July 27, 2011

A Retrospective Look at Champions Online

One thing I can sit here and proclaim with any certainty is that I have been gaming with MMOs a long time. Almost 14 years in fact since December of '97 with Ultima Online. I've tried many variants of MMOs and played almost all of them, well the mainstream ones. I can even say that there is almost no MMO on the market now that I haven't beta'd either, and it's in the betas that I actually get a unique perspective few are actually privy to; actual insight into the development process and the dedication, or lack thereof, of the development team.

Today's topic is basically a retrospective on Champions Online, which was developed and being ran by Cryptic. I was pretty much in the beta of that since November of 2008, and the game that was then is definitely not the game that is today. Not by a long shot. Cryptic had the dogged tenacity to keep trying to improve systems in their engine as well as create new ones to meet the rather outlandish demands of a couple of vocal miscreants who liked to parade themselves as the voice of the gaming world. Basically, it went to the tune of "This is what I like, and naturally whatever I like the rest of the gaming world must like as well." Sadly, I think the worst part of listening to that Cryptic went too far into listening to those voices when they were so deadly wrong. Especially considering several of them were laughing stocks in the previous games they would use for their example (such as City of Heroes).

There were things that Cryptic did right, things they did wrong and things they were going in the right direction with but just should of stopped listening to specific individuals in the beta, but that's not something that can be handled at this moment. As CO currently stands it's a sort of love it and hate it situation for me. Part of me loves it but part of me hates it in its current form. The part of me that loves it is the RP part because there is so much potential (wasted mind you since today's RPers really wouldn't know RP if it bit them in the ass) and the part that hates it is there is nothing for me to do, as a high level player, in that game and all the stuff that should be getting fixed or streamlined has sat by the wayside. So, for me I am going to be analyzing a sort of what they got right and what they got wrong in this blog. Obviously, this will be different for a lot of people, but I think I have an eye for the major things.

So what's first on my list? Well let's talk about the freeform power system as it stands. Cryptic actually had the right idea when they were starting in beta with this. Originally they were going to put some major limitations on powers to keep people from getting the best of the best powers straight away and building godmode. They even dallied with the concept of builds having to be formed mostly of one power set with a few freeform options. Honestly, that second option would of been best. What they got wrong was they listened to the idiots who kept spouting crap like "freedom to build the hero you want" lines as some sort of trumpeting banner and excuse to be able to take all the best powers with no consequences.

And when they did give these people what they want, they didn't bother putting checks and balances in to make sure they were overpowered. In short, as Champions stands now, this needs to be completely revisited. I think the F2P model is a start, but for free forms, they need to be reined in. The game has been utterly destroyed because of god builds pretty much walking over content and trivializing it and in the end just forced people who wanted challenge and things to strive for to walk away in disgust. Of course, the current player base of free forms would totally disagree with this and say things like this goes against the concepts of the game, to which I say, bullshit.

Another thing on the powers front is though they were trying to do action style combat, they didn't do anything to rein in the abuse of single powers. Some powers were understandably and should be spammable.  But many of the powers should of actually had inherent cooldowns and the like. The entire energy system, as it stands, needs an honest rework. The entire concept was to use X power to build Y energy so you could unleash Z attack, however, again due to certain individuals, this ended up just becoming the current energy building system it is now and we have people who have a whole tray of powers but hardly use any but one particular power. I would also limit people to being only ever able to pick one class of a type of power and not allowing powers with similar effects to stack like it currently does. And I would also personally reconsolidate and redefine the role passives to change based on the role the player was in, not be for one specific role, and leave it to where that player actually had only one choice of passive.

One of my most massive gripes, however, is the entire role system. Originally this was going to actually be pretty damn good and offer a lot of freedom of choice. Tanks would be tanky, but not the big ole damage houses, DPS would hurt, and support would actually be able to support but not do a lot of damage. The role system was interchangeable so you could change on the fly and such and the role passives actually worked differently based on a particular role. Then things went to hell because the dipshits again (I so would love to mention their names) wanted to be able to do everything. Batman was only ever the one example they used, of course, but the whole concept of teaming got shot in the foot that moment when people started griping that they should use everything without restrictions.

To solve that, the role system would have to be revisited and checks and balances would actually have to be instituted to actually give the roles some meaning. The current system doesn't offer that, anyone with either enough damage or enough patience can be DPS or tank without any effort. There is very little point to being in brawler or avenger roles, and support is almost ignorable completely. The two biggest roles being defensive and balanced, which this is a major problem as the system stands. If these two are overshadowing everything else in your system, then we have a major problem and that needs to be fixed.

Speaking of balance, one thing that needs to be nipped in the bud now is the Death and Penalty system in Champions. In short there is none. Oh, you can get defeated and you might have a mild walk to get back to a point, but otherwise dying is just merely an inconvenience in Champions. There needs to be weight added, a penalty. Repair cost for upgrades or something. Saying that a penalty system is not required is ignoring the facts especially how people kept death zerging bosses, to the point that drastic, draconian measures had to be instituted just to make death to bosses feel more impactful. The star system is a blasé answer to it, and pretty much an absolute joke of a death penalty system. In short, this needs to be majorly over hauled as well.

This also brings me to the items. Sorry to say Cryptic, having a dream where items don't mean much in a sandbox game is all and well, but Champions is not a sandbox, it's a theme park. You've put an absolute limit on everything with a leveling system. The only way people have left to go is through upgrades. Of course it doesn't help that your stat system is convoluted to a fault but at the same time it doesn't help that your items don't even make sense. Why does offensive upgrades have a defensive stat? Why is there an offensive stat? First and foremost I would completely redo this. I would start using offensive stat on upgrades, Offensive slot items would lose defense stat in place of offense stat, and utility would get a mix of both. Defensive upgrades would get a slight boost to offset the loss. Then from there I would also add set items based only on the three primary slots, not the secondary, I would also go out and rebuild crafting and for new upgrades, people find the craftable materials in dungeons and buy the blueprints from UNTIL using things like the coalesced qliphothic essence we find.

Finally, and the big thing, endgame. You can slice it any two ways you want, but theme parks need an endgame system. You can bullshit yourself till the cows come home but if there is nothing to do when you read the end but "reroll" then people aren't going to be interested and will not bother staying around for very long after they hit the top. And hitting the top in Champions doesn't take a lot of time. This involved loot, rewards, dungeons, challenging boss fights and many other things. Raiding content to is also something that should be implemented. People play MMOs to team and socialize, and if they don't they are either lying or don't really play to begin with. We need things like this.

In the end Champions needs a lot of reworking in a lot of areas. The game might be too far along for any of such changes to be implemented, but I would like to hope that they might be able to be implemented at some point. Part of the problem is Cryptic listens too much and tries to please too many at once. Instead of focusing and sticking to their guns, they listened to a couple of nobodies to dictate how the future of the game should go, nobodies mind you who proclaimed straight up that no matter if Cryptic implemented these ideas, they still would never play the game. So now we got a bunch of crap in CO that the people who wanted it aren't even playing the game for. And make no mistake, I think the Cryptic team is very hard working, but trying to please so many at once just delivers a mediocre performance, especially when trying to please people that left long ago.

July 24, 2011

Ode to The Current Generation (short blog)

Self-entitlement seems to be an exceptionally powerful thing. Very powerful indeed with the latest generation of iPod users and people who just plop their signature down on anything people wave a pen, real or electronic, without bothering to read what they are signing. This little debate actually started just now because, of course, the self-entitled age is now in an uproar that a company has made their plans publicly known to them instead of hiding their practices in a ton of jargon.

It simply amazes me to how people will defend another company that does the exact same thing, but those same people refuse to accept that it happens anywhere else because, as typical, they didn't read their contract. I can do nothing but facepalm at this generations ability to ignore everything.

Hell sat back and got a good laugh because someone called me an idiot after I said straight up you never own the game, you only license it. People; this is true. You never own the game. You might of paid $50 to $60 bucks for it, but you never own it. The game is still rightfully the creators. You license it. All the license gives you is the right to play the game and that's pretty much it. You can try to slice it any way you want, but just because you might have a physical disk doesn't mean you own it, and hell if you want further proof go to your steam account page. It will straight up say at the top Licenses + Subscriptions right over your games.

Been seeing a lot of self entitlement proclamations lately and it has been rather jarring how stupid people have become. My favorite, of course, are people trying to use the US Constitution as a shield. It's even funnier when someone outside the country tries to use it claiming they know it better than Americans. Here's a quick education; The United States Constitution protects the US citizens from misuse by the US Government. It only affects the US Government. Privately owned businesses and corporations are unaffected by it.

Just so much going on that is nothing but one facepalm after another. Is it really a wonder that the global economy is falling apart when people are saying crap like that from other countries, not just the US?

July 7, 2011

The Closing of SWG

Here's a topic I am late on but is still being discussed as it has been announced; The closing of Star Wars Galaxies. This is undoubtedly going to be a sore spot for many people, no matter the side of the fence you actually inhabit. There are some who think this is a dick move on the part of Sony/Lucas Arts and there are those who say that is about time. I am indifferent and this actually marks the fifth major MMO title that has closed its doors since the entire MMO boom started back in 1997 with Ultima Online.

I can't say exactly how I feel about the closing, because I really never had anything invested in the game. It didn't interest me in the slightest and I honestly can't say that it would have ever interested me, but I know to the fans who still loved the game, this is a devastating blow. But, I guess to me that the writing was on the wall when it was announced that Lucas Arts had no interest in pursuing third party development support for their Star Wars game license titles after the release of The Force Unleashed 2 and stating that BioWare would be the last to develop a third party title.

As I said earlier, SWG is not the first major MMO title to be closing down, the first was actually Earth and Beyond which closed its doors before it could really have a chance to take off. And having seen that, I can understand those fans who are upset over the closing of SWG. That game was a gem in the world of MMOs that was trying to do something different, though caught in the trappings of traditional MMO tripe. In fact, it was the first MMO with an actual fully customizable avatar even if primitive by the standards that games like City of Heroes and Champions Online have set forth.

If Earth and Beyond were brought back today, I doubt many would play it. The game is exceptionally dated, graphically, by today's standards and the travelling system can feel tedious. But gems often have their flaws, no matter how perfect, and I doubt an investor would even try to put money towards the game to update it graphically, even if someone took that kind of interest in it.

The second major title to get axed is a game that's been basically forgotten these days known as Shadowbane. This game was suppose to be a UO killer, back when UO was the big kid on the block with 250,000 subscriptions. It was a mess, since beta. The game had many delays, went through at least three publishers that I recall, and used a very outdated point and click system of playing. I never liked it, but I know there were fans, but even on a graphical level, the game was exceptionally dated by the time it launched and all the big plans that the dev team planned never found fruit. Ironically, the development team (Wolf Pack I believe) closed shop two years before the actual game closed down, which had been made free to play with frequent world wipes, resulting in a game that I doubt many would stick around with just on the sound of that alone. The numbers must of reflected how I felt, because the doors finally closed with a letter that didn't do it justice.

The third major title to actually be closed down was The Matrix Online which is another title Sony Online Entertainment ran after acquiring the rights from Warner Bros. Interactive so they could secure a deal to create DC Universe Online. Of course, part of that deal was to keep MXO running for a period of time, because even to the outside observer, it was obvious that MXO was hemorrhaging what few subscriptions it had left. I loved the game, but the major problem with it was complete lack of content. There were only like a couple dozen mission types and they all generally went to a building where you would fight a bunch of dudes to get a Magoffin and that was pretty much it. There were a few dungeons, but unlike the rest of the game, you were never told about these until it was too late. And how I mean too late is once you passed a certain level, you could never, ever enter said dungeons again.

The game world was quite expansive though riddled with bugs. They evidently were going for a sandbox feel for the game, unfortunately, they forgot a lot of the elements that are required to make a sandbox work. One of the craziest things they did was to make the individual clothing the armor for your characters, which makes no relative sense in the grand scheme of things. Style is everything in the Matrix, and yet the set up pretty much negated said style. However, if Sony would of actually pursued developing the title further instead of just using it as a springboard for their DCUO deal, things might have improved for the game, and we wouldn't of gotten that crap known as DCUO.

The fourth title to be cancelled is actually Tabula Rasa. The stink over this one was legendary since the games eccentric creator (another word for absolute lunatic) must of been trying to design this game from space, considering how distant he was from what players actually want to what he delivered. The stories and firsthand accounts from people inside NCSoft are legendary now on actually what went on, and it still astounds me to this day that Garriot was able to, yet again, con another big name company for more money. The game was awful, let's put it that way. There was no content in it in the beginning and from everything I was told there was even less at the endgame. It tried to merge FPS and RPG and failed miserably. The GUI was just unintuitive and there was absolutely no friendliness what so ever to teaming and socializing. In short, it's like how DCUO is now, but without the big name behind it to help keep it floating.

But that brings us full circle to SWG. I've only had the ability to play trials of SWG. I've never really gotten into the game, but unfortunately, SWG reminded me of Anarchy Online every time I played, and it just never felt right that I was holding a blaster but left at the mercy of auto fire to do the combat for me. I know the sordid history that CU and NGE brought about major changes no one like, of course NGE was a forced change by Lucas Arts, but Sony still takes the heat for it. But that is the nature of that beast.

What really got me thinking about all this was a statement made by a BioWare representative a few months ago and basically how LA and Sony have now put egg on his face for making that statement. A couple of months ago, a thread popped up like all the other numerous threads. This one asking that BioWare make The Old Republic more like SWG, ie more sandbox and less theme park. One of the BioWare reps responded to this and said along the lines of, "There is already a title that fulfills your desires, and as we do not wish to copy that game that option is still left open to you and will be for the foreseeable future after TOR launches." But now, that statement no longer holds true and I am sure people are going to start bringing it up as defense against making TOR a pure theme park game and instead aiming to try and get more sandbox elements installed.

I do not envy the position that person is in at this point, because that statement will probably haunt him for some time. Hopefully not as bad as other things that have haunted other developers in the past, one very notorious situation coming to mind, but the fact that making that statement and then the announcement of SWG closing down basically puts him in a bind.

However, that being said, I do know how people are feeling over the closing of SWG if it was their favorite title. I know people put a lot of love into an MMO, and sandbox titles get even more love than your theme park games. It is sad to see them close down and disappear off the market like they do. I do feel we need a new sandbox title on the market. And not something as extreme as EVE Online. However, the investment in time and money to make a sandbox work on an MMO scale probably isn't worth it to investors. MMOs are complicated beasts, and sandbox titles are even more complex than that.

Sandbox titles also suffer because they just aren't as popular as theme parks since theme parks offer instant gratification while a sandbox actually requires a bit of an investment. And this is the part where I know the SWG fans are stinging, because their investment just went up in smoke, disappearing into the digital ether as if it never existed to begin with.

When TOR launches and it proves successful, I am fully expecting EA to deliver it's papers to the UO and WAR development teams and player bases as well. Though UO probably has an insignificant cost, it's returns have also been less than stellar, and who knows about WAR. In the end, it's a wait and see, but there are still more casualties on the MMO front to come.

July 6, 2011

My Review of 4.2 Patch for WoW

It's been a few weeks, and not because I was scared off by some internet bullies, much to their dismay. Actually, I've been trying to think up something to write on and when I would actually start writing on a topic I would either end up losing focus on it, or just sort of hit a wall. In short, I guess I had writer's block and I have at least half a dozen word documents of unfinished thoughts just sitting on my computer probably needing to be finished someday. Who knows, I might actually spend this entire month doing just that.

However, 4.2 has now been out for a week, most of it has settled into the populace at large. Many people have done the content that has already been offered, and I am sure there are opinions on all sides of how they view it. For me, the update changed a few core mechanics and such and I can understand why the changes were made. But that's not really the major discussion here. I am going to talk about the story changes for WoW in 4.2 since story is more of what I am about anyways.

If you haven't done the stories for 4.2, then consider this your spoiler warning. Considering the rewards tied to both of these content updates, I find it hard to believe the majority of people haven't done them, but there is always someone. Regardless, if you don't want the story to be ruined, and want to find out for yourself, then I suggest you stop reading at this point and go have a latte or something.

Now, to get it out of the way from my personal perspective, this patch has created a mild frustration for me. Though it's not a show stopper bug, it's still on my list of bugs that should have been fixed already with the numerous hot patches that have been coming down since the big patch went out. Needless to say, this is a targeting bug. In short, this bug occurs quite frequently for melee specific players, no idea about ranged.

The bug is this, anytime a critter dies, you will, most of the time, automatically retarget that critters corpse. This is regardless if you manually targeted something else or tab targeted, you will automatically highlight and continue to attempt to attack the corpse. And I've ended up doing this retargeting three times on the same corpse before in a fight, and as a tank and melee DPS, this is an extremely frustrating bug to have to deal with. And it's not something you can notice straight away due to visual bugs with it to, such as the highlighted corpses still registers as a red, instead of grey, marker leaving you thinking you are on a new target. This is a result of lost DPS and tank threat for those in melee that are being pummeled by this bug. This should be a priority fix for Blizzard.

Now that that is out of the way, I am sure there are other bugs that concern people, but as melee that certainly is a borderline showstopper and not something that should be lasting already over a week since the patch has gone out. Of course there comes the heart of the other sole issues that have arisen since this patch as well.

Blizzard seems to take everything they have learned from the past and completely ignore it. And it simply amazes and astonishes me at the same time how they just keep repeating the exact same mistakes to. After Cataclysm and Tol Barad became available, Blizzard thought they could get people interested in winning by inflating the honor for winning to phenomenal levels. Oh it caused sides to swap, but people only went to get free honor. And people like me when the proposed change was announced stated, "People aren't even going to fight they are going to just change sides for quick and easy honor," and sure enough they did. So much so that Blizz had to hot fix that update out before the week was out when that change went live.

This time, a new mistake is the new content. Blizz promised there would be tons of quests, that you would never feel like you are repeating them, etc, etc, etc. Problem is, I do feel like I am repeating the same quests, because at least three of them I do every damn day. Eight days in and I've done at least three of the dailies eight times already. Oh there is a shuffle up, but there is only like a difference of two or three quests in the entire playlist, so in all I've repeated the same quests at least three times each now.

This isn't even the half of it either. In this case, the whole Molten Front thing takes twenty tokens to get started. Sounds fair, that's like two or three days worth of work in the grand scheme and the entire start of the storyline for this. But once you get past that and actually assault the Molten Front, you don't have one but two NPCs that require 150 tokens each to unlock and proceed further into this whole thing. Let's be factual about this. At most, currently for me, I get fourteen tokens a day. That's 11 days worth of grinding to get one of these guys unlocked. It is required to get both unlocked to proceed to the part that everyone wants to get involved with, the crafting unlocks. That's twenty-two days, maybe twenty-one if a new quest line opens up with the new contact. And on top of that, to get one of the crafting contacts, that is an additional 125 tokens if I read WoWHead correctly. So all in all, that's something akin to thirty-one days worth of farming just to get one of the contacts to unlock the craftable recipes.

Here's the kicker. People are farming the Firelands raid instance and getting drops of the trash mobs that are far superior than what is offered. This has been going on since day one of the patch. In fact I saw a death knight wielding a sweet two hander from that instance that I was slightly drooling over. And then there is the common complaint from the raiders, the older raids were made easier and such and so forth but that is just something to not really make myself concerned over honestly.

So why is it a craft able unlock required a minimum of thirty-one days worth of work (mind you I didn't do the math or look at the total quests that could be unlocked so I took a guesstimate) of solid grinding? The weapons are only Bastion of Twilight normal raid worthy and the armor requires stuff that only drops in the Firelands raid. This is just plain ridiculous and demonstrates that Blizzard just likes repeating the exact same mistakes. I will have to say whoever completes the near two months worth of grinding for all the stuff for the Molten Front should be committed, which I will probably be reserving my room since I have a compulsion to finish stuff. Don't ask me why, but honestly, Blizzard needs to rethink this, there is no reason this stuff should take nearly two months to complete when people will probably be downing Rag before the month is out.

Now, onto another bit about 4.2 I was somewhat okay with, but mostly disappointed at; Thrall's Story Arc. First and foremost I have nothing against the character. He's just become Blizzard's Mary Sue and I think everyone realizes that. Hell, with Cataclysm they've literally turned Thrall into Jesus, right down to how he is dressed now. He's the most powerful religious figure (shaman) of his people and everyone, he literally held the world together when the Cataclysm hit, damn the rest of those shamans who helped, and if given enough time he would of probably found the cure for at least seven different strains of cancer, HIV, and the common cold. This character has literally come to a point where he can do no wrong and he really doesn't have what a good story character needs; flaws.

And you can tell they are stroking themselves off over at Blizzard over Thrall to. Thrall has received more graphically, animation wise and even lore wise in just two updates than any two characters combined outside of major villains in the entire World of Warcraft storyline. From his Jesus of Nazeroth appearance right down to the fact he has an animation, facial expression and action for everything he says and does throughout his entire question chain. I am dead serious, he has separate facial expressions and mouths his words almost perfectly compared to the sock puppet lip animation every other character has in this game. Way to stay classy Blizz.

But that comes in the form of the second half of the equation. A character that comes out of nowhere, no one knew about, and has no place in this story; Agra. I don't know what Blizzard was thinking with this. It's either they thought interracial stuff was too risqué or their head writer just forgot all the lore that came before, however for whatever reason Agra is now Thrall's love interest and any story, chemistry and plot lines involving Jaina, even within WoW itself, magically vanished. Hell to add salt to a gaping wound to the fans of those two, they had Jaina right there at the wedding just staring, and Thrall didn't even acknowledge her presence and nothing was actually ever said.

I'm sorry, but this is just crappy writing and story. We got a love interest we never knew about being forced into everyone's face, like we were suppose to care. This is like a Michael Bay move here. Blizzard just shuffing a finger at the people who loved the storyline of Thrall and Jaina. Agra has one personality to, and it comes off painfully throughout the entire quest line. The voice talent can't even seemingly express any emotions outside of the typical just sounding like she was reading her lines, cause even when she felt heart broken in her words it just sounded forced. So in short we have a love interest we don't care about being thrust in our faces like she's been there all along, and they even try to say she's been there since The Burning Crusade expansion, and of course Jaina isn't even mentioned, acknowledges or given credit for anything at all during this. To me, and I know to a lot of the fans of the lore, this was just another slap in the face.

Over all, this update was just dismally disappointing. From the half baked statements of claiming there were tons of new quests that were false, to the Michael Bay style plotline with Thrall, to even the obvious they aren't even thinking about it anymore set ups that would take people longer to do the quests than to just wipe several dozen times in PUGs to get the same quality gear. Hell, I've already seen a rapid decline in people participating in the Molten Front, the ones that complete it will probably be very few. It's sad when you think rep grinding would be faster.