Thursday, May 31, 2007

Artwork Styles of WoW and Lord of the Rings

I've been slowly exploring the Shire in the new Lord of the Rings MMO and getting familiar with what few differences it has from World of Warcraft. My first impression of the game is that only the graphical style of the artwork and the Tolkien storyline makes it stand apart from World of Warcraft. The artwork is amazing and at times has an almost photo realistic look to it. However, this works against the game in certain areas since gamers have been accustomed to the grand exaggerated style in World of Warcraft.

The one place where Lord of the Rings definitely beats WoW is in the rendering of landscapes. The water, grass, and trees all look much more impressive in the newer game and adds a nice layer of immersion. Part of this is due to the more advanced graphic engine but most of it probably lies in how the terrain artists took advantage of camera shots from the movies. Either way it makes traveling through the forests and mountains in Middle Earth more pleasant then in other MMOs.

Unfortunately the man made structures in the game don't seem to benefit from this artwork style as much as the landscapes. I guess because I've been playing World of Warcraft for so long I expect dungeons and buildings to portray a twisted and surreal feeling. Picture traveling through the Dark Portal into Outlands then compare it to any type of gateway in Lord of the Rings. When you compare structures between the two games you will almost always find Middle Earth more utilitarian and realistic while Azeroth seems to have a stronger sense of visual fantasy.

Which game has the better weapons and armor seems to come down to a matter of personal preference. Both games have a wide assortment of different models for both but I've notice a couple of things. One is that WoW weapons and armor are often too stylized to be believable as actual combat items. Just look at some of the end game weapons in the Burning Crusade. On the other hand Lord of the Rings sticks to more believable models but from what I've seen so far makes little use of exotic colors or particle effects. This has the result of LOTR items appealing more to realists but having less desirability as a trophy to other gamers. In simple terms it looks less cool.

Enemy models are similar to other MMOs that use a realistic artwork style. The early animals mobs (bears, wolves) that seem to be a requirement in the fantasy genre are definitely better portrayed by this style. However, the heavy use of weird color schemes and misshapen forms seems better at portraying actual fantasy creatures. For example just compare the murlocs in WoW with any of the low level humanoid mobs in LOTR. The bright colors and hunchback nature of the murlocs do a much better job of portraying a dangerous creature then the assorted goblinkin of Middle Earth.

The character creation screen is impressive in LOTR even if it is not quite up to par to City of Heroes. Still it offers many more selections for facial and body features then WoW players aren't used to having. Some people might be put off by the very human looking faces which brings up the uncanny valley problem of computer animation. Despite this risk most players are going to like that its almost impossible to make an ugly looking character in LOTR. One of the common complaints with WoW especially with women is how the entire horde side of the game comes off grotesque in nature. I think in general that those gamers who prefer playing the human race are going to like the character creation screen better in LOTR.

Graphic Style Rating

Landscapes: LOTR
Architecture: WoW
Items: WoW
Mobs: WoW
Characters (Avatars): Tie

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Terrain Effects on Arena Combat

With patch 2.1 just going live most PvP teams are starting to experience the Ruins of Lordaeron which is the newest arena introduced by Blizzard. Unlike the Blade's Edge arena this one is relatively free of clutter with only a central fountain providing any major cover. A few areas on the peripheral of the arena might provide some cover for the shorter races but in general it will be a fight to the finish in the center. Even the Nagrand arena with its four pillars probably provided more ways to use line of sight to your advantage.

Of course the design of the Ruins of Lordaeron is in response to the many complaints about the Blade's Edge arena which some say offers an unfair advantage to range classes. In particular is the strategy utilized by hunters where they would ground freeze the center part of the map and then jump onto one of the pillars. This prevented most opponents from being able to make the jump onto the pillars which then became the ultimate sniping position. For arena teams heavy on the popular warrior and rogue classes this is devastating.

While utilization of terrain is part of most PvP games it often seems to have a huge impact in World of Warcraft. Blizzard is very cautious about reports of cheating using terrain and can take quite awhile to fix an issue or even send out a response. Notice the long delay in fixing several areas in the WSG map where flag carriers could become invulnerable. And to this day some people blame the dominance of the Alliance at Alterac Valley due to the placement of the graveyards.

World of Warcraft unlike most games which have a PvP component does not offer an equal chance for all players. Its not really Blizzard's fault since range weapons allow for more favorable use of terrain then melee ones. If you look at most competitive PvP centric games everyone uses the same type of weapon which are most often firearms. Mankind sorta replaced the sword a few centuries ago. Still in a fantasy PvP game the developers have to respect that some people want to swing around a sword and might appreciate a chance to win.

This is why warriors have some of the highest burst damage available in the game and rogues have so many stuns. Still both of these traits are useless if they two classes can't reach their opponents. Thus I expect in the future that any new arenas introduced into the game will keep with the less cluttered feel of the Ruins of Lordaeron.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Does Starcraft 2 mean no Starcraft MMO?

Starcraft 2 was announced last Saturday and most gamers around the world took notice of the event. Blizzard especially made sure everyone who played World of Waracraft was aware by including several advertisements on the WoW homepage and login. While some people were annoyed by the promotional announcements most players were happy to hear about the sequel. Even if a gamer isn't a fan of the RTS genre they will still probably pick up a copy of Starcraft 2 due to the buzz about the game. Blizzard redefined the genre when the released the original version and the sequel looks like it will also have a huge impact.

The week before the announcement had seen a lot of rumours flying around as people speculated the nature of Blizzard's new game. The two most popular rumours were claiming it was either Starcraft 2 or a Starcraft MMO. Since the announcement was to take place in Korea, which has a well known obsession with the decade old game, most rumours accurately guessed which Blizzard universe was being revisited. However, just because Starcraft 2 turned out to the be the winner in the rumour contest doesn't mean that a Starcraft MMO is out of the picture.

Look at how Blizzard made use of Warcraft 3 to expand the warcraft universe and add multiple characters and story lines to the franchise. This fleshed out the RTS game with enough background that the transition to MMORPG was possible. The early warcraft games had a nice complicated plot but were missing the massive amounts of names, places, and races that a MMORPG requires. Most MMOs require this critical mass of story lines and characters to construct a tangible fantasy world. Think epic fantasy series like The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth or even Tolkien's books which all seem to create a semi-believable universe.

In my opinion Blizzard might have decided to go with Starcraft 2 so that they had plenty of time to add more lore so that a Starcraft MMO would be possible. I'll be keeping a close eye on the plot lines from the single player campaigns to see if it looks like they are expanding the starcraft universe. Already I can see how Blizzard might have different races within the factions of Starcraft. The Protoss are the most obvious since they have very different "light" and "dark" units. The Terran and Zerg are a bit more difficult but could be based around which leader they followed. For example there could be Terrans with better technology from the United Earth Directorate and Terrans with better survival bonuses from the Colonies.

Its all speculation at this point but I firmly believe a Starcraft MMO to be Blizzard's hidden weapon against Warhammer which looks to be a strong up and coming opponent to WoW.

Back in the Saddle

I've been busy at work for awhile since I managed to land myself on several projects which required 7 day work weeks. After my little code-a-thon I got a nice vacation week which I used to pack my bags and head somewhere warmer. Think beaches, theme parks, and sunshine. So far this has made my posting very limited for the month of May but I hope to change this now that I'm back and well rested.

The daily traffic for the blog has become much more stable and no longer fluctuates as much when I post an article. Most of this traffic is from search engines but I know I have some regular readers out there who aren't sent my way by Google. I'm currently in the middle of trying Lord of the Rings Online while keeping my WoW account. I hope playing the two at the same time gives me enough ammo to get back in the habit of regularly posting and perhaps shooting for a once a day schedule.

I should have a nice theory post up by the end of the day.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

City of Heroes gains Loot and its baggage

This is old hat news but last week City of Heroes pushed a patch or issue as they like to call them which introduced loot into the game. Now a salvage system for base creation was already in place but it did very little to increase a player's power or standing. This new system allows the looting parts and patterns from enemies which can be used to create temporary powers, power enhancements, and costume accessories. It's a very big change for a game that use to pride itself on keeping the MMO experience as simple as possible.

Its been a long standing position of the City of Heroes developers that loot was unnecessary for their game and could in fact detract from the game experience. Mostly this line of thought comes from the idea that item acquisition introduces more dividing factors into a MMO. We've all heard stories about ninjas and scammers who use devious methods to acquire items or money. City of Heroes has enjoyed a dearth of such stories due in part to the limited emphasis on currency and item acquisition.

Another problem that City of Heroes had managed to avoid with their "no loot" policy was major differences in power between players of the same level. The amount of free time players have is often quite different and this often causes steep increases in power to those who could track down every item at a certain level. Early attempts to avoid this in games such as Ultima Online basically made it so that improvements through loot barely effected combat. As a result most people fought naked and equipment wasn't sought or used very much.

On the other end of the spectrum is when items have a huge effect on combat and start causing problems with the creation of new content. Once there exists a difference in power between players of the same level then developers start having problems balancing new content. Should they prepare a new zone based on a player having only a few items or should they expect every available slot to be filled with the best? Most games in the past have balanced new content based on the upper end of the curve and alienated a large portion of their playerbase.

With City of Heroes adopting a more normal loot/item policy they are opening their doors to the same problems Everquest and World of Warcraft experience. However, both of those games have been much more popular then the superhero MMO and one has to wonder if the "no loot" policy had something to do with it. Maybe gamers inherently want more methods to improve themselves over their peers despite the problems it introduces into a game? I often plan ahead about what high end epics I would like to get for my characters even though I know by the time I get them they will be obsolete. Still, its the fact that such carrots exist that most people find themselves continuing to play the game.