Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bats Were Nesting In My Mailbox

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I've Got a Huge Pipe

Ahhhhh...the joy of new inspiration. Nothing makes a PC gamer's poky bits go all atwitter like a giant pipe and new hardware...and this week I find myself in the possession of both. The new pipe (encrusted with giant purple veins, much like The Swollen Glans, my favorite COH toon ever)... courtesy of Comcast Blast!, and it sings 25Mbps sweet nothings into my ear.

The hardware is courtesy of me. And NewEgg. And Fry's. And Central Computer. Maybe a little Best Buy in desperation. And I can't forget Steve at SFF Store. Oh, and even MotherboardPro (though the Mobo they sent me was defective, they were super awesome). It's an upgrade to a small form factor delight that I built over a year ago using the Silverstone SG01e case. Now it's got all the goodies (Core2Duo E8600, Asus P5E-VM HDMI mobo, Diamond Radeon HD 4870 X2, 4G of Geil RAM, Zalman CNPS 8000 CPU cooler, Western Digital Velociraptor 300G 10K RPM HD, and some other stuff). I'd post pictures of all the components, the build process, and the final package, but that would be gratuitous, no? I don't want to come off as a braggart.

So here I am with the biggest pipe available to the common man (SHUT THE FUCK UP FiOS and U-verse CUSTOMERS) and the most bleeding edge tiny PC I've ever built...but what to do with them?

Inspired by the University of Texas at Austin's MMO history preservation project, I decided that the only logical thing to do was download and install every MMO I've ever put a significant amount of time into. Simultaneously. Except for AutoAssualt, which has the dubious distinction of "fastest MMO plug ever pulled".

And they're all organized nicely on my toolbar, by publisher no less...the full list, in somewhat chronological order:
-Star Wars Galaxies
-Everquest II
-Saga of Ryzom
-EVE Online
-Guild Wars
-City of Heroes/City of Villians
-World of Warcraft
-Dungeons and Dragons Online
-Lord of the Rings Online
-Pirates of the Burning Sea
-Age of Conan
-Warhammer Online

Holy crap. The next question I'm going to have to ask myself once all this shit is downloaded is...what the fuck am I going to do with it? In case you're actually a developer and wondering how this post will help you...I don't know. But do the math on that list for me please. We'll just call it $50x14 (some games were cheaper, but some have expansions). That's $700. Now subscription fees. I'm not going to even speculate on that, because I have a bad habit of forgetting to cancel (YOU LOVE ME FOR IT), but it's a lot. I'm your target. What will my memory of these games be, sometimes years since the last time I played? Isn't that what you develop make an impact on my brain (and my wallet)?

What is their legacy? Stay tuned...

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I Believe The Word I'm Looking For Is WAAAGH!

With the release of Warhammer: Online only a month away, the MMO blogosphere has given itself almost entirely over to that topic. Can WAR dethrone WoW? Will you play Order or Destruction? Just how deeply cut were you cut by the decision to omit key classes and racial capitals at release? With their stock price tanking, game drowning in bugs, and now, a real next-gen competitor arriving, how long will it take Funcom to commit mass-suicide, Jonestown-style? WAAAAGH!

Myself, I'll undoubtedly try WAR. Chief among the reasons is that most of my clan intends to play. I've not seen us all together since SWG, and even then we weren't on the same side. The O.G. Bria group finally meeting up in one game, one guild is too tempting to pass up.

Second reason is that writers need subjects. As a major MMO release, WAR is one. Evidence thus far suggests that this will be a quality title from people who know what they're doing, and I want to see what the hullabaloo is all about.

Plus, it should be interesting to see how my Pentium D and 7800GTX fare. You know, for Science. By interesting, I probably mean pathetic. I'm betting it will be a bit like throwing a housecat into a den of lions, and seeing if he can hang with the pride.

I intend to play at 400x300 resolution, and to keep my rig inside a small refrigerator. I'll also be dialing in the textures to ascii emulation. Hopefully it'll look as good as Ultima III, and I think I should be able to get about 10fps in empty buildings at 3am.

I can live with low-end settings if it means playing with the crew and experiencing the world though. Sure, it'll sting, but I can't build a box for this game.

Still, when I think about what it will be like to play WAR, a shiver of excitement does not run up and down my spine. I don't even come close to walking into a telephone pole, or to babbling excitedly on forums or blogs. Why is this? Simply put, I'm elfed out.

It's the genres, stupid

Here we go again with another cartoony, massively-multiplayer fantasy world. Sure, it looks to be perfectly realized. Not only that, the Warhammer universe is incontrovertibly one of the beloved, Grand Old IPs. It must be cathartic for Games Workshop to finally see this done.

Regardless, the virtual worlds that we play in have fallen into the habit of looking pretty much the same. The progression of MMOs seems akin to the evolution of a species. Progress is glacially slow, and can appear nonexistent unless you glance away for a generation or two. Only then do you notice that short, clublike tails are being phased out in favor of longer appendages, as the species spends more time in the trees.

The back pages of the evolutionary chart are littered with failed projects that branched to nowhere. Auto Assault? Eaten by wolves. Pirates of the Burning Sea? Unexpected meteor shower. Over in Cajamarca, Eve: Online is prospering. In another thousand years, they'll be discovered by Pizarro and his merry tribe. Hopefully they will fare better than the Incas did. I've fatally mixed that metaphor by combining species evolution and the progress of societies, but you get my drift.

Point is, companies make what sells, because MMO development requires a king's ransom. Innovation is not first on their list of priorities; profit is. This is obviously also true for the game industry as a whole, although I'm hardly the first person to write that. Perhaps the 90th.

Tobold, over at the excellent Tobold's MMORPG Blog, has a piece entitled: Follow The Money. Essentially, he argues that the above is true. For our purposes, we might consider the prevalence of sequels and the homogenization of MMO genres as parallels:

There has been a lot of criticism towards the game industry, accusing them of being unoriginal. Sequels, sequels, everywhere. Diablo 3, Starcraft 2, GTA 4, Halo 3, The Sims 3, Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, not to mention the annual versions of various sports games. Why can't game companies be more original? Because game companies are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, making the games that players want, and the players don't want original games.
So profit is king, and this means that one wants to use proven ideas that have suceeded in the past. Two genres get preferential treatment: fantasy (currently defined as cartoony fantasy), and science fiction. And it appears to really, really help if your title is an IP license.

Since WAR is both a fantasy game and a licensee, it was inevitable. So was Conan, which had the additional appeal of being gritty and somewhat adult-oriented (a previously untapped market). Too bad it sucks.

Science fiction games also hold significant market power, although it pales in comparison to fantasy. The last major sci-fi MMO not to fail utterly was SWG, and it had the advantage of membership in the most commercially sucessful franchise of all time. I exclude Eve from the discussion because it is a niche game. I don't believe that it is considered as a model by major developers. At least that's how it looks from over here.

What about other genres? Forget it. Never with commercial success in the mainstream, and rarely elsewhere. Note that I am not suggesting the failure of these titles is due solely to genre. Shortcomings in design or playability have a lot to do with that. But perhaps the margin for error is slimmer.

Non Sci-Fi & Fantasy MMOs By The Numbers

I was curious about this, so I took a look at MMORPG's impressively exhaustive Gamelist. It contains 223 (I think!) titles, and appears to cover the whole gamut: everything from past games to those that are still in development.

Of the 223 titles in the Gamelist, just 63 are non-fantasy. And of that 63, 39 are sci-fi. This leaves 24 MMOs that are not either sci-fi or fantasy: just about 10%. Ouch.

When I filtered for non sci-fi or fantasy games that are in either development or beta, I came up with four titles. Four. Champions Online, DC Universe, The Agency, and something called Football Superstars. How many sci-fi or fantasy titles share that status? Seventy-five. I'm not certain if I consider Hello Kitty Online a fantasy game, so perhaps we should go ahead and amend that number to seventy-four. Just to be conservative.

What's my ultimate point? I look at the MMO genre as a whole, because the bloody thing fascinates me. I wait for innovation, and am usually rewarded with imitation. If I'm lucky, it will be imitation done well. But the whole thing reminds me of Microsoft versus Apple in the 80s. Take someone else's stuff, and repackage it for commercial gain.

It doesn't have to be this way. Raph Koster has a metaphor that works better than anything I used above:
If I say to you, “do you want chocolate ice cream?” you probably say yes. If I say to you “do you want more chocolate ice cream, this time with sprinkles on top?” you probably still say yes.

If I say “by the way, there’s also this mango sorbetto,” you may or may not try it. But you aren’t going to ask for mango sorbetto without prior knowledge of its existence.

Players know what they want from what they know. And they don’t know what they want from the unknown. For all I know there’s a fantastic dessert eaten only in the Philippines that would rapidly become my favorite dessert ever.
Let us hope that somebody is brave, because I know I would eat what Raph is cooking there.

Til then, see you in New Eden and WAR.

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Monday, August 4, 2008

An Antithesis: The Joy of Griefing

This is a somewhat pro-griefer argument. I thought I'd do an article acting as the antithesis to one of Krib's Five, for the lulz. ;-P

Regardless of whether you love 'em or hate 'em, I submit that griefers are a necessity to our gaming experience. Why? Things would be pretty dull without em.

Griefing has a love-hate relationship with the gamer. It is funny to some, and horrid to others. It's also relative, as most gamers probably have a personal criteria for what griefing is. Some see corpse camping as the consequence of not being careful, while others think such activities are a crime against humanity.

That being said, I would argue that the social dynamic between the griefer and the afflicted party are part of what makes things interesting and fun for an MMO in the big picture. In the short term, most of us think of griefing as an inconvenience, but in my opinion, it's all a part of the journey.

What if there were no griefers in our MMOs? I think many people would get bored because of the lack of player tension. I should specify that tension and conflict are the important undertones that griefers can provide.

When I look back to my SWG days on Bria, the Imperials were seen as the big bad wolf: the griefer faction of SWG. Guilds like LFD and FoE made their reputations on being assholes. FoE had their city take-over antics, and LFD bested most Rebel PVP groups in battles, and just by plainly not playing nice.

Hell, I remember there was a huge uproar and debate over 'video game rape' because two imperials and a coerced bantha were 'raping' a corpse in a cloner.

However, the Rebel faction would eventually bend their e-morals by doing meanie things like destroying turrets through exploiting turret range, by destroying a city, or by engaging in good old-fashioned corpse camping themselves.

In retrospect, it all added up into engaging drama. And it contributed to the creation of a strong and entertaining player community. Not to mention: some of it was really fucking funny.

Now, you might be thinking that I gotta be a griefer if I'm defending such a terrible class of gamer. Well, I guess you could say I am.

I've never really been a full-time griefer, but I've engaged in griefing now and again. Why? Because it's funny. It's funny especially if you get a response like this from people.

This goes back to a point Krib makes, which is essentially: don't feed the trolls. If you give them responses like the gem above, then griefing will always exist. And there's something to be said about those people too: the kind who take in-game drama, items, or actions too seriously, and who forget it's just a video game.

I grief because I take joy in poking fun at people who take gaming far too seriously. It's all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled's all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side? (Brownie points for those who know the reference.)

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Leet Hacker Griefer-Trolls Are Coming To Get Me

We're a gamer feedback blog. That's all we are. When we cross into other territory, one could rightfully be concerned that the water will get a bit deep for us. However, I don't believe I could sleep at night without mentioning, at least once, the New York Times Magazine piece about Internet trolls.

Feast your eyes on this fine young man:

As a seasoned denizen of the Internet, is that not the face of your darkest nightmares? How can stereotypes be this accurate? I couldn't come up with a more spot-on troll poster child if I were to draw one from scratch. The guy is practically a forum avatar.

That being said, reading this article was a bit like watching a wizened, grandfatherly Oxford lecturer hold forth on the finer points of oral sex. Incongruous doesn't even begin to cover it. I never thought I'd live to see the words 'quasi-thermodynamic' and 'lulz' used in the same sentence:

Another troll explained the lulz as a quasi-thermodynamic exchange between the sensitive and the cruel: “You look for someone who is full of it, a real blowhard. Then you exploit their insecurities to get an insane amount of drama, laughs and lulz."
I understand that the Times has a specific audience, for whom they need to translate the wild, wacky world of the Internet. But we gamers don't need pedantic explanations. We know these sorts of people well; we call them griefers. Difference is, instead of creating blogs to mock teenage suicides, they're using a 20-level advantage to repeatedly one-shot us in Stranglethorn Vale. Or perhaps they're training thirty mobs into our earnest group of roleplaying D&Ders.

Jaded as I am, I felt as if I were reading an expose on lettuce, or perhaps an article on molecular biology that began: "These proteins, or... 'life goo'"...

Five Things: Griefers

I am intimately familiar with griefers. Matter of fact, they are one of my Five Things. Unless you're a griefer, they're likely to be one of yours as well. Anyone who has played many MMOs has experience with getting camped, ganked, curb-stomped, one-shotted, asshatted, podded. For no reason other than the fact that it ruined your playtime. And there are many flavors. Text spamming, group wiping, ninja looting and hate telling are just a few others.

Why do people just plain behave badly in multiplayer games?

Because they can. In real life, this sort of behavior gets you dragged into the street and beaten with a tire iron.

Why do they need to, though?

Probably because they're psychologically damaged, fifteen, or both. Any other answer is a rationalization.

If you are filled with rage, have low self esteem, are paralyzed from the waist down, are disenfranchised at work, are afflicted in a myriad of other ways, chances are you desperately require an outlet for your frustrations. Are you also a gamer? It's pretty likely that the above will significantly contribute to your playstyle.

Of course, you might also be so young that you're not socialized yet. Perhaps hormones are rampaging through your body. Perhaps you have no idea what the consequences of your actions are. Or you know, but don't care, because nobody has ever made you sorry before.

We were talking this week on our forums about a fellow we remember from SWG. He became well-known on the server after he joined a guild just to grab the legendary one-hander from their guildhall and /guildquit. I wonder if he knew what a big deal that would turn out to be.

Whatever the motivation, the effect is the same to the other player. Great aggravation, and possibly stomach ulcers. Multiplayer games (and the Internet as a whole) are a broad canvas for anyone who takes joy in getting negative attention, or in making other people unhappy.

As a player, you cannot allow yourself to give them the satisfaction. Ignore hate tells. Get backup for campers, or wait until they get bored. Never get upset. They win if you do. Choose to end the interaction instead. That was hard for me to learn.

There are game mechanics that prevent griefing. A bevvy of them, in fact. What is WoW's lack of cross-faction chat but one of those? No hate tells, no trash talk. Actually, I like being able to talk to the other side. I'd gladly take the hate tells if it meant being able to say 'good fight.' (I should admit here that I find hate tells to be utterly hilarious, so my opinion is somewhat biased). Blizzard, obviously, does not agree.

PvP safe zones, NPC guards, making lowbies unattackable by veterans... I could list the ways that game developers discourage griefing all day. It isn't instructive to do this, because no matter how creative they are, players (and griefers) will always be more creative.

Age-Limited Servers

It's my personal view that most griefers are young kids. Surely not all, but many. I would pay $30 a month to game on an age-limited server. Enforcement would be difficult, but I'm betting you could cut down on the numbers. Require a credit card in the name of the player. Use an age verification service. Alternatively, you could just design a game so difficult for young minds to grasp that the problem solves itself.

Am I being too harsh here? No. It's my playtime, and I don't have to interact with fifth graders if I don't want to. I'm curmudgeonly, and this is one of my five things. I'm also with Zubon over at Kill Ten Rats:
I confess: I discriminate against pre-pubescent males. Something about the voice of the twelve-year-old boy coming from the Orc Reaver grates.
In the meantime, I'll continue flat-out booting you from group if you behave like an idiot. No warning, no explanation. I will also use my /ignore button frequently, and fervently hope not to get DDoSed by leet hacker griefer-trolls everywhere.

Sorry guys, I didn't mean any of this. I wrote it for the lulz.

We're still friends, right?

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Never Carry A Refrigerator On A Hang-Glider

It's been some time since I posted, and there are two reasons. First, I wanted to redesign the site. Since what I know about HTML and CSS would fit into a thimble, that was... somewhat hairy. Think of a guy who doesn't know how to operate a hang-glider trying to make it from New Jersey to Brooklyn, in a hurricane, while carrying a refrigerator. (He bought the fridge in Jersey, obviously... how else is he supposed to get it home?)

In the end, I copied some stuff into some other stuff, tracked down a rogue div tag, yelled at the cat, and it came out ok. Things may change a bit, but the bones are there. I do need to look into flashing porn ads though.

The second reason I haven't been writing is that I've been playing Eve. Oops! As one of the people on my gamer forum reminded me, I did say that I wouldn't play MMOs for a good long time. If I'm going to write about these games though, I should play at least one of them. Yeah, that's the reason I resubbed. Absolutely.

Fortunately, Eve is a game that lends itself to casual play. I have no delusions of grandeur; there are people with 25 million skill points. I don't need to be uber, and I know I can't be. I just want to catch up with some old friends, fly around a bit, and see some stuff.

Plus, I love seeing this:

Instead of this:
So I'm back in, and I'm a raw noob. Admittedly, I never progressed much beyond noobishness in my last go-round. It's also been awhile. Put it this way; Goonfleet wasn't in the game the last time I had a CCCP charge on my credit card. And while I was away, the wide-open, vibrant, crazy world that is New Eden just sat there and percolated. It didn't wait for me, and it didn't put up any helpful street signs.

Going forward, I doubt I'll blog much about my experiences as a new player. Others already do that so well. But I will say that it has been a bit dizzying re-learning terms like transversal velocity, and realizing that, yes, I have to get all of those learning skills to level IV. I may also need to grab a shuttle, fly out to 0.0, and say, "hit me," because I'm finding I have that noob's fear of getting ganked.

In the end though, Eve is still so polished. And so pretty. It's a game where the developers do exactly what they want to do, and that is something unique in MMOs. Is flying around in inky black space a bit lonely sometimes? Sure. Do you get to missing trees, and being able to walk your character around? Maybe. But, you know, I can walk my real-life character around too. And the park is a few short blocks away.

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No More "WoW Killer" MMORPGs, Please

We've heard the phrase "WoW Killer" in reference to up and coming MMORPGs ever since the release of the retardedly successful MMO that spread the world of escapism via persistent online worlds to the masses.

While being a "WoW Killer" is certainly a lucrative prospect (what development or publishing company wouldn't want 62% or more of the MMORPG market share?), what has this goal given the gaming public?

Mediocre all-in-one attempts at dethroning the online giant. Penny Arcade inadvertently summed up the MMORPG industry with their E3 Press Conference Comic. Now replace Microsoft in the first frame with MMO marketers, Nintendo in the second frame with investors and community relationship managers, and Sony in the third frame with developers and you'll see an uncanny resemblance.

Here are a few games I've tried that attempted to take a slice of the pie from the King of MMOs:

  • City of Villains
  • Dark and Light
  • Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
  • Lord of the Rings Online
  • Age of Conan
Thankfully, there were a few atrocities that I was able to avoid thanks to my fellow gamers warning us in advance of how wasted our dollars & time would be if we purchased or played these products (The Matrix Online, Hellgate: London, RF Online, Tabula Rasa, Pirates of the Burning Sea).

What do all of these games have in common? Well, besides mediocrity of course. They all tried to do too much. So much that they failed to deliver in any specific area. So seems to be the trend with MMORPGs these days. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in today's MMO development studios.

I'm a firm believer that every MMORPG that receives financial backing and development support starts off with a few great ideas. A series of innovations that lure investors into green-lighting multi-million dollar products that promise to deliver great results. Somewhere down the line, priorities change. The intended PvE only game (LotRO) is pressured into adding PvP content to capture additional market share. Or the hardcore grind-fest is pressured into being more casual-friendly (Vanguard). In Age of Conan's case, the Free For All hack-n-slash and massive Siege-O-Matic 6000 PvP game is pressured into being more PvE friendly, with PvE raiding content added into the mix. To achieve what? That's right, more market share.

The result of these all-in-wonders is a half-finished, bug-laden, polished turd.

What could have been a "unique and innovative combat system" (AoC) turns out to be a boring, uninspired twist on typical MMO mechanics, pressing up to 6 buttons to achieve what you got with one button press in prior games.

The "most amazing and interactive crafting system ever devised" (Vanguard) comes out as a half-assed puzzle game that inspires suicidal tendencies, not fun.

The "most in-depth character customization" and "exciting new PvP dynamics" (CoV) drowns in a sea of tedious grinding combined with consumable-laden frustration as you attempt to chase down Flash-wannabe #8793 and his mass-teleporting compatriots, hoping to gain a few brief seconds of fighting after a three hour long high-speed chase over the roof tops of what has become a very small gameworld once you started moving at 6000% of normal run speed.

All in all the result is more of the same crap we've seen before, just with a new skin on it.

Meet the New Boss

Same as the Old boss

The one developer who gets major kudos for sticking to their guns is CCCP. They found a solid niche audience, and they resisted the temptation of the masses. Sure, they only possess a 1.5% piece of that pie chart linked at the beginning of this post, but they clearly stand out amongst the other all-in-one clones and wannabes (WoW & Asian grind-fest MMORPGs excluded) as a victor. They found something they're good at, and found success with it.

What's the point? I hope more developers follow this mindset in the coming years so that we, the customers, can receive a product worth our money. The choice is in your hands, oh great and wise developers. Remember, the customer is the one who is going to make or break you, not your publisher. Don't listen to all of us. Listen to the ones who share your vision of the next great MMORPG, and you might stand a shot at creating it.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Old MMOs That Should Be Brought Back: Shattered Galaxy Edition

A quick note about the title. When I discuss games that "should be brought back," I don't necessarily mean that they are dead at this point. Hell, even 10Six still maintains a cult following. What I mean by the title is that these games should be brought back to the attention of MMO developers of today in terms of what they stood for and what could be learned from them. Will MMO developers will ever read this blog? Well, we can only hope.

The game I'm talking about today isn't close to being dead, probably, but it's not within the consciousness of the mainstream MMO gamer. Therefore, we can assume the game mechanics are probably not within the consciousness of the mainstream MMO developer.

The game? An oldie released by Nexon (now called KRU) back in 2001, Shattered Galaxy. What makes SG different from most is that it's another one of those games where a different game type is spliced with an MMO setting. In this case, SG is an MMORTS. Similar to 10Six, as previously talked about, but instead of using a first person view of the game world, SG utilizes the traditional RTS view and RTS style.

When a player first starts the game they start on the newbie planet "Relic" (there is another planet a player can inhabit called Morgana Prime). A player can create their own avatar and join a faction on Relic where they fight against the other factions that occupy the planet.

You don't fight with your avatar, but rather through a squad of units you bring into the fight (numbers ranging from 6-12). Each unit has a purpose. Some units are mine layers, and so players will bring in a whole squad of mine layers to lay mines for defensive and offensive purposes. Others will bring in anti-air, or anti-ground units. The fighting system is kind of a complicated "rock-paper-scissors" in that sense, since some units can only shoot at airborn units from the ground, or planes can only shoot/bomb things on the ground, or only shoot things in the air, etc.

The nice thing about this game is that theoretically there are no official archetypes or class roles in the game. Your "role" in the fight is based on what you bring into the fight--which can be a combination of anything. So in a very small sense, there is kind of a sandbox element in the game where you can choose what you feel like fighting with for any fight and not be restricted to the same thing every single fight. You can also modify individual units with buying different kinds of armor, technologies, and weaponry, so there's even a level of customization for the units themselves.

As is stands now there are unofficial "archetypes" in the game based solely on attribute designation, which if you care to, can learn about here. Basically there are four different attributes: tactics, clout, education and mechanical amplitude. Tactics gives you more units to put into your squad, clout gives you access to higher durability for units, education gives you access to better weaponry, and mechanical amplitude allows you to put more stuff into a unit chassis. With these in mind, one can see how people might spec into certain attributes more so than others.

There is also leveling in this game. The units and the character you play as both level, but what's important is the level of your units in the fight and how strong they are. There are checks and balaces, like the "Power Rating" to give newbies a fighting chance and to stop veteran players from becoming so strong that it's game breaking.

The whole premise of the game is essentially controlling territory. As this implies, it is mostly a PVP game, though there are some small PVE elements to the game that beyond newbie levels players usually ignore. There are four factions to a planet, and theoretically all four factions could fight each other.

In order to acquire or lose territory, one faction must beat another, or others in keeping the most PoC's (points of contention) during a 15 minute round. Take a look at the screenshot below this paragraph. Note the red pizza pie looking thing to the right. That's the PoC. You have to hold that poc for a certain amount of time before it's under your faction's control. That is what each team fights for. The attackers fight for positioning in order to take those PoCs and in the end take the territory. The defenders do the same thing, but if they totally destroy the enemy, that can win the round as well.

Given that the game is based on taking and holding territory, there were lots of interesting politics to go along with it.

Factions can also create peace treaties with one another. I remember back in my time playing it, I was still on the newbie planet playing on the Argus faction. We had an alliance with the faction on the other side of the faction. The name of that faction was Dulcinea, but we usually called them the "smurfs" because of their faction color being a light blue. We were generally called "barnies" or something to that effect because our color was purple. The other faction colors were gold and green, though I forget what we called them or what their official faction names were.

Back in beta, I remember that the factions were able to elect a leader for the faction, and the leader could elect a personal council. I remember begging to be on the council, and I did get on the council for Argus for some foreign affairs spot. It was interesting but I have very little memory of the politics since it's been years. Here are some more details you can read up on for faction politics. Other than electing an "Overlord," council and creating regiments, I doubt any of the other mechanics are in the game since apparently there's only enough people playing to fill the two previously mentioned planets.

What can be learned?

Beyond it being "different" as an MMORTS and the fact there are no player classes, one of the bigger concepts that this game makes good on is that the world doesn't control the player, the player controls the world. We can find hints of this in SWG, and in the previously mentioned game 10Six. This factor alone is what intrigued me about PotBS with the capturing and defending of ports. It's probably also why people are so fascinated with Eve politics. The lack of it is also the reason why I personally found Vanguard, EQ2, and WoW boring as hell: the worlds were static and unchanging, and the player simply existed within the confines. On the other hand, players having all the control doesn't necessarily hold a game up all by itself. Even SOE somehow found a way to ruin a good thing with enough revamps. Still, I'm willing to bet that the holy grail of MMOs that we hope to see one day will have have this element to contribute to its overall awesomeness.

If you want to look more into SG, go here. You can play it for free on a "basic" hero account with limitations. Even though it has limitations, you can play as long as you want. To get full access to all the benefits of the game, you still gotta pay up though.

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5 Things I Hate, Part 3: Jeffe Edition - Sterile Game Worlds

I'll keep this one short and simple, because I just got back from Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and I'm friggin tired. I'm also a little inspired. Anyone who has seen it will speak of the awesomeness that is The Goblin Market...I wish I could find better pictures...if you skip to about 1:16 in the trailer here, you'll get a glimpse of it:

In many ways it felt like the first time I saw the Cantina scene in Star Wars (not going to link it, if you don't know what it is...well, there's nothing I can do for you)...or when China Mieville writes about Bellis Coldwine leaving New Crobuzon and ending up in Armada in The Scar (Mieville's world screaming for an MMO IMO, but that's a post for another day)...or when Richard Mayhew first gets dragged into London Below in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Here are little fragments of the world sitting underneath, over, or just beyond the big living breathing cityies. These worlds are all full of monsters and wilderness, but there's life...even some civilization...outside of the big cities as well as inside.

That's what the real world is like...outposts of civilization pockmarked around, above, and below wilderness and intrigue. A good game world should be the same way...big cities are good, but sometimes the best player interraction happens at the outposts. And no, 3 quest-givers standing on a dock don't count as an outpost. Anyone who has played it knows who my target is now: EQ2. I'd love to sit down and interview the original developers about the decision to have two main factional cities, and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles of wasteland in between...with absolutely no life. It was the most sterile, inauthentic, immersion-breaking world ever. They were so proud of the city ecology too; the voice acting...the NPCs that moved around, helping make the city come alive...but once you left the walls of Qeynose or Freeport...nothing. Docks and questgivers. I guess they were trying to centralize the players a bit, but to me, it was a game-killing design decision. I hated that if I wanted to do anything other than kill monsters, I had to make my way back to Freeport (I was evil...go bad guys).

Here's the map of Antonica, with all the monster spawns and such:

That was a 20 minute trip on foot (you could take the bird and get to the next zone quicker); the sheer size of that one zone (or the Commonlands, if you were in Freeport) was staggering. But in that whole expanse, there wasn't one stopping point, one layover. No pubs. Nowhere to craft. No trainers. Nothing. Just fields and fields of nasties of varying levels. All the zones were like that.

I hate to admit it, but when I stopped playing EQ2 and moved over to WOW, that was one thing I loved about the world design in WOW...something that I think made the game very approachable to new players; every zone had at least one gathering spot where players could rest their feet and wipe the blood off of their swords. Those outposts were where we met up, swapped stories, started groups, emptied our bags, wrapped our heads around the lore of the game (though to this day I still remember absolutely nothing about the WOW lore...with the exception of the story of Gnomergan...which is totally awesome). It felt more like the world that I'm used to, and it made gameplay more fun.

Star Wars Galaxies went an extra step...each planet had a few cities or outposts (the more remote "adventure" planets had fewer), but then we were allowed to build our own outposts. Krib has written about sandboxes and city-building in almost all of his posts, and it certainly stuck with me fact...instanced player housing is probably going to be my next "5 things I hated".

So give us rest stops all along the way. Our journey is mighty. Our thirsts will need to be slaked. Repeatedly. Don't worry about spreading the player population out...if your game is good, it will be busy enough that you won't want everyone in Ironforge (or Theed) because of TEH DREADED L4G anyways. And give us a good reason to stop and rest. Takes some of the grind out of the grind.

First developer to put a massage station and a shoe-shine in an out of the way Tavern in a little town in the middle of the wilderness gets a round of expensive microbrewed ale from me. Irish Carbombs if sitting down and getting the massage gives you a short-duration buff of some sort, even if it's totally whimiscal. A bottle of Grey Goose if the shoe shine actually makes your shoes shiny. It's the little things folks. We do pay attention to them, in case you're wondering.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Time Sinks, Grinding & Lasting Playability Without Poopsocks

Last time, I wrote about the difference between sandbox and theme-park MMOs, as well as which style I prefer. For a player with my beginnings, the answer was obvious. But I’ve sure done a lot of complaining, haven’t I? Guilty, there. I suppose one could think about this series of letters as a kind of charcoal rubbing. Put your e-sketch pad over my posts, and fill in the whole thing with broad strokes. The negative space from all my curmudgeonly ramblings turns into a picture of a more Krib-friendly MMO. There’s that ponderous metaphor you were asking for. Plus a new theoretical game that will be published only in my mind’s eye.

What is this thing so far? Well, it’s certainly a sandbox. Players have the ability to contribute physically to the world, and their contributions are at least as important as the original design. In this place, players and developers are going to work hand in hand. Evolution is going to be a joint endeavor.

The result is that there may be some random wackiness. However, it isn’t going to be full chaos either. There will be a theme, and some gentle guidance. As mentioned previously, there needs to be something to play. There will certainly be quests, things to do. There will be character differentiation. Crafting. MMO archetypes will be discussed in a later post though.

But will there be leveling? Just how long is it going to take for players to get leet? Isn’t the underlying purpose of virtually any competitive multiplayer game to keep popping those levels so you can kill scarier and scarier monsters and pwn sundry noobs?

How can I expect you devs to make any money if everything in this game is instantly accessible? Won’t subscribers get bored in a month? Just where does that hamster wheel fit in here?

Well, I can tell you how I wouldn’t do it.

More on Vanguard, and how it eventually broke my spirit

I’ve already written about how Vanguard was the last MMO before my break(down). About how I woke up one day, and knew that I couldn’t do it anymore. But why exactly did that happen? It might be useful to consider, because the bulk of the answer has to do with leveling. And it’s hardly like VG uses a unique model there.

When I played VG, nobody else in my crew did. At least not for very long. They poked their heads in, but we never really had enough of a group to do anything. In addition, the haphazard, wacky way that we play when we’re together was particularly poorly suited for the sort of game that VG is. That is most true on the free-for-all PVP server, which was where I wanted to be. Having missed the old generation of MMOs like UO and Shadowbane, I wanted to experience FFA.

In spite of the fact that I’m a lousy PVPer who mashes buttons when the chips are down and has intimate experience with getting wtfpwned, I had to try it. Gut check-type thing, maybe. Actually, it was fun. Never feeling safe gives you a jolt of extra adrenaline even when you’re just going to the bank to drop off some Worg hides you won’t be needing yet. Sure, there will be some idiots who kill you while you’re browsing the Auction House. But if you have backup and can learn to not get flustered, you’d be surprised at how well quality FFA works.

I was never killed at a crafting station, and I appreciated that. Even ganking guilds didn’t do it. Sure, I was killed at the Auction House. But I remember that fondly, because the first time it happened, I spawned back in and went right into stealth form. I was angry, I had the advantage of first attack, and I killed the guy something like six times. The next time I saw him at the AH, he waved at me. Got to represent.

The Let Us Police Ourselves model can work, and it opens things up for a lot of player creativity. Guild Councils to lay down the law. A new set of etiquette to learn. The ability to kill a fool because he’s text spamming. It all worked okay until the speed hacks and other exploits started getting prevalent. Brad was asleep at the switch. Doesn’t even bear talking about; we all know what happened to VG, and it’s been discussed ad-infinitum. Anyway, it’s one thing to get ganked. It’s another to get ganked by a speed hacker, suffer item decay, and know the Powers That Be have precisely zero ability to prevent that sort of thing because they are out of money, resources and ideas.

Before that happened, there were about four months of daily gameplay. As I mentioned, I had to find a new group. I did. I researched them, and they had thoroughly dominated Shadowbane. Like, for real. Unfortunately, they weren’t in with numbers (smarter, probably). But there were enough of them to grind with, and they were dead cool. So for about 120 days, we leveled hard together.

Leveling hard was the only way to get anywhere in VG back then. My understanding is that they’ve smoothed out the curve. But at release, you were looking up at a ladder that stretched into the sky. Sure, there’s something to be said for enjoying the journey as much as the destination. But if the journey is as long as VG’s you’d better get a fast train. You’d better go out where the water is deep, and swim.

That’s what we did, and I hadn’t played with a crew this professional before. It was new, not hearing random chatter on comms when we pulled. Everyone knew what to do, and they made me better. They made me want to concentrate: on the careful structure of each pull, on my surroundings, on not wasting heals. When we got ganked mid-pull (inevitable in a game with no instances and on an FFA server), they stunned me with how good they were. Quality PVP was something I had not experienced much of, and it is a craft.

We made steady progress as the months marched on, but it was intimidating how slowly that XP bar moved. What was Sigil thinking? Didn’t they have any other strategy to keep us playing their game? On an FFA server you have to level, because you won’t be able to walk from A to B, else. In hindsight, it was probably a bad combination.

So I got tired; I quit. In the end, I prefer my motley crew. They have more fun, and there’s something to be said for not taking things so seriously. I’m glad I got to experience the flip side, but it isn’t for me. It’s not why I quit though. I did that because I was leveling for its own sake, which is really what that whole style of game is about. You’re locked out of what you most desire as a lowbie, be it loot, pwnage or prestige, so you have to get on the wheel.

The agony of grinding

Let’s face it: there isn’t anything fun about repetitive action. Grinding is like going to the dentist, you do it because you have to. Along the way, you cease to play for any other reason. If you log in and don’t pop a level, you feel unfulfilled. If you’re sidetracked, you get frustrated. Eventually, you get there. That’s always satisfying, isn’t it? Actually, it can be like a gamer orgasm.

But once you’re on the mountaintop, something is missing. This is because you’ve been living on the ladder for so long that you can’t conceptualize any other way to play. Congratulations: here are some sunflower seeds. Go and bury them in the corner of your cage. Don’t worry, the expansion will be here soon. Ten more levels in that.

I watched in SWG as an incredibly brilliant and diverse skill-based character system (which admittedly was buggy as a college frat house) got wiped out by this phenomenon. Sure, there was some grinding involved in mastering your chosen professions. In that, Galaxies was very traditional. But once Jedi hit, people tore apart their characters. Guys that had been known for certain templates suddenly turned up in Theed cantina, AFK dancing. Painful to watch. And talk about a grind. Enjoyed mastering two professions? Just wait until you have to do all of them.

The grinding model has ruined more games for me than I can count, but the most glaring example is Pirates of the Burning Sea. This is because I am, how do you say this? A huge Age of Sail fan. I have read all 20 of Patrick O’Brian’s books. I’ve seen Master & Commander five times. I played the everloving daylights out of Pirates, both the old and new versions. I keep a shrine to Trafalgar in my home. The fanboy list goes on.

Flying Lab gets more credit than I even know how to give for creating a gameworld based on the Age of Sail. Gameworlds, though, (at least the genre aspect of them) are a topic for a later post. What’s relevant here is how stupefyingly boring it is to run instanced mission after mission, and watch that XP bar tick slowly upward. Sure, you can PVP for your levels too. But that’s a riskier proposition, and you’re probably not going to have the guts or financing to do it all the time.

Ship combat in PotBS is slow by nature. It works incredibly well, but is best in small doses. Let me say from experience that when you’ve killed your 500th consecutive British pirate hunter, each time having to beat upwind to firing range over the course of five full minutes, death is better than continuing. PotBS is a game that really would have benefited from the Eve model.

Time-based leveling, and other alternatives to The Wheel

It practically goes without saying that responsible adults do not mix well with games that are heavily grind or time-sink oriented. Jeffe wrote in one of his posts about corpse runs, and I’m inclined to agree. I have mentioned the loot ladder in WoW, and it is of this flavor as well. To get anything worth getting, you have to sign away your real life and join a cult of lightning bolt spamming automatons whose sole purpose in life is to save the necessary DKP for the Blade of What The Hell Did You Just Hit Me With. And your crowning humiliation may be that to attain your goal, you’ll probably have to kowtow to a sixteen year old Lithuanian high school student with a sizable angel dust problem who has bad days when he’s off his epilepsy medication.

Loot ladders aside, our responsible adult is even more alienated when it comes to traditional grinding. He doesn’t even get a nice sword out of it; he simply continues the futile process of trying to keep up with his guild-mates. Oh yeah, and he gets fourteen stacks of Greater Yak livers to sell on the AH for three silver.

We’ve all guilded with that best gaming bud who has several small autistic children, and an ongoing home renovation project. Our friend falls further and further behind, and by the time we’re going after Worbus, the God of Phat Lewt, he’s alone in a Teamspeak chatroom soloing Lesser Reticulated Shmendricks and weeping silently into his microphone. And we miss him.

One of my gaming friends likes to say that as an adult, you have to police your own playtime. If you don’t, it isn’t the game’s fault that you’re turning pale white, that you’ve lost your job or girlfriend, that you have arthritis in your N-52 hand. This is truth. It’s also the lesson that our missing buddy has learned. But to learn it, he’s had to lock himself out of meaningful gameplay. Nobody but college students, high school students and quadruplegics wins in that scenario.

This is why Eve’s model is so compelling. There simply isn’t a way for someone to get too far behind, unless they forget to log in and switch skills. It is literally possible to spend six months training an upper level character, without actually playing. One could spend that time having Tantric sex with supermodels, or building a working motorcycle out of popsicle sticks. If you really want to get crazy, that person could actually play while leveling, perhaps becoming an in-game reporter who covers shennanigans in 0.0 space.

The fact that not having to grind opens one up to a host of other more fulfilling game activities is priceless beyond measure. Of course, there need to be other activities. Eve doesn’t make that very obvious to new players, and I hear that many of them go slowly insane, mining the same asteroid over and over again. Eventually, they leave the house and walk out into traffic.

Once one gets to 0.0, it’s a different game though. Eve’s politics are almost completely player-created. There is only one server, so if you missed it in Eve, it’s because you weren’t paying attention. There is one game history, and one social fabric.

If I can say anything in criticism of time-based leveling, it’s only that time is an insurmountable gap. If one were to enter Eve today, they would find a gulf between themselves and the longer-time players that they can never hope to close. It’s still eminently possible to have a lot of fun, and Goonfleet proved this by showing that a swarm of a hundred tiny frigates can take you down just as hard as three larger vessels. The picture below was found by way of Something Awful, and I think it sums things up pretty well.

As James over at Kill Ten Rats says:

If you are the one guy who tackles the scout … you will see the whole EVE blogosphere light up with news about the battle you were in, because it significantly changed the politics and economics of the game for everyone. And that’s really cool.
But if you don’t want to be a tiny cog in a very large gear (even if it’s a meaningful cog), you’d better have a great idea or know the right people. There isn’t really a sandbox element to Eve other than the way that all of the territory is player controlled, so you can’t make your name creatively by building something unique (like in Second Life or Galaxies). Still, Eve’s model is one that I really would like to see more of.

It worries me that the game is mostly perceived by mainstream gaming as a niche product, because it needs to be imitated. If somebody with real commercial clout did a time-based leveling game, it could work. Just make sure you give the players enough tools and content to distract themselves from the fact that they aren’t pulling groups of Spotted Vulriches over and over. They might just wind up doing something entertaining.

What are we left with?

In the end, I can appreciate the necessity of leveling systems, as opposed to simply giving us all the content at once.The first reason is obviously good design. Unless you’re a full-bore sandbox game, you can’t open things up that wide. At least not in any way that I can see. Players need to feel a sense of progress during their long stays in any virtual world. That is not a bad thing.

The second reason is, of course, that you devs need us to keep subscribing. How else do you pay for your five-year development cycle? Is it an accident that the most innovative MMO of recent years is modestly scaled? In an industry that only rewards big hits, they had to do it that way. They could never have maintained a bigger infrastructure, because players simply weren’t used to titles like that. CCCP never fooled themselves into thinking that Eve could be mass-market.

I’m getting into game economics, and that will be a separate post. But I’m going to continue beating this Eve horse (wow, there’s a horrible thought) because I can’t stress enough that traditional grinding needs to be phased out. As an adult, I don’t wish to spend all my in-game time repetitively. I won’t. It gives me hives. Time-based leveling is an alternative. Both of us get what we need.

I wracked my brain while writing this, but couldn’t come up with any major alternative to the two leveling strategies I have named. Sure, perhaps there are some hybrids between them. But nothing that is clearly a viable third category. As I mentioned, there is PVP leveling. but it is genre-specific and hasn’t been used much in games that have real MMO-style depth. Planetside did it, but that game doesn’t have the scope of a true MMO. Huxley will do it, and hopefully that game will be released. Warhammer Online will incorporate it, and I’m very interested to see how that works out.

In the meantime, I’m open to suggestions. I hope that all 17 of our readers comment and tell me exactly what I’m missing here. I’m very open to the alternatives, as long as they don’t involve killing 500 Vampire Wombats.

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Remember The Dead

On Special Editions, Pre-Paid Subscriptions and Founder's Clubs

I was one of the twelve people that actually liked Hellgate: London enough to buy a Founder's subscription. Did I get my money's worth on that investment? Probably not. In fact, if you do the math, it's more like exactly not - by about half. Hellgate was yet another classic example of a great idea with a ham-fisted execution and a premature release - which seems to typify the management of MMO properties. Recent news swirling around the alleged collapse of Flagship Studios further begs one (one me, at least) to question the true value of "collector's editions" and pre-paid or lifetime MMO subscriptions.

Don't Listen to Me

A bit of background that should illustrate why I am not a financial advisor: In a previous career, I was an anti-consultant. That is to say, people paid me large amounts of money for my opinion and then did the exact opposite of what I recommended. I'm quite comfortable with that, as it was usually the correct course of action. Turns out I'm wrong a lot.

  • For instance, I thought was the dumbest idea I'd ever heard of. After all, who in their right mind would buy a book on the internet when you could hold the same item in your hand (and read it free over a cup of java) at the local Border's or Super Crown?
  • As another shining example, I thought eBay was the most inane business model ever. Online garage sales? What scam artist came up with that and what pack of retards funded him?
  • This whole blogging thing? When my buddy Greg started 'blogging back in 1997 (because in 1997 you still used the apostrophe) I told him it was cute but that nobody would ever care what he had for breakfast. So, naturally, when Rupert Murdoch laid out over half a billion dollars to acquire an online hive of perverts and cops pretending to be high school kids I thought he had gone batshit crazy.
I also genuinely, but for no rational basis that I can discern, believed that the NGE would lead to the renaissance of Star Wars Galaxies. The general theme has been that if I think you're an idiot you're going to be a billionaire and if I approve of your plan you are doomed. So, please - I beg of you - don't heed my opinion on anything.

Special Editions

Galaxies wasn't my first MMO, not by far. I played Ultima Online on and off for five years before SWG, though I can't say I actually enjoyed most of it. I played it because it was there. I also dabbled in Asheron's Call and Sega's highly underrated 10-Six. When SWG launched in 2003, I bought the limited Collector's Edition box (I did it for the goggles, lol).

Though no longer in the anti-consulting racket, I still make make a decent living - so the extra twenty bucks for the CE really wasn't that big a barrier for some cool IG swag. In fact, I kind of decided back then that if a CE was available for any game I was playing that I'd buy it. Because, it turns out, I am the target demographic that really, really wants those exclusive items. After all, any game worth playing is worth paying extra for the optional leather bound heirloom grade slipcase - especially if it's got phat lewtz I can strap to my avatar while I preen and strut around the game like a peacock as if to advertise the superiority of my intellect, income and mating potential.

If I had bothered getting into World of Warcraft at launch, I would have picked up it's limited edition box. But I didn't and it became the most wildly popular MMO in the history of all mankind, achieving a level of success never to be duplicated no matter how often imitated. On the other hand, I pre-ordered Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning from Amazon Prime and the developers are already managing expectations for a gimped launch. Spin it however you want, but do take heed.

I was going to get Age of Conan in order to pass the time until the W:AR launch, since I can't seem to figure out who I must fellate to get into the latter game's closed beta, but all of my acquaintances who rode AoC's rocket-sled of a grind to the top arrived there only to find the PvP endgame bugged beyond salvation and have already quit. I had enough of that crap in Galaxies to last me a lifetime and I figure the cash I saved by not playing AoC almost makes up for what I lost by paying for Hellgate up front.

Pre-paid Subscriptions

I started out month-to-month in SWG, but for some reason fifteen bucks per lunar cycle is a difficult turd to swallow. It averages out to around fifty cents a day, which won't even buy a cup of coffee anymore. It is certainly a value proposition if I'm going to play 4-8 hours a day every day which is what addictive personalities like me do. However, I also evidently have some kind of aberrant psychological condition that causes me to shun recurring monthly costs over the magical $9.99 mark. I eventually upgraded and paid up front for an annual sub because lowering the effective monthly price by pre-paying is a potent enticement for folks so afflicted.

Of course, the downside to pre-paying is running the risk that three to six months into your 12 mo. (or lifetime) subscription period you get a Combat Upgrade or an NGE pulled on you. That just leads to a lot of impotent rage and causes otherwise rational people to flame out with idle message board threats of class action lawsuits, arson and grievous bodily harm.

So, before you whip out that credit card to cover your next year's worth of intended game time, reconsider that "Game experience may change during online play" label on that beautiful special edition box in your hands. Sure, that's in the context of an ESRB disclaimer, but you can just as easily read that as: "We can change the game anytime we want and we've already got your cash, suckas!"

Whither the Founder's Club

When Turbine announced that Lord of the Rings Online would have the option for a $199 lifetime subscription for pre-orders, I pondered the wisdom of such a ploy and questioned whether I would have bought one for Galaxies had it been offered. I decided that I probably would have. SWG just passed it's 5-year anniversary and sixty months at $15 per is $900. Now, I haven't been an uninterrupted paying customer during that entire stretch, but that number makes me cringe nonetheless.

If I had paid SOE $200 at SWG's launch in 2003 and played all the way through, I'd have a net savings of seven hundred dollars. That's crazy! On the other hand, everyone I knew who signed up for LotRO quit within three to six months. If I'd bought that lifetime sub and subsequently quit when they did I'd have effectively paid between $33 and $66 for each of those months. That's just insane! I laid out $149 for the Hellgate Founder's offer. At the standard rate of $9.99, I would have had to play for fifteen months in order to break even. I knew that when I wrote the check, and I was skeptical then too. Instead, I got eight months out of it - which is an effective monthly rate of $18.75. I knew the risks involved. It was a gamble. I rolled the dice and got screwed. Am I bitter? Not really. A little wiser? Maybe.

The conspiracy theorist that dwells within me believes the notion of a "Founders Club" begs the question as to the developer's motivation in making such an offering. Any pre-paid lifetime subscription model ensures two things. First, it provides the developer with a skewed and front-loaded income stream, which may reflect internal cash flow problems and/or indicate a tacit acknowledgment that they intend to deliver a product that they don't expect will go the distance. Call this the "Distract Unagi with a shiny trinket then take his money and run" gambit (though cynical SWG players will recognize this maneuver as "Sacrifice support of the live game by using subscription fees to finance the next expansion"). Secondly, it incentivizes the Founder to stick around and endure a sub-par experience merely to justify his expense long after a month-to-month player might have walked away. This merely breeds spite, hooliganism and a misplaced sense of entitlement.


When considering the amount of money and commitment of time that developers ask players to part with, do we at some point cease being customers and become investors? Of course not. But that doesn't stop the disgruntled Founder from acting like T. Boone Pickens and demanding that the President, CEO and Lead Designer all owe him something. Maybe we are owed something. Maybe we are owed assurances that the game we are paying for and the company we are paying it to are both viable enough to allow us to see an equitable return on our subscription fees.

Is it time for an MMO Player's Bill of Rights? Perhaps, but that is a topic for another article. There is no easy solution to this problem. With the dust still settling at Flagship, assuming the rumors are even true, the short answer is that if a game with over a million paying subscribers can manage to tank eight months into it's live service then I probably won't be joining any more Founder's clubs - irrespective of keen swag, early access or promises of exclusive content.

TL;DR = Grab the special edition but pay as you go.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

5 Things I Hate, Part 1: Mason Edition - Delivery Quests

Of all the things I imagine in my wildest high fantasy and science fiction dreams, delivering a letter to General Chamberlain probably ranks in my top 5. For whatever reason, every digital persona I have taken since I took my first hit of crack (see: MMOs) has been 1 part DHL delivery guy and 1 part hero. Better yet, some developers are pretentious enough to call these miserable missions content.

I, for one, would be happy if I never again had to backtrack 2 zones to tell some town politician about my progress so I can advance a chain. I can send billions of dollars, phat loots, and advertisements for gold farmers through the mail, but god forbid sending word of my exploits and receiving further direction via post; much less in a game world in which you fly spaceships.

Delivery quests are just such lazy development it hurts. Please for all that is good in this world, STOP MAKING DELIVERY QUESTS!

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5 Things I Hate, Part 2: Jeffe Edition - Fucking Corpse Runs

I still hate them actually. Not the fucking part. Don't worry, you haven't accidentally landed on a necrophilia blog. That would be creepy, no? I'll keep this short and sweet, because we all know that corpse runs suck. I guess thing to do, because it gets to my origins as an MMO player, is look at Raph Koster's Star Wars Galaxies design blog (from about 2000), where he says:

For example, knowing that we were looking at a broader audience than MMOs had likely seen before meant that we couldn't demand as much time per play session or as much time per week as other MMOs did. As a result, a bunch of design choices went right out the window: we knew that we couldn't have game design elements that involved spending tons of time online. No macroing, no camping, no lengthy corpse recoveries, no long waits for public transportation.

This would be what we players refer to as an EPIC FAIL. Ah, my first SWG character, the lovable human Bootsy Collins. Bootsy was born on Tatooine somewhere, probably Bestine. He was an intrepid explorer, even right out of the gate, and about 9 hours into play he wandered somewhere bad and got himself killed by I-can't-even-remember-what. I ran back to the corpse about 20 times, dying every single time. Then I deleted Bootsy, picked a different server (Bria, thank god), and rerolled a hideous scaley orange menace (that's a female Trandoshan to the layman) named Gorgoth Goc.

So not only did Raph waste an hour of time on corpse runs, he wasted 9 of my hours leveling up to that point, and 9 more levelling a new character. It's all good though. I have 18 spare hours (I only have two small children, a wife, a house to take care of, a full time job, and an adorable dog). I guess in the end I should thank him, because I loved that stupid orange lizard. Though one day when Bria was down I did recreate Booty and terrorize the fine citizens of Eclipse:

But back to the point...corpse runs suck. They sucked in Galaxies, they sucked in EQ2, they sucked in Vanguard, they suck in Age of Conan. They just suck, and I'd love for somebody to come on here and give me one compelling reason that an MMO should EVER have corpse runs. There are better ways to create consequences for death. I'd rather just lose a random item from my inventory, even if that means time lost somewhere down the road; at least I don't have to stop what I'm doing and go on some random jog to find my rotting dead body. The best is when it's buried in the bottom of some dungeon with a mountain of re-pops on top of it, with no possible way to avoid them. Super.

Some day I'll take Raph to task on that "no long waits for public transportation" comment too. Ask anybody who played SWG at launch what were the most memorable annoyances, and I bet they'll say 2 things: corpse runs and waiting for the goddamn shuttle.

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MMOs Are A Harsh Mistress: An Origin Story

I love the MMO in spite of its faults, recycling and trickery. I love to progress a character within a game, and to custom tailor it to my heart's content. I love to roam around with others'/friends' characters, and to wreak all manner of havoc and terror. It's also a blast to sit around with said buddies and do nothing but shoot the shit. I also love that little thing we call 'immersion'.

Now a little step back to my MMO origins: Motor City Online, may it rest in peace. There was, as far as I'm concerned, a one-of-a-kind game. A true racing MMO. Granted, it didn't last long. I'll attribute that to poor management and lack of exposure. Bottom line though, I love racing games. And with MCO I got to build my own cars, sell my creations, have my own little greaser guy in the car (yes, it was all muscle/classic cars and set in the 60s-70s), and race in every kind of mode you can think of. Although MCO was built on a Lobby setup, the player base was definitely Massive, and it was persistent. And I have to let it be known, the customization was phenomenal for its time.

This game really blew my mind. I had played plenty of games online. But nothing on this scale; just your usual lobbied games. Here I was indulging in one of my favorite genres, but I wasn't limited to racing the CPU/a friend/my brother like any racing game before. It was from there on that I was hooked on MMOs.

I think I'll leave my first leap at that, as my next MMO was Star Wars Galaxies. Don't get me wrong; I'm one of the people that had an absolute love affair with SWG (still would if not for the NGE), but that will have to be broken down into many posts.

I'll close with a thought I had while out jogging at 5 in the goddamn morning today (because any later is toooo hot): Repetitive gameplay and the $15 standard. I don't mind forking up 3 fivers every month for a great game... but some games (even when great) are repetitive. I could probably get a monthly handjob on the Harvard campus for less, and get more original 'content' out of it. Developers really need to step up the Dynamic in 'dynamic gameplay elements.'

Keep it here for my next installment in textual intercourse : Savagery and Broken Bliss in A Galaxy Far Far Away. ETA - whenever.


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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sandboxes, Theme Parks & User-Created Content

I wrote in my last post about my beginnings as a gamer, and hopefully this went towards giving you an idea of what I like in MMOs. I suppose it’s obvious: I’m a sandbox guy, unapologetically. Now you know how I voted in our poll. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy a good raid every now and then, or a good round of PVP, but what really gets me going is just seeing what people can create in virtual worlds. If it’s contextual, all the better. But if it’s completely out of left field, the wacky side of me as well as the part that digs on the somewhat random nature of the human creative impulse is also tickled.

I’ve been finding it pretty interesting to watch what people have been doing with the Spore Creature Creator. Not only is it great marketing for that game, the creator is so addictive that it bodes very, very ill for the future sleep habits of gamers everywhere when Spore finally does come out. I not only laughed my ass off over this guy but appreciated the fact that, once they get over the novelty of making giant penis monsters, a million monkeys on typewriters are going to turn their formidable collective consciousness to making some of the most entertaining critters ever.

Sure, EA got a little snippy over the fact that people were using their vaunted creature editor to create things that weren’t exactly family friendly. But they’re going to filter what uploads into the game, right? Since I’m sort of an anarchist about these things, I wish they wouldn’t. But I can appreciate why they need to.

Why can’t we see more user-generated content in MMOs? Don’t tell me it would break the immersion. Immersion is only important in rigidly controlled, probably franchised gameworlds that want to run me on a hamster wheel. This is obviously a slight exaggeration, but still: give me the tools, and I’ll make my own immersion. So will many other people.

When I think about the Spore Creature Creator, I imagine it being put to use in a game like SWG to generate in-game objects. No need for noob staff aquarium walls then, although I grant you that they work very, very well. If you like, make sure the style of the items that people generate is contextual.

Naturally, I’d love to see some games that don’t even try to do that. And surely, Second Life is one. Unfortunately, it also neatly illustrates why the full-chaos model doesn’t work either. Too little structure can be just as off-putting as too much.

Second Life’s “problem” in a nutshell is that it isn’t really a game at all. You can play games in SL but that word has a different definition there. SL is essentially a 3D development platform. So that formidable collective consciousness I talked about is there in spades, but not to game; to socialize, to do business, to roleplay. That last taking place in a giant bunny suit, with your partner of choice resplendent in the latest zebra head fashions of the day, along with the obligatory little black dress. And believe me, you two will e-urinate on one another for hours.

Because Second Life doesn’t have an inherent game structure, it also tends to attract the sort who find the above appealing. Because they aren’t looking to game the way I’m looking to game. They’re looking for something a little more basic that probably has more to do with, um, hormonally and intellectually based human social interaction.

While there’s a place for those crazy bunny suit people in my utopian virtual world, and elements of what they want to do are indisputably valid gaming activities, not all the right MMO ingredients really exist in SL. That simply was never Linden's intent. Plus, you have to learn the proprietary scripting language to make anything. And, let's face it, you have to be a graphic designer. Finally, there’s also always the risk of your PC melting into a smoking pool of hot metal. SL can really lag, on any machine.

So, much as I appreciate the parts of it that are groundbreaking, much as I love that it was born out of Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Second Life is not “playable” the way I define that word. To find something like that, I have to head back towards the mainstream.

I’ve talked a lot about user generated content, and also about how plain crazy Second Life can be. But I don’t think that user generated content and utter, random wackiness have to be mutually dependant. Surely one can find a middle ground between total anarchy and the rigidly stratified, narrowly specific gameworld that is WoW: the one where every bit of art in the game looks like it was drawn by the same guy. And, you know, even though some of the more over-the-top player additions to SWG were not exactly helping one roleplay, you never forgot that you were running around in the Star Wars universe.

Problem is, short of Second Life and SWG, I can’t even think of a game with much user generated content, and certainly not one that allows the player to use that content in a sandbox-type environment. Being able to design your own ship sails in Pirates of the Burning Sea is pretty cool, but it isn’t really what I’m after.

Since I just used WoW as a cautionary example of what not to do, I want to allay some concerns about just how much of a lunatic sandbox MMOer I really am. The basic premise of any game is to have fun, and WoW is fun without a doubt. Combat is intuitive and quick, but there’s a lot of depth to how you play a class, both in PVP and PVE. Everything just… works right, and that counts for so much. It's rare in MMOs! In that, WoW is the anti Second Life, as well as the anti SWG.

To continue playing devil’s advocate, there’s also something to be said for WoW’s higher-end content. It has a way of bringing people together through necessity. I’ll bet a thousand real-life friendships have been born out of raiding BWL, and there’s nothing negative I can say about that. Plus, the strategic, almost sport-like element of most raids can be pretty compelling.

It’s plain satisfying to take down a really big boss, on your fifth try, with 39 other people screaming into the mic. And hopefully you had enough DKP saved, because the Talisman of Reformatting Entire Noob Hard Drives finally dropped, and it’s a priest item. But it’s not satisfying for long.

Unfortunately, in an industry that thrives almost solely on the big hits, that, like Hollywood, needs them to survive, you’ll excuse me if I worry that a whole lot more WoW flavor is in our MMO future. To the exclusion of all else.

Blizzard broke the mold, and showed you guys that the theme park style can be phenomenally popular (and profitable). Put people on a loot treadmill, and run them through a world that is perfectly realized, on an engine that is rock stable. Lower-level players will see the shiny, glowing weapons and armor of the 70s, and lust after them. But they need time, numbers and organization for that. So they’ll be forced into big guilds, will start grinding up, and before you know it they’re studying YouTube videos of raid progression, and blocking out their raid schedule two weeks in advance. They’re playing (and subscribing) more than they ever thought they would, but along the way, they will move through a gameworld that never changes, never evolves. Something is absent from it.

That something is what I have futilely hunted for in virtually every MMO outside SWG that I’ve played. The old sense of wonder, caused by an appreciation of just how much interesting stuff people get up to when you give them the tools and step carefully back.

When I ran around in WoW, I enjoyed myself the first few weeks. All the cool gnome technology. The sense of humor and cartoony irreverence that is in all of Blizzard’s (really Games Workshop’s) art. But as a player, you cannot contribute. You’re really just running around in someone else’s movie.

Even a game like EQII, which I suppose was a good transition from the sandbox of SWG to the theme park of WoW, has always had that same sense of narrowness. I understand that you EQII devs felt you had to protect the intellectual property of Norrath by not allowing players to throw up houses and guild halls all over the landscape, but that instanced housing in the cities was not a solution. We weren’t contributing to the world; we were just renting rooms in your hotel. Sure, we could put our collections of stuff there (and I did), but it never felt like we figured into how the game evolved. Actually, I guess that’s the point; it didn’t. EQII is the same static, ladder-style questfest as WoW, just with different skins and less PVP.

When I think about EQII, the thing that most stands out for me about that gameworld isn’t the first time I stood someplace and gaped at the scenery. Sure, it was very quality stuff, and I did peer a little. But, like in WoW, there was little sense of wonder. What sticks is, bizarrely: Narek Bonecarver.

Narek was an armor quest mob who I believe you simply had to kill. He’d spawn on you when you found his spot, provided you had the quest. Problem was, for as long as I played, he also spawned on you if you had ever had the quest. Even if you had killed his ass into the ground sixteen times and once more for good measure. You could be level 46 and decked out, but if you passed his spot in Nektulos Forest, level 25 Narek would pop, scream in rage and commit comic three hit suicide. As one friend pointed out, Narek was pissed, and he was coming after you for the rest of your life.

For some reason, I always found it hilarious when Narek came out to remind us that he hadn’t forgotten what we did to him back when Nek Forest was scary, and everything conned orange and red to us.

Maybe it’s because the world in EQII was just so… perfect. It needed a little smudge, and Narek provided that.

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