29 February 2012

My SW:TOR "Exit Survey"

In most subscription based MMO's, when you decide to cancel, the developer/publisher will ask you to fill out some sort of "form" asking you to explain why you left, what you liked/didn't like, etc.  I have always tried to answer these honestly as I really do want to give good feedback, even if I am disgruntled with the game in question.  Simply "ranting" and telling them how much you hate the game doesn't help anybody... aside from the potentially gratifying emotional release.  So I was somewhat disappointed that when I finally went to the website for Star Wars: The Old Republic to hit that magic "Cancel" button, I was presented with only a single question about why I left the game.  I answered it in as much detail as I could, but I was really expecting a more robust form.  Well, not that any Bioware developers are likely to read my blog, but for my own sense of "closure," I'd like to elaborate a bit on my feelings about the game as I exit.

Things I Liked About SW:TOR

To avoid the impression that this is just a "rant," I'd like to start with the things that I liked about the game, because it did have some positives.  First and most obviously, the storytelling.  Bioware certainly lived up to its reputation here as I found the story driven quests (both the class quests and planetary arcs) entertaining and engaging.  Of course the level of quality did vary.  Some classes had extraordinary stories (Bounty Hunter, Imperial Agent, Jedi Consular) and others were less than stellar (Smuggler, Jedi Knight) but compared to what passes for narrative in the average MMO, even the less impressive class stories look good.  Similarly the planetary arcs had their stars (Hoth was one of my favorites) and duds (Taris, no level of nostalgia could save that pit of despair.)  Not everything about SW:TOR's questing was positive though.  More on that later.

Another aspect of the game I really enjoyed was the crafting system, and I am somewhat disappointed that I could not explore it further.  I found the concept of using companions to perform crafting tasks a refreshing take.  It effectively can eliminate the "stand around the forge" syndrome where you spend hours making the same copper sword over and over again to level.  Yeah you still make lots of redundant patterns, but since you aren't doing the actual work, you can continue to quest, PvP, run Flashpoints, etc. while your companions work.  Just make sure and either stock up on the required vendor components, or run the occasional mission to acquire them.  Otherwise you can end up stuck "at the forge" anyway.  Like with questing however, there is a downside here to discuss later as well.

The third thing I enjoyed about SW:TOR were the Flashpoints.  Yeah I didn't get to run them as often as I wanted, or access them as consistently as I would have liked, but all in all when I was able to do them, I found them very enjoyable.  "Tank and spank" bosses were kept to a minimum, even in the "leveling" Flashpoints.  Almost every fight had at least some mechanic that had to be dealt with in order to complete the encounter successfully.  I never found the "trash" to be excessive or time consuming, at least in the Flashpoints I was able to run.  And the rewards were generally pretty good.  Some items I got from Flashpoints ended up lasting me longer than I would have anticipated.

Things that Drove me Out of SW:TOR 


Ultimately there were two absolute "deal breakers" that made it all but impossible for me to enjoy the game and stay subscribed, despite its strengths.  The first is the user interfaceSW:TOR's UI is a complete joke.  I noted this all the way back in the beta weekends I was a part of, and I noted it in my initial "review" of the game.  I hoped simply that it was an oversight of sorts and that it would be addressed quickly.  Well some fixes are slowly making their way out, but it is far too little, far too late.  This UI would have been fine... for an MMO released in say, 2005.  But for 2011-2012?  Frankly it is an insult to modern MMO players.  No ability to move elements.  No ability to resize elements.  Try using the GTN (auction house) sometime, you'll want to kill a puppy.  Try comparing item mods on the GTN to ones in your current gear.  It's a joke.  A well functioning UI is just a basic "quality of life" feature, and SW:TOR utterly fails in this respect.

The other aspect of the game that drove me out was the combat itself.  I experienced SW:TOR's combat from several different perspectives and classes, and regardless of what I was playing, the combat always just felt... off to me.  Initially I thought it was because I was playing an underpowered and odd spec (a Sawbones Smuggler) but even after playing a pure DPS (Merc/BH) and a melee tank (Shadow/JC) the feeling of awkwardness never went away.  Combat never felt smooth.  It never felt responsive.  It never felt... fun.  Playing the game ended up feeling like a "chore," not something to be enjoyed.  Again I wish I could put a concrete term to this feeling, but this is really the best I can do to describe it.  And the total lack of "feedback" didn't help.  No combat log, no parsing, no nothing.  I'm not saying I needed something like Recount, but the game provides NO combat feedback whatsoever.  It's hard to know what you might be doing (right or wrong) without more information.

Things that Bothered me About SW:TOR

There were other issues with the game that bugged me, but that I could have overlooked if it were not for the big issues I just mentioned.  The pace of questing was a bit too grindy for my liking.  Yes Bioware tries to disguise it with the heavy storytelling, but the fact is that the story line quests (both class and planet arcs) are not enough on their own to keep you on the proper "curve" to advance from zone to zone and planet to planet.  If you don't stop and do side quests, bonus quests, space missions, or some other activity for additional XP, you will eventually find yourself unable to advance the primary story chains.  For a game that emphasizes its story, this is somewhat annoying, but not a "deal breaker."  I could easily have dealt with this issue... if killing fifty extra mobs for a bonus quest was actually fun.  The problem is that it wasn't.

Another thing that bothered me is that as interesting as the crafting system is, its usefulness comes to a screeching halt when you reach the level cap.  Aside from Biochem and (maybe) Cybertech, none of the production crafts offer anything comparable to gear obtained through endgame content (Hardmode Flashpoints and Operations.)  So yes, you can reverse engineer tons of items to get Prototype and Artifact level patterns, but all that work will still result in items that are inferior to ones easily obtained from a single Flashpoint run or Op.  To be fair, almost every MMO I have played has had this problem to one degree or another.  In World of Warcraft, crafting is generally a waste of time after the second raid tier of the expansion comes out.  And in RIFT, crafted gear was pretty much junk when I left, not to mention the random factor of actually obtaining the relevant patterns.  So again, I could overlook this one... if I could have accessed FP's and Op's consistently.  The problem was that I couldn't.

What Would Bring me Back to SW:TOR

Right now I can think of two things that would entice me to return at a later date.  The first would be significant UI improvements.  Let me resize things, move things around, and improve the overall functionality.  Having to fight through things just to accomplish basic tasks like comparing items really takes the enjoyment out of a game.  And I'm not even asking for things like macros or addons.  Sure some basic macros would be nice for things like activating relics or some cooldowns, but just give me a flexible UI that works.  Bioware really dropped the ball on this one, and given the amount of development time that the game had, it tells me it simply wasn't a priority for them.  I was not the only one complaining about the UI, even during beta.  They had to know it was a problem.

The other thing I would need to see in order to come back would be some form of grouping tool.  I know this is a "hot button" topic among MMO players, and I have had my own very strong feelings on the issue.  But for a game like SW:TOR, it simply has to have some kind of system to get people into groups.  We can debate things like "community" and "responsibility" and those are discussions worth having, but ultimately it does not change the fact that a "themepark MMO" in 2012 needs this functionality.  Whether that is a good development for MMO's in general is suspect, but it is a fact none the less, doubly so for a game like SW:TOR that essentially encourages its players to play the game alone.  You can't "train" your players to go through the game alone, and then suddenly expect them to act "social" and form groups on their own.  You can't have your cake and eat it too.  If you train them to play alone, then you have to give them tools to expedite the grouping process.



So there you go.  If Bioware had used a more extended form, I would have been glad to give them all that information directly.  But as it is, it gives me a sense of "closure" and I can move on to other things... like a somewhat "rude awakening" when I logged back in to RIFT.  More on that later this week!

28 February 2012

Fighting the Inevitable?

So I find myself back in the position of "transitional player" as I leave one major MMO and return to another one, but at the same time I have my eye on yet another game in the near future.  In evaluating my enthusiasm and interest in these games, I find myself wondering if I myself have changed as a player.  You have heard me talk before about how I prefer to be a "single game player."  I was for many years as a player in World of Warcraft.  But ever since leaving that game I have found myself utterly transient.  You have also heard me talk about how maybe the "era" of loyalty to a single game is over.  With the MMO marketplace becoming increasingly crowded with high quality games, a certain degree of "drift" is almost inevitable as players move from one game to the next.  So is my preference to play only a single game a thing of the past?  Am I just fighting the inevitable?  Would I be happier if I just embraced it and thought of myself as a more transient player?  I think so.

Part of this is obviously driven by industry trends, but part of it is personal as well.  When I was a WoW player, my real life circumstances permitted me the luxury of a significant amount of play time.  It was easy to set aside large blocks of time for organized activities.  Raiding was well within my means, even at a relatively high level.  I was never in a "server/world first" type guild as I am not that cutthroat of a personality, but many accomplishments were well within my reach.  In recent years this is no longer the case.  Changes in my work status and family circumstances render those large blocks of play time impossible to achieve.  So perhaps it makes sense to "bounce" from game to game seeing all the things that I am able to see on a casual basis, rather than dive 100% into a single game and attempt to keep myself on the "cutting edge."

So I'm taking a new approach to my MMO subscriptions and spending habits.  For one thing, I will not be using credit cards anymore to pay for MMO game time.  It is too easy for those fees to become "out of sight, out of mind," as they simply recur even though you quit the game months ago.  Instead I will stick to time cards or other "single use" methods to pay for game fees so as to avoid any potential recurring charges.  Now I already know this will not be a problem for some of the games I will be playing.  RIFT offers time cards, as does Star Wars: The Old Republic.  A snag may emerge with The Secret World however.  Funcom has yet to release any information about purchasing the game, subscription fees, or time cards.  Although one would imagine they will have the usual versions and fees, a little confirmation would be nice.  I have been looking to pre-order this one for a while now.

Right now my SW:TOR time will expire at the end of March, and as I said previously I have already decided not to renew.  I removed my credit card information from that account.  I also have purchased a RIFT time card and will be returning to Telara shortly.  Today I could barely convince myself to do some SW:TOR space missions.  That game lost its luster so fast.  I'll be posting my own version of an "exit survey" for SW:TOR a bit later in the week.  So sixty days of RIFT time will take me to the beginning of May.  At that point I will either buy another RIFT time card, or if anything really interesting has happened in SW:TOR, I will buy a time card for that and see what has changed.  A remote third possibility would be to give TERA a try, but the cost involved in that is discouraging to a short term time investment.  In any case, I will be devoting my time to TSW when it launches in mid-June.

What that means for the blog will hopefully be positive in the long run.  Instead of a high volume of posts on a single game, I can offer a more varied perspective on several at once, which I hope will be more interesting and engaging for my readers.  Hearing the same song can get tiring after a while, even if it is a good one.

26 February 2012

This Just In: Conspiracy Edition!

Well I hope everyone is having an excellent weekend.  It's time once again to look back on some of the news stories from the week.  It was a pretty busy week in the MMO world, and I already had one news post on Wednesday, but as the old sales pitch goes, wait there's more!  So let's see what else has been happening in our massively multiplayer world.

The Secret World is Coming!

Friday marked the drop on the press embargo for the latest set of media impressions of the game.  A bunch of gaming press were invited to Montreal to get their impressions of The Secret World and they are now able to write about what they experienced.  So I'm just going to link all the reviews I was able to find and you are welcome to peruse them at your leisure:

Massively
Computer and Video Games
MMORPG.com
ZAM.com
PC Gamer #1
PC Gamer #2
IGN.com
GameSpy
Rock, Paper, Shotgun
Destructoid
Escapist Magazine

I'm sure there are even more, but that should be more than enough to get you started.  I'm putting together a comprehensive commentary on all these previews so I'll keep my comments here brief.  There are really two things that I can say about TSW based on these new impressions.  1)  This is a game for MMO veterans in all the ways that Star Wars: The Old Republic was not.  It may not please the "sandbox" fanboys or the hardcore PvPers, but TSW appeals to a lot of "old school" MMO conventions.  But because of that... 2)  TSW is not going to be a huge commercial success.  I believe it is going to attract a very dedicated and passionate following, but that number is not going to be large.  I only hope it is enough to satisfy its backers and keep the game running, because I think it has a lot of promise.

Blizzard says NOT to get too Excited for Diablo 3

Ok I'm not sure if this qualifies as "big story" or not, but I found it so amusing that I had to include it.  So Bashiok, one of the CM's over at Blizzard comments that players need to "lower their expectations" of Diablo 3.  It is admittedly a very odd thing for a company to say.  "Hey, please don't care too much about our product!"  Reactions from gamers ranged from "He's obviously kidding," to, "See, Diablo 3 is going to suck.  Even Blizz admits it!"  My own thoughts were along the lines that this is just an overstressed and overworked moderator who's getting tired of all the negativity and naysaying directed his way.  Does he think the game is bad?  Of course not.  But when you deal with ungrateful and ignorant people all day, it can become tiresome.

Well Blizzard obviously thought this was something worth a formal reply and so D3 Director Jay Wilson offered an official reply to the community where he basically says, "Yeah Bashiok was obviously kidding, D3 will rock your socks!"  Now this is pretty much what you would expect a company to say, and makes the initial message seem all that more strange.  I stand by my guess though and figure Bashiok just got pulled into the corporate office and told to cut back on the coffee and Red Bull before he fires off more forum responses.

Beta Test Guild Wars 2, Save the World! 

This week ArenaNet threw open the gates for registrations for an upcoming beta test of Guild Wars 2.  Initially the sign up period was to last only 48 hours.  But after those two days, they came up just short of one million registrations.  So they decided to keep applications open until they hit it.  Well it didn't take long for those last few registrations to trickle in, and so GW2 officially has over one million players signed up for its beta.  Apparently the size of your beta is significant these days as SW:TOR hyped its beta participation several times during its well publicized weekend testing phases.

I am actually not one of those million sign ups.  I decided to take a pass on this one for two reasons.  The first is that since GW2 is not a subscription based game, I do not feel as compelled to "try before I buy."  I know that sounds a little silly considering I just lamented my $200 spent on SW:TOR.  But that's just it, I really will only be buying or playing GW2 if other options do not pan out, which leads directly to the second reason I did not sign up.  I am not that excited for this game, I'm just not.  I know most MMO bloggers and enthusiasts are expecting this game to "save" MMO's.  My response is just... "meh."  I don't see anything that exciting here, I just don't. 


Ok, should be a busy week for the blog.  Look for my farewell impressions of SW:TOR as I decide to leave that game behind.  And then I'll be discussing my return to RIFT in more detail, as I step back into a major game I left behind for the first time.  Finally as I mentioned above I am planning a comprehensive look at my thoughts on TSW.  Enjoy the rest of your weekend and please... keep reading, commenting, and spread the word!

24 February 2012

Trading Tatooine to Telara

Ahh it must be Friday and I must be bored... alliteration in a post title?  It was only a bit of a stretch.  In the process of spending way more money than I should have on some necessities, I picked up a RIFT time card yesterday.  I still had my physical disc from when I first bought the game (and people think those things don't come in handy anymore) and thanks to the RIFT Lite trial system, I was able to patch the client to the current version without having to enter the card code or formally reactivate my account yet.  So when I do decide to switch, I'll be ready to go without having to spend half the day downloading and patching... and downloading and patching... and... you get the idea.

When exactly I'm going to do that... I'm not entirely sure.  When logging in to Star Wars: The Old Republic becomes more of a chore than an escape, that's when.  I spent some time on Hoth tonight continuing to level my Jedi Consular.  I enjoy the story, but SW:TOR combat is like getting a root canal... slow and painful.  It just plain isn't my style.  I still wish I could put my finger on exactly what it is about the combat that is so frustrating to me, but it just is.  I keep "soldiering" on though, because I really do want to finish the Republic's side of the story.  I am especially curious to see what happens on Corellia considering how that planet played out for my Imperial character.

In the meantime, I'm doing a little catching up on what's happened in RIFT since I was there last.  Planar attunement (the RIFT version of alternate advancement) had just been introduced right before I quit, so I didn't have a chance to do much with that system.  Chronicles (the solo and duo instances) had also just been introduced.  I putzed around with those, but since I was solo at the time (and undergeared) I didn't even really have a chance to see much of those.  And then a whole new zone was added to the game called the Ember Isle.  I'm guessing this is going to be a level 50 playground with new daily quests and such, although I hope there is a story driven quest chain at least to go along with the dailies. 

The system of endgame dungeons has gone through a bit of a revision since I was in Telara last.  Originally the hardmode dungeons (called Expert in RIFT) were divided into two Tiers, with the second higher in difficulty than the first.  I always found this a bit of an odd arrangement.  Now there are still essentially two "levels" of dungeons, but they are defined a bit differently.  All the Experts have been combined into a single "Tier," and a new dungeon mode has been introduced called Master mode.  I'm not sure how this is functionally any different than two tiers of experts, but I guess we'll find out.  When I left the game, I had just gotten to the point where I had sufficient gear to attempt Experts.  I am curious to see if anybody still runs that content or if it has been entirely abandoned for Master modes and upper tier raids. 

I am also curious to discover the level of tolerance for obscure builds in the community.  I really enjoyed RIFT's class system the last time I played and I enjoyed using some rather odd soul combinations, especially on my Warrior.  My preferred tanking spec was a full Paladin build (51 points in the tree) which all the "theorycrafters" would call absurd (at least back then, maybe now it's powerful, who knows.)  And my preferred DPS spec was a full Champion build (the two-hander tree) as opposed to the more powerful dual wield specs.  My Mage experimented with all kinds of combinations from deep Warlock builds to Necro/Chloro hybrids.  I hope I can use these builds in group content without getting mocked and ridiculed.  They might not be the best, but I knew how to use them to get the job done, and they were fun to play.  And that's what games are about right?  Oh wait, we're talking about MMO's.  Fun isn't allowed here...

I don't have anything on tap for Saturday and Sunday I've got more news to talk about.  It was a busy week for news as you probably already know.  Then on Monday I'll probably either have more SW:TOR tales to relate, or talking about my first steps back into Telara.  This will really be the first time I've come back to an MMO that I quit previously.  I am curious to see how "new" it feels, or if it even feels new at all.  Either way it should be interesting!

23 February 2012

Inspiration and Disappointment

So I was looking for some inspiration for a new post this week, and I came across this post from Stabs explaining why he is leaving Star Wars: The Old Republic.  I had read similar posts from other bloggers such as Keen and Tobold, but this one struck me as particularly relevant as many of his observations are essentially the same as ones that I have made over the past couple of months.  Right off the bat with his very first sentence I could sympathize with where he is coming from.  He says he tried to log in one day and discovered that his sub had already expired, and he didn't really care.  I feel much the same these days.  I haven't logged into SW:TOR in the past three days... and the only sense in which it bothers me is that I still have game time that I already paid for.  I don't miss the game, I just feel like I'm wasting money.

Which is why I have come to the decision that I will not be renewing my SW:TOR subscription when it expires at the end of March.  I think Stabs hit it straight on the head when he says that SW:TOR is a good game and well designed for its target audience, but that "veteran MMO players" such as him and myself are not that audience.  This game wasn't made for us, and that's fine.  Not every game is going to be every person's cup of tea.  In the past I would have continued my subscription in the hopes that changes might be made, or that I would "adjust" to the kind of game that it is and increase my enjoyment of it.  But as I have commented before, my real life situation in terms of time and money does not allow me the luxury of spending money on "hope." 

As I still have a month of game time to use, there are still things in the game I would like to accomplish.  I have my Jedi Consular up to level 39 now and would like to complete the Republic's side of the in-game story.  With my level 50 Bounty Hunter, this will mean that I will have seen pretty much everything the game has to offer in terms of general storyline.  Once that is done I will pick one of my other alts and see if I can finish another class story.  I haven't decided which one to focus on but I am leaning towards the Imperial Agent.  From what I have read in other sources, the Agent story is one of the most engaging and rewarding, and as I have her spec'd for straight DPS, plowing through the single-player content should be a smooth exercise.  Up to now I've been playing a lot of tank/healer spec's with healing companions.  I spent some time on my Jedi Knight who is Sentinel/Combat with a DPS companion, and the difference in kill speed is just astounding.  Yeah I take a beating but stuff dies so fast that it just doesn't matter.

So with that decision made and The Secret World delayed until June, I am back in the position of needing something to "pass the time."  I could go back to putzing around with DC Universe Online or scope out the free-to-play conversions of Fallen Earth or Star Trek: Online, but right now I am leaning towards a return to RIFT.  In a case of "not seeing the forest because of the trees," I was overly critical of the game when I played it the first time, and perhaps that is because I knew I would be there only a short time.  I was done with WoW but waiting for SW:TOR.  And no, not everything about RIFT is perfect.  But it does a lot of things right, and more importantly, it does a lot of things right that are important to me.  The standard UI is probably the best in any MMO I've played.  The class system is flexible and fun to experiment with.  The combat is fun and engaging (perhaps my biggest problem with SW:TOR, I just cannot get into the combat.)  So at the risk of incurring the wrath of my significant other, I may ask them to allow me to commit some funds to returning to Telara until TSW is ready for prime time.

Another very remote possibility would be taking a peek at TERA.  As I said in my news post last Sunday, this game has attracted my interest in the last few weeks.  The problem with this is not only is it a subscription game, but I would be looking at an up front box cost as well.  It's one thing to say, "Hey, how about a $30 game card to play a couple months of RIFT?"  It is quite another to say, "Hey, how about $60 for a game I'm not even sure I'll like?"  And this is where I think things like WoW's trial accounts and the new RIFT Lite are genius.  If I could download the TERA client, putz around with it for a week or so, see what kind of game it is, they might score a sale from me.  But gamers such as myself cannot afford to make investments on "blind faith," or at least I certainly can't anymore.  That SW:TOR Collector's Edition purchase is looking pretty foolish right now as I decide to leave after only three months played.  I know RIFT is fun, plus there is new content that has been released since I last played.  So it is the "safest" option for something to do between now and June.

What that means for the blog is that my emphasis is likely to shift a little once again.  For the past couple months there has obviously been a lot of SW:TOR posting.  Well if I get "Significant Other Approval," there will be a lot of RIFT posting soon... which should be fun.  I wasn't playing RIFT when I started this blog initially and so I can go back and talk about some things that hopefully will be new to both myself and my readers.  And who knows, maybe Bioware will come out with some amazing announcement that will draw me back to SW:TOR someday.  If there is one thing I absolutely believe, it is that the days of being "slavishly devoted" to a single MMO are over.  Whether that is a good or a bad thing, time will tell.

22 February 2012

This Just In: Midweek Edition

Normally Sunday is the day for the news roundup, but this has been a busy week already in terms of significant stories in the MMO world.  So instead of waiting until the weekend and having to potentially choose between stories to talk about, I'm going to do a "special" midweek edition of the news to bring you up to date with the stories that have already come out. 

Three Bioware Developers Leave to Form Independent Studio

The first major story of the week comes from a galaxy far, far away as three developers from Bioware are leaving the company to form a new independent studio and a new MMO project.  The three developers in question were all deeply involved in Star Wars: The Old Republic and have already announced details of their new project, called Banner Saga.  On the surface this seems to be a fairly innocuous story.  After spending five years on a project, I can imagine these folks wanting to do something new.  As is always the case with high level departures, there are always whispers and conspiracy theories, but I wouldn't give them much credence in this case. 

One legitimate question to be asked however would have to do with continued development of SW:TOR itself and what impact these departures might have on the game going forward.  On that score I would suggest that EA/Bioware has enough staff and budget that any effect on the game will be minimal.  I can't dig up the quote/link right offhand, but I recall higher ups at Bioware saying they had content and concepts in the pipe for SW:TOR to carry into 2013.  So put away the tinfoil hats, and we'll just see what comes out of this new indy studio in the future.

The Secret World Gets a Launch Date

This one was big for me personally because as I said a few days ago, The Secret World is one of my most anticipated games comes out this year.  Well this week Funcom announced the official launch date for the game.  Last year they had targeted April 2012 as their desired launch window, but this announcement pushes that back to June 19th of this year.  While this is somewhat disappointing on a personal level as I now will have to wait two more months to play the game, I have no issue at all with their decision to push the date back.  As we talked about before the SW:TOR launch, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and this is a lesson Funcom should know all too well by now.

Their previous two major MMO launches, Anarchy Online and Age of Conan are regarded as two of the WORST launches in MMO history.  The last thing Funcom can afford is to get "strike three" with TSW.  In reading some of the responses to the launch date announcement, this past history is not forgotten by gamers and many are still skeptical of Funcom's ability to actually launch a game successfully.  So I say good for you, Funcom.  Take your time and do everything in your power to get this one right.  Not only because you failed in the past, but because the bar has been raised.  RIFT and SW:TOR in particular have significantly raised expectations for how the launch of a major MMO should proceed.  The launch of TSW needs to be in that same "ballpark" if they have any hopes of this game reaching that "sleeper hit" status that Funcom seems to be aiming for.

Guild Wars 2 Announces "Overflow Servers"

This story struck me as big because I haven't seen an MMO approach the issue of server loads and queues in this fashion before.  This week ArenaNet dropped a little blurb about how "overflow servers" will work.  Essentially if your native server is full and a queue is in place, you will be asked if you would like to temporarily play on a different server.  If you agree you can resume play immediately on that different server.  You are still in the queue on your native server and when you reach the "front of the line," you will be prompted that your server is available and whisked back to your "home." 

I find this a potentially fascinating bit of technology.  I will admit I have absolutely no clue have MMO servers work.  I never understood why Blizzard charged people to move around.  I simply assumed there was something technical going on that justified the cost.  Then Trion started letting people move around for free in RIFT.  And now essentially ArenaNet is saying they can move you around at will on a temporary basis to maintain a consistent gaming experience.  Maybe this is something new in terms of server technology and capabilities, or maybe ArenaNet just found a way to make it feasible from a cost/resource perspective.  In either case, this could be setting a new precedent in terms of convenience for MMO gamers, and if so, then at least Guild Wars 2 will have lived up to a small bit of its hype to "save" MMO's as we know it.

21 February 2012

SW:TOR: The MMO Jackalope

A while back I asked if Star Wars: The Old Republic really was an innovative title.  I talked about a couple of its features and linked some commentary from some other notable figures.  But my conclusion at the time was that while SW:TOR does try and do a few things different, it ultimately does not bring anything "new" to the table in terms of MMO's.  Fast forward a month later and I have completely changed my opinion, but not in the way you might expect.  I still maintain that SW:TOR does nothing new for MMO's.  That is because it really isn't an MMO at all.  No, SW:TOR is innovative and revolutionary because it is an entirely new kind of online game.

Rise of the Jackalope!


I can already hear the fanbois gathering their torches and pitchforks... err, lightsabers... to storm my virtual castle and hang me, but hear me out.  By its own admission, SW:TOR places a high emphasis on story telling, and in that respect the game succeeds.  The class stories and the planet "arcs" are both entertaining and engaging.  But that is also the problem.  The emphasis on story encourages you to play within your own "world" essentially.  A story driven game drives YOU along that path.  It does very little to encourage you to take others along on that journey.  In fact if your buddy is the same class as you, you can't take him along with you... at least not at the same time.  They have to be on a different "step" in the chain in order to help you at all in most cases.  This is a double-edged sword.  As I said, the story arcs are fun and bring a depth to the game that most MMO's can't come close to duplicating.  But the downside is that it fosters a sense of isolation.  Following YOUR story takes something away from the "massively multiplayer" part of the experience.

I will admit I only have anecdotal evidence to back this up, but I feel like the actions of the community at large support me on this.  People generally play SW:TOR in total isolation, or "isolated" within their guilds.  Chat channels on virtually every planet are silent.  Even LFG requests for things like Heroic quests have been reduced to a trickle.  And the other faction?  Would you even know there IS one outside of Ilum and the warfronts?  I can literally count on one hand the number of opposing faction players I have "run into" out in the game world.  The Fleet hubs are increasingly quiet.  Guild recruitment or advertisements are virtually nonexistent.  There is very little effort to reach out, to acknowledge other players, to involve them in things.  This again reinforces this concept of isolation.  To me this is just a "response to stimulus."  SW:TOR encourages solo play and solo behavior and so the players are reacting to that. 

But all this does not mean SW:TOR is a failure.  No, instead what I see is a new "creature," hence the Jackalope reference.  What I see in SW:TOR is a new kind of online game, one entirely driven by a single-player experience... call it massively single-player if you will.  While it possesses the "trappings" of an MMO, it is obvious that those features are not the "main attraction."  SW:TOR is an always will be about its storytelling.  That was what they built it on and that is what it will live or die on.  All of its other aspects are handled better by other games.  As MMO's, World of Warcraft and RIFT are light-years (pun intended) ahead of SW:TOR.  And while one could argue that WoW in particular has "dumbed down" the group experience to little more than interactive NPC's via LFD/LFR, the emphasis still is clearly on group activities.  The entire game pushes you to the level cap and pushes you to do things like raid or organized battlegrounds.  Or take RIFT's UI.  Even without addon functionality it completely blows SW:TOR's cruel joke of a UI out of the water.

Can this Creature Survive?


So ultimately the question to me is not whether SW:TOR is innovative or not.  I believe that question is answered simply by the nature of what it is, a new kind of online game.  No the real question is, can a game like this survive?  Can a game that is fundamentally built on offering a powerful single-player experience convince people to pay month after month to continue to play it?  I wonder if Bioware has considered this in designing additional content.  New Flashpoints and Operations will keep a few people happy, but it is not what the game is based on.  Players are "told" throughout the game that the story is what matters.  That story is going to have to continue to be told.  So in addition to extra FP's, are we going to get story expansions?  New quests that follow up on the class story lines?  Or are those going to have to wait for a formal expansion and level cap increase?

Personally, I don't think Bioware can take that approach.  I think new story content is going to have to be released on a semi-regular basis in order for them to justify the subscription cost.  And while Star Trek: Online just went free-to-play, I think that game is a good comparison on this point.  The "Featured Episodes" and associated story arcs became a significant selling point for ST:O and the community became rather upset when they dried up last year during the Atari-Perfect World transition.  Bioware "hitched their wagon" to the story in SW:TOR.  They are going to have to continue to "ride" it if they want the game to succeed. 

20 February 2012

Characters in The Secret World

It's a new week and we're going to start things off by going in a little bit of a different direction.  One of the upcoming MMO's that I am really looking forward to is The Secret World.  Take a look around their official website if you're unfamiliar with the title.  The "press blackout" on the game will be dropping this week and I am looking forward to all the new information that will hopefully emerge.  Oh and while we're on the subject, can we get some pre-order information please?  The game is supposed to launch in April and you can't even buy it yet.  Hey Funcom, I want to give you my money!  In any case, once the blackout is down I will be posting a lot more about this game as I try and familiarize both myself and my readers with what I consider to be a very promising title.  But today's post isn't going to be about the mechanics of the game.  No, I'm going to start by addressing something that many of you might consider either strange or unnecessary:  What kind of character will I be in The Secret World?

TSW poses a rather unique problem for MMO players such as myself that take the "concept" of their character more seriously.  And by this I am not referring to skills, or stats, or classes.  I am referring to WHO your character is; what kind of person are they?  What motivates them?  Where did they come from?  What are their goals?  These questions typically don't matter from a gameplay perspective as your character accomplishes the same quests and goals as everybody else.  But from a personal "satisfaction" perspective, they are important things to consider for a player like me.  So how does TSW make this more difficult?  Because this game takes place in a very unique environment, at least as far as MMO's are concerned. 

When you look at most MMO's the setting and context is something very far removed from "every day life."  They take place in entirely different worlds, or at the very least an entirely different time.  There is often little or no connection between the world your character is living in, and the world itself that we exist in.  There is no doubt when you roll an Orc Shaman in World of Warcraft or Dwarf Cleric in RIFT that you are placing yourself in a world completely different from our own.  Azeroth and Telara bear little resemblance to life as we know it.  TSW changes this.  In this game, the setting is literally "here and now."  It takes place in 21st century Earth... albeit a fantastical one in which magic, demons, and the undead are all common place, but it is OUR Earth nonetheless.  You will travel to places you can see today.  You will interact with people and organizations that you can see today.  In fact one of the gameplay elements that Funcom is emphasizing is the puzzles and quests that can be solved by seeking information in the real world

What this means for me (and potentially other roleplayers as well) is we have to think a bit more... "honestly" about the kind of characters we want to create.  It is easy to go "outside yourself" to create a character in a world totally unlike our own.  Often you are an entirely different race, living in an entirely different world, dealing with entirely different problems.  It is easy to "place ourselves" in a totally fictional recreation and pretend we are something else.  I am finding that concept more difficult with TSW.  I will be playing a human being living in 21st century Earth.  And while we are often told it is "easy" to be someone that you are not on the Internet, I would argue that it is much more difficult than we would like to believe.  Outside of purely sociopathic (or psychotic) personalities that would find that level of deception simple, most human beings tend to act, talk, and behave as they normally are.  "Living a lie" is not an easy thing to do, and it only takes one "slip up" to bring it all crashing down.  Obviously there are no significant consequences like that in an MMO, but the underlying principle remains the same. 

So who will I be in The Secret World?  Do I create an avatar that looks like myself?  Do I create a backstory with similar experiences?  Do I justify my actions with similar beliefs and goals?  Or do I try and create a completely different persona?  As I said at the outset, for many of you this is probably a moot point and you're wondering why I "wasted" an entire post on the issue.  But I find it fascinating from a roleplay perspective.  I am highly curious as to what kind of RP community will emerge in TSW and how people will act playing characters that are essentially living in the same world that we are in.  Just one more reason that I hope this game catches on and is at least successful enough to run for a good length of time.

19 February 2012

This Just In: Weekly News Roundup

Well after a highly abnormal week, I am hoping to settle back in to the regular routine this week.  To get things moving in that direction, here is my weekly look back at the MMO stories that mattered to me last week.

Guild Wars 2 Coming... to a Console Near You 

So there was exciting news recently for Guild Wars 2 fans as ArenaNet finally "confirmed" that GW2 would actually be released this year.  Then they tossed a little "cold water" on that news with this follow up that GW2 would be coming to consoles.  I say cold water because I cannot see anything good coming of this.  As an avid PC gamer who prefers that platform, but who also owns consoles, every time I see a PC game ported to consoles or vice versa, it never turns out for the better for the PC version.  Accommodations always have to be made for the different capabilities of the console and the PC version inevitably suffers for it.  In the MMO market, DC Universe Online is a good example of this.  Even the PC version plays like it was designed for a console controller. 

This is particularly troubling for a title like GW2 which MMO enthusiasts are already expecting to either save or revolutionize the genre.  If it is being built with consoles in mind, you can forget about that.  And this really makes me sad on a personal level because the PC remains my preferred platform for gaming and I am more and more troubled that developers and publishers only seem to care about placating the console crowd.  I get that consoles are easier to program for.  There is only a single architecture rather than the nearly infinite hardware/software combinations of the PC.  But I am so tired of "lowest common denominator" gaming.  That's what I feel we are getting these days with nothing but mindless sequels and console ports dumped on the PC market.  I'm probably overreacting, but this news really diminished my interest in GW2.

Gaming... Still a Popular Scapegoat

In a past news post, I linked a recent study on the issue of gaming addiction and I commented that gaming makes a convenient scapegoat mostly because the current generation of politicians and academics do not participate in it.  It is outside their common experience and so it makes a good target when they need something to blame for whatever it is that is happening.  Well, this week we have yet another study blaming gaming for something, this time it's killing marriages.  And again I have to ask why gaming is being singled out here.  Spending too much time doing anything is going to adversely affect your marriage.  I don't care what it is.  It could even sound "productive" compared to gaming.  You spend all day in your basement sculpting, or painting, or cooking, or anything else... I guarantee you that your spouse will be just as grumpy as if you had spent the whole day killing trolls in World of Warcraft or whacking terrorists in Call of Duty.

But again, gaming is convenient to blame.  Despite the vast expansion of gaming due to things like the Wii and the explosion of social gaming, many of the power brokers, decision makers, and thinkers of our time are still from a generation that did not experience this the way we do.  It is easy to blame things you do not understand.  It is even easier to blame things that you are not invested or interested in.  So for these people, pointing the finger at us and our "strange" hobbies is a simple and easy solution.  The problem is, as more and more people become involved in gaming, even peripherally through things like Facebook games, it is going to be a tougher "sell" to convince people that it is as evil as these power brokers want us to believe it is.

Diamond in the Rough... or TERAble? 

This last bit isn't a "news story" in and of itself I suppose, but it is something that has grabbed my attention over the past few weeks and I find myself paying more attention to it.  Massively recently posted a summary of the events leading to the release of TERA in the U.S. and Europe.  I admit this game had not been on my personal radar at all until recently.  I had heard of it of course, but as a game coming from a primarily Asian studio, I was skeptical that it would be the kind of game that would interest me.  The Asian MMO's that I have sampled were nothing but boring grindfests with "pay to win" cash shops.  So I pretty much blew TERA off as something that wouldn't be my cup of tea.  And while I am far from convinced it would be a good long-term game for me, I have to say that as I have read some of these articles and stories, I have become intrigued.

There are a few aspects of the game that have me thinking it might be something to try.  The combat system is unlike anything I have seen in an MMO before, with the possible exception of DCUO.  While I would not want a "twitch" heavy system like what most shooters come down to, the concept of more "active" combat is interesting as opposed to the "global cooldown/hot button" system that dominates most of the MMO's I have played up until now.  The other thing I found intriguing was the political system.  I know all about grinding faction and pleasing this group or that in an MMO, but this more participatory system could be more fun..... or it could be a complete flop.  I have no idea.  But at this point I am tempted to give it a go and find out.  Much of that has to do with my growing antipathy towards Star Wars: The Old Republic but I will elaborate more on that later this week.

Regular posts upcoming this week!  Pending major catastrophes.........

15 February 2012

A Very Non-Scientific SW:TOR Post

No I'm not dead!  My apologies for being gone longer than I had planned, but that seems to be par for the course for me these days.  I think I need to buy some thicker pants to absorb the ass-kicking that real life has been administering to me lately.  But at the same time, sometimes some time "away" can be a good thing and help you gain some perspective on things as you are able to observe them from a distance.  When I got back this past weekend I saw a slew of posts from other bloggers I respect talking about their feelings on Star Wars: The Old Republic now that the game has been out a while longer and many of them are reaching the level cap.  This commentary from Wolfshead in particular caught my attention.  Yes I know, I'm way behind the curve on this one.  Spinks and Tobold among many others have already commented on this post.  So I'm not going to respond to his post directly so much as simply write what he "inspired" me to think about SW:TOR myself.  While some of my thoughts do mirror Wolfshead's to a degree, my reasoning is a little less technical.

 MMO's are Games Too

I'm not sure why this problem is unique to this genre, and maybe it really isn't, but it sure feels that way.  When it comes to MMO's, it seems like many people forget that they are games too and that ultimately a game is supposed to be FUN.  This is entertainment.  This is leisure.  This is relaxation.  Maybe it is the fact that we pay for it over time, via subscription or micro-transaction the result is the same.  I don't know.  But a lot of MMO players (at least among The Informed) seem to lose sight of the fact that this is all supposed to be about having a good time.  We get "bogged down" in the minutia.  We nitpick quest mechanics or loot distribution.  We claim that this class or that class is too powerful.  We argue about this ability or that ability not being useful.  You name it.  We analyze these games to death, and I am just as guilty as anyone else of this.  But after reading Wolfhead's post and his critique of SW:TOR, I stopped and asked myself how I really felt about the game, and the answer was both very simple, and very non-analytical.  SW:TOR is simply not fun.

I cannot even really put my "finger" on why.  I cannot give you a single, coherent, logical reason why.  I really wish that I could.  It would be easier to explain that way.  But the simple fact of the matter is that the game is not fun.  And when you are talking about a GAME, that should be reason enough.  There should be no need for a quantitative breakdown of how "Gameplay Mechanic Y" is poorly implemented and "Zone X" is badly designed or "Class Z" is underperforming.  All of that analysis is all well and good, and it serves its own purpose in terms of describing a game.  But really, why are we all here?  Why do we play any game, MMO or otherwise?  Because it is fun.  And when it ceases to be fun, it is time to move along.  There shouldn't be a need for any more elaboration than that.

And so while it sounds terribly un-scientific and perhaps even unfair, that is where I am with SW:TOR right now.  On my trip this weekend I had my laptop with me, and it is capable of playing SW:TOR (barely.)  I had my authenticator so I could have logged on.  I didn't.  I didn't want to.  I didn't miss it.  There was no part of me that was saying, "Oh boy I need to log on and do my space dailies/Belsavis quests/crafting/instancing/etc."  With my past MMO's, I "missed" them to a degree.  I wanted to log on and do random things.  I wanted to be involved in things, especially pre-Cataclysm in WoW and later in RIFT.  But for SW:TOR, that feeling doesn't exist.  I don't log on for a day or two and it just doesn't affect me at all.

Perhaps the best comparison is actually to another Bioware game, Dragon Age: Origins.  I did not find that game FUN at all.  The combat mechanics drove me absolutely crazy.  Every dungeon crawl was a bore.  But I played it, and I finished it, because I wanted to see how the story ended.  The story was engaging, the game itself was not.  I feel much the same about SW:TOR right now.  I find the stories enjoyable (really liking the Jedi Consular right now) but the game itself is a chore.  The questing is not fun, the combat is not fun, playing the game is simply an excuse to advance the story from one episode to the next. 

Now when you are talking about a single-player game, you can "get away" with this.  I've paid my box price.  The publisher has my money.  If I don't finish the game, it's MY loss.  An MMO is different.  I'm paying over time.  There needs to be an incentive to stick around.  That incentive can take many forms, and we know the traditional ones; raiding, PvP, etc.  But if the system underlying those incentives is simply not fun, there is no reason to stay.  So again, it comes back to the game itself needing to be FUNSW:TOR is not fun.  I am not going to stay subscribed to a game just to see what the next chapter of the story is, whenever they do decide to come out with them. 

What's Next

I love MMO's.  I love the genre.  That's why I have a blog dedicated to covering them.  I really wish I could find one that I could "sink my teeth into."  I spent nearly two years in Guild Wars.  I spent nearly five years in WoW.  As I have mentioned before in this blog, I am the kind of player that would love to be able to dedicate themselves to a single game and really get into it.  I had very high hopes that SW:TOR would be that game.  Right now I just don't see it.  I am trying to keep as open a mind about it as I can, but with each passing week I am left with more of a sense of inevitability that I will not be renewing my subscription after it runs out in April.  There is still time between now and then.  Maybe I'll change my mind.  Hell... a part of me wants to change my mind.  But I am not in a position in my life where I can "throw money away."  If SW:TOR isn't engaging, it is time to move along.

One thing my time in SW:TOR has given me is an appreciation for a well crafted MMO that plays like an MMO.  Say what you want about WoW (and I'm still never going back) it is the most finely tuned, lovingly crafted MMO on the market.  And RIFT plays like a Ferrari compared to SW:TOR's Chevy Nova.  Those games act, look, and feel like MMO's.  SW:TOR feels like a single-player game that some multiplayer elements were "tacked on" to without much thought.  If my significant other wouldn't string me up by my toenails, I'd buy a RIFT time card to pass the time until The Secret World is released.  But absent that, I'll soldier on with SW:TOR and finish as many class stories as I can before my time expires.

Ok, talk about a "brain dump."  That's what you get for not blogging for a week.  Hopefully I can get back to a semi-regular routine so I don't kill you guys with "Wall-O-Text" crits like this anymore. :)

10 February 2012

When it Rains it Pours

This week has been... amazing, that's all I can say.  Something has come up that is going to require me to spend the weekend traveling.  So... this will likely be my last post for the week.  I probably won't even get my weekly news post up on Sunday, but I will try to if circumstances permit.  My apologies for things not going according to plan, but I'm sure you all can sympathize.  I hope everyone has a great weekend and I will see you back here Monday, if not before.

09 February 2012

Unguilded by Circumstance... or by Choice?

I have to say that this week has not exactly gone according to plan insofar as the blog is concerned.  But that's life, just have to roll with the punches sometimes.  I will "warn" you at the outset that this post is going to be of a much more personal nature than most, perhaps even a bit "too" personal depending on your point of view.  However the issue has been weighing on me pretty heavily over the course of the past day or so.  Nothing more I can really do aside from addressing it.  The question being... why do I not belong to a guild in Star Wars: The Old Republic?

If you have been following this blog for more than the past week or so, then you know that my guildless status is something I have commented on before.  So why dedicate another entire post to the issue?  Because I have come to a rather enlightening conclusion as to WHY exactly I am without a guild.  Two comments that were made to me recently really hammered this revelation home.  The first was a comment here on the blog.  Liore asked, "Why don't you join a guild?"  And my initial reaction was one of annoyance.  I have been trying to join a guild, I thought to myself.  I have posted on forums, looked at ads, etc.  Heck I even dedicated whole posts on this blog to describing my characters and desires for a guild.  But the more I stopped and thought about the question, the more I had to ask myself... how much am I really trying?

Then a member of my family made another comment to me that really decided the question beyond all doubt.  What we were talking about had nothing to do with MMO's specifically, but we were discussing some of my past relationships and they made the comment to me that, "You have a lot of ghosts in your past."  And while their point was obviously directed at my real-world relationships, I could immediately draw the connection to my online ones, specifically many of them that were formed in the guilds I had belonged to in the past.  And that's when it all snapped into focus... I haven't really been trying to find a guild at all.  My efforts to do so have been half-hearted at best.  Why?  Because I don't want to add any more "ghosts" than I already have.

The unfortunate reality is that I am a personality type that cares too much and carries regrets very easily.  I remember many of the mistakes I have made in my past, from the silly to the significant, and I still mentally "kick" myself for them.  I remember many of the friends I have made, from the passing acquaintance to the best of friends, and from time to time I find myself "missing" them all.  This is obviously problematic enough in the real-world, but it creates complications for me as an MMO player as well.  I can relate to you stories of individuals and guilds that I have been a part of all the way back to my formative days playing Guild Wars.  I could tell you some of the times I shared with my best friends in those games.

For example, one person I met in World of Warcraft would just sit and talk with me while our characters sat on a tiny island off Azshara (back before it was Goblin-town.)  I ended up forming a guild with that guy, but our goals... didn't mesh well and he left shortly after, taking half the guild with him.  Another person who remained my friend for a very long time, would entertain each other by trading shots after wipes during our raids.  I can especially recall one night in Blackwing Lair when we were banging our heads against Vael.  After knowing each other several years, they eventually picked another guild over maintaining that friendship with me.  And I could list a dozen more stories, people, and guilds that all impacted me in my time playing MMO's.

All those have now become "ghosts."  As much as I wish they could all be pleasant memories, the sad reality is that they are not.  They are sources of sadness, of regret, of missed opportunities and miscommunications.  That is what is stopping me from fully pursuing another guild in SW:TOR.  I don't want to add to my list of ghosts.  I don't want to become part of another community, make new friends, have new experiences... only to eventually lose them all anyway.  And I already know what you are thinking, "Right now you have nothing, what's the difference?"  And you are correct.  I am obviously miserable being without a guild, so how could finding one possibly be worse?  I never claimed that this thinking was logical, but it is what is holding me back.

My hope now is that having come to this realization, I can move past it and put my full effort into finding my place in a larger community again. 

08 February 2012

A Please and a Thank You

Just a couple of quick items to discuss today.  First off, work is kicking my butt this week so I have not been able to finish working on that raiding philosophy post that I promised you last week.  And honestly, as I have been working on it, it has kind of "morphed" from the theme I originally planned to cover into something a bit different.  But I am still working on it, and I will get it out to you before the end of the week.  So if I could just beg your indulgence in the meantime, I do hope you will find it worthwhile when I do finish it.

The other thing I wanted to say was Thank You to those of you that commented on my posts from the past week.  I have been enjoying seeing this blog grow over the course of the past month and to start to get some feedback from my readers has been very rewarding.  I know some bloggers like to engage in "back and forth" discussions with the comment threads.  I'd like to do something a little bit different.  My hope is that as I get a few more readers and the number of comments starts to increase, I can start doing a weekly "feedback" post where I can take some (or all) of the comments over the course of the week and respond to them.  It may lack the immediate feedback of replying to the comments individually, but I think it will make for a good addition to the blog.  So if you like what you have been reading here, shoot me a comment, and shoot the address to your friends.  I would very much enjoy seeing this blog become a small part of the overall discussion in the broader MMO community.

That covers it for now.  Like I said, I am still working on that raiding post, and if anything extraordinary comes down the pike, I will be sure to drop my two cents on it.  But in the meantime, here's to hoping your job is treating you better than mine right now. :)

06 February 2012

A Week At 50 in SW:TOR

Last week I directed all my efforts towards playing my level 50 Bounty Hunter in Star Wars: The Old Republic.  My goal was to try and get an idea of what the endgame content was like and how much there is for a level capped character to do.  My results were... a mixed bag.  Some things went well, others didn't.  Some aspects of the game impressed me, others fell far short of expectations.  So today's post will attempt to summarize what I learned over the course of the week.  Obviously your experiences may vary.  I do not presume to speak for everyone.  This is just what happened to me and my opinion of the current endgame.  In last week's post I stated three areas that I thought I could concentrate on.  I'll start by relating my experiences in those three things.

Daily Quests

SW:TOR's take on daily quests is hardly innovative, but it is a reasonable way to spend your time at 50.  Most of them are not too difficult to complete, aside from the Heroics, which you can completely ignore.  One of the 4-man Heroics on Belsavis can be solo'd if you willing to die a few times.  Considering the rewards, you still come out ahead even after repairs, so it's worth doing.  If you're looking to make cash, this is the way to go.  I banked nearly a million credits over the course of the week, and that was while my companions were running Underworld Trading missions almost constantly to accumulate rare materials to support my Cybertech, more on that later. 

I did have a couple of complaints with the dailies though.  First off, they are too widely dispersed.  There are three "hubs" on Belsavis and two on Ilum.  Why could there not be just a single location to obtain them all on each planet?  Call it laziness if you want, but I found it frustrating to do two quests, then move, two more quests, then move.  It is difficult to complete the quests efficiently.  The other complaint I had is the presence of voice over.  Throughout the game there are occasions when you get a quest simply from a mission terminal... no voice acting, no cutscene, you just take the quest.  There is no reason at all why dailies could not have been handled this way.  It is frankly stupid that I have to listen to the same dialogue, sit through the same cutscene, make the same choices every single day just to do these quests.  This is definitely one instance where SW:TOR's emphasis on voice is annoying.  There is simply no need for it as it pertains to a quest you will be doing repeatedly.

Overall dailies in SW:TOR are fine.  I'm not entirely thrilled with their implementation, but the rewards are acceptable.  The cash is great, and the daily commendations can be traded for excellent item mods as well as earpieces and implants.  Completing the whole set every day is an investment of a couple hours in total, but it can be easily broken up into chunks, so there is no need to set aside a significant amount of time.

Flashpoints

I was unable to complete even a single Flashpoint over the course of the week.  The reason is simple... I am an unguilded DPS class.  Sitting around the Fleet hub, you see people making groups, but 90% of the time they need either a tank, a healer, or both.  Requests for DPS are about as rare as unicorn sightings at the zoo.  The sheer amount of time you would have to waste sitting around the Fleet hoping to find someone needing DPS totally precludes any attempt to run an instance for somebody in my situation.  I cannot afford to sit around for an hour or more and then still have another hour to actually run the instance.  Now I already know there are people lining up to say, "But I get groups all the time!"  Maybe you do, and congrats if that's the case.  But my experience this week was that if you are without a guild and are DPS... forget it. 

So this brings us back to the issue of SW:TOR's totally useless social tools and whether or not the game needs some kind of "Looking For Dungeon" tool.  To me, it says something about the mindset of the players and the state of the game that we are barely a month out from release and it is already impossible to access some of the group content.  What the heck are players who join the game a month from now going to do?  It is already the case that running the mid-level instances is becoming impossible.  And as I mentioned, DPS need not apply at 50 unless you have a guild.  I really fear for this game's long term future.  What is going to keep people here when they've seen all of the stories they want to see?

Crafting

This was probably the most fun activity I engaged in during the week.  Count me among those that actually enjoy SW:TOR's crafting system.  I had a lot of fun reverse engineering items to learn the upgraded patterns and being a Cybertech, I was able to put many of them to immediate use to upgrade my character.  In fact, I engaged in a bit of a fun little "project."  See... I don't really like the Bounty Hunter armor style.  The whole "Swiss Army Knife in a Tin Can" suit does nothing for me.  That and every other BH is always trying to look like Boba Fett.  Well I wanted to be different.  So... I hit the GTN to look for Sith Warrior style heavy armor that could be modified.   The result was this:

Darth Kalgrien?
I stripped out all the Strength based mods from the items and inserted Aim based ones.  I enjoy "breaking" from the norm, and so a BH strutting around like a Sith Lord amuses me.  The best part was when I was doing dailies on Ilum and someone asked to group with me.  I accepted and when he saw me open up on a mob with my blasters he laughed and said, "omg i thought you were a jugg."  That made my day that I was able to do something unexpected and "catch" somebody unaware.  I can't say how crafted items stack up against other stuff available at endgame, since I haven't done any instances or raids, but it is a rewarding path to pursue if you don't have access to anything else.

Overall Impressions

Overall there are plenty of things to do at 50.  I only touched on a few of them.  Obviously there is PvP and raiding which I did not even attempt to explore during this first week.  I don't want to spend a lot of time on this as I believe it deserves its own full post, but for a player such as myself, the long term of SW:TOR looks a little grim.  The stories are wonderful, but I am not going to pay $15 a month just to finish every class story.  I need a better reason to stay subscribed.  Will I find one between now and April?

*shakes Magic 8-Ball*

"Ask again later." 

Damn, I hate these things.


05 February 2012

All the News That's Fit to Rant About

Welcome back to the weekly news review!  I have to say first of all that the couple days "off" from the blog were useful.  In the past when I tried to maintain a blog, the "need" to constantly try and update it was one of the factors that led to me giving it up.  This time I'm trying to treat it more casually and it seems to be successful.  But let's get to the news!

EA Gives First Look at SW:TOR Subscriber Numbers

We got our first "official" statement from EA this week regarding the status of Star Wars: The Old Republic and its initial subscriber numbers.  They report 2 million copies of the game sold and 1.7 million subscribers as of Feb. 1.  Of course as the old saying goes, there are lies, damn lies, and there are statistics.  So these numbers mean different things to different people depending on your point of view on the game.  The naysayers point to the fact that you need to enter a credit card or game card number just to use your "free" thirty days, so these numbers can't be an accurate figure of actual subscribers.  And the supporters claim this indicates an 85% retention rate for players outside those thirty days.  The truth... as always lies somewhere in between.  The most reasonable analysis I saw (and forgive me, I lost the link) suggested that the "actual" subscriber number is probably in the neighborhood of 1.3 million currently.  That sounds like a pretty good conclusion to me.  As I said in a post a few days ago, EA can't fudge too much here, being a publicly traded company.  But they probably are "spinning" a bit in terms of people who renewed past thirty days.

That said, the question then becomes, what does 1.3 (or 1.7) million subs mean for the game and its long term health?  Well first off, this automatically makes SW:TOR the #2 subscription based MMO behind World of Warcraft.  This was pretty much expected.  I don't think anyone outside of diehard fanbois thought SW:TOR would touch WoW's numbers right off the bat.  Since SW:TOR did not launch in Asia, it is more fair to compare its numbers to WoW's non-Asian base, which most people estimate in the 3-4 million range currently.  So rounding things off, we could say SW:TOR has about a third of the number of players as WoW in the territories they "compete" in.  Again, I think this is a good comparison and starting point. 

Where does SW:TOR go from here though?  I have to say I am still pessimistic on the game in the long term.  I will elaborate more tomorrow in my post summarizing my week at 50, but suffice to say I don't think this game has "legs." 

RIFT Joins the Free-to-Play Revolution........... Sort of.

After stating previously that the F2P model doesn't work for RIFT, Trion Worlds announced RIFT Lite this week, which is in essence a carbon copy of WoW's "introductory" system.  You can play up to level 20 and access the starting zones and capitals of each faction, all for free.  This on the heels of the announcement last week of Trion converting several servers into "trial servers," which many (myself included) saw as a way to "spin" the need for server consolidations in the game.  One thing you have to give Trion credit for is they are pretty damn good at public relations, much better than you would expect from a smaller studio on their first major title.

So is RIFT Lite going to draw more people into the game?  Hard to say.  Since I already have a RIFT account and several level capped characters, it isn't an inticement for me to return, since it would preclude me from accessing those characters.  But that said, I'll give the game a little "plug" here.  If you are looking for a good themepark MMO, RIFT is probably the best one on the market currently.   Other games have things in their favor; the long term stability of WoW, the voice acting and story of SW:TOR, etc.  But RIFT is the best "total package" out there right now.  So if you haven't given it a shot yet, now would be a good time to take it for a spin.

Gaming Under Fire Again 

In a story that never really goes away, gaming is under attack again for its "destructive" potential.  First-person-shooters and MMO's are both singled out for attention in this recent study summarized over at Gamespot.  Here's the link to the study itself if you are inclined to look at the actual data and conclusions.  This is both a big story and a non-story as far as I'm concerned.  These kinds of studies with their alarmist conclusions have been around since the earliest days of gaming.  I still remember when DOOM came out and everyone was convinced it would turn kids into violent killers, that school shootings would go through the roof, etc.  So it is no surprise to me that twenty years later we still have people predicting the "downfall of civilization" because we like to play games.

I'll say what I've said before... people vulnerable to addictive and destructive behaviors are vulnerable to ALL kinds of those behaviors, and people like that should probably stay away from DOOM or WoW... just like they should stay away from the blackjack table or the Jack Daniels.  To single out gaming when there are far more dangerous and destructive types of behaviors is irresponsible and distracts us from areas where we can make better progress in terms of helping people who have these kinds of issues.  Gaming makes a convenient target for people who want something to "blame," but much of that blame is misplaced. 


Enjoy the rest of your weekend and I'll see you back here tomorrow for my look back at my week at 50 in SW:TOR!

02 February 2012

Upcoming Plans

Just wanted to drop a quick line this morning to let you all know that I won't be putting up any more posts this week.  I'll have my Sunday news round up but next Monday will be my next substantive post.  The reason being is that I am working on a couple rather lengthy topics and I want to make sure I take the time to do them "right" before they get posted.  As I'm sure some of you have noticed by now, my writing style is a bit more... technical than what you are probably used to from a gaming blog.  So I have a couple big posts "in the pipe" and I want to get them hammered out properly before I give them to you.  Obviously if something earth shattering happens in the meantime, odds are I'll drop a line on it.  But here's just an idea of what's coming up:

Sunday:  The Neeeeeeeeeeeeeews!  Already some big stories this week to talk about.

Monday:  Life at 50 in Star Wars: The Old Republic, Week 1.  A look back at my dedicated week playing my Bounty Hunter at level cap.

Tuesday or Wednesday:  Raiding as an Academic Exercise.  This is one of the big ones I am working on.  It covers some of the same themes as Gevlon over at Greedy Goblin in terms of ways we can look at raiding.  Give this post a read if you haven't already.  It is what inspired me to put this together.

Hope everyone has a great week, and I'll see you back here on Sunday for the news!

01 February 2012

Herd Mentality?

One of the biggest issues discussed among MMO players and those of us who follow the industry is just how many players a particular game has and the habits of those players in general.  I was surprised to find this article on CNN talking about the "migratory patterns" of MMO players and the effect that can have on in-game populations.  CNN isn't your typical source for gaming news, and although this particular article was written for their rather obscure gaming "blog," it was linked on CNN.com's front page which is how I discovered it.  Is this an example of MMO gaming penetrating further into the mainstream?  Or is it just CNN doing a bit of "self-promotion" and trying to drive traffic to a segment of their website that isn't getting much use?  Well that's a topic for another day.  Let's stick to the issue at hand.

How Many of us are There?



As the article states, and most of us who follow the industry know, most MMO companies are pretty tight lipped about just how many people are playing their games.  Those that are publicly owned, such as Activision-Blizzard (World of Warcraft) and Electronic Arts (Star Wars: The Old Republic) are required to disclose a certain amount of information for the benefit of their shareholders.  Up until recently, Blizzard has had nothing but good things to say about the state of WoW so this probably didn't bother them much, but post-Cataclysm the news hasn't been quite so good.  But because of those disclosure requirements, we know WoW has shed about two million subscribers in the past year.  EA has not had to issue a formal statement on the status of SW:TOR as yet, but that will likely be coming soon.

Other companies that are not "public" do not face these requirements.  Developers such as Turbine (Lord of the Rings Online), Funcom (Age of Conan), and Trion Worlds (RIFT) are not obligated to make public any specific figures about their number of subscribers or overall players.  So when these companies DO have something to say, you really have to take it with a grain of salt.  That is not to say that publicly owned companies don't stretch their truth as well (*cough Asian netcafe players in WoW cough*) but they can't get away with outright misstatements without running afoul of legal issues.  Private companies can focus entirely on the good, or at least spin the facts to their benefit, in ways that public companies cannot.  So for instance in the article when the Turbine rep says LOTRO is "huge" and they are "adding players every day," you really can't take it at face value.

This is especially true for the "free-to-play" or "freemium" hybrid games.  I mentioned this issue back when I was experimenting with DC Universe Online.  F2P games can claim anyone who has even opened an account as a "player" of their game.  I still have my DCUO account and so Sony can count me as a player.  But when was the last time I logged on?  Have they earned a dime from me as a player?  Does it give you an accurate picture of how many people are playing when one of these companies talks about how many "players" they have?  This is where it becomes very problematic.

So do we know how many people are playing any given game?  In a nutshell, no.  The closest game/company that comes to full disclosure is probably Blizzard with WoW but I doubt they'd be so forthcoming if they weren't as big as they are.  And as far as everyone else goes, they are only spinning their data for the best public appearance as possible.  Let me just say though, I don't blame them for this.  It is what any company would do to make its product look good.  But as consumers of those products, we as MMO players cannot rely on this information to make decisions about what game is large and healthy and which are not.  And that leads into the second issue in the article.

The Movements of the MMO Herd


The author makes some interesting points about what motivates people to play MMO's and the recent trends in population from one game to another.  He talks about how he is a lifetime subscriber to LOTRO and how people in that game recently had been talking about the characters they planned to play in SW:TOR when it was released.  He talks about how the game feels different now that many of his old friends and guildmates have left the game.  I can relate to this as I "overheard" many similar conversations in RIFT during the months leading up to SW:TOR's release.  But I think he really hits on the major issue that is going to drive MMO population trends going forward, and that is the social component of these games.

I have mentioned before about how I think we are reaching a "critical mass" in terms of high quality titles and the number of people willing to invest in playing them.  WoW opened MMO's to the mainstream, but it is still a rather small genre compared to broader appealing games such as first person shooters or sports simulations.  In essence the number of potential customers/subscribers is about as big as it is probably going to get and the market is getting increasingly "crowded" with big budget, high quality games that are competing for the same customers.  How is this going to impact population and movement trends?  Are players going to continue to remain loyal to a single game?  Are they willing to maintain multiple subscriptions?

I think you will find that players will begin to "wander" from game to game as new content is released.  A major patch or an expansion will bring people back to a game in the short term, but they'll be off again in fairly short order when the next "new shiny" hits another game.  But in the long term, it is the social aspect of MMO's that can keep players from this migration.  The author quotes an MMO gamer on this issue and I think he is dead on:

"With an MMO, even if I’ve done everything, I still have friends and people I’ve met to keep me coming back.  I’ve always said, you buy an MMO for the game mechanics, but you keep playing because of the people."

What will keep you playing SW:TOR when Mists of Pandaria comes out?  Why hang out in Middle Earth when you could check out The Secret World?  What would keep you in Telara when Guild Wars 2 comes calling?  Friends, guildmates, the relationships that you have built within that game community you are already a part of.  And I think WoW's continued success in the face of its many challengers is a tribute to this fact.  Many WoW guilds and player communities have been in place for years now.  Why give that up just to play the latest "new shiny?"  Why risk losing the connections and companions that one has made?  Many people choose not to take that risk, and so WoW continues to thrive in large part due to this concept.  This is also why games like LOTRO and even Everquest continue despite smaller active numbers of players.  They have excellent communities and established player relationships.

Incidentally, this is the biggest reason I fear for SW:TOR's future.  It's social structure feels like a total afterthought on the part of Bioware, like they just kind of threw a few things in at the last second.  Grouping functions, guild structures, even something as simple as chat bubbles for spatial chat are completely non-existent.  The game makes it very hard to be social, to create those long-term connections that will help the game thrive.  What is going to keep people playing this game when by the end of 2012 several new competitors will have hit the market, or older games will have expansions out?  Bioware's vaunted storytelling isn't going to keep people playing when they've run out of story to tell and the "herd" is ready to move to the next watering hole.

Where do you fall?  Are you part of the "herd," simply looking for the next game to try?  Or do you have friends and acquaintences in a certain game that you don't want to leave behind?


Curses!  After I wrote up this post I noticed Massively had picked up the story and the link.  And here I thought I was ahead of the curve.  Oh well... they DO get paid to watch these sorts of things.  That's what I get for trying to work ahead of time. :)