Sunday, November 28, 2021

Ragnarok Origin (Android) and Cowboy Beebop (Netflix)

As you may have guessed from my entire series on location based games, I have started to become somewhat enamored with modern portable games.  Both my phone and my Switch console have started to get a lot of use.  I especially like the switch because it instantly coverts to proper a video game console just by docking it in a little stand that sits behind my television.  It's like having a PS4 that you can take to bed with you.  

This week I have had a couple surprises, a game and a new television series both of which completely defied my initial impressions of them. 

Ragnarok Origin

Ragnarok Origin has been getting advertised to me a lot when I play other games on my Android phone.  Curious what a real MMO would play like on it, I decided to fire the game up.  While there are certainly the bones of a good game there, it is also currently an extremely frustrating experience.  

A screen shot from Ragnarok Origin, an Android MMO released at the beginning of November.

First the good.  The graphics are charming, if perhaps too cutesy.  The gameplay also works amazingly well on a tiny phone screen.  Combat in particular strikes exactly the right balance of being stripped down enough to work well with only a few buttons, but still deep enough to be entertaining.  You need to pick a loadout of up to five active abilities from everything you have access to, which makes for some fun strategic choices.  However even using a screen area the size of a few postage stamps, it's still very easy to select the abilities you want to use. 

I find the graphics overall charming, if a bit too cutesy.  The aesthetic seems aimed squarely at tweens and tweens-at-heart.  You can see the hotkeys used for combat in the lower right hand corner.  Basically five hotbar abilities, a button to target the nearest mob, and an attack button.  The controls work surprisingly well in a fight, giving enough options to be interesting but not so many that it's a struggle on a tiny screen.  Movement is a bit clunkier, and rotating the camera so you can see where you are going even worse (it's best not to do so at all if you can get away with it).

However, once you get over the surprise of a full featured MMO that looks good and plays well on your phone, the game starts to completely fall apart.  Having played MMOs since EQ in 1999, I consider myself a veteran of the genre.  However, I still find the game incredibly confusing.  The entire first hour of play is a tutorial taking you through what seems like a hundred systems, each of which you will only start to vaguely understand before being whisked off to learn about the next one.  By the time you get through it all, you are guaranteed to have forgotten half of what you were just introduced to.  There are simply too many advancement systems crammed into RO, and none of them are explained very well. 

The game is also confusing, and wants you to spend money more than any other android game I have tried.  I am not sure what half of the icons in the upper right do.  However almost all of them lead to a different way to spend money.  For example, one of them leads to a limited time "gift" that you have to pay $4.99 for.  That is literally all it does. What the butterfly wings are used for, how I got them or how I will get more when I used them up I have no idea whatsoever.

You often find yourself staring at a screen full of stats to allocate points to, and little guidance on where the best place to put them, or a lot of skills to pick from that are hard to evaluate until you try and use them.  You can of course just have the game make all the choices for you, but at that point it feels like the game is playing itself.  There is also gear to be leveled up.  Not only does it quickly become very expensive to do so, there is always the chance that an item you are trying to upgrade will break and become completely useless.  The more powerful the item you are trying to upgrade the greater the risk of this happening, and of course there are ways to get around all of this in the cash shop.  For some activities it's also not all that optional.  Rumor has it that to be competitive in PvP spending hundreds of dollars to upgrade your gear is pretty much mandatory.  The game is also quite eager to charge you real cash for respecs if the confusing series of advancement systems leads you to screw anything up.

The advancement systems are surprisingly deep, but also extremely poorly explained.  Most of the time it's better to let the game allocate points for you than to try and make sense of things yourself.  The game tells you what a point in each stat literally does for you, but does not really give you enough information to decide if that is something you should care about are not.  It's a problem many MMOs suffer from, but RO takes it to a new extreme.  The idea seems to be to all but ensure you will bone up your character and need to pay money for a respec at some point.

Finally, the moment to moment gameplay is often really frustrating.  The entire first hour of play is one of the most convoluted and boring tutorials I have ever weathered through.  Once you get through that to the "real game" things barely improve.  While the controls are competent, they aren't up to some of what the game wants you to do with them. Some quests are difficult simply because it is hard to precisely control a character moving around in three dimensions on your phone.  For example, one quest had me tailing an NPC, and I lost them because they went around a corner and I couldn't rotate the camera into the right position to allow me to continue to follow them in time.  To be fair, the game does make it clear which missions require precise controls and which can be cleared using autorun.  However, some of the latter missions are atrocious.  For example, the last quest I did before I stopped playing was called "Fountain Dance Party."  The entire quest was to let your character navigate to a random spot near a fountain, and then dance there for 15 solid minutes of real time while a timer slowly creeped down.  Not showing off dance moves from a list or anything like that.  Just run to a spot, hit the dance button, and watch your wiggle and clap for 15 full minutes.  

Even really basic choices leave me scratching my head.  Should I switch to knight as soon as it's available?  How do I unlock the other part of that class tree?  Probably by paying some money.  If I did, would it be worth it?  I have absolutely no idea.  Online communities like the Reddit board for the game mainly consist of players complaining about how egregious the P2W mechanics are, and so have been of little help.

It's all a shame because as I said there are the bones of a solid game in RO.  For example, some of the early quests are extremely entertaining.  Once quest conveyed a funny story by having me briefly play as various NPCs with delusions of grandeur.  Content like that sticks out because it's so much better than most of what is on offer.  By and large the game is overly convoluted, poorly explained, has pretty tepid moment-to-moment gameplay, and has more obvious pay-to-win elements than just about anything I have tried. Do not recommend!  

Cowboy Bebop (Netflix)

Now on the the pleasant surprise.  Cowboy Bebop is a classic anime from the late 90s, and Netflix recently released a live action series inspired by it. Based on the abysmal  live action remakes of Fullmetal Alchemist, and the Last Airbender years before that, my expectations for this show were rock bottom.  Reviews also don't give you a lot of hope, with critics nearly hating it and the user ratings hovering at 53% on Rotten Tomatoes.  However, I am seven episodes in now and really enjoying it.

The show starts off weak, the first episode especially I would describe as only "ok."  The fight choreography, which is unfortunately used in the show's trailer, is not very exciting.  I would compare it to Iron Fist, the bafflingly bad member of Netflix's Marvel line up.  However, the Bebop was obviously filmed in the order that episodes appear in, since the quality of everything from the characterization to the fight scenes improve quickly.  By the third episode, I was thoroughly entertained. 

I think the low review scores are from viewers expecting a one-to-one remake of the anime.  It is absolutely not that.  It's more of a new show that draws heavily on the anime.  When I watch the the live-action show, I often don't feel like I am watching the same characters from the anime at all.  For instance, Spike in the show and Spike in the anime have similar visual designs, but very different personas.  The new show also has an overarching story that seems to have been invented largely out of thin air and tacked on. Any given episode spends more time on that story through-line than the entire anime did in every episode combined.  That's one of the reasons the run times went from 22 minutes to 40.  The new show takes major story beats, the overall setting, and some aspects of the character designs from the anime, but goes off in completely new directions with most of the details.  

However, I don't think of those differences as flaws, I think of them as features. Why would I want to watch the anime again in a different medium? The anime is damn near perfect for what it is trying to do.  Simply spiffing it up with modern visual effects would not improve it in the slightest.  If I want to watch the anime, that is exactly what I will do. What I will not do is watch the new show and then get upset that it's not the anime.

I think of the anime vs the new show on about the same level that I think of Marvel comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yeah it's the same setting, ostensibly the same characters, and even many of the same story beats. However, expecting the newer interpretations to be exactly the same as the originals is not the right way to approach them, and is not a realistic expectation in two such disparate mediums.  Much like Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy vs. the animated series from the 90s in the land of DC, each interpretation of the characters and setting has strengths and weaknesses.  If you take the new Bebop on its own terms, I would say it's at least as good as the original.    

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Where to go next?

MMORPGs have a bit of a reputation as being a dead genre, and yet it never feels that way to me.  It always feels like there is more I want to do than I will ever get to.  Right now, trying to decide what to dive into next is a pretty typical case in point.

FFXIV wound down for me, and STO while original and entertaining, has never managed to really reel me in for more than a few hours a week.  Instead for the last month or so I have immersed myself in Location Based Games (two of which I am still playing every night) and a port of FFVIII to the Switch.  Nothing shows that you have moved along with the times like playing through a game first released 22 years ago . . .  Also, thanks to a recent post from Bhagpuss I realized I have a ton of free games from my Prime subscription, which in turn led to the discovery that I had a free copy of Star Wars: Squadrons sitting there unclaimed.  In fact, that is almost certainly what I will be playing this weekend.

As for what MMO to play next, there are so many good options I'm a bit paralyzed.

Probably my overall two favorite MMOs, at least judged by time played, are Lord of the Rings Online and Star Wars: the Old Republic.  LoTRO is getting the biggest expansion in years at the end of the month, along with the first new class since 2014.  As much as it annoys me that the UI looks terrible on a 4K monitor and that the game itself may or may not decide to run on any given modern PC you install it on, it remains a great game.  I had an absolute blast playing through Gondor the last time I was there.  SWTOR is also getting an expansion this Christmas.  So I could head back to familiar lands and have a lot of fun for the next few months.

There are also at least two members of the big five (and I guess with Amazon's New World we are up to a big six now) that I have never tried.  Guild Wars 2 especially looks really interesting.  I have been meaning to try it since before the game launched, and I know factually that I would get at least a solid month of enjoyment out of it.  For that matter, I have always wanted to play the original Guild Wars.  The "combat skills as collectibles" system sounds interesting, and it had very good art direction for its time.

And of course there is Amazon's New World. The first big budget MMORPG we have gotten in quite some time.  Hell I think the last one may have been ESO in 2014.  New World has an absolutely inescapable amount of hype right now, and looks set to hit player concurrencies of more than a million soon. The one real hesitation I have with it is the setting.  The promotional art for the game seems to glorify colonialism, and Spanish conquistadors in particular.* While the 15th and 16th century Spanish explorers did have an interesting fashion sense that has not really been mined for visuals in games very often, they were also murderous, amoral, genocidal bastards for the most part.  Christopher Columbus, for example, was an absolutely terrible person (warning: what you will read about him there is not pleasant).   

Putting that concern aside, word on the street is that the gameplay of New World draws most heavily from Elder Scroll Online, which is very encouraging to me.  I liked literally everything about the game but the combat.  Elder Scrolls, but with combat that's not terrible would absolutely be my cup of tea. 

So where to go next?  I don't know, there's too many good choices.  Maybe I'll go outside and shoot some zombies while I think about it.

*Thanks to Bhagpuss for pointing out the login message distancing the game from the historical New World, I was not aware of that when I wrote this.  

Saturday, September 11, 2021

A field Guide to LBGs: Orna

In the last post of this series for at least a bit I turn to Orna, a game I was extremely excited about when I first heard of it. Orna is a fantasy LBG inspired by 16 bit console RPGs.  A large, or at least visible and enthusiastic, community seems to have sprung up around it.  Message boards are quite active, there is a good wiki, and a lot of you tube videos are already available (though few of them even have 5,000 views).  Of all the GPS based games I have tried so far, Orna perhaps hews closest to being a true MMO-LBG hybrid.


What do you do?  The main thing you do is kill monsters, collect their loot, and level up.  The moment-to-moment gameplay is exactly like an old Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy game, save that instead of monsters attacking you randomly as you walk around they appear on your map and you choose the ones you want to fight.  Battles are menu driven and turn based.  Each turn you have the option to attack with your equipped weapon, to use whatever abilities you have memorized, or to consume items such as healing and mana potions.  The number of skills you can have "memorized" is determined by your current class, and you are completely free to mix and match skills from any class you have unlocked.  However, that is not to say any skill works well with any class.  For example, a physical attack ability is going to do terrible damage if your are currently a mage type class with low strength. 

This is what you will spend 90% of your time doing.  The battles play out almost exactly like an old Dragon Quest game.

Mobs drop a ton of loot for you to dig through.  In addition to gold and consumables, perhaps  2/3 of foes drop one or more a pieces of equipment. On a scale of launch era WoW to Diablo, Orna is probably more than half way to Diablo with respect to loot frequency and variety.  You can also go looking for particular kinds of gear by focusing on the right types of foes.  For example, a Mage or a Witch will often drop a magic staff or wand.  Gear can be upgraded by blacksmiths or can have enchantments added to them by alchemists.  However,  new gear drops so quickly that there seems to be little reason to mess around with these upgrade systems, at least at low to mid-levels. No gear appears to be restricted by level or stats, only class.  

At level 1 you start out as one of three classes, a classic fighter type, rogue type or a mage.  The fighter has good defense, the rogue does high martial damage and has middling defense, the mage does extremely high magic damage and has terrible defense.  However, rather quickly you will earn enough of the game's central currency, called "orns"and for which the game is named, to unlock the other two classes you didn't pick.  You can then swap classes at will.  You have an overall level based on the highest level you have been able to achieve in any class. When you change classes or unlock a new one it automatically increases to match.  Different classes aren't so much alternate advancement paths as alternate combat styles and new groups of abilities that you can add to your loadouts. For example, lately I have been spending a lot of time as an Archmage, mainly focusing on nukes but also with a healing ability I learned when I unlocked the the Paladin class.

You start with three classes to pick from, and are able to unlock more classes and specializations as you go up levels.  All classes are at the same level.  For example, if you hit 50 on a mage you will still be 50 when you switch to fighter.  Abilities can be mixed and matched between classes at will.  All of these Paladin specific abilities seen here can be used by other classes, though classes vary a lot in how many skills they can have "memorized." So far I think the most abilities any class I have unlocked can use is maybe six, and some have as few as two or three slots for skills.

Very early on you will be asked to pick one of four elements: lightning, fire, earth, or water.  This will give you a damage bonus with attacks that utilize that element.  However, it also determines your "team."  These four elemental teams work a lot like the three teams in Pokémon Go (i.e., Instinct, Mystic, and Valor).  You can only join a kingdom that matches your element (below), and kingdoms can only declare war on kingdoms of other elements.  

The other big thing you do is collect loot.  Classes vary a lot in the equipment they can use, so I often find myself changing classes just to see if a new sword or pair of shoes I have found is an upgrade for one of my unlocked classes.

In addition to killing random mobs, there are also simple quests like "kill six spiders" or "upgrade six items."  These grant gold, XP and orns when you complete them.  There are story quests, that appear to be mainly a tutorial for game systems, daily quests, weekly quests, and quests that help your kingdom advance.  If that all this sounds pretty complicated, trust me if you have ever played a JRPG it's really not.  The basic gameplay loop is 99% murdering monsters via extremely simple combat and checking to see if a dagger, staff or hat that has been dropped might be an upgrade for the gear you are using on one of your classes. 

The world of Orna, at least on my street.  That shop in the middle of the screen is my entire home village.  When I am near it I get some slight bonuses, and eventually I will be able to expand it by adding more buildings to it. When you claim a village, you get to decide whether the buildings are public or private.  The random monsters, like the slime on the right and the wolfman at the top, I can tap to attack.  

What is the world like?  I am not entirely sure what map it's built on, perhaps Open Street Maps.  It shows roads and a few buildings, but not street names much like Pokemon Go.  Near me it assigns some areas to be forests vs open and populates open areas near roads with random buildings.  Whether it includes additional biomes to forest in other regions I have no idea. The buildings I have seen so far are general stores where you can sell loot and buy potions, a pet shop that sells companions that follow you around and help in battle, blacksmiths for upgrading gear, and dungeons (below).  I have read that there are a wide variety of other types of shops, but I have not yet seen any of them.  

I decided to make the one building in my village public.  I get a tiny bit of income from this shop every day when I log.  Whether I would make a crapton of money if someone came by and bought a bunch of stuff, or what exactly another player would see on entering this shop I'm not sure.

Mobs spawn quickly and randomly around any spot in which you are standing.  In fact mobs spawn so quickly that it's  completely impossible to clear out an area, which means you technically don't have to ever walk anywhere to advance.  As you gain levels, the levels of monsters that randomly spawn around you also gradually increase.  Different monsters spawn in forests vs open areas, and at night vs during the day.  This led to some confusion when I first started playing.  I had a "baby's first level 1 quest" to kill five goblins.  I was baffled at first because the entire first week I played I didn't see a single goblin.  However, I had only played at night and it turned out they only spawn during the day.

 Dungeons, called "gauntlets" provide an interesting challenge.  You can only enter one if you have a gauntlet key.  Once you enter you have a few hours to clear every floor.  There are ten floors, each with progressively tougher monsters (one monster per floor) and better loot.  You can first try one when you hit level 50, but you sure as heck won't be able to clear it at that level.  I ran straight to the nearest dungeon when I hit 50.  While I was able to clear more than half of it, the mobs in the bottom few floors were well over level 100.  You start with one gauntlet key.  After that, as near as I can tell the only way to get more keys is to buy them in the item shop, which is a bit frustrating.  However, there are also gauntlets associated with your kingdom you might be able to participate in for free (more on this on "other players").

The main kingdom menu, which is essentially like a guild in a MMO.  Like many more modern MMOs you can work together to level up your guild.  I believe Kingdoms can hold up to 50 players.

Asynchronous interactions.  The main way you alter the world is by building up your starting village.  When you first start playing, you have a chance to choose one village as your home village.  When near it you get a some minor stat bonuses.  Most villages consist of a single random building.  As you progress through the game there are a wide variety of different types of buildings you can add to it.  However I don't yet know a lot about how this works because after playing for two weeks I am up to level 60 and still nowhere near being able to put up any buildings in my village.  I have about half the material I would need for the simplest building.  You do at least get to decide whether everyone can see and use the buildings in your village, or whether only you have access to them.  I believe that in an open village changes to the inventory of NPCs as players buy and sell items are shared with everyone, a bit like how NPC merchants work in Everquest.

One way you can help advance your guild is by helping to clear gauntlets (dungeons).  Members of the guild have a chance to be assigned to take on the opponent on a random floor each day.  So far I have been left out of this system, presumably because I am too low level to handle the fights on most floors.

How do you interact with other players?  The main way is by joining a Kingdom.  Kingdoms are basically guilds of up to 50 players.  Like typical MMO guilds there are ranks, a chat window, and often an optional discord server somewhere.  There are also guild quests and guild gauntlets that you can undertake to help level up your guild.  In guild gauntlets, everyone in the guild has a chance to be assigned a random floor and corresponding monster.  If everyone takes out their monster, all players in a guild gets some kind of reward.  Your guild can also pick fights with other guilds, in which case I believe you will be assigned a random player in the opposing guild to challenge to a duel.  Like the whole town system, this seems to be something that you need to be rather high level (100+ is my guess) to really participate in.  At level 60 I am barely qualified to take on a few of the lowest level gauntlet floors so I haven't yet been assigned one at random.  The low level guild quests I can handle also quickly get snatched up by other players. There seems to be some kind of group raid battles, but that is another system I haven't been able to see much of yet because I am too low level.  

You can also undertake quest for your guild.  This is another system I haven't been able to do much with because the low level quests I could handle all get grabbed by other players pretty quickly.

Is it good exercise?  At first I thought Orna was terrible exercise, and a frustratingly simple game.  There were two random stores and a dungeon near my house.  They stores didn't sell anything I care about apart from potions, and even potions I get from mobs frequently enough that I rarely need to restock.  Since mobs re-spawned quickly and in unlimited numbers in my yard, there seemed to be no reason at all to walk anywhere.  I thought the whole game was sitting in my living room grinding until I got high enough level to add some buildings to my feeble starting village.  Though I was mistaken, you can certainly play that way if you want to.

One major difference from Dragon Quest is that the fights aren't really random.  You tap on a monster that you see on the map, and then get this screen explaining what it is where you decide whether or not to attack.

However I soon discovered that there are other building types in my neighborhood.  For example, near where I set up a shelter in Walking Dead: Our World there is a blacksmith.  It takes him about an hour to upgrade a piece of gear, so once per evening I walk out to him,  pick up something he has been working on for me, and drop off something else.  I tell my wife "Ok, I'm off to pick up my hat" (or whatever) before I head out for the evening.  There are also random bosses on the landscape.  These are worth one or two orders of magnitude more XP than regular mobs, are distributed very sparsely, and take a long time to respawn after you kill them.  It's well worth it to head out and look for bosses instead of being happy with whatever happens to show up in your yard.   

Even if the moment-to-moment gameplay generally is exceedingly simple, the game overall has a ton of depth that I have barely plumbed.  For example, I am not at all sure what summoning a raid boss is about.

All that said, due to the "unlimited spawns anywhere you happen to be,"  there is less reason to walk around in Orna than in the other LGB I've played.  Further, if you want to power level it's a lot more efficient to drive around and look for bosses you can handle than to do it on foot.  Within the entire part of my neighborhood I can get to without crossing highways, there are only four or five boss spawn points, and I have never seen more than two I could actually handle up in one evening.  I can see why so many players like the game, but even after two weeks I am very much on the fence about it.

Initial series Wrap up:

That will probably be my last post in the LBG field guide series for the time being, though there are quite a few more of them on my radar.  If you have a suggestion for which you would like for me to try next, let me know in the comments.  Otherworld Heroes which claims to be an honest-to-goodness LBMMORPG  (!) looks interesting.  However, the game has been out for a more than a year and I haven't heard a thing about it, so I am a bit skeptical.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

A field guide to LBGs: Walking Dead Our World

Walking Dead: Our World was published by Next Games in July 2018. It's one of the more visible LBGs, and is based on the hugely popular AMC TV show and the lesser known comic books.  After a brief surge of popularity when it first came out, interest in WD:OW seemed to wane rapidly.  These days online communities around the game seem pretty dead.  However, according to at least one site it still managed to make $17 million in 2019.  Solidly profitable if not a huge hit.  Next week I will be discussing one final GPS game I have been playing a lot of, the 16 bit RPG inspired Orna.  

Walking Dead: Our World 

What do you do?  The main thing you do is walk around looking for encounters filled with zombies and other NPC opponents to fight.  Fights reward random cards to gain new or upgrade existing equipment, NPC allies or perks.  All of these come in different rarities: gold > purple > blue > gray.  Gold allies and weapons are quite rare and powerful, but difficult to upgrade.  At the other extreme, gray weapons and allies are dead common and quite easy to max out.  There is a real trade-off here. For example, in some weapon categories the best I have is only blue because the purple and gold ones I own haven't been upgraded as much. 

Far and away you spend most of your time fighting zombies in encounters like this one.  Before challenging an encounter you choose a loadout of one weapon and one ally.  Here  I am using a machine gun and chose a tough ally that uses a shotgun.  The only real "oh shit" button you have are grenades, so it's best to use them sparingly.  The red square also show optional upgrades in play. I have given my gun the ability to reload faster after I empty a clip.  My ally has an increased chance to get headshots and also reloads faster than before I upgraded her.

Perks are the abilities of your character, things like how much damage you do with grenades or how many survivors you can shepherd around at once.  They work a little differently from weapons and allies.  Perk rarity doesn't have anything to do with how powerful it is.  Instead, rare perks tend to be rather specialized abilities most players won't care a whole lot lot about. For instance, the rarest perk I have adds 18% to the blast radius of grenades, which is so subtle I am not 100% sure it's doing anything.

Ultimately the primary way you get stronger is upgrading cards.  Rarer weapons and allies are more powerful for their level, but also take more resources to power up.  For example, for the number of tokens that it takes to add one new modifier to this weapon I could max out a gray common weapon.

To upgrade an item you need both cards and coins. For example, to take a gray item from level one to two takes two matching cards and 50 coins, while a gold item costs two matching cards and 7000 coins.  When I first started I would have said the game was much too stingy with coins.  My first week I was even forced to buy a few to upgrade my main weapon (I have $7 invested so far). However an in-game event last week gave me 70,000 coins for free, and I am now having trouble finding enough card matches with the weapons and allies I care about to spend them.  Challenging an encounter takes "energy."  I now have enough now to play for about an hour before I run out, though it was less when I started at level 1. By the time I've gone through my energy I have also hiked a very leisurely mile or more through my neighborhood, so it feels like enough.  Resting for an hour in real time is enough to completely replenish your energy pool.

The main reason you do encounters is to get random cards for upgrading your weapons, allies and perks (character abilities).  This draw has a lot of strong cards and came from one of the boards I am working together with my team to clear.

If you are a fan of the show or the comics, you will probably quickly acquire at least a blue or purple version of most characters you care about. As you get better gear, better NPC helpers and better perks the strength of encounters you are able to handle goes up.  You have levels, those determine the maximum level of encounter you are able to attempt to clear. There are a lot of different types of encounters, but they all boil down quick fights where you tap your screen to shoot (it's more fun than it sounds like!).  There are one-off encounters to rescue NPCs you can take to a base (below), one-off zombie fights for really feeble loot, fights with humans for better rewards, and multi-stage fights that have the best rewards. The strategy of the game comes primarily in deciding what gear and NPCs to invest your limited resources into, and what bases to invest in.  Solo you can likely keep two out of the four base types going at a time.    

This is what a street near me looks like in game.  As you can see even out here in the boonies it's very well populated compared to Pokémon Go.  Most of the icons are different types of encounters I can try to take on, some with better rewards than others.  The blue crates will give me random supplies (usually energy or grenades).

What is the world like?  The game uses streets and buildings from google maps and adds zombie encounters to those.  If you get within 100 meters of most encounter types you can try to clear them if you are high enough level.  Players can also set up buildings (below) that grant you rewards if you help grow them by rescuing survivors and dropping them off.  In addition to randomly generated encounters, there is an extremely simple story line to play through.  Even out in the boonies, the density of encounters is pretty high.  There are five or six I can reach from my house, and plenty for an hour of play in my neighborhood.
An armory I set up near my house when I first started playing.  Whenever anyone drops off survivors, the base gets powered up a bit and then receives random cards for weapons in return (one card per survivor and base level).  Right now I have six days left to drop off enough survivors to take it up to level eight, or zombies will swarm it and destroy it.  Setting up these bases is one of the main ways you can control what kinds of upgrades you get.  They are completely random from most sources, yielding, an admixture of cards for perks, weapons and allies. Bases only ever grant cards of one of the three types.

Asynchronous interactions:  The primary way you affect the world for other players is setting up bases.  There are four different kinds you can set up, and a higher level base grants a decent chance at strong cards when you drop off rescued individuals.  If there isn't already one near you, it's advisable to build an armory that grants weapon upgrade cards when you first start playing.  Once you drop off enough rescued people for a base to go up one level, it will maintain itself for anywhere from nine days to several weeks depending on level.  However, if you don't level it up again before that timer runs down, eventually zombies will swarm it and destroy it.  Anyone that is playing can drop off NPCs at a base that you set up.  Eventually I will probably have at least two imaginary buildings in my yard for me and other players to use.  If you join a team, you can also work together with other players to clear a board that gives all of you really nice rewards.

The main way you play with others, apart from helping to upgrade random bases, is cooperating to clear boards like this one. It works like bingo, when you clear all the vertical and horizontal rows connected to a bag you can claim it.  The bags on these boards contain quite a bit of loot. Most of the objectives are things like "kill 150 zombies with grenades" that everyone in the entire team contributes to no matter where they are. 

How do you interact with other players?  The main way is by joining a team.  It's a lot like a typical MMO guild with different ranks and a chat channel.  Teams can hold up to 25 players, and getting into an active one is pretty essential to enjoying the game long term.  The main thing you do is work together to clear boards.  There are global rankings where different teams compete to clear boards as quickly as possible. It feels a lot like Conquest in SWTOR. The boards also grant very nice loot to everyone on the team as you clear them.  Each space on the board has a random requirement, like "drop off 70 survivors at an armory."  Everything done by team members contributes to the total.  You can also send up a flare that allows anyone on your team to teleport to your location, anywhere.  If there is a way to group up and fight together directly, I have not figured it out yet.   

I have been playing less than a week, and I already have a lot of characters I recognize from the show.  My wife is also a fan of the comics and says that these portraits resemble both the actors in the show and the comic book character designs.

Is it good exercise?  If you are playing in a place that at least has a few houses nearby, it hits the right balance better than anything I've tried.   Any given encounter you clear takes 30 minutes to respawn, so if you want to spend all your energy for the evening you really do need to get some walking in.  If you are lucky there might be enough to spend a third of your total near your house, you can't just sit in one spot.  However, the density of encounters is also high enough that you don't have to walk too far.  In my neighborhood, I can can play for about 40-50 minutes before I need to let my character rest.  By that time I will have cleared every nearby encounter I can easily handle, so there isn't a strong incentive to spend cash on the game. Walking around your neighborhood hoovering up humans, bringing them back to your base, and watching it grow is really rewarding. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

A field guide to LBGs: Pokémon Go

Today I am kicking off my LBG Field Guide series with a game that is likely familiar, and so will form a useful point of reference for future posts, Pokémon Go. This is really the standard LBG against which most others are judged  right now, sort of like EQ in the early 2000s or WoW from about 2005 on in the MMORPG scene.  It is also supposedly one of the most profitable games on the planet, with a staggering 166 million users and more than a billion in revenue in 2020.  As a point of reference, only eight countries in the world have a larger population than Pokémon Go.  Next week I'll continue this series with a game that has a very different tone (to put it mildly), Walking Dead: Our World.  

Pokémon Go

What do you do?  The basic gameplay loop of Pokémon Go is to catch random pokémon.  You can play it entirely as a collector, just trying to get as many species as possible.  For this approach rare variants called "shinies" that have a slightly different appearance from the base specimens are highly sought after.  You can also play it as more of  simple RPG, looking for the pokémon with the best statistics and attacks for either group PvE (taking down raid bosses),  PvP battles with other players, or attacking and defending gyms. You have to pick which of three global teams, Instinct, Mystic or Valor,  that you will associate yourself with when you start playing. 

Pokemon Go for an active player in the country.  This is what my street looks like when I fire up the game.  We live in the boonies, so there isn't a heck of a lot around.  However, the game has also figured out that there are two very active players at this location so it has made my yard an active spawn point. Besides that random handful of pokémon, a hot air balloon with a member of Team Rocket (NPC bad guys) that I can challenge to a duel comes by about once an hour.  Sometimes random presents from advertisers also arrive by balloon.   

What is the world like?  In addition to  random pokémon wandering all around you, the game adds Stops and Gyms to the world.  A Stop is an area with a disk that you can spin every five minutes for random items (e.g., balls that you use to catch pokémon, potions to heal your pokemon).  Gyms are buildings that can also be used to get supplies of items like a stop, but primarily are the focus of asynchronous PvP battles.  They are also the areas where raid bosses, which often require teams of players to take down, can be challenged.

This is what the game looks like if you play in a more public area.  You can see a stop and three gyms in the background, as well as a new pokémon species that was recently released.

Asynchronous interactions: Gym battles. If a gym is held by a players of a different team, you can fight the pokémon in the gym to take it over.  It can take a while to defeat everyone in a gym that has a really good defensive team, but it is quite doable even with fairly weak pokémon.  The exception to this is if owners of the pokémon defending the gym are actively healing them as you fight.  A determined defender with a lot of resources can hold you off, but this is extremely rare. 

The primary asynchronous interactions focus on gyms.  This one is being guarded by two pokémon, including a Garbodor (the evolved form of Trubbish, below).  I could fight them, knock them out of the gym and place a pokémon of my own in the gym. That would bring me a few coins if members of my team are able to hold the gym long enough. A more friendly interaction involves presents.  You can send and receive presents from anyone on your friends list once every 24 hours.

If a gym is held by a member of your team, or if you clear it of defenders yourself, you can add a pokémon to the gym.  If the gym is held by your team long enough, you will get up to 50 coins for the game's currency as a reward.   The reason that determined defense of a gym is so rare, is that the reward maxes out at 50 coins after a few hours.  After that, there is no in game reward for holding the gym any longer.  This ensures a pretty steady turnover of gym ownership.

Far and away the main thing you do is catch and manage pokémon.  Here I am trying to catch a Trubbish, the trashbag pokémon, one of the newer designs.

How do you interact with other players?  Primarily you either challenge other players to PvP battles where your pokémon fight, or you group up with other players to take down raid bosses.  Both of these activities can be undertaken either with players that you are hanging out with in real life, or remotely with players that are on your friends list.  Until very recently it was only possible to participate in a raid if you were physically standing near the same gym.  However, this year the game added remote raid passes, which allow you to join a raid from any distance if someone on your friends list invites you, or to join random pick up groups that are fighting raid bosses within roughly a quarter mile radius of your current location.  You can also send presents to players on your friends list once per day.  When opened, a present grants a random supply of consumable items, much like spinning a stop.

If you are playing purely as a collector, shiny pokémon are the ultimate prize.  They are rare variants of normal species that have a slightly different coloration.  Here is my shiny Trubbish I caught in my front yard one day.  She is more black instead of the olive green of most Trubbish.  Some of the super rare ones can even sell for a bit of cash on the pokémon black market (because of course some people take the game too seriously . . .)

Is it good exercise?  It depends.  If you are in an urban area with lots of stops and gyms, walking around to spin them for goodies and to look for new pokémon is really helpful.  However, if you are out in the country, in many areas there are no stops and no gyms.  In these locations, it doesn't make much difference whether you walk around or not.  Pokémon will generally only spawn if you are burning incense, and that works almost as well sitting on your couch as it does walking around.  When I lived on the city I got a lot of exercise walking from the game.  Now that I live in a rural area, I get very little exercise from it unless I decide to go into town.

Friday, August 27, 2021

New Post Series: A Field Guide to Location Based Games (LBGs)

Lately I have started to become really enamored of location based games (LBGs*).  For example, Pokémon Go is one LBG that you are almost certainly familiar with.  However  that is but one of many games in this emerging category.  What they all have in common, apart from being phone games, is that they use GIS to figure out where you are physically located and to determine which objects in the imaginary world of the game you can interact with.  There will generally be a few things in or near any random spot where you happen to be.  But to get to new objects and really make progress, you often have to walk or drive to new locations.  They also usually incorporate real world elements, such as streets and buildings around you. 

Pokémon Go is one of the few LBGs I think I can safely assume most readers are familiar with.

I find the potential of this genre really intriguing.  For example earlier this year I speculated that they could form a major stepping stone between PC and Console based MMORPGs (e.g., Everquest, WoW) and the true 3D virtual worlds we have been reading about in sci-fi for ages (e.g., the Multiverse).  What I didn't realize when I wrote that post is that there are so many of them out already, and how many MMO design elements these games are already experimenting with. There are always interactions with other players, generally some mechanical RPG elements (stats, levels, equipment to collect), and they are also all online by definition.   

However the LBG genre is really exploding right now.  Shown here is Walking Dead: Our World which I will be posting about after Pokémon Go. 

Like MMOs, they have a shared world that can only be seen and interacted with by you and other players of the game.  They also very often contain digital objects you can interact with and alter, changes that will be seen by other players whether you happen to be online or not.  In fact these asynchronous interactions with other players, even if still generally somewhat limited, are a hallmark of LBGs. That and walking, lots of walking! 

I also find that very few location based games are being covered by bloggers or news sites that I follow.  It's a bit surprising to me, because these games by-and-large do play like some sort of stripped down experimental MMO.   It's also really hard to figure out which ones are worth trying from the limited coverage that I can find for most of them.   

To try and kick start a conversation about this budding genre, I am going start posting impressions of random LBGs that I try.  In all of my posts I will use a standard format, with the goal of the series slowly becoming a proper guide over time.  I will be focused on answering a series of questions that I hope will help readers decide if they might like a game, and that I also find very interesting from a design perspective.  

What do you do?  What is the basic gameplay loop and / or goal of the game?  All of the ones I have tried so far involve walking around and either collecting stuff and/ or getting into some kinds of battles.  However I have read about some where exploration appears to be the entire point of the game.

What is the world like?  What kind of world does the game create for you to walk around in?  Most of these games seem to be powered by Google Maps.  However Niantic and a few other companies seem to have have developed their proprietary maps of the world.  For example, Pokemon Go, Ingress and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite are all published by Niantic and consequently have buildings to interact with (or lack them entirely) in exactly the same spots because of it.  Regardless of how they generate the base map, the games vary a lot in terms of what fantasy elements they layer on top of it.

Asynchronous interactions?  One thing that all these games seem to have in common is some way to interact with other players whether you happen to be online at the same time and place or not.  If finding other players to hang out with in a MMO can sometimes be challenging, in a LBG, where the gaming space you are sharing is literally the size of a 1-to-1 scale planet, it can sometimes be all but impossible.  Because of that, these games generally allow for you to affect the world in some way. If other players happen to visit a location you have interacted with they can see whatever changes you have made, and sometimes try to undo them. These persistent shared elements are probably the aspect of this new genre I find the most interesting.  

How do you interact with other players?  When you are on at the same time as other players how can you interact with them?  What can you do with players anywhere, vs players that happen to be in the same spot as you? Many of these games have interactions you can only engage in if you happen to be in the same general location at the same time (e.g., think walking up to a dungeon or grouping up for a raid in a MMO and you won't be far off).  At the same time, most of them also have pretty typical matchmaking, in one form or another, that can hook you up with players anywhere for a short interaction like a PvP match.

Is it good exercise?  Another thing that I really like about these games is that they often encourage you to walk.  A LBG can be a very fun way to get a bit of exercise.  For example my wife and I got to be in very good shape, at least in that we could easily walk for hours non-stop without tiring, from playing Pokémon Go when we lived in town.  The only other game I have played that does a better job of gamifying exercise is Ring Fit Adventures on the Switch, and tricking you into exercise is literally the entire design goal of that game.  That said, some of these games making walking a lot more fun and rewarding than others. 

I am going to leave this up for 24 hours, so that at least a few people will read it, and officially kick off the series tomorrow with an overview of Pokémon Go.  I expect most readers to be familiar with it, and so I think it will serve as a useful point of comparison.  From there I will be moving in to Walking Dead: Our World, and then Orna.  Regardless of whether my interest in this project waxes or wains after my initial posts, I am going to be very interested to see where this genre goes in the next few years.  This really feels like the emergence of something well and truly new to me.

 *LBG: I considered LBMG (location based multiplayer games) to avoid potential confusion with commentary on LGB and LGBT games and social issues, but decided I was probably being paranoid.  However if you have a strong opinion about it let me know in a comment.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

FFXIV: Going against the flow

 According to Massively OP,  FFXIV is getting so popular these days that a producer released a letter to apologize to players for the server loads and difficulty creating new characters.  FFXIV does appear to be insanely popular.  I haven't seen a login cue less than 16 players deep on my server in ages, even in the wee hours of the morning on a weeknight.  However, I am not sure I would say my server is more crowded than normal these last few weeks.  The game has always been hopping since I've played.  That said, the game sure is appearing all over my blogroll.

My character flying around on the first non-chocobo mount I earned.  Even if my current outfit is a big goofy looking (a fantasy fur trader?), I find the game to be quite pretty.

If populations are ramping up, I think it may have something to do with the woes of retail WoW.  We are now on the second poorly received expansion in a row.  According to Metacritic, user ratings are sitting at a fairly abysmal 5 out of 10.   Though to be fair, even that is a step up from the last one.  Regardless, a lot of players seem to getting fed up with retail WoW, and Blizzard in general,* and the perception (real or not) is that a lot of them are switching to FFXIV. 

My main character in another slightly goofy outfit, this time seemingly inspired by the mad hatter.

It's a scenario that makes sense. When a lapsed WoW player looks around for another tab-target combat Diku MMO with strong production values from a publisher they have heard of,  FFXIV is one they are probably going to at least consider.   Even Blizzard may think this is happening.  They recently released a poll asking players whether they plan to play the next FFXIV expansion.  Soon after getting the results, they released a new mount that you get for free with a six month sub.   This mount, the Sapphire Skyblazer, bears more than a passing resemblance to a mount that every player of FFXIV that plays through the main story of the Stormblood expansion gets for free. 

A mount that everyone gets during the main story of Stormblood.  Yes this is an a cool mount, but it's probably not why players are gravitating to FFXIV.

I could get a whole post of of comparing the two games, and there aren't a lot of points in which retail WoW would come out ahead in my mind.  I have been wildly entertained by FFXIV until recently.  Somewhat ironically, even as the hype around FFXIV builds to a fever pitch in anticipation of the next expansion,  I find that the game is finally winding down for me. Part of it is that I am nearly to the end of the main adventuring story line, and the last few steps I have left to to finish it just don't sound like a lot of fun to me.   However, I hit that soft content wall a few months ago, and remained highly engaged for a few months past that.  That's a bit unusual for me.  

Yet another night shot, this time of one of the last big cities you discover in the most recent expansion.  The storyline that runs through it depicts a stark contrast between the wealthy elite of the city and the have-nots living in the shantytown outside it.  

In many MMOs hitting the end of the levelling content is a death knell for my interest, because for whatever insane reason many designers seem have this idea that endgame in a MMO should equal raiding, PvP or "time-to-uninstall."  Not so in FFXIV.  Whether you are leveling or not, there is simply a ton of fun stuff to do in the game.  The developers have put real thought into making activities that are boring and grindy in most MMOs deeper and more engaging (or needlessly complex depending on how you look at it I suppose).  

Crafting and gathering classes are really well thought out in FFXIV.  For example in this screenshot I have switched over to botanist.  It's class that gathers wood and wild plants (e.g., cotton to spin out into cloth).  All of those hotbar buttons are different abilities I can activate while gathering.  I can choose to emphasize quantity or quality, or activate abilities that make it easier to gather items at the edge of my abilities.   There is also an entire chain of botanist quests with a delightful, if somewhat inane, storyline.  FFXIV is also unique among MMOs I have played in that there is a whole gear progression just for gathering.  Many games have one or two items that help (e.g., high level mining picks in LoTRO).  Here I am decked out in a full suit of gear, fully socketed with materia, that does almost nothing but make me better at gathering.  I'll be replacing it all in a few levels, just as I would on a normal adventuring class   

For example, the crafting system.  FFXIV has the most fun gathering and crafting professions of any MMO I've ever played.  The closest comparison among the games I've played would be EQ II.  Like that game there are entire crafting quest lines, one for for each profession in FFXIV, and you have to activate abilities to make items.  However it's also a fair bit deeper in that there are entire gear sets for crafting and gathering, and many more abilities to learn.  When I switch over to the goldsmith class, even at level 41 I have something like a dozen different crafting abilities I can use.  Various abilities increase progress on a finished product, increase quality, restore endurance, or restore small amounts of the "mana" that powers all the abilities.  You often have to balance them carefully to make the best products.   Any decent crafter can make high quality items by starting with high quality materials, and being a skilled gatherer (e.g., a high level miner or botanist) makes obtaining high quality materials easier.  However, an exceptional crafter can make high quality items out of any  materials, even starting with a zero item quality bonus. 

FFXIV has an absurd number of classes, and once you have unlocked one you can switch in and out of it at will using the outfit system (shown).  I have unlocked something like 18 classes, but almost all of them are crafting classes.  As far as classes that fight monsters and go on (non-gathering related) adventures, I have only unlocked four so far including my main class of Black Mage. 

It's really incredibly fun, and I have gotten every crafting and gathering profession in the game to at least level 20 now (and some more than half way to the cap). However, despite how engaging it is, I find myself wondering why I am learning to make all this gear if I have no intention of ever using it.  I could use it to kit out different adventuring professions, and I have done that to a point.  The problem is that lately the repeatable content that you use to advance new combat classes has started to get stale to me.  I have taken the crafting far enough to make completely awesome gear for any class.  Yet I have almost no combat classes high enough level to use the best gear I can make.  For example I can make suits of plate armor for level 30ish characters, and my highest level tank class is 22.  

I recently went to another guild wedding.  It was adorcable, and this time I had duds a little fancier that my adventuring garb to wear.
It's a bizarre quandary that I have never gotten into in any other MMO because I generally make gear to use it first, and for the fun of making it as a distant second. I could in theory make gear just to sell to other players. However, the crafting market is pretty crowded on my server. It would be real work to find a niche I could profit from.  Even if I did find one, I would be reduced to crafting only a few items that sell well. A related issue is that I find the gathering even more fun, and I can gather stuff that's so high level none of my crafters can use it. At least it's fairly straight forward to make a profit on, since it costs me literally nothing to gather.  However, I don't have the patience to gather a lot more than I really strictly need to level my mining, botany and fishing.

I find the fantasy themed visual designs of FFXIV in general really compelling.  My wife collects Asian (mainly Japanese) ball jointed dolls, and the aesthetic is very similar.  She has asked about this game a lot more than others that she has seen me playing when she wanders past my screen.

The last few weeks I have been logging on less and less, and I will probably cancel my sub by the end of the month.  This is not to complain. I've been playing for eight straight months.  That is a great run on any game, and I don' regret the time I've put into FFXIV a bit.  I may even come back for Endwalker.  But for now it's probably time for me to take a break.  

My next post?

I have started dabbling in Star Trek Online, and I may be posting about that soon. It's an interesting game that's not very much like anything else I've played (besides the tween MMO Pirate 101 oddly enough). As a side note, I haven't died.  I've been on hiatus, from even my normal infrequent posting schedule, because real life has been insanely busy for me the last few months.  Six months from now, I'll be in a new house, in a new job, in a new city, so things certainly won't slow down in the near term.    

*I wrote this before recent news broke about what has been going on at Blizzard. I am not going to get into that save to say that I am boycotting their games until I see indications of real changes.  When harassment in a company gets so bad that someone commits suicide over it, and it continues to be tolerated, that is over a line for me.  Work conditions like that should not be legal, much less rewarded financially.