Friday, February 29, 2008

Ten Things that will make a WoW Killer.

Just recently Activision boss Bobby Kotick gave a speech that basically warned any investor away from investing in MMO development because of the success of World of Warcraft. He cited recent failures in the MMO market and claims that even a 500 million to 1 billion dollar budget might not guarantee the same success that Blizzard has experienced. This is pure hyperbole but highlights a point that has become very apparent in MMO development. Investors are starting to back away from funding projects because of World of Warcraft.

Originally the super-MMO was a boon to the industry since it proved that the customer base could be grown. But now after so many new games failing to drawn even a fraction of World of Warcraft’s numbers we are starting to see venture capital withdraw from the market. No one really understood what made the game such a success and it looks like no one is going to be able to repeat it. Microsoft recently withdrew from the Marvel MMO quoting that Blizzard's dominance in the market prevents any definition of what they would call success. Other studios have had a string of poorly performing MMOs and are starting to restrict funding for new projects.

However, it’s not like World of Warcraft's secret to success is a big mystery. A large part of its success was that it was different from every other MMO on the market at the time. It was the only casual MMO in a sea of harsh death penalties and time intensive grinds. Now after the market has been copying the leader for four years being casual is no longer something special or different. Also a lot of new MMO's made the mistake that being casual meant there didn't need to be any depth to the game. Playing loose and fast with the item progression in a DIKU based game is just a bad idea. So far only Lord of the Rings has managed to be casual without sacrificing depth but they ran into some other problems which nipped their subscriber growth in the bud.

1) Unique Art Style
A lot of people like the cartoony art style of World of Warcraft and a lot of people hate it. One thing both these people agree on is that it’s easy to tell a screenshot is from the game compared to any other MMO. A WoW killer will have a unique art style which doesn't necessarily have to be cartoony. I personally like the cell shading from Champions.

2) Gentle Leveling Curve that can be done Solo
Games with a lot of levels but with a gentle curve are the best bet since item and ability rewards can be spaced out to give a sense of progression over a longer time. Games like D&D and Guild Wars can have problems keeping up a sense of progression.

3) Clear Benefits to Grouping
Almost all games stick with item rewards from instances as the main benefit for grouping. But as the player base moves to the higher levels the item rewards become less beneficial since they're less people available for grouping. Groups should actually see an individual increase in +XP per mob as they add more people to their group. Casual based games already allow constant killing of weaker mobs when soloing and grouping doesn't increase that rate very much.

4) Good quests, not an over abundance of crappy ones
This is one of the worst things I've seen in almost every MMO released since World of Warcraft. Lord of the Rings was especially bad since they had these amazing and interesting Chapter Quests then a million kill twenty of this mob type quests. What I like to see are automatic experience rewards and titles given out for killing large amounts of the same type of mob similar to LOTR. That way gamers never have to read bad fiction trying to explain why there is a quest to exterminate 100 rats.

5) Actual Dungeons and not just Quest Instances
There needs to be something that teaches players how to work together as a team for endgame PvE and PvP. I would suggest instances that range from standard dungeon encounters to ones that use teamwork in a PvP environment. For example you could have an instance that would require a group to guard several objectives from waves of NPCs that would try to capture them. The mistake a lot of games have made recently is to make every quest go into a generic instance which looks crappy and computer generated. I'm looking at you City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings.

6) Gear progression but with some Permanence
Just because your playerbase likes getting new items doesn't mean they need a new one every 5 minutes. Tabula Rasa is horrible this way since gear has no value when every slot gets replaced 3 times per level. Also there needs to be a balance between bind on equip, bind on pickup, and items with no binding. World of Warcraft actually has too many bind on pickup items which can sometimes result in an instance run benefitting no one in the group. Tabula Rasa is going to implode on epics soon since there is no binding on any items, not even ones from quests.

7) Separate ability effects in PvP and PvE
It’s a pain in the neck to code but every ability should have one effect on mobs and one effect on other players. Warhammer has some great ideas with about making healing and tanking classes effective in PvP without forcing them to change their class role in PvE as well. World of Warcraft accidentally opened the doors on making PvP popular and any future game which ignores this side of the game isn't going to gain a lot of subscribers.

8) Consensual PvP systems with balanced rewards
There's no reason to have PvP unless some good rewards are also offered. In general the more organization involved in the activity the better the rewards. Guilds should be able to organize a raid to either take down a large PvP objective or a raid instance and get the same quality rewards. Groups should be able to get these same rewards but at a much slower pace. Solo players should even be able to get the same quality rewards but it should take 5-10x longer then the raider.

9) Gentle Introduction to Raiding
If your end game is raiding oriented then you should make the first raid instance easy and not require a key or attunement quest. If you want content that gets used by both the hardcore and casual players then have a normal and heroic mode for the raid instance. What not to do for end game raiding can pretty much be covered by looking at aspects of Karazhan.

10) Use a combination of a Class and Skill system
Games need to have systems that allow players to differentiate their characters in ways that affect game play and not just appearance rewards like titles. The talent system from World of Warcraft is a good example but unfortunately allowed too much specialization and basically created all new classes. Lord of the Rings also ran into problems by having no customization options for classes resulting in an unchanging and boring play style once you mastered the basic mechanics.

I don't really believe gamers are fickle though I do believe the law of gravity effects virtual worlds. Basically the larger a MMO population, the more gamers feel attracted to the game. If you want to beat World of Warcraft then you need to make a list a hell of a lot longer than the one I made. The most important thing is not just to list what Blizzard did right did so you can copy it. Designers especially need to point out features which they think can be improved. This post ran a little long and if you’re still with me I thank you. Feel free to leave a comment about a feature you think needs to be in the WoW Killer.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Can NCSoft gain more of a following in the West?

NCSoft released their financial records a couple weeks ago and there were a couple of surprising things contained within. The number one bit of data most discussed was that revenue wise Tabula Rasa only brought in 5.4 million dollars. City of Heroes/Villains brought in the same amount of money which either speaks highly of that game or poorly of Tabula Rasa. At the moment I'm kind of mad that I paid 45$ before Christmas for TR only to find a collector's edition on sale for 15$ this month. The game is a lot of fun but I detect the note of desperation starting to permeate the servers. I try not to think about the words "Auto Assault" when I'm playing but they do tend to echo in my head.

It’s hard to believe the last two new games released by NCSoft have fallen flat on their faces. Only the excellent expansions for Guild Wars have given NCSoft any real penetration into the North American market. The two Lineage games remain popular in Korea but haven't been widely played in Europe or North America. Both games only contain a small fraction of players from the west despite heavy marketing when Lineage 2 first came out. City of Heroes maintains a decent base over 100,000 judging by their revenue but it’s a ticking time bomb. Cryptic Studios has already announced Champions Online and thanks to Marvel/Microsoft dropping out of the picture they now have the power to really go wild with the development.

The one big release planned by NCSoft for this year is Aion the aerial combat MMO. In this game players assume the role of angel like creatures who are at war with dragons. Sounds interesting and different from almost every other North American MMO being released this year. Unfortunately, you can't ignore that fact that Tabula Rasa and Auto Assault were both hyped as unique experiences also. Apparently while NCSoft is very good at thinking outside the box they aren't that good at developing depth of play. Still the art looks very good, like most of their games, and the widespread use of flying mounts in World of Warcraft might have interested some players in aerial combat.

Despite Aion I still think NCSoft's best bet is to concentrate on developing Guilds Wars 2 for the North American market. A lot of gamers are still against paying subscriptions and that’s a prime target for a box sale only game. Instead though I bet they'll focus on a couple more free to play games like Dungeon Runners with alternative methods of payment. North America has been pretty resistant to non subscription games and most free to play models fail since western gamers just tend to ignore the premium accounts and micro-transaction parts of the game. In fact only Maplestory and Runescape have made strides into the U.S. and constant debates are waged on how much money they actually make and their true popularity.

Guild Wars 2 is just a good decision since it's as far as I know one of the only games that follows the box only payment method which means it has an audience which isn't being attracted to other games this year. Also one of the big complaints about Guild Wars was its lack of a persistent world and overuse of instances. ArenaNet is planning on changing these issues and a few other things in Guild Wars 2 to make it more like a MMO. I don't know why but I swear NCSoft games always tend to concentrate too much on instancing and are constantly making me keep track of zone names and numbers. Despite making me hate instances I like NCSoft since they are obviously willing to try other genres besides fantasy. However, if Aion fails spectacularly with all the big name games rolling out this year it could be a very bleak future for NCSoft in the west.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Could May 2008 turn into MMOpalooza?

Recent rumor had the release date for Warhammer being pushed back again after an article confused the difference between fiscal year and calendar year. A spokesman was quick to step up and clarify that Warhammer was still looking at a 2008 Q2 release date which would put it out between April and June. Age of Conan also looks to be on track and sticking with their end of May release date which will put the two game's release dates very close together. I wonder if people from Funcom and EA Mythic were giving each other the evil eye at the recent Game Developer's Conference?

Of course the big mystery is when the hell is Blizzard releasing its next expansion? They haven't even announced an estimated date yet! Recent forum mutterings have drawn parallels between the class changes in the recent 2.4 patch and the famous Before the Storm patch that prepared for the Burning Crusade. In general Blizzard likes to work in 3 month cycles and has said that the Sunwell will most likely be the last major patch before the expansion. If the 2.4 patch goes live early March this would give credence to an early summer release. Just one point to mention is that Jeff Kaplan has been reported as saying they do have more patch content in case Wrath of the Lich King needed more time. I'm thinking most likely the level 80 revamp of Naxx is already done and it could be tuned down to 70 in case of an emergency.

Still it looks like there is a distinct possibility we could see three new games all released within a month of one another. This would be an event unheralded in the history of MMO games though there have been several side by side releases. Such contests have almost always resulted in one obvious winner and one loser since gamers can't really afford or concentrate on two new MMOs at the same time. Also provoking the issue is the summer timeframe for all three games. The summer is often a rough patch for guilds in MMOs with vacations often causing key members to be take breaks or even quit. However, with summer vacations also comes lots of free time which needs to be filled with entertainment. This is why the movie industry targets the summer so heavily. New MMOs could see this time period as the perfect opportunity to break players away from their established favorites.

Funcom is probably the least worried about competing since they see their market as different from Warhammer and Wrath of the Lich King. This is probably why they were the only ones to give a firm release date. However, I'm sure both Blizzard and EA Mythic are worried about the effect of a mature rated MMO. Could it establish a dominant bond with male players by its use of gore and boobies? Over the last few years designers have stressed political correctness in an attempt to appeal to a wider market, the reason a lot of the troll /silly jokes were removed. It’s almost refreshing to see someone ignore this and design specifically for a niche. Most people predict Age of Conan won’t surpass 200,000 but no one really knows the market for a mature MMO aimed at guys.

What should really be a two game competition between Warhammer and Wrath of the Lick King might be started off early by Age of Conan. As Hillary found out this primary season you can never guess how an unknown variable will affect a popularity contest. OMG, did I just draw a parallel between the presidential race and MMOs? All attempts at humor aside one has to wonder if this is a plus or negative for the players. Most MMOs because of their progressively increasing items and levels eventually become hard for new players to pick up. By the time a year has pass they’re riddle with inflation and a lack of low level players to group with. I would rather have my new MMOs spread out over the course of the year instead of all jam packed together. Then again I admit a burning curiosity to see who would win in a three way death match.

Monday, February 25, 2008

2.4 changes should keep "Ringers" out of Arenas

It’s funny but based on my arena rating I've always just assumed that me and my friends suck at PvP in World of Warcraft. We have okay class balance but we never seem to be able to get our rating above 1600. We do tend to win a lot in battlegrounds and we made a good run of it this weekend in Warsong Gulch. We only had a premade of about five people but we managed to beat numerous full premades and won about 20 games in a row. This was the most success we've ever had and actually resulted in me spending left over WSG tokens on potions. Never thought I would see that day!

However, in the arenas this weekend we got our normal ass kicking with every win giving us only around 8-10 points and every loss costing us about 16 points. It’s funny but our win/loss ratio is about 2-1 but we actually end up barely increasing our rating. Well it was about half way through our 5th game when we noticed that a lot of the teams that beat us in the mid 1500's had one or two people in full sets of Vengeance (S3 arena) gear. These were the teams with apparently much worse ratings then us and yet somehow they managed to have people who had already achieved the 2000 rating requirement for the shoulders.

Unfortunately, it’s become common practice for players to switch to lower rated arena teams once they have fully geared themselves out in the latest arena gear. Since the arena matching system is currently based on team ranking it ignores the obvious advantage a fully geared season 3 player brings to the table. The practice is especially brutal since most of these Ringers are high damage classes with MS warriors being the most common. This makes it especially hard to catch up at the end of an arena season especially if you didn't have an active team for the first month or two.

It looks like Blizzard has noticed the problem and is changing the matching system in patch 2.4 to prevent Ringers from smashing lower ranked teams. In the next patch you can expect the matching system to use the highest personal rating of a team member to match them against their opponents. All of a sudden having someone with a personal rating of 2000 in your team doesn't seem like such an advantage. This should reduce the amount of teams in the 1450-1650 rating range which make use of Ringers to artificially boost their arena rating.

Blizzard is getting closer and closer to cutting out most of the cheats for the arena system. People will always try to game a system to get rewards faster but for the longest time PvP has been more vulnerable to it then PvE. It’s only natural since massive PvP systems in MMORPGs are a lot less common then standard reward systems which use dungeons and raids. Still it looks like progress is being made and one only has to look at the greatly reduce gold spam to see that Blizzard can effectively change their code to restrict undesired behavior. Now if only they would work on the hack that allows people to start early in Eye of the Storm.

New Blog Layout

I went ahead and finally switched from classic blogger to the new and improved version. I had been eyeing several XML templates and decided to just take the plunge and switch over. I might be trying out several others until I get that perfect fit. Leave a comment if you have any suggestions and tell me if this layout is easier to ready.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Are MMO developers starting to overly specialize?

Yesterday the story about Cryptic Studios and its new game Champions Online gave me pause. While I like the fact that they are trying to make a better game than City of Heroes, I can’t help but get the feeling of butterflies in my stomach. The problem is that the one thing I’ve learned from watching the MMO market since 1999 is that sequels never do as well as their original. Games like Everquest 2, Lineage 2 and especially Asheron’s Call 2 have never gained as many subscribers as their predecessors and in some cases have had to be shut down.

It’s funny that Cryptic Studios would want to pigeon-hole itself into a super hero shop since they obviously have great talent. Now rumors have almost confirmed that they are working on the Star Trek MMO which they probably acquired from Perpetual. Still even if that is true they are going to need their first independent release to be a blockbuster. City of Heroes/Villains never really got above the 200,000 mark and that makes me doubt Champions Online can either. Now some may point to it being playable on the Xbox 360 as boosting its numbers but I don’t know how console owners will react to subscription fees. Whatever their numbers end up being, the point is that a studio obviously feels comfortable in the super hero genre.

Honestly, they aren’t the only studio who has a comfort zone. Just look at every major MMO studio and publisher and you’ll see that most have defined a niche where they do their best work. If they get involved in a game outside their area of expertise it tends not to do so well. SOE has had tons of bad experience with titles like the Matrix, Planetside, and Starwars Galaxies despite being the market leader for quite some time. NCSoft also has similar problems with a lot of recent non-fantasy titles falling flat on their face. Tabula Rasa is a personal favorite of mine but it’s recently release revenue numbers are atrocious.

EA Mythic – Fantasy PvP
Ultima Online Dark Age of Camelot, Warhammer

SOE – Fantasy PvE
Everquest, Everquest 2, Vanguard

NCSoft – Fantasy PvP
Guild Wars, Lineage, Lineage 2

What’s unusual about Cryptic is that they’ll be the first studio to define a non fantasy niche for themselves in the MMO market. CCP is the other studio which has had a successful non-fantasy game but has shown no signs of developing anything other than EVE Online. So even if Champions is only a moderate success Cryptic will become the premier developer of non fantasy MMOGs. However, I can’t help but think it would have made more sense for them to try their hand in other genres. I guess at the moment the fantasy genre looks taken with Age of Conan, Warhammer and WoW stuck in a death match this year. I just hope in the future that I see more then super heroes from Cryptic Studios.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cryptic loses Marvel license but doesn't seem that broken up about it.

Cryptic Studios has been the unfortunate victim of their publisher getting cold feet at competing with World of Warcraft. Rumors had been circling around since November but it wasn't until last week that the head of Microsoft game studios announced that they didn't think it was possible to be financially successful in the current market. With Microsoft leaving they also take Marvel and the 60 years of back stories and characters that Cryptic Studios was planning on using for their game. Things don't look too grim though since Cryptic Studios quickly managed to get a hold of the Champions license.

If Champions sounds familiar then you probably experienced it at some point as the popular table top role playing game. It has a long history with paper and pencil gamers and its rule system for creating superheroes is seen as a natural fit with a MMO. While not as extensive as Marvel it does provide a large amount of lore which by its very nature was intended to be used in gaming. Recent comments from Jack Emmert and other heads at Cryptic suggest that the game is already playable and only content and polish is needed. A rough translation of that is that Cryptic just has to strip everything Marvel from the game and start replacing it with lore and characters created through the Champions license. At least they own this one and won't have to worry about a similar set back in the future.

I've said before that a MMO should use a license like a suit of clothes. It provides flash and context for the game but it shouldn't affect the underlying design. A lot of the problems I had with Lord of the Rings were caused by design decisions Turbine made strictly based on the game's lore. A fantasy game without magic seemed overly restrictive to me and indeed seemed to limit the skills and abilities of each class. If you go to the Champions-Online website which just went live a few days ago you can see that Cryptic is actually optimistic about the license change. The Marvel universe may have been a treasure trove of villains and back-story but it also would have severely limited Cryptic in what they could implement.

Already pie in the sky features are starting to be announced on their website that would have been a lot harder to do under the Marvel license. One feature is that players will apparently get to design their own arch-foe and eventually decide if they were going to permanently defeat them. The whole process reminds me of an episode of the Venture Brothers but it also has a certain appeal to it. Enhancing this appeal is the new art style being used for Champions which is a form of cell shading that is very reminiscent of comic books and games like Viewtiful Joe. This could work out for the game since we've all seen the advantages World of Warcraft gained by going with a unique art style.

The feature list from Champions reads like a wish list of everything players wanted added into City of Heroes. More customization on abilities, a more extensive loot system, and no more randomly generated mission instances. It’s actually amazing that NCSoft didn't try to force a no compete clause on Cryptic Studios when they sold City of Heroes. The odds that NCSoft can improve City of Heroes enough to compete with Champions Online is rather slim and you can probably expect a lot of subscribers to jump ship. Still Champions Online isn't scheduled to release until early next year so NCSoft has some breathing room.

Check Out the Website if you want the Overview:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What does WoW's success mean for a Mature rated MMO?

I recently just found out about a small feature in Tabula Rasa that I didn't find mentioned anywhere in the manual. Basically, mobs in Tabula Rasa don't always die right away and they'll sometimes do a death scene reminiscent of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. At first I just thought this was an annoying game glitch that forced me to wait a couple extra seconds to get my experience. But apparently you can prematurely end their death antics by running up to them and pressing "F" which performs a finishing move and grants you double experience. If that wasn't enough the finishing moves often involve you kicking the enemy and causing its head or entire body to explode. It reminded very much me of old mortal combat fatalities and I'm ashamed to say it gave me a little chuckle.

Thinking back I realized I hadn't seen anything that violent in a video game for quite some time. World of Warcraft has been my major MMO home since it came out and I've almost forgotten that video games could sometimes go into the same realm as R rated movies. Most people would argue that was a good thing. After all isn't there enough Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt clones out there causing negative publicity for video games? Well that’s true on one hand but on the other you've have games like Bioshock and Assassin's Creed which would definitely be R rated if they were movies. Both these games happen to be very good but probably would have been transformed into horribly bland crap if they had their violence watered down for a less mature rating.

I realized at this point that part of World of Warcraft's strategy to increasing accessibility to the MMO market was intentionally keeping its "rating" low by using stylized combat violence along with its cartoon art. It’s kind of a weird strategy for a game that has the word "war" in its title but sound reasoning since they were planning on releasing in China. The Minister of Culture for that country has some strict rules for games especially foreign titles. Blizzard was eventually forced to add some flesh to the arms and legs of the undead race but that was it. Apparently, skeleton arms are anti-communism or something. I've tried games with more realistic art like Everquest 2 and Lord of the Rings but I quickly discovered I missed the models from World of Warcraft, especially the large-ass shoulders. I can see why Blizzard made the decision to use cartoony and stylized art.

However, just became I like stylized fantasy doesn't necessarily mean I want bloodless and fluffy combat. My childhood years are long behind me and I think my medium of entertainment deserves the right to maybe kick it up a notch. Some publishers have realized that a majority of their MMO audience is way past the 12-16 year old bracket that most news coverage always tries to associate with video games. I think that’s why we see Funcom taking a chance by pushing a mature rated Age of Conan and other games also experimenting with less adolescent styles of combat. Even the much anticipated Warhammer is going for a darker and more violent universe though they are keeping the cartoonish character models. In fact recent allegations that Warhammer looked too much like WoW were met with some scathing remarks on just how little war happened in Blizzard's popular MMO. I think the term "hippy playground" was used.

While this is just over confidence and marketing hype aimed at their largest competitor it did make me think. Maybe it’s time developers quit trying to capture a wide market by being as inoffensive as possible and realize that good art is a little offensive. I mean I don't want Rockstar games to get into the MMO market but then again I don't want every publisher to water down their games until everything plays like Hello Kitty Online.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Has over use of Crowd Control unbalanced WoW PvP?

It used to be back in the early days of World of Warcraft you knew what classes could effectively take one of your teammates out of a fight with a well time crowd control. Mages had the dreaded polymorph and warlocks had the very frustrating fear. Both were annoying but easy for support classes to dispel or cleanse away. Still the spells were useful for interrupting healing classes and people often clamored for similar abilities. Well since that time you can tell that Blizzard has moved away from long duration crowd control spells and started spreading short duration versions to everyone in an attempt at balance.

The most notorious of these new crowd control abilities is definitely the druid cyclone which is superior because it can only be broken through the PvP trinket. Recent changes to blind have made it almost as annoying as cyclone to break though some shields will also do the job. Theoretically there isn't anything wrong with having a hard to break crowd control spell but in PvP there are always side effects. Both rogues and druids have other abilities like vanish, travel form, and stealth which work very well in combination with blind and cyclone. In fact it works so well that both classes are highly effective in the smaller arena brackets at escaping death then returning quickly to sap or heal.

I'm not trying to argue that any one class needs its abilities nerfed or taken away. I'm stating that PvP has been deeply influenced in negative ways by the over abundance of crowd control. In particular the large amount of stun and silence procs in a couple of class trees have had an even more widespread effect then cyclone or blind. The widely spread ability to silence or stun an enemy for 1-2 seconds every 8-10 seconds is hell on classes that depend on long casting spells. In particular paladins and shamans are forced into the 5v5 bracket where they aren't the only healer for a team. In smaller brackets healers have to be able to cast an instant heal or a heal over time.

Another interesting side effect of the over abundance of short duration crowd control is that it made physical burst damage the most effective way to kill someone. Burst damage has always been the best way to kill someone in PvP but high damage spells require a decent cast time after initial cooldowns have been blown. This makes them very vulnerable to silence and interrupt abilities like earth shock and kick. However, mortal strike is unaffected by these and warriors are uniquely built to recover from short duration stuns with their intercept ability. As a result mortal strike warriors are easily the better choice over destruction warlocks or mages for doing burst damage in the small brackets.

If Blizzard is interested in a better spread of classes in the different arena brackets then they have their work cut out for them. I will admit they have done a great job recently with the hunter changes. Hunters used to be a joke in the arenas but now I see them much more often. They haven't quite reached the levels of warriors but I think the strength of the beastmaster tree will eventually make them second place for the burst damage spot on a team. However, what Blizzard really needs to do is replace some of the current short duration crowd control abilities that only affect casters with ones that only affect melees. Root would be a good method to use since it’s not overpowered but definitely effects melee more than casters.

Last Month's Arena Team Breakdowns

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Spore may pollinate player made content

Three years after the initial announcement of Spore an official release date has finally been set. Things had been getting rough for the game with an extended timeline pushing its development cost much higher than EA would have liked. I'm sure if any other developer then Will Wright had been in charge of the game it would have been shelved last year. However, the legendary game designer has long had a habit of making fun games which are easily expandable. This works very well with EA's method of making expansion packs and sequels with only small variations to the original game. While gamers mostly hate the practice it does give EA the capitol to spend on off the wall projects like Spore.

The main reason why I'm covering a regular computer game on this blog is that Spore has some interesting game designs which could eventually be adapted into our favorite MMOs. The creature creator in Spore is basically an easy to use 3D modeler and shares some similarities with avatar creation in games like Second Life. Will Wright has basically designed the game so that a central server takes the creatures made by players and populates the game universe with them. So eventually when your race of bee people start moving onto new planets they'll run into races made by other players. Since the game uses a player's choices to determine personality, aggressiveness, and intelligence you'll sort of get a feeling for each race's creator.

This basic premise of attaching a game to object creation gets around a lot of issues that MMO fans have with sandbox worlds like Second Life. Spore could almost be seen as a test for player made content in modern video games. If it sells well perhaps we could see future MMOs experiment with more free form avatar or even NPC creation. Why be limited to a race designed by a game company when you could use a 3D modeler, some base attributes, and your imagination to come up with something much better? Some people might think that game licenses would have problems dealing with the introduction of thousands of unique creations but honestly we've all seen how lore can be stretched to meet a poorly imagined race (cough draenai).

Plus the ideas explored with the creature creator in Spore could also be adapted for several different areas in MMOs. A weapon and armor creator could easily be controlled by a game system dependent on the discovery of ancient scrolls. Work your way to the end of a medium difficulty dungeon and be rewarded with the knowledge on how to add a cool cross guard to your swords. The stats of items you create could be controlled by different types of tokens dropped off bosses with varying degrees of difficulty. It’s like how heroic bosses have primal nethers used for low level crafting epics but higher level crafting epics require raid bosses. It’s funny but if you look at World of Warcraft you'll notice they made huge advancements in accessibility and leveling but really use a sub-par crafting system. This unfortunately may have influenced many developers that crafting systems weren't really in need of improvement.

Anyways on September 7th if you go out and get a copy of Spore see how much you like the creature creator system and ask yourself if such a system could work for MMOs.

EA Announces Spore Release Date: Sept 7th, 2008

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Why Blizzard's Next MMO is probably Starcraft

I don't normally deal in absolutes mostly because everything tends to be more based on opinion then any sort of binary right or wrong answer. Still if there's one thing I'm 99% sure of is that the next Blizzard MMO is based on the Starcraft license. I may be setting myself up for a lot of friendly teasing if I'm proven wrong but I think its worth the risk. I mean honestly is anything more satisfying then a nice big "I told you so"? Plus Blizzard isn't exactly hard to predict like the current stock market. I mean their games are always released when "they are ready" and are related to either Starcraft, Warcraft, or Diablo.

The last time Blizzard released a new game universe was in 1998 with Starcraft. Every game they have released after 1995 has been related to either Diablo, Starcraft, or Warcraft. Based on this you can make a pretty good guess that the next big MMO will be based on one of these three licenses. Since World of Warcraft is going strong and most predictions have it lasting until the sun burns out it doesn't seem likely that Blizzard would cannibalize itself to make a sequel. If you look at the list of MMO sequels for eastern games like Asheron's Call and Everquest you see that they almost never do as well as the orginal anyways.

So basically my own weird Relmsteinian logic points to either Diablo or Starcraft being transformed into the next generation MMO. If you follow further along my winding path of assertions you can see Diablo isn't the most likely target for being transformed into a massive multiplayer game. The primary reason is that Diablo 2 was pretty close to being a MMO itself and was only a couple steps behind Guild Wars. I can easily see Diablo 3 eventually being released with enough new features that it does better then Mythos or Hellgate London. However, at the moment I think Blizzard realizes there are a lot of Diablo clones on the market and half of them are trying to edge into MMO status.

This argument might seem weak to some people but there's another aspect to releasing a MMO. If you look at the Warcraft series they had some lore in the first game which really got expanded when they released the sequel. However, if you took all the lore and characters from the first two games and combined them together they still wouldn't equal the lore covered in Warcraft 3. MMORPGs require massive amounts of fiction to give developers a background for making classes, characters, cities, dungeons, continents, factions, and of course bad guys. With Starcraft 2 already announced it gives a great opportunity to create the same sort of lead in that World of Wacraft got from its RTS cousin.

Summarized List I've used when debating with Friends.

1) Blizzard hasn't create a new game universe since Starcraft in 1998.

2) Blizzard's established brands have much more recognition and are more likely to gain players.

3) Blizzard isn't stupid enough to make a World of Warcraft sequel within the next 5 years.

4) Between Diablo and Starcraft the Starcraft license is better position to be turned into a MMO because:

4a) Starcraft 2 was announced and could serve as a lead in to the new Starcraft MMO.

4b) Having a fantasy and science-fiction game would expand Blizzard's MMO audience.

4c) A lot of Diablo style clones are out there cluttering the market.

4d) Ooops rumors have already leaked.

4e) Matt said a Starcraft MMO would be stupid and he's always wrong.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Will removing diminishing honor returns fix the AFK problem?

Its seems that the information dam around patch 2.4 has finally sprung a leak with lot of news from the community managers spilling out onto the official WoW forums. Previous information had been mostly limited to a round of interviews done by Tigole which dealt with high level overviews of the patch. Near the end of last week though both the European and American CMs started dropping little tidbits left and right. Not everyone goes to the forums though since its basically a text version of Xbox live. Thankfully sites like MMO Champion, WoWinsider, and Blue Tracker wade around in the muck for us and have listed most of the known 2.4 changes.

Its funny because more so then the new PvE content I find myself excited by a change to the honor system. In fact the lifting of diminishing returns on honor is like music to my ears. Make no mistake I'll probably run the new Sunwell dungeon a few times on heroic but its not going to keep me entertained for another three months. Now running my new horde characters through a fixed battleground system where they can actually earn honor at a decent rate might keep me around that long.

I suspect the primary reason behind the recent AFK phenomena in battlegrounds can be attributed to diminishing honor returns. Players had gotten into the habit of playing a battleground to win until one side gained a slight advantage. Then everyone would switch over to farm mode, abandon the flags, and just try to kill each other for a little bit of honor. WSG was especially bad with the first flag capture often causing everyone just to zerg the center for honor. However, things got worse as soon as the arena rewards became available for honor.

Everyone wanted the arena season 1 gear and despite what raiders said it still wasn't readily available to the average player. The battlegrounds became flooded with people who wanted to earn honor fast and thought offense was the best way to get it. No one really guarded flags and playing a battleground to win became less and less common. With people primarily focus on offense the diminishing returns became more of a factor and I think a lot people started running into nightly honor calculations that were off by more then a couple thousand a night.

This should have made it so that people started playing the battlegrounds to win but the problem was there were just too many new players. Estimated honor calculations are instant and a lot of players just couldn't believe that they were being effected that much by diminishing returns. I think this was the point where a lot of people started going AFK. If you couldn't really earn that much honor by fighting and you couldn't get more then five people to help defend then going AFK had to start sounding like a good option. The new reporting tool was really only good for getting rid of bots and was easily bypass by a player paying a little attention to the game.

With the elimination of diminishing returns we should see a return of player participation to the battlegrounds. Of course it might just be the same offense only participation we've seen before but that's still a degree better then ten people AFK in every Alterac Valley. Speaking of Alterac Valley, this change should make it a little less painful to lose the game due to reinforcements. In fact this might be the main reason why Blizzard is changing how honor is gained. I know I was hearing more and more stories of hour long games where the losing side only got 40 bonus honor. Then again this could also be a situation where Blizzard is addressing the cause of the AFK problem instead of throwing a band aid (reporting tool) on it.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Touring Tabula Rasa's Instances

I'm still learning a lot about Tabula Rasa and honestly I've been busy lately leveling up my horde characters in World of Warcraft. I thought the expansion might be out this summer but the lack of information from Blizzard has convinced me and many others that we have long time to wait for Wrath of the Lich King. With that fact in mind I managed to convince one of my friends to try out Tabula Rasa with me. I can already tell you that just like in any other MMO the game becomes even more fun when you are playing with friends.

Wanting to be in a good position for grouping my friend chose the specialist path which he eventually intends to level up to a medic. While Tabula Rasa's end game is a little sparse at the moment he figures eventually the developers will fall back on the classic raid scenario which requires healing classes. He might be right but I'm just happy in the meantime to have someone who can heal me as I figure out how to use a chaingun. Its can be quite the learning experience for someone not used to FPS shooters. Though its not really hard to play, you do have to approach combat differently.

The first zone in Tabula Rasa has three instances all of which have a different theme though they share some common enemies. Players get sent to each instance by completing outside quest lines which eventually point you to the scary instance/dungeon entrance. A video clip plays when you enter any instance giving you a mission briefing on what you can expect. Once inside you'll pick up other quests from NPCs in there and often you'll get radio transmissions giving you more quest objectives. Almost as if reading my mind from the last post it looks like Tabula Rasa makes use of radio transmissions to cut down on having to travel back and forth in quests.

While some of the quests in Tabula Rasa were similar to standard ones found in other fantasy MMOs, the sci-fi theme allows you to complete them in different methods. Having to place bombs on generators to cut off a force field was something I'm more used to doing in the few adventure games I've played. Also most of the instances are layed out more logically then those found in current MMOs. The bad guys actually have defenses in place and have them set up to keep away pesky outsiders. I always wonder why every dungeon in fantasy MMOs almost always had a undefended entrance. It was especially funny when the last boss acted surprised that you found your way to him.

Fighting enemies in Tabula Rasa requires a bit more situational awareness then in other games. It seems to stress pulling less and doesn't have the imaginary aggro line which allows you murder a single mob while in sight of his friends. Instead the fights are focused on large skirmishes where everything in sight will attack you. The skill in fighting such a large number of mobs is knowing their weaknesses and switching to a weapon or ability that can quickly eliminate them. Using cover reduces the damage you take and helps you survive the initial fire from multiple mobs. Mobs usually fire on the first enemy they see though they will switch targets quickly for a heal or a very threat intensive attack (think bazooka or grenade).

Instances scale up in much the same manner as City of Heroes so if you go in with a full group you'll get more mobs. Soloing can be tough depending on your abilities and class but seems doable if you just level up and come back later. From my experience protecting bases and killing bosses in instances has a better chance of dropping good loot though the loot tables seem randomized. I see a lot of similarities between Tabula Rasa and City of Heroes and I can definitely see this game taking up a similar place as I wait for Warhammer and Age of Conan to release. But while I quite City of Heroes very quickly once World of Warcraft came out I can see myself holding onto Tabula Rasa.

On a side note crafting in Tabula Rasa needs some work.