Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Streaming EQ2 Client

Autenil reports that he is working on reducing the size of the EQ2 client to 60MB and getting it to stream the rest of the content, like Guild Wars does. They are apparently leveraging some of the great work done by the Free Realms team.

I think this is a brilliant move to increase exposure. I had tried the refer-a-friend feature on a few people (none of them decided to subscribe unfortunately) and without exception the first thing out of their mouth was "how long is this going to take?!" referring to the extremely long download time. It's kind of hard to convince people to try a ten day trial for a game when the first two days are used up just downloading the game.

Also, you have to consider that people's attention is fleeting these days. There are dozens of MMOs on the market. There are thousands of other forms of entertainment. If you manage to capture someone's attention at the computer, getting them to download EQ2, the clock starts ticking. You do NOT have much time left. You have to grab them right away.

Although I have a much higher tolerance for the time it takes to download an MMO (and a willingness to try every MMO that has come on the market since I first got hooked on the genre with Final Fantasy XI), anecdotally, I know there are a few games that probably lost possible income from me simply because of download times.

Runes of Magic had previously announced that they were going to develop a streaming client. It's too bad they haven't, because I tried that game out, and liked it, but I stopped bothering to try to play. EverQuest II is my primary game, but it doesn't run on my old, cheap, crappy laptop. One of the reasons I was attracted to Runes of Magic was that it was a fun game and free with optional RMT -- which meant I could control how much money I invested in the game and didn't have to worry that I might end up too busy to justify a subscription fee. But everytime I played it it would take an hour to download the latest content. Which was usually about how long I had to play!

Another game I couldn't play due to download times was Warhammer Online. They came out with a Mac version, so I tried to get my brother to try it out, since he is a Mac (and I am a PC). So it took forever for him to download the first night which meant the two hours we had became thirty minutes. A couple nights later we find time to play together - but they released the new Lands of the Dead patch or whatever. I say "whatever" because it doesn't affect me, since I'm playing in the very first Chapter. But I was forced to download it and that was another play session lost. Then we didn't have that much time the rest of the week to play together and the free trial expired. A lot of the attraction for an MMO is to play with other people - especially ones you know - but it's hard to coordinate all that when massive downloads and patch times eat up what little time you have to play.

So I'm excited to see that the SOE team is on the ball here. MMO games are not getting any smaller, so streaming the content is necessary to attract and retain players.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Guild Wars 2 Preview

There is a great Guild Wars 2 preview on Eurogamer. Guild Wars is one of the best online RPGs ever released. But what excites me the most is this:

"We actually don't have a traditional RPG/MMO quest system," Flannum continues. "Instead what we've got are Events."

Looks like the trend towards creating content with goals available to the public (as opposed to individuals running ticking off their own personal list of checkmarks to complete their 'quests'), like Warhammer Online Public Quests, is continuing. But these look better because they are supposed to end. As new Events get discovered the world changes. THAT is how you add immersion to a game, by allowing people to shape the game's history through their actions (or inaction).

This sounds a lot like what the Heroes of Telara developers have said they plan for their game:

Unite with your friends and plan play-sessions around scheduled events that change on a regular basis.

I wish we had more information to compare the two approaches.

But hopefully the deathknell is tolling for the traditional quest system and the static, unchanging worlds will be a thing of the past. The quest system caused the MMO industry to become very solo oriented; with the shift to more public goals, MMOs might become social again!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Final Fantasy XIV Videos

We're seeing a lot more information about Final Fantasy XIV. These are a few of the videos available now.

The game looks absolutely stunning.

This second video shows some combat.

Some people seem to be disappointed with the slow paced combat, but I have to respectfully disagree. Combat was pretty slow paced with really long timers in Final Fantasy XI, and it was a blast. It still kept you on your toes, even if I only had to push a button once every 15 seconds. Many of the standard trash mobs required you to react (crabs putting up stoneshell, goblins preparing a bomb toss) in ways that are absent from anything less than a boss encounter in many modern MMOs.

Also, the frenetic pace of most MMO's combat systems (WAR, AOC, EQ2, WOW) is almost bordering on video game-y. There is little time or need for strategy when you have 18 hotbars filled with abilities. Unless organizing your hotbar counts as a strategy.

In FFXI you had few abilities, with long timers. My paladin could heal himself once per thirty seconds, and taunt once per thirty seconds. Every fifteen seconds, I'd either cure myself or taunt (that's how you held hate). The rest of the time I WATCHED the mob, to see if I needed to stun him (for example, a properly timed stun could deflect a thrown bomb attack back on a goblin), or use Cover to protect someone else, or move because of a repop to avoid adds. Most abilities were on long (several-minute) timers or more so you had to make sure you used them at the right time.

By contrast, in EQ2, my tank has to taunt every five seconds, and on top of that, taunt alone won't let you hold aggro; you also have to constantly pound out combat arts to do high enough DPS to hold aggro. The only thing that keeps it from becoming a constant button mash is the fact you must also time the use of your combat arts between your auto attacks to maximize DPS. I spend most of my time watching my hotbars and not much watching the actual screen. I felt the same way about other games, like AOC and WOW.

So I am excited at the prospect of playing a game that gives me more time to think and less carpal tunnel.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Encouraging Unhealthy Playstyles

I started to watch Second Skin on Hulu and found it depressing so far. It's a documentary which shows how online worlds such as MMOs have impacted the lives of various subjects. And it starts out with a bunch of people who apparently spend so much of their time they have no time for anything else. Even blogging, which is why I think I'll be ok posting negative things in public about the losers.

I intend to watch the rest of the movie later. Hopefully it shows a more balanced perspective than the almost scare-mongering it starts out with. And despite the snarky comment above, I'm sure the subjects have more redeeming traits than the movie portrays: there just isn't enough time to accurately portray the complexities of an individual, and it has to maintain its focus on the virtual worlds aspect of their lives.

But there does seem to be no shortage of people who are willing to simply live almost all their lives in game. It's sad, really. These games are fun, but it's like television: an empty diversion. I like it better because it's interactive and has a strategic element. There's not much strategy in watching Battlestar Galactica. We all have a need to be entertained. But it's not all I do.

I wouldn't normally place the blame on the game companies. They are providing a service and it's up to the consumer to use it responsibly. But then game companies come out and do things like leveling contests. These contests basically reward people who level up to a certain amount first. Since leveling is primarily based on time invested, that just encourages people to adopt unhealthy behavior: avoiding sleep, spending all their time in game, just to earn these "rewards."

I'm sure these same people would camp out for weeks to be first in line for Star Wars tickets if they could do so without missing a raid. But just as we would look down on someone for exploiting another's addiction problem were he an alcoholic or a drug user, should we discourage game companies from doing exploiting their more addicted fans?

Wouldn't a better contest be something like this: you have a month, and whoever earns a certain casually achievable level in the least amount of /played wins. Now the contest is who can get to X level smartest, not fastest. You have time to grab a pizza or take a shower or go to work (as long as you log off first :) ) because it won't impact your chance of winning. So you can still have the fun little marketing bonanza that comes with a contest without encouraging the kind of unhealthy playstyles that lead to becoming a subject in this film:

Friday, August 7, 2009

You Are What You Wear

Square Enix just released some more information about the Final Fantasy XIV game system. One of the interesting aspects of it is what they call the "Armoury System." The idea behind it is your skills are determined by what you wear. Arm a sword and you can be a warrior, pick up a staff, and you can be a mage. And you can change at almost any time!

And this is a good thing, in my opinion. I like job systems much better than the traditional static class system where to experience different jobs you have to grow a stable of alts. One of the main reasons for this is: I hate doing the same quests over and over again for each alt I raise. I hate having to grab the same flags (for fast travel or access quests) over and over and over again.

It's also easier to change what you are doing based on role - if I join a group and the roles we need change, and I can satisfy that, it's nice to know I can instantly swap out for the needed role instead of logging in an alt and dragging them halfway across the world, hoping they have all the right flags and access quests done.

It also helps with the community: in Final Fantasy XI, I might go out and see a Samurai is looking for group. However, I then realize this is the same guy, a good player, who was healing me the other day. So I know he'll probably be a good player in his new role. In EverQuest II, I almost never know who I'm getting involved with unless it's a guild group, since everyone in game has at least a half dozen different names and appearances.

It looks like the job system is become much more prevalent. Heroes of Telara mentions the ability to change subclasses at any time. Free Realms implements a job system as well, letting you swap jobs almost anywhere. The Agency likewise will allow you to swap between roles based on what you wear. This mechanic seems like it may be a defining trait for so-called "third-generation" MMORPGs.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wary of Champions Online

Like many others in the blogosphere, I'm also wary of Champions Online at this point. I'm an advocate of alternate payment models, and I love the idea of a lifetime membership, but if you had faith in your game, wouldn't you offer it AFTER it's released as well? Not just an exclusive feature for people who haven't played it yet???

Lord of the Rings Online extended their lifetime membership offer for a while after it launched. After it went away, a year later, they brought it back again. I suppose Champions Online, if successful, might bring the offer back as well. But you think they'd let you play the free month from the box purchase first before deciding whether to do so THIS time around.

The fact that they aren't just smacks of desperation.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Disappointing Year For Fantasy MMORPGs

Well, I'm still playing EQ2. Yeah, I railed against quest-driven gameplay lately, but in EQ2 I've just been logging in on occasion to go on a raid or to plow through old dungeons (not necessarily doing quests) with low level alts. So it's been entertaining enough to keep me subscribing. But not enough to keep my eye from wandering.

I've also been spending what little time I have in various fantasy MMORPG marketing ploys, er, I mean "betas." Aion is one I can name, any other I can't. But my opinion is the same: WoW. WoW. I mean, WoW, it's amazing just how blatant some games can get with their influences.

Seriously people, no one is going to switch from the king of the hill to your WoW clone no matter what you might think of the incremental innovation you tacked on to it. Especially since the #1 WoW clone on the market is FREE. Let me spell that for you: $ ... 0. That's what you are competing against if you go against WoW.

Either a) make your game free, or b) differentiate yourself somehow. Suggestion: start with the UI and the quest driven gameplay. Even if your game suddenly becomes super awesome and innovative at level 50, if I look at levels 1-5 and think: this looks JUST like World of Warcraft, I'm not going to play! Even the people who like WoW aren't going to play, because they already have WoW.

So I guess 2009 is a wash in the fantasy MMO department. Hopefully 2010 will bring us some great betas... followed by great releases. These are the games I'm looking forward to:

Guild Wars 2 -- The first game was incredible. Take its game mechanics and the core design that worked and add a more "worldly" feel to it so it feels more like a "real" MMO and it would be heaven.

Heroes of Telara -- A game where they are focusing on the technology and on the ability to deliver changing world content on the fly. Sounds like the developers there intend to deliver some real innovation instead of a simple WoW clone. Imagine a world where the focus is on fighting a threat that, when defeated, WILL NEVER HAPPEN APPEAR AGAIN. Instead of doing quests that will sit there and wait for the next guy to come along. That's beautiful.

Final Fantasy XIV -- The devs are talking and they say it won't have levels or experience??? That sounds too good to be true. The story based missions in Final Fantasy XI were incredible though sparse. The only flaw with the game was the interminable grind. But clearly there has to be SOME kind of progression system. Still, it's clear it won't be WoW without your traditional Diku ding, and that's a good thing.