Friday, October 26, 2012

Project: Gorgon, impressions from the pre-alpha build

I have seen a lot of commentators state that they wish that someone would do something really different in with an MMO.  Make a game where exploration itself was largely the goal, and provided meaningful  rewards.  A game where players aren't straight-jacketed into some class role on the character creation screen, and where the play environment is more than a backdrop for quest hubs and crafting nodes.  Based on a few hours of play in the pre-alpha build, Project: Gorgon may be that game.

At character creation I chose my race and gender, that's it.  There's nothing else to choose because how your character develops is determined 100% by what you choose to do in game.  There was a bit of a surprise in that the story starts on the character creation screen.  When I first logged into the game proper I had a long conversation with an NPC that contained a lot of branching dialogue options.  I then tried to look at a book near him, and was promptly informed that it was his book and I should leave it alone.  I was allowed to eat some gruel from a bowl nearby on the floor, however :-)  

The room contained a lot of mushrooms, and when I clicked on one I was informed that I had gained one level in mycology.  At that point I had no idea what mycology was for, but figuring that more points in it must be good I ended up grabbing every mushroom I saw from there on out.

Mycology, cool!

At the entrance to the room was a corpse with a rusty long sword embedded in its back.  As it was far superior to the "no weapon whatsoever" I started with, I promptly equipped it.  I then headed over to the next room, which was swarming with skeletons.  A few swings later I gained my first point of sword skill, and a new attack ability (sword flurry).  After that I decided to start throwing in some punches as well.  This quickly earned me kick, a knockback attack which synergizes very nicely with sword attacks.  For example you can put an armor DoT on a mob with a big sword attack, knock them back with kick, and watch the damage tick down on them as they slowly run back to you.

 This is my guy after finding some armor and getting his first combat skills (the armor displayed is not what he is wearing, he just looks like that all the time).  As you can see the graphics are currently quite primitive.  Of course that's the whole dang point of the kickstarter campaign, to hire some artists.  Mechanically the game is extremely innovative, fun, and really rewards exploration and experimentation.  I can't say that about a lot of other MMOs I've tried.

Soon after that I got parry, which will prevent mobs from using any of their special attacks on you if you time the use well.  The cool thing about it is that it's pretty easy to see when you need to use it.  Mobs have these fist icons on them that represent their rage.  When it gets full, many of them can use attacks that will stun you and let them get some free hits in.  When that bar is full or near full, you just hit the parry button to empty it out.

Skill based systems where you use an ability to raise the ability have often been quite grindy in other CRPGs I've played.  Not at all in Project: Gorgon.  Skills go up very quickly, especially at first, and using a combat skill both raises related combat stats (such as health and power) and unlocks new abilities.  Just swording skeletons in the face to see what neat new sword abilities I would unlock was quite addictive.

The first time I died I was shocked to discover that "dying gracefully" is also a skill.  Every ten ranks you get in it, you gain five health.  From the skills I've unlocked so far, that's actually a decent boost.  For example, ten ranks of unarmed combat gets you only twice as much health and requires a lot more work then jumping into lava.  

Finally, after a good while wandering around picking mushrooms and bashing skeletons, I came to an odd looking side room.

Haven's seen anything like that before...

Nearby is a table with pages scattered on and around it.  Two can be read to learn more about what is going on and why snow is coming down from the ceiling.

In the room was a cot with an open book next to it.  When I read the book I learned three new recipes.  Two for mycology, and one for a new skill: Alchemy.   One of the mycology recipes was for spore bombs, consumables that can be used for a powerful (at least in the area I'm messing around in) AoE attack.  The other is for spore flakes, an item that is one of four ingredients for the alchemy recipe I learned.  Also nearby were some empty flasks.  When I later found a pond I was able to fill them with water, giving me another of the four ingredients.  Skeletons drop dust, a third ingredient.  All I am missing now is sugar, and I honestly have no idea where that is found.  The alchemy recipe is for a drug that will give me a some sort of stat boost, but become addictive if I use it too much.  I can't wait to see what it actually does.

I am one or two hours in to the pre-alpha and Project: Gorgon has already given me a more unique and intriguing experience than most of the MMOs I've tried in the last few years.  This game with decent graphics and animations would be an absolute winner.  Mechanically it's already as good as anything else out, and brings a ton of innovation to the table.  I really hope the kickstarter hits its goal.  The total pledged has started to move up again in the last few days, but it really is down to the wire and has a long way to go still. 55K to finish out a game that is already so far along is not a lot to ask.  

Edit (update): I am happy to report that the environmental graphics improve considerably if you make it out of the starting cave (as you can see below).

The character you see in the middle of the shot is me.  Through an act of willful stupidity (I was given three warnings to stop drinking the sour enchanted milk...but I kept going to to see what would happen), I got my self turned into a cow.   I think it's permanent until I figure out a way to reverse it.  To say I've never experienced anything much like this in any other MMO I've played is an absolute understatement. 


Monday, October 22, 2012

Project: Gorgon

I have been following the kickstarter page for Project: Gorgon mainly because it sounds like the game is going to  be really interesting.   How can you read about something like the lycanthopy system or the in-game geocaching system for player generated treasure hunts and not be intrigued?  I very much want the kickstarter to be a success, if for no other reason than just to see how all the bizarro/  innovative designs that one of the better game design bloggers has been posting about come together.  My take is that the game represents an attempt to address design issues that are arguably holding back MMOs as a genre, and not with digging through spreadsheets as game-play or FFA PvP and an atrocious UI.  With only 11 days to go, the kickstarter project has only gotten about 20% of the way to its goal.  This post is my meager attempt to try and refocus some attention on the project.  If innovative MMO design is something you care about, you really should consider heading over to their page and becoming a backer.

In other news, I am not dead, merely very busy with my work irl.  More regular posting will resume soon!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Issue three of The Secret World is going live tomorrow (!)

The next content update is going live in The Secret World tomorrow, and we know absolutely nothing about it save the somewhat evocative name, Issue 3: The Cat God.  Presumably it has something to do with Bastet.  Apart from that who knows?  Secret World indeed...

I'm a bit amazed the update is coming so soon, since we just got rocket launchers what seems like a a week ago.  Hopefully this means that Funcom is actually going to be able to deliver on their promised once a month content update schedule.   I expect to post an impressed or underwhelmed impression of the update later this week.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The fight for COH continues

You should check out this post by Sente if you haven't already.  If you care at all about City of Heroes/ Villians he gives a good rundown of efforts currently underway to keep CoX alive.  Though I am skeptical that online petitions generally do much good, there is one for CoH and signing it is an easy way to show your support for the game.  Plus, reading through the comments to the petition and seeing just how much passion so many players have for CoX is heart warming.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Noooooooooo! City Heroes is shutting down

Via Anjin in Exile and Bio Break I just got the news that City of Heroes is shutting down before the end of the year.  This is the most depressing MMO news I've heard in a good long while.   I really thought City of Heroes was doing OK given the steady update schedule.  The latest update (Issue 24) is even supposedly ready to go and sitting on their test server.

City of Heroes still has, to my tastes, the best character generation system of any MMO on the market.  The number of powerset combinations available to choose from is staggering, and the appearance generation system will let you come up with at least a rough approximation on pretty much any humanoid you can dream up.   There are also some really unique archetypes in CoH such as controllers (extremely powerful crowd control specialists) and master minds (pet users that are can summon swarms of pets) that don't really have close analogues in other MMOs. Finally, the game has one of the most robust systems around for letting players create their own content.  Some of the best story arcs to be found in CoH are in player crafted missions.

I will admit that City of Heroes is a MMO that I only ever seem to enjoy in one month stints.  I think my overall problem is that the pace of advancement seems to slow to a crawl by some time in the mid levels.  But those one month stints are always incredibly fun.  Dreaming up a crazy new character design and taking it out for a spin is simply more of a blast in CoH than any other MMO I've played.

The sad thing is that I suspect that CoH is actually still at least a bit into the black.  I don't see how Paragon could have put out so much content in the last year if it weren't.  If CoH was under SOE, Funcom, Turbine, or really just about any MMO company apart from NCsoft I doubt we'd be having this conversation.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Suckage is in the eye of the beholder (on a horse that never seems to stay dead)

This post over at Kill Ten Rats about The Secret World got me thinking about a more general issue.*  Most of the arguments we use to "prove" that a given MMO is better than another, or that a given MMO "sucks", are arbitrary and subjective.  The kinds of arguments I've seen commentators use to rank MMOs  generally fall into a few categories.  However, if you think about it there are clear reasons that none of these ranking schemes is a good universal metric of whether a MMO is "good" or not.  For example:

Popularity/ Financial Success: used by players of WoW to argue that WoW is the "best" MMO.  However, this leads to the McDonalds analogy (I stretched that one waaay too far in one of my early posts).  It's kind of elitist, but I think it's also a fair point.  How many folks reading this really think McDonalds has the best hamburgers that money can buy?

Innovation: used by players of EVE Online, TSW, and Guild Wars 2 to argue that their games are better than all the "WoW-clones" out there.  I do see the importance of innovation. Anything that pushes the boundaries of mainstream MMO space is overall a good thing, since it potentially expands the audience.  However, if we want to use innovation as our yard stick of what constitutes a "good MMO" then really bizzare MMOs with tiny audiences like A Tale in the Desert, Endless Forest, and Myst Online have to be considered the best MMOs.  Arden: the World of William Shakespeare was innovative as hell, and development on it eventually was halted because players didn't find it fun. 

Pooled ratings of Professional Critics:  used by players of WoW, SWTOR, and LoTRO (among others) to argue that their games are "good" in an objective sense.  On the surface this seems like a good argument, since it evokes the opinions of "experts."   However, when it comes to it this is just another form of popularity.  History is filled with examples of works of art that critics hated or ignored at first but later came to be considered classics.

Further, I don't find Metacritic scores to be a good guide to whether I personally will like a game or not.  Wrath of the Lich King got an astounding score of 91, and when I first tried it I didn't even last out the free month that came with it.  Diablo III scored an 88 and, at least among the bloggers that I follow, the overall consensus seems to be that it's a popcorn entry into the series with little staying power compared to Diablo II (no offense to Tipa!).  Warhammer Online garnered an 86, and we all know how that turned out.  Dungeons & Dragons Online scored an abysmal 74, and it's grown to be one of my favorite MMOs.  The Secret World did even worse, and I find it to be extremely compelling. 

Obviously what ultimately matters is whether a MMO is fun or not.  Just as obviously, fun is in the eye of the beholder.  What's perhaps harder to accept is that, like fun, suckage is also in the eye of the beholder.  Just because you don't like something doesn't mean that it sucks any objective sense.  Conversely, just because someone doesn't like an MMO that you like doesn't mean they have brain damage or aren't as perceptive as you.  All you can say for certain is that they didn't think it was fun.

Few of us run around screaming at people over whether they enjoy boardgames (love them), tennis (hate it), or hiking (love it).  I can list all the reasons I don't like tennis (I bite at it looms large), but I would never be tempted to claim that tennis sucks in some objective sense. Would anyone?  Why then do we get so worked up over whether other commentators "get" or "don't get" the MMOs we play?    And why do some commentators feel the urge to go out of their way to antagonize fans of games they don't like?  In a some ways MMO enthusiasts tend to behave a lot more like religious fanatics then hobbyists.  Do coin collectors and knitters have these kinds of debates? Well, maybe they do (thanks for the link Sente!).

I'm certainly not the first to comment on this phenomenon.  But to me this is an issue that keeps rearing it's head.  The internet: the great pit where the flamewars are not quenched and the horse dieth not.

*Note: the post I linked at KTR is absolutely not the kind of commentary that irks me.  It's a well written post that raises some interesting points.  Give it a read if you haven't.  The post is simply what got me thinking about these issues again.  

Saturday, August 18, 2012

SWTOR: a baffling design decision (on the latest world event)

The latest world event just went live in Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Darth Hater has a very nice rundown on the quests and the rewards that you can get.  Among the rewards available are some very nice high end rifles fitted out with purple mods.  Here's the problem: very few classes and specialization lines can use rifles.  In fact only three out of the 16 possible specialization lines if I'm not mistaken (I'm to lazy to check), at best roughly 20% of level 50 characters.

If you aren't one of those few classes, the other rewards are a 90% run-speed speeder (useless to anyone that uses the high end 110% speeders), a pet that's a re-skinned version of one we already got for free last month, and a set of cosmetic gear that will let you dress like a Sandperson.  In other words, nothing all that great. Understandably, players are freaking the hell out on the forums.  Bioware's official response from Online Community Manager JovethGonzalez is as follows:

Hi folks,

I wanted to take a bit of time to explain the reasoning behind the weapon selection on the vendor. As you know, each SWTOR event that we do is unique and this also applies to the variety of items offered. That is, if you don’t find anything that you think is useful during this event, you may find a different assortment of items in the next one. Your feedback is definitely appreciated and we’ll look into different ways to improve our item selection in the future.

Thanks for participating!

Really, "Wait for the next event, maybe there will be something you can use" is the official answer? Really?!?  I mean no disrespect to Joveth, he is but the unfortunate messenger. 

This is only the second world event in the nine months the game has been live. If each world event caters to 1/5 of the classes, then some time in the next two years most classes should expect to have been offered at least one decent reward (hahahah). This event comes on the cusp of the release of Guild Wars 2, as well as the launch of major expansions for Lord of the Rings Online (Rohan) and World of Warcraft (MoP next month).  The decision to not provide weapon rewards for all 16 specialization lines in the game is perhaps the most baffling display of ineptitude that Bioware has yet shown.

It certainly isn't going to hurt the game as much as launching with far too many servers and waiting too long to consolidate them.  Or hyping the game so hard before launch that anything short of 1.5 million steady subs would be viewed as a disappointment.  However, those are understandable mistakes.  They fell into the same traps a lot of studios have.  Launching an event guaranteed to annoy 3/4 of your playerbase just as some of your stiffest competition is coming online strikes me as utterly inexplicable.

Imagined design meeting:

"Hey guys, I have great idea.  Let's include powerful weapon rewards that most of our players can't use.  I'm nearly certain that will be extremely well received."

"Bill, you are a genius!  Let's do it!"


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

SWTOR: the latest news (on interpreting fluid levels in glass containers)

This week two big pieces of news about Star Wars the Old Republic were released.  Reactions have been mixed, but overall were pretty gloomy in most quarters.  I think SWTOR is one of the most fun MMOs to come along in a while, and I'm still enjoying it quite a bit.  However, I have to admit it's hard to say whether the latest news bodes well or ill for the long term prospects of the game.

   What the hell do I make of this?

On subs:

Yesterday EA released some rather vague subscription information about SWTOR, telling us that it has less than a million subs but substantially more than 500K.  I'm guessing this means the game currently has roughly 700K subs, but whether it's 600K, 700K, or 800K ultimately doesn't matter a whole lot to the arguments you'd make about the numbers.  Glass-half-empty-man would say this means the game has lost 1.4 million players in eight months, the greatest bleedout in MMO history (putting aside the fact that few MMOs have ever had that many players to lose in the first place).  Glass-half-full-man would say that only four sub based MMOs in history have had more than half a million players 8 months out from launch (WoW, Lineage, Lineage II, and  SWTOR being the only ones if I am not mistaken), and that only WoW has managed this feat in the west (putting aside the fact that this represents a drop of close to 70% of the players since the game launched).   Both views of the glass are correct, if uninformative.

I'd argue that what really matters is whether the game is still bleeding out subs, or is hitting it's steady base of core users:

Three scenarios for the future of SWTOR, based on 1.3 millions subs in May and 0.7 million subs in July.  If the decline over this period were the result of a linear trend, SWTOR would be on the gray trajectory.  Blue and red represent (somewhat arbitrary) best case and worst case trajectories.  I chose 100K subs for the bottom of the red line since even abysmal failures like launch AoC* and WAR have tended to level out in that neighborhood.

Since we only have four data points on the number of players in SWTOR it's pretty hard to say whether a leveling out of the current player base or a steady decline to Warhammer Online numbers is more realistic.  My guess, based largely on my limited impression of populations since the server merges, would be that reality is somewhere between the blue line and the gray one, and that the game is likely settling in as the second largest sub based western least until it goes FtP in November.  X-fire numbers from July show the number of players as steady or in a very slight decline.  SWTOR is no-where near the WoW challenger EA was hoping for, but it's likely still doing better than Rift, EVE, or even EQ at it's peak.

On the switch to FtP

On the glass-half-empty side of things, at the very least this announcement  means that EA is not happy with the amount of money they are drawing in from subs.  We still don't really know how much EA spent on SWTOR, but clearly the game took/ is taking too long to recoup that cost for even "substantially more than 500K subs" (at least 7.5 million a month in sub fees!) to seem sufficiently profitable to EA.

However, to me personally, this is very much a glass-half-full announcement.  First off, the part of the game that I most like, the 1-50 leveling game and the class stories, is going to be free for everyone.  That means that I probably will eventually get to see all eight class storylines, which I really doubt would have happened if I had to stay subbed long enough to play them all.

More importantly, I just don't like the "Pay $60 for a client and then $15 a month to sub" model.  It's a really poor value compared to most FtP MMOs.  For example, I've already spent more than twice as much on SWTOR as I've ever spent in most FtP MMOs, even ones I've played a lot like Everquest II and Wizard 101.  Even in games like DDO and LoTRO where I pay the big bucks for a new expansion or set of modules every year (I own 100% of the content in both games; adventuring areas, classes, races...everything),  I spend a lot less per year than I would on sub fees.  Plus it isn't as if expansions to sub based MMOs are generally free, in most cases they are on top of your sub fee.

The breadth, depth, and quality of FtP MMO offerings is such that it's getting harder and harder for me to justify the expense of sub based MMOs.**  "Pay only for what you want, and keep access to it forever" in my mind is a much friendlier business model than "You can't even log to check your mail unless you pay us every month."  The switch of SWTOR to FtP is another nail in the coffin of the sub-fee model, and I can't say I'm shedding any tears over it.

*While if flopped hard at launch, current Age of Conan is pretty good (imo) and doing well financially by most accounts.

**I say this, and the three MMOs I'm currently playing the most are DDO, TSW, and SWTOR.  I really thought SWTOR would be my last sub based MMO, but The Secret World impressed the hell out of me in during beta.  Joke's on me?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

DDO: My Pack (a Preview of the Druid Class)

I don't often post here in character, but I'd though I'd try it as a way of spicing up my low level DDO Druid preview.  You too can have a wolf pack  by the ripe old age of level 2 in DDO if you own the Druid class.  Overall the class is a lot of fun, but I have to say it feels OP at low levels compared to "stock" classes.

This is my pack in the world of Eberron:

The ferocious bitch you see on the right I summon from the Wilderness beyond our plane.  Soldiers and thugs alike tend to underestimate her, until she draws close and they realize she outweighs them by 100 pounds of flesh and a magnitude of ferocity.  She hasn't told me her name yet, but a half dozen times she has died for my causes and more times than I can count she has answered my calls to the Material Plane.  She is always the first among us to snarlingly enjoin our foes, and because of that they often consider her the chief threat until it is too late.

[Game Notes: this is one of the two pets you can summon with Summon Nature's Ally I, which you get for free at level 1.  You can't control summoned pets directly in DDO, their AI is automatically set to aggressive.  The pet is quite powerful in low level content, but you want to replace it as soon as you can cast Summon Nature's Ally II]

Here you can see me in my preferred material form, along with my most loyal friend.  I look similar to my more aggressive packmate, and so foes generally assume her to be our leader.  As impressive as my immortal summoned friend is, to the sorrow of our foes she has but a fraction of my power.  The spirits strengthen me.  I can heal wounds, strengthen allies, and even call fire if need be.  Such is the weave of my hide and the strength of my teeth that none have yet withstood me be they animal or man, shade or demon.  

[Game Notes: a noticeable trend in DDO is that the classes you pay for seem to be getting more and more powerful as they introduce new ones.  Favored Souls are quite powerful, but mainly at higher levels. Monks can be extremely OP from start to finish, but only if you build them well.  Artificers with their strong pets and extreme ranged damage are OP compared to most stock classes unless you go out of your way to gimp one.  Now, Druids seem much the same to me with their powerful pets and shape shifting abilities, not to mention healing, nuking, and buffing as well or better than the other divine casters.]

Surprisingly, much of my power also comes from a sickle given to me by a barkeep in exchange for my services against the cultists of Korthos Island.  When I used the sickle in my natural shape I found it to be a clumsy weapon.  However, when I held onto it while shifting to my wolf form, its true power was revealed.  As long as I continue attack with tooth and claw, pausing only to find new foes when one ceases, it regenerates my skin and muscles.  Sword wounds close the instant they form, arrow shafts are spit on the ground like seeds.  Those that consider the fearsome bitch of our pack to be their primary foe soon learn otherwise.

[Game  Notes: when I finished my third Korthos Island intro quest, I took the scimitar that was obviously added to the rewards list for druids.  It gives you a 15 temporary hit points (a damage shield that works versus any attack to all intents) when you crit that regenerate every time you crit.  In wolf form, you will crit an awful lot I.  I don't think I used any of my "real" hitpoints more than two or three times in all of Korthos Island once I got it.]

As for my most loyal friend with the stylish blue collar, Dusty, I found him in market in southern Khorvaire just before I set out for Xen'Drik and Stormeach. He's not much of a fighter, but I can at least take him into town without fearing that he will kill anyone.   

[Game Notes: a cosmetic pet pre-order bonus]

This brings me to the last member of our pack.  The one that is most often underestimated, and the only one that truly frightens me:

He looks a pup, much like Dusty. But Snowfang is no pup. He is my lifelong companion blessed by the same spirits that grant me my powers.  At present, with his awkward paws and tiny growl, most foes dismiss him.  When he hits their chest with the weight of a cannonball, knocking them down to break bones and sever arteries as his tiny mouth grabs and twists, few live long through their astonishment.  He is but a puppy yet.  What will he grow into?  How angry are the spirits I have chosen to worship?  More importantly, who are they angry with?

[Game Notes: so far this pet seems right on par with the Artificer pet, though not as customizable.  It has a ton of hit points, hits like a truck, and holds aggro well enough for you to get a lot of backstab damage in while using wolf form.  Its only real weakness is that it doesn't have the best defense, I had to heal mine a lot.  Whether this will become an annoyance at higher levels, or for that matter whether it's something you can fix with gear, I can't say.]

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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

NBI: Winding Down...Final Thoughts

The newbie blogger initiative is coming to a close, Syp has a list of all the new blogs and advice posts up over at Biobreak.   This month has been a heck of a lot of fun for me not only due to meeting so many new bloggers, but also because I stumbled across some established bloggers I really like that I somehow managed to miss all this time.  My blog roll changed more in the past month than in the previous two years.  I think we all owe Syp a dept of gratitude for organizing an event that has been injected some new life into our corner of the blogoverse.  Good on you Syp! 

I never did get around to my advice post, mainly because I was out of town most of the month.  However, it was also hard to say what I would have added in terms of general advice given all the great posts  that other bloggers put out.  Some of my favorites were Anjin's general advice on how to get pageviews (Sente has another good general advice post, along with Blue Kae), Tesh's poignant piece on blogging as a social activity, Rowan's duo on the mechanical aspects of setting up blogger (I actually tweaked my settings after reading both of those), and the part of MMOgamerchick's post where she explains why she usually answers all of her comments (I couldn't agree more). 

During the course of the month, I spent some time thinking about what, if anything., I consider to be the golden rule of blogging.  I think it would be something along the lines of "Write about your passion."  Write what you'd like to read, what you want to say, and what you feel needs to be said.  Blogging is a labor of love more than anything. Very few of us are ever going to reach the popularity of Tobold, and even the Tobold's by and large aren't making any money blogging.  The only reason in the world to blog is because you have something that you want to express, and thoughts and experiences you want to preserve.

For me this blog is one part diary, one part personal soapbox. Of course like all bloggers I want to be read, or else these posts would be unpublished Word documents on a random desktop.  But I'd say creating something you are happy with and that expresses your voice is probably the single most important goal to have as a blogger.  Whether your blog attracts a small audience or a huge audience, if years from now you can look back on certain posts and think "I made that, I'm happy with it and I'm glad it's out there on the web" I'd say you have succeeded.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Love In is on a Haitus

You may have noticed that my previous, somewhat dry, post has been the only thing to read around here for a good while now.  I'm currently traveling and have access to neither MMOs nor much opportunity to post.  Expect posting to resume near the end of the month.  In the meantime, may your adventures be thrilling and your looting be fruitful :-)

This brief update brought to you by insomnia.

Friday, May 11, 2012

On the use of in game mail as a post-it-note

Wednesday night I logged into Star Wars the Old Republic after an absence of a nearly a week.  Looking at my quest log, it looked like I needed to head to Nar Shadda and start in there.  I noticed I had a couple of mails, and I vaguely remembered mailing a note to myself the week before.  I decided to check it before I headed out, this is how my message from me to me read:

Title: Memento 

First, head to fleet and spend all ur balmorra commendations. You have an OJ weapon that should make what u have look stupid if u max it out.  Then head to nar shadda for more leveling quests.

You will need to level ur biochem into the 100s b4 level 25 (but I suspect u'll remember that).

 It actually turned out to be a big help, I had completely forgotten I was sitting on a huge ass pile of Balmorra commendations.  Thirty minutes later, I headed to Nar Shadda with vastly upgraded gear.

Now, I find myself wondering...why the hell didn't I think to do this sooner?  The two biggest hurdles I always face when returning to a MMO I haven't played for a while are (1) I have no idea what I was working on, and (2) I can't remember my basic attack combos on whatever characters I used to play.  Yet in nearly all of these games, you can send yourself mail and it will sit there waiting for you until you open it.   

For example, I now really wish the last time I quit WoW I had sent myself something like this note on my Warlock:


(1) Normal weak foe: 1,3,4
(2) Strong foe: 1, 2, shadow nookie (bar 2), 4
(3) panic buttons: wall of shadow (right bar, lower part), shadow selfhealgasm (just above wall of shadow)
(4) Crowd control: shadow giggles (bar two, far right)

Whenever Mist of Pandaria launches (I expect play it for a month or two and quit when I hit the new level cap, like every WoW expansion) I will undoubtedly fire up my Warlock and get smacked in the face by a wall of hotbars linked to abilities that I barely remember.  If only it had occurred to me to mail myself cliff notes before I quit playing last year, the transition back could be so much smoother.

Further, I tend to dabble in a lot of FtP MMOs.  When I go back after a long absence, I generally haven't got the foggiest clue where to start.  In some cases it's so bad that it's easier for me to just abandon my old mid-level characters and start over fresh.  The last time I played Allod's Online that's exactly what happened.  I had a level 22 Summoner, and found her so confusing that I ditched her and started over on a Paladin.  If only I had sent myself a few notes before I quite the first time, I might have actually been able to see some of the higher level areas the month or so I was playing.

I now actually feel a bit dumb that it never occurred to me to use in game mail as a post-it-note.  Am I the only one that hasn't been doing this?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The New Skyrim MMO: Skyrim or not, sign me up

The announcement of the Elder Scrolls MMO, that's apparently been in development for a few years now, was met with a lot less enthusiasm than Bethesda might have wished. Fans of the offline games were pissed Bethesda has been "wasting" dev resources on an MMO.   MMO enthusiasts greeted the announcement of what in many ways seems to be a Skyrim skinned WoW-alike with a distinct "meh." I can kind of relate to both camps.

One of my all time favorite games was The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. Though offline, I found it enthralling enough to play for six solid months.  There aren't many MMOs I have stuck with for so long, and even fewer offline RPGs.  I love MMOs, and I love The Elder Scrolls franchise, but I just don't see them mixing all that well at first glance.  All of the things I love about ToS games are things that you just can't do in a MMO.  I can't permanently kill NPCs in a MMO, much less depopulate entire towns because the gatekeeper gives me lip, as it will bork quests for other players.  I can't create spells or magic items that are stupidly overpowered  since they would throw off balance.  Even if everyone could make the same OP spells, the entire playerbase would end up having to use the two or three OP combos to be competitive.  Hell, I can't even become a werewolf or vampire as the mechanics of it would be too hard to balance with all the other options (there's that "nothing can be stupidly OP" in a multiplayer game thing again).

As Bernardparsnip pointed out, the MMO we've been reading about doesn't really sound like an Elder Scrolls Game at all.  Further, considered as a new WoW-alike, do we really need another WoW/ LoTRO/ EQ II/ AO/ ROM/ Rift/ AoC/ SWTOR (ect.)?   The consensus from the MMO blogosphere seems to be "no, not at all really."

Despite all this,  I maintain that this not-really-at all-Elder-Scrolls Elder Scrolls MMO is going to rock.  Why?  Three faction realm-vs-realm combat.  The first MMO to hold my attention for more than a month was Dark Age of Camelot.  It had the best core PvP concept I've ever encountered in a MMO.  It was definitely asymmetrical warfare, where the side that showed up with the most guys to a fight had a big advantage.  However, instead of the sides being split into two (ala LoTRO's PvP zone, that one planet in SWTOR, pretty much all of Warhammer Online and numerous other games where asymmetrical combat really doesn't work well) the game was split into three factions so that that the little guys could gang up on the big guy if balance got out of hand.  The leveling game was also separated off from the PvP game, so if you just wanted to do some grinding and level you didn't have to worry about getting ganked constantly.  DAoC combined the best of a hardcore PvP game a and a devoted PvE game in many ways.

There was only one real problem with it: the solo PvE game was boring as hell.  There were few quests, and even fewer worth doing (to be fair I'm talking the the early 2000s, it was a game of it's era).  You mainly leveled by grinding mobs, and many classes sucked at grinding solo.  Better quest chains and a series of leveling battle grounds were patched in later, but the fact remains that leveling to 50 to get to all that awesome end-game three way PvP remains a bit painful to this day.* So much so that in recent years you get a free level every so often for every one you earn normally (no really).

This is where the new Skyrim MMO comes in. The end game is three way RvR combat ala DAoC, done by some of the same guys that helmed DAoC.   According to even the the haters, stuck onto the side of it will be a WoW style extremely smooth  PvE leveling game.  It might not be an Elder Scrolls game, but damn that basic design description has me juiced.   Like WoW, only the endgame doesn't make me want to vomit?  Sign me up!

All that said, even if DAoC 2.0 with a Skyrim theme doesn't appeal to you, I think Crafty has the right of it: we don't know enough yet to judge most of the game one way or another. Let's wait and see before we start balling up our undergarments.

*Disclaimer: it's been at least three years since I went back to DAoC, the PvE leveling game could be all kinds of awesome by now for all I know.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Newbie Blogger Initiative

Have you been yearning to start a MMO blog?  Would you like to get readers and feedback right off the bat instead of posting secretly into the internet ether for months until you get noticed?  Your time has come!

Syp over at Biobreak has organized the Newbie Blogger Initiative.  The goal is to get as many new voices to join the grand conversation of the MMO blogosphere as possible this month, and Syp has organized a cadre of bloggers to back the initiative.  Start a general MMO blog, start a blog about your current MMO of choice, or heck start a blog about your favorite MMO mini game.  If it's MMOish you qualify.

As a participant you will get a good hunk of readers from the start, and advice from established bloggers if you want it.  That "readers from the start" thing is pretty hard to do on your own (take my word for it ).  If you are interested, head over to the forum that Syp set up to announce your blog to the world.  Alternately,  post a link to your new blog in the comments below and I will give you a shout out here.

Over the next few weeks the dozens of established bloggers participating will post advice for new bloggers, and links to the new blogs going up. Do you have a perspective on the MMO industry that you think isn't getting heard?  Do you want an audience for your riveting tales of the travels of a gnomish necromancer?  Do you wish your screenshots of the awesome rare pets you get in Wizard 101 could be viewed by dozens of strangers?  Now is the best chance you'll have to get that going :-)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

LoTRO: Free Stuff

Just a few weeks after I put up a post whining that Lord of the Rings Online was erring on the side of greed with their new lockbox system, Turbine has released a ton of new content that is free to subscribers and lifers (well sort of free to subscribers) and anniversary content is is well and truly free to everyone.  Anyone that has been playing four years gets some cosmetic items.  The tunic I wasn't too crazy about, but the dress and the cloak I like quite.

 Here is a Runekeeper I almost never play showing of her anniversary dress.

Even better, if you have been playing since launch you get a free horse.  In all there are five rewards you can earn, one for each year the game has been live.  Even players that have only been playing a year get reusable fireworks which I enjoyed setting off in the middle of Thorin's Hall.

The five year horse.  I quite like the look of it, and due to the new "horses are skills" system since LoTRO went FtP you can collect horses without jacking up your inventory.

However far and away the best "free" content has been the Great River.  Lifers get it well and truly free.  I know that my lifetime sub payed for itself long before LoTRO went FtP, everything else it gets me now is gravy.  Current subscribers get it as a bonus with their sub fee, it's arguable whether you should call that free content for them or not.  Free players can go to the zone, but they don't get any new quests apart from bounty board missions unless they choose to pay extra.

This is the map of the new zone.  In size it's pretty close to Mirkwood, with perhaps more varied terrain.

I'm have found the quests in the new area to be a lot of fun.  The storyline that goes with them is intriguing, and forshadows some events from the Twin Towers really well.  Color me crazy, but I like all the fetch quests that have you learning how events have been unfolding in the village before you arrived.  I've been obsessing too hard on SWTOR to make a ton of progress, but I have played the new area enough to hit 75 in the last few weeks.  The content I've seen has all been very well done.  I look forward to finishing out the area at some point.  If nothing else, several of the quests grant nice armor upgrades to anyone that isn't a raider.

The first hall of the Rohirrim I've encountered, complete with a minion of Wormtongue who I'm hoping I'll get to slay soon.  

Thursday, April 12, 2012

DAW April 2012: Bioware

Once again Scarybooster is having his annual developer appreciation week (I was reminded by Blue Kae just like last year). This being the MMO "Love In" I can hardly pass it up :-)

After some serious thought, this year my shout out goes to Bioware. Star Wars the Old Republic is the best new MMO, to my personal tastes, since Lord of the Rings Online launched ages ago. Since launch, SWTOR has given me an enormous amount of entertainment. I love the environments, the storylines, and the costume designs. Bioware created a world filled with interesting narratives that is a joy to explore.

I also feel that SWTOR is an important evolutionary advance over the DIKU style MMOs that came before it. For whatever reason Bioware doesn't seem to be getting much credit for that. The fully dialogued branching story-lines are an obvious advance over the narrative presentation of previous MMOs; even the worst curmudgeons generally seem to get that. The fact that roughly 30% of your solo quests are unique to your class is also a huge improvement over most quest based MMOs. Beyond that, there are additional changes to the WoW/ EQ formula that the game seems to get no credit for. I don't want this to be a novel, so I'm going to focus on two examples:

Combat against groups: Combat in SWTOR is balanced around groups of mobs rather than single mobs, and the mobs you encounter vary greatly in their difficulty. A combat with three normal mobs, one or two normals and a silver, or a single gold (all very common encounter combos) require very different approaches. This adds a sense of variety to solo PvE questing that is nearly absent from most MMOs. You absolutely cannot use the same strategy to pull a gold (an elite) that you use to whack down a group of minions.

It's not like WoW or EQ II where there are the occasional weak mobs that are tied at the hip in very specific areas, and other areas (likely most) where you mainly get weak solo mobs on the majority of pulls. In every single solo quest area of SWTOR you will encounter an admixture of strong and weak mobs grouped together in different combinations, and you need to be ready to deal with any of them. Getting to the point where you can easily deal with any group of mobs you'll likely encounter makes you feel like an utter badass. My SWTOR characters feel more powerful than some of my characters in Super Hero MMOs like City of Heroes or Champions Online.

Companions: yes indeedy there are a number of MMOs where you can adventure with NPCs that are nearly as powerful as you. Guild Wars, Everquest, Lord of the Rings Online, and Dungeons and Dragons Online off the top of my head. However, in no other MMO (that I am aware of) do these NPCs feel like real individuals you can interact with. In SWTOR your companions have distinct personalities that you either dig or irritate you. They are fully characterized. If you level your affection with a given companion far enough, they will also open up unique side-quests. There is no system like this that I know of in other MMOs, where who you choose to hang out with really alters the course of your game.

These are just two examples, I didn't even get into the crafting system or the new legacy system. While everyone and their granny seems to be cursing Bioware for not being innovative enough in their latest offering (e.g., "It's WoW with a Star Wars skin!!!"), Bioware actually offered us a new MMO with a number of important evolutionary steps over previous DIKU MMOs.

My belief is that a silent majority of MMO players rarely group. Bioware has enhanced soloing to a level that previous MMO designers haven't even contemplated. On top of that, all the standard group fare you'd expect in a full featured MMO (battlegrounds, raids, group quests, ect.) are still there. You may not care for the innovations Bioware brought to the table, but Bioware has indeed innovated in SWTOR.

Honorable mention: I think I bring them up every year, but yeah Turbine again. I recently got an entire new adventuring area in LoTRO 100% free due to being a lifer. The expansion coming to Dungeons and Dragons Online over the summer also looks fantastic. Other MMOs may come and go, but LoTRO and DDO are the ones I always come back to.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Via Stabbed Up, I discovered that there is Kickstarter project to fund a new Shadowrun PC roleplaying game.

Shadowrun is a setting that mixes high fantasy and cyberpunk, taking place in a dystopian near-future where governments have been made largely irrelevant due to the power held by corporations. It started as a pen-and-paper role-playing game that remains mildly popular to this day. It also spawned several video games. The most recent was basically Team Fortress 2 with a Shadowrun skin. Given that it was a FPS rather than a RPG, I considered it a bit of an insult to the franchise. However, based on professional reviews it's apparently pretty good considered purely as a TF2 clone with an odd theme.

It also gave spawned one of my all time favorite console RPGs. When I was an undergraduate one of my roommates had the Shadowrun game for the Sega Genesis. Despite having elves, it remains one of the best cyberpunk video/ PC games I have ever played (Deus Ex is also on that list). It was an early console sandbox. Much like Morrowind, Fallout III, and other modern RPG sandboxes there was a story you could follow if you cared to. However, the game would also randomly generate missions. You could max out a character just taking random jobs to kill fools or hack corporate databases. The hacking game put you into a 3D cyber-world where you had an avatar that moved around in cyberspace, decrypting nodes as you came to them and fighting security programs (ice). It didn't take long to become so powerful that nothing in the game was remotely challenging, so the sandbox didn't last very long. But for a console game in the early 90s, the freedom you were given was astounding.

I found this cartridge in a used gaming store in 2001. I promptly bought the game and a Genesis just to play it.

All in all, Shadowrun is one of my favorite fictional settings. The Kickstarter Shadowrun project had already reached its goal when I discovered it. However that didn't stop me from donating my $15, giggling like a schoolgirl, roughly ten seconds after I found out about it. I'll get a DRM free copy of the game if and when it ever gets made. The game described sounds awesome, if slightly oldschool: a CRPG with 2D turn based combat and an editor that will let users make new scenarios and distribute them freely. I plan to recreate Hamlet with proud orcs, devious hacker elves, and machine guns ;-)

If the thought of a modern Shadowrun CRPG fills you with the same delight as me, feel free to head over and donate.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Goodbye EQOA

Everquest Online Adventures is closing down tomorrow night. As it is and was one of my favorite MMOs (at least to level 20), I thought I'd do a retrospective on it. I apologize in advance for the absolutely horrible "screenshots" consisting of photos of my TV you are about to see. I couldn't figure out any other way to get images of the game with what I have on hand.

My history there in brief:

I first started playing the week that the game launched nine years ago. I had only dabbled in Everquest at that point (Dark Age of Camelot and Phantasy Star Online were my first MMO poisons of choice). I liked the setting of EQ but found the game way too clunky and grindy to be compelling. However, with PSO having sucked up tons of my time the previous year, I was foaming for another MMO I could play from my couch. I tried EQOA on a whim and it instantly hooked me. I and three other players started a guild on the Hodstock server that prospered at first, and then crashed and burned within six months for a number of reasons. It was my first experience with a MMO guild. I've seen that arc play out in a number of other MMOs and guilds since, but that first time it really shook me. I played EQOA almost strictly solo from then on, and actually didn't join another guild in a MMO until the second time I tried WOW years later.

So what was it like?

EQOA was a really odd hybrid of old school and forward looking MMO design. The low level game was incredibly fast paced for its day. It was easy to start a character and be level 8 in two or three hours. Considering the era that was a blinding leveling speed. The low level game also had a lot of quests, and they gave good rewards. This also was pretty shocking back then. For example, your first quest had you to level 2 and with a new piece of armor within five to ten minutes of starting a new character.

Up until level 20 or so, you would alternate between levels that had a quest and ones that didn't. A quest would give you almost an entire level, then you would spend a level or two grinding until you got up high enough to unlock your next class quest. I know of no other MMO designed explicitly to alternate quest based leveling with grinding mobs. Knowing that I'd get a cool quest with huge rewards the moment I hit the next level actually actually made grinding fun for me at low levels.

The low level game was also incredibly diverse. By the time of Frontiers there were 11 different races to choose from. Each of them got their own starting area. Further, and astoundingly by modern standards, every single class of every single race had their own unique quest chains up until about level 20 (and a few higher level ones). Yeah, the structure of the quests was often pretty similar among classes. But just experiencing all the story lines that went with them was engaging. By playing a new race-class combo up to level ten, you would end up learning a lot of new stuff about the lore of a given race.

Every single one of these races (plus Trolls which you can't see unless I scroll down) has their own starting area.

EQOA was quite hardcore in some ways. There was no in game map. Heck, at first the game didn't even have a coordinate system. That led to vague directions via tell such as "head northwest into the desert from Freeport and then turn north at the big rock with the zombies" being commonplace when trying to find a group. Further, from level twenty on the game became just as grindy as contemporary MMOs such as EQ and DAoC (neither of which is nearly as grindy now as they were back then).

There were very few quests after level 20, and they didn't generally yield enough XP for more than a quarter of a level. A lot of classes were also very slow soloers and couldn't really make much progress on their own past a certain level. For me personally, that meant the game tended to end on a given character at some point in the low-to-mid 20s just as surely as modern World of Warcraft ends for me at the level cap (or EQ ends for me by level ten on most classes), as it simply took too much time to make any real progress after that.

I should also mention that the graphics were sparse, even for the time. The decision to go with a seemless zoneless world did a lot to enhance immersion once you were already digging the game. However the lack of discrete zones to render, plus the lack of RAM on the Playstation 2, also meant that new players were greeted with graphics that were atrocious by PS2 standards. We were used to games like Final Fantasy 10 and Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance (or Black later); not games with graphics on par with PC games from 1999. I suspect that this, more than anything, likely hurt the popularity of EQOA when it launched.

EQOA had some neat ideas modern MMOs should copy

EQOA had a lot of interesting features I wish some modern game designer would rip off. For example the coach system. To get to a given coachmaster the first time, you had to run there. Very often that meant long tense runs through zones of giant angry mobs that could easily one shot you. Once you talked to a given coachmaster, you could forever-after swift travel back to them. Getting within a few miles of a new coach only to get butchered and re-appear in your starting city was heartbreaking. Making it to a distant coach after up to an hour of dodging swift and violent death was elating. Even after you got all the coaches, crossing the main continent usually took about three swift travels; so the game's sense of scale was still preserved. At the same time, travel was instant so you never had to spend ten minutes watching your guy ride on a horse or a griffin.

Also notable was the depth of the character development system. One feature that no-one should steal is how EQOA dealt with stats. As you leveled you got a ton of points to put into stats like strength and stamina. Not only were you given very little guidance on where best to put them, the guidance the game did give was sometimes wrong. For example, most cloth casters needed a ton of points in dexterity to make their spells hit harder, yet among them the stat was only highlighted for wizards.

A level one troll shadow knight in his newbie area. Though you'd have know way of knowing it from in game feedback, these guys need some mixture of Agility, Dexterity, and Intelligence in addition to Strength and Stamina (the latter are the two stats highlighted on your summary screen) depending on whether you want them to solo well or tank well.

However, from there things get much better. There was an Alternate Advancement system that opened up right at level 1. I knew some players that would set 50% of their XP to AA from level one on. They would take ages to level, but for their level they were butch. Every class also had a number of Master Class options that granted different sets of abilities and major stat boosts (you only got to pick one). At least two options were available for any given class (some had up to four), and each race also had "racial paragon" Master Class available.

On top of that, you could become a lycanthrope such as werewolf, werelion, or werealligator. These also granted substantial stat boosts that stacked with your AAs and Master Class, and allowed you to transform into various animals. If for some reason lycanthropy didn't appeal to you, you could instead become a vampire. Finally, if being a slight gimp with no regular master class and no horror themed infection that stacked with it appealed to you, you could take a werehunter master class that (if I remember right) allowed you to attack players that had become lycanthropes at will. Overall, the depth and variety of character development options was astounding, particularly for the time.

Finally, the system that I most dearly hope will get stolen is the crafting system. First the not so lovely. Any character could advance any craft they felt like. However, in practice it didn't make a lot of sense to work on crafts for items you personally couldn't use, since there was no formal way to transfer stuff among alts. In order to swap items among characters specializing in various crafts, you would list items on the global Auction and then hurriedly swap over to alts to buy them before anyone else noticed them. I don't remember losing any crafted items to strangers that way, but it was certainly harrowing.

A crafting screen from EQOA. The thing to notice here is that I'm "experimenting", trying a new combination of ingredients I haven't before in the hopes that I can learn a new recipe. In practice it wasn't too hard since the system would tell you if you were trying to combine ingredients that didn't make anything. However, you did have to figure out what combinations to try on your own. There was no in game guidance .

The great thing about the system, is that it wasn't hard to get the hang of and you could make a huge variety of useful items. Even at very low levels, you could craft standard gear (armor especially) that was better than anything that you could get from a merchant or was likely to drop for you. Only gear from quest rewards tended to be better, and quests that granted gear only came roughly every five levels. The crafted gear was thus very useful.

The above naked troll a few hours in, wearing a full set of heavy armor that he crafted. He got a chest that was an upgrade soon after, but for the rest of the slots this easily crafted gear made everything else he had available from merchants or drops look stupid.

At higher levels, the crafting system really opened up to your whims. When making a basic set of gear, say a plate steel helmet, you could add in a gem to give it additional properties. A gem could add in a big buff to one stat, a medium buff to two stats, or a random ability (for example a flaming damage proc to a weapon). In a crafting system with far less of a learning curve than EQ II, EVE, SWG, or DDO you could make just about any item you felt like. Want a full set of +strength and stamina leather armor? OK. Want to buff your dex to the moon with gear to see how much damage a wizard can possibly do with shock? Done. Want to make a full set of +charisma plate-mail that no-one in their right mind would ever put on? Go for it, I hope the giggles are worth it.

No other crafting system I have ever encountered provided such flexibility and accessibility at the same time. The various gems that you needed for nicer items were also completely random drops. This led to a healthy economy when the game was at its prime. Random gems you couldn't use (until much higher level) could be auctioned by low level characters for what were vast sums of wealth to a starting character. You could spend the cash on gear in the AH, food and water to help out-of-combat health and power regeneration, or use it to power through the low level crafting tiers that didn't use gems. Even at higher levels you would often find gems that added to stats you didn't care about. You could use these to make gear for alts or auction them in order make cash for gems with stats you did want.


There are more items I could go on about (and may, for example the role of EQOA in the history of Erudites in EQ lore). However, I think I've gone on enough for now. My gratitude to anyone who has weathered this far in a rambling post about a fairly obscure MMO. By the time you are reading this EQOA will likely have closed its doors forever. We will have lost something really unique that stood on the threshold, both historically and in terms of design, between the MMO founders of the late 90s and the more modern fare we currently enjoy. The loss of some clever designs that came out of that compromise, and have yet to be emulated by more modern MMOs, strikes me as a tragedy for our genre.

I leave you with an epically bad screenshot of the original Yeebo Fernbottom, a green haired halfing druid from Proudpine Outpost:

Bye EQOA, you will be missed.