Thursday, June 16, 2011

Subscription based games getting greedy with additional fees/services

MMOs have enjoyed a great advantage over other types PC games during the last decade. As piracy became easier and sales numbers started to fall, game developers started to put less emphasis on the PC market. A lot of game studios decided to pay licensing fees to the major consoles and the aisle at Best Buy for PC games shrunk. However, if you look at that last aisle of PC games you'll notice that a good portion of the remaining ones belong to either the FPS or MMO genre. Both genres depend on rich multi-player environments to supplement the main game play and this keeps players engaged. Traditionally, MMOs was the only genre that charged monthly for this feature, but first person shooters are starting to change as they chase a "service" model.

Activision has been in the gaming news a lot because of their plan to add a subscription service onto the Call of Duty franchise. They don't have the complete list of neat features you get compared to the normal version yet, but they seem to be following in Blizzard's footsteps. Namely, a lot of mobile applications that give you access to stats and parts of the game while offline. Call of Duty may not have an auction house, but I'm sure Activision can find something similarly vital that would benefit from mobile access. I'm not exactly a fan of this model, but it does seem to be in vogue with content companies lately. Hulu even uses it to sell their Hulu Plus subscription service.

So why are game companies so in love with switching everything over to a service model? Cause it's much more profitable. I'll give you an example. Most cable providers offer phone service which they try to sneak into cable television packages. In general it costs about 30$ a month to use. However, anyone with some Internet know-how could use an alternative voip product like Google Voice, Skype, or hell even Magic Jack and pay considerably less. However, cable companies are the gate keepers in this scenario and this gives them a lot of power to push/advertise their service. It's like how EverQuest used to bug you to buy stuff whenever you logged into the game. It's the core reason why some people want Net Neutrality. It certainly doesn't take a genius to calculate how much an overpriced service sold to a captive audience can make, just look at the cost of traditional text messages.

The one reason I was always been a fan of the plain old subscription model for MMOs was that I felt it was easier to keep track of costs. I know how nickle and dimeing works since I grew up when most malls still had arcades. You've never seen money disappear so fast. This has kind of influenced me away from Free2Play games, but I'm starting to change my mind. Subscription MMO's are getting to be almost as bad as Free2Play games with World of Warcraft leading the pack. Services to move/rename/faction change your characters? Planned services to allow cross server grouping with friends? Most of these services just allow you to get around artificial barriers put in place by the game developers in the first place. No different from item shops in Free2Play games which sell teleports or double experience potions. Worse even since they already have you on the hook for the base subscription fee.

It's enough to make me really look forward to a MMO like Guild Wars 2 which will just has the flat cost of the box. How old fashion!!! I always thought the subscription model wouldn't influence game design like item shops do in Free2Play games. However, it's starting to look like that's becoming less true. Maybe in time for the next WoW expansion they can have an gold membership elite plus service that gives your priority access to the instance queues. It sounds cynical and far fetched, but it wouldn't surprise me. Anyways, I'm going to try out Spiral Knights on Steam and hopefully learn to appreciate something that doesn't try to hide the nickle and dimeing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Crafting Companions for Success

I've written several posts in the past about my love for crafting systems. One of the main reasons I tried out Lego Universe was that I was hoping to finally see user generated content play a major part in a MMO. Alas, I was disappointed that the "time to penis" caused the removal/suspension of this core feature. It seems like a lot of gaming companies have decided to just give up on trying to integrated user generated content with any core game mechanics. Sure you see a lot of support for user interface add-ons, but these are downloaded through third party sites. This is probably the main reason they are allowed since it protects game companies from potential lawsuits and bad PR incidents.

Still, its obvious that crafting systems in most games need improvement. The gather resources and click "combine" model has been relatively unchanged since the early days of the genre. It's boring, time consuming and prevents us from getting to the action (killing bad guys). Luckily, I have seen a couple new games trying to address these issues. In fact, both Diablo 3 and The Old Republic seem to trying to combine crafting with a type of NPC training mini game. Think of it as the pokemon method of crafting where you have to train your NPC so he becomes stronger and can make you better stuff. Diablo 3 even increases the shop size of your crafting companion as you level him up on a diet of gold and salvaged loot.

The Old Republic is going even further by allowing your crafting companion to fight with you during the early part of the game. Since his fighting prowness doesn't scale much as you level you probably won't group with him in the later levels. Insead you get to assign him missions, which he automatically completes over time. It looks to be similar to the time based training in EVE Online. You assign one of your NPC's a gathering mission and the next time you log in he presents you with the materials. I'm believe this type of crafting system should help counteract a lot of the gold sellers who depend on resource gathering bots. On the other hand the video describing the system hints that it takes a decent amount of time to make items.

This might not be too much of a problem if the times aren't too long. After all you can be out running instances while your NPC is slaving away putting together your new light sabre. I guess it would only be annoying in cases where you got a rare item and wanted to turn it into a bad ass piece of equipment right away. Then again patience is a virtue and it's not like you have to personally hit combine 10,000 times to make it. If anyone ever crafting in EverQuest or Ultimate Online you know what I'm talking about. Anyways this idea of a crafting companion looks pretty fleshed in the Old Republic and halfway decent in Diablo 3. I hope this is the start of designers putting a little more effort into MMO crafting systems.

Friday, June 10, 2011

2011 Status Update

I haven't posted in quite awhile as most of my free time has been destroyed by a combination of work and a decreasing ability to stay up past midnight. Once again, it came down to either writing about MMOs or getting to play them. I have been able to play a few new games since the last time I wrote including: Lego Universe, Cataclysm, and even some Rift. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to experience much of the raid content in these games, so my perspective is mostly from a single group.

Lego Universe was a lot of fun and I got to try it out in beta right before they went live. Net Devil had some really great ideas for the game, but the time to penis was a big issue for them. Part of the appeal of the game was supposed to be about being able to show off your giant Lego structures. Well that feature was pretty much disabled from the time I started playing. Some people were talking in the forums about giant phallic towers complete with fountains on top that lead to the ban on visiting other people's architecture. Other then that the game was like a simplified version of Legend of Zelda with some mini games thrown in. Fun for a couple of weeks but, not enough content for a full MMO.

After that experience I jumped back in DIKU land and started on a bit of a tank lark. Both Rift and Cataclysm have LFG tools and I enjoyed the instant queues for dungeons by wearing the heavy plate. One side effect of this was I found out what happens when you're the only tank online. A nice casual guild can get very authoritative and all of a sudden you start thinking twice about logging in and finding yourself being bugged to raid for five hours. This wouldn't have been so bad if I had the gear for it, but our guild had switch exclusively to ten men raids and gearing up multiple off-tanks had not been a priority.

Instead, me and a couple friends had been mastering heroic dungeons and we had a lot of fun for a couple of months. We did seem to burn out quicker on Cataclysm then Wrath of the Lich King though. Leveling was just too linear with the limited number of zones and most of of us already had a lot of max level characters. The old world revamp of Azeroth was very nice, but you hit the Outlands like a brick wall now. Eventually, a couple of us decided to try out Rift while some other friends decided to take a break from online games.

I love the class system in Rift. In my opinion it's the closest to perfection out of any fantasy MMO. The problem was that after a couple of months it became clear Rift was too much like the other fantasy games. The rift closings was nice change of pace, but we had accidentally leveled on a PvP server and didn't realize the implications until later. In the later levels you are expected to supplement questing with rift farming and things can get a bit slow if your faction is constantly outnumbered. Rift did have great expert dungeons which had more bosses then the normal versions. Unfortunately, just like Cataclysm this quickly got old for some of my friends.

Rift is probably the second best MMO I've ever played, but its too much like World of Warcraft. It would have been great if my friends and I had come to Rift from some other game. But starting Rift right after Cataclysm made the burn out happen much quicker. I think fantasy MMO's are going to be on hold for awhile and we're waiting for something different. At least one buddy of mine has become a rabid Old Republic fanboy and that seems to be the next target. There's also some talk of playing Diablo 3 as a group. A number of us still use Battle.Net to play Star Craft 2 mods so I wouldn't be surprised if we did that. At the moment though I'm MMO-less and enjoying the freedom to research and write about what's on the horizon.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Future of Guilds and Raiding

It was announced recently that Blizzard would be reworking the raid lockout system in Cataclysm so that players would be limited to a single version of each raid instance. This means that 10-man and 25-man player raids would share the same lockout timer and heroic encounters would remain on a per-boss basis. Both versions would have the same loot tables though the 25-man version would reward more items and badges. Blizzard is hoping this will provide an incentive for guilds to run the larger raids when possible. Blizzard has also promised that the difficulty level between the 10-man and 25-man versions will be very similar though I personally think this will be a lot harder to implement then they realize. Overall, the changes aren't bad, but do reveal a strategy to slow down the time it takes for a guild to progress through a raid tier.

I know with Icecrown Citadel that Blizzard was a bit dismayed about how quickly the Lich King was killed in the 10-man version. This mostly occurred when guilds ran both the 10-man and 25-man versions each week and were quickly able to gear out a core team of players. Not every guild followed this pattern though. A lot of small guilds simply ran the 10-man version while allowing members to individually try to PUG the 25-man version. Larger guilds like the one I'm in would run the 25-man version for our mains and then use the 10-man version to gear up alts and new recruits. Unfortunately, this created situations where I sometimes ran through Icecrown Citadel three times each week. I'm already a little burned out on the instance and I know other players are in the same situation.

That's why I don't necessarily dislike having the different versions of a raid instance share a lockout timer. There is definitely an unnecessary push to do both versions of a instance when it allows your guild to progress faster. Still the jaded gamer in me says this is just Blizzard trying to make sure that raid content can be stretched out for longer periods of time. World of Warcraft is still no where near to having an expansion each year and the 5-6 month lull periods between new content kills any potential growth. Blizzard also is going to have to be very careful with combining the raid lockouts and I can already see some issues.

1. Difficulty Balance
Unique raid encounters are a lot more fun then classic tank and spank fights, but the mechanics of each fight can greatly change in difficulty based on the number of players participating. Simply lowering the damage done by an ability isn't going to cut it when trying to balance 10-man and 25-man versions. Some encounters in Icecrown Citadel like those in the Blood Wing use abilities which depend on players spacing out evenly at certain intervals. This is very easy in the 10-man version and a pain in the ass on the 25-man version. If Blizzard really is serious about equal balance between raid versions then they are going to have to cut back on this type of fight mechanic.

2. Reward Balance
It's no secret that players will min/max the hell out of a MMO given a chance. The 25-man versions must offer a noticeable difference in rewards to guarantee that larger guilds don't die out. Having the 25-man version drop one more badge and item isn't going to cut it when the ilevel is the same on both loot tables. Organizing 25 players and getting them to show up each week is a huge headache for guild leaders. Plus most high level raid encounters already have too many encounters where one player can screw up (or disconnect) and can kill everyone in the raid. If the new raid encounters are filled with similar instant death mechanics then it's going to make the 10-man versions much more attractive. I'm not sure if just increasing the number of rewards is enough of an incentive.

That being said they're a number of benefits to merging the raid lockouts.

1. Decrease Burnout Rate
I don't think anyone really wants to be doing the same raid instance multiple times each week. Maybe at first when the instance is new, but the law of diminishing returns quickly kicks in and it stops being fun. The decision to split each raid tier across several instances should also help out.

2. Decrease the number of days guilds need to raid
Most hardcore guilds should be able to cut the number of days they raid in half. While some players might dislike the notion it should encourage guilds to do other end game activities besides raiding. Don't forget there will be a new guild leveling system and it might be beneficial to organize a night when you work on gaining the next guild level.

3. Encourage guilds to PvP
Rated battlegrounds are going to be major change for World of Warcraft, but I think their success is dependent on a large number of guilds participating. Right now guilds tend to stick with either PvE or PvP content and there really isn't a lot of crossover. I'm hoping the new guild leveling system combined with the reworked raid lockouts causes more guilds to be involved in both parts of the game.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cure for the Common Quest

Questing has long been a venerable tradition in MMORPGs and was inherited from it's Dungeons and Dragons ancestor. Originally, quests were rare and used to award players for completing tasks or dungeon crawls. However, this changed after a couple of years and quests started to be used more as a leveling mechanic to direct players to new areas. This was a much better use of quests and it made earning levels more fun. However, developers for a number of different MMORPGs started to approach quest creation in a machine gun like fashion. All of sudden a large number of games in the genre had quests that were very similar to one another and usually involved killing/gathering x number of y mobs/items.

This created a situation where players started burning out on questing and "lack of originality" became a common complaint about the MMO genre as a whole. Afterall, the entire point of using quests as a leveling mechanic was to break up the boring process of just killing mobs for experience. Thankfully, within the last couple of years we've seen serious attempts to spice up questing and some new ideas have started to show up. These ideas generally fall into three basic categories which seek to improve different aspects of questing.

1) Area Wide Quests - making quests more social
One of the problems with quests is that to make them truly epic and interesting the difficulty level has to be increased to give players a challenge. Without challenge there is no sense of accomplishment and questing remains bland. Unfortunately, since most MMORPGs use a class system it can often be more of a challenge to build a working quest group then actually doing the quest. Area Wide quests attempt to address this problem by automatically building raid groups when the quest starts. It's more like an automated mini event then a quest, but they are very entertaining when done right. I've seen them implemented in both Warhammer and Champions Online, but they do tend to run into problems when zones have a lack of a players.

2) Storytelling - making quests more interesting
A lot of players really enjoy the role playing elements found in MMORPGs and like quests to be more then simple objectives hidden inside a wall of text. Developers have learned to incorporate things like voice dialogue, cut-scenes, and environment changes into quests to make them more exciting. The best examples of this that I've seen so far was the starting island of Tortage in Age of Conan and the Wrathgate event in World of Warcraft. Bioware seems to believe heavily in this method and is building a large and detailed story into their Star Wars:The Old Republic game. While I enjoy the story elements found inside MMOs they tend to loose their entertainment value when leveling multiple characters through the same content. Then again I hear Bioware will be doing unique quest paths for each class in the game. Age of Conan did this throughout Tortage, but didn't have enough money/time to continue after the starting zone.

3) Unique Gameplay - making quests more fun
The best method for improving questing in my opinion is to move as far away from the kill ten rats template as possible. World of Warcraft gets a lot of blame for turning questing into a repetitive grindfest, but they improved their act greatly in the last expansion. Wrath of the Lich King is filled with unique quests that often use specialized vehicles and items. Some of my favorites include riding a storm giant around to kill an army of undead and having to navigate a minefield to rescue a goblin. It may take extra development hours to put the effort into the quest, but it gains a repeatable entertainment value. Of course not every game has the budget to do this.

The best method for eliminating boring quests would be for every MMO studio to try to implement improvements in every category. Unfortunately, this would probably increase the development hours and be insanely expensive. What we'll probably see over the next few years is games specializing in one area and only those studios bloated on success or venture capital trying to improve across the board. It's almost a catch-22 situation, but it doesn't mean small studios are out of the running. Even a game like World of Warcraft has it's weak spots and a new game can always focus on improving in an area where Blizzard is a bit weak. I have a feeling that The Old Republic will explode onto the scene next year and show that good storytelling doesn't just involve pop culture references and jokes.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Will WoW crafting ever be improved?

Massive multiplayer online games have only been around for a relatively short time period and yet it's become apparent to most developers that to succeed in the genre you need to continually update your game's content. Players get attached to the characters they create and don't really want the game to end. This allows developers to use classic RPG elements like hitpoints and experience levels to extend character advancement to almost infinity. The only tricky part comes from making sure that new content is available to a majority of your players and not locked behind a single end-game activity like raiding.

While constant content updates are a important part of retaining subscribers, it's almost equally important to improve how the players interact with that content. The LFG tool and the introduction of random daily quests in World of Warcraft are designed to increase the social aspect of the game. This has long been a weak point in the game, since the rate of experience gain has been so poor in groups. Now almost everyone uses the LFG tool when leveling up characters and more people are willing to try healing/tanking because of the improved queue times. Combined with some of the recent PvP changes and it shows that Blizzard is willing to completely revamp various aspects of their game until they get it right.

What puzzles me is that Blizzard has never done a serious revamp of crafting in World of Warcraft. I can't help but get the feeling that they see professions more as a money sink than as a legitimate part of the game. This was very obvious towards the end of Vanilla WoW where most players recognized crafting was useless and only maxed enchanting or alchemy for stat increases. There was a small market for crafting epic bind-on-equip items, but those required high level raid encounters to get the materials. It wasn't until the Burning Crusade expansion when Blizzard started giving each profession their own enchants/item enhancements that they were able to breath life back into crafting.

However, I'm not sure if you can really call this crafting since professions are still mostly leveled up based on what kind of stat bonuses they give rather than what items they can make. There is almost no demand for gear made from crafting since: a) it's insanely expensive with low level mats being overpriced and b) sucks compared to dropped gear. Also the lack of customization when crafting an item is a major drawback. I've tried out a majority of the different MMOs on the market and World of Warcraft crafting continues by far to have the least customization and usefulness. Even classic Everquest allowed players to at least dye their armor different colors. I'm not sure why Blizzard doesn't even have this option available. It's not like they are afraid of poor color coordination as the Burning Crusade showed us.

While World of Warcraft continues to keep my attention because of their high quality PvE content I keep my eyes open for games which look like they might beat Blizzard at their weak spots. This is why I tried out Warhammer and Age of Conan since at the time I was very disappointed with the PvP options in World of Warcraft. While I don't put as much importance into crafting as combat, I don't believe it should be ignored to the level it has been in World of Warcraft. I know allowing players to create customized items and houses is a scary prospect to some developers. The time to penis is practically a universal law on the Internet nowadays.

Still, this shouldn't hold them back on improving a part of the game which is severely lacking. Look at a game like Lego Universe which will be built almost entirely around the concept of crafting. There's an opportunity there to build a very strong community around player created content. I know Blizzard realizes how important player created content has become in online games. The map editor for Warcraft III not only tied the community together, but also created an entire sub-genre of strategy games called tower defense. It's just a shame that almost no tools for creating items has been put into their most popular game. Afterall, I'm sure everyone is starting to get tired of looking like everyone else.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Wintergrasp Woes - the raid drop exploit

Lake Wintergrasp seems to embody every video game feature that looked good on paper, but never quite lived up to it's potential on implementation. It's not that it's Blizzard fault since they have been trying to address the problems with the zone since day one. If they had just ignored the problems then I could justify nerdrage and blaming them for a horrible gaming experience. Instead, I have to give them kudos for the large number of mostly beneficial changes they've made to the zone over the last year. This includes reworking the daily quests, introducing Tenacity, adding a queue system, and making it slightly easier to defend the fortress.

Of course none of these have any effect in most games since the number of people inside a normal Wintergrasp quickly stressed out the servers and cause horrible amounts of lag. Thus most prime-time Wintergrasp games involve the attackers simply steamrolling through fortress walls as the defenders get to attack every 10 seconds. It doesn't matter if you have five stacks of Tenacity if you can never hit anyone because of the massive amounts of lag. Previous attempts at world PvP areas were never popular because the rewards were uninspired and there really wasn't any reason to do it. However, with the Vault of Archavon providing a chance at the newest tier pieces the Wintergrasp battles are always popular.

This popularity does make Lake Wintergrasp a target for exploits since there are multiple benefits to winning a game. Fortunately, it didn't seem like the open world zone concept was as vulnerable to this issue as battlegrounds and arenas. In fact, this weekend I ran across the first major exploit I've ever seen in Lake Wintergrasp. Players on one faction were joining the Wintergrasp queue with their alts in small raid groups. This allowed them to maintain raid leadership when the game started and they could kick people from the raid groups as soon as they zoned into an active Wintergrasp. As a result my faction had to manually form raid groups using general chat and the time it took to access siege engines was greatly increased for us.

The people doing this were using multiple alts and I know a majority of them were reported. Still it doesn't look like any action has been taken against them yet. I'm not sure how hard the code change would be required to fix the issue. Lately, Blizzard has been focusing on the next expansion and I've noticed they've stopped tinkering with Lake Wintergrasp. Which is unfortunate, since the queue system for Wintergrasp really needs to be changed to prevent joining as a raid or else have the raid kick feature disabled. Either way I don't think this exploit will become too popular since it's highly visible to players and sure to be reported quickly. I just hope the Cataclysm PvP zones are better set up to deal with players have characters of both factions on the same server.