Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Star Trek Online

I am not the world's biggest trekkie. Although I certainly had a thing for a certain security officer in high school (yes, I'm that old). And it seems like a really hard franchise to do well. I'm skeptical that Cryptic can really pull it off (though from all the early info it looks like they are heading in the right direction).

Despite all that I'm really looking forward to Star Trek Online. Flying around the galaxy in your own star ship and then beaming down to planets to have adventures just sounds damn fun.

Definitely one I'm keeping an eye on.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Innovation in big budget MMOs

After a great discussion with Armies, I ended up going through mental checklist of innovation in recent high profile, big budget MMOs (as I scootered home from work...likely not the best time to be day dreaming!). You can read Armies' comments below this post.

I originally posited that most big budget MMOs are not very innovative because publishers believe there isn't much market for them and, given how few innovative MMOs have done well, that they may be right. However, Armies points out that when it comes to innovative big budget MMOs, we have a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Most of them tanked, but most of them also had serious issues at launch that had nothing to do with whether they were innovative.

After giving it some thought, I think he is essentially correct. We haven't really had enough good test cases to know what kind of market there is for a big budget MMO that strays from the Diku MUD formula of Everquest. And that's a damn shame.

WoW, and more recently LoTRO and WAR hardly innovated at all, and all did fairly well. Well OK really insanely well in the case of WoW. However, two of them also lacked major issues at launch to hold them back. The exception, WoW, was unplayable for many users around the first month of launch. They didn't give out that free month of sub time for giggles.

So WoW, at least, did have a major issue at launch, didn't innovate much, and reset the bar for what can be achieved (in terms of subs) by an MMO. That does sort of support my "gamers are mindless sheep and publishers are right to not innovate" theory. Counter to that, the biggest issue WoW had at launch was that too many folks wanted to play. In terms of the basic design and mechanics.... once you were actually playing and lag free the game was nearly flawless (which, as Armies points out, could in itself be seen as an innovation for the time). So make of that example what you will.

Lets look at some of the counter examples. MxO, AoC, DDO, and TR strayed from the core Diku MuD design (at least in terms of the combat system), and all tanked. But all also had serious issues at launch. TR ran like ass on average gaming PCs of the day. Even the developers admitted a few months after launch that the bulk of users were using the lowest settings. AoC and MxO had too many issues to even list. Even DDO, while not particularly broken at launch, had a core design that to many of us looked a bit insane on paper (it turns out we were right).

Launch CoH had a lot of innovations in terms of character design (the mix and match power sets design remains a personal favorite among MMOs), but few in terms of actual gameplay. Unless you can call stripping an MMO down mostly to combat an innovation. Regardless, it had a smooth launch and did pretty well. Subsequent updates have made it one of the more innovative MMOs on the market. Day jobs, user generated content, oddball crafting system that lets you create temporary powers and costume pieces. However, these don't seem to be affecting subs much. It's been hanging in the "highly successful but not a WoW killer" territory with FFXI, EQ II, LOTRO, and WAR (and now EVE) pretty much since launch.

EVE had a fairly smooth launch (or so I understand, I wasn't there), and was highly innovative. Even daunting. However it also started off as a niche product. After several years it has slowly worked it's way up to the same territory as other moderately successful sub based MMOs. It now seems to be among the top five sub based MMOs in the western market. Very successful for something that started out as a niche product for the ultra hardcore. But perhaps not too enlightening about the overall market.

So where does that leave us? Is there a 200-500K market for a polished innovative MMO? Who can say. However, after the failure of so many high profile MMOs that strayed from the EQ/ WoW formula, I very much doubt that we are going to see a truly innovative MMO from a major publisher in the next few years. Maybe Bioware, or even Blizzard, is about to shock me. However, I have my doubts.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Holy crap, someone is reading...

I got listed as a blog of the week in episode 49 of Shut Up We're Talking. It's one of my favorite MMO podcasts, and I couldn't be more flattered.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The endgame of LoTRO considered as a stable limit-cycle (or potentially as an open relationship)

This post by Green Armadillo and this one by Unwize got me thinking about the end game grind in LoTRO, and MMOs in general. LoTRO certainly has some pretty baldfaced grinds, the entire LI system probably being the worst culprit currently. However virtually all non-PvP focused MMOs become grindy once you hit the cap. It's the nature of content that's designed to be repeatable.

To me the question is "do I have a wide enough variety of grinds to pick from that I can be entertained." Or put differently, is the end game structured so that I can make real progress by dabbling in a lot of different activities, and perhaps getting serious about one or two things I happen to really enjoy.

In the majority of PvE focused MMOs that has not been true for me. That certainly was not true of WoW. Both times I hit the cap there (once at 60, once at 70) the game fell flat on it's face for me and I ended up quitting. Repeating a raid dozens of times so that I can gear up and move on the the next one just isn't my idea of a good time. I didn't like that in EQ, I left when they tried to force that on us in DAoC, and I hated it in WoW (though 11 million players would presumably beg to differ).

LoTRO in the SoA era had a very good endgame to my tastes. There were so many useful activities to dip my toes into that I doubt I saw more than half of the endgame instances. These days not so much. The endgame is currently too contracted compared to what we had before, at least to my tastes. I suspect that the more grindy mechanics that have been added recently (e.g, the LI system and the Lothlorian gift box system) were intended to disguise this fact and distract us while Turbine broadens out the endgame to where it was before. The next major update will go a long way towards this by adding our first true raid and boosting some of the crafting professions. However, this makes me wonder if we are seeing a cycle of expansions and contractions that is going to repeat itself in the game.

In launch LoTRO there wasn't much of an end game. I think Helgorod or maxing your traits/ crafting were about all there was to do. PvMP didn't even reward gear sets back then as I recall. Superhardcore players that hit the cap pre-Rift left in droves. When I hit the cap, on the other hand (right before goblin town launched) there was a ton of stuff to do. Turbine continued to add to that at such a pace that I never even got around to a lot of the end game content before Moria launched. I was thoroughly entertained.

I think we are now seeing a similar process. With the luanch of MoM Turbine contracted their end game considerably. It's certainly nowhere near as bad as it was near launch. However, there isn't really enough available that I can consistently find something fun to to on my main when I log. I've already mostly burned out on the solo activities that I enjoy. I mainly log on to help other players out and work on alts these days. Turbine has been slowly but surely expanding the endgame, and I fully expect it to be as engaging as it once was by the end of the summer. However a few months after that the endgame will contract again when the level cap is raised.

If this turns out to be a standard cycle in LoTRO, I won't be weeping about it. I have a lifetime sub so I don't mind backing off for a while to wait for new content to be patched in. It actually suits my gaming style well. I have a stable KS that I really enjoy in LoTRO, and I can dabble in other MMOs without being punished for it by paying 15 dollars for a game I'm not logging into much. In a way it's great to have an MMO that doesn't mind if you to cheat on it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Minimum Standards

This evening I have had two pretty amazingly crappy MMO experiences. And they had nothing to do with the games themselves. I have no idea how the games are doing or what they are like currently, since I was utterly unable to log into either of them.

Warrior Epic: Clicked on a banner advertising the game on a whim. Watching one of their promo videos it seems that they have a class that focuses largely on guns. I have a fetish for gun wielding fantasy classes, my favorites being the Hunter in WoW and the Engineer in WAR. It was a small enough download, only 15 mins or so...I decided to give it a try. Even if it looked a bit janky, I figured I had little to lose by at least trying it.

Downloaded the file, installed the game, and registered for an account. However the client kept hiccuping on the last few megs of the initial "file check" update. It simply could not download the last 0.4% of the latest update. I even did an uninstall and reinstall...same thing only this time it was the last 0.5%.

Checking on the forums, it turns out that this is a common issue, and it's at least three weeks old. Why are they wasting money advertising their game on random websites if it's so obviously not ready for prime-time? Is internet advertising really that cheap? And even if it is, hyping up your game when a large proportion of users won't even be able to log on to it seems like a pretty bad idea.

Everquest Online Advetures: this one pains me, for it's a game that I once enjoyed. Not really in the mood to log into LoTRO or Wizard 101 after my Warrior Epic fiasco, figured I could reactivate my account there for ten bucks and check out how the game has changed in the two years since I last played it. Checked my account, and as it turns out it's currently active under some kind of promotion. Sweet!

Since I last played I've switched to a new slimline PS2, so I had to reset my internet connection settings. No worries. Reset them, tested my connection and my PS2 told me it was fine. Connected to the game....and got stuck on updating the small system file on my PS2 memory card. The game told me to check my network settings. Tested them again, again PS2 says they are fine. Same error.

Removed my router from the equation (cable modem directly to the PS2), reset my cable modem...and the PS2 borked it so bad that I couldn't log onto the internet at all. I'm not even sure how that is possible. Plugged the cable modem back into the router, reset it again, and it connected AoK (thus this post). Checked the boards, and it turns out that similar issues are common.

Also found that they apparently don't bother to proofread or spell check official posts. These quotes are all from the latest Development Update linked on the front page of the main website:

"been rotating their spawn locations so tht all zones"

"If you ARE lycan or WH, you vampire flag will be reset"

We cannot update without a QA greenlight, and with the new QA getting uo to speed, that unfortunately hindered that."

I cannot believe that their quality control is so poor that those typos got through. What's worse, that post has been the current "news" of the game for almost eight months (since November). It's embarrassing.

Both of those MMO experiences were what I consider epic fails (overused hyperbole I will allow). I know what it is like to be asked to do far too much in too little time for too little pay. But there are also certain minimum standards I expect to be met by a commercial product. For an MMO, not having your official dev posts read like a ten year old wrote them and being able to actually connect to your game are on that list.

I'm not a novice when it comes to PCs, consoles, or the internet. I am not running weird systems. Heck, half the PS2s on the market must be the exact same slimline I'm using. If I am having this much trouble just connecting to these games, heaven help the average user. These two MMOs currently utterly fail at the very basics.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Radiance Gear in LoTRO

This week there are two posts about the radiance system in LoTRO I'd like to highlight. This post by Unwise lays out pretty clearly most of the issues I have with it. This counterpoint post by Middle Earth Adventurer points out that Turbine will likely lessen the requirements for content as time goes on, and that casual players will get to see everything eventually. He is likely correct in that, and adding radiance gear that you can get in three man dungeons will make it fairly easy for even casual players to get up to 40 effective radiance. However, that still doesn't address my main gripe with the radiance system. It marginalizes crafted gear and the gear that your can get doing PvP.

In pre-MoM LoTRO, you could gear up for the Rift doing whatever you enjoyed whether it was standing in the woods farming thousands of hides from wargs (i.e., crafting), bashing creeps in the moors, or running instances. I'm very happy to see the variety of instances that radiance gear drops from being increased. It's a great change. But we are still forced to run instances repeatedly to gear up for the final raid in the game. I like to beat an instance once or twice to see it. I don't enjoy farming them for drops.

For me gearing up through crafting and then going through the Rift a couple of times to see it was perfect. I didn't even roll on drops my second time through, I never had any intention of running it enough to get geared. I liked that I could focus my major efforts on what I enjoyed (tailoring), and still get to dabble in the rest of the content. That simply isn't going to be possible with the new 12 man raid we are getting in Book 8.

In others news, as I am starting to sound like a broken record on this issue, I think this will be my last post on it for a while :-)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Innovation in MMOs

This paragraph over at Ardwulf's lair really got me thinking:

It’s funny that we hear so many complaints from the MMO pundit class (of which I myself am a member,) to the effect that almost all MMOs are basically the same, and then when titles which are different are pointed out, they’re dismissed for putative ‘barriers’ set up against fun. D&D Online and EVE Online are two examples of this – both titles varying from a much inveighed-against paradigm, and both criticized for not matching expectations.

I think he really hit the nail on the head. What big budget MMOs have come along recently that were well and truly innovative? I would argue that AoC, EVE, DDO, MxO, Tabula Rasa, and City of Heroes all contained at least some major innovations. And all but two of those MMOs fell flat on their faces in the marketplace soon after launch. In many cases the very factors that set them apart are the features that many players complained about (e.g., the "link system" combat in MxO, the boggling complexity of EVE, or the heavy use of instancing and reliance on teamwork to progress in DDO). The main reason that MMOs are so rarely innovative is that publishers believe that there is little market for experimental MMO designs. And based on the behavior of most MMO gamers I'd be forced to conclude that they are right.

What I find even more frustrating is that there are a ton of games that really push the MMO design envelope, and that get almost completely ignored. Many of the commentators whining about a "lack of innovation" in MMOs have likely never even tried one. Below is a rundown of some of the ones I'm aware of (and I'll happily add in more). I will allow that many of these games stray so far from the design of a standard MMO that it's debatable whether they should even be considered MMOs. However, all of them are online multiplayer games that have the ability to support hundreds of simultaneous users.

If you are currently playing Everquest, Everquest II, World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, or Lord of the Rings Online and aren't willing to try at least one or two of the following MMOs, you are part of the reason why big budget MMOs aren't generally innovative. You are therefore a giant hypocrite if you complain about it.

A Tale in the Desert: there is no combat. Players collaborate to "build a society." Myrmecology, raising ants, was recently added as a core system (no, really!).

Endless Forest: a social MMO where you are a deer. You can communicate with other deer only via sounds and body language.

Arden: the World of Willian Shakespeare: an MMO designed to teach you about the works of Shakespeare. Requires Never Winter Nights to play (designed with the NWN modding tools). Development was stopped because testers deemed it "not at all fun." But an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Wizard 101: it gets a lot of flack for being a semi FtP tween focused MMO. However the card based combat is like nothing I've seen in any other MMO, it has one of the better housing systems I've seen in an MMO, and the idea that you earn health/ mana potion refills by playing arcade and puzzle games is downright bizarre.

Cities XL: an upcoming MMO where you build cities. Entering closed beta in a few days, one to keep an eye on.

Puzzle Pirates: sword fights, crafting, ship to ship combat, and other systems are all resolved by playing puzzle mini games. Interesting "grouping" / social mechanics that many MMO designers would do well to examine.

Sports MMOs: there are way too many to list. The one I've spend some time in is Shot Online, which is based on golf. You play golf games with other players to gain levels and improve stats that affect things such as your accuracy or how far you can hit a ball. However, it's sufficiently skill based that a level one newbie can beat a vet if they are a better player. Others off the top of my head include Fantasy Tennis and Project Torque. You couldn't get any further from a swords and sorcery Diku MUD MMO than these games.

MANGBAND: a multiplayer version of Angband (a Tolkien themed rogulike). Rarely has more than three or four players on, but I've found the (minuscule) community to be quite friendly. The hard mode server is also the only perma-death MMO that I am aware of.

Planetside: the original, and currently only, MMO FPS. Still alive and kicking.

Asheron's Call: an older MMO that I personally have never gotten around to trying. However it still does a lot of things that few other MMOs have attempted, including ongoing updates that continually alter the world and push forward the game's narrative. This game is nearly as old as Everquest, and still more innovative than 95% of the MMOs on the market.

Those are all off the top of my head, I'm certain there are more that could go on that list. I didn't even get in to Diku MUD style MMOs that explore non fantasy settings, of which there are an increasing number. Innovative MMOs are out there. If you really want to see publishers take more risks with experimental MMO designs, seek these games out and at least try them.