Thursday, January 14, 2021

What is the bare minimum LoTRO needs?

Wilhelm over at Ancient Gaming Newb recently asked What Does LoTRO Need?  It's a great post, you should go a read it if you haven't yet.  After typing up a monster of a response over there, I realized I had 90% of a blog post.  So here we are.

With the acquisition of Daybreak games, EG7 also acquired Lord of the Rings Online, a game near and dear to me (and apparently many other crusty old timey MMO bloggers).  EG7 indicated that they intend to modernize the game to try and bring it to a new audience and capitalize on the attention that the IP will be getting soon with the release of Amazon's upcoming competitor to Game of Thrones, set in Middle Earth's second age.  However as Wilhelm points out, bringing a game that has aged so poorly in some respects to a modern audience is going to be quite a challenge.  

I doubt that  EG7 has the resources they would need to do a top to bottom revamp of the game into something that could be a major success with hundreds of thousands of players.  For example, I will be a bit surprised if they are really able to port it to consoles.  However, if they want to aim for even dozens of thousands of new players when the Amazon show comes out, there are a few common sense changes that I think are absolutely necessary.

1. LoTRO needs to be as reliable on Windows 10 as any other modern game. 

When you download and install the client, either from the SSG website or from STEAM, it needs to just work 99% of the time on a modern PC.  No workarounds, no having to install random background software packages that aren't included in the download.  When players have to get together an "install guide" like this one, it is not a good sign. I personally can't get the game to run reliably on a Windows 10 PC that has never given me the slightest issue with any other game I've tried on it.  The last time I was playing LoTRO on it I had to figure out workarounds for two different issues that came up.  When the third issue hit (in less than two months) I uninstalled.  Life is too short.  

When I log in at all these days, it's on an old Windows 7 PC or a really old Vista PC I never turn on for anything else.  Ironically it runs fine (if with very low frame rates in some areas) on the ten year old Vista PC. Most players don't have those options.  In the modern PC market it's Windows 10 or bust.

2. The UI needs to work well on 4K monitors.  

If you crank the resolution way up on a 4K monitor, the game actually still looks surprisingly good.  The environments, shadows and water effects are holding up better than they have any right to in a 13 year old game.  However, if you do that the UI becomes tiny squares on your screen that are way too small to see clearly or quickly click on.  Hell having the option to magnify them and have them look all pixely would be better than the current option of having them almost disappear.  This is the single change that I think is most desperately needed

3. The character models probably need a further revamp.  

Yes I know they just got a revamped a few years ago.  Now they look 8 years out of date instead of 13.  The problem is that even at launch the character models weren't that great.  For example, Age of Conan had far superior models even in 2007.   However I assume that the last revamp was the best they can do without ditching the 32 bit client and/ or redoing many of the armor assets.  Certainly redoing all the equipment would be an insanely large undertaking at this point, so serious further improvements to the character models may be off the table.

4. There are too many quests (and I love quests!).  Even the Epic quests need a polish pass.  

LotRO has an absolutely overwhelming number of quests, and it seems like at least half of them are to hunt bears, boars or wolves for some reason. This really turns new players off. Wilhelm's idea of turning the Epic book quests into a golden path (ala the class quests in SWTOR) is a good one in general.  The game isn't actually very far off from this right now.  I recently did a once-a-week family-time playthrough where we mainly focused on the epic quest lines.  We made it all the way to Moria and rarely had to stop and do side quests.  However this playthrough also highlighted some other problems to me.

With year 2020 eyes I could see that a lot of the epic quests are not all that great by modern standards.  There is a lot of running around.  Some entire evenings were mainly spent riding horses back and forth between distant NPCs.  There are also a handful of quests in Angmar where just figuring out where the hell you are supposed to go seems to be the quest.  You can see where you want to be on the map, but it isn't at all obvious how to get there.  Poor stretches like that will need to be worked on.  

The story itself through to Moria also isn't as good as I remembered it being.  Some quests that were great in 2007 just because they were logical and tried to tell a long and involved story (making them well above average for the day) are not holding up well 13 years later.  Some of the early quests are still very engaging, and you can see the quality of the quests improve markedly in later content (especially from Rohan on).  But overall, the launch era quests running from levels 1 to 50 don't compare well to content in more modern games like ESO, SWTOR, TSW, ect.  If players are going to come in from a TV show for the story, they need to be engaged by it.  

5. Rough edges (clunky legacy systems) will need to be sanded down or removed altogether.

There are several absolute train wrecks that you will encounter as you level through the game.  Systems that are completely different from what you have been doing during the 100+ hours it takes to get to that point, aren't very well explained, and aren't all that fun even once you do understand them.

The worst of these was epic battles/ big battles.  I could have easily gotten a post out of how much I hate that system.  However with a recent patch SSG added the option to play through those chapters of the Epic quest line without needing to set foot in a big battle.  Instead, there are now a series of solo quests that take you through the battle of Helms Deep.  These quests do a good job of conveying the story without making players hit a brick wall of arbitrary difficulty and poorly explained systems.

Something like that definitely needs to happen for quests with mounted combat .  Every time I get to a quest that I need to mount up to finish, my heart sinks.  Apart from Epic quests, where I have no choice but to muddle through if I want to see the whole story, I usually ditch them.  Though mounted combat has a few fans, for the most part I have the impression that other players tend to hate it as much as I do.  Mounted combat employs a completely different set of combat and movement mechanics from the normal game.  It also forces you to spend time leveling up a horse, or at least your horse's equipment. It's a good example of a system where the designers force you to play some other game you probably don't like as much (horse battles) to keep playing the game you do like (adventuring as your character). This system really needs to be entirely optional.

Finally something needs happen with legendary items.  It's a neat system that at some point got too bloated and SSG has never really been able to reign in.  They probably also need to stop breaking the system to try and force players into the item shop (thankfully  SSG did back off of the worst of that intended change).  However legendary items are such a huge issue it would need a full post for me to do it justice.  The short version is that leveling legendary items up needs to take a lot less time and fewer resources than it currently does.

Wrap up

All of these seem like fairly obvious issue to me, that I would hope SSG already has plans to deal with.  For example, a client that fairly frequently doesn't work on Windows 10 PCs when you follow the normal installation procedures seems like a pretty obvious issue you would want to address.  As does having a UI that is functional on 4K monitors.  This lends me optimism that EG7 might be able to deal with them without needing to dump a ton of resources into the game, as fixes are presumably already at least in the planning stages.

However if all of these issue remain unaddressed, trying to bring the game to a new audience will likely be completely pointless.  The game in its current state is not one that is ever going to be able to grow beyond its current audience of highly invested veterans.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

FFXIV First Impressions

ESO  wound down for me when I was in the high 30s.  The clunky combat eventually killed things for me, as enjoyable as I found the rest of the game to be.  I did find a class, necromancer, that was more fun to my tastes than the one I've ben using as my main so far. I am sure I will want to go back and play one up at some point.  However, for the time being  I have cancelled my sub, and I now only log once a week to hang out with a static group of my relatives.  As an aside,  meeting up in a game to form a party and murder monsters while you chat on Zoom is a heck of a lot more fun as a way to keep up with family than a phone call once a month!

My first character in FFXIV, soon after becoming a full fledged Black Mage and earning a set of class armor.  I already have more that a dozen random pets, but the cat is still my favorite.  The game is quite beautiful, but I have found it hard to get screenshots that really capture how charming it is in motion.

After ESO wound down , I moved on to the next of the "big five" MMOs* that I haven't played, Final Fantasy 14. I love most of the Final Fantasy games, and so in theory it should be right up my alley.  Like many sub based MMOs the up-front cost is pretty low. There's an endless free trial that let's you play to 30, which  I  played for a few days and found absolutely enchanting.  After that you can get the base game and both expansions (roughly seven or eight years of released content) for $60, or $45 if you discount the price for the month of sub time it comes with. Further, when I bought it there also happened to be a black Friday sale going, so I was able to get the all-in-one pack for only $30. It seems like quite bargain compared to other MMOs I've played recently.

*The big five being WoW, GW2, ESO, FFXIV and ....?  Sources seem to disagree about the last inhabitant of that list, though Black Desert gets mentioned a lot.  In any case, I fully intend to move on to Guild Wars 2 whenever FFXIV winds down for me.

The same character, soon after earning his first mount.  A chocobo of course.

So far I am only up to level 54. The core gameplay while leveling consists of an admixture of story heavy solo play and content that can only be cleared in a group.  Forced grouping is normally a huge turn off to me, but FFXIV handles it really well.  Most of main quest series is soloable, but about every five or ten steps you need to run a dungeon or kill a raid boss to continue.  In most MMOs that would bring your progress to a screeching halt. However FFXIV has a really well designed system for organizing PUGs.  You cue up for whatever specific dungeon you need, specifying your role (healer, tank or DPS) and then continue on about your business.  After the game finds three to seven players that want to play the same dungeon as you, a little window pops up asking if you are ready to go.  When you hit the accept button you get whisked off to the instance.  If you cued up for something related to a quest, at the end of the instance the game deposits you wherever you need to be to turn in the quest and continue the story line you were working on.  The entire process is amazingly painless.  

A scene from the Crystal Tower quest series.  This includes three raids that are mandatory to play through the game's main story.  There are some areas you can't even set foot in until you clear it, such as the capitol city of Ishgard.   That absolutely would have been a brick wall for me in most MMOs, but in FFXIV the raids were fairly painless. From queuing up to done, none of them took me more than 30 minutes.  I found watching strategy videos before hand really helpful. The "Updated for 2020" series by Mica (like this one for World of Darkness, by far the hardest of the three raids) were fantastic for this. 

As a DPS most cues take 5-25 minutes to pop. My understanding is that they are nearly instant for tanks and healers.  After that it takes roughly 20-30 minutes for a dungeon or five minutes for a boss fight.  In the 1-49 content everything is quite easy to anyone with MMO experience. As a DPS in low level content all I really needed to do was know how to use my abilities and "not stand in the stupid" (i.e., move out of the giant glowing orange zones that signal where a big attack is about to land). You can also count on your party members at least knowing the basics because to qualify for using the party finder you need to play through a series of solo training quests that teach you your role in a group.    However once you get into the Seventh Astral Era quest series, the difficulty starts to ramp up, and you will start dying a lot if you don't research particular instances before you run them.  Oddly I am finding that I don't mind the research, which is a bit shocking.  Normally a difficulty spike like the one I am playing through now would be a huge red flag for me.  

Crystals like these are found in many areas of the game.  You have to get fairly far in the main story before you find out where they came from.

Part of the reason I don't mind all the mandatory group content in FFXIV has to do with how painless it is to que up for what you want.  However a lot of MMOs have a similar system (e.g., the one is WoW is nearly identical, save that there are no "qualifying exams" to use the system like in FFXIV).  Another big part of it is the basic structure of the game.  You only need to muddle through something once, and then you can return to the relaxing and engaging solo game.  Overall the ratio is probably something like 5 to 30 minutes of group content to every two hours of solo content.  Even if you generally prefer to solo, there isn't enough forced grouping to completely turn you off if you are enjoying the game otherwise.  

  Aethernet crystals form the game's primary quick travel system.  Once you are attuned to one you can teleport to it at will.  It makes travelling all over the map for quests extremely painless.  A huge improvement over the "get your horse/ wyvern  taxi started and go make a sandwich" that we so often see in other games like LoTRO and WoW.  That said, I am still a bit fuzzy on why game designers so often feel the urge to send us across an entire continent for every second quest step in a chain.

I think the lack of friction also comes down to some clever social engineering on the part of the game designers.  Even after doing research, I have to admit I often slightly suck at a given instance the first time I try it (shocking no?). So far everyone I have met in my random PUGs has been extremely chill about me making occasional mistakes. Some part of that is undoubtedly the giant loot bonus they get for having me along. When you clear an instance using the party finder, if it's the first clear for anyone in the party you get massive bonus to your rewards.  For example dungeons that would normally only be worth 15 of the currency you can use to buy gear are worth 75 or 90 if anyone in your party clears it for the first time.  That's worth almost 1/3 of a very nice magic item in my level range.  Far from being disappointed when a "sprout"** like me appears in your random PUGs, you actively hope one will join. 

**Sprouts:  FFXIV helpfully puts a little green sprout next to your name when you first start playing until you hit some threshold of experience that I have yet to clear.  It lets players know that you are new, and a lot of vets go around handing out free stuff to any sprouts they encounter. It also lets players in PUGs know that you are probably the reason they are getting a 5x loot bonus.  Another clever bit of social engineering.  My experience in FFXIV is making me wish more MMOs took that aspect of game design seriously.

 This is the smaller of the two cathedrals in the capitol city of Ishgard, an area that was added to the game with the Heavensword expansion..  It took me nearly a month of playtime to get far enough into the game to see it, and so far I am still only about half way through the main story.   

The community itself also seems to be far above average.  I have met tons of really friendly players.  In fact I have yet to encounter a single asshat.  Though I am dead certain I'll encounter one eventually, FFXIV probably holds my personal record for "number of consecutive interactions with strangers without anyone being a dick."   I even got invited to my first in-game wedding a few nights ago. They are purely social events that you have to make reservations for ahead of time, there is only one chapel per server.  It was surprisingly elaborate and a lot of fun.  It was also fun meeting some of my guildies, that have just been random names in a chat box until now.  So far the community of FFXIV has been incredibly welcoming.    

I attended my first in game wedding wedding recently. Here a bunch of us are seated in the chapel waiting for the ceremony to begin, my character is the one wearing the black wizard outfit.  I had nothing more appropriate to wear because I had only been playing for a week at the time.

My only niggling concern is that there is a high end raiding scene that has a reputation for being exceedingly hardcore and elitist.  They are so serious about measuring their DPS e-peens that they rely heavily on parsing programs that are technically against the game's Terms of Service. That is a giant red flag, and it's entirely possible that the game will fall flat on it's face for me once I finish playing through the main story lines and hit the level cap.  However for the time being I am having a ton of fun.  This feels like something I could play for a long time, at least if there's anything remotely fun for a casual player like me to do when I hit the level cap.

The wedding was fairly elaborate, and a fun diversion.

You may have noticed that this post includes very little about what the game is like to play or game systems.  That's because I haven't gotten far enough to have much of an opinion, save that I like what I see so far.  I'm less that halfway through the main story, maybe 50% of the way to the level cap in terms of playtime, and have yet to attempt any side activities like crafting, fishing or house decoration.  I have also been digging the game so much on the first class I tried that I haven't wanted to put time into anything else so far.  I actually have no idea what it's like to play a melee for example.  I am sure I'll have more to say about the game once I'm further in.

Mainly I have been powering through the game's main story.  But I did pause to take part in the game's Christmas celebration, which I found charming.  It also came with a really goofy mount.  

Finally, as this will almost certainly be my last post for the year, Happy Holidays! May the rest of your year be safe and relaxing, and for the love of all that is good may 2021 be less "interesting" than this year has been :-)

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

EG7, the Future of DDO and LoTRO

An unexpected bombshell recently dropped.  Daybreak games was bought by a European company EG7 (the Enad Global 7).  The purchase included all of Standing Stone Games, the makers of Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online; two MMOs near and dear to me.  A presentation by EG7 to investors revealed a lot of juicy details about SSG. For example, it revealed that SSG has actually been owned by Daybreak for several years now.  Daybreak is not just the "publisher" of DDO and LoTRO, as SSG has implied.  Wilhem has a great post about the presentation, you really should go and check it out.  From a DDO and LoTRO perspective there is a lot there that makes sense of recent puzzling moves by SSG.

First off, the most recent tempest in LoTRO was the release of War of the Three Peaks mini-expansion.  It hasn't been well received because it's  pretty much the same size as previous content updates that have been given out free to subbers and lifetime account holders.  For example, we got all of Gondor for free, and that's quite a big larger than the Three Peaks area.  Yet, SSG decided to charge everyone $20 for access to the new area, and allowed whales to spend up to $100 for collectors editions with fairly anemic offerings.  Massively has a good write up on the whole mess.  However, this completely bungled release makes perfect sense if we assume that SSG desperately needed to get their revenue-per-player up ahead of the sale of Daybreak to EG7.  

Here Begins Wild Speculation 

In all likelihood SSG had planned the War of the Three Peaks as a free update to keep players engaged ahead of the release of the next paid expansion: Gundabad.  However, Daybreak likely forced a change to these plans in order to demonstrate to EG7 that SSG is a financially valuable asset.  Even worse, there may have been a danger of SSG getting left on the cutting room floor by EG7 during the daybreak purchase if they didn't take this chance to show their quality.  This scenario would also explain why SSG didn't release full details about what was included in the various mini-expansion packages until the last possible minute.  SSG wasn't originally expecting to sell the content, and didn't know themselves what would be included in them until pretty much the day they went on sale.  The boar mount  might represent a positively herculean effort from some poor designer tasked with adding value to the most expensive package at the last minute.

Prepping for the sale may also explain some of the difficulties with DDO's latest expansion, Fables of the Feywild.  It had a pretty rocky development.  Originally it was going to come with a raise in the level cap and "legendary levels."  However over the summer SSG changed their minds and greatly scaled things back.  They stated that it was because they didn't think they could stick to a reasonable release schedule without pruning features.  However things may have been a bit more dire than that, they may have had a hard deadline on the expansion release set by Daybreak.  Regardless, changing the development goals for the expansion mid-stream appears to have thrown a lot of wrenches into the works.   

The consensus that has emerged around Feywild is that it's a weak expansion overall.  It has some good quests, some that are only ok and two quests (Needle in a Fey Stack and the Legend of the Lost  Locket) that many players are calling out  as absolutely terrible designs.  Overall the content so far is of about the same size as the Ruins of Gianthold, an adventure pack you can buy for less than 1000 DDO points (though admittedly Gianthold is one of the most generous adventure packs).  On top of that, because the highest level loot is the same level as loot from Sharn (the previous expansion), very little of it is an upgrade for most players.  In heroics things are even worse, with the level five weapons that the expansion added being much worse than weapons you can easily craft in the same level range. The race that was added, Shifter, has also not been very well received.   All in all I have never seen the community turn sour on a DDO expansion so quickly.  Just about the only bright spot is the new universal tree Feydark Illusionist, which has opened up some interesting build possibilities and seems well received.   

The Future of DDO

The report from EG7 gives a lot of insight into the bottom line of DDO and LoTRO.  DDO has about 20K paying players, LoTRO has about 40K.  The overall revenue from LoTRO is higher than DDO.  However, DDO has the highest monthly average revenue per-paying-player of any game in the Daybreak portfolio.  In other words, the income of DDO is disproportionately dependent on whales.  That actually makes perfect sense, and may explain some of the design elements of DDO that seem stacked against casual players.

DDO more than almost any MMO I have played has a huge disparity in character power between the haves and the have-nots.  I've posted about it before indirectly, but the short version is that thousands of dollars or absolutely crazed amounts of grinding separate a character with maxed out past lives from one that only has a few.  A character with 100+ past lives under their belt is practically a god walking compared to a first life character, with much higher baseline stats across the board.  Good gear can help a lot, but obviously a character with jillions of past lives also has access to the same gear. So gear can't really close the power gap so much as make past lives a smaller percentage of overall character power (e.g., you'll be 30% behind instead of 50%).  Further, these grinds can very easily be bypassed by spending large sums of money.  For past lives there is an item in the DDO store called Otto's Box that costs about $40 or $50.  That and a $20 heart gets you one free past life.  Getting all possible past lives that way, or even just the first 40 or so that you need for a character that's really strong in one role (e.g., tank or DPS),  would run into thousands of dollars.  

The gear grind is no better.  The odds of getting a high end item that is good for your build on any given quest run is astronomically low.  On the difficulties that a first life character in found gear can handle (Normal or Hard in epics),  the odds are 3% or less on any given run of a quest that has an item you need.   However, if a chest doesn't have the piece of loot you want you can also reroll the chest using shards.  You will get a few shards just by playing, but the only realistic way to get enough to roll your way to complete item sets is to buy them in the DDO store.   All of this combines to make DDO feel like "whales the MMO" if you have any intention of playing it at higher difficulties.  It's one reason why I generally only play heroic level (1-20) content (the other being my compulsive urge to roll alts). 

Further, given that the only real financial strength that DDO has compared to the other Daybreak games is the high monthly revenue per-paying-player, SSG probably can't really afford to back off of this somewhat whale centric design.  DDO will likely remain a game that is uniquely challenging for new players to get going in, both because of the power gap between vets and new players and a steep learning curve.

The Future of LoTRO

On the LoTRO front things are looking a lot better.  I would say the future of the game is looking  brighter than it has for a long time.  EG7 says that they are planning to invest in improvements such as graphical enhancements and console ports to capitalize on the Amazon Prime Lord of the Rings series that is filming now.  Amazon also has their own Lord of the Rings MMO in development, but all indications are that it's still years off yet.  Even if the Amazon game were coming out tomorrow,  it would likely really pale before LoTRO in some ways.  LoTRO has more content than practically any MMO out (EQ excepted of course).  Every single area described in any detail in the Lord of the Rings books, and many more that were only hinted at, are now present in the game.  As a faithful virtual manifestation of a fictional setting, it's absolutely unparalleled.  Walking around inside the game is one nerdgasm after another for any kind of a fan of the books.  Courses on Tolkien are even taught inside the game.   

However LoTRO is also badly showing its age.  There are tons of cludgy outdated systems like legendary items, mounted combat and epic battles that you run into as you level through the game.  The environments are still holding up surprisingly well for such an old game, but the character models aren't that great  . .  .  even after the recent revamp.  Perhaps worst of all is that the game barely runs on Windows 10 systems.  Just google "Lotro windows 10" to see what I mean.  You get tons of hits for players struggling with the game.   Hell just look at this trouble shooting guide some player put together.  Having to go through a checklist like that to *maybe* get the game to run is simply absurd.  My most recent run in LoTRO ended when the game wigged out and refused to open for the third time in less than two months on a Windows 10 laptop.  I couldn't bring myself to spend yet another evening googling and trouble shooting my installation.  Despite having fun there when I was able to get it to run, I finally gave up and uninstalled it.  

I think LoTRO has great potential, and I hope that EG7 will help it get there.  LoTRO has a great IP that is going to get a lot of attention soon, and to my tastes is an amazingly well realized version of Tolkien's world.  If EG7 can polish off some of the rough edges, or even get the game to run reliably on Windows 10, I think they could have a real success story on their hands.  

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Elder Scrolls Online Impressions

 About two months ago I started playing Elder Scrolls Online for the first time.   I have a bad habit of only playing games that are more than a decade old (as should be obvious from my posts) .  ESO is on a list with Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy XIV and a few other more modern MMOs that I have long intended to try.  ESO has been out for long enough that it isn't exactly the latest hotness any more. But even old is new to me if I've never been there. 

The package I bought came with the Morrowind expansion.  I have fond memories of  "The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind" from back in 2002.  It has been fun to revisit my old stomping grounds in a different time period, and with more than a decade of progress on the graphical fidelity front.

On the balance I quite like ESO.  I have long been a fan of the offline Elder Scrolls games. I've even posted about Morrowind a few times as an example of a sandbox done right.  ESO is not a true sandbox like the offline games.  However the freeform character development system, along with optional activities like becoming a vampire or master thief, are definitely nods to the offline games.  The quests in ESO are also exceptionally well written and presented. I don't think I have enjoyed storylines I was playing through this much since I was playing the Secret World.  I like the setting and the worldbuilding, which are enhanced by the lush graphics.  Lots of work is put into little details like the flora and fauna of different zones. I am about as far from a graphics snob as you can get, but this is one case where the visuals alone really help the world come to life for me. ESO looks like it could be a real place.

The crafting system is extremely well done.  Crafting writs are also pretty much the only way I have found to easily make money at low levels.  One writ will easily net you 300+ gold, and you can do seven a day (one for each crafting profession).  Very few items that mobs drop, or even that you can steal from NPCs and fence, sell for anywhere near what you get from a single writ. 

I also really like the crafting system.  It's incredibly flexible.  You make a base piece of equipment like a sword or helmet of whatever level you like.  You can then separately create an enchantment that you place on the item.  That means you can make anything you need.  For example, if you want to craft yourself a level 14 pair of leather armor gloves that add to your magica stat, it's really easy to do so.  Further, when you make the gloves you can choose from a with a wide variety of appearance options. When you are done you can further customize them with a really solid dye system.  Not only will items you craft be functional, they also will definitely go with your outfit!  Appearance options come from knowing how to craft equipment in different styles, which are learned from crafting motifs.  For example, finding a Dark Elf crafting motif teaches you a whole slew of new appearance options for everything you can craft.  Finding a new motif is always exciting, and they can drop just about anywhere. My understanding is also that I'll be able to craft gear with set bonuses eventually.  The last time I enjoyed the crafting in a game this much was probably in Everquest II ten years ago. 

Another benefit of crafting writs is that you often get maps to the locations of crafting caches.  These are treasure maps of a sort, that lead to spots where you can gather a large amount of crafting materials like iron ore or cotton.  I find them an enjoyable excuse to explore new zones.  While I am there I can pick up new way-shrines (quick travel points) and look for shards that give my character skill points. ESO gives you tangible rewards for simply exploring zones, and I quite enjoy it

Unfortunately, there are two factors work against everything I like about ESO.  The first is the mildly annoying monetization.  The game is only "buy-to-play" in the strictest sense. You basically need to pay for a sub if you have any intention of crafting, or even looting most objects that can be looted.  There are tons of random urns, barrels and chests to dig through in the game, which is a lot of fun. Occasionally you will find something really nice like a new crafting motif or a magic item, so you do have a strong incentive to peek into everything. However, mainly you will find tons of random crafting ingredients.  Unless you have a crafting storage bag, these items will quickly clog up your inventory.  You can't buy a crafting bag from in-game merchants or the item shop, the only way to get one is to sub. It feels like an inconvenience created for the express purpose of selling us a solution.

I am really impressed by how much work went into making the wilderness environments look natural.  Even this scene with giant mushrooms and some kind of wolf creatures is believable.  A big part of it is how much time they spend modelling plants.

However, the need for a crafting bag is merely an annoyance.  The sub is overall a decent value.  It comes with a decent stipend of currency for the item shop and access to a lot of content you need to buy otherwise.  I would be tempted to sub with or without the crafting storage.  For me a more serious problem is the combat system.  It combines all the bad aspects of action combat and tab targeting.  You can't tab target foes, for your attacks to work you have to keep the mouse cursor pointed at them.  However, the combat is still based on mashing hotbar keys to use attacks that often have somewhat slow casting times. It doesn't have any of the fluidity of a true action title like DDO, TSW or most shooters.  Weapon attacks feel a bit more fluid, but those do something like half the damage of an attack with one of your abilities (and even that is only if you are using a very good weapon).  

Inside the audience chamber of a local deity. 

The net result is combat that feels like a clunkier-than-normal tab target system, save that if you get distracted and let your mouse cursor drift off of your target all of your attacks stop working.  Making this even worse is that any object or NPC can block your line-of-sight. In big fights very often a random NPC will get in the way of your target and disrupt any combos you are trying to execute. To my tastes, the combat somehow manages to be both overly simplistic and stressful.  On top of that, most abilities do very similar damage, so unlocking new attacks in your skill trees doesn't tend to feel very rewarding.  My main is up to level 26 now, and my normal attack rotation has barely changed since I was level 10.   

The main story line has been pretty interesting so far. Shown here is a random scene from my second trip to hell.

I don't intend to come across as overly negative.  On the balance I think ESO is great, and I am having a lot of fun there.  I will certainly take at least one character up to the level cap, which already puts ESO well above an average MMO for me.  I never see the level cap in the great majority I try.   If ESO had better combat (to my tastes), I think it would end up being one of my all time favorite MMOs.  The kind I play most days for a year or two straight.  Even if ESO isn't quite at the level of instant classic for me, expect to get a solid few months out of playing through more storylines and exploring the world.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Mystery of a Nameless Prisoner (DDO)

One of the things I really enjoy about MMOs, and games in general, is neat background details you can sometimes find.  Dungeons and Dragons Online has a lot of them, especially in older content.  Here is one of my favorites.

If you are working on the Tangleroot Gorge quest line,  it has a bit of a Groundhog Day feel to it.  You end up going into the same dungeon six or more times, with a slightly different objective on each run.  For example your first time in you are just scouting and killing a few hobgoblins, the second time in you are freeing prisoners.  However, much of the layout, trap and mob placement is identical on each run.

A lot of players find the quest chain annoyingly repetitive.  However, one advantage to the strange setup is that the quests can give you a sense of events progressing over time as you enter and re-enter the dungeon.  One of the designers took advantage of this to add in a neat little side story that unfolds over successive runs, but only if you take time to clear out an optional area on every run.

The second time you enter the dungeon, you are rescuing prisoners.  However there is an optional area where you can fight some scorpions:

After you kill them, if your strength (or that of one of your hirelings) is high enough you can go through the double doors at the back. There you find this bedraggled NPC:

At first he is raving about invisible bugs that are attack him, but when you start speaking to him he calms down.  He relates that he tried to escape, but got stung by the scorpions in the process.  He is now dying from the venom, and it's too late for you to help him.  As he starts to fade, he relates something ominous:

"Hiding down here in the dark, I started listening .  .  . listening to the stones.  It sounds like I'm mad from the venom.  Maybe I am.  But I've heard a voice.  Something lives down here . . . besides the hobgoblins.  Something old and angry.  It lives in a watery cave, and it hates.  Such hate in that voice . . . I am glad I will never meet its owner."

He then drops to the floor, dead.

After that there is a treasure chest nearby, and you go on with your adventure.  However if you go to the same optional spot and beat up the scorpions again, you find a single zombie in the area where where you talked to the NPC:

The next time through, if you go to the area for a fourth time, you find a single skeleton:

And if you go by one final time, you find only an inanimate skeleton on the floor:

Apparently his body  is now too forgone even for whatever dark magic animated his corpse before to revive him.  At last he is is at peace.   

Much later in the quest chain, in yet another optional side area, you can find out what he was talking about.  After killing the boss in the second to last quest of the chain, he drops a key and  this book:

When you pick up the book, the in-game narrator intones: "Zulkash's notes speak about trying to control an elemental in a water filled cavern."

Back near the entrance to the dungeon, if you are the type of player that explores the quest areas really thoroughly,  you may have noticed a grate underwater that you couldn't open .  

With the key from the boss, you can now open the grate, which leads to a long underwater passage.  

If you have water breathing, a decent swim skill, or are a living golem and don't need to breath like my character, you can swim to the end of the passage.  It opens up into a large cavern, in the back of which is an island with three stone elementals. Zulkash has apparently been trying to take control of them using magic with little success:

When you kill the elementals you get a bit of XP and an extra treasure chest.  Not hugely rewarding, but it's an interesting side story that you have to put in some work to see.  I love little details like these that game designers sometimes put in for us to find.  You can tell that they are real labors of love.  

Saturday, September 12, 2020

What do we want from MMOs of the future? Is it really the Multiverse?

Lately I have been really entertained by the anime of Sword Art Online and the spin off show Gun Gale Online, both available to stream on Netflix (at least in the US).  One of the things I like about them is the focus on MMO gaming and gamers. They depict players hanging out in alternate reality style MMOs in the near future. Inside the games are huge cities that have social gathering spaces, shops, and even kiosks where you go to sign up for tournaments.  Players spend as much time chilling out in bars and coffee shops as actually doing anything to advance their characters. When they head out into the larger worlds of the games to have adventures, the gameplay depicted seems mostly very unstructured.  There are  raids and PUBG style battle royal matches, but for the most part players either hunt random mobs or each other.  

There certainly don't seem to be many quests or quest hubs where NPCs hand out random tasks.  You never see players roll up with ten rat corpses, turn them in to someone and then agonize over whether to get a pair of shoes or a hat as the quest reward.  I think it's meant to depict the ultimate incarnation of an "alternate world" style MMO.  A parallel reality that you inhabit during your spare time much more than a game per se.  It makes for a compelling TV show because it puts the focus on the characters and their motivations, rather than whatever in game story lines they are playing through.*  It also tackles some issues I think many MMO fans can relate to at least a little bit about like why we play these games in the first place.  

However, I am not sure I would really enjoy the "games" that the characters in the show are playing.  The game designs seem far too unfocused, with no narrative at all save what the players bring to them.  One of the elements of games that I enjoy is that they can serve as an interesting alternative to books or movies as a way to experience a narrative.   As much fun as the shows are, I'm not convinced that what is on display is my idea of the ultimate MMO.

Another fictional game that often gets held up as the ultimate virtual world for developers to attain to is the "multiverse" from Ready Player One.   For example the developer EnjinX tried to build hype for their platform by bragging that they had created the "real multiverse from Ready Player One" using blockchain.  "Blockchain" and "the multiverse," there's some buzzwords that will make investors drool!   But is the multiverse really what we want?  Based on my single viewing of the the movie, It's depicted as a bunch of semi-independent games linked by  a sort of persistent virtual metropolis.  Kind of like Second Life, only with more actual games.  Or maybe something like Free Realms, but for adults and with more emphasis on social hubs.  While moderately successful, neither one of those games exactly set the world on fire.  I can't say I'm convinced that  "Free Realms on steroids" is the path all developers should be heading down. 

Of course the "multiverse" is older than Ready Player One.  It's pretty much the exact same idea as the "metaverse" from Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.  That is also in turn heavily inspired by "cyberspace" from the novels of William Gibson and others.  So the multiverse is obviously an idea that many authors and readers find compelling.  I have to agree that it's a lot of fun to read about these sorts of virtual spaces.  But would we really want to inhabit them?  Is there really a huge market for some sort of virtual-experience focused internet that you need to create an avatar to interact with?  I'm not really sure that there is.  

Almost all of the elements depicted in these works of fiction have already been tried out in one way or another.  Gaming spaces connected to persistent social hubs have been around for a long time.  The first one I played, unless you want to count Everquest, was Phantasy Star Online back in the 2000 on the Dreamcast.  It had virtual lobbies where players would hang out and chat in between going on adventures.  They were quite lively at times, but I never felt like they were the future of gaming.  Home on the Playstation 3 also was a similar idea in some ways.  It was basically a mall that your virtual home connected to, where you would wander around, socialize and interact with whatever games or advertisements  various publishers and retailers decided to put up.  I thought it was pretty neat, and I'll even contradict my main point by admitting that in some ways I think Home may have been ahead of it's time.

More modern games like Fortnite have taken this model much further, with social spaces outside of the main game areas where things like live concerts or other events sometimes take place.  There are also three different game modes associated Fortnite now.  If some works of fiction are to be believed, that's a big part of the way towards a multiverse.  If you buy the premise of Ready Player One, pretty much all that needs to be done is to connect more game styles (e.g., racing, sports, and RPGs) and some more impressive social spaces to Fortnite and we well on the path to an alternate universe that sets the world on fire.  Everyone that could afford to would want to go there.  In some ways the inequities and suffering of the real world would be lessened, as we would all have a virtual paradise we could escape to at will.

However, I find myself skeptical that this kind of utopic virtual dawn is really all that simple, or so close.   Certainly we could take the Free Realms model, where you create one avatar and then use it to play lots of different styles of game, to the next level.  But I personally am not all too sure I want that.  I really don't mind making different avatars for different games, nor the process of logging in and out of them.  When I am playing one game, I don't need or want to be indirectly connected to any others.  For example, when I am running around in DDO I don't often find myself wishing I could take whatever character I am playing there and jump into a racing game or a tennis simulator.  Nor do I often wish I could take my character from Shot Online into Everquest.  For purely social interactions, my phone (or Zoom for groups) is a heck of a lot easier to use than a virtual meeting space embedded in a game.  

Despite this, in the end I also have to admit that no-one has ever really tried very hard to make the multiverse/ metaverse/ cyberspace. The technology to do so will certainly be here soon.  It's already possible to create convincing virtual worlds. We've been iterating on them at least since MUDs.  I would argue the largest barrier remaining for a "metaverse" that we interact with using a mouse and keyboard is a clear market for one.  From there all that's missing is better neural interfaces.  Those are a very active area of research that is advancing rapidly.  I suspect that this enormous piece of the multiverse puzzle is closer to being created than most of us realize. Yet even with that in place, a future where individual games are a lot more immersive seems far more likely than one where every game under the sun is tied together into some sort of virtual social hub.  

In the end I suspect that the barrier that may prove most difficult to overcome is the creation of a publisher neutral VR platform that anyone can plug their product into either for free or close to it.  At least in the near term, full VR versions of standalone products like WoW or Everquest seem much more probable to me than the Multiverse. 

*Addendum:  Right after I wrote this I made it further into the second season of Sword Art Online.  The plot of the second half of the second season actually focuses squarely on an in game quest in one of the MMOs the characters play.  So maybe I'd like the fictional game of the TV show based on the light novel more than I thought :-)

In addition to Gun Gale Online cartoons, this rambling post was inspired by Tipa's "What makes an MMO an MMO?"

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Pursuit of Balance Part II: What We Gained and What We Lost

[Continued from The Pursuit of Balance Part I]

To be sure there are some good things about extreme balance. It makes PuGs a lot easier to assemble if everyone can both put out high DPS and take a few hits.  I have even seen developers brag about game designs where "everyone is a DPS, no-one has to play a tank."  Homogenization also helps eliminate new player traps on the character creation screen.  It really sucks to put 100 hours into a character and then find out you will never be particularly good at the class role you have chosen. You don't have to worry about that in modern MMOs because if two classes can fill the same role at all, they will tend to have a very similar cap on how effective they can be at it.   That's far from a terrible thing.

However I also can't help but feel like we have lost something that originally attracted to me to MMOs. Different classes used to (and in older MMOs generally still do) have wildly different capabilities. This forced you to approach the game from a completely different perspective when you played different classes. I may never have to worry about spending a month of my spare time raising a cripple,  but I also won't need to approach modern games from as many angles. A game with deep, highly varied systems helps create the illusion that you are immersed in a different reality.  Class diversity can be a big part of that.

Take Dark Age of Camelot.  The developers have cut the PvE experience back so much in the last few years that it only takes a few weeks or months to see almost all of it.  Yet when I first restarted this blog a few years ago, I had been wildly entertained for a solid year doing nothing but trying out different classes. The way that classes play is incredibly diverse there.  Learning how to play a mushroom summoner (Animist) teaches you almost nothing about how to play a melee DPS (e.g., Blademaster).  Just getting the basic attack combos down with a class you've never tried before might take hours.  Things that are easy to do on some classes are completely impossible when playing others.  It's not always fair, especially in PvP matchups that tend to go a lot like rock-paper-scissors, but it also leads to gameplay that is incredibly varied.

It doesn't seem to me that there has ever been much of a conversation about whether extreme class balance/ homogenization is a good thing or a bad thing, save for players whining when developers get it wrong. Because of this, developers keep sanding down the rough balance edges, or revising old designs that seemed flawed, and we just sort of ended up where we are now. For better or worse,  in most modern games you can pick any class you want on the character creation screen and have a pretty similar experience playing through most of the content. No matter what class you decide to try,  you'll probably never find that you need to radically re-evaluate your approach to moment-to-moment gameplay, at least once you've gotten the basics of a game down.

I'll return the the example I started with because almost anyone reading this blog is probably familiar with it. Consider how much more varied playing different classes is in WoW Classic compared to Retail.  Totems on a Shaman, hunting down rare animals to tame to learn new skills on a Hunter, convoluted quests to earn new summons on a Warlock.  Heck, even running out of mana constantly on a Balance Druid.  That's the kind of diversity we've lost from much of the genre.  I have mixed feelings about whether the balance we've gained is ultimately worth it.