Saturday, February 19, 2011

Warcraft winding down for Grizlith

About two weeks ago I finally hit 85 in World of Warcaraft, on a gnome fire mage that I started from scratch when Cataclysm went live. I had a grand old time leveling Grizlith up. The revamped 1-60 zones are impressive. The BC zones were a bit grindy, but I had a lot of fun in the Lich King zones and the Cataclysm zones were even better. Because I took mining and skinning as my crafts, I was easily able to afford mount upgrades as they came. I even bought the 280% -> 310% flying speed upgrade the moment I was high enough level for it.

However, at 85, I'm running out of stuff to do I much care about. I bought some giant bags. I also spent 1800 gold to upgrade my flying mount from this:

To this:
Because an armored mount is oh so much cooler. I also spent 1200 gold on a new hat:

My old one, which will remain forever undepicted here, looked like a graduation cap and a cartoon anvil had a love child. /Shudder/ The stats on the new hat are a bit better as well.

I'm currently working on Tol Barad, but I'd need to get to Revered rep there to get the things I really want. I have also started the Argent Tournament quest series, and I'm finding it to be a good bit of fun. However, it only takes me about 30 minutes a day to do all I can out there. Short of those areas, I have archaeology and the 50 mount achievement to work on.

I expect to be done with all of those goals at least by the middle of spring. After that, if I even stick out what I'm working on, Grizlith will go into slumber for a while. At least this time, unlike past times I've hit the cap in WoW, I'll put him to rest with enough gold to get going on whatever new challenges await when Blizzard releases the next expansion in 2012 (or whenever they get around to it).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Can emergent storytelling happen in a world defined by mechanics?

This post over at Stabbed Up and this one over at Tish Tosh Tesh got me thinking about something: when I play MMOs I almost never roleplay. At least not actively. When I'm presented with a choice during a quest line (a very rare occurrence in most MMOs), I'll try to do what I think my character would do. I'll also gravitate towards quest lines that I think my character would care about. However, I never really actively roleplay. In fact, more often then not my decisions about character development and choice of in-game activity focus more on what will make my character more powerful than anything else.

This is a bit odd, because when I used to play Pen and Paper RPGs (D&D, AD&D, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Marvel Superheroes, GURPs, Vampire the Masquerade, and others yet more obscure), my character concept was what primarily mattered to me. I would have an idea for the kind of character I wanted to bring to life, their personality and goals, and then I would do my best to instantiate that character within whatever game I was playing. I would create characters that I thought would have interesting stories emerge around them as I played them:

- a megalomaniacal alien space captain with delusions of grandeur
- a gentle historian that primarily wanted to be left to his research, but got caught up in the political machinations of the vampire clans despite himself
- a simple minded but good hearted barbarian always trying to figure out how do right despite his mental limitations
- a hardened cybernetic killer for hire
- a broken hearted minstrel trying desperately to atone for the atrocities committed by the beast that lurks inside him
- a crazy old man, distanced from the world by his slowly worsening senility as much as by his powerful magical abilities

And so on and so forth. These were not characters I could describe as easily as "Gnome fire mage," and their motivations were far more complex than mine are when I play the average MMO: get more butch, get better stuff, get together a nice looking outfit, ...maybe decorate my house?

I think the reason for the difference in my approach is that the mechanics of MMOs are too restrictive to get me to invest in anything but a broad mental outline of my character's personality. In a Pen and Paper RPG, your first thought in any situation is "What should I do?" or "What would my character do?" In a MMO, your first thought is "What can I do given the mechanics of the game I'm playing and the abilities of my character?" It's a very different approach to playing a character, and pretty stifling.

A really simple example to illustrate this: In an article that Stabbs linked, a book author mentions a PnP session where, when attacked by wolves, his character climbed a tree to escape and threw pine cones down at the wolves. Despite the fact that that the game likely had no set mechanics for climbing trees and throwing pine cones (the GM may have asked for some dexterity checks and to hit rolls I suppose), it seems like a perfectly natural thing to do. In a PnP game the entire game world exists largely in the heads of everyone sitting around the table, so any action you describe can be attempted and becomes a natural part of the ongoing narrative.

In MMOs, I feel like we have lost most of the potential for "emergent narratives" because our vocabulary is so small. If you get attacked by a wolf, you aren't going to be able to get away by climbing a tree unless your MMO has specific tree climbing mechanics built in. Typing "/em climbs a large tree" isn't going save you. In MMOs, I feel like we have retained the parts of PnP RPGs that we used to have a lot of mechanics for, mainly character development and combat, and completely lost access to everything we didn't have set rules for. The stories than can emerge from our actions are much diminished, because the actions we can take are so sparse.

Sandbox MMOs try to give us more freedom to create narratives, but the way they go about it often seems counterproductive. Many do it by giving us more mechanics rather than more flexible ones. Those piles of extra mechanics do indeed give us more stuff we can do. But often the mechanics become so complex and varied that just learning to navigate them is a challenge in of itself. Further, even in sandboxes, you tend to end up defined more by what you do and can do than what persona you are trying to give life to. "I spent my time in SWG as an entertainer" or "I run a fast ship with strong stealth abilities" or even "I made the best weapons on my server" isn't really a huge narrative improvement over "I'm a fire mage" honestly.

We do hear about interesting narratives emerging from MMOs occasionally. For example, power shifts and betrayals in EVE. But those remain exceptions, making news because such events are so rare in our hobby. As great as some writers are at making stories of their MMO exploits entertaining, and I do enjoy a well written "What I did over the weekend" blog post, the narratives we experience in MMOs aren't any where near as varied as what I experienced in my time playing PnP RPGs. As long as MMOs remain games where your actions are limited by what developers have chosen to enable, how could they possibly provide a similar wealth of narrative possibilities? Will I ever be able to seduce the daughter of a mayor and use that influence to gradually become the despot of a small town? Will I ever be able to found a cult and try to spread the influence of my perverse god throughout a kingdom? Will I ever be able to make a living by breaking into the houses of rich NPC merchants and fencing my stolen goods? Will I ever even be able to escape from a wolf by climbing a tree? Probably not.

Not to sound completely glum, but I suspect something along the lines of Minecraft but more of a true MMO or something along the lines of EVE but with a less obtuse UI and a faster pace is about the best we are ever going to be able to hope for. I do realize that there are groups devoted to roleplaying in most MMOs. But honestly, in most cases that comes down to roleplaying despite your environment rather than because of it. It's LARPing in a cartoon world. As much as I love this hobby, I think MMOs are always going to be limited as tools for creating emergent multi-player narratives because they are delimited by their mechanics.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Times they are a LoTRO

I caught wind of this last week via Kill Ten Rats, but things have been so hectic I haven't had much of a chance to post about it. The next patch to LoTRO is bringing some enormous changes. Pretty much everything that annoys me about the current game is getting a pass, and some things I thought were fine are also getting improved. In no particular order, things that caught my eye in these patch notes, and my reactions:

1. Creeps are starting butcher in the moors. In the current game creeps start off pretty weak in the 'moors, barely able to do the starter quests they are given. If you dump a few thousand destiny into one, you can get them up to adequate with some quick upgrades. You can even eventually get them up to the power level of a 65 freep, though the time it takes to do so is staggering; literally something like five or six times as long as it would take to get a normal character to level 65 starting at one.

The original idea was that the greater ease with which you can start a creep would balance this out, and there would generally always be a lot more creeps than freeps on the moors. However in practice this hasn't panned out too well, most players that start a creep lose interest pretty quickly due to how defenseless they begin. This has only been exacerbated by the fact that free players can't start creeps. Something obviously needs to be done.

2. The PvP gear you can earn on the moors is getting upgraded. One of my major gripes about LoTRO from Moria on has been that there is absolutely no reason for freeps to engage in PvP save just for giggles. The gear you can earn out there has crappy stats compared both crafted and dropped gear, making it sub par even for PvP, and it has zero radiance...making it completely useless for other end game activities.

Worse, this change [with the launch of Moria] took us away from the SoA era endgame where crafting, raiding, 5 mans, and PvP were all equally viable methods of getting geared up for endgame activities (i.e., they all yielded gear that was roughly on par). I much prefer an endgame where I can dabble in different activities to one where I am forced to grind on one set of content to make progress. I'm really glad to see the SOA era philosophy make a comeback.

3. The radiance system is getting pulled. All I can say is "Thank goodness, about time." I've disliked radiance since it was introduced, mainly for the reasons directly above. [Edit] Apparently I am not the only one. From the the most recent LoTRO dev diary:

"You, the players, hated Radiance. In fact, there has never been such a polarizing and definitively poorly received implementation as Radiance." - Allan ‘Orion’ Maki

4. Major class changes. Minstrels, Burglars, and Hunters are getting major updates. The only changes I'm really qualified to critique are the changes to Hunters, and these all look great to me. Some have complained that the changes to the Bow Master line will decrease our ability to DPS tank. First off, I often get aggro in a long fight even in my "low threat" stance and have to back off, so I don't think this is really true. I admit, potential hunter snap aggro will go down. However, that brings me to another point: hunters aren't tanks. There are already at least four classes in the game (Wardens, Champions, Captains, and Guardians...five if you count Burglars) that are much better designed for tanking than Hunters. Hunter DPS tanking was mainly a side effect of one of our main stances getting nerfed with unreasonable threat generation in the Moria era.

I'm sure hunters will still be able to pull a mob off of a healer in a big dust up, if need be.... and the guys playing classes actually designed to tank are otherwise engaged. Having to back off of my DPS or end up tanking for an entire instance with utterly meager defense was never really a decision I cherished.

4. Changes to the Legendary Item system. Three big ones here. First off, gems and relics will go poof when you deconstruct a weapon. However, the total number gem and runestone tiers is being reduced to 6, so it will be a heck of a lot easier to max them out. Most importantly, you will now be able to transfer abilities from one weapon to another. So there will be no reason to waste all those shiny slot-ables until you have exactly the weapon you want. I am very psyched about this, it sounds like a huge improvement.

5. Book 2 will now be soloable. Yay! I've been stuck about half way through it for well over a year.

A lot of other changes are coming down the pipe, it's well worth reading the notes. Finally, lest this become yet another wall of text post without any pictures, let me leave you with a few pics of the new zone added for the temporary Winter events:

Turbine says: I see the meager holiday offerings of your MMO, and raise you a whole freaking zone!

First view of the new town.

That looks fun!

Though still dressed like an axe murderer from Halloween events, I was unable to resist joining in.

I have no idea what you do here, but I liked that they named it Cluckland.

This area is set up for snowball fights, but I have yet to see anyone there. Neat looking regardless.

In addition to these random sights, there is a fairly long series of quests and activities to engage in in the town proper. A play where you can throw fruit or flower petals depending on whether players do well, or even participate yourself, is one of the high points. It really is well done, and I heartily recommend checking it out while it is still available to anyone active in LoTRO.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thoughts on Rift

Over the past few months there has been a lot of buzz about Rift. Lately that buzz has started to swing back around to a predictable backlash. Green Armadillo and Ardulf have great posts about it up, and I think there are some legitimate concerns. However, I also think that predictions of a WAR and AoC style disasters are likely overblown.

You can be almost certain that Rift is going to lose at least half their players by the end of the first month. WoW but with better graphics, more flexible class designs, and Public Quests doesn't sound to me like it's going to be very sticky with "WoW tourists" (a meme I hate, but I think it may apply here). Even if Rift is a better game, for many players I think WoW has too much social inertia for a game competing in the same genre to overcome in the long haul.

That said, I don't think launch Rift is going to be broken like WAR and AoC were. Many commentators seems to assume that the crash and burn the latter games did was some inevitable consequence of trying to compete too directly with WoW. However, I would say those population implosions were a consequence of horrifically bad launches, not some sort of law of the genre. As long as Rift doesn't launch with an absolutely stupid number of servers, crippling their long term population and thus the PQ style Rift system, I think it's going to be a much better game than either AoC or WAR was at launch. Rift will surely lose a lot subs in the first month, but I doubt we are going to see it collapse into a singularity. I'm thinking more like a steady 200K-300K subs by the spring (i.e., EVE or LoTRO rather than Vanguard or WAR).

Despite my conviction that Rift is going to be at least "pretty good" when it launches and do "at least OK" on subs, I have no intention of being there for launch. I'm simply glutted on fantasy MMOs. If I want to play a fantasy MMO, I already have characters in WoW, LoTRO, DDO, Wizard 101, and EQ2X up and running. Between them that is an amazing diversity of tones and play styles. Short of those, I'd be more inclined to fire up Dark Age of Camelot, Allods Online (it really is fun for about the first 20 levels), or AoC (it's a lot better now than at launch). There's even Guild Wars and Vanguard, neither of which I've ever played and I can try for free instead of paying $50 for a box. Regardless of how pretty or spiffy the "next big fantasy MMO" may be, I just don't need another one right now.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

SWTOR not doomed?

One of the few new MMOs I'm really looking forward to this year is Star Wars: the Old Republic. I was a big fan of the Knights of the Old Republic games, and (as I've said elsewhere) even if SWTOR turns out to be nothing more than "KoTOR III: Sub Fee Edition" it's still something I very much look forward too.

Citing possible development costs of up to 300 million, there have been some pretty gloomy predictions about the game's prospects of financial success. However, according to a short news blurb over at 1up, CEO of EA John Riccitiello claims it will only need 500K subs to be profitable. Now obviously, that doesn't address how long SWTOR needs to have a steady half million subs. Put differently, we don't know from the quote how long it will take the game to turn a profit at that level of subs. Further, you know for certain that the CEO of EA is going to try to paint a pretty rosy picture of the prospects of their largest ongoing investment. However, with those caveats in mind, 500K subs does not sound like an unreasonable target to me.

I don't think KOTOR is going to have an Age of Conan or Warhammer Online style post launch population implosion (i.e., only around 10% are still playing by the second month). I'll also be a bit surprised if they don't sell something in the neighborhood of two million boxes (almost certainly a million + boxes). Color me cautiously optimistic.

Update: Scott over at Broken Toys also covered the John Riccitiello interview in more detail. In the interview, Riccitiello also implies that the 300 million figure for development costs that's floating around is not remotely accurate.

Update 2: 1up incorrectly attributes the quote to CFO Eric Brown. It was actually CEO John Riccitiello according to the Gamasutra article they quoted. I guess that will teach me to check the source even on a "news" site.