allow screenshots with speech-bubbles but no other UI elements, now that I'd use.
Audio triggers like that are desperately underused in MMOs, which is a whole topic in itself, and it's not just triggers; the entire soundscape of MMOs remains hugely underexploited by both developers and modders alike. The first mod I ever downloaded for any game was a voice pack for Baldur's Gate that converted all my character's voice files into sound samples taken from Daria. We could do with a lot more of that. It would enhance the GW2 experience no end...well it would mine...

The Round Table polls are aimed mainly at EQNext, which is, we suppose at least, primarily a gameplay-oriented experience. Whatever the result of the poll, for the game to work as a game, SOE will have to exercise a considerable degree of quality control over the mods they choose to allow. Landmark, on the other hand, is supposedly a utility or a tool-kit designed to appeal to the creativity and imagination of its users, which would seem to make it the ideal testbed and home for would-be modders.

Perhaps that will be the through-route for approved mods to arrive in EQNext. If so, why wouldn't their creators be rewarded in the same way, financially, as the creators and designers of buildings and items, through Player Studio?

And there's another giant can of worms just waiting to be opened right there. I wonder, when they were searching around for a final name for the project codenamed EQNext, d'you think anyone suggested Everquest: The Box of Pandora?

6 comments:

  1. I agree. It's certainly a difficult process to balance, but World of Warcraft's modability did so much to improve the experience. A lot of the innovations the genre has seen as far as UI usability I believe are in part because of some of the creativity put into modding WoW.

    Of course, I do believe designers need to have semi-flexible UIs from the start, even if that doesn't mean they are going to allow modding. World of Warcraft's stiff UI had more in common with Everquest's original interface rather than the movable/transparent one that came later.

    It's more work, but for me, I think an app store approach is perhaps the smartest way to add mods but to have more control of them. That wouldn't work for smaller MMOs, but SOE has the benefit of creating one across all of its future titles. Apps submitted could get an official approval, and maybe even have a way to monetize them to promote apps that are consistently improved/updated.

    Modding in general is a net positive for PC gaming because it provides an outlet for up-and-coming designers/programmers/artists to improve games in ways that status quo designers might never have imagined on their own. I'd like to support that wherever I can.

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    1. The whole App Store model has been so commercially successful and has achieved such mainstream acceptance that I would be surprised if future MMOs don't adopt something similar. I'd be equally surprised if the people looking to get a return on the significant investment they've made in funding new MMOs continue to pass up the potential revenue stream an App Store for Mods would offer.

      I don't foresee MMO gaming moving in a large scale to mobile device practices but I do foresee mobile device monetization methodology moving into MMOs, or at least those funded and operated by large corporations.

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  2. I don't know if "arms race" is quite the right term for WoW's modding scene. There have been multiple times where certain mods have gone 'too far' according to developers and they've simply disabled their functionality rather than design around them. (What was that mod that drew in the actual game world and showed raiders exactly where to stand? Which was then also used to draw penises and other such things?)

    Beyond that, I very much agree with C. T. Murphy above, in that WoW's modding community have shown great creativity over the years. Blizzard has folded some of the best concepts into the base UI, many of which have surely gone on to influence UI design in subsequent MMOs.

    I like WoW's approach the most, but I suspect it works really well thanks to the enormous modding community behind it. Having said that, The Secret World seems to manage just fine, although certainly more slowly.

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    1. The use of the modding community as an unpaid, freelance R&D department must certainly be highly attractive to game companies. Before WoW and its modding scene EQ had something similar, first with 3rd party software that was, at best, of arguable legality under the EULA and later through an officially endorsed program that allowed tweaking of most of the UI elements.

      Both of those phases led to quite a lot of changes to the default UI, perhaps most notably the incorporation of the functionality of the illegal but extremely popular 3rd party "EQWindows", which allowed you to run EQ in windowed mode.

      My view is that developers should come up with a default UI that's good enough that the vast majority of players wouldn't want to use anything else but that seems to be too much to ask so yes, we probably do need someone else to take up the slack.

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  3. I'd have to vote for no mods, but that's based on my experience in WoW. The healing mod I used when running through battlegrounds made me way better than I actually was. And then if a patch came out I'd feel like a fraud until the developer of the mod fixed it.

    The only in-game mods I've used since leaving WoW were EQ2Maps and the EQ2 dps parser.

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    1. This is largely my objection, although if you think it through it's actually not inconsistent with what a virtual world with magic would be like. At our own real-world level of technology this is already happening. Dump two people in a city they've never before visited, in a country whose language they don't understand. Give them a set of places to find and tasks to complete and let just one of them have a smartphone stuffed with apps.

      It's not the functionality I specifically object to; that can be contextualized, although the issue of whether making things easier and more convenient also makes them less entertaining still has to be considered. My main objection is that mods stand outside the context, making the whole thing feel more artificial than I'm comfortable with.

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