Saturday, May 30, 2009

At the Border Between the Free Realms and Norrath

Tipa opined, "Will EverQuest III be Free Realms II?", making the astute observation that Sony would hardly invest so much time in this new technology and not use it elsewhere. I think that goes without saying. It would be a waste of effort for any company to reinvent the wheel. EverQuest II shared a common foundation with Star Wars Galaxies. Similarly, some of the technologies in Free Realms are probably a taste of things to come in a future SOE AAA title.

The main feature that I expect to see in future SOE titles would be the streaming technology. Ogrebears disagreed, arguing that no one would want to stream a large title, given that MMOs are often in the 8-10GB range, and many top 20GB. I would argue that the size of new MMOs is the principle reason WHY streaming technology is necessary. Streaming brings many benefits that fix issues that games with particularly large resource footprints, like MMOs, face.

One of the main benefits is that you get into the game faster. I tried to encourage a friend to join EverQuest II. He downloaded the client and started the download. Then proceeded to complain day after day that the download was taking forever. I imagine World of Warcraft would have taken just as long to patch to the latest version from the original discs that were put on shelves in 2004, but he already had that installed. I don't think he ever even bothered to get in game. At some point, other things intervened and he didn't bother to try.

That's just one anecdote, but I doubt its an outlier. It's just human nature: we're all willing to try something new, but generally not if it's going to cost us. And babysitting a computer program patching over 10GB+ of data slowly isn't something many people will bother with, except the die-hard MMO addicts among us.

On the other hand, if you can download a smaller client, with just the files you need to launch the newbie area instantly, you can get a lot of people in the game instantly. Which means you get more potential conversions to subscribers.

Free Realms' streaming technology provides the ability to update the client WHILE IT IS RUNNING. [Update: Actually, I'm not sure if Free Realms can do that. I think I may have been confusing what I read with something in an article about Guild Wars' streaming technology, which does have the ability to seamlessly update the game on the fly. At any rate, it is a potential benefit of the technology that I'd like to see exploited and expanded upon in future games.] This is important because it reduces down time (which is a competitive advantage to other games). It also allows you to patch more often and more frequently (no more waiting until patch day to close a major exploit!).

The benefits don't have to be limited merely to reducing downtime for patching in fixes or major content updates. Being able to stream new information and new items on the fly provides more flexibility for Live Events, since you don't have to take down the servers to change the world. The Live Event can go through several stages and have smaller, more incremental changes over time.

While Free Realms isn't the type of game I'd like to play, because it is oriented towards kids, it has many features that I would love to see in a more mature setting. Streaming content is one such feature. Next week, I'll ramble on about a few of the others.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Scaling Damage for Live Events

Many Live Events in EverQuest II scale the quests and monsters to the player's level. This way they can offer quests that anyone can play, regardless of level. One problem with this approach: all monsters have to be first triggered by a player, so the game knows what level to create the monster.

What if instead of scaling the monster to the player's level, we had a certain class of monsters where the damage you deal was scaled up or down to match the monsters nominal level. The monster would also deal damage in a manner that scaled to the player's level. (Out-of-group player-to-player healing would still be a problem, so perhaps the game would lock all such encounters.) This way it wouldn't matter what level you are.

The player's level itself shouldn't scale, so their relationship with the surrounding zone would be unchanged.

This could open up a whole new set of scenarios. Imagine a huge lag inducing gnoll army starts to march on Qeynos. The entire server can join in on the fight without worrying about level 80s trivializing the fight by rounding up the entire zone and AOEing them. Low level players can even join in. And the monsters can roam around and aggro using normal game mechanics without having to be "force spawned" first.

This would be a neat way to provide story-based content that the entire server can enjoy and play together, without excluding people based on level. Because existing content continues to have level, the sense of progression that the leveling mechanic confers is not eliminated.

Would such a system be workable?

Final Fantasy XI had something quite like I envisioned several years back when they unleashed the Twinkling Treants upon us. However, instead of scaling damage, they forced players to mentor down to a specific level in order to fight it. This allowed everyone to participate, but it did have the drawback that you had to explicitly look for a guard to grant you the buff you needed to fight the monster first, instead of simply joining in while running by (which would be more immersive and make it more likely for the event to gather participants.)

Friday, May 15, 2009


There were some interesting comments on the May 14 Dev chat appeared recently. One of the comments that caught my eye was a question regarding keeping lower level content relevant, particularly Veeshan's Peak (so Mythicals retain some relevance.) A dev responded that they were indeed looking into ways to keep lower level content relevant. Unfortunately, they provided no further details...

I don't know what they have in mind, but one idea that I would like to see would be for zones to automatically mentor people who exceed the intended level range of the zone or raid by several levels. It might be acceptable to allow people to "outlevel" a zone by a few levels, to maintain a sense of progression, but to completely gray out and trivialize zones robs the game in the long run. No one ever wants to go to these old zones because there is absolutely nothing to be gained. Keeping the older zones at least somewhat challenging prevents many quests (where you simply travel to certain parts of the zone) from becoming completely trivialized, and therefore less fun.

I'd also want to see level scaling zones automatically mentor a player down if they exceed the level that the zone was set to. For example, if I mentor down to a level 50 and zone into Scion of Ice, the zone sets itself to level 50. If I then unmentor, I should be forced to remain at level 50 (even though I'm no longer mentoring anyone.)

These days, mentoring seems to be used most often to exploit game mechanics by trivializing zones. It was intended as a way to help veteran players join forces with newer ones, and to work around one of the principal disadvantages of a leveling system: leveling creates barriers that prevent people from playing together.

To help encourage high level players to join forces with low level players for mutual gain instead of exploiting the game mechanics, I would also want to see them increase the amount of XP you get while mentoring, almost to the extent that one could level from 81 to the next level cap on OLDER content if one wanted to (obviously the newer quest lines in the newer zones would be better since you'd gain better gear and so on that way, but the point is it gives people a choice and makes mentoring a mutually beneficial relationship, especially if the higher level player isn't earning AA from it [because they aren't at the level cap, for instance.])

This would make it more attractive to play with lower level players for both AA and leveling up (when they increase the level cap), without completely trivializing the lower level content (obviously the mentoring scales imperfectly, but to some extent that's fine.) And it would help keep much of the older content in the game relevant.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I Guess I'm a Twit Now

I recently joined twitter as @mymomentofzen. I can't update my site as often as some of the more prolific bloggers out there but I think I might be able to muster up 140 characters of gaming-related blathering on occasion.

Monday, May 11, 2009

AA XP Conversion

It looks like they will be adjusting the Combat XP to AA XP conversion ratio at level 80 now! I am loving the idea of this (assuming the conversion isn't a paltry amount). It finally fixes a part of the game that I feel has been broken for some time. Namely, that, since AAs came out, and particularly with the most recent AA level cap increase, the game has turned into one huge solo quest grind.

And I HATE quests. I like them on occasion, but I despise having them as the primary means of playing the game.

I know it's quite ironic that I play a game called "EverQUEST" when I hate quests, but the reason I picked EverQuest II over its major competition (such as World of Warcraft) was because grinding quests wasn't how you were forced to play the game.

Once upon a time, before the Achievement XP system was added to EverQuest II, we had three ways to advance. 1) We could grind quests to gain XP. 2) We could get together with people and camp mobs. The game, when it was introduced, even had a "dynamic camp" system where as the camp continued to respawn, the mobs would become stronger and stronger, and occasionally would reward you. 3) You could grab some people together and go crawl through a dungeon.

Many other games such as World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online give such paltry combat XP that you really have no choice but to grind quest after quest after kill X quests collecting bandit livers and boar testicles for all the NPCs that litter the world that have an insatiable need for such things.

As AAs become more and more important over time, the game developed two problems. One: since TSO, there are a LOT of AAs to obtain, and the XP curve is pretty steep. You can gain some good AA XP from doing TSO shard missions, but that's not enough by itself to earn those AAs. And many of the TSO instances are balanced for a party that is expected to have well in excess of 140 AAs. Two: when leveling up alts, we have to do every boring kill X quest along the way, sometimes even shutting off XP gain temporarily to finish the quests for a particular area. While Sony has greatly increased how fast we level, they haven't increased the speed in which we earn AA, so it's easy to get to the level cap and then find yourself without enough AAs to play viably.

So that means my playstyle has been forced to change. I can no longer just get together in a group and plow through dungeons as the primary way in which I play the game because I'll gimp myself without earning those AAs. My alts, in particular, are effectively penalized when grouping because they will gain XP too fast and I'm afraid I will end up stuck at level 80 having to grind gray quests to get them later!

While simply increasing the conversion ratio isn't a perfect solution to our AA-related problems, it does mean that once I get to the level cap, I can earn AA XP by getting together and doing what I enjoy: camping and dungeons instances (even without a quest or mission for the zone).

And as for my low level alts; while skipping some quest lines along the way does mean I will get to 80 with too few AAs, it does mean I can keep playing, at least in the ROK zones and the easier TSO instances, and know that I will gain them over time just playing the game the way I want - without feeling forced to run around doing boring gray quests to earn them all.

Assuming the conversion ratio is decent...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

xXxFrodoxXx LFG

I decided this week I should put in some more game time in LOTRO, what with having spent $10 on it and all.

So I rolled up a hobbit. Time spent: 5 minutes to come up with a face I didn't want to punch. 50 minutes trying every freaking lore-appropriate name imaginable to find one that wasn't taken. Being forced to come up with a unique first name is really obnoxious, especially in a game where you are encouraged to use lore appropriate names. All the good ones run out quickly. The last time I checked, many people share the same first name. Why not let us do so here? Make us pick last names on character creation and use that as a part of the uniqueness as well.

It was a lot easier in Final Fantasy XI when half of the playerbase used idiotic names like "XxXSephirothXxX" leaving plenty of decent names available for the rest of us.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Back in Middle Earth...

It was $10 so I couldn't resist. I still had a Champion left over from open beta, so I dusted him off and ran around for a bit with Corwin last week sometime. I've continued to pop in here and there to complete a few more quests.

And now I remember what bothered me the most about Lord of the Rings Online. The quests my Champion has require a whole lot of running around. Slowly.

Middle Earth feels very vast and expansive. It's very immersive - the mobs aren't all packed within inches of one another like they are in World of Warcraft or EverQuest II. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is easier to get lost in the beauty of the world and to feel like you are truly in another land. And that's an amazing feeling. Until you start receiving quests that tell you to go to the bandit camp clear on the opposite side of the map, and you return, only to be told to go right back to the same place you were and do something else.

This is still a game after all and perhaps too much immersion can be a bad thing. The people that clamor on and on about how they want their game to be immersive with meaningful travel usually aren't complaining that you can swim in plate mail, or demanding that it take an hour or two to change armor. Maybe we should give the immersion fans a Sims like function to manage their avatar's bowel movements as well. If they don't enjoy the idea of that, they should probably STFU about how they need "immersion."

Though perhaps the problem here is less that I was required to travel, but rather that by splitting the quest line into a series of fetch this and run back to me steps, that travel was made inherently less meaningful. I mean, if my quest is really that important, couldn't the quest giver get off his ass to accompany me there so he could tell me what I need to do next without wasting half a day coming back to him first?

So maybe this is what the quest givers should start doing: when we complete a step, they should show up out of nowhere in a cut scene (because they were hiding, what with us being the heroes and all), tell us the next step in the quest, which was only five feet away anyway, and let us go on our merry way saving the world, without having to travel the entire length of the map again and again and again.

Because the trip isn't that meaningful when we have to make it a dozen times.

But, alas, I doubt that's in our future. My guess: when we get to Mordor, we will have to help Frodo figure out which volcano is Mount Doom. There are, after all, a lot of volcanos in Mordor. So we'll remember there's a cartographer back in Bree. And we'll go all the way back to Bree to talk to him. Then he'll say: "oh, it's in this general area, but there are actually three volcanoes there that look very much alike... Mount Doom, Mount Gloom, and Mount Buttercup. There's a geographer here in town who can help you figure out which one is Mount Doom." And the geographer will send you back to Mordor to collect rock samples from each mountain. And you'll go back to Bree and he'll tell you which rock came from which mountain. And you'll to back to Mordor where Frodo is still waiting, patiently, not succumbing to the Ring's temptations or anything, and of course Gollum is just following Frodo, even though Frodo isn't actually going anywhere, because everyone is WAITING ON YOU but you have to go back and check in one more time with the geographer before you can conclusively figure out which damn volcano you need to climb so the One Ring ends up in the One Lava.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Twisty Little Missions, All Alike

I cancelled City of Heroes again. I came back because of the Mission Architect system, and thought it was a really great addition to the game. Unfortunately, while it's a great idea to let players architect their missions, City of Heroes missions just aren't that fun, no matter who writes them. For me, every mission feels like running around a maze hunting for randomly placed stuff. That's fun on occasion, but I got bored of it quickly, because it doesn't take long to see behind the curtain.

I have probably subscribed to City of Heroes for six months, no two months consecutively. I actually like City of Heroes a lot; I just don't want to pay $15 a month to play something I would never want to sink more than 10 hours a month on. (And, no, the fact it's the same cost as a movie ticket doesn't work as an argument for me: that's apples and oranges.)

Why don't MMOs have cheaper, time limited, payment plans ($5 a month with a 15 hour limit?) I'd probably subscribe to far more games if they did...