30 May 2013

Crash of the Titan

You will get my impressions of RIFT's Storm Legion expansion this week, but a bit of news dropped yesterday that I would be remiss if I did not address.  So I'm going to "table" the discussion of SL for another day or so and instead discuss this news item and the potential implications of it.  For those that haven't seen the news yet, Blizzard has supposedly reassigned a significant portion of the staff working on their upcoming Project Titan MMO and told the remaining members of the team to "start over" from the ground up.  This will effectively delay any potential release of the game until 2016 at the earliest.  Links below for you to follow up on, then we'll get to the ramifications.




Implications for Titan Itself

Courtesy: MMO Champion

Let's start with the most obvious.  What does this mean about Titan itself?  Well first of all, we knew very little about the game to begin with.  Blizzard was playing its cards very close to the chest as far as what Titan actually was.  They acknowledged it existed and that they were working on it, but in terms of concrete details they divulged basically nothing.  The rumor mill was that they were finally going to cough up some details at BlizzCon this year.  But with this "restart," even if that rumor had been true, it most certainly isn't going to happen now.  So in essence this "reboot" of the game means nothing in terms of what we knew, what we thought we knew, and what the game itself actually is.  We never knew what the first "version" of it was, so we can't be confused when we find out what it turns out to be.

The next question is, why the "reboot?"  Well I posited my theory in replying to Keen's analysis on his blog.  My thinking is that Blizzard came to the realization that the MMO market had changed significantly since Titan began development and the game as it was currently realized was not in a good position to compete in this "new" market.  What I mean by this mostly pertains to the rise of all the different free-play models over the course of the past year or so.  F2P (in various forms) is the current reality of the MMO marketplace.  In order to compete, you either need to have some kind of F2P model yourself, or have the kind of unique product and/or fanbase that will allow you to be profitable on a different model.  I think Blizzard was building Titan with the "old" paradigm in mind, that is with the mandatory monthly subscription being the standard.  That time has come and gone.  For better or for worse, F2P is the model that must be reckoned with today.

So my theory is that Blizzard decided that Titan was not well suited to compete in the F2P environment.  It either wasn't designed for F2P itself (most likely) or Blizzard felt that it was not sufficiently unique to compete against the much higher quality F2P offerings that exist in the MMO marketplace today.  After departing from Trion, Scott Hartsman commented on the difficulty of "retrofitting" a game to an F2P model when the game itself was not designed for it.  That's what I think happened with Titan.  Blizzard looked around, realized that F2P was the new reality, realized that Titan was not designed with that reality in mind, and decided that rather than trying to "retrofit" their game to meet this new reality, they tore it down and started over from scratch.  This actually does fit with Blizzard's long time operating theory, in my opinion.  Blizzard is already notorious for its "when it's ready" approach to development and launch timetables and scrapping projects that they decide they don't like.  They trashed Starcraft: Ghost and spent nearly a decade working on Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3, so I don't think it is at all beyond the realm of possibility that they simply decided Titan wasn't up to snuff and scrapped it.

Implications for World of Warcraft

Regardless of the reasoning behind it, the most significant implication of this delay for Titan relates to Blizzard's most profitable commodity, World of Warcraft.  Speculation had already begun that Blizzard was looking to "ramp down" its dependence on WoW and hopefully begin to reorient both its fans and its financial outlook to a "post-WoW" scenario.  Perhaps WoW had one more big expansion in its future, a push to level 100 for player characters and a "final confrontation" of sorts with the Burning Legion to tie up the overall story arc of Azeroth dating back to Warcraft 3 itself.  Moving Titan from 2013 to 2016 changes this picture considerably.  WoW is not going to be "winding down" any time soon.  In fact, with Titan delayed, Blizzard needs to re-prioritize WoW and attempt to reverse some of the significant subscription losses they have sustained over the course of the past year.

Now let's dispense with the most obvious possible change first;  WoW is not going F2P... at least not in the near future.  Why?  It doesn't have to.  Blizzard has nothing to gain by taking WoW F2P at this juncture.  It isn't going to bring in new players.  By this point anyone who wants to try WoW has tried it.  And I don't think it would encourage the "tourist" types like myself to stick around (and spend money) if they already aren't.  WoW is still insanely profitable sticking to the subscription model and until that changes, Blizzard has no incentive to change it.  Besides, they are also making money hand over fist charging for conveniences on top of their subscription fee as it is.  I can't tell you how much money I "wasted" buying server transfers, faction swaps, etc. during my years in WoW and I know I am far from alone in that.  So put F2P WoW out of your mind... it ain't happening.

What is going to happen to the old warhorse?  Well the change in Titan's timetable likely means that we will see at least two more full blown expansions for WoW before Titan sees daylight.  Now I don't pretend to have any insight as far as Blizzard's long term creative plans for the Warcraft IP as a whole.  I felt they "rushed" the Lich King storyline too soon.  I thought that confrontation should have been postponed for later in WoW's lifespan, although Wrath of the Lich King remains WoW's high point as far as I'm concerned.  But after the total dud that was Cataclysm and the storyline silliness that is Mists of Pandaria, the game is certainly in need of a solid expansion again.  To me, two possibilities suggest themselves.

The first would be an exploration of the Emerald Dream/Nightmare.  This is something that has been teased in various forms all the way back to the corrupted green dragons that existed as open world raid bosses in vanilla WoW.  But for whatever reason, Blizzard never decided to "pull the trigger" on a full blown expansion based on this concept.  I'm also not sure how this would play out storyline wise after the events of Cataclysm with the dragon aspects giving up their powers.  I'll admit to not following the lore too closely since Cataclysm so I'm not sure if there were any consequences to the Dream for Ysera giving up her powers and Deathwing's defeat.  The other possibility that suggests itself is the aforementioned "final confrontation" with the Burning Legion.  Now if Blizzard is going to keep WoW running for several more years, this might make sense for a second expansion a couple more years down the road rather than the immediate follow up to Mists but it definitely would be compelling content if done right.  The Burning Legion has always remained one of the key adversaries in the Warcraft IP, but little has been heard from them since Burning Crusade itself.  They have been largely absent ever since.  Although, bearing that in mind, perhaps a "two stage" expansion first reintroducing the Legion then staging the final confrontation with them could be done.

Obviously Blizzard could go in a completely different direction.  Heck I think a lot of people still can't believe they actually made the Pandaren into the focus of an entire expansion.  There are still Old Gods to deal with, although based on the lore behind the Sha, it would seem that the Old Gods will end up playing a large role in the story of Mists so maybe Blizzard won't go back to that "well" again.  There is still the "loose end" of Alleria and Turalyon, but that would suggest a return to Outland and revisiting the Burning Legion storyline as mentioned above.  That could make a good "bridge" to a climax with the Legion though.  Needless to say there are a lot of options open to Blizzard, but regardless of where they ultimately decide to go, the pressure is on.  They can't afford another poorly received expansion.  They have to hit the next one out of the park in order to stabilize WoW's position and Blizzard's overall finances.

Implications for the MMO Industry

One final thing to consider is what the Titan delay means for MMO's as a whole.  One cannot ignore the impact that Blizzard has on the market overall, so how will this affect other games and developers?  Well it certainly removes one powerful "competitor" from the market for the foreseeable future.  This will give the next crop of launches a bit more "breathing room."  Games like The Elder Scrolls Online and WildStar will have one less elephant to deal with as they attempt to find their footing in the marketplace.  So I'd imagine there are sighs of relief being uttered in places like Bethesda and Carbine.  While they would never admit it publicly, I'm sure they are happier that their games will not have to contend with Blizzard's "latest and greatest" as well as WoW itself.

What this means for the future is a bit less clear.  MMO's (perhaps more than other types of games) have rather extended development cycles, at least most of the successful ones do.  Attempting to rush things (*cough*  Star Trek Online *cough*) typically leads to bad results.  If Blizzard is adjusting Titan to the realities of today, who is to say those realities won't change again by 2016?  I doubt we'll go back to mandatory subscriptions, but will F2P still be dominant in three years as it appears to be today?  Or perhaps Blizzard is more ambitious than that.  Perhaps they are rebooting Titan in an attempt to change the market again.  Maybe they see Titan as a truly revolutionary product that will dictate a change in the marketplace similar to what F2P has done over the past couple years.  I'm not sure they could pull this off as I see Blizzard as improvers not innovators.  They take an idea (MMO's) and refine it to a razor's edge of polish and performance (WoW).  They don't do so well at coming up with truly original gameplay concepts themselves.  But who knows?  They may surprise us all.

29 May 2013

Rise of the Hutt Storm Legion Cartel: Part 1

I know I'm "late to the party" on both of these topics, but since most of my game time over the past couple weeks has been consumed with RIFT and Star Wars: The Old Republic, the recent expansions of both of these games have been at the forefront of my mind recently.  Since both of these expansions came out a while ago,  today's post may not feel particularly "new" to some of you, but I thought with RIFT's free-play conversion right around the corner, and SW:TOR remaining a highly controversial topic, that it would be worth offering my perspective on both of these games and their new content.  Besides, we all know MMO's take a while to "age" appropriately.  Taking a look at a game or an expansion a few months down the road can prove more enlightening than the initial impression.  So let's start off in a galaxy far, far away...

What Defines an Expansion

The first thing to address right out of the gate with Rise of the Hutt Cartel (RHC) is the definition of an "expansion."  Now to be fair to Bioware/EA, they were pretty clear about what exactly RHC was and was not.  It included a new planet (Makeb) and a story specific to each faction.  It made the usual tweaks to skills, talents, and a variety of game mechanics.  And it raised the level cap from 50 to 55.  You knew up front what you were getting, and what you were not getting.  So I don't fault Bioware for what they gave us.  I don't feel like players were misled in terms of what RHC included.  However I do believe that the use of the term "expansion" was applied rather liberally in this case.  When compared to other AAA themeparks (World of Warcraft or RIFT for example) what RHC offers would qualify more as a major content patch, not an expansion.  Using those two games as examples, one could point to the 2.4 patch in WoW which added a new zone, a new 5-man dungeon, and a new 25-man raid.  Or the 1.6 patch in RIFT which introduced the Ember Isle.  In both cases this content was entirely free, granted both of those games were fully pay-to-play with mandatory subscriptions.  SW:TOR no longer requires a subscription so you may argue that they can't give content away like this for free.  True.  But here is my major problem with RHC; it is not worth what it costs.

The "expansion" should have been free to subscription players.  Either that, or it needed to be made purchasable with Cartel Coins from the market, essentially making it "free" to subscribers with their monthly stipends.  To charge them even an additional dime for the amount of content RHC offered is ridiculous.  And for the non-subscribers, I think $10 would have been much more reasonable (again in terms of the amount of content) with $15 (the equivalent of a monthly sub) being the absolute maximum.  To charge $20 for what RHC included is again, ridiculous.  RHC is a fine bit of content, as I'll get into shortly.  But there is nothing in it that justifies the kind of cost Bioware imposed on its players.  It really sets a bad precedent in terms of the game's future, in my opinion.  If they think that a major content patch is worth $10 to people already paying $15 a month, what are they going to charge for larger content releases in the future?  Or is the future of SW:TOR going to be made up entirely of small releases like this that we will be continually overcharged for?  This is where Bioware really lost me.  Not because of what RHC is, but because of what it isn't, and what Bioware thinks it is worth.

All that having been said, RHC is not without it's good points.  Makeb is a fun and interesting planet, easily in the upper tier of SW:TOR's locales.  It is not a planet I dread having to spend time on like other pits of despair like Taris or Alderaan.  I think Bioware did a good job in terms of tuning the questing and combat on the planet.  You get fights between large groups of weak enemies (even larger than on previous planets) and a lot of fights against Elite mobs that end up feeling challenging and rewarding.  So RHC definitely gets kudos for its questing and combat design.  Also of high quality is the storytelling.  I understand (but am disappointed by) the shift to a single faction story rather than class based stories, and both the Republic and the Empire tell a good story.  I would have to give a slight nod to the Imperial storyline as the Republic one ends up being a bit too cliche for my taste, but your mileage may vary.  All in all, the content that RHC offers is good content, up there with some of the best examples that SW:TOR already had to offer.  So if you enjoyed what the game was already giving you, RHC will not disappoint in that regard.

(Quick side note on the highly dramatized "same sex" flirting options introduced here... it is much ado about nothing.  It's mostly harmless innuendo you can direct at NPC's, not even your companions.  It feels like the whole topic was nothing but a publicity stunt for attention.  If you were hoping for actual same-sex romance options, you won't get them.  Go load up Mass Effect 3 for a FemShep shower scene if that's your thing.)

Overall, if you like SW:TOR you'll like RHC.  It just gives you a little bit more of what you were already getting.  As I said, my problems with it are in terms of "packaging" rather than what is actually in the package.  If you were "on the fence" about the game and waiting to see if RHC would change it in some significant fashion that would impact your perception of the game, it doesn't do that.  And as a non-subscriber I would find the $20 price point rather prohibitive.  I don't know if the offer still exists after the launch, but I was able to buy a "package" with 30-days of game time and the expansion for $25, essentially getting RHC at the subscriber price.  I then used the month of sub perks to power level my Smuggler to 55 and run my Bounty Hunter through the Makeb content.  This was worth the cost in my mind... barely.  But paying $20 straight up for RHC is robbery, in my opinion.

Next Time, As Telara Turns

I was going to make this a single post comparing and contrasting RHC with RIFT's Storm Legion expansion, but this ran a little longer than I had planned so I'm just going to split it into two different posts.  So check back tomorrow for my initial impressions of Storm Legion.  (Spoiler:  I liked it better than RHC.)

27 May 2013

Something or Nothing: Maintenance vs. Shutdown

This past weekend Massively posed the question, "Is permanent 'autopilot' preferable to shutting down an MMO?"  Normally I wouldn't go out of my way to address a question like this, but browsing through the responses, I was reminded of a couple of realities that I have commented on before in my blog's previous incarnation.  So I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about them again for the benefit of those who are new to the blog because they affect many aspects of my opinion and commentary regarding MMO's as a whole.  It mostly has to do with a group of players that I refer to as "The Informed."  We'll get back to that concept in a bit, but first I'll touch on some of the other comments people made.

Opinions are like...

The responses fell into three general categories.  The first was, "Is this really a question?  Of course we would rather keep playing, even with no updates or support!"  These folks were generally of the opinion that games are supposed to be fun, and so long as the game IS fun, it doesn't need formal support and people can continue to play it if they find enjoyment in it.  I found it interesting that some people observed that this is essentially what games USED to be before the advent of DLC.  A game was what it was.  There was no updates, addons, etc.  You had to be able to enjoy it simply "as is."  Now when we buy a game (MMO or otherwise) it is almost expected that we will get MORE of it somewhere down the line.

The second category were those who said the game should continue to run, so long as it contained enough content to remain enjoyable for more than just a few weeks or months.  Replayability was also a factor for these folks as well.  Essentially the game either needed to be fun enough to play over and over, or have enough built in content so that repeating things would not be an issue.  Mention was made here of World of Warcraft as an example of a game with sufficient content that "replay" would generally not be an issue.  I would tend to agree.  Whether you like them or not, you have to admit Blizzard has gone out of their way to build in things to do within their game.  On the other side of the coin, people brought up some of NCSoft's shutdowns like Tabula Rasa and Auto Assault.  Why keep games running when there is nothing to DO in them?

But it is the third category of responses I want to address the most, because these responses return to my point about The Informed and how the MMO industry is perceived.  This third group of responses returned to the old "Themepark vs. Sandbox" argument essentially saying that if a game was player driven and had mechanisms for player created content, formal developer support is not even needed aside from infrastructure and customer support.  Now I will say up front that Sandbox advocates are probably the most vocal minority in the MMO community, even more so than the hardcore raiders or PvP types.  If you listen to these folks, Star Wars Galaxies is the greatest MMO ever made and we should all still be playing Ultima Online.  I have no problem with either of those games, or Sandboxes in general, but their passion proves my overall point.

The Vocal Minority is NOT a Majority

The Informed is a term I use to refer to the portion of the MMO community that is "active" in the sense of reading or writing blogs, reading or posting on forums, and keeping up with news regarding the industry.  By definition, you and I both are a part of this group.  We take a higher degree of interest in what goes on in relation to the games we play and the industry as a whole.  But what we in this group tend to forget, is how SMALL of a group we really are.  Different people throw around different numbers and I won't bother to quote them here because they are mostly either anecdotal or pure guesswork, but suffice to say that The Informed make up a very small percentage of MMO players.  But because we are vocal, because we share our opinions, because we are up to date with what is going on, we tend to fall into the trap of believing that WE represent the opinions of ALL MMO players.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The question Massively posed and the responses regarding Sandboxes is a perfect illustration of this point.  If Sandboxes were truly as popular and well received as these responses would make you think, then one would assume that Sandboxes would be the dominant form of MMO today, but even a more casual follower of the industry knows that this is far from the case.  Sandboxes are largely dead, in the Western market most certainly, and even in the overall industry.  Aside from small niche games, EVE Online carries the Sandbox torch almost alone in the West, with the upcoming ArcheAge being localized for Western markets by Trion (wondering if they are having second thoughts on that investment after End of Nations essentially died and Defiance is limping along at best.)  So what we have is a disconnect between the opinion of a vocal minority, and the reality of the industry itself.

Why does this matter?  Because it creates a sort of... miscommunication regarding what the industry as a whole should look like.  Publishers and developers understand this reality.  They know that the people who post on their forums and blog about their games only represent a small percentage of their potential customer base.  So who do they make their games appeal to; that small group, or a broader constituency?  The answer is simple economics.  They make games to make money.  That is why the MMO market is dominated by Themepark style MMO's and (increasingly) by "free-to-play" payment models.  These are the games that appeal to the broad base, not the desires of The Informed.  Now to be sure, publishers and developers know that The Informed can create (or destroy) the public perception of a game, and so great efforts are often made to appeal to us.  But at the end of the day, our needs and opinions are not the primary motivation.

(This is also where Kickstarter and other "crowd-funding" platforms can come in, as the success of projects like Star Citizen and Camelot Unchained can attest to.  But that is a topic for another post of its own someday.) 

23 May 2013

A RIFT and a Raptr

One of the biggest stories recently was Trion Worlds announcing that RIFT would be joining the ranks of "free-to-play" next month on June 12th.  I was excited and unsurprised by the news; excited because I enjoyed RIFT quite a bit while I was subscribed to it, but left it for the "greener pastures" of games that let me down.  And unsurprised because the industry trend is already leaning heavily towards various forms of free-play and the ranks of games that still require a mandatory subscription is dwindling by the day.  In fact I can only think of two off the top of my head... World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI.  No, EVE Online doesn't count in my mind because PLEX can be bought in-game strictly with in-game currency thus bypassing the subscription entirely.  

RIFT was one of the last "holdouts," and this was unsurprising too considering public comments from Trion in the past adamantly stating that RIFT would maintain the subscription model.  Of course these comments were thrown back in their face by upset members of the community who felt betrayed.  In Trion's defense, I think they fully meant those comments when they were made.  I don't think there was a "hidden agenda" to cheat subscribers in the wake of the Storm Legion release.  The market changed in ways Trion didn't predict, and free-play became a reality they had to embrace.  Adapt or die.  I think those people who are upset by Trion's decision would be even more upset when a game they apparently love would be forced to shut down because it was no longer profitable. 

Catching a Raptr to Telara

So while I was cruising the RIFT website looking at the F2P information, I noticed a promotion they were running with Raptr.  If you installed their spyware desktop application and logged a certain number of hours playing RIFT, you could earn rewards like costume gear, pets, and free copies of the game.  I already had the client reinstalled as I was using RIFT Lite to putz around in the game, so I figured this would be a good opportunity to score a free copy of the expansion and some free game time so I could play "for real" between now and June 12th.  But here's the funny part... apparently the Raptr promotion had been running since the last week in April, but after Trion's F2P announcement, a LOT more people became aware of it and the keys for the free copies of the game dried up almost immediately.  This was due not only to F2P interest but current members "stacking" keys to earn extra game time, as each code came with 30-days of game time.

Nobody was pleased with the situation.  Trion was upset at people "cheating" the system and getting free time.  Players were unhappy, especially those looking to play in June, as a free copy of the game would expand the number of character slots and other perks they would have after F2P.  And I have to imagine Raptr wasn't really happy as it was drawing them some negative publicity.  So after some tweaks on Trion's part (removing game time from accounts that "stacked" keys, and current accounts no longer being awarded game time) the keys were restocked and there was (some) rejoicing.  I was disappointed that I couldn't get the game time for my old account, but I went ahead and redeemed a code to upgrade my account to Storm Legion so I could use the new souls later.  I also acquired a second code and created a new account to play on in the meantime.

Telara Revisited

Using this new account I was no longer restricted to RIFT Lite and could explore beyond the starting zones.  Granted most of this content is not new to me, I saw all of Mathosia and the Ember Isle before leaving RIFT previously.  But while the content was familiar, some of the game mechanics had changed in the meantime, which is certainly to be expected considering that an entire expansion had been added to the game in my absence.  And this is something Trion still deserves credit for.  They give you your money's worth in terms of content.  Storm Legion was in and of itself a massive expansion in terms of content, plus the rather meaty patches they continue to apply to the game.  In all fairness, this pace has slowed a bit since SL's release, but Trion still pushes out content faster than a LOT of other MMO developers. 

Much of what I enjoyed about the game previously was still there.  I still really enjoy the class system.  Yes any system based on talent trees will have issues with "false choices," in terms of obviously bad skills, talents, and combinations that are inferior to others.  But I think RIFT does a better job of offering customization than even more free-form systems like what The Secret World tried to do.  Zone events are still a blast, when there are enough players around to do them.  That's always been the "catch" with RIFT's "dynamic" content.  When you have a critical mass of population, they are great fun.  When you don't, they can essentially "lock down" a zone and make normal questing almost impossible as masses of invaders take over towns and eliminate quest givers. 

The combat is still responsive and smooth.  This was one thing I always admired about World of Warcraft and RIFT does it very well too.  For better or worse, combat remains the primary activity in MMO's and for a game to be enjoyable, the combat system just has to work.  RIFT just feels good to play.  Everything is smooth and satisfying.  As I've said in the past, I can't always put my finger on why one game or system works and another doesn't.  But I can tell you that when it does work, it can make a mediocre game great (WoW) or it can make an otherwise good game terrible (TSW).  RIFT's combat makes it fun to play in almost any permutation.  My old account has three level 50 characters and one level 40.  I've enjoyed all the different ways to play this game and I'll be looking forward to leveling those characters through the SL content next month.

Uncertain Future

There is a sense of unease in the RIFT community right now and you can see this by reading the forums, or listening in on the "global" chat channels in the game.  You have the expected naysayers who are convinced that F2P is the "end of the world," that masses of ignorant noobs will infest the game and make it unplayable.  These are also typically the people upset with Trion for "breaking their promise" and dropping the mandatory subscription in the first place.  Then you have the hopeful types who seem to understand that F2P was inevitable at some point and that the influx of new players will revitalize the game.  And finally you have all the new players who either through RIFT Lite or the Raptr promotion are already trickling into the game ahead of the June 12th F2P "launch."  The interaction between these three groups has been interesting to watch and for the most part, it has been more civil than you might expect. 

In terms of Trion's interpretation of F2P, I find it rather interesting.  Looking at the benefits reserved to subscribers, and the things that free players will have access to... I am hard pressed to come up with a reason why someone would want to maintain a subscription.  Obviously this is all in flux, and Trion will likely make revisions and changes to the matrix before it goes "live," but at the moment I have to say that if I were a subscriber I would be a little upset and feel like I am not really getting my money's worth for that fixed fee.  The biggest "gaffe" in my mind is no monthly stipend of cash shop currency for subscribers.  In my mind, that is almost benefit #1 of a subscription in any "freemium" type F2P model.  For RIFT not to offer that, in addition to the rather lackluster list of other perks, really seems to be shortchanging potential subscribers.  And with all the other content available for free, even the two new continents added in SL, again I see very few reasons to continue paying a fixed monthly fee. 

The other very controversial aspect of this F2P model is the selling of gear in the cash shop.  Now Trion isn't the first or only company to do this.  Many other games sell gear in their cash shops as part of their model, but at the moment it would seem that Trion is willing to sell everything short of the top tier of equipment in their shop (again this being subject to change in the meantime.)  So essentially you can never get THE best gear, but you can always jump straight to the "second best" level at any given time just by spending the bucks.  Obviously this has generated a lot of howling on both sides, but I'm rather unconcerned.  To me it just comes back to the same argument of trading money for time.  Player A spent a month farming dungeons and raids for gear set X.  Player B spent $50 to buy gear set X from the cash shop.  It just comes down to which commodity you as a player have more of... money or time.  Neither is an indication of player skill as far as I'm concerned.

(Although as a working dad, I have neither money OR time.  Where's my "shortcut?" :P )

Everybody seems to have an opinion on where RIFT is going, so what is yours?  Drop a comment and weigh in.

22 May 2013

My Kindgom for a WildStar

So I was fully intending to make my next post about the impending free-play conversion of RIFT and my perspective on the game...... and then the good folks at Carbine Studios dropped their latest "WildStar Wednesday" feature.  I'm going to include the links to all the good stuff up top here, and then I'll hit you with my perspective on them.

Official WildStar Page: Path System (Watch the two videos, awesome stuff)

Three Part Interview with Jeremy Gaffney on Massively

A Path for Every Player

Carbine has talked about the Path System before.  This is their way of addressing the Bartle archetypes commonly associated with MMO players.  There isn't a direct correspondence between the four Bartle archetypes and the four WildStar paths, but there are definite areas of overlap.  Suffice to say, Carbine is acutely aware of these different playstyles and is working to incorporate mechanics into their game to address them.  Now Carbine does a great job of explaining the basics of each path and you really should do yourself the favor of watching the trailers and reading their descriptions.  They have a flair and a humor about them that speaks volumes about the kind of people developing this game, and the kind of game they want to make.  These are people that (seem to) have a lot of fun doing what they do and creating this world for us to play in.  But in a nutshell, here's what each path is generally about:

Soldier-  Kill lots of stuff.  Defend fixed locations against waves of enemies.  Kill lots of stuff.

Explorer-  Find secret paths, out of the way things, climb mountains, race against time.

Scientist-  Lore geek.  Scan rocks, scan critters, get eaten by critter, scan inside of critter.

Settler-  Builds stuff.  Upgrade outposts, make campfires, set up travel points, make lots of friends.

But please, don't take my word for it.  Go watch those videos.  They are fantastic.  So before I get into my commentary on the Path System I want to make clear my biggest concern with WildStar as it is.  And I think it is important to do this because I am very enthusiastic and hopeful about this particular game.  So here's my problem:

WildStar sounds TOO good to be true.

I have been "burned" several times in the past couple years by games that I sunk my hope (and cash) into and came away sorely disappointed.  I bought a Collector's Edition of Star Wars: The Old Republic and cancelled my sub after a handful of months.  Yes I'm getting some of that "money" back now, but it was still a considerable waste.  Similarly, I bought a Lifetime Subscription to The Secret World and now I play the game very little.  There are other examples, but those are the two best ones.  I bought into the "hype," I spent my money, and it didn't pay off.  As a result, I am far more jaded now than I used to be.  This is why I am trying to be cautious with WildStar.  The devs are so excited about their game.  Each reveal is better than the last.  And I find myself thinking that this really could be the game I have been waiting for............

............ then I remember that I thought the same thing about RIFT, and the same thing about SW:TOR, and the same thing about TSW, and before all that Tabula Rasa (anyone else remember that complete bomb?)  So as much as I love everything I am hearing about WildStar, I am trying very hard to keep perspective.  I do not want to be "burned" again by buying into the hype around a game only to discover that it fails to meet any of those expectations.

All Roads Lead to... 

With all that being said, what does the Path System bring to the table?  Overall I think it is a great innovation.  I think one of the videos said it best when they said the Path System essentially gives a player more of the specific kind of content they want.  Picking a path does not exclude you from other forms of content.  It just provides more of what you like to do most and incentivize that content to help advance your character.  So Soldiers can still explore.  Scientists can still kill.  But you get to do more of the things that appeal to you best and are rewarded for doing so.  On top of that, it also encourages grouping.  By grouping with players of other Paths, you can also experience the content that IS reserved specifically for that Path.  And I am all for game mechanics that encourage players to group without making it feel mandatory, and this doesn't do that.

I think this system is a formal acknowledgement of something that developers have tried to address indirectly over the years with varying degrees of success.  It is no "secret" that players have different preferences.  It's not like Carbine "stumbled" on some new revelation here.  But to me the Path System seems like one of the most fully realized formal acknowledgement of that fact I've ever seen in a game.  They are saying up front, "Yes we know you are different and we want to address that."  Other games try to address it, but they aren't so upfront about it, or bury the mechanic in other systems.  WildStar is blunt and in your face with this (as it is with many other things too) and I think that is to its credit.

So where's the downside?  The problem I foresee is another "fact" about a lot of gamers.  We always want the best.  Are all four Paths going to be equally interesting?  Are all four Paths going to provide similarly valuable benefits and buffs?  Are all four Paths going to be sought after in the endgame for the specific attributes they bring to a group or raid?  If one Path is generally perceived to be "better" than the others for some reason... faster advancement, better buffs, etc. players will gravitate towards it even if it is not their preferred playstyle.  If Carbine thinks that someone will choose Explorer over Scientist ONLY because they like to explore more, even when the Scientist is "better," they are mistaken.  So it is incumbent on them to make sure they "balance" the Paths as much as possible to make sure they all remain appealing.  Otherwise the whole point is lost and the system will be sandbagged by "min-maxing."

The other potential problem is the "jack of all trades, master of none" conundrum.  What I mean by that in this context (and this is a problem for WildStar in general) is when you try and do everything, you are often good at nothing.  By trying to do what I mentioned above and make each Path interesting and useful, Carbine may inadvertently make them all lackluster and bland.  We've seen homogenization problems like this in many MMO's.  It is part of what drove me out of World of Warcraft.  In an effort to make all classes equally useful, Blizzard stripped much of the uniqueness out of ALL of them.  Shaman totems, Paladin auras, class specific buffs... all were sacrificed to try and "equalize" the usefulness of each class.  At which point, why have classes at all?  Carbine has to avoid that "trap" with the Path system as well.  It is a very difficult thing to balance, but if they can pull it off, it has the potential to be amazing.

Gotta Have Faith?

In the end, I think this system, like many things with WildStar has the potential to be amazing.  I WANT to be amazed by this game.  I WANT it to be everything it says it will be.  But at the same time... I have to temper my enthusiasm.  It is one thing to say you want to do something, it is another thing to actually DO it.  Let's see if Carbine can pull it all off.  That being said... zomg beta invite plz??!!?!??!??!!!

21 May 2013

Why a Vagabond?

Now that we're "back in the saddle" as it were, I thought the best place to start would be to explain the reasoning behind the "re-branding" of the blog.  Just a quick disclaimer before we begin.  If you are a new visitor (welcome!) you'll quickly discover that my posts are a bit on the lengthy side.  I'm not a "quick paragraph or two" type of blogger.  I know this style doesn't suit everybody, so I thought it would be best to mention up front.  So if you are the "TL;DR" type of personality, my commentary probably isn't the best for you.  But for everyone else, pull up your saddle bags and get comfortable.  Let's talk about what makes an MMO Vagabond.

From Permanent Citizen to Wandering Vagabond

When I first began playing MMO's, I was a "dedicated" player.  I played a single game, I invested all my time into it, and I didn't even really play a lot of alts.  Not counting my introduction via Guild Wars, World of Warcraft was my first MMO and I played it exclusively for the better part of five years.  Heck I didn't even have a second max level character until right before the end of the Burning Crusade expansion.  I was a "one game, one character" sort of gamer for a long time.  And then three things happened.  These circumstances changed how I looked at MMO's and how I spent my time in them.

The first is that the circle of friends I had gathered in WoW completely came apart.  As in all such circumstances, there was plenty of blame to go around, and I am more than willing to accept my share.  But that's all water under the bridge at this point.  Suffice to say that the "network" of friends and acquaintances that I had accumulated over my time in the game disappeared.  With that gone, my commitment to a single game was severely shaken.  MMO's are (or I suppose were) a social experience for me... logging in and talking with friends, doing things together, etc.  With that motivation removed, I saw little reason to continue to concentrate so heavily on a single game, in this case WoW.  The total mess that was the Cataclysm expansion sealed the deal for me and I walked away from the game entirely for a while.

The other thing that changed was that I became a father.  Now this is not to suggest that parenthood and gaming are incompatible.  They certainly aren't, or at least they don't have to be.  But it significantly changed the "pattern" of behavior that I followed while playing.  No longer could I sit at my computer for extended periods of time and commit myself to activities like organized raids, which was my preferred activity in WoW.  Those huge blocks of time that I could invest in raids, farming, and other activities were gone.  I had to think differently in terms of what I could do and how I could spend my time in a game.  And for me, this turned out to work much better when I could divide my attention between multiple games rather than being committed to just one.  I know that sounds counter intuitive on the surface.  How is dividing your attention more efficient?  All I can say is that it works out well for me, and is another part of the reason for me turning Vagabond.

And finally, MMO's themselves changed.  I am not going to turn this into an article on the merits of subscriptions versus free-play models, but the change in the MMO market has made dabbling in many games at once a more feasible option.  There was a time (not even that long ago) when free-play was either an admission that your game had failed, or it was a mindless grindfest.  Most free-play titles were poorly designed or imposed such extensive restrictions on free players that the "free" aspect was a tongue-in-cheek joke at the player's expense.  Fast forward to 2013 and this has all changed.  Free-play is no longer the realm of failures and grindfests.  It is the new "standard" that nearly every major title has adopted in one form or another.  The result is that a player can truly play for free, and has a much wider selection of high quality games with no barrier of entry.  It is actually possible to play and enjoy several free-play titles at once without any significant monetary commitment.  This was not the case even a year or so ago.

The result of all this is that I am no longer the "champion" for a single game and I am no longer committed to the subscription model of payment for MMO's.  A quick browse through my archive will show you I used to be a staunch supporter of subscriptions and happily paid them for a game I liked.  That is no longer true.  I appreciate the choice that free-play gives me and I appreciate the ability to buy things "a la carte" for a game when I need them, rather than being tied to a fixed fee via subscription.  That is not to say that I think subscriptions are bad, or that I wouldn't pay one in the future to support a game I truly love.  Each system has merits and I think that every free-play game should offer its players some form of subscription option.  But as I said, I don't want to digress and turn this into a "P2P vs. F2P" debate.  We will have plenty of other opportunities for that discussion.

Where my Wanderings Take Me

So that addresses the why of my Vagabond status, now let's talk a little bit about the where.  Right now I am bouncing around between four different titles and I will be adding a fifth next month when RIFT goes "free" in June.  This is my current "roster" of games in order of how much time I tend to spend on them:

Star Wars: The Old Republic
RIFT (after June 12th)
Guild Wars 2
The Secret World

These are the games I will be commenting on most as I will have the most direct experience with them.  And just to give you an idea of where I stand with them, here's a quick "two coppers" worth of thoughts on each:

SW:TOR-  The leveling and class stories are still a lot of fun.  The endgame is still a complete mess.  The free-play option IS pretty oppressive if you are a truly free player, meaning you didn't have an account prior to conversion and haven't spend any money in the shop.  But if you are Preferred status, and take advantage of the GTN (auction house) to buy unlocks with in-game currency, you can avoid the worst of the restrictions and enjoy the game fairly well with very little (if any) financial commitment.

RIFT-  This is a game I am excited to come back to as I always felt it was a very well produced and supported game.  I just couldn't justify paying for it.  That said, I've been using the RIFT Lite deal to putz around and reorient myself to the game prior to the free-play launch.  If you are a fan of the WoW style of MMO, this is the game for you.  I really enjoy their class system, and when there are enough players around, zone events are a ton of fun and one of this game's strongest points.

Guild Wars 2-  I bought this game wanting to like it, but something about it just never clicked for me.  I never bought into ArenaNet's hype about this game "reinventing" MMO's, so I wasn't disappointed in that sense.  There's just something about it that... isn't fun to me.  I can't exactly put my finger on it.  But I'll play for a while, and then get bored and just log out.  Even when I have the time to play it more, I just don't. 

The Secret World-  Similar to GW2, I just don't enjoy this game as much as I want to.  But unlike GW2, in this case I know exactly why.  The combat bores me to tears.  The costuming and character customization is great.  The storytelling is great.  The atmosphere of the game is great.  But actually playing it is not fun at all.  TSW's combat is boring and repetitive in ways that leave me begging for WoW's fixed spell rotations.  Almost every fight boils down to "Builder five times, finisher, finisher... dodge random monster attack... repeat."  Throw in a couple of extended cooldowns, and you have almost every combat in the game covered. 

TERA-  I'll admit I don't play this one very much at all.  I just boot it up when I want a total change of pace and want to gape at really amazing (for an MMO) graphics.  As someone who plays "hotbar/cooldown" style MMO's almost exclusively, jumping to TERA's combat system is always a bit jarring when I play it.  It is a combination of hotbars with reticule targeting and a lot of active movement, more so than other hybrids like GW2 or TSW.  I can't say anything about late game/end game mechanics as I'm no where close to it.  But if you want an "eye candy" MMO, this is the game for you.

Into the Future

So those are the games I will be discussing the most, plus a couple of others I may decide to dabble in here or there.  I'm undecided about giving Neverwinter a try.  It looks interesting, but I will admit to a severe bias against anything associated with Perfect World Entertainment.  Everyone has that one publisher or developer they just can't stand, and for me, PWE is it.  And I'm no fan of Cryptic either after the cosmic dump they took on Star Trek.  But the one game that is definitely on my radar for the future is WildStar.  If they can pull off even half of what they are promising, I would be a fan for life.  That said, I am really hoping for a beta invite at some point so I can see for myself before having to make a purchasing decision... if there is a purchasing decision.  With "free-play" dominating the market, it is an open question whether a new release like WildStar will even try a subscription-only model straight out of the gate.  Being under the NCSoft umbrella and GW2 being pretty successful with its "buy-to-play" model, my guess is that WildStar will adopt something similar.

Well if you survived reading all that, we are going to get along fabulously together.  Time to saddle up and digitally mosey on down the road to our next stop. :)

20 May 2013

Upgrade Complete!

Ok, so it's a Starcraft reference not an MMO, but close enough.  So I made the switch this evening.  New title, new look, new address.  I know changing the URL is inconvenient, but I decided if things were going to change, may as well just go all the way.  Why change at all?  Tomorrow's post will answer that in detail.  Suffice to say I am no longer the gamer that I was.  And where once I was content to make a single virtual world my home, the life of the Vagabond is my reality now.  So cozy up to the campfire and get ready to share some tales from the digital wilderness.  Home is where ever you find a rock to put under your head.

Impending Relaunch!

In the words of a certain deceased scientist, "Good news everyone!"  After a long time concentrating on my studies and my family, I am getting back to spouting my opinion about games.  A lot has changed in the MMO industry in the past eight months, and as I was reading the last post I made, it was interesting to see some of the things I said then in relation to things that have happened since. That post seems especially prophetic as both The Secret World and RIFT have dropped their mandatory subscriptions in the meantime.  As a once and future player of both of those games, I'll be having more to say about that soon.

But the blog itself is going to undergo a bit of a redesign.  I'll be changing the name and the URL to reflect the sort of "new" orientation that my commentary is going to take.  But I wanted to get this "news" post up first so just in case anyone is still following me out there (thank you) they won't be taken totally unaware when the URL changes and they end up on a "different" page.  So hopefully I can get that done in the next day or so and get back to a semi-regular posting schedule.