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

The MMO Black Desert Online hasn’t done too badly, and I don’t know why since it doesn’t have anything fun to hit with your sword. Then it somehow makes up for that by having one of the most painful ways of upgrading your sword, while it continues to be no fun to use.

Technically the game has world player-vs-player, which is fun if you like that stuff. But it really doesn’t. The killed player loses nothing and doesn’t even respawn that far away. Meanwhile, the attacker loses good-guy points. To make it worse, PvP assumes everyone is on South Korea’s blazing fast local internet. It doesn’t account for lag well enough to keep world PvP from being guessing and luck.

To annoy players more, once you reach high level the game changes your skills. The archer gets it worse — they change to a swordsman; but everyone gets to relearn a playstyle they didn’t want. Years after release the game added the option to keep your old skills, but still messed it up. You switch over to the new set, but you can now check the internet for how to switch back.

Upgrading gear uses a not uncommon money and luck system — a week of income spent at the auction house for stuff giving you a 70% chance at another +1 bonus to your gloves. BDO’s is even more poorly explained and complicated, which is somehow a point of pride. For example, there’s an item to store enchantment failure bonuses. Huh? It turns out that each time you fail to enchant an item you get a small, cumulative bonus towards the next attempt. That’s common enough. But a clever BDO player can exploit that by failing to enchant a cheap, low-chance item, building up the failure bonus, then switching in the item you really want. Or, the ultimate — save that failure bonus in an item until you have several. This is somehow fun.

To sum up, I get how MMO’s have fun parts interleaved with boring grinds. I don’t get how BDO cuts out the fun part and is still popular. It’s endgame is making money by farming, fishing, crafting, and possibly spending hours running in a circle mowing down monsters like wheat. Then spending that money to be slightly better at farming, fishing, crafting and running in a circle mowing down monsters like wheat. There are perfectly good games like that — constantly playing with systems to get the highest cash/hour. It’s just weird for an MMO to turn into that.