Friday, June 29, 2012

Will Players "Get" The Secret World?

Last night I pre-ordered The Secret World from Amazon.  I have early access as well as a some in game goodies like a dog and some sort of XP boost.  Oddly, I am not sure I'll be playing it at all this weekend apart from to logging in to save some character names.  I've been traveling/ entertaining for most of the past week and feel more inclined to catch up in DDO and SWTOR than to jump into something new this weekend.  I'll likely spend more time with TSW over the 4th of July weekend, and I am looking forward to it.

The game really impressed me during the beta weekends (Rowan has a great preview up that summarizes my experience pretty well).  I like the story driven gameplay, the atmosphere and setting, and the classless character development system.  I also think that, much like LoTRO back in the day, a lot of the players that try TSW are not going to "get it."  The game requires real patience to get into.  For example, the quests. Each quest that you take opens up a chain of quests that together form a narrative.  The best way to do quests is to take one quest at a time and see it all the way through to the end. Most of the time when you finish one quest chain, if you explore the area where you end up you will find an object or NPC that will open up another quest chain.

The game is not catered towards completionists.  It's not all that likely that you will even find all the quests the first time you go through a zone, much less do all of them.  I have read estimates that you only need to do 25% of the quests in a given zone to be strong enough to head to the next one (my guess would be more like 50%, but certainly not all of them).  The idea is that each character through a zone will experience a slightly to extremely different set of stories, and to encourage exploration. 

Further, if you pick up a style of quest that you already have (e.g., an investigation quest), it will replace the previous quest of the same style in your quest log, though you can go back later and finish the original quest if you care to [corrected thanks to Rowan!].  In any case, If you try to play TSW like WoW where you pick up every quest in sight and run randomly around the map to quest objectives, you absolutely will be stymied.  On top of that, the puzzle quests can be quite challenging (and are meant to be).  TSW is not a good game for those with MMO ADD.

The combat system and the character development system likewise need a real time investment before they start to shine. The emphasis of the game on narratives is also likely to turn off a lot of players, now that SWTOR has "proved" that compelling scripted narratives have no place in MMOs. This is an absurd contention in my mind, but a lot of commentators do seem to feel that way and have somehow managed to conclude that SWTOR settling at a mere 600-800K or so steady subs (my best guess, 1.3 million subs was the last number released) somehow supports this idea. 

I don't expect TSW to set the MMO world on fire.  However, I do think it will have very strong appeal for players that enjoy exploration, well developed narratives, and are looking for something outside of the fantasy / sci-fi genres.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Post WoW Commandments of MMO Design (the perspective of a geezer on how WoW changed MMOs for the better)

This post over at Raging Monkeys really got me thinking about how I viewed MMOs pre and post World of Warcraft.  Pre-WoW I had played Everquest briefly (it didn't really suck me in), and played Dark Age of Camelot, Everquest Online Adventures, and Phantasy Star Online (if you want to call the latter a MMO) for longer.  There are those who think WoW ruined the MMO genre by being such a smash hit and appealing to the "lowest common denominator" among MMO players.  I'm not one of them.

WoW certainly had a big effect on the MMO landscape. Even existing MMOs in many cases added in features from it.  For example, DAoC, EQ, and EQ II all added easy ways to identify quest givers after WoW pioneered the "!" system (one of the few design elements in WoW I'm aware of that was not taken from a previous game).  For better or worse, WoW ushered in some new commandments of MMO design:

1. Thou shalt give me something more interesting to do than standing around grinding mobs to level.

Pre-WoW, quests were few and rarely worth doing in most MMOs.  If you did muddle through a poorly designed quest in DAoC or EQ, nine times out of ten you would have gotten better XP and loot by standing in a field killing rats for the same amount of time.  If you really wanted to level at a decent pace, the best way to do it was generally to grab four of your closest friends and stand in one spot killing the same mobs over and over again as they respawned.  I don't know why that seemed like an acceptable state of affairs to me pre-WoW, but it sure as hell doesn't now.

I'm not by any means saying that a MMO has to have a ton of quests, or any quests worth speaking of, to hold my attention these days. Other options include leveling via PvP (see WAR and modern DAOC), Diabloesce randomized dungeons and loot pinatas (see PSO and Dungeon Runners), puzzle based gameplay (see Myst Online: URU, and many of the quests in DDO and The Secret World), or advancement through pure crafting (see EQ II).  But if the only reasonably rewarding activity a game gives me is standing in one spot killing gnolls for six hours, I'm not sticking around past the tutorial.    

2. Thou shalt not hinder my solo play experience, nor shalt thou make whatever random class I pick a sucktastic soloer without giving me some kind of warning on the character generation screen. 

Apart from PSO, WoW was the first MMO I played where any class could solo well.  Sure, some classes are monsters at solo play while others are merely OK at it.  But the fact remains you can pick any class you like on the character selection screen and have a pretty fun time, whether you decide to play solo or spend a lot of time in groups.  That's generally true of most MMOs these days.

Contrast with olden MMOs like EQ or DAoC where the majority of classes could barely solo at all past very low levels.  "What the best solo class?" was a really common forum topic, since a wrong choice on the character select screen meant that on any given night you logged you would have to stand around twiddling your thumbs until you could get a group together.

I enjoy playing with other humans, but I don't like being forced to.  A game with forced grouping is one where you may was well not log in at all if you can't invest a few hours, and one where you are forced to be social whether you feel like it or not.  The latter does not suit my temperament (and really never has), while the former doesn't fit my play schedule at all any more.

3. Thou shalt give me stuff more interesting to do in combat then watch as my auto-attacks slowly whittle down my opponent's health.  Yes, even at low levels!

Even before WoW, it used to drive me buggy that at low levels on most melee classes all you did was hit auto-attack and then stand there like a drooling moron watching numbers creep across your combat log.  Even at higher levels, it was often much the same save that you'd whip out a special ability once or twice a combat.  DAoC improved things a good bit by adding melee attack chains and positional attacks to use while you slowly whittled down an opponent's health.  However, WoW was probably the first "true MMO" (I'm excluding PSO here) I played where every combat felt fast paced and dynamic.

More modern MMOs have only taken this feeling to greater extremes.  For example, there's nothing quite like flying through the air in Champions Online while raining down fireballs on the heads of your foes (cackling madly at their impotence).  Allod's Online, DDO, SWTOR, and others have even gone so far as to dispense with auto-attacks altogether.  Thankfully, the days of hitting auto-attack and then going off to make a sandwich are long behind us.

4. Thou shalt not design a MMO with graphics so poorly optimized that it's going to run and look like a turd on any PC I could reasonably be expected to own.

I was able to run many old school MMOs when they came out.   But that always involved systems that were pretty well on the edge of my budget.  At a time when I had been stringing along an older system so long that I couldn't run many current games at all, WoW looked and ran great on my aging PC.  Around the same time, EQ II had far inferior art direction and was barely playable on my rig.  That really cemented the idea in my head that there is simply no excuse for a MMO developer to release a game that demands cutting edge hardware to run well. With good art direction even relatively simple graphics can be immersive.

Since then, developers seem to have largely caught on to this.  My three year old $700 gaming rig runs SWTOR and The Secret World just fine. Not at maxed settings by any means, but good enough to look pretty.  For example, any screenshots you see of SWTOR on this blog are on my normal play settings.    The last MMO to really screw this up, Tabula Rasa, I believe would likely still be around if more than 20% of the players that tried it didn't have to run it on minimum settings (where it was foggy and fugly).  If a $300 gaming console can pump out astounding graphics in hi def, my PC that costs twice as much and has more than double the hardware specs sure as hell should be able to.  If it can't, your engine sucks.


I would count myself among those that believes WoW improved the MMO genre by making it more accessible.  I wouldn't automatically dismiss a MMO that breaks one of the new commandments.  But any two of them?  Yeah forget it, whatever game you are designing is not aimed at me.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Played Lately: DDO, Gianthold

DDO has been one of my mainstay MMOs for a good long while now.  I'm in a smallish guild there that I quite enjoy, and I log in one or two evenings a week to adventure with a fixed group.  Our characters are now on the cusp of level 15, much further than I've made it before in DDO.  Lately, we have been working our way through the Ruins of Gianthold adventure pack.

Gianthold contains a small village/ quest hub that has a suprisingly full suite of ammenities.  It has auction house access, a bank, and most of the vendors you could want including one that sells hireling contracts.  Obviously, it also has giants:

 The giants DDO are scaled pretty accurately to what I recall from the pen and paper rules, which is to say massive.  Here is my dark elf favored soul standing next to a cloud giant.

The giants hand out quests primarily to kill giants and their minions.  Stone giants, fire giants, cloud giants, and even skeletal undead giants all make appearances (you spend a lot of time stabbing giants in their calves).  The visual design of the giants I've seen so far hew pretty closely to the way they were envisioned in the original AD&D monster manual.  It's been a treat to see the illustrations I remember from my teenage years come to life.

 Yeah that's pretty much as bald and scary as I expected stone giants to be based on the PnP illustrations.

The quest rewards haven't really been blowing my mind.  Of course due to time spent farming items with nice set bonuses in a lower level area, as well as the labors of a guild crafter, my character is quite well geared for a level 14.  It's not really surprising the area holds few upgrades for me.  The XP rewards, at least, are very nice.  By the time we leave I expect to be at least close to level 16.  Visually, the area is also really interesting.

In general, the further along you get in DDO the more interesting the environments get.

For a really old game that runs well on meager PCs, DDO still looks quite good in my opinion.  I also find the real time combat to be a nice change of pace from almost every other MMO I play.  I find the depth of the character generation system in equal parts frustrating and entertaining.  When a build comes together and works for what you designed it to do, it's exhilarating.  When a build fails and you realize you have spent days leveling a gimp, it's not as exhilarating (to put it nicely).

     Gianthold was apparently once the site of a war between giants and dragons.  How both sides got crystallized I'm a little fuzzy on, but it makes for some impressive sights.

Apart from DDO I'm still playing SWTOR nearly every night.  Unless I am mistaken, character transfers will go live tomorrow night.  It would certainly be nice to be able to move some of my abandoned characters on other servers to my current home, but I'm not sure they will qualify since they are all on slightly different server types to the one I'm currently playing.  Regardless, I'm still having fun there and plan to see the two Imperial class quest storylines I'm now on through to the end.  From there, the Republic awaits... and of course Secret World and GW 2 at some point as well. My interests over the summer look to greatly outstrip my spare time.  

I leave you with another set of crystallized figures, this time on an island surrounded by lava.  This really belongs on a heavy metal album cover.