During gamescom, I had the privilege of sitting in on what was called the RPG influencer’s breakfast. It involved a few key heavy hitters from the RPG world: Dr Ray Muzyka (BioWare co-founder), Ken Rolston (of Morrowind and Oblivion fame), Dr Greg Zeschuck (BioWare co-founder) and Eugene Evans (BioWare Mythic general manager). Pete Stewart from Edge Magazine in the UK was in the MC seat. Readers of Atomic magazine would have seen choice quotes from this breakfast in a couple of Engine Room articles, but now you can read the full transcription.
In this third chapter of our six-part series, the heavy hitters explore the magic of what makes RPGs so compelling and the implications of the online-connected gamer.
Pete: So what happens, though, with Old Republic when you launch this game and you’ve got hundreds of hours of story and millions of words of voice acting, what happens when you launch the game and everyone just wants to hang around in Mos Eisley getting drunk?
Greg: That’s cool. We’ll put more options in the Cantina. It’ll keep the art director busy drawing more cantinas.
Ray: The point of it is we scale it for beta testing, and we can actually see how the players are experiencing it and over time as we bring more players in, we fine-tune the content to adjust for that. The good news is that we’re actually embracing all the different elements, which goes back to that concept for BioWare which is very critical, these activity chains. I think all games have ‘em. And that’s actually how the RPG elements get added in is they get added in as activity chains to allow you to have something to look forward to and to say, “Look I just got a new weapon, I’m logging off. Great.” But then the next time you log on, you can come back and you’ve got persistence and you can reuse that or evolve your game state the next time, so you’re always looking forward to it. And that’s kind of the... you always have something to look forward to to do in a game.
Greg: Well, on that concept, I was gonna say it was actually Oblivion that drove us to say, “Why is that so compelling?”
Ray: That’s pretty mysterious.
Greg: It was interesting because we had all these analogies of, wait a minute, so I walk around and I can find a weed, well what’s the point of that? Well I can make that into a potion. Then I can take that potion and drink it and get to a place I can’t get to and get a piece of treasure that gets me somewhere else where I can start the cycle again. And you’re like, “Wow, that’s actually the compelling thing.” As Ray is saying, that’s how these things lump together. We were kind of doing it intuitively but we were able to, at that point, it became very concrete for us and we all sat down and documented it.
Ray: All the genres. We started looking at different handheld games, mobile games, online games, and they all have this kind of analogy of different activities that are kind of discrete buckets of... enabling a certain type of player to really enjoy that session or that part of the game. And they might go into that for a long time, they might just go into that for a few minutes but, either way, it gives them some diversion, it gives them something to enhance their core activity and enrich it.
Ken: One of the problems I’ve always had is now that we don’t have time to play forever, we stop the game and then we start a game. But an awareness of those activity chains and what the different activity chains that will stack up in the mind of a player when he launches again. One of the problems is, very often, the narrative isn’t a very good way to do that ‘cause players don’t remember the exact details, but they remember their stuff. “I remember I picked this thing up and I wanna make it useful, so-”
Eugene: -So those two things are a segue to what you wanted to bring up earlier is, what about premium? Because as we started to get to know the doctors [Ray and Greg] here from BioWare a couple of years ago and they would talk about activity chains, we started to realise because we had been thinking about what ‘play for free’, ‘free to play’ meant was that activity chain was a key part of that idea because there was this compulsion to want to complete this room. That route often takes time. To your point, how much time do you have to play? And that’s where this whole freemium thing has emerged from, right? Because you’re prepared to say, “Oh, if we let everybody play for free that’s great and we can bring a lot of people to RPGs, but then there are people who are prepared to spend money to accelerate their experiences to go, ‘Yes, I could work my way through this hall, but I am prepared to give you a little money for some accelerant just because I don’t have the time.’” And understanding how those loops work and where to actually put in the ability for people to spend money, I think that the key to success in that is going to be applying it to those activity loops in such a way that people don’t feel like they’re cheating; that other people feel like, well, you just bought your way to that success.
Pete: What worries me about freemium, probably because I’m an old timer and I’ve come from years before that whole idea, is that games can become total grind-fests, and one thing you don’t want is for a game to become Tiny Tower. Y’know, you don’t want it to be about because of the way the freemium economy model works, it’s got to affect design. So is freemium necessarily an optimistic-
Ken: -The connection I’m making here is that activity chain is just a visible indication of what the player’s internal narrative is and that’s a very good thing. And they can also express what their narrative is by paying for something. I mean, we need to look at that evidence, we shouldn’t just say, we don’t want it to turn into that. In fact, if a player does want it to turn into that, we have to have our ears open to it.
Greg: Yeah, I’d say it’s interesting. I spend a lot of time playing those kinds of games now, I’ve kind of made the transition to the new world.
Eugene: Do you have a support group for that?
Greg: Oh yeah, I still haven’t gone to rehab for it. What I find interesting about it is at some level it’s that seesaw of time against money: do I want to spend time or do I wanna spend money? I think it depends on how old you are. So when you’re, like, a kid, they have unlimited time, and when you’re older you have more money. But it does absolutely change game design. I think that’s one of the most interesting things that about it, but the really elegant games don’t become the grind-fest that you mentioned. But you have to actually think of it differently, because we’ve seen some conversion of things, like TB online or Age of Conan that you can’t just take the game and go, “Oh, now it’s free to play,” and sell your stuff. You actually have to recreate it, completely redesign it, completely actually think about the activity chains, think about... there’s always different models, too. There’s always sub-models within the free-to-play space. Pay for time, pay for equipment, whatever it ends up being. But, yeah, it totally changes the game design. It’s also a new generation of game design as well, so the other thing that happens is you change from driving play to driving consumption and driving revenue. So suddenly you have a game designer who is also simultaneously a revenue designer. It’s really interesting because, especially having been exposed to a lot of the stuff with EA, there’s a lot of Facebook stuff and we’ve got Dragon Age Legends on Facebook. We’ve learnt tonnes of stuff from all these games. We see how the dynamic goes on its head and what people are uncertain about is all in the gameplay but, okay, online is selling. Is this working? Is that working? And the internet makes it immediate. That’s the other thing, you have a question later about technology and I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and the reality is it’s that media sea, thanks to the interwebs, the power of those internet tubes, is that it actually makes it really incredible to dynamically watch what your players are doing and then suddenly you’re a chief revenue designer. It’s crazy.
Pete: Well you mentioned the idea of assistance and we talked about how the need these days to talk to and address gamers on multiple platforms, on mobile and tablets, on PC on consoles, wherever they are they should be able to play your game. How do you stop that from becoming—I’ll use ToR as an example--playing The Old Republic on your PC and then when you’re away playing Angry Tauntaun or something, I mean how do you make sure that what you’re creating is a main game with little sorts of mini-games to play on your mobile? How do you create a proper persistent RPG that you can play wherever you want?
Ray: Well you ask the players, what do you want to do when you’re not playing whatever the primary platform is? And the primary platform might be a social game, a mobile game, in the future it might extend the other way, and that’s totally fine.
Random journo 2: Auction house on your mobile.
Ray: Absolutely. That’s something that players probably want to do: crafting, social systems, knowing the state of battlegrounds, things like that. And these are all potential ideas. We really... the discovery element of actually seeing what the players actually wanna do is gonna inform our decision on what types of things we extend in the future.
Eugene: It goes back to the point you were making earlier about within an MMO audience for a game there’s lots of people who play different ways. One mobile extension isn’t going to affect all of them. What you have to look at is each particular type of player. Like somebody who’s into their auction houses, okay, how do we extend that experience to your point out? Okay, this is somebody who is heavily into combat and is going to want alert when a battlegrounds thing is happening so their friends will be able to call them to battle. So I think the key is gonna be matching those up with the particular needs of the player and not trying to just continuously deliver something that’s a game with basic content.
Ray: Yeah, the activity chains fit really well into this, too, because it’s about knowing what the player is doing. It’s a conceptual model; we’re not saying design ceases to be an art. It’s very much an art, even in new business models, it’s as much art as science, y’know, there’s analytics. But there’s still the passion of designers at the core; it’s an art form, so we have to convey that and get the people engaged with our passion. But you can conceptualise it, and there’s many different models you can do this with. One is activity chains, kind of understanding what players are doing generally at a given point in time and what they want to do next and what options they have ahead of them. Okay, the interface element that’ll... it’s interesting to observe what they do next because they look at that interface element probably to help inform their next decision. Ken and I were kind of brainstorming and talking about this and we have very similar views on other things. You look at a map... why do you want to look at the map? Are you trying to solve a quest? Are you looking for a combat arena? Are you looking for a store? These are all interesting things to know from a player perspective. And once you understand that you can understand, do they really have an hour or two, or do they only have 15 minutes in this session? And what if the player wants to continue playing but they just have to be somewhere else? They have to go on the subway, or they have to go on the plane or they have to go meet some friends. And what if on the way over there you allow them to do some of the elements that they expressed interest in doing through their last activity. That’s a very natural kind of extension. Or, y’know, if they’re short of time, the accelerator kind of idea for monetisation--premium models--we have to make revenue somehow because we’re building the content and we have to do it in a way that players find engaging and they feel like that they want to be part of this. But if you look at the activities they want to accelerate, you can make it so that it’s an enhancement; they don’t have to do it, it’s free to play--in a free-to-play model like Wrath of Heroes--but you can accelerate certain elements, make them more powerful or kind of engage them and get them to come back and have a better experience the next time. And it’s really a marriage of that artistic side, from the development perspective, and the passion of what the players are looking for emotionally, and trying to make sure that you marry those well. And when it works, it can work across any business model and any platform. It’s magical. And when it doesn’t work, it’s actually pretty obvious that you’ve found something that doesn’t feel right. It’s jarring to the player, it’s outside of their expectations; that is, the possibility, spaces and the money invested. And it’s up to us to us to iterate that and evolve it through testing pre and post launch.