Thursday, April 28, 2011

Procedural content in MMOs

Blue Kae recently posted about a utterly fantastic interactive procedural music generator called Otomata. One of the things that's really fascinating about it is that simple geometric shapes will produce complex songs that sound almost composed. One can't help but wonder if certain new age and minimalist electronic composers haven't been using tools like this for years and selling us the results.

The site got me thinking about procedural content in general, and why MMOs don't use more of it. Some of the most sticky and entertaining offline RPGs to me are Roguelikes, which consist entirely of procedurally generated content. I can't imagine a handcrafted game with askii graphics holding my interest as long as Angband and it's ilk have in the past. Diablo is essentially a Roguelike with graphics, and Diablo III is a game I'm really heavily anticipating. Procedural enemy spawns and loot rewards have also been used in combination with handcrafted environments in a number of online multiplayer RPGs. Borderlands and Phantasy Star Online (the latter of which I was all I played for six straight months!) are the most successful ones that come to mind.

Procedural content generation would seem to have a lot of advantages. If done well it will keep players hooked for hundreds of hours with an endless search for "uber rare loot," potentially serving as a replacement volumes of hand crafted content that would take enormous developer resources to produce. However, for whatever reason, no MMO developer seems to have really harnessed the full potential of procedural content.

In Star Wars galaxies, the procedural content is limited to terminal missions that tend to be pretty much straight up fetch, kill, or deliver missions out on the landscape. They also don't really offer rewards that are much to get excited about. Anarchy Online offers a much deeper procedural content generation system, door missions, with all sorts of sliders you can fiddle with to change the mission parameters. For example, if you are a stealthy type you can generate missions where you sneak into an area and steal something or assassinate someone.

The rewards are also quite good, you can scroll through missions until you get one that offers the precise gear upgrade you want. However, this is probably also why the door mission system in AO isn't as addictive as the systems in PSO or Diablo. Once you have a full set of gear together, you know the system won't offer you any useful rewards until you out level what you have. At that point you either go out into the world and grind on mobs for a while, or you grind door missions for loot you don't care about.

My perfect MMO, or at least I think it would be, would be a quest driven MMO with Diablo embedded in it. Instead of hand crafted instances, or perhaps in addition to them, I'd like to see dungeons be entrances to three or four levels of random procedurally generated content that can be done solo or in a party. Different dungeons would pull from different mob lists and tile sets. At the bottom of a dungeon there would be a fixed boss battle, ala Phantasy Star Online. Loot would be utterly random, and scale somewhat with the level of the instance. To me, a handful of randomized dungeons would make for a much more entertaining and accessible endgame than the PvP/ Raiding models that currently dominate the market.

Maybe I'm missing something and there is already an MMO like that out there. I seem to recall that one of the Everquest expansions experimented with procedural dungeons. It's too bad I'd have to play Everquest to get to them :-/

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rift Weekend Event: one man's pooch screwing can be another man's awesome free stuff

Earlier this week the blogosphere was alight with displeasure at how badly Trion managed phase 3 of their world event over the weekend. Even generally upbeat bloggers like Blue Kae and MMOGamerchick expressed disappointment. I was on during the weekend, but didn't bother trying to log during the event itself due to pretty horrific que times. When I saw I had an hour long wait to log on, I fired up LoTRO instead.

Even if I had been able to get on, I doubt I would have been able to participate in the finale because my highest level character was only level 18 or so at the time. So the whole fiasco didn't really affect me at all. However, as an apology Trion handed out free stuff to everyone with an active subscription. Given my penchant for alts, this actually had a big effect on me since each of my toons got a random free item.

Most of my characters got 20 slot bags. That's a pretty ginormous bag to a low level character. My main is a tailor making bags out of cloth higher level than I'm getting from drops, and she can only make ten slot bags so far. However, the best was in store for said main: she got a 90% runspeed horse when she opened her gift box. Normally you have to get to level 40 to be able to ride such a fast mount, and they cost something like 35 platinum (my character currently has exactly 3 platinum to her name). As a bonus, it looks way cooler than the turtle I've been using:

Even on my mediocre PC, Rift is a very pretty game.

Trion may have ticked off the bulk of their player base over the weekend, starting a wildfire of negativity that burned across the web, but they sure threw me one hell of a bone. All because I "missed" an event I had no intention of participating in. Doesn't seem quite fair, but I'll certainly take it :-)

Friday, April 15, 2011

LoTRO: review of Volume II from the perspective of a Tolkien nerd

In the most recent update, Turbine made all of the Volume II quests soloable. That should not be taken to mean that they are easy. Unless you are capable of taking down a raid mob with 18,000 morale using only your skirmish soldier for help, you will not be able to get through all of them. In fact I died four or five times learning how to kite effectively on my hunter the first time I encountered one of those monsters. I didn't mind though, my solo game has definitely been kicked up a notch by the experience. More than any other MMO I've played, modern LoTRO seems to have nailed the "challenging but fair and rewarding" solo play experience.

Volume II tells several really interesting stories that fill out Tolkien's original work in believable ways. In my mind they expand the lore rather than clash with it. Volume I was interesting, but it felt like more of a side story that was only vaguely connected to the books. Volume II is more directly connected to the books, it deals with the aftermath of the fellowship passing through Moria and Lothlorian.

The first part of it tells the story of how the dwarves recolonized Moria. This may seem like a bit of a stretch at first, because as near as I can remember Tolkien never mentions this happening. However we do know from the books and extended material such as Lost Tales that there would have been a power vacuum after the fellowship passed through. Obviously the biggest bad down there was the Balrog, which Gandalf took out. However the fellowship also took out a lot of the leaders of the orcs on their way through. The orcs of Moria even sent a large hunting party after the fellowship to try and avenge the deaths of their leaders. So there would have been opportunity for the dwarves to retake the halls.

Further, the dwarves would almost certainly have wanted to retake Moria if it was possible. If you reread "Durin's Folk" in Appendix A of The Return of the King, you can get an idea for what it represents to many of the dwarves. It almost directly sets up the first part of Volume II. In one part, the dwarves fight a long and bloody battle for revenge that ends on the steps of Moria. At the end of the battle, the heir of Durin (Thrain) wants to go in and retake the halls. However the dwarves from other clans that are with him refuse. The one dwarf that nearly entered Moria during the battle (Dain) says this to him, after returning from the gate ashen faced with fear:

"You are the father of our Folk, and we have bled for you, and will again. But we will not enter Kazad-dum. You will not enter Kazad-dum. Only I have looked through the shadow of the gate. Beyond the gate it waits for you still: Durin's Bane [the Balrog]. The world must change and some other power than ours must come before Durin's folk will again walk in Moria."

So we are left with a very strong impression that they would like to retake Moria, save that they have no hope of facing the Balrog.

The next part of the Volume deals with what the elves of Lothlorian were doing after the fellowship passed through. This conflicts a little with the Appendices, which imply that the elves were holed up in Lothlorian until after Sauron was defeated:

"After the fall of the Dark Tower and the passing of Sauron, the Shadow was lifted from the hearts of all that opposed him... Three times Lorien had been assailed from Dol Guldur... Though grievous harm was done to the fair woods on the borders, the assaults were driven back; and when the Shadow passed Celeborn came forth and led the host of Lorien over Anduin in many boats. They took Dol Guldur, and Galadriel threw down its walls and laid bare its pits, and the forest was cleansed."

Turbine gets out of this quandary by casting the battles in Dol Gurldur in Volume II as a feint to distract Sauron from the fellowship, and implies that it is this first assault by the elves on Dol Guldur that precipitate the attacks by orcs on Lothlorian during the rest of the timeline of the books. You can read the end of the quest here, obviously a GIANT SPOILER if you haven't finished Volume II.

As a bonus, one of the quests in Volume II deals with events that occurred just before the Hobbit. Only a short reference is made to it in the Appendices, but you can find a more detailed account of them in either Unfinished Tales or Lost Tales (I get them mixed up). An evil power known only as "the Necromancer" has been holed up in Dol Guldur for some time. Gandalf begins to suspect the Necromancer is more then he seems to be, goes to investigate, and finds some surprises. The quest actually expands on this part of Tolkien' s work in logical way, answering burning questions such as: [SPOILER] "How the heck was Gandalf able to sneak into the middle of an enemy stronghold inhabited by Sauron?"[END SPOLIER]

My only real criticism of Volume II is that mechanically, due to crazed travel times, there were some quest chains that would have been quite painful were I not a hunter or warden. Even as a hunter with all the stables unlocked and the ability to teleport willy nilly all over middle earth, there were a few nights I spent more time riding my goat around in Moria than doing anything else. It wasn't as bad as Volume I in this respect, but it could still use some improvement.

However, all in all I was really pleased with Volume II; particularly with the stories it tells. While it's pretty much Lord of the Rings: Expanded Universe material, I think overall Turbine did a great job with it. Now that the book quests are soloable, it feels almost like there is fun story driven single player RPG embedded in a full featured MMO. I definitely give Volume II the thumbs up, and I'm really looking forward to Volume III.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Rift Impressions

Due to a code generously provided by Anjin of Bullet Points fame, I was able get into Rift and take it for a spin this weekend. I played a bit on Saturday and it honestly didn't click at first. However, not wishing to waste my free time, I forced myself to play longer on Sunday. By the time I hit level ten I was having a heck of a lot of fun.

I got a female Defiant Kellari Elementalist/ Dominator/ Stormcaller up to level 14 by the time I called it quits last night. Most of her points went into elementalist, and the few extra into Dominator. I tried playing a male Kellari, but I found their heads to be either too odd looking or too John Travolta looking depending on where you put the sliders. The crowd control from Dominator really was a nice addition to the pets and DPS from Elementalist, I think I only managed to die once the entire time. Overall the flexibility of the character development system is very impressive, I could see playing mix and match on alts for a long time.

The graphics also really impressed me. I had to leave shadows turned off, but other than that I was able to max out everything (save object draw distance which was at about 60-70%) on my two year old rig and still get good frame-rates most of the time. A few big rift encounters did bog me down, but on the whole it ran quite well. The character/ mob models and terrain also really impressed. To me, the terrain is almost as well done and atmospheric as LoTRO while the character models and animation are on par with Age of Conan. On an engine that scales with older hardware so well, that's an impressive achievement.

Overall, I'd say Rift is likely the best looking MMO on the market right now, at least technically. Obviously the design aesthetic is hit or miss depending on taste. I didn't like the male Kellari heads, but quite liked all the other racial models I fiddled with. The the art direction is at least quite cohesive and somewhat unique.

The questing I have mixed feelings about. It was structured very well, with relatively little backtracking. I like that so many random side quests were from random dropped objects, or from exploring the environment. For example, at one point I saw something in the bottom of a lake. When I swam down to investigate, it started a quest. I also like the optional conversation options to get additional lore. The collectible system is also great, I really enjoyed going after random shinies. And of course rifts are a lot of fun. All in all, mechanically, activities in game are very well done.

Despite the fact that I was having fun, I didn't find myself really being drawn into the narrative. At the end of the day, I met very few NPCs that I actually cared about. Most of them, with one notable and rather funny exception, were just "dudes with quests" to me. The very early game also didn't quite click with me, I wouldn't say I was really enjoying myself until some time around level eight. From level ten on I was having a blast, and I haven't been able to put my finger on what was lacking to me at the lowest levels.

In the grand scheme of things, those are pretty minor quibbles. On the whole, I came away much impressed by Rift. Were it not for my current rampant addiction to the "solofied" book quests in LoTRO, I likely would have ordered it before I went to bed last night. As it stands, Rift will almost certainly be the next MMO I sub to whenever I let my WoW subscription lapse.