Can it be less immersive?

The MMO Albion Online uses the new-style “economics and player-vs-player” format, and is also free-to-play. It’s a fine game, I guess, if you like that sort of thing, but two things jumps out. One is the sneaky way it incentivizes the monthly subscription. The other is the almost mathematical design, like it’s a board game.

Free-to-play MMO’s have a few options to make money. A common fair-seeming one is a free trial. Often it’s unlimited time, but content-limited — you can’t go past level X, or can’t play the latest expansion. The other way is using the cash shop to demonstrate how free players are lowly peasants — you can try the non-fun version to get a feel, then buy and subscribe to play the real game. Albion runs between these in a clever way. Buying the subscription gets you a personal chunk of land (an “island”, but not really). and triples your “crafting bonus points”. That doesn’t seem like anything to a new player. Only later do you realize the value, but then you still don’t really need it.

You can build crafting stations on your island, but cities already have them. Islands seem pointless. Later you realize the looms and smithies in cities have an extra tax which can be enough to make crafting unprofitable. But by then you’re using the crafting stations in your guild. Moving on, those “bonus crafting points” only give a small bonus — subscribing to get more seems pointless. But then you realize how the margins work. Your normal crafting can turn $100 of elm into $105 of elm lumber. With the bonus that becomes $120. It quadrupled your profit. Those daily bonus crafting bonus points are a big source of income. But even knowing that, you don’t have to craft. You can gather or fight. But then you find out you can farm on your island, which is very profitable if you use bonus crafting points.

Net, new players don’t feel any pressure to subscribe, but they might want a cool island. End-game players are still perfectly fine playing for free, unless they want to get into crafting. It’s a very clever fair-seeming system.

Onto players always fighting. 15 years ago Eve OnLine discovered the formula for meaningful player murdering. You make the game about the economy. Everything is made by other players, including the best weapons. They’re made from stuff other people made, down the line, with the bottom being miners and lumberjacks. They go into the wilderness, making longer trips for the more valuable stuff. Players fight to mug them, or protect them, or guilds fight to control areas with the best stuff to harvest. It turns out those games work — they attract a good mix of players who want to pirate, or fight pirates, or avoid pirates.

Most games in this style try to set this up in a realistic-seeming world. Albion Online ignores realism. They want a mathematically perfect design. The world is a perfect hexagon, made of smaller hexagons. Six perfectly-spaced cities are around it, with the big one in the middle. Player-vs-player restrictions are in perfect concentric rings. Resources are laid out with mathematical precision in pie-shaped wedges — all of the wood is in a 30-degree wedge, exactly opposite the one city with a crafting bonus to wood. The designers don’t pretend to understand why you’d want the world to feel natural.

Older games have semi-realistic crafting. You make brass from copper and tin, since that’s how you make actual brass. Albion doesn’t understand that. Every type of material uses the same formula, for example, crafting a Tier-5 refined material requires 3 Tier-5 raw materials and a Tier-4 refined material. Huh? That’s how they say that a cedar plank is made from 3 cedar logs and a pine plank. To clarify, in this game you create a cedar plank by improving a birch plank (Tier2) into a chestnut one (Tier3), into a pine plank, then finally into the cedar. That works for the game economy — everything will always be in demand — and Albion proudly doesn’t care how ridiculous it is.

Normal game worlds work hard for suspension of disbelief and a sense of wonder. Albion says to forget that stuff — it’s been done to death. What people want now is a world laid out with almost mathematical precision, without a lot of confusing dressing-up with how things work “for real”.

I’m a little worried I made it sound good, so a warning: it uses click-to-move with a top-down camera. There. Now you’re either scared off, or just have to play it.

Black Desert of Content

There’s this MMO, Black Desert Online, that I just don’t get. People still play it. It gets new characters and months-long “seasons” to level them up. That’s not what has me confused. It’s Korean, which means it’s graphics-card-boilingly extra shiny, with sexy armour and boob sliders for the ladies. Character customization settings can be saved and traded. Is that waifu? It uses pre-set characters, for example a Witch is always a little girl named Deneve who uses a staff. Some people get furious, calling that “gender locking”, but not these players. Game-play is good: skills are fighting game quality — fast mini-combos, added movement, invulnerability frames, small juggles, cancels; and the monster packs are varied and challenging. I recommend it if you get a deal. But here’s what I don’t get: the fans are all about doing end-game stuff, and end-game stuff is a cross between pointless and non-existant.

For a while I thought this was a big PvP game. PvP is World — can be attacked any time — and Clan vs. Clan. Players rave about how 1-on-1 PvP is fast and skill-based. But apparently only in Korea on a LAN with sub-zero ping speeds. Plus it’s pointless — if you kill some sleazebag stealing your ore, you can’t loot them, and they quickly pop back alive with no penalties. Forums say the Clan-vs-Clan is just a boring AoE spam-fest. So the exciting end game isn’t player-vs-player.

I don’t hate the plot or the heroic device: the region’s been conquered and you can work for the new overlords or the rebels. You’re so tough because you made a deal with a tiny energy ball of a demon, but have amnesia and can’t recall what or why. Sadly, we never find out. But fans see this as just something to rush through on the way to End Game. Black Desert isn’t popular because of the story.

Now about that end-game. To get gold you set up a farm and an off-line factory system. There are guides and then it’s just 1/2-hour of tending them with an alt. The rest of your time is farming monsters for gold — kill monsters in a big circle which respawn by the time you get back. Every few days, use that gold to attempt to level-up your weapon. That’s it. No dungeons, no 3×3 arena league. Just grinding. Updates to the game are just new more powerful weapons and more areas to grind for gold. I don’t get it. There are boss battles: time-limited tokens allow one to be summoned, and it’s tough but quickly trounceable by your guild, dropping weapon upgrade items. In other words, they’re not boss battles, merely a boss-themed way to grind for upgrade items. I don’t get the appeal.

Each character can choose from two weapons, each with their own moves. That’s nice, but it’s done in the worst possible way. You have one weapon the entire game. Then at max level you lose it, which means you lose all your moves, and are forced to use the new second weapon. There’s a quest to re-unlock the original. It involves fighting (yep — you’re forced to learn the new moves).

Of course, the upgrading process is ridiculously over-complicated. The chance drops to a few percent — sometimes literally zero. Stacking various items will raise it to single digits. An expensive but near-mandatory item prevents losing a level on failure. Every time you fail, there’s a small cumulative bonus added to the next try. It’s too small and expensive to use directly, but if you build up a “fail chance” on a cheap weapon you can transfer it to your real weapon (using another expensive item). Now you’re on track to finish in a month or two. Except the inevitable failures build up enchantment damage which eventually needs fixing (using more expensive items). There are multiple ways of doing these, with internet guides on which is best depending on current level and your tolerance for risk.

While writing down those last two paragraphs — and suffering through the memories — I suddenly realized why people still play this game — sunk cost and trauma-bonding. They know it’s a boring grind leading nowhere, but it’s their boring grind leading nowhere.