Dec 24, 2010

[Divinity 2: Dragon Knight Saga Demo Review]

My attention was recently drawn to this re-released action RPG, Divinity 2: The Dragon Knight Saga. This game originally came out sometime last year, with the subtitle 'Ego Draconis', and was generally described as a good game hindered by various balance issues and technical bugs, which have apparently been addressed in the new 'remastered' version (which also comes with a bundled expansion pack). A new demo of the game was released as well, so I figured I'd try it out and see how I liked it, since I've never played any of the modern western-style action RPGs (I know, the horror!). I've never had a PC capable of playing one, frankly. Since Divinity 2 has been compared to respected games like Baldur's Gate and Ultima, I figured it would be a good game to start on!

The game starts you off with character creation, which is basic but adequate. You can choose your gender, face, hair color, voice, and some minor facial decorations (none are all that different from each other, but just enough to add a bit of personal taste to your avatar). Then you're dropped into a tutorial zone, of sorts, and initiated into the ranks of the Dragon Slayers -- a military order that hunts down and kills Dragon Knights (people who have the ability to transform into a dragon). The reasons behind this vendetta is based on a betrayal by a Dragon Knight more than half a century ago that resulted in the death of the world's Divine, a savior-like figure. As a result, nearly all Dragon Knights have been killed by the time your character starts their journey.

 Since I just d/led the game without reading the manual or any FAQs ahead of time, it took be a bit to figure out how to add skills/items to my hotbar and some other minor controls, but overall I got the hang of things fairly quickly. My biggest issue was not being able to see the crosshair in certain areas, which may just be my own crappy vision problem. =P Also, the lighting of the early part of the second area you visit seemed really murky orange (I guess it was supposed to be early morning?) but that may have been because I had to play with graphics set to Medium, only having half the RAM required to run graphics on high. Once it became daytime proper though, the lighting became much better, which improved the color and sharpness of things overall. Once again, the problem with the low contrast might just be me (maybe I need to get my eyes checked).

The first thing that I really had fun with was the 'Mindreading' ability you get right at the beginning of the game. It lets you pick the brains of various NPCs, which can give clues to hidden items, quests, and other useful info that you'd otherwise not have access to. Of course, sometimes you just hear pointless babble, too. Realizing, for instance, that a particular shopkeeper is desperate for business can get you better prices on his wares. Or you can learn someone's dirty secret and either blackmail them or turn them into the authorities.

In general, the quests in the game are very diverse and some even have multiple options for completion (or even failure). I also liked how you get several choices for quest rewards, from extra experience or money to items and weapons. Besides the main storyline quest, there are lots of sidequests and hidden quests, so that exploring every nook and cranny and talking to everyone you meet almost always pays off in one way or another. You can also invest in a 'Lockpicking' skill to access various locked doors and boxes that you come across. One always gets a sort of evil glee in rifling through boxes/chests/closets in people's houses looking for stuff. =)

 In terms of character development, there are 5 skill trees (with 3 combat styles) you can invest Skill Points in when you gain levels. The combat types you can specialize (or hybridize) with are Mage, Warrior, and Ranger with secondary 'general purpose' trees with abilities like Fear, Stealth, or summoning spells to call helpful undead to aid you in battle. Every time you level up, you get points that you can spend however you like in both your base stats as well as in your skill trees (and for gold you can also respec if needed). Combat is action-oriented, with targeting and dodging done by the player, and what seems like a 'soft lock' mechanic for ranged skills.

The game has great music, and decent voice acting. I generally hate dubbing in games, but Divinity 2's are not grating to listen to like in some other games.

The demo ends with your character obtaining the 'curse' of a Dragon Knight, which is the true beginning of the story. Even though it's just a few hours' worth of play, the demo really packs a lot of the flavor of the game and shows many of it's features while hinting at others to come later (like the ability to craft your own undead minion). I will admit that I have not played many western PC RPGs, so for all I know the game could be full of genre cliches that seem novel just to me, but either way I really enjoyed my short time in Rivellon and I'm planning to get the full game for sure. I really liked being able to find hidden areas/quests, exploring the beautiful landscape, and the different strategy and playstyle options the game has. The fact that Larian (the game's creators) are a smaller studio just makes what they've accomplished with this game even more impressive, imo. I recommend trying out the demo at least, if you are in any way a fan of singleplayer RPGs.

Dec 16, 2010

[The New Lara Croft]

Border House has posted thoughts about the new Lara Croft design, and how the character has changed since her original creation.

All I have to say is, WOW, she looks amazing!

Nov 14, 2010

[What About Jaina's Story?]

Just as a random thought I've had, since the end of WotLK:  Does anyone else find it strange that the woman who has had a history with two major characters in the Warcraft storyline (Arthas and Kael'thas) had almost ZERO plot involvement with their stories in either BC or WotLK? Jaina never got a mention, cutscene, or any closure after the death of Arthas... she's never mentioned at all, and we're never shown her feelings about the whole thing.

I could understand not really involving her in BC, since Kael'thas' crush was pretty one sided, but come on; Jaina and Arthas were pretty serious about each other before Arthas went all evil.

Its disappointing that Blizzard didn't think she was important enough to give her a role in either of the two important plotlines in the game that she had the strongest personal connections with. I think it was really a missed opportunity to flesh out one of the least developed WoW faction leaders.

Sep 27, 2010

[What Defines a 'Failed' MMO?]

 What do all these games have in common?

1. Horizons
2. Warhammer Online
3. Age of Conan
4. Aion
5. Allods Online

...they were all highly hyped before their release, and then loudly proclaimed 'failures' and 'dead' by large numbers of their (former) playerbase soon after (often via lengthy tirades on various message boards).

Yet, they're all still online. Which, I assume, means they're still making money and being played, sometimes years later. What does that say about the definition of 'failure' as it's often used by so many MMO gamers? Does it simply mean a game is a big disappointment? That it 'failed' to fulfill its ambitious concept promises? That there's only a few(!) hundred thousand people playing it instead of millions? Or because it's gone F2P?

I think many times, people toss around the accusation that a game is a 'failure' too easily, and often because they're feeling personally let down by the game. A lot of MMO gamers get very emotionally invested in their games (often years before they are even released!) so it's only expected that there can be a lot of bitterness when that investment ends up not paying off. Sometimes that bitterness becomes an active attempt to smear and tear down a game, hoping to drive people away (I've seen this with many former Allods players most recently).

In some ways I think the rise of WoW has skewed people's perceptions of what makes a game a failure population-wise. For example, nowadays MMOs are assumed to need a few million players in order to have a viable population (as a comparison, when WoW was first released Blizzard was expecting around 300,000!). The definition of success was different 5 years ago, that's for sure.

I think that the MMO community needs to be less eager to throw around the term 'failure'. I also think the biggest barrier to a  new game's success now is the box price+monthly fee model, which I hope is soon replaced by the free download/trial model (I still think it's baffling why most new MMOs treat trials as something that should only be offered later in a game's life rather than right at the start) or any of the various F2P+micropayment models. I honestly believe that could allow smaller games, niche games, to succeed in a way that is nearly impossible in the current MMORPG market. The more options for different game sizes, types, and payment models that there are, the more chances for success for a modern MMORPG.

Sep 18, 2010

[APB's Crash and Burn Explained]

I will admit, I'm always fascinated reading breakdowns of dysfunctional game development companies and how they eventually imploded. Vanguard and Horizons, for example, both had very drama-filled environments and amazingly arrogant/clueless people at the helm, and some of the stuff that went on in the backrooms of those games is frankly mind boggling.

At any rate, even though I never played APB, this series of posts from one of the devs is an interesting read: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3.

It's really shocking how unprofessional and inept some game companies are.

Aug 31, 2010

[Male Avatars and Stereotypes in WoW]

Righteous Orbs tackles the reasons why male avatars tend to be less popular than female ones in WoW, and dissects the really obvious 'macho' fixation the devs at Blizzard have. For example, on the Blood Elf males model:
"Signs that your game might have unrealistic ideas about the human body #27, the characters who everybody says look too tiny and effeminate to carry a sword are built like f*cking Conan."
This is something I've noticed since the very beginning of the game (and really, does ANYONE think Human males look like anything other than dumpy goons?).

Jul 23, 2010

[Why I Didn't Like FrontierVille]

So, because I've been on a 'trying lots of new F2P games' kick, I decided to try out a Facebook game or two, just to see what the fuss is all about. I made a FB account specifically for the purpose -- I didn't have one before, since I'm an internet hermit. =P

I picked FrontierVille over the more infamous FarmVille because it's newer and I assume it's got a lot of the same elements and maybe even some improvements to the basic formula. And hey -- clobbering critters with shovels is always good clean fun, eh?

However, after playing for about an hour... I was already annoyed. Not because of the 'click something a dozen times, rinse & repeat' gameplay, or the looped banjo soundtrack, but because the game is a HUGE NAG. Every 2 minutes, a pop-up -- either to nag me to buy something, or to bug my 'neighbors' for something, or to bug friends to join the game, or to start an available quest, etc etc. The game is like a needy 3-year old that can't. shut. up. I was done after less than a day of playing.

And I was totally willing to give it a shot -- I already have tried and rather enjoyed Pet Society (basically a cute virtual dollhouse), which is nowhere NEAR FrontierVille in the annoyance department. I dunno if the heavyhanded pushiness is just Zynga's style, or what. Whatever it is, I won't be trying any more of their games, that's for sure.

Jul 12, 2010

[Allods Online: Can They Ever Make Us Happy?]

I really feel bad for gPotato and the US Allods Community Managers. Ever since the initial Cash Shop opening, the nerdrage DOESN'T STOP, no matter how much the things that pissed folks off get fixed -- there is always yet another thing that is called 'a slap in the face' and 'this game is gonna die now'. I wonder how long gPotato will keep trying to make these folks happy before giving up? It's just a horrible example of how listening to the playerbase doesn't seem to ever be enough for some people, who will make it their mission to drive people away from the game and make it fail in some kind of 'revenge' for perceived slights.


Closed Beta: No Cash Shop, the GMs and players live in idyliic happiness.
Open Beta: Cash Shop opens, with (admittedly) high prices. THE FORUMS EXPLODE INTO RAGE: "The game is dead now" "gPotato are greedy bastards".
Open Beta Part 2: Cash shop prices are lowered, the playerbase is slightly appeased but is largely still 'betrayed and bitter' and some folks want them reduced even more so aren't happy at all.
Open Beta Part 2: The Fear of Death (penality) mechanic is tweaked to be more severe. THE FORUMS EXPLODE INTO RAGE. "The game is dead now" "gPotato are greedy bastards".
Open Beta Part 3: Fear of Death is removed, Cash Shop items for many items reduced again, a new CS-based death penalty is introduced. FORUMS EXPLODE INTO RAGE: "The game is dead now" "gPotato are greedy bastards".

The negativity from the initial Cash Shop blowup continues on the forums to this day. People post in newbie threads telling them to leave the game, there are dozens of repeat threads complaining about the same thing, bragging about how dead the game is now/is going to be, doom and gloom everywhere to the point of people actively trying to ruin the game's reputation as much as possible (I witnessed one guy in the League capitol telling players to get out of the main square so he could film it being 'empty' and then post it on YouTube to show how badly the game was doing because of the latest patch. This was at 12am PST on a weekday, less than 8 hours after the patch had been released).

And yet, if you actually step back and look at the timeline of events in the U.S. Allods release schedule... I see a company that seems to be trying to get things right -- both their prices in the Cash Shop, and the mechanics that encourage people to use it (AND OF COURSE they want people to use it, the game is not a charity). Do I think they have it right yet? No... I think the current death penality and use of Incense (which gives various buffs and heals when used) still needs tweaking. The Cash Shop needs to be more about fun and fluff items rather than 'gameplay' necessities, as well. But so far the devs and gPotato have been WILLING to adjust things according to feedback, even if they don't get it right the first time. But it seems the forum community is physically incapable of existing in any state besides bitter vindinctiveness against the CMs (who aren't the devs and don't make these changes) and the game itself, which is seriously pathetic (SINCE NOBODY IS FORCING THEM TO SPEND ANY MONEY).

Now, I DO agree that Allods' fixation on continuing to try tying the cash shop into the death penalty (i.e. punishment) over and over is a bad idea, if only because it makes the Cash Shop resented instead of being a more positive aspect of the game. But seeing as how EVERY other time there has been negative feedback over a game design change the devs end up changing those things (even if it's not in ways people like), I do not see why so many players continue to talk as if the devs are their enemy. If anything, they're listening to the players a lot more than MOST F2P devs I know of. You'd think that'd earn them some more slack/respect, but I guess not.

It's true that the playerbase of some games is their own worst enemy -- they'd rather tear a game down and kill it rather than just quitting (or taking a break to wait for changes) and playing something else.

Jul 9, 2010

[We Are Not the Customer Anymore]

  Even though the RealID blowup is over, I think it's brought to the foreground a fact about the relationship between gamers and their game developers that I think most people (especially those with an emotional attachment to a particular game) find disheartening.

  It began after this post brought to light the timeline of developments after the Blizzard-Activision merge, which put into a larger context the attempt to integrate real identities into the forums (no, it was never about just 'stopping trolls').

  For insight into the character of the man that the CEO of Blizzard has to report to, here are some choice quotes:
"The goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks [people not part of the gaming culture] into Activision about 10 years ago was to take all the fun out of making video games."
"[Y]ou know if it was left to me, I would raise the [game's] prices even further."
  And in response to why Kotick got rid of several popular Activisiion game franchises:
"[They] don't have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million dollar franchises. ... I think, generally, our strategy has been to focus... on the products that have those attributes and characteristics, the products that we know [that] if we release them today, we'll be working on them 10 years from now."
  And finally, Escape Hatch sums it up nicely:
"We, the players, are no longer the World of Warcraft's customer base. Advertisers are."
  In the past, when MMOs were a niche geek hobby, the gamer WAS the customer. This connection between dev and player was reflected in how loyal people got to a certain company, how invested they were in the game's wellbeing and success. But it was only a matter of time before the businessmen saw this attachment as the potential for huge profit. This is why you have Robert Kotick bragging about taking the fun out of making games, of how he wants to turn game-design into an assembly-line of franchises and sequels churning out products filled with as many microtransactions and advertisements and profit-expanding features as he can get away with. Because he doesn't give a crap about the players. To him, we're just geeks whose emotional attachments to our games and the devs that make them makes us vulnerable to being exploited by guys like himself. To be fair, it's not all this one guy's fault, but it reflects the kind of attitudes that start cropping up when a company quickly shoots up into becoming worth billions of dollars like Blizzard did after it made World of Warcraft. The bean-counting vultures start circling.

  However these kinds of guys control future of the 'modern AAA MMO'. This is the kind of guy dev companies have to impress to get initial funding, to survive (i.e. get MILLIONS of players as fast as possible or else be labeled a 'failure'), and to be considered 'successful' on the business side of things in a world where having 'only' 3-500k players is considered 'not profitable enough'. However I think for many of us, this change from 'small tight-knit company to mega giant' is a sad one, especially if you've been in MMOs a long time and remember when things were smaller and more personal. It's the price we've payed for embracing the MMORPG 'going mainstream'.

  This is why I'm starting to prefer the smaller F2Ps, and indie games. They're lower budget, sure. Not so shiny as the 'big games', rougher around the edges. But a lot of times, when things get bigger they don't always get better. And I think we've finally crossed that line in the MMORPG sphere. Sure, it means bigger budgets, flashier graphics, bigger expansions and tie ins, and more prestige. But I think the MMORPG as a genre has lost a part of it's soul; a part that had originally appealed to many players in the first place.

[Playing Alone, Together]

An interesting paper talking about the oft-lamented trend of modern MMORPGs being designed for gamers to 'play with millions of other people (that they never need to interact with)', and how that affects the longterm health/viability of a game's community:

'Alone Togther: Exploring the Social Dynamics of MMOGs'

A choice line from the paper is: "One of the core game mechanics in MMOGs, leveling, has damaging impacts on the game's social fabric". Many people have been saying this for years now. While I don't mind leveling, there REALLY needs to be ways ingame for people of different levels to be able to group up and play together, and things like 'rest exp' don't really do a good job of achieving that. It'd be nice to see games actually coming up with some new ideas in that area.

Jul 7, 2010

[Blizzard's RealID Fiasco]

Will I quit WoW permanently over this change? No. But I will also never again participate on any Blizzard forum. Scott over at Broken Toys sums up my feelings pretty much, and presents a reasoned defense of online anonymity.

The folks running around calling people who have a problem with this change 'irrational' and 'paranoid' must be really happy in their privileged denial bubbles where the world is always safe and where losing your privacy online couldn't possibly have any negative repercussions.

Plus there's the fact that MMORPGs were originally based around creating an 'alternate persona' separate from real life, so why would folks be surprised that a lot of people who enjoy that aspect would consider bringing RL into their game as a sort of violation?

EDIT: Oh look, Blizz made a deal with Facebook to share RealID info across platforms. So at least now we know the monetary reason for this change -- the claim that it's all 'to improve the forums' is just PR bunk. You don't need to strip away pseudonyms in order to properly moderate an online community.

EDIT2: After the enormous outcry provoked by this announcement, Blizzard has pulled the idea.

Jun 25, 2010

[Get Out of the Fire, Noob!]

Apparently, the people who don't seem to ever notice they're standing in Puddles of Death (a familiar aspect of WoW raiding) aren't actually morons. Studies have shown it's a common mental block people experience if they're concentrating on a very specific pattern or goal.

Does knowing this change some folks' opinions of teammates who they otherwise would've though were just being dumb? Would it make you less judgmental next time you see someone who seems to completely lack situational awareness in a raid, knowing that it's not necessarily a reflection on their overall intelligence or gaming ability?

Jun 24, 2010

[Online Harassment is not 'Harmless']

...Because sometimes, that internet troll is not 'just' an internet troll:

"John was a member of my World of Warcraft guild, and someone who trolled me frequently. I recognized him instantly from the photos he had shared with the guild. He was misogynist who had been at odds with me for months; he’d called me derogatory names and he was absolutely enraged when I passed my trial in the guild because he believed females shouldn’t raid in what was formerly an all-male guild. Though the officers were initially hesitant to do anything about the situation, exercising their privilege to dismiss his misogyny as casual ribbing, his behavior got too far out of hand (in their opinion, not mine) that they eventually demoted him to a casual rank and he was no longer allowed to raid with them anymore because of his remarks and general attitude.

Ideally, the guild would have stripped him of his status and make attempts to correct his behavior the instant he displayed these traits, but the relaxed attitude of the officers towards misogyny and other issues of gender was common amongst the Warcraft elite. Any attempt to speak out would cause one to be shouted down for being “dramatic,” a commonly used accusation and a dismissal of misogyny as nothing more than a female’s attempt to make a big deal out of nothing, which also served to further empower the misogynists. It felt like a boy’s club, and it was.

I was young, naive and determined to not let John or anyone else ruin the game for me, so instead of finding a new guild despite the hostility I constantly faced, I simply stayed and held my ground. This action, inevitably, made John quite angry. A few nights prior, as I would learn later from interrogating guild mates, John joked to his friends on another forum that he was going to pay me a little visit to snap a few photos of where I lived and 'put me in my place.'

Apparently, John wasn’t bluffing."

This is why I get so pissed of when people dismiss or mock people who are victims of online harassment/threats (such as Kathy Sierra, Mia Rose, and Jade Raymond) for taking it seriously, because 'its just the internet'. In this day and age where so many people put their entire life's information online somewhere, it is completely appropriate to take this kind of thing seriously. Minimizing vicious verbal abuse against ANYONE (be it on a gaming guild, message board, whatever) and tolerating it is irresponsible on the part of community moderators and GMs. I know a certain amount of bigotry and harassment is considered 'normal' in many gaming communities (and is the reason why so many end up homogenous and repellant to anyone who isnt white/het/male), but as I've posted before, for some of these guys, they're not 'just joking'. They don't deserve safe spaces to spew their garbage under some disingenuous 'free speech' claim.

Related reading: 'On Being a No-name Blogger Using Her Real Name'

Jun 16, 2010

[Ether Saga Online Review Part 3: Gameplay]

[Part 1] [Part 2]

There are several 'open PvP' and PvE realms on each server. Groups of guilds ('Clans') can make formal Alliances with each other and fight other Alliances for control of specific regions of the game (details about territory wars are here). Winning 'dominance' over a region awards Alliance members special mounts, items, titles, etc. There are generally three or four top Alliances that actively compete per server. Towns and some quest hubs are 'safe zones' where PvP is prohibited. Until you reach level 45, you can't participate in PvP outside of duels, and the more you kill other players, the higher chance you have of dropping items when killed. More details about the PK system are here. Different realms have different PvP and PvE events that occur on them periodically, which are announced gamewide.

Cash Shop:
There are typical F2P items in the shop: vanity outfits, inventory expansion items, mounts, and items that improve the chances of successful gear upgrading and pet melding. The Cash Shop mounts range from 10$ to about the same as a Sparklepony, but they only barely travel faster than running. They're mostly a decorative item it seems, and since you can get basic mounts with ingame money (as well as getting ones as quest/PvP rewards), shelling out real-life cash for one isn't really necessary.
Some of the CS prices seem kind of high, at least compared to other F2Ps I've played. My usual budget for a F2P is around 10-15$ a month, which would allow me to get a few convenience or fluff items a month easily, however in ESO stuff like outfits would be much more of a once-in-a-while splurge. So far, the only thing I've felt I HAD to buy was a Mystery Pouch (which is a one slot item that stores crafting materials and such outside of your main bag, which is a big help since bag space is limited).

There are five main types of quests in the game:
Training Quests (Gold): The 'main storyline' quests, which should be done first.
Fate Quests (Blue): Grind quests, basically. Good for making up the xp you've lost after dying, to hit a certain level to do the next Training Quest, or just want to kill stuff for a while.
Basic Quests: A rotating selection of quests available on bulletin boards in town. Some give special rewards.
Adventure Quests (Yellow): Quests that have to be completed in an instance dungeon.
Ethyr Quests (Green): Quest chains that reward you with a new class spell at the end.

Quest flow is practically nonexistant. Many send you to the same place at different times, different quest chains that cover the same 'storyline' are not grouped together and so you end up backtracking and wandering all over the place a lot. The problem is lessened if you stick to Training Quests as much as possible, but for completionists like me it can be a bit maddening. Positively, there are way more quests than you really need to level and they're generous with exp, so you can easily afford to skip the most inconvenient ones. The irony is that mobs lower their chance to drop items the more you outlevel them, which includes quest drops, so putting off some quests for too long can make them hard to complete if you outgrow the mobs too much. Having a healing pet is vital if you want to solo some quests easily (this may depend on your class; right now I'm playing a Mystic which is not a heavy armor class).

Overworld quests are not hard, and the majority are just grind to be honest. But non-elite mobs die so fast, it really doesn't feel that bad. Some quests give an item as a reward called a 'Possessor', which is basically a bot that you can set up to kill things for you while you chat or whatever. At first I didn't know what to make of a game that has botting built-in as a game mechanic, but for some strange reason it works in ESO. I wonder if the huge number of mobs + Possessors was intended as a way for 'normal' people to be able to compete with goldfarmers and therefore not feel like their game is being ruined by them? I will guiltily admit it's kind of nice to be able to farm stuff overnight while I sleep in real life. Of course, 'Possessing' on a PvP server is something you do at your own risk. You lose 5% of your exp each death, but you don't lose levels and can easily gain it back again.

Completing Adventure Quests seems to be difficult when you're starting out. There is no global LFG channel or tool, which makes finding groups when you're a newbie pretty hard. There is no global chat unless you're a member of a Clan/Alliance or buy the privilege via the Cash Shop. So for someone just starting out, it can be a bit lonely. Many of the guilds advertising on the official forums have minimum level requirements so it'll be a bit still before I can start shopping for a clan of my own. Until then, I'll have to be content with soloing and trying to make new friends as I meet folks along the way.

The community is helpful on the forums, where it's easy to ask questions and get tips if you're a newbie. Meeting people ingame is harder, but I find that to be the case in most MMOs when you're starting out, especially ones as solo-friendly as ESO. I think if more F2Ps had functional LFG systems ingame it would be a big improvement -- most of the ones I've played have little to no way for people to easily connect with others who need/want a group. Not sure why that is, to be honest. The most populated realms are the PvP ones (Realm 8 in particular), and since you are safe from open PvP until you're level 45, they're a good place to start on if you want to meet people.

Technical Issues: There's also periodic lagging and some minor bugs, though nothing gamebreaking that I've experienced so far. Translation is also bit clunky and inconsistant, but since the story isn't a very important part of the game, it's not a big deal.

Overall, the game's strengths:
Beautiful, colorful world and art design
Pet System
Open PvP (if you're into that sort of thing)
Ability to solo dungeon bosses if you make the right gear
Auto-travel (click NPC names in quest log, etc and walk there automatically)
Easy to get into

It's weaknesses:
Grindy quests, which is a shame because the environments are so interesting, you'd think there would be deeper stories around them.
Item enhancement/pet capture attempts fail very often, which eat up mats (and add cost).
Quest drops are affected by the 'anti farming' mechanics
Hard to make ingame money starting out

Ether Saga is not an 'immersive roleplaying world' by any stretch (and it doesn't try to be) but it's still a pretty fun game. It's a 'RPG' in the same way Pokemon is, rather than the way Everquest II (or even WoW) is. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on what you're in the mood for. If you're highly allergic to grind, and want a MUD-based serious RPG, ESO isn't going to fit that bill. But it's a cute little game that's easy to get into and has some fun elements that can get surprisingly deep if you want to get serious about them. If anything, it's worth a try (I'll be sticking with it for awhile, since I'm on yet-another WoW hiatus).

Jun 11, 2010

[Ether Saga Online Review Part 2: Pets]

[Part 1 is here]

Since money is pretty tight at low levels (item drops sell for only pennies to NPCs, since the game has a player shop system), some early quests will helpfully give you the basic items you need to start taming monsters. Pets can be used as stat-boosts for their owners as well as buffers/healers and tank/damage roles. Each monster 'family' has different strengths and weaknesses to other families, so knowing what you're going to be going up against helps in deciding which pets you want to use in a given situation.

Monster taming and Melding is one of those things that is simple on the surface, but can get complex if you're aiming for a specific combination of stats. I had a sinking feeling as I remembered how 'selective breeding' for the best stats in Pokemon was a serious obsession of mine, and I think ESO's pet system is similar enough to present a real threat to my free time. =P

Pets have the basic atk/def/etc combat stats, a certain number of skill slots, an elemental affinity (or not), a personality type, and a certain 'growth rate' that affects how much certain stats will grow each time the pet levels, which varies between individual monsters. Since pets can be 'Fused' to a player to serve as a type of stat boost as well as being used as a combat ally, there are different strategies involved in pet Melding depending on what you want to use the final pet for. Since their personality affects stat growth, you want those to match, too. Catching several of a type of monster, sifting through them for the best individuals, and then Melding them together in order to end up with a superior custom pet can be an entire 'endgame' in and of itself. And ON TOP of all that, is that whenever two pets are Melded, there is a chance for an Appearance Mutation to occur, which can result in you getting a monster that's impossible to tame from the wild. There are several guides on the official boards that go deeper into the min/max aspects of Melding, as well.

I'm still too low level (and poor) to get into serious high level pet development, but I'll be experimenting with some simpler aspects to get a better feel for how the system works in the meantime. So far it looks like it could be pretty fun for a former Pokemon addict like me.

Next up: my thoughts on Ether Saga's general gameplay, cash shop, community, and related miscellany.

Jun 8, 2010

[Ether Saga Online Review: Part One]

Leala over as Spouse Aggro was talking about how cute this game was, so I ventured over to the official site to check it out. It has tameable combat pets! So I had to give it a try. =P

Ether Saga is a Chinese F2P MMO based on The Journey to the West with a lot of neat little pet features: Pet taming (you can go out into the wilds and capture various monsters), Pet Fusion (where you combine with a pet to gain stat bonuses), and Pet Melding (mixing two pets to create a new pet with improved stats). Plus, there are special items you can get that can allow you to become a monster yourself for a time and benefit from special attributes. Sounds fun!

Character creation is very sparse, but the designs are pretty, so I didn't mind too much. There are three races: humans (Ren), demigods (Shenzu), and animals that were given humanity by the gods (Yaoh). The three are basically identical except for appearance options and starting pets. Based on your character's race/birthday, you get unique skills every 10 levels. I chose a Yaoh as my first character, because of their nifty fox pet.

Upon appearing in the starter zone, the first NPC I met gifted me with a large package of free potions, food, and a present that I can open at level 5. Nice! Plus, the NPCs speak Chinese when you click on them, which I love (the Russian emotes were something I really liked about Allods Online too).

I started exploring the UI, since that's what I always do first in a new game. I found that you can't reduce the UI scale (booo), or adjust/remove chat boxes, which was kind of disappointing since they take up a lot of screen space. But I also found that there's vanity gear slots (woot!) and that I already had a set of 'for show' clothes that I could toggle on and off from the paperdoll window. Also, you can apparently rate other players up and down (from a menu that appears when you click on them), which interesting way of giving public reputation to players. There's apparently PvP and the ability for guilds to control certain zones (going by the global messages I keep seeing) but I have yet to look into that aspect yet. Apparently, killing equally- or higher-leveled players has a chance of dropping loot for the winner, which is interesting. There are also timed server events of various kinds going on regularly, and the game keeps you posted about what's happening in the world at any given time.

The newbie zone quests are really friendly: I got a (pretty!) free armor set, various potions and +XP items, a second pet as a quest reward, and one timed kill quest even gave my 5 levels worth of xp in a single turn-in. One downside for some people may be that the countryside is literally swarming with mobs that repop almost instantly (an attempt to minimize the impact of farmers, perhaps?) -- I actually turned off monster nameplates just so they weren't such an eyesore because really, the game is beautiful to look at. The visuals remind me of The Secret of Mana's artstyle, which I like a lot. Quests are pretty much basic 'kill stuff' types, which I personally don't mind at all (I have a pretty high grind tolerance, especially when the mobs only take like 2 seconds to die). Translation is another thing that's a bit clunky in places, and the storyline is a bit hard to follow, but I doubt there's an epic novel going on here, even in the original language.

Once I hit level 15 (levels have come quickly in the first few hours I've played), I can begin taming wild monsters as pets, which is the main gameplay aspect I want to try out. I'll be focusing on that in part two.

May 30, 2010

[Two Awesome TF2 Skins: Female Medic & Heavy]

These have to be the coolest (and most thought-out) fan-made 'female remakes' of Team Fortress 2 characters I've seen! They're fully functional ingame as well, albeit without voices:
You can read the story behind their design and development here.

May 8, 2010

[P2P = Good Game, F2P = Bad Game?]

Gavin (Yogi) over at MMO Voices has written an interesting article rethinking the old stereotype many Pay-to-Play folks have that games can be neatly divided into 'good' and 'bad' based primarily on their payment designs (something that even I was guilty of in the past):

"When I first started playing MMOs I thought of the genre had two distinct sub-genres: P2P and F2P. These two were also conveniently defined also as Good MMO and Bad MMO. F2P always seemed to have less quality, more grinding, and annoying cash shop requirements to make the game fun. Call it my wow fan boy mentality (at the time) or just shrugging off of certain titles in the name of ignorance. However I or you choose to look at it, I threw the blanket statement over all F2P games. They suck.

This thought has begun to change."

He goes on to describe the changes in his life that have led him to appreciate 'having fun' rather than 'beating' a game, and how it's opened up more options in his gaming routine. The paragraph that really has summed up my own change in playstyle is this:

"I came to the conclusion that what used to make me happy while playing games, was no longer viable. Thus started my nomadic gaming style and the focus on enjoying a game rather than ‘beating’ it."

The freedom of F2P becomes clear when one stops trying to 'dominate' a single game and opens up the option of playing other games at the same time at a lower intensity. F2P, with it's choice of not paying until you feel like it, allows people to sample and try more variety in games than the would if they had to pay 50$+monthly fee to get anywhere in each title. It truly is a 'buffet' style experience, and for many people it works quite well and helps stave off the dreaded 'burnout' that happens when your primary MMO becomes more of a job than an enjoyment. I think if more people were open to at least trying out a few of the literally hundreds of different F2P titles out there, they would learn that the old stereotype of 'F2P = bad game' is really completely false. Which is good news for those of us who love MMOs, because there more choice and freedom to play how we want, when we want, and for how much we want with no strings attached.

I think too many MMO players stick to one game exclusively to the point where they burnout completely and begin to hate what they once loved, which I think can be prevented if you're open to trying something new by trying out a F2P MMO now and then. It costs nothing to give them a chance, after all!

Apr 23, 2010

[Keeping the Glass Half Full]

It's been a few days since I've come back to WoW, and I realized that I really need to outline to myself what aspects of the game keep me coming back, and what aspects keep disappointing me. I've decided that I need to come to terms with what the game IS and what it ISN'T and dwell on the parts I like rather than always on the weaknesses of the game. Because it's too easy to always see the glass half empty, which I think is unfair to the game.

I think I need to take a page from Beau's book and learn to let go and not treat 'fun' like such serious business.

So I narrowed down the things I like most in WoW:

1. The story/world (including quests)
2. My character and developing her (so far, that's been solely by gear and achievements)
3. 5 man dungeons
4. Collecting fluff (pets, mounts, titles)
5. Playing and socializing with my guild/friends ingame.

From now until Cataclysm, I'm going to try and get the most out of those aspects of the game. I'm going on hiatus from the gear treadmill and raiding all together, and I'm even considering moving to an RP server/guild, at least on one of my characters. It's harder in WoW than in some other MMORPGs to find things to do outside the gear/PvP grind, but I really feel I need to start focusing on that or else I'm just going to fall into burnout mode again for the umpteenth time.

Apr 17, 2010

[A World or a Lobby?]

I've come back to WoW after having been gone for around 6 months or so. There are many new things added since I've been away, not the least of which is the much-touted 'Dungeon Finder' cross-server LFG tool. Since I wanted to get the achievement that gives a pet Pug, I've been using the Finder pretty much constantly for the past two days.

Now, when the cross-server LFG was first announced, my first feelings about it were mixed. On the one hand, I understand how hard getting a group can be depending on a server's population and class balance. But also, I worried that it would erode the already tenuous community that WoW servers have. When you're instantly teleported from anywhere in the world into a dungeon with 4 people from different servers that you'll most likely never see again afterward, it's hard to justify the effort to get to know them, talk to them, or to even have patience with the slightest mistake. I observed people leaving after one bad pull (and why not, when many can easily get another random group via the Finder). There's no incentive to really care about the people in the group other than as efficient loot farming aids. And there's no way to blacklist the asshats.

Whereas an unsocial attitude was present in many cases even before the Dungeon Finder, whenever you found a 'cool' person when pugging you could friends them and build groups via the Friends list (the original purpose of the list). In BC, I had a long list of cool non-guildies I knew on the server, and could put together groups rather regularly. But there's no need for that kind of effort now. There's no need to even walk to a dungeon's physical location anymore. They've been basically severed from the game world. The 'world' of Warcraft is now just a graphical lobby you hang out in to pass the time while waiting for your insta-port into a dungeon with people you have no incentive to ever get to know. For PvP I can understand the benefit of such a system, but for 5-man instances I think it does more harm than good. I mean, sure it's now simpler and faster than ever to 'grind badges for loot'. But I think making that process even more mechanical than it already was, is a step in the wrong direction. It's easier and faster, but not better ('Better' would be adding some variety in content to the game besides loot treadmills). Has Blizzard's goal of increasing the efficiency and speed of gear achievement finally trumped the gameplay and original premise of the game as an RPG? How far does a game have to go before it totally loses any semblance of the 'RPG' aspect of 'MMORPG'?

Though honestly, I don't know how else (barring server transfers/mergers) to solve the problem of difficulty in forming instance groups. But even so, I still feel like this latest development has diminished even more of the 'world' in World of Warcraft.

Mar 14, 2010

[Windosill and Small Worlds]

Yesterday I came across two little indie gems; Windosill, a toylike puzzle game from Vectorpark and Small Worlds, one of the 'Exploration' themed entries in the Casual Gameplay Design Competition #6.Small Worlds plays on the desire many people have in games to uncover every area of an ingame map -- making it the entire goal of the game, while Windosill encourages creative interaction with strange objects found in various rooms in order to progress. Both games are brilliantly simple and interesting, as well as fun!

Mar 2, 2010

[Vintage Newsweek Fail]

A fun article from Newsweek magazine in 1995, scoffing at the idea that the internet could be anything more than a passing fad:

How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc. At best, it's an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can't tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.

But seriously, the advance of technology in this generation was so rapid, no wonder even the 'experts' were blindsided. We've come a long way in 30 years!

Feb 27, 2010

[Is the Traditional MMORPG Obsolete?]

Raph Koster has an interesting post on his blog speculating that the 'virtual world' MMORPGs where immersion and roleplay were the ultimate goal is a thing of the past. I think he's right -- it seems that more 'game-y' MMOs (often called 'theme-park style games) are the new norm.

I think this is plain in the generation gap that is visible among MMO players nowadays -- the 'oldschool' player who wants an MMORPG with deep lore to follow, and a world they can lose themselves in and feel a part of. These types are largely derided by the 'new wave' of theme-park gamers who scorn those that RP, or care about lore, or who express a desire for more 'immersion' and game mechanics that encourage a 'fantasy life' experience. The oldschoolers want avatars that are detailed and highly customizable so that they can create a representation of themselves that has a deeper personal meaning; the new generation sees avatars as simply 3D mouse cursors that are used to interact with the game environment.

The oldschoolers scorn the entire idea of a 'themepark ride on rails' with 'shallow worldbuilding'. They are disappointed in most modern MMORPGs because the concept of a 'virtual fantasy world that you can pretend to live in' is not what the modern MMORPG is about.

Related Link: The rise of RMT and the decline of RP in MMORPGs

Feb 18, 2010

[Allods Online First Impressions]

So the Russian Free-to-Play MMORPG Allods Online went into Open Beta on the 16th, and I decided to check it out, since what I'd heard of it before sounded kind of interesting. I've been on more of a 'casual playing' kick since my WoW hiatus, and F2P games like Mabinogi and Wizard101 have been filling my time rather nicely, so I figured I'd give a new one a go.

I have to be honest, one gets a real WoW-vibe when first starting out, simply because the art style of Allods is very 'hand-drawn' as well. The game world is simply beautiful, and very impressive for a F2P game. The soundtrack, however, is pretty generic western fantasy-MMO fare, and pretty forgettable. I know many people often prefer their own soundracks anyway, so that's not a big deal. There are also many similar UI and 'quality of life' mechanics that are the same between both games (like a quest tracker, Auction House, talent trees, etc) but Allods puts it's own mark on these now-familiar aspects that many people consider 'standard' in their MMOs now. One thing I actually did NOT miss was a minimap -- I find that I tend to stare at the little dots on it more than I actually look at the gameworld around me if I have one, so Allod's simple compass and well-marked worldmap were good enough for me. =)

The classes in the game are also a nice mix of familiar roles and archetypes with enough unique spin added to still make them interesting. Add to that the various talent trees and unique racial skill combinations, and you have many diverse customization options for your character.

The game has two PvP factions -- the lighter, fantasy-themed League and the darker steampunk-style Empire, and each has their own unique selection of races. There are two human cultures, a fairy/elf race, the Arisen (zombie cyborgs), Orcs, and the token 'goofy, short race', the Gibberlings (which look like a mix between hamsters and feral kittens). A fun aspect of making a Gibberling character is that you actually end up customizing and naming three individuals who then act as one unit (because Gibberlings as a culture always do things in groups).

The stand-out endgame option that Allods Online has is it's Ship-to-Ship combat in the areas between the allods (world islands). A minimum crew of 6 players controls each ship, with one player manning guns, another navigating, etc. Groups can pilot ships to allods that are inaccessible by any other means, and then explore and accumulate treasure there which they can load into their ship's hold and take back to their home port to earn rewards. However, once in transit, airships can be attacked and robbed by enemy crews, or even destroyed completely, losing all their loot. Therefore, airship exploration and piracy is a viable endgame goal for guilds, as well as the usual fare of PvE raids and PvP.

I've only played for a few days, but I'm very impressed with the level of quality Allods has for a F2P game. The quests are nothing innovative, but I'm having fun exploring and enjoying not feeling pressured to 'get my money's worth' like I do with a P2P game. Allods also doesn't have the problems with empty grinds or lack of content like many other F2Ps. Frankly, I think Allods Online is one of the best free MMOs on the market right now, up there with FreeRealms, Mabinogi, and Wizard101. You get tons of entertainment for free, plus the game runs well and looks fantastic. I think the current Cash Shop items are overpriced (and there are no cool 'fluff' items for sale yet), but since I haven't felt a need to buy anything so far I'm ignoring it for now (I hear that statistically, the majority of F2P players never buy anything, but the small minority that do generate enough revenue for the games to profit anyway).

If you like many of WoW's basic mechanics (or WoW's art style), but want a change of scenery or something a little different, you should check out Allods Online. It's a very polished, solid game with some fun concepts (even if it's not a huge revolutionary step in the genre of MMORPGs), it's worth checking out. =)