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?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What I'm Playing - August

Just a brief post on what has caught my attention lately and why.

Fallout: New Vegas - Very excited for the next DLC, Lonesome Road to be released. The work that went into polishing the engine used in Fallout 3 definitely paid off. The DLC's in particular have been very enjoyable, as they are all interconnected into one storyline rather than just a mish-mash of tidbits.

Team Fortress 2 - I confess, I got into this game very, very late. I've had it for the longest time on 360 due to owning the Orange Box, but never really paid much attention to it until late. I've taken a particular liking to the Heavy and the Pyro. Most likely going to try the Engineer next. I can't say I'm any good at the game, but it's a ton of fun and Steam made it easy to buy things in the cash shop. I don't like the prices on most of the items though. I don't care how much fun a game is, $13 for a hat is a bit out there.

Free Realms - Yup, picked this up as well. The mining and blacksmith games have really caught my eye as they combine two things I really enjoy: Bejeweled and persistent character development. The fact that they lock out the profession entirely once you hit level 4 instead of just locking out the exp gain is disappointing, but Sony is now offering a Lifetime subscription to the game for $34.99. It's very tempting, though I will withhold buying it until I see about the other professions. Combat has only come across as dull to me.

World of Warcraft - Free Trial account. For the moment I'm enjoying the challenge of making my end-game level 20, and might level a few classes just to have them around when I miss the game but don't feel like resubbing. At this point I'm in the market for a new theme park MMO to take up my time, and for the moment I have my eye on SWTOR.

DC Universe Online - Yes, I did have a post previously about how I was given a 45-day free trial and found it uninteresting. I reactivated with a 10 day trial that was given to me by my brother. I still feel like I'm playing a single-player game. Got to the point where I could do instances, and nobody bothers to talk. General chat is...well, general chat. I am enjoying how they are using a huge amount of DC characters that are recognizable and well written, but it still seems to me that the social part of the game is far underdeveloped. This may end up in the same bin as WoW: Fun to visit, wouldn't want to live there.

I'll do this again next month, see how my tastes have changed. Might be nice to have a formal log of what I've been playing.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Wouldn't it be Cool if...? Offline Gameplay

As much as bloggers like to kick and scream about it, the fact of the matter is that theme park MMO's are what the consumer base is buying. They have the best IP's and the biggest budgets for advertising. See: SWTOR.

There is a growing trend lately to make theme park MMO's more solo friendly. Or, in some cases, completely solo-able up until end game. Regardless of what you may think about that decision, I was curious if companies would be willing to take the next step and create a small part of the game accessible without being online. The benefits of doing so would be smaller than soloing or grouping in the game itself, of course, but allowing players to bring a part of the game world with them on a phone or on their laptop when they don't have internet available is a great way to keep people hooked.

Firstly, let's talk about the restrictions of such a system. As I mentioned, the benefits would be lower than if you were in game, perhaps you are only capable of storing half a level of earned exp on your offline character, or a certain amount of reputation earned with a faction. This cap would be necessary to prevent people from playing solely offline and not paying for the game beyond downloading this. Once this cap is reached, the player can keep playing for fun, but in order to gain more exp/rep/gold they would have to connect to the internet to "deposit" the rewards on to their character. There would most likely have to be an anti-hack system in place in order to prevent players from exploiting this as well.

From there, all that remains is making the content. Perhaps you could make a side-scroller dungeon, or stick to the RPG roots of the genre and make it more of a classic RPG. I think it would be fantastic to see a game like WoW suddenly in 8 or 16-bit format, like the original Final Fantasy's, or possibly similar to A Link to the Past. Most of the developers probably grew up playing those games, and I'm sure they would enjoy the opportunity to make a retro side-game. I know I would.

Blizzard has been experimenting with branching the genre into other avenues, like its iPhone apps and its magazine (that they rarely ever send out). Even Dragon Age made a Facebook game that has achieved a certain level of popularity. I think there is a lot of room to cater to their audience in ways that are unique to gamers. Indie games are becoming quite a hit lately, with titles like Braid making its way onto Xbox Live. A company making their own "Indie" game that connects to the online experience would definitely work for this crowd.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Did WoW Predict Their Subscription Drop?

Everyone is talking about WoW again due to the threat changes, transmogrifier, and Mists of Panderia. Right so soon after they report a large drop in subscribers...

Yaknow, it seems kind of fishy to me. Far be it for me to assume the blogosphere is a representation of what a population is thinking, but fact of the matter is that WoW is suddenly getting a lot of publicity from us, good or bad, when we were once talking about SWTOR, Guild Wars, and the other new releases and news.

And they rolled out news of all of these things pretty rapidly. To me, this says that they are putting into motion a contingency plan, as I've mentioned in a couple other locations. I'm inclined to think they predicted this happening. Not necessarily some sort of evil conspiracy to only release the good stuff when they are in trouble, but I'm assuming they have a backlog of popular player requested things that they could easily roll out to appease their longtime subscribers. And suddenly that is their market: Longtime subscribers. I'm sure we're all aware that WoW players are popular for their revolving door policy with the game: Resub, do the new raids really quick, and then unsub until the next content patch. This worked as long as the numbers kept going up. Now that those players are, in larger and larger numbers, not coming back again they have become an unreliable source of income.

What I'm trying to say is: Blizzard is really good at getting us to talk about them when they want us to. It's rather quite impressive. I can't help but feeling they've had most of these "new" features in their back pocket for quite some time now.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Directionless Post

Plenty of interesting posts around the blogosphere today. Bio Break, Hardcore Casual, Killed in a Smiling Accident, Levelcapped, MMO Symposium, Stabbed Up, The Ancient Gaming Noob and West Karana in particular. Why yes, those were listed in alphabetical order. I don't expect you to read all of them, nor will I take on the behemoth task of trying to examine them all here. But they did leave me with a certain state of mind.

Firstly, the news of course. We have our typical doom and gloom posts going on about WoW, given that 4.3 is going to be Deathwing and likely the end of the expansion, combined with the sudden changes to attempt to appease areas of the playerbase they have until now ignored. Many, including myself, believe this is damage control in an attempt to stabilize their subscription numbers. Though successful, let's face it: The game is old. Copying its formula now is like writing an expiration date on your MMO. You have to either make a game in response to what WoW did not address, or somehow innovate on that formula to keep that crowd around. Many are hoping SWTOR will do the second.

Which moves me on to the topic of "other mmo's". I find myself writing like this quite often in this blog. There is WoW and its disciples, and then there are the Other Ones. Though on one hand I feel as though I am not being fair to the genre by focusing so much attention on the first group, I don't have much to say about the second. The MMO industry is at a burgeoning point where its sub-genres are still being developed. Similar to how you can say a Shooter game and refer to anything from Doom to Rainbow Six, an MMO does not have to be what WoW is. The problem with this theory, of course, is that there aren't enough not-WoW-like examples to choose from.

I've made no secret that I am shopping for a new MMO to call home. WoW and its derivatives have lost their luster for me, and I can't seem to delve deep into any other ones. At the moment I am looking at Global Agenda and plan on trying out the free trial of Darkfall. Levelcapped's allegory comes to mind here. I find myself hyping myself up about a game instead of enjoying it for what it is. In that case, I sincerely need to stop trying to get out of games what they don't offer and keep looking. Or enjoy it for what it does offer.

I'll end with Stabs' post on community in mind. I recently attempted to start an RP guild on my WoW server, and abandoned the project when I found people interested in being in the guild, but in no way interested in helping create it. I feel as though the players have taken a severe turn towards independence, and what benefits the individual rather than the community. In one regard, I find it obnoxious to try and start any storytelling project in WoW due to this nature. On the other hand, do I have the same mindset by assuming that people should help me accomplish something I want?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Massively Single Player?

I don't normally comment on news, but this caught my eye on Massively. At first glance, I'm reminded of Spore: Other players made creatures and, as long as you were connected to the internet, they would show up in your game. And then I become sad because Spore didn't turn out to be the game it was hyped up to be.

There are plenty of interpretations on how this could go. Judging by the article, the Spore model is what they are going for. It's an interesting model, though I'm curious about how it would fit into other scenarios. In terms of events, I suppose a filter would be in place as to not flood a player with events. But if it attracts a large playerbase, what is the different between the events happening other than the name attached to them?

Say we have a city, and at intervals something would happen in said city that another player did in his game. A simple model, but the specifics of the event would be rather generic. And since the game is single player, it is not as though you can alter the event, unless the game is prepared to mimic the event, say a bank robbery, to allow another player to intervene.

Every scenario I am considering leads to your standard game with some friends names attached to the events. But these are only first reactions, and I'd love to see how they might innovate with it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tin Mechanics - Reputations

Another named feature, hereby called Tin Mechanics due to my fondness of the Wizard of Oz. I'm still tossing up ideas of how to shoehorn in something about a lion. I'm open to suggestions.

Regardless, this type of feature will deal specifically with in-game mechanics, such as UI, faction or reward systems, combat, and other nuts and bolts sort of things. I hope to concentrate on existing systems rather than possible new ones, saving those ideas for "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" segments.

I'd like to focus on reputation systems. Most theme park games have a reputation system that resembles WoW's: You have factions, and you do quests for them to get up to a reputation level to get rewards. Behind the scenes, this also creates an easy to manipulate system for setting up opposing factions and keeping them hostile to one another.

Still, I can't help but wonder if we don't have untapped potential here. There is a group of players who are looking for non-combat options in their games and the reputation system may be the place to look. Vanguard has an interesting system in place that is often overlooked by most of the MMORPG crowd, but that may be more due to the age of the game and the lack of focus SOE is giving it. 

But let's work within the confines of the system that is in place in WoW now. Your levels are Hated to Exalted, each with its own characteristics and amount needed to reach that level, and some factions have the option to go to war with them, as little as the feature is used. We then have the option to add in optional factions, or opposing factions that have nothing to do with the over-arching Alliance vs. Horde / Republic vs. Sith / Pie vs. Cake storyline. I'm not talking about "grind quests with these dudes and they'll give you cool stuff" factions though.

Let's say...the centaur are going to war with the quillboar. And because of this, a new Barrens-based battleground is opened up. However, you can't play it until you compelte a short series of quests where you need to pick a faction. Once you do, you fight for that faction alongside other players who picked it, which may be a mix of Horde and Alliance. Rewards would be purely cosmetic in difference, due to balance reasons, and would include mainly PvP gear and pets/mounts/what-have-you.

Or, let's say there is a chain of islands off of the coast with a previously unknown troll tribe. When you take the boat to the chain it does a hidden check of your reputation with the faction, based entirely on taking quests from them on the mainland or taking a different set of quests to hunt them down. Unfriendly and below puts you in a raid instance, and Neutral and above puts you in a questing hub. Both are environmentally identical, except in one instance the raid is trying to kill the trolls instead of helping them.

I find the standard faction rep grind to be rather boring, and working within the constraints of this reputation system could come up with some truly innovative ideas.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Quests That Make You Care

I've been playing a bit of Fallout: New Vegas lately. I blame Gilded for reminding me that Bethesda exists. Regardless, it's got quests like any RPG and the design is one I'm particularly fond of. There is one overarching quest name, though it can easily have multiple parts, and some of them have only one solution while others have multiple solutions. There is always a brute force path, but there are some parts that can be made simpler just by having the right skill or being a smooth talker. Most famously, the final and most difficult fight in the game can be averted with a 100 speech check.

Quests like this make me curious for SWTOR's quest design. Their fanfare about the focus on story is interesting, but quite a few have seen problems with what they plan to offer. Questions like "What about the people who don't want to hear the story?" and "What about leveling up with someone who isn't an NPC?" and the ever famous "Why can't I play as a wookie, damnit?".

...seriously, I want to play as a wookie, damnit.

This kind of quest design, though interesting, is a single-player focus. They make you care by involving you directly in the story: It's your story! You are the super cool Bounty Hunter. I'm concerned at the sense of entitlement this will give players at endgame when finally dealing with real people instead of NPC's who worship them, but let's gloss over that for now. Will I care so much about the story when I hit endgame? I'm curious if this style of gameplay will make players more invested in the game world because of a story-line connection.

WoW has been taking this approach lately as well, with higher level NPC's treating you like a hero who accomplished all that stuff that you did that I don't feel like listing. They haven't necessarily made people care more about the game world though. So I suppose we can surmise that what really makes players care about the quests is the rewards: Experience and Items. There is a niche group who care about the story, but they are not the majority by any means.

I suppose this should be an obvious conclusion here, but it's a concern I've been having lately when it comes to MMORPG's. EVE Online has a playerbase that is extremely involved in the game world and most definitely cares what happens to it. Other games, not so much. It would be easy for me to once again try and connect the sandbox nature of EVE to this, given my history of championing that style, but it's more of a correlation than a direct connection. Not much evidence given the lack of EVE style titles on the market.

So that would be the question I want to pose today. Can quests make you care about the game world? Have they in some way done so already? Or do the people and social connections that you make create that care?

Friday, August 5, 2011

I Hate How Battlegrounds Make Sense

For the record: I hate battlegrounds. Now, I'm not talking about rated battlegrounds: Those require you to put together a team and be social. No, I'm talking about jumping into a random group with people you never met and expect to pull off a victory despite having no real reason to even talk to them.

PvP is a very dynamic type of gameplay to begin with. You must be able to recognize various situations and adapt, be able to use a wide variety of your abilities as well as knowing your opponents, and in goal oriented scenarios know when and where to attack and retreat. Quick reflexes is a good part of it, of course, but they are hardly everything if you haven't a clue where to aim yourself.

It goes without saying that an MMO that is based on PvP should have these qualities in mind, and use the idea of a persistent world to cater to the type of battles that are memorable. Territories to be captured, buildings to be destroyed and resources to use against your enemy. Rewards that matter and can turn the tide against your enemy. This kind of dynamic virtual warfare is perfect for the PvP oriented player.

Of course, then we come to the dreaded word that destroys a good number of great ideas: Balance. How would you balance that type of gameplay? If one faction has more people, suddenly the game needs to be able to compensate that. And since it is a dynamic battle you cannot account for the amount of players in one given area at any time. How do you integrate gear into those battles as well? People at lower gear levels would be mowed down, and that isn't fun at all. The list of problems goes on and on.

And unfortunately, the battleground does not have those issues. It keeps players at the same level range, evens the playing field and creates areas that are tactically fair to both sides. And I hate it. It's a sterilized answer, one that chooses to omit problems rather than resolve them. If Horde has more people on a server than Alliance, it doesn't matter because the battle will not change anything in the game world. You get your points, and then you get to do the same thing over again. These vacuum packed battles are meaningless.

Prime, here's looking at you. Let's hope you can create an experience that doesn't have to resort to battlegrounds to captivate the dedicated PvP audience.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Family Guy Online?

Well, it sounds like an awful idea, but I might as well go check it out. It might have SOME merit. Least I can play around with the character creato-

Thank you, Ollie.

Keep it Simple, Devs - The Post Not About Diablo

Not joking with the title. Plenty of my colleagues on my sidebar there and most of the internet have voiced their opinion already.

Lately I have been speaking quite a bit about MMO's that are far closer to simulations than games. Creating a realistic fantasy world you can interact with. I'm going to take a 180 here and talk about the problems with making a game complicated in nature, and why sometimes the best solution is the simplest one.

Last night, while returning from my D&D game on the subway, I was talking with our DM. I had mentioned that I missed the 3.5 skill system, if only because I believed it allowed some flexibility for a simulation type of game and that it was made fairly simple to add custom elements. He wasn't quite convinced, as the complex rules made for some interesting loopholes.

Then he told me about the Peasant Railgun. In 3rd edition D&D it was a free action to accept an item, and a free action to pass an item to someone else. So, say you have a quarter staff. You hire thirty peasants to stand in a line, all of them ready an action to pass the staff along the line, and the last peasant readies an action to throw it. A round is six seconds. Each peasant takes up a 5 foot square, so in 6 seconds that quarterstaff just traveled 150 feet. Or we can get 300 peasants to cover 1500 feet in 6 seconds, which is around Mach 2.

As he puts it, "When I can pass a quarterstaff across Poland and nuke something in Britain, there is something wrong with your rules."

Complicated systems are fantastic, but sometimes we  forget how difficult they are to create, and how the return on that work is not as high as it should be. EVE Online is an incredibly complex game, and it took years for the developers to reach the place they are now. They did so by having a small, devoted audience support them which slowly grew and grew. Not every project is quite so lucky to be in that situation.And even if they are, they may have a publisher that would cut them from the budget for not being as popular as WoW or the other big name titles.

Even then we find there are players who despise complicated systems. I find myself sighing in disgust whenever I start to reach level cap in WoW, if only because it means having to research on Elitist Jerks for strategies, rotations, reforging advice, expertise and hit caps, haste percentages, and even after that possibly running it all through a simulation just to get myself to a point where I won't be yelled at by other players for sucking at the game. Complication adds depth , but it also adds barrier of entry.

WoW's formula was simple. Minecraft's formula was simple. I could list a tremendous amount of titles in the past decade that have become surprise hits with a simple, yet fun formula. At the end of the day, even though I would love to interact with a simulation-esque fantasy world, I still want to play a game.