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.