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.