Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why do I still care about Star Wars, and what am I expecting from SWTOR?

This post over at Blue Kae got me wondering why I am so much looking forward to Star Wars the Old Republic (which I have yet to pre-order, but plan to soon). My expectations for it as a viable long term MMO commitment aren't particularly stellar. However, as a game that I'll play for a month or two and enjoy, they are pretty high. More broadly, why do still I care about the Star Wars franchise at all after George Lucas pissed all over it with his atrocious prequels?

The prequels bit, to be sure. Considered as pure visual spectacles they were impressive. However, that's all Lucas seemed to care about. Considered as narratives they were utter failures. None of the characters were believable or compelling. For example, the "romance" between Padme and Anikan has to be among the least believable in cinema history. The movies seemed to almost be actively attempting to sabotage some of the more compelling elements of the original trilogy. Me watching Ep I: "Midichlorians? Really?!? WTF?" The movies were an absolute insult to Star Wars fans, and arguably to American moviegoers in general. [More entertaining takes on these issues here and here].

Despite my dislike of the prequels, I still find the Star Wars universe intriguing. It seamlessly blends fantasy and science fiction elements in a way that few other franchises do. Perhaps ironically, games based on the prequels were generally much better than the movies they were based on. Even if GL was an utter hack, game designers seemed to generally get the feel of Star Wars right (a few travesties excepted). While GL was putting out mindless incoherent drivel every two years, some of my favorite games set in the Star Wars universe also came out.

Star Wars Star Fighter I and II were among my favorite PS2 games, and considered as side stories that expanded the Star Wars franchise they were a screaming ton better than the movies. Not as simmy as the old X-wing PC games (which I also adored), but they still gave you a believable illusion of flying around in a star fighter. The last stage of SWSF remains among the most impressive experiences I've ever had in a game. I also really enjoyed the pod racing games on the N64, the DC, and the PS2. A long kind of silly scene in the first movie inspired sci-fi racers that compared favorably with Wipeout and Extreme G.

But those games were small potatoes. The games that really truly convinced me that the Star Wars universe remained a compelling setting for narratives were KoTOR and KoTOR II. Say what you will of the bugs in KoTOR II (none of which I actually experienced, but many others did), it had an extremely compelling narrative. Further, KoTOR remains one of my all time favorite games. I have never experienced heartbreak in a game like I did going through the evil track there. Some of the things I did toward the end disturb me a bit to this day.

When I see evil played out in a movie, I don't feel in any way responsible for it. However, when I actively choose to have my character screw someone over in a game, it can make me experience real twinges of guilt. KoTOR showed me how games can be a compelling artistic medium in a way that's quite distinct from passive experiences like books and movies.

When it comes right down to it, I'm a fan of Star Wars as much for the fun I've I've had playing various games set in the universe as I am from the movies I saw as a child (Ep. IV-VI). Because of that, the atrocious prequels really didn't do much to diminish my love of the franchise. Episode I may have been one of the stupidest movies ever filmed, but flying around in one of those neat backwards looking retro Star Fighters and blowing shit up sure was fun in SWSF. And the Old Republic has jack all to do with the characters and events of the prequels. KoTOR I and II were the real sequels to Ep IV-VI in my mind, not the horrific train wrecks that GL filmed.

On the balance I'm really looking forward to SWTOR. I'm expecting KoTOR III, and really nothing more. If it turns out to be a decent MMO on top of that, so much the better. Regardless, I expect to get $60 worth of fun out of it. And that's all I really need to be satisfied. If you don't care about Star Wars, and particularly if you didn't like the KoTOR games, I can see that there would be nothing too exciting about SWTOR to you. Apart from having a deeper narrative than most, it looks to be a pretty by the numbers quest/ level based MMO. However, if you are a fan of KoTOR (most game critics certainly were), there's every reason to be excited about it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

On Vanity: Cosmetic Slots = Gameplay

I absolutely love the ability to slot cosmetic items. Making my toon look the way I want is a game in-of itself as far as I'm concerned. Giving me cosmetic slots to fool with gives me a ton of extra gameplay, and for what would seem relatively few development resources . . .save implementing the system in the first place, of course. As an example, this is what my dwarf champion in LoTRO would look like in his current gear:

It's fine, there is nothing terribly wrong with it [Edit: on further reflection, this is only a step removed from a blind rodeo clown outfit...what were they thinking?]. However, to me it doesn't look like he is really wearing heavy plate armor. Instead he looks to be wearing some odd combination of plate and leather armor.

This is what I've been using for my appearance slots for the last year, and it looks like more like real armor. However, it still doesn't look quite as sturdy as I'd like. Plus I've simply gotten bored with the look.

Quite by accident, I discovered that there are NPC vendors in Thorin's Hall that sell gear that really does look like plate armor. Cheap NPC vendor armor, plus gray dye and a nicer helmet, and viola! This is what my guy is using for his appearance slots now, and to me it looks like he could take a tank shell in the chest and still get up:

The stats on the armor he is wearing (the top screenshot) are very good for his level. He is currently level 53, and it's impossible to craft him a better set of armor until he hits level 58. In fact it took almost six weeks to craft the set he's wearing using guild recipes. Few, if any, random drops or quest rewards will be an upgrade to him until much higher levels. Were I playing a number of other MMOs, I'd be forced to appear as the top screenshot at least until level 58, or take a severe stat hit. In LoTRO I have the freedom to decide how I'd like to look.

Just getting this set of appearance armor together gave me a good hour or two of (to me) really fun gameplay. It also made some random low level vendor items actually serve a useful gameplay purpose. The stats on the gear in his cosmetic slots are so terrible from a stat perspective that they have no functional reason to exist in the game; as seems to be standard with all vendor gear in MMOs for some reason. However, because of the appearance slot system they provided me with a great customization option.

Appearance customization slots also partially alleviate another issue that a lot of MMOs seem to have. Once the level cap passes a given set of raid content to a certain degree, there is really no reason for that content to exist any more. Players are not going to fool with it once the stats on the gear you can get are horrible compared to normal top level solo quest rewards. For example Molten Core and Blackwing Lair currently have no reason for existing in World of Warcraft. They are old level 60 raid dungeons. As badass as some of the armor you can get there looks, there's no real reason for it to be in game right now (or there wasn't when I last played, there was talk of revamping BWL to drop gear relevant to 85s, they may have implemented that by now for all I know). However, if WoW had appearance slots I can totally see going in to get those armor sets on a small party of bored level 85s.

Cosmetic slots turn obsolete encounters and vendor trash into potentially compelling content, even to bored players twiddling their thumbs at the level cap. I've never been able to understand why they aren't a standard feature of more MMOs.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Where have I been? Where am I going? Adventures in navel gazing.

For the last few weeks, I've been asking myself "What am I trying to do with this blog?" To post my ruminations on this subject seems almost unimaginably self indulgent, but here I go. . . ;-)

There were a few key points I had in mind when I started this blog. I wanted it to be nearly a strict MMO blog. I also wanted to point out in various ways that I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong wrong with the MMO genre. There are a great diversity of products available catering to a wide variety of tastes. In fact, for all the whining about a "lack of innovation" in modern MMOs, there are tons of downright experimental games out there. Ironically enough, most whiners will dismiss existing innovative games without bothering to even investigate them. If you really want to see more innovation in MMO space, you need to vote with your wallet or at least enough of your spare time to download some trials.

Another big theme I had in mind is that I think the venom aimed at some of the more popular MMOs is misplaced, and somewhat toxic to the social community that engages in discourse about MMOs. There seems to be this idea floating around in some corners of the net that if developers weren't so blinded by the success of games like WoW, Rift, and LoTRO that we'd see more "innovative" and "immersive" big budget MMOs. What innovative and immersive would look like is rarely described in any detail, but in some cases it seem to be code for EQ or Ultima Online with modern graphics. Since developers apparently aren't paying attention to any games but the more popular ones, all "theme-park MMOs" must be attacked as often and loudly as possible. If you generate enough noise, eventually developers will take note and stop putting big budgets behind "WoW clones."

The thing is, that won't work. First off, for any number of financial reasons, you'd be a real ass to spend tens of millions of dollars on an unproven game design that caters to a market of unknown size. No-one in their right mind is likely to do it. However, let's assume for the sake of argument that wasn't true. If you were a game developer, would seeing one or even several bloggers and message board commentators constantly whine that a particular fairly popular game "is teh suxxors" convince you that they represent a large untapped market? Particularly when they usually don't express what they actually do want in any real detail, and the few details offered differ from one angry ranter to the next?

Posting something along the lines of "This game is a WoW clone with zero innovation, everyone that likes it is one of the mindless morons ruining the MMO genre" accomplishes nothing save making the poster sound obsessed, angry, and possessed of rather fringe tastes. What developer would see that and think "Yeah, I want to spend millions developing something for that guy!" It's certainly nothing like a compelling argument for whatever you want to see developed.

Lately, I've begun feel that I'm in danger of becoming utterly repetitive if I keep revisiting these basic themes. I now find myself wondering where I want to go. I'd like to hit 200 posts by the end of the year, but that's a fairly arbitrary goal. The MMO news lately hasn't really inspired me. Of course it's to be expected that things get a bit slow in the middle of the summer. I do consider this something akin to my MMO personal record, so expect to see the occasional "What I've been up to" posts regardless. However, I think I need to change what I've been doing a bit to stay engaged with the blog. I have a couple of ideas I've been tossing around, expect to see some changes, minor or major, in the coming weeks.

One fantastic side effect of running this blog is that I've gotten to get to know so many generally like minded individuals. Most of my blogroll was unknown to me when I started this. It's been great finding out that there is a solid group of knowledgeable and generally upbeat MMO commentators. Many of the highest profile MMO blogs read like three note tunes, sophisticated trolling attempts, or narcissistic whining to me. That was mostly what I was familiar with when I started this, and it's great to know I was mistaken. Of course the converse is that I don't see as clear a need for a blog in this format as I did when I started. I now feel less a voice in the wilderness than a member of a community I didn't know existed.

[EDIT] Bit of a drastic re-write for clarity. I'm not going anywhere, and have never seriously considered shutting down the blog. This whole post is more of a thought exercise for me than anything else.