29 May 2012

Reader Reax: Comments Make the World Go 'Round

I had mentioned prior to my unplanned absence that one feature I wanted to add to the blog was a sort of "feedback" post where I can reply to the various comments made on my posts throughout the week.  I don't just want my blog to be a place where I can rant.  I would like it to be a place where I can share opinions with my readers and get their "side of the story" on the issues that I choose to write about.  So if you feel strongly about something I post, agree or disagree, like or dislike, let me know.  Start a conversation.  Let your voice be heard too.  All you have to do is keep it constructive.  There are plenty of other places on the 'Net for mindless ranting and trolling.  So with that said, let's get to this week's comments.  As we are still a relatively "happy few" as Shakespeare would say, I can reply to all the comments.  In the future I may have to pick and choose, but that would be a rather pleasant dilemma to have.

"Back from the Dead" Comments

@Rohan:  Thanks.  It's good to be back. :)

@Kadaan:  From what I understand, what they are showing in the Closed Beta is pretty much what will be available at release, but since the CB is still under NDA there is no way to "officially" know for sure at this juncture.  On a related note, Funcom bumped the launch date another two weeks.  I think they know they need as close to a flawless launch as possible and are doing everything they can to make that happen.

@Pai:  This is the problem almost every MMO developer faces these days, the so-called "content locust."  These are the folks that play far more hours above average and consume the content at a pace that no developer can keep up with, even the gerbils over at Trion Worlds.  They are every bit as vocal as all the other noted MMO minorities; open-world PvP folks, sandbox fanatics, etc.  But "vocal" can equal "bad publicity" when they start spamming forums, blogs, and review sites with their complaints, so it can put devs in a tough position.  Guild Wars 2 may actually prove to be particularly vulnerable to this as their "buy to play" model will almost certainly require more money for each significant content expansion.

"The Myth of Bioware" Comments 

@Pai:  I am familiar with Mr. Koster but I had not read that particular commentary.  I think the reaction to Star Wars: The Old Republic pretty much sums up the "story as gameplay mechanic" argument, at least in terms of MMO's.  The story alone cannot hold up a game of this type.  It does not encourage long term commitment or player retention, which are vital to an MMO. 

@BoxerDogs:  I have not heard of those games before.  I will have to look into it.  And yes, as I mentioned towards the end of my post, there isn't anything inherently wrong with "interactive movies" as games.  I enjoyed Indigo Prophecy quite a bit, for example.  My "problem" with Bioware is the perception that they are great at making games when that really isn't the case. 

@xJane:  All fair critiques, and in fact I would agree with many of them.  I too found Skyrim unplayable, but as I have mentioned before, the Elder Scrolls series as a whole just doesn't appeal to me much.  Fallout 3 was... meh.  It was essentially Oblivion in the Fallout "universe."  Witcher 2 and Dark/Demon Souls are almost just "hard for the sake of being hard," and not enjoyable.  Of all the games I have played recently, the one I would say was the most "fun" was Kingdoms of Amalur, but while it is a lot of fun to play, its story falls a bit short.

Keep those comments coming guys.  I love reading them and I love replying to them.  I know many bloggers like to reply in the comment threads themselves, and as the number of comments increases, I may do that as well and select a few for a formal post such as this.  But while I still have a small number, I'll probably stick to this method to address them all.  Side note:  Due to The Secret World being delayed a couple weeks, I've had to adjust things in terms of writing my "Xintia" backstory.  So I may skip this week in terms of posting the next segment.  I'm playing it by ear right now.

27 May 2012

This Just In: Deja Vous Edition

Many of the stories that grabbed my attention this week were continuing developments of stories I talked about last week.  But we do have one newcomer as nothing new is happening on The Secret World front this week.  There was no "open" beta this weekend (which actually I found odd considering it was a U.S. holiday weekend.  Good opportunity to snag bored gamers) so not much to report there.  Instead I'll be talking a bit about the forthcoming Elder Scrolls Online.  So without further ado, let's get to the rehashed stories of the week!

38 Studios Goes Six Feet Under

Last week news starting coming out about 38 Studios, the makers of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, being in significant financial trouble.  Well this week it all came to a head as apparently the studio laid off its entire staff and is in the process of selling off its Big Huge Games subsidiary that was largely responsible for the development of KoA.  This is particularly grim news for those of us who were excited at the prospect of seeing their MMO set in the Amalur universe, Project Copernicus.  In fact over the course of the past week, several pieces of concept art and preview videos of the game starting making their way to the Internet, presumably in an attempt to reassure people that the game was still on the way as the studio was (is?) still seeking private funding to continue operations.

The gaming industry is certainly not for the timid.  Everyone from the biggest players to the smallest is seemingly facing adversity these days.  Whether it is Bioware laying off staff on Star Wars: The Old Republic or GamersFirst cutting Fallen Earth's dev team to the bone... no one seems to be safe.  It almost makes you wonder who would be crazy enough to get into this business these days, which ironically is exactly what a lot of people said when a former baseball player in Curt Schilling went out to found his own gaming studio.  I know some people will make this about politics, both the politics of governments funding businesses in the first place, and the politics of Mr. Schilling in particular, but I think as gamers we should all be somewhat sad that Copernicus will apparently never see the light of day.

Diablo 3 Sends Blizzard's Own Record Straight to Hell

On the other end of the financial spectrum, we have this news from industry stalwart Blizzard.  Diablo 3 crushed Blizzard's own PC sales record to the tune of 3.5 million sales in the first twenty-four hours.  Then tack on an additional million or so for people who got the game by purchasing a World of Warcraft year subscription.  Of course the previous record holder was another Blizzard title, the Cataclysm expansion to WoW.  So obviously gaming in general, and PC gaming specifically, is far from dead.  There are definitely still success stories out there.  Despite being criticized for only being playable online, and suffering through significant launch day difficulties, D3 still exceeded expectations. 

Stories like this always bring out the console "trolls" who will bring up the sales numbers of the latest Call of Duty game and put down PC gaming, but it is an apples to oranges comparison.  Buying a $300 PS3 or Xbox 360 is far different from dropping much more on a gaming level PC.  And frankly gaming consoles are in danger of becoming an endangered species as cheaper and more efficient computers are able to handle gaming tasks, much how smartphones are absolutely killing portable gaming devices.  But that is a whole different topic for another day.  Suffice to say that Blizzard remains the closest thing to a "sure bet" in the gaming arena today.

The Elder Scrolls Online Details Emerge

 I vividly recall after Skyrim came out how many people on various gaming review sites and blogs said, "Wow if only this game were an MMO!"  Well recently we got news that in fact an MMO based in the Elder Scrolls universe was on the way and is due to launch sometime late next year.  So far there have been a few specifics.  The game will feature three factions, which will be a boon to PvP players I believe.  And more recently we got news that the game's primary story will be 100% solo.  This would seem to follow the recent trend of games emphasizing a personal story (Star Wars: The Old Republic and to a lesser degree The Secret World.)  It leaves me wondering if Bethesda will learn any of the lessons that Bioware is painfully learning now.  Namely that a story does not an MMO make.

Keen and Azuriel both engaged this topic during the past week with Keen arguing that MMO's should not be made into single-player games and Azuriel making the counterpoint that this is actually a positive development for the MMO genre.  I will leave you to make your own judgements about who is more persuasive.  For me, SW:TOR felt "soulless," but it wasn't because of the quality of the story.  It was the lack of quality in the actual gameplay elements.  If that story had a stronger game behind it, I would have enjoyed it much more.  We will see next year whether The Elder Scrolls Online can combine a great game with a great story and make a great MMO.

25 May 2012

In the End... There Can be Only One?

Politics is a hobby of mine.  Don't worry, this is NOT going to be a political post.  I prefer to keep my recreation free of topics that tend to make people want to kill each other.  No this post, and this blog, will remain about MMO's and gaming in general but this post is inspired by an observation I have made about the political world as applied to the MMO community.  If you are interested in the broader political and social implications, feel free to let me know in the comments and I can reply privately.  But I very much want to keep the public discussion related to MMO's and gaming.  It comes down to something that I find sorely lacking in politics today... compromise.

If Everyone Gets a Little of What They Want...

Once upon a time, in a world where common sense actually was common, there was the concept of compromise.  In this world, I don't get everything I want, you don't get everything you want, but we both get a little of what we want, and at the end of the day we both can walk away satisfied.  But it would seem that this "world" no longer exists.  Today compromise has become synonymous with defeat.  Victory must be complete and absolute or it is the same as losing.  Giving up even the tiniest little bit is unacceptable.  Unconditional surrender of your opponents is the goal and nothing else will do.  Again I don't want to make this about politics by listing examples.  I'm sure you can think of examples off the top of your head without too much difficulty.  This pretty much describes the political landscape of the United States today.  Scorched earth.  Victory at all costs.  How does this relate to MMO's?

... Everyone is a Loser?

Just as our political leaders are unwilling and unable to adjust their points of view, incorporate the needs of others, and craft solutions that meet the needs of the largest number of people... so too have MMO enthusiasts become unable to see "past their own fence" in a sense.  I read a lot of gaming blogs.  I visit a lot of gaming websites.  I lurk on a lot of gaming forums.  And you know the one thing I almost never see?  A comment like this:

"Well, I don't really like Game X but I see that you really do.  I'm glad you enjoy it but I think Game Y is better and would rather play that." 

I know, sounds trite doesn't it?  What do you see instead? 

"omg u noob... Game X is trash.  Game Y is the shit and 10x better.  I hope every looser who plays Game X dies in a fire." 

It is no longer enough that one's game of choice be perceived as superior.  No, as with the political analogy, the "victory" must be absolute.  Not only does your game have to be better, other games and their fans must suffer total defeat.  The game must be a failure.  Its fans must be seen as foolish, ignorant fanbois.  Just look at the parade of "WoW killers" that we have been subjected to over the course of the past seven years.  Even the term itself implies a victory or defeat scenario.  And how many of those games could have been successful on their own if it were not for the "competition" with World of Warcraft?  Was Lord of the Rings Online really that bad?  How about RIFTAge of Conan?  All perfectly serviceable games.  Perfect games?  Certainly not, but not the "failures" they were consigned to be after they failed to topple the WoW juggernaut.  Or so goes the conventional wisdom.

How does this "tribalism" benefit the MMO community in general?  Is it better for MMO's that only one game is successful and the rest fail?  Ok, WoW fans could argue that the success of that game has opened the MMO genre to vast number of potential customers.  I won't disagree with that.  But does labeling every other MMO a failure do us any favors?  I would say certainly not.  I would say that every failure chips away at whatever success WoW and other "mainstream" MMO's have brought to the genre.  Every game labeled a failure makes it that much harder to make the next game and so ultimately we are left with fewer games, fewer choices, and less innovation.  I believe this is bad for everybody whether you yourself are a fan of a successful game or not.

Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with being a fan of a particular game, and there is nothing wrong with being critical of a game.  But if we claim to be fans of gaming, I think a line has to be drawn somewhere.  I think a sort of compromise needs to be made.  I think there needs to be an acknowledgement that the more games in total that are successful, the more it benefits fans of every game.  Tearing down a particular game and its fans does no one any favors.  So by all means, have constructive debates about whether Call of Duty is better than Battlefield, or whether TERA is better than Star Wars: The Old Republic, but don't try and wish Trion Worlds would go bankrupt just so you can say that The Secret World is better than RIFT

On that note, our best wishes to the former employees of 38 Studios.  Here's to hoping you guys catch on somewhere quickly, and perhaps Project Copernicus can still come to fruition elsewhere.  This is a perfect example of what I was talking about.  These guys going out of business helps no one, and potentially robs us of an MMO set in a fascinating world that we will never get to explore.  There is no winner here.

24 May 2012

My Kingdom for a World... like Warcraft?

This post may shock you.  I am going to do something that seems impossible amongst MMO blogs today.  Ok, not impossible but certainly rare.  I'm going to say nice things... about World of Warcraft.  I know, I know... pick you jaw up off the floor.  Nothing seems to be more en vogue these days than to bash the "king," and I've certainly been just as guilty of it as anyone.  Of course if Blizzard wouldn't make it so easy to mock some of these recent decisions, maybe we wouldn't have so much to complain about.  But something occurred to me last night, and as is the case with many of the topics for my blog posts, I got up this morning inspired to say a little something about a game that while I do not miss, has something going for it that most of its players don't even realize.

What is a "World?"

What do we look for in an MMO?  It's a basic question and the answer is different for everyone.  I'm not going to run through the Bartle archetypes in this post, but if you haven't taken the test yourself I would highly recommend it.  The results can be fascinating.  My answer to that question is not found specifically amongst those archetypes and has more to do with the structure of the virtual world that the game is set in.  For me, a good MMO feels like an actual world.  It should feel like a real place and include many of the things that one would find in a real place, albeit on a much smaller scale.  It cannot be just a series of "playgrounds" full of monsters to kill and loot to obtain.  Much of my enjoyment of a game comes from feeling like I am part of this place that my character is inhabiting.  And nothing ruins that sense of being part of a world more than this...

I'm "picking" on Star Wars: The Old Republic here because it is the most egregious example I've experienced recently of this phenomenon.  For all it's varied planets, space stations, and other locales... SW:TOR barely even feels like an MMO to me because you are utterly bombarded with loading screens, instanced areas, and other "partitions" that separate you from other players and the game world at large.  And yes, I understand that the space setting requires a bit more of this as the game does not take place on a single world like WoW or RIFT or TERA.  But when it takes three loading screens just to get from your space ship to the planet you just landed on, it really kills any sense of scope that the game may possess.  Every game I have played recently has this problem to one degree or another.  SW:TOR is the worst offender, but TERA, RIFT, and The Secret World are all guilty of it as well to varying degrees.  You never feel like you are in the world.  The constant use of loading screens and instances just reinforces the feeling of separation... of "smallness."  RIFT probably does the best at making its world feel continuous, but its problem is simply that Telara itself is too small.

The WORLD of Warcraft

So I said this was going to be a post with good things to say about WoW, well this is it.  Of all the MMO's I have played, no game has done a better job of creating a single, seamless world that feels large and lived in than WoW.  Aside from the way it handles Outland and Northrend (which I will admit is still a bit wonky) WoW's game world is continuous, open, and varied.  You can walk from one end of a continent to the other, never experience a loading screen, and find all sorts of random farmhouses, caves, towns, and outposts to explore.  It hits all the right "notes" for me in terms of what an MMO world should feel like.  I should not be exposed to a loading screen just for walking ten feet across some imaginary line.  I should feel like the world is "lived in" and not just a playground for monsters that need killing and boar tusks that need collecting.  In short, Azeroth feels like a real place.

What I find so ironic about this is that this is the "feature" of WoW that gets the least attention and is probably appreciated the least by its players.  It is sad and unfortunate.  Blizzard and the WoW developers pour so much effort into creating raids, PvP, and other endgame features.  They have turned the game into essentially nothing more than a "lobby" where players sit around their capital cities waiting for their raid/dungeon/PvP queue to come up so they can do "real content," when there is plenty of real content all around them.  There is such a rich and varied world in Azeroth to explore, even more so since the Cataclysm expansion completely revised the game world.  I remain confused as to why Blizzard put so much effort into crafting that world when they really don't encourage people to use it.  They just push people to "endgame" and then herd them into queues like standing in line at Disneyland.  "Step right over here kids, experience the Dragon Soul ride!" And yes I understand that is the underlying premise of any "themepark" style MMO, but WoW has really gone off the rails a bit in this sense.

So for those of you that are still WoW players, next time you log in, do yourselves a favor... take a minute to appreciate the world around you.  It really is a pretty good one.  Don't just hit that LFD button and squat by the AH in Stormwind waiting for it to pop.  Go see something.  Heck even after all this time, you might still find something you had never noticed before.

22 May 2012

My "Secret" Journey: Prologue Part 1

As I did with my characters in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I am attempting to create a role-play identity for my character in The Secret World.  The main difference is that TSW doesn't encourage alt-ing the way SW:TOR did so essentially this is likely to be a single story about a single character.  I am looking forward to the somewhat unique "challenge" of role-playing a character in what is essentially our present modern world.  It is almost an alter ego of sorts.  Also I will be looking for a role-play oriented cabal (TSW's term for guilds) in the Templar faction.  TSW doesn't have the "pre-launch" guilding system that SW:TOR did so I'm hoping to find a cabal before launch, or shortly thereafter.  As I have mentioned before, I am a lifetime subscriber to this game, so anyone who picks me up is getting someone fully invested in the long haul.  I know stability is an important factor, especially to role-play groups as they tend to be more "tight knit" by definition.  

So by way of introduction, here is the back story for my main character and how she came to be aware of "The Secret World."  My goal is to work up week by week to her eventual awakening into "The Secret World" on the week of its release.  So there should be three or four parts to this prologue, depending on whether or not I get this one completed this week.  I'll tag these under "Project Xintia" so you can jump between them quickly if you enjoy the story and want to follow them.  Without further ado, the trip from the mundane to the extraordinary begins...

 The Bliss of Ignorance?

"Come on Zee, it'll be fun!  You don't have to work so hard at being so boring ALL the time."

Medina Zhon looked up briefly from the book she had been reading and leveled her jade eyes at her reluctant "study" companion across the table.  Samantha Davidson was her closest friend on campus, and for the most part she meant well, but rarely had her mind on her classwork.  Medina sighed and once again asked herself why she bothered to organize these study groups when all her classmates seemed to be concerned with is where the next party is.  Life in a small college town wasn't always that exciting, and Moscow, Idaho didn't exactly rank among the most bustling cities in the world.  But sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for...

"Well I don't know Sam," she replied, knowing that her friend hated the masculine diminutive just as much as Medina hated being called Zee, "You could work a little harder at cramming for this exam BEFORE you start planning your summer vacation." 

She caught Samantha's scowl before returning to her book.  No one would mistake Medina for a social flower.  For her, her studies always came first.  It was a lonely life but she had come to accept it over the years.  It was "safer" this way, life was simple.  Graduate work in political science at the University of Idaho wasn't exactly the most exciting concept in the world, but it was Medina's cup of tea.  She wanted to understand how the world around her worked.  How little she actually knew about that world...

"But it's already paid for!" Samantha cried, once again interrupting, "Two weeks in a London flat, tours of all that dusty 'cultural' stuff you love, even horseback riding.  We'll even go kiss the Blarney Stone if you want.  Just come... please!" 

Medina closed her eyes and set down her book.  She knew Samantha wouldn't let this go until she agreed.  And it was a good opportunity, she decided.  What better place to study the origins of American government than in the country that inspired its birth?  She grinned wryly and ran her fingers through her scarlet trusses.  Maybe a little vacation would help.  Her thesis would still be waiting for her when she got back, and who knows, maybe she would uncover something in London that would put her work over the top.  Medina laughed softly to herself and opened her eyes.  Yeah, like anything that lucky would ever happen to me, she thought.  Samantha looked at her strangely, "Earth to Medina, come in Medina... you in or not?"

"I'm in, I'm in," Medina said quickly, "but on one condition."

"Name it," Samantha replied immediately.

"That you shut up about it for tonight and help me finish this study session!"  Samantha frowned, nodded, and dug her book out of her bag.

"Fine, tonight the Constitution, but tomorrow... London calling!"  Medina smiled and reopened her book.  Finally, this study group might accomplish something after all...

That night Medina could hardly sleep.  For some reason she found the concept of this London vacation more fascinating the longer she considered it.  She had never left the country before.  Heck it was hard enough to convince herself to leave the familiar confines of Southern California and move to a place as different as rural Idaho to pursue her studies.  For Medina, life had always been about the "slow and steady" and the "safe and secure."  Don't rock the boat, don't take risks, don't draw attention to yourself.  She should have been high school valedictorian, but she avoided the honors classes that would have boosted her GPA.  She should have had most of her college paid for, but didn't even apply for scholarships.  The fear of rejection was more burdensome to her than student loan debt.  She should have been someplace like UCLA or Stanford, but again didn't even try.  No, Medina's life was the definition of always taking the "safe road." 

It's just a vacation, she said to herself.  Good grief, most people wouldn't even blink at the chance to do something like this.  What in the world is wrong with me?  It's not like I'm going to Afghanistan or something.  It's just London for crying out loud.  She sighed and rolled over again in her bed, trying to relax.  When a trip to one of the most civilized cities in the world still strikes you as "risky," that says quite a bit about your personality.  Maybe this is the start of something new, Medina thought.  Maybe I can finally get over myself.  And with that, she finally drifted off to sleep...

21 May 2012

The Myth of Bioware

As I prepared this post I reflected on the irony that for once it is probably a good thing that I don't have a whole lot of readers yet.  While I never go out of my way to coddle "fanbois," this post is a rather telling rebuke of one of the more popular developers in the gaming industry today.  So in a sense, maybe it's good that a whole lot of potential Bioware defenders won't see it.  On the other hand, maybe it will get their attention and they will gather the torches and pitchforks to storm my virtual castle.  Maybe that was my evil plan all along............... but I digress.  Let's get into how my viewpoint of Bioware changed.

Once Upon an Old Republic...

First off, let me briefly set the stage of my personal experiences with Bioware as to give you some context for how I came to see them the way I do.  I did not play the Baldur's Gate series and only briefly dabbled in Neverwinter Nights, so my first real experience with a Bioware game was the 2003 game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  I loved the game, loved the storytelling... heck when the sequel came out I rented it for my Xbox (remember when you could still do that?) and beat it in a single weekend.  One fact I overlooked at the time, but is important to the overall conclusion I have come to, is that both KotOR and its sequel used a version of the Dungeons and Dragons combat system.  It was not something Bioware themselves developed.  File that away for later.

Based solely on my enjoyment of the Knights games, I purchased Bioware's next major venture, Jade Empire.  This Asian themed RPG was an entirely original Bioware creation.  It was an original IP and didn't borrow from another game's combat engine.  That said, I enjoyed this game far less than either of the Knights games.  The story was... ok, interesting enough but the morality system was lukewarm at best.  But the worst part was the combat.  Every fight felt the same as the last and you could easily just "spam" one or two abilities to win pretty much every fight.  Granted Knights was pretty easily exploitable too, but again in retrospect, it shows Bioware's lack of aptitude in designing actual gameplay elements.

The Mass Effect of a Dragon Age

Fast forward to Bioware's other two original properties.  Mass Effect was a game and a series that I very much wanted to enjoy.  I am a sci-fi junky at heart and if given a choice, would always prefer that setting to the traditional high fantasy type that we get constantly bombarded with.  Like the Knights series, I enjoyed the heck out of Mass Effect at first.  I found the story very compelling, and while the morality system was easily the weakest link, the romantic subplots more than made up for that.  Yeah, yeah... I hooked up with Liara, so sue me.  But by the time I got to the end of ME2, the series had lost a lot of its luster for me.  I played it almost entirely for the storyline.  The game itself was almost an afterthought.  Why?  Because when you take away the story, the ME series is really nothing more than a very basic squad cover shooter with some RPG elements tacked on.  More and more I began to view combat as an "obstacle" between story elements, not something to be enjoyed in its own right.

This became even more obvious when I purchased Dragon Age.  Once again I highly enjoyed the story, and once again I found the game so tedious to play that I could barely make myself push the story forward.  Every battle felt like a chore, and every dungeon seemed to drag more monotonously than the one before it.  It got to the point where I gave up playing it for several months before I finally forced myself to pick it back up.  And on a side note, I found the ending of this one particularly unsatisfying.  I kept expecting some big plot twist that never materialized.  It was just a fairly standard political machination in the end.  But perhaps my sights were simply set too high because of Bioware's other story driven successes.  Are you picking up on the pattern?

The Grand ExperiMMOent

So finally we have a chance to see Bioware's genius applied to the MMO realm.  Much was made about the potential of Star Wars: The Old Republic.  I was one of the many who had high hopes about this game and what it could mean for the genre.  Could an MMO be successful with such a heavy emphasis on story telling?  This post is not going to address that question per say.  I am more concerned here with what the game said about Bioware.  In typical Bioware fashion, the storytelling was spot on, but the game itself lacked any kind of fun.  SW:TOR was the culmination of everything I had experienced about Bioware games up to now, but never had considered as a single overriding theme.  But after my disappointment with SW:TOR, the realization hit me like a ton of orcs.

Bioware is fabulous at telling stories but they are terrible at designing games.

You can go all the way back to the beginning of my little "list" and see the pattern.

KotOR:  Fantastic story, "borrowed" combat engine, mediocre gameplay.
Jade Empire:  Serviceable story, original combat engine, utterly boring gameplay.
Mass Effect:  Wonderful story, cover shooter with RPG elements, mediocre gameplay.
Dragon Age:  Tolerable story, original combat engine, totally frustrating gameplay.
SW:TOR:  Great story, standard "hotbar" combat engine, unsatisfying gameplay.

In all the time I have been playing Bioware games, I can honestly say there was never a point where I felt like I was playing a great game.  Was I participating in a great "interactive movie?"  Yes, absolutely.  And there is nothing really wrong with that... if that is all you want.  In fact there is an entire genre of digital entertainment developing around this concept.  Games like Indigo Prophecy and Black Rain are already showing the way.  And honestly LA Noire would have been a much better game if it had gone that route as well and ditched the "action" segments.  So it is not to say that Bioware is a failure as a developer, I just think their reputation for making great games is inaccurate.

I suppose all in all, this post isn't so much a critique of Bioware so much as an examination of our interests as gamers.  Companies only develop what we will consume.  What do we want more out of our digital entertainment?  Do we want to be told a story?  Or do we want an experience more enjoyable for how we directly participate in it?  Is it possible to have both a great story and a great game.  Many of you will argue that Bioware already does this, and from your own points of view you may be correct.  But for me, Bioware falls far short on the "fun" factor in its games. 

20 May 2012

This Just In: Zombie Apocalypse Edition

Ok so this post doesn't really have anything to do with zombies, I just thought it was appropriate since I'm "coming back from the dead" in a sense.  Just as a refresher, this is where I grab links from around the web and talk about some of the big news in the MMO/gaming industry.  Usually I limit it to a "top three" and that's what I'll be doing this morning.  And as always, if you disagree with my choices or feel like I left out a really important story, let me know in the comments.  And away we... braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaains... go!

38 Studios Takes a #2 on Taxpayers?

This story on 38 Studios both surprised and disappointed me.  I knew Kingdoms of Amalur wasn't a huge runaway hit, but I also thought it did fairly well.  And on top of that, I had recently picked up the game myself as a way to pass the time until The Secret World launches next month.  So far I've found it to be highly enjoyable.  The combat is fun and frantic.  The story is... ok.  It's not spectacular but it is above average.  The side quests and crafting aspects are somewhat below par, but overall it is a very solid first venture for a new company and a new IP.  So I was very disappointed to see how much financial difficulty the studio is in and how that jeopardizes their upcoming MMO based in the Amalur setting, Project Copernicus.

This follow up story seemed to put any immediate concerns to rest, although it is odd to have a politician talking MMO launch dates.  But it would seem that 38 Studios is going forward with Copernicus with an eye on a mid-2013 launch.  I hope it does work out for them.  I'm not a fan of public funding for private ventures in general, and I certainly don't want to turn this into a political debate.  But I am enjoying my time in Amalur and I feel like it is a setting ripe for further exploration in the form of a full-fledged MMO.  I think the IP has a lot of potential and I would hate to see that squandered.  So here's to hoping that 38 Studios can find their "rally caps" and pull themselves together.

Diablo 3 Launch... Error Code Madness

There have been dozens of stories regarding the problems Diablo 3 has had this week regarding its launch, just Google it and you'll get more than you could ask for.  In way of general response my first thought was, if all companies how could Blizzard be unprepared for the volume of players and server loads at launch?  They knew what the pre-order numbers were.  They could estimate the launch day shelf sales.  They are the company that already runs the biggest MMO on the planet.  How could they not know what to expect?  But apparently all the preparation in the world was not enough as potential D3 players suffered through various disconnects, server crashes, and a plethora of error codes.

But the aspect of this story I want to focus on is summed up by this article from 1-UPD3 is essentially a single-player game.  The auction house (real money or otherwise) and multi-player aspects are strictly optional.  You can play this game without ever interacting with another person ever.  Gee... sort of like Star Wars: The Old Republic (zing!)  But despite that fact, you cannot play D3 without being connected to the Internet.  And this isn't just a one time thing to verify a product key.  No, you always have to be connected in order to play D3 at all.  This is potential problem for several reasons.  Along with the inevitable concerns of "ownership" issues and other "digital rights management" concepts, sometimes you just want to be alone and blast stuff.  Rohan somewhat alludes to this issue in a recent post.  Is gaming alone a dying concept?  In our obsession with social media, leaderboards, and achievements, have we given up the solitude of escaping into some game and just blowing steam?  Let me know how you feel.

The Secret World Gets a Little Less Secret

I would be remiss in my fanboi'ism if I did not comment further on The Secret World and its beta weekend progress.  Ok really, I try not to be overly biased so if I start to come across that way, please give me a virtual e-slap.  But I have been excited to finally get my hands on the game and see how my lifetime subscription investment is going to pay off.  So far, I am impressed.  No game is without it's "warts," and TSW is no different in this regard.  But so far I see a lot more to like than dislike.  If you haven't taken the time to check out the beta yet, I would encourage you to pick up a key and give it a shot.  And I don't just say that because I am an advocate of the game.  If you are a fan of MMO's, it is worth a try to see if it is something you like.  It does stray from the Everquest/World of Warcraft themepark model in ways that will not be everyone's cup of tea.  So hopping in for a beta weekend is an easy "no risk" method of finding out if it will appeal to you.

Tomorrow, tell all your Bioware fanboi friends to get ready to storm my virtual castle.  It's a critical look at everyone's favorite virtual storytellers.  Don't miss it!

17 May 2012

Back from the Dead!

So when I started this blog, I promised you all that I wouldn't bore or burden you with events from my real life.  This blog is about MMO's and I intend to keep it about MMO's.  So I will only explain my extended absence with a single sentence.  Suffice to say that my real life prevented any kind of substantive blogging for the past month or so.  All is well though and I am happy to get back to running my mouth about all things MMO and hopefully you all will be happy to be reading it again.  I am not going to rehash month old stories as by this point I'm sure you have read a hundred different opinions on them by now.  But to get back into the swing of things, I thought I would give some "quick hit" comments on some things that were of note to me over the past month.

Star Wars: The Old Republic Subscription Numbers

I've made no secret of the fact that SW:TOR was a disappointment to me, so bear that in mind as I opine.  While I do not "fear" for the long term future of this game, I believe it will not be nearly as successful as MMO enthusiasts (and EA/Bioware) wanted it to be.  It is a wonderful single-player interactive story.  But as an MMO, it just completely fails.  The 1.2 patch was a step in the right direction, but this game needs a LOT of work to be a better MMO.  The game mechanics themselves are a classic example of why World of Warcraft remains the king of MMO's.  You can't out-Blizzard Blizzard, and that's what Bioware tried to do.  Why play SW:TOR when if you want that style of play, WoW does it better in almost every conceivable fashion?  Its only saving grace is the individual character stories, which as I have commented before, are not enough of a hook when you have to redo all the same planetary arcs and side quests in order to experience a new class story.  So I think SW:TOR will "stabilize" in the one million subs range, but have a high degree of turnover.  People will come, play a story or two, then leave, and new players will take their place.  Building a long-term, stable community is going to be difficult.

On that note, I am preparing my next extended post on the topic of Bioware.  Between SW:TOR and Mass Effect 3, I have come to some realizations about the company that I would like to share with you and get your opinion on.  So look for that probably early next week.

The Guild Wars 2 Freight Train to Disappointment

This is another issue I've commented on in the past, but now that ArenaNet is ramping up the GW2 hype with their beta weekends and stress tests, I'm seeing it all over again.  So consider this yet another plea to the GW2 fanbois... please temper your expectations.  While I have every confidence that GW2 is going to be a fine game and a worthy addition to the MMO marketplace, I also have every confidence that it is NOT going to be the "messiah" that saves MMO's from the "cookie cutter WoW clones" that its ardent supporters are convinced that it will be.  Every game has its supporters and every game has its detractors, but GW2 seems almost unique in this regard.  Its supporters are utterly convinced that this will be the greatest MMO of all time and completely change the genre.  People have said the same thing about every major MMO release all the way back to WoW.  The odds that this time it will actually happen are slim to none.  So please folks, do yourselves a favor and calm down.  The only thing you are doing is setting yourselves (and the game itself) up for major disappointment.  It could turn out to be a really great game, and I think it will be, but if it fails to meet those expectations, you could end up doing a lot more harm than good in the long term.

And on that note, I have another extended post in the works on a topic related to this.  Specifically, why fans of a particular game are so concerned that their game succeeds and your game fails.  It's not enough to be the winner, everyone else has to lose.

The Secret World Enters Beta Territory

If you are a reader of mine in the past (thank you!) you know that The Secret World is the MMO I've been looking forward to for this year.  I purchased the lifetime subscription option and am I strong supporter of the game.  That said, TSW finally opened its doors to large numbers of people this month by starting pseudo-open beta weekends.  They are technically "closed" in the sense that you need a key, but keys are so easy to get that pretty much anyone who wants in can get in.  The experience is limited currently to one faction and one questing zone.  So far it seems the majority of feedback is positive, with the usual assortments of gripes and concerns.  I will reserve more specific opinion for a later date, but I will say one thing specifically bothers me, and it goes back to Funcom's history.

While I did not play Age of Conan, from what I heard the starting area (Tortage) was highly polished and well constructed while the rest of the game was lackluster at best. The beta for AoC was limited to Tortage specifically so no one got to see the "disappointing" parts of the game.  Well... by limiting the TSW beta to an introductory area, Funcom is raising the "ghosts" of AoC in the minds of players.  Showing off a highly polished area when the rest of the game might be lacking is the classic "bait and switch."  Now I don't know what the rest of the game looks like.  It might be fantastic, it might be pathetic.  There is also still a month until release so future beta weekends might show more of the game.  But at this moment, it is troubling.  Funcom cannot afford "strike three" (AoC and Anarchy Online having two of the worst launches in MMO history.)  TSW must launch well to have any chance, especially with the subscription free GW2 looming.  So please Funcom, show us you are confident in your product.  Show us more than one highly polished zone.

Well that should get the ball rolling again.  I'd like to take a moment to thank any old readers coming back.  Thanks for keeping me on your reading list and coming back.  And thanks to any new readers picking me up for the first time.  I hope you like what you see and will be back.  I will be back this weekend with my news roundup, and as I said today, I have two major topics already lined up for next week that I'm looking forward to sharing with you.