Aug 25, 2011

[Avoiding MMO Burnout]

At Massively: Justin Olivetti goes over his first experience with MMO burnout:
"[O]ne day, out of the blue, I realized I was sick of it. A cold trickle flowed down my spine as I couldn't conjure up any feelings of excitement, pleasure, or interest in this game. All of the accomplishments and achievements I had worked so hard to get became absolutely meaningless to me in the space of a couple minutes.

I logged out, canceled my account, and then fell into a several-day funk when I was thrashing about as I tried to figure out how to fill this now-gaping void in my free time. Slightly pathetic, yes, but no less real for it.

In retrospect, I see how I stacked the deck for such an enormous crash, and many years after it, I now have a much better handle on how to deal with burnout than I did back then. In today's Perfect Ten, I want to pass along my meager wisdom and experience about how to deal with this event... because it happens to most of us, sooner or later."
  I can relate to Justin (and many other MMO players') experience, because I've always been a bit of an obsessive personality, which can carries over into the games I play. It was my natural inclination to play a MMO for long stretches of time, wanting to see every bit of content I that I could as fast as possible. With World of Warcraft (my first MMO), I actually didn't experience burnout until toward the end of Burning Crusade, which was the first time I started actually trying other (lower profile) games like Ryzom and Horizons (now called Istaria). I realized that a high-pressure min/max grind was not what I enjoyed the most, and playing WoW that way was actually taking a game I enjoyed and making it a stressful chore. So I learned to play SLOWER, to take breaks, to not be afraid to do something 'inefficient' ingame for my own fun. Racing to cap is something I no longer care about in games, nor am I obsessed over having 6% less optimum dps or whatever. When I find a game I like, I don't want to ruin it for myself by losing sight of what I enjoy about it and turning it into a job.

  Taking a break from my 'main game' and trying others helped me (as a MMO newbie) discover my preferred game mechanics and playing style. I also got to try games with different concepts and types of content, as well as meet new friends. There's nothing more sad to me than reading rants from players who used to 'love' a game to pieces, until burnout turned all that passion into bitterness and boredom, since they can't bring themselves to STOP PLAYING and TRY DOING SOMETHING ELSE. For as much as some people deride 'casual' playing, in many situations of pre- or total burnout, trying that for a while (or permanently) is actually the only way to prevent ruining a game for yourself forever.

Related Reading: The More Alts, the More Burnout 

Jul 22, 2011

[Pay-to-Win: The Forums Do Not Speak For Your Playerbase]

via Tobold's Blog; a great presentation on one dev company's learning experience regarding Free-to-Play, 'Pay 2 Win', and discovering who their playerbase really is (hint: it's not the majority of people raging on their message boards), and their surprising discoveries about what their players really want.

It's an interesting look into the development of a successful Western F2P model, the lessons they've learned, and the surprising facts revealed by tracking their customers' actual behavior vs paying attention to player-drama on internet forums.

Jul 14, 2011

['Free' Actually Means a Lot of Money (For Developers)]

via The Escapist:
"The core gaming audience often seems to disregard such [F2P] games as child's play or not worth their time. I myself am guilty of having been excited about an upcoming MMO only to dismiss it after discovering it was free-to-play. The perception, in America at least, is that if you are giving your game away for free, then it must not be very good.
"What we're trying to do is change the perception out there that free-to-play games are B-games or C-games," Kern said. "We asked ourselves: Why not release a top-quality game under this model? There are free-to-play games out there making hundreds of millions of dollars per year on this model. That is more than enough to support top quality development."
And in the current economic climate (which seems set to continue for quite some time), F2P may very well be what allows many future MMOs to succeed at all. Rather than reducing the  'perceived value' of a game, using a F2P business model could actually increase it (if the game is built around it, rather than adopting it out of last-ditch desperation as most Western games have done). Ever since the 'box + 15$ monthly fee' model was invented, it's been clear that MMO players have never minded spending money to support the games they enjoy (and in the case of games like WoW, they're even willing to drop extra money on top of that monthly fee to get pets/mounts/etc, which actually adds up to spending more than it would cost them to buy those things in the average F2P game!) -- the F2P model only makes options more flexible for those who wish to support their game with cash to do so at their own rate, as well as removing the original monetary 'barrier of entry' that so many MMORPGs built on the traditional model seem unable to get away from. Believe me, MMO gamers do not need their arms twisted to get them to cough up cash if they're having fun in a game, and the cash shop is fair.

I remember back when even offering a Free Trial was something you only saw months after a game was released, as if the devs didn't want to let people see if they even LIKED the game before making them spend 30$+, which seems like more of a gouge than a game that has an optional cash shop that allows you to d/l it and try it for free as long as you want. Successful Western games like World of Tanks, Battlefield: Heroes, Wizard101 and FreeRealms have shown that it's not just an 'Asian thing' for games built around F2P from the very start to work, and work well.

Jun 24, 2011

[....And I Actually LIKE Most Cash Shops]

I made my peace with F2P and Cash Shops a long time ago, and am getting to enjoy more games because of it, but I really do not get the logic behind EVE Online's new vanity item pricing, even after they explain it:
"People have been shocked by the price range in the NeX store, but you should remember that we are talking about clothes. Look at the clothes you are currently wearing in real life. Do you have any specific brands? Did you choose it because it was better quality than a no-name brand?
Assume for a short while that you are wearing a pair of $1,000 jeans from some exclusive Japanese boutique shop. Why would you want to wear a pair of $1,000 jeans when you can get perfectly similar jeans for under $50? What do other people think about you when they see you wearing them? For some you will look like the sad culmination of vainness while others will admire you and think you are the coolest thing since sliced bread. Whichever it is, it is clear that by wearing clothes you are expressing yourself and that the price is one of the many dimensions that clothes possess to do that in addition to style and fit."
Out of all the F2Ps I've tried, I have never seen a vanity-clothing item go for more than $20 (maybe there's some out there, but none that I've played). And unlike EVE, those games don't require monthly subscription fees. I'm not sure why CCP would rather sell FEWER outfits at a higher price than MANY for a more 'market average' price -- there are far more people who'd be willing to pay even $20 for a 'virtual shirt' than there are those willing to pay $50+. Perhaps CCP feels the EVE playerbase is so 'different' that there is no real comparison between the typical MMO's cash shop and EVE's. But going by the angry reaction of many EVE players, they are clearly disappointed that the prices for tiny things like Monocles ($70?!) are so much higher than they are willing to pay -- in other words, they WANT to give CCP their money, and would if the items were more reasonably priced.

Sure, nobody 'has' to buy vanity items. But why make the cash shop hostile to most players and not a 'fun' experience for people? To me that's like saying you DON'T want more people to use it! How does that make sense?

The fact still remains, that a lot of the Western MMO playerbase is still very touchy and suspicious about microtransactions in their games, and this move by CCP appears to me to be souring those people even more on the concept than they would've if they had taken a more player-friendly approach for their cash shop introduction. Only time will tell if CCP's belief that EVE's playerbase is a good match for this extreme microtransaction model proves true.

Related Reading: Fear and Monocles

Jun 22, 2011

[Eden Eternal Impressions]

Eden Eternal is the latest MMORPG offering from Aeria Games, and has a lot of unique features compared to most of the current F2P market in the U.S. It's very polished and offers many 'quality of life' features that I haven't seen in the other F2Ps I've played, and after participating in the Closed Beta I've come away really impressed so far.

First off, the graphics of the game are in a colorful, hand-drawn cartoony style, down to the 'pencil lines' present around objects (which I've see done before in other F2Ps, but never as seamlessly as in EE). This gives the game's look a very pleasing, distinctive style.

The core gameplay feature is unlimited multiclassing -- you can eventually unlock and switch between every class in the game freely, which eliminates the need for making multiple alts in order to try out different playstyles or group roles. As you level different classes, you unlock 'Certificates' which are items that can be mixed and matched across classes that offer passive bonuses of various kinds. On top of that, each class has it's own skill tree where you can allocate points to further customize your character. I think this is the number one draw the game has, hands down. Bored of being a tank? Transform into a Bard or Thief and try out a whole new build and set of skills! One gameplay aspect that doesn't seem to be in EE is crowd control, instead most classes have aoe abilities and can take on multiple enemies at once, at least for a short while.

Skill tree and Class Certificates
Besides at-will class switching, your appearance ingame is not affected by your gear at all. Instead, each class unlocks various 'Outfits' as they level up, which can then be dyed to your liking with colors that are buyable at low levels ingame, but only available through the Cash Shop once you hit level 25 (though as with most F2Ps, nearly all Cash Shop items are sold in the game's Auction House for ingame money by players as well). The Class Outfits are also nicely detailed and stand on their own just fine if you're the type who doesn't really care what you're wearing.

An unusual 3-person dungeon
The main sources of exp in the game are PvE quests and dungeon-running. If you're the sort who plays MMORPGS in spite of the genre's gameplay (which consists of killing monsters to level and get loot), then there won't be anything thrilling here. But for those of us who enjoy mowing down mobs and accumulating shinies of various types, it's handled very smoothly in EE. The zones are lovingly detailed, even though they are small compared to many other games', and there are a wide variety of different locales. I actually appreciated the 'smaller with more character' approach to zone design, since so many other games boast 'vast worlds' that are mostly barren land without anything interesting to see or find anyway.

One of the social tools EE has that I think is neat, is the Profile system, which takes the old /who mechanic to a new level. You can fill out your profile with various personal info (including general interests) and top it off with a few sentences about whatever you feel like, and enable it to be visible whenever others do a player search on the server. I appreciate the concept of trying to help more likeminded people find each other ingame, and putting some personality into the mechanic. There is also a LFG tool, but it's rather clunky and isn't really used by most people that I've seen (most people ask for groups in Zone chat instead).

Character profile
One thing I almost feel is a drawback, is the speed at which you level (at least up til level 30, which is my current situation). It's very easy to completely outlevel the quests in your current zone, especially if you are doing the simple grind-based 'guild quests' to level up your guild (more on that in a moment). As a completionist, I was actually happy if I died and lost (a small amount of) exp, since the stuff flows like water. With the current level cap being 50, I'm interested in seeing how much slower levels will go as I get closer to it. As it is, leveling goes as a fast clip, with the only restriction on how many classes you want to level simultaneously is time, money to level up class skills, and the bag space to store weapons and accessories for each class when you switch over.

Guilds in EE have levels that influence whether they can have a customized guild emblem or guild town. Guild towns offer the entire server valuable services, as they're the only sources of high level crafting recipes and materials. Guild leaders choose to 'hire' certain vendors for a weekly fee who then are available for anyone who visits that town to use. There are also rare 'traveling merchant' NPCs that appear from time to time with other things to sell. Guilds can set their own tax rates for their wares and services, with the profits from sales going into a guild fund. There is also a guild vault, quest board, and other little town perks available for guildmembers (including the ability to place statues of guildies in the town square). Besides having their own chat channel, the basic guild window also has a Message tab where members can post notes about various things to each other, which is pretty handy. There are future plans for GvG PVP as well, I believe.

Desert-themed guild town
 I'm finding I'm enjoying these 'gamelike' MMOs more and more, mostly because I'm burned out of believing the hype endemic in Western MMOs claiming 'immersive, persistant fantasy worlds' which has to my experience NEVER actually panned out. In the end gameplay is king, not lofty ideals about 'immersion', 'photorealism', and complexity which never seems to serve any purpose but add drudgery to the play experience. I like killing monsters will flashy spells, grouping with people to fight bosses, decorating my character, and collecting cool items, and Eden Eternal offers all of those things wrapped up in a colorful package, which makes it a winner for me. And really, why do so many players seem to DEMAND that all MMORPGs be so huge that they can play them for 10 years straight without ever getting bored? Is the common Asian F2P model of designing most games with only a 2 or 3 year shelf-life bad, or does it instead encourage players and developers to try out new things more often? My personal opinion is starting to shift towards the latter.

Eden Eternal is a pretty game with some fun ideas, and worth checking out. After all it's free, so there's no harm in giving it a chance and seeing if it works for you. =)

Art style
Switching classes at will
Guild towns
PvE dungeons \ raid bosses
Fast leveling til about lv38 or so
Unique selection of player races to be released in the future
A fair cash shop overall (imo)

Smaller scale world and scope
Music is rather meh.
Typical MMORPG gameplay (kill stuff, get loots)
Crafting is time consuming, risky, and expensive
Mostly random color dyes in the Cash Shop
Gets grindy to level once you get around lv40
At higher levels it becomes harder to multi-class without using Cash Shop exp boosts

May 26, 2011

[Goldfarming: Cruel and Unusual Punishment]

I was aware that the Chinese prison system was known for some shady practices, but this is something else: the new 'hard labor' in many Chinese prisons is virtual, not physical.
“Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour,” Liu told the Guardian. “There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn’t see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.”
It goes to show just how much money is tied up in RMT for games... and the more I learn about the infamous 'Chinese Gold Farmer' the less I resent them and the more I feel sorry for them. It seems like many are people just trying to pay their bills and put food on the table, if not outright forced to farm games for hours a day against their will. It's hard to demonize these people once you realize there are real human stories on the other side of the screen. In a way, people who pay for these goldfarming services are not simply cheating at a computer game, they may also be contributing to the exploitation of other human beings. If anything, it goes to prove that gamers should care about where their virtual goods and services are coming from.

May 7, 2011

[The Psychology of Griefing]

  On Massively's Soapbox column, Jef Reahard tries to analyze why people grief, and what indulging in a constant habit of asshatery in games reveal about their 'real' selves: there is no imaginary line between 'IRL' and 'the game' -- you are not magically a 'nice guy' in real life, because in 'real life' you are an asshole to random people on the internet for your own amusement. The very fact that doing that is your preferred means of online enjoyment makes your assholery completely real:
"I've met griefers who consider themselves well-adjusted folks in other parts of their lives, gamers who have fallen into the trap of separating game behavior from "real-world" behavior. The reality, though, is that if you're a bleep in an online game -- and it's a recurring thing -- you're a bleep, period. You're not a part-time bleep, or a bleep on the weekends, or a bleep after the wife and kids are safely bedded down. You're simply a bleep. Regardless of whether certain game mechanics enable your bleephead behavior, the choice to actively make another person unhappy is in fact a choice, and it's yours alone. You don't get to rationalize or compartmentalize it. It simply is what it is, and you are what you are."
  If your main pastime is being a sadistic jerk to people on the internet, how can you honestly believe you are not 'really' a sadistic jerk? Last I checked, 'real life' includes sitting in front of a computer an interacting with others. Interacting with people through games in this way IS what you're doing 'IRL'. There is no magical line that makes what you do to other people in a game less 'real' than anything else you happen to do in your life, and it defines who you are just as much as any face-to-face interaction.

May 3, 2011

[Spiral Knights Review]

  The first videogame I really fell in love with was Secret of Mana on the SNES. I remember going over to my friend's house and playing it with her for hours, and being sad that the sequel never game out in the states. It was pretty much the catalyst for my beginnings as a gamer. Since then, I've always had a special affection for Action RPGs. So when I heard about the recently-released FTP Action RPG MMO Spiral Knights, I decided to check it out.

  The simple story behind the game is that a spaceship filled with robot Knights has crashed on a weird planet that is made of giant rotating gears and embedded with the fragments of dozens of different worlds all patchworked together. At the Core of this epic machine is a mysterious power source that the Knights hope to be able to harness in order to repair their ship. However, no teams sent down to investigate have ever returned. So the refugees set up a more aggressive operation to equip and send fighting squads to the center of the planet and discover what's really down there.

Character creation screen -- pretty basic.
  Initial character creation is very simple. You pick two colors for the armor style of your choice, and that's it. Your 'Personal Color' is applied to your floating name as well as to accents on most armor that you'll equip. There are also appearance-only slots for armor sets, so there is some customizability in your appearance beyond just color scheme.

  The basics of the game are easy to pick up -- you start out in an instanced tutorial zone and 'newbie camp' where you can do some easy dungeon runs and figure things out at your own speed before heading to the real world hub of Haven. Once you reach the main world, you receive some basic objectives (there are no real 'quests' per se) and are let loose to explore the Clockworks' dungeons however you like. At this point it's best to experiment with different weapon styles and choose which one you'd like to focus on -- Swords, Guns, or Bombs, or a mixture of these. Fine tuning your gear and weapons to both your own playstyle and the dungeon levels you are planning to enter are the key to success (and fun)!

Crafting window, listing mats and costs required.

  Crafting simply consists of acquiring a recipe for a certain item, and having the right materials to create it (there is also a Crown and Energy cost). Whenever an item is crafted, there is a small chance that it can be a Unique Variant; an item with a special bonus ability or stat. UVs can be either useless or amazing, but the getting the right combination can mean lots of profit if you choose to sell rather than equip it yourself. Crafting materials are abundant drops in dungeons, with different types being linked to certain level themes (for example fire-themed materials are common in fire dungeons).

Fighting in a Beast-themed dungeon.

  The themes of different levels are an important factor in both your armor and weapon choices. Different monsters have varying strengths/weaknesses, so mixing and matching gear to counteract attacks while dealing damage effectively is a necessity. There are no limits to how many different types of armor and weapons you own, an you can switch gear around as needed every few levels, so it pays to have multiple choices at hand. SK purposely goes out of it's way to obfuscate the math behind stats and bonuses in a sort of 'anti-min/maxing' measure which nice, being that I've experienced the other end of the extreme in other games and don't really enjoy it anymore. In other words, you CAN optimize, but not doing so 100% won't totally ruin you, either.

Map of dungeon levels, with grouping options.

  Dungeons are modular, with different levels rotating every few minutes, changing the path of your descent. Aside from the few 'premade' dungeons, players can create new ones by depositing crystal pieces that they find into different hoppers, which then combine to form new levels over time. The actual layouts of the levels are reminiscent of classic Zelda, with keys, locked gates, switches, breakable objects, and simple puzzles interspersing all the hack-and-slash. Using the different terrain to your advantage is a good idea, since some areas can kill you quickly if you just rush in without thinking.
  Grouping (or soloing) is very simple. You can choose to join any existing group already in a dungeon you want to try out, or start your own group. You can lock groups to 'friends only' or even run solo, if you're confident enough. The deeper down you go, the better the rewards and the harder the challenge.

Combining ranged attacks on a cannon.

  The cash shop portion of the game consists of buying Crystal Energy refills, and there are several options available, starting at $2.50 and increasing from there depending how how big of an Energy junkie you are. There is also a Marketplace where players sell their Crystal Energy for  Crowns (the ingame currency), so paying with real cash is not really required. It's also possible to barter Energy with other players. In general, it's feasible to play the game casually without spending any money at all, though folks with a more hardcore approach will have to either spend a few dollars, or plan ahead to maximize efficiency of their Energy use. Otherwise, each player gets 100 free units of Energy every day -- with one unit recharging every 13 minutes.

Buying Energy with ingame money (and vice versa).

  I've heard this game described as having many elements in common with games like Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. If you are a fan of ARPGs in general, or even just a casual MMO player, I recommend giving Spiral Knights a try.

Related Reading: Interview with SK's lead designer, Nick Popovich.

Apr 7, 2011

[Brenda Brathwaite Defends Social Games]

Brenda Brathwaite, a game designer who has been in the industry since the early 1980s, takes to task all the people who hate on social games for 'ruining gaming':

"Like you, we want good gameplay, we want compelling experiences, we want casual, and we want hardcore. We want to make a great game for the 43-year-old Facebook Mom, because – damn it – she deserves a great game, too."
Full transcript is here.

I will be interested in seeing if her company actually succeeds in making a non-crap FB game. It's a worthy goal at least, and the bar for success is not only low, it's pretty much nonexistant.

Jan 21, 2011

[Ultimate PvP Potential or Recipe for Disaster?]

So there's an upcoming MMO, Salem, that's going to try tackling full loot free-for-all PvP, player-made building destruction, AND perma-death. Sounds like a winning combination!
"'When your character dies, he stays dead,' Johannessen said matter-of-factly. This is made even harsher by the fact that Salem will allow free-for-all PvP, which means that anyone can attack you without provocation. Player buildings can be razed and their corpses looted, but Johannessen hopes that the players will band together to protect each other and mete out justice."
I predict lots of fun times when that sucker gets released, of the 'wailing and gnashing of teeth' variety. That is, if anyone actually ends up playing it for reasons other than to indulge in sociopathic carnage.

I still say there are a lot of very confused FPS fans still trying to shoehorn their preferred gameplay style into a genre that was simply not made for it. Now, if the death system ends up being something like Mabinogi's Rebirth mechanic, where certain stats get carried over (and the game doesn't have levels or strong gear dependency) maybe it could be feasible. Otherwise, I'm sensing a pending crash and burn and a stark reality check for the devs of Salem.

Jan 11, 2011

[Gaming 'Journalism'? Not So Much...]

Today, Jef Reahard over at Massively has written a great take down of the belief that most gaming bloggers are somehow 'journalists':
"Merriam-Webster defines journalism as "the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media." So far, so good, right? Well, look deeper. A more thoughtful, thorough, and instructional definition is provided by the folks at Rather than quote the entire nine-point synopsis here on my front page, I'll highlight what I consider to be the second most important principle of journalism (the first obviously being truth). Not coincidentally, this principle is one that game "journalism" utterly fails to uphold on a daily basis: "[Journalism's] practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover."

Let's cut right to the chase, shall we? The vast majority of "game journalism" isn't journalism in the traditional sense. There are many reasons "game journalism" isn't journalism at all, but in the interests of paring a few thousand words off of this piece, I'll boil it down to the three most important."
 Read the rest here. 

 Related Reading: How Broken is Game Journalism?
                          How Game Journalism is It's Own Worst Enemy