December 31, 2012

Achievements in Gaming

The end of the year is here. So, what type of topic could I really discuss other than achievements in video games. You see, topical (I doubt it).

Achievements are a weird thing lately. Now, I don’t know when achievements really started in video games, but I do know that they started in MMOs with City of Heroes (CoH) and badges. Since that time most games have been including some form of achievements as a part of their game for some really bizarre methods for finishing a certain event. Many of these achievements are rather fun or just tacky thing. They do many things such as exploring the world map as a whole or actually attempting to make yourself better at specific encounters at large. However, there is a dark side to achievements that have crept in lately, and it’s become ever prevalent and rather tacky. This is what I call achievement bloat.

What is achievement bloat you might ask? Put simply, achievement bloat is the idea of just making up ludicrous achievements for no reason other than to have them. These achievements have bizarre, almost out of this world level of requirements to achieve, but strangely enough people just shrug their shoulders at them and think it is ok. How do I mean this? Let’s take kill achievements lately. Now originally you only need a hundred or so to achieve a kill achievement in CoH, with a few oddballs here, up or down. But now, kill achievements have ridiculous numbers attached to them, such as 5,000, and even more insulting is the reward doesn't match the effort required.

There are many other ridiculous achievements out there as well, such as achievements for opening your inventory, taking your first step in the world, hell for just moving the mouse. Achievements have been getting ridiculous lately and some of the stipulations attached to them are just getting worse. I don’t get why developers think this level of busy work is needed for achievements. Achievements should be things that people can possibly attain reasonably, not something designed as busy work in some vain attempt to stave off a looming doom as people get pissed off that you aren't developing content fast enough.

I don’t mind achievements; in fact I love achievements in a game. It gives me a small goal next to the larger ones to go after. What I don’t like is these incessant bloat achievements that shouldn't even be included. Kill achievements fine, a few hundred enemies that’s reasonable. Several thousand, that’s unacceptable. Achievements for exploring the world or reaching hard to reach locations, fine, achievements for walking across the street and clicking a mailbox, that’s stupid.

This level of achievement bloat needs to be stopped and curtailed, and developers need to start making realistic, more manageable achievements. Achievements should be, at most, about killing certain boss mobs in a time limit, or a certain way, or killing a certain number of goons but not 5,000 of them. Hell, when your game doesn't even throw mobs at people that fast, making people kill 5,000 of the same type of critter is just insulting to your players, just like giving them achievements for walking and talking is insulting to them. They want achievements for real accomplishments, not busy work meant to tide them over until the next update comes out.

December 26, 2012

The End of the World, oh and Story in Games

Sometimes, you can’t help but laugh. For the past few years all we’ve heard is about December 21st being the end of the world that we need to make our peace now, and so forth. Hell, even the History channel spent every year for the past five years, at least, running apocalyptic doom crap constantly to the point that I am sure most people had the shows memorized. This is what happens when you let a bunch of nutters take an ancient calendar and try to reinterpret it for the modern era. I could only imagine the panic if it was the Julian calendar found that way instead, every year someone would be going the world ends on this date because the Julian calendar said so.

Anyways, enough of me ribbing people who bought into that, let’s talk about something else. I’ve lightly touched on this before but I think I want to actually drive a nail through the forehead for people on this one. This is my thoughts on story for gaming.

Now, before I get into the meaty grind of it all, let me state, I love a good story. Who doesn’t? Well, never mind that, we already know there is some nutter out in the wings about ready to raise his hand and say he hates story. But what really burns me up lately about developers using story is the fact they make the rest of their game suffer for it. It’s almost as if the developers are afraid people might want to play the game and try other things to for a little bit besides stick to the main story. This is starting to get more prevalent in MMOs, but has been happening for a long time in single player titles these days. It is especially, and hilariously insulting to hear it from RPG designers.

Take Final Fantasy 13. I’ve been sitting back watching videos of walkthroughs of course; the first thing that strikes me of the game play is how pathetic it is. A linear corridor and a combat system so simplified it’s only one shot above that flash game that is one button to win type thing. Now I raised an eyebrow at this because normally, Final Fantasy has been about exploring and wandering around, even the fact that I hate 7 and 8 they had these basic elements at least. But to see how far my one time favorite series fell just makes me cringe. That doesn’t even get into how stupid easy the combat system is, basically playing the game with one button now.

To me, story should enhance the game, not completely drive every aspect of it, especially in an RPG. It’s great to tell a story, but don’t sit there and completely ramrod your players into one thing and be afraid to let them explore this beautiful world you’ve created. Players notice the small details as much if not more so than the big overt ones.

And this problem is starting to get more pervasive in the MMO world to. We haven’t hit the point where everywhere is an exact corridor but it’s getting dangerously close. New zones are being locked off until you meet either level or story prerequisites, and you can’t go outside the slowly tightening rails unless the story wants you to. Hell the dungeons are already corridors, in most modern MMOs with you being guided exactly to each boss. At the current rate of design, we are one generation away from a high profile MMO being a corridor game, like Final Fantasy XIII, removing all semblance of control, choice or the ability to explore.

Hell, most of the achievements now have been getting built with the idea in mind of not impossible to get, but the intent people don’t move from a single spot for hours or days at a time killing the exact same critter over and over again. And ludicrous kill numbers at that. It was an achievement to kill 100 of a similar critter, but these days those numbers have been inflated to the thousands range. It is not uncommon for a game to have a kill achievement around the 5,000 mark anymore, which is bizarre in itself since the enemies in most of these games don’t come flooding out of a gate like that.

Again I like a good story for my game, and I highly encourage developers to create a good story, or several stories, but don't make the story the only focus of what you are doing. MMOs, especially, are about vast, open worlds for players to explore, to see, and be apart of. The living, breathing experience for them. It shouldn't be some exercise in how well trained you are to follow a corridor and mash one button. And the complexity of the fights is something that should be paid attention to as well. So, please, keep this is mind when you are developing your next game.

Small Edit. I still want to thank Kaiserin for the wonderful new art piece. I wasn't expecting it, but she created it for me for Christmas, so thanks again to Kaiserin.

She mostly works on pony stuff that she sells here, but you might be able to ask for a commission. Who knows. I know she is also the 2D artist on the fan made MLP:FiM MMO game to. So check her out.

December 22, 2012

Tagging, Binding, and Seasonal Events

Happy Holidays to everyone, and for this blog, tonight, I am going to discuss three small things. None of them relates to one another but I think all are interesting topics to discuss and since they, on their own, would more or less produce a very short blog each I decided to mash them up together with no real rhyme or reason to doing so other than saying, here you go. I am just bizarre like that.

The first thing I wish to discuss that I, and I am sure a lot of MMO gamers also feel, is the archaic tagging system. Now, if you are not familiar with tagging, tagging is a term used to describe someone who attacks a monster first. In some uses you may hear terms such as tapping (like this was Magic: The Gathering or something) aggroing first etc., etc., etc.; this list goes on. But basically what they describe is a system where whoever attacks the critter first basically gets all the credit and glory and everyone else can just go sit in a corner.

Now, I am sure I am not alone in my feelings on this system, but to put it bluntly for the masses, this system needs to be killed off completely. It was novel in WoW when they first introduced it, but guess what, it was still a square peg in a round hole issue. Instead of solving the problem it was meant to go after (namely whiney people complaining about “ninja’s” as if anything in the game belonged to them) it instead exacerbated the problem by just giving a new level of power to ninja’s and griefers.

Let me try to be brief about the history of why Blizzard invented this system. Now, contrary to popular belief, MMOs existed before WoW, and in fact were mildly popular until WoW just exploded on the scene. However, the biggest complaint was always people ninja looting their loot from corpses, since older MMOs tended to use first come first serve rules. UO tried a system of splitting loot based on kill credit, and I think that would work better. This tagging system basically turned every games these days into griefer paradises and just kills community as people become stingy, hateful and mistrusting one another. Tagging needs to go and they need to find a better system.

Next on my list would be the infamous, infamous binding system. This is yet another square peg in a round hole decision brought to us by Blizzard in WoW. Originally it was called soul binding to give WoW a more immersive feel, but that was kicked in the head by the first expansion as like the entire company itself, WoW has basically been sterilized to the point the games immersive value is negligible.

Binding, for those who don’t know, is when you either equip and item and it becomes locked to your character and you can no longer trade the item, or what is becoming way more common, if you just loot an item it becomes locked to your character. In other words this is a type of system where if you believe in community, trading and such, you either have to be extra careful out of the gate with items or, more realistically, you might as well forget the community aspect all together. Binding is the quintessential square peg in the round hole solution to a problem that didn’t really need an answer, because the problem wasn’t anything but a matter of ego to the people it actually bothered.

Let me try to explain. Binding is actually a several part solution to a problem, again, that didn’t need to be answered. Binding, in a nutshell, attempts to fix the problem of loot sellers (which didn’t they became gold sellers later instead), dungeon hunters who thought it was stupid that people could spend their money to get loot that they think should only be reserved for the best of the best and thus promoted elitist egotism, and try to appease a certain crowd of PvPers who thought if they could keep these items out of PvP they would have easier victims to hunt. Of course, binding was also to appease a very minor group who thought that losing items on death was stupid, but since WoW came about there was no item loss on death so that made that aspect of binding entirely pointless.

Binding is a system that needs to go it is one of the walls erected, that wasn’t needed, that hurts community in the long run. The ability for people to go out adventuring, finding loot and later being able to trade or sell it helps, but when you can’t you end up killing a huge part of the community and you don’t solve a problem as much as just shift its position. You can easily level lock items if you don’t want people using things, it’s not like most of these games don’t use level locking anyways, so why the complicated, unnecessary and bullshit system of binding on top of it? In short, stop doing it developers.

And now finally, let me completely derail myself and talk about something way different from the above two items; Seasonal Events. People love seasonal events in MMOs, to a point. Here’s the problem with some of them in the modern MMO however; they aren’t matching the season they are supposed to be for. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love seasonal stuff and honestly, with MMO business models shifting I think seasonal events should be a nice, free thank you to the various MMO gaming community that they appreciate those players. Sure it’s a net loss, in general, but the gain of respect from your players will be more so.

However, I don’t think just throwing out random kill quests and stuff like that and calling it your seasonal content, especially when it matches very little to the actual season, is considered a seasonal event. Furthermore, a lot of MMOs, especially WoW and company, have a habit of just creating a seasonal event once, and then leaving it on a switch to flip every year changing nothing or very little about it from last year. This is not good design, this is piss poor performance. I know, again, these things take time to develop and test, but you should be showing your player base you appreciate them. Creating an event once and flipping a switch once a year is not showing appreciation, it is thumbing your nose at your player base. And worrying about people who might have missed it last year, so what? If they were around they should have known, if they weren’t, oh well, they can hear the stories from other players. That’s what makes a living, breathing MMO world, change that is change and permanent.

Anyways, that’s enough from me, I hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday season here, and maybe I will start writing blogs more readily.

December 14, 2012

Payment types of the MMO world

One thing that is becoming an ever increasing controversy these days seems to be subscription models and the free to play format of MMOs, and I can see where this argument might be coming from as well. In the past, subscription models were essentially the life blood of the MMO genre, and in this day and age, rate hikes are not something that can be planned for anymore. In today’s gaming market, with MMOs being very similar to one another, it’s hard to actually justify a subscription, hence the ever increasing push towards the free to play model. Of course, you have odd balls, but I do think that there is an easier middle.

Now first, let me get to addressing the obvious not free to play model that SWTOR chose. Let’s face it, anyone saying that’s a free to play model honestly doesn’t understand the concept. When basic, core features, like action bars, the ability to turn off helmets and basic UI features are locked behind a payment plan, this is the shadiest of shady practices. Let’s not even get into the fact that major parts of content are actually locked out to anyone willing to try the game, or have a limited use time per week to actually participate in, such as the dungeons and space content. This isn’t so much a free to play model as a very limited permanent trial feature.

Now, I won’t go into details on this but other people have talked about free to play models that have been smarter than me. Personally, I can see the merit of free to play, but it requires some ambition. Ambition that a lot of these MMOs actually lack and thus once the game is done and in free to play mode it sort of like they just kind of give up. A few are exceptions to this rule, of course, but others are not.

But, I think there is a third option. What is now being dubbed the buy to play method or B2P. This is something that Guild Wars 2 started on and TSW just recently adopted. What is it you might ask? Well quite simply buy to play is basically you buy the box and you can access the game without subscription. It’s kind of a middle ground between free to play and pay to play. Like a normal box game that you pay for, the updates are a part of DLC content that you can choose to buy later on. The only difference here is this is on a massive scale instead. I think many MMO gamers would actually be in the mind for this type of model than just subscription or the price gouging of free to play.

Now, despite what some reviewers might say, buy to play is not free, not in the slightest. You have to pony up cash at the start, and of course that’s a lot to ask for starting out of the gate. This marks the fact that developers of MMOs actually have to start getting bold again. Currently MMO developers are content with taking one design matrix and going from there with very few tweaks in between; just copying each other with no real ambitions to do things differently from everyone else. Some call it just being like WoW, but realistically, WoW’s a copy of the games that came before it such as Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot.

Now that’s not to say that being familiar is a bad thing, it isn’t, but when everything you do from one game to the next is the exact same game with only a different coat of paint you really haven’t done much thinking outside of the proverbial box. This is off putting to gamers, and after that initial wow factor wears off that they are in some new world, the familiarity comes crashing back down like a lead brick to the face and it makes people not want to stick around all that much.

But back on point. Despite what several reviewers might think, Guild Wars 2 is not free to play. You have to pony up cash and this type of model is actually quite sound. Now the key difference between an MMO and a single player box title is that future content is almost always in constant development where a single player title future content usually gets halted after a few DLCs and much more is never done for it. In the case of an MMO using the buy to play method this opens up the avenue of DLC in a way that developers can actually not only develop knick knack content for use by its players (like clothing, costumes and various skin styles for players to buy) but also they can develop larger future content for people to pay for a decent fee.

Of course, that’s the catch-22. The DLC has to be worth it to keep convincing your player base that they want to pay for it. Not all your content should be pay for, special events and such (like holidays) should be special and should be reserved as thank you’s to your fans of the game. That’s something I will probably touch on in another blog about how I feel on holiday events but that’s a discussion for later. But the key point of this is that the DLC has to be decently packed with new content updates and possibly new powers, gear and so forth to keep your player base interested, but not stuff that makes the rest of the players feel alienated or isolated from the game.

I think TSW has it right, and I know from experience I prefer that game over GW2, but there is always room for improvement. Ad revenue can help the game, but having methods in game for players to earn said currency can help to. But in the end when you introduce new DLC content, do not make it feel like you are alienating your players. Players shouldn’t feel like they have to buy a DLC to feel a part of the game. So this also means that the main original game, back to that point, has to be worth the cost of a box price. If you develop your main game then your future content strongly, you will keep getting repeat people willing to buy the content if you prove you are capable of delivering.

Players are stingier than ever now and they want to know their dollars are actually worth it. Of course you have your unreasonable types but it’s just as unreasonable to expect people to pay $25 for a pony. Subscriptions are pretty much dead. It’s time to adapt and change or shrivel up and die in this day and age of the MMO market. And those resisting change are going to get caught up in that wave.

December 11, 2012

Challenge versus Instant Gratification

I know it’s been quite some time since I last updated this blog, and most in part because I had nothing really to talk about. Well that isn’t the exact truth, it was more of the fact that I was more or less in a slump as far as what I felt like talking about and nothing really cheered me up in that regard. I can’t say I was depressed, but I wasn’t exactly inspired either. Probably has to do with the fact there is very little interesting going on, other than a lot of MMOs just constantly recreating the same mistakes over and over again.

I do want to discuss something that has cropped up in my mind just recently and that’s the concept of earning something and instant gratification. Now there is a very fine line between the two, that much is certain. How can you decide if you've crossed it? It’s a hard thing to measure in the end, but I think I can safely say that in the modern MMO era that instant gratification is the side that they are heavily leaning on. Hell, even the single player games cater to that play style with games having a difficulty setting with the only difference between 1 setting and the next is how hard the monsters might be in the game. In short, they offer everything up the first play through and have nothing to offer for a repeat performance. This, to be blunt, is just terrible game design.

Why do I say that? Because the player is supposed to learn and grow with the experience as much as the game is giving a return investment for putting skills and knowledge to the test. However, when the experience is flat, the game is flat. In fact a lot of games have been foregoing difficulty for the sake of “story” which is a piss poor excuse, honestly.

Let’s take Mass Effect for example. I’ve made my feelings clear on how terrible I feel that game story and play wise was, but let’s look at this more objectively. The first Mass Effect game had a bit of structure and trimmings, nice things here and there to play around with and discover on your own. It needed some trimming, but otherwise it had a great foundation, but was poorly realized for the sake of the story which allowed the player to be able to walk through the game in around the normal time of a single play session. Mass Effect 2, they did more than trim, they started pruning. Entire systems were gutted out for the sake of “streamlining” but in addition for the sake of the “story” causing the difficulty curve to actually go down further from the previous game. Once Mass Effect 3 rolled around, everything about the original game was gone except for the wallpaper. Everything had been gutted for the sake of that story, and the difficulty curve took yet another step down. The entire crafting system was gone and everything was so “streamlined” that any semblance of choice and character building for uniqueness was pretty much gone.

The same can be seen in MMOs as well. Now I can understand that developers and companies want that bottom dollar, but making things easier only causes the exact opposite effect you were going for. People are less inclined to return if they are assured that they can pretty much cheat their way to the top. Grant it you have a few who love that style of game play, but reality is that many do not. If you start handing out your best stuff within the first few hours someone picks up the game, no one is going to want to have a repeat performance if little else actually is left for them to do.

MMOs are about staying power and you have to strike a fine balance on difficulty to earn something (that dreaded grind westerners seem to be afraid of for some reason) and being given stuff on a platter. There have been many people who have talked about this very thing, including celebrity net people like Yahtzee, but I think it bears repeating that making things too easy is suicide in the long run. I think it’s obvious to many players that WoW has crossed that line, for instance, where your investment isn’t worth as much because your return has been devalued by how easy it is to attain.

Crafting is another area in MMOs that make suffer from this and they were honestly the first victims in the MMO genre. In today’s MMO crafting world, you go out, earn a few points in a specific field then buy a recipe from an NPC for a set amount of in game currency. No mystery, no discovery, everyone who follows that path gets the same thing. TSW tried something different using a Minecraft inspired crafting set up, but FunCom failed to understand what made Minecraft work was there was always something new to discover and be added and the recipes actually mattered in the end, and the overall mod community helps grow that games recipe list even further.

It took a Minecraft mod called Thaumcraft 3 for me to realize what MMO crafting needed, and if I were to ever point at one simple method I would say Thaumcraft has done it. The fact that many of the recipes are actually hidden and require player investment and discovery, it feels rewarding to do the research and you want to keep going. It’s very addictive. MMOs don’t do this, they again put everything on a silver platter for people to get with little effort.

Anyways, over all MMOs and games in general, need to stop making games super easy. The challenge isn’t worth the value anymore when developers want $60+ for a game that can be completed in less than a single playing session. MMOs themselves have this problem when the MMO game is supposed to be about staying power, but they give too much away too soon and people get bored very fast. I think this is something developers need to stop doing now.

August 9, 2012

My review of The Secret World

Well, I thought about it for a while, and considering that I haven’t actually written anything for this blog in like two months or so, I figured I should. Given that The Secret World has been out for over a month now, as they so proudly proclaimed in an email, that sounded like a desperate plea to me to get more people to sign up to their game, I figure it is about time to probably sit down and discuss why this game didn’t work with me like I hoped it would and why I never got it after having played it for a while during its beta. In fact, I came to despise the game so much that I actually uninstalled it twice during the beta life, only reinstalling it again after a friend got in beta and thought I could at least give them a familiar face to hang around with (until we discovered he was in those weekend betas which was completely different and builds behind the beta I was actually in).

Now, let me begin this by saying I wanted to like this game; I really did. You can’t believe how deep down I wanted this game to actually be the fresh faced, change of pace and offer something new that was sorely needed in the MMO space, especially given the stagnating nature of the genre. The idea of a modern setting place with the investigation missions sounded fresh and original, but even sounding fresh and original doesn’t mean it delivers exactly what was promised. So, when it comes to the break down I will try to point out exactly what I liked, but I will probably have a lot of things I absolutely despised about this game, and I am quite sure this will set off a few people who think that TSW is the second coming, just like people who believe GW2 is the second coming as well.

Now, first up let me talk about character creation. Needless to say, a few articles I’ve read have applauded the character creator and I have to keep asking myself one simple question; why? It’s atrocious in this game. Now, I will freely admit I might be spoiled from other games like City of Heroes, Champions Online and APB, but come on. The character editor makes games like SWTOR and WoW look positively deep and complex. At best you can do is choose a couple of faces and various slide positions that actually do nothing in the long run and despite TOR actually has a limited but at least an ability to change height and body mass on a character. This is just appalling.

Now, that’s not to say that the character art is bad; it isn’t. In fact, the character models are fairly detailed and animated (at least with emotes) fairly well, and with little tearing or stretching of the actual character model polygons; but if you were hoping for deep, or meaningful character generator, you might as well look someplace else. Clothing variations are limited, and anything you look for style which actually put you off because things like long coats or jackets still use that ancient taped to the back of your legs type of animation, thus it doesn’t look good at all.

Game world wise, this is a beautiful world; as long as you aren’t playing around in the three central hubs. London, Seoul, and New York are all cramped, tiny, not well built or well-planned out. The other locations in the game, however, are nicely sized and in some instances can feel too big at times, and quite beautiful to look at and very atmospheric. It’s almost a jarring contrast because the actual play areas feel like so much went into them, while the hub areas, the areas meant for socializing and getting together, feel like such an afterthought. Of the three hub locations, only London was the one thought about the most as it is the largest, and New York feels like the smallest. None of them feel like they offer the venue they were supposed to be for and feel completely superfluous to the actual game as the Argatha network provides all that basically.

That brings up the three factions; again totally superfluous. They aren’t required other than the once in a while faction story arc you might get. The three factions can be completely cut from the game and nothing would change. That is how tacked on they feel. I never really got to try out PvP, because every time I would try the actual thing would break, so I can’t say how any of the PvP maps are, but considering my past experience with games that base their PvP around skirmish maps, that would most likely suck anyways, especially given the fact it’s skirmish maps with 3 factions fighting instead of 2. 3 factions really don’t work well in a theme park environment. But down to the wire, other than a few lines of dialog here and there, there is no reason to have three factions in this game. Once you’ve passed your initial intro (which is the exact same for all three factions again) your contact with your faction is negligible at best and just completely pointless.

Speaking of superfluous systems, that brings me around to the entire skill system. Now, outside looking in, this sounds like a great and awesome concept; except, it’s not. There’s little to differentiate one skill set from another and there is even less reason to actually shoot for high level skills other than you have them. This is a game where the low skills are just as good, and in many cases better, than the higher skills you can actually get later on. The whole concept just seems like bad ideas, and instead of feeling like earning something new, you just get the same skill you were already using with a slightly different animation, sometimes, that can have a longer cast time or actually delivers less damage. It really did sound like a neat, and interesting concept, it’s just it was delivered poorly because each skill set does the exact same resource building as the other, offering no real variety other than a look when the wire is actually drawn out.

And that brings me to the other part of that equation the combat animations or skill animations. Take your pick. They are horrid. I am not going to mince words here. The combat animations are stiff, poorly animated and at times makes me just want to go play a game like City of Heroes at times just because I feel a game that is now 7 years old going on 8 has better animations, when I feel that most of the new animations in City of Heroes are atrocious now. The characters are stiff, very wooden and when it comes to actual attack animations barring a couple, look like they went the cheapest route possible for animation budget.

Next on that list is combat. And good God, was there entirely too much of it and it is very boring. Early on in the game, dealing with the zombies, you can probably plow through several of them without issue or problem. But as the game progresses, it has a habit of increasing the monster health factor substantially, but your damage stays relative. This is a very gear oriented game and if you are under geared even by a little bit, solo enemy fights will take a while to do. Combat is very repetitive, very boring, and it breaks up an otherwise immersive experience constantly. No matter how you try you can’t avoid it either, you will be fighting regardless of your intent just because of how the game was set up. The only way to avoid combat is to just avoid questing all together.

Now, missions themselves are… standard MMO tripe. Except they lead you by the nose as well as hold your hand to each of the next parts of the mission chains. What makes missions atrocious in TSW is they are so far apart from one part to the next, and are set up exactly like WoW style mission settings it makes you wonder what the developers were thinking. And the mission journal is the worst offender as it is purposely designed to limit how many missions you can actually have at a single time with you only able to have 3 side missions 1 main plot and 1 investigation type mission at any given moment. If you pick up more than that you have to choose to delete an older mission thus losing that progress. This would have been smart, if the missions in this game were not set up to be spoonfed like they are in other MMOs.

However, I will give props to the investigation missions. Now I said earlier that missions lead you by the nose, and for the most part that is right. They lead you by the nose going so far as to highlight and show you the object right down to the few meter area they are in, that you need to click. However, investigation missions actually make you have to do a bit of research and have no such hand holding going on. This is refreshing, to a point. The problem I have with the investigation missions was they sort of club you over the head with the clues that the in game browser became nearly pointless. I did several investigation missions and only a couple of times did I open the browser and sadly, when I entered keywords, it took me straight to the answers as they were already filled out on the game web site itself. While the theory was nice and sound that means that any investigation loses all-purpose thanks to any search engine more advanced than a pocket calculator being able to pick out any post or wiki with the answers you are seeking. This also has the fact that any replay value is set instantly to zero because the answers are always the exact same.

Story, voice acting and the like, I give this game prop’s for. I enjoyed it a lot better than TOR’s poor attempt and I certainly thought it was a lot better written and sounded better acted. I rather enjoyed the conspiracy over tone and that the NPCs actually moved around. However, no matter how good the story is, it is completely over shadowed by bad game play and game design at almost every turn for me. I gave it my all, and then during the last few beta weeks, FunCom started shoving out patches that would break entire systems just to get the patches out fast. My enjoyment factor kept plummeting and fast, especially after the 3rd time I remade a character because of something that happened that forced me to rethink instead of having to try and go through the process of redoing missions and gaining skill points just to try a new skillset. I uninstalled this game twice from my hard drive. The first time I did it was out of pure frustration and boredom with the game. I reinstalled it again when a friend got in one of the betas and I thought I could join them, only to find out I couldn’t. I toughed it out and tried to keep testing, but with only a couple of weeks left till launch, I uninstalled it again.

The gear grind in this game was just awful as well, because gear is what defines the character, not the skill set regardless of what you are told. And though they try to say that you can have whatever look you want, it didn’t help that most people kept choosing the same face and hair styles because those were the only good ones. I couldn’t even walk around Kingsmouth because my preferred face, hairstyle, and clothing look was being used by several other players. This is a game with a bunch of good ideas but awful implementation. It sounded like it wanted to be a sandbox world, but instead decided to be a theme park instead, which is ironic since you spend a large portion of your game time in a theme park.

If I were to give this an overall, I would say wait until it goes Free to Play. I’ve heard they are adding more hairstyles and such, but hell, I hear a lot of things about MMOs that just launch that turn out to actually do very little. I really did want to like this game, as I said, but it just buried itself under the weight of a lot of things that just make it not very fun for me to play.

June 4, 2012

Classic Gaming: Retrospective on the Final Fantasy Series

So, I am going to do something in this blog I haven’t done before, and it’s not about MMOs, it’s actually a retrospective on one of my former favorite franchises back when I was a young little pup; the Final Fantasy series. Now, I know that some people talk about Final Fantasy, and many remember that abomination on the PlayStation, Final Fantasy 7, as their all-time favorite game. I can’t fault them for that, many of them had never played a Final Fantasy game until that point, and the PlayStation introduced many people to the Final Fantasy series. Hell, I won’t even lie, I bought a PlayStation myself just so I could play Final Fantasy 7, but I am getting way ahead of myself on that point. Needless to say, this is mostly nostalgia talking, and will most likely piss people off as I say it, but I do personally consider any PlayStation era game of Final Fantasy an absolute betrayal (to quote Spoony) of the core franchise most basic fundamentals.

Way back sooner, in ye old NES days (talking 8 bit here) I was reading my Nintendo Power, and there was a blurb about a game called Final Fantasy in it. I was big into the whole Dungeons and Dragons thing, but was wary of actually bothering to get involved, because I had played Dragon Warrior, and promptly thought it sucked hard. But, I decided I would go ahead and give it another go, because generally speaking, Nintendo Power’s reviews were fair and well thought out. Not to mention you could actually pick the classes of your party members. Hell, I even entered a contest for Final Fantasy through that magazine and won a crystal ball from it, that I still have to this day with the classic Final Fantasy logo emblazoned on the bottom of it. It’s a glorified paper weight but I felt so happy.

Needless to say, I went out and bought myself a copy of Final Fantasy. When I got home and plugged it in, the first thing that grabbed me was the music. Primitive by today’s standards in all its 8-bit glory, mind you, but wow, was it good for setting the tone and mood of the game. And most fascinating of all, it had a prologue of text for people to read and actually get a sense of where this game was coming from. In short, a prophecy foretold a coming darkness, and 4 warriors would appear heralding in the light to battle the darkness; The Light Warriors. As clich├ęd and basic as any type of intro as you could get today, but it was far better than most other RPGs on the NES at the time. And the gameplay, way, way better than that crappy Dragon Warrior game I absolutely despised.

Now, this was back in the day when I was too young and dumb to realize that these games were coming out of Japan and there were actually other games in the franchise. So, it wasn’t until the Super NES came along that I found out about the American Final Fantasy 2. I saw the blurb in the back of Nintendo Power, talking about the coming game articles for next issue, and I really got excited. Because I loved the story of Final Fantasy, even as shallow as one might consider it, but the gameplay, made me love it. Then I got that next issue and I saw the leaps in mechanics the new game would make. Active Time Battle (ATB) was a big thing, as you had to think on the fly. I was hooked just reading the article.

Then I got the game, and wow did the bar get raised for me personally. The sound score, that Final Fantasy prelude I love, got the ante upped and it sounded orchestral and really moving. Then the game opens up with a flyby and you see the prelude to the fall of the main character and begin his quest to rise up to be a better person. The music was top notch and the story was moving at times, and heart wrenching in others. I kept going and going, and even got my characters to such lofty heights that even the toughest normal enemies were nearly being one shotted regularly by me. Then the American Final Fantasy 3 was announced and all bets were off.

This was the first RPG, that I recall, that had ever gotten an actual TV commercial in America. Maybe it was where I lived, but I remember that little moogle on screen interviewing the monsters and such, and that just blew my mind. I was sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for the launch day. Hell, I just happen to get into a local Wal-Mart and asked if they had a copy of Final Fantasy 3, and low and behold the guy went and got me a copy and there it was, the magnificent purple black box with the moogle on it and the golden logo reminding me of Final Fantasy 2. And I was still enamored by Final Fantasy 2 and its rather epic ending mind you to.

And Final Fantasy 3, to me is the pinnacle of the Final Fantasy series, the absolute best of the best. They took the bar and raised it so high that they’ve literally tried to recopy it in almost every PlayStation Final Fantasy since. They left the fantasy feel in but added in slight variations of a steam punk atmosphere and oppressive regime. It was absolutely brilliant, and the bad guy, Kefka (who is probably the best villain ever in a Final Fantasy game), could probably be the Joker’s brother. He is absolutely bat-shit insane, but his antics make him quite memorable and one of those types of bad guys you just love to hate.

And the main character you start as, unlike the previous Final Fantasy, was not the main focus of Final Fantasy 3. Terra was some strange girl with even stranger powers, and amnesia, but the plot actually didn’t revolve around her. In fact the plot shifts between multiple characters fleshing out their stories in the most beautiful and poignant way. You actually felt what these characters felt, even in the limitations of their 16 bit world. And when you saw the Opera scene when you, as Celes, had to sing the opera song to Oh My Hero, the melody and music was powerful. This was a game that was beautifully designed and orchestrated, and the best part, just when you think it’s the end, it isn’t.

This is how the bar was raised in Final Fantasy 3 for me. I had gotten to the point where I was going to the floating island, and we were out to stop the Emperor. Battle was going well, and of course, I thought the end of the game was near, which to me was just baffling because that would make the game the shortest in the series. But, low and behold, Kefka’s douchery rears its ugly head, and he usurps the Emperor and takes command of the ultimate power. Not only did we fail to stop the true threat, the world ends up destroyed in the process. Holy crap, the world is destroyed and forever changed. Talk about raising the bar to maximum at this point, but oh, the game isn’t over.

You wake up as Celes, and now your goal is to go out in the world and find your friends. But you can also screw up just on the waking up part as Cid is also with you (a character that has been in Final Fantasy almost since the beginning) and if you don’t do things just right, Cid could die.

The world itself is an obliterated mess with monsters everywhere and you are left with a sense of what are we going to fight for, until you start finding survivors and townships that have been rebuilding in the aftermath and you see the reason to continue fighting and surviving. The ending is just beautiful with emotional attachments as you finally take down the big bad at the end, brought your companions back from the brink of despair and the end result is the destruction of all magic in the world to save it. In short, at this point there was no higher the game could have gone, but hell, I was still too young to think about that.

Now, before I continue, at this point I was pretty much a Final Fantasy Fanatic. Final Fantasy 3 had left me wanting more, and of course I dug into every morsel I could find. Nintendo Power was talking about the N64 at this time, and I saw a bit that Square was looking to make a 3d version of Final Fantasy on the N64. I was all hyped, but then, nothing more came out about this. I kept wondering asking people if they heard anything, then I heard whispers that the next Final Fantasy would be on the PlayStation.

I found a magazine article about it in a Wal-Mart, and it showed that it was called Final Fantasy 7, and of course, again having not previously personally known about all the other Final Fantasy’s at the time, I kept wondering what happened to 4, 5 and 6. It wasn’t until later that I was informed that Final Fantasy 2 was actually 4 and Final Fantasy 3 was actually 6. So I kept wondering why 2, 3, and 5 were never ported to America, and discovered in another article that they never felt they would have sold well and wasn’t worth the translation at the time. Bah, let me make up my own damn mind please.

Needless to say, as I said before in this blog, Final Fantasy 7 is the whole reason I bought a PlayStation. I was eager and hyped for it. I couldn’t wait to try it. After all, after the balls to the wall storytelling that was done with Final Fantasy 3 (or 6) they couldn’t possibly start slowing down now. I don’t think my anxiety could have been any higher than waiting for that god awful Sony PlayStation load up title screen to pass than I was when loading the Final Fantasy disc into the console at that time.

And then I heard the music and I thought to myself, yes, this is going to be a Final Fantasy. They were using the traditional prelude that always let me know this was a Final Fantasy game. Then, I started playing it. Now admittedly, it took some time for me, but I started catching things early on that this wasn’t actually a Final Fantasy game. First up, of course, was all the heavy techno crap in the game world. Barring crappy polygonal graphics of the time, I couldn’t help but notice that the world felt lifeless, something that even the 8 bit games at least tried to convey back with its limited color palette. And I understood by now that none of the Final Fantasy games were ever really connected to one another, and I expected that most of the character tracks would be gone, but this was the most god awful music I had ever heard in a Final Fantasy. It was making the 8 bit game sound absolutely orchestral.

And then the first slap of the betrayal came at me with a knife; the battle music. Now, to this day, the battle music of Final Fantasy has been pretty much similar, espousing more heroic themes and a feeling of fighting. You were playing heroes in a game, and the music matched that. But in Final Fantasy 7, it didn’t feel heroic as much as bland and this is going to be tedious. It didn’t inspire as much as make me want to turn down my volume, contrary to what I did in the previous titles which was keep myself from actually turning the volume up and upsetting my parents.

And then the slap in the face that really got me the moment I noticed it from the get go; the victory fanfare music. Oh my God, how did you screw that up? That is perhaps one of the most remembered things about the Final Fantasy games for any nerd who has actually been playing the games since the NES days. It went from this sounding heroic courageous thing to sounding bland, and like someone went, oh, yea, you won, here’s crap. Jees, really? And believe me when you actually sit down the entire mood of Final Fantasy 7 was just a cluster of fricken fail after another, I still can’t believe people actually consider this crapfest the pinnacle of Final Fantasy.

The characters themselves were all stock and not very memorable. Hell the only reason people even remember some of the characters even that remotely is that two of them had over sized swords. Then of course comes the ultimate insult, the death of Aeris (Aerith) that every nerdgasming fan boi will sit there and say is the saddest thing evar, and I still scratch my head as to why. Aeris was the blandest, stupidest and most boring character in a Final Fantasy, and there had been previous characters who had been killed off and were way more memorable and had way more impact than that useless air head. And what’s worse, the game tries to convey she was integral to the whole plot line when the game could have moved on and she would never have been missed, not once.

And that’s not even getting into how bad the plot was to begin with, and how much it was an attempt to copy Final Fantasy 3 and fail utterly at it. Basically, you try to stop the end of the world, a common theme mind you, but in this game, you actually fail, like in 3, but unlike there, that is the actual ending. The world is destroyed and the only survivors we are shown is Red XIII and his pups. Yea, they retconned that later on given the fan outcry and such, and I am not raging over the ballsy ending, in fact I applaud it, but what I was disappointed over was the sheer utter destruction of the franchise and the absolute betrayal of what made Final Fantasy. They pushed so hard on the graphics that the plot and storyline and characters were all lame and less than stock. Their most memorable qualities were oversized things from Cloud’s sword, to Cait Sith’s body, to Tifa’s boobs (and you can probably find a lot of fan drawings of Tifa and her giant jugs that are weapons unto themselves).

But, no, the final nail in the coffin for me was Final Fantasy 8. Whereas it took me a while, because I was still a Final Fantasy Fanatic at the time, to realize how shit 7 was, but 8 utterly devastated me. 8 was a middle finger to the fans, and completely removed everything that was Final Fantasy. The prelude song that had been a tradition for 7 games before it, was gone. It was a techno wannabe world with impossible gun blades and S&M teachers who wanted to bone the main character, who was an unrelatable douche bag metrosexually confused character, and tried to cram so many plot points it was just an utter cluster of fail.

And it basically retread all the same grounds as Final Fantasy 3, again, including world destruction and you fighting on after the end of the world. But unlike in 3, this one the world is magically fixed because of time flux or something, and the destruction of the world never happened, and it’s all just a baffling mess. This doesn’t even include the awful, awful gameplay mechanics that required endless hours of grinding, more than usual, using the draw system, and the utter requirement of attuning characters to Guardian spirits or the fact that gear and upgrades were completely removed and required convoluted wannabe crafting system to get working. Final Fantasy 8 destroyed my love of Final Fantasy.

At this point I didn’t care. I bought Final Fantasy 9, and the roots were there, but I was so, utterly and hopelessly spiteful towards the series because of Fianl Fantasy 7 and 8, which I only ever got as far as disc 2 in Final Fantasy 9. I never completed that game, despite how Final Fantasy 9 did return to form, somewhat. And it makes me sad, because from what I heard, 9 was a beautifully done game as far as plot and story are concerned.

I’ve never played 10, 11, 12 or 13. I probably never will because just looking at the cover of 10 sickens me, and hearing all the scathing reviews of 13 just makes me laugh. 12 flew under the radar I didn’t even know it was made until 13 was being talked about, and 14 was just bad for an MMO. Needless to say, Final Fantasy was a franchise I started out loving, but when the series reached the PlayStation, and got Sony’s mitts on it, I knew things weren’t going to turn out well from a fan perspective. Sony had an already bad reputation at this time for me, and it makes me sad that my fears were confirmed. I do miss the old series, but like in my MMO blog from last week, it is something I don’t expect to ever return to its true roots because the game was killed off in favor of shiny instead of substance.

Would I ever consider a new Final Fantasy if they tried to return to form? I don't know. I know a lot of fans make me gag because they want Final Fantasy 7 remade, but if I ever had to pick a Final Fantasy to be remade for the common era, I would vote 3 (aka 6) because that game had a true story, substance and was basically the pinnacle of what made Final Fantasy truly a Final Fantasy.

May 31, 2012

Thoughts on the MMO market; Why I loved UO

Things are interesting when it concerns the landscape of the MMO world. In the current MMO age, everything is set to a level of hand holding and made so ridiculously easy that any sense of gratification one might feel for having accomplished anything is nearly lost almost as instantly as it is accomplished because things were just too easy. On the other hand, the concept of a living, breathing world that players could interact in and be a part of has been neatly swept under the rug and replaced with essentially single player games trying to pass themselves off as MMOs. The world we live in, as far as the gaming world is even concerned, is not an MMO world. It’s just businesses trying to cash in on the actual MMO genre without understanding what truly got people so interested in it in the first place.

I’ve been sitting back and just thinking, mostly. And so far I realize that I miss the young nature of the MMO industry. I don’t mean WoW; that pretty much heralded in the current generation of single player games disguising themselves as MMOs. No, I mean the games that came before, like UO, Dark Age of Camelot and so forth, where the world was more determined by the player than the players waiting on the actual world to get updated in expansion packs.

For me, the best world was always UO. This was a world that was determined by the players, and events and such were only small hallmarks. I wasn’t required to be a fighter of any kind. I could just spend my days being a crafter, making things for other players, and I know the things I made would actually be desired. Crafting in today’s MMOs is such an afterthought, I am left wondering why they even bother having crafting anymore, because it’s little more than lip service in the end instead of actually being something that players can aspire to or want to desire in the long run of the game.

I guess it might be nostalgia talking at times, but it really is something I do desire; a return to what an MMO was truly supposed to be about. Something more than just creating a specific character class and going out and bashing monsters continuously over the head until they relented, that has just never really struck a chord with me. And even as much as I love protecting the team, that role itself has been becoming less and less needed as developers continually push their MMOs to be more single player than ever before.

No, my best time ever that I can honestly say I’ve ever had was sitting, as a blacksmith, at the Britain forge in UO just talking with other players, repairing their goods and even making armor. You didn’t feel useless because the stuff a crafter made was actually on par with the stuff that could be found. Very little was actually needed to actually improve upon that, though they could have done so without destroying the actual integrity of the game. I don’t even think I could possibly describe how much I would love to go back to UO right now and engage in that world again. But, unfortunately, that world is gone.

If I were to show people UO now, they would probably just imagine it as another Diablo dungeon romper, as the crafting professions themselves are pretty much dead. Though socializing and such still exists, and from I’ve seen, a strong commitment of the RP community, in the long run what UO is now and what UO was just are two different entities and what I would desire just won’t ever come back. Not without basically a complete and drastic reboot of the entire franchise, and doing that to a 15 year old game would pretty much just require a new game at this point.

So what is it about this game that I always end up pining for in my mind? What keeps making me pine for it in ways that no modern MMO has been able to fill the void in? I don’t think the answer is simple. Parts of it can be describes as nostalgia, parts of it may be described as mechanics, and maybe even parts of it can be described as the community itself. But I think what really attracts me, and I think a lot of people actually remember, is that you truly could decide your own fate and how you actually wanted to spend your time in the game.

Ultima Online wasn’t just another game, and while the learning curve for getting into it was steep (nowhere near as steep as other games mind you, but it definitely was not newb friendly) once you got into it, the possibilities of what you could do became wide as all can be. There was a lot to do in UO, from owning your own house to being a tailor to exploring dungeons. And none of these activities, believe it or not, required the player to take up one offensive weapon or spell in defense. If you were skilled enough or planned yourself well, you could play the game without worry of ever having to cross swords with another player or monster in your gaming life.

Of course, if you were to look back on history, the one thing that would probably be noted as infamous about UO was the fact that player killers were rampant in the game. The original premise for UO was that it was a social experiment. Believe it or not, the grand-daddy of the modern MMO movement wasn’t expected to last 6 months when it launched. But when it did, it pretty much exploded onto the world. And what was remarkable about this simple looking game was actually how complex it turned out to be. I know people think that the 250,000 player subs at UO’s peak means it was a failure of an MMO, but most people are also too young to remember or even know that until WoW came along, the largest MMO on the market only peaked 500,000 once and quickly declined.

This is why I am disappointed on the announcement of Elder Scrolls Online. When I heard the rumors, I actually thought, Maybe they might make a sandbox game like classic UO, and of course I set myself up for disappointment. But I was using my knowledge I had from the fact of how the previous Elder Scrolls games had been created. But, instead, they flat out stated it’s going to be yet another theme park MMO, a single player game disguised as a multi-player game with classes locked in and such. So, players will not have choices and such. Now, one of the things they cite is the difficulty of balance in a freeform system, and I don’t disagree that can be hard, but that is just dumb to ignore the one core facet of your entire legacy, not to mention why can’t I be a bloody werewolf? Again something that was core since Morrowind.

I just don’t understand developers who want to jump into the MMO market, with their famous products, but not stick to the core fundamentals of the product that made it great. Elder Scrolls would have been perfect to usher the MMO back into the living, breathing world set up that MMOs use to espouse to. Giving players the ability to be whatever they wanted, play how they wanted, without forcing them into a set class. Let them be the blacksmith and forge weapons. But instead, we are given yet another theme park loot hunt game that will probably have yet another tacked on crafting system that means jack shit in the end, except for maybe the one that is all important (probably the potion maker) if they even bother with crafting at all.

In short, I believe Bethesda is making a big mistake. They are shunning the fans of their game to appease the lowest common denominator. They are looking at WoW and going, let’s be like them because they think copying them but changing the wallpaper is just going to be enough. It really isn’t. This was the perfect opportunity to take MMOs back to their roots at what they were all about, to allow people to actually be a part of a living, breathing world, and allow them to play it how they wanted to without always being forced to play some form of damage dealing character and always having to hunt and kill monsters, or other players.

So, what would I have done differently? Well, I would have incorporated a skill system. No levels. I would have looked at classic UO as the basis for the design. I would have then decided how I would have wanted it to pan out, how crafting should work, and built the world around the idea that crafters are important to the game. I would have let the player decide how they want to play, if they want to mine, or be a blacksmith and hang out and repair gear for the adventurer players, let them. Allow them to enjoy the game as they see fit.

How I would have handled crafting would have been done thusly; the skill of a crafter determines the quality of the items, with a highly skilled crafter making the nearly best items. I would have incorporated a type of enchantment system that would allow for prefixes and suffixes that give special boosts to items as well. Items found in the world could potentially be slightly better than what a crafter could make, but it would be very rare. A gatherer would be just as important as someone who goes out and slays the rampaging dragons that swoop down on the world. This would help to create an in game economy and such that would actually help promote trade and commerce and yes, items would have durability maybe even requiring replacement in the end.

Speaking of items, I would finally get rid of the stupid bind system. It was novel, but now it’s just a ridiculous control system that has done nothing but hurt community and promotes elitism in the worst ways. Elitism is not a bad thing, but the type of elitism that spawns around it is. Item loss from death is a bad thing to deal with, but I think some items lost from death should occur, but other things like weapons and armor can probably stay.

Death would be something that would need to be handled carefully, but I don’t think the game should be easy, and I do think that a death penalty of some kind is a necessary evil in an MMO. Otherwise you just end up with the death zerg. A loss a consumables on death, and possibly gold should be a good start with ways to get them back. Primary items like weapons and armor I would consider as well, since in order for an economy to thrive there needs to always be a constant demand for things. I know people would hate that, but economies don’t really thrive when there is no reason to repair, replace, or sell items.

I also probably would have pissed off a lot of people that enjoy their ranged classes by bringing ammo back and of course, with mages, having reagents again of some kind, just like in UO, for their spells. I know that’s probably not very Elder Scrolls, but it would have helped balance things out in the long run where the warrior types would have to constantly run in melee while the ranged can just plink away at range.

Another thing I would have brought back is limited pack space not based on arbitrary slots assigned by a bag type, but by actual carrying capacity. The weight in your pack and how much can be carried would, in the end, determine exactly how much you can carry. This limit could be determined by strength, of course, but wouldn’t restrict players based on a slot system but more on just how much they can actually physically carry.

And then there is the one thing that often gets brought up in every MMO but either not implemented or very poorly done in the modern MMO because there really isn’t a point to it, and that is housing. Housing was perhaps one of those features of UO that basically added icing to the cake of the fact that UO was a living, breathing world that people were a part of. You could own a slice of the land and decorate a house. You could have vendors to sell your goods for you while you were in town, and there were actual player towns that sprung up like this. Space was limited, but players could buy or sell houses as well, and later, were able to build the plot as they saw fit. If you want a theme to build an inn, you were capable of doing that. This is something I would do, but probably use a plot system similar to horizons, but not as convoluted or restricting as that. That way the players can build how they want.

And of course, the final part of the puzzle would be PvP. PvP is important in a living, breathing world of MMOs. But there would have to be some differences from the willy nilly gank style of old UO to today. Safe areas, maybe kings territories, and of course probably special rules for PvP. After all, today’s PvPers who’ve grown up in the safe world of WoW (yes, I am calling WoW PvPers carebears) would probably froth at the idea that their uber leet sword of pwn just got ganked from their corpse, but then again, I say the one thing about UO’s PvP is that it acted as its own kind of stat loss as a player went to regear. It was probably the biggest factor in helping control the battlefield and keeping people from zerg rushing. It was probably one of the biggest make people think things, the fact that dying could result in them losing all their stuff. But again, it’s something that most MMO gamers just wouldn’t accept.

In the end, I don’t expect much out of ESO, especially since they made it clear they are just going to copy the tried and true WoW formula. I can hope they will wake up in the end and realize that giving a finger to their fans is a bad idea, but who knows. I would hope they might actually experiment and try to make the MMO a true sandbox world instead of yet another bloody theme park that we have entirely too much of on the market. I think that’s what a lot of the angry posts are truly about in the long run. Who knows, I am still waiting and seeing, I guess.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would probably make a classic UO reboot with modern 3d graphics but keeping its classic gameplay albeit streamlined and the isometric viewpoint. Hell, if I could magically get it, I would use Blizzard’s graphics engine because that’s just about perfect for UO, make the entire world of Britannia, maybe double the size of the world and just go from there. But that’s a pipe dream, and currently while most developers think that more theme park games are magic dollar signs, my dream of seeing another game like UO just keeps becoming smaller and smaller.

But I keep holding onto hope. Maybe soon a developer will wake up.

April 27, 2012

Champions: On Alert!; Surprising Update

One thing I can say is that I have been pleasantly surprised with the turnaround in Champions Online. Now, this is not to say that everything is going smoothly or perfectly but the direction and the way they are working their designs has been pretty good. They’ve started implementing methods and such for Champions that has over all improved the game, honestly, and looks to be leading towards giving some good overall. It isn't all peaches and cream, but I am going to just discuss what has impressed me.

Now, I know there are people that believe the mod system is a bunch of hooey or some other thing like that, but just taking the new item and gear system into account, the overall improvement just on mid-range mods alone, is a staggering improvement over what we use to have. The vocal minority complaints have basically been coming from those people that can’t farm one critter over and over for the best of the best gear. In short, Cryptic has now given a foundation to keep playing instead of the former log in when the new content releases, complete it then log out for the next several months model that has currently been in the game as it stands. IE, they gave people reasons to play now, and for some odd reason, those vocal people find that a horrible idea. *boggle*

Old systems were removed because, frankly, they weren’t going anywhere. I know some people like to claim that the old crafting system was the “best of the bestest” out there, but really, it was crap. Having a useless system that was worthless from the minute you started messing with it, and even the interesting items only the crafter could actually use was a ridiculous idea to begin with. In short, they removed the mess of useless stacking components and just gave us ways to get the special stuff from vendors. And now can just combine items for the stats we want, and put them in the gear we desire. No more of the random stats that do very little for the character.

The Alerts themselves are actually pretty good, with a few quibbles. Over all though, they provide content and if you are hunting for some costume pieces you always wanted, the bosses can drop particular pieces that can be used or sold by you. In addition to that, each of the types can either help you level, give out a large amount of resources (money in the game) or even provide you with modifications. Then there are the special types which are generally week long variants of the other three but with a special villain or villain group to combat. It’s a good foundation start and I can see Alerts being used to introduce special event content that has more of the super hero flavor to it, such as moving the Undead Hero fights during the Blood Moon to Alerts instead of having them out in the world.

The biggest thing that I am actually interested in that was just announced as a contest that can be found here is create your own villain, which the Grand Prize is your villain will be featured in an EPIC 10 man encounter (ie raids). The game system already is set up to support raids now, you can see it through the team up window, and this actually makes me happy to see that large scale content like this is finally being considered for Champions. It has been needed to help with endgame and the new foundation for loot and such that was created gives the devs a large amount of leeway in creating unique items and upgrades for characters as Champions now pushes forward.

The follow up now is to wait and see when the lair review goes through, which is also supposed to include epic lairs (which are supposed to be very tough 5 man content, IE heroic dungeons basically). The dungeon finder is already in place, as it can be seen in the Instance Queues window with its own tab, but the dungeons themselves have not been hooked in. And after that, there is supposed to be new content with a level cap raise and talk of new zones. I can only hope that this will include increased support for new power sets as well for the game as well as reviewing what’s already out there.

The future is looking bright, and if in gam activity is any proof, this was just the type of thing that Champions needed to get the ball rolling again. Hopefully we will see more in the future.

Edit: Something else I forgot, the number of costume pieces that people have always wanted were also released with this update that you can find as random drops from the NPCs in the world or using new in game type currencies (similar to TOR) you can buy them from special vendors instead. It's a great way to flesh out characters now.

March 15, 2012

Being Casual is no Excuse for Being Incompetent

You know, it’s a growing thing I’ve been seeing lately. I have nothing against casual players. In fact I actively encourage people to play at their own time and put life before a game, in so much that I think the guilds I form in games have the most lax rules concerning actual attendance and so forth. However, there is an ever growing group of people that trumpet this casual banner and use it as an excuse to be utterly stupid or incompetent. These people aren’t exactly what I call casuals, so much as people using the casual banner to try and explain away their own ineptness or incompetence and try to make believe that the things they hate (that tend to expose their incompetence) is what other casual players hate. This is where I’ve come up with my latest saying of being casual is no excuse to be incompetent.

Really, I would rather say stupid, but I am being somewhat nice about it. But there is a lot of people lately that are using the casual banner as an excuse to be absolutely incompetent players, and they try to disguise this excuse behind things of such as “I don’t have time to learn everything about a game” or “It’s unfair I have to spend so much time doing these things” or “It’s my time and money, I can play however I like.” So we will examine some of these excuses.

Now, one of the biggest trumpets I’ve seen from these type of people that hide under the casual banner are the ones that play MMOs and multiplayer geared games and don’t like to interact with people or team. This is absolutely stupid. No, you can’t argue it. These are MMOs. They are designed to bring you to interact with other people. There are plethoras of single player games that do the exact thing you are looking for. If you ride the excuse that you hate interacting with other people in a mass media experience, then really, MMOs are not for you and you are already demonstrating the key malfunction of your argument.

But then people trumpet my money and time is my own, and thus you can’t tell me how to spend it. This is true, but then, so is the money and time of the people you are joining with and showing your utter incompetence towards. I don’t give two shits how you spend your time and screw up your character in the game. But when you join a team and start ruining everyone else’s time, no you are not helping. You are demonstrating that you are incompetent and you don’t deserve to do the content that those people are working towards. You are the reason people sit there and tell you to learn2play. It isn’t there fault you refuse to work as a team player. If you are so inconsiderate of other people’s time and energy they are devoting to what they enjoy, then why should they consider yours? Don’t complain when you refuse to be a team player in a team based activity and people don’t respect you when you are not respecting them. And don’t complain that you can’t get the new hotness because you refuse to be a team player.

Another common excuse is that they say they don’t have time to learn these things. This is so many ways of retarded and stupid I don’t know where to begin. Basic common sense doesn’t require time and much effort to apply. Secondly, it doesn’t take much to learn that 2 and 2 equals 4. Developers have made the games they create so easy to understand these days that it can feel insulting on many levels because they are catering to people that shouldn’t be catered to. If you can’t take the 2 minutes to look at read the description and understand the basics of your characters abilities and class and so forth, then no, it isn’t lack of time, it’s you’re being lazy. If you want to be in game activities that require teaming and being a team player, then take the time to learn your character, role and abilities.

Another common excuse is, I don’t want to play this way. Then why the hell did you play the class to begin with? There are classes obviously better suited to the role you wanted. Don’t sit there and try to pin excuses of game mechanics or flavor or any other non-sense on your ineptness to actually picking the class and role you wanted. This goes doubly so when you go in saying you will do something but aren’t. You are really wasting people’s times doing that.

Some people of course try to say that it's unfair they can't get the best stuff without needing a group. These are lazy people. In short they want everything handed to them instead of actually just going out and playing the game or learning to be a team player. Honestly, these are the type of people that MMOs just aren't for, and for whatever reason they keep playing them. It baffles me.

But really, there are a ton of excuses these days that people try to hide behind for their reason being incompetent. Some don’t even want to communicate; they stand there like a timid little mouse and act like everyone else is supposed to magically do things for them. And people that try to use the term casual to hide their own incompetence really irks me, because it insults the actual casual players that enjoy playing, and I know are damn good at playing when they can play. I don’t ever accept people telling me that just because they are casual means they are a bad player. No, you are a bad player because you refuse to actually improve yourself, so stop trying to hide behind being a casual and insulting people for it.

So in the end, I will say it this way. Being casual is no excuse for being incompetent or stupid. There are many people out there that are casual that are truly good despite limited time to play. So don’t even try to lump yourself in that group of casual. Most casuals actually take time to learn, but the few who don’t tend to give the casual group a bad name.

February 18, 2012

First Impressions of Champions PTS Overhaul

So, here we are the first major, major update to the PTS, the Alerts have gone out and with it some of their first changes to the game including a little bit of re-itemization. And all I can say is, eh…. They’ve been aping and hyping all this now for quite some time and the first experience with it has been exceptionally underwhelming. And I don’t mean from the unfinished, buggy reasons why. They are extremely underwhelming, the whole idea of them being “team” content got flushed out of the door when the team I was in pretty much ran over each group solo.

It just baffles me every which way that the same group that is making Star Trek Online, that not only has viable endgame content, can’t seem to tell their Champions group to get their act together. A statement from one of the devs said they were looking at it from an endgame perspective, to which I will add; No, you bloody well were not. Hell several of the groups I was testing with the exact same utterance of the lack of challenge pretty much was very clear.

And yet again, I can do nothing but facepalm as they’ve not only, once again focused on low level characters, they are, again for the third or fourth time now, redoing the starting level content of the game. The 1 to 15 level-range has received so many revamps and revisions now that a lot of the content is out of order. This is not smart design here. I can’t even begin to fathom what they are thinking. They are designing this game as if the levels did not exist and think that everyone can meet the exact same challenges on equal terms, but the team game is an appalling mess, the content is laughable, and they pretty much give things away to make any actual replay value pretty low.

Now while they say this is just foundation work so they can move forward, in the past 3 years now, there has been absolutely no forward momentum performed with Champions Online. In fact, the only thing to have received any significant updates has always been the level 1 to 15 range of the game. Anything for teaming or challenging content has not been added and has pretty much just been ignored.

So in short, what I am saying, this update is very thin and needs more to it. If this is all that’s planned, then there is already a huge problem. This level of mismanagement has always annoyed me, because it’s something that you have to go out of your way to mess up. Champions’ deserves better than this and it is appalling on so many levels how the game is being treated.

All I can say, if what’s on test is any indication of the potential future to be had, it’s extremely too little and honestly, I think it’s well past too late. But I guess I can check back each week to see if anything else has changed, but I honestly don’t feel it will. Cryptic seems content in appealing to the minority demographic that remains instead of actually building a game meant for the MMO world.

February 12, 2012

On Cheating in MMOs

PvP is a pretty straight forward affair. People that have been at it for a long time and experienced know the difference between good PvP and bad PvP. While opinions may vary, it can be easily placed that a game that doesn’t allow for PvP to be one or two shot game fests but doesn’t turn into forever lasting slugfests tend to be the most fun, which also end up utilizing more skills and abilities on the part of the player. However, this is also something to be weighed in on the MMO market to, where a game that only has a few useful builds or powers in PvP, then one can argue the game utterly failed at balance.

However, there is a darker side to PvP, one that is generally occupied by the less skilled who would rather do anything they can to win instead of actually doing the basic, most fundamental thing of gameplay; learning to actually play. These are the people that generally argue in favor of easy kill almost unavoidable mechanics or play whatever the cheapest load out combo is for near insta-gibbing of anyone regardless of build or spec. These are often the people you see using the words Learn2play as their battle cry most of all on the forums in defense of an obviously overpowered spec or ability.

Unfortunately, it’s also this crowd that tends to also produce the highest level of the worst type of players to encounter in a game experience like this; commonly called a hacker, but universally known as a cheater. Generally this is a catch all term for someone who will abuse bugs, exploits or third party programs to gain whatever unfair advantage they can in an environment. Their only goal is to win and they could care less about the actual rules or skill required or the actual challenge involved. They only care about the win in the end, not about actually proving they can play well.

Now the first thing I want to make clear. Not everyone that is better than you is a cheater. Some people just either know how to use their skills well, know how to place themselves better, or just many other factors. Even luck can boil down to who wins or doesn’t. So in the end if you get outplayed, then it might just be that, you got outplayed. If you are new, it might be confusing at first if you don’t understand how the various classes work or something, but in the end, you have to come to understand, there is always going to be someone better than you in the end. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who beats you isn’t doing it legitimately.

Now there are certain things one could universally say are bugs and exploits of broken mechanics, and the amount of action that will be taken in those cases is relative to the amount of dollars that a company will lose. In the Pay to Play environment (P2P) this, unfortunately, often leads to the game rarely taking action against these obvious game shattering exploits. This tends to also cause more harm than good, realistically, as instead of making examples and proving they are taking a stand, they allow these people to continue abusing said bugs and exploits and state common excuses like, “It was our fault, and we should not punish people for doing something.”  While I am certain in some instances this is true, such as if an entire class’s commonly used ability is the cause, this is not the case when an obscure ability or combo of abilities produces an obviously broken effect and only a small handful of people abuse it. And instead of actually immediately fixing the issue they let it linger. This produces the effect of no confidence in the developers and tends to hurt their longevity when it concerns the PvP arena, especially when no action is taken in the concern of this.

Exploiting a bug can be many forms, and almost all the time results in gaining an advantage that would otherwise never be had. For instance, abusing the stuck mechanics to avoid an otherwise lethal situation, especially in the realm of PvP or using a specific bug to allow a character to produce ludicrously high damage that even the most robust tank can’t withstand. Many try to claim that it’s just using the system to their advantage and sadly in many circumstances, instead of actually punishing the people abusing these exploits. Most game companies decide to weigh towards the dollar value and let it slide thus continuing to send a message that they allow this to happen instead of making an example of those people and maybe even curtailing some of the more fearful exploiters, and thus losing potential dollars and those who prefer a fair and even environment without having to rely on bugs and exploits for a level playing field don’t want to belong to. Hysterically, most of the people that abuse the bug will do whatever they can to defend it.

Now, the final type of cheater is the hacker type. They use third party programs, most of the time illegal, but sometimes legal, to actually gain an advantage that could not normally be had in the game. Anything from super bursts of speed, to inhuman levels of target, to even magically knowing where everything is in a game that no one without spending hours doing the timing themselves and setting up a clock could know. People abusing these types of programs sometimes are doing it to see how long they get caught. However, there are groups of people who go out of their way to find these cheats and the first question almost always asked is, “Is it detectable?”

Blatant hacking is almost easy to see. People moving faster than it would be physically possible or healing impossibly fast or magically hitting you regardless of location are all examples of hacks that you could see. Hacks come in many forms and vary from game type to game type, but they all basically aim at one thing; to give a ludicrous advantage to make winning easier if not guaranteed. Hacks aren’t limited to just those, either, there are hacks designed to run and do errands for people and these are also universally riled.

At the end of the day, the reality is that cheaters are everywhere. They know they are doing it, and many try to cover up that fact. Some blatantly abuse bugs and exploits or third party programs and hover on excuses that they use them to make the devs fix them faster. However, I think it would be in developer’s best interest to start banning people more openly. If you don’t show the cheaters that your policy is actually something you back up they will basically just wipe their ass with whatever your terms state, and in the long run this will cost you more dollars in the end. Stop dancing around these problems and actually start doing something and backing up your claims of no tolerance. While I know that every claim of cheating or hacking needs to be investigated, if you were actually making examples of them you might have less than would actually appear.