Archive for November, 2011
Happy Monday and other oxymorons on this, the day after the last beta hurrah for Star Wars: The Old Republic. I spent a lot more time in the game this weekend than I had previously, and after having learned a lot of things, felt that I had a better handle on the game and how I might feel about it later on.
I’m still avoiding the Jedi Consular, since that’s what I’ve decided to play in release. This time, I went with the Republic Trooper, a class which I don’t think receives it’s due. In a universe like Star Wars, the sexy archetypes are the Jedi, the Smuggler, and the Bounty Hunter. The Troopers are cannon fodder and once you get to the “modern” movie timeline, they’re clones, cheap, and expendable. No one wants to be a cookie-cutter character in an MMO, right?
I admit, I picked the Trooper because I knew I wouldn’t be playing one in release, but having played this class, and the Empire’s bastard class, the Imperial Agent, and now having been impressed with both, all bets are off.
I met up with Mindstrike who was playing a Smuggler while we were on Ord Mantell. We had several generic missions in common, but we finally got to experience cases of tagging along to someone else’s story mission, and the shared social missions. We had a bit of confusion at first about who could see what, who could participate in what conversations, and what was going on when one person was having a conversation that the other couldn’t see. We found that if you’re both taking a generic mission for the first time, you can both participate in the conversation. If you’re past another person’s green door, you can SEE their cinematic and hear their conversation, but you can’t do anything. If you have already done a generic mission or are ineligible to receive it, you just around like a doofus until your party is done with their conversation.
Playing with two people is great; playing with two people who each have a companion is awesome. It’s like a wrecking ball swinging through content. To some, that may sound like the End Of The World As We Know It, but as I’ve said before, I’m all about the progress and, in this case, the story.
About That Story…
I enjoyed the Trooper storyline. You’re the newest recruit in Havoc Squad, a special forces unit currently assigned to Ord Mantell in order to assist in the battle against a separatist movement. That’s all I’ll say about that. Spoilers, etc. As a class, the Trooper has as much subtlety as a battering ram. Sticky grenades, rockets, full auto, and armor-piercing buffs make for a formidable opponent, and that’s before you pick up your first companion. I died only three times which was more due to my overconfidence than it was to the performance of the class.
I ended the weekend at level 14, having completed some arcs on Coruscant which were supporting the Trooper plot. Normally, once you leave the training-wheel zones, you’d start getting off the beaten path of any overarching storyline, but I never felt more then one mission away from the Trooper’s narrative. For me, this is important because side-quests can be distracting to the point where the main story thread is lost in the haze of having to find someone’s lost heirloom or to clear a crime syndicate out of the lower levels of the city. Thanks to constant reminders for the why to your actions ties back into the main story. For me, this is critical to my potential long-term success with SWTOR.
My Potential For Long-Term Success With SWTOR.
It’s hard to say after only a weekend what the future holds for my investment in this game. I thought Rift would be the one game I’d stick with, but I lagged behind the general population (again) and found myself alone without support in a game that requires you to have support for the main selling point of the game – the rifts. Once that reality set in, and I reached that magic level decade of the 30’s, my interest in the game dropped like a stone attached to an anvil locked in a safe dropped from a cargo plane.
Right now, the story propels me in SWTOR. Having to kill X number of Y because my quest tracker says so is pure theme park MMO, but the fact that I can do it without much upset says a few things to me:
- Combat is a speed-bump in SWTOR. It’s necessary only because…
- …It’s all about the story.
I really hate to burst people’s bubble, but if you’re looking to SWTOR because you want another loot-whore, end-game hump-fest, or if you deride it because of the same, then the reality of the game totally went over your head. Like a novel, there’s the reader’s interpretation, and the author’s purpose, and the two may not align. If you want to run this game like a min-maxing, l2p-your-class, “win” at MMO game, then that’s fine, but I believe that the authors of this game really intended for you to put that artificial crap on the shelf and to treat the game as an interactive story. A story with pictures, so those with the World of Warcraft mentality don’t have to strain themselves to keep up.
I’m cautiously optimistic about my chances of progressing through this game for the reasons stated above, as well as an all-important third reason: so far, nothing has stood in my way. With Rift, I felt abandoned and unable to progress. With EQ2, WoW, and LotrO eventually left me with a treadmill feeling because there was no overarching reason; everything was a one-off mission that needed to be completed and didn’t have ongoing consequence* later in the game. With SWTOR, I made it to level 14 in two days. That’s more then 1/5th of the way to the cap which for me is huge. I totally credit the story as the vehicle for my interest. I’m hoping that this will continue to propel me through the game to the cap (finally).
It’s Like Duct Tape
Now, like the duct tape and the Force, there’s a dark side to all this light side. I’m not a fan of pointing out issues just to counter to ebullient praise, but I’m also not ignorant of issues; I just usually choose to rise above them in order to find the enjoyment that’s there. Unless there’s a show stopping issue, which is rare, I can live with anything else that the game throws me, even if there’s something that throws me.
That being said, my one gripe with SWTOR is that I was really expecting more polish on this sucker. And here’s a caveat! I know that many times the “beta” version we play is potentially several months old in the build cycle. I also know that it’s beta, still, even this close to launch. There’s a good chance that when things get pulled together, things will get ironed out. There’s also the chance that things won’t get ironed out.
Some of the gripes (which are by no means ground-breaking for me) include weird-isms like shooting with no weapons in hand, having to listen to other people’s companion’s one-liners all the time, and the delay between alien dialog subtitles synced with voice-overs, and the ability to select my conversation option. Again, none of these are really game breakers for me, but I know there are some “quality Nazis” out there who still equate “release” with “flawless” and who will use things like this to fuel their personal campaigns against the game.
While I totally understand that working on a game of this magnitude is beyond the scope of one mortal’s comprehension (despite the fact that many lesser-mortals claim to have their finger on the pulse of these things), I’m disappointed to see things like this in such a high profile title from a high profile studio this close to release because I know that in some quarters the game will suffer from it in the court of popular opinion. The game will still go on to be a huge success (by actual standards, not the usual self-important forum-troll standards), but I’d really love to see it clear hurdles easily in all areas, and not just because of it’s IP, features, or name brand developer.
While I hope these kinds of things are ironed out quickly, they won’t stop me from enjoying the game come release time.
And Now, Some Spoilers!
[To see these, highlight text from here to the end of the post!]
I wanted to put that in there because there’s some things that continue to impress, and some deal with spoiler content.
One of the missions for the Trooper story is to cut a supply line based in the criminal underground in Coruscant. The supply in this case is a shipment of advanced battle droids that you need to destroy, eventually bringing you face to face with the droid supplier. He boasts that he’s also augmented several humans with undetectable cybernetic parts, and plans on unleashing these unsuspecting time-bombs on the general population. You’re ordered to kill these citizens on the off chance that this scumbag is telling the truth, but as you can imagine, you have a choice to kill or not to kill. I chose not to kill.
Later, I received an email from an NPC which told me that while the rumors of potential cyberizing were found to be accurate, those people I released – who were supposedly altered – showed no signs of having this lethal technology.
From an emotional investment standpoint this is an interesting twist. During the mission, I found that my companion didn’t react favorably to my initial acceptance of the kill order, so I switched at the last minute to let the subjects go. I thought I was done with that, but the decision was brought back to my attention in a good way when I was informed that I had made a humane and correct decision, despite earning an earful from my CO for going against her orders. This bridging of time for what might have just been another step in the progression of the story made me smile because it supported my non-lethal decision, and because I thought that it could have easily have gone the other way. It also supports the idea that the story isn’t something that goes in one eye and out the other, like other MMOs.
This isn’t super-predicated by anything in particular, except that Skyrim continues to be relevant at this time, even with the impending bull-rush that will be the more-or-less open beta for Star Wars: The Old Republic this weekend. Of course, since I write a lot about MMOs and their people, it seems almost a given that this topic should come up here. I’d like to register the fact that I am totally against the idea of an Elder Scrolls MMO, and would suggest anyone who enjoys Skyrim to do the same.
Skyrim is a sandbox game, which is a term that many people use often to refer to MMOs that don’t force you to progress mainly through a railroad of quest chains. You’re allowed to go where you want, when you want, and if you come across something that’s more interesting to do at the time, then you’re welcome to do it without having it affect your potential to complete any other tasks (which is a tangent for another post). Sandboxes are about freedom, and Skyrim takes the further by allowing you to pick up anything that isn’t nailed down, to become a vampire or a werewolf, to own multiple houses, to command retainers, to slaughter villagers and their chickens, to construct, enchant, and do alchemy while shooting fire from your bare hands and unleashing powerful shouts in the ancient language of the dragons.
Seems like a perfect candidate for an MMO, right? Sorry, no.
Wanting more of something great doesn’t automatically mean that it’s appropriate to have that thing appear in another form, especially when transmuting said thing into said other form would require massive concessions that would severely neuter what made the source material so great. Skyrim works so well as an ultra-sandbox because it’s single player. There’s only one instance of that particular moving part – the player – which means that the design decisions are far different then they would be if there were hundreds of thousands of players that all have to be made happy enough to continue to play (and pay). The sandbox element would certainly be nerfed because not everyone could loot that barrel or slay that dragon without the game resorting to MMO tropes like instancing and re-spawning…two examples of things that the lack of which makes Skyrim pretty great. MMOs need to be designed to offer equal opportunity to all players, which necessitates throwing most of Skyrim out the window.
Of course, that’s not an assertion that’s set in stone. MMOs are the way they are today because “conventional wisdom”, accountants, and forum whiners have made them so. They are designed to appeal to a wide audience through egalitarianism, so that your choice of race, class, or even gender should neither grant a benefit or apply a detriment to your opportunity to experience content from start to finish. Classes are designed to compliment one another in a triangle of arrows that proves the effectiveness of the “Holy Trinity” in order to get people to play together, but each class also needs to stand out so that choosing one over another has meaning, but then there has to be balance between the classes in PvP, because those players need to kept as happy as those who don’t do PvP. So the next time you think about bitching about balance or opportunity in an MMO, consider this broad overview and realize that MMOs are about keeping as many people as happy as humanly possible while trying to keep all of these eggs and chainsaws in the air. It’s not an easy task, and is probably the second choice job for developers, because they couldn’t find a job as a police attack dog test subject. The unspoken bottom line, then, is that many thing could be done if developers could (or would) jettison the notion that everyone needs to have the same opportunities open to them. That’s a loaded idea, and in the interest of tl;dr, I have to leave it hanging out in space like that for now.
But there are other roadblocks to making an Elder Scrolls MMO. Part of what makes Skyrim kick so much ass is that you can intend to make a bee-line from point A to point B, only to wake up three hours later after having stumbled up seven mountain paths, clearing two forts, a dwemer mine, and served as an errand boy or girl for a few daedric princes, just because you were curious. If this were an MMO, there would be 200 online guides which play connect-the-dots, telling players where everything is, what you get from it, and which order to tackle them in order to maximize your stats, and other players would be on your ass if you didn’t use those guides. Basically, it would totally ruin the point of a sandbox game, which is that “Ooh! I wonder what’s on the other side of this mountain!” sense of exploration and reward that anyone who’s played Skyrim is probably familiar with.
So no, I don’t think the Elder Scrolls would be served by having an MMO set in it’s universe. Yes, it could exist “out of time” the same way earlier Elder Scrolls games do, but let’s face it: people would expect Skyrim: The MMO but would end up with something that’s associated in name only, leading to disappointment and a troll-feeding frenzy across the Internet. Instead, let’s keep our Elder Scrolls apart from our MMOs because we need to have games like Skyrim to keep us grounded, and to offer us a break from the grind of the “modern” MMO.
Alduin dilon. Alduin is dead.
I guess I’m an oddity in the community of Skyrim: I played nothing but the main quest (well, mostly). I wanted to “complete” the game, as I saw it, by finishing up the main story before I deviated and started traveling off the beaten path. I did occasionally stop by a ruin or clear out a camp, but usually it was a spur of the moment thing, or because I jumped into the faction story for a bit in order to get some perks out of the deal. According to Raptr, I’ve played for 28 hours, and I’m only level 15.
As I have stated before, I play these story-based titles on the easiest mode, because I’m interested in getting through the content. I rarely do, even with this trick in effect, mainly because I get tired of the game or something else comes along and I lose interest. Thankfully, Skyrim is a “perfect storm” game: there’s no other games out right now that I care to start, I’ve lost interest in Rift (and currently my authenticator is offline anyway, which is another whine for another time), and the game itself is just so goddamn amazing.
So now I have to figure out what to do with myself. I signed on with the Imperials, and have to complete all of their tasks. I also have a whole quest log filled with minor tasks…and just realized that I have to go BACK into Blackreach and pick up my lexicon cube, which I accidentally left behind. I didn’t find every dragon word, although I wonder if I’ll actually be able to slay any more dragons at this point.
The NDA is down. Let the vomiting of details commence!
[Insert Scrolling Exposition Text Here]
I need to say that I started my SWTOR experience after coming off a few hours of Skyrim. That’s a tough act to follow for any game, especially if that game is A) another RPG, and B) and MMO which has been often criticized for it’s safe design decisions. I admit that my initial impression was colored by Skyrim, which is both fair and unfair. Fair, because Skyrim sets a high bar for all games, but unfair because one’s a single player game which can have the room to breath, and the other is an MMO which really does have to cater to a wide audience. The Star Wars IP really doesn’t do it for me; I’m a casual fan, but could take it or leave it beyond eps IV, V and VI.
I have also been on an anti-MMO bender lately, as previous posts can attest to. I was going in with several strikes against SWTOR already, and the only real reason I hadn’t cancelled my pre-order at that point was because I know my friends are planning on playing.
In A Galaxy Far, Far Away (And Packed To The Gills With Testers)
My first misguided decision was to create the class I wanted to play: Jedi Consular. I don’t care for the “Jedi” part; I’ve taken an unusual shine to the healer class since Rift, so I decided this was to be my class in release. But I wasn’t feeling it, for the reasons stated above. I also realized that I shouldn’t play the class now that I want to play later, so I quit out and created an Imperial Agent. I consider this to have been a Good Move ™.
The Agent was fun. The cover mechanic worked pretty well, although it’s kind of gimmicky. Normally you’d just stand there and shoot like a total dork, but at least with cover, you get the feeling that the usual MMO unwillingness to, you know, avoid getting shot at is mitigated by the fact that you’ve decided to take cover this time. I wasn’t sure how to use the Agent at first, but found that while in cover, your abilities in the hot bar change. I guess this is kind of like a stance change. A lot of the Agent’s abilities revolve around shooting and blowing things up,which is great fun. After I found the right ability rotation (a curse of MMOs, natch), I was gunning down and exploding targets really good-like. Thanks to Rift, I even stopped several times to lob grenades at mobs under fire by other players before running on my way. I‘m a real fucking nice guy like that.
I don’t really follow the greater Star Wars canon, so I’m not going to get all geeky over nods to the universe to be found in the game. I liked the visuals, though. I thought they were properly immersive. In the Hutt palace where you spend most of your time as an Agent, you often pass through the cantina which had the same kind of surreal music you hear in Star Wars cantina when Luke and Ben hire Han: it’s kinda goofy, but in an alien way, so you nod and say “OK. I can get on board with that”. And, Twi’lek pole-dancers.
Hutta is kind of a crappy place, with a lot of swamps, some slave labor, and a kind of shanty-town feel despite being high-tech. That’s one aspect of Star Wars that I do like: how high technology can exist in such a run-down and totally crappy configuration that implies that the people living there don’t care that they have hover-bikes. It’s old hat to them, and they just shrug it off.
Jedi Mind Tricks
So after a while, I found that I wanted to go back and play, partly because I felt obligated as a tester, but partly because the more I played, the further I progressed in the Agent’s beginner story arc. And I was enjoying that aspect. The voice-over is crucial to this. It is as you would expect if you’ve played Mass Effect or other BioWare conversation dial games. If that doesn’t light your fire, well…turn back now.
Sitting here now, writing this almost a week after the testing experience, I can say with certainty that the into to the Imperial Agent story arc will stay with me for a long, long time. There’s only a handful of quests from any RPG or MMO that I can say that about, so I consider that to be a special kind of litmus test in regards to the worth of a game for me. Without getting spoilery, I can say that being a total dickwad, purposefully picking the decisions to maximize the Dark Side points, lead to a very sharp contrast when the situations got serious, but it was the divide between being an asshole and the hard decisions – and sometimes regret of making a particular decision – that put a pin in the whole intro for me. I don’t have any official plans to play Sith in release, but if the opportunity arises, I am so going to be an Agent all over again…and will probably be as big of an asshole as I was the first time around.
Bonus Content (Extra Stuff On The DVD)
One thing that also added to the enjoyment was the attainment of my first minion. She rolls into the…role…naturally as part of the story, which I thought was smooth. She kicked butt, but wasn’t a deus ex machina or anything. I had a bit of a stumble trying to figure out how to give her gear and to manage her effectively at first. After I left Hutta, though, I was able to use the companion system to send her to sell my junk items, and, once I got her her companion skill (Underworld Connections) I sent her away on her first solo mission. It works like the pet in Torchlight, where they go away for a set amount of time that, in this case, varies based on the implied complexity of the task (and the expense of shipping them out, and the level of the reward). I like the idea that you can do these things with them while you’re just bumping around the quest hubs or waiting on other players to get their act together.
But if you strip out the conversation system, the story, the companions and some of the other fluff that BioWare has added, you have a basic, old school theme-park MMO. That’s pretty damning for some, and it was for me up until I became invested in the story. I really don’t want another wall of text MMO where I really only read the objectives and compare rewards and never consider what the narrative reason is behind my task. It’s kind of a “thing” that’s been missing from MMOs: a real mechanism that nails the unappreciated aspect of lore and story to the player’s forehead so that he can’t ignore it, or can’t just read the objectives before robotically plowing his way through to get the reward. I really started to care about what I was doing, and how it was affecting the story, and yeah, at some point I stopped being a dick and started earing Light Side points because there were characters I didn’t want to betray (the one that mattered the most to me was handled badly by me, and I still regret the decision I made to that end). If it weren’t for the stories, and the way that they’re executed, I would have backed out on my order by now.
So some people are going to love it. Some people will absolutely hate it because it doesn’t deviate enough from the themepark MMO design. Some people will be on the fence and will probably buy it and give it a shot for the free 30 days of play time (strangely, I just questioned whether there would be a free 30 days…don’t know why…) and will make their decision in that time. It’s a polarizing game, which is good and bad because regardless of how you personally feel, it is doing some things to move the ball down the field which can only mean a march of progress for the genre that hasn’t really progressed by leaps and bounds over the past few years. We had this kind of minor shift with Warhammer Online’s public groups, the introduction of LFG tools, and other features that we now take for granted. I do hope that future MMOs integrate deeper conversation mechanisms, because I think then they can start to really tell the stories that they’ve been trying to tell all these years, and make more people take note of them.
One burr in my bonnet, though: I realize that the Hutt are intergalactic gangsters, but was it really necessary to give some of their minions those stereotypical “wiseguy” accents? I felt the only thing missing were the gold chains, bad Hawaiian shirts, and copious chest-hair.
I’ve played Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion and now Skyrim, and I’m convinced that there can’t be another entry in The Elder Scrolls series after Skyrim. My scientifically correct theory is based entirely off of the theme music. Music in games, as in movies is designed to set the tone (!) and to act as the emotional bedrock to any scene. Therefor, my theory – which is a result of minutes of in-depth research and is supported by a scientific community of myself — is as follows:
Nerevar Rising: Theme from Morrowind
Sweeping and epic.
Reign of the Septims: Theme from Oblivion
Same theme as Nerevar, but more heroic and urgent.
Skyrim Main Theme: Theme from Skyrim
Epic, heroic and brutal. If this doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, you’re a zombie. Please kill yourself and save us the airfare of us having to do it for you.
By my projections, the theme from another TES game would have to be so ungawdly beyond epic that the following would occur upon hearing it:
1. Your brain would burst through your skull.
2. It would punch the nearest 20 people in the face with sheer barbarian brutality.
3. Gathering with all of the other newly emerged brains, they would form an army that would march across the planet in a scene that would make anything from Braveheart look like a kindergarten playground, setting fire to everything they encounter.
4. The Earth would explode.
5. The Earth would then implode.
6. Just to prove how awesome it is, the theme would resurrect the Earth, which it would then re-explode.
7. The universe would explode.
To put it into perspective, I give you this hastily constructed projection graph:
In conclusion, any furthering of the franchise would put the universe at risk during the opening credits, which, if my theory is correct, would mean that either A) any game following said theme would have to be suitably more epic then the theme itself, or B) we’d never know, because the universe would be dead before the opening credits.
I will now open the floor to questions.
This is a difficult post, technically, for a few reasons. I had an epiphany this weekend, which came as both a surprise and which was also not surprising. It is, however, something I am concerned about discussing because I know that any way I frame it, it’ll become fodder for some partisan camp to seize upon, and I really don’t want it to become a rallying banner for some frothy-mouthed fan or anti-fan to carry into battle. It’s also difficult because it involves the presence of a certain NDA locked MMO, which means I can’t speak of specifics that illuminate my points. But I’ll give it a shot. So here’s a disclaimer!
This post is not in support of anything. It’s also not an attack on anything. If you want to badmouth the principals involved in this discussion, please take it elsewhere. I’m writing this because it’s my own epiphany, and I’ll not let it be used to support to deny any quality product intended for our entertainment.
And so, I would like to start by saying that I believe that I’ve come at least to within sight of the end of my affair with the massive multiplayer online game genre. I’ve been playing them since I beta tested Ultima Online over crappy dial-up connections, up until now, where I maintain a six-month-at-a-time subscription to Rift. I’ve played all the “big name” games, and have played or at least tried or tested legions of smaller titles in the genre. I’ve played alone, with friends, and with strangers. I’ve been ganked, and have ganked, have both enjoyed and have hated PvP, and I do not regret the time or money spent having played in this genre. Not one bit.
Part of the allure of the MMO was that, at first, it was new. Back in the late 90s, “social networking” meant leaving posts on BBS or chatting in IRC. Having real live moving avatars was fantastic and exciting. As the Internet took off, and people became more and more interconnected, it only made sense that gaming follow suit and offer a more group-oriented experience. The single player game was declared “dead”, at least in it’s traditional, offline form, slain by the multiplayer, always connected experience.
Looking back from our vantage point of today, maybe the MMO genre has grown too fast. Video games themselves are barely 30-some-odd years old, with at least 1/3rd of that knowing the “modern MMO”. Now we have hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Sadly, the best mirror I can hold up to the current state of the MMO genre is Twilight. If you want a more palatable example, then Harry Potter. In both cases, the extreme popularity of a singular product spawned hundreds of similar or outright rip-offs in a very short amount of time, all looking to get some of the original’s zeitgeist while the getting was good. If the existence of Twilight is bad, then surely the existence of a Twilight clone is even even bigger target for derision? That’s what we’ve got in the MMO genre: constant arguments over who’s the latest copy of World of Warcraft, or a general malaise over features that many see as having been stagnant since EverQuest. This is apparently fuel for some, but for those of us who aren’t as partisan, it’s tiring to have to hear the same chatter over and over again with each and every new game.
This isn’t to say that it’s not warranted; some of us just don’t let it color our opinions of the product as a whole, standing on it’s own merits and not using it as a whipping-boy for our issues with other games. Still, there’s really only so many times we can look the other way as marketing departments work their hardest to convince us that this time it’s going to be different, but when it’s really only incremental if we’re lucky. It’s easy and even lazy to just dismiss and complain. It’s difficult – and far more rewarding – to look beyond the path of least resistance and the delusions that we have “higher standards” that demand to be met. But there may come a time when that attitude just can’t be maintained in the face of something that just brings one back around to what made gaming so enjoyable in the first place, and makes one realize that “settling” isn’t always the best strategy.
This weekend, I had time split between Skyrim and the oft-mentioned NDA MMO (herein known simple as NDAMMO). Both are hot properties. One is widely available, and invitation to the other is widely sought after. It would be criminal to have obtained access to NDAMMO and not participate when one is able, so I was constantly switching between the two. To say that it was like apples and oranges doesn’t quite cover it. One is online, the other is single player. One is tightly scripted, the other is sandboxed. The art styles differ. The genres differ. Both are extremely well done, but neither is without technical issues, but that’s neither here nor there. But on Saturday night, I think it hit me that Skyrim was fulfilling a need that no MMO had ever been able to fill, no matter how hard it tried or how noble it’s aspirations.
Skyrim isn’t the Second Coming by any stretch. It’s not going to be for everyone because it’s the Sandbox of all Sandboxes which means that you’re free to go anywhere, at any time for no other reason then it looked interesting. The northern land of Skyrim is a cold and empty place, punctuated by occasional bursts of interaction with far flung villages, secretive bandits or mysterious ruins – and the occasional dragon. It’s all of this combined with amazing visuals that gives you that sense of immersion that I think we so desperately want from cutting edge games. Trudging through the mountain pass in near-white-out conditions while stalking a target is both nerve wracking and exhilarating. In all my years of gaming, I don’t think I’ve encountered anything quite like spotting a dragon wheeling around the sky in the distance, heading closer, and scorching the ground as it passes overhead.
And then I transitioned to the NDAMMO. Sadly, I can’t say much because of the NDA, but to move back into the MMO space after spending time in Skyrim was…jarring. It was comfortable and familiar, even though I hadn’t played that game specifically. There were people all around me, doing MMO things like jumping, dancing, fighting. I’m sure the chat channel was abuzz with talk of World of Warcraft, but I ignored it. It was…an MMO, which should be enough to convey a set of parameters about the game without getting into specifics. I enjoyed my time there, after a while, but it’s that after a while that made me realize that I just wasn’t all that excited to MMO-it-up much anymore. I’ve barely touched Rift in the past few weeks, and the MMO-flavored highlight of recent memory has been DC Universe Online going free to play.
I don’t credit Skyrim specifically with my malaise regarding MMOs. I think that after 10+ years of walking a familiar road that I finally admit that I might be in need of a change of scenery. Skyrim is a once in a blue moon phenomenon. Others have tried to take on the open world fantasy (Two Worlds being a high profile miss), including “sandbox” MMOs (Fallen Earth, EVE Online, etc.) I can’t say I’d be interested in leaving MMOs entirely for games like Skyrim because there are no games like Skyrim, at least not on such a schedule so as to fill my gaming dance card. What I think happened is that there was finally another style of game that just blew me away, that showed me that although MMOs are fun, they’re not pushing any envelopes anymore. The notion that the future of gaming is online is incorrect; online gaming has shown us that their “future” is a hamster wheel of intra-genre cannibalism which is limited by having to please everyone while keeping up with the competition in a genre stuffed to the gills with contenders.
To sew it up, I’m still on-board for the release of this NDAMMO. After an initial sputtering start, I really got into it, and have some positive things to say about it at an undetermined point in the future. However, I expect that this may be my last and terminal MMO. Having gone back to many MMOs over the years, I am not sure that I can look at them the way I did when I was discovering them for the first time, or even delighting in what I find in any new MMO. I recognized early on that I Have a shut-down point in pretty much all of them that drives me away with boredom, and I’m bored with being bored in that fashion. It’s time to look at some of the non-mainstream, non-mass-market titles out there that may suit me. I’d have a lot of time to fill, if I did actually give up MMOing, and I suppose there’s a lot of titles out there to fill the space.
So, I was a part of a “very exclusive beta” test this weekend…you know the one I mean…the one under NDA lockdown that’s preventing the thousands of other beta testers from talking about it? I shall not speak of it specifically, but this game (*wink*) has been beta testing for months now, with some permanent testers, and some “weekend warriors” rotating in for a single weekend between then and the end of the beta period. It was also recently announced that anyone who registered to be a tester prior to November 11th will get in sometime during November. As Gazimoff at Mana Obscura observed, that could be millions of players.
We’re almost a month away from launch, and everyone has been told that they’re going to get a peek under the canvas before launch…and the game is still under an NDA. Why?
An NDA in it’s true form is designed to maintain trade secrets. Employees or focus groups aren’t allowed to talk about a product or service before it’s released because the competition might get wind of this product and may adjust their own products or services accordingly. That makes a lot of sense. In the gaming world, it works pretty much the same, I’d think, although for MMOs it’s kind of wonky, as a AAA title takes years to create and refine, and any company that attempts a fire drill to head of a competitor’s feature before it releases is in for a world of hurt.
But for beta testers, the NDA serves what purpose, exactly? Sure, beta testers are an excitable lot, having been chosen from millions of potential candidates through some developer voodoo, and they’re all wired up to talk about their experience, and to get all “nah nah nah NAH NAH!” in other gamer’s faces. But the same theory applies when we talk about proximity to launch: by the time beta testers are admitted, the game should be really close to release (within months, maybe). Close enough that other games wouldn’t have time to get a similar system out the door, unless they wanted to release a totally half-assed system (which isn’t unheard of). The most they could get out of it would be some additional lead time to make plans to prepare talking about the possibility of maybe someday adding their own similar feature, right? I don’t know. Maybe these companies are more agile then I give them credit for,
But when it’s less then a month from release, and you’ve committed to allowing every single person who wants to get in access to the beta test, what’s the point of having an NDA after that? If everyone who wants to be in on the secret knows the secret…it’s not a secret! Instead, I suspect this is NDA is in place now for two reasons.
The first is to prevent the unwashed masses from running out and giving the world their opinion. Pro blogs and other media have had their gag order rescinded a few weeks ago, so the more “professional” (read: no axe to grind, no “gamer cred” to foster, etc.) outlets can wax poetic in the *cough* objective fashion that they, as trusted outlets, are expected to comport themselves *COUGHCOUGHCOUGHHACKCOUGHSPIT*. But the regular Joe/Susan Blogger doesn’t need to hold anything back, and if they hate Biowa…I mean, the developer, or the publisher, or the IP, or the decisions that were made in the design of the game, well, he or she can just let fly, and no company wants bad pre-release press for a product which is indicated to go super-nova on the sales charts.
The second is to maintain the hype. Even now, so close to launch, people are pushing at the gates like People Of Wal-Mart on Black Friday. Although so many people have gotten in during a beta test weekend, there are legions more who have not, and would do almost anything to get an invite. It’s a different culture, modern beta testing, then it was when I was a kid, where it’s now more about getting a free taste without the commitment, and companies know this. Meting out the invites while keeping those who have already experienced it under a gag order ensures that there will be no second-hand contact highs though blogs or YouTube for those chomping at the bit for the experience.
I hope, though, that once the “everybody into the pool” testing weekend is over, the NDA is taken down. At that point, anyone who really, really cares about having an opinion of the game will have experienced the game, so there will hardly be anyone left who doesn’t know about it first hand.
Wow. This came out of left field: A call to arms for game companies to get into the gambling space for e-sports titles.
I’m not entirely against this. But then again, I kind of am.
The article talks a lot about how e-sports isn’t as much of “a thing” here in the West as it is in the East, but it is growing, and with it a homegrown gambling industry. The author suggests that game companies themselves need to get in on the ground floor of incorporating online betting into their infrastructure. From a business perspective (which ignores the whole mountain of legal issues that is gambling in the U.S.), it makes absolute and total sense to me. E-sports is on the rise in West, thanks to League of Legends and the resurgence of DOTA clones, which elevates other games like Starcraft II here in this hemisphere. I’m sure that it’s an easy sell to get gamers to toss a few bucks into the ring to bet on their favorite teams, especially if it’s controlled by the operators of the game itself (and not some shady third party).
But from a top-hat and monocle perspective (yes, that was an intentional link to EVE Online’s annual tournament), I’m not sure it’s a good thing for the gaming community itself. Go look at any forum and try to imagine that these people who have nothing but virtual association to their games now have real world, hard earned money on the line. You think some gamers are surly now? Add to that the fact that if EVE Online has taught us anything, it’s that these participants aren’t morality-guided professionals. These are nerds and geeks who are suddenly recognized as being the crème de la crème of their community, complete with adoration and the scent of money. What’s to stop any of them from throwing the match if it means they come out ahead? And I don’t even want to imagine what this would do to the image of the games industry as a whole, although there’s a whole lot of non-gamers out there who think gaming is all about sex and guns already. We’re conspicuous in our total lack of gambling, so maybe we’d just be fulfilling their ignorant fantasies in the end.
This is a dim light through a small crack right now. If this were to go anywhere it’s would require a total reevaluation of the games industry: what it stands for, what it want’s to be, and how far it’s willing to go. It’ll also require some serious legislative mud-wrestling (calm down; we’re talking fat white Congressmen, not hot women in bikinis) to sanction online gambling in the West, and then to accept it in an industry that most of them don’t bother to understand, and which is still thought to be aimed mainly at little kids.
There’s just way too much to cover on this subject, and not enough electrons to do it.
Pete’s got a great post over at Dragonchasers about disruption of interest. Judging from the comments over on G+, it seems that there’s many people who suffer from the same affliction. It was during this discussion that I managed to talk-out a realization of my own: I don’t care for stories in my games.
Well, technically, I do. Stories are the glue that holds a lot of otherwise mindless, repetitive action sequences together. Platformers or SHMUPS don’t really need a story to explain why you’re jumping or shooting because chances are you’re doing it for the endurance of plowing through levels, or for the high-score and bragging rights. But with RPGs and MMOs, the story is “the thing” because you’re presented as a character who is caught up in the events of the fictional land you’re asked to believe you inhabit. So I guess rather then saying that I don’t care for stories in my games, I should say that I don’t believe that games present the stories very well, and may not be capable of actually presenting a story in a way that appeals to me.
When reading a book, you get the point of view of a single or a handful of characters. Each chapter is about something that is happening to that character, and everything that happens to that character in each chapter happens in service to the eventual climax of the story. The polar opposite of this is Seinfeld, the “show about nothing” which is labeled as such because nothing the characters do in a single episode carries over into other episodes; there’s no growth or progression, so each episode can be about the most random or asinine topics imaginable without consequence. Video game stories, for me, fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Take Dragon Age II, a game which I started out all excited about, but which I have lost all interest in, thanks to a forced absence thanks to a freak snowstorm that left us without power for a week. As with most RPGs or MMOs, you collect story elements in the form of quests. The formula should be familiar to those who prefer RPGs:
- You chat up the quest NPC, who either provides you with interaction through voice overs and menus, or through a panel of text that you’re expected to read in order to “get into the story”.
- You head out and complete the task assigned to you
- You return to the original NPC or another NPC, who either completes the quest with VO, menus and a wall of text, or you’re handed off to another NPC.
- Goto 1
What you have here are two different vehicles. The first – the NPC interaction – is the vehicle of “the story”. It’s the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. The second is the action you’re asked to undertake. During this action, you may get bits and pieces of ongoing story, either from NPC blurbs or through intermission outtakes of NPC interaction, but you’re generally left without story progression, technically without context (you could be doing this action for ANY reason, and you will, over and over again), and you are actually asked to leave the story behind so you can focus on the mechanics of managing your party, or “not standing in the fire”. To me, this is the equivalent of reading a paragraph of text in a book, then washing the floor, then reading another paragraph, then doing the laundry, then reading another paragraph, then heading to the market…and so on.
Then there’s the issue of different threads at the same time. You’re never on a singular story. Often times, you’re not on a set of stories that have anything to do with one another. On one hand, you have to rescue the son of a noble. On another hand, you are running smuggling operations for a small time crook in the city. Often times, you’ve got both going on at the same time. Neither story has anything to do with another, but each one attempts to be engaging in it’s own right, with twists and surprises and revelations. For me, at least, having to juggle several of these at once is pointless. When I take a leave of absence and consider picking up these threads where I left off, it’s neigh impossible.
So I came to the conclusion that I can’t get invested in a story where 50% or more of the time in the game is spent outside the service of the story where I am asked to manage the “game” aspects, the numbers and the mechanics, nor can I return to a game where the story has more threads in progress then the clothing I’m current wearing. This is a sad realization on my part, because with single player games, this is really all there is to keep me, or to bring me back to the table! When combat becomes repetitious, and I wish it over and done with so I can get back to the disparate threads of the story, any reason that forces me to become unglued from the mindset I put myself in in order to endure the narrative interruptus inevitably leads to me not even wanting to make the effort to get back into the story. Previously, I understood this issue subconsciously. Now, I’m just putting a face to the name.
The really problematic part is that this is currently the best games can do. Even games like L.A. Noire or Heavy Rain have sentences of mute puzzle solving punctuated by a brief bit of story, but if we remove the mechanics and the numbers and the interaction, we have a movie. Interaction is what makes games games, and not movies, and that will never change, because it can’t. Therefor, my up-hill battle is to find a way to bring myself back to these games after a leave of absence, even though the idea of picking up the pieces where I find them doesn’t sit well with me. I figure that if I can find a way to do that, then I can actually finish games more often, and might stop buying games that I know I’ll never finish (which is an enabler of this whole problem in it’s own right).
The road from subscription to F2P is dark, and no one has a decent flashlight. Someone is going to get hurt along the way.
You may have heard that LEGO Universe was shutting down. You may have also heard that LU went F2P somewhat recently. It sounded like a good move at the time, right? Lots of fee-based MMOs are doing it: Lord of the Rings Online, Fallen Earth, City of Heroes, DC Universe Online, Lineage II and probably more I’ve conveniently omitted so I can get on with my point. Since Turbine announced that they’ve seen an uptick in revenue since converting LotRO and Dungeons & Dragons Online to F2P, making the switch for other subscription games seemed like a no brainer. F2P is the wave of the future, and your pay wall is just preventing waves of would-be players from assaulting your login servers who are eager to embrace the future of mini-transactions. Right?
Sadly, no, as LU found out. I’m never pleased to see an MMO go out of business. While we pontificate, elevate and denigrate these products on social networks from the comfort of our consequence free consumer positions, there are scads of people who are losing their jobs in this crappy economy when a game service shuts down. It also means less choice for consumers. The F2P conversion stories have mostly been on the cheerleading side, where stories of improved revenue have been probably more common then not. We may have been lulled into thinking that all companies have to do is to remove their subscription, and the masses will come rolling in.
A lot of the other F2P converts had subscribers. Their conversion was an attempt to get more subscribers by making the game more accessible. Some games float in people’s peripheral vision; they’re aware of them, know people who play them, and intersect with news streams about them – but they themselves don’t play them. Maybe they can only foot the bill for one or two MMOs at a time, or don’t play others because their friends don’t play them. There’s an interest in these games, even a casual one, that converting a sub game to F2P can solve by removing cost from the adoption equation.
Word on the street is that LU couldn’t convert enough free players into subscribers. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that the free content wasn’t compelling enough to seduce people to subscribe. I don’t know about the demographics, but if it was mostly kids, then that’s a shame. If it was mostly adults, then I guess there wasn’t enough content compared to what other F2P conversations offer. What to offer is as important as making the offer in the first place, actually. LotRO’s payer-and-free player-on-the-same-server model is superior to EverQuest II’s model of each on different servers, IMO. Deciding what is free and what is paid, and how one goes about unlocking paid content, is also key. This is the unspoken secret of F2P conversions, I believe: no one knows which a la cart options to offer for a slam-dunk successful conversion, so casualties in the pay-to-F2P race are bound to occur while the industry tries to feel its way around. Sadly, it doesn’t look like LU’s business decisions panned out in a way that was attractive enough to make free players pony up the cash to subscribe. Really, why would they? If they weren’t willing to pay for a subscription in the first place, how will extending the free trial make them think any differently?