31 December 2011

See you in 2012!

Just a quick post to wish everyone a safe and successful new year.  Please be careful out there as you celebrate.  No need to start the new year off on the wrong foot.  May all your lewtz in 2012 be epic!

I'll be back tomorrow with a big SW:TOR update.

29 December 2011

Restart vs. Extension

Gordon over at "We Fly Spitfires," raises an interesting question with his recent post.  First off, I commend him for his honesty about having a rather negative view of Star Wars: The Old Republic in general in prefacing his remarks.  A big problem with many opinion pieces is that so often the author attempts to hide or obscure their personal bias.  I find this just as dishonest in blogging as I would in more academic literature.  So I have to give Gordon major props here for not in any way attempting to mislead his audience.  He's not sold on SW:TOR and he makes no attempt to say otherwise.  So we as the readers can take that with a grain of salt as we look at his specific critiques.

And his critiques certainly have merit.  There is a lot of validity to his criticism of Bioware's decision making process and how that affected SW:TOR as a final product.  The emphasis on storyline and voice over was a deliberate decision and that decision had consequences on the game's final form.  Gordon believes that this emphasis resulted in the diminished quality of other aspects of the game such as combat, class diversity, and the user interface.  I can certainly sympathize with criticism of the UI.  It is easily the one thing about SW:TOR that I absolutely loathe and can't believe that Bioware shipped the game with a UI this poor.  If you read my SW:TOR review you already know how I feel about that.  But this isn't Gordon's biggest worry.  His critique comes down to the longevity of the game itself.

His argument is that Bioware spent too much time and effort on essentially crafting a single-player RPG experience and there is little incentive for players to play through the game multiple times as all the voice acting and cutscenes will rapidly become redundant.  This will lead to very quick "burn out" and result in few players sticking with the game long-term.  Again, his argument has some merit.  I have already experienced this myself to a degree.  As I said in other posts, I rolled multiple characters when the game launched so I could experience a variety of play styles and content.  It was a good plan, but I rapidly found myself unable and unwilling to play multiple characters in the same faction.  Yes the class story is different for each one, but this content only accounts for about 20-30% (my estimate only) of the content used to level.  The rest (all other quests, PvP, Flashpoints, heroic quests, etc.) are duplicated for all classes within the same faction.  So there is a high degree of duplication, and in this, Gordon has a good point.

Where we differ though, is how we think this will affect the game in the long term.  I think SW:TOR's ability to retain players over the long term is going to have a lot more to do with how it handles maximum level content (endgame) and expanded content (patches and expansions.)  SW:TOR already goes a long way to make you care about your character.  Thus it makes sense that the game would want to encourage you to continue investing in that character, not constantly creating new ones.  If Bioware can deliver fun and engaging activities for level capped characters, and provide a consistent source of new content, I firmly believe it can overcome the potential "burn out" and lack of replayability that the 1-50 content may come to represent.  And to counter the people that say that the emphasis on voice over will make adding content slow, I would remind them that Bioware and EA aren't stupid.  I am quite sure they have already planned for this and have the first batch of added content fully voiced and ready to go.  They invested in this voice over train and I guarantee you they have already accounted for that in their plans for future patches and expansions.

What it all boils down to is; which is more important to the average MMO player, or more specifically, the average player playing SW:TOR?  Are they more interested in creating new characters and replaying the game?  Or are they more interested in what they can do at the end to continue developing one specific character?  If the former is more important, then Gordon is correct and SW:TOR is looking at some problems within six months to a year.  If the later is more important, then the pressure is on Bioware to continue to deliver engaging content to keep players involved.  One of these can be fixed much more easily than the other.  At this point, there is little Bioware can do to make the 1-50 experience any different than what it is and what it will be.  So if Gordon's theory is correct, things could get rough.

What do you think?  Which is more important to you when you are playing an MMO? 

28 December 2011

The Next, Next Big Thing

With the new year comes new expectations, new accomplishments, and new games to waste our time on!  So I thought as the year winds to a close, I would talk a little bit about what I am looking forward to in terms of MMO's in 2012.  Since my personal gaming time is somewhat limited, I have to focus my attention on those things that I truly find interesting and that will (hopefully) be worth my time.  So if you don't see your favorite upcoming title on this list, just understand that I have to prioritize somewhat.  And if there is a title that you are really looking forward to, let me know in the comments.  I am always on the lookout for new possibilities.

The Secret Worldwww.thesecretworld.com

This is actually the only game on my "wish list" that is going to go live in 2012.  Funcom announced several months ago that they were targeting an April 2012 launch date.  Now obviously things can always change, but none of the other games on my list even have a launch date yet.  I find TSW interesting for several different reasons.  The first is the setting and story.  No I'm not a conspiracy theory "nut," but you have to admit that some of these stories and crazy theories are fascinating.  Well, TSW just takes all those stories together and runs with them.  One of the taglines for the game is, "Everything is true!"  Bigfoot, werewolves, Stonehenge, the Illuminati, they all exist.  Take all those concepts and drop them into present day Earth, and you get the setting for TSW.  I think there is a lot of potential here for great storytelling and an engaging background for an MMO.

The other thing about TSW that really interests me is the combat and character advancement system.  There are no "levels" in TSW like most traditional RPG's and MMO's.  Instead they use a skill based system.  Want to learn to use shotguns?  Pick one up.  You'll get better at it as you use it.  Want to throw fireballs instead?  Start chucking them.  The way it is currently described, it would be theoretically possible to maximize your ability to use all the weapons and skills in the game.  But no matter how skilled you are, you can only equip a set number of skills at any one time.  This feels somewhat similar to the Guild Wars system in that you are limited in the number of active skills but can swap them out pretty much at will.  I really like the potential here to create varied and diverse characters without being stuck with fixed archetypes.

I know Funcom has a somewhat mixed record in terms of developing MMO's.  Anarchy Online was a mixed bag at best, with one of the worst launches in the history of MMO's.  But the game survived and was considered a success for several years.  Age of Conan was also somewhat of a mixed bag.  The beginner content (Tortage) was well created and almost universally regarded as excellent.  But everything beyond that was mediocre at best and the game itself fizzled out quickly after a strong launch.  It recently joined the ranks of the "converted F2P's" in an attempt to generate more revenue.  Funcom has already announced that TSW will be a subscription game but also have a cash shop for "cosmetic" items and luxuries.  Count me as skeptical on this one.  I hate games that double dip (*cough Star Trek: Online cough*) but if they stick to their word and only sell stuff like costumes, I won't care too much.

Guild Wars 2www.guildwars2.com

I'll be honest up front here, I really don't think GW2 is going to "revolutionize" the genre like many of its most ardent supporters do.  And the only rearison I will be picking it up is because all I will have to buy is the box and not have to maintain a subscription.  The original Guild Wars is how I got started in MMO's, even though that game doesn't fully meet the definition.  But it was a highly polished product that was fun to play while it lasted.  For those reasons alone, I would be willing to give GW2 a shot.  But when you look at what this game is promising, it's hard not to get excited about the possibilities.  If you haven't already, I would recommend hitting their website and watching their "MMO Manifesto" video.  You have to give them credit for their ambition, even if I personally think they are going to come up a bit short.  It also has been delayed again and again.  It just went into a closed beta phase and still has no release date.

So what is it that GW2 is going to revolutionize?  Well mostly it seems to be a matter of changing how questing works and how your character interacts with the world around them.  One issue that MMO's always have is "persistence."  We all supposedly exist in this common world.  This is the main attraction of MMO's.  But at the same time... we don't really change that world as we progress through it and interact with it.  In the vast majority of games, when you kill a creature or complete a quest, it has NO effect on the world itself.  The creature respawns, the quest giver sends the next person out to collect rat tongues, and the rampaging band of goblins is still camped out on the hill outside of town.

This is what GW2 is claiming to change.  First of all, quests won't be "handed out" in the traditional sense.  You won't walk into a town, see an old lady with a mark over her head, and get a quest to go collect rat tongues.  Questing will be handled more "organically" than that.  And when you do complete an action out in the world, the world changes.  For example if you beat back a goblin war band and stop them from sacking a town, those goblins won't exist for you anymore.  You won't see them after completing that mission.  If you destroy a bridge, that bridge stays destroyed.  So as you progress through the game, the world changes around you.  Now how this will affect your interactions with other players is something that remains to be seen.  What if I destroyed the bridge but you didn't?  What will I see as opposed to what you see?  Will we be unable to interact with each other?  Does only one person get to decide what happens to that bridge in the entire life of the game?  These are questions that remain to be answered and are part of the reason I think that the expectations for this game are a bit unrealistic.


This game is unlikely to release in 2012, in fact I'd say it is almost impossible that it would do so, but this list would be incomplete without mentioning WildStar.  Ever since the game was first announced, I have been fascinated by it.  The artistic style, the proposed mechanics, it all intrigues me at a level that no other current or announced MMO does.  Details are few at this point since the game was just announced this year and is still very early in development.  But there are already a few things that we know.

The first, and most intriguing to me, is that you will be able to follow one of four different "paths" in the game.  These are not character classes (the game has those two) but rather these are an expression of how you choose to play the game.  What motivates you?  Do you enjoy killing lots of things?  Do you enjoy climbing the highest mountain?  Building the biggest gun?  These "paths" in WildStar closely approximate the four Bartle "archetypes" of gaming personalities.  While many games have acknowledged that there are different ways to approach a game and to play it, as far as I know WildStar would be the first to directly address the issue in such a formal fashion.  How will this work in reality?  No way to know, but the possibilities are fascinating.

Outside of that, there isn't much to know at this point.  The concept art and videos are very nice.  The artistic style isn't going to appeal to everybody, but I find it enjoyable.  Hopefully 2012 will offer much more in terms of details on this title, maybe even a beta test.

So those are the games I am really looking forward to seeing in 2012.  What games are on your calendar for the upcoming year?  Anything big that I overlooked or missed?

27 December 2011

Alone in a Crowded Room

And we're back!  I hope that everyone is enjoying their holiday season and shunning family obligations to indulge in vast amounts of gaming. ;)  Ok, well maybe not the last part, depending on how obnoxious your family can be.  There are a couple of topics I'd like to discuss today, and as promised they are somewhat less focused simply on Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Although ironically, the reason I have time to write this post is that they are in extended maintenance this afternoon and I have nothing better to do at the moment.  But at least I can claim that I am being efficient, right?  Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

The first thing on my mind is actually a bit of giving credit where credit is due.  This occurred to me while I was playing SW:TOR yesterday.  My last major MMO was RIFT.  Now this game was the ultimate definition of the "WoW clone."  It really brought nothing new to the table in terms of gameplay, mechanics, etc.  It was a nice game, but very dry, and very small.  The lack of content really hurt that game despite the frenzied patching schedule that Trion maintained for its first six months of existence.  But there was something that RIFT did that I really enjoyed.  I wouldn't exactly call it an "innovation" in the strict sense of the word, but it was the thing I liked most about the game and actually miss as I play SW:TOR.

RIFT employed chat channels for the various level "bands" as well as for the level cap (level 50.)  As you progressed through the game, you were part of a common chat channel relative to your level.  There was one for each ten levels and for level 50 characters.  This channel was universal in the sense that you were a part of it no matter where you were in the game... any zone, any city, or any instance.  This had practical uses in that it helped you find other people of similar level for group content.  But it also had social and community functions as well, especially for people at the level cap.  It allowed you to be a part of a common "conversation" without being tied to a single location in the game.

This was one of my biggest complaints with World of Warcraft was that people would just sit around in the "common" areas like Stormwind or Orgrimmar and not spend any time out in the world.  Part of the reason for this was the prevalence of the dungeon finder (a topic for another day) but another part of it was that these were the only locations with a common chat channel that people could access.  In WoW this was typically "Trade chat."  RIFT solved this with the level chat channels.  "50 chat" in RIFT created a sense of community.  Not only could you find groups for the daily raid rifts or other things, but you could participate in a broader conversation with people on your server.  Yes some people abused this, but that's what the /ignore command is for.  Overall I think this was one of RIFT's greatest features and I find myself really missing it in SW:TOR.  It would be great to be able to advertise for instance groups without having to always fly back to the fleet hub.  And it would be great to converse with people on my server without being fixed to a single location.

Which brings me to the other topic on my mind this week, and this is something I've touched on in other posts, but I am finding it to be true as I spend more time in SW:TOR.  I find the people playing MMO's today has simply changed.  People are less... I'm not quite sure what the right word for it is.  Friendly?  I don't know.  When I first started playing WoW, conversations in zone chat channels were common.  Guilds were generally welcoming.  People were interested in what other players were doing and would help if it were convenient for them to do so.  Perhaps this is my "rose colored glasses," but I find things far different today.

Even being in the first "wave" of players in SW:TOR, I find the planet chat channels mostly silent.  Random conversation is minimal.  Assistance for quests is hard to come by.  Guild recruitment and advertisements are almost non-existent.  I've given up on doing heroic (group) quests on the various planets as interest in them is so low.  But you look at the social window and you can see all the people on the various planets with you, but they may as well be NPC's for as much as they interact with you.

What is the point of an MMO if you just want to play by yourself?  I can very easily play Dragon Age or Skyrim by myself if I want to do that.  I don't need to pay a $15 sub fee for that.  So why are so many people determined to be "alone in a crowded room?"  Does having an audience simply make them feel better?  Is Skyrim not as much fun because no one else can "see" your accomplishments?  Speaking just for me, I play these games because I want to interact with others.  I want to talk with them, accomplish things with them, and share my experiences with them.  I don't just see other players as my audience.  I see them as my teammates.  But maybe I'm the one that's "weird."

It will probably be after New Year's before I get back to a regular posting schedule, but I will pop on when I can.

20 December 2011

What IS Successful?

Ok I think we're all just about in Star Wars: The Old Republic overload right now, so I'd like to ease away from that topic for a bit.  This post is still somewhat related to SW:TOR, but speaks to broader issues within the MMO industry and not just that particular game.  The debate has already begun in terms of just how "big" SW:TOR will be and more importantly, how "big" it must be in order to be considered a success.  What I would like to discuss then, is just how we define a successful game in the MMO genre and where those expectations came from.  For better or for worse, any discussion of this topic has to begin with the industry's "ten ton gorilla," World of Warcraft.

Step into my time machine for just a moment and let me whisk you all the way back to................... 2004.  Yes I know, ancient history.  Well in the world of technology and gaming, it may as well be.  In this "dark, old age," MMO's were a very narrow niche of the gaming market.  You had games such as Everquest, Asheron's Call, and Dark Age of Camelot, all of which were considered highly successful games for their time.  But none of these games could boast a number like one million subscribers.  If a game had tens of thousands, or maybe even a hundred thousand subscribers, it was considered a successful and healthy game.  Now I am not going to get into the mechanics of these games in this post.  Discussing things like permanent gear loss, open PvP, etc. are topics for another day.  What I'm trying to focus on here is just the economics.

Enter... the gorilla.  World of Warcraft completely changed the way game developers and publishers looked at MMO's and the definition of success.  WoW opened the world of MMO's to a much broader audience.  No longer were they confined to the narrow niche they were in before.  And as WoW's numbers continued to surge with each year and each expansion, other companies looked to Blizzard with a jealous eye and looked to duplicate their success.  Many games came and went, all trying to match the multi-million subscriber numbers that WoW boasted.  Today these names make up a proverbial graveyard of so-called "WoW killers."  Games such as Vanguard, Aion, Warhammer, and Age of Conan are just a few that tried to knock the king off his throne.  They all failed for various reasons.  But the question should be asked, should all those games be considered failures?  Or is their only failure simply not being AS successful as WoW?

This is where I think that WoW really harmed the MMO industry.  Yes it opened the market to a vast number of new players that wouldn't have considered an MMO before, but it also changed how the industry measures success and manages risk.  Many of those games I listed above would have been considered successful prior to WoW's arrival.  They each have flaws, some more than others, but they are mostly functional and playable games.  But because they couldn't attract and retain several million subscribers, the companies that created them marked them as failures, cut their support, changed their business models, etc.  Other companies that had projects either terminated them entirely or scrapped them early due to poor expectations.  As a result the industry as a whole was robbed of potentially promising games... games that would have seen more attention prior to WoW.  In my mind this is WoW's true legacy... not the players it brought to the genre, but the way it narrowed MMO's themselves by redefining success.

And THAT is what I think is truly driving the push towards "free to play" in the MMO industry.  A game that is F2P doesn't have to count subscriptions.  They don't have to post that number against WoW's Asian netcafe inflated number and look "poor" in comparison.  Instead... they can tout how many accounts people have opened (like what DC Universe Online did after going F2P) and claiming what a success it has been.  Yeah, of course everyone will be inclined to open an account when your game is free.  But how many of those people will ever spend a dime on your game?  I openly admit, I have a DCUO account, but I will never spend a penny to play it.  This is the true lure of F2P.  By removing the initial barrier, you attract many more "curious customers" that you can then claim as "players."  Players, yes.  Payers?  Not so much.

And that brings us back to SW:TOR.  How will its success be measured?  Already people are comparing active servers and server loads between SW:TOR and WoW and the game has just officially launched.  Will a million subs be successful?  Will it need two million?  Even more?  Just a couple things to remember... SW:TOR is only launching in the U.S. and Europe, not in Asia where over half of WoW's "subscribers" reside.  WoW's subscriber base in those territories is five million tops.  Also remember that no other MMO in the US/EU can even claim one million concurrent subscribers.  I think EVE Online comes close, and RIFT wishes it had that many... but no one else is even in the ballpark.  So if after a month (when the 30-day "tourists" have left) SW:TOR posts somewhere between one and two million subs, let's keep that number in perspective before declaring its success or failure.  And let's think about just what it means to be successful at all.

19 December 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic Review

There is an old saying, "Opinions are like assholes.  Everybody has one and most of them stink."  This is probably more true than ever in the age of the internet as now we all can blog, vlog, tweet, and facebook anything and everything we want to say.  Well today we shall find out just how smelly my opinions are.  I was one of the first people invited to the Star Wars: The Old Republic early access period due to my early pre-order date.  As such I have been playing the game very heavily for almost a solid week now.  I think I have a pretty good idea of what the game is, what I like and don't like, and now it is time to share those observations with you.  I am not looking to change anyone's mind about the game, just to tell you how I see it in an objective a manner as I can.  So without further ado, away we go!

Technical Aspects (8/10):

Let's start with the fairly dry aspects of the game.  I'm going to include graphics, sound, and all other "technical" details into this section rather than review them separately because I want this review to be mostly about the gameplay.  MMO's in general rarely do anything astounding in these categories anyway due to their need to appeal to as large an audience as possible.  Highly demanding graphics and other technical details can deter from that.  That being said, not everything here is as rosy as EA/Bioware would have you believe.

In terms of sound, SW:TOR is great.  The music is excellent, a combination of established Star Wars themes and new music written specifically for this game.  You get pieces of the epic William's epic, samples from the Knights of the Old Republic series, as well as the new pieces.  They all fit together well and really help put you in the Star Wars universe.  Also in terms of sound you have SW:TOR's excellent voice work.  The voice actors for the primary characters are all amazing, and the "supporting cast" are no slouches either.  Although I will say you may get tired of the same few lines of alien speech after a while.  To be fair, there isn't much way around this, and KOTOR had the same problem.

As far as graphics go, SW:TOR looks good, but has some issues.  The box requirements are... a bit optimistic.  Yes the game is playable on a wide range of systems, but "playable" means different things to different people.  I have a very beefy desktop so I was running at max but with shadows off.  I find the shadows ugly and why tax my system to look at ugly effects?  I encountered a few graphical glitches in the game itself, mostly when I arrived on Tatooine.  These were annoying but did not directly impact gameplay so I didn't fuss too much about it.  Altogether SW:TOR is serviceable from a graphics perspective.  It looks nice, could look better, and doesn't run quite as smoothly as I think EA/BW would hope.


I'm going to break this down into several sub-topics as I want to make sure and fully address several of the more important gameplay systems and mechanics.  Let's start off with my biggest complaint with SW:TOR and get that out of the way.  The game's User Interface (UI.)

User Interface (3/10):

If SW:TOR has a major flaw in my mind, this is it.  The default UI for the game is... barely adequate.  If this game had been released say, five years ago, I don't think I would complain nearly as much.  And no, this complaint has nothing to do with the lack of add-on support at launch.  My problem is that the UI at present is almost completely fixed.  You can do very little to modify it to personal preferences.  You can move and re-size the chat window, and you can add a few additional hotbars for abilities, and that's it.  Nothing else can be moved or changed.  Again, five years ago this might be acceptable, but in today's MMO market, it is not.

When RIFT shipped, it didn't have add-on support either, but every aspect of its default UI could be moved to the user's content.  I was able to essentially recreate the same layout and feel that my old (heavily modded) World of Warcraft UI had.  This was one of the things that RIFT absolutely got right and it is inexcusable that SW:TOR launched without this capacity.  And this isn't just a matter of preference, there are gameplay consequences as well.  Just as an example, I was healing a Flashpoint today and one of the bosses had a debuff he would put on players that did a significant amount of damage.  Seeing the icon for this debuff is VERY difficult and I had a hard time identifying and removing it promptly.  This would have even more severe consequences in endgame Flashpoints and Operations.

I hope to see this addressed soon, hopefully in the first major content patch.  It really is a major flaw.

Combat (7/10):

As you probably know by now, SW:TOR doesn't seek to rewrite the book on many staples of the MMO genre, so it shouldn't be a surprise to find fairly standard "hot button/cooldown" combat.  The major difference here, especially for people coming from WoW, is that there is no "auto attack" in SW:TOR.  Everything must be initiated by the player.  This takes a wee bit of getting used to for long time WoW veterans, but after a couple hours, you really barely notice it.  It kind of becomes second nature.  I don't really have a problem with this as I found auto attack fairly useless anyway, and it only applies to half your classes in the first place.  No "casting" class ever cared about auto attack (yes I know most of them get wands or something similar,) so removing it entirely doesn't bother me in the least.

The overall "feel" of combat in SW:TOR is good.  Both ranged and melee combat feel well paced.  I never found myself wishing that things were a little faster, nor did I get the sense that things were frantic.  There are certainly a good amount of "tense" combat situations, but rarely do you find yourself feeling like you can't "keep up."  When things get hard, it is due to some mechanic, or grabbing too many mobs at once, not because the pace of the combat itself is wrong.  That said, there is nothing groundbreaking here.  It is a simple system for people to pick up, which was probably intentional on BW's part because they knew they'd be getting a lot of first-time MMO players with this game.  But for "veterans," there's nothing new to see in terms of SW:TOR's combat.

The one thing worth mentioning is that everybody is a "pet class" in this game.  While some would argue that this is groundbreaking, I don't see it as anything special.  Every MMO has a class or two dedicated to the use of pets in combat.  SW:TOR just makes those pets available to everybody, and frankly this could be seen as a negative as well as a positive.  I know there are people out there who avoid pet classes specifically because they don't want the headache of babysitting them.  The fact that everyone has a "pet" in SW:TOR could be offputting to those folks.

Space Game (8/10):

 Ok here I might come off as a little bit of a "fanboi," but I love the space mini game.  As soon as I got my ship I did all the available missions and I have done the dailies every day since.  My enjoyment of it is simple, I take it for exactly what it is.  Yes it is a rail shooter.  Yes it is very basic.  But as I said in a previous post, people who were expecting the second coming of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter were setting themselves up for disappointment.  It is a mini game not the main game, and it is purely optional.  Nothing here directly impacts the primary game experience.  You can get some titles, costume gear, etc. but nothing that will give you a direct advantage in other aspects of gameplay.  The only reason it isn't a 10/10 in my book is that it does get redundant after a while, even when you take it at face value.  But give it a chance.  It really is designed well and very fun.

Questing/Leveling (7/10):

BW was not kidding when they said that story would be the focus of this game and that "grinding" mobs would not be an efficient way to level.  I can attest that they have stuck to their word on both counts.  Each class has a main story arc that they follow from planet to planet and zone to zone.  It really helps give you a sense of purpose as you land on a new planet thinking about why you are there, rather than simple jumping to the next zone in your leveling progression.  Also once you get past about level 25 and find yourself on Tatooine, you start finding more focused story arcs on each planet themselves.  These are sort of present on the lower level planets, but not to the degree you find starting at this point.  These new, deeper arcs are almost as involved as your class story and really help drive the action forward.

At this point it should also be mentioned that leveling in SW:TOR is probably slower than what many people are used to these days.  Speaking as a WoW and RIFT veteran, this game is much slower in terms of leveling than those two.  WoW practically levels for you these days, and RIFT isn't much better.  But SW:TOR practically demands that you slow down and smell the flowers as you go.  The starting planets go fairly quickly and you can reach about level 11 or 12 in one or two solid play sessions.  But once you hit your second planet, the pace slows.  Now this may be an issue to some people, especially if WoW is the only other MMO you've ever experienced.  But like of like with the space game, you have to take this aspect of SW:TOR at face value.  This game is just as much about the journey to maximum level as it is about what you will do at max level. 

One thing I'd like to make special mention of here, is that SW:TOR does an excellent job of making your character feel special and significant in the game world.  NPC's constantly refer to you in "heroic" terms.  Many MMO's attempt this, but none of them really convey that feeling the way SW:TOR does.  Maybe it's the voice acting, I don't know.  But you really feel like your character is powerful, not just another mage or warrior.  This was always my problem with WoW.  You never felt important in the game world.  You always felt like "just another guy."  I can't say exactly how SW:TOR pulls this off so well, but it does.  I really felt like my Smuggler was a daring, fearless hero who could pull their bacon out of any situation.  It just really works.

Flashpoints/Dungeons (7/10):

If I had written this portion of the review a few days ago when all I had done was Esseles and Black Talon, I would have rated it 10/10 easily.  But over the last few days I have run Hammer Station and Athiss as well, and neither of these was anywhere close to as engaging as the two introductory Flashpoints.  Seeing them all in perspective, I know what BW was doing.  They wanted the first Flashpoint experience in SW:TOR to be memorable and to really convey the story based mechanics that the game would focus on in general.  In this, these early Flashpoints succeed.  Esseles and Black Talon both have you participating in several cut-scenes, making major decisions, and telling a complete story.  It really shows you what this game is capable of conveying in terms of its storytelling.

But it is immediately apparent that BW choose not to have all of its Flashpoints be so constructed.  Hammer and Athiss are both very straightforward "dungeon crawls," much more in the vein of what you see in WoW or RIFT.  That is not to say that they are bad or poorly designed.  They aren't.  I found the bosses challenging and the pacing appropriate.  They just lack the interactive and story elements that are present in spades in Esseles/Black Talon.  So it appears that there will be different kinds of Flashpoints in SW:TOR.  Not all of them will be hour long, story driven tales.  Some of them will be the "in and out" dungeons runs many of us are more used to.  And I think there is room for both approaches.  I was just a little disappointed at first.

Crafting (9/10):

 Ok so that picture has nothing to do with crafting aside from the fact that it illustrates what exactly your character does in terms of the crafting system....... nothing.  All crafting aspects in SW:TOR are handled by your companions.  They do the gathering and they do the actual crafting itself.  And I have to say, I love this system.  You can send companions on missions while you are doing other things.  You can have them craft while you are playing.  There is no need to "sit around the forge" and spend hours making a ton of bronze swords.  Yes you will still make a lot of redundant patterns to skill up your crafting, but it can all be done in the background while you continue to play and advance your character. 

The other aspect of the crafting system I really enjoy is reverse engineering.  Many of the items you can create can be subsequently reverse engineered and broken down to recover some of the components used in their crafting.  But not only do you get some materials back, you also have a chance to learn an improved version of the recipe.  Even the earliest patterns can be improved in this way and you can have a level 10 character running around in "epic" gear if you really want.  This adds another layer of depth and reward to the crafting system and I find it very enjoyable.

Social Systems (6/10):

As an MMO, social systems are an important part of the overall experience, and unfortunately this is another place where SW:TOR falls a bit flat.  Guild functionality is limited at this time.  There are no guild banks or guild progression.  I'm somewhat on the fence about guilds being able to "level up."  I saw it destroy a lot of small, casual guilds in WoW as people flocked to the guilds with lots of perks, so this is somewhat of a double-edged sword in my mind.  Guild banks however, are another of those features that an MMO launched in 2011 simply must have.  Again, it might have been acceptable to not include this five years ago, but standards have changed.  This needs to be implemented as soon as possible.

Another highly controversial function is a dungeon finder tool.  SW:TOR has no such mechanism currently and there are no plans to implement one in the near future.  For many, the lack of this feature is a good thing.  For many others, it is not.  Frankly I don't like automated dungeon finders.  I feel like it turned WoW into "World of Queuecraft."  Everybody just sat around the major cities and waited for the queue to whisk them away.  I feel like it also damaged the sense of community on individual servers.  There wasn't a need to get to know people or make friends now that the game would find groups for you.

That all having been said, it is still annoying to have to sit in the Fleet hub and spam chat to find groups.  And yes, finding groups is still somewhat difficult, even with so many people playing right now.  Thankfully my main character is a healer and so it is somewhat simpler due to being in demand, but it still takes time and effort.  The last two Flashpoint groups I was a part of, I had to take the initiative and put together myself.  I don't mind doing that every now and then, but sometimes I'd like to just go along for the ride.  So I can see how the lack of a dungeon finder could be an issue for some people.  I still think we're better off without it, but check back in a few months after the initial buzz dies off.

Overall (7/10):

Whew, I think I hit just about everything.  Oh right, PvP.  Umm... yeah, I don't PvP.  I know... "lol carebear."  So shoot me.  If you want opinions on PvP, you'll have to try another blog.  It just isn't an important feature to me.  I know it matters to a lot of people, and I hope they find what they are looking for, but I just don't care for it.

So overall, what kind of game is Star Wars: The Old Republic?  It is a well crafted, highly polished "themepark MMO."  It doesn't rewrite the book on what an MMO should be, but for what it is, it is an excellent game.  I find it superior to World of Warcraft or RIFT or any of the other "AAA" themepark games on the market right now.  People who were expecting more, will be disappointed.  But people who accept it for what it is, will find a very rewarding experience.  If you think I overlooked something or got something totally wrong, please let me know in the comments.  I hope you found this review helpful.

17 December 2011

We now send you to our business correspondant...

Just a quick "business" post to update you on a few things related to the blog.  There won't be any regular posts this weekend.  I have some real-life obligations coming up that will occupy much of my time soon that I need to start to prepare for.  I am working on an in-depth personal review of Star Wars: The Old Republic that I am planning to post Monday morning.  Hopefully I'll remember to grab some screenshots over the weekend so I can flesh out my review properly.  I understand that MMO's are always a "work in progress," but I'd like to get my impressions out there before the true live launch so that anyone still on the fence can get a good look at what the game actually is.  I hope to make my review as objective as possible, as there is nothing I detest more than a "fanboi." 

Staring on the 21st, the blog will more than likely be "silent" from then until Christmas.  As I'm sure many of you can sympathize, family and other commitments will be cutting into my gaming and casual time.  I have some ideas for some non-SW:TOR related posts that I could possibly make during that time, and if I get the spare time to work on them, I will certainly post them for your consumption.  So keep an eye on my Twitter feed to stay up to date.  I'll be posting there if I do manage to get anything up during that time.

I'd just like to take a moment to say thanks to those of you that are stopping by to read what I have to say.  I know I'm just one gamer with an opinion, but I enjoy sharing what I have to say, so I hope you enjoy reading it.  If you do, please take a moment to "spread the word."  I'm not one for shameless self-promotion, but I know that "networking" is a powerful tool in this wonderful information age that we live in.  So if your obnoxious cousin or long-lost uncle loves MMO's or SW:TOR, point them this way too.

Enjoy your weekend, and I'll see you here Monday for my full review of SW:TOR!

16 December 2011

Giving Grace a Chance

So the big news on the Star Wars: The Old Republic front today is that Bioware (or more likely their EA overlords) have relented and will be giving a 48-hour grace period to allow people to input their retail serial codes and not be locked out of the game.  As I said in a previous post about "corporate greed," yes businesses are greedy, but big and successful ones like EA are also not stupid.  Yes the original decision to not allow a grace period was probably driven by a desire to promote digital sales and "off the shelf" sales on launch day.  Yes buying digitally through EA/Origin makes them more money.  But... pissing people off does NOT make you money.  The accountants at EA ran the numbers and decided that a grace period means more satisfied customers in the long run and thus more money than squeaking out a few more digital sales.  So that's why we're getting a grace period.  Don't make it more complicated than it is.  Just say, "Thank you," and hope that the mail fairies get your box to you on time.

Ok a few other topics while I'm at it.  I've been playing my Smuggler exclusively for the past two days.  Once you get off the starting planets, the pace slows quite a bit.  For people like me who are coming from games like World of Warcraft and RIFT this can be a little bit jarring.  Levels fly so fast in those games, you sneeze on a passing critter and you level up.  Not so in SW:TORThis is not a bad thing. But it IS different and it IS an adjustment.  Bioware meant it when they said this game was going to be about the "journey."  My Smuggler arrived on Taris today and I felt like I was there for a reason not just because it was the next "zone" in my progression.  So I'm level 20 now and enjoying every minute of it.  I love the space "mini-game."  I have no problem with the fact that it's a rail shooter.  Two reasons; one, I love rail shooters anyway, and two, it is a mini-game.  People who wanted X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter need to check their expectations.  Yeah I'd love to see a revamp of that game too, but not inside an MMO.  Let someone else give a project like that the full attention it would deserve.

I did the second Flashpoint on the Republic side today, Hammer Station.  This was my first full experience as a healer in SW:TOR.  The run went well.  We wiped once on the final boss because one person got knocked over the edge and the adds overwhelmed us.  I used my traditional "stand back and heal" approach and mostly did well with it.  I never felt like I had to be closer to the action to do my job.  But I'm not 100% sure that SW:TOR's Flashpoints are designed around the traditional "one tank, one healer, X DPS" type of model.  Our group had two Jedi Sages in it along with myself.  They primarily did damage, but tossed heals and shields on people as well.  Now if this were say, WoW, I would have been a little miffed and asked them to stop and let me do my job.  But I wanted to see how this plays out in this game.  And as I said, the run went well aside from a minor mishap.  When the bosses die and we don't, I don't complain.

One last thing, media.  Yes I said I would have screenshots.  No I haven't posted any yet.  There is a simple reason for that... I just keep forgetting to take them.  I'm still new to this blogging thing, so "documenting" my accomplishments with screenshots is not exactly second nature as yet.  I do apologize and I will work on correcting that over the weekend for some posts next week.  And I also said originally that I would be uploading some game play videos to Youtube.  That... is going to be a bit more difficult.  As of yet I do not have the appropriate recording or editing software and unfortunately I have no timeline for acquiring them.  So this may be stuck on the back burner for a bit longer than I originally intended. 

Back to Taris!  Anyone got some rakghoul repellant? :P

15 December 2011

SW:TOR Impressions to Date

Ok today I'm going to do a quick "blow by blow" on the characters I've worked on so far.  I've hit all four of the starter planets and leveled four characters past level ten to get their advanced classes.  I will try and avoid story spoilers to the highest degree possible, but I will be discussing class mechanics and play styles.

Smuggler (Scoundrel/Sawbones):

For the moment I still intend for this character to be my long-term "main" and primary investment.  Nothing (yet) has changed my mind about that.  That said, I found Ord Mantell to probably be the most frustrating of the starting planets.  I felt like I was running around a LOT on side quest objectives and the side quests themselves were not particularly interesting.  In addition, for a planet designed to be used by the "cover class," I found many combat situations where cover was not readily available.  So as a zone I have to give Ord Mantell a bit of a thumbs down.

As far as the Smuggler itself goes, I am enjoying it so far.  My only complaint is that the Scoundrel advanced class is more melee focused, but as a healer I prefer to try and maintain range.  Time will tell if this is feasible over time or if Sawbones is designed to operate at a bit closer range than I am used to as a healer.  And honestly that's fine, if that is the case.  My issue at the moment is that I can't tell if that is true or not yet and begin adjusting my style.  A melee-range healer is an intriguing prospect, but not one that has been used in the MMO's I have played previously.  Other than that, I am enjoying the class.

Bounty Hunter (Mercenary/Arsenal):

My enjoyment of this class really surprised me.  It was the last of the four characters I leveled, but in terms of sheer "fun factor," it was the one I enjoyed the most.  Also I found Hutta to be the best of the four starting planets.  Quests seemed more abundant here than on any other planet, as well as more heroic quests.  And I will note here that so far I've found that any quest marked "Heroic (2)" can easily be completed with your companion and you don't need a group.  I don't know if this will hold true at higher levels, but it is certainly true at the beginning.  So don't let the "grouping" scare you off, even though there will be TONS of people looking to do them at this point in SW:TOR's life.

As far as the Bounty Hunter class, it was just a blast to play.  You feel like a walking "Swiss army knife."  You've got melee range skills, ranged skills, stuns, knockbacks, you name it.  I never got tired of Rocket Punching mobs that got up in my face and yelling "Sho-ryu-ken!" at my computer screen.  Between that, the KILLER voice actor for this class, and the fact that I get Blizz, Jawa of Doom later... I am sorely tempted to switch this class to my main.  But no need to be hasty at this juncture.  I deliberately took this advanced class for the ranged DPS potential with dual blasters.  This guy just feels like a total badass.

Sith Warrior (Juggernaut/Immortal):

For those times when I just want to play something purely sadistic and evil, I'll have my Sith Warrior.  Korriban was a fun starting planet, perhaps the most interesting in terms of questing and storyline.  Overall both Imperial starting planets were easily superior to their Republic counterparts in my mind.  I never felt like I really had to go "out of my way" for side quests here, and the heroics were easily doable with a bit of back-tracking once my companion became available.  I suppose that is one very small gripe.  If I were Bioware, I wouldn't even offer the heroic quests on the starter planets until you get your first companion.  Most people on these planets just want to get them done so they can move on.  Even if they like grouping, they may prefer to bypass it at these levels simply for expediency.

The Sith Warrior is a fairly straightforward melee class, nothing too much out of the ordinary.  But the combat seems to flow well in terms of building and consuming rage and once you get a few more abilities, various combinations make themselves apparent quickly.  Nothing like Force Charging into a group of mobs and laying them all out with a quick Smash.  The class feels powerful in all the right ways for a dark side fueled melee fighter.  This will be my full-time tank so I will probably keep him on the "back burner" for a while.  If SW:TOR is like the other MMO's I've played, tanks end up as the default "leaders" of groups, and I want more familiarity with the content before I'm expected to lead anyone else through it.

Jedi Counselor (Shadow/Kinetic Combat):

This poor gal is probably going to be left in a bit of limbo.  While I do find the potential combinations of abilities for the Counselor interesting, I really have no sense of direction with this character right now.  Tython was also rather disappointing as a starting world.  I found a significant lack of general questing in comparison with the other planets.  This was the only planet where my character did not reach level 11 before leaving.  In fact I barely got to level 10, which had me concerned for a while as I certainly did not want to leave before hitting that milestone.  The only reason I'd place it above Ord Mantell is that the questing it DOES offer is more cohesive... minimal back-tracking or going out of the way is needed.  There just isn't enough of it, in my opinion, and only a single heroic quest that I could find.

The Counselor itself is still a bit of an enigma to me, which is why I took the melee based Shadow.  The Sage seems pretty straightforward in that it is your typical mage/priest archetype.  But the Shadow is a sort of... rogue and tank.  RIFT tried the rogue tank thing with limited success.  They were generally seen as inferior for endgame instances and raids, due to the way they tanked from a mechanical perspective.  I am curious to see how SW:TOR gets around these potential issues, and so that's why I started down the tanking path.  But I don't know when I'll get around to leveling her.  I don't really feel much "attachment" to the character, or interest in playing it.  So it may be a while.

I went back to my Smuggler tonight and got a group for the Esseles Flashpoint.  On the first night of early access there simply wasn't a "critical mass" of players to get groups formed easily, but tonight it was pretty painless.  Some people in chat even commented on the lack of players on Tuesday and I told them not to worry at this point.  Wait until all the pre-orders are in, wait until the live launch, THEN look at your server numbers.  It's way too early to "panic" and say servers aren't full enough or that groups are hard to find.  That said, I had to take the initiative and form the group myself, which is something I haven't had the courage to do in a long time.  WoW of course made this unnecessary with their LFD tool and in RIFT I purposefully avoided showing such initiative.  Well I told myself that in SW:TOR that would not be the case.  So I grabbed a bunch of people who were looking, made the group, and got it done.

Two observations about the run... first, they definitely tuned this place down from when I ran it during the 11/11 beta weekend.  I couldn't play during the Thanksgiving beta due to family commitments, so I can't say when it was changed.  But this was a change for the better.  I'm all for hard content, but content needs to be designed with the abilities of the players in mind.  At level 10-12, your "healers" have one or two basic heals at most, and the "tanks" have no real Taunt or aggro-maintaining abilities yet.  It only makes sense to design the content with these things in mind, so I have no problem that they made this place a bit easier.  The other observation is that while my group was polite and competent, they were very quiet, much more so than the groups I had during the beta.  This does concern me a bit as I do NOT want to return to the "silent runs" of WoW where you'd complete an entire instance with NO ONE saying anything to anyone else.

So there you go, some initial impressions and a look at four of the classes.  To be honest, I'm kind of "keeping my head down" right now in terms of SW:TOR news on the web.  I'm kind of avoiding what other people have to say about the game and am just focusing on building my own impressions of it.  I know that sounds odd to say as here I am sharing MY thoughts on it with all of you.  But I know some folks just want as much information as they can get their hands on... and I am here to provide.

How is your SW:TOR experience going so far? 

14 December 2011

Can't Blog, Gaming /Homer

So as I put on my Twitter yesterday, I was in one of the first waves for Star Wars: The Old Republic's early access.  As such, I have buried myself in the game and have been enjoying myself immensely.  Once I "come up for air," I'll have a proper post about my impressions so far and what I've accomplished.  Hopefully you guys are all in too and having as big of a blast as I am.  See you around the Galaxy!

Just a quick link to tide you over if you need something more.  This post from Tobold today was very interesting and I share his concern about the theorycrafters stripping the "soul" out of SW:TOR.

13 December 2011

Random SW:TORness Before the Storm

Just a few random thoughts/stories to cover before the insanity of the SW:TOR launch descends upon us all.  The first thing I'd like to do is take a moment to say "Thank you" to the team at Bioware for this game.  For all the delays, all the anticipation, through all the setbacks and disappointments, we are finally about to experience the full result of their hard work and vision.  So before we get all upset that our favorite feature didn't make the final cut, or that our class needs a buff, let's all say thanks to the people who busted their asses to make this whole thing possible.  Kudos, Bioware.  May the Force be with this game for a long time to come.

In that vein I would like to especially thank Bioware's "Mouthpiece in Chief," Stephen Reid @Rockjaw.  This guy should be nominated for sainthood.  The amount of crap he has put up with from people in association with this game has just been epic.  The hate directed at him on the forums and on Twitter just makes you ashamed to be human sometimes.  But through it all he stuck to the high ground and did his job.  The decisions he had to communicate were not made by him.  He may agree with them, he may not.  But that's not his job.  His job was to keep us informed and he did that.  Honestly I'd say he did more than that... staying on the forums or posting tweets late into the night.  I'm not sure what his role will be going forward after launch, but I can't imagine anyone else doing his job better than he did.

The other thing I wanted to talk about was a story I found on the Yahoo! gaming blog about Mark Hamill at the Spike Video Game Awards.  First off, Mark Hamill doesn't get enough credit for the great work he has done as a voice talent post-Star Wars.  His work as The Joker (which he was nominated for here) both in games and cartoons has been spectacular.  While on the one hand it might feel obvious to "recruit" him as a VO talent for SW:TOR, when you think about it, it simply wouldn't work.  His face and voice are already so connected to this universe in a way that cannot be dismissed.  And since SW:TOR takes place at a time long before Luke Skywalker, plugging Hamill in would be jarring to say the least.

But the other aspect of this story is the lack of respect for VO talents in general.  The entire category didn't even get mentioned on air, or in the online show.  Just as gaming in general is struggling for acceptance as an artistic medium, great voice actors are struggling for acceptance as talents in their own right.  I would argue that Hamill's voice work is far superior to anything he did on-screen.  Yes he will always be Luke Skywalker, but let's be honest, his was far from an Oscar worthy performance.  But his voice work?  Stellar.  And there are plenty of other extremely talented voice actors that deserve equal recognition (Jennifer Hale being a personal favorite.)  Maybe SW:TOR will help change that perception.  With it being the first MMO with such a heavy VO emphasis, and just the sheer amount of voice work in the game, perhaps it will lead to more acceptance in the gaming community of the importance of this aspect of games.

My posting for the rest of the week will really be dictated by when I am admitted into SW:TOR early access.  I plan to post little updates of what I did each day once I am in, and hopefully some screenshots to go with them.  If I get enough time in before launch, I will sum up with a full "review" before the official launch so that anyone who is still "on the fence" about the game can get my final impressions before deciding to pick it up off the shelf for themselves.

So keep an eye on here and my Twitter and here's to hoping I'm in the first wave! :)

12 December 2011

To Boldly go... in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

So after literally years of anticipation, what is probably the biggest MMO since World of Warcraft is about to finally hit prime time.  This post is not going to be about what Star Wars: The Old Republic is or isn't.  That topic has been beat to death by a thousand bloggers already and I don't care to add my voice to the list simply for the sake of being heard.  If you follow MMO's at all, you already have an opinion of this game and if you are anything like me, you're actually tired of other people trying to tell you what to think about it.  At this point, SW:TOR is what it is, take it or leave it.  For myself, I have decided to "take it," and more than that, I am pretty much "all in" on it.  Cataclysm drove me out of Azeroth once and for all, RIFT bored me to tears in less than six months, and the free-to-play market depressed me with it's useless cash grabs.  So it's lightsabers and Gungans for me.  Wait... we DO get to kill Gungans, right?  Right...?

Since I know I will be with this game for the foreseeable future, I've actually taken quite a bit of time to "plot out" how I intend to approach it.  I did skip on the whole pre-launch guild process, so that will be one of my first priorities.  The reason being is that I was somewhat put off by the fact that Bioware would select what server to put you on based on the type of guild.  I know that seems like a minor thing, but my time in WoW was marred by bad experiences on several servers, and so that part of me bristled at having that choice taken away.  In hindsight this was short-sighted as now I will have to filter through all the "noise" at launch to try and find a good guild to hook up with.  I do have a couple of leads thanks to some fellow bloggers and will probably try those first before simply tossing my line in the "lake" and seeing who snags me.

I am pretty big into role-play (zomg nerd!) and so I will definitely be selecting an RP server when my turn comes up in early access.  I was somewhat disappointed to hear that Bioware will be doing nothing to enforce any kind of RP server guidelines for these servers, but oh well, it would really be naive to expect otherwise.  To actively enforce and police those kind of standards would require more effort and manpower than a company can afford to justify for the cost.  At best they can simply state what the expected standards are and hope the players police themselves.  While we all know that won't happen and tons of people will roll on these servers just to grief the RP'ers, it is nice to hope that maybe this wouldn't be the case.  But I do enjoy creating a background and story for my characters in MMO's, and I will be trying to find a guild that does at least some organized RP.  And one nice thing about the Star Wars setting, no need to pretend you understand Middle English just to say you are RP'ing. :P

My planned main character is going to be a Republic Smuggler.  I find the cover mechanics very interesting and I wanted to play a class with healing potential.  So I will be taking the Scoundrel advanced class with the intent of specializing in the Sawbones tree.  I learned long ago that I lack the "killer instinct" necessary to play a damage dealer at the highest levels.  Oh I can do it well, maybe even above average (in my own humble opinion) but I lack the single-mindedness and aggression that is needed to squeeze every ounce out of a class.  I tried tanking in WoW, mostly as a paladin, and while it was very rewarding in a guild setting, it was utterly thankless in a "pick up group" environment.  So my plan is to stick with the healer at first, get familiar with the content, hook up with a good guild, and see where things go from there.

I do plan to roll four characters altogether with the intent of seeing as much of the game content as possible between them.  The aforementioned Smuggler will of course take most of my attention, but I will be rolling a Jedi Counselor on the Republic side as well.  I find the Counselor fascinating in that between its two advanced classes and their individual talent trees, the Counselor can be melee DPS, ranged DPS, tank, or healer.  The potential is very intriguing and it will allow me to see the rest of the Republic starting content, as the classes are divided between two different starting worlds.  Odds are I will play this character as either ranged DPS or tank, and that will probably depend on how my Smuggler is working out and if I have found a good guild.

Of course I don't plan to neglect the other faction.  I will be rolling two characters on the Empire side to spend time with as well.  These will be a Bounty Hunter and a Sith Warrior.  The Bounty Hunter is really just for one reason, and if you follow this game you probably know what I'm talking about... Blizz.  A Jawa companion with a rocket launcher?  Sign me up.  Hell that's almost enough to make me want to make this class my main.  But I know companions will have somewhat diminished impact at the end-game, so no reason to invest fully in a class based strictly on that choice.  I'll probably play this class as either ranged DPS or a healer.  And the Sith Warrior will let me see the other Imperial starting planet.  I'll keep my options open with him as either tank or melee DPS.

While I fully intend to make the Smuggler my main character and primary investment of time, I will be keeping my options open.  I will divide my time a bit more equally at first, trying to get each character off their starting world and into their advanced class at the least, maybe even to the point where they get their personal ships.  If something happens in that time, like say my Sith Warrior hooks up with an awesome guild, or I just really start to dislike the Smuggler, I am very flexible to changing gears and going in a new direction.  As I said in an earlier post, I want SW:TOR to be fun.  If I end up just loving to stab things with my two-ended glowstick on the Counselor, or if watching Blizz fling rockets just fills me with too much joy, then that's what we'll do.  It is a game after all.  We're here to have fun.

So that's my plan for my time in the big ol' Galaxy Far, Far Away.  How are your plans shaking up?  "Calling in sick" for a week?  Sending the kids off to grandma's?  Or just locking yourself in the basement with a case of Red Bull and Hot Pockets? :)

11 December 2011

Free-to-play Philosophy and DC Universe Online Impressions

So I had been desperately searching for something to "fill the gap" until the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic.  My RIFT and WoW subscriptions were long since expired, and I wasn't about to either reactivate those, or pay for anything new, considering I was only going to play for a couple weeks at most.  I tried out several free-to-play (F2P) games and found them all lacking for various reasons.  I won't mention them specifically because I didn't even really give them enough time to give them an honest review.  But if after only a couple hours I was so disgusted with them that I uninstalled them, that should say something about the lack of quality.

That brought me to DC Universe Online.  Yes this is a F2P game also, but it falls into a different category in my opinion.  See... I view "pure" F2P's as something different than "converted" F2P's.  A pure F2P would be something like Runes of Magic.  This is a game that designed from the ground up to be supported by a cash shop and the selling of various items.  A converted F2P would be Lord of the Rings: Online.  These are games that started as subscription based, but then changed to a F2P model later.  Why the separation in my mind?  Because the payment model and associated philosophy directly impacts the development and support of the game.

A game that is designed from the ground up to be cash shop supported (pure F2P) is more likely to embrace a "pay to win" philosophy.  In other words, direct gameplay advantages can be purchased from their stores... special weapons or armor, stat boosts, XP boosts, etc.  The other major type of items sold are "conveniences" such as mounts, bag expansions, and bank expansions.  This is how they encourage players to spend money, and I get that.  Developers and publishers need to eat too.  But this is not what I want to spend my money on.  I would much rather pay for something else, and that's where the other type of F2P comes in.

The "converted" F2P's such as LotRO and Dungeons and Dragons: Online go about encouraging cash shop purchases another way.  Yes there are still some special items to be had, and yes there are conveniences to be purchased, but these games primarily get you to spend money by selling you content.  These games ask you to buy quest packs or expansions in order to access all the content the game has to offer.  I know I am in the minority on this, but I'd much rather pay for content than conveniences.  Maybe it is due to my more limited play schedule, or just my attitude towards buying things in general.  But selling me items ends up feeling like I'm being "nickel'd and dime'd" to death, and it makes playing the games themselves feel very unpalatable unless you are willing to buy the offered conveniences.

So that brings us to DCUO.  In terms of payment model, they are somewhat "in between" the two approaches.  There are no content barriers in the main game, but there are DLC packs that add additional content and abilities.  Free players also have some rather strange convenience limitations, for example free players cannot trade items or use the auction house.  I can't say if I prefer this to either of the more traditional F2P "enticement mechanisms," and since my time with this game will be short, the lack of conveniences probably isn't going to affect me too much.  But before I get into my actual time with the game, I will say up front that DCUO has been the most enjoyable F2P I have sampled to date.

First off, DCUO looks good and plays smooth.  I didn't notice any graphical glitches or substantial bugs.  This is another thing that "converted" F2P's have on the pure ones, in my experience.  These games are much more polished.  Yeah there are some good looking F2P's out there (Allods Online for example) but most of them look as cheap as they are.  DCUO didn't look or feel that way at all.  Now granted I am playing it nearly a year out from release, so take that with a grain of salt.  But this is definitely a good looking game.  I also have to give props here for the voice overs.  Your mentor and quest adviser are fully voiced, and this really adds something to the game, in my opinion.  Having experienced this in the SW:TOR beta, I can tell you that it makes a big difference.

In terms of gameplay, DCUO is different from your standard hotbar/cooldown MMO like WoW.  Yes you have abilities, but you can only equip six of them at a time.  Now at this point I will mention that I have only played up to level 10, but at this point, most of your damage dealing is done through melee and ranged combos controlled by the left and right mouse buttons.  Your powers and abilites play a secondary role in terms of buffing, debuffing, and dealing additional damage.  This is a major difference from the WoW-type model where spamming damage abilities is much more important.  This has the effect of making combat feel more fast paced.  I'd say DCUO almost feels more like an old-school "beat 'em up" kind of game... which isn't a bad thing.  Overall I found the combat to be fun and entertaining, definitely a cool change of pace from the model I am familiar with.

I cannot comment on "endgame" or PvP as I am only a third of the way to the level cap and I really have no interest in PvP.  Overall I'd say if you're looking for a high-quality free game to kill time with, DCUO will fit the bill.  I couldn't see myself ever spending money in it, even if I were playing it more long term, but it is a fun diversion.  I'll probably keep it installed even after SW:TOR launches for the occasional change of pace.  It is far from perfect, but it is the first F2P I've tried this month that didn't make me want to gouge my eyes out and uninstall it after a couple hours.

It's almost here!  Check back tomorrow for my "Getting Ready for SW:TOR!" post. :)

09 December 2011

The Sense of Entitlement is Strong with this One

Ok I'll warn you right up front that this post is not very gaming related, even though it was "inspired" by an event in gaming.  I've been reading and listening to the reaction to what Bioware/EA has announced regarding the upcoming launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic.  As I said in my last post, I have been mostly satisfied with their plans and think they have a firm grasp on what they need to do to make this launch as smooth as possible for as many people as possible.  Unfortunately... it seems that much of the commentary on this issue is far from being as friendly, which is fine, I don't expect everyone to agree.  Heck, arguing is fun.  But the attitude behind the majority of these complaints  really concerns me, and it speaks to an issue that goes much deeper than a game... this sense that we are OWED something simply because we want it.

People are all upset with one aspect or another of Bioware/EA's decision making because they think they are owed a particular response or some particular benefit.  Yeah, BW/EA is trying to please US in the generic sense, but they don't owe YOU anything.  They are going to make the decisions best suited for the health of the game in the long term.  And don't give me the "corporate greed" crap.  Yes of course they are in it to make money, but does pissing people off make them money?  A good launch, a well-received game, and a happy community all equal big bucks for BW/EA.  So to think they simply don't care is shortsighted and foolish.  No, people make this personal.  BW/EA makes a decision that some people don't like individually, and so they feel entitled to lash out.

Voicing your grievances is all well and good.  It is one of the time honored traditions in most democratic societies.  But really folks, get over yourselves.  Not everything is always going to go your way.  You are not going to be handed everything you want on a silver platter.  Sometimes, someone is going to have the nerve to tell you, "No," and when that happens, it is not the end of the world.  We think we always deserve to get our way.  We think we should always get everything we want.  And if your mommy was silly enough to tell you that's the way the world is, I'm sorry to have to be the one to burst your bubble.  It bothers me to see so many people embracing this attitude.  Whatever happened to earning things for yourself?  What happened to forging your own path?  Now we just think we can sit back and have it all be given to us.

The other aspect of this that saddens me is the fact that all these people are sitting here complaining about a video game... when there are so many other more important things in the world.  If you are the kind of person with a computer, and internet access, and the disposable income to buy an MMO with the associated subscription, you are already ahead of the vast majority of the people in the world.  Odds are you aren't starving.  You have a roof over your head.  You have decent clothes on your back.  You probably aren't lacking the essentials of life.  Stop for a moment and reflect on how lucky that makes you before you vent your spleen over the fact that you might get locked out of SW:TOR for a day or two while your box comes in the mail.  It might give you a little better perspective.

So hopefully this non-gaming related post didn't turn you all off.  But hey, sometimes something just has to be said, and I had to get this one off my chest.  There probably won't be any full-fledged posts over the weekend, unless something big comes out that I feel compelled to talk about.  But keep an eye on my Twitter just in case. :)

08 December 2011

It may be their first rodeo...

... but Bioware sure isn't acting like an MMO "noob."  Just a quick post today about some more SW:TOR launch goodness.  Bioware put out a FAQ yesterday about early game access.  The link is in my Twitter if you haven't already found it for yourself.  Overall, the early access period has been extended by two full days.  Now this would be good enough news all by itself, but more important to me is what it says about Bioware's launch preparations and what they understand is at stake for them.

For an MMO, nothing is bigger than launch day.  Now I know that may seem like a given, but as the old saying goes, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."  Launch day is your one and only shot to "make an impression," and what your players see on that day will go a long way to deciding whether they stick with your game or not.  Have a great launch, and the goodwill can last you a long time.  Have a bad launch, and you may never recover.  RIFT had probably the smoothest launch in MMO history.  No launch is perfect, but in terms of sheer overall stability, I can't think of a better one than RIFT.  Almost nine months later RIFT is sitting comfortably in the top two or three subscription based MMO's in the American market (not sure if EVE beats them or not). 

On the other hand, games like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online had atrocious launches and neither game ever truly recovered.  Yeah they had other problems as well, but the bad publicity and word of mouth that their poor launches generated certainly didn't help them.  Bioware gets this.  They know they have to knock this launch out of the ballpark.  That's why they crammed in one last beta test last weekend.  That's why they extended the early access by two days.  They understand they are about to have the biggest launch in MMO history in terms of the sheer number of players.  Estimates for pre-orders run anywhere from one million to three million, depending on who you ask.  Those numbers dwarf WoW at launch, or RIFT, or any other major MMO.  So with that much at stake, Bioware knows what they are up against.

Will all the preparation matter?  Will SW:TOR have the smoothest launch as well as the biggest?  As another old saying goes, "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy."  We'll see how adaptable Bioware is when the first major wrench gets tossed into the works.

07 December 2011

Great Expectations

Ok a quick bit of business before I get to today's topic.  If you'd like to subscribe to my Twitter feed, follow me @Xintia12.  As I said before this whole production is a work in progress at this juncture so for the moment I will mostly be using Twitter to make short comments on things that aren't worth a whole blog post, or to link to important articles and events as they come up.  I may do more with it in the future, but we'll see how things go for the time being.

So starting next week, I will be joining the masses for the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Odds are if you are reading this blog, this game is not news to you, and more than likely you already have an opinion about it.  You probably either pre-ordered ages ago (as I did) or have sworn it off as the latest "WoW clone" not worth your time or effort.  This post is not intended to try and change anybody's mind about the game.  But since it is the primary game I will be talking about for at least the next four months, the best place to start would be to talk about some of my expectations for the game as we prepare for launch.

First off, I'll be blunt.  I have no problem with the WoW comparisons.  I liked WoW, I enjoyed playing it for a long time... until Wrath and Cataclysm completely destroyed it.  So I have no problem with the "WoW with lightsabers" criticism that many people are quick to fling at SW:TOR.  Even if it were true, which I don't think it is, I would still play the game.  So what am I hoping to get out of it?  It's really pretty simple.  I want to play a game that is fun, engaging, and worth the time I choose to invest in it.

Often times reading MMO blogs, forums, fansites, etc. you could be forgiven for forgetting that we are talking about GAMES and that they are supposed to be FUN.  This seems to be a unique problem to the MMO genre.  We get so wrapped up in things like "endgame" and "min/maxing" that we forget that at the end of the day... we're supposed to be having fun.  And yes, endgame is fun and tweaking your character to its maximum potential is fun.  I don't question that, in fact I love theorycrafting myself.  But it can become a case of missing the forest because you're focused on the trees.  You start to lose the big picture.  So that's the thing I want from SW:TOR.  I want it to be fun.

Fun from my point of view means three things.  I love instances/dungeons.  I love crafting.  And I love community.  I am an absolute fanatic for dungeons.  Small group content is probably the single most important aspect of an MMO to me.  If your game has good and challenging dungeons, I am more than likely going to like your game.  On this count, SW:TOR has impressed me so far.  I played the low level instance for both the Empire and Republic during one of the beta tests and loved them both.  I thought The Esseles was slightly superior, but Black Talon was lots of fun as well.  If the other instances are as good, I will be happy with SW:TOR for a long time.

I'm also a bit of a crafting nut.  I enjoy collecting patterns, creating my own gear, and doing my little part to add to the economy of a game.  That said, I am also impressed with SW:TOR's crafting system.  I like the idea that your companions can do it while you are questing or doing other things.  I like that they can be sent to gather materials.  And I like that you can obtain better versions of items by crafting them and breaking them down.  I also like their take on modding items.  If you want to spend the time and effort, you can make a favorite item about as good as the best available gear.  For some people, that effort will be worth it, for others it won't.  But the option will be there, and I love options.

The last thing that really makes a game for me is the community, and I mean that both in the general sense of the whole game/server, and the specific sense in terms of guilds and groups.  This is where WoW really started to fall flat for me in the end.  The community just fell apart.  No one talked, no one cared.  Every other player was just treated like an NPC, just a means to an end.  I won't get into the specifics of why I think that happened in this post, but I hope for better from SW:TOR.  And this is the one thing that is difficult to predict.  While the mood in the beta weekends was pleasant and the groups I was a part of were fun, there is no way to know what the community will be like at launch.  I will hope for the best.

So those are my expectations of the game going in... what are yours?  Or will you be skipping this adventure in a galaxy far, far away?

06 December 2011

Who am I, and Why Should You Care

So I thought I would start things off with a post about my gaming history, etc. just to give you an idea of where I am coming from when I write about these topics.  Also, let me make clear from the beginning that I keep my gaming persona as separate from my real life as possible.  You will not get posts from me about what my dog is doing, going out to lunch with a friend, or workplace gossip.  I value my privacy and keep those aspects of my life distinct from what I choose to share on my blog or online generally.  And besides, I would think that the reason you are coming here is to read about MMO's... not what I ate for breakfast. :P

But as I said in my first post, I've been gaming for nearly as long as I could walk and talk.  My parents bought me an Atari 2600.  I begged and pleaded with them for a Nintendo.  I owned a Gamecube, Xbox, and Playstation 2 all at the same time.  I've dropped more money on gaming PC's than I have on cars in my adult life.  So video games have always been a part of my life to one degree or another.  These days that manifests itself mostly in my interest in online games, specifically MMO's.  I do still play other games, but it is the MMO genre that attracts most of my attention.

I got started in MMO's with a game that really doesn't quite fit the term, Guild Wars.  At the time I thought it was the most amazing game I had ever played, and looking back, it was still pretty good times.  It was a good way to be introduced to the concept of an MMO without really "jumping in" with both feet.  But I was so impressed I even remember posting on a fan site that ArenaNet (the GW developer) had a fan for life and I would be buying all their expansions and sequels.  Yeah... that didn't so much happen (and GW2 is still vaporware half a decade later.)

It didn't happen because in the course of my time in GW someone I was playing with introduced me to World of Warcraft.  I know, I know... I just lost half of you.  "zomg wow was his first mmo!"  Yes, yes it was.  And I am far from alone in that distinction.  But let's be honest, WoW may be far from perfect, but it is far from terrible as well, especially in its earlier forms.  I won't get into a huge discussion at this point about WoW's "peaks and valleys," as that could be fodder for an entire month's worth of posts.  Suffice to say I abandoned GW for WoW and never looked back.  I played and enjoyed WoW for nearly five years and was one of many players who said "enough is enough" when Cataclysm turned out to be a huge disappointment.

So since leaving WoW in early 2011, I've "bounced around" the MMO universe a bit.  I spent a few months with RIFT, which turned out to be a disappointment.  It was like WoW... except without any of the content.  I gave Star Trek: Online a chance, but every time I was forced to do a ground mission, I hated the game more and more.  And I've tried my hand at several free-to-play games... Runes of Magic, Forsaken World, Rusty Hearts, etc.  It really bothers me that so many people think F2P is the "future" of MMO's, because there is a reason most of these games are free....... they suck.  I'm sorry, but I've yet to encounter an F2P game that struck me as decent, or worth spending a dime on.  I would much rather pay per month for a fully-featured and supported game than get "nickel'd and dime'd" by these half-ass, clunky cash grabs.  But that too, is a topic for another day.

Altogether, I am far from a novice in terms of my experience with MMO's or gaming in general.  Does that make my opinion any better than someone else's?  Not at all.  But it does mean that I have some understanding of the things I'm speaking of and not just ranting off the top of my head.  Heck if you want ranting, just try the official forums of just about any MMO.  You'll get all the whining, moaning, complaining, and unsubstantiated opinions you can stand.  Hopefully you'll keep coming back here for a bit more... insightful analysis. :)

05 December 2011

MMOving in a New Direction

Greetings to all!  I'm Xintia and this is my new blog dedicated to all things MMO.  Yes there are already a thousand blogs out there doing the same thing, but hopefully over time, I'll give you all some good reasons to keep coming back to see what I have to say about the goings on in the industry.  What you'll mostly find here are three things:

1)  Commentary and experiences of the game(s) I am currently playing.  To give you an idea of what those will be for the first few months, I will be primarily playing Star Wars: The Old Republic when it launches next week and unless it severely disappoints, it will be my main MMO until April 2012 when The Secret World launches.  At that point, I'll have a decision to make. :)

2)  Commentary on the MMO industry as a whole.  I have been playing video games for basically my entire life, and so my interests go beyond the game I am playing at the moment.  But in the interest of staying focused, I will try and restrict myself to MMO related topics as much as possible.

3)  Links and news from noteworthy events around the industry.  A lot of people are talking about MMO gaming, and so when someone else does or says something that I think is important, I'll make sure you know about it too.

So if any or all of those things sound interesting, keep checking back regularly.  I don't have any kind of "posting schedule."  I may post every day, or several times a day, or not post for a week.  It all depends on what is going on and what interests me.  I already have a job, I don't plan on making blogging into a second one.  So when I do post, it'll always be something relevant, not one of those "Gee, I have to post today, better toss out some trash." 

Sometime in the next week I will be posting links to my Twitter and Youtube accounts.  Twitter is great for those random little comments that don't need a full blog post, and I hope at some point in the future to post gameplay videos and commentary to Youtube.  I will also be doing some tweaking and redesign to the blog itself.  Templates are great for people short on time, like myself, but I do want to personalize some things.  This is all a work in progress, but if you call right now, you can say you were there first!  /annoying TV Infomercial voice

So sit back, plug in, and enjoy the ride. :)