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For the term "Shadowbane".


In what’s mostly a recap of our previous coverage combined with the assertion “I heard that too!”, Ms. Mulligan says Shadowbane may be the greatest unrequited love since Antony and Cleopatra (oh, they actually got it on? OK, someone else then), along with her tale of woe when face to face with Big Steppin’ Razor Cat Daddy Fishbone Mike Wilson:

At that point, Wilson leaned toward a microphone and said, “The winners will be companies like ours, who know how to develop top games.”

(These include, I assume, Kingdom Under Fire and Rune.)

At any point, Mulligan misses the point: GODGames doesn’t exist any more, except as a reference in People Screwed By Todd Porter Trading Cards. They got borged by Take Two. Take Two sucks. Trust me, the worst thing you want is for Take Two to actually try and “support” an MMO title. It would be like… well, UO.

The best case scenario would be if Wolfpack suddenly discovers that the Evil Overlord Contract they signed included a Princess Isn’t Technically A Virgin clause and they can book it to be published by someone else. ANYONE else.


We called Babbage’s customer service department and found out that Shadowbane was “de-listed” from their catalogue at the request of Take Two, which (at the moment) is (still) (officially) Shadowbane’s publisher. When asked if that meant the game was delayed past its projected release date, we were told no, it meant “take it off our catalogue and accept no more orders for it.” When asked if that meant all the rumors swirling around of friction between Wolfpack and Godgames/Take Two were true, they said that they were just customer service people and they didn’t know and please make the hurting stop.

So we called Todd “Warden” Coleman, Shadowbane’s producer and marketing czar. Hey, maybe he’d, you know, tell us what was going on. I know, radical concept. His response was to restate his previous statement on the matter, which was a statement that any change in their publishing status would be followed by a statement, which his previous statement previously referenced.

Don’t speak PR? Let me quote:

It’s not our policy to comment on rumors… if there are any changes in the status of our current publishing deals, we’ll let you know.

So in the absence of any more actual, you know, information, let’s speculate. (I’ve been told we’re good at that.)

It’s no secret that something is going on between Take 2/Godgames and Wolfpack. What that something is is anyone’s guess – it depends on who you’re talking to, what agenda they’re pushing, and probably the phase of the moon factors in somewhere as well. However, generally if relations between publisher and developer (or, in another equally successful profession, “pimp” and “ho”) are good, you don’t see everyone leaking off the record trying to spin how good – or, especially, how not good – they are. There’s trouble in Aerynth. At some point, my guess is, we’ll see a nice polished press release that tells you as much as the one above, with the exception that some time ago there was a parting of the ways and everyone still loves each other and there’s joint custody of the cat.

So. Assume the worse and we wake up tomorrow and find out that someone has to figure out where the cat lives. What does that mean for people who’d actually like to play Shadowbane at some point (and by any measure, there’s quite a few of those)?

Item: Wolfpack already has a very active and involved publishing partner in Swing Entert@inment AG, their European partner and distributor. Not only does Swing take an active interest in Shadowbane’s development, as opposed to Godgames which limits its involvement to printing Shadowbane screenshots in tiny little windows on cheesecake girly calendars, they also are deeply involved in the current beta process – not only are many of the testers German, Swing even owns Wolfpack’s beta server.

Is Swing ready to step up to the plate and assume the massive operating costs and support nightmares a PvP MMOG will pose? I’d imagine they think so. Whether or not they are, who knows. Can’t do much worse than all the others at this point.

Item: If Take Two and Wolfpack parts company and for whatever reason Swing remains a European partner only, there’s suddenly a MMOG out for bidding that’s got over 3 years of development time already invested. Quite a few publishers without an entry in the MMO market may find the lure of jumping to market years sooner irresistable.

Item: Shadowbane’s fan base is the only group of players that makes Horizon’s folks seem positively sedate. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that if Wolfpack announced that they’d need help with bringing the game to market, much as Artifact Entertainment did, someone would volunteer time, resources, money, or all of the above. Hell, all you’d have to do for a lot of these guys is offer them a beta slot and they are SO there.

Item: Before the Godgames publishing deal, which was announced only a year ago, Wolfpack was self-financed. Could they continue to do so? While they certainly wouldn’t want to, one suspects they wouldn’t want to lose their previous investment either, especially this close to the finish line. While providing the network infrastructure and customer support is probably out of reach in such a scenario, keeping development going while leisurely shopping for a new “white knight” is certainly a possibility.

All of this is of course conjecture and of course our discussion link will immediately be swamped by persons defending the honor of Shadowbane that claim we are only out to destroy the innocent dreams and hopes of PvPers everywhere.

What isn’t conjecture? Well, try to pre-order Shadowbane at ebworld.


In a stunning development, Wolfpack Studios announced that they are partnering with the Sanrio Company Ltd. of Japan to create “Hello Kitty Online”. “Hello Kitty Online”, formerly known as “Shadowbane”, will be brightly lit and festive and everyone will always be happy. “We really are targeting the 12-16 yr old young girl demographic with this release”, said Todd “Hello Warden” Coleman, Wolfpack’s founder and marketing director. “This game will feature demons and cats with anatomically correct genitalia that will provide a proper role model that today’s growing young woman can look up to.”

In a related devlopment, J. “J.” J., of Crossroads of Shadowbane, was placed on a round-the-clock suicide watch at Mercy General Hospital.

Quick Dispatches On/From Goofytown

ITEM! Chris Mancil is an EA community director who started his gaming career as Community Manager for Shadowbane, thus implying he was somewhat familiar with full PvP. However, he wasn’t ready for the full-on no-limits WRATH OF BEN KUCHERA!

Yes, Kuchera, bête noire of Gamergate ranty types, proves once again that those who are harassed online aren’t necessarily innocent and pure themselves, by responding to Mancil’s blog post (which, like mine, has the I’m-just-speaking-for-myself-and-not-my-employers-why-did-I-even-bother-none-of-you-are-paying-attention-and-emailing-every-email-address-on-my-work’s-web-site-right-now disclaimer) with the completely reasonable retort of “Quit talking about me, or I’m telling your dad!” Dad in this case being, um, Peter Moore.


Note that normally I could link to Mancil’s piece and point out that making a long post decrying how people unfriended you for speaking kindly of Milo “I Literally Have No Ethics Or Morals Or Point Or Really Anything Save Hair Gel” Yiannopolous and his current hobby of finding material for a book through writing articles that had as their eminently ethical and moral original title, “Lying, Greedy, Promiscuous Feminist Bullies Are Tearing The Video Game Industry Apart” (you will note that Yiannopolous later thought better of calling someone “promiscuous” from the same platform where he spends a non-zero amount of time talking about his personally having lots of great sex, and you will also note that Yiannopolous, being a former new media entrepreneur, doesn’t know how to change the titles of blog URLs). I realize I’m starting to wade deeply into the parenthetical here; Milo does that to a person. Despite that, he’s actually one of the better writers on the pro-Gamergate side (note to Gamergaters: find better writers, now) and Mancil’s appreciation of his occasional flashes of wit left amongst the tidal wave of misogyny, transphobia, and really, really Vogon-bad poetry is a touch understandable, if you don’t think about it very much.

At any rate, this is an interesting discussion we could be having. We can’t have it, because Ben Kuchera told Chris Mancil’s dad and Mancil had to take his blog down. (The original piece has been archived, but I’m not linking to it here, because I’m one of those crazy people who actually believes in respecting people’s wishes when they wish to disengage in such a way.) Thanks, Kuchera. Next, maybe you can yell at confused department stores about what their employees say on Twitter or something…


Oh. Carry on proving that Gamergate has no monopoly on jerks, then.

ITEM! Mark Kern.

What. I can’t just stop there? Oh, all right. But I warned you.






Well, more specifically, he can’t tweet to you. You being someone who blocked him. You would think this would be somewhat self evident to anyone still holding enough brain power to walk from one side of the room to another.


…well, then. I agree that it could possibly be a tragedy when people who go to the trouble of activating a program to block a given list of people then proceeds to not see tweets from that given list of people. That is truly very, very bad. At least, according to Mark Kern, who is one of the finest legal minds of our time…


…it is illegal in at least one English-speaking country called “England” to not listen to people when they scream #NOTYOURSHIELD in your face.



How is it illegal, exactly? Well, mumble frumble data export laws mumble mutter privacy issues LOOK JUST HARASS THEM UNTIL THEY GIVE UP, OK I HEARD YOU GUYS DID THAT ONCE OR TWICE


What has mumbled Kern’s frumples specifically? Well, it seems a combination of Kuchera’s TOTALLY TELLING ON CHRIS MANCIL TO DAD (and sadly, since Mark Kern is totally incapable of blogging, speaking to the media, tweeting, or posting on any other social media site, he was unable to call him out on this like I did ten minutes ago) and Kern’s discovering he was being blocked for talking about Gamergate a lot.

Kern does have a fragment of a point – too bad that he is, according to him, completely incapable from communicating with the outside world, so I will have to make it for him. TheBlockBot’s system is, well, snarky. You can search for Twitter handles (anyone’s, obviously, and find out why the person who categorized you as blockable chose to do so. Here is Mark Kern’s listing. It is safe to say Kern did not agree to being listed here. It is also safe to say Kern, despite being locked in a Faraday Box in the core of the earth and thus only able to communicate with the world outside through the keening unearthly wail of mole demons that escape through an intricate system of volcano ventings, has made all of those tweets publicly accessible to all. Some people won’t appreciate them. Some people may actually make fun of them! Some of them even have blogs!

That’s a solvable problem, and one that may be solved if Mark Kern’s massive and totally-locked-out-of-any-communication-with-Mark-Kern army follows through on his threats and starts sending the people who run TheBlockBot cease and desists. Then again, maybe not. They’re apparently run by a forum of professional atheists, which may possibly be the one group on earth more annoying than Gamergate trolls. But somehow I don’t think that will make his-mouth-is-being-held-shut-by-boll-weevils Mark Kern happier.





I… um…


v8ccqhtIn case you missed it from my mocking-into-the-ground, Mark Kern can speak all he wants. He has, in fact, quite a large megaphone, and is using it to great effect! There are many people who have never heard from him this month who follow him on social media, and he seems to be integrating into the Gamergate hive mind quite smoothly indeed.  Possibly because they agree on this one point: being prevented from talking to someone is censorship.

Even when that person preventing you is the person themselves.

That’s what this whole storm and fury about block bots represents, what Gamergaters froth about when banned from various forums, etc. They know they are perfectly free to say what they like. They want to say it, and you will be forced to listen.

That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

A lack of indoctrination is not censorship. I am not obligated to turn my blog password over to Mark Kern so he can post happy pictures and complain about how he can’t speak to anyone because I made fun of him. I made fun of speech that he made in public on my blog. I get to do that. It’s part of civil discourse in a free society. It doesn’t obligate me to do anything else. It doesn’t obligate me to host a long-running comment thread full of people speaking in 4chan lingo about how I’m fat. It doesn’t require me to page through dozens of pages of Twitter mentions about how my tears are salty. It doesn’t require me to trudge through hundreds of Youtube comments that are so bizarrely obscene they are literally incomprehensible to anyone over the age of 12.

And if I choose not to participate in such an enlightened discourse, I can choose to use whatever tools are available to assist me in so doing. You do not have a right to my eyeballs. I may loan them to you, if you’re good. But free speech is the right to speak. It is not the right to be listened to.

ITEM! It’s super late and I spent way too much time getting upset over Mark Kern being totally incapable to say things yet again, so I’m just going to leave this link here and let your brain melt. Because it’s a quarter to three, and we can’t stop here, it’s GOOFYTOWN.


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Darkfall Update 2: In Which Some Darkfall Is Played

So, with little fanfare, apparently Darkfall’s released now! The store is open all 24 hours that most days have, and if you want to buy it, by cracky, it seems you can. So I did. After a long download, and a long install, and a long patch, finally, I was ready to master the game of Darkfall. AND MASTER IT I SHALL. verily.

I decided, given the recent foofrah about another website that dared to say unkind things about the One True PvP Game, that when writing these updates, I would follow some basic ground rules. To wit:

I would keep an open mind. Sure, Darkfall has already become almost legendary in its community’s ….uncompromising attitude, but forum hijinks and what occurs within an MMO are almost always two different things. (See: Shadowbane) By god, if there is enjoyment to be had, I would find it! Note: I enjoy killing people in video games, so this shouldn’t be that hard!

I would be an anonymous player. No trading on net.fame here! (Although given the history of this blog and Darkfall, it may be more of a self-defense mechanism.)

I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but Ayu-chan will comfort me.

I will walk through the valley of the shadow of virtual death, but Ayu-chan will comfort me.

And most importantly, I would listen to appropriate music while playing. This was difficult. What is the most appropriate soundtrack for the dark, harsh, brutal lands of Darkfall? Evanescence? Mercyful Fate? Epica? Type O Negative? Nightwish? Mayhem? Finally I settled on something I felt would help me keep the proper attitude. I would not play Darkfall without listening to music by the Empress of Tokyo Pop, Ayumi Hamasaki.

With that, it was time to play Darkfall.

Or at least, try.

The patcher for Darkfall is… let’s just call it finicky. Perhaps it’s the first step in the long culling process to make sure you’re really ready for Darkfall. Sometimes it would display that it was patching. Sometimes it would display that I had a position in the queue (despite there not being a queue, that I could tell). And sometimes, it would just say, well, this:


Mind you, this is with no “browser and instant messaging applications” open. I was kind of at a loss here for a bit. I checked Darkfall’s technical support, but Darkfall doesn’t have any, nor a technical support forum (even though the in-game help refers to it), nor any apparent CS that I could find, or a manual, or even a README.TXT file. Clearly I was on my own for figuring this out. Fine, I’m hard core, I’m PLAYING DARKFALL. Well, not really, yet. I’m trying to. But, this is another test, and I CAN HANDLE IT. I did have Ayumi’s “Rainy Day” playing in Windows Media Player. Perhaps Darkfall didn’t like “Rainy Day”. I switched to “Step You” and Darkfall launched fine. Fine, everyone’s a critic.

Oh, HELL no.

Oh, HELL no.

The next step involved creating a character. Choices involved picking between the ugliest race ever to be seen in an MMO since Mythic decided undead gremlins would do well for an expansion – and of course, the description tells you that they are dark, emo elves that hate EVERYONE. Well, that’s nice. Then there’s the nice light elves, that I probably should have picked because they had a 0.5% archery bonus or something, but, yeah, elves. No. Then you had the Mahrin, which look like just the thing for aspiring PKers who want you to be killed, then raped, by a huge furry bear. This would be amusing normally, but I already have a Second Life account. So I just picked human, and went through my customization options, which mostly involved piercings.

I made a female character, because if I’m going to play Darkfall, I’m going to by god PLAY DARKFALL, and ensure that the rape references I was fully expecting when breaking my “keeping an open mind” rule would at least be heterosexual in nature. I named her after my favorite NPC in Everquest, and we were off!

I logged in, and was completely naked save for a leather bikini and a dagger that was helpfully called useless in the mouseover. Yeah, this is going to be fun. HARDCORE FUN.


In the grim world of Darkfall, there is only leather bikini.

So, after a few minutes of goblinsmashing and wrenching items off of their carcasses, here you can see some good things about Darkfall. The world itself is pretty well rendered, with nice use of shadowing. You can also see damage modeling where goblins violently objected to my stealing their things. So far, so good.

Then you have the not so good parts. (Note to Darkfall partisans eager to yell EUROGAMER in my face, some notes: yes, this is only after a few hours of play. Also I know that the forums have helpful newbie guides that are only somewhat wildly out of date. Also yes I know you are supposed to join a guild within seconds of opening a Darkfall account or you are a loser and should pray for death. Also yes I know only newbs use anything besides archery and magic missile. Also yes I play World of Warcraft and enjoy it. On an RP server. Eating roast piggeth.)


What, you needed to know MORE? Carebear.

First is the polish. Or rather, the lack thereof. I’ve already hit on the difficulty in just getting Darkfall to launch. A good portion of the user interface has “This button is temporarily disabled” placeholders. Others, like taking screenshots within the game or shifting camera angles, apparently don’t work. A disturbing amount of in-game text is misspelled or otherwise grammatically mangled. The animations… um… humans don’t move like that. It’s very distracting when in third person view and watching your character have such a strange gait that you want Dr. House to tell you it’s not lupus. The combat animations are… clumsy. Compared with the well-executed world art, it’s quite dissonant.

Of course, that has little to do with gameplay. I’d like to tell you about the gameplay, but I can’t do a good job of it, since I simply don’t know that much. The in-game documentation consists of a helpfile that is enough information to get you into combat mode and little else, although it does helpfully tell you about cannons and warhulks and mechanaughts or whatever the hell else it taunts you with, but it neglects to explain the magic system, beyond a very cursory “drag the icon to your hotbar” introduction. Even with the low bar set by ‘documentation’ in other MMOs, this sets a new low.

What you do learn quickly is that Darkfall’s interface is complex. Or, put another way, cumbersome. To attack something, you unsheathe your weapon with the R key, and then swing/shoot (Oblivion-style, in real time – which is a point in its favor and seems, at least with first experimenting, to work well). Once something dies, it spawns a grave. You then press R to sheathe your weapon, then highlight the grave, then press F to open it, then press B to open your own backpack, and then hurriedly try to drag each item, one by one, into your backpack before someone else opens up the grave and helps themselves. I’m sure there’s a perfectly valid justification for this involving slowing down player looting and realism and tactical decisions and whatnot, but when your first experience is fumbling around pointing vaguely at a gravestone while other goblins whale at your back and other players helpfully loot your kills for you, there tends to be fewer second experiences.

"someone else" knows what's up.

"someone else" knows what's up.

One problem with the client is the fact that most of the interface is actually a web application. This means that there’s a significant delay when opening a dialog and seeing the browser instantiate in the dialog box, and also that the dialog is usually focused on, say, the bottom fourth of what you’re actually looking at, and you’ll need to resize the dialog and scroll around to find, say, a guild listing. This is, like much else in Darkfall apparently, serviceable after a fashion, but only just. The irritants pile up quickly.

Of course, I’m sure most people reading this and having followed the Darkfall saga here, you would probably expect me to regale you with tales of random PKing, abusive “suck it up” tells, and the like. Well, that didn’t happen. The few users I saw while playing were… quiet. Also obviously not new, since they were in full armor as opposed to my leather bikini and using arrows with wild abandon whereas I had to painstakingly collect mine from goblin corpses (I suspect they were there to harvest them). They did loot my kills whenever possible, but didn’t try to flag or otherwise be griefy. I suspect they really didn’t care enough to. Not as dramatic, but more realistic. What, are they going to steal my goblin axe?

But of course, the fun in Darkfall is in joining a clan, right? And laying waste to your enemies! I bet that’s lots of fun, especially as a level zero character that specializes in running away. We’ll see. But for now, enjoy some Darkfall theme music.


“Worst. Presentation. Ever.”

Richard Bartle recently posted the presentation slides from his IMGDC keynote.

Note: bad presenters slam their entire presentation script into each Powerpoint slide, then read droningly from each slide, word for word, as if their audience were a crowd of illiterates waiting for the shaman to explain the pretty picture pages. Bartle is not a bad presenter. Thus the slides are more a hintbook into the presentation (and somewhat amusing that way) than an actual talk transcript. Still, it’s fairly good, and he makes some good points.

  • Cloning WoW is expensive, you will probably fail, and the result isn’t very good from a design standpoint anyway
  • There’s a vast difference between user-created content (such as City of Heroes’ architect system) and user-generated ‘content’ (such as the Eve Great War) – the latter is compelling and why people come back to MMOs
  • Elder games to date kind of suck thanks to the adherence to theme park-style game design as opposed to free-from social world design
  • This happened historically in the MUD development era, which no one knows about because for decades designers have ignored everything that happened in game development before the debut of their favorite MMO (note: Bartle was probably far too polite to actually say this)
  • The fairly obvious solution (which of course, no one has actually attempted) is a hybrid/balanced game akin to early MUDs where users begin on a theme park and graduate to an Eve-style freeform/social/user generated game
  • Alan Moore’s “Lost Girls” is pretty raunchy.

All seems very obvious (note: the best presentations point out obvious truths that everyone seems hellbent on ignoring for some reason in an amusing fashion). F13 didn’t get it.

Nothing in that presentation that hasn’t been stated by any armchair developer with more than 6 months gaming experience under their belt.

Physician, heal thyself.

This seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to make EVE/Shadowbane (that’s right, I said it) look good. Oh, and an excuse to use a lot of abstract terms in different combinations.

I think i’ve suddenly realized the attraction of being an academic. You can write “from on high” about the problems inherent in a topic without feeling obligated to present detailed solutions.

He’s spent thirty plus years saying the same crap and never putting his hat in the ring even though he could go to any publisher with a proposal, assemble a team and get funding. That’s the difference between us schlubs here and him: he could actually make the game he thinks is going to change the world and get all those subs but he refuses to do so.

Today class, we’re going to go to my ivory tower, built from MUD, and I’m going to show you my gold throne where I sit when I want to watch the peasants try to make something that I so obviously perfected 30 years ago. After that I’m going to snort blow off a co-eds thigh, give a speech somewhere I really shouldn’t be since my last real game came out before the NES was even an IDEA let alone a console that was ready for worldwide release that would change the world. Afterwhich I’m going to say a bunch of really profound, obvious shit and show you a square I came up with back when such a thing may have been relevant. After that? Yea, you guessed it. I’m going to ride naked on the back of my golden eagle that I have named Fame.

Wow. Whole lotta nerd raging going on. Almost as if someone threatened to take their candy!

So, to retort: almost everyone in that thread (including the moderator, and not including the post I’m about to cite below) is full of self-indulgent whiny bullshit. As someone who has built a career on self-indulgent whiny bullshit, I feel uniquely qualified to recognize this in the wild. Let me respond to the more obvious bullet points:

  • No, Bartle hasn’t worked on WoW. Amazingly, this does not disqualify you from commenting on MMO design (note: as far as I can guess, very few WoW game designers are posting in that thread. Ghostcrawler was probably busy.)
  • Yes, most of what he said was painfully obvious. Guess what: people are still funding WoW clones. Guess it wasn’t painfully obvious enough.
  • I find it deeply ironic that the sort of game Bartle advocated in the close of his presentation is actually fairly close to what the F13 hivemind would be quite excited over! (Hint: it was called Ultima Online)
  • No, Bartle can’t just walk into a game publisher, announce in a booming, stentorian voice “I WANT TO MAKE TEH GAME” and be given a $50 million budget. If you seriously believe that is how game development works, you are actually the target audience for those “tighten up the graphics on level six” game school ads.
  • The slams on his credibility are especially amusing. You do realize he worked on the first MUD, right. You know. The first one. PATIENT ZERO. This does give you a bit of credibility. At least for those people who don’t believe game development history began with the launch date of their current favorite MMO. It doesn’t mean that he is a Design Moses that comes from the mountaintop and shoots lasers from his eyes at gilded cow idols, but it does tend to get him invited to give presentations and it does mean he has things to say during them. Funny, that.

That being said – there was one valid point missed in the clouds of eloquent butthurtery.

So his proposal is to begin with a hand-crafted, polished, broad, directed experience (WoW) and then segue into an open-ended deep sandbox with nebulous emergent content (EVE). This is justified by his belief that content creation is, well, hard, and he dismisses user-created content as a potential solution pretty much out of hand. Well, I disagree. I don’t believe that “emergent” gameplay compares favorably to hand-crafted polished content.

You hear about these really cool world-changing political shifts in EVE online, and they sound really awesome, but the vast overwhelming majority aren’t playing at that level– they’re mining, or killing pirates, or PvPing, or trading resources. And that level isn’t really about the game anyway, it was “played” on bulletin boards and IRC chat channels. The game was incidental, a justification.

I don’t play games to chat with old friends, or collect cute pets, or decorate my in-game house with crazy furniture or play wacky dress-up. I don’t want to be a miner, or a crafter, or a cog in a wheel of a giant corporation. I don’t want to have to “find the fun”. I pay the devs for that, it should be handed to me on a silver platter. I want to be the hero that saves the day, exploring dangerous new continents, every day overcoming new challenges, progressing through a well-written story. That’s what I pay for.

Now, that’s just me. Some people dig all that crap, and I have no religious objection to that. But it’s not my bag. I want to be the hero.

And that is a coherent summary of why World of Warcraft is a raging success years later, and why many developers who presumably know better are afraid to veer from that paradigm. Many – probably most, in fact – players *want* to be content consumers, not content generators. They want to log in, be entertained, and log out.

The problem here is that this means they aren’t the target market for a virtual world. They want a game. So: how do you craft a virtual world that *also* is enough of a game to keep that person and his millions of cohorts entertained?

*That* is what we should be discussing. Not the length of Bartle’s neckbeard. (Note: most of the neckbeards come from forum posters, not game designers. Really. I checked and everything.)

Punching Babies: Why Darkfall Can, Should, And Must Succeed

Punching babies is one of my favorite turns of phrase. It is probably most popular from Penny Arcade, but Old Man Murray had the ultimate explanation of sucker punching a baby in the gut to get it to be quiet… it’s easy and it works, but you don’t want to advertise the habit. Which defines a lot of my posting habits about, well, events like Darkfall’s launch. It’s easy, it works, it’s kind of fun, but it’s not something you particularly want to *brag* about.

In the midst of the multi-post baby punching threadnaught that has consumed this site out of, well, a lack of anything else going on, a comment I made that upon reflection I think deserves more attention and fleshing out:

Yeah, I think [Darkfall] will spike at around 100,000 and then settle down to around half that. I even made a blog post to that effect! I could be wrong… and if they can sustain growth at 50k and then get 100k and sustain it, well then they get some financial reward for staying up till 3AM on launch week.

And I’m all about niche games succeeding. I really do hope these guys succeed, even if I personally recoil at the community and think the design has serious issues. Niche games can, will, and do work in the market.

So, why do I believe that, despite the obvious glee I have at punching this particular baby over and over? A few reasons.

It can succeed… because the market is there. The “no rules! extreme carnage! total domination of the weak!” PvP str1cktly-hardc0r3 may not be particularly a market *I* want to service, but it does exist and is quite capable of funding a realistically budgeted MMO.

It should succeed… because most previous attempts to service this market have failed. The most prominent of these, Shadowbane, clearly had a market, one lovingly sustained over years during the game’s development (much like Darkfall later), and which abandoned the game due to technical, not design issues. This same market was a significant subset of Ultima Online’s early adopters (albeit one that limited the early growth of the service, which is why they were eventually tossed over the side). And one game, Eve, has in fact prospered by serving this market, albeit with a radically different product and a different genre. This is what people who have more money than I do call “market opportunity”.

It must succeed… because the big-budget MMO business model is killing our industry. World of Warcraft’s success has been wonderful for exactly two companies: Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts.

The reason for Actiblizzard’s good fortune is obvious – WoW is such a huge part of the PC gaming market, that it effectively IS the PC gaming market now. To the extent that World of Warcraft’s revenue is sustaining Actiblizzard through the recessionary spiral that is consuming many of its competitors.

Electronic Arts’ good fortune is less clear, and more dangerous. To be specific, WoW has effectively raised the barrier of entry to the classic kill-things-loot-pants-grunt-twice MMO market, to the point that only megacorporations like EA can afford to compete with WoW on its own terms. Smaller companies simply will not be able to raise the tens-of-millions budget required, and more importantly not have access to the huge reservoir of art teams, content pipelines and engine technology readily available to large corporations like EA. This is something I ran into even at NCsoft, which is not by any measure a small company. We are coming to the point where there are literally only two companies that can make successful MMOs – if we define successful as “competing with WoW”.

So, how do you kill a giant? By being agile and hitting the giant where it’s not looking – underserved market segments that may be willing to overlook that your game doesn’t have the breadth of content and years of production polish that a game such as WoW has, because it delivers on innovative – or even different – design.  And for all the myriad problems Darkfall has had in its launch, for all the head-scratching technical design decisions made, and for the completely justifiable lampooning of its hilariously overwrought community – it still is a great example of this concept made manifest. Darkfall isn’t a game for me, or for many readers of this blog – but it is for a given market segment, and that market segment, if it embraces that, will make the game a financial success – and be another case for being able to succeed in a post-WoW apocaplypse.

And if that given market segment does NOT embrace that, due to technical failures or simple boredom or the worst possible case of all, “You know, I could be playing WoW right now <cancel>”, that is also another case. A case that only $100m+ budgets can create a successful MMO. A case that only two companies are in a position to make MMOs.

And for those two reasons alone, if I were able to, I’d buy Darkfall. I wouldn’t PLAY it mind you. I’d put the box on my shelf alongside the other MMOs I don’t play. But risks deserve rewards.

Probably not the ringing endorsement Aventurine was looking for, but they shouldn’t be looking for one from me in any event. They have their own market segment to serve and they had better get busy serving it. For the good of us all.