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.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Deathtoll Takes Its Toll

... but we enjoyed it. I can see Sony has improved in its raid design since the early days of EQ2. This raid is particularly enjoyable because it forces you to employ more strategy and tactics than many of the previous zones. You can't just mindlessly zerg through it with the best gear possible. We didn't quite make it to the final boss, but we did really well for our first time through.

One thing I liked about this zone is that it enabled rangers and monks to show off their raid utility more so than in many other raid zones. The rangers could pull off distant archers the rest of us couldn't reach. And, as the monk, I got to show off my raid utility as well!

Yes, monks have raid utility. Really! Well, mostly our utility is to be sent down a dark tunnel, alone, to see if anything kills us. But it was fun. And, after a little practice, I got so good at it, my feign death even fooled THE GAME.

Yes, I am THAT uber.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Guild

I just watched the two webisodes in the Internet series "The Guild." Its about a group of gamers playing a WoW-like MMO. If you play MMOs yourself, you would probably appreciate the humor. Very funny stuff.

I swear some of these characters are in my guild...

The Link

Episode one:

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What's In a Name?

I noticed that Cryptic is bringing back their controversial name policy next week. Starting August 29, characters less than level 6 that have been inactive for more than 90 days will have their names become unreserved. This means they may lose their name if someone else tries to use it.

Some of my characters in City of Heroes might lose their name because of this. But that's ok with me, since I'm not playing City of Heroes anymore.

I think more games should do this, especially games with unique first name requirements (such as EverQuest II). Its one thing if the name is in use. That's unavoidable. But its quite frustrating coming up with a good name for a character you are trying to build and then finding out that someone who doesn't even play the game anymore got there first. Especially if you actually took the time to come up with a good name instead of dubbing yourself Xxxlegolasxxx.

I think more games should implement policies like this. (Though I also think more games should have naming requirements like in Guild Wars, where you had to pick a first AND last name. This makes it less likely that your name conflicts with someone elses.)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Sometimes Less Is More

I'm getting back into playing EverQuest II now that things in my life are settling down and I'm finding a little bit more free time (for now...). While I like EQ2 better than the other MMORPGs out on the market right now, I do think it has a serious problem in its game design regarding combat.

Combat in EQ2, at least for my main character, a monk, involves spamming combat arts as their reset timers expire. There are very few incidents when I need to hold back and think about what I'm actually hitting. Occasionally, I might have to avoid using AOEs (to avoid breaking mezzes, or for general hate control.) But other than that, well, I just spam click away. And its rather boring.

A good (MMO)RPG should incorporate tactics and decision making into the combat system by limiting what you can do at once. Unfortunately, there's very little of that in the game right now. Sure, there are a few limitations that you need to keep track of: your power bar, concentration slots, stance selection, etc. But for many of the classes in the game, none of that matters. You will always have enough power to win the fight (except in the hardest of raids). I can't fill my concentration slots (at least as a monk). And reset timers don't matter when you have dozens of combat arts to pick from, there's always one available to randomly move on to.

Final Fantasy XI was so much better because you had fewer skills to pick from, and they had relatively long reset times. Some of your abilities could be linked with other player's abilities to do combo attacks (called skillchains in the game), which could be used to exploit an enemy's weakness. This was nothing like EQ2 combat wheel... FFXI's system forced players to communicate with each other to strategize what skillchain they wanted to use, in what order the players would use their skills, and things had to be TIMED perfectly. That alone made combat much more interesting. But, you also had to watch for special attacks. Monsters would change their animation sometimes. A goblin reaching into his bag indicated to me that, as a Paladin, I should use Shield Bash to interrupt him; otherwise, he would light a bomb that did major damage. Since Shield Bash expired every thirty seconds, again, players needed to communicate, so someone else could make sure they had their stun ready. Combat often took four or five minutes (as opposed to a few seconds in many EQ2 battles...), but it was far more engaging since you had to pay attention, communicate, coordinate your actions, and manage your very limited resources carefully.

THAT was fun...

EQ2, on the other hand, is much more "faster paced". I haven't noticed any animations that indicate you should use a stun or stifle. Heck, half of the animations don't even finish properly, as the monster jump and jolt from one animation into the next. The chat bar scrolls so fast because its spamming so much crap that its basically useless. There are hundreds of numbers floating over the monsters head each second (I know, I know, I can turn them off). I've got five hotbars with dozens of skills that may do different kinds of damage, but for all intents and purposes are interchangeable because it doesn't make sense to pick and choose among them when the game lets me set them all off randomly one at a time as their timers reset and win. Granted, this rant applies more to DPS; when I've played a healer it was a little more interesting as I had more details I needed to pay attention to.

But it would be really nice to see the game slowed down a little. Make it so I have to pay attention and react to certain in-game events (such as a monster's animation) and give me skills that can be used to counter those events if we act quickly enough. Make it so theres a global reset on skill usage so at every point we have to think: whats the best skill I can use at this point in time, knowing that the wrong choice has potentially severe consequences (you won't be able to do anything else for a short period of time.) Make it so I have a reason to pick one specific combat art over the other forty; make it so I can't set them all off at once.

Make us strategize and use tactics and give us the time to THINK and REACT instead of mindlessly mashing buttons.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Learning from Magic: the Gathering

One alternative to leveling that has proven to be very viable in an MMO setting is collecting. Gods and Heroes has the a game mechanic that lets you collect "minions" to engage in squad based combat. The Agency has what Smedley called a "living loot" system where you collect operatives to work with you. Guild Wars makes collecting skills a part of the game.

I'm hoping this becomes more commonplace and that more MMOs use collecting as a means of 'advancing' your character, instead of levels.

One of the great things about Guild Wars was that veteran players were often not that more "powerful" than new players; because collection was one of the principle means of "advancing" your character, but the items you collected weren't necessarily "better" than another, how you strategically used the skills/heroes/etc. was more important than your level.

I found Metal Gear Portable Ops to be a highly addictive game because of this mechanic. As well, in Guild Wars, many players often went after quests to obtain skills that they had no real interest in using, simply to be completists.

Magic the Gathering had it right: collection can a powerful enough motivator to keep a user subscribing that can help level the playing field between new and old players, helping avoid the issue of mudflation, and it also can add more strategic elements to the game play (assuming you are restricted in the number of items from your collection that you can use at any one time.)