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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Wilhelm Arcturus, The Ancient Gaming Noob, put up a post recently about whether PVP is required for all MMOs and generated more than the usual amount of debate on a blog post – probably because, well, PvP. When I stuck in my initial tuppence worth, it was with the view that it’s not exactly essential but having it both shuts up a certain vocal minority and provides something extra to do for a majority of players, so on the whole it’s worth the investment for most games.

Syncaine has now weighed in, opining that for a themepark style game PvP provides a valuable form of filler content that can be low maintenance for the devs but highly repeatable. Now I usually read Syncaine’s posts and comments with a high level of scepticism simply because the two of us come from vastly differing views on which games we like and what constitutes a successful game. This time around though, we seem to be in agreement that PvP makes a good addition to a game as long as it doesn’t wreck the rest of the game in the process (by being something you must grind for rewards, or by driving balancing/design decisions that impact the PvE side). We seem to be agreeing that both of us like ESO as well. I’m not sure if this is a case of a stopped clock being right twice a day, one or both of us mellowing with age, a blindingly obvious universal truth or an omen of the coming apocalypse (actually, we can test that last one – if Tobold comes out in agreement with Syncaine… apocalypse).

I do have a further thought though. By and large, PvP has been useful filler content because it’s repeatable, and a game HAS to have repeatable content to keep players occupied – no developer could generate game content as fast as players can play through it. Recently though, we’ve seen games that put content creation tools in the hands of players (e.g. Neverwinter) and EQNext is promising emergent content from using Storybricks AI – in other words, a game world that is constantly generating its own content from the interaction of players and NPCs. Both of these approaches can yield a constant supply of new content for players to keep them satisfied without having either PvP or the carrot on a stick approach of adding daily grinds for rewards. Remember, for most players PvP isn’t a “must have” in and of itself, it’s just something else to do when they’ve dome everything else. It will be interesting to see if anyone can make an MMO that retains players without PvP some time soon.

A little while back, I mentioned that when judging games the key question to ask is whether you’re enjoying playing the game… and that that is a subjective judgement. Nobody else can tell you whether you find playing a game fun. However, we can tell you why we find a game fun (or not), which might help you make a decision about whether it meets your definition of fun. It might even help some of the denizens of the Internet realise that when it comes to fun, your mileage may vary and what they personally like isn’t necessarily so for others (hey, I live in hope…) The fact that Zenimax have finally dropped the NDA on The Elder Scrolls Online for those of us peons who don’t count as “real press”* gives me the perfect opportunity to lay out my criteria for a fun game with a topical example.

First of all, I crave Freedom. Freedom to make my character my own way, freedom to go explore (and take the consequences if I stick my nose in somewhere that’s too tough for me), freedom to do what I want in a game session. That means I don’t want straightjacket character builds, but instead the game should allow for as many set-ups as possible to be viable. Areas of the game world should not be walled off behind a “your level must be THIS high to enter” sign, and I don’t really want all of the quests organised into nice, neat quest hubs with vector quests between them so that it’s all perfectly optimised and runs smoothly as long as you do what you’re told and follow the golden levelling path without fail. ESO score: pretty good, on the whole. Character build is incredibly free – use any combination of skills that you’ve learned, pick up any weapon, wear whatever armour takes your fancy. Your class gives you three skill lines that are unique to the class, but that’s all, and it’s your choice how you use them. The first (tutorial) section is very much on rails, but that’s in the nature of tutorials. ESO’s tutorial is… well, some of the hate for it is overboard but it’s very much a tutorial like the ones for just about every other MMO. Learn to move, pick up a weapon, kill a basic mob, level up for the first time, get transported to the main game world. The worst I can say about it is that it’s a bit “meh” and uninspired; the best I can say is that it’s workmanlike and uninspired. Once you’re past that, though, you get a lot more freedom. The second zone has its own story and (at least in the case of the two alliances I tried) you get to choose not only what order you do the sub-quests but also whether or not to do each of them. Decisions you make will affect your relationships with various NPCs – I’m not sure to what extent that opens up or closes off other stories down the line, but it looks hopeful. I also like that quests tend to be objective-based rather than task lists “go rescue so-and-so” rather than “kill ten rats” and it’s up to me exactly how I carry out the rescue and what body count that entails. It’s not quite as open as GW2 with its whole “wander the worlds and see what events you chance upon” vibe, but it feels pretty free to me.

Next, I expect a certain level of Quality. The game client should be robust and as bug-free as possible, and things should look like they were put together by people who cared what they were doing. Sloppy typos or continuity errors in quest text drive me nuts, and so does poor voice acting. If you’re going to use voice artistes, get decent ones – I shudder every time I play a Neverwinter character through their (workmanlike) tutorial and I get to the dwarf who announces “I have a GGGRRRRUUUUESOME task for ye!” in what some bloody Yank fondly imagines is a Scottish accent. I’m open to different art styles, but I want the artwork to be a good example of whatever style they choose. And I want the writing to be of a professional standard – by which I mean, I would pay for this if it were a book on Amazon. I understand the constraints on plot that being part of a game impose, and I recognise that the writers may not have as much scope for characterisation as they’d like in a game, but the dialogue should sparkle (or at least not come across as stilted and clichéd). ESO score: middling. I encountered several bugs that forced me to restart the game in the beta weekend. On the other hand, this is the one area where the “it’s beta!” excuse is valid – those are exactly the sort of problems that you should be running down and squishing as you get close to release (as opposed to more structural issues with design, where if it’s not pretty much right by now you’re screwed). Voice acting was good (well, look at the cast they hired) and some of the dialogue made me smile. There were some moral dilemmas that genuinely had me thinking hard about which is the “right” answer. So, on the whole pleased as long as they do fix the bugs by April.

I really appreciate getting a good level of Visceral Satisfaction from using character abilities in the game. This is a hard one for me to define, and better to give examples, but it comes down to using abilities that feel right and give a sense of awesome in the game. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the animation and the sound and the general feel of using the ability making me want to go “Hell, YEAH!” A good case in point is my Sith Warrior in SWTOR using Force Choke. On paper, it’s a mediocre ability – it does no more damage than using my base attack over three seconds and builds less rage than the base attack over those three seconds, and yes it stuns the opponent for that time but it also immobilises me so that’s a wash. On the other hand – who am I kidding? I get to Vader the poor son of a bitch who dared draw a blaster on me! It looks right, and it sounds right, and it brings a smile to my face even if it doesn’t get me to the top of a DPS parse, so I tend to Force Choke whenever it’s off cooldown as long as doing so doesn’t severely screw my chances of winning the fight. ESO score: middling to unknown. I need to play more and try out a lot more abilities to see if there’s anything that truly grabs me.

I also want a sense of Heroism – I want to feel that it’s not a job, it’s an adventure. I’m playing MMOs for the escapism of being a Big Damn Hero (or Villain). I want to act bad-ass, and look bad-ass, and I want NPCs to salute, bow or piss their pants in fear once I’ve done something to earn it. I don’t want to dig through boar shit for some goblin in return for a handful of coins. I also don’t want to feel that I need to clock on, do my dailies and get my time card punched every day. I’ve spent years getting to a level where I function as a recognised expert in my real life job and don’t do the same monotonous grunt work very day… why on Earth would I want to play a game in my spare time that does make me do that? ESO score: pretty good so far. My characters felt competent, and the jobs they were asked to do were important ones (rescue civilians from an invasion, help bring down a corrupt local governor)

Finally, a good game should generate Engagement. Simply put, I should want to keep coming back. Maybe it’s to see what happens next (LotRO’s epic story did that through the Angmar and Moria eras) or to see what’s going on (GW2 maintains sense of not having seen everything there is to offer in an area for quite a while) or just because the activities here are fun in and of themselves and I’m back for more (DAoC RvR). Dailies or other content that needs grinding to earn tokens doesn’t cut it on this front – those make you feel obligated to come back to earn rewards rather than making you want to come back for the game’s own sake. ESO score: probably too soon to tell, but after playing in one weekend I’m looking forward to another and inclined to place a pre-order. Does that count?

* I’m not so much annoyed that “real press” got special access and were allowed to bloviate about the game before any of us guys who have pretensions and a blog with five hits per day were allowed to do so. I’m more pissed off that the output of some of those “real journalists” (naming no names) is considerably shallower and more amateurish than that of many of the bloggers. Consider this more a rant about the state of games journalism than one about Zenimax’s PR strategy.

Apropos nothing in particular (apart from maybe Syl’s post about armchair designers over three months ago – nothing like being current with the blogosphere!) some words I try to live by when thinking and chatting about games…

1. Forget labels. Are you enjoying yourself? Some gamers, or at least some bloggers, get caught up in dogmatic stances and judge games solely on whether they are sandboxes (whatever the hell that means), or on their business models, or on what type of PvP is or isn’t allowed. At the end of the day, though, games are entertainment and the real criterion for judging a game is whether I feel entertained playing it. Those other items might have some bearing on whether you enjoy the game, but seriously, are they really absolute deal breakers? Do you honestly believe that a buggy, unbalanced, amateurish sandbox game with full free-roaming ganking should be praised above and beyond a perfectly-executed, thrill ride of a polished theme park PvE game just because it’s a sandbox (or just because of the ganking?)

2. The answer to the question above is subjective. What I like isn’t necessarily what you like. What appeals to Tobold doesn’t always appeal to Syncaine but that doesn’t automatically mean either of them are absolutely wrong. I have my own criteria for whether I’m likely to enjoy a game. A game that doesn’t meet those criteria may not be for me, but may well be for others – both WoW (in its current form) and EVE are cases in point.

3. If you aren’t enjoying yourself, why are you here? It’s OK to recognise flaws in a game – ideally, whilst recognising that those “flaws” may just be features that appeal to other people more than you. I don’t ask that any discussion of a game ignore those flaws. However, if the flaws degrade your enjoyment of a game to the point at “this game is crap” … go play something else and just forget about this one. It will be better for all concerned. If the game really is a stinker (as opposed to just not appealing to you, personally) then most of the other players will do likewise, which is a far more effective signal to the developers than some embittered whinger hanging around the forums like the smell of week-old roadkill.

4. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a hater, fanboi or troll. However, some are. Those three terms are thrown about very loosely as a means of dismissing anyone whose opinion someone else agrees with. After all, it seems that many regular forum posters are so lacking in human empathy and/or simply so far up their own arses that anyone who disagrees with them must be completely wrong. Someone who criticises a feature or points out a flaw isn’t automatically a hater – that term is reserved for roadkill guy from point 3. Likewise, someone who actually likes a feature that you don’t isn’t automatically a “fanboi”, which can only describe someone who rabidly defends every single thing about the game and would do so whatever the devs did. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen such a creature in real life. And a troll is someone who deliberately makes controversial statements with the specific intent of causing an argument and outrage. Someone who happens to honestly disagree with you isn’t trolling. Even someone whose opinions are regularly at variance with the majority isn’t trolling. Someone who goes out of his way to stir arguments up, and who will always post to throw oil on troubled fires, however, is.

5. You get what you pay for. Games, especially MMOs, are expensive things to create and run, and I think it’s fair that the people who make them expect a reasonable return on the money and time they plowed into them. If they’ve made a wildly successful game that millions of people like to play, I would say it’s fair for them to make an unreasonable return on their money 🙂 So I judge a game from the perspective of a customer who pays his way. In subscription games, that’s easy enough to do – I’m either getting sufficient entertainment for my monthly payment, or I’m not. For F2P games it’s a bit harder. I would still use the subscription game as a yardstick, though – look at what the F2P game would be like if you paid $10 to $15 per month, and decide if that game experience is worth your while. I’ve no sympathy for the free player who whines how horribly restrictive the game is if he won’t pay one red cent towards its upkeep and development. However, I also don’t appreciate greedy developers who give significant advantage to those paying well above a subscription rate – or to put it another way, I judge whether a game is “pay to win” based on comparing whales to those who pay a reasonable amount; I don’t regard restrictions on freeloaders in the same category.

6. Rule #2 notwithstanding, there IS such a thing as a bad game. Some things aren’t a matter of judgement. Auto assault had horribly bad net code that made my character rubber band all over the place when I got out of my car. Some games have clunky interfaces, dull gameplay, or severe balance issues to the point where picking the wrong class is a “gotcha” rather than a valid choice. Neverwinter has the worst voice acting I’ve heard in my life. These are things that are just plain out-and-out wrong, and not just matters of taste. It’s fair to call these out. But it’s also fair to call out critics who can’t tell the difference.