Monday, December 29, 2008

Looking Forward to 2009

2008 was not a very good year for MMORPGs. I got excited about Pirates of the Burning Sea, Age of Conan, and Warhammer Online, and none of them managed to capture my imagination the way that Final Fantasy XI did when I first got hooked on MMORPGs, and the way EverQuest II does now.

There aren't very many high profile games coming out in 2009. But there are a few games I'm looking forward to that hopefully won't disappoint:

Jumpgate Evolution: This looks like it could be an MMO version of "Freelancer". Or Eve Online with free flight. Or Vendetta Online with a budget. I like that they are going for a sandbox environment with a fully player driven economy where you can be what you want to be.

Eve Online is the only place to go for that at the moment. But combat in Eve Online was mostly locking onto a target, orbiting around it, and watching your ship auto-attack until someone died, warped away, or whatever. The twitch based combat (like in Vendetta Online) would make for more exciting gameplay.

The Agency: I like the stylized graphics and the 'you are what you wear' "job" system which lets you change your role whenever you want. I especially like the focus on collection mechanics (finding and trading Operatives.) Its also nice to see a fresh IP in a genre that is increasingly being taken over by franchising (Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, etc., etc.)

Though one franchise that I don't mind seeing is:

Stargate Worlds: While we haven't heard much about it, the rumor is the gameplay includes noncombat methods of advancement that involve minigames, such as puzzle solving. I don't know how well they will be able to pull that off, but I look forward to seeing more diverse methods of gameplay in MMOs besides hitting combat skills on a hotbar.

One of my favorite features of Vanguard was the diplomacy feature, because it was realized as a card game which made it an interesting diversion from the standard EverQuest-style quest and combat game play.

Champions Online: I enjoyed City of Heroes, so maybe this will be City of Heroes done right. :) Some of the problems with City of Heroes that I didn't enjoy was that the leveling system prevented me from getting some of the powers I wanted right away. It didn't make sense to make a hero who only learned to fly after 14 levels. I THINK Champions is doing it differently; where every level you gain a point which can be used to increase the power of a skill or add a new skill, but essentially you still start with the basic powers that define your character.

The Nemesis system, where you design your own arch-enemy, is a great way to customize storytelling for your hero. I like the idea that I won't always be fighting the same villains that every other hero on the server are fighting. And this might be the next big step in MMORPG design: people always complain how the worlds are static and unchanging. Well, if we're fighting the same monsters and villains in the same storylines as everyone else on the server, of course it can't change. We can't defeat the villain because someone else has to fight them too.

But if MMORPGs created customized quests and storylines for our characters, the world can change. I can decide that yes, in fact, I DO defeat the villain for good and the world is better off for it. And then maybe a new villain catches my attention. Everyone would have different quests (though, underneath the hood, they might be very, very similar), so if I help someone else on a quest I won't be fighting the same people I fought before -- I'll be fighting THEIR enemies.

Well, we don't know yet that Champions will actually deliver what I'm imagining, but every baby step towards that future is one I look forward to.

And, on that note, happy new years everyone!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Proof Ninjas > Pirates

The ending is awesome. Totally awesome. It was beautiful. I almost cried.

From Full Time Ninjas

Friday, December 26, 2008

Solo Missions in EQ2

I'd like to see some kind of mission system created for solo and small group players. Early on, EverQuest II introduced some instances that could be done both solo or heroic, but lately the content has become split such that the overworld is largely solo and instances are all heroic.

Its good to encourage grouping by putting the best gear in the heroic dungeons, and there are certainly a lot of quests to keep soloers and small group players occupied, but it would be nice to be able to do something besides questing when we don't have the time (or desire) to group with others. I vastly prefer dungeon crawls over questing, and missions in the various dungeons would be a great alternative to keep solo and small group players occupied.

The loot should, of course, not be comparable to TSO void shard loot, but providing soloers and more time constrained players with their equivalent of "elite end game" gear would be a nice way of continuing the EQ2 tradition of supporting every kind of player. Developers wouldn't even need to make all new zones to support this; recycling existing content could be a good way to bring that about without using up as much developer bandwidth.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Recycle Old Content

One of the things I enjoy about EQ2's epic quests is that it brings people back into older, otherwise unused zones in the game. I wish SOE would come up with more permanent reasons to revisit older content.

One good way to do that would be by introducing a new faction of historians or scholars who send people on daily missions for tokens, similar to the TSO scholars. Adventurers would go into special versions of Unrest, Poet's Palace, and other zones that don't receive many visitors anymore. The special zones would be mostly the same, except they would scale to the latest level cap and have new loot tables for the higher tiers.

Or maybe the adventurers might go into regular open zones, such as Sanctum of the Scaleborn, even though that means almost everything is gray, but along the way level-appropriate "ambushers" show up at various places while you try to complete your mission.

It takes time to create new loot tables for each additional tier, as well as itemizing the faction merchants, but I think it would be worth it. This game has a lot of content and its a shame for so much of it to go to waste because the majority of the playerbase has leveled past the point where those zones are viable. Or, in the case of some of the ROK instances, mudflation has progressed us to a point that it no longer makes much sense to go there.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

WAR! What Is It Good For?

Absolutely nothing? It seems a few other bloggers have decided that Warhammer Online may no longer be for them. I've been saying the same thing for a while now, but I decided to log on a few times over the last few days to give it one last hurrah.

It was the same old story: empty PQs, lackluster PVE. I've never complained that a game had 'too much content' before, but its apparent that the servers can't handle the number of players necessary to fill out the content they have. Unfortunately, the content they have isn't very compelling either. While PQs are a nice step forward in MMORPG design, the rest of the PVE game is very poor compared to World of Warcraft and similar games.

There was some Open RvR going on, and since that's one of the central reasons to play this game, I joined in. That was fun, but we had a warband and Destruction at the moment wasn't really putting up a defense, so we basically took everything effortlessly. They may as well just have put a big "Order Wins" button up at the moment. In fact, the only part of the game I still really enjoy are Scenarios, and half of those fell apart due to imbalances.

The only part I seem to continue to enjoy is Scenarios and, unfortunately, Scenarios alone are not enough to keep me in game. Not when its the same six Scenarios over and over again until I level up high enough to move to finally hit tier 4.

I'm coming to the conclusion that maybe the problem I have with Warhammer is that I tend to prefer strategy in games. I don't mind losing a game, but I prefer losing if the opponent outplays me. I don't enjoy losing if the other team wins because they have more people, or if they simply play more often (and therefore level up higher). I also don't really enjoy winning if I'm on the winning side simply because we have a zerg.

Maybe my problem is that Realm vs Realm just isn't for me, because it is inherently an unbalanced form of competition. There is no way to guarantee that an RvR zone accepts the same number of people, balanced by level and class. And, of course, it's probably not even worth trying to "fix", since many people DO like that kind of gameplay.

Some day someone will recapture the essence of Warhammer's Scenarios, hopefully without the level grind attached to it, and I'll definitely check that out.

The Slovenian band Laibach's version of the song War. Everyone has heard the Edwin Starr original. Laibach actually answers the question.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dream Scorcher

My defiler finally got her fabled weapon, Dream Scorcher.

It was quite an undertaking, but its a relief to have it done. I couldn't have done it without my guild. Thanks to Terst, Vozz, Dracodo, Shellshock, Wadia, Esadia, Gatomontez, Umadin, Ringleberry, Brigida, Jillianne, Pscymin, Hanbin, and way too many others to remember!

Now, I find myself in search of new dreams to conquer. What next? I guess one of those 50 shard mounts... that might take me a while. :)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Culling the Herd

OK, I've gotten ridiculous. I'm subscribing to too many games. I have two subscriptions to EverQuest II plus Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft, and Eve Online. I've also jumped in and out of Guild Wars a lot lately.

EverQuest II

This one is definitely going to stay. This game is where I spend most of my online time. I have too much to do in game.

Last weekend, I earned a few void shards with my monk. Scion of Ice is always a fun zone.

Then I did the new Frostfell zones. I like how Frostfell keeps a lot of the quests from the previous years, with a few minor tweaks to the rewards and so on. Basically, the festivities get bigger and better as the game progresses. This year, we have a few quests that let you earn tokens and the loot you can get for the tokens are actually pretty nice. None of the armor looked like something I would use, but there were some 15-token charms that were very nice.

I helped some guildmates out with their epic updates, and then tried to run Chelsith with my Defiler to get her epic update. That didn't go too well and we had to abort the mission for now. That zone is really hard, with lots of wandering bubbles (floating hordes of elementals), and you either need two healers or a very competent mezzer. I was solo healing it. We got several nameds down and we burned through fights quickly. The only time we had trouble was when we had a bad pull and got two encounters at once, or if we pulled a bubble. That happened a few times, and then the illusionist left. By that point, it was too hard to find a replacement so we called it a night.

On Monday, some guildmates went back in to Chelsith to help someone else. They were kind enough to leave Majora Leviathan up, just for me. I have the best guild ever. So my defiler is now one step closer to having their epic.

I've been keeping my monk busy working on Far Seas Supply Division faction. I also took some time to level up some alts. I took my Berserker through Splitpaw and finally earned their trust. It only took four years; my Berserker was actually my first EQ2 character, but I stopped playing it early on and switched to the monk. Now I finally got it to level 43...

On Tuesday, I did the daily double in Obelisk of Ahkzul. Except it wasn't really a daily double since it normally has zero shards to offer. But people kept calling it that. I'm glad it wasn't really, since the double of zero is zero, and I got two, which makes me happy, since I will soon have my third piece of void shard armor.

Yesterday and today, I worked on my defiler's epic weapon. Yesterday, we took on the Priest of Fear in Unrest. Today, we took on Huntmaster Viswin in Castle Mistmoore. I understand the need to make an epic weapon quest difficult; if it was easy to get, it wouldn't be as valuable. But some of the epic quest updates are more time consuming than difficult. It took two hours to grab enough people to take on the x2 content in Castle Mistmoore and once I had it, only about 15 minutes to kill. I guess gathering a group together to take on the content is part of the game, but the more quests the game gets, and every time the level cap moves, or a new expansion pack comes out, it gets more frustrating to do the older ones.

Granted, it feels great when you finally accomplish it, but I still think that leveling games that emphasize grouping like EQ2 could still maintain their risk-reward nature and still be more fun if there was some kind of way to reward people for helping others out. That is, if I'm grouping with someone and they get a ding, I earn some kind of points which can be exchanged for some rewards. Just so there's a little icing on the cake for the people who lose two hours of their day travelling through Unrest or some crazy zone that they get absolutely nothing from. Sure, that's what guilds are for, and mine has been very helpful so far, but a little social engineering to help encourage more grouping couldn't hurt.

Warhammer Online

I did a few scenarios last weekend but I just can't get into this game anymore. I guess I'll let this subscription lapse.

The game has had a lot of changes lately but the major flaw with me is the level grind. This game tried to be too many different things. It should have focussed solely on the RVR and dropped the whole lame WOW-clone PVE portion.

The PVE had some nice features, such as Public Quests, but those don't work when the population spreads out. One of the major changes in the recent update: they made several Public Quests soloable. So they're basically just lackluster ring events you can grind on your own now.

Mythic made a bad design decision when deciding to make this yet another leveling game. They should have used Renown ranks and Influence and the story progression in the Chapters as the carrot. They could have added hundreds more renown ranks to give us a good effective grind. But by throwing battle ranks into the mix, you spread people out, you have the weird tiering system, where as you level you become uber powerful (for your tier) and then suddenly DING! and you are a weakling again as you get promoted to the next tier. The chicken system is idiotic; they should let people mentor down so that at least the lower tiers will have life, even if its only bored high level players running around filling up the Influence for Chapters they skipped.

World of Warcraft

I keep hearing how Wrath of the Lich King has improved quest design dramatically, and I'd love to see it. I'd especially love to see how they use phasing. EQ2 uses it in a few quests, and I always enjoyed seeing the world actually change because of my actions. But Blizzard must have done something truly incredible with it, considering everyone's acting like they invented the concept...

So I resubscribed, but I have hardly played it. I start to, but the quests in the original zones are so bland, being little more than your typical kill/fetch/deliver quests. I'm not a huge of the solo quest grind in EQ2 either, but the quests in EQ2 have always been a little more involved.

Blizzard should release updates to the old world to liven it up and make it more attractive. Just tossing all the improvements at the tail end of the game might keep their existing player base entertained, but there's probably a few million (or at least a couple hundred thousand?) of us out there who probably WOULD play WOW if they would just steal the handful of ideas that the other games still do better and revamp the 1-70 part of the world too.

Eve Online

This game has a lot of depth and I love the sandbox be what you want to be, do whatever you want to do nature of the game. People in game can become researchers, miners, pirates, pirate hunters, archaeologists, traders, and more. And its very relaxing, though that's mostly because its a game you can more easily play distracted. Like right now, I'm targeting a Pithi something or another in between sentences, and my destroyer takes care automatically.

But that strength is also its weakness. Lately, I've wanted more active entertainment, so I haven't played Eve much. So much of the game is on autopilot that it can get really boring at times. That's perfect when I'm only half paying attention to it, otherwise its not.

Guild Wars

I spent a little time in here, finishing a few more quests that my Dervish had been stuck on. This is a game I rave about on other people's blogs all the time, but sadly, I never actually finished more than one Campaign. While I love the game mechanics, the excessive use of instancing does have a tendency to make the world feel empty. The towns and other hubs are often filled with people, but there isn't much interaction there either.

Culling the Herd

I guess its time to say goodbye to Warhammer Online and World of Warcraft (not that I gave it much of a hello.) I'm playing EQ2 and enjoying that, but one can only play so many leveling games.

I like leveling games, even though I may complain about them from time to time. However, I also like sandboxes, and wish there were more options there. Sometimes I want a goal set out for me, and to be guided through a story. Other times, I want to tell the story. Unfortunately, there aren't many sandboxes out there; Eve Online is the main one.

So Eve Online gets a reprieve for now, but I think I like the IDEA of Eve more than its implementation though. I love the sandbox nature of the game, but I kind of think I'd prefer the game if it had a free flight model, and combat wasn't a matter of clicking auto attack and watching your ship orbit the other while HP bars drop. This games greatest strength is also its weakness. I can play it while distracted, but that's because most of the time I'm watching it, not playing it.

But it looks like there are a lot of sandbox games coming out soon... I wonder if Jumpgate Evolution would be the sci-fi sandbox that I'm really looking for. Or maybe Earthrise? Or maybe I'll find what I'm looking for in a fantasy sandbox like Darkfall? Has anyone heard anything about any of these games?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ding! 100 - A MMOment of Zen Retrospective

If Blogger is to be believed, this appears to be my 100th post on MMOment of Zen. I started this a year and half ago, and I had no idea that I would continue with it this long. A lot has happened in game and with the blog over the course of that year and a half.

My first post coincided with my return to EverQuest II from a six month break from MMORPGs. I rejoined Explorers of Legend, which was the guild I had been with since EverQuest II lanched. Since then, the guild fell apart. A number of the officers decided they wanted to pursue other opportunities, mostly because of our inability to get a viable raiding force off the ground. I understand and respect their decisions; however, the way the entire group of officers left en masse caused a lot of bitter feelings among many of the players left behind, who felt like their leadership betrayed them.

Some EOL members ended up quitting EQ2 entirely because of it. I can sympathize with that: community is usually what binds us to a game, so having a guild you belong to fall apart can often become "the final straw" so to speak. My first MMO was Final Fantasy XI and I played that for months longer than I probably would have if I had not become attached to my in game "linkshell" (the FFXI equivalent of a guild.)

Since last July, I have tried nearly every major MMO to come out. I have a wanderlust with regards to MMORPGs. There's an explorer in me that is often more fascinated by the game play mechanics than the actual games. I like to see how all of these games are built. Sadly, there really isn't as much diversity in gameplay in the genre as there could be.

I tried Tabula Rasa during the beta and I thought it had an interesting cover mechanic. Aside from that, it felt like World of Warcraft with guns since I was being sent on quests to find caves and shoot 10 mobs and come back and being rewarded upgraded guns and whatever. So I went back to EverQuest II.

Then I tried Pirates of the Burning Sea. I loved the ship combat in this game, but the economy never seemed to work right. They only had a few markets that were active. They really needed to implement something like buy orders to draw merchants to the outlying areas. The missions were repeated too often, and avatar combat was terrible. I got a Freetrader up to level 30, and then the servers started merging, and my guild started losing half its members. So I threw in the towel and went back to EverQuest II.

Then Age of Conan came out. The advertising promised us: heads will roll! Truth in advertising would have promised us: eyes will roll! The game had a strong intro area for the first twenty levels. That was both its greatest strength and weakness. After killing Saddur with my fifth alt, I never wanted to play it again. The character I took past 20 found himself surrounded by lame World of Warcraft style quests without the World of Warcraft motivator: better loot. Itemization in the game was pointless. I suppose this was deliberate: they wanted PVP to be more based on skill than gear. But it meant the PVE game simply didn't work. And I didn't see any PVP going on. I'm not sure where it was, and didn't feel like looking for it, so I went back to EverQuest II.

Most recently, I tried Warhammer Online. Its not a bad game, but they tried to be too many games. The leveling mechanic makes sense for a World of Warcraft style PVE game, but it simply did not work in an RVR game. People were too spread out across tiers, you couldn't find anyone to play with, and quite frankly, when you did, it was only fun when you were at the tail end of your tier. Once you progressed to the next tier, you were suddenly a weakling again. That's very jarring: the leveling mechanic is supposed to measure your progress, but at each tier transition, it had the opposite effect. I gave up around level 27, shortly after the server merges started happening, and the PQs were still empty and half my scenarios were still being cancelled early due to imbalance. So, guess where I went next?

Yep, back to EverQuest II.

Right now, I have two subscriptions to EverQuest II, one to Warhammer Online, one to World of Wracraft, and I'm still on my first month of Eve Online. That's going to have to change soon.

Some random facts about my site:

This isn't one of the more popular destinations among MMO bloggers; I only tend to average about 30 visitors a day, but about 40% of them are return visitors, so I guess somebody out there actually thinks I have something worthwhile to say.

The first person to post a comment on my site was Kanthalos from MMOre Insight. I had been inspired by an article series on Voyages in Eternity about Damianov's dream settings for MMORPGs. My dream setting was the Doctor Who universe because having all of time and space at your fingertips would open up any kind of story imaginable. Also, I love the iconic enemies in the game like the Daleks and the Cybermen. Neither MMOre Insight nor Voyages in Eternity seem to have been updated in a while, which saddens me, since those were two of the sites I read daily back then, and the principal reason I started doing this.

My most popular article was a writeup on the Obelisk of Ahkzul. Many people had trouble figuring out Kierax when TSO launched.

The other article that receives the most visits from Google is one I did about two boxing software aids. If you have two computers next to each other (including laptops), Multiplicity from Stardock is an amazing tool.

One of my first articles, EverQuest II: A Review of the Races still receives a great deal of attention from Google. In that article, I basically explain the difference between the eighteen races that were in game at that point in time.

I suppose I should add an entry for the nineteenth race, so here it is:

Sarnak: Overgrown, fire breathing lizards with scoliosis. They are the result of the cross breeding between iksar and dragons. How do you get a dragon to make sweet love with an iksar? Well, you have to get them good and drunk. The Sarnak aren't evil in the sadistic sense that Neriak or Freeport citizens are known for. But they are considered to be evil because they have an inherent distrust of all other races. That's mostly because all the other races are always chuckling under their breath when a Sarnak comes wandering by. It's because of their parentage... how can you NOT laugh at that?

So, yeah, anyway, as I was saying:


Monday, December 15, 2008

Open Source MMO

Cyan Worlds, the creators of URU Live / Myst Online, have announced that they will be releasing their game to the open source community. I think that's a pretty brave move, and shows a commitment from the developers to their work. The game was fun and very unique; it didn't involve leveling, or combat, or anything of the standard forms of interaction and progression that most MMORPGs consist of. Instead, Uru Live players engaged in adventure, exploration, and puzzle solving. The game had a strong narrative with new stories released in an episodic fashion, like in a television series. Unfortunately, the game flopped, twice.

It had a very strong and faithful fan base though. I think its a really brave move of Cyan Worlds to let the open source community have a chance to continue this effort, so that the fans can continue to live out their dreams in the world of Myst Online.

It would be nice to see other games that can no longer be effectively commercialized migrate into the open source community so that their fans can continue to breathe some life into them after the commercial services shut down. After all the effort that goes into building these games, it's always a shame to see them simply disappear forever.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

MMO Feature Wish List: Henchmen and Gambits

There are a lot of features that my imaginary "dream MMORPG" would implement. Some that I have touched on before have included: kudos and other social networking features, a rebirth system, and small rewards for people who help another player advance a quest when they aren't already on the same quest themselves.

A few days ago, I was reading about Tesh's frustration with Heroes and henchmen in Guild Wars. (The article is actually about quite a lot more than that, and a good read, but venting about henchmen was a part of it.) I happen to share that frustration. Though the flag system in Guild Wars offers some limited control over henchmen, they aren't as sophisticated as I wish they were.

Collecting Heroes is a great feature in Guild Wars. I think more MMORPGs should make that a standard part of the gameplay. Instead of having the world split up between soloable "normal" mobs and heroic "group" mobs, which is simply weird, have all monsters be group mobs, and allow solo players to collect AI controlled NPC party members for the occasions they can't find (or don't want to find) other people to play with.

I'd like to see an MMO take give us the ability to collect henchmen/minion/Heroes and then take it a step beyond that: give us the ability to train them over time. Like any good RPG, this should be something we have to work at! The minions might start off requiring a good deal of micro-management but as we work with them, eventually we would earn the ability to get more flexible allies over time.

One RPG that I thought had a really clever NPC control mechanism was Final Fantasy XII. The way it worked is each character in the game had a certain number of "gambit slots". Each slot could take a simple order, which amounted to a command that executed under a certain condition. The orders were prioritized with the highest priority commands declared first. The command with a matching condition with the highest priority would execute.

From 1up, an example gambit setup.

For example, a simple healer might have two gambit slots:

1) IF Players health < 50%, cast HEAL
2) Attack

While my player's health remained at or above 50%, the healer would attack our enemies. If it went under 50%, the healer would cast heal unless they ran out of mana (the condition would already fail if they couldn't cast). At any point, I could also order that the entire party follow me and flee.

Characters started off with very few gambit slots; these had to be unlocked over time. Towards the end of the game, most of my characters had seven or eight gambits, dictating how they behave in specific circumstances. During the game, we would have to buy or discover new gambits to gain more fine tuned control of our allies.

I'd enjoy seeing something similar in an MMORPG. In addition to collecting new Heroes, leveling and gearing them up for battle, we would also have to improve our "leadership" abilities by undertaking difficult missions; the rewards from these missions would enable us to grant new gambit slots to our allies and unlock new gambits to program them with. It could also introduce more depth to the system than the Final Fantasy version had, perhaps by introducing gambits related to camping and pulling. I'd even enjoy PVP minion battles between henchmen where gambit selection is the major determinant of who wins or loses.

A system like this would add some additional depth to a henchman system and provide some lateral forms of character advancement. It also makes existing itemization more valuable since it doesn't sting as much to fight your way to the bottom of an epic dungeon only to get NO-TRADE drops for a class that isn't even in the party when you have a henchment that can use it. With Heroes that you can equip and train, everyone has a potential use for every drop. (Though I guess that could complicate Need vs Greed.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sony, RMT, and You

Looks like Sony is letting you buy in game items with cash now. Technically, you might argue, they'd already been doing this for a while now, with Legends of Norrath loot cards. But Legends of Norrath cards could also drop in game (rarely) so there were ways to earn those without spending cash.

I'm fine with the sale of RMT items in games that are designed around it (such as online collectible card games like Legends of Norrath or Magic the Gathering Online.)

In traditional MMO games like EverQuest, I'm not against the sale of fluff items like appearance armor and other items that don't impact gameplay. It allows developers to use the standard subscription fees and retail box income on the gameplay and the features that the majority of the playerbase want, and still have a revenue stream they can use for items that a vocal minority wants. Everyone wins.

However, some of the items they are including do not seem like fluff to me.

Are potions that increase adventuring, achievement, and tradeskill XP fluff? If that's the case, why even have levels in the first place. If its fluff, if its optional, give me a button the sets me to level 80 adventurer, level 80 tradeskill, and level 200 achievement instantly.

It's one thing to give people the ability to slow down their XP gain. The default setting is what everyone gets, and people who want it slower can get it slower. That's fine.

But to make it so that some people can progress faster than others because they pay more is most definitely not fluff. It impacts gameplay.

Granted, XP gain in EQ2 at this point is extraordinarily fast, so it's not exactly a huge advantage. I can hardly finish quest arcs in the old world zones before they go gray at this point. But I still disagree with the notion that these types of offerings for cash aren't gameplay impacting.

They seem to offer other kinds of potions as well, such as potions that increase movement rate. How is that not fluff? Movement rate is most definitely a part of the gameplay.

Now, I don't know if I would quit EQ2 for this, like some people on the forums are threatening. The rewards don't appear to be unbalancing; they seem to be the same rewards you get from Legends of Norrath loot cards, and people were already buying hundreds of packs at a time for a chance to get those items. This just gives them an additional avenue to purchase those items without having the hassle of unloading the unwanted cards.

But it is a little worrying. Mixing a game based around leveling and obtaining achievements with RMT just doesn't sit well with me.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Weekend Update: MMOADD Redux and Reasons Why EQ2 is Better than WoW

I spent the weekend popping in and out of various games. I've been suffering from a terrible bout of MMOADD lately. Right now, I'm subscribed to EverQuest II and Warhammer Online, and I just bought Eve Online so I've been trying that out for a month. I also resubscribed to World of Warcraft for one month, though I doubt I'll play it much. Also, City of Heroes reactivated all former player's accounts for the weekend.

I haven't been playing Warhammer Online much lately. I seem to be stuck at level 27 with my Bright Wizard, Dastari, formerly known as Brendis. Even after all the server merges, the PQs seem empty. Scenarios do pop faster, and I should try some RVR this week to see how that's improved. I popped in game to go make the long trek to a warcamp so I can respec my Bright Wizard, as the latest update made a lot of changes to my class of choice. But I just wasn't in the mood to play it, so I logged out once I got there and moved on to another MMO.

I popped in to City of Heroes to run a mission. Sometimes I think about resubscribing, because it's a good game with a vibrant grouping scene, but its missions grow old real quick. One of the problems with relying on randomness to generate dungeons is that they tend to lack the immersiveness of a handcrafted zone (the hallways of the corporate buildings just aren't laid out in any realistic or rational manner) and people recognize the patterns and see through the randomness very quickly. After that, no matter how much you randomize, it all starts to feel the same.

I played a little Eve Online though I'm at a point where I probably need to join a Corporation so I can gain some direction. Right now, I'm focusing on skill training, mining, and running the occasional mission. I'll look into Corporations soon, but at the moment, while I'm too ADD to settle on one game, or a manageable few, I think its best to continue on my own while I continue collect my bearings.

I toyed around in World of Warcraft. My characters are all under level 20 and although leveling seems much faster than it used to be, I doubt I'll bother to get anything over that. Something about that game just doesn't work for me. I guess I had forgotten that. I see all the advertisements and read about it on the blogs, and I think how can 11 million players be wrong, but when I actually pop in game, its like: 11 million subscribers at $15 a month and this is the best you can do?

So why did I resubscribe? I'm not sure. I think I might roll a hunter and check out a starting area I hadn't seen before, just to see a side of the game that's new to me. It seems apparent that Blizzard puts all their work on the end game though, since the old world zones my characters have been parked in for four years are exactly as I remembered them. One of the things that Sony does right is they occasionally revamp old world zones to keep them fresh and interesting.

I have been getting frustrated with EverQuest II, so I guess a part of me is on the lookout for something that might capture my imagination the way EQ2 used to. The problem is, recently I've had a terrible time finding groups for the TSO zones. I'm not sure what the problem is. I think the population on Najena is fine, so its probably not that. My main is a monk, so maybe its partly that my class just isn't as desired as it should be. Maybe a lot of people just have their static group of friends they normally play with so the rest of us get stuck in level chat limbo spamming "LFG TSO PST".

So when I haven't been able to do what I've wanted to do in EQ2, I've started to look around to see what else I might be interested in playing.

Except there doesn't seem to be any other game like EQ2. For all its flaws, it still offers the most of any MMORPG out there. Blizzard, with their cash cow of millions of paying subscribers, SHOULD be the game that offers the most, but for some reason they simply don't. I guess they just don't have to.

Its unfortunate that Blizzard has been sitting around resting on their laurels (I guess with 11 million subscribers they have no business incentive to do so). These are the reasons I prefer EQ2 over WOW:

- Tradeskills are a mini-game: Crafting should not involve simply hitting a "Combine" button and watching a progress bar; that's seriously lame.
- You can be a dedicated crafter: In WOW, crafting skills are capped based on your adventurer level. In EQ2, tradeskill levels are separate from adventurer level so you can be a pure crafter who never sets foot outside. One of the nice things about EQ2 is you can be a level 1 paladin AND a level 80 carpenter with the same character if you want. You can do it entirely by buying the raw materials you need for crafting from other players, or you can harvest them by running around zones where everything is 79 levels higher than you and can one shot you. It's your choice.
- Mentoring: In EQ2, you can temporarily lower your level, so you can help out someone lower level than you without trivializing content. In fact, it even rewards you, so if you are a level 80 and you have a level 15 friend, you can play together and both characters will be REWARDED for it.
- Level-Scaling Quests: EQ2 has quests that scale with level so your holiday, seasonal, or important story related quest arcs can be enjoyed by players of ANY level. If you are level 40 the monsters you fight for the quest will spawn at level 40, and if you are level 80, the monsters will be level 80. Level appropriate loot will drop from them as well.
- Housing: EQ2 lets you rent an apartment or house. Guilds can have their own Guild Halls where members can gather together. You can also acquire useful items to store in your homes, such as crafting equipment, Altars which let you earn faction (and temporary buffs) with the god of your choice in return for sacrificing items, or Mirrors that let you store different AA specs (similar to Talent specializations). Guilds can acquire items that assist with organizing raids, facilitate fast travel around the world, gather harvestable items for use by the guild crafters, and much, much more.
- Movable Items: The game has furniture and other items that you can move around in game; in your home or guild hall, you can move items around to decorate the property. Quests also sometimes involve moving items around a zone; my favorite quests in EQ2 are still from the Splitpaw zones where you have to stack crates to jump over barriers or to reach a high ledge; I loved moving barrels of dynamite up to "weak" parts of a wall and then lighting the fuse, causing the wall to collapse.
- Climbing Walls: Many cliffs and walls can be scaled, introducing the third dimension to the gameplay. (WoW does have free flight in some zones so it does get a point there.)
- Collection Quests: These are addictive. Scattered around many zones are items that you can collect. They show up in game as shining spots on the ground, usually with a floating ? or ! above it. If you complete a collection, you earn a reward. Players can trade items with one another to help complete their collections.
- Alternate Advancement Tracks: EQ2 has a lateral progression system called Achievements (which is different than Achievements in WOW). Achievements in EQ2 is similar to the Talent trees in WOW. However, Achievement points are earned from completing quests, discovering new areas, completing collections, and killing named monsters. Talent points, on the other hand are coupled with your adventurer level. Because they are separate in EQ2, you can continue to earn new skills, specialize your character, and improve him even after you get to the level cap, simply by continuing to do what you have always been doing: questing, exploring, and taking on challenging encounters. You might not get XP anymore once you get to the level cap, but that doesn't stop you from progressing.
- Adjustable Leveling Speed: Some people like to rush to the level cap. Others like to take it slow. In EQ2, everyone can be happy since you can disable the ability to earn experience points at any time.
- The Level Cap Doesn't Increase Every Year: One of the best things about EQ2 is that it kept the level cap the same with both The Shadow Odyssey and the Echoes of Faydwer expansion packs. The game emphasizes lateral forms of progression that allow people to advance without always making the previous expansion pack's content obsolete.
- A Living Guild: Guilds in most MMOs offer little more than a custom chat channel. However, guilds in EQ2 are levelable entities. Guild members can earn status, complete difficult missions, or defeat powerful enemies to help their guild earn status and level up. This, in turn, enables guild members to unlock exclusive mounts and powerful items.
- Appearance armor: World of Warcraft has some nicely designed armor sets, but because you are forced to look like whatever you are wearing, everyone runs around looking like they are wearing clown costumes. Appearance armor gives you an additional tab in your inventory. Items on the appearance tab determine what your character looks like; items on your regular tab determine what stats you get. (If an apperance tab slot is empty you gain the appearance of the item in your regular inventory tab just like you do today.) Collecting cool looking level 1, no stat, and otherwise useless armor sets in EQ2 is actually fun because it allows us to make our characters look exactly like we want without worrying about gimping ourselves.
- More Classes, More Races: 24 adventurer classes and 19 races... almost too many to pick from.
- The Monk: Even though Sony can't seem to implement the monk and bruiser classes PROPERLY in EverQuest II, at least it has them. Monks exist in the Warcraft lore, so there's no reason they couldn't exist in the game. Make playable Pandaran and introduce the island nation of Pandaria and you are your way to a fun expansion. I like monks. :)

World of Warcraft has some nice features too, of course. Blizzard is known for its polish; the UI design and layout in WOW is very accessible, clean, and easy to understand. Combat in WOW is more repsonsive. I like how the world is seamless with fewer places where you receive loading screen transitions to move between areas.

I guess my ideal game would take the best features from both games: it would merge the worldliness and sheer diversity of gameplay available in EQ2 with the accessibility of WOW. It would add some next-generation forms of gameplay as well (a flatter level curve, perhaps more skill based instead of class/archetype based, emphasis on lateral forms of progression instead of the exponential level curve that causes empty newbie content, discourages new players from joining, and makes grouping harder by spreading players thinly across the level range.) Until then, I'll probably continue to suffer from my MMOADD.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

Over a year ago, I wrote a post detailing my thoughts about EQ2's combat system. I suggested that it would be better (while waxing reminiscent about Final Fantasy XI's combat) if it weren't as spammy and action packed. I prefer combat systems where fewer actions can be triggered at any one moment, so each one has a greater impact.

Yesterday, this happened:

That might be going a little overboard, guys...

(It was just a cosmetic bug, but I found it amusing.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More Baby Space Steps In Eve

My initial impression of Eve Online was fairly poor. I think I called it a pretty screenshot in the last blog entry. That wasn't quite right, since the pictures move. It's more like a mashup of a screensaver, Excel spreadsheet, and IRC chat room.

But it's freaking addictive.

I haven't quite figured out what it is I like. I guess it's the truly sandbox nature of the game? Or the more tactically oriented (less spammy) combat? The laid back (except when I'm being blown up) nature of the gameplay?

Tactics haven't actually factored much into my fights yet: Pithi pirates seem to enjoy going up in flames from kinetic damage. But I can see that it certainly will... there are a wide array of fittings to use on your ship and an overwhelming number of options to customize your character and ship with.

The tutorial needs some work though. It's better than nothing, but it is still a little confusing. I got stuck early on when the game told me to drag an item from the hangar to my ship, or vice versa. The problem was that nothing onscreen had the word "hangar" on it, and while it said it was highlighting a button for me, I didn't see it. It turns out it referred to the "Items" button in the lower left hand side.

Then later the lady who starts the tutorial missions tells me she's sending me to a friend of hers and that she put the contact in my People & Places tab. That's fine, except I guess I got confused because I had already met a few other agents, and thought one of THEM was the new one. And so I started on the "A New Venture" mission series thinking it was a continuation of the tutorial. The first two missions were easy courier missions, but the third one sent me against an industrial that my little frigate could barely make a dent in. So I got frustrated and abandoned it, only to get a new mission that sent me against pirates. I got myself all blowed up.

Then I remembered that I had other agent contacts in the People & Places tab and I figured out that the tutorial actually continued elsewhere. Oops.

Now I have three ships: the starter Ibis ship, a Condor I made battle ready, and a Bantam for mining. I've been doing a little high-sec mining (I'm too scared to leave the safe areas right now!) to earn a little isk. I still need to finish off the tutorial missions also; I only did the first five or so. Then I got distracted exploring other aspects of the game. Oh my, this is overwhelming...

I guess I'm sticking with this for a while longer.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Too Many Games, Too Little Time

Some fellow bloggers have given up trying to find the One True MMO and are now playing multiple. I don't blame them. I've been like that for some time, flitting about between multiple MMOs, with a handful of single player games thrown in the mix.

This weekend was a good weekend for gaming. Most everything my wife and I have on "The List" for this year have been completed, so we had little to do around the house. Which meant, for the first time in almost a year, I actually had a lot of time to play games. In fact, I had so much time to play, I didn't know what to play. It was weird. So I ended up playing a lot of different games this weekend:

Eve Online

I decided to try out Eve Online. Every time I complain about leveling games, people mention Eve Online as something I should check out. I spent a few more hours than Xfire shows because I learned early on that I'm spending more time watching the game than playing it. So I had Eve Online on one computer and the screen next to it had me shouting LFG in level chat for a mission in EverQuest II until I got bored of not doing anything and I shut down both games.

Hopefully Eve Online gets more interesting than this. I guess I have to join a Corp because so far I'm not seeing a whole lot in the game I like. The mission descriptions are confusing and one of the early tutorial missions seemed to send me against overpowered enemies who destroyed my ship in almost one shot. Unless those weren't the NPC enemies. Its hard to tell.

So I went and decided to do some mining. That went well. I guess. Mostly I click on a menu and find an asteroid. Then the screen turns into a pretty screensaver while I mine concentrated veldspar and refine it into Tritanium and dump on the market. Rinse, repeat, grind.

I'll give it some more time later, but it seems like it would take forever before I'm battle ready to try on factions or PVP. And a good Corp could help me out but I don't know if I can do that... Is that fair to them, given that I'm not even sure if I'm going to stick around?

Given that the gameplay felt like this (yes, I know its a screenshot, but that's what the gameplay felt like), I'm not sure I want to.

But maybe screenshots are more fun in groups?

STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl

This is an FPS game that I read good reviews for. Unfortunately, none of the reviews for that game warned me about the excessive head bobbing the game does, and I spent the first half hour getting seasick. Head bobbing is not that realistic people... Sure our heads go up and down and around as we walk, but our brain compensates.

So I spent more time looking on the Intertubes for a patch that would remove the stupid head bobbing than I did playing the game.

For an idea of what the gameplay felt like before this, print this screenshot out, hold it up in front of you, and then shake your arms madly like you're having a seizure:

After the patch, the game was more fun. I did a few quests and saved a few grateful people from bandits. The game has a lot of bugs. One time, when reloading a game, the bandits apparently lost the memo that told them they had been defeated as they started respawning like crazy. But a subsequent reload did not have the same problem. Quality.

It's fun now that it doesn't induce nausea. The headbobbing I mean. The number of bugs and the lack of polish is a little nauseating. Playing the game just makes me want to restart and replay Fallout 3. But I like the story so far, so I'll tough it out.

Warhammer Online

I jumped into Warhammer for a bit. I actually found a good, solid PQ group going on in Chapter 14 and managed to get the second bar filled for my Chapter Influence. It was a lot of fun and reminded me exactly what drew me into the game in the first place. You see, this is when a game doesn't feel like a grind: when you are having so much fun, you almost don't even notice that you gained a level -- because you would have done what you were doing anyway, even without the reward.

I also joined a few Scenarios, and actually had a good time there as well. One of the things I like best about Warhammer is the fact that I can just log in and instantly be doing something. Well, I can instantly be doing Scenarios. I guess the thing I don't like about Warhammer is that they still haven't made it easier to find instant action in RvR and that the PQs (this weekend notwithstanding) are usually dead.

Neverwinter Nights 2

I tried to play this but I encountered a bug early on where even though I found the quest item (a silver shard of some sort) that I needed, the game wouldn't trigger the cut scene and I couldn't continue. Even after running the autopatcher, the game still wouldn't work right. I ended up having to reinstall the game and run the autopatcher all over again, and now suddenly, magically, the stars have aligned, and I could finally continue with the quest.

I progressed a few baby steps further into the game and met the dwarven monk. I'm really early in the game, and I've owned this game for quite some time, but I never really played it. I think, this time, I'm going to give it a chance.

Guild Wars

I also hopped into Guild Wars to try to get a few quests completed. I had not played this game in over a year, but I decided to dust off my Dervish and see what happened.

Apparently I own a Guild Hall all to myself now that (*ahem* almost) everyone had quit the guild I was in. Somewhere along the way I was made leader and there were two people left when I logged in. *Click*. Make that one person left: me. (They hadn't logged in for over two years, I don't think they'll mind.)

I'm trying the Nightfall campaign, and my character is stuck at level 7, and the main quest doesn't progress until I get to level 11 or earn some points. It seems to me like they took shortcuts in the Nightfall campaign, as I don't recall any point in Prophecies where I was basically forced to take a break to run the more mundane non-story-based quests until I got to a certain level.

Guild Wars, during the Prophecies campaign, was for me the ultimate example of a game without the grind, but with Nightfall I'm actually feeling like I'm forced to grind out those levels just to do what I want: follow the story.

EverQuest II

I like the new expansion pack: The Shadow Odyssey. It's a lot of fun. When you can find a group. Hopefully its just because of the holiday weekend, but I must have spammed level chat LFG all weekend without a single bite.

I did join a pick up raid in Protector's Realm that went really well until we tried to take on Doomcoil. The way PR works, there are four named mobs you have to fight earlier and each one drops a charm item in a random raid member's inventory. Then we need to trade them to one person who can then trade them to an NPC to trigger the next fight. Only three people could find the shards in their inventory (even though we killed all four skeletons.) Apparently someone in the raid had poor inventory management skills... or we were bugged perhaps... but we couldn't continue without the fourth shard, so we called it a night.

The rest of the time was spent spamming LFG and duo boxing the soloable quests in Moors. Unfortunately, I'm very tired of quests, and really want to do more missions and instance runs. That's the kind of game play I enjoy the most.

I Can't Be Satisfied

So that was my weekend. I also spent a little time in LittleBigPlanet (on the PS3), Blue Dragon (on the Xbox), and the Wii Fit (I had to make sure I was at least a little active.) And I still had time in there to meet real life friends out on the town for drinks and dinner.

Going forward though, I'm not sure what I will continue playing.

EverQuest II has been my main game since it launched because it has more group oriented activities; it has more raids and more group instances than "the competition." That's what I enjoyed about the game, and they are a blast when you find a group. But that hasn't been the case lately.

EverQuest II is also a much more time consuming game. And it also has a habit of having multi-stage quests that are partially soloable up to a point, and somewhere in the middle of the quest there will be one step that requires rounding up a group of people, dragging them to the middle of nowhere, and killing a heroic that doesn't reward them. I've always thought that was really bad design, and its commonplace in EQ2's signature and heritage quests.

So there are going to be plenty of times when I EQ2 frustrates me (usually when I can't find a group) and I need a break. Or times when I only have 15 minutes to spare. And I'm searching for a game to fill that gap.

For a while that was Warhammer Online. When I started out in it, it was easy to get into the action instantly and play with other people. But as I mentioned in previous posts, I'm getting tired of that game. While I had a great weekend, good times like that are increasingly rare. Its harder to find those people, even after all the server merges going on. On the new server, Scenarios pop quickly, but the PQs where I'm at remains dead.

I know some members of my guild have moved from Warhammer Online to World of Warcraft. I would follow them (most of what makes an MMO fun is the group you play with), but I simply can't get into WoW. Every time I've tried to play it, I think "this is ALMOST a good game... its ALMOST like EverQuest II."

I thought I'd try out Eve Online, but that's not winning me over.

I guess its time to play a few more single player games. (I guess I sound like Openedge1 right now... :) ) I've collected a few over the last few years that I simply haven't played, since I spend so much time in EQ2. But I think I'm going to try to finish off Neverwinter Nights 2, Blue Dragon, and STALKER.

And maybe on the MMO front, I might pop back into Guild Wars. I never did try the PVP in that game when I played it. But now that WAR has given me a taste for PVP I never had before, it might be worth seeking out elsewhere. I also want to try to finish off the Nightfall campaign for good this time. At least in Guild Wars, with the Heroes and henchmen features, I can do tasks that require a group by myself if I can't find one. This is a feature I think more MMOs should have.

One of the things I'm afraid Guild Wars 2 will do that will ruin it is removing the henchmen from the game, forcing people to group. I love to group, and I prefer to group, but one of the nice things about the current Guild Wars is that you have the choice to do either.

Another thing I love about Guild Wars is that it has an ongoing story with its mission system. I guess that's a large part of why I'm frustrated with being stuck having to level up before I can go on. I like to follow the story and having to run around doing mundane quests to level up ruins the experience for me.

Too many games, too little time...

Friday, November 28, 2008

No More Leveling Games Please

I didn't like Tabula Rasa because it felt like World of Warcraft with pew pew guns. I didn't like Auto Assault because it felt like World of Warcraft with cars. I did like Pirates of the Burning Sea, because of its skill-based naval combat system and the player driven economy. But the rest of the game, with its quest arcs and lackluster combat was just World of Warcraft with arrr matey, manly women, and boats.

With the recent high profile MMORPG failures, some people might ask if the MMORPG industry is oversaturated. I don't think it is; I think it has plenty of room for future growth. What I do think is: it is oversaturated in quest-arc driven leveling games.

We already have our fill. EverQuest, EverQuest II, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Age of Conan, and now Warhammer Online. I think anyone and everyone who wants to play a quest-arc driven leveling game has found one by now, and its going to take a lot more than sci-fi trappings and pew pew to draw us away.

I think there are probably many, many people out there like myself, who have already found an addiction we're happy with (for me, EverQuest II), already capped a few characters with the leveling, and just don't have the patience or desire to do it all over again.

I think Warhammer Online would have been better if they had dropped the battle rank. Just use renown ranks to give people a goal, but otherwise have people start in the end game, marginally equal (except for the benefits renown ranks provide) with war everywhere, trying to capture the other city. As it is, I just can't muster the interest anymore to grind through its lackluster PVE or Tor Anroc until I get to 40. There should be no need for chickening or other silly game mechanics. There should have been no need for mentoring. Characters could still improve with time invested, but the difference between an RR80 and RR1 character isn't as big as the gulf between a Battle Rank (BR) 40 character and a level one noob.

I don't think you'll see another major success in the MMO genre until you get one that either eliminates the leveling mechanic (replacing it with another carrot, such as collecting, for instance) or flattens the leveling curve such that new players and veterans can play viably together.

Looking forward, the Agency looks like it might be that game; it seems like it uses a collection mechanic (collecting agents) as its RPG advancement "carrot". Other than that, what else is there that doesn't look like Yet Another Leveling Game? Because we've all been there, and done that, and its high time for something new...

... or old? Maybe I should have given Eve Online a chance.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Tabula Rasa Bites the Dust...

You can't say we didn't see it coming...

I wonder if they could have eked a little more life out of these games if NCSoft had implemented a payment plan similar to Sony's Station Access plan. Sony seems to have a bunch of games that I would imagine would have been on life support (Matrix Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea?) or shut down had they been forced to run independently like Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa.

Its a shame that the only games that seem to thrive are the Diku MUD Everquest clones like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, and all the others. None of the games with unique settings or unique game mechanics seem to last.

Bored of WAR

I think I might be bored of WAR. I don't normally post "I'm quitting posts". Readers of this blog might note I stopped playing Pirates of the Burning Sea and Age of Conan with nary a whisper. Though that might be just because I was too lazy to post.

I'll try to avoid too much negativity. I think this is still a great game, but it feels like three completely different games that don't quite mesh well enough.

  • I am tired of grinding Scenarios (especially you, Tor Anroc.)
  • People are too spread out in the PQs.
  • Contribution is very difficult to calculate, and this game proves that. Last weekend, I did have one really fun session yesterday doing the Wagon Defense PQ. In the Wagon Defense PQ, you get rewarded for clicking various items on the ground in the first two stages. That means those of us who are actually fighting the monsters guarding those monsters earn nothing. Whoever ninja clicks on the wagon guard or the bag of whatever random item the caravan was transporting gets 100 influence and the rest of us get nothing. So, even assuming you can find someone to PQ with, there are severe issues with how contribution is calculated. I still had a great deal of fun, but I would have had more fun if I felt like I was rewarded properly for my in-game effort.
  • Public Quests are either too easy (because there are too many people) or impossible (because there aren't enough).
  • It takes so long to get to the RVR lakes by the time I get there whatever I was travelling there for is over.
I'll still pop in game off and on over the next few months (I paid for three months already), so who knows... Mythic still has a chance to change my mind.

However, in the meantime, I'm going to probably spend more of my MMO time in EverQuest II, but I'm probably going to tone down the time I spend online. I also have episodes of Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People to catch up on!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obelisk of Ahkzul

I spent my first night adventuring in The Shadow Odyssey by taking on the Obelisk of Ahkzul. This was a rather interesting dungeon, made up of four rooms in a linear progression.

The first room is a standard zone filled with heroics which you simply have to clear to open up the teleport to the second area. The second area has a lake in the middle with a named that appears when the area around it is cleared. Behind the lake is a tunnel that leads deeper into the void pit.

The third room is where things get interesting. We encountered a shadow man named Kierax who taunted us by threatening to demonstrate his power. Unfortunately, for him, his power emanates from towers in the four corners of the room, near the ceiling. Energy orbs come out from openings in the four corners of the room and float slowly toward Kierax. Once he has absorbed enough of them he unleashes a powerful AOE attack that pretty much takes the entire group down to 5% from full health.

To deal with him, we learned we had to prevent him from absorbing those orbs. To do that, we assigned a few people to rush the room, running furiously towards the center. There is a swirling vortex of red energy with a blue energy swell floating above it. After leaping into the air, you will be caught up in the energy swell and lifted into the air, towards the ceiling.

Essentially, the strategy for this battle was to assign one (or two, to be safe) people to bounce up and down (without entering combat), focusing on grabbing the energy orbs before they get to Kierax. Make sure they take some Dramamine first. The rest of the group stayed on solid ground and used ranged attacks to burn Kierax down.

If you miss an orb, your party will be severely weakened by his AOE. Most groups won't survive missing two times in a row. As long as your bouncers keep floating up and down, grabbing the orbs as they go, this battle is actually quite easy. You will be rewarded with around 13 plat for your efforts!

After defeating him, you can head to the last chamber in the void pit and confront Executor Vark. This is a standard tank and spank encounter and didn't take much thought.

Executor Vark went down easily, and Norrath was saved once more, thanks to the mighty efforts of Akshobhya and friends!

My first foree into a Shadow Odyssey instance was a blast, particularly because of the battle with Kierax. I loved how they added a very interesting twist to the battle. Much of the excitement came from the fact that we didn't know how to proceed, so once we finally took Kierax down it was immensely rewarding. For a while we thought Kierax's ability might be tied to clearing a previous room or that there might be something we could interact with in around the edges of the room. We probably wiped a few dozen times before we figured out we could jump up and catch the energy orbs. And, even then, it still took a few more tries before we figured out how to make the fight work. But when the last fight went like clockwork and everything fell in place, and when this beast that had taunted us and watched over a dozen of our deaths went down, it was a beautiful feeling.

What MMOs Should Learn From Single Player Games

Every now and then I cut down on my MMO gameplay to try out various single player games. Playing single player games reminds me how primitive MMO games still are. From a technical perspective, MMOs are also about as complicated as a game can get, and the fact that thousands of players can play concurrently vastly complicates game design in ways single player games don't need to be concerned with. But aside from graphics, MMOs really have not advanced all that much since the days of Meridian 59. Single player games still frequently have features that should be more prominent in MMO gameplay. Some of the most transformative features that I think MMORPG games could benefit from are replacing the character class concept, factions that matter, and player created content.

Alternatives to Character Classes

Pete recently discussed what he thought MMO devs could learn from Fable 2. One of his points was that Fable 2 doesn't use the a class based system of leveling; you earn XP and funnel it into various skill trees. Many RPGs feature alternatives to the traditional D&D style class and XP structure. The Final Fantasy series generally features some crazy new alternative in every iteration.

What could an MMO developer learn from this? Well, one of the principal drawbacks to the class system in MMOs is that you end up requiring certain classes (the Holy Trinity.) This inevitably leads to all sorts of class balance issues, and angry players/customers because they perceive (rightly or wrongly) certain classes are more desired than others. In addition, all characters of the same class end up being very much alike.

Imagine a system where you get a number of skill trees, like the Achievement trees in EverQuest II, and you build your character's abilities by earning points and spending them how you see fit. Every character could be different, and if a particular ability gets nerfed, well, you respec and rebuild differently. That's still inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as picking a class, taking several months to level it to the cap, and then having its core abilities changed to such a degree you find you don't want to play that character anymore.

Factions that Matter

Recently, I've been playing Fallout 3. Wow, what a great game. Bethesda did a great job living up to the original Fallout franchise (the first two games, as well as Wasteland, which the Fallout games were a spiritual sequel to, still rank as my favorite RPG games ever.)

One of the great things about this game franchise is that you get to make a lot of decisions that impact the world around you. The people in game will react to you based on the decisions you have made in the past.

It would be nice to see an MMO that also let you make choices over time that affected how NPCs reacted to you in the future. EverQuest II has a few diplomacy quests where you get an item and are asked to deliver it to one faction but can deliver it to their enemy instead; however, these quests are rare and typically the only impact on the game is the reward you get.

One reason we don't see this is people don't like changes that can't be undone. Its hard to stomach making a "wrong" decision if it took you a year or two to get your character to that point. But if a game is designed where leveling isn't as important, then maybe people won't mind as much - since it won't be that much trouble to build up an alt who can take the different path.

Right now, I think MMORPG developers are taking the easy way out. They like to advertise that they have over 10,000 quests in the game. It sounds great. But when half of those are "kill 10 " in quest arcs that lead to other variants of the same thing with no further ramifications, well, what's the point? Its quantity over quality.

While quests might not be able to permanently change the world, they should be able to permanently alter how NPCs react to the players in that world. I hope that's what Bioware is going to try to create with their Star Wars MMORPG. It really is the next step forward for this genre.

Player Created Content

I've been playing LittleBigPlanet recently and that game is addictive. One of the great features is it allows players to create their own levels and share it with the world. Only one game so far, the Saga of Ryzom, allows player created levels. City of Heroes is introducing this feature soon as well.

I could imagine other games doing so. Of course, the fear is that players will abuse them to make games that provide easy leveling or easy loot. But there might be ways to avoid that:

Imagine if EverQuest II implemented a player created mission system. It might start out with players going to an inn in a city. There, a bard spins tall tales, repeating stories he has heard. The stories are missions created by other players. Since the stories are imaginary, we can easily dismiss them as non-canon, and therefore don't need to worry about conflicts with established lore. You can earn experience, as people can learn through listening and learning as well as doing, but you don't leave with any loot since you never really went anywhere.

Any drops in the zone would be NO ZONE (and used only for things that you need for the quests). However, monsters and player-created quests might occasionally reward players with the equivalent of D.I.R.T.Y. Money (tokens) which you can keep with you and trade in to the Bard's Guild for various, mostly cosmetic rewards, such as appearance armor, etc.

I can see something like this being very popular on roleplaying servers. I think it would also be popular with the general public as well. There could be titles for players who create the most popular zones. And it means that there would be a constant influx of new content.

When City of Heroes Issue 14 comes out, I'll definitely be resubscribing just for this feature alone; hopefully, more games will allow forms of player-created content in the future.

The Road Ahead

There is a lot of potential in this genre that is barely being tapped. Ever since World of Warcraft came out, everyone has been bending over backwards to clone their success. World of Warcraft did innovate somewhat - it made the quest arc the central mechanism for leveling. And, while that system is incredibly flawed, it was an improvement over the previous model (the EverQuest model) which was to sit in one spot (the camp) and pull the same mobs repeatedly.

But ever since WoW came out, the industry sort of got stuck in a rut where it was too busy trying to copy WoW's success. Hopefully, that's starting to change.

Coming soon, we have, the City of Heroes Architect feature, which makes it the second MMO to make player-driven content a huge part of the game. Chronicles of Spellborn promises some innovation with a card deck-based combat system. And Bioware promises a very strong story-driven MMO experience in the Stars Wars universe.

Have you seen any particularly innovative features in recent games that you would like to see become a more common feature of the MMO genre as a whole?

Happy Launch Day, EQ2 Fans

The fifth expansion pack for EverQuest II, The Shadow Odyssey, is released today. Happy Launch Day, EQ2 fans! As of the time of this writing, you still have a few hours left to place a preorder if you want the exclusive in-game items from the digital pre-order (a Void Beast pet and a painting to spruce up your home, and reduce your rent!)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stupid XFire Errors

If you get the error message "This application has failed to start because WSOCK32.dll was not found. Re-installing the application may fix this problem.", do not panic. And do not reinstall the application. The likely culprit is that you are using Vista 64-bit and also are running XFire. The problem may also related to UAC; I have mine disabled. Because I really do want to copy that file. Really.

I get this popup error starting Fallout 3. If you just hit OK several times eventually the windows go away and the game starts up normally. That is, unless you need to patch the game. If you need to patch, LIVE will give spurious error messages about connection problems. In that case, you really do need to shut down XFire, at least until you get the game patched.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Master Alchemist, Buy Orders, No-Trade Recipes, and Other Thoughts

Thanks to the noble efforts of Albrta, Nizenka, and Shadowgeist, my monk has finally become the Master Alchemist on Najena! OK, maybe I'm just a Master Alchemist on Najena. Still, I'm rather happy to have my first artisan at the level cap, and now a proud owner of the Earring of the Solstice, a Master Alchemist title, and a lovely new cloak!

I enjoyed the epic tradeskill quests, particularly the missions that required avoiding mobs by temporarily stunning them (such as the djinn in the Temple of Light) or otherwise disabling them (the bixies). I wish they had more quests that rewarded us for sneaking around and avoiding combat, Solid Snake style. But anyway, I digress.

I wanted to finish my Alchemist's tradeskill levels so I could experience the new tradeskill raids that Sony is introducing with the new expansion pack. I'm looking forward to those; it will be intriguing to see a new form of game play, and a new (cooperative!) take on crafting.

The only thing I'm worried about it is more of the new recipes are supposedly NO-TRADE. This means we will have more items that require the commision system. I don't mind the fact that the items are NO-TRADE, and I think the commision system is a great feature, but I don't like the idea that my adventurers might have to run around and spam trade channels to find someone willing to do every little upgrade I want. Its not so much that I'm anti-social, its just busy work that I don't think is "fun."

What I'd prefer to see would be some kind of "buy order" feature on the auction house. The way I'd envision it: I would select the recipe I want someone to make, and a quantity, post the requisite fuel and components, and some gold, and then it shows up in a list in a tab on the auction house. Any artisan that wants to can then click fulfill that order. If they beat the rest of the world to it, a consignment window pops up for them and they get to work on it. If they close the window or fail, the order goes back on the auction house. Maybe the artisan would be rewarded with some XP as well as my payment. In fact, this could even replace the Writ system, as the game could allow NPCs to post buy orders (with faction as a reward in addition to gold), just like NPCs occasionally use the mail system today. The person who posts the buy order would eventually get their item in the mail once someone satisfies the order.

Maybe we could even get dynamic systems where NPCs post buy orders (such as swords for the Qeynos Guard), and if enough crafters satisfy the orders something good happens (so long as crafters keep the Guard well equipped, they protect a dangerous area from bandits, and hence, fast travel options to some otherwise remote, inaccessible location becomes available.) But, again, I digress into idle fantasy.

This type of system wouldn't replace the consignment system completely, of course, since you'd still need it for situations where someone specific (like my guild members and a friend of theirs, thanks again guys!) want to help me out. But, if we're going to get more recipes that generate NO-TRADE items, I'd like the ability to get people to do it asynchronously. But maybe I'm just being anti-social, and spamming trade channels will be end up being good for me.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why Do You Multibox?

Werit asks if Multiboxing is Fair or Foul on his site. Some people think its a form of cheating.

For PVP games, it certainly can be used for that. Some people cheat in games like Pirates of the Burning Sea (and probably in Warhammer Online as well) where you are restricted to playing on faction on any particular server. They use a second account to spy on the other side. On the other hand, dual boxing in actual combat was generally not as effective as it sounds. Managing two characters is not as efficient as having two players playing one character each; in an RVR game, I think it would actually set your team back, because few can play both characters as well as two real people would play.

I multibox, but I only do so in one game: EverQuest II. That game is a PVE game with very little or no PVP (except on certain servers, which I don't play on), and I don't consider multiboxing to be an unfair advantage in a PVE game, since it doesn't effect anyone else.

Some people assume people multibox because they are anti-social. I don't think that's typically the case; in fact, I probably even group slightly more often, since I can LFG from both machines.

I multibox for a few reasons:
  • I think it adds an additional element of tactical interest. RPGs are very role oriented, because they traditionally require groups with varied skills, such as your Holy Trinity: chanter, tank, healer. Playing one of those roles without the others is boring. That's one reason why grouping is usually more fun (the social aspect is another). However, we can't group all the time.
  • I actually started dual boxing because my Defiler soloed so incredibly slow, especially once she got to the ROK era. I think ROK may have driven me to dual box. I am not sure whether to admire or fear for the health of anyone who had the patience to level a Defiler to 80 naturally. I'm leaning towards "concern for their well-being." I may be the "anti-social multi-boxer" but at least I have a life.
  • I'm a very casual player and am very time constrained. I work long hours, sometimes need to work on weekends, and often have to drop at a moment's notice. Some people might say MMOs aren't for me. Maybe they still aren't compatible with my kind of schedule (despite how casual accessible they have gotten in recent years). But for an extra $15 a month, I have managed to make EQ2 compatible enough.
In a way, I guess I dual box because it gets around what I perceive as design flaws in EverQuest II. These flaws aren't specific to EQ2 itself; I would dual box in World of Warcraft as well if that had been my game.

The design flaws I perceive:

  • I enjoy the end game because that's where we do instance runs as groups. The progression curve becomes flatter and instances generally require more skill and tactics than overland quest arcs and soloing. I group for the dungeon runs; I don't dual box those (I doubt anyone would let me if I tried :) ). Leveling to get a different kind of character there is not quite as exciting for me. Some people say "its the journey" that counts. To them I say "I've done it twice." And claiming the leveling process is to learn the class doesn't make sense to me when it takes longer to level to 80 than it takes a doctor to get certified for some very difficult medical procedures. And you aren't learning the class unless you are grouping, and you aren't grouping in the low levels anyway because there aren't enough other people around below the level cap. So I have been dual boxing new alts that I've created to get them to the fun faster.
  • Solo mobs are boring. I think one of the problems with recent games is they try to balance things so solo mobs can be handled by anyone, and that means they don't have any interesting abilities nor are they challenging in any way: the game designers don't know what skills the character will have, so apparently they assume they don't have any. I think a better design for MMORPGs would be to make everything require a party, and let people train pets (hirelings/Heroes) to fill out their own party when they are feeling anti-social or are time constrained.
  • There really needs to be a way to LFG (with the in-game tool) any character on your account from any other character. Let's say I'm working on soloable epic updates on my Monk. No one would group with me just to watch me run around Norrath clicking on things. But maybe I'd be glad to group with my Assassin for something - let me do that! Let me LFG my Assassin and then route tells to that character to the one I'm on. Add a way to fast character switch while we're at it.
  • With a subscription fee, I guess I start to feel I need to make a certain amount of progress or else I'm wasting my money. It may seem silly to spend more to give myself that little boost to ensure I make that amount of progress, but the numbers work out in my head. I might not care so much about "progressing my character" if these games used an alternate business model such as a pay as you go scheme where you pay based on how much time you spend in-game instead.
  • I simply find it more interesting playing two characters at once. I grew up on multi-player dungeon crawls: Wizardry and Bard's Tale and Ultima 4-6. I leveled my monk to 80 the normal way, and now the early (pre-80) game just doesn't seem as fun as it was the first time around; but by adding a second character to manage, it adds something intangible to the leveling process that makes it more interesting.
So now, dear readers (both of you), I have some questions for you. Do you multibox and, if so, why? Or if you don't like multiboxing in PVE games, why?

Friday, November 14, 2008

KM Switches and Other Multi-Boxing Aids

It seems Stargrace has discovered the joy of the software KM (keyboard+mouse) switch. She had recently started dual boxing but was controlling the keyboard and laptop by physically going to each keyboard. When I first started dual boxing, I did that as well, but KM switches make it a heck of a lot of easier.

A KM switch lets you control multiple computers using a single keyboard and mouse. This differs from the more popular KVM switch in that you still require separate monitors for each computer. If you have multiple desktop machines, that saves on desktop real estate since you don't need to have more than one keyboard and mouse. And if you are using a laptop and desktop together, these devices save you the hassle of having to switch to the other keyboard. And when gaming sometimes, every second counts!

You can go out and buy a lovely hardware KM switch like this:

... but nowadays, there are plenty of software equivalents.

The way the software KM switches work is when you move your mouse offscreen (in any direction, up or down, but more commonly, left or right), control moves to another computer. This means that the OTHER computer will start receiving your mouse and keyboard input.

My setup at home has three computers: two desktops, and a laptop for work. The center computer is my primary computer and the keyboard and mouse is physically attached to that machine via the standard USB ports. When I move the mouse to the left, it appears on my other desktop machine. If I move it to the right, it appears on the laptop I use for work.

KM switches are really great for gaming. You can use it to dual box (to control characters running on two separate computers). You can look things up on the Internet on the secondary computers while playing fullscreen on your primary machine.

Stardock Multiplicity

I use a program called Multiplicity which works pretty well. It does have some drawbacks: some games like Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, City of Heroes, and Warhammer Online stop responding to mouse clicks after you've switched off and on screen a few times. Its rather frustrating since Warhammer Online is one of the main games I play right now. It also confuses programs that use mouselook when your mouse ends up "offscreen," so I disable it when running a game from the first person perspective like Fallout 3. Multiplicity has a number of really great features though:
  • You can share clipboard information between the machines. This means I can look up coordinates in eq2wikia and paste them into my fullscreen EQ2 instance running on my other computer. With as much running around and exploring that EverQuest II quests typically require, that's a lifesaver!
  • You can also share FILES between machines. Its as easy as highlighting the files in Explorer, hitting Ctrl+C (the keyboard shortcut to Copy), and then moving the mouse "offscreen," and then hitting Ctrl+V (the keyboard shortcut to Paste) in the other computers folder.


For a more general purpose KM switch that won't cost a dime, check out Synergy. It supports Mac, PC, and Linux, so multi-OS users would benefit from that. I haven't used it myself yet, but Stargrace seems to like it. I intend on trying it out because of the frustration I have with Multiplicity not working with Warhammer Online.


If you are primarily a World of Warcraft player, you might instead look into Octopus or Interbox, since these appear to be customized particularly for boxing in WoW. They support some features such as key cloning (so you can have some keyboard commands that get broadcast to all clients simultaneously.) It can also broadcasting multiple clicks to multiple windows on the same machine.

Did you hear about the guy who plays 36 World of Warcraft characters at the same time? He uses Octopus.


Of course, if you just want to broadcast multiple clicks but don't want a KM switch, you can use Keyclone. This software will even work with multiple instances on the same machine.


One commercial alternative that I have tried is Exxtramon from KaVoom software. This program is pretty neat because in addition to letting you control two machines with a keyboard and mouse, you can also use your secondary computer's monitor as an extension of your primary computer's desktop. Let's say you have a laptop and a desktop. In that case, the software would make your laptop behave as if it was a second monitor attached to your desktop. However, your laptop can still do its own processing and run its own programs, and you can then flip back and forth between the extended "virtual desktop" and the laptop's actual desktop at will. Its a neat feature but not something I needed for gaming. However, they do offer a separate product that is only a KM switch without the virtual desktop feature.

Anyway, hopefully this helps anyone out there interested in dual boxing, or struggling with dual boxing without these tools. Even if you are not dual boxing, if you have more than one computer side by side, a software KM switch will seriously make your life easier.