Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fantasizing Non-Fantasic Virtual Worlds

I saw on Massively that the UK newspaper The Guardian is asking its readers to design a virtual world without fantasy or sci-fi. Partly the reason for this article stems from a post by Richard Bartle on Terra Nova asking why the predominant genre for game-like virtual worlds is fantasy.

There are a number of MMOs coming out soon that avoid the fantasy genre: the GTA-inspired All Points Bulletin, Sony's "The Agency," and Pirates of the Burning Sea.

If one considers fantasy to mean only Tolkienesque swords-and-sorcery, the fantastical elements of the horror genre, such as vampires and werewolves, would make a rich backdrop for a virtual world. A Torchwood or Doctor Who based game would make great settings as well; while they involve sci-fi, these shows aren't about spaceships and phaser pistols. But all of those settings could still be considered fantasy if you broaden the definition beyond Tolkien.

There are plenty of other possibilities for an MMORPG, even if you eschew anything supernatural, futuristic, or fantastical in any way. Early 20th century mobsters could make an exciting (though probably controversial) backdrop for a virtual world. The Wild West is another obvious choice for a setting.

One setting I'd like to see turned into a virtual world would be one based on the notion of running modern-day corporations. For an idea of how that would manifest itself in a game, you might start with a game like Stardock's The Corporate Machine, except, of course, make it massive and multiplayer. And with places you could run an avatar around.

Each "guild" would be a corporation and players would assume various roles in marketing, public relations, research and development, and so on. The gameplay itself would manifest itself mostly in the form of card games, like Legends of Norrath, or the diplomacy system in Vanguard. At some point, the game would end (that's not so far fetched, A Tale in the Desert is an MMORPG that ends!) and the server would restart. By allowing the server to restart, the game stays fresh and able to welcome new players (most current MMORPGs have a hard time attracting new players once they have aged, since all the existing players are high level and the new players have no one to play with.)

I suppose it wouldn't be a virtual world if you couldn't run around in it, so part of the game would take place in a surreal office. Instead of completing quests, you have to handle "situations". (I hate it when we have a "situation" at work.) An example situation would include discovering that the coffee machine broke down; this would cause NPC staff to fall asleep. If left unchecked, the corporation's productivity will decline. Another situation: the media shows up unexpectedly, and someone needs to hype the unfinished product to them. The corporation would be given a day or two to handle the situation (by delegating the task to one or more persons in guild) or else consequences occur. Situations would also allow multiple solutions with ethical dilemmas. PVP would occur in the form of corporate espionage.

Corporate progress would be measured in the usual ways: dollars and market share, both overall and within the corporation's chosen industry. Players would earn salaries based on how desired their skill sets are (based on how effectively they overcome the "situations" that the corporation faces), and they could defect to other corporations if they wanted.

What type of virtual world would YOU build, if you couldn't use fantastical elements at all?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Live Gamer Will Destroy MMORPGs As We Know Them And Good Riddance

An up and coming company called Live Gamer seeks to provide a secure platform for legitimate real money transfers (RMT) in the MMO space. This would be very similar to Sony Online Entertainment's Station Exchange server platform, though Live Gamer will span multiple publishers and games.

I know its not a popular opinion to have, but I welcome the intrusion of RMT into the MMO space. And I don't even like RMT. I've never bought any in-game gold or items with real money. In fact, I think its rather stupid to pay someone else to play the game for you. But, like anything else that takes time to produce, there's value in these characters and in-game items for those who want them but don't have that time (or talent) to produce one themselves. And people are going to find a way to make a market out of that no matter how hard you try to stop them.

Not all forms of RMT are bad: selling fluff and non-essential items is a good way to monetize things that players frequently ask for that do little to make the game more marketable, such as roleplaying clothes and house items. These kinds of microtransactions aren't any worse than buying a collector's edition or a retail box that comes with exclusive in-game items, and gamers seem comfortable with that already.

As for characters, power leveling, and game-impacting items? RMT ruins the notion of achievement there. New games built around RMT will likely not be based around the traditional achiever-oriented MMO timesinks and treadmill grinds we're accustomed to. Some of them might be (there are, after all, Station Exchange-enabled EverQuest II servers), but I think that those games will be a niche market. There will always be a market for traditional achiever-oriented MMOs that continue to ban RMT, but the mix of the two doesn't work.

Most MMOs today reward players based on time and effort invested. That type of system simply doesn't have the same pull if you can bypass all of that with cash, just as the NFL wouldn't be as interesting if teams could pay extra to reduce the number of players the opposition is allowed to field, or to adjust the height and width of the goal posts. RMT for game-impacting items is fundamentally incompatible with achiever-oriented loot-and-level based EverQuest-type games. But the current subscription-based payment models aren't compatible with plenty of other forms of gameplay.

The intrusion of RMT into the MMO space provides an opportunity for the industry to grow past the rut its in and branch out to embrace additional forms of gameplay besides catering solely to the hardcore gamer with lots of time on his hands to accumulate virtual achievements.

Nobody complains about being able to pay an extra charge to download more levels for an FPS, or more tracks for a racing game. While there is a small market for cheats in those games, such as save games with hidden players or tracks unlocked, its not a huge market, since ultimately the experience is about playing the game itself. Similarly, I doubt anyone would care if people bought their MMO skills and loot if the gameplay was centered around what you did with them; its only an issue since current MMOs are entirely focussed on the acquisition of them.

As RMT becomes more ubiquitous, I am hoping we'll start to see a shift away from the timesinks and achiever-oriented levels and looting towards worlds that cater more to the socializers, the roleplayers, and the explorers. Maybe we'll even see a shift towards gameplay that is fun enough that its not worth it to skip.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

My MMOADD

Recently, I haven't been putting much time in any particular game world. I've been putting a lot of time in several. I think I love MMOs more for the idea than the implementation, since I'm always eager to try another, but I'm never fully satisfied. I think I've come down with MMOADD. Is it contagious? I have been reading Voyages in Eternity lately.

Luckily, I'm not as bad as damionov yet, but I'm getting there. I two-box in EverQuest II, so there are two subscriptions there. I have been toying around with City of Villains which NCSoft granted current and former City of Heroes subscribers for free. I even resubscribed to World of Warcraft for the first time since 2004. And I'm in the Pirates of the Burning Sea open beta, with my preorder placed, and my freetrader ready to set sail in January.

But I still find myself tempted to pick up other titles, such as Lord of the Rings Online. And maybe I should give Tabula Rasa another try. Luckily, I tend to think of my bank account like a video game score; I prefer it to go up, not down. So that mental fiction tends to help me keep my budget in order.

I think much of the reason I do this is that a lot of MMO design seems to be repeated over and over again. There is a lot of content I haven't seen. I went to Freethinkers Hideout for the first time yesterday, in EverQuest II, and that was fun. The scripts for raids these days are much improved over the early ones, and I hope to get to 80 to see the new raid zones in Kunark. But these pockets of newness are few and far between.

I like to explore these games, but exploration doesn't mean doing everything in the game. Once I start to see patterns, it grows tiresome. So even altitis doesn't help much, as my alts tend to get stuck at the lower levels, since once you get past the unique starting tutorial for their race or class or city, most games funnel you into the same areas all over again.

Once a game has been on the market for a while, the achievers start to ruin it for me. In Dungeons and Dragons Online, it only took a day or two before that happened. There is no sense of exploration when someone in the dungeon has already been in there a dozen times already and had a min-maxed route to take us through. And leveling and looting only goes so far for me.

Maybe my ideal game should be something like Uru Live. I did try it, and I enjoyed it. But its a very puzzle oriented world, and while I like the idea of puzzles in an MMO, I still enjoy the combat and economic aspects of your traditional MMOs as well. So that wasn't quite what I was looking for.

What is the point of all this rambling? I don't know. MMOADD? Maybe the MMO has nothing to do with it.

OH! I know what I want. What I really need is a cable channel like spectrum of MMO games for one monthly fee, offering products from multiple publishers (SOE, NCSoft, Turbine, and others combined.) Maybe one day when the market is so saturated with MMOs that you can't go to the grocery store without finding MMOs included in your Cracker Jacks and Captain Crunch cereal boxes, maybe that day -- that GLORIOUS day -- a hero will rise to unite the industry's disparate billing practices, liberating people like me so we can freely (or more cheaply) wander from world to world, until we find what we're looking for.

THAT's what I want. I think.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Pirates of the Burning Sea: Early Impressions

The NDA for Pirates of the Burning Sea has been dropped and people are talking. Tobold offers up a really great review of the game, as does Potshot. They seem to have similar opinions as to the quality of the game.

I didn't get to play much past the early levels, but I enjoyed it enough that I preordered the game. Its a no-brainer since I have the Station Access anyway. But its rather fun: in Pirates of the Burning Sea, you play the captain of a ship (as a pirate, captain of the navy, privateer, or a freetrader). Like most MMOs, you can collect missions from NPCs who stand around with exclamation points hovering over their heads. Missions usually take place inside instances, where you are tasked with destroying targets, or escorting friendly ships. Some missions let you run around as your avatar; these play like instances in other MMOs, such as City of Heroes, where the bad guys stand around and you have to explore to locate a number of items (NPCs or highlightable items that you can click on.)

Unfortunately, I don't care much for the avatar combat. At sea, you can defeat an enemy vessel by boarding it and defeating its captain. This gets very hectic and its hard to keep tabs on whats going on. And every combat seems to be the same: tab through the hordes of enemies to find the captain and defeat them. The enemy crew will surrender once their captain is defeated. Avatar missions aren't so bad since there's a little more variety to what you have to do.

Luckily, that's not the main part of the game. Much of the game takes place out on the open sea. Ship-based missions were fun and seemed to take more strategy. Its not your standard combat where you have a single health meter. Each side of the ship can accumulate damage, as can your masts. You can use weapons that try to weaken the enemy crew, focus on damaging the masts, or try to sink the ship. Its glorious fun, and there was enough variety to the ship-based missions for me.

I rolled characters on the British and Spanish sides and was dismayed to see that they had the same quests. But perhaps that changes at higher levels.

The economic side of the game is one I still need to get better acquainted with. From what I've seen so far, its very interesting. You have a limited number of plots on which you build structures that you have bought deeds for. Your structures accumulate "stored labor" in real time, which you spend like a currency, with money and prerequisite resources, to get what you want. This means crafting is more about figuring out what you want to build, and transporting the finished goods, then about repeatedly clicking buttons and watching progress meters (like it is in many other MMOs). That's a very good thing.

This game is more of a sandbox with a deep economy and PVP as the main factors that will drive interest. This is no World of Warcraft, and will likely remain a niche game. It also lacks a lot of the polish of other games. The UI seems rather clunky and the icons are way too small. But for those who want a little break from the standard run of the mill level-and-loot driven MMO gameplay in EverQuest and World of Warcraft, Pirates seems like it has plenty to offer.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Non-Linear Quests

One of the things that bothers me the most about quests in MMOs is that they are typically very linear. There are a set of steps you have to accomplish and every one of them is required to progress. A typical EverQuest II quest would go like this:

  • Analyze four ghostly images (click on four things)
  • Kill six foobars to collect some random organ (kill six things)
  • Put the organs in six bowls (click on six things)
  • Kill six foobars to collect some other random organ I should have been collecting the first time around (kill six more things)
  • Put those organs in the bowls (click on the same six things)
  • Summon some ghostly bad guy (click on something else)
  • Talk to the spooky creature (click on random dialogue entries until he goes away)

And then you get XP and loot and you're on your way to the next quest which has you run to seventeen locations on opposite sides of the map. You can't skip a step, and you have to do each step in order.

I'd like to see quests where you had alternatives that you could pick among: an "OR clause". We should occasionally be able to accomplish our goals in a number of different ways. For example, there might be a Evil Bandit Lord who is terrorizing the local populace. Obviously, I'm the man to stop him, so I set out to do so. But he's in an instance and is automatically set to be a million levels higher than me, no matter what. Basically he is unkillable. However, during the quest I might find some options:

  • I could discover his Achilles Heel and essentially get an item that automatically kills him.
  • I might move a candle under a rope which holds a chandelier up; when he paths to a specific spot the chandelier comes crashing down, killing him.
  • I might not kill him at all. Maybe I bribe one of his men to do it for me.
  • I could do a side quest to discover something important to the Bandit Lord and convince him to leave in exchange for that item. I give up the reward for the other quest in doing so. (If I kill him in one of the three previous manners, I can still do this side quest, and keep the item.)

The rewards or faction awarded should vary depending on the choice(s) I make.

A variation on this theme would be quests where there's a chance of partial failure. Perhaps I am given a quest and in one part of it I'm asked to protect someone. If they die, I might end up having to do an additional task (seeking revenge against the killers for instance) that I would have bypassed otherwise. Or if they die, I might be allowed to continue down the normal quest path, except with a lessened reward. (For the whiners out there who can't stand the idea that they might be forced to finish a quest that they partially failed, some indicator that the optimal reward is no longer achievable could be displayed in the quest journal so the player knows that they can delete the quest and start over if they have to.)

Many single players RPGs have quests that work in this manner. Fallout is perhaps one of the RPGs best known for having alternative solutions to quests. I'm not aware of any MMORPG to date that does so. (Maybe Tabula Rasa? I didn't play it long enough to find out.)

Yes, its more work for the quest designers. And it might seem like some of the content is wasted since not all players will see every possible outcome. I suppose, since I'm not one, its easy for me to say that's no big deal. :) I don't think every player SHOULD see every possible outcome. The world is more interesting if every player hasn't seen each quest in the exact same way. Rerolling an alt is also much less painful when I know that not every quest I do along the way (back) to 7080 will be experienced exactly like I saw it before.

I think partial failure, variable outcomes, and branching quests could add immensely to the enjoyability of these games. With the overly linear quest design MMOs have today, the only real choices I have are whether I bother to do a quest at all, and occasionally which reward I pick. I think most of us would prefer the illusion that we have real options.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hold On a Moment...

I want a pause button in my MMORPGs. Yeah, I know that sounds crazy. Certainly, we can't pause the whole server. But games are different these days! Many MMOs are highly instanced. If I'm in a solo instance, why shouldn't I be able to pause the game if emergency strikes? If I'm gone for a short period, its not adding undue load on the servers. If I'm gone long enough, the servers could swap the server instance out to disk until I return. Chat channels and other shared world features would (of course) still continue normally, only the zone server for the instanced mission needs to pause.

While soloing an instance in Guild Wars or EverQuest II, I have to run and find some nice safe corner to stand in should I need to go AFK for a little while. Unfortunately, real life emergencies don't always strike neatly between encounters.

Many people with time constraints are attracted to MMORPGs for a number of reasons, even if we do find ourselves needing to solo much of the time. We like it because, unlike single player games like Oblivion or Morrowind, they allow us to group with others when we do have time to do so. We like MMORPGs because the content is constantly updated (most single player RPGs get a few patches and maybe an expansion pack and that's it.) Interacting with other players, even indirectly, through the auction house, also adds a lot to the game play, especially in MMORPGs with more player-driven market economies.

Obviously, this kind of feature wouldn't work in parts of the game world that are shared by multiple users, but I don't see the drawback to allowing this type of feature when players are in a part of the world where they can't adversely impact anyone else's play.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pirates of the Burning Sea Stress Test #2

Pirates of the Burning Sea is having another stress test, available to everyone. Hopefully, I can find time to check it out this weekend. Unfortunately, with the recent release of Rise of Kunark that might be easier said than done...

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

NCSoft Buys City Of... Franchise

As has been reported elsewhere in the blogosphere already, NCSoft has acquired all rights to the City Of Heroes / City of Villains franchises. Hopefully this will soon result in an All-Access Pass type of deal, similar to the one Sony has. This acquisition means they now own all of the titles on their platform, except for Guild Wars (which is free to play already), so they should have no trouble extending this kind of offer.

A stable of AAA MMO titles that you can move between for a reasonable subscription fee would be a really good deal, assuming they don't overprice it like Sony did with the Station Access Pass.

Monday, November 5, 2007

MMORPG Do Overs

Tipa, on West Karana, suggests that it would be a good idea to redo EverQuest as a single player game. I partly like the idea. I'm not sure how well EverQuest would hold up as a single player game, but I have often wished Final Fantasy XI could be redone as a single player game, using some form of the Final Fantasy XII gambit system. In fact, one of the reasons I loved Final Fantasy XII so much was that it basically played just like a single player MMORPG. But it had the added benefit of having a story that you progressed through, meaning your character progression wasn't simply limited to levels and loot. MMORPGs tend to lack that.

Redoing an MMORPG as a single player game might not be as feasible since without some form of story driven progression of missions, there is very little left to the game once you remove the other players.

But what about redoing an MMORPG as a more modern version of itself?

I would like to see a complete relaunch of Final Fantasy XI, or EverQuest, or Ultima Online, but with upgraded, modern UIs, modern high-res art assets, and tweaked game mechanics to be more amenable to "modern" (post-WoW) gamers (more BOA/BOE equipment to prevent twinking and reduce mudflation, less harsh death penalty, more soloability). Take that modernized engine and game mechanics but reuse the existing quests, mob placement, zones and factions and have a sort of "do over." (Of course, its not quite as easy as I make it out to be, since everything is interrelated, and changing one system, such as the combat system, to make the game more soloable, has profound effects on every other aspect of the game, such as appropriate mob placement.... but still, the point is, I'd love to see an updated release of what is mostly the same game, with most of the classic content, except better looking and more solo friendly, as any good modern MMORPG must be.)

Everyone would start over from level one on new servers. Maybe there would be a handful of new quests in the existing zones that imply the story has moved forward five or ten years. Maybe there would be a few changes to existing zones so veterans of the original game could discover something new. But, mostly, it would be the classic content, repackaged.

In some ways, I think that Ultima Online dropped the ball with their recent revamp because while they redid all the art assets in game, they kept the obsolete 3/4 perspective of old. Changing the perspective might alienate existing users, but having a relaunch of the game, reusing all the massive amounts of content it had, but from a full 3D perspective, might have been more successful at attracting new players, because it would have been like a brand new game. A brand new game with ten or more years worth of content from day one. But the same game on the same servers with the same players in the same perspective does not interest me.

Of course, all of this is a pipe dream. Certainly, game producers know better nowadays than to spring this type of change overnight like SOE did when they released the NGE (their Star Wars Galaxies do-over.) Existing players aren't likely to want to give up their existing characters, and they aren't likely to want to see the rules of their game server changed completely, even with advance warning. That leaves making new servers with the new engine/rules as the only option, and maintaining two versions of the same game is probably not feasible. Which is too bad.

A lot of people have never experienced these worlds, and are highly unlikely to, given all the newer games out there. There's a wealth of content in these older games, and I think its a shame to see so much of it go unused when it should be possible to dust them off and make them fresh again.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Cheesybeards

Episode 4 of the Guild is now available. Its a hilarious take on the lives of various guild members of a fantasy MMO.



In case you missed the earlier episodes, you can find them on Youtube or on the official site.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean Online

Disney has released Pirates of the Caribbean Online today. It assumes a similar business model to Dungeon Runners in that it is free to play, with an optional subscription fee for extras. Just perfect for casual players who might want something to do on the side. Or until the pirate-themed MMO they are really interested in comes out...

You can read a review (well, preview anyway, as it was written before the game came out) on Gamespy.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Beware, Bears: We're Picking Your Pockets, Stealing Your Coins

A guildmate posted this link on our forums. It is a very good read, with a humorous take on many of the more pervasive cliches in RPGs.

One RPG cliche that has always particularly bothered me is the fact that all the monsters in the game drop things like weapons and armor. Even dumb brutes, like bears and rats, that don't have much use for said weapons or armor. When EverQuest II first came out, all mobs in the game dropped coin. (Thankfully, they later restricted that to humanoid monsters only.)

Some people aren't bothered by having animals in fantasy games drop coin, potions, and armor. They shrug it off, figuring, its a magical world with hopping humanoid dragon-slaying frogs, so whats the big deal suspending ones disbelief about a bear with pockets that can be picked?

And maybe that's because my idea of "suspension of disbelief" differs from some. In my opinion, the concept of "suspension of disbelief" should apply only to the environment or the "foundational premise" of the show/book/game.

So, establishing a fantasy world with a character like Superman who can fly is fine (from an artistic standpoint); we suspend our disbelief for that. Even saying he can turn back time by flying around the world so fast it spins backwards is fine (stupid, but fine.) The problem is, he only does it once, and then seemingly forgets he can undo all the evils in the world by seeing what happens, flying back in time one day, and then stopping them all. So, giving him that power ends up being inconsistent with his goody two shoes nature, and therefore, its no longer believable.

Ultimately, these stories are about people and characters. Flying alien people maybe, hopping frog-like people maybe, but still, people, with motivations that shouldn't contradict the environment they are in.

Suspension of disbelief doesn't work as well in the absence of internal consistency. If we are to accept any random event as "if it were real," regardless of internal consistency, the fictional world (or work of art) loses all meaning.

What I wish for is for more "realistic" fantasy worlds to play in. (Realistic within reason... I hardly want to manage my character's bathroom urges... save that for the Sims 2: Dragon-Slayers expansion pack.) And, by that I mean:

Establishing a fictional, fantasy world with humanoid frogs that shop and talk and hop around battling dragons is fine. Having a game world with bells that transport us halfway across the game world is also fine, since we are to understand that, "offscreen," a boat came and took us away. Or that teleportation magic exists.

Saying there are bears in that world is also fine. But saying they are unintelligent bears and yet letting them carry swords and coin is no longer fine, as it is inconsistent with the foundational premise we established. Unless said bears show up in front of the auction house trying to upgrade their armor. In which case it would be fine, because we could then presume they were somewhat intelligent. And who wouldn't like a Teddy Ruxpin MMO???

So, MMO developers take note: bears in future MMOs should either not drop coins, or, at the very least, be seen on occasion shopping.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Overcoming Our Shard of Fear



Or trying to, anyway. A couple of guildies and I ventured forth into the new Shard of Fear zone that was introduced recently in GU39. The zone is really well crafted and it was exciting to adventure in there.

Stargrace was particularly excited that the Shard of Fear is an outdoor area. I agree. I like to group when I can, but I don't like that it almost always involves going to into a dark, cramp, stuffy dungeon where I can't zoom my camera back comfortably far. And I tend to like it zoomed back really far. So it was a refreshing change of pace to have a dungeon crawl in such a wide open area.

In addition, I was particularly excited by the fact that many of the monsters behave differently than your standard encounter. Many have long stuns that wreak havoc on the group, and many of the monsters live up to the name of the zone and fear you constantly. The aggro range for many monsters is a lot longer, and the social radius seems wider. Some of the mobs (the phantoms, anyway) seemed to have pretty wide ranges in which they roam, which was nice to see. This added an additional element of challenge than we normally have to face.

On the other hand, many of the encounters did seem to be a little on the weak side, in terms of HP. My guild is pretty casual when it comes to raiding, so we're hardly the best equipped, and we ripped through the trash and standard heroic nameds with ease. So I can see why many people think the zone could use some toughening up.

I'm not sure I entirely agree; simply making the monsters take longer to kill doesn't really add to the challenge, it just makes the zone boring. Challenge comes from managing variables like the roaming mobs placement and various degrees of aggro. So I'd love to see EverQuest II become more challenging, but I'd rather see the challenge added in by making mobs have newer and different types of aggro behavior, larger "home" areas in which they can roam, wider social radius, new tactics like running and calling for help, and so on. Increasing HP just makes fights we can predictably win drag on longer, but it doesn't make them harder.

The quest line in the zone guides you through the steps to summon the named monsters on top of the pyramid. It involves several ring events. Some of the ring events make use of some of EverQuest II's more unique features, such as the ability to move objects around the environment. It is unfortunate that this feature is not utilized more often in the game, as it is one of the reasons why I (and many others, I believe) find the game to be so much more compelling than World of Warcraft and the rest of the competition.

The quests do a good job in letting you know what you need to do without overtly telling you. So it walks the fine line between hand holding and leaving you completely in the dark as to what to do next. If we're going to see more quests of this caliber in Rise of Kunark, then we're in for a treat. Quests when EverQuest II first came out were often overly obtuse, sending you trekking across the zone and back often with very vague instructions. On the other hand, its not quite as fun if the game holds your hand the entire way through. Well, maybe eight million people think thats fun, but some of us would like to be able to explore a little without having to click on everything in the zone. There's a middle ground somewhere, and it seems like SOE might be finding it.

All in all, I was rather pleased. We did have trouble on the Epic x 2 mobs. But I don't feel so bad considering that even though Terror bested us in battle (for now...), at least we know how to navigate stairs. (The pathing for some of the monsters on the pyramid is awful.) Anyway, Terror, we'll be back to settle the score. Mark my words.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

NPC Companions


I've been two-boxing my defiler, Malta, when farming with my main, Akshobhya and I've been revisiting some old Desert of Flames sites. She's now at level 54, and hopefully soon I'll be able to two-box them together without mentoring.

I find that playing two characters makes the gameplay much more interesting. Obviously, I can't play both characters at the same time optimally (Akshobhya got to 70 before I got the second account, and I've made sure to play Malta with real groups and actually solo her without Aks on occasion just to make sure I can play her properly.) But it adds to the number of different abilities I have, and therefore my options are expanded.

This makes solo game play much more interesting. This is partly why grouping/raiding is more interesting than soloing. When soloing you can only do whatever it is your archetype is designed to do, but with a group you have more options and strategies available to you. But the fact is sometimes we simply have to solo. Unfortunately, with all the responsibilities of a married homeowner with a full time job, for me, that's rather often.

What I wish was that you could get a little extra help in game without having to use a second account. In Guild Wars, we could get henchmen or collect Heroes to round out a party. Perhaps if we were limited to having only one Hero with us, and could use their skills (or perhaps a subset, since EQ2 has way too many skills) in addition to our normal skillset, would that be a good or bad thing for EQ2 (or WOW or any other traditional MMORPG)?

It would add a Pokemon collect-them-all style element to the gameplay as people tried to collect Heroes of each class. If they were tradeable it would help create an additional market which would keep the brokers lively. And it would render a lot of the "balancing" they do in game for solo play unnecessary. After all, who would care if your healer or mage can't solo effectively, when they can summon a tank or DPS companion to help out? And I think they would be good for the market because people would now have more than one character's worth of equipment to maintain (which would be part of how henchmen would be balanced compared to traditional soloing without NPC help.) The henchmen might come with somewhat of an XP penalty, though not so much that they become pointless of course.

Naturally, this type of feature shouldn't be done at the expense of grouping. But people seem to trend towards smaller groups when given the choice, so it might actually help encourage grouping since, with the help of NPC companions, more people would be able to consume heroic content. And it would help a lot of groups get off the ground more rapidly knowing they can replace their NPC companions with human player should one show up. It would also alleviate one problem I have with dual boxing: when I do have time to group, I am willing to stop dual boxing to genuinely partner with another person, but I can't LFG while I'm duoing, so most of the time people don't realize I'd be interested.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Re: Tobold - Games for explorers

Tobold made a rather insightful (as always) post called Games for explorers in which he observes that most MMOs cater more towards the Achiever end of the Bartle spectrum. It would seem to be the case; its much easier to add new levels and tiers to "achieve" than it is to create genuinely new content.

Is it possible to have an RPG thats more Explorer oriented? In single player games, it was, since the leveling was more of something that just happened along the way.

I think there are some changes that could be made to improve future MMORPGs for Explorers.

One impediment to true exploration in MMORPGs is the static nature of the game. Everything gets spoiled eventually, and even if you try to avoid it, people tell you. And, since there's an Achiever in all of us, many of us eventually give in and look up on the spoilers sites to find out what we have to do. Half the time, it wasn't very interesting anyway.

I remember being excited that Dungeons and Dragons Online had traps. Real traps! And secret doors. And someone had to detect and disarm the traps and find the secret doors. In theory. In reality, everyone had already been grinding the same dungeon fifteen times before I came along (I was distracted by previous shinies) and they rushed us through, already knowing where to click and what to do.

While completely random dungeons are boring (sorry, City of Heroes), static handcrafted ones become boring once you've done them once. What we need is some middle ground where the static, handcrafted content has some degree of randomization to keep it interesting.

I would also like to see more puzzles - the type of puzzle that plays like a mini-game, not the kind you can look up on a spoiler site. Explorers like to learn about the game mechanics, and mini-games give us more mechanics to explore. It also helps break up the grind, and is much more interesting than pushing a button for a random chance at success. (An example would be the Pipe Dream-style hacking mini-game in Bioshock.)

Also, what do Explorers do when they've seen everything? Well, most likely, they move on to a new game. But why do developers insist on always creating entirely new zones when they could have parts of the existing maps change on occasion. A cave might cave in revealing something new. Change EXISTING zones more often instead of only dumping new zones into the game.

Let's make it possible to actually end a quest. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone. You know, so the NPC actually walks home and says "thanks guys" and stops needing the item. Things need to change. Have the leaders of a city be assassinated never to be seen again, and create new quest lines (in the existing cities) that let us explore what happened. Not all new content requires people to sit and create new art assets for months on end!

Maybe some day we'll move beyond the Achiever-oriented tiered level-and-loot based gaming. At least for some niche based game.

Stop Me If You've Heard This Before: EA Bioware Making a Star Wars MMO?

Industry analysts have been speculating for a while now that Bioware is making a Star Wars MMO, and now we have another. I'm personally hoping its not true. I'd love to sink my teeth into a Bioware-crafted MMORPG but couldn't care less about Star Wars.

Monday, October 15, 2007

MMO A La Carte

Aspendawn revealed that Turbine is now looking into monetizing some additional aspects of MMO gaming. Apparently, they have been sending out feelers to see how willing the community is to pay for various extras like more storage, or additional character slots.

This seems to be the future direction of the industry. Though, in a way, you can say we have always had this. Pre-order boxes often come with in-game items as a bonus. Expansion packs could be thought of as a set of extra features you get for an additional fee. Sony already gives extra character slots if you buy their Station Pass. And their future games are free to play with a velvet rope model where you pay for access to special features.

For some types of MMOs, I don't think this would bother me at all. But many MMOs have a model that rewards achievement, or at least the perception of achievement, and so there is somewhat of a competitive side to it. Guilds frequently rank themselves against another based on how far they've progressed in raiding.

So being able to pay for advantages is like, well, being able to pay extra to have your opposing team's soccer goal made larger so its easier for you to score... which just doesn't feel quite right.

I guess, especially being a casual player, it shouldn't bother me. Its not like I'm ever going to get to the level cap first, or be in a top-tier raiding guild. I don't have the time to dedicate to the game. So I suppose I shouldn't see the game as a competition. And I'm even willing to pay for some "extras", like the ability to play on an age-restricted server that doesn't have any kids on it (since I'm an old curmudgeon and I think of Norrath as my lawn.) So the a la carte model where you pay for features you want and don't pay for features you don't intend to use shouldn't bother me. Yet it does.

The main thing that bothers me is that a lot of developers are trying to toss the a la carte model on TOP of the subscription model they already have. And that, I simply don't like. Either make us pay a subscription, or by the hour, OR give us an a la carte velvet rope model; but don't mix and match them. If I'm paying a subscription, they should set it high enough to give everyone access to everything.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Difficulty Levels

Oakstout recently excoriated players that consider "easy" to be a dirty word. Its quite common for people to deride World of Warcraft and its players because its too 'easy' as if thats somehow bad.

But, aside from the silliness in being elitist over how much time you waste playing a video game, what I wonder is: why don't we have more options in how to play these games. When I started playing Bioshock, I was presented with the option to play the game in easy, normal, or hard difficulty. Most games provide features like that. Some, like Wizardry 7, have hardcore "iron man" modes where the save game is deleted once you load it, so it can only be used to suspend play; you can't redo tasks, so once your party dies, the game is over. Hellgate will also have hardcore permadeath modes.

So why don't MMOs have multiple difficulty levels? The most trivial example would be a server with increased leveling rates to attract more casual users. Or, alternatively, for players who want more challenging play, there could be more hardcore servers that have corpse runs and increased XP debt. If the casual vs. hardcore debates are anything to go by, its clear that one size does not fit all. But there's no reason why we can't accomodate different playstyles within the same game. Single player games have been doing that for ages now.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Escaping the Causal Loop

Sam and Max is about to start its second season. In case you haven't heard about it (what, have you been living under a rock?), its an adventure game series thats released in an episodic fashion, about a dog and a hyperkinetic hyperviolent rabbit crime fighting duo. Its funny.

It also got me wondering why MMOs don't utilize an episodic format. A Tale in the Desert kind of does, in the sense that its unique among MMOs because it actually ends. And then it reboots. But it would be nice to see a story-driven MMO that started up, had a static goal that you could fight for and achieve, and once that was accomplished, the server shut down until the next episode was ready. It would neatly solve the problem that MMOs have with their so-called end game content. Most MMOs have lousy end game content because the worlds don't change; the only thing that CAN change is the players, and when you run out of levels to advance, they have to give you something else to advance with, with better loot or castles to conquer or whatever. And then more (and possibly better) loot or land or whatever gets thrown in the ever-growing game and the treadmill continues forever.

With an episodic format, the MMO would have REAL end game content because it really WOULD end. (Temporarily, of course, and then start up again with a new story.)

Its like the difference between X-Files and Heroes. X-Files strung us along forever, for like what? eighty years?, adding new conspiracies on top of the old but never really resolving anything, until towards the end you didn't even have the main characters anymore, just a bunch of people looking for the people who were looking for the people who were looking for Mulder or Scully or who the hell cares anymore, I stopped watching. Heroes, on the other hand, well, they saved the cheerleader, and saved the world. The End. For a while. And now we're on to a new story, apparently about a boogie monster. That is much more interesting.

I know, I know, I'm repeating myself. I said this before, on my other blog. But it would seem to me to be a cost effective way to put the story back into our MMOs (... did I say "back?" Well, maybe not "back"... as it was never really there to begin with.) Each episode or story progression could reuse a lot of the same sets (maps, artwork, even some quests) and just rework the quests and mob placement to fit the new evolved lore as the story progresses.

I suppose many people, particularly Achiever type players (in the Bartle Four) wouldn't like this, as they tend to be attracted to MMOs because of the ability to advance their characters numbers endlessly (and meaninglessly) until the end of time or the servers shut down, whichever comes first. Though perhaps not? Perhaps the opportunity to take a leading role and actually make a real difference would attract them? Who knows.

Instead of watching TV, and enjoying our characters as they go from one story to the next, why can't we live them? MMOs would be the perfect medium to allow us to take the roles in an ongoing story. Right now, the only kind of story MMOs seem to capture is the kind of bad fiction that makes us rewatch the same events over and over again (albeit with slightly different window dressing at each "tier") until the hero finally figures out how to escape the causal loop (unsubscribing.)

The Turning Point In MMO Design?

Tobold and Plaguelands, among others, have posted doom and gloom articles about how this year has been bad for MMOs. It has been. Which may be good. It may be the impetus the industry needs to get off the tired EverQuest clone rut its been in.

Vanguard was just a return to the old EQ mechanics. Been there, done that. No thanks. Let's move on.

Auto Assault, which closed this year, was just EQ with cars. Literally. Some cars even healed each other.

Lord of the Rings Online? Again, though it has many improvements, it still has the same old EQ gameplay. I don't recall Legolas in the movies stopping to loot an epic bow off of the orcs he slayed. So why are we still doing that?

Its telling that the major complaint about Tabula Rasa is that its "nothing new." Its sci-fi. It has an FPS-style mouselook movement scheme. It allows the use of cover. It has a cloning feature so you don't need to redo large parts of the game meaning they can actually have quests with consequences. And many other changes, and people say its still not different enough. Some thought it still felt like shoot-and-loot variant, a WoW with guns.

Thats what people want. Something different. We'll know it when we see it. You're not going to beat WoW by making another Holy Trinity EQ-style game. The only Holy Trinity EQ-style game that will beat WoW will be WoW 2.

So the market has spoken. The worst thing that could have happened to MMO fans would have been for Vanguard or LotrO to have been a raging success, supplanting WoW in the hearts of millions. If that (shudder) had happened, we wouldn't see anything but the same old Holy Trinity, loot-and-level game play for the next ten years. And its about time we moved on.

So now maybe more developers will look for new directions to take the genre. Or new niches to fill. That's why I'm eagerly awaiting PotBS. It actually looks like a refreshing change of pace. Unless the ships end up healing each other. They don't, do they? Please tell me they don't.

And now, as Tobold points out, maybe now they'll raise the amount of money they need to properly develop and polish their games too.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Scars Are But a Mark of Victory


Or so I've been told. REPEATEDLY. I used to love the voiceovers in EQ2. Nowadays, I think they should add a feature that makes the guys shut up if you've already heard the line a hundred times.

Monday, October 8, 2007

MMOs Hit the Mainstream With a Truck

Just in case you didn't notice here, here, or here, MMOs are obviously mainstream now.

The commercial is funny, though I'm not sure what Toyota was thinking. Judging from the community I met when I played World of Warcraft, its players will need their parent's permission to buy that truck. That truck will take up a lot of allowance money.

Friday, October 5, 2007

A Quest For Missions

Like Cuppycake and others, I sometimes tire of my favorite MMORPG and need a break. I'll be back, but for now, I've been toying around with other MMORPGs, like Sword of the New World (which is pretty, but one incessant hack-and-slash grind that gets old fast) and a few betas. I also decided to revisit some old MMOs I never really gave much of a chance to.

I decided to resubscribe to City of Heroes for one month, just as something to do on the side when I didn't feel like logging into EverQuest II. And, despite the game being several years old, and despite being pretty low in level (my character Futureman ["I'm from the future, and you're history!"] is only level 11), the game still feels lively. I was literally pelted with group invitations. So many, that it even got annoying (since I wanted to do the solo Invention system tutorial quests.)

How is it that City of Heroes manages to be so much more social, with an active and lively pick up group scene, when it seems so dead on most EverQuest II servers (Antonia Bayle being one of the notable exceptions, and while not bad, its not that great there either)?

I think its largely due to its Mission system. In City of Heroes, you benefit from completing any mission that someone in your group is on. Also, the missions scale based on the size and level of your party.

In EverQuest II or World of Warcraft, and other games that utilize traditional quest design, you only benefit if its your quest that you complete. And while some quests do scale based on level, none really scale based on size of the party or its makeup. This makes it harder to find a group since you can't just join any group; it has to be one that you need, of your specific level, in your specific zone, doing your specific tasks. Or subtasks, since some quests require multiple steps.

Imagine going to a guard and asking how you can help and being told that when ready, a nobleman (or a merchant or whatever, it can be slightly randomized) needs to be escorted through a dangerous pass. Along the way bandits spawn based on the level, number, and class of the party members. You can solo it, but at the same time, there's nothing to prevent you from partying with nearly anyone you want, and everyone benefits since the mission would be shared by all. Whats more immersive, asking the town guard how you can help secure the protection of the town's citizens, or fetching some random wizard's slippers, then delivering his mail, and maybe killing ten rats in his basement while you are at it. Heroic rats, mind you. Level 70 heroic rats that could single handedly wipe out the entire continent of Antonica if its inhabitants wandered close enough to it to generate aggro. Level 70 heroic rats that don't move otherwise and you need five friends to help out. Five friends, that is, who haven't done this quest already, because they get nothing out of it if they have.

EverQuest II has something like 5 billion quests now. That's quite enough already. Quests tear people apart. Didn't the original EverQuest introduce the mission system to begin with? What happened to it and why don't we see more of it?

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Pirates of the Loading Screen


Pirates of the Burning Sea is now in beta and they are temporarily giving beta access to people who sign up for a stress test. Now, this is a STRESS test, which is when they put on more people than they can possibly handle in order to see when their servers topple over. That means you will most likely end up staring at loading screens, lag, and slideshow gameplay. But if you have been eagerly awaiting this game, this is YOUR chance to experience a very laggy facsimile of it.

The beta is available on Fileplanet, and its available to everyone, even non-subscribers. So save your $7 a month and download now.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Tag, I'm It

Damionov on Voyages in Eternity tagged me. So this is my first meme. Well, the first one I'm doing. So, here goes.

~ The Rules ~
1. Link to your tagger and post these rules.
2. List eight (8) random facts about yourself.
3. Tag eight people at the end of your post and list their names (linking to them).
4. Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving them a comment on their blogs.

That takes care of Rule 1.

~ The Random Facts
1. My cat's name is Sistercat. My sister's name is... actually, I don't have a sister.
2. My wife hits me every night in my sleep because of snoring. I tell her I'd stop snoring if I could get a good nights sleep.
3. I visited Senegal last summer. I don't speak French, so I had a hard time talking to people. I walked into a restaurant and tried to ask if they were open, but they said "no, we do not serve breakfast." They thought I wanted eggs. I just wanted a gyro...
4. I am nearsighted. When I wear contacts, I wear Focus Dailies brand disposables... that expired three years ago. I usually wear glasses, but the contacts are still fine. I think.
5. I have been brewing homemade beer. Except for one bottle that I over-carbonated (it burst), the results have been very good so far, especially if I'm patient and let them lager (sit in the fridge) for a week or so after carbonating. (Its hard to be patient with beer.)
6. I have a lot of leftover champagne from my recent wedding. Its taking up valuable space in my beverage center that I could be using to store my homemade beer. Anyone know any good champagne cocktails?
7. I used to be in a goth band. We wrote a song called "Clawing Curtains" for a cat-themed Projekt Records compilation. Proceeds go to support no-kill cat shelters in the Chicago area.


8. I used to DJ a death metal radio show for my college radio station. Nowadays, I listen to the unfortunately named genre of music called 'futurepop'.




~ Tagging
I don't know eight people. So I'll tag fellow blogging guildmates in the Explorers of Legend: Corwin, Largo, and Scott.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Emerging From Strangle Angles: Ultima Online Kingdom Reborn

EA is celebrating the ten year anniversary of Ultima Online by releasing Kingdom Reborn, which revamps the graphics engine. Kind of.

In a way, I feel like EA dropped the ball by implementing the new graphics engine the way they did. It still utilizes the horrifyingly awful looking oblique perspective that used to be the standard presentation format for computer RPGs! I suppose they didn't want to change things too much; there's always those people out there who don't want anything at all to change. And, of course, because the graphics are all new, certain areas and armors might not look the same (ruining the hard work of designers who spend hours in game decorating their homes or color coordinating their clothing.)

But the new graphics, while an improvement, still look extraordinarily dated, because of the fixed "birds-eye" 45-degree angle perspective. Oblique perspectives are a crude kludge to cheaply create a 2D rendering of a 3D scene; it was attractive to developers when graphics were entirely hand-drawn because it allows you to maximally reuse art assets and can be rendered without a lot of processing power (since you simply tile the art). But it looks awful. The angles just look wrong. In fact, I'm convinced the Hounds of Tindalos emerge from them.

Developers used them because there was no other way to cheaply render 3D scenes in the past. Today, except on handhelds like the PSP or DS perhaps, there is no real purpose for it anymore. Please, for the love of all that is holy, let's bury the 3/4 perspective forever. Top down perspectives are great, of course. But they should be realistically rendered. With proper angles and such. And cameras that rotate around so you can see the other side of the walls.

Oh well, I suppose in the end it really was the proper business decision. Changing the game too much might drive away their existing customers. And even with a true 3D perspective or a non-fixed camera, its possible that it wouldn't draw in that many new customers.



So, happy birthday Ultima Online, and I hope all your players are enjoying their newly rendered adventures in Brittania.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

EverQuest II: A Review of the Races

EverQuest II is a game that presents the player with many choices. Maybe too many choices. I never played the original EverQuest, so I found the mind boggling array of decisions to make at launch to be even more overwhelming than many because I didn't know what the choices even meant. Take the races for example. There are EIGHTEEN of them, and I didn't know the story behind ANY of them. And nowhere in game is there any useful description of them. Well, except on the character creation screen. But who would think to look there?

So, I thought, what about the poor sods who want to start playing EverQuest II, don't know the lore, don't know what race to play, and don't have the time to read the character creation screen help text once in-game because there's buttons to push and fancy graphics to slay?

Well, for all of you, here's a brief summary of the 18 some-odd races in EQ II to help you decide the one most appropriate for the character you want to create:

Barbarians are a haughty race. They drink lots of beer. Their temperament is inversely proportionate to their height. They are sometimes thought to be the missing link between dwarf and man in the evolutionary tree, as (human) scholars believe the evolutionary tree started out too small, then went too big, then finally got it right. Its a good thing this game has shoddy collision detection because otherwise they would always be stepping on my character's toes.

Dark Elves are evil incarnate. They love death and destruction. It makes them giggle with glee. They are also highly intelligent. Dark elves rarely smile, but when they do, don't be deceived. Its not a friendly smile. Its more of an "I napalm babies and I'm proud of it" sort of smile.

Dwarves are short. They drink lots of beer. Perhaps Norrathian beer stunts growth? The mysteries of Norrath are interminable. Since Dwarves drink so much, and their short stature prevents a larger cranial capacity, they tend to be stupid, prone to brawling, one night stands and, um, other stupid things I guess, but -- oh god, yuck -- you see, I'm a very visual person and when I say something I tend to picture it, so if you don't mind I need to take a moment to scrub the drunken dwarven sex from my mind. Yuck.

Erudite: the very word itself means "scholarly." They are so obsessed with the wizardly arts that they even changed the appearance of their whole race. "We meant to do that," they say. /chuckle. Yeah, right. Who knows what their next trick will be. Play this class if you want your character to be perceived as an arrogant know-it-all.

Frogloks are short. And green. And prone to being enslaved. And what else is there to do when you are a short, green slimy creature that no one takes seriously except whine about it to song? It isn't easy being green... Frogloks are only suited for two things: Bards and dinner.

Gnomes are puntable but there's little to say about them besides that. They should just stay in their factories making toys and stuff for little children. Who let them out? Their stats are terrible. The only class these guys are suited for is Minimum Wage Factory Worker, which isn't even in the game yet. Maybe in Rise of Kunark?

Half Elves are the bastard offspring of interspecies mixing between High Elves and the lowly Human. Nobody likes them, they don't fit in anywhere. That drives them to embrace the darker side of life, listen to emo music, and cut themselves. Half elves secretly plot the downfall of the racially inbred.

Halflings can't be trusted. They are always sneaking up behind you to play tricks on you or steal your wallet. Since they look like and act like children, they can get away with anything. Even if they are caught, if the victim gives chase and catches them, these buggers get all doe-eyed and pout and cry and --- ooooooh!!! --- I hate them, I hate them, I hate them.

High Elves are a bunch of haughty taughty prancy pants that tend to run around the forest shooting at things with pointed sticks. Their boys look like girls, which apparently some human women dig, hence the half elves.

Humans embody diversity and all that. So they can be anything and everything. And they like to form committees to remind you of that. That's what the Leadership racial trait does to a culture. The non-Human species are apparently highly uniform genetically; scholars speculate this is why so many of them are prone to recessive gene defects like gigantism or dwarfism and are otherwise ill tempered, prone to drunkenness, and/or display various forms of anti-social behavior disorders. If Norrath was run like Britain, it would be one ASBO after another for the fantastical races.

Iksar are evil lizards that worship Cazic-Thule. They discovered and spread Necrophilia. Or Necromancy. I forget which. Probably both, really.

Kerra are cats and cats do what cats do: scratch themselves, lick themselves, and sleep. Its telling what people play in game. Usually people play something they identify with. Which is why you need to keep an eye on Kerran characters. Sort your combat parsers by race, and you'll often see Kerra ALWAYS rank at the bottom

Ogres are brutish thugs that think might makes right. They tend to confront anything that gets in their way by brute force. They are designed for war and well suited for it, but how they manage to forge armor with tree trunks for fingers is anyones guess. Maybe they get it from the other races. Fortunately for them, Norrathian armor magically adapts itself to the wearer and can fit anything from an ant to a dragon.

Ratonga carry the plague and should be killed on sight. After slaying these foul creatures, burn their bodies immediately. It is not widely known that the Ratonga were the true cause behind the plague that spread back when the Bloodline Chronicles was released. Please don't roll new characters of this race, as the plague has finally been contained. We don't need any more outbreaks.

Trolls are the most anti-social of the gigantic fantasy races of Norrath. They speak in monosyllabic tones. They will eat anything, especially you. They are bullies, but you can usually talk your way out of a confrontation by confusing them. This Self-Mez is widely regarded as one of the worst racial traits in game.

Wood Elves are in denial of the benefits of civilization. They love nature, tofu, hackeysack, and meatless food products. They don't tend to take showers, but they insist you won't notice because of this parfum they use. They're wrong.

Recently, SOE added two new races to the stable, with the Echoes of Faydwer expansion pack:

Fae are a small and graceful lot that flitter about and place gold coins under the pillows of young Norrathian children when they lose a tooth. They are so magical!

Arasai are the reason the young Norrathian children lost the tooth in the first place.

Anyway, those are the races available to you in EverQuest II. Hope I helped.

Hat tip to Gdub for his recent post matching up the races with the character classes he felt best fit their lore. Somehow that made me want to write this.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Linkage Love: Ramblings of a MMORPG Addict

I'd like to welcome a fellow guildmate in Explorers of Legend to the world of blogging. Like me, he realized that our opinions on things like video games and so on are of utmost importance and that the world must know them. And so they shall. Please check out Corwin's new site: Ramblings of a MMORPG Addict.

Tabula Rasa Open Beta


The Tabula Rasa open beta is now available on FilePlanet for those who are interested. I had been in the beta prior to this so I will be skipping this beta (and release out).

My mini-review of Tabula Rasa: it is World of Warcraft with guns. Its got some interesting twists on game play; combat is more real-time instead of auto-attack, and incorporates some strategic elements such as taking cover and crouching into the dice rolls. Spawning is more interesting as the monsters come out of dropships instead of simply appearing out of thin air. But once you got past that, it isn't that much of a step forward at all.

The core part of the game play is the same old. Run here, fetch this, click on, shoot these things along the way. Having invested as much time as I have into one loot-centric grind-fest (EverQuest II), the innovations in Tabula Rasa are simply not compelling enough to make me switch.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Legends of Norrath: Cheap Starter Packs

Lots of people seem to have received extra starter packs they don't need in the collectible card game, Legends of Norrath. Many of them have posted trades where they intend to give them up for as little as one booster pack! If you intend to start out in the game and want a few extra starter packs, you could do so cheaply by buying a booster (a $3 value) and trading it for a starter pack you want (a $10 value). Not a bad deal. Too bad for me I bought all the starter decks already. :(

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Recipe for a Tasty MMO Community

The age old classic recipe for a delicious MMO community requires two, classic ingredients:

Encourage Player Interdependence

If people aren't encouraged to come together, then everyone will just be playing all alone, together. You don't get a very solid community when everyone just runs around like they are the only ones who matter. Other players must be more than simple decoration on the screen. Getting people to interact builds a community and the social bonds is what makes these skinner boxes interesting. Without community, the very spirit of these games dies a little bit, as Kevin from "The Server is Down" said.

Traditionally, MMO developers attempted to do this through forced grouping. And people hated it, for good reason. There are lots of logistical nightmares involved in getting that system to work. Even with decent tools to facilitate looking for a group (and we still have a long way to go there), its still too difficult to find a group for a forced grouping system to work.

My ideal game would be one that minimizes the number of restrictions available in grouping; if you can group with ANYONE, its not really that inconvenient to be forced (for some quest or encounter) to group with SOMEONE. Its often hard to find a group because most MMOs force you to find people within a) your level range, b) your zone, c) on the same quests you are (especially if the quest is in a chain, as Bildo points out), and d) that are a needed class. As level ranges increase, as new zones are added, as new quests are created, and as new classes are introduced, the player base is further segregated and grouping becomes harder over time.

Give us ways to transport new members to the party more rapidly. Give us better tools to find those parties. Forcing us to group doesn't work if:

  • we can't find a group,

  • we find a group but can't get to the group,

  • we can get to the group but it will take all day (we've got lives to live),

  • we have nothing to do while waiting to find a group (some form of soloable activity)


Flatter level curves (so people of widely disparate levels can still group together), mechanics that temporarily change peoples levels (like in City of Heroes), and/or an ability to let characters assume multiple roles (such as the ability to change classes), could all help make grouping easier. Or just get rid of levels: skill-based games that don't have levels can avoid some of the issues with grouping if they are designed so that new players can max out on a few needed skills early on; while they may be less "flexible" than a veteran, they can still make a contribution when grouping with one.

Encouraging player interdependence doesn't have to mean that people can't "solo." In fact, being able to solo helps foster grouping. In Final Fantasy XI, I would sometimes have to turn down a group because the camp site was impossible to get to alone! And, at any rate, players who want to play the game should always be allowed to do so without being forced sit in a corner shouting 'LFG'. And since grouping itself is simply a combat mechanism to prevent zerging in encounters, if a game could be designed where zerging was acceptable then a major obstacle to grouping is removed right there. No Holy Trinity, no elitist min-maxers, just lots of people coming together for a common purpose.

More importantly, though, we need game mechanics that encourage player interactions outside of the combat system. Give us zone-wide quests that give everyone a shared goal (such as a quest to build something where some players can harvest the raw material, some players might craft, and other players might individually fight off monsters that spawn to interrupt the activity) would force people to interact as a community, which is what we want, but could still allow the players the flexibility of finding a role that fits their playstyle. Give us quests that randomly group people together and scale the difficulty based on party makeup.

We should have game mechanics that encourage players to obtain the services of other players (such as work item requests for crafting). Require a moderate degree of interdependency in crafting (not so much that it is annoying -- if people just start building alts to avoid having to deal with anyone else, its too much --, but not so little that everyone is their own master craftsman island). Provide opportunities where crafters can work together to create something that one person alone can't (like building a ship which might require metalwork, tailors, and carpenters together.)

There must be many other ways to encourage players to interact besides forced grouping. Solo players can make contributions to a vibrant virtual world; give us ways to make each player affect the world and each other besides tanking and healing in parties.

Down Time

Simply getting people together doesn't automatically form social bonds or community. We are forced to interact with one another in the real world but that doesn't mean I'm friends with the grocery girl, bag boy, gas station attendant, or my dentist.

If the pace of the game is too fast paced and frenetic, players won't have a chance to actually talk to the people they are grouping or guilded with. If they don't talk with each other, then at the end of the adventure, they log off none the wiser about the people they just spent the last few hours adventuring with. They don't form friendships or bonds. Without those, you don't forge a community; all you get is a static, stale theme park world where people show up on occasion to go ride the grindfests. And that's fine -- I'm glad there are different games for different folks. Not everyone wants a virtual world. Some people just want a game, and an online game doesn't need a community to succeed. But a virtual world does, and thats what many of us are yearning for.

Down time doesn't have to mean excessive time sinks, or lots of waiting. It just means that the game can't be constantly go-go-go nonstop action. It was implemented excessively in past games, but it isn't entirely without merit. A little breathing room gives people a chance to chat, make friends, strategize, and do something other than mindlessly mash the buttons.

Directions

Mix well, stir. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Like any recipe, you don't want too much or too little of any single ingredient. And I guess thats the trick. Maybe I'm an old curmudgeon, but I think too many newer MMOs are eschewing these ingredients in favor of fast-and-furious all-action gameplay.

That's not to say I think that NO MMO should be like that. Different strokes for different folks and all that. But some of us would rather have something a little more like a world than a game. And things like the leveling mechanics, the questing mechanics, button spamming combat systems, and all the other hallmarks of the modern MMO just seem to take us the other way.

Apologies to Hechicera for 'borrowing' an idea or three. (You really need to start your own blog.)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Why Can't We Solo With Other People?

I frequently solo. In fact, that's what I do most of the time. Recently, I've been two boxing a lot. Not too long ago, in game, someone I've known since my days in Final Fantasy XI (to whom I've often complained about not being able to find a group) asked me how I can reconcile my post stating that I feel like modern MMOs feel like a bunch of people all alone, together with the fact that I was actively soloing, avoiding a (real) group by two-boxing. In my previous post, I talk about how I believe modern MMOs lack a strong sense of community. I guess I do somewhat imply that I think the ease of soloing is part of the problem, so I suppose there is an apparent contradiction. ("Objection!," says Mr. Wright.)

But I don't think my thoughts and behavior are actually contradictory. I DO think the ease of soloing has reduced the sense of community in these games to some degree, and I do think thats a bad thing. But I don't think soloing itself is bad. I enjoy EQ2 much more now that it is much more possible to solo; I probably wouldn't still be playing it if it hadn't become more casual accessible.

Sometimes, I don't have time to sit around LFG, and sometimes I'm just lazy and don't want to bother. Sometimes, I'm only logging on for thirty minutes and don't want to trouble anyone by leaving shortly after I join. Sometimes I need to go AFK at any moment and don't want to inconvenience anyone.

And sometimes I DO want to group, but the lack of decent tools gets in the way. Maybe I'm playing my level 70 Monk but I'd really like to group with my level 45 Defiler. Sure, I can spam the level 45 channels or /ooc until I'm blue in the face (and /ignored by half the server). So I grudgingly go off on my own.

At the same time though, I do feel that modern MMOs lack a lot of the sense of community that I saw before. Forced grouping did forge a stronger sense of community. Being able to solo your way through a game means we can simply play our way to the end game without having to deal with anyone else except as passing pixels on our monitors. If someone chooses to do so, that's fine. I'm not going to tell someone how they have to play the game they are paying for. But I do think it would be nice to introduce new game elements that encourage a stronger sense of community.

I don't think that means going back to the days when forced grouping was the ONLY option or in any way reducing the viability of soloing in these games. We can have our cake and eat it too. It should be quite possible to build a sense of community while still accomodating the solo playstyle. I don't see why soloing has to be an isolated affair where you interact solely with a crafting station or randomly spawning monsters as you finish off your quests alone. There should be more ways for us to "solo" with other people.

In EQ2 there were a number of times when they introduced quests to build griffon towers in various zones. Some people fought off monsters, some people harvested and delivered them to the crafters, and others crafted. Take that idea and make it a permanent (or temporary but recurring) part of some aspect of the game (a contested battlefield with two or more sides; crafters building siege weapons perhaps, with soloable enemies from opposing forces spawning to thwart the efforts which would require adventurers need to repel, and rewards for everyone who contributes to the extent they contribute.) People won't need to group in a game setting like that; they could log in and participate in whatever fashion they prefer for 5/15/500 minutes, but the important thing is they would be interacting together as a community.

I think Warhammer is planning on doing something like that with their concept of public quests which would allow people, even alone, to make contributions (however small) to a greater effort being worked on by many people. I don't know the details, but its something I'm looking forward to seeing.

Or as another example: instead of wasting some EQ2 developers time having them come up with new writs (which are essentially crafting quests that reward you XP for making a random number of crap no one wants), put in a game mechanic that lets PLAYERS put up work orders stating they want "X number of Y" and rewards the crafter who accepts and completes the order the same XP. The crafter may still be making crap for XP, but now they know someone in the community that they might run into is wearing/eating/shooting that crap. Which means a lot more than having the items get sent to /dev/null.

There should be plenty of ways to encourage players to interact and forge a stronger sense of community aside from forcing us to find a tank, healer, and DPS, who can make it out to the zone we are in within a reasonable timeframe, find a substitute tank because the one we had suddenly had to help a guildmate, figure out what quests we have in common, find the quest giver for the starting quest because someone missed a step and we couldn't share the quest, and........., /sigh.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Limited Inventory

There is an interesting discussion about inventory management on Voyages in Eternity. I was actually thinking about this game mechanic the other day while gearing up for a raid in Deathtoll. In EverQuest II, the amount you can carry is tied to your strength. But at high levels, you can literally walk around with a half dozen strong boxes (that are supposedly the type of things they use in highly secure banks to store goods). Which means I can carry a full set of armor for every type of resistance.

Wouldn't the game be better if we had more trade-offs regarding what we can carry? Why even have an "encumbrance" value otherwise? Some items in EQ2 might actually be MORE valuable if players had to make a strategic decision regarding what they could carry. Should they equip items like the Critter Wing Rings which give you a little bit of resistance against all resistances, for a well rounded defense? Or should they maximize against a few specific resistances. Groups or raids might need multiple tanks, each specialized against a different resistance, if no one was able to carry armor optimized for EVERY resistance anymore.

But that's not the case in EQ2 today. Since we can carry half the items in the game on your character at once, fewer items have utility. The Critter Wing Ring is useless unless I'm lazy, since I can simply drag along seven other rings that each have the maximum resistance against one of each resistance type. Winning and losing becomes more a matter of having the best gear somewhere in your 192 inventory slots to choose from and the macros to equip them.

I'd rather have a limited inventory system; the kind of difficult decisions you would be forced to make would add a much needed element of strategy to the game. And the loot? Well, loot has more value if you sometimes have to leave it behind.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Sword of the New World

I decided to try out Sword of the New World. The game recently became free to play, and its received some accolades in the press, mostly for its art work. And, its well deserved. The graphics in game are very well done, especially for a game with such low system requirements. SotNW is particularly interesting in that it eschews the standard medieval Tolkienesque setting that plagues the MMO genre. In this game, you play a settler in a Renaissance-era New World. Not our New World, mind you, its a New World with magic and monsters, but its still a refreshing change of pace.

The game play is also somewhat different from the usual mold. Instead of playing one character, you play three. That means you can play a warrior, ranger, and a healer all at one time. Its not too unlike having a party with Heroes in Guild Wars. Well, except for the fact that Guild Wars is a better game. One downside to this is that there's very little incentive to group up. Maybe later in the game, they might have raids or areas where you need to group to survive, but in the beginning areas I've seen so far, you basically solo your party of three as they traverse dungeons with extremely rapid spawn rates, running past a lot of really quiet parties of three with random names. The game is very fast paced; you'll down thousands of mobs in the course of a few hours.

The game in most areas almost plays itself. You hit Ctrl+Click on a location and your characters automatically walk through, fighting everything on the way. Hit Ctrl+Shift+Click on a location, and they walk there, picking up any treasure they see along the way. Fighting boss monsters does require some more strategy and the use of skills you level up along the way. You can also collect "UPCs" (Unique Player Characters), which are henchmen you can swap in as a member of your party, and "Stances" which give you different skills you can use.

There isn't much depth to the game. Its basically your standard level grind. The gameplay is designed more for Eastern audiences, so there are many nuisances such as the fact you have to click to move places. And the translation from its Far East origins apparently wasn't entirely smooth; many UI dialogs have buttons that are too small for the text within them. But it IS free to play. So, if you are stuck waiting for the EverQuest II servers to come up like I was earlier this morning, its not a bad way to wile away the time.

There are a lot of better games out there (even free ones), so I doubt I'll be coming back to it often, but it is nice to see more MMOs out there trying out new settings. Now, if only one of them could break free of the standard level, monster, item treadmill grind rut this industry seems to be stuck in...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Trading My Addictions: Legends Of Norrath

This game is too addictive. Dangerously so. If I were more left-leaning, I'd probably demand there be a law to protect us from this type of game. I'm really enjoying this game.



I have little to add on top of what other bloggers have already stated. Ogrebear, in particular, has a great series of tips in deckbuilding.

My only complaint with the game so far is that the only way of trading cards I've seen so far is a lousy chat channel. The last time I got into a collectible card game (Magic: the Gathering), I ended up with garbage bags full of commons and uncommons I couldn't unload (if you play mostly with other hardcore collectors, there's pretty much only card per booster pack that anyone would have an interest in). That's even worse in this game, since cards can be used in multiple decks, meaning I need fewer duplicates. Better tools for trading could help mitigate against this problem somewhat.

It would be nice if these virtual online card games would take a step beyond what physical collectible card games let us do already. For example, since the cards aren't physical, and just a bit in a database, it would be nice if there was a way to trade in unwanted cards for some minimal value (for example: deleting ~30 or so unwanted commons could get you a free booster pack; the actual number would have to be set so as to still encourage trading and what not). I'd be more inclined to buy MORE boosters with a system like that in place since I would know that even the common "crap" I get that I will never use and could never trade could still be transmuted into something of value.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

All Alone, Together

There's a great post on West Karana about how recent MMOs are less social than before. That's something I've also been frustrated with. When I played World of Warcraft, particularly, groups would form very rarely, and people would simply drop out without a word as soon as they got what they needed. The guild I joined lost people as quickly as it replaced them. It wasn't like that when I played FFXI. People would actually take the time to get to know each other. People NEEDED each other to advance in the game, so they worked hard to help each other.

Why are newer MMOs less social? Part of the reason, as Tipa points out, is due to the ease in which a player can solo through the game.

Another reason, in my opinion, has to do with quests. Once upon a time, when all we did was grind mobs, you only needed to find players in your level range in a handful of appropriate zones. Now we have all sorts of additional barriers: we still need to find level appropriate players who want to adventure, but now we also have to ensure they have the same quests as us. That's often more frustrating than its worth.

EQ2 has improved a lot lately by improving the LFG tools and introducing quest sharing to encourage grouping, but it still seems to be much rarer than it used to be. But even with quest sharing, quests (as they are implemented right now) are still problematic because they typically involve multiple steps that take you throughout a zone, and backtracking doesn't reward anyone who has already done the quest. So quests in a sense just divide the playerbase up further, making it harder to group. This drives many players to pursue soloable quests instead, which means they no longer have an incentive to group, which further reduces the available playerbase for those that do want to group.

That doesn't mean I think we should return to the days of old, when we were forced to group and grind mobs. Quests are good in that they keep players moving through the game world instead, experiencing more of the content. But the way they are implemented in MMOs right now is simply broken.

I think a true next-generation game will try to address those issues. Warhammer Online may very well be on the right track with its concept of public quests: this type of quest is available to anyone in the zone at the time. That has the potential to help foster a sense of community giving players a common goal to work together towards. I don't know how they have it implemented, but if they do it right, it could be that revolutionary design change this genre of gaming desperately needs.

Its too bad for me I haven't been impressed at all with what I've seen regarding Warhammer Online's gameplay, nor do I care much for PvP. But they do have some great ideas regarding the quest system that I hope will be stolen by other game companies (*cough* Sony). I think if we shifted the emphasis away from stupid, boring kill and fetch quests towards more public quests, or something that builds off of that idea, we could end putting the multiplayer back in these games.