Nov 12, 2012

[Do MMOs Really Need to Be Saved?]

via Tadhg Kelly at What Games Are; a rebuttal to the idea that modern games need to be 'saved':
"It's a rite-of-passage thing. Also an age thing. You're probably around 25, have jumped, slaughtered and strategised your way through at least 1000 games, and found them amazing and entertaining. Then something happens.

  You start to get bothered by the sameness. You start to notice that games recycle the same ideas on a generational timeline, that every 5-7 years or so game developers repackage the same concepts for new platforms. And also keep making the same mistakes. Over time, you start to think that games need to be saved.

  Your attention span shortens. You struggle to remember the last time you had a gaming all-nighter and you look on Skyrim not as a challenge, but rather as a task. A drudge, even. You wonder just how long games can get away with that sort of thing. You also start to be much less tolerant of the first hour of a game: if it doesn't absorb you then you dump it."
  Sound familiar to anyone? =P

  I think the fact that many of the current MMO bloggers fit squarely into this description explains a lot about the tone many have towards the games today. For example the whole '3-monther' label being used by many as proof of the genre's failings rather than a hint that something has changed in the player.  I also agree with Tadhg that perhaps we 'old timers' may be able to get games more in line with our desires by focusing on indies rather than the mainstream gaming industry, since the mainstream studios don't really seem to be serving our demographic.

Related Reading:
The Dark Side of Happy Memories

Oct 17, 2012

[We Can't Have It Both Ways]

 via Real Talk: Videogames:
"The gaming community, or let’s say the ones with voices -popular developers, media, and maybe celebrities if we have those- have a cake eating problem. We want to be taken seriously as an artform but don’t often value critical analysis. Game criticism and academia are held in disdain and shoved in corners, dubbed inapplicable. Recycling the same themes, mechanics, and ideologies of game design passes through reviews and feature articles without scrutiny."
   On the one hand, we gamers want our games to be respected as 'art'. On the other hand, the minute any sort of critical lens is placed on themes or mechanics of a game, the cry from many corners is "It's just a game, why are you taking it so seriously? Get a life!"

  But you can't have it both ways. The more that games develop in complexity and scope of their content, the more they will be measured for cultural relevance and judged for their themes. And we'll have to accept that such a development means we gamers need to start seriously examining what and why we play and be prepared to offer better in reply to serious analysis of them other than "It's just a game."

Oct 12, 2012

[How Predatory is F2P?]

Another quote from the F2P Ethics panel at GDC:
"We like to think that the ones spending vast sums on these games are sons of Dubai oligarchs, but we have the data to prove that they're not, and that they probably can't afford to spend what they're spending. We're saying our market is suckers - we're going to cast a net that catches as many mentally ill people as we can!" ~Nik Davidson
  Are some cash shops predatory? Yes. Are many sub games skinner-box grinds designed to milk monthly fees? Yes. Are there some people who should probably stay away from any game (sub or F2P), because they can't control themselves (either time or moneywise)? Yes, but whose job is it to police those people, the game company's?

  Should games (or laws) put limits on how much money a player can spend in a F2P per month? What kind of mechanics can drive 'too much' spending (are they the same mechanics that, in a sub game, encourage 'too much playing'?), and how does worrying about people spending large amounts of money conflict with the 'A few big spenders pay for everyone' structure F2P games are built around?

  And what even IS the monetary definition of a 'big spender' in a F2P game? 20$? 1000$? I've heard that only 5-10% on average in any F2P game spend money, and the definition of 'the average big spender' is a lot less than you'd think. But there is still very little public data about this (at least in English) that I could find.

  There's also this fact to consider -- F2P originally arose in Asia because of the extremely high software piracy rate there (in other words, selling a box would be financial suicide), so from the start there has never been a 'baked-in' requirement for a cash shop-model game to be exploitative or a cheaply-designed money pit rather than a quality game. A F2P game can be both a good game and have a fair cash shop.

  There is a real need for legitimate debate about what 'fair' monetization models for F2P/Freemium games are. I think that it's hard to pin down exactly, because no two games (or cash shops) are the same. I think the Western MMO market is still trying to figure this one out.

Related Reading:
F2P is Not Exploitative
Free vs Pay Games [DICE 2011]
$100k Whales: Intro to Chinese Browser Game Design

Oct 11, 2012

[F2P Is Not the Problem, and it's Also Not the Solution]

Karen Bryan at Massively posted on 'The Ethics of Gaming', questioning if the fad for F2P over subs that companies are rushing to embrace might be a Bad Idea. As someone who made peace with F2P games years ago, I actually agree with her, but for different reasons:
"In order to succeed, MMOs need players, but over the years there's been much more of an emphasis on how to monetize games and generate even more revenue. Back when the western MMO market was largely subscription-based, the key was to get players signing up and sticking around. It didn't necessarily matter how much you played, just that you kept coming back. And players did come back because they were compelled to, not because they were swayed by marketing."
  It's a fallacy to say the only reasons why people stay with F2P games (though 'F2P games' are far from all the same so they shouldn't be lumped together as if they are) is just because of marketing rather than content quality. This might shock some 'sub zealots', but tons of F2P games are succeeding because PEOPLE LIKE TO PLAY THEM, not because cash shops hold some kind of mind-control power over the 'stupid casuals' (which, let's face it, tends to be the stereotype in many anti-F2P players minds of the sort of person who would play a F2P MMO).

  My worry is that instead of learning the lesson as to WHY so many sub MMOs have failed in the wake of WoW's success, these companies will only come away with 'Subs are no longer popular for some reason, we just need to change our monetization scheme!' rather than the core issue which is PEOPLE DIDN'T FEEL YOUR GAME'S CONTENT IS WORTH BOX+15$ A MONTH. That is the true core of the problem here -- if people aren't willing to stick with a MMO with a monthly fee, it's because they don't feel like it's worth that investment of their time or money, and that is a serious issue that being F2P will not magically solve, and neither will 'slick marketing'.

  Why is Rift (which is far from 'revolutionary') still alive after so many other sub fee games failed all around it? Could it be that the frequency of content updates and quality the service it offers its players is considered by them to be 'valuable' enough to be worth paying a monthly fee for? Is this why WoW succeeds where other games who tried to ape it's 'popular gameplay style' failed -- because it provides CONTENT of sufficient concentration that players feel it's worth 15$? Is the reason why people left SWTOR in droves because they felt that what the game offered at level cap was not worth 15$ a month to be allowed continued access to? What is it about a F2P that makes people WANT to buy stuff in the cash shop? What is it about ANY MMO that makes it compelling to players longterm?

  Simply grabbing onto F2P as the savior (or doom) of MMORPGs is a fallacy. Companies are missing the lessons that the market has tried to teach them, if 'trying a new monetization scheme' is their best idea for how to survive in the current MMO environment.

  Players are not seeing these games as having enough gameplay & content value to justify a sub fee. The reason why many sub MMOs are doing poorly is not simply because those games were using an 'obsolete payment model'. If the latter is what all these 'AAA' studios have come away with as their lesson after seeing years of post-WoW MMO failures, then maybe the genre is in peril after all.

Related Reading:
SWTOR's Failure Was Not 'Random Chance'
Should AAA Game Studios Die?

Oct 4, 2012

[Pirate101's Sneak Peek]

  ...Or more like 'Stress Test', going by the throngs of people swarming all over during the 6-hour window the beta was open to the public. Even so, the game was stable and ran fine for me, barring one random 'teleported into space' bug I found when exiting one of the class trainers' rooms.
  I only had the time to play to the point where I received my first ship (level 4), but already I've been charmed by KingsIsle's latest take on their worlds of the Spiral. The naming system alone was pretty entertaining; just hitting 'Random' and seeing how many different piratey names you could get out of it was a lot of fun just by itself. Also, you get to design your own pirate flag along with your appearance! This is the sort of stuff I'm a total sucker for. =P

  KingsIsle has said that Pirate101 is targeted to a slightly older audience than Wizard101, and I do think that there is potential for more complex strategy in combat in P101, going by the little I saw at a early level. Once you engage an enemy, you are presented with a grid of the combat area, and you choose to either move your characters or use abilities across a certain range (basically like simplified RTS units). Once you choose your actions within the allotted time limit, combat will then play out on it's own. Besides straight one-on-one fighting there are also variables such as objects you need to defend for a certain number of turns or other grid objectives that may need to be completed before you can declare victory.

  Unlike Wizard101's card battle system, attacks in P101 are tied to your characters and their 'crew' (NPC party members). Depending on your pirate's class you have access to a set of varying skills, with the option of spending points you earn via leveling to acquire the skills of other classes. This allows you to hybridize your character in multiple ways. The classes you can choose from are Buccaneer as a melee tank, Privateer as group support/healer, Swashbuckler as a stealthy melee dps, Witchdoctor as a debuffer/summoner, and Musketeer as a ranged dps/trapper.

  As you progress you also collect a crew of NPCs that can appear on the board with you, and who have their own skills that you can train. Some crew members are unique to various classes, and complement classes in different ways.  Like in Wizard101, soloing should be viable throughout the whole game, even though grouping is very easy (simply run up to a fighting player to join in; loot and exp is automatically shared fairly).

 Personally, I love turn-based combat (which is one of the reasons I liked Wizard101) and it seems Pirate101 will offer some fun strategy RPG fare for both kids and older players who can appreciate whimsy and lighthearted humor in their games. The animation, art, and storytelling in P101 is very much improved over Wizard101 while still being familiar to folks who've played the earlier game, and is a nice mix of old and new for veteran players.

  The Crowns Shop in P101 appears to be very similar to the one in Wizard101, with mounts, armor, housing, pets, furniture, ships and ship gear (there is also ship combat in the game, though I barely got to try it out), and various buff potions available. In Wizard101, you could get everything you needed without spending real money and I played for nearly 4 years and only ever bought vanity stuff like mounts and housing stuff and never felt I was disadvantaged in any way -- and hopefully that will continue to be the case in Pirate101. One thing I always felt KingsIsle got right in their cash shop was that buying stuff from it always felt fun, rather than being something you were being forced to do in order to properly enjoy the game. As one of the first Western cash shop MMOs, it still amazes me how well they got things right back in 2008 when there are still MMO companies today struggling to figure out how to monetize their games without resorting to being predatory.

  Just like Wizard101, P101 utilizes either a 'monthly-fee plan' or 'buy as you go' system in regards to playing different zones past the newbie area -- for 10$ a month you have free access to everywhere at any time, or else you can buy individual zones for a set (lower) price. For slower/casual players, buying zones as you need them may be a better deal in terms of monthly cost; so technically P101 is more 'Freemium' than 'Free-to-Play'.

  The few hours I had with the game this afternoon went by pretty fast -- so I'm looking forward to Oct. 15th and the official release so I can put some more time into the game. But from what I saw today, Pirate101 looks like it'll be a solid, entertaining game for pirate-fans of all ages.

Sep 30, 2012

[Every Game is a '3-Monther' for Somebody]

A great post from Chris over at 'Game By Night':
"Where do you find a game that’s not a 3-monther? The game with lasting power is the one where you can find a place to fit in with other players and continuously work at something. In WoW and RIFT, that’s raiding or PvP. In Guild Wars 2, it’s WvW. Maybe it’s RP for LotRO. It really doesn’t matter because the game with legs for me might be totally different for you.

No game is going to hand you the past. If you’re willing to work for it and find your niche, and can be flexible in getting there, you might just find that a game being a game is okay… and care a whole lot less when other people nitpick."
 Very true!

Related Reading:
The Cure for the 3-Month MMO Lies With Us 
Of Three-Monthers

Sep 24, 2012

[Torchlight II Impressions]

In simple list form, since I'm not feeling verbose:

- New Game+
- Randomized dungeons\sidequests
- Offline Singleplayer option
- Character/pet customization (this includes class builds/gear combinations)
- Fishing. If nothing else, because you can get permanent pet-transforming items from it.
- The Enchanting/Alchemy system... gambling for cool item buffs is a great gold sink
- Interesting item sets (the randomization of stats makes even two of the same item unique)
- The soundtrack
- The boss fights

- I wish Normal difficulty wasn't simply Easy mode with a different name. It's too easy, even for a newb to the genre like me.
- I wish there was appearance slots for gear, or the ability to pay a Transmuter to re-skin gear.
- I wish my Stash space was expandable.
- I wish you could get at least one full respec of stats/skills per character.
- I wish the story/setting was a bit better explained (How's anyone to know, for example, that the Zeraphi and Ezrohir are a race of ancient Ember-powered cyborgs unless you read the official wiki? The game sure doesn't bother to really explain who they are or why they're at war). I know that too much story exposition can bog down a game like this, but it could've used a bit more here and there... perhaps rolled into the short animated cutscenes between Acts.

Overall, I give the game 4/5 stars (for what my opinion's worth), and recommend it for anyone who likes the ARPG genre. It's a solid offering and very enjoyable.

What is it about fishing in RPGs that's so compelling?

Sep 11, 2012

[Take It Slow; Savor the Journey]

Words of wisdom about playing Guild Wars 2, from Ravious:
"I think one big issue that I am finding is start to dissipate is the freneticism of the herd. There is a drive to get to the end. I knew all along that there was no end game to get to. Yet, I still fell prey to “end game” discussions and talk about Zhaitain and final armors and weapons. It felt like I had to get there too. I really don’t… at least right away.

The other problem with Guild Wars 2 content is that it is incredibly high speed. Without having to turn in quests there is much less time to digest experiences. I didn’t realize how important this was for my 'fun' until I actually sat there watching the backside of the asura elementalist as he ran away. I wasn’t following my own advice. I need to slow down; reflect for that one moment. ‘I just did this, and it was great.’ Moments like that are not another belly-bombing slider going down the hatch."
  This observation about fully enjoying the game is very true, I've found; especially when it comes to getting the 'story' of a zone (which some have complained is lacking in GW2 due to there not being quest hubs to deliver it via quest text to players). However, the story is still there -- you just have to choose to speak to the various named NPCs and Heart taskgivers that you find, and stop a moment to listen to the banter of the townsfolk you come across rather than sprinting past (or away once your contribution reward pops). The narrative of the various maps in GW2 is not forced upon you; instead it's similar to real life in that if you are always rushing to the next goal and not stopping to investigate the world around you, it will mean you will get less out of the journey as a whole.

Something I found while exploring a random house.

Aug 16, 2012

[Is This the Coolest Housing System Ever?]

In my opinion, going by the info given in this presentation? It really sounds like it!

I keep getting more and more impressed by Rift's continued development. It's truly an example of smart, successful MMORPG management. If I ever go back to a sub-game, it'll probably be Rift. It didn't really appeal to me when it came out, but it seems like every update just makes the game better and better!

Aug 14, 2012

[MMOldtimers: Adapt or Move On]

  From Inventory Full:
"If MMOs were invented today, does anyone really think they'd set out their stall by asking for a hefty payment up front before you could even see the product, then demand another $15 a month just to keep using the thing you'd payed for? How did that ever work?

Well, it worked for a while because, as Wilhelm says, there was an Implied Social Contract, and, crucially, because the producers and consumers all came from the same culture. That lasted as long as it took for the word to get out that there was serious money to be made. Until WoW, in other words. Which, of course, charges a subscription. Because it can.

That brought in people whose dream was making money, not making worlds. They all tried to ape it and most of them ended up looking like monkeys. What works for WoW hasn't worked for anyone else because no-one really knows why it works for WoW. It shouldn't. It just does.
So here we are, we old-timers, leaning on our fences looking out at the tarmac being laid across the prairie all around us and wondering where the wonder went."
  Several years ago I struggled with being dissatisfied with where MMORPGs were going -- World of Warcraft was my first MMORPG, but I had embraced the ideal and concept of a 'virtual world' and wanted to see that ideal grown and built on, rather than the slew of WoW-clones released in its wake. I played several older games during this period (Horizons and Ryzom) just in time to see both go bankrupt and be largely abandoned to 'life support' status. This made me very discouraged. Games that seemed to want to be worlds were losing, while 'game-y' WoW clones kept coming (and WoW itself chipped away at it's 'World' as well).

  Toward the end of WotLK, I found I was mostly unhappy both with where WoW and most other 'real' (sub-based) MMORPGs were. I took a long break from blogging and became a tourist of F2P games, which I once scorned. And I found many fun, creative games in places I would never have given the slightest chance to before because of their lack of 'worldiness' and small scope. Along the way, I think my expectations normalized and I realized that those dreamy days of the past where people imagined a massive living, breathing, fantasy world as the future of MMORPGs were gone. That was not the future of the genre -- the future was going to be something else, something more 'game-y', and if I wanted to keep playing MMOs I'd have to accept that fact and learn to love them firstly as games, and not worlds.

  For some MMO oldtimers (many of whom's MMORPG histories are far older than mine), the future will be bleak. The new games will not offer anything they want, and if their older 'home' games die so will their desire to play MMOs. But I also think many of us will end up adapting our expectations, and learning to love the games we have instead of always wishing they were something else.

Related Reading:
Every Game is a 3-Monther

Aug 5, 2012

[Should 'AAA' Game Studios Die?]

Robert Florence at EuroGamer wrote a piece recently about game piracy and why it happens, which also touched on what he sees as a plague on gaming and contribution to the problem: the 'AAA Game Studio':
"The publishers who make these bloated AAA BLOCKBUSTER games that get booted down our throats at every fake awards show argue that they need to charge a premium price to keep delivering a premium product. But who says we need a "premium product", whatever that is? Did we even ask for that? Is that what we want from games? Massive marketing spend and homogenisation?

'But these giant companies would have to close down. People will lose their jobs!' And yes, that's horrible. No one ever wants to see people lose their jobs. But if these companies can only stay in existence by charging their customers extortionate prices for bland, safe product, should they even be there in the first place?"
  I found the article very thought-provoking, especially in the light of recent financial flops in the MMOsphere and the current feeling by many questioning whether the 'AAA model' may be harming the genre more than it contributes. The issue of budget-bloat demanding 'safe' derivative gameplay over depth and innovation and hype being peddled over substance is not something restricted to MMOs-only, and is a worrying trend in games as a whole.

Related Reading:
Three Things at E3 That Need to Stop, Part 1
What's Wrong With the AAA MMO Industry

Jul 26, 2012

[This is Why I Love Geekery]

  So some dude name Joe Peacock posted a rant complaining about too many cute girls 'faking being geeks' nowadays. I won't bother to even address how many ways his article is crap, since Joe Scalzi did it for me, but the part of Joe's rebuttal that really stood out to me and truly sums up why I have so much affection for geek culture despite it's warts was this:

"Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think — and my experience of geekdom bears on this thinking — that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say 'Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.' When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say 'ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.''

Any jerk can love a thing. It’s the sharing that makes geekdom awesome."

 THAT is exactly why I embrace the 'geek' label, and will wear that term proudly til the day I die. The exuberant love of sharing our passions with each other without fear of being judged for 'caring too much' or 'taking it too seriously' is such a great and fun part of geek culture, and why I believe that all our geek communities can only get better by accepting more different types of people in them. I echo what Joe says at the end of his essay:

"Anyone can be a geek. Any way they want to. That means you too. Whoever you are."

Related Reading:
How Geek Gatekeeping is Bad for Business
Confessions of a 'Fake Geek Girl'
Geek Masculinity & The Myth of the Fake Geek Girl
The 7 Most Ridiculous Things About Calling Out 'Fake Geek Girls'

Jul 16, 2012

[The MMO Messiah]

...Could it really be Guild Wars 2?

Wait, hear me out! =P

  It's a fact that 2012 has been a disappointing year for 'AAA' MMORPGs. The highly publicized implosion of 38 Studios and the stumbling performance of SWTOR has led some gaming pundits to question if the entire genre has been put in peril. I've already addressed why I disagree that those games' failures were because 'the market is over-saturated with MMOs', but there IS something to be said about the chilling effect such high budget crash-and-burns can have on twitchy investors who may not know enough about MMOs to understand why all the money put into those studios failed to provide the desired returns.

  The hard fact is, making games is a business. It is generally required by AAA development studios to convince people who may not be gamers or even particularly interested in gaming to fork over considerable amounts of money to fund their projects. These sorts of investors are the types who read statements like 'the market for MMOs is obviously saturated because not even 200 million dollars can make a game MMO players want to play', and decide it's not a good idea to invest in MMO projects for the forseeable future. Thus, even though the true reasons why certain big-budget games did poorly is more complex than that, every MMO project going forward gets stigmatized as a 'low chance of being profitable' before it even gets out of the gate. If reality gets framed as being MMORPGs as a whole that are not profitable rather than just over-derivative WoW clones, then yes, the genre as a whole will suffer. And there is a real risk that the latter will be the message taken away from this year by the investors of tomorrow.

  Now, ArenaNet has not disclosed how much money has gone into Guild Wars 2 yet, but I'm going to assume it's at least $100 million. I could be totally wrong of course but when devs have made various comments that basically admit cost was not their major consideration and outright state they're betting the company on this game, it makes me suspicious that the final number is going to be pretty big.

  And not only has ArenaNet been coy about publicizing how much they've spent on Guild Wars 2, but also have been setting some pretty confident goals for themselves, such as being the best service provider in the entire industry. They are setting the bar for themselves high, with very public statements of confidence, and investors and other such influential people in the industry are definitely watching them closely to see if they can deliver.

  If Guild Wars 2 faceplants, it will be the second epic-budget AAA MMO released in 2012 to do poorly and the third bad end to a very expensive MMO project this year, and that will definitely have severe consequences for the AAA MMORPG as a genre. Because of that grim possibility, even people who are not interested in the game should be hoping it has a great launch and a positive market performance because Guild Wars 2 may actually be a 'MMO Messiah' if it can achieve it's lofty ambitions, albeit a savior in a different way than most gamers define the term.

Jul 13, 2012

[The End of Zynga?]

  Medium Difficulty weighs in on the decline of Zynga and the FB game fad:

"Zynga stock is already down more than 45 percent since its December 2011 IPO. Maybe becoming publicly traded meant that Zynga finally exposed itself to some smart money, which meant its game design began to be scrutinized by people whose profits depended on it. In 2009, before the IPO, Forbes uncritically accepted Zynga’s claim that part of its strategy was to make games in a variety of different genres, while CNN called Zynga “more than a one-trick pony” because it had not only produced Farmville, but also Mafia Wars, YoVille, and CafĂ© World. But now that investors have wizened up, Zynga has learned that it can drive its share price down just by announcing a new slate of awful games, as analysts “questioned whether Zynga’s new offerings were diversified enough” and raised concerns about the quality of the games."

  It's good to know that people besides gamers have started to 'raise concerns' about the quality of Zynga's titles. The apologists for that type of 'social game' can't claim it's just hardcore sour grapes anymore (if they're even still around at this point).

  Hopefully the fact that Zynga so openly pushed the entire Skinner Box-style game mechanic to the furthest level possible while maintaining only a veneer of 'gameplay' has encouraged future MMORPG developers to move past the tired grind and RNG-based carrot-on-stick standbys into creative, new (and less toxic) gameplay systems. Because I think one reason why Zynga games are so reviled by gamers is because they are, at their core, disturbingly familiar to many of us as exposing the type of mechanics at the core of many our own superior 'real' games, and on a certain level we resented having to acknowledge it.

Related Reading:
Zynga's Stock Fail Was Sadly Predictable
Zynga's Headaches -- Did We Not See This Coming?

Jul 6, 2012

[Brad McQuaid: Cult of Personality or Friends in High Places?]

So Brad McQuaid has been accepted back into the MMO Industry fold.

Why, exactly, given the complete fiasco of his last project?

  How many other people, after doing such a terrible job running a development team and company, would get a second chance like this? Is it because he's 'One of the Guys Who Designed EQ' and knows the right people and has a cool personality? When Vanguard got bought up and put on life support by SOE  (which was an oddly nice gesture of them), I had initially gotten the impression it was because someone high up there was being sentimental, and this latest development just reinforces my suspicion.

  Either way, in the light of the recent examples of high-profile MMO projects being brought low by gross incompetence, and the importance of developers today to be professionals aware of current market realities and not arrogant posers blinded by their personal 'Vision', I don't understand why this guy, who showed himself as being a terrible leader and an out-of-touch designer, is the one who gets chosen to be given another chance in the gaming business. It just baffles me.

Related Reading:
Great MMO Company Collapses of Our Time: Sigil
A Vanguard Retrospective
Brad McQuaid Returns to EverQuest

Jul 5, 2012

[Planet Explorers Looks Interesting!]

"Pathea Games is proud to announce the studio's next game, Planet Explorers. Planet Explorers is an open world voxel-based adventure rpg game set on a distant planet. The game uses a new OpenCL system based on the Unity 3D engine to allow players to change the terrain in anyway, create new objects in any form, and do it anywhere.

In Planet Explorers, it is the year 2287, one of the first colony ships sent out by Earth arrives at the planet Maria, in the Epsilon Indi Star System. During its landing sequence, something appears in front of the massive ship that causes it to lose control and crash into the planet. Some of the colonists survive in lifeboats, but what they find is an unforgiving land filled with creatures ready to outlast the visitors from Earth. Now the survivors must explorer, gather, build, create, fight, and ultimately, conquer the land."
 Sounds like a non-cube story-based Minecraftish kind of thing; I'm going to have to keep an eye out for this one!

Jun 26, 2012

[Gaming Also Brings People Together]

It seems a common cliche in the media for the past few years to talk about how online gaming destroys various people's lives. Since the days of EverQuest almost every mention of MMORPGs that you see reported is a tale of dysfunction being presented as if it's normal for players of these games to be damaged by them. I think the fact that that MMORPGs also bring players together and can build new friendships and communities should be brought up more often in response.

MMOGamerChick posted one of these stories about how playing WoW changed her life for the better. It's a good read. =)

Jun 18, 2012

[The Capitol of Gaming RMT/Bots to Ban RMT & Botting]

Seems so:
"The government official also stressed item collecting for commercial use is a serious hindrance to creating a healthy game culture.
Korea is the world’s most-wired society with the Internet penetration rate standing at above 93 percent, data from government agencies said. Korea is also the home of the world’s biggest smartphone and TV manufacturer, Samsung.

For online role-playing games, the law prohibits users from using programs that allow in-game characters to hunt and collect items without the need of a player controlling them."
I assume that the law is only affecting 'black market' RMT since there is no mention of in-game cash shops anywhere. But since botting and RMT saturates all levels in Korean online gaming to the point where the basic game mechanics are designed around them to a certain degree, it will be interesting to see how this new legislation affects both gameplay and monetization in current and future MMOs there. Perhaps the cliche 'Korean grind' so many games there have will become less tolerated by players when it's no longer a simple matter for them to buy their way around it. I'm curious to see how the MMO market adjusts there, if the government can truly enforce this law.

Jun 15, 2012

[The Real Texas]

"The Real Texas is an action adventure game that plays like a mashup of Zelda: Link to the Past and Ultima VI."

While on vacation in England, your character (a Texas rancher) stumbles into a bizarre purgatory dimension called 'Strange'. Various people across space and time have slipped through the cracks of Reality and have ended up trapped here, and it's up to a modern-day cowboy (you) to sort things out and be a Hero.

Sound interesting? Then be sure to check it out! =)

Jun 12, 2012

[Screenwriters Fail at Game Writing]

A great post from TJ Fixman's blog on writing stories for games:
"[G]ame development almost never starts with story. Every time I go to a convention, I meet fledgling writers who tell me they have an amazing game idea they’d love to pitch me. But the truth is, games aren’t pitched like movies or TV. What gets a game green lit is invariably tech or gameplay driven. A studio discovers they can do incredible realtime zero-g simulation with their engine? We’re doing a space adventure! Did the design team discover some super fun time-based game mechanic? Let’s do a time travel game! Games are built around two simple questions: 'Where does our tech shine?' and 'What is fun to play?'"
Read the rest here.

Related Reading:
Should games even bother trying to tell a meaningful story?

May 31, 2012

[BBC: Guns, Girls, & Games]

A great BBC radio documentary has just been released, that includes interviews from the gals at the blogs 'Fat, Ugly or Slutty?' and 'Not in the Kitchen Anymore':

"Does the world of video gaming have a problem with sexual harassment?
Women are one of the fastest growing groups of people playing video games and in the US they now make up 42% of gamers overall. But life can be tough for them in this male-dominated world.
For Assignment, James Fletcher reports on recent harassment controversies, the women and men campaigning for change, and whether big gaming companies are doing enough to address the issue."

Listen to it here!

Related Listening:
[CBC Radio] Women and Gaming: Smashing Stereotypes

May 26, 2012

[SWTOR's Failure Was Not 'Random Chance']

  Let me be clear first off -- I mean 'failure' as in the game clearly did not meet the expectations of success it was aiming for, not that the game is without any merit whatsoever. With that said:

  The disappointing performance of Star Wars: The Old Republic was not the result of a bad 'roll of the dice' or because the market is saturated with MMOs. It was because of a clear lack of knowledge and competency on BioWare's part to design a strong MMORPG, despite getting around $200 million thrown at them.

  Firstly, any claims that SWTOR's failure to explode into a massive hit will harm the industry are not counting the number of MMORPGs that have been simultaneously available for the past 5+ years. Count the F2Ps, because they outnumber P2Ps by a large margin, though most may be virtually unknown by the majority of sub-model-only players (and regardless, the F2P MMORPG playerbase is plenty robust with new games coming out regularly, obviously because people are still interested in playing these types of games). By that metric, the MMORPG market is saturated with games at pretty much every point in time and has been for several years now, albeit with games of varying quality. Before WoW was released, nobody could imagine that the market for every MMO combined could possibly number in the millions of players, let alone the playerbase of one game. So apparently the situation here is more along the lines of 'if you build [a game people want to play], they will come'.

  I won't rehash all the ways SWTOR was designed from the core out as just a variant flavor of World of Warcraft's basic gameplay mechanics, because that has been done to death in many places already. The fact is, in an environment shaped by 7 years of the dominance of WoW and scattered with the corpses of games released since 2004 attempting to ape WoW's success by copying it's gameplay to varying degrees, the majority of MMO gamers are just plain tired of it. And because they've become very familiar with the tropes of WoW's formula, they've also become a whole heck of a lot pickier when it comes to judging any game that tries to make it's own spin on it. So far the only game that has done this and succeeded has been Rift. So the right question to ask is not 'Is the market over-saturated with MMOs' but 'Can the current market support WoW and 2 sub-based WoW variants at the same time?' And the answer might just be 'no'. In the words of ArenaNet's founder Jeff Strain in 2007:
"Don't be fooled by the much-hyped success of the top MMOs on the market. The game industry is littered with the carnage of MMOs that have failed over the past few years. Due largely to the social nature of MMOs, gamers rarely commit to more than one or two MMOs at a time. This is in contrast to the traditional game market, in which there is room for many games to be successful, even within the same genre. You may play ten different action games this year, but you are very unlikely to play more than one or two MMOs. This means that it is not enough to make a great game – instead you must make a game that is so overwhelmingly superior that it can actively break apart an established community and bring that community to your game."
 He may as well have written that today, for all it's remained relevant (the only thing I would add is that it goes double for any game attempting to run under the '$15 a month sub fee' model nowadays). For anyone to conclude that the failure of games like Project Copernicus and SWTOR's lack of popularity means the MMO industry itself is in peril seems to forget that game studios being run into the ground because of poor management is hardly new. If anything it's showed that the MMO industry is not immune to the reality that exists everywhere in business: that throwing tons of money at a game (or using a popular IP) doesn't automatically mean it will be a smash hit. Any problem for the industry here is a self-caused one: disinterest in the playerbase because gamers are getting tired of companies rehashing the same-old ideas with prettier skins and expecting people to keep paying $15 a month to play the same game they've already been playing for the last 10+ years.

   SWTOR bet the lion's share of their hundreds of millions of dollars on the premise that the way to outdo their competition would be to make individual class stories as interactive and cinematic as possible (since that is their studios' strength in singleplayer RPGs) and setting them as the core of the entire game, while simply copying 'what's worked before' for everything else. But they attempted to 'innovate' in the completely wrong direction because they lacked fundamental understanding of what makes a strong MMORPG -- the long-term replayability of a game's core mechanics, as well as underestimating just how tired many people are of those gameplay systems that 'worked so well for WoW'. So after their awesome single-player interactive movies were all finished, most SWTOR players looked around at the rest of the game, said 'meh' and unsubscribed.

Related Reading:
How to Create a Successful MMO [GDC 2007]
Behind the Scenes of Star Wars: The Old Republic
Story vs Persistent Game

May 21, 2012

[Allods Online: 2 Years Later: Part 2]

[Go to Part 1]

  The first of the major changes I noticed (which was added to the game last year) is a new Tradeable Currency system. Basically, it allows cash shop currency to be sold for ingame gold. However, unlike most games who have this type of system, the exchage rate is set by the game itself rather than by players, based on how much of the tradeable currency (Gem Shards) is in the system at any given time. This automatic price control is an interesting way to keep monopolizing pay-players from price fixing the market. It also allows free players access to the cash shop without spending any real money if they so choose by basically letting them use their ingame gold to buy cash shop items. In the cash shop itself there is a tab that toggles the payment option for items between gPotatoes (the normal pay-currency) and Shards.

The Shard/Gold Exchange

  One of the things I tend to regularly buy in F2P games are mounts, so this aspect of the cash shop was another new thing for me (since I had stopped playing the game before they were released). The system in Allods Online is a bit unique, in that in addition to being able to acquire multiple different mounts, they can also be leveled up and reskinned. Mounts (and various different skins for them) are available as special event prizes, lottery box items, and stand-alone cash shop purchases. There are also character costume sets and even (for some reason I don't even want to speculate about) an entire tab just for underwear.

Fluffy hats!

  Another interesting mechanic added since the game's release is the Reincarnation system. Basically, after doing a series of quests, high-level players can unlock the ability to create a linked alt (Incarnation) that will share various items and bonuses with their main character. Besides the money-saving aspects of not having to buy new mounts, bag upgrades, etc., both characters can learn one of the abilities from the other's skill set that otherwise their class would not be able to, which opens up some interesting class customization possibilities.

  However, something I discovered as I was playing the game, is that once again there is a cash shop drama brewing, this time around an upcoming addition to the game's Patronage system. To explain: Characters all have a 'Patron Saint' that bestows temporary stat buffs and healing skills when a certain item (Incense) is used. These buffs gain experience through use and can be upgraded to be stronger via quests (up to level 4). The upcoming addition of a fifth level that can only be earned after enough of a certain cash shop item is bought is upsetting many players because the real-money cost for enough items to reach this rank (which appears to be mostly important in endgame PvP) would equal hundreds of dollars. Many people are angry over the 'pay 2 win' aspect of this mechanic, and I can see their perspective. For some reason, even after two years, the cash shop in Allods seems to periodically experiment with a new game mechanic added specifically to force players to spend money. Even though in every past case such mechanics have ended up eventually removed, the bad feelings they inspire linger on.

At level 23, my Patronage Level is 3.

   I have to admit I really don't understand the coercive attitude the Allods devs seem to keep falling back on when their game could be so much more popular if they simply advertised it's strengths (like their really neat Astral Ship content where players sail in search of bosses to fight as well as engage in ship combat with the opposite faction) instead of periodically trying to gouge their most invested players. Time will tell if the game eventually resolves this issue the same way it has fixed it's past monetization mistakes, but even so it's sad to see yet another example of the game's community being upset by a cash shop decision. Making your players feel like they're being taken advantage of is a big FAIL for any F2P game, whether or not that perception is accurate. It's also funny that at the same time when I decide to come back to give Allods another try after hearing about so many good additions to it, that this happens again. =P

Player-crewed Astral Ships can discover new lands and treasures.

  In conclusion: For those who still enjoy a 'classic' quest-based F2P MMORPG, Allods Online delivers a solid PvE experience with lots of nice features and the game does a lot of things well, so I recommend trying it out for those reasons alone. But in the end I'm left rather conflicted -- on one hand there are many things about the game I think are fun, but in a F2P MMO being able to trust that you won't be punished for not paying 'enough' (or at all) is very important, and I don't feel Allods has that trust. Therefore, I can only recommend it for casual/PvE players since I think that most serious min-maxers or PvP-oriented players will end up frustrated at the endgame unless they don't mind paying the costs (in grind and/or money) to reach the top level of performance. The majority of the cash shop is, in my opinion, fair to the casual player who is not too hung up on staying on the bleeding-edge of the power curve.

After two years Allods Online has grown a lot and I really think it's one of the better F2P games out there. It's just a shame that instead of finding a synergy with it's cash shop, it seems to still struggle to find a balance between profit and playability, even after all this time.

Related Reading:
An Allods Online Beginner's Guide

May 18, 2012

[Allods Online: 2 Years Later: Part 1]

Allods Online was one of those cases of poor F2P monetization decisions on the part of devs ruining what could have been a very good thing. During it's (cash shop-free) beta period, many MMO bloggers praised it's beautiful art design, airship combat and exploration endgame, and solid (if not wildly innovative) gameplay. There were dungeons and PvP, and quests, and the world was done in a familiar yet still enjoyable fantasy style with a Russian twist.

I myself enjoyed the time I spent in Beta, which was up to about level 20, and as Allods was my second foray into F2P MMOs (the first being Mabinogi, whose cash shop I rather liked and which had given me a positive first time F2P experience) I was not overly worried about how things would play out at release as much as some of the folks for whom this was their first try at this new payment model. It seemed as though many longtime sub-model MMO players were giving Allods a try at a time when F2P was still a fairly radical concept, and they were actually enjoying it!

And then release came around, and the cash shop was unveiled, with ludicrously high prices, and blatant 'pay to win' items. And then right after, there were patches to nerf character combat strength and buff death penalties to the point where it was impossible to play unless you were regularly buying items from the shop. PvE was made agonizingly slow for nonpaying players since now it took unreasonably long to kill even one mob unless you had the cash shop buff, and dying would literally leave your stats so reduced from the rez penalty that the game was basically telling players to 'either pay up or log out'. The promising Beta which had engendered so much positive press was exposed as a blatant bait and switch, and many MMO players who were for the first time trying out a F2P game had all their worst fears about the model justified.

Player outcry was immediate, and the hype turned bitterly sour, permanently damaging what I feel could have been one of the first mainstream hit F2P MMOs at that time. The devs basically tripped right out of the starting gate and fell squarely on their faces. The stigma from those first few months after launch has remained ever since, even though the game has apparently been doing fairly well and has released regular content updates and new features even with a reduced playerbase. Allods Online seems to be on a permanently low-key profile nowadays and many folks seem to avoid it because of it's sins from two years ago. But I had heard recently that things had changed in the past year and a half, and that both the cash shop and the game had been adjusted and balanced for some time now, with the hostile game mechanics that tried to punish players into spending money having been discarded long ago. So I decided to hop back in and see what (if anything) had changed in the cash shop since 2010.

[Go to Part 2]

May 15, 2012

[Guild Wars 2 is Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary]

  One aspect of many of the promotional shpiels for Guild Wars 2 that I disagree with now that I've played the game is the concept that the game is The Next Generation of MMO That Even People Who Hate MMOs Should Try. This is a claim we've heard from dev studios many times in the past since the release of WoW, and in every case the reality has been the opposite -- with the game mostly having the same core gameplay guts as World of Warcraft with just a new skin and some shallow diversionary bits added on. So understandably many people are skeptical of the similar-sounding hype building around Guild Wars 2.

  I myself virtually ignored the development of the Guild Wars 2 until the very end of last year, when it was announced that the game was definitely seeing release in 2012 (In general I'm not a hype-follower of unfinished projects that have nothing to offer except fancy promises -- Hero's Journey taught me that lesson). Once I started researching the game, I found lots of things that sounded really neat but I still wasn't going to start get invested with too much excitement before trying it myself first. Since I haven't played a sub-MMO in nearly 2 years I didn't mind putting forth the full purchase price in order to get a spot in the announced Beta Weekend Events -- it's been long enough since I've bothered to seriously look at any AAA MMO that I felt it was worth the risk of disappointment.

  I have to say, that once I got in and starting getting a feel for the game, I was sold. True, the public has only seen levels 1-20 so far and for all we know all the PvE content after that could be a a total fiasco, but it really feels as if the core mechanics of the game are solid and interesting enough that weaknesses in PvE content (if they exist) might not be enough to kill the game. If nothing else the PvP alone seems to be a big hit with the folks who like that sort of thing, which speaks for the soundness of the combat mechanics. And the Dynamic Events just -feel- seamless and organic and so much more fun than the staid cliche of text boxes, mob-tapping, spawn camping, and drop-farming that for some reason has never changed since MMORPGs were invented. And as a multitude of others have already said, the detail and love that has obviously gone into the art design, animations, and lore of the game is breathtaking in it's scope.

  But as my topic title says, I think some people are hyping this game in the wrong way. Guild Wars 2, in a move similar to Vanilla WoW's original strategy, has taken many of the annoying, boring and negative gameplay traits of so many MMORPGs (which have for some reason still been held onto as 'core aspects of the genre') and thrown them out the window. But it is still a familiar MMORPG at it's heart, and is not some kind of total revolution in online RPG experiences.

  If you hate MMORPGs (or Themepark MMOs at all), you need to ask yourself what about them isn't fun for you, and then see if GW2 has changed that genre convention in their game. Because if you just hate being sent by people to wander the countryside on the behalf of NPCs and killing monsters for exp? Then you will be rolling your eyes at having to do these same things in GW2. Do you hate having to read lore or pay attention to quest dialogues? Then the Personal Story aspects of the game will fall flat for you. If you think 'playing dress-up with your character' is inane, you will not be interested in the main carrot of dungeons and crafting in GW2 (unique item skins). If you want full action FPS-style combat, then the hybrid model in GW2 with limited dodging and the ability to tab target will not scratch that itch. The game is also not a Sandbox; those who chafe at anything other than Total Roleplaying Freedom will not find that here, either.

   BUT if you still love MMORPGs as a genre; if you're still into the whole 'explore a fantasy world and experience a story' thing and are just tired of stuff like static 'hotkey skill rotation while standing still' combat and gear treadmills and quest logs and mob-stealing and outleveling content and being unable to play with friends if they're the wrong level, wrong class, on the wrong server, or in the wrong faction, then there might be something for you in Guild Wars 2. But if you're burned out on the whole quest-based RPG thing and want to play a fantasy-themed Entirely New Type of Game? Then keep looking because such a thing has yet to be made and GW2 is not it.

Related Reading:
[RPS] Wot I Think: Guild Wars 2

[Diminished But Not Gone]

Ever since I quit WoW for good in 2010, I've been a MMO nomad. The problem with being tired of WoW's formula but still into RPGs is that so few of the other MMORPGs available during those two years differed significantly from it in their play mechanics, while those that did tended to be too old school in terms of grind or were just not my cup of tea in other areas. I'd resigned myself to dabbling in F2Ps and singleplayer games for the forseeable future, and therefore my interest in blogging waned to pretty much nothing, to the point where I even deleted this blog for a time. I figured a blog without readership or consistent updates just wasn't worth keeping around.

But it was Tobold's recent post about 'Writing for an Audience of One' which inspired me to un-mothball the blog and be more willing to write -for myself- and not care so much how active or on-topic it is. So I figure it can't hurt to keep this place around, especially with Guild Wars 2 on the horizon which may just rekindle my interest in ranting about MMO-related topics regularly again. But even if it doesn't, that's okay. If nothing else this place can always be a fun reminder to myself how my views and opinions on gaming have changed (or not) over the years.

[Interview With a Goldseller]

An oldie (2010) but a goodie, and still relevant to many games today:

Despite the vitriol with which most MMORPG players attack goldfarmers and the whole concept of RMT, the fact is that this market has existed since the birth of the MMO itself and in many ways is actually -enabled- by many of the conventions that oldschool players have held dear since day one (such as monthly fees).