Monday, December 26, 2011

A Christmas Update

I wanted to let you know I am alive, and currently immersed in my Sith Warrior in SWTOR. I will be composing several impressions about the game, including one about how Bioware's launch plans panned out, and they will be posted to, with posts here redirecting you to that site.

I hope your holidays are wonderful, and I will be back in the swing of writing this week. Take care, everyone, and thank you for reading and commenting this past year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Why Skyrim Flooded the MMORPG Blogs

A post crops up here and there, but for the most part the "Would Skyrim make a Good MMORPG?" posts have died down. It's an excellent game, and I'm not here to poke fun at anyone who spoke about it: On the contrary, I think the sudden interest in it is indicative of a larger issue in the MMORPG market at the moment. But let's briefly examine Skyrim first.

In a nutshell, it is a standard fantasy setting in a wintery climate. In comparison to Oblivion and Morrowind, you can't get more fantasy than "Destined to Slay Dragons." How it accomplished this is by having a variety of "main quests" for various factions with well written stories, a truck load of  miscellaneous quests based entirely on rumors and books you pick up, and then letting you run free and do what you want. I can't recall where the quote is from, but a comment I heard about the game was that it reminded players that games are meant to be played with. Other single player games tell you where you need to go in order to proceed, where Skyrim gives you a country and tells you to have fun.

This you likely knew, but there is one part about that everyone highlights: The freedom. Going into random caves and ruins is fun, despite most of the interiors being copy/pasted and put into different order. It caters to a part of online games that has been neglected for a long time: Giving the world meaning. Exploration has been eschewed in favor of instances and set areas for questing or doing group activities.

I could continue, but bemoaning the loss of the world in MMORPG's is kind of old hat at this point. What I wouldn't give for a game like Star Wars Galaxies with huge worlds that people could create cities in and explore to find fun, iconic locations and secrets. SW:TOR is in Early Access phases and will be launching extremely soon, and it will likely tip the scales in favor of big budget games. That's the mindset I fear: Go Big or Go Home.

Salem has some good prospects for world building, I'm rather excited to see how that turns out. I have my fingers crossed that it gets enough attention to garner copycats. No matter how much we hate the slew of "Me too!" 's that followed WoW, it did quite a bit to work out the flaws of the theme park genre. Blizzard made their competitor's mistakes into their own success. Perhaps on a lesser scale this time, to avoid the mass amount of horror stories that the genre generated from its employees during that time.

I believe it will take some time before 'the world' as a concept re-emerges into the online gaming scene though. The MMO industry is notoriously slow, and we must wait until the players who are dissatisfied move into positions to enact changes in the industry. Until then, I suppose we'll all enjoy the offerings they have to offer. SW:TOR, anyone?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Onlines Worlds, First-Person Shooters and DUST

Combining MMORPG's and Shooters is always a difficult procedure. Striking the right balance between long-term progression and the fast-paced, drop-in and drop-out action of the modern shooter can lead to some disastrous results. DUST is going to be facing these challenges by integrating itself into EVE. I think the best way to figure out how they may accomplish this is by examining other games that have approached this style and see how they did it.

Firstly, let's look at Call of Duty: Black Ops, a game my roommate played much of in college. Playing with friends or dropping into a completely random game, you still were in for short, 10-20 minute matches with fast-paced action an clear objectives. Team Fortress 2 shares this, and will likely be more familiar to PC players, but I chose Black Ops because of their progression system. Besides choosing your weapons and customizing your character, you have three enhancement slots to slot perks in. You can level up these perks by completing certain achievements to get better versions.

So, FPS players are not strangers to any sort of long term progression. But we find ourselves with a problem when we lean to hard on the MMO aspect. Global Agenda, a free-to-play shooter available on Steam, is an example of taking too much from the RPG department. Levels and stats are, in my opinion, not systems many shooter fans want to put up with. Achievements, unlockables and monetary systems are good things to bring in though, and Global Agenda ports this last one well by offering upgraded versions of weapons for tokens earned in game.

Match based gameplay is a tricky one. Specifically, how do you reconcile the battles in EVE with the drop-in and drop-out gameplay? Individual players could be catered to using a mercenaries style system: While a battle is raging, the corporations sponsoring each side could offer a payment for participating. Bonuses could be awarded for achieving certain goals, such as a certain amount of kills or successfully capturing a control point. Battles would be long term, but players could individually pick and choose with contracts to take based on how much money they want to earn and how long they want to play for.

In fact, ISK could form the basis of a tremendous amount of systems for DUST. Contracts could be drawn up with mercenary corporations to pay them to defend or attack, paying a premium for a guarantee on teamwork and skilled combatants. Weapons, vehicles and gear are suddenly opened up into a new market for EVE businessmen, and being able to reliably acquire the supplies you need in order to keep waging a battle could become a concern for corporations as well.

We run into an issue when it comes to the skill system, because even though the 'set it and forget it' style may work for EVE, DUST players may prefer a system that gives them more tangible benefits. EVE players know the worth of a 5% increase in the long term, but FPS players are more likely to wonder why the hell they need to wait a month for that bonus. The official website says that skill points can be earned in-combat or offlines, but CCP could really take a page from CoD in this regard and offer more active bonuses in the form of perks. The skill system would work on a smaller scale, but the perks system really shines for being able to customize your character without giving players too many difficult decisions.

Quick gameplay, money, guns and perks make up a comfortable set of systems that a typical FPS player can enjoy in his game. If they wanted to play an MMO they have many options to do so, but prefer this style of gameplay. The long term battles for planets and long term view that EVE players tend to take in their schemes and actions need to be tempered by a mercenary system that can appeal to FPS players. Though I do not own a PS3 (and pray that they consider a PC version of the title) I'm excited for the possibilities it could bring to the market and will be looking forward to watching this sub-genre evolve whether it fails or succeeds.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Wouldn't it be Cool if...? Mobiles Games and Creativity

I have a friend who plays Words with Friends. This is not a metaphor for me being addicted to this game, I'm too busy trying to catch up with everybody who is playing Skyrim. I'll get there eventually guys.

No, I'm more interested in how its online connectivity works. Your board is saved, and you can essentially play a game over the course of a few days or a week casually.

You know what I wish I could play like that? Final Fantasy Tactics. Or any turn based strategy game. Hell, put Chess on that sucker, that'd be awesome. Fact of the matter is, we don't have enough turn-based strategy games around and the mobile platform is a perfect field to get in on this.

Competitive or versus the computer, the foundation is already in place: Short, meaningful and fun turns that have a larger effect on a battle that can take place over a larger period of time. Fun in short bursts, and in longer play sessions. And with the ability to store saved games either on your phone or iPod or on an online server that you can share with friends, you can play anything from Advance Wars to Civilization on your phone.

Of course, tweaks would have to be made to the system to suit it towards the casual gaming crowd. RPG's would have simplified stats and (in the case of FFT or Ogre Battle style games) very clear job trees. Same goes for civilization trees, though I'm sure a full game of Civilization with enough players could go on for a month or more.As cool as that sounds, perhaps ripping a page from the Civilization Revolution title and shortening the game length would be wise.

Regardless, the groundwork is laid for some potentially entertaining and big name titles. It is at this point in writing the article where I tried to go Google Civilization on Facebook in an attempt to find an example of a company branching out into new mediums with established titles. Instead, I found this. Damn you Civilization, for taking my idea 3 months before I wrote it. And bravo for taking the idea, because I like it a lot and (if I owned a smart phone) I would buy this in a heartbeat. I am disappointed in the lack of multiplayer support, but without any way of not making the games last weeks, I can't really blame them for it.

I'd love to see an Advanced Wars or Ogre Battle style game for the iPad or iPhone though. With my choices for turn-based strategy games wittled down to the Might and Magic series, I'm looking for some company to pull through for the genre.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Other People Ruin My Immersion

Those of you who follow this blog regularly know I am a Roleplayer. Those of you who don't, well, now you know.

I can't say I've been a part of many RP guilds for very long. I believe my longest stint was a year and a half. Pretty long in Internet Time but not so much in the grand scheme of things. I've done a lot of casual RP'ing to say the least, though those terms tend to be incredibly imprecise. I still don't know what constitutes a Heavy RP'er, for example, and I'm sure I could think up some weight related joke to go along with it, but that's not what this post is about.

 Let's start with a little story. I just finished Arkham City yesterday, having spent the past few days with family and my brother's Xbox. Ra's Al Ghul is in the game, and inspired by the great depiction of him that the developers had created, I wanted to make a character in City of Heroes based on that design. A Vigilante who dispenses lethal justice. And a stalker, that works great! He could have some great moral stories...

That is where I stopped. I thought about all the roleplayers I had met, not only in City of Heroes but in every other game, and immediately scrapped my project.

You see, setting up a storyline that involves other people is far more trouble than it is worth. I will admit, this becomes easier when you have a group of friends you know, but even then you have to take into account the player far more than the character. Every step must be planned in such a way that it would not offend or intrude on another person's character. From my experience, people roleplay to immerse themselves in a fantasy world, yet at the same time demand a high level of control over their character's story.

And because of this, roleplayers find themselves unable to trust anyone else to respect the supposed sanctity of their character's story. I have run into people who outright /ignore any character who brings unwanted conflict to their character. Though City of Heroes should be a fantastic ground for roleplayers to create comic book worthy tales, they are unable to do so when pitted against one another. An NPC group must be the target of the heroing/villainy in order for it to reliably work. I am extremely dissapointed that epic rivalries such as Superman and Lex Luthor, and Batman and the Joker cannot arise in RP because the players of those characters would never be spending most of their time arguing rather than allowing something bad happen to their character.

To bring this around to a relevant point for all you non-roleplayers, this is also the reason why Skyrim would make a terrible MMORPG. It's a fantastic world that you can immerse yourself into very easily, but put another person in there and you find yourself losing that immersion. Change nothing about the game except adding other players, and by simple act of people talking you will be jaunted out, forced to examine the game mechanics rather than the story and world, because that is what everyone will be talking about.

I think I'll make that Stalker anyway. But I'll be playing in the game, not in the world like I want to.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tin Mechanics, Because I'm No Longer in the Cool Club

Yup. I don't own Skyrim. My 15 minutes of being relevant is over, at least until SWTOR releases.

With that, and having worn myself out in the beta this week, I decided to load up an old favorite of mine: Monster Rancher 2. Many moons ago I played the hell out of that game. Never won the final tournament, but I enjoyed the whole raising and combining monsters gig, as well as stealing every CD in the house to see what monsters I would get. My favorite was the pile of goo in camo colors and a bandana you got from the Metal Gear Solid disc.

I rediscovered this game in college, specifically after my roommate decided to play Playstation games while drunk. He ended up making his monster run away after non-stop shooting range practices.

Liquor fueled escapades aren't what this post is about though. My recent thoughts about Salem and permadeath have put the idea of temporary versus permanent progression into my mind. For example, in MR2 the monster you raise only lives for a certain amount of time. Before they pass, you can freeze them and combine them with another monster. If both are sufficiently leveled, you get one that has far better stats than a normal one. Despite this, you still have to train them from youth to adulthood again. You suffer a setback for sure, but it is one that allows you to progress further than you could originally.

Which is why I think developers should capitalize on a reincarnation system in a permadeath styled game. Let's use League of Legends as an example. Each time you enter a match you need to level your hero once again, but the more matches you play the more points you get, and you can spend those on permanent upgrades to your Summoner, which affects every hero you play. Why not apply that to an MMORPG? You have a Soul, which serves as your permanent progression. Equipment and Gold are not carried by this soul, because as everyone knows, you can't take it with you when you die. Yes, you with the gold plated hubcaps. But your actions in "life" can improve your next life.

Gurgthok is an orcish rogue. He is not a very good rogue, because rogues need to be sneaky and Gurgthok is built like a linebacker. Despite this, he gets by on brute force alone and manages to get up to level 15 before he is bludgeoned to death by a group of enemies he over-pulled. Because he wasted his life points, a system used to revive in the field like a normal MMO, he must return as a new character. His life experience brought him a good deal of points to spend on his soul, as well as a few to put into the stats of his new character. Now an axe-swinging Barbarian, Gurgthok has never been happier. He and his axe are married and have three children together.

Souls can serve as a measure of what you have accomplished in your (potentially) many lives and what you can bring to your next character. Perhaps you unlock a trait you can apply to new character, thereby increasing exp gain, or strength, or giving a future class proficiency in something they would not normally have been proficient in. Design it less like a tree and more like a store, where players can pick and choose their own rewards, and add in some unlockable ones by completing special or challenging tasks in the game, and you are in business.

With these changes, raiding and daily quests can be nearly eliminated in favor of a crafting and exploration based game world. Everything is more dangerous now that you can permanently die, yet you still have a measure of progression while doing so. This eliminates one of the major drawbacks of permadeath. I did say one, not all. It would still not be a system for everybody. But I think it would make an excellent compromise.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Target Audiences in Advertising

Everyone is talking about the NDA drop and SWTOR.

I wanna talk about WoW. Because I'm a rebel. Or something.

So, a little tidbit off of MMO Champion from today:

"This Sunday, an all-new World of Warcraft television commercial will debut on CBS during the Chargers-Bears NFL game (kickoff time: 1:15 p.m. PST/4:15 p.m. EST). The ad is set to air sometime during the first half… and when the star of this spot asks, “what’s your game?” you’d best have an answer ready."

 The Cataclysm commercial as well was aired during the Super Bowl. Now, I realize that WoW attracts large audiences who undoubtedly come from diverse backgrounds. But when I think of the target audience for World of Warcraft, I don't think of this:

Those guys don't look ready to raid anything but a keg. But you know what? They may just play WoW.

Last time I talked about target audiences, I talked a bit about the phrase "It's not for you." Many people who keep up with gaming news are aware of Nintendo's infamous declaration that they were no longer targeting gamers with their products. I am curious if WoW is going a similar direction with that. Let's face it: I can't find many bloggers on my blogroll who still play WoW anymore, and if they do (as I mentioned in a previous post) they have to justify it. Sometimes at length, over a series of posts analyzing it to assure people that their experience was, god forbid, actually enjoyable.

Is that the general consensus amongst gamers? Though we have few sources (read: none) to back this claim, many have mentioned that WoW is many people's first MMO's, or even their first games. 12 million could possibly be more than the amount of people who consider themselves gamers in the US alone.

So perhaps Blizzard is no longer attempting to target WoW towards gamers, and instead trying to catch new customers in their nets. They still have Starcraft, Diablo and Titan to cater to their fanbase, which is a far cry more than the subtle middle finger Nintendo is giving us. But why football games? I mean, I understand the superbowl due to the high amount of people who watch it who aren't football fans, but why not the World Cup? Or maybe Shark Week? Hell, even during an episode of Family Guy would work pretty well.

I don't claim to know much about football fans, as I was raised in a household that loved baseball (despite being the odd one out who didn't like sports). So you could say my impressions are fairly minimal. But of the impressions I have, I can't put together WoW and football in many ways. Except maybe the rampant swearing during competitive matches, but that is more of a universal constant.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this? Is this simply Blizzard's attempt to advertise outside the gamer crowd and change WoW's target audience, or is there something about football fans that would make them enjoy orcs?


Just wanted to give everyone a heads up on this today.

I'll be working with ForceJunkies to prepare content for those who are interested. Keep an eye out for it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

On Audiences and Focus

Like many people, I got into the SWTOR beta this weekend. I will not comment on it due to the NDA, and because I save that writing for ForceJunkies, but I just felt like chiming in to say I'm a part of the MMORPG cool club now.

In all actuality, I wanted to talk about a thought that spawned off of the discussion in my last post. Specifically, audiences that games are targeted at. WoW spent most of Cataclysm with a narrow focus (Raids or Rated BG's), City of Heroes is extremely PvE and RP focused, to rattle off two examples.

In fact, let's use City of Heroes as an example. When City of Villains was introduced, one of the touted features was the introduction of PvP. They though, Hero vs Villain, this could work great. Except the game systems didn't work well at all, and certain builds could clean the floor with anyone who didn't have a specifically beefed up build. PvPing without these Flavor of the Month builds was an effort in futility. Numerous patches attempted to remedy this, until one patch both nerfed many builds and marked the end of development on PvP. The devs simply gave up, and haven't added any more PvP content since.

Now, there is a small sect of the game that likes it immensely. There is a much larger segment that enjoys the PvE more. Their second expansion, Going Rogue, has exactly 0 PvP content in it, but plenty of story and Roleplaying content.

Here's where we get into my opinion: I don't think games can truly "Do it all". Not only from a time and money perspective, but from a design perspective. Any WoW player can tell you all about how their favorite class was nerfed because of imbalance in PvP. Yet, theme park games such as Age of Conan, WoW, and as I mentioned, City of Heroes, have all had to make sacrifices in their far more popular PvE systems in order to accommodate the far smaller PvP audience.

Now, this isn't to bash PvPers. I wouldn't want a mainly PvP game to sacrifice in order to please PvE players. What I really want is far more specialized titles. EVE has proven that a niche market, if developed, can be profitable and even grow. Sure, many investors would prefer big name titles that turn a profit soon rather than titles that develop over years, but I'm going to ignore that factor for the sake of this post.

Darkfall fans would likely want to throw me down a staircase for this, but I don't believe we have a solid and polished PvP RPG title on the market. I'd like to see one, even if I'd never play it. Same goes for a sandbox title, or a crafting title. Star Wars Galaxies and A Tale in the Desert are good games in their own right, but one is shutting down and the other was showing its age from the day it was made.

I'm not going to ask why they haven't been made, because I know why. I simply wish to express that I want to see niche titles grow. I'm not a fan of permadeath or things of that nature, but I plan on playing Salem because I want to support development like that. Hell, I'd even go for a non-creepy version of Second Life. Because the internet can be used to form all sorts of communities that don't neatly fall into the games category, and I'd like to know some developer has a vision for that sort of thing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Salem and Why It Might Not Be For You

That title is a good thing, mind you. I'll be going over some week-old news and an old topic in the blogging circle here.

The week old news is the Salem AMA (Ask Me Anything) that one of the developers held on Reddit rather spontaneously last week. You can find the results here, and I found it extremely interesting despite not having any interest in playing the game.

The old topic is "It's not for you", a kind of phrase that gets passed around very little in the MMORPG community for a variety of reasons, most of which involve alienating potential customers.

Anyway, so reading through this I was surprised at the lack of bile or irrelevant things posted, but perhaps that is due to moderators or maybe the Reddit crowd being more mature or something. I dunno, I don't use that site. However, the tone I got from this guy is that he is completely unapologetic for the various systems in his game that can be considered "unforgiving". If you commit a crime, you have a good chance of having your character killed off, even if you are offline. Your character can be summoned and killed off when you are offline, should the series of clues left after the crime lead to your character. It's a system they used in their previous game, Haven and Hearth.

Let me pull a specific quote from there.

"That being said, I've played our previous game H&H...
...for months and through multiple worlds and I've only died like three times, and when I have died I've done so because I've been a thieving bastard and deserved it. You don't die very often, and if you want to stay out of trouble, you usually can.
But I fully understand that that cannot be everyone's cup of tea. And I'm fine with that. :)"

I'm fine with it too, Björn Johannessen. I have a lot of respect for a developer who can say that. Right now the MMORPG industry is in a place where games fit a certain criteria in order to appeal to a certain playerbase, and that is the theme park playerbase. I can't sit here and chastise companies for funding projects for that, because it is the largest market available and the one with the safest elements. I believe SWTOR will succeed because it is safe and it embraced that, and then went on to improve on the system rather than simply copy it and call it a day.

Whether we like it or not, the industry is in a place right now where it is subjected to the whims of that playerbase, and many companies can't afford to ignore complaints in order to keep subscribers. Despite the raging success of the F2P systems lately, I highly doubt anyone would say that DCUO was made free because it thought the system was a good fit. They did it first and foremost to get warm bodies in the door for revenue.

Independent studios, like the one creating Salem or the one behind Glitch, don't have those large production fees associated with intellectual properties or high-end graphics. Now is a fantastic time for those companies to come in and start building their own playerbases around systems we now consider niche. The sandbox genre, for example. SWG is closing down, but an independent studio can revive that style of gameplay and have a following. Granted, the American economy is not in a place where starting a company is a sound plan, but you understand.

Permadeath might not be your cup of tea, and neither is a game where the main goal is to make a community. But hey, it's somebody's thing, and they'll play it and love the hell out of it. I'm glad that Björn here knows that, because it means more time spent cultivating this style of gameplay and less time scrambling to rope in players who aren't interested in your game to begin with.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Surviving is Gameplay Too

Yes, surviving: As in, not necessarily winning, just being able to get away with your life.

Ahtchu left an interesting comment on my last post that got me thinking: "Canadians might not get along between themselves, but when Winter's Worst makes her visit, differences are set aside. They are set aside because no other option exists for survival."

There is a reason there is a tremendous following behind the idea of zombie apocalypses. They involve survival in a way that many people will never experience in their lives. We live in a society where we are at the top of the food chain and where our continued survival likely is contingent on how well we can keep an office job with benefits rather than throwing spears at gazelle. Furthermore, during a zombie apocalypse, it is essentially an entirely new world to explore. Familiar locations are dangerous and exciting, where you can find loot in the form of food, medicine, or bullets.

Now, I am free to make up bullshit statistics and guess that 90% of the people with those fantasies would prefer they be fantasies and not reality, but the ideas presented through these are excellent for game design. Even if we avoid the zombie apocalypse genre altogether (which we shouldn't: Some AAA company really needs to cash in on this) we find that the fun of surviving and exploring is minimized in favor of walled off predictable encounters. Our quests tell us where to go, and numbers tell us how likely we are to survive against an average foe.

There is no worries of survival or losing progress in WoW-like games these days. There are no deep dungeons where you may lose your gear, there are no expensive ships that you would have to work to replace, and the rewards from the bosses are not necessary at all because hey, you're going to replace it in the next tier's heroic dungeons or the next expansion's first questing zone. There's a reason EVE Online stories are way better than WoW stories: Even with minor death penalties that can even be entirely avoidable, EVE players have something to lose. And losing something can make for a way better experience than doing nothing but gaining things.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

We Don't Have Anyone Else to Blame

It's a popular topic whenever Dungeon Finder systems come up in conversation that they are the cancer, the reason communities are dying in theme park games. The topic came up in a podcast I recorded this weekend with ForceJunkies and the main response was that it would be a mistake for SWTOR to release without it, as RIFT tried to not incorporate it and buckled soon after. The idea that server-only Dungeon Finders was shot down as well as not being feasible due to long wait times.

City of Heroes has a Trial match-making system that is a Dungeon Finder system. It is server only. Yet, I still see people forming up groups to do these trials in Broadcast chat, and then using the queue to teleport there instantly. Groups are still getting formed without a cross-server Trial finder.

So...we have a limited example of this working. Is it us? Are we, as gamers, just too lazy these days to work to put a group together for these runs? Especially after the introduction of it, has our collective patience been whittled down due to being spoiled by 2 minute queues for Tanks and Healers?

With systems in place to teleport directly to the dungeon, we no longer need to worry about everyone flying to the entrance or summoning their lazy asses. We no longer need to worry about everyone being dedicated for a long dungeon run, as many of them take 20 minutes tops if you're prepared, 30 or 40 if you need to explain it, unless for some terrible reason you're playing some terrible game with hour long dungeons and pointlessly difficult encounter mechanics. I can't imagine a game like that might exist.

So really, the only job placed on our shoulders is to put the group together ourselves, either through our guilds or through broadcast chat. Many games have central areas where people congregate naturally at end-game, so finding like-minded individuals shouldn't be that hard. And with the other conveniences to the system, the only problem that might wreck the community is somewhere between the chair and the keyboard.

Are we wrecking our in-game communities? Did the introduction of extremely short dungeon finder queues encourage anti-social behavior rather than try to discourage it? We can blame all the weather-themed video game companies we want, but at the end of the day isn't it us who took these mechanics and used them to shield us from other people?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Lion's Den - Character Models

I have a confession to make: I find realistic models in MMORPG's to be absolutely ugly. LOTRO and DDO are the worst offenders in my book, but Everquest 2 is a close second. For example, look at this picture. It looks like a mannequin with wood shaped like hair perched on its head. And this is a promotional screenshot for the game. I find actual screenshots to be far worse. Even one of my favorite MMORPG's, City of Heroes, is guilty of making their faces look terrible. You could say that it is due to the age of these games, but APB and SWTOR are making their people look terrible as well.

Most people would reference the uncanny valley when approaching this subject, saying that the closer you try to imitate a human the more flaws you will pick out of it. And this is true. With how technology is progressing, we are able to move closer and closer to imitating a real person in a video game. But on the way we have to handle blank-faced monsters like the ones above.

Personally, I can't actually explain why I hate them. Is it the waxy or plastic skin, the blank (or horribly imitated) expressions, or the stiff movements? I couldn't tell you. And I can't really blame developers for not getting it right: the technology to replicate this more accurately is not feasible for an MMO project. But what I can plead is that they stop trying.

Seriously. Stop it. Maybe in 20 years we can make an MMORPG where the people don't look like Barbie's horribly mutated half of the family, but right now it is best to stick with stylized depictions. Yes, even if its a serious game. The original Batman cartoon with Mark Hamill was a cartoon, and was as serious as a heart attack. Pretty dark too. You can accomplish it to, and it will give your game a much longer life span.

I promised myself to spend a bit of time not mentioning that certain weather pattern named company, so let's go with two games most people would consider old. Super Mario World, and Baldur's Gate. Barring some severe nostalgia for Baldur's Gate, most people would say these days that they would prefer (in terms of graphics at least) to play Super Mario World. Let's give an MMORPG example then. Maple Story and Everquest 2 were released within a year of each other. Which one do you think has aged more gracefully than the other?

I don't mean to bash the graphic designers who put hours and hours of work into these 3D models, or the developers of the game for making this decision. They want their work to look a certain way, and they should be damned proud of what they accomplished. But your game will not age well. The rapid advancement of graphics technology (which admittedly, is slowing down lately) will make great games like Baldur's Gate completely unplayable to later generations. I have fond memories of both Star Fox 64 and Goldeneye 64. Guess which one I can still play these days?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I Wanna Choose My Own Adventure

Here's a fun little tidbit about me: I enjoy collecting original Playstation games. I have FF7-9, Crash Bandicoot, Marvel vs. Capcom and even an obscure title called Ehrgeiz which included Cloud Strike and Sephiroth as characters in a fighting game. And a really odd RPG dungeon crawler. Regardless, given that I've been sitting on my hands waiting for SWTOR to come out I chose look through them and found a copy of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature. Everytime I thought of Farmville I thought of my experiences with this game, as the experience was pretty much the same except for the micro transactions and the weird Japanese style dating sim. Though I'm sure Natsume could make a Facebook game that could blow Farmville out of the water (in terms of meaningful gameplay that is) that is not why I'm bringing it up.

I'm bringing it up because it's made me think of the styles of gameplay that go into a title. Not the overall parts, but really the little bits. I'm aware others have covered the topic before with varying results, but I felt like examining it anyway.

Using Harvest Moon, for example, you have many different parts to what would otherwise be a simple goal. Planting crops involves multiple steps, such as tilling the ground in a pattern to maximize yield, spreading the seeds, and then watering them every in-game day. Until it is harvest time and you can sell them and do it all again. There is the money aspect of it as well, which makes you budget and invest in crops or tools that will increase your yield, which will then increase your money, which you then invest once more. It's a fun cycle, and one with multiple choices. For example, you don't have to plant to get money. You can mine for a smaller daily yield, but more consistent as well. Or fish. Or buy a chicken, incubate the eggs and make more chickens to make more eggs to sell said eggs. Or cows. Or sheep.

...actually, that's about all the money making schemes I can think of at the moment. Regardless, you aren't restricted to how you get the money, just that you get the money. I'm all about choices. But I'm also all about goals. Put me in EVE and I won't have any idea what to do with myself. Put me in LOTRO and I'll charge on to end-game, raid...and then stop abruptly. Maybe do another class, but you get the point. But another class just isn't enough to warrant doing it all over again. Harvest Moon, I can make an animal farm and neglect crops entirely. Or only do crops, build a greenhouse and harvest tomatos all winter. Or an anagram of both. Same ending, different path.

Which brings me to why I'm worried about SWTOR. There are class specific quests, but each faction only has one path to end-game, quest-wise. And with all this focus on story...well, how many times can you sit through the same movie over and over again, regardless of how good it is? There is a limit.

But that was only a tangent. There are little pieces, and the little pieces are what make a game, and in my opinion, an MMORPG. Kill dudes to get gear to kill dudes is just not complicated enough to hold someone's attention. Sure, the ultimate goal may be to kill the biggest dude, but maybe I want to mine stuff to build weapons to kill dudes to get to the better mining stuff. Or build a robot. Or make enough money to hire myself a group of people to kill dudes for me.

Or better yet? Join the dudes and kill the people who are trying to kill the dudes. I don't want to talk about balance or feasibility for any of these, because I know I could come up with a solid rebuttal for all of them. But at the heart of it I just want more options to experience the setting they give me, whether it be sci-fi, fantasy or modern.

Friday, October 21, 2011

WoW is "That Guy" to the Blogging Community

You know the one. Maybe it's a family member, or a person in your group of friends. Nobody really wants to hang out with him, but they do begrudgingly, and when they do they feel the need to justify it. At length. I mean, sure, we used to think he was cool when he was the only one we hung out with. But now that we have other friends we've been trying to avoid him.

But we sure as hell are gonna talk about him. In fact, it's the major topic when we hang out with our other friends. Sure, we don't tell it to their face, but once he's out of earshot it's "Did you hear what he said? I can't believe he's doing that. I would never do that. I have other friends who would never do that. He just wants attention." Even people who haven't talked to or hung out with him in years have an opinion about him.

Well, Blizzard wanted our attention, good or bad. They got it.

And that's all I gotta say about Blizzcon.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wouldn't it be cool if...? Facebook-Style Games Could Help

I've spoken before on this blog about how I am in support of game companies implementing community building elements in their websites. MyDDO and MyLOTRO by Turbine are excellent ideas, if a bit poorly executed due to the lack of ease in using the system. Well, let's take that, and combine my thought that games outside of the main game could give benefits in the main game, and we have ourselves with a game company that not only has its own intra-community social network, but Facebook-style games to go with it.

Though I would not go so far as to create anything like Farmville in terms of its demand on players, there is no reason there cannot be games like that. Or perhaps a side-scrolling hack and slash. Or how about a turn-based city management game? You know what? I like these ideas. Let's pretend for a minute we have ourselves an average, fantasy based MMORPG that includes these three games on their website that are linked to your account.

First you have your side-scrolling hack and slash game, in the same vein as Golden Axe and Final Fight and those old Ninja Turtle games that ate up all your quarters. You'd pick a character, and play as a simplified version of your class while you tear through enemies and bosses from the various enemy factions in the game. Along the way, you'd collect a special type of coin that can only be used in this game. Collecting enough of these coins would allow you to unlock bonuses from the shop that would carry over to the main game, such as pets, mounts, or even useful consumables. You could also find treasure chests with actual currency for the main game or special rewards.

And we're back to the main game, in which, after you leveled your character to max and have a bit of gold handy, you go to a vendor and buy yourself some land. A warrior/mage/rogue/amorphous blob must have a home to go back to, right? You would be given a property and some farmland to help support it. The house and its amenities would be dealt with in-game, but some of those amenities would carry over to assist a Farmville-style game where you tend to the land. Not specifically your character, but the groundskeeper you hired that served as the unlock for the game. The currency from this game would serve to upgrade the property and house itself, eventually making it bigger, adding more furniture, more land to manage in the game as well as more in-game bonuses of course.

But wait, you say. City management? Yes, with a large enough property and/or with enough in-game currency (dual ways to unlock), you could purchase a larger spot of land and play a turn-based city management game. Your goal is to attract villagers to live there and keep them happy by building homes, creating jobs, ensuring food sources and creating places of worship. You would pick the locale, race of the villagers (Human, Elven, Dwarven, Amorphous Blob) and the resources of the surrounding area would be randomized, though lean towards certain things depending on locale. Far better chance of finding a mine in the mountains than in the grasslands, after all. This could unlock special titles, such as Lord or Baron, and players would be able to create trade agreements for resources to help each other.

These things would require a bit of work on the developers part to justify in-game, such as how it is possible to find so many plots of land for people to buy, but I'm going to assume someone intelligent and well-paid is capable of finding a solution. These games would make for an interesting alternate progression in a game, as well as a fun way to keep players minds on the game and company while away from a main computer and incapable of logging in. Some of these, such as the farming and city management ones, could easily make their way onto the iPad or iPhone/Droid platforms as well.

I find these little brainstorming sessions fun. Though it could serve to draw little attention, or drain resources from the development of the core game, I nonetheless find it interesting to think about the possibilities of working with unorthodox ways to expand a game. I think the social networking game could serve useful to some games on the market. WoW could add a few minigames to their site, or SWTOR could expand the companion system to let you play as them in some RPG style adventures when you send them on missions. The possibilities are pretty exciting.

Off topic for a moment, I have some exciting news. As I mentioned, I said I would be writing a bit more on SWTOR soon. Well, I now work for ForceJunkies as a columnist to help them cover the game up to and beyond launch. I'm very proud to be a part of the team and I hope you will look to them for The Old Republic news and game commentary.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Facebook's Gaming Social Cost

Tobold's posts on Facebook lately have given me a quote of his that got me thinking about Facebook games in general.

"Different games have different amounts of social cost, and if you are willing to pay that social cost, there are some good games to be found."

To recap, Tobold was banned from Facebook because he used his online moniker rather than his real name, and did not use his real life friends and family to advance in a Facebook game. Instead he met people online who wanted to play those games and progressed with them. He goes into more detail about what exactly is wrong about that second part: I'd like to focus on social cost.

Firstly, social cost can in a lot of cases be a big deal to gamers. "Outing" yourself as a gamer tends to have social consequences, as the debacle with that Gizmondo writer and the Magic the Gathering Champ displayed rather messily. Given that Facebook is typically connected to all of your closest friends and family members, spamming them with posts from a game is a sure way to out yourself.

I see a bit of an exception here though: I have family members and friends who are not gamers in the slightest (and would look down on video gaming as a hobby), but felt not a tinge of remorse or irony in spamming my Facebook wall with Farmville invites. They were just as dedicated to these things as I was to my WoW account.

It all seems a little weird until you realize a key thing about Facebook games: They aren't for gamers. I'm not talking about design and actual gameplay, because most gamers already know that Facebook games are too simplistic or shallow for their tastes. I'm talking about target audience. The rule about not meeting people online solely for the game is the key factor here. The target audience is the average person who has free time and knows little about games. A gamer can play Farmville, look at the cash shop and say that there are other games out there more worth his money. And there are. An average person is more likely to spend money and invite their friends to play and do so too.

I'm not only talking about the social cost that a person pays in order to play the game. The company pays a social cost too, in that their model pretty much prohibits communities from forming around a game. Though they exist, they are small and not very organized. Zynga hosts forums for them, but their largest section has 67k threads. Possibly ten times as many posts. Though it may seem like a lot, consider for a moment that this game at one point had 8.1 million players. That's 1 in every 120 players making a thread in the Farmville Discussion thread, not including the deleted ones.

World of Warcraft has 195,590 threads in its General Discussion board alone. And this is a forum that just launched with Cataclysm.

Facebook has enacted rules that shoot down any chance of a Facebook game cultivating a community of players, and that is why the crowds move from game to game, abandoning each one in the process. Most of you have already heard the news that Zynga games are hemorrhaging players at a rate far faster than WoW ever did. When it comes to making lots of money fast, Zynga has got it in the bag. But they pay their own social cost, and that is in an extreme lack of sustainability. Take care of your players, and they will take care of you. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What I'm Playing: October

Let's jump right into it, shall we?

City of Heroes - I picked this up as soon as it went free to play. It's been one of my favorite MMO's for quite some time, but I haven't been able to justify spending the money on a sub lately. Mainly because I spend some time with it, and then put it down for a week or two either because I get tired of the starting zone from creating too many characters, or get tired of running door missions. Regardless, I spent five bucks in the cash shop, which I didn't not anticipate wanting to do until I picked it up again. There are some clearly overpriced things in there, but a good portion of it is fairly priced. Costume pieces, for example, come out to close to a dollar each (or 10 bucks for a costume pack of around 20-60 pieces) and are account wide unlocks. So there's that.

The Sims 3 - Borrowed some disks of the expansion packs from a friend, and though I haven't tried the Facebook version (because I actually like my Facebook friends) I can see why the transition works incredibly well. It's repetitive, gives you rewards, and rather open ended on what you can accomplish yet gives you tangible goals at the same time. I am glad, though, that I borrowed them rather than bought. I am not of the mindset that any of the expansions (expecially the "Stuff" packs) are worth the money EA charges for them. Plus this game takes up a stupid amount of hard drive space.

Civilization 3 - I spent six hours over the course of 3 days building up a economical, scientific civilization before Otto Von Bismark declared war on me, and all of his allies ganged up on me when I tried to defend myself. I have never been so angry at a historical figure in my life.

Steam sales have been lackluster for me lately, so I may go back to KOTOR 2 and have a Light side playthrough. Tried to get KOTOR 1 to work but failed miserably and just uninstalled it. Team Fortress 2 is still on the list, of course, but barely worth mentioning.

A few notes at the end here, though. I may be doing some more writing on SWTOR soon, so keep an eye out for that if you are interested. Furthermore, I just wanted to pass along Levelcapped's link to a D&D Insider article.  I agree with them in thinking this is exactly what is missing from MMO's these days. It makes for an interesting read.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Customer or Guest? Part 2

Most of you likely know about the CCP's player council known as the CSM (Council of Stellar Management). Given the opinions that many of the blogs I read have of the CSM, finding out the S stood for Stellar made me chuckle a bit. Regardless, this is the most famous example of the voice of players having an impact on the game that they play. There are plenty who would love to say that devs mainly listen to people complaining on the forums after their favorite class was nerfed, but outside of the WoW forums most MMORPG's have very passionate, vocal and well-meaning players who post on their forums. The City of Heroes forums come to mind, as the devs even invite players to PM them on the forums with concerns, issues and questions.

Our question then is quickly answers: Being able to voice your opinion about things that devs control (game balance, feature suggestions, Moose mounts), have your "hosts" listen to them and have them actually address those concerns is clearly a game company treating you like a guest rather than a customer. Obviously the forums are a good place for this, as the most verbose and vocal of your customers will tend to congregate there. Or create their own blogs, which is pretty much the same thing with a dash of narcissism.

Is that even a good idea though? As Stabs could tell you, letting the wrong people into something like a Council can cast suspicions and doubt on every decision your company makes. But being so choosy about who is let on will make it appear as though you are only letting those who sympathize with you onto the Council. Having no council at all, yet expressly saying that you are listening is working great for Blizzard, as no one could tell if they were paying attention to their players until they started dropping subs like they're hot. You can see how this quickly becomes a PR nightmare. Yet, not listening to your playerbase will give you a situation like the NGE, so opting out is a huge mistake.

A customer is in some ways more than just a guest. A guest in your home is someone you enjoy having around, to laugh and have a good time with while you serve them dinner or host a World Cup party or what have you. A customer doesn't need to be any of those things, and yet you need them more simply because alienating them will bankrupt you. Like the guy who decides to tell you all about this neat thing that happened when he was drunk. He pays you to be there, and you need to tolerate him. Not only that, you have to act like you appreciate his presence within the system. Until he breaks a rule, of course, but the point is made. If that guy is a good portion of your playerbase, you need to work with him and not against him.

Players don't always know what they want, and what they want might not even be best for the game. As flawed as the system may seem, Blizzard's policy seems to win out. You can do your best to assure the customer that they are being listened to, and then take the action that needs to be taken. Their implementation could use a little work, such as when they made the leveling in WoW a joke, but the policy is solid. Ultimately the best voice a customer has is his or her dollar, which can be taken elsewhere.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Customer or a Guest?

For a new job I am starting, I recently had to watch three and a half hours of workplace training videos from the late 80's/early 90's on every topic from how to greet a customer to how to handle dangerous chemicals. This three and a half hours included the time I spent fast forwarding through bits when the HR manager left the room. Judging by my interactions with her in the past, I don't think she'd blame me in the slightest.

Regardless, one of the videos caught my attention. It was a corny one about a guy in a diner, saying he loved the diner because they treated him like a guest in their home rather than just a person they took money from. Given CCP's recent apology letter to their own playerbase, it got me thinking: do game companies treat their players as guests or as customers?

It's important to draw a distinction here for MMO companies: Most game companies only have to get you in the door to buy the game and then their job is done. Patching is sometimes done through Xbox Live or PSN but typically once they have your money they don't need to worry about the experience too much. This is the main reason we have shitty movie tie-in games: The companies know they will make a profit even if the game is garbage. MMO's, however, need to be able to retain players in order to make profit. And here's where the distinction in my title comes in: Customer or Guest?

Customer service, of course, is a big part of this distinction. After all, if late 80's training videos are to be believed, companies distinguish themselves the most in how they handle a problem rather than when everything is going good. So let's take a look at CCP's apology letter, shall we?

Everything before the section entitled "Incarna" is pretty much a flat out admission of what everyone knew who was keeping up with the fiasco. Taking personal blame onto himself is a bold (possibly arrogant in some lights) move, but not at all uncalled for given the playerbase's reaction. Some of us have already lost faith in the CSM and their effect on EVE, which makes the past few months seem like CCP could do nothing but wrong. I'm aware he addresses this concern at the end of the letter, but the apology is a lot of "I'm sorry" and not enough of "We're going to fix this."

Which is why I raised a brow at the second half, the section Incarna to the end. He doesn't actually give a new direction, or really reassure players that things are going to be going the way they want. This in particular popped out at me;

"Visual self-expression in a virtual setting is a core psychological component of gaming; most people need to see their avatars, or something vaguely humanoid, or else they don’t connect with the game. We were behind the curve and it needs to be addressed for the sake of EVE’s longevity."

Regardless of the response they got from Incarna, Hilmar here isn't apologizing for pushing the game in a direction that players were unhappy with. He's apologizing for not doing it right. Not a single person I have ever read or spoken to about EVE has said anything about wanting more personal customization, or a better avatar. Sure, they were cool, but then they launched into epic stories about pirates and corporations backstabbing each other and making millions on the market. EVE has never really been about what you see. It's been about what you do.

If I was an EVE customer right now, I'd feel like that apology pretty much set me on rails. Sure, I may be a passenger on the train and want to go somewhere, but the conductor is doing his best to convince me that where he was going is way better than my destination. If I had to answer the question in the title, I'd say I was being treated like a customer. The company needs me to spend money there to keep things going, but they don't necessarily want to do things the way I'd like them to. Nothing wrong with that, I can always find another company, but CCP doesn't seem to want to let their customers leave while they steer the ship in a different direction.

(Edit: Anjin has informed me that Hilmar's apology was paired with Zulu's announcement of features coming out this winter. This paints a far better picture for the direction the company is going, and renders my opinion in the above paragraph fairly void.)

But being treated like a guest doesn't mean they are going to do exactly what you want either. I don't go to my barber to get a great served meal, and I don't go to EVE to play dress up with an avatar. I have a favorite diner and City of Heroes to fill those shoes. Treating your playerbase as guests in your home, in your world or universe that you've created, means taking what they love and expanding on it, or giving them more of it, or improving it. World of Warcraft noticed that many people enjoyed the lore and boss fights in raid, but didn't have the time to commit to a raiding group. So in WOTLK, they made it incredibly accessible, cutting out the middle man (Heroic Dungeons) and letting players step up. Now, they are adding in an Easy mode for raids so that casual players can see raid content, and guild groups can do Normal and Heroic modes. Whether you agree with the changes or not, they are expanding on the things that they know a good portion of their playerbase will enjoy.

I think I'll stop this post here, for now. In the next segment, I want to address player's role in influencing company decisions and how it relates to the Customer/Guest idea.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Freedom Can Sometimes be Confusing

Before I begin this post, I wanted to take a moment to say that I broke 500 page views a month for the month of September. Hardly a big milestone, but it's one that I'm happy about. Just wanted to thank everyone who reads and those who take the time to comment and discuss with me. It means quite a bit to me.

With that out of the way, today's topic relates to the game I've been spending the most time with lately: City of Heroes Freedom. Besides being a far more patriotic title, it means the game has gone free-to-play. I'll spare the exact details, because if you have read an article on it you know the formula they plan to use. If not, Massively will fill that gap for you.

No, I wanted to talk about the design of their rewards program. I find it a very useful gating system, as well as an excellent replacement for the VIP rewards system they once had. You know, if anyone could figure the damned thing out. Let's pull up a screenshot, shall we?

So you got your levels. Tier 1 through 9, and then Tier 9 VIP which you can only unlock if you are a subscriber. All free players are automatically Tier 1, until they buy points, at which point they are upgraded to Tier 2. I'm not sure if they are upgraded to Tier 2 if they buy any amount of points, or if they buy the requisite 1,200 points (15 bucks, a month's subscription worth). You also get a Reward point for each month you subscribe and each year you subscribe. Regardless, from there you need to buy point or subscribe to fill out your tier and get to the next one.

Sounds easy, right? Not done yet. Each tier has certain benefits, the full listing can be found here. Yes, that is a link to a non-City of Heroes site. For some reason, I can't find this information on their site at all, nor in-game. (Addendum: Turns out if you hover your mouse over the bar on the right, it will tell you the permissions it unlocks. News to me.) Regardless, each tier unlocks certain things. For example, Tier 1 gives you "Local, Team, Help, Friends, League, Arena, Leveling Pact, Looking for Group, Emote, and Architect Communication Channels". And you don't get Broadcast chat until Tier 3, locking free players out of most zone-wide channels. Useful for keeping out spammers, yet keeping channels new players would use.

Things like the Auction House, Architect Entertainment and Invention system are locked until much higher tiers, though 30-day licenses for these systems can be bought on the cash store. Of course, all of these things are unlocked if you subscribe of course. Subscribers also get 400 points with their sub, so it's worth a look for those who are seriously looking into the game.

It's a useful system, if not blatantly telling free players they need to subscribe or pay real money to unlock most of the features. As with most new things, it's a bit daunting and new, but it is a way to reward players who play for free but buy a metric ton of points with most of the features subscribers would get. Looking at this chart, it would take 40,800 points to unlock everything a free player could unlock. Which is $510. Which means you probably should just go ahead and subscribe if you're thinking about doing that. Even if you spread those costs over 2 years, you'd still be paying $21 a month to gradually unlock something subscribers get for $15.

Is it a cash grab? Oh yeah. Is it hidden behind this chart and points? Definitely. Is it going to work? Absolutely. I'm playing for free, and I have an itch to buy points from them even though I wasn't willing to pay for the subscription. I commend NCSoft, and hope they find a lot of success with this. But damn it if I didn't have to refer to a wiki to research this post.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Every Endgame is PvP

The title and focus of this post is a reference to something Gevlon wrote recently. I read his blog quite often, but do not comment. Regardless, the full quote is this:

"To understand the problem we have to recognize two basic points. At first, every endgame is PvP. The PvE players want to get higher on the charter. Even the pet collectors try to show off their rare pets, what are rare because others don't have it. You can dampen the PvP aspect, you can help the ones behind, you can add more content to explore, delaying the endgame for the more casuals, but eventually in all games the player will have to encounter the endgame that is PvP by nature and runs below the slogan of "gtfo noob" (or trivial and people leave in boredom)."

I was reminded of a post I had made previously on individualistic communities. The average WoW player does not need to cooperate with anyone else to achieve his goals. The Dungeon Finder, and soon the Raid Finder, will allow him to gem and gear up while only needing to rely on himself. Gevlon even recognizes it in his latest post, saying,

"The problem of Cataclysm from the community viewpoint is that the difficulty comes from the "dance" that can't be helped. I can't give you dance, I can't carry you over the dance, I can't even help you learn the dance. I can only give you meaningless advices as "watch more videos", which is a solitary activity."

Without these elements; without needing other players to progress, you have no reason to socialize. So we have to give people incentives to be in guilds. Though this might seem like a great idea, look at it from another light: WoW has to give people a reason to be in a guild, because being social isn't a good enough reason.

Where is my Massively Multiplayer game? SWTOR devs promise to keep their queues within the server, but also say they will evaluate the impact this has on the game. Sound familiar? How about RIFT? The players of MMORPG's are far too used to the convenience this brings to be willing to give it up. Once again, social interaction is neglected. There is a much larger focus on the game part of MMORPG than the multiplayer part.

But then again, how can a company create reasons to be social? Removing the Dungeon Finder is a popular response to this sort of thing. Or making it server-only. However, the second option there would damn small servers, so it may be simply more merciful to remove it altogether. I don't believe removing it from games is even possible at this point though. People love their conveniences, and removing them would cause a tremendous outcry. Imagine if you had to collect your mail at your town's post office instead of at your mailbox. It is a longer trip to accomplish the same thing, and though you are being more social, you don't realize what a hassle it is until you have a mailbox. Then, suddenly, you never want to live without one.

While we are blaming the players for these design choices, let's pick a quote from Game By night which has been popular in the blogosphere* recently.

"As husbands and wives, careers, kids, bills, and mortgages enter the picture, gaming time tends to slide until it either disappears  or the classification on your gamer card changes entirely. MMOs are becoming more casual because, you guessed it, we’re becoming more casual."

Big thanks to Bio Break for featuring it in a big, bold place where I could find it easily. This quote puts some things into context. Most avid gamers are aware of the statistic that most gamers are over the age of 30. WoW is 7 years old, and the free time that college kids and early 20-something year olds had to play this game is now gone. The same audience they have held has changed in a big way, and WoW evolved their game to try to keep them. It's only natural to create the Dungeon Finder for people who are starved for time to play and see content, right?

Except they are suddenly no longer designing for the crowd that made their game popular in the first place: The 20-something year olds with disposable income and a lot of free time. Sure, 30 and up may have more income and those who choose MMO's as a hobby will appreciate the design choices, but they are also the ones who are less likely to pursue new social connections in comparison to the 20 year olds. 30's and up are likely to already have established family and friend circles that investing in those connections online is no longer worth the time. Yet, they enjoy the game and may also enjoy the fact that there is an established community to talk with when the desire arises. The community is there when you want it, but you never need it.

And so we bring this full circle. How exactly does this make endgame PvP now? We seemed to have ridden the Tangent train all the way to the middle of No-Longer-Relevant, New Mexico. The word of the post is rewards. It is one of the reasons the badges system was developed, and it is the reason why every endgame is PvP. Because despite not needing the community to gain your rewards, everyone else in the community wants your rewards too. Raid drops, dungeon drops, and even the guy who is camping you in Warsong Gulch and preventing you from gaining honor (before they handed it out like aggressive free-sample marketers at a food stand in your local mall. You know the ones.) are all in the way of you getting rewards. You are no longer competing against a game challenge for your items, you are competing against your guild and PuG mates. Badges help alleviate this, yes, but since they do not replace loot they still do not prevent this from happening.

Your teammates want your loot. Your teammates are preventing you from winning Tol Barad/Wintergrasp/Random Battleground. Your teammates keep screwing up on the Sapphiron fight because damnit, how hard is it to stand behind an ice block? And you can't help them in any way. It is you against the World of Warcraft. Or Middle Earth. Or whatever the world name is in Warhammer.

*I refuse to believe that "blogosphere" is a real word.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jagex - Ahead of the Curve?

I've mentioned in one place or another how Jagex's browser game Runescape is full of ideas that the wider MMO field should take to heart. Today's Massively article on their clan citadels puts that into full view.

Massively Interviews Jagex

Guild Housing? Check.
Guild vs Guild Activities? Check
Alternate way to level without depopulating main areas? Check
Balanced for guilds of any size? Check

From the looks of it, Jagex may actually be ahead of the game when it comes to designing features for MMORPG's. Guild housing is a major requested feature that few games offer lately, (City of Heroes, SWG to an extent, Guild Wars) and this not only addresses that issue but gives players reason to do stuff in it with their guild. It isn't just a fancy space to appease RP'ers, it is a full fledged system.

Apologies for the lack of a full post today, but I felt the need to point that out. It was one of the first online games I ever played, and it still can surprise me at times.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Social Networking and MMO's

Most of you are already aware of SWTOR's pre-release guild feature. Guilds are being formed and recruited for, and falling apart due to drama months, and in some cases years, before the game is even released. As entertaining as I find the guilds who are recruits for PvE, PvP, RP, Raids, Questing, Dungeons, Social and Back-rubs without even having access to the game, if I spent my writing time correcting people who were wrong on the internet then my blood pressure would skyrocket.

No, I've had a bit of a pet cause here for a little while that I've mentioned in comments on other blogs and I'd like to expand on it. It's about social networking and MMO's. SWTOR is just one example of such features that I think should be capitalized on.

Let's begin with Turbine. I don't think it's a stretch to say that when it comes to designing a website that works, Turbine is not on the top of my list. However, they have put together community tools that are not only interesting, but keep the community connected to each other. I'm talking about your own personal web page. Let's pick one for example from the featured pages: Samiusbot's Page

Much like a typical forum profile, you have a small section for a profile picture, a bit about yourself and what they are up to. Though I loathe the huge length of the page, you also have a journal/blog of your own. A friends list, a characters list, an RSS Feed, a wall to post on, a screenshot gallery, and even a character log of what your character has been doing lately. This can be easily summed up as a DDO Facebook, and even under a username instead of a real name. Anyone who briefly glanced at the gaming community during the RealID fiasco knows that this part is an important feature.

The site has flaws, of course. I am no web designer, in case you haven't noticed the generic template for the blog, but navigation is difficult and finding other players on your server or who share similar interests in difficult to say the least. But it does attach to your forum account and makes for an excellent addition to the community.

Next up we have SWTOR. As mentioned above, they have allowed the creation of guilds before launch. What you may not know are the tools guilds are given. Once again, it is worthy to note that guilds are connected to your forum accounts. Here is the search feature for finding a guild in SWTOR. The criteria are staggering on comparison to any other MMO site, and that isn't all. There is a built in application system to apply for a guild, a guild site to explain your goals and activities, a public forum for potential recruits or friends of the guild, a private forum for guild members and, of course, a roster.

Guilds are free to use these features as much or as little as they want, but not using them is missing out on one of the easiest ways to recruit from the community. The same goes for those looking for a guild. Now, whether a guild lives up to the criteria it sets for itself is another story altogether, but giving them the tools to expand rather than leaving it up to third party sites and trade chat is a major boon.

Lastly, I'd like to briefly discuss RealID. Cross-game chat is worthless when talking about an MMO: MMORPG players are typically loyal to one game and I know very few who would use such a feature already, not to mention how many actually subscribe to more than one game from one company as is. No, I'm talking about grouping with friends who aren't on the same server for a dungeon finder group, and being able to chat and play with them. I'm a role player, and I prefer to play on RP servers. Though I have joined a guild that facilitates that, my friends in real life aren't into it. So they play on normal servers. Being able to chat and play with them, even though we prefer different server settings, is an excellent addition to any MMO and should be considered whenever a dungeon finder system is implemented.

I am waiting for the day that an MMO company puts together a polished community system that allows gamers to network on their own terms. We're capable of making very good communities when given the resources. And it would sure help keep people around and subscribing, if the bottom line is all you're worried about.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wouldn't it be Cool if...? Speechless

Everyone is interested in Bioware's fully voiced MMO, SWTOR. Despite not being the first to have quality voice acting, they certainly will come in cheaper than hiring Mark Hamill and half the cast of Firefly like DCUO did. Still, I have been thinking lately...

How about an MMO with zero text or voice?

It could be of any style, really: Sandbox or theme park, sci-fi or fantasy. The main point is that it would have no dialogue, no voice acting, no text of any kind. Everything would be communicated through speech bubbles with picture in them, or character gestures such as pointing. Characters would not receive names either.

This hypothetical game is to prove a bit of a theory of mine: Players will become inventive to work around the communication barrier by relying on the in-game gestures, and by that measure become more cooperative. Of course, some will cheat and use ventrillo or third party chat programs, but you can't win them all.

The style would extend to the entire interface as well. The only thing with text would be the launcher program, with news, and the options screen. Otherwise, you have the minimap, your inventory, and health/energy bars. To make it work, things would have to be presented in a clear, possibly a bit cartoony, fashion so that wood in your inventory is never mistaken for something that you made out of wood.

I think this could present interesting challenges to the players. Say you have a sandbox style game, and you are attempting to build a house. Trading for materials is its own challenge, as well as just building the thing. Though, now that I think about it, cooperative sandbox would work best for this model. If there would be combat, abilities would not be able to be used as text is disallowed. Or, at least many abilities.

Music and sounds would play important roles as well. Setting the mood, of course, but also knowing when danger is nearby. I would expect players could choose from a number of noises to make that could mean a variety of things, such as enemies incoming, help needed, or just being obnoxious.

I will admit, I haven't got the idea entirely fleshed out yet, but I find the concept very interesting. What do you think?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remember The Time Stories had Consistency?

I've been mulling over the idea of class stories for SWTOR for some time now. I'll get all of my praises out first: It will make leveling and interesting and fun experience for the player, it does an excellent job at breaking up the grind by making players make meaningful choices that don't involve which boar they should be disappointed in next for not having a liver, and can make even non-roleplayers have an idea of who their character is and possibly introduce them into that hobby.

But what about story consistency?

Most of us are aware at how quickly player victories are turned into the victories of major NPC's or how nobody can ever remember our names despite us being around often enough for them or be remembered. (Varian killed Onyxia, Tirion and a nameless group killed the Lich King) But these little parts were there for a REASON. The choices were taken out of the players hands in order to create a story that made sense and was cohesive.

Give players choice in how a story progresses without actually having the world progress with it lands many players in different places. Which makes players create big grey spots in what is going on in the world, especially when it comes to Flashpoints. Let's use two on SWTOR's site as an example.

A Sith Flashpoint gives players the option to let a captain who had disobeyed orders to live or to kill him off for disobedience. This is the captain of a battleship, and because of this Bioware can't touch the NPC in any way outside of this Flashpoint. Is he dead or alive? What were the repercussions of either decision? They can't do that without having all these different diverging threads that need to fit in to the game world. Another involves the Republic rescuing a Jedi from a prison. It's important enough a mission to warrant sending players after it, but then we have a break in story where the outcome is once again hazy.

As I've been briefly mentioning, there seems to be two ways to go from here. The first is to consistently make diverging threads of plot, which would be too much of a mess for any company to handle, especially since Flashpoints are the equivalent of dungeons and can be run over and over again. The second is simply to make any and ALL player decisions either so minor they can't affect the overall world/universe or those that do have a major impact have hazy after conclusions.

And then we have future content updates. I don't doubt it will be a bad idea to keep introducing NPC's to kill off or spare constantly, as it is a big universe, but sooner or later our plot decisions are either going to feel incredibly minor or they're going to run out of major NPC's they can even use. Bioware really has to walk on eggshells here in their writing, or else major characters will have to be written out on the sole basis of ambiguity in their fate.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tin Mechanics - Scaling Difficulty

"Mercifully, we're seeing the start of a change in the way these mechanics are implemented. Lately, the big recurring element is the idea of scaling difficulty, instances or quests that grow or shrink depending on the size of the group. And, of course, that prompts fears that the game is just catering to solo players and the removal of any interesting group experiences, turning the entire game into a single-player experience that just happens to be online."

I seem to enjoy responding to Massively's Soapbox posts, don't I?

Scaling difficulty is something I have a fairly biased opinion on, especially when it comes to group content. This is because I spent a good amount of time in City of Heroes, a game I consider to have done it right. Except for the part where the servers crash because too many people are in one spot. Then, yeah, that just sucks.

Back on track here, I'm at a loss as to how one could describe this (at least, City of Heroes' implementation) as catering to the solos and removing group experiences. It can't be due to efficiancy: Group players can get more exp/hr than a solo player ever can. It can't be endgame, because all of the important endgame content isn't soloable at all. And the most important aspect, if my previous post is of any indication, is that scaling content doesn't take away from developer time on group content. It just makes the group content available to players who don't have the time, energy or patience to put together a group. 

I bolded the ever-loving hell out of that statement because it's important to me. Group content that can be soloed should take precedence over solo content you can bring a group to. An example of the latter would be quests in WoW these days. They are built for you to do them alone. Sure, you can bring along a friend, but it's not necessary and sometimes actually makes you level up slower. If reports on the exp rate are any indication, perhaps that would be a good thing to do.

No, group content that can be soloed is like the Rikti Invasion events that pop up. If the aliens show up in your zone, a number of mobs will spawn next to you that have two distinct qualities: Firstly, they have no level. Anyone can fight them and win, though higher level characters who have improved their powers clearly have an advantage, and even a level 1's buffs, debuffs, heals and damage can substantially contribute.

However, I don't think scaling content should be universally applied to a game. That is a poor decision. It should apply to instances, and events such as the one I mentioned above. Why? I think Zubon from Kill Ten Rats said it the best, despite him talking about Borderlands: " It’s great that you can have a Playthrough 2 where everything is even-con to make it a potentially meaningful challenge, but it really drives home that you put levels in a FPS where they add so little that you built mechanics to get around having levels in your FPS."

There are options available. It is possible to create group content without sacrificing the solo player, and vice versa. It is also an excellent way to reuse old dungeons and content by simply ramping up the challenge for end-game players. A cheap way, yes, but this post isn't about dealing with that particular problem.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Randomized Dungeons

Would randomized dungeons improve how long content would last with the playerbase?

This question occurred to me while playing a bit of Torchlight recently, and I began to wonder why very few online games have taken the route of using randomized dungeons, or at least one randomized dungeon. Spiral Knights, the F2P game you can get off Steam now, is one of these examples. I'm finding few reasons to justify not implementing their kind of dungeon making in some way.

Firstly, in Spiral Knights a dungeon is created by collecting gems from other dungeons and putting them into a machine. The specifics of the dungeon are then derived from the kinds that are put in. For example, the environment and enemy types, as well as bosses. Other than that, the floors are randomized with groups of enemies as well as rudimentary puzzles that require teamwork.

Rewards would be random, bosses could be created solely for random style dungeons or perhaps generated from a list of current bosses in other dungeons. Justifying it within most games wouldn't be difficult either, as most titles could simply use a variation of "A wizard did it."

So we have our base idea. Which brings us back to our question: Would it increase the length of time content would last among the playerbase?

The "Yes" side has a good number of points for it already. Random dungeons would require a bit more attention than normal ones, as you couldn't reliably predict the next encounter or puzzle. Randomized loot means there is potential to find an upgrade for everyone, unless you outgear the content of course. The track record of success with randomized dungeons is fairly high already, and the random nature ensures a good level of re-playability at least.

However, it does strike some points against it in modern MMORPG formulas. The fact that loot is random scores against it, as if you are, say, a Holy Paladin style with a very specific type of armor, you may be waiting a long time for something of yours to drop. It's generic nature would be a turn-off in some cases as well, as normal dungeons can sustain a story and have far more interesting encounters due to their static nature. And even though boss encounters could be randomized, once you see which boss you get the fight will still be the same, unless randomized boss tactics are put in place, which have a whole slew of problems to go with them.

The idea has potential to increase the life span of a level content, yes, but putting such a thing into practice is a different story. Would it be worth the time spent to create such a system in, say, WoW or SWTOR? Would it actually increase re-playability by any significant amount? I'd love to hear other opinions on this.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Lion's Den - Solo Dungeons

Good news everyone! I found something to do with that other Wizard of Oz reference. Lion's Den pieces are typically going to be opinion pieces, and possibly rants.

And you know what I hate? Solo Dungeons. First Age of Conan does them, and now RIFT is jumping on the bandwagon. There have even been rumors of WoW putting something like this in the works, though I'm afraid I've lost that link. It wouldn't surprise me though, given that Blizzard is known for "borrowing" features.

Now, my problem isn't that they are a bad idea, or that I think they won't be fun. And by all means, I fully support there being interesting and fun content for players who want to go solo, because your friends can't be online ALL the time and sometimes you're up until 2 in the morning playing a game just because you can. No, my problem is the designers of this feature breaching a barrier that I personally considered sacred, and now there is a fear of it invading more titles. MMORPG's are social games. Whether you like it or take part in it, the fact is that you are paying your sub (or just logging in, in the case of F2P) for the opportunity to interact with others within the game world.

I recall one awful post on the WoW forums (Just one? Ba dum pish.) that was a plea to make solo versions of raids with no loot just so people who didn't have a raid group or didn't have the time to commit to one could experience the content. And now developers are creating solo dungeons for players who apparently have the time to do a dungeon run but don't want to interact with other people. I have Fallout and Oblivion for when I want to dive into dungeons without other people or when my internet is down. My question is: Why on earth do you want to go onto an online game to not be social?

I read Klep's post today, ""I am not the target audience" is an uncomfortable thought" and suddenly it hit me: Why is the target audience for an MMORPG becoming the person who wants to play solo rather than the person who wants to be social? So many features released in the past year or so have been directed solely at those who don't want to be a part of any social group. This is not news, of course, as it goes back to when the LFD tool was first released, but still a jarring realization. How many MMORPG's can you think of that are working on more features for groups than for solo plays? WoW's last major patch was a single raid dungeon and a set of daily quest areas. LOTRO's next expansion includes more quest content than dungeon content by a landslide. RIFT's solo dungeons, SWTOR's dungeon loot bags and solo questline stories, and I'm sure I could name a few more if I gave it a shot but you get the point. 

I'm aware that solo dungeons are merely the symptom of a larger issue at hand here. That doesn't mean I dislike it any less, but it also doesn't mean I'm going to argue with those who say it's merely the companies catering to their playerbase. Here's to hoping we'll get someone to put the Multiplayer back into MMORPG. Maybe GW2. Maybe.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Subs and Cash Shops - An Examination

Massively posted this article yesterday, a soap box rant about how the author dislikes the recent combination of cash shops and subscriptions. I'm inclined to agree with the author on a few points, but I wanted to do a bit of an examination of this style first before tackling the author's argument.

Firstly, I think we should make a distinction: There are games that have cash shops and require a subscription, and and there are those that are free to play, have a subscription, and a cash shop. These two, though similar in approach, are different in how they treat their players. The ones that the article specifically mentions are EVE Online, SOE titles, Star Trek Online, Champions Online and Age of Conan.

Let's tackle subscription games with cash shops. That would be STO, EVE and DCUO. Should we believe the authors argument that a subscription is far more than it takes to support one player on a server, then we can then assume that the cash shop is, in fact, a cash grab. There is the argument that the cash shop items are only fluff, and not required to play the game and all its content. This is correct, in a way. You are not required to buy a monocle in EVE to play the game. I pick this example specifically because it is the most obvious cash grab out of all of the titles. No, these items are not required to play the game in any capacity, but (most of) the players in EVE are already paying the company to play the game. Now they have to pay again to use some unique toys?

If we make this akin to a theme park, the type of theme park that charges you at the gate rarely, if ever, charges you for any of the rides. If they do, it's under two circumstances: One is a third party sets up shop with one of those slingshot rides that shoot you up in the air, which, hey, if that's your gig then go for it. The other is those "pay a dollar, throw a baseball at some milk bottles and embarrass yourself in front of your significant other to win a stuffed cheeseburger as a consolation prize." Yes, that was specific, and no, I'm not still bitter. Those stands are meant to make money first and foremost, not to entertain the consumers in any way other than some flashy lights and sounds.

I think it's obvious at this point which side of the fence I'm on when it comes to subscription games. But as for Free to Play? Well, that's an entirely different story. Age of Conan, Champions Online and the upcoming City of Heroes Freedom come to mind. Let's use that theme park analogy again. This theme park does not charge you to walk in and enjoy the surroundings, but all the fun rides cost money to get into. You can pay for the rides you want, or you can buy a pass to ride as many rides as you want until your pass expires.

Now, some may argue that the metaphor isn't perfect due to the fact that you have to ride certain rides over and over again until you can get up to the bigger rides. And there is no room for free rides in a theme park of this style because there would be people who would ride those rides until there is a tragic accident, possibly involving a circus elephant, that shuts it down. But the general gist is that they aren't charging you to get into the park, only to ride the rides.

I think Massively's author has a solid point, but only when it comes to cash shops added on to subscription titles. The free to play games that have subscription options and cash shops are giving their players more options, and frequently the subscription members are given a stipend of points per month to buy from the shop anyway. In time, they could unlock the entire shop's contents, making subscriptions very appealing to their customers. The company receives a steady amount of money from subs, and the players get to reap the benefits of the cash shop for no extra charge (as long as they keep within their stipend). I find this option far more agreeable.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tin Mechanics - Loot Systems

Tesh's post inspired me to write and think a bit more about how loots systems are being implemented.

The loot window is a bit of a standard now. The process is simple: You kill an enemy, run over to his corpse, open it up, click on the items and money and they get put in your inventory. Some games, like Final Fantasy, give you the loot screen at the end. Others, like Fallout, make loot into a part of character management in that you can only carry a certain amount before it weighs you down. From bag spaces to hammer spaces, there are a lot of ways to handle this system. Is there a way to streamline the process? Should a developer even want to streamline it?

First and foremost, one of the most important things about loot is currency: Money, Gold, what have you. This is a no-brainer for all players. If there is money, you'll pick it up. I cannot think of any instance where this is not the case. I have yet to see a game that penalizes a player for weight restrictions on currency as well: I was carrying 30k bottle caps in New Vegas the other day and by all forms of logic I should be dead, either from the weight or from being the most obvious target for a mugging for eight miles.

Is the process of picking up currency fun? Does it add anything to the game beyond a touch of realism? Though I can argue that it would be a prime target for streamlining in MMO's, there is that element of looting the body yourself that just makes sense in a genre.

Then we have items. Weapons, armor, potions, quest items, and the like. Given that bag space is most likely limited, either by weight or slots, automatically looting all items would be a tremendous mess. Quest items, however, could be quarantined in their own container for simplicities sake in bag management. And keeping a running tally of loot in a floating container that doesn't effect your bag space is not only unrealistic, but just begging to be abused.

No, bag management is, though seemingly a chore, a notable part of MMO's. Not only does it serve the design purpose of making you return to civilization to sell things, but makes sure that Lunesta, the level 85 druid, isn't carrying around his healing, melee and caster DPS and tank gear all at once while still having room for potions, flasks, and those leather balls people throw at you. And wands to make the raid leader turn into a leper gnome.

Grouping is another concern. Currency is easily divided up between all parties, but items are typically rolled on in their own windows. There is the idea that these items could be reserved until the end of the dungeon to be rolled on, but if we're dealing with an awful LFG spawned group, you know some guy is going to Need on everything at the end and run for the hills.

DCUO simplifies looting and creates little glowing orbs that float towards your character. This is likely due to the action orient of the game and the fact that you can't click on anything on the screen or adjust the UI or anything that makes sense for a PC game. By holding a button, you can draw the items towards you. Actual items do not drop often, but when they do you have no idea what you've picked up until you actually pick it up.

Do loot systems need to be streamlined any further? Thought it seems that currency looting could be automated, perhaps with a tally window of how much you earned, the physical looting seems to be the most logical system in place. Minor improvements could be made, but such improvements are subject to personal whim rather than a marketed improvement. Grey items, for example, which typically only hold use for selling, have found niche markets with roleplayers. Plus we wouldn't want to lose the feeling of running over to loot a mob and being able to screenshot the random world epic that dropped, would we?