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.


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.