Tenfold Hate

Smashing the Calculators
January 29, 2008, 4:42 pm
Filed under: MMORPGs

There are always whisperings of MMORPGs moving away from the classic Gygax-inspired class specific and level-based progression systems that have been with us since the master introduced D&D to the world in the seventies. While I’d like to see games over the next decade introduce different types of character progression, I must admit, there is something satisfying about that type of quantifiable achievement–a concrete affirmation of advancement often times absent in real life. Other quantifiable in-game measurements (from gear bonuses to skill/talent tree “builds”) always seem to dodge the bullet when this issue comes up.

I think the main flaw of current MMORPGs besides static, unchanging worlds is that it’s turned many gamers into statisticians more than role players. Numerical stats are a necessary evil in pen-and-paper because they effect the outcome of the dice. Computer gaming has thrown a veil over the mathematics of things to a certain extent, leaving probability and outcomes to the programmers and giving us “real time” play, mouse clicks, and button mashing over dice rolling.

It’s about time gear and character attributes catch up. Knowing the exact durability or attribute bonuses of a particular item is handy–I’m not arguing that, but I think it saps a good part of the life and imagination out of the game, especially as more and more players enter the genre who don’t come from an RPG background.

Number crunching sucks the life out of the more fantastic elements of fantasy, with players dissecting their characters like a frog in biology class. Sure, you get to know the bits and parts of the subject, but by the time you’re done, old Kermit is lifelessly pinned to the table. There’s nothing inherently wrong with existing formulas and predefined ways to “build” your character–it’s just a shame that it takes so much of the thought and spirit out the more important elements of game play.

What’s It Gonna Take?
January 23, 2008, 2:08 pm
Filed under: MMORPGs

Disclaimer: This post starts on one tangent and ends abruptly on another. 

The recent delay in Age of Conan’s release got me thinking: Who cares? I don’t know if it’s post-Christmas malaise or if I’ve just had a crappy week at work, but recently I’ve lost my zeal for 2008’s forthcoming releases. Only time will tell, but all this downtime has got me thinking. Are AoC and/or WAR really gonna have what it takes to pull us away from whatever we’re currently playing–or will it be like 2007 where we dipped our toes in the tepid waters of LOTRO, Tabula Rasa, or Vanguard only to find ourselves back in WoW, EVE, or EQ2 within a matter of months?

Sure we’ll have player-built cities. Sure we’ll have epic seige battles. But is that enough to keep my curmudgeonly head occupied? And as far as AoC’s “radical” combat system, I care as little about incorporating ‘twitchiness’ into MMORPGs as I do about crafting. A stiff middle finger in the air to the lot of them. And let’s face it, adding elements that have long been standard in the rest of the videogame industry and dropping them into an MMORPG is about as radical as giving your grandmother a mohawk. She’ll just end up looking silly.

Both AoC and WAR have a lot going for them (mainly two stellar IPs) but with AoC moving more and more towards a PvP/PvE hybrid during the course of it’s development, and WAR’s inescapable stylistic simularities to WoW (thanks to Blizzard borrowing quite liberally from Games Workshop’s Warhammer tabletop game in the first place), I’m questioning whether these games will look and play differently enough from the current crop of titles to really grip us.

AoC’s PvE/PvP hybrid approach is something right up my alley but there’s something about what I’ve seen of the game so far (or maybe it’s what I haven’t seen) that’s just not grabbing me by the throat the way a true Cimmerian should. One of my big pet peeves is I like whacky races in my fantasy gaming. Sticking to humans kind of dulls things down for me even though there is no place for, and no viable way to, add high fantasy player characters into Conan lore.

I’m excited about WAR, but I want the best of both worlds. I’m not a hardcore PvPer, but I like to have that option available to me. I never played DAoC, so I’m betting WAR will have enough things that’ll appear fresh to me to keep me subscribed for a while. The question here is will a PvP-centric game be enough to keep me long term? Player versus player adds a refreshing randomness to in-game conflict, but will capturing, losing, and defending the same cities over and over again lose it’s luster after a few months if there is not a well fleshed out PvE option to turn to when we need a breather from hacking and cleaving our fellow players?

Before any hardcore PvPers jump down my throat, I don’t think WAR should water down it’s focus on PvP for PvE by any means–WoW did this already and I’m sure AoC is well on it’s way to doing it again. It just strikes me as odd that of the two MMO play styles (PvP and PvE), PvE can definitely use the most work, yet the two big titles of 2008 promise to be PvP-centric. The fun in PvP is the spontaneity of events and organic chaos that ensues when there’s another person at the helm of your opponents.

PvE needs to learn some lessons from PvP to thrive. Once it moves away from static environments and scripted, respawning mobs, it will have as much to offer as PvP. I’m just not quite sure we’re there yet.

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Dreadsteed of Xoroth, Revisited
January 22, 2008, 10:46 am
Filed under: World of Warcraft

Over the weekend, my level 60 undead lock on Sen’jin finally completed his epic mount quest–after doing all the required steps leading up to the Dire Maul run well over a year ago. The quest itself was not terribly difficult (our group consisted of two locks, a pally, a rogue, and a level 70 priest) but it did take a decent amount of time.

I had the fortune of finding a very good pick-up group. My horde toon pretty much solos. Lacking the extensive network of guildies I have on Eldre’Thalas, I’d pretty much dismissed the possibility of finding a competent group willing to run an instance that no one runs anymore.

I like how WoW post-BC still requires locks to go to Dire Maul and shammies and pallies to hit up Scholo for their epic mount quests. It gives new players the opportunity to experience some of that oft-neglected pre-BC content that is glossed over in their frantic grind to get to Outlands. With Blizzard’s ability to keep players hooked on repeatable content, I’m shocked that they haven’t done something with the pre-BC instances to keep them more lively.

There are simply beautiful instances (Zul’Gurub immediately comes to mind) that have turned into ghost towns simply because Blizzard has given new players zero motivation to make the trek into them.

I’d love to see Blizzard give players more motivation to revisit many of these wonderfully rendered yet ignored “classic” instances, whether by nerfing them to 5- or 10-man groups or creating heroic versions of the instances a la Outlands. The only problem I see with this is Blizzard’s love of adding grind where it’s not necessary.

I don’t want to haul ass to any instance, old OR new, to faction grind again and again–but maybe the occasional seasonal event–like the Headless Horseman in Scarlet Monastary–would be a good way to make sure some of these great instances can be more than yesterday’s news. I mean, think of the minute percentage of players who actually got to experience BWL or Naxx or AQ40 the first time around?

Take these places and put them in the hands of the casual players who may never have had an opportunity to see them the first go around. The hardcore will always have their flavor-of-the-day conquests and fresh raid content to gnaw on that Blizzard throws their way. It’s clear that a lot of work went into each of these dungeons. Yesterday’s hard work and artistry should not be ignored just because there’s a new kid on the block.

The Viability of Microtransactions
January 16, 2008, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Gaming, MMORPGs

There is a great thread that’s been going for several days now over at The Common Sense Gamer instigated by some comments SOE’s John Smedley recently made regarding microtransactions. I urge you to check it out if you haven’t read it yet.

There is no question that microtransactions are a viable business model–especially since they provide access to games for very young players still tied to their parents’ purse strings who might not be able to scratch up the nominal $15 dollars a month in subscription fees.

For social MMOs that aren’t “games” in the traditional sense–Second Life for example, microtransact away if that floats your boat. It’s not so much the nickel-and-diming that comes with microtransactions that turns me off to them. It’s the uneven playing field they create. Money and fairness don’t mix. Look at politics. Look at class structure. Look at professional athletics. Anyone ever see Eight Men Out about the White Sox throwing the World Series?

Face it. In most MMORPGs, competition for resources–be it currency, materials, or gear–is a major element in the game, whether the game is PvE, PvP, or a hybrid. If these resources can be purchased with real money, this not only devalues the time and effort put in by folks that didn’t buy their way to their goals, but also has as much of an adverse effect on game economy as gold farmers do. The only difference? The money is going into the pockets of the designers instead of some cyber-sweatshop overseer in Singapore.

My main problem with SOE in particular is perhaps Smed should not look at payment methods as the “barrier to entry” for getting people to play MMOs. SOE spread themselves too thin. They have what–around ten plus games and 90% of them are lemons?

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, though, since he is as much a businessman as he is “Joe Average gamer who happens to be at the helm of the MMO division of a huge multinational corporation.” 200,000 subs is a healthy monthly subscription number, but thanks to Blizzard, suits look at those numbers (which are by no means representative of any other pay-to-play western MMO before or after WoW) and $ay, “Hey, how can we do that?” Not every athlete can be Rocky Marciano or Jackie Robinson. That doesn’t make them bad at what they do.

Make a game that’s fun and people will play (and pay), regardless of the payment method. That’s one thing Blizzard has proven that is attainable, whereas CEOs lu$ting after nine million $ub$criber$ might be setting the bar a bit high at this point. Continue to churn out mediocre title after mediocre title and pissing in the wind, and no one’s gonna care whether it’s free-to-play or you’re paying us to play it.

Build it, and they will come.

Electronic Arts Gets Their Bio Break
January 10, 2008, 12:14 pm
Filed under: 38 Studios, Blizzard, EA Mythic, MMORPGs, SOE

This week, Electronic Arts’ 620 million dollar acquisition of Bioware and Pandemic Studios was finalized. With this, Electronic Arts is now the parent company of what are arguably two of the finest computer RPG studios in the industry (Mythic and Bioware). What does this mean for MMORPGers?

With Bioware and Mythic having EA’s resources, this puts both companies in a position to go toe-to-toe with the big boys (namely Blizzard and SOE). This means both Blizzard and SOE will have to step up their game significantly.

I don’t think Warhammer will make as huge an impact on the gaming world as people are predicting, but you need only look at the trailer for Wrath of the Lich King to see that EA/Mythic has already prompted Blizzard to get off their self-assured keisters and get back to work–many elements of the next WoW expansion are clearly a response to WAR‘s RvR. And if Bioware’s undisclosed MMO is indeed a Star Wars-licensed RPG, it could very well deliver a killing blow to SWG.

With the caliber of product we’ve seen from Bioware and Mythic in the past, I could easily see them usurping Sony’s position in the subscription MMO market in the next five years and SOE moving even further towards mass produced, free-to-play, microtransaction, Asian-style MMOs if The Agency proves successful.

And the wild card in the next five years? Hands down 38 Studios. Even though they’re only in preproduction on their own undisclosed MMORPG, add up all the factors of that equation and I’d bet a substantial amount of money that they will be the studio that turns the industry on its ear a few years down the line.

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Absence Makes the Smoking Heart of the Mountain Grow Fonder
January 9, 2008, 2:33 pm
Filed under: World of Warcraft

Over the past week, I ran both my level 65 rogue and 62 priest through Ramparts and Blood Furnace, two of the introductory five-man instances in Burning Crusade. Each can be completed in under an hour. This casual instancing was a refreshing change after memories of whole nights spent in MC and BWL with nothing to show for it but a hefty repair bill. WoW is the only MMO where I made it to–or participated in–endgame. And it was ultimately the monotony and scripted class roles of endgame raiding that burnt me out just prior to Burning Crusade’s release last year.

BC has given me the chance to return to what made WoW so appealing to me when I first discovered it three years ago–exploring the quirky, stylized world; adventuring with, and making new, in-game friends; and feeling like I’ve progressed in at least some very little way virtually every time I log off at the end of the night. My guild is a very big factor in making the game for me as well, so I have all of them to thank. I’m sure my year away from the game did a world of good too, but I have to give credit where credit is due.

Another thing WoW does right that many new games are always missing the boat on is Blizzard do a LOT with a little. Though the graphics are not the most advanced, I’d argue it looks better than any game out there outside of LoTRO and EVE. I know a lot of people have qualms with the Disney-esque, cartoonish world, but I’ll go to my grave preferring that look and feel to the rigid Barbie doll avatars of most other titles.

My relationship with WoW is definitely love/hate and right now I’m in the midst of my second honeymoon. If nothing else, my return has reminded me that just because I tend to root for the underdog, that doesn’t mean that the prom king can’t have redeeming qualities too.

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Shakespeare & SOE
January 4, 2008, 2:39 pm
Filed under: Gaming, MMORPGs

I don’t know if it’s post-Christmas shell shock or what, but it’s been a pretty uneventful week gaming newswise. Since I was out of the loop for most of 2007 with a fried laptop, you’ll be spared any sort of 2007 wrap up from me.

My return to WoW has proven a lot more entertaining than my return to Vanguard. I got through high school and four and a half years of college never having read a whole Shakespeare play. Likewise, after 25 years as an RPGer and four as an MMORPGer–I have yet to make it past the complimentary first month free subscription of any SOE title. At least SOE are in good company. As a big comic book geek, I’m betting their DC Heroes MMO is the one that finally ropes me in if it’s done right.