30 March 2012

Project Delarre Update

So I explained that my goal during my interim time in RIFT was to level a new cleric to the cap and try and build epic sets of gear for each role that she can perform.  A part of me was hoping that my first update on the project could report that I had already reached the level cap.  And while leveling in RIFT is pretty fast, (I'd rate it slower than World of Warcraft but faster than Star Wars: The Old Republic) on my limited playing time, that was a bit ambitious in terms of a goal.  But I am close.  So what I thought I would focus on in terms of this update is some observations about RIFT leveling in general, both for returning players and hopefully some insights for those who haven't played the game as yet.

The first thing a returning player will notice is that that method of acquiring new souls has completely changed.  When the game fist launched, you completed quests in the starting area to obtain your initial three souls and then completed additional quests from your factional capital to obtain the rest.  This system was replaced by simply purchasing the additional souls shortly before I left the game.  Now even this has been removed and you have access to all your calling's souls almost immediately upon starting the game.  In place of the quests, Trion has put together "recommended" combinations of souls and points depending on the role you want to perform.  As an experienced player I did not take advantage of these and simply created my own templates, but new players will find them helpful in directing their initial character choices.

Since all of this content was already familiar to me, I was able to move pretty efficiently through the leveling zones.  I completed pretty much everything in Silverwood, Gloamwood, Scarlet Gorge, Scarwood Reach (my least favorite in the game), and just a few nights ago I polished off Moonshade Highlands.  I was able to recognize some changes Trion has made that I think help smooth out the process.  I know, I know... how can you make something so easy even smoother?  I'm not so much talking about a change in difficulty, just small tweaks and conveniences that make the process more enjoyable for me.  For example, in the past if you were attempting to close a rift by yourself, pushing the rift to its final "unstable phase" (phase 5) was inadvisable because the final stage was capped by an elite mob.  Outside of a few calling/spec combinations, this would be very difficult to impossible to solo.  Well Trion changed that.  Generic minor rifts now all end with regular type mobs, easily killed by virtually any calling/spec.  I applaud this change because it encourages solo players to seal rifts rather than skip them, and to push for those final phases and the bigger rewards that they can offer.

Another change I found pleasant was that every zone had a daily quest to kill "X" number of planar invaders and to seal "Y" number of rifts.  Now it is possible these quests existed before and I was unaware.  But either they have been added in the past few months, or at least they were made much easier to find and complete.  These quests provide more than just a bit of extra XP.  They give reputation with whichever faction is present in the zone, and pretty much every zone in RIFT has a faction associated with it.  In the past many of these factions were irrelevant because by the time you had enough reputation with them, you had far outleveled the rewards they could offer you.  Now with these dailies you have a chance to reach the higher reputation levels while the rewards still matter.  These quests also provide an incentive to hunt down invasions and rifts, which I think is fundamental to leveling in RIFT.  When you boil it down, RIFT is just another "quest and grind."  But the invasions, rifts, and bigger zone wide events, provide a "break" from that tedium so it doesn't feel so boring.  Some would argue it's just a contrivance, and it is, but it is one that works for me.

On the down side, don't bother with dungeons while leveling.  This is unfortunate as I happen to be a fan of RIFT's dungeons.  But the time involved in actually getting a group (even if you are a tank or healer) coupled with the very low ratio of XP to time invested makes dungeons a very poor way to level.  It would seem that there is a lot of "silent consensus" on this issue as even using the LFD system and performing an "in demand" role still doesn't get you a group very fast.  This was a problem during my last tenure in the game and it remains a problem now.  It boils down to a lack of incentive, I think.  The "system" does not reward running dungeons while leveling.  The XP in a dungeon is absolutely pathetic compared to questing.  Now I don't think Trion should go the WoW route and make it possible to level entirely while sitting in your capital and chain-queueing, but as it stands there is really no reason to bother with dungeons until the level cap.  Again this is unfortunate not only because the dungeons themselves are pretty cool, but it reinforces a sad trend in MMO's today as players are not asked to perform group roles until the level cap... and then they find a very unforgiving environment full of more experienced players who will not tolerate their mistakes.

So there are some thoughts on the current state of leveling content in RIFT.  Next week I will certainly have hit the cap and I can start reporting on my work to assemble my gear sets.  The timing here is going to be interesting as the 1.8 patch will be out in probably a month and we already know it will include a new set of crafted patterns, along with the requisite new raid and other content.  I'm debating whether or not that makes the current epic crafted gear more or less desirable.  Will the price go down in lieu of the new items, like picking up a cheap iPad 2?  Or will they actually go up due to increased demand (people like me looking for cheaper upgrades) and reduced supply (due to people focusing on the new patterns and materials)?  If it drives prices down, I could achieve my goal even more easily than I had hoped.  If it drives prices up, I see a lot more dungeon grinding in my future.  We shall see!

28 March 2012

Level Me Harder!

So yesterday Massively posted an interesting commentary on leveling in MMO's.  It reflects something that I have been saying about MMO's and MMO developers for quite some time.  The companies that make MMO's are no different than any other company.  They want to make a profit, and to do so, they are going to create products that we want to consume.  What do we want to consume?  Tried and true, quest and grind, leveling games.  I can already hear most of you exclaiming, "But I hate to grind!"  Do you?  Apparently not enough to demand something different from the market.  It is the same argument I always make to the world PvP fanatics, the sandbox fanatics, the role-play fanatics, and all the other "niche" mechanic fanatics.  If any of those concepts were as popular as their fanbois think that they are, the market would be full of games based on those mechanics.  Had a look around lately?  What do you see?  Tons of open PvP sandboxes?  No.  You see quest and grind, quest and grind, and quest and grind.

Whether we want to admit it or not, the market is simply giving us what we want.  People like games where they kill ten rats, gain a level, become more powerful, kill ten uglier rats, and so on.  It is predictable, it is comfortable, and it gives a highly visible metric to determine your progress.  People like that sense of progression.  Why do you think the "gear treadmill" of raid instances has become the dominant paradigm of endgame content?  Because it provides a visible and tangible metric of progress.  Tier 1 leads to Tier 2 which leads to Tier 3.  The guy in Tier 3 is clearly better than the guy in Tier 1.  We like this.  Even the least competitive amongst us enjoys the sense of being more powerful today than he was yesterday.  Level based games are the simplest way to provide this.

So the question then becomes, should we demand more?   The answer to that will vary from person to person, but if you do want something different, the only way to get it is to vote with your wallet.  You can rant on your blog, spam forums, and tweet all you want, but the only thing a company will truly "listen" to are its profits.  As the author of the Massively article notes, you could scream at Bioware till you are blue in the face that Star Wars: The Old Republic is a bore, and they will point to their buckets of cash and laugh.  Obviously a significant number of people found it interesting enough to buy it and stay subscribed.  The market spoke, and it said that SW:TOR was just fine, thank you very much.

If we want the market to change, then we have to change it.  We have to stop buying every "quest and grind" clone that comes down the road and demand that companies produce something else.  And then when that "something else" arrives, we need to actually support it.  And again, this is what all the "niche fanbois" don't seem to understand.  When a game that truly is different comes out, no one buys it, or at least not enough to ensure it stays active and supported.  This is the market at work, and this is why companies don't make games that are different, because they fail.  Companies want to be World of Warcraft.  They don't want to be Vanguard

As I have said before, I think the MMO market as a whole is reaching a tipping point.  The number of high quality games is increasing.  The current market leaders are facing uncertainty.  If there was ever a time when a new concept could take hold in the upper tier of MMO games, now would seem to be the time.  Whether you a fan of "quest and grind," some "niche" concept, or something in between... just remember that the only thing companies are really listening to is the ringing of the cash registers.  The only thing you can control is where you put your money.  So when something shows up that you really do like, support it, and quit paying that WoW sub just because your girlfriend still digs her night elf hunter. 

Just kidding guys, avoid GF aggro at all costs. ;)

26 March 2012

Tales of TERA: The Beta Version

So this weekend I got my hands dirty with the latest beta test of TERA.  Let me be clear right off the top that these impressions are based solely on my time in the game itself.  As I said in earlier posts, I deliberately did not "research" this game before jumping into the beta test.  I wanted as "unbiased" a view of the game as possible.  That being said, I obviously did not have time to try out every aspect of the game, and I very well may get a few things wrong based on the limited time that I had.  But with those disclaimers in mind, I'd like to just go point by point about what I observed during my time in the game.  Let's start with the things that I liked.

+ Graphics and Artistic Style

I'll be blunt.  TERA is the most visually attractive MMO I have played to date.  Many MMO's have a distinctive style to their artistic approach, and in many cases you either like it or you don't.  The "cartoon" nature of World of Warcraft for example tends to attract a lot of forceful opinions one way or the other.  TERA is undoubtedly influenced by its Asian roots.  The graphics, art, and especially the character models reflect this Eastern influence very clearly.  For some, this might be a turn off, but even with that in mind, I found TERA to be absolutely gorgeous.  It blows away every MMO I have played to date.  There is a downside here also, but I'll get back to that in a bit.

+  Combat Design

Having played mostly MMO's that are based on the "hot button/GCD" combat model, I found TERA's more active combat concept to be very entertaining.  While most MMO's still do look "real time" in terms of their combat, most of us know that "under the hood" it is still essentially a turn based system with various "dice rolls" happening outside our view that determine the results of our attacks and the mobs we are engaged with.  TERA truly is a more "active" type of combat.  You have a targeting reticule that you must place on a mob to hit it, mobs generally have a "tell" that you can watch for when they attack, and when they do you can move your character out of the way to dodge or evade the attack.  None of this is possible with most MMO's today.  It is much more akin to a third-person action game such as Devil May Cry or God of War.

+ Client Stability and Overall Responsiveness

For a game still in a closed beta phase, TERA felt and played remarkably well.  I never had a "crash to desktop" event, or even a random disconnect during my play time, and I was in at the very beginning on Friday afternoon when there was a huge "crush" of players in the starting zone.  Granted the game is launching in just over a month so perhaps it should not be a surprise that the client is still stable at this juncture, but it is worth noting, especially because when I had the chance to test Star Wars: The Old Republic at a similar point in its development, I experienced several "crash to desktop" and disconnect events.  So the TERA team deserves some kudos for the game running smoothly.

Of course not everything is going to be sunshine and roses, so let's jump to a few things that just didn't work for me.

-  Class "Balance"

I found a huge difference between playing the ranged classes and melee classes in this game.  I generally prefer ranged classes as a rule, and so I tried most of those first including the Sorcerer, Mystic, and Archer.  Maybe these classes get stronger later, but none of them felt particularly powerful or fun to play.  It was simply "spam ranged attack until mob gets close, jump back, rinse and repeat."  It was not very fun or engaging.  On the other hand, I found the melee classes much more fun to play.  The combat was much more involved, especially for the Warrior class.  Within the first few levels I found myself chaining combos, dodging attacks, which led into more combos.  Overall I found melee to be a lot more rewarding than the ranged classes.

-  Shameless Sexuality

Ok now believe me, I am no prude, but there is a point at which it becomes obvious that something is being sexual simply for the sake of being so, and that is how TERA feels in terms of some of its racial options and how female characters are portrayed in general.  It is "cliche" by this point to mock the female character models in many MMO's; from WoW's skimpy "plate mail bikinis," to the gravity defying breasts in pretty much every game.  But TERA just takes this too far.  The entire Elin race are essentially nothing but "tween" age girls in the skimpiest outfits imaginable, straight out of some twelve-year old boy's wet dream.  And the other races female models are little better, even if they appear age appropriate.  Every female in the game has cleavage galore and barely enough skin covered for the sake of decency.  Overall, it just goes too far.  It is so overly sexualized that it becomes laughable.

-  Generic Questing/Advancement Model

This may or may not be a "negative" depending on your point of view, but TERA's character advancement and questing model is just too much like everything else right now.  The reason this is a negative for me is that I was really looking for an incentive to draw me to this game.  In the end, while the combat was new and different, there just isn't enough going on here to make me want to play this game.  There is nothing to encourage me to make an investment in a new game like this when I am already playing other games like it, or there are other games on the horizon that interest me more.   You kill ten rats, you buy new skills, you kill ten more rats, rinse and repeat.  But as I have said before, it is not "kill ten rats" that I have a problem with.  I have a problem with how many games present this, and TERA just doesn't do anything to set itself apart in this regard.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed my time in this beta.  TERA is a fun game and if the combat system is something that really appeals to you, I think it is certainly a game worth checking out.  But as I noted in my last comment, there just isn't enough "new" going on here for me to justify the box cost plus a subscription fee.  And while you know I am not a fan of the "free to play" model, I have to admit that if TERA were an F2P game, I would probably dabble in it from time to time.  It is good, but it just isn't good enough to make me want to drop RIFT or divert my attention from The Secret World when it launches in a few months.  But I will keep my eye on TERA.  My feelings about it essentially haven't changed.  I am still curious, I am still interested... just not enough to pay for the experience.

25 March 2012

This Just In: Yes I'm Alive Edition

Fear not, insomniac denizens of the internet.  Xintia is still alive and kicking.  But I actually have a pretty good reason for not posting about MMO's this week... I've been busy PLAYING MMO's!  What a concept, right?  I know, crazy talk.  Sometimes you'd think that just ranting about games can be a hobby all to itself.  Who needs to actually play them when you can just complain about them instead?  But enough about all that.  Time to talk the news from the past week.

Bioware "Caves" to Fan Pressure, Will Look at Revising Mass Effect 3 Ending 

This may not be MMO related, but I thought it was a huge story none the less.  Since the release of Mass Effect 3 earlier this month, one of the most discussed issues about the game was its ending.  I am not going to get into the details of it here, as to avoid spoilers for anyone who has yet to complete it, but suffice to say that a very vocal contingent of players was upset with how Bioware ended the game, and consequently, the series.  There were blog postings, Twitter rants, and online petitions galore.  In the past, these efforts would amount to very little and gaming companies rarely took much notice.  Well scratch that idea.  Bioware announced this week that they will look at possible changes to the ending of Mass Effect 3.  This has to be the first time that I can think of where a major gaming developer is considering changes to a game of this magnitude.

There is a plus side and a minus side to this, from my point of view.  On the plus side, it is always a good thing when a company takes the feedback of its customers seriously.  If enough people really are upset about this, and taking substantive action, then it behooves a company to seriously examine the issue and consider changes.  On the minus side, the cynical part of me is wondering what this "new" ending is going to cost us.  I am not a big fan of DLC for single-player games.  I expect it in MMO's, that's part of what I pay my subscription for.  But I've got a sneaking suspicion that Bioware (or their EA overlords) will insist on charging us a fee to see the "real" ending for the game.  Maybe they won't, and maybe I should give them the benefit of the doubt, but in the mad dash for money, I am afraid that the new "standard" that is REALLY being set here is that game companies will start charging to see the "real" end of a game.

World of Warcraft is NOT Dead, Jim

Despite many among The Informed wishing for its demise, Blizzard's king of the MMO jungle looks to continue its reign at the top of the MMO food chain.  CVG Magazine is reporting that Blizzard is confirming its fifth expansion for the game, and is already planning for more beyond thatSome observers, myself included, had speculated that WoW had perhaps one more expansion in it beyond Mists of Pandaria, but it would seem that Blizzard still believes that the "Old Lady" has plenty of life left in her.

Again there are two ways to look at this.  On the one hand, it should not be surprising at all that Blizzard is going to "milk" this cow until they absolutely can't anymore.  Despite its recent losses, WoW remains the undisputed king of the MMO market and none of the "WoW killers" or other pretenders have come close to usurping that throne.  On the other hand, WoW is really showing its age from a technical and design perspective.  Compared to more recent releases, the limitations of WoW's engine and design philosophy are becoming more apparent.  In short, the game itself is becoming obsolete.  How long can WoW maintain its dominance by sheer momentum alone?  How long will people continue to play it when it becomes more and more obvious that more modern releases have more to offer?  Much of WoW's dominance is based on this "institutional momentum," and that can only carry you so far.

ArenaNet Talks (Cash) Shop on Guild Wars 2

I will admit at the outset that I selected this story because I have a more personal point to make about it, but I'll get to that in a minute.  Last week we found out that a new round of invites had gone out for the Guild Wars 2 beta, but it is still closed at this juncture and only a small portion of the million recent sign ups were invited.  But ArenaNet also took time to talk about the microtransactions that will be offered in the game.  GW2's system has analogies to EVE Online in that in-game currency can effectively be traded for the currency purchased with real-world money.  As both CCP and ANet contend, this helps to cut down on third-party "gold selling" and its negative impacts on the game. 

It's hard for me to say how I feel about this system in and of itself.  While there may be similarities to EVE there is also a significant difference in that GW2 does not have a subscription where EVE does.  GW(2) is rather unique in the MMO market in terms of its business model.  You must pay for the "box" itself, but nothing beyond that.  So it is not "free to play" in the traditional sense, but there is also no subscription.  In that sense I don't really have a problem with them charging for costumes and account services.  One of my big gripes for years with Blizzard was the insane fees they charged for account services on top of the subscription.

But the other reason I selected this story was to make a personal point, so pardon me while I hop on my soapbox for just a minute.  Every game has their fanbois and their haters, that much is a given.  But some groups of fanbois (or haters) are just so much more obnoxious than most.  I'm afraid that is the case with GW2 and their fanbois.  These folks give "Twi-hards" a run for their money for the most absurd, blind "cheerleaders" in the world.  If you listen to the average GW2 fanboi, this game is going to solve world hunger, end global warming, and cure AIDS, Ebola, and cancer... oh, and totally revolutionize MMO's as we know them.  Really guys, you need to relax.  GW2 is going to be a fine game.  But a "savior?"  You are only setting yourself up for disappointment.  Temper your enthusiasm just a wee bit, please?  Yes it tweaks the conventional approach to questing.  Yes it (tries) to get away from the hard and fast rules of "trinity" mechanics in combat.  But unless the final product is much more than what we've seen so far, GW2 is not truly breaking any new ground here either. 

Ok, so there will be more posts coming this week!  I already have two more on tap that I know I want to get out.  I'll have an update on my RIFT "Project Delarre," and I will have my impressions of TERA based on my experience in the beta test I participated in this weekend.  In the meantime, may we all continue to have more time to actually participate in our hobbies than simply to write about them!

19 March 2012

Project Delarre

Meet my new RIFT cleric, Delarre.  Yeah, yeah... I reused one of my character names from Star Wars: The Old Republic, so sue me.  I'm not exactly the most creative cat on the block, so when I come up with a name that I like, I tend to use it for as long as is practical.  When I last played RIFT, I had two characters at the level cap, a warrior and a mage, and I had a third character close to cap, a rogue.  But for whatever reason, the cleric calling was the one class I had not managed to invest any serious time in.  I rolled one of each class way back during the head start, but most of those characters never took off.  I ended up deleting all but one of them.  And I never got any cleric higher than maybe level 16.

So when I returned to RIFT, I decided I wanted something different to do.  Yes I had level capped characters and I could easily spend my time developing them; working on reputations, running random dungeons, searching out a raid guild, etc.  But that all felt somewhat counterproductive because I already know that my return to Telara is going to be somewhat short lived.  When The Secret World releases in June, I will be diving into that head first.  So instead I decided to play the one class that had eluded me during before and create a new cleric.

Now I know what you are probably already thinking, "How is starting an entirely new character any more productive than working on a current one?"  A valid point, and I suppose it is a matter of perspective.  For one, I actually enjoying leveling in RIFT.  I know that puts me in the minority, but I find it engaging and varied.  Just when "quest and grind" is about to get boring, the skies rip apart and a zone event begins.  It's just enough to keep things fluid and not too stale.  Another thing is that I enjoy different play styles almost as much as different content.  Yes I have done all of RIFT's leveling content before, but I haven't done it with this class.  That too is enough to keep things interesting.

For those of you already familiar with RIFT, you know that clerics are among the most versatile callings.  They can tank, heal, and DPS in both melee and ranged modes.  Healing is by far their most powerful group role, as they are the only calling with multiple healing specs.  The only other calling that can heal at all is the mage, and they are limited to essentially a single spec to do it.  But cleric tanks are capable, and they do have some decent DPS specs.  So after I get Delarre to the level cap, my next goal will be to construct completely epic level gear sets for each role she could perform.  That may sound like a tall order, but I did it for my old warrior long ago, and I didn't even have to raid to do it.  Zone event rewards and random dungeons filled pretty much every slot, with crafted gear pitching in here and there.  He only needed two gear sets though.  Delarre will need at least three, although there may be a bit of overlap between them. 

I'll keep you up to date once a week and let you know how the "project" is going.  Anyone else out there have some "weird" MMO goals they are working towards right now?  Any achievement whores or mount collectors out there close to a big mile stone?  That's one thing that makes a good MMO, in my opinion, is one that offers players options like this.  Many others might find goals like this silly, but everyone's definition of fun is different.  The more ways you can approach it, the better your game will be.

18 March 2012

This Just In: Movers and Shakers

It's Sunday again and that means it's time for the news again.  Fairly big stories hit the web this week so we've got some pretty juicy stuff to discuss.  Let's get right to it!

Bethesda Making an Elder Scrolls MMO?

When Skyrim came out earlier this year one of the most popular comments on various gaming websites and blogs was, "If only this were an MMO!"  Well, if this report from Tom's Hardware is accurate, we might be getting just that very soon.  Their report cites unnamed sources close to Bethesda as stating that an MMO based in the Elder Scrolls universe will be announced in May of this year and have "some presence" at E3 and QuakeCon.  Honestly this really doesn't excite me for two reasons.  The first is that I have never been a big fan of Elder Scrolls to begin with.  They are great games, just not my style.  They are a little too free form for my liking.  I enjoy freedom as much as the next person, but I need a little more structure than what their games typically offer.  The other reason I'm not so excited is I just saw a studio with a great single-player pedigree (Bioware) really disappoint me with their first MMO offering (Star Wars: The Old Republic.)  So right now I'm a little hesitant to say, "Well it's Bethesda and Elder Scrolls, of course it will rock!" 

The other thing I find curious here is the reference to QuakeCon.  I know publicity is the name of the game these days and creating interest in your title is important to every studio.  But QuakeCon seems like an odd venue to show off an MMO.  QuakeCon is home to shooter fanatics, and while I enjoy a good frag fest as much as the next guy, it doesn't seem to fit as the place for a studio to show off its first MMO... unless of course that MMO happens to be more shooter than it is RPG.  Considering all three of the most recent Elder Scrolls games were playable in a first-person perspective, it is not entirely a stretch to imagine that an MMO would follow suit and perhaps even borrow more heavily from shooter based elements.  Who knows... we'll just have to wait and see what May brings.

Diablo 3 is Officially Released from Hell 

Following on the heels of the news last week that its PvP components would be disabled in order to make its launch date, the official release date for Diablo 3 was announced this week by Blizzard.  D3 will (not exactly) hit a shelf near you on May 15th.  I somewhat joke about the "shelf space" because boxed editions of PC games are becoming about as rare as a politician without their foot in their mouth during campaign season.  Digital distribution is all the rage and companies like Blizzard and EA are scrambling to get into the space that Valve and their Steam client have dominated for years.  But I suppose we can see now why the PvP features were delayed.  With a little less than two months to launch, it would be very difficult for Blizzard to get all those components working to everyone's satisfaction.

But at the same time this sort of alludes to a point I made earlier this week about Blizzard itself.  Something is going on there.  Before Blizzard lived by the mantra, "When it's ready."  Release dates were malleable.  If something needed more time, it got more time.  Blizzard games were always known for one thing above all else, absurd amounts of polish.  You could talk about balancing issues in Starcraft or broken classes in World of Warcraft, but the games always looked, felt, and played good.  It was Blizzard's claim to fame.  But is that going away?  Are they starting to feel the pressure of being one of the most profitable divisions of a larger corporate entity?  Is "When it's ready," giving way to, "When we need the money?"  I don't know and I'm not ready to write Blizzard off as a corporate "stooge," but it does bear watching.

More info on The Secret World Revealed!

Again if you are a reader of this blog, it is no secret (no pun intended) that Funcom's upcoming MMO The Secret World is one of the games I am really looking forward to this summer.  They showed off the game at the recent GDC event and this time rather than give you all the individual links to the various previews and reactions, I'm just going to give you the link to the page on the official site where Funcom has already done that work for me.  You'll find almost all the major sites on that list, as well as a few foreign language links for those folks who are so inclined.

For me the biggest piece of new information here was the stuff about TSW's crafting system.  It feels potentially a lot like the skill system in that it will be simple to create basic gear and equipment, but it will also reward players who want to really get into the system and learn how to create gear with very specific benefits.  It also gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, Funcom will get away from the "raid or die" model that has dominated the endgame of almost every MMO release in the past five years.  Maybe crafting will be a legitimate path of advancement and a way to continue to improve your character without having to resort to the mindless "treadmill" of raid instance farming.  Too much to hope for?  Probably.  But a gamer can dream.

Check back tomorrow for my RIFT project that I'm hoping will carry me until TSW's release.  It should be an entertaining way to pass the time.

16 March 2012

TERA Trials

So I was just commenting yesterday that I wanted to talk in more detail about TERA but didn't have the opportunity to review all the available information.  Well, it's almost as if someone was listening as shortly thereafter I took a trip over to Massively and discovered that they were giving away keys to the next weekend test.  Talk about a timely opportunity.  So I quickly scooted over to En Masse's website, signed up for an account, and put the key in to get access to the beta test.  If this is a game that has been on the periphery of your gaming radar as well, this sounds like a great opportunity to get some hands on experience with what looks to be a bit more non-traditional of an MMO.

I have to say I am actually pretty excited about this opportunity.  That said, I have chosen to approach this a bit differently than I have beta tests in the past.  Before, I would scour the web and absorb everything I could about the game beforehand.  Well this time I am not going to seek out any more information about TERA until I get into the game.  I want to get as open and honest a feel for the game as I possibly can, and I think I can do that best by not "contaminating" myself with preconceived notions before I see it first hand.  Now since this next test is not until the weekend of March 23rd, that means I am not going to post on TERA next week as I had planned. 

This feels like a pretty good opportunity to me.  I have never taken this perspective on a beta test before.  Always in the past when I signed up for a beta, or actually gotten into one, it was already with knowledge and expectations of the game.  It was a game I wanted to play.  TERA is a game that, while it piqued my interest, was not a game I saw myself committing the funds to play.  And I really have no idea what to expect from the game itself.  I knew what I expected from Star Wars: The Old Republic, and I know what I expect from The Secret World were I to get into that beta.  But this is a different sort of animal, and I am looking forward to it.  TERA may impress me, but it can't disappoint me.  If it turns out to not be something I like, I have lost nothing as I was never fully committed to it in the first place.  That makes for a much more relaxed feeling.  Hopefully I will get to enjoy a fresh take on a new game.

15 March 2012

Random MMO Musings

Most of the time I strive to focus my posts on a single topic, game, or issue... well aside from the news posts obviously.  But today I just have a bunch of random thoughts on random games that I want to get off my chest.  So kind of like the title of the blog itself, you get a little bit of everything today.  Let's see... where to begin?

Star Wars: The Old Republic... Nope, don't Miss It

I have not logged into my SW:TOR account in over a week, despite the fact that my active game time does not expire until the end of the month.  I hesitate to keep "kicking" this game because I still do want it to do well, but it just really disappointed me.  And I know right now the fanbois are screaming, "But you never gave it a chance!" and The Informed are screaming, "You should have known better!"  Maybe so... on both counts.  But you know, I'm really tired of game developers and publishers pushing out half-finished games and then just expecting us to deal with it until they can patch them up later... or worse, even charging us for the "improvements" via DLC.  For all the delays and postponements, SW:TOR was still not "finished" at launch.  Many of the things we are getting now (such as the UI improvements) should have been in the initial package.  I am done encouraging laziness on the part of developers.  FINISH your damn games before you ship them. 

My other observation after a week out of the game... is that the whole "fourth pillar" attempt in terms of story emphasis ultimately failed for me.  As you know I've been playing RIFT this past week.  It's questing structure is very traditional in "themepark" MMO terms.  There is very little voice acting, no cutscenes, etc.  And I am finding I am totally ok with that.  I do not miss SW:TOR's narrative style.  In fact the more time I spend away from the game, I find myself viewing SW:TOR as insulting.  No matter how you "window dress" it with voice work, mini movies, and all the rest... in the end I am still "killing ten rats," or some variation thereof.  Now don't misunderstand my critique.  I have no problem with "kill ten rats."  But don't sugar coat it.  Just tell me to kill the damn rats.  Don't insult my intelligence with a sob story about the rats eating little orphan Skywalker's last loaf of bread and waste five minutes of my life making me listen to him tell me about it.  That's how SW:TOR made me feel.  It's a nice try.  But in the end it's all just fluff.

New Round of  The Secret World Impressions Due Tomorrow

Funcom showed off TSW again at the recent GDC gathering and tomorrow the press embargo on those demonstrations will drop.  I'm not sure what "new" aspects of the game they can show off at this point that we haven't already seen in one form or another but I suspect we'll see the last of the "starter" experiences.  The Templars and Illuminati already got highlighted, so perhaps the newbie Dragon experience will be shown.  And I'm sure they will probably have a different dungeon or quest zone to show.  None of this would be truly "new" though as we are already familiar with TSW's dungeon mechanics and questing for the most part.

Personally I am most intrigued by TSW's character creation system.  I am really hoping that it turns out to be a case of, "Simple to learn, difficult to master."  I want it to be simple enough in terms of the basics that pretty much any player can enjoy the game with their particular play style.  I don't want it to be so overly dense that you need to be conversant in Latin and comprehend particle physics just to kill mobs.  But at the same time... I want it to be deep enough to really reward players who want to dive into it and want to achieve more with their characters.  If people want to spend hours mixing, matching, and swapping skills, I want the system to reward them for that.  I'm not a "spreadsheet geek," but I do enjoy a more mild form of theorycrafting.  Playing with TSW's skill wheel could easily provide me with hours of entertainment all by itself... if they can hit that "sweet spot" of balancing simple base mechanics with deep and complex interactions.

What IS Going on at Blizzard? 

There have been a variety of stories related to Blizzard lately, from the Scroll of Resurrection changes, to Diablo 3 losing PvP, to them laying off hundreds of workers.  The question I'm left with at this point is, what in the world is actually going on here?  They have to still be making money by the truckload.  Yes World of Warcraft is losing subs, but it is still the biggest subscription MMO by far.  People will still be buying D3 in droves, with or without PvP.  And the Starcraft 2 expansion will similarly sell huge when it finally comes out.  So... what's the story?  Why are they giving away D3 (via Annual Pass) to keep people in WoW?  Why are they now giving away micro-transactions that they had stubbornly charged for for years (faction/server transfers) with the new Scroll?  And why are they laying off hundreds of employees?

I don't have an answer to this, but it is extremely puzzling to me.  Believe me, I understand the profit motive as well as the next person.  And even insofar as I feel sorry for anyone losing their job, I understand that these kind of things happen every day in every kind of business.  But when a business as successful as Blizzard (presumably) does it, it does raise eyebrows.  These actions are not typically the acts of a confident, successful business.  But all other indications are that is exactly what Blizzard is... confident and successful.  So where is the disconnect?  What is driving these decisions?  What are the factors that we, as the general public, cannot see?  Again, I don't know.  All I know is that I am left with a feeling that there is something going on here that we are not aware of.  And as big as Blizzard is in the MMO industry, where it goes, others follow.  So ultimately it will be important to all of us.

Well that should do it for now.  I am still working on putting a post together on TERA, but honestly I still have more "homework" to do on that one.  Every time I mean to sit down and dig through the available information, something else comes up.  And as it is a game that I am probably not going to play, it is easy to keep shifting that "homework" to the back burner.  But who knows, maybe when I finally get into it, I'll find out it is the game I've been waiting for all along.  Stranger things have happened.

13 March 2012

Telara 2.0, RIFT Redux, Trion Tangents

Ok so the third alliteration there was a bit of a stretch, but the first two work.  So I've been back in RIFT for about a week now, and I thought I would give you some of my observations after coming back to the game after a six month hiatus.  As I said before, this is the first time I've come back to a major MMO after having left.  I never returned to World of Warcraft and never intend to.  And while I have flirted with the idea of firing up Guild Wars again, the idea never intrigues me enough to re-download the client and try it.  I left GW before even the first expansion so I would have a lot of catching up to do, more than I am interested in at this point.  But I digress.  So what did I find upon my return to Telara?

I have said before in this blog, and I stand by the statement now, that RIFT is the best overall "themepark" MMO on the market currently.  It does not do everything well and it is far from perfect.  But when you factor in all the things one looks for in a game of this type, RIFT is the best "total package" out there.  This past week I have spent in the game has only reaffirmed that belief in my mind.  From the technical end, it is better looking by far than WoW or Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Neither of those are "bad" looking games, but I really prefer RIFT's graphics and style.  And even if you enjoy WoW's "cartooniness," you have to admit that game is really starting to look long in the tooth at this juncture.  RIFT certainly beats SW:TOR in terms of client stability, but WoW does top them both in that category.

But what makes RIFT a better game?  Well if you'll recall one of my big complaints about SW:TOR was clunky and unresponsive combat.  RIFT combat feels good... quick, responsive, and smooth.  I never have any of the feelings of awkwardness that I did playing SW:TORRIFT also has the best "out of the box" UI of any major MMO I have played.  Yes they now also have addon support, but even without that, the "stock" UI is perfectly functional, flexible, and easy to use.  All the components are scalable, moveable, and adjustable... all the things that SW:TOR's was not, and many things that even WoW's UI cannot do without addons.  So the combat is fun and the UI doesn't make you want to kick a puppy every five seconds.  These little "quality of life" features go a long way with me to making a game fun.

But what is there to do in the game?  Well in my opinion, RIFT beats out both WoW and SW:TOR in terms of "things to do," even for unguilded, casual level players as myself.  You have a "Looking for Dungeon" feature, which while we can debate the merits of from now till the end of time, it is there and it works.  But RIFT also has "Instant Adventures," which are sort of like... quest chains that scale depending on the number of people involved.  You can start and stop these any time, although the biggest rewards only come for finishing the entire "chain."  And then you have "Chronicles."  These are RIFT's solution to WoW's "Looking for Raid" and SW:TOR's "Story mode Operations."  These are small solo or duo instances that allow you to experience the story behind RIFT's raid instances without having to actually raid.  Frankly I find this a more enjoyable and "honest" take on the problem.  Let the raids remain raids.  No need to nerf them into the ground.  Just create a separate "place" where others can still follow the story.

And there is always more coming down the pipe.  Trion is relentless in terms of releasing new content into the game.  Take the Ember Isle, for instance.  When I heard about this zone while playing SW:TOR, I assumed it would be something akin to the Isle of Quel'Danas in WoW, a small hub for some new daily quests.  And while it is home to a new faction and new dailies, it is much more than that.  It is a very large area by MMO zone standards and contains its own entire story based quest chain.  This alone is more than WoW has ever added to its game mid-expansion and that isn't counting all the other additions Trion has made in the past year.  And oh yeah, they are already talking about their next patch and associated raid.  So if you ever do get really bored with RIFT, just wait a week.  Something new will pop up.

RIFT does have warts, and I am not ignoring them.  But that is a topic for another time.

12 March 2012

Manning Monday Musings

I'm going to start the week off with some non-MMO related news.  If you've been reading the blog for a while, you know I follow NFL football fairly regularly and have commented on it from time to time here.  Well if you follow the NFL at all you already know that the biggest free agent since Reggie White is on the market right now, and his name is Peyton Manning.  Now I've said before, I dislike ALL things Manning, but to be fair that has more to do with brother Eli's "John Elway" stunt at the draft and pouting his way to New York when he didn't want to play in San Diego.  That and I am a huge Tom Brady fan and you can't really be a fan of both Tom and Peyton.  But (assuming he is healthy) Peyton's final destination will have repercussions across the entire league.  So just like all the other "armchair quarterbacks" out there, I feel compelled to offer my own opinion on where Peyton will be playing next year.  We'll start with the three teams generally agreed upon as the "front runners" and then get to my own pick.

The Miami Dolphins 

Most people seem to think the Dolphins are in the driver's seat in terms of signing Manning.  Peyton's long time teammate (and fellow free agent) Reggie Wayne indicated he would want to play with Peyton in Miami.  That scenario sounds familiar somehow.  Where have I heard that before?  "I'm taking my talents to South Beach..."  Owner Stephen Ross is supposedly pulling out all the stops to convince Manning to come to Miami.  And legendary Dolphin Dan Marino has endorsed the idea as well.  From a football perspective, it does make some sense.  Miami has decent offensive weapons in Brandon Marshall and Reggie Bush.  If you add Reggie Wayne to that mix you get a pretty potent attack for Manning to manage.  Throw in new head coach Joe Philbin, who directed Green Bay's offense and Aaron Rodgers, and you can see why lots of people like Miami as Peyton's final destination.

But here's why it isn't going to happen.  Peyton Manning is going to go where he has the most reasonable chance to go to the Super Bowl and win.  He's not in this for the money.  He's not in this for the records.  He can retire right now and be set for life as a first ballot Hall of Famer.  The Miami Dolphins are not going to the Super Bowl anytime soon, not even with Peyton Manning under center.  Miami plays in the AFC East where another team you may have heard of plays, the New England Patriots.  Now I am not suggesting that Peyton would "duck" Tom Brady.  Hell, they've played each other every single year for what seems like forever.  But in terms of "path to the Super Bowl?"  Picking the division where he has to play Brady twice a year (and always once in Foxboro) is not the proverbial path of least resistance. 

In addition, playing in Miami would force Manning to play many, many more games outdoors.  It would involve road trips to New England, New York, and Buffalo every year.  None of those three locales are known for their lovely weather.  Manning is a much better quarterback indoors than out.  He played in a dome in Indianapolis and thrived there.  He is not going to want to go to a team that plays all its home games outdoors, plus in a division with no domed stadiums.  At this point in his career, that is just not an adjustment he is going to want to make.  Overall I just see no compelling reason Peyton picks Miami.  It just makes no sense for him to go there.

The Arizona Cardinals

Like Miami, there are some good football reasons to see Peyton in Arizona next year.  The first and most obvious is the Cardinals can offer the single most potent offensive weapon of any of the front runners, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.  The idea of Manning-to-Fitzgerald alone would be enough to keep half the defensive coordinators in the NFC awake at night.  Throw in Reggie Wayne or Pierre Garcon (both former Colts and free agents) and again, you have a very powerful offensive attack for Manning to lead.  And while the Arizona defense is no "world beater," if the Colts of the last decade proved anything, it is that a Manning led offense piling points on the board and letting the defense play with a lead can make a mediocre defense look much better.  We already saw this to a degree when Kurt Warner was quarterbacking the Cardinals and took them all the way to the Super Bowl.  Finally, Arizona plays in a retractable roof stadium, and you can bet that if Mr. Manning wants that roof closed, it will be.  Plus St. Louis plays in a dome, and while Seattle and San Francisco are far from the warmest cities on earth, they don't get snow storms either.

But like Miami, there are some big negatives here that lead me to believe this isn't where Peyton ends up either.  The most obvious flaw is Arizona's offensive line.  The Cardinals gave up the second most sacks in the league last year, and incumbent starter Kevin Kolb missed half the season to injury, four games of which was with a concussion.  Manning was never a very mobile quarterback to begin with, and one has to believe that after his recovery from neck surgery, he will be even more "statuesque" than before.  So I can't see him signing up to play behind this offensive line.  Then there is the whole "path to the Super Bowl" issue.  Prior to last season, the NFC West would have been regarded as the weakest division in football, and rightfully so.  But going into the 2012 season, that is far from the case.  San Fran is legitimate and will be back as a contender next year, and the Rams are going to make a lot more noise.  Their trade with the Redskins for a pile of picks is going to pay dividends and I believe Sam Bradford will rebound from his "sophomore slump."  So again, some tantalizing pluses, but I don't see him in Arizona.

The Denver Broncos

Sorry Tebowites, but of the three agreed upon front runners, Denver actually makes the most sense.  Let's put aside for the moment whether Denver keeps or trades Tebow if they sign Manning.  Initial indications are that they trade him, but that's a different question.  Tebow's presence or absence on the team really doesn't change much for the Broncos themselves with Manning under center.  So why is this the best fit of the three?  First off Denver offers the most complete TEAM of any of the three.  The offense has good skill position players such as Willis McGahee, Demariyus Thomas, and Eric Decker.  If Tebow could make Thomas and Decker look good, imagine what Manning could do for them.  Additionally, Denver has the best defense of these three teams by far.  Many argued it was actually Denver's defense that made "Tebow Time" possible and was responsible for the team's success.  A solid defense generating turnovers and short fields for Manning is a scary proposition.  And finally, Denver's offensive line is solid.  The aren't the "Hogs," but they keep their QB cleaner than most, a big factor for the immobile Manning.

In terms of the "path to the Super Bowl," Denver's AFC West is a bit of an enigma.  On the one hand you could suggest it is the weakest division in football and easiest to win.  San Diego, Oakland, and Kansas City all underachieved to varying degrees last year and each have glaring deficiencies.  But at the same time, one could also argue it is the most balanced division in football and the least predictable.  Any one of those teams could have a break out season next year and it really wouldn't be a surprise.  They all have playoff potential.  Manning instantly makes the Broncos the favorites in the division, but all the other teams in the division have the potential to cause trouble.  I'm not sure that is the kind of "roll of the dice" Peyton may want to take.

Which brings us to the two reasons why Manning won't go to Denver.  The first is the aforementioned Tebow.  Whether you like him as a player (or as a person) or not, his status as a "phenomenon" cannot be ignored.  Now I don't think for one second that John Elway would hesitate at all to sign Manning if he agreed, nor do I think Manning would be "intimidated" replacing Tebow.  But the city of Denver, its fans, and players on the team all rallied around Tebow and (for better or worse) believe in him.  I know it sounds absurd to suggest that a future Hall of Famer like Manning could not generate the same belief and support, but stranger things have happened in sports.  Does Peyton want to put himself in that situation?  That I can't answer.  The other major factor is again, the indoor/outdoor question.  Denver plays outdoors and inclement weather is a common sight late in the season.  Kansas City is one of the loudest places to play in the league, and similarly can be cold and nasty late in the year.  San Diego and Oakland are among the most temperate locales in the game however, but I can't see Manning signing up to play half his games at Mile High every year.

And the Winner Is...

So of those three teams I would rank the likelihood of Manning signing as:

1)  Denver Broncos
2)  Arizona Cardinals
3)  Miami Dolphins

There are many other destinations being floated for Manning, from the absurd (Buffalo?) to the almost unthinkable (Baltimore.)  But here's my "dark horse" to sweep in and steal the Manning Sweepstakes... the Houston Texans.  It sounds crazy, and on some levels it is, but it's so crazy that it makes a world of sense.  Let's start with the positives.  First, this team is already a legitimate Super Bowl contender.  If not for Matt Schaub's injury last year, I firmly believe Houston would have made the AFC Championship Game.  I don't think they could have gotten past New England or Baltimore for the Super Bowl, but they would have come close.  A healthy Manning could easily put them over the top and definitely puts them in that upper echelon with the Pats, Ravens, and Steelers.  Houston has potent offensive weapons, a solid running game with Arian Foster, and one of the best receivers in the league in Andre Johnson.  Houston's offensive line is one of the better groups in the league, already good at plowing the road for Foster.  Manning being able to work the play action behind that line?  Scary good.  On the defensive side of the ball, this is one of the best units in the game.  Even with Mario Williams presumably leaving in free agency, this will still be a defense to be reckoned with.  And as mentioned before, even an average defense looks better playing with a two or three touchdown lead, as Manning gave the Colts for many years.  The Houston defense is much better than "average."

On top of that there are some big non-football factors in Houston's favor.  The first is again the "path to the Super Bowl" issue.  The Texans play in the AFC South, a division Manning is very familiar with as is contains his old team, the Colts.  His old team that is now a shadow of itself and anything but a contender.  The other members of the division, the Titans and Jaguars, are little better.  This is a very winnable division and provides a clear path to the playoffs.  Additionally the Texans play in a domed stadium, as do the Colts, and Tennessee and Jacksonville are not exactly known for their bad weather.  So with Houston, Peyton plays more than half his games indoors, and most of the others in (fairly) good locales.  This just feels like a winner all the way around to me.

So why wouldn't it happen?  Two major hold ups.  The first is that there is no indication that the Texans are interested.  Presumably they are convinced they can get to the next level with Schaub under center and don't see the benefit of taking a risk on the veteran Manning returning to form.  And I suppose that is fair.  The other potential problem is, does Manning want to stick it to his old team twice a year?  Let's be blunt, the Texans are about to start repaying the Colts for all those years of beatings by Manning.  Even with T.J. Yeats under center the Texans will kill the Colts right now.  So does Manning really want to be a part of that?  Does he feel a need to rub it in to the Colts that they shouldn't have let him go?  Does he want to embarrass them on a yearly basis?  Hard to say from that final press conference.  I think Peyton legitimately loves the city of Indianapolis and its fans.  The team and the ownership?  That I don't know.

So where does Peyton finally end up?  As much as I like the fit of Manning in Houston, if you forced me to bet on it... I'd go with Denver.  But we'll see how it all plays out.  Indications are that Manning wants to make his decision quickly and will likely know by Tuesday where he wants to go.  So any other football fans out there, let me know what your guesses are in the comments and we'll see how we all did.

11 March 2012

This Just In: Bombshell Edition

My apologies for the lack of posts this week.  I told myself when I launched this blog that I would not allow myself to turn it into a second "job."  When I feel an interest to post, I do.  This week I lacked inspiration in terms of topics to discuss, so I didn't want to force myself to write something up when I really wasn't interested.  Honestly I believe that is best for both me and my readers.  You guys don't want to read uninspired drivel any more than I want to write it.  So let's just stick to the juicy stuff.  That being said, it was pretty easy to pick out the "big three" news stories for this past week.  There was some big news involving some heavy hitters, so let's get to it!

Blizzard REALLY Wants you to Come Back to World of Warcraft!

The first story I want to discuss comes that big ol' MMO train that just keeps chugging along, World of WarcraftBlizzard announced major chages to the "Scroll of Resurrection" program designed to encourage old players to return to the game.  On top of the current XP bonuses and travel benefits, the Scroll now provides the returning player with:

1)  A free upgrade to Cataclysm, regardless of your previous account status
2)  One character automatically leveled to 80
3)  One free realm/faction transfer to the realm/faction of the referring character
4)  One week free game time

And for the referring account, a free faction based flying mount.

Wow, that is quite the gift bag.  The only "catch" I suppose is getting a friend already in the game to shoot you a Scroll, but I would wager that almost every former WoW player still knows a current WoW player.  Heck I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't start seeing current players offer their "services" on various blogs and forums to send Scrolls to old players wanting to return.  Blizzard sure seems to be in the business of giving away value these days.  First it was the "Annual Pass" that essentially gave away Diablo 3 for free, and now they are giving away expansions and microtransactions in these new Scrolls.  But on the other hand, they have to realize that three expansions and their associated cost is a barrier to entry at this point.  Expansions aren't exactly optional in WoW and that is a cost that adds up fast for a truly new player.

At the same time I find the "free 80" especially interesting.  One of the major focuses of Cataclysm was the old world revamp and the changes to 1-60 questing.  This freebie essentially lets you bypass all that.  Is this just yet another way for Blizzard to say, "The leveling game is meaningless.  Just get to endgame as quick as you can?"  I don't know, but I will say this... it would be worth it to me just to skip Burning Crusade leveling.  60-70 is easily the most painful experience in WoW right now.  It just feels so antiquated compared to the rest of the game and sticks out like a very ugly sore thumb.

Diablo 3 to Ship Without PvP

Staying in the wild, wild world of Blizzard we also had big news on the Diablo 3 front this week.  D3 will be shipping without its major PvP features enabled in order to meet its intended release date.  Now from my personal point of view, this does not bother or concern me one bit.  As I have said before, I am no PvP'er and so its absence would not affect my decision to buy the game one way or the other.  However I know that PvP is a huge consideration to a small portion of the playerbase, and an important one for many others.  Even those who are only marginally interested in PvP are going to be somewhat dismayed by this decision.  So I know this will affect a lot of people besides myself.

That having been said, I don't think this will really have that much of an impact on initial sales or overall interest in the game..... provided that Blizzard is able to patch in and activate the PvP features within a reasonable time frame.  As I understand it, PvP will be mostly an "endgame" activity in D3.  In other words, players will want to finish the game itself and acquire gear and skills before engaging in PvP to begin with.  So, if Blizzard can get those features in before those players that are interested in it reach that point in the game, all will be well.  If it is delayed and those PvP'ers are sitting around with nothing to do for a considerable time, you will see some grumbling.  Although, since D3 is not a true MMO, and there is no recurring fee to play, what are those players going to do?  Blizzard already has their money.  Not like they can "vote with their feet" and cancel.

1.7 Million Denizens of the Galaxy Far, Far Away 

As we have discussed previously, one "side effect" of an MMO being run by a publicly owned corporation is that they are obligated to release more in the way of specific information regarding sales and subscriptions.  So this week EA released some new numbers regarding Star Wars: The Old Republic sales and subs.  They are reporting 1.7 million active subscriptions and that the "vast majority" of those accounts are outside their free thirty days and have paid for at least a one-month sub.  While it would be nice to know how many exactly qualifies as the "vast majority," it can be safely said that a large number of people found the game to be a worthwhile investment.

Now you already know that I am one of those that has already left the game, so take what I'm about to say here with a grain of salt.  Believe it or not, I think SW:TOR will continue to do just fine.  You have to keep in mind the game's target audience.  The people it is designed to appeal to (MMO newcomers and Star Wars fans) are going to enjoy rerolling new characters, using the Legacy system, etc.  And perhaps more importantly, they are not going to be "tempted" by the spate of new MMO releases coming down the pipe this summer.  The average player of SW:TOR is not going to be interested in niche games like TERA or The Secret World and perhaps minimally interested in Guild Wars 2.  Most of the players interested in those games have either already left SW:TOR (like me) or never bought it in the first place.  So to suggest the game is "set up" for a huge decline is a bit premature in my mind. 

Ok next week I plan to bring you fully up to date on my return to Telara and my thoughts on RIFT after a six month absence.  Plus I want to look at TERA in a little more detail.  The more cursory information I come across regarding this game, the more curious I become about it.  Is there anything here worth getting excited about?  I'm going to try and find out.

06 March 2012

SW:TOR- The Epilogue

Yesterday marked what will likely be my last day in Star Wars: The Old Republic.  I completed the class storyline for my Jedi Consular and the Republic "storyline" through Corellia.  Afterwards I attempted to go back to my Imperial Agent and continue that story, as I found it one of the more entertaining ones, but I just couldn't do it.  As I have mentioned before, as good as the class stories may be, and even though the Agent story is one of the best, you cannot play the game following the class story alone.  You simply must do planet chains, side quests, etc. to stay on the proper curve.  And this other content I have all seen before and I simply have no interest in repeating.  The GAME itself just isn't good enough for me to want to play all that content over again.  This is disappointing, because I would like to see a few more stories play out, but I am not going to "torture" myself to do so.

So it is with a heavy heart that I "sign off" from the galaxy far, far away.  Like many I had high hopes that while SW:TOR never promised to reinvent the wheel, it would do enough things better or differently to offer a new alternative among major MMO titles.  I will still be watching, and if the 1.2 patch comes out before my game time expires, I will definitely log in to see what changes have been made.  Bioware is already promising UI and combat upgrades, and since those were among my biggest complaints with the game, if they are able to deliver those changes, I could easily see myself reversing my decision and remaining in the game.  But the burden will be on them to do that.  I cannot offer them more of my time or money simply on the "hope" that they will follow through.

I had intended to write up some of my complaints with the major storylines in this final post, but I have decided to pass on that.  There is no need to elaborate on points of lore and character contradictions at this point.  SW:TOR's storytelling still far surpasses the narrative in any other MMO to date, and frankly Bioware should be applauded for what they were able to accomplish in this regard with such a very well loved and established IP.  It can be very difficult to write compelling stories that take place in someone else's imagination, and that is essentially what the Bioware writers had to do.  So I am not going to nitpick them on my way "out the door."  If nothing else, SW:TOR did succeed in proving that an engaging story can be told in the MMO environment.

It feels somewhat like the "calm before the storm" in a sense.  I have nothing "new" to do so I returning to an old game for a few months.  But this summer is going to be big in terms of MMO releases.  While not an MMO per say, Diablo 3 is going to attract a lot of attention both because it is a Blizzard title and because many people who are interested in that game follow MMO's as well.  Rumors are starting to circulate that the announcement of a release date is imminent, and that date may be as early as April 17th.  Then in May TERA will be launching.  Again this is a title that intrigues me and I will be watching, but not likely playing.  Potentially waiting in the wings also is Guild Wars 2.  No release date has been announced, but with the massive beta signup recently, ArenaNet is definitely gearing up for something big.  And finally The Secret World will be revealed in June.  You already know how much I am looking forward to this title.  Thankfully my job permits me a bit more free time in the summer, because I will certainly be busy!

05 March 2012

It's a Secret (World) To Everybody

Last week Funcom lifted the curtain on the latest set of press impressions on their upcoming MMO, The Secret World.  I have been pretty clear about the fact that this is my #1 most anticipated game of the year (unless WildStar were to make it out in 2012, but I doubt that.)  So while I do strive to limit "fanboi enthusiasm" and be as objective as possible, it is inevitable that my positive attitude towards this game is going to come out in my comments on it.  Obviously that does not disqualify me from discussing it, but giving you that information helps you as a reader to decide whether I'm on to something valid, just ranting, or trying to "prop up" a game I care about.  One thing I always work hard on accomplishing is being honest with my audience.  With all that said, let's dive into my thoughts on TSW!

This IS Your Grandpa's MMO (but in a good way!)

TSW rolls back the clock in many ways in terms of MMO design.  That is not to say that the graphics look like Everquest (TSW frankly looks gorgeous) or the UI reminds you of Star Wars: The Old Republic (sorry, had to get that zing in.)  No TSW borrows from many concepts of MMO's long passed and brings them to 2012.  For one thing, TSW is hard.  This isn't World of Warcraft or RIFT where death in solo content is all but impossible unless you AFK in the middle of an enemy camp.  Enemies are clever, they use different skills against you, and often you need to think about how to defeat them rather than smashing your face against the keyboard and then collecting the loot.  For MMO players who started before WoW, this was the norm, although some games probably took it too far.  Even WoW in its original incarnation was a bit more "dangerous" place.  The Cataclysm may have changed the face of Azeroth, but it certainly made it a "safer" world too.  TSW returns to the old paradigm, and makes no apologies for it. 

Another way TSW is "turning back the clock" is in terms of its character development.  The way you build your character in TSW is a refreshing mix of the old and the new.  The "new" comes in the form of a level-less and class-less system.  There are no mages, or warriors, or priests.  There is no level 1, level 10, or level 50.  TSW is a game in which your character "learns by doing."  You want to learn how to use shotguns?  Pick one up and start firing.  Smashing things with a hammer more your style?  Grab one off the rack and swing for the fences.  But more on that later.  Here's how this is "old" as well.  TSW offers 588 different attacks and abilities.  Read that number again.  5-8-8.  And with each character having access to all these skills, character creation in TSW is going to be a deep and potentially complicated experience.  Again this is a far cry from the "modern" MMO that is moving more and more towards simplification and homogenization among characters.

This ISN'T Your Grandpa's MMO (but in a better way!)

While TSW does borrow from these older MMO conventions, that is not to say that it doesn't bring anything new to the table.  It most certainly does, two things in particular that I want to discuss here.  Since we were just talking about it, let's keep discussing the character system.  A level-less and class-less system isn't an entirely new concept, but it certainly hasn't been attempted in a large-scale MMO in quite a long time.  I have never played a game with a system like this before and I am really looking forward to the flexibility to basically create whatever kind of character I want without being tied to a specific class or paradigm.  Obviously TSW will develop its own "theorycraft" community and people will work on finding the best combinations of skills for particular tasks, but that's part of the fun too.  And with a system this diverse, hammering out all those skill sets is going to be a huge undertaking.  I look forward to seeing what we can produce with it.

The other new concept TSW brings are what they call "Investigation Quests."  These will involve getting information from the real world to solve puzzles in the game.  Now puzzles are certainly not a new concept, but hitting up the in-game browser (bravo on including that, by the way) to take a trip to Google to run a search for an old Edgar Allen Poe quote is far different from the norm.  Again I'm sure there will be people that will post all the solutions so people don't even have to work that hard to find them.  And I am sure there will be "trolls" in the game shouting answers to puzzles in the global chat channels (gotta love people who pay $15 a month just to ruin other people's fun) but I think these people will all be in the minority.  The kind of player that will be attracted to TSW in the first place is also the kind of player that is going to want to figure these things out for themselves and only look for a "cheat" if they get stonewalled. 

Development Dollars and Sense 

The MMO community is a pretty diverse place full of people with very passionate opinions.  Many of The Informed have been pining for a game that goes back to these "old school" principles.  We want a harder game.  We want a more in-depth and complicated game.  It is fashionable to hate games like WoW and SW:TOR these days as being too simple and ruining the genre.  But as I point out, these opinions may sound like a majority on the Internet, where many of the prominent bloggers and gaming journalists promote them.  But "Joe Sixpack Gamer?"  They are perfectly happy with the "hand holding" and are looking forward to playing their kung-fu pandas.  That is why what Funcom is attempting with TSW is so extraordinary to me.  They are bucking the common trends, and making no excuses for doing so.

This is why I believe that TSW is going to be a significant critical success, but it is unlikely to achieve similar financial success.  The Informed will hail it as a return to "classic" MMO principles and it will obtain a very dedicated and passionate fan base.  But for all the acclaim it will get in the blogosphere, I don't see it picking up a large number of subscriptions.  This is going to end up being a very niche sort of game.  The people who it is designed to appeal to are going to enjoy it immensely, but the average gamer is probably not going to be interested.  Why play a game where you have to work to achieve something when your kung-fu panda can "faceroll" their way through everything?  And yes, I sound critical of that model, but it has its place as well.

Overall this is a chance for The Informed to put their money where their mouths are.  We complain that we don't like the current crop of MMO's, yet we keep paying our WoW subscriptions anyway.  We say we don't like the direction the genre is going in, yet we shell out $200 for the SW:TOR Collector's Edition (guilty as charged.)  MMO developers are like any other company.  They go where the money is.  If TSW is the kind of game we say we want, then let's open up those wallets and prove it.  But in the end I think this will only serve to prove my point about The Informed being a minority.  I think we will support it.  But the extent of that support will simply show what a small group we actually are. 

Incidentally, this is also why "sandbox" games and "open PvP" games tend to fail, or if not fail, only retain small, dedicated followings.  These concepts, like those embodied by TSW are also very niche in scope and appeal.  We all sound very "loud" shouting from our individual little soapboxes, but we are "drowned out" by the not-so-silent majority voting with their wallets to support games like WoW and SW:TOR.  And I know I spent most of this post essentially trashing games like that.  They aren't bad games.  They just aren't "good" ones either.  So let's get behind the TSW's and the TERA's of the MMO world.  Make the developers stand up and take notice and you'll see change in the genre.

04 March 2012

This Just In: Scraping the Barrel

Is it just me or was this a pretty slow week in terms of MMO news?  Perhaps it was just that the stories didn't apply to games or aspects of the industry that I watch more closely, but I felt like there really wasn't much out there.  So I had to scramble a bit to put together some links that I thought you guys would enjoy.  This week the theme might be more along the lines of "stories I found interesting" than BIG news.  Of course as always, if I overlooked something that was big to you, please let me know in the comments.  Away we go!

Blizzard Lays off 600 Staff

News hit this week that MMO stalwart Blizzard would be laying off 600 employees worldwide.  Company CEO Mike Morhaime quickly took to the intarwebs to try and placate fans that this would have no effect on World of Warcraft or on games in development such as Diablo 3 and the still mysterious Project Titan.  WoW Insider stated that 90% of the layoffs would come from non-developmental positions.  So I don't think there is going to be much consequence here in terms of impact on Blizzard's current or upcoming projects.  Although I suppose that could be a bad thing.  Considering all the hate directed at the WoW team lately, I'm not sure how many tears would be shed if Ghostcrawler or any of his minions were to get the axe.

That said, I think the telling part of this story is that no studio, no developer, no company is immune to cutbacks, layoffs, and downsizing in this cutthroat economic environment.  Here you have Blizzard, the unquestioned industry leader, the company with more paying subscribers in one game than pretty much all other subscription MMO's combined.  That's not even talking about the truckloads of cash from Starcraft and Diablo.  If a company this successful is laying people off, then no one is immune.  There are no "sacred cows."  Everyone is under pressure to do more with less.  Is this a "cultural consequence" of the merger with Activision and becoming a more corporate entity?  I don't know, but it sure makes you wonder what they do with all that income over there.

RIFT Turns the Big O-N-E

Perhaps the timing of my return to RIFT is more advantageous than simply giving me something to do for the next couple months.  Trion's MMO passed the one year mark this week and is celebrating through a massive in-game event called The Carnival of the Ascended.  If there is one thing Trion doesn't skimp on when it comes to this game, it is the world events.  Almost every major patch has been marked with an associated in-game event for players to participate in, and this is no different.  So alongside the new event and activities, there are content updates and gameplay tweaks galore as well.  And come on, who doesn't love the idea of bashing a huge dragon shaped pinata? 

The story here is just as much about Trion's attitude towards their game as it is the one year milestone.  For better or for worse, Trion is really pushing the envelope in terms of post-launch support and content addition.  Sometimes these additions are good (Ember Isle, 10-man raid slivers) and sometimes they are not so good (River of Souls world event, Chloromancer redesign) but regardless of the success of some individual changes, you have to admit that Trion makes no excuses and is continuing to add on to their game at a pace that makes most other MMO developers cringe.  People asked if they could keep it up.  Well, they have kept it up for a year now.  They seem to have the desire and the determination.  We'll see how long they can maintain it.

WildStar and the TweetQuest 

I haven't had much to say about WildStar lately, in part because I have been occupied by Star Wars: The Old Republic and in part because new information has been a bit scarce since the initial "bursts" this past summer.  Well lately the team at Carbine has gotten back into the habit of "WildStar Wednesday" community updates.  The last two have both had to do with their concept of quest creation.  I found these very interesting considering we just had a major MMO attempt to revolutionize the concept of MMO questing, albeit in a very different direction.  Here are the two articles:

TweetQuest #1
TweetQuest #2

In a sense, what you have here is the exact opposite approach from what SW:TOR attempted.  SW:TOR turned every quest giver into an actor.  It turned every "blob of text" into a cutscene.  It expanded the quest interaction experience into a fully acted out sequence between the player and the quest giver.  The idea being that in the end, the player would care more about what he or she is being asked to do.  WildStar seems to have the same sort of goal, but very different thinking.  Instead of "masking" the fact that they are being asked to do a task such as "kill ten yetis" with voice acting and dialogue choices, WildStar pares it all away.  It says, "Go kill ten yetis, here's where they are, and here's what you'll get for it," and it leaves the motivation essentially up to the player.  If you want a reason to kill those yetis, by all means come up with one.  Heck we'll even suggest a potential motivation.  But if you're just killing them for the XP/money/gear, no problem.  Fire at will, champ.

Frankly I think this is much closer to what the typical MMO player wants.  They don't want their time "wasted" with fluff.  Just point me to the yetis please.  And those players who want more, will always come up with more.  They'll dive deeper into the offered story, or they will come up with their own.  I appreciated the SW:TOR technique from a narrative perspective, but at the same time I felt almost as if I was being "insulted."  I'm still killing ten yetis, no matter how fancy you make it sound.  WildStar does away with that and I think I find it more honest.

Ok, well that covers the slow news week.  Come back tomorrow for my detailed impressions of The Secret World and why I think it will force us to again ask the question; is it possible to be a critical success and a commercial failure in the modern MMO world?

01 March 2012

This Ain't your Grandma's Telara

So I'm gearing up to dive back into RIFT after having been gone for... well, about six months altogether I would guess.  I've been hitting RIFT related fan sites, playing with the Soul Builder on RiftZAM, and checking out the official forums.  It was there that I made a rather shocking discovery.  The old server that I had called home in the game, Faeblight, was now the ONLY remaining role-play designated server for the North American region in RIFT.  Wow... I know RP is far from everybody's cup of tea, but to only have a single server for it to cover the entire region?  Not even a RP-PvP server to go along with it?  This really surprised me.

I had always known that RIFT needed some server consolidation, even back when I was still playing it several months ago.  So to see some servers eliminated is not what surprised me.  But to go down to a single server of this type... feels like an overcorrection to me.  And in browsing the forum topics on this issue, it would appear that at least in the case of this particular server, there have been some decidedly negative side effects.  Queue times are common during the "prime time" hours, and while normally a queue could be interpreted as a good thing in the sense of interest and population, I would call this more of an anomaly.  There aren't queues because too many people want to play.  There is a queue because too many people were crammed onto a single server that didn't necessarily all want to be there.

In addition players are reporting significant latency issues during raids and zone events.  Considering these are among the game's big selling points, especially the zone events, having poor performance in these situations is not something you want to expose your players to.  To be fair this is somewhat anecdotal as for every player that seems to experience this lag, another player replies saying their performance is perfect.  So in truth, this problem is probably not as widespread as those who are suffering from it think that it is.  But if I were one of those people, I would be demanding action as well.  So I certainly cannot blame them for being agitated or expecting a response from Trion.

So what kind of response can Trion make here?  Well I certainly think that at least one other RP designated server would be a good idea.  Although despite some of the comments, I don't think an RP-PvP server is a good idea.  I really don't think there is enough interest in that combination of rulesets to justify it, and I really don't think it would do much to alleviate the population problem on Faeblight itself.  No a second regular RP server would be a better solution, and place it in the Eastern timezone.  I don't know if Faeblight is physically located on the West Coast, but its "server time" is Pacific.  I think a regular RP server in the Eastern timezone would be the best way to address these issues.  I suppose there could be hardware solutions as well, but as I have mentioned before, I don't understand how MMO servers work and I don't pretend to.  If there are hardware fixes to these problems, great.  But I wouldn't know what they might be.

This hasn't discouraged me from my return to RIFT though.  As I said, I knew the game needed consolidations for a long time, so seeing fewer servers does not surprise me.  Unless I personally experience this latency, I'm not going to worry too much about that.  Queues are potentially troublesome, especially considering how erratic my play time can be.  It would suck to not get to play because I "wasted" the free time sitting in a queue.  But even that isn't going to push me to move to another server unless it happens consistently and repeatedly.  I really enjoy RP servers and RP communities and I don't intend to get "chased off" if this server is the only option for it.