Thursday, April 4, 2024

EQ II Origins server: looking forward to a look back

 So in the latest producer's letter, Jen Chan at Daybreak/ Darkpaw games mentions that some time this year EQ II will be releasing an Origins server.  While the details aren't completely nailed down, the idea seems to be a server that mimics the launch era game in all of it's clunky glory.**  I definitely plan to stick my head in just to see how much of what I think I recall from that era was real versus a fever dream created by the fog of memory.

The main thing I remember is how much more insanely complicated crafting was.  You couldn't just craft an item, heck no!  I remember having to craft a sheet of paper, ink and a pen before I could craft so much as a single low quality spell scroll.  Heck, I even have a really vague memory of perhaps having to buy crafted metal nibs to even be able to make a pen, but surely I am mistaken?  I assume that's just something conjured by my brain filling in details based on what the crafting felt like, rather than how it actually worked.  I mean crafting more than three subcombines to make a single spell scroll would just be absurd, wouldn't it?

Regardless, to this day the part of EQ II that gives me the biggest hit of nostalgia is the sound and animations that come up when you are crafting.  When I played the launch era game, 90% of my time was spent crafting spell scrolls.  I was flabbergasted by the depth of it compared to anything else I had played by that point.  I also got quite wealthy selling them on the auction house, at least by launch era standards.   Half of the classes desperately needed them, and the crafting was so absurdly time consuming and repetitive that relatively few players made it past the lowest levels of scribe.

I also recall the combat parts of the game skewing very heavily towards group content.  Even back then I was a devoted soloist.  It didn't take me long to hit a soft wall where I had done all the solo quests I knew how to find, and the only method of progression left to me was heading out to grind random mobs.  I didn't find the prospect very attractive, and so once I got tired of "Scribe: the MMO" I bounced.  

However, the game did have an interesting feel to it that the modern game doesn't quite recapture.  A feeling that the crappy little neighborhood I was in was a real place, that I was in very real danger when I went outside the city, and that I really was a burgeoning craftsman slowly learning a trade and plying my wares.   Despite the modern game being superior in nearly every way that matters to me, I still find my self looking really forward to stepping back in time for a weekend or three.   Heck, maybe older more patient me will even like that clunky slow-paced relic more than younger me did.   

[Edit: Update]

**According to Bhagpuss it will actually be 2006 era Everquest II, by which time at least some of the rough edges of the launch game had been rounded down, including the crafting being much more straightforward than what I recall.  I bounced some time in 2005, and so didn't realize how much the game changed in the first year.  I don't think I played it again until maybe 2008-2009.  

However, I am still looking forward to it. For me personally a lot of what I actually vaguely miss was a random neighborhood of one of the two cities feeling like such an important place.  Each city had three or four neighborhoods that you might start in depending on your race.  They functioned sort of halfway between an older game like EQ where members of a different race might start on a completely different continent,  and a more modern game where everyone, or at least everyone in the same faction, has the same initial starting area.  Either way, I will be checking it out.  If they bring back that weird system where you didn't even pick your final class until level ten or something, so much the better.  Not that late 2004 or 2006 EQ II is a game I would ever be likely to get as heavily invested in as the modern game.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Very late thoughts on Cataclysm coming to Classic

During Blizzcon it was announced that early next year the Classic servers will be moving on to Cataclysm, as I am sure anyone that reads this blog is already well aware.  While likely all but inevitable (crazed ideas like alternate universe classic branches aside), this decision likely ensures that I won't be going back to WoW for another few years. 

It's certainly not because I hated Cataclysm. In fact Cataclysm was probably when I got most heavily invested in WoW overall.  It's literally the only time I managed to hit the cap and not bounce.  In every other era, once I hit the cap and finished farming up all the mounts I cared about I was done.   In Cataclysm, I hit the cap and kept playing for at least another six months.

The main reason I stopped playing WoW a little over a year ago was that Blizzard ticked me off by being terrible to their employees, even for a gaming studio.* Now of course it wasn't something they suddenly started doing, it was just back in 2021 when news of what horrible place it had been all along finally leaked.  Really egregious revelations like "The Cosby Room" completely soured me on the studio.  I kept waiting for some sign that things had improved, but to me announcements and leadership changes always came across as meaningless lip service with little intent behind them. 

That may be getting better now that Microsoft is buying out Activision.  I presume the worst of Blizzard's cultural practices will begin to be somewhat reigned in.  I mean it will still be a large gaming development studio, so it won't be rainbows and kittens.  But it does seem likely they will manage to improve (i.e., move up the abysmal industry norms) to the degree that I could begin to support them financially without moral qualms.

Unfortunately, this is coming a bit too late for me because Cataclysm itself is a barrier.  Despite how reviled the expansion was, I enjoyed it quite a bit in 2010.  However, even ten years on I still feel like I played the PvP to death.**  Added to that, with years of hindsight I can also see that the pre-Cataclysm era of WoW is simply a better game to me.  For me, Lich King was the largest that the "good version" of WoW ever got, and apparently I only have about six more months (at most) to play that version if I want to. 

With hindsight, Cataclysm marked the beginning of the end of the WoW I loved, when the process of gradually simplifying the game began in earnest.  Changes to core systems from Cataclysm on don't feel like fully considered quality-of-life changes, like the ones that came in Burning Crusade and Lich King. Instead, they feel like a fruitless attempt to widen their audience past core MMO players.  For example, talents became simpler and simpler from Cataclysm on, until they got reduced to one choice every five or ten levels.  While that is indeed much easier for a casual player to understand, it also makes most levels incredibly boring.  Your hit points and mana go up, and that's about it. 

Piece-by-piece Blizzard began removing design elements that existed solely to create the illusion of a realistic world with sensible rules. For example, needing learn how to use your weapons and practice with them to be proficient eventually got tossed aside.  Choice of pet for a hunter became almost solely a cosmetic decision.  Missile weapons stopped needing ammo.  Quests to learn new class abilities got pulled.  The process kept going, and by the time I last played retail it felt more like a lobby based dungeon crawler that happened to be embedded in a MMO than a true MMORPG to me. 

I was tempted to go back for Lich King Classic.  I missed it the first time around because I didn't enjoy the endgame of Burning Crusade, and didn't make it back to WoW again until after Cataclysm launched.  However, the revealed awfulness of Blizzard has kept me away recently purely out of protest.  Now I have seemingly missed my chance to level through the Lich King era game for a second time, they will be setting it on fire again in just a few months.

What somewhat surprised me is that Blizzard also has no plans to create any permanent "locked in the Lich King" era servers.  They already have a few servers for the launch era game, I just assumed they would do the same for Lich King since it's so often touted as the best version of WoW.  It's certainly when the game peaked in popularity.   If the base game is going to be post Cataclysm going forward, is it really still Classic? 

At this point the only upcoming version of WoW "Classic" that seems likely to tempt me is Legion.  By all accounts the implementation of Artifacts in it was a lot of fun.  Yet that is surely at least two or three years out.  So it seems like my long absence from WoW is likely to continue even if the culture of the studio does improve once Microsoft takes over. 

*A bar so low that it is already resting comfortably on the floor at most studios!   

**It was a little odd that the one era in which I didn't bounce right off the endgame of WoW was in an expansion that everyone seemed to hate. However, what is especially odd for me is that I spent most of my time at the cap doing PvP for gear.  I'm not super competitive to start with, and  PvP has to be balanced "just so" for me to enjoy it.  I want meaningful and disparate choices on offer, yet I also want all of them to be solidly useful to a team.  If there is a useful but unpopular role I can specialize in, like setting up to defend a spot, so much the better.  Very few MMOs have ever managed that balancing act well to my tastes, and in WoW your PvP specialization options are basically healer, DPS,  more DPS, or Even Moar Deeps.  Yet during the Cataclysm era I did enough PvP to  wrack up the 1000 honorable kills achievement and buy a full set of PvP epics.   I even eventually got the staff I was drooling over in that post.  For me that's a heck of a lot of time spent doing endgame stuff in general in a MMO, much less PvP.  I was clearly enjoying it.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

A Field Guide to LBGs: Magic Streets

Lately my main location based games have been Pokémon Go and Jurassic World Alive. There is a post stewing about JAW.  However, I wanted to highlight another game I play every once in a while: Magic Streets.  I've never seen it covered by anyone else, and it hews closer to a PC MMOPRG than any other LBG  I have played.  

Magic Streets, the location based RPG!  At least the splash screen doesn't lie to you with a pretty painting, those ate definitely the graphics.

Magic Streets is a fantasy LBG inspired seemingly heavily by classic Runescape, with a dash of the old PS2 game Shadowhearts in terms of combat mechanics.   Magic Streets is a bit primitive in some ways.  For example, to me the graphics (as you can see) are whatever is the opposite of charming.  However, the game also has a lot of interesting features that I really like: timing mini-game based combat, good depth that isn't overwhelming, tons of loot to dig through, and a skill based character development system that lets you build out for whatever combat style you like. 

Overall I like it a lot better than Orna, which is the only fantasy RPG LBG that anyone ever seems to talk about.  The issue with Orna for me was that it got repetitive very quickly.  Magic streets doesn't have the same depth of classes as Orna, but I find the combat to be a lot more fun.  The combat and other features, like being able to gather crafting mats, has kept me engaged with Magic Streets for much longer than I ever was with Orna.

Here I am wandering around my neighborhood.  The bunny person near me (with his face turned away) is a pet that I think helps me  in a fight.  What trade-offs choosing to level one pet vs another represents I really have no idea.  As you can see the graphics are overall quite primitive.  I suspect it's a conscious style choice to mimic Runescape, which is a MMO that you used to be able to run in a browser even in the 2000s. The NPC in the back sells stuff.  The cave entrance leads to a dungeon where you can fight a series of increasingly stronger mobs for better loot.  The other icons represent mobs you can fight, or NPCs you can rescue (also by fighting mobs). What this screenshot doesn't show are any crafting material nodes, but in general they are quite abundant.  As nearly as I can tell, your ability to harvest mats is limited only by your inventory space and your ability to walk over to a node IRL.

What do you do?  The basic gameplay is to wander around killing monsters to take their loot and gain XP.  However in addition to that, you can train pets that fight along side you, harvest crafting materials, and craft either lots of different types of gear and consumables or create and upgrade buildings in your personal keep.  More on that below.

The character development system is skill based.  As you level up you get points to spend on the attributes of your choice.  There are also simple skill trees to unlock and level up combat abilities.  Note that these screenshots were all taken nearly a year ago, my current character is a bit further along than this.

The character development system is based on allocating points to skills. You have no class, instead you level up abilities that qualify you to use better gear. There are also simple skill trees where you can purchase and level up abilities.  For example, as I am writing this my guy can wear most medium and heavy armor I find,  and is pretty good with big two-handed weapons and missile weapons.  However, he is terrible with more mage-style stuff like magic wands and cloth armor.  The combat skills I have invested in mainly allow me to execute melee attacks that auto-crit for a lot of damage. I can only use one of these attacks two or three times before I have to rest and regenerate mana, but the attacks are pretty close to an "I win" button in a fight where I use one.

When you click on a mob, you get this info screen about it and you can decide whether to attack it.  One way in which it is very different from a real MMO is that mobs will never attack you, it's always your decision.

For me the combat is what really sets the game apart from Orna, the closest LBG competitor I am aware of.  In Orna, you attack pretty much like you would in an old Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy game.  You choose an ability from a menu, and that's about it.  In Magic Streets, the combat is still turn based. But there is also small element of skill, where timing your attack well determines how much damage you do. 

For example, for big two-handed swords when you attack a small circle inside a larger one starts growing.  If you time the attack so that the two circles overlap you do a ton of damage.  Hit the attack too soon and you will do very little damage.  Wait too long, and the attack will miss altogether.  Different weapons have slightly different mechanics to them, but they are all about a timing mini-game.  The closest analogue I am familiar with is the Shadow Hearts series of games on the PS2 from the late 1990s (a reference that I am sure at least no readers whatsoever will instantly get!). 

With this weapon type the circle slowly shrinks, and you try to tap it when the circle is as close as possible to the point in the middle.  Wait too long an the attack will miss.  Hit the circle closely, and you will do massive damage.  Different weapons have slightly different timing based mini-games to use them.  Special attacks, here greyed out because I decided to make a normal attack, use mana (the blue bar) and are guaranteed to do good damage, heal you, or whatever else.  I'm not far enough into the game to really know what the possibilities on offer consist of. 

What is the world like?  The world is filled primarily with random mobs and crafting material nodes, like many many PC MMOs.  Mobs drop a wide variety of gear, most of which you won't be able to use unless you have specialized in the skill it needs.  For example, I can wear a lot of heavy armor and very little cloth. You also have a keep that you can level up and build out however you like.  Mine has some merchants for buying and selling random loot, an alchemist that will give me a free mana potion once a day if I check in, and a camping area where I can rest.  Lots of other building types are available, but I have no idea what most of them might do.  You also have to gather a heck of a lot of wood, rocks, and other stuff to create any building.

When you attack mobs, very often you also rescue an NPC. These can be recruited for your keep in a system I barely understand.  You can also use all the crafting mats you gather to craft your own gear, but I get so much random gear as drops that I am a bit fuzzy on why you would ever bother with that. You will quickly murder all the monsters nearby if you don't go walking around.  You can't just sit in your living room and grind your brains out like Orna.

You can see the keeps of other players out on the landscape.  However, the game doesn't appear to be all that popular.  Only a few people in my entire neighborhood seemingly play.  

Loot is abundant, and comes in the standard array of MMO rarities from gray common gear to rare and powerful epic gear.  One of the main reason to level up skills is so that you can use different pieces of gear.  I spent a ton of points on missile weapons so I could use this shuriken, and it paid off.  I immediately became much stronger, able to quite easily take down mobs I was struggling with before.

Asynchronous interactions.  You can enter the keeps of other players and buy and sell stuff. There also appears to be some PvP system where you can attack someone's keep and try to loot it.  However I haven't attempted this.  The few keeps I could have attacked had high level guards that likely would have made short work of me.  My keep hasn't been attacked even once since I have been playing.  Whether this is because there is some flag I haven't set, because I'm too low level, or because my neighbors are polite I can't really say. 

How do you interact with other players? As nearly as I can tell this is quite limited. If there is a way to form parties or hook up and do a raid, or collaborate to clear a dungeon, I haven't figured it out yet. I assume there is some kind of guild system, but I haven't found it yet if there is.

In addition to dropped loot, wandering NPC merchants sell items.  There is also a blacksmith in my keep that has a bunch of random gear when I check in with him.  However I mainly use him to break the gear I don't want down into crafting mats.  It takes a lot of wood and rocks to upgrade an Inn, I'm not going to let the handle of an axe dropped by an ogre just go to waste!

Is it good exercise?  As I said above, you will exhaust everything within striking distance of you fairly quickly if you don't walk around.  However, I find that by the time I have cleared out my yard, or the parking lot of a doctor's office, or whatever, I am satisfied with my progress.  If I want more stuff to do where I am, generally I'll switch over to Pokémon Go instead of walking anywhere. 

I can imagine that if you really got into the crafting and building aspects, it would be to great advantage to walk around your neighborhood looking for crafting mats to harvest.  There doesn't appear to be any way to get stuff to respawn quickly, or any way to move to a new location short of actually walking there.  If I were more deeply invested in the game, it might be very good exercise indeed. 

This is the 5th post in a series on Location Based Games.  Here are the others:


Pokémon Go

Walking Dead Our World (sadly shuttered earlier this year)


Wednesday, August 30, 2023

What is a MMORPG, and why does it matter to me so much?

I think many if not most online multiplayer games have become MMOs in the broad sense.  To me MMORPG is a narrower concept, and seems to be the pretty much the same thing that Tipa means when she says MMO in this recent thought provoking post.  I articulated "everything is a MMO, MMORPGs are different" much more fully in a post here a few years ago.  However, I inadvertently typed 99% of a blog post in the response to Tipa's post, and I have never really explored where I feel the limits of MMORPGs here.  So here we go!

To me what distinguishes a MMO from a MMORPG is not really any particular mechanics but a design sensibility.  If the one of the central design goals is to create the illusion of a shared fantasy world (or fictional world in general), with at least some of the expected entertainment coming from social interactions with other avatars being run by players (even if indirect like an AH or looking at other player's outfits when you run through town) it's a MMORPG. It's more of a "I know it when I see it" than a hard limit, and any two observers might disagree on the edge cases.  But if there is a straight line in the design history from the game to UO or EQ (or a MUD) I likely consider a game a MMORPG.   

Social interaction is also key. The only way to experience the game has to be to hang out in at least some areas where other people you don't know could also choose to play.  It's kind of like when you decide to leave your house and go to a store.  You might not see anyone, but you certainly could and it isn't your choice.  The only way to physically shop in the store is to take that risk.  The only way to play a MMOPRG is to engage in shared social spaces that could, and in fact almost certainly do, have total strangers in them.  

However that is far from enough, or Fortnight would be a MMORPG.  Fortnight is definitely not a MMORPG to me, and the main reason is that design goal of the game is different.  Some edge-case examples might give a better idea of where I am coming from.

To me DDO and Guild Wars 1 are edge cases, because the only areas that aren't instanced are villages, cities and keeps that lead either directly to quest instances or to wilderness areas that lead to more quest instances.  However a major design goal is to create the illusion of a shared world inhabited both by yourself and other player characters, so I tend to include them.  Diablo I-III don't count in my mind because you can get to the hub areas offline. It's by design that you don't have to fool with other players if you don't want to. Same with PSO, and any number of survival games like Arc Survival Evolved.  However,  a particular server of Arc that is always up and has a lot of players comes really close to being a MMORPG in my mind.  Especially if it has more active players than can be logged on at once.

Second Life is another edge case, but I wouldn't include it because the original design goal is not to create the illusion any specific fictional world.  The only reason I consider even an edge case that games made by users are now embedded in it, making a kind or proto-metaverse.  Location based games are yet another edge case, but I don't include them because our world is so integral to them.  I am on pretty shaky ground there with Orna or Magic Streets I will allow.  However, I consider LBGs in general something new.  

RPG is also a necessary part to me, but almost everything seems to have some RPG mechanics such as XP and levels these days, so presence of RPG mechanics is not all that useful by itself.  But in what I think of as a MMORPG the mechanics are there at least in part to help make the world feel more fleshed out, kind of like in a PnP RPG.  They aren't there purely to give players more things to grind towards. 

All this is a very long winded way of saying I consider MMORPGs a specific genre with fuzzy edges.  All bloggers and commentators seem to agree on what's in the middle, and there will probably never be a huge amount of agreement about where the exact edges are.  

Whatever a MMOPRG is is though, it's a genre that's really special to me.  They are a lot more enchanting and "sticky"  than almost any other type of game.  For me they have an indefinable magic that really makes them pop.  It's a genre that hints at endless possibilities to me.  However, it's a genre  that also often makes me somewhat wistful, because I believe the potential will almost certainly never be fully realized by any design team.  I'm not sure whether that's possible, even in theory, for a single game. 

That said, I certainly love seeing how different teams of designers have taken a crack at it!  Doing so most of my adult life has led to a series of fascinating journeys.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Creator appreciation week: all the teams running retired MMOs

I have been way too busy to post this year.  As I feared in my previous post, lurking on other people's blogs is about all I have had time for lately, though my "unusually busy" stretch is taking even longer to abate than I imagined it would back in January.  However, I couldn't resist joining in on Blaugust fun in a small way when I saw this post over at Inventory Full.  Developer appreciation week was always one of my favorite parts of the event back when I used to regularly participate.  

This year, my appreciation goes out to all the volunteer teams keeping defunct MMOs alive.  Off the top of my head there is the one for Warhammer Online, the one for Myst Online: UruProject 1999 that is keeping the launch era Everquest experience alive, the one for Vangaurd: Saga of Heroes,  a pile of them for City of Heroes (of which Homecoming is my favorite), a wide variety for Star Wars Galaxies, and the one for Phantasy Star Online: Blue Burst.  

These teams are doing a great service for fans of these games, and for anyone interested in the history of MMOs in general.  Beyond that, they are often actually doing a better job with their games than some of the teams running "live" MMOs.  In general unofficial server teams are legally forbidden from doing more than simply breaking even on their server costs, and they have zero incentive to do anything other than create the best experience they can with extremely limited resources. These are people that care about making players happy first, and everything else second.  Their passion really shows in a lot of these projects.  

For an enlightening comparison, contrast the experience that MitchManix had in Champions Online vs City of Heroes.  One is full of interesting ideas but ruined by lack of developer attention and poor monetization.  In the other you can't spend money to play even if you want to, and the game absolutely thriving.  For a live team to not be able to keep up with what a bunch of volunteers can do in their spare time is absolutely embarrassing, and is a decent microcosm of what has gone wrong in some parts of the MMO space.  

These games can also be a lifeline to people that can't afford to keep up in a pay-to-play MMO.  A relative of mine is in the middle of a divorce, and has never been financially all that well off to start with. She has about enough money to keep her PC running and an internet connection going, and that is literally her entire entertainment budget.  I introduced her to Homecoming, and it has been absolutely wonderful for her.  We meet about once a week to hang out in the game, and it has been a blast for both of us.  

The fact that so many of these games exist is a constant reminder to me that most people are actually pretty decent.  So my hat goes off to all the teams that sink their time into these projects! They really are making the online world a richer and happier place.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Virtual people?

Via CNBC, and for me via slashdot originally, you can now hire a virtual person for around 2-14K a year in China depending on whether you want a 2D or 3D person.  My first thought was "Why in the hell would you want to do that?" However, after a bit of digging I found this handy guide to how you too can create your own virtual person.  The article mentions some reasons why you would want to create one that I am a bit skeptical of.   For example, in my experience "automating simple tasks with AI" is a great way to generate a ton of data you will need to double check manually, or at least spot check and take into account an assumed error rate when you use it for anything.  The fact that AI image generators often generate multiple images and let you pick the one that turned out well is not a quirk of that application of AI.  

There was one thing on the list that caught my attention.  The idea that there is a ton of interest in metaverses, and virtual spaces need virtual people so they don't seem empty when you enter them.  It's still not exactly a home run. The metaverse is such a poorly defined term that I think it's all but meaningless.  However, I do think there is real potential for something like Roblox or Fortnite but open for the public to build out whatever they like, so it can grow organically.  Second Life did this in the 2000s, but the tools to build stuff for it were clunky and arcane.  You also had to set up an account and install a client to get to any of it, and Second Life itself was hard to navigate. ROBLOX and Fortnite* have done a good job addressing some of these pain points, but they remain locked into single company ecosystems so there is a limit to how big they can get.

I believe it's only a matter of time before someone creates something a lot like ROBLOX but with open access tools under a freeware style license.  Much like the early days of the web, as long as you are willing to host whatever you create on your own hardware you will be able to link it to a central listing/ network/ link repository and anyone that cares to can visit.  Once that happens, a bunch of linked virtual environments that you can wander around in might become a thing.  It will never be as big as the web proper, because for most purposes a flat webpage with scrolling text is actually much better.  For example, Amazon would not work nearly as well for me if I had to screw around with navigating a virtual store to find items I want to buy, and being able to rotate a 3d model of a DVD case, PS5, first edition of some book or whatever doesn't really give me additional information I need to figure out whether to buy it. 

Regardless, once virtual spaces start popping up more organically, to capitalize on the potential advantages of the medium one of the things many of them will need is virtual people.  We MMO enthusiasts have a lot experience with how exciting it can be to jump into a virtual space and feel like we are setting foot into a new community that we might want to be a part of.   However, if you stick your head into one and it's dead as a doornail, often you won't hang around to give it a chance.  The designers of online communities have recently started to catch on to this, and have begun to take steps to address it.  

For example, when Reddit first got going the founders had hundreds of fake accounts.  They would post links under different user names to make the site look more populated than it was.  After a while, the site had enough real users that it took off on its own.  However if they hadn't tricked users into thinking other people were around, it probably never would have gone anywhere.  It isn't as if user moderated message boards weren't thing before Reddit.  Less benignly, dating apps that are trying to get off the ground often have a lot of fake dating profiles embedded in them.  After early app makers that did this got the crap sued out of them, newer ones now apparently often embed the right to do so into their EULAs.

In MMOs, we can see various levels of this same basic idea.  In bars, dance halls and other areas that are meant to function largely as social gathering places, there are generally obvious NPCs hanging around drinking, talking, dancing or whatever.  The obvious reason for that is that a dead empty dance hall completely kills any fantasy you might be able to maintain that it's a real place.  You will promptly turn right around, and the chances of any real people deciding to hang out there becomes approximately zero.

However, I am also starting to see designers blur the line between PCs and NPCs in a few games.  I am sure any MMO vet has experienced an occasional brief moment of confusion where you weren't sure whether someone you encountered in a game was a PC or NPC.  Fortnite also allows you to hire a NPC to team up with in a match with other players.  In FFXIV, the game is making joining a party of real players more and more optional for group content.  Past the starting areas, you can now clear every dungeon in the game with NPCs, and when I do that it's generally me rather than them that bones a run by failing on one of the complicated raid boss dances.  They will even do their best to keep you rezzed when you screw up if you don't cause such a catastrophe that everyone dies.

The most amusing example of this I have encountered recently was in Phantasy Start Online 2.  Every time I would enter a dungeon zone, teams would fill out nearly instantly.  At first I assumed that this meant the game had amazing matchmaking.  However, after a while I realized that these "teams" were usually entirely made up of randomly generated NPCs.  The thing that's funny about it is that they gave me about the same level of interaction that I often get from some of the less social groups of real players in random dungeon runs in WoW or FFXIV, which is why it took me so long to catch on.  However, it did allow me to get hip deep into some of the group content and get my sea legs without having to wait around for groups to form.  I probably would have bounced right off of the dungeons without them.

How to get players to bond with NPCs is also a topic designers have been thinking about for a while.  I don't know if  NPCs will ever be convincing enough to fool most users in my lifetime.  Even it it becomes possible to do so, I think for ethical reasons it should always be clear whether there is a real person behind whoever you are interacting with.  However as a tool to set up some sort of virtual social space that users don't reject the moment they set foot in, I think more realistic NPCs have a real place.  Call them virtual people if you like. 

An aside:

My blogging schedule is likely to be quite haphazard again this year.  My work schedule will be frankly insane for the next few months, though I do have  a lot of goals I am genuinely excited about. This may be my last appearance save for random comments on other people's blogs for a while.  May your 2023 be awesome! 

*Whatever the hell Facebook/ Meta is doing with the vast sums of money they are setting on fire is barely even worth mentioning in this arena, imo. 

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Standing Stone Games: the perils of being part of a captive audience

I was recently reading the "biggest MMO disappointments" piece over at Massively, and one of the comments really stuck out to me.  MJ Guthry talked about how a close friend of his/ hers had their extremely expensive lifetime LoTRO account stolen, and after two months and many customer service requests Standing Stone Games has done absolutely nothing about it.   Normally I might be a little skeptical of this friend of someone I have never met, but this is Standing Stone Games.  That story not only tracks, I would be slightly surprised if it went any other way.  

I personally have been lucky enough never to have any issues I needed CS assistance with in LoTRO.  But I have had a handful of issues come up in the other SSG game, DDO.  I stopped submitting tickets over there altogether a couple of years ago because the chances of one getting resolved in a way that is helpful seems to be zero.  Out of something like a dozen tickets over the span of a decade, most of them were closed without any comment.  I did at least get comments on two. The first comment was "You weren't online when I checked so I have closed the ticket." Note that this was done in the middle of the day more than 48 hours after I submitted the ticket.  I do have a job, why on earth anyone would expect me to be on then I can't imagine.  

The other one said "I don't understand what you are asking for, ticket closed."  I submitted the ticket a third time, laying the issue out in enough detail that a mentally challenged elementary school student  that was only vaguely familiar with DDO should have been able to figure out what my problem was, and that one was completely ignored.*  It may still be in the system to this day for all I know.  I stopped paying attention after about the first two or three months after I submitted it.

I fully believe that the only reason SSG even has a ticket system is as an escape valve for pissed off customers.  They hope that most players will submit a ticket, give up after a while, and then forget about the entire incident that made them submit one.  This might make a slight bit of sense if SSG was some unknown studio working on obscure games no-one has ever heard of.  But they aren't and they don't'.

Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings are incredibly well known properties in fantasy nerdom, arguably among the two most important.  Right up there with Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Final Fantasy. The games themselves are also doing well.  The last set of hard numbers we got indicated that DDO and LoTRO alone have a "net revenue" of somewhere in the 10 million a year range.**  However, since then revenue has apparently more than doubled.  This is a company that could easily afford to have a functioning CS department.  They simply don't care to allocate the resources to it.  

SSG is also in a good position to get away with this because the two games they run don't have any real competition.  There really isn't any other MMO that combines the insane character customization of DDO with traps, puzzles and real time combat.  Probably the closest competitors to DDO in terms of character customization are City of Heroes, Champions Online, Star Trek Online and Project Gorgon.  Most of those are in a completely different genre, and the combat and gameplay loops of Project Gorgon are completely different from those of DDO. 

LoTRO is another game that for me has no real competition.  There isn't any other fantasy property I'm as invested in as Tolkien's Middle Earth.  Even if there was, LoTRO is an amazingly faithful realization of the source material that I seriously doubt will soon be equaled for Middle Earth, the Harry Potterverse, or any other property.  While you can quibble about some of the MMO mechanics, the world itself is a damn near perfect reproduction of the areas of Middle Earth that Tolkien described in detail.  Other areas that SSG has filled in itself, such as the depths of Moria, are very logically and respectfully extrapolated from the limited descriptions Tolkien did give.

SSG has a small, but essentially captive audience with these two games, and they act as if they know it.  The utter lack of functioning CS is part of a larger pattern where it's pretty clear that very little of the income of either game gets folded back into development or support staff.  That isn't to say that they don't put out new content.  In the grand scheme of things, SSG is actually better than average at putting out decent sized hunks of new content for their MMOs. 

The problem is that they appear to have no internal testing department.  They also tend to completely ignore player feedback on the test servers, to the extent that expansions get put out with bugs and balance issues that players have already documented.  They seemingly have the bandwidth to either create content or maintain it, but not both at the same time.  For example, the last big expansion of DDO, Isle of Dread, actually broke the reincarnation system for nearly two weeks.  That's a central gameplay loop in DDO. It would be analogous to the Alternate Advancement system broken in a way that prevents you from earning new AA points for a couple of weeks in Everquest, or all the raid dungeons at the cap being closed for maintenance in WoW.

All in all, the studio seems more and more focused on figuring out how to get the most money possible out of their big spenders.  For example, to celebrate the holidays they currently have a deal going where you get a free mount if you buy the $200 package for DDO points for the item shop.  However the mount can only be added to your stable on one server, it isn't account wide. Even their end of the year holiday sales this year only offered a 25% discount on their two most recent expansions, one of which came out more than a year ago.  Even giving the studio the fact that the total amount of content they put out in a year is usually pretty good, the quality control on it tends to be abysmal.  Recently the single most well known DDO content creator***, Strimtom, has even started begging the studio to slow down and take more time for quality control. 

Yet despite all that, I keep handing SSG my money.  DDO is by far my most played MMO this year.  LoTRO also remains likely my most played MMO of all time by a wide margin.  I do keep trying new-to-me MMOs and revisiting old favorites.  This year alone I have ventured forth into Everquest, Everquest 2, Guild Wars (the original), Phantasy Star Online 2, Terra Online, Destiny (also the original), Warframe and probably some others I am forgetting.  Yet it is the two SSG games that I always come back to.  Analogies to bad relationships certainly suggest themselves  . . .  

I don't mean to imply by all this that DDO and LoTRO are bad games, or you shouldn't check them out.  To my tastes they are both amazing games, which is why I have spent so much time in them.  I just wish that the studio seemed more committed to giving them the resources they need to flourish instead of constantly doubling down on milking the current player base.

*The issue I had is that one of the expansion bundles comes with a new pet, a pseudo dragon vanity pet,  and a cosmetic wizard hat that you can use once, and only once, for the pet of your choice.  One would naturally assume that the hat would work with the pet that it comes with, but that is not the case.  In fact, the hat is completely invisible on that pet. If you use it on an pseudodragon, you have essentially set the item on fire.  Keep in mind, this hat comes as part of an expansion bundle that was originally roughly $100.  Supposedly CS can give you a new copy of the hat if you make that common mistake.  However,  I was never able to get whatever random janitor they have going through tickets to even understand what my issue was, much less help me with it. 

**Based on 22% of 63 million in "net revenue" (= 13.8 million), which I assume means profit or I am not sure why they would have the term "net" in there.  Regardless, it's very hard to crunch the numbers that we have available and come up with a financial picture of a company that couldn't afford to pay a CS team of a dozen people 30K a year.

***That's admittedly a lot like saying the most well know species of kinorhynchan sea worm, or the perhaps most well known Czech silent film, but he does feature prominently in the tiny DDO community :-)