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Monthly Archives: June 2011

So, as of December 2011 Star Wars Galaxies will become a blue glowy Force ghost

What piques my interest is the line about “SOE and LucasArts have mutually agreed that the end of 2011 is the appropriate time to end the game” It’s pretty clear that SW:G is having its licence pulled to clear the decks for SW:ToR. Does this mean that 15th December is a planned live date for The Old Republic? Does it set an earliest possible release date for ToR (i.e. EA can’t or won’t go live while SW:G is still active)? Or is there going to be an overlap period when both games are live… but if they’re willing to tolerate that, why not extend Galaxies’ licence and pull in some extra dough?

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I’ve had my evil eye drawn to Prime: Battle For Dominus a new SF-based MMO with (stop me if this sounds familiar) faction-based PvP with 3 player factions, a PvP-centred endgame that seems to be designed around open world PVP, and Sanya Weathers as the new Director of Community. Indeed, the Dark Age of Camelot is strong with this one.

How strong, remains to be seen. Some of the guys over on the Prime forums have taken the few facts we have (basically, what I said above… plus there’s gonna be jetpacks) and are expecting or demanding a beat for beat remake of DAoC in space. I don’t think that’s exactly what we’re going to get, but my hopes are high for a spiritual successor to what is still my favourite MMO. I’m also not sure how the DAoC spirit of realm pride and cooperation is going to work with a modern MMO player base, most of whom have been conditioned into a “me first, gimme shinies, it’s all about farming personal rewards” attitude by You Know Which Game.

One to watch, however things go, and there’s a good chance we’ll see this go live before SW:ToR does.

Stabs is continuing his series on raiding with a look at everything that’s wrong with raiding. I would summarise the problems with the current state of MMO raiding as an unholy trinity – gear progression, hyper-specialisation and design on rails. Much like the MMO holy trinity of tank, healer and DPS these three depend on and reinforce each other, only in this case the three each make for a less pleasant gaming experience.

Gear progression means that each raid hands out loot that is better than the last – and assumes that you have gear at the standard of the previous raid. Gear progression forces players into farming raids that they’ve already beaten in order to complete their upgrades. It excludes players from joining more advanced raiding guilds because, however good a player they are, their character isn’t up to the required gear level and will need to be carried through content that’s on farm status until they catch up. Gear progression renders older raids obsolete. Gear progression poisons the rest of the game as well, by introducing inflation in gear stats so that you get people raiding solely to get the gear to be “competitive” in PvP for example. I’ve met so,me players who seem to think that gear progression is an integral feature of raiding – it’s not. Both DAoC and LotRO have raids, but the raid gear is not massively BETTER than other gear, just a bit better and different.

Hyper-specialisation comes from raids where characters are only needed to do one thing, so they are optimised to do that one thing and get measured and judged on that one thing – DPS, or healing output, or damage mitigation for a tank. Hyper-specialisation takes away interesting choices in character design by driving players into pure builds that are relatively easy to theorycraft into cookie-cutter “best specs”. The idea of hybrid or jack-of-all-trades characters is completely devalued, and a whole aspect of challenge where a player decides “what do I do now?” is lost because they can only do one thing. Again, the consequences of specialisation bleed over into the non-raiding game. I’ve been in DAoC groups where the cleric healing went linkdead, so the friar stops meleeing with his staff and starts healing, or where the main tank dies but one of the other melee characters takes over. In WoW, if you lose either tank or healer in a group it’s a wipe – good thing the death penalties are more lenient there.

Design on rails comes from raids which have one and only one way of beating the boss. It’s gimmicky, and it takes away the intellectual challenge from the raid encounters because the one and only way to do this fight is on a website already so go read it, noob. Instead of improvising, showing your skills at thinking on your feet and how to use your abilities to best effect, you are just handed a script. Learn this. Execute it flawlessly, and There Will Be Epics. If by some chance a guild does find a different way of beating the boss, it will almost certainly be ‘fixed’ next patch. I don’t know about you, but personally I LIKE trying to figure out different ways of doing things, and find being told to STFU and follow the script depressing.

All three of these feed off each other. Gear progression encourages specialisation because the gear becomes more and more important relative to player skill, and the gear is always optimised for one role or another. Specialisation drives player demand for gear progression – if you’re being measured and judged on your DPS, you’re always out for something that will add to your DPS meter score. It also pushes the developers toward design on rails, because if there are fewer players in raids with a variety of abilities it makes less sense to cater to them. Design on rails encourages gear progression as a way of gating the content – your players aren’t going to be slowed down by devising tactics for each encounter, so the only way to stop them rapidly devouring your content is to make them grind before each new step. It also pushes players into hyper-specialisation because they don’t need to make any allowance for the unexpected, so no point in having characters who can switch roles to adapt mid-fight; and because the only variable in the success/failure equation left in the player’s control is MOAR DPS.

So – can we get away from all of these? Can we have a game where all raids need about the same level of gear (note – there can still be progression through having to unlock access to the next raid), one where the encounters are unpredictable enough to make specialisation vs flexibility a trade-off that merits serious thought, and one where the encounters allow multiple ways of solving them and let each raid group find the solution that works best for them? And would anyone apart from me play that game?

It may come as a shock to some of the more blinkered forum dwellers out there, but different people like to do different things in their MMOs. There are people who live for PvP, which for them means evenly-matched teams in battlegrounds or arenas. Others will tell you that only open world PvP, where there could be a ganker waiting around every corner, counts. Some people just want to get into end-game raiding, some want to enjoy a leisurely and challenging levelling process for each of their many alts, and then there are people who really do want to spend hours messing around with costumes and decorating houses. Each of these groups is looking for a different gameplay experience, and unless you’re making a niche game you have to accommodate several (or even all) of them.

If you have different experiences in your game world, you can either put them in serial (you need to do one before you can do others) or parallel (they’re independent). For example, WoW and most similar games have a solo-based levelling game that you have to play through before you can start raiding. As an example of parallel styles, in WAR you can level up and gear up through either PvE or RvR; a player who wants to do nothing but fight other players can do that from level 1.

As with most things in life, parallel and serial approaches both have their pros and cons. A parallel approach lets each player do what is fun for them, without blocking it behind “un-fun” stuff. On the other hand, it’s more work for the devs who have to make enough game in each style to keep players fully entertained. It’s also very hard to do – even if you think you’ve made a parallel game, if players see one path as an easier route to success on another, they’ll do that – and complain bitterly about AFK leechers in PvP who are only there for welfare epics, or PvPers who feel forced to do raiding to get the gear that makes them “competitive”.

The big mistake to avoid, though, is to design a game that’s got serial gameplay styles and then deliberately favour one over another. This seems to be WoW’s big failing where, as has been pointed out everyone has to play through the levelling game but it’s treated even by the developers as an inconvenience to be got through as quickly and easily as possible. Doing that just pisses off both the guys who LIKE questing and levelling, and those who want to get past it but still have to do the watered-down version instead of being able to bypass it altogether.

First up – thanks to Nils for pointing me in the direction of the reveal of Wizardry Online at E3

If this game delivers on the description in the article, it should be everything that a vocal section of the player community want – corpse runs with a risk of perma-death, player killing with looting rights, no maps or fancy quest “helpers” to do all the thinking for you, raids of up to 100 players. That’s real old school – it’s the bitter, vicious offspring of pre-Trammel UO and original EQ raised from birth with Gevlon’s contempt of “morons and slackers”. It’s a game that demands not only respect, but abject fear from those who cannot rise to the challenge.

And that might be its downfall (for some reason I nearly typed Darkfall there ūüôā For all of the complaints about easy-mode games, I’m not sure how many players will actually take to a game where the hostile dial is stuck at 11. If they aren’t careful, that some genuine advances in usability and game design get ditched along with the excessive hand-holding. There are very good reasons why MMOs don’t tend to feature perma-death (even though it’s one of the most frequently requested features) – unlike a single player game, it’s too easy to die through no fault of your own due to either network problems or the idiocy or malice of fellow players, and actively having player killing on top of that seems a bit too much. Most risky of all, the game is going to be free to play with a cash shop – in a world where you can easily lose your character or their gear, that could very easily become a “pay to win” game and be the antithesis of everything the hardcore gamers want.

Still, I applaud Headlock Games for going down a different design path from the “fluffy loot pinatas for everyone” approach that’s dominating the field currently.

Things are starting to settle down into a routine here in the Dark Tower of House Tremayne¬†(well, it’s a townhouse – it feels like a tower when I’m constantly going from my lair on the ground floor to the kitchen on the first floor in order to fetch provisions for the ladies ensconced¬†in their eyrie on the top floor). The new baby needs a feed every three hours or so – once that’s in place she will sleep until the next bottle is required, giving me a couple of hours to run around getting some chores done, a quick blog post like this one or maybe even snatch a 30 minute gaming break. Which means I don’t have the opportunity to even THINK about an instance run in Rift or LotRO, and is barely enough time to go do a PvP¬†warfront, but is ideal for a quick foray into World of Tanks.

WoT has a lot to recommend it for a new dad. It’s ideal for a quick burst of action. You log in, hit the button to queue and almost immediately are into a battle – queues are measured in seconds rather than the (sometimes many) minutes for a Rift warfront. A match is 15 minutes maximum, and I don’t think I’ve seen one go to the end of the timer yet. And because you only have one life (no respawning¬†on the Eastern Front!) and if you die can quit out of the battle and still get your rewards credited to you when the match ends, you can go through several battles in a short period of time, taking a different tank out of your garage for each one while you wait for the smoking wrecks of your other tanks to return for repairs. I’ve got to admit I use this feature a lot – I have a tendency to go roaring off in the forefront of my team’s advance, locate the enemy and then have them spot me with fatal results. “We have located the enemy. Dosvidanya, Rodina!”

And of course, it’s all about World War Two tanks. In glorious, geeky detail. This is definitely a ‘Dad’ kind of thing. Yes, I have reached the point in life¬†where it falls to me to basically pay for stuff, dance abominably and know the difference between a Matilda and a Leichtetraktor.¬†And I’ve decided that I’m cool with that.

Of course, I’m also a geek dad at heart. Part of me wishes that there was a game just like World of Tanks but with Battlemechs instead… but for now WoT will do nicely.

RIft has been adding more and more integration with Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, WoW has made a number of moves over the past year towards “encouraging” players on to their own RealID system and turning that into more of a social network tool. What both of these have in common is the (pretty widespread) belief that social networks are the future. However, the philosophy behind the two approaches is quite different.

The Rift approach is to help players feed their gaming habit into the existing social networks. Trion don’t control that social network so they don’t make a penny out of doing this directly. However, by making it easy for their players to broadcast their gaming triumphs via Twitter and Facebook, and to send their in-game video straight to Youtube, they get their game publicised to all of the player’s friends who aren’t already playing Rift. They’re using the existing social networks as a marketing tool.

The Blizzard approach (and Activision’s one with the new COD subscription option) is to build a new social network for and of gamers, which they control. By definition, these networks will only consist of people who are already customers – but once you have a social network it can not only help retain those players, it can be monetised the same way existing social networks are. If Facebook looks like a profitable venture (and a lot of investors have bet a great deal of money on that), then having your own tame Facebook has got to be equally profitable, right?

For what it’s worth, I think the Trion approach is the smart one. Social networks depend on – wait for it – network effects. The more people you have, the more appealing they are to join. The players prone to social networking are probably already on Facebook and aren’t likely to want to keep two or more separate social sites updated.