28 June 2013

The "Secret" to The Secret World

So I was putzing around in The Secret World again this week.  I've made no "secret" of the fact that this is a game I desperately want to like but I desperately don't like.  Unfortunately since I forked out for a lifetime subscription prior to launch, I still feel obligated to log in from time to time and at least try to get my money's worth out of it.  And every time my reaction is pretty much the same.  I log in, do a mission or two, sigh out of disgust and boredom, and log out.  I've always fundamentally understood the reasons for that, but this post on Massively really summed up my problems with the game, which are two fold.

When an MMO Isn't an MMO

Which one is the friendly tentacle?

The first is that TSW truly is an adventure game at heart, not an MMO.  And there's nothing really wrong with being an adventure game... except that it is trying to be an MMO.  If Funcom had released TSW as a single-player game along the lines of say The Longest Journey, it would have been perfectly fine.  I might not have bought it myself because straight adventure games really aren't my cup of tea, but I think it may have turned out as a better game.  The adventure aspects of TSW are spectacular.  The investigation missions, the cutscenes, and the storytelling are all top notch.  In some ways I even find them superior to Star Wars: The Old Republic.  I'm actually a fan of the whole "silent protagonist" thing.  I like it better than the "canned" responses in Bioware's titles.  At least Funcom isn't presuming to tell me how my character has to respond.  I can at least imagine my own responses.  But these aspects of TSW all work very well.

Where the game falls down so badly is in the implementation of all its MMO components.  Crafting and in-game economy is a complete joke.  Finding groups if you don't have a guild is a nightmare (no pun intended.)  Guild "functionality" makes you want to kick puppies and club seals and make dead baby jokes all at the same time.  Basically all the characteristics that make an MMO an MMO are either missing or terribly implemented in TSW.  It's almost like Funcom designed a single-player adventure game and then with 90% of the development done, decided to convert it into an MMO.  All those systems feel "tacked on," poorly designed, and badly implemented.  Yeah some of them have improved since launch (some guild and grouping functions) but others remain completely broken and useless (crafting and economy.)

So why is that a deal-breaker?  Many people, myself included, play MMO's basically solo anyway.  Who cares if guilds are broken and the crafting system is useless?  Just enjoy the ride and ignore those things.  Maybe I could, but TSW has another problem that is impossible to ignore.

Killing me with Boredom

I've talked about this before on my blog and the author of the Massively piece touches on it briefly.  TSW's combat is atrocious.  It's utterly and completely boring.  Yes the skill wheel allows for an infinite combination of abilities.  Yes you can essentially be any "class" you want.  But at the end of the day... the mechanics behind this system are just a complete bore.  Solo combat amounts to little more than building five resources, consuming said resources, and then building five resources again, then consuming said resources again.  Toss in an occasional dodge and an extended cooldown that you can use maybe once per fight, and you've just summed up 90% of TSW's combat.  Group play is slightly more interesting, especially for the various healing builds, but there you run into the standard MMO problem of ideal skill sets and all the vaunted "diversity" built into the system is lost.

This is why I log off in disgust after a couple of missions.  Those missions may be wonderfully written, the NPC's hilarious to interact with, and the story enjoyable to follow.  But as the Massively article puts it, the combat "gets in the way."  It is tedious and annoying.  For better or for worse, combat is much of what accounts for content in an MMO.  Now we can debate whether other activities should occupy the same prominence, but that is the subject of an entirely different article.  Combat is the primary activity in this MMO and that is why it falls flat.  It makes it impossible to enjoy the better crafted elements of the game.  And that is why I will probably never "live up" to my investment in TSW.  No matter how hard I try, I just can't make myself like it any more than I do.

Next week, why the Hex alpha/beta test can't come soon enough and why it is probably a good thing (for my pocketbook) that I "missed out" on the Kickstarter campaign.

27 June 2013

Technical Difficulties

Ahh technology, can't live with it, can't live without it.  I was supposed to have my post on my trip back to The Secret World today, but for some reason Blogger decided not to save my draft and "eat" it somehow.  Silly me didn't keep a copy in Word (like I usually do) so it's back to the drawing board on that one.  Maybe it really is a conspiracy.  The Illuminati are out to silence me!  *grabs tin foil hat*

Anyway, my apologies for the delay and I hope to have a "real" post up tomorrow.

25 June 2013

Whispers from the Past

So I had to do a bit of "silent running" this weekend.  Spending eight hours a day on the road will do that to you.  When you settle in to that hotel at the end of the night, the last thing you have the energy to focus on is a blog post... unless of course you would want to listen to me whine about the cleanliness of truck stop bathrooms or getting stuck behind RV's doing 65 in the "fast lane."  I'm sure there is some sort of potential MMO analogy I could make there, but it would require someone with a better sense of humor than I have.  I'm a rather somber fellow when you get right down to it... which brings me to the topic of today's post.

 And Who are you Again?

Right before I hit the road I got a very unexpected email.  Now I maintain several (probably too many) email addresses, each for different purposes.  This unusual email hit one of my "spam dumps," an address I typically give websites and businesses when they ask for customer data contact information.  To make a long story short, this email was spam, but it was unusual in terms of who it was from.  The email came from an old World of Warcraft guildmate of mine... someone I had run with for several years and had developed a significant friendship with.  However eventually I had to make a choice between this individual, and another very good in-game friend that had chosen a different path.  Needless to say I chose my other friend and let this person go.  That was a little over three years ago.

Now this email was not some sort of strange "Hey, nice to see you again" message.  Although truth be told, this person did have the kind of sense of humor that might find such a thing amusing.  But no, this was simply a case of a bit of malware probably getting into one of their accounts and sending out spam to everyone in their address book.  The actual email was an invitation to join some weight loss program with a new "miracle drug" plan.  So yeah, this was not an intentional contact on this person's part.  It was certainly no attempt to get back in touch with someone after three years.  And sitting there reading the "email," I knew that.  I knew it wasn't anything more than what it was.  But even still, it "bothered" me.

Shaped and Reshaped

It bothered me because it made me think about all the choices I made in terms of the games I choose to play and who I choose to play them with.  It made me think about why I find myself hopping from game to game and why I have no in-game friends or a community to call myself a part of.  It made me think about why I continue to play "massively multiplayer" online games when I play them almost entirely by myself.  Seeing this email from a person I never expected to hear from again brought to mind all the things I had "lost" over the years in terms of social contacts, acquaintances, and yes genuine friendships.  The email itself may have been meaningless, but the name attached to it was anything but.  And now I find myself asking the question, "How did I get here?"

The simple answer is that somewhere along the line, I became afraid.  I think back to my early days playing Guild Wars and then World of Warcraft.  I wasn't afraid to "put myself out there."  I'd ask for groups in chat, I'd respond to requests from others, I'd talk to people I ran into doing quests, etc.  These days?  I never do such things.  My idea of "asking for a group" is queuing up in the dungeon finder and waiting my turn.  I ignore people in chat looking for help with quests or wanting a group for something.  And I certainly wouldn't respond to a random guild invitation... like the one I got many years ago in WoW that set me down my path in that game for years by introducing me to my first in-game friends.  Somewhere along the road, I became filled with fear.  Fear that my performance would be adversely judged.  Fear that I would not meet someone else's expectations.  Fear that the friend I make today will abandon me tomorrow.

And if you read my blog in its previous incarnation, you might recall that I have tried to get over this fear.  First in Star Wars: The Old Republic and then again in The Secret World, I tried to put myself out there.  I posted character bios and background stories.  I made posts on the official forums for both games trying to be honest about the kind of guild or group of players I was looking for.  I tried to be more outgoing inside the games themselves, actively looking for groups and helping those in need.  But nothing much came from my efforts, which in the end only served to make me more fearful.  I play four "AAA" MMO titles, and my friend list in each of those games is entirely empty.  Not a single person sees me come and go from any of the games that I play... and truth be told, that is the real reason I am a "vagabond."  I have no ties to bind me anywhere I go.

Reclamation Project

For many people that would be just fine.  Again depending on what statistic you want to quote, the vast majority of MMO players are very similar in that they mostly play alone.  But there is a difference between playing "mostly" alone and truly being alone.  Most of those "solo" players still have friends, people they know, people they chat with, even if they don't play together all the time in the sense of raiding, or dungeons, or PvP, etc.  But I don't even have that.  I play in solitude and I play in silence.  Heck the only way I know I'm playing an MMO at all most of the time is when I head back to town and the trolls start another round of "anal" spam in whatever universal chat channels the game provides.  And that does not make me happy.  I got into MMO's because of the social aspect, and over the years I have lost that entirely.

I need to get it back.  I know you can't "reclaim" the past.  WoW will never be the game it was, no matter how much many of its current and former players wish it would be.  Similarly I cannot get back the friends I have lost.  They were lost due just as much to my choices and my actions as they were to decisions that they made.  And in many cases, unfortunately, I doubt most of them would be happy to "see" me again anyway... even the sender of the bit of spam that was the cause of all this introspection.  But that doesn't mean I can't find new friends or establish new relationships.  I just need to find a way to do it.  And I just wish I knew how.

Well anyway... if you're still with me after that little "sob story," I've got a follow up piece on my recent interest in online card games coming later this week as well as my latest attempt to "fall in love" with The Secret World............ again.

20 June 2013

Insert "Xbox 180" Joke Here

Since this is likely to be the "big" story in the gaming world for the rest of the week, I figured I would just pitch my two coppers in the pot now and get it over with.  I'm sure by now you've heard the news that Microsoft is "walking back" some of the controversial aspects of its upcoming Xbox One console.  Specifically, the "24-hour check in" requirement, and the restrictive resale and redistribution policies are being revoked.  Pretty much everybody was happy about these decisions.  Gamestop and Gamefly both released supportive statements.  And for those of you that are in the stock market, Microsoft's stock price jumped as well as Gamestop's.  Interestingly I haven't seen any statements from any of the major game publishers as yet.  I was always curious how they viewed this little "scuffle" between Microsoft and Sony in terms of DRM and redistribution policies.  I have to imagine that if I am EA or Activision or Ubisoft that I was "silently" cheering on Microsoft to prevail in this, but that's just a guess.

So let's look at the practical repercussions of this.  First, let's not mistake this for anything other than exactly what it is.  Microsoft did not want to do this.  Consoles aren't designed and developed overnight.  They certainly knew for years that this was the direction they wanted to go with the XB1.  For whatever reason, they decided this was the course they wanted to take and either misjudged or simply didn't care what the reaction of consumers might be.  Well, once they found out what the reaction of consumers was, their accountants did the math and realized that the cost of going forward with this policy would be higher than the cost of reversing it.  That's all, simple mathematics.  This was not Microsoft "seeing the light," or giving a damn about what consumers actually want.  This is a simple economic equation.  To go forward with the XB1 as designed was determined to be more costly than the hardware and software changes that would be necessary to "walk back" those changes.  So they walked them back.

That said, this is a major change for Microsoft to contemplate.  As we just noted, consoles are not developed overnight.  For Microsoft to do such a drastic change in such a short time is rather impressive and unprecedented.  XB1 is still scheduled to launch in November, so now they have five months to make all the necessary hardware and software changes, test them, and incorporate them into the system prior to launch.  Now I don't pretend to be an expert regarding hardware design or software engineering, so I really don't know how difficult a task this is going to be, but I can't imagine it will be easy.  In fact if I were an engineer in Microsoft's Xbox division, I would be sweating rather profusely right now. 

The other significant consequence is it brings XB1 back into competition with Sony's Playstation 4.  In fact, depending on how much your value console exclusives (or how much you are still creeped out by Kinect) I would argue it almost puts XB1 back in the lead.  Let's be honest, all PS4 really had going for it were its exclusives, and the fact that Sony is sticking with the "tried and true" policies regarding Internet connectivity, resale, used games, etc.  Some of the things Microsoft is doing with XB1 are very appealing in a general entertainment sense.  I downplayed them before because Microsoft seemed to be working so hard to emphasize them at the cost of true gaming, but when you look at it, the XB1 brings a lot of interesting possibilities to your living room.  Also you have to remember that the $500 price point "prices in" the Kinect as well.  Sony's equivalent device will be sold separately so if you want the same package, the price points become more similar.  So at this point it really just comes down to which console's exclusives you like more, and just how much the "always listening" Kinect might bother you.

Bottom line, the next generation console war is entirely up for grabs at this point.  Sony grabbed the initiative at E3 but to their credit, Microsoft decided they weren't going down without a fight and committed to a major change in order to level the playing field.  I know we still have a ways to go before the flag drops, but right now the pressure is on Sony to give us another reason to buy a PS4, because they just had their biggest "advantage" yanked right out from under them.

19 June 2013

Anachronism or Innovation: WildStar and Raiding

Earlier this week I talked about the changes upcoming to World of Warcraft's raiding model and some of the philosophical underpinnings of those changes.  At the end of that post I mentioned that another game was going a different route in attempting to appeal to its players.  Again, just as a disclaimer, WildStar is a game I am looking forward to and have high hopes for.  I am not trying to come across as a "fanboy," as I find them just as annoying as you hopefully do, but at the same time my optimism for this title likely still has an impact on my commentary regarding it.  So since I always try and be as honest with my readers as possible, I want to try and make that clear up front.  That said, let's take a look at a few things Carbine has said about their game recently and how it contrasts from some of the things Blizzard has been doing.

Dare to be... Different?

Before I get to raiding specifically, I want to comment on something that Carbine said recently that worries me a bit.  One Carbine developer called out WoW specifically claiming that WildStar will "fill the void" that WoW has created.  I am always leery when another MMO "calls out" WoW like this.  It typically never goes well for the game in question and makes me wonder what they really think is going on.  Trion tried this with RIFT.  I still recall the "You aren't in Azeroth anymore" ad campaign they ran.  No, you may not be in Azeroth but you are lifting so many game mechanics from there that you might as well be.  Trying to be WoW is a no-win situation.  I still don't understand why other games and other developers try to do it.  It never succeeds and it never pays off.  I had thought Carbine was unafraid to be different and try to set themselves apart.  Instead, it seems they are content to say, "See, we're just like WoW but better!" 

More than anything else, this has dampened my enthusiasm for WildStar.  I'm tired of games trying to be WoW.  Yeah I'm as disappointed as many others in terms of where Blizzard took their game, and I understand that is the frustration that Carbine is trying to channel here.  They are trying to appeal to people who enjoyed a different "version" of WoW.  And I will confess, if Blizzard rolled WoW back to a model akin to what existed in Wrath of the Lich King, I'd happily go re-subscribe.  But is that what we want our games to be doing?  Do we want to be constantly looking backwards?  Hindsight is always 20/20 and it is easy to judge in retrospect, but shouldn't gaming be about innovation?  Shouldn't it be about making things better rather than simply rehashing the past?  I suppose the same argument could be applied to the once vaunted Nintendo.  All they seem to be doing these days is releasing old classics with new coats of paint and hoping nostalgia will carry the day.

I don't want to turn this into a commentary on the gaming industry as a whole, but I just want to say that it sure seems that innovation as a whole is sorely lacking.  Just looking back at E3 and the major game announcements we see nothing but sequel after sequel, remake after remake, with hardly any new games, franchises, or concepts.  We get Call of Duty #4532.  We get Final Fantasy XIIIXIIV.  We get Super Mario Redux 3D Galaxy 64.  Where are the new games?  Where are the new ideas?  It feels like everyone is stuck in "play it safe" mode.  Don't rock the boat.  Don't try anything different.  Just push out Madden 501 and Halo 53 and let the masses gobble it up.  I know I am exaggerating to a degree but it feels like all the "daring" is gone from gaming these days.  Much like Hollywood, producers and publishers don't want to take any chances for fear of coming up short.

Path of Least Resistance

So that brings us back to WildStar and Carbine's take on raiding and content accessibility.  I've been trying to find the exact spot where they talk about reintroducing 40-man raids, but this article was the best I could find.  It does explain their philosophy and their overall goal of "bringing back" large scale raiding.  What philosophy is at work here and how does it differ from the direction Blizzard is taking WoW?  Well first of all there is a difference in terms of how each game is delivering its story based content.  For WoW much of its continuing story takes place within the raid instances, and this has been true for almost all of the game's history.  Once you reached the current level cap, the only way to really "see" where the game is continuing to go was to raid.  Each expansion's "big bad" is conquered in a raid instance.  By contrast, Carbine is saying that in WildStar, story content will be delivered primarily through quests and "solo dungeons" at level cap, not through large group content such as raids.

For a player like myself, this is an important distinction.  I have no problem with raid content being exclusive and difficult to access.  I even have no problem with the best gear and equipment being available in said raids.  My problem is when the next "chapter" of the story is hiding behind those "gates."  It's like getting to the last chapter of a book and then being told by the author that in order to read that last chapter, I have to find ten, or twenty, or forty other people and we all have to read it at the same time.  Huh?  Ok sure, I as a single player-character should not be able to take down <insert big baddie here> by myself, but there are other ways around that issue rather than forcing players to raid in order to complete the story.  So by separating storytelling from raiding, Carbine is giving themselves more latitude to be more exclusive in terms of their raiding content without denying players access to the overall story that they are trying to tell.

So if raiding is not a storytelling device, what is it for?  Well as their statement on raiding philosophy would imply, it is a place where players can test themselves.  It is a venue for accomplishment.  It is a way for like minded players to come together and overcome large challenges.  It is one activity among many that a player can choose to participate in once they reach the level cap.  The "tightrope" that Carbine has to walk here though, is difficult.  The majority of gamers are not going to spend their time doing something if they can do something else for a better reward.  I touched on this in my discussion of WildStar's path system.  Even if a player is an explorer at heart, they are not going to choose that path if being a soldier provides superior benefits.  The same argument extends to raiding.  There certainly is a demographic out there that will applaud returning to large scale raids.  But unless the benefits for completing those raids are superior to the benefits gained from other, less strenuous activities, those raids will be neglected.  It's just simple behavior. 

But at the same time, if Carbine offers only large scale raiding as a way to improve your character, then the rest of your players, the vast majority that either cannot or will not participate in raiding, are left with no alternatives.  They eventually hit a "wall" past which they cannot advance, and that is a bad place for any MMO player to be in.  And here the raiders will say, "But you don't need raid gear to solo quest, or PvP, or run dungeons.  Raid gear allows you to do just that, raid."  Correct.  But MMO's are dependent upon progression.  Tell a player that their character can no longer "advance," and the primary motivation for continuing to play is negated.  So as "bold" a move as it is for Carbine to reintroduce large raids, they need to be very careful in terms of balancing the accessibility of that content with the rewards that it provides.  Gamers will always opt for the path of least resistance, and in this sense I think WoW provides a clear "warning."  When Blizzard equalized the rewards for 10-man and 25-man raids, 25-man raids basically died.  Why?  They were harder to organize for the exact same rewards, so what was the point? 

Time will tell if WildStar's approach will catch on.  As you might imply, I have my doubts.  I think MMO players these days are generally "spoiled" by the ease of acquiring rewards and accessing content, and any attempt to "roll back" that situation is going to be met with complaints.  But maybe Carbine has the guts to try anyway, and that would be gutsy with NCSoft controlling the purse strings.  If any publisher is willing to cut a game loose at the first sign of trouble, it's them.

18 June 2013

Back to the Future: Online Card Games

While cruising the list of blogs I read frequently, I was over on Tobold's blog and read this post on a game called Card Hunter.  Now my interest in online games has run almost exclusively towards full-blown MMO's and so something like an online card game was not something that had occurred to me before as something I would be interested in.  In fact, my first impression of the idea was rather negative as I was a beta tester for the original Magic: The Gathering Online over ten years ago and was extremely put off by the experience.  To be fair, that was mostly because Wizards of the Coast totally changed the "business model" halfway through the beta and decided to charge the same price for digital cards as they did for physical ones.  At that point I said, "Thanks but no thanks" and gladly walked away.  And to my understanding, the M:TGO client is exactly the same now as it was then and has seen basically no improvements or changes since.  But I guess you can afford to do that when you really don't have any competition.

Getting back to Tobold's post and Card Hunter, I've always had a soft spot for card games and for pen and paper RPG's.  I played both kinds of games extensively when I was in high school and college but had to abandon both hobbies after finishing college because I simply had no one else to play with.  So after getting past my initial bad vibes from my old M:TGO experience, I went over to the game's official website and started looking around.  Needless to say I was intrigued, enough so that after an hour of browsing and reading some other previews and impressions, I signed up for their beta.  The game itself looks like an interesting fusion of tabletop RPG and collectible card game.  Matches take place on isometric "boards" that lay out a dungeon or scenario and your characters and NPC's move around in a style similar to a tactical RPG like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics.  Combat is handled by a card based system where your attacks, spells, and other actions are determined by cards which are tied to the equipment that each of your characters is wearing.  So deck building is based around the gear that your characters have, rather than specific cards themselves.

Overall the system looks rather intriguing, although the aspect of the game I would be most interested in, co-operative scenarios, will not be available at release, but that is understandable.  Games of this type are more PvP focused simply by design but the idea of a collectible card game with a multi-player PvE aspect brought me to another game I had totally overlooked before now, Hex.

Is a True PvE Experience Possible in a TCG?

I had seen references in the MMO blogosphere to Hex before, mostly coinciding with their (very successful) Kickstarter campaign.  I paid little attention to the game because as I mentioned previously, an online card game was about the last genre on my mind in terms of games that might interest me.  Now I'm sort of kicking myself a little because after peeking at what Card Hunter had to offer, I was very intrigued by what I saw in Hex.  I was never the best Magic player around, but I loved the game.  I loved building decks, trying wild concepts, and I was even a decent competitive player.  More often than not I could make Top 8 in a Friday Night Magic draft and similar Limited formats.  Constructed events were less kind to me mostly because I could not afford to buy the cards necessary to play the best decks in those formats.  Although honestly my best memories of my Magic playing years were massive, free for all, multiplayer games.  My zany deck building ideas were much easier to adapt to that environment.

The more I read about Hex, the more interested I became.  Yes in many ways it looks like little more than a Magic clone, but to me that is a good thing.  Magic is the one game that pretty much any TCG enthusiast is going to have at least a passing familiarity with, and so why not borrow those concepts to hook people into your game?  Although I will agree that perhaps they borrow a bit too heavily in some respects.  A starting HP of 20?  Four copies of a card per deck?  Seven card starting hand size?  60 card "standard" for constructed decks?  These are all standard conventions of Magic and could easily have been tweaked for Hex.  To import so many rules directly from Magic does seem to be a bit of overkill.  But general concepts like game phases, tapping and untapping, etc. I have no problem with them using.  If it ain't broke, (and won't get you sued for infringement) don't fix it.

So even if Hex was just a Magic clone, I would be curious enough to give it a try.  Being an online game it would remove the biggest hurdle to participation in these kinds of games, finding enough people in your area to play with.  Instead of having to try and round up a bunch of people for a draft, you can get one going pretty much anytime you want.  And for someone like me who's spare time is sporadic enough as it is, this would be a godsend.  But Hex is trying to be even more than that.  They are saying they want to be the first MMOTCG and incorporate a significant PvE experience complete with crafting and other customization functions.  Now they haven't shown much of this at all yet.  They have talked about dungeons, which seem much like the scenarios that Card Hunter is offering, where you as a single-player go up against AI piloted decks.  But they are also talking about raids, co-operative PvE scenarios where three players together take on the AI.  It is these PvE features that really put my interest over the top and made me take the game seriously.

Show Me the Money!

Their Kickstarter campaign is long since over, but on their website you can still purchase a $50 package for the game.  Granted what you get for those $50 is far from the same value you could have gotten during the Kickstarter, but no point crying over spilled milk.  I wasn't interested then, that boat has sailed.  I am interested now and if I want to get a peek at the beta, I have to pay up.  So I am considering doing just that.  People are saying on the Hex forums that boosters will quickly fall under the $2 price point due to people dumping them on the market, and so the $50 "slacker" package loses its value quickly.  That may be true, but I will likely save those boosters for drafting anyway and try to build my PvE decks through PvE (ie. free) means.  I don't see myself doing competitive constructed tournaments, for the same reason I didn't do well with them in Magic.  I understand that is where the "high rollers" will be playing and that arena doesn't interest me.  PvE dungeons and raids and the occasional side draft would be more than enough to keep my interest, and maybe even justify the $4 VIP "subscription" that Hex offers.

So we will see.  Hopefully I will get into the Card Hunter beta at some point, and if I pull the trigger and buy in to Hex, I will let you know.  In either case, it'll be one more thing for me to talk about on here from time to time.

17 June 2013

Raiding is a Lost Art?

So over the past couple weeks, some interesting news items have come up regarding raiding in MMO's, specifically in World of Warcraft and the still-under-development WildStar.  Before I get into the specifics of what both Blizzard and Carbine had to say on the matter, I want to take just a moment to talk about what exactly we mean by raiding.  Now since you are here reading an MMO blog, it might be safe to assume that you probably understand what raiding is.  But there are two problems with this assumption.  The first would be that not every MMO player is a raider, even in the casual sense.  Even in this day and age of "Looking for Raid," smaller group sizes, and smaller instances, it still remains the case that a significant number of MMO players do not participate in this kind of activity, mostly by choice.  The second problem is that even for those who do participate in it, there is some debate as to what "qualifies" as raiding.  Just to stick with WoW as an example, there are many in organized raid guilds that hardly consider "LFR" to be raiding at all.  But if we define it simply as a large group activity, it certainly qualifies. 

So what is the standard?  Group size?  Difficulty?  Rewards?  For my purposes, I simply think of raiding as a large group activity, something that cannot be completed either alone or in the default group size.  I have always thought of MMO content in sort of three "tiers."  You have solo content, things you can do entirely on your own.  You have small group content, things to be done in a fixed group size of some small number, usually somewhere between four and six people.  And then you have large group content, things designed for a number of people above whatever that "small group" number happens to be.  This "tier" is what I define as raiding.  Pretty much anything you can do in an MMO fits into one of those three "tiers" somehow, even informal activities like role-play, although obviously there are rarely any "game enforced" mechanisms in terms of player limits on RP. 

How Many Does it Take to Storm a Castle?

If we accept then that raiding is simply defined as a large group activity, then the announcements by Blizzard and Carbine recently deal with details of the raiding arrangement, specifically the "ideal" group size and how to accommodate people trying to participate in this kind of activity.  Let's start with Blizzard.  They announced that in the next major content patch, 5.4, a new raiding system would be implemented.   This would introduce a third "lockout" in which a player could participate in a "flexible raid" composed of anywhere from ten to twenty-five players.  This would be separate from the LFR lockout and the standard 10/25 lockout.  Raids in this mode would be more difficult than LFR in terms of mechanics, and would scale to match the number of people in the raid.  Rewards would be handled similarly to LFR in that each raid member would get a "roll" on appropriate items from the boss' loot table and awarded either gear or gold depending in the result.

So let's look at this in terms of what it means to the philosophy behind raiding.  To me this is just the next logical step in a progression within MMO development to allow more players the option of participating in large group content.  Years ago, raiding was the purview of a select few, those who could set aside the time and organize themselves appropriately.  Many "veterans" have commented that raids were not more difficult in terms of mechanics, but the largest obstacles involved finding enough players with the requisite time and getting them all to show up at the same time to attempt the content.  As someone who served as an officer in a 40-man raid guild during vanilla WoW I can attest to this.  Herding forty players to the raid instance at the same time was often more difficult than any of the bosses behind said portal.  And many bosses were simply a contest of numbers... elemental resistances, damage output, etc.  Many of these metrics are still critical to raids obviously, but these sorts of "number checks" seemed more prevalent then than today. (Yes I know, the "enrage timer" has become a rather standard feature as a "DPS check," but I think that is a consequence of other sorts of design features.  With good healing rotations, a boss encounter could be extended almost indefinitely.  Developers have decided they don't want such situations to be possible.)

As noted above, not every MMO player participates in raiding or even wants to.  But as time went on, more players wanted to "peek" behind that curtain, and more developers wanted the content they worked so hard to create to be experienced by their players.  Let's be honest, no matter what you do for a living, there is a sense of satisfaction that comes from others being exposed to it and enjoying it.  Whatever statistic you want to quote, the fact remains that developers were sinking tons of time and money into raids that a small percentage of their players were using.  So logically, they wanted to increase that number.  Fast forward to today.  "Flexible raiding" is simply the next step down the road where smaller base raid sizes and LFR have already gone.  Now you don't even need a smaller (but still fixed) number of players, you can simply take whatever you have available. 

As someone who bounced from one "casual" raiding guild to another throughout much of Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, this will be a godsend to smaller and more casual guilds.  Now they don't have to worry so much about available attendance on a given night.  If they have 14 people online, you take 14 people.  You don't have to worry about leaving four out, or missing six more, or anything like that.  It is a huge logistical hurdle to eliminate.  Being stuck in that "limbo" between the small raid size and the large raid size is a nightmare for many guilds.  No one likes to be benched or left out, and this almost eliminates that problem entirely. 

The Realm of the Elite?

Of course not all the reaction to this announcement was positive.  As we've already discussed, raiding used to be the realm of a select few, and that select few still exists within the MMO community.  These "hardcore" players enjoyed the exclusivity that raid content provided to them.  Some enjoyed the challenge, others simply wanted something to "lord over" other players, but regardless there was something special about that content and those people who had access to it.  Heck even though I was a raider myself at the time, there was still something inspiring about seeing well-equipped raiders in the common areas, sporting their gains from instances where many could not tread.  And so there is something to be said for this aspect of raiding that is diminished by innovations like LFR and "flex" raiding.

The counter argument to this is that such exclusivity does still exist in the form of the heroic versions of the fixed member raids.  LFR or "flex" raiding may give you access to the content itself, but it will not provide the challenge (or reward) that the fixed heroic versions of that content will provide.  Is that enough of a difference?  Does a reskinned version of the same epic sword justify the additional difficulty and effort of fixed heroic raids?  That is really the conundrum developers face, and I think it is a valid question to ask.  Is the difference in rewards by itself enough, or should there still be pieces of content that are only available to the "select few" that are willing and able to meet those requirements?  Blizzard's answer is obvious.  All content should be open to all players in some form.  And since where WoW goes, other games are almost forced to follow, it seems this trend will extend to other games as well. 

But not everybody is following along with that concept.  Another game and its development team are taking a somewhat different approach to accessibility.  Next time I will look at some of the comments from Carbine and their philosophy regarding raiding and access to content in WildStar.  Are they trying to "turn back the clock," or are they trying to find a way to service that "elite" community while still providing something special for the rest of their players as well?

13 June 2013

Wall Street Geeks out: Xbox One vs. Playstation 4

In all the analysis, and opinion, and hand-wringing, and shouting over the two newest entries to the console gaming market, I have to say I find it hilarious to listen to the financial talking heads pretend that they know anything about video games.  Most of them probably think a Halo is only something you associate with angels, or that Drake is just a really bad rapper.  To listen to them wax poetic about how Microsoft's corporate fortunes are now tied to Master Chief and how important the next version of KillZone is just makes me laugh.  But be that as it may, everyone has an opinion on what is going to happen now in the next round of "console wars."  Before we get to that though, just a brief word (and obituary) on Nintendo.  How the mighty have fallen.  Even during the dark days of the GameCube, the Big N could still rely on the latest version of Mario or Zelda to save them from total obscurity.  I don't think that is the case any longer.  Most people don't even include the Wii U in discussion of serious game consoles anymore.  I'm not sure if they will survive as a producer of hardware by the end of this cycle.

The Not-so-good, Bad, and Really Ugly

The main question that presents itself in the contest between the Xbox One (XB1) and Playstation 4 (PS4) is:  Who is the target audience?  If we are talking about the hardcore gaming demographic, they are feeling rather put off by Microsoft and the XB1, as evidenced from the rather amusing video that was put together which emphasized the TV and multimedia capabilities of the XB1 rather than its gaming merits.  While I'm sure there are plenty of fantasy football enthusiasts among gamers, I don't think they care if their gaming machine can track their stats in real time while they play Halo.  Ok... maybe they do, and that's what Microsoft is counting on.  But forgive me if I sound skeptical about that feature being a top priority among the hardcore demographic.

Then of course we get to the more controversial aspects of the XB1.  First you have the mandatory internet connectivity.  No you don't have to be constantly connected to play single-player, offline games.  But the XB1 needs to "phone home" via the Internet at least once every 24-hours or it "bricks" itself essentially and you can't play anything.  I don't think this is going to be a dealbreaker in the long run.  Yeah it is going to suck for deployed military, and yeah you can't take your XB1 camping with you, but again to the hardcore gaming segment, this is mostly going to be a non-issue and I would argue also a non-issue to the "casual entertainment" segment that Microsoft is also courting.  Most of those folks will be online all the time anyway to do things like streaming Netflix or Hulu Plus. 

But then things really start to get painful.  Microsoft is going "all in" on digital distribution with the XB1, essentially making the physical disc copies of games meaningless.  Now this very well may be the trend of the future, but I think Microsoft is getting ahead of itself here and trying to dictate a change in the market rather to responding to customer needs.  Furthermore, and more importantly, this transition is changing the way used games will be handled on the system.  Honestly I still don't fully understand the policy as it stands.  Loan once?  Recipient has to be on your Friend List for 30 days?  Publishers can choose to block transfers and sales entirely?  It is a convoluted mess.  Long story short, you do not own your games on the XB1, you simply possess a license.  And again, this may be the trend of the future, but it is not yet the "here and now," and XB1 may pay dearly among the hardcore gamer segment for trying to dictate this change.

Finally there is the price point.  XB1 comes in at $500.  This was a full hundred dollars above most estimates, and more importantly, $100 more than Sony is pricing the PS4.  This is a big "psychological" number and is really going to turn off a lot of potential customers outside the hardcore gaming demographic.  Most people who already own a DVR or some other kind of TV device are not going to shell out $500 for something new that just happens to play games.  (I'm not going to get into the "controversies" around the Kinect and whether it is listening to you all the time and recording you banging your wife between Halo sessions.  I'll save the tin foil hat stuff for other folks.)  Gamers will pay $500 for the latest and greatest, but with the negatives noted above, that segment is already skeptical about the XB1 and so this high price point does the console no favors.

Who are we Fighting For?

The PS4, as you might assume, avoids many of these issues.  It does not require an Internet connection at all to play single-player, offline games.  It does not have any kind of strange used game policy.  Sony is promoting digital downloads also, but not to the level Microsoft is.  And the PS4 is going to be cheaper, as noted above.  So as I said at the outset, the question really is who are both companies trying to appeal to?  Microsoft tried to "get back" the gaming segment with their E3 presentation, highlighting important franchises like Halo and totally downplaying the multimedia aspects of the console.  Sony gleefully "kicked" Microsoft when they were down, emphasizing the noted differences in policy between PS4 and XB1. 

Microsoft is obviously gambling that they can attract more of the "casual entertainment" market, much like Nintendo tried to do (and mostly succeeded) in the last generation with the Wii.  But as Nintendo also found out with the Wii, innovation alone does not move consoles.  You still need to make good games.  The Wii (and the Wii U) were both done in by the lack of titles that people actually wanted to play.  So if Microsoft thinks that XB1's fancy multimedia capabilities will carry the day, I think they are sadly mistaken.  And I think their E3 presentation shows that they know it too.  They need hardcore gamers to buy the XB1 at launch and generate momentum for the system.  Then as time goes on, they can rely on the "casual" segment to buy in and carry things forward.  But those people are not early adopters.  They don't need the "latest and greatest."  Time will tell if the strategy will pay off.

11 June 2013

Ain't Karma a Bitch

What was it I just said a few days ago?  Oh yeah, that I shouldn't plan things in advance for the blog because something always seems to come up that prevents me from following through.  So what did I do this week?  I planned something in advance that I wanted to do on the blog.  And what happened after that?  Something came up that will prevent me from following through.  Yes ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Murphy remains a cold-hearted bastard.  So without boring you with the mundane details of my life, I will simply say that I will not have the time to "traverse" all the games I planned to this week and so I won't be able to do those single-day write ups that I had planned. 

Instead I'll just be making a couple more general opinion posts regarding the Xbox One/Playstation 4 reveals and probably something on the future of raiding in MMO's as both World of Warcraft and the upcoming WildStar had some interesting things to say regarding raids recently.  So yeah, it's not what I had hoped to do this week, but sometimes you just gotta roll with the punches.  It's not like I'll run out of things to potentially talk about what with E3 going on this week also. 

10 June 2013

Watering Hole #1: Marvel Heroes

Our first stop along the trail this week is the newest kid on the block, the recent superhero release Marvel Heroes.  Honestly I'm not really going to have a lot to say about this one because despite the fact that it is a game that I really wanted to like... I don't.  I spent quite a bit of time with the game since its 4 June release, and I have to say that it was basically just one disappointment after another.  I'll try to come up with a few "nice" things to say, but in general there just aren't many positives in my opinion.

Failure to Launch

The problems with Marvel Heroes start right from the moment you try and download it.  To get the client directly from Gazillion, you have to agree to also install some malware third-party software called BitRaider.  Now I tried to do a bit of hunting on Google to see what this thing was all about.  I assumed it was something along the lines of Pando Media Booster, which is another favorite of free-to-play games to save their distributors on bandwidth.  Suffice to say I went with the other option of playing the game, using the Steam version of the client.  I know, Steam is just malware of a different sort, but it is the "devil I know," as opposed to the devil I don't, so I didn't feel it was any added risk.  Any game that requires you to install additional software gets a thumbs down in my opinion though, so Marvel Heroes started off on the wrong foot before I even booted up the game.

Then there is the cash shop.  Just as a disclaimer, I never intended to spend a dime on this game, no matter how fair the cash shop was or not, so bear that in mind as I discuss this.  But frankly, I haven't seen a more blatant rip off in a game marketed mostly in the US/Europe.  Yeah "nickel and dime" and "pay to win" cash shops are the order of the day in Asia and other markets, but in the US they tend not to do so well.  Marvel Heroes seems to be trying to break that "mold."  Their shop is an unabashed cash grab.  In fact the whole game feels like nothing but a cheap ploy to cash in on the recent popularity of Marvel franchises like Spider Man and Iron Man.  (Iron Man is the most expensive character to unlock in the shop currently.  Coincidence?)  You essentially get two heroes for free, one when you first start the game and one when you finish the prologue.  I ended up with Daredevil (by choice) and The Thing (after prologue.)  You can supposedly get heroes as drops, but I'm guessing that is exceedingly rare as it has yet to occur for me.  I did get a costume as a random drop, but with twenty something heroes, the odds of a costume drop matching one of your two "free" heroes is similarly small, as it was in my case as my costume was for Rocket Raccoon.

So you get into the game, you finish the prologue and end up in Avenger's Tower, and begin the game proper... and realize that the game itself just isn't that much fun.  It is a fairly standard ARPG Diablo clone, but even with Diablo 3 failing to live up to expectations, it is still far superior to Marvel Heroes.  Everything about the game is just lackluster... from the attacks and animations, the skill trees, the gear system, inventory management, etc.  Nothing about the gameplay is much better than "meh."  For example, crafting materials do not stack, which means your very meager inventory space fills up even that much more quickly.  There is no auction house, so if you do end up with a costume for a hero you don't own, you can't even efficiently swap it to someone who can for something you can use.  The MMO elements of the game feel generally useless and unnecessary.  The game would function fairly well as a single-player ARPG with optional co-op like what Diablo 3 and Torchlight 2 already do.  Forcing people into common areas where fifty versions of Storm are all trying to kill the same batch of nameless thugs is just silly.  It's unnecessary.  Basically there was no reason to make this game any sort of MMO aside from the cash in aspect.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Does the game do anything well?  Yeah, sort of.  The story is actually fairly interesting.  I'd rate it a bit better than Torchlight 2's story overall, but not on the level of Diablo 3.  Say what you want about Blizzard, they still really know how to present a story when the chips are down.  Their cinematics are still second to none.  But Marvel Heroes does tell a fairly engrossing story, for an ARPG at least.  It does make good use of its source material.  That's pretty much the only positive thing I can say about the game though.

Aside from that, I really cannot recommend the game, nor can I say that I will be revisiting it after this week.  It really only appeals to two kinds of people... diehard Marvel fans and diehard ARPG fans, and even those two groups would be best served elsewhere.  For the Marvel fans, the egregious nature of the cash shop and the immersion shattering common zones would remain offputting.  For the ARPG fans, there are just much better games than this one.  "But Marvel Heroes is free-to-play" you say.  Yeah but a free bucket of manure is still a bucket of manure.  If I really want to play an ARPG, I'll load up Torchlight 2 for a very modest price.

So this vagabond is going to gladly hitch up his pony and mosey on down the trail to his next watering hole.  I don't know when (if ever) I'll head back to this one.  It was a singularly unrewarding experience. 

09 June 2013

Hit the Trail with the Vagabond

So this next week I'm going to do something a little bit different.  Since one of the "themes" for my blog now is the sort of "wandering" nature of my playing habits, I thought I would take you with me on a little stroll through each of the games I'm playing and just talk about what a typical day's experience in those games is like for me.  Essentially I'd like to give you an idea of what each of these games offers to a "transient" player such as myself and maybe that would help you judge if those games would be a suitable "fit" for you or your playstyle.  I'm hoping to keep each post relatively short, certainly shorter than my usual "wall o' text" opinion pieces.

Tomorrow I'm going to start things off with my newest game, Marvel Heroes, and then I'm going to peek back in on The Secret World and Guild Wars 2.  I'll save RIFT and Star Wars: The Old Republic for later in the week because I've already commented on those games at length recently.  I don't know if I'll make it around to TERA this week or not.  Maybe I'll do that instead of RIFT or SW:TOR actually.  My problem with TERA is the control scheme is so different from my other games that it is hard to just "dip my toe" in it... but boy is it a gorgeous game.

Anyway, check back tomorrow when I'll be getting my superhero on.

06 June 2013

Wild(Star) Speculation: Hidden Classes

So I was browsing the WildStar website yesterday, wondering how many body parts I could donate to secure a beta invite and still remain healthy enough to enjoy said beta, when I got to the page about their classes.  No one has been talking much about the classes in the game, not even Carbine themselves.  Much of the official information lately has focused on the Path system, with nods towards the economy and crafting systems in the game.  The last big reveal in terms of classes was the unveiling of the Stalker class, which is going to be WildStar's take on the traditional "rogue" archetype.  There have been four classes confirmed so far and two more yet to be announced.  So I thought this would as good a time as any for some wild speculation and guess as to what the two remaining unannounced classes might be.

What We Know

So just a quick summary of the classes that have been revealed and the RPG archetypes that they can be associated with.

Warrior-  Your standard melee hack 'n slash and tank type.  I don't think there is an RPG anywhere without some version of this guy in it.

Spellslinger-  Your not-so-standard ranged gunner.  Feels like a cross between an archer/rifleman archetype with some mage characteristics.  Generally fits the profile of a damage focused ranged attacker.

Stalker-  Your standard sneak 'n stab melee type.  This is WildStar's take on the rogue... stealth, duel wield, does it from behind.

Esper-  Your not-so-standard magic user.  Feels like a cross between a mage type with some priestly characteristics.

Overall we have two melee classes and two ranged classes.  Both melee classes have tanking abilities and both ranged classes have healing abilities.  Carbine seems to be operating on the general principle that every class will be able to focus on either damage exclusively or one of the support functions, be it tanking or healing.  And I have to say I am much in favor of this philosophy.  I know there are many players that still shy away from supporting roles and just want to "pew pew" their way to glory, and such classes/specs should always exist.  But I don't think it is good design anymore to "lock in" an entire class as purely damage.  I think the option should always exist for them to do more if they choose to.

In terms of archetypes, we have the warrior, rogue, and mage types fairly well covered.  I hesitate to classify the Spellslinger in the ranger/hunter type because of the lack of any kind of pet, which is usually associated with those classes.  So what "gaps" exist?  What sort of archetypes or functions are not represented by the classes that have been revealed?  Two possibilities jump to the front of my mind.

Pikachu, I choose you!

The reason I don't really think of the Spellslinger as a hunter type is that I think one of the unknown classes is a pet class.  Now "pet class" doesn't automatically equate to "hunter" and pets can be many things.  Mages in World of Warcraft and RIFT both use elementals as pets, as do shamans (in WoW) and druids summon fae folk (in RIFT.)  Warriors in RIFT have a pet spec also.  And then of course in Star Wars: The Old Republic, everybody has a "pet" of one kind or another.  So I don't think it is too much of a stretch to imagine that one of the classes Carbine still has up its sleeve is oriented around the use of pets or summoned creatures.  Given the overall flavor of the WildStar universe, my best guess would actually be something like an Engineer type class that summons robots, automated turrets, and other such things. 

I could see this class as either melee or ranged.  It could be the type who gets into the fray and smashes things with hammers and oversized socket wrenches.  The Engineers in Torchlight II and Guild Wars 2 both incorporate aspects of this, and honestly that would appeal to me more as a gamer.  I also think it would fit nicely in WildStar's kind of zany sense of humor.  What could be more amusing than a dainty little Aurin whacking things with a wrench bigger than she is?  Or on the other hand it could be a sort of "heavy gunner" type using big weapons like rocket launchers or mortars.  The aforementioned Spellslinger really doesn't break out the "heavy artillery," so there is definitely still room for a class that uses absurdly large weaponry.  There are lots of different directions this archetype could go, which is why I think it is one of the unannounced classes.

The biggest point against this type of class that I have noted from forums and WildStar fan sites is that WildStar's more mobile combat would make pet micromanagement even more difficult than it already can be.  Will pets "know" to move out of enemy telegraphs or into friendly telegraphs?  Games like WoW stripped much of the micromanagement out of pets by streamlining their care and training, and giving them the ability to automatically avoid things like AoE damage and the like. Pet management can be a tricky thing under the best of circumstances.  Heck I remember back in the vanilla WoW days when you were basically forbidden to use pets in dungeons or raids because they would invariably ruin an encounter somehow.  So Carbine will have to take care to make sure that any pets are actually helpful, rather than something where the rest of your group groans when you pull one out.

Guided by the Light

My thought for the other unannounced class is a bit more of a stretch.  Based on what Carbine has shared with us, the world of WildStar is not a very "religious" place.  Yes the Eldan are revered, and yes the Luminai are viewed similarly by some within the Dominion, but there has been little said about any kind of organized religion or supernatural forces potentially at work.  So that is an archetype that is certainly missing from the current lineup of classes... some kind of priest, cleric, or paladin... or perhaps even a druid or shaman.  But that's also why this guess is a bit of a stretch.  What we know about this game setting so far does not really lend itself to that kind of a spiritual or religious presence.  That's not to say Carbine can't surprise us, and it would open up a whole new avenue of lore to explore.

Like with my Engineer idea, there is a lot of room for flexibility here.  Heck I'm not even really suggesting a single class, but more of an idea with a multitude of potential implementations.  Depending on what "niche" Carbine might most be trying to fill, you could have melee based characters like a paladin, ranged like a priest, or mixtures like a druid or shaman.  If you forced me to make a single guess though, I'd like to see something akin to a Paladin or battle cleric.  Both of the confirmed melee classes seem to be "purely" melee, which is fine, but I think this leaves an opening for a hybrid incorporating magic and other abilities... I'm thinking something like WoW's enhancement shaman or retribution paladin.  But whatever direction they might go, I think there are a lot of viable possibilities here.

The biggest point against this kind of thing showing up is just what I already mentioned.  The world which Carbine is creating does not seem to be a very religious one and so the presence of a class like this would be difficult to explain at best.  But at the same time it may simply be a portion of their vision they haven't shared with us yet.  Maybe the next "WildStar Wednesday" will be all about the various cults and sects of Nexus. 

So those are my two guesses... an engineer type pet class, and a paladin type melee/magic hybrid.  Of course like any wild guess I'm probably completely wrong, but in the slim eventuality that I'm right, at least now I'm "on the record" and can gloat about it. ;)

04 June 2013

Rise of the Hutt Storm Legion Cartel: Part 2

Ok so after a bit of delay, here are my initial impressions of the other MMO expansion that I have been playing a lot lately, the Storm Legion (SL) expansion for Trion's RIFT.  The first thing to get out of the way right up front is that this is a much more traditional expansion in the general use of the term.  Much of my discussion of Rise of the Hutt Cartel had to do with how an expansion was defined and how that release failed to meet the general definition in my mind.  SL does not have this problem.  This is a full-blown expansion in every sense of the term and will appear very familiar to those with experience with games such as World of Warcraft.  So let's talk about what SL brings to the table.

The Good

SL brings a significant amount of content to the table.  The level cap is increased by ten.  Each "calling" receives a new soul which in many cases brings a totally new playstyle to that calling.  For example, the mage now has access to the Harbinger soul which turns the mage into a melee based class (and is a ton of fun.)  I found the cleric's Defiler soul a bit underwhelming, and the warrior's Tempest didn't really appeal to me because I've played so many ranged classes in the past, but overall each new soul brings something worthwhile to the table.  There are a handful of new dungeons with respective expert (heroic) modes, and of course new raid content as well.  SL also adds two new continents to Telara.  Taken together, these two are roughly equal to the "old" content of Mathosia and the Ember Isle, so SL essentially doubles the size of the game world.  Overall you are getting a considerable amount of content.

Which brings us to another "good."  You can basically get this for free.  Yes, I know RIFT itself will be free-to-play in a couple weeks, but if you want to get in "early," the aforementioned Raptr promotion is still running.  So if you are willing to put up with their spyware social media client for a few days while you rack up the required hours, that avenue is still available.  And even if you don't, when RIFT goes F2P on June 12th, the only portion of SL you will have to pay for are the four new souls.  All the other content... dungeons, raids, and the two new continents will be free and available to all players.  Dear Bioware/EA, this is how you offer value to your customers... not by charging them $10 or $20 for what amounts to a major content patch.

Overall you really can't beat the "value" that SL offers.  It gives you a lot of things to do.  Trion has done a lot of things over the past year or so to try and improve things like PvP (Conquest mode) and group PvE (Instant Adventures) and while these are not features of SL specifically, they are all things that benefit from what this expansion brings to the table.  And in the end, isn't that what an expansion is really all about?  It's about making the core game itself better and more enjoyable.  Yes there needs to be content, but underneath it all there needs to be a game worth playing and SL does a good job of "complimenting" the experience that is RIFT.  Unlike some other recent expansions that basically made me give up a five year investment in the game and want to gouge out my eyeballs (I'm looking at you Cataclysm.)

One last thing I'll begrudgingly include as a good aspect of SL is its questing model.  I know it has been much maligned (especially for the reliance on the new Carnage quests) and there are some issues that I have with it as well and I will talk about those in a minute.  But the overall model itself is perfectly serviceable, and in my opinion still an improvement over the model used in the core RIFT game.  Old RIFT was much like any other themepark MMO in terms of questing.  You ride into a town, you see a bunch of people with "!" over their heads, you go do a bunch of random tasks, and you collect loot and XP.  Standard stuff.  SL changes this model in that the number of quests is significantly reduced.  The typical pattern in SL is you obtain a central story quest at the quest hub, then when you get to the quest area you will find quest items lying around and an associated quest to collect them, and then one or more Carnage quests that involve killing the mobs that inhabit that area.  So rather than a quest hub being a "forest of '!'" there is usually one central quest and the associated quests are handled differently.  Now I do have issues with Carnage, but as I said, overall I enjoy this presentation more.  It allows you to focus a bit more on the story being told and not on all the "fetch and gather" kinds of side quests.

The Bad

Nothing is perfect, and SL is no exception.  There are some major issues with this expansion.  Now just as a disclaimer, I have not "completed" everything in SL yet.  So if some of my complaints are addressed later, please feel free to let me know, but this is how I see things right now.  One of the biggest problems in SL for me is scaling.  This is a problem for any expansion as you have to adjust the new content for a variety of players... those who spent a lot of time at the old level cap, those who did not, those who obtained a lot of high level gear, and those who did not.  That said, SL's scaling feels like a brick wall at times.  My warrior was fairly well geared at level 50.  I was not a raider, but I had a good amount of high level crafted gear and items from expert dungeons and the associated currency.  I was not walking around in "quest greens" when I hit the SL content.  I had a good solo spec (copied from a forum guide, I will admit) and good gear... but SL still hit me like a ton of bricks.  I died a few times within the first few quests in the SL starting zone.  I can't imagine how difficult it might be for someone who is in "quest greens" and not spec'd properly.

Now at first you might attribute this to perhaps a failing of skill, or unfamiliarity with the game after coming back, or various other issues.  And you might be right... except that it happened again as soon as I hit the next "tier" of zones.  I finished both SL intro areas (something I would recommend everyone should do) but as soon as I moved to the next zone, I ran into the same issue I had at the beginning.  I got massacred several times within the first group of quests in each zone.  Ok, so fool me once... shame on me.  I'll chalk up the first time to my failings.  But for the same thing to repeat itself a few levels down the road?  Nope, shame on you this time, Trion.  The scaling of the content is just not good.  The mobs have tons of HP and hit like trucks... and I was running a very survivable build.  I'm all for my MMO's being "dangerous."  I don't want to faceroll all the content in it.  But to be greeted by significantly tougher mobs that essentially slam a door in your face every time you enter a new zone is not the way to encourage people to play your game.  It can be very offputting.

The Ugly

Which brings us to my biggest problem with SL as a whole.  I had heard about and read about how much of a "grind" the leveling in SL was and I had hoped it was an overstatement.  I had hoped it was just the "sour grapes" of people spoiled by games like WoW which basically do everything in their power to get you to max level quickly.  I had hoped that things in SL worked at a reasonable pace.  I was wrong.  SL is a horrific grind.  Now granted Trion does give you a fair amount of selection in terms of what you will grind.  You can do every single Carnage quest you come across.  You can babysit outposts and do Onslaughts.  You can chain queue PvP Warfronts.  You can run IA's all day.  But regardless of what you choose, you will grind... and grind... and grind.  Focusing solely on the story based quests and even the associated side quests will not allow you to progress sufficiently to move from hub to hub and zone to zone.  You will need to do more.

Like the scaling issue above, SL's pacing is horrendous.  After finishing both of the introductory zones (and doing all Carnages and a few Onslaughts) I was level 52.  After completing one of the next tier of zones, I was halfway to level 53.  The amount of XP needed per level is just obscene, and it becomes more so with each step towards level 60.  The Planar Attunement (alternate advancement) system does give you the feeling that you are still advancing your character, albeit slowly, but the levels themselves absolutely crawl by.  The end result is that the content feels tedious.  You feel forced to do things that you might otherwise enjoy.  This is really my problem with the concept of Carnage quests.  It is one thing if I choose to do them because I'm a "completionist," or I want the associated achievement, or some other kind of reward.  But they don't feel like a choice.  They feel like something I have to do simply to play the game.  I was working on some quests last night and when I got my third different Carnage in a particular area... I just sighed and logged off in the middle of no where.  It was pretty disheartening.

The Summary

Despite its shortcomings, I do think SL is a good expansion to a good game.  I'm not in a hurry to get to the new cap.  I'm not a raider anymore.  I can't sit around and farm dungeons all day.  So for me the grinding aspects are more of an annoyance than a true impediment to enjoying the game.  Sure I'd like it if the content were tuned a bit better, but it isn't a deal breaker.  And when taken in comparison to what Bioware/EA foisted on us with Hutt Cartel, at least Trion gives you a lot more bang for your buck, and you sure as heck can't beat "free" which is what SL essentially is now.

01 June 2013

MMO Don't Work in the US?

This is why I should never "plan" on what I am going to write about on here.  I have the attention span of a............


............... oh look a kitten!  Yeah I still plan to write about Storm Legion.  I have half the post sitting in draft form in Word.  But every time I go to finish it, something else seems to grab my attention.  So to quote a "beloved" MMO developer we all know and love, it will be finished "when it's ready."  Until then, another bit of news caught my attention that I wanted to share my opinion on.  Apparently MMO's don't work in the US.


The Definition of Success

For the TL;DR among us, the chairman of Take-Two Interactive (maker of games such as Borderlands, Grand Theft Auto, and BioShock) claimed that MMO's cannot be successful in the US market and that only two would qualify as successes in his mind, EverQuest and World of Warcraft.  Now let's give this gentleman the benefit of the doubt and assume he isn't an idiot.  The success of the two titles he mentioned cannot be questioned, but at the same time one cannot question that other MMO's have been successful in the US market as well.  So the issue then becomes what is meant by success.  Obviously he holds some threshold in his mind about what makes a successful MMO, and based on that criteria only two games meet his definition.  Being a corporate official, it is safe to assume that "success = profit," but even that would not exclude many other MMO's that have made a profit in the US.  So how much profit is enough?  This returns to another interview with another figure in the MMO world, Scott Hartsman.  I've linked this interview before but I'm going to do it again in case you haven't read it before.  I'm also going to use one of his charts for illustration because I absolutely love it.


Courtesy:  Massively

Now Hartsman is talking up front development costs for an MMO, not profits in the strictest sense, but the two concepts are directly related and the problem Hartsman illustrates is (in my mind) part of the reason Zelnick of Take-Two thinks MMO's "don't work."  Zelnick looks at the development and maintenance costs of an MMO and has determined that based in part on those costs, MMO projects cannot be sufficiently profitable as to qualify as "successes" and therefore will not be supported by his company.  It also brings to mind situations like Square Enix saying that the Tomb Raider reboot "disappointed" despite selling almost 4 million units.  If that's a disappointment, what would have been a success?  This brings us full circle back to Hartsman's original argument and that is the expectations for success and profitability in MMO's are reaching a completely unrealistic level.  It is getting to the point where your game either needs to really be the "next WoW" in terms of long term profit, or your game has failed.

This is bad news for everyone.  If the bar is going to be raised so high that only another game on the level of WoW will be considered a success, then fewer and fewer games are going to be made resulting in fewer and fewer choices for the gamer.  Syp even hypothesized that this was ultimately the reason for Blizzard scrapping Project Titan.  They were afraid of the expectations.  They knew that whatever followed WoW would have to be better than WoW.  Zelnick makes passing reference to this in his interview, noting that a "competitor" had recently scrapped an MMO project.  So if even the mighty Blizzard is intimidated by the ever changing definition of "success," what hope does that leave for lesser developers trying to make their mark?

Well obviously it is not all doom and gloom.  Not every developer (or even publisher) holds to the same definition of success that Zelnick and his ilk imply.  Even other big companies and associated IP's like The Elder Scrolls Online are willing to take their shots in the MMO marketplace.  So it's not like Zelnick holds a monopoly of opinion.  But he is an illustration of a scary trend.  More "big name" publishers may shy away from MMO's due to the perceived costs and few "successes."  Take EA for instance.  They thought Star Wars: The Old Republic was their golden ticket.  And while free-play salvaged that title, it certainly did not perform as they hoped.  Will they green light another MMO project in the future?  Although I think many gamers would say "good riddance" if EA decided never to make another MMO.

Crowdsourcing and Kickstarting

The customer can always "vote" with their wallets in terms of what companies and games to support.  And this is perhaps even more true with MMO's and their sustained nature... be it through conventional subscriptions or cash shops, MMO's encourage you to spend money over time.  Well, what if you could spend that money up front in terms of supporting a game?  If publishers are unwilling to support MMO projects due to the problems mentioned above, are there alternatives?  The latest trend involves "crowd sourcing," seeking donations from the community at large to support a project.  Kickstarter is the most well-known example of this, but there are others as well.  Is this the future for games deemed "too risky" by conventional publishers, or perhaps even developers who simply want to be freed from the expectations of said publishers?  Time will tell.  I am curious to see how projects like Star Citizen or Shroud of the Avatar work out.  If they prove successful (there's that word again) it could permanently alter the way games are made.  But it seems we are a few years yet from these projects coming to fruition.  In the meantime, my approach will be to wait and see.