Monday, June 30, 2008

Travel in Age of Conan

I managed to recently get a friend in Age of Conan to loan me some money so I could buy my first horse. Much like World of Warcraft mounts serve as a great money sink since everyone needs one to cut down on travel time. Traveling is particularly annoying in Age of Conan since it doesn't even have a system of flight paths. This makes going back and forth between Field of the Dead and Old Tarantia a nightmare. You would think I would know the zones in between like the back of my hand, but I always find myself taking a wrong turn.

Also not helping the matter is that Age of Conan has a bug where your map can become grayed out and useless. It fixes itself when you zone, but that doesn't help when you find yourself in the middle of a huge zone that you're not familiar with. I don't know why, but this bug always seems to happen to me when I go through Connal's Valley and I end up wasting a lot of time back-tracking down its many paths. Now with a horse I can easily afford my sense of misdirection since the movement increase is quite noticeable. I should just make a barbarian character and play through the Connal's Valley zone so I know my way through there.

One thing I noticed while leveling my characters is that I haven't had any problems finding quest content to level on. My conqueror only did the Wild Lands quests and I haven't really quested in the Stygian or Cimmerian starting zones. I did do a couple instances on epic with my friends and I guess that gave me enough experience to get a head start over most people. I find it funny that most of the instances we did on epic didn't even have blue rewards in them. We were just doing them to get some practice running dungeons. Funcom has since added low level blues so you can do a lot of the 20-40 instances on epic and get decent rewards now.

My regular group is actually starting to have problems forming up for dungeon runs. Age of Conan has the same hearth/bind system that was pioneered by Everquest and it has the same limitations. Often we'll find ourselves with hearth on cool-down and our bind locations being nowhere near the dungeon entrance. This shouldn't be too much of a problem once we all have mounts, but at the moment it can take 15-20 minutes for everyone to get at a specific location. It seems unusual that Age of Conan doesn't have some sort of public transportation; like flight paths or summoning stones. At the very least you think they would reduce the costs of the slowest horse to be a bit more in line with what a lower level character can make.

Friday, June 27, 2008

What is the next trend in MMO development?

We all know that this year's offering of new MMOs have all had a heavier PvP focus then earlier games. This was due to several factors, but the rising popularity of "fair" PvP systems like World of Warcraft's battlegrounds probably had a influence. Now before I get anyone saying how unbalanced the battlegrounds and arenas really are, look at previous MMOs. They mostly had strict penalties for losing and had no sort of organization for balancing sides. Human beings are usually smart enough to avoid fighting unless they believe they have the advantage and this translated into PvP combat.

Thus for the longest time PvP stayed in the realm of niche games as it was seen as an activity for only greifers and gankers. However, this year's games seem determined to make PvP accessible to the casual player and are succeeding. Still that begs the question what's next for the evolution of MMOs? In my opinion I think its time to break the stranglehold that fantasy has on the MMO genre, but are developers willing to take the risk? We've seen some nice breakaway attempts in sci-fi over the years, but nothing that could beat even classic EverQuest in subscription numbers.

The truth of the matter is that MMO design has been heavily influenced by the two most successful games in the genre's history. The first five years saw Everquest dominate the western market with almost 500k subscribers and then hand the torch off to World of Warcraft. It's interesting to note that the best performing non-fantasy games; EVE and COH came out in the time period between this hand off. One has to wonder if World of Warcraft hadn't been as successful if we would have seen more non-fantasy games?

Whatever influence the success of WoW has on game studios, it looks we are finally getting some new non-fantasy blood. Next year we have a line-up of at least four sci-fi/superhero games with maybe some surprises yet to be announced. The most well known and complete of the new games are Stargate Worlds and Champions Online which might come out in the first half of 2009, but you know MMO release dates. The next three I want to mention are Huxley, DC Universe, and Jumpgate Evolution. We know considerably less details on these games, but there's at least enough activity that we can be assured they're not vaporware.

Even further in the future we have the rumored Star Trek and Knights of the Old Republic Online. Both games haven't officially been announced yet, but crazy fans have tracked enough hints and rumors on the Internet that the games are most likely real. We'll be seeing more non-fantasy games in the next few years then we've seen over the entire history of MMO genre. Developers have finally realized that sticking with the same type of generic fantasy setting is creating a "King of the Mountain" effect. The most well established fantasy MMO seems to have an advantage over any new game in the same setting. I'm not a big believer in the WoW clone theory, but there is a reason why most players return to WoW after trying out a new game.

Therefore based on what I've been seeing I'm inclined to think that breaking out of the fantasy setting will be the next big trend in MMOs. I'll be even further convinced if Blizzard announces a new MMO this weekend and its not fantasy based.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Blizzard's Mysterious Teaser Screen

I've been ignoring the brilliant marketing going over at the Blizzard website this week, but I'm finally giving into the pressure and joining the speculation. Rumors are always fun in the gaming business, especially when there seems to be something solid behind all the noise. We know for sure that something is being announced at the Invitational in Paris this weekend. The icy teaser image that appeared on the Blizzard website seemed to be related to Wrath of the Lich King and most people assumed the official released date was the surprise announcement. However, several MMO news sites have pointed out a recent interview where Rob Pardo hinted a new game announcement. There's still room for miscommunication, but most people are taking this to mean the icy teaser images are not for WoW's newest expansion.

I've seen all kinds of guesses that the teaser images are for Diablo 3, World of Starcraft, or even a couple of old timers saying Lost Vikings. I'm still not convinced that the teaser is for a new game despite the amount of people convinced otherwise. Blizzard still has Starcraft 2 and Wrath of the Lich King in limbo land while they are adding the secret sauce. While Starcraft 2 is supposedly very playable right now, there are reports that WotLK is still quite unfinished. Would Blizzard really want to ramp up development on yet another game by having an official announcement? We know their working on another MMO, but without any specifics it's only gotten minor interest from the Internet. Once an official announcement is made you can expect the floodgates to open with demands for more information.

The teaser image itself has three components; ice, runes, and some kind of purple monster mascot. The runes and purple monster tend to go against the World of Starcraft rumors and Lost Vikings seems like a longshot. An almost common consensus is being reached that Diablo 3 is the most likely game to be announced. While there is always a chance for an original IP that seems to be against Blizzard's modus operandi. If you remember when Starcraft 2 was announced the same thing happened. At first everyone threw out a bunch of wild ideas and then it slowly got narrowed down in the forums and blogs until most people thought it was going to be a new Starcraft game. If we follow the same trend here then we can assume it's definitely Diablo related.

The only thing I'm left wondering is if it's Diablo 3 or an actual MMO set in the same universe. There's been a ton of Diablo clones out lately and most of them didn't add much in ways of innovation for the point and click adventure genre. I wonder if a third installment of the franchise would actually be able to distinguish itself enough from games like Hellgate London and Mythos. On the other hand a Diablo MMO is still fantasy based and I'm not sure if Blizzard really wants to impinged on it's already loyal MMO fanbase. Just look at all the confusion the EverQuest player base had when EverQuest 2 came out. It's enough of an obvious problem that I don't think Blizzard is stupid enough to do it so early. This just leaves me wondering what the hell they are hinting at anyways.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Does the subscription model cause MMO fanboism?

Fanboy or Fanboi is a derogatory term used to describe gamers who prefer a single product over all others despite any flaws or problems their choice may have. It's most often associated with consoles, though it can also develop over exclusive titles for a console. It's a horrible affliction and is probably the third leading cause of internet trolls after Xbox Live and the WoW forums. It's been theorized that fanboism is caused by the high cost of consoles, which often leads to people only ever being able to afford one. As we've seen in every generation of video game consoles there is almost always a clear winner who becomes the most popular and gets all the exclusive titles. Developers slowly start to abandon the other consoles and the game library for the winner climbs until the next generation is started.

I'm borrowing heavily from Yatzhee here but owners of the losing console often go into a sense of hyper defensiveness where they believe their own stubbornness can change the fabric of reality. They'll gloss over anything bad about their game or console and instead expound on whatever decent features they can find. The problem with this type of self delusion is that it tends to be permanent. Since every company at one point has lost or won the console war, there are fanboys for every one of them. They roam throughout the internet like mindless zombies eager to tear down anything not associated with their system. Their motivation seems to be that if they can direct enough nerd rage against their opponent's products they can make their own favorite more popular.

MMOs have almost the same problem as consoles though its hard to see any similarities between the two. The price of a MMO is actually quite reasonable for the amount of entertainment you get from it. Then again if you add up the cost of a year's subscriptions plus the initial cost of the game you arrive at something very similar to the price of the Wii. Thus while the initial cost is not as great as a console, the cost of seeing all the content does add up. This combined with the time commitment required by most MMOs makes it so most gamers can only play one game at a time. Now it becomes a bit more clear how MMOs gather the same kind of fervent fanboi attention that consoles have.

I personally think that MMOs attract even more fanboi attention then consoles, but the small size of the genre in the past has limited the effects. The console wars involve a much larger number of gamers and so its impact on internet forums has always been greater. Now though with the MMO market being so much larger, the effects of MMO fanboism can be felt all over the internet. The trolling just this summer between Warhammer, WotLK, and AoC has gotten so impressive that it's like a mini console war. Unlike consoles, the fun in MMOs seems to be directly proportional the amount of people playing it. Grand Theft Auto IV doesn't get better if more people buy it, but you can't necessarily say the same thing about a MMO that depends on grouping. This is why MMO fanboys are so desperate to convert people.

This gets so annoying that I can't even begin to describe my hatred for MMO fanboism. I just want to enjoy the game I'm playing in peace and not hear the ravings of people who got to the end game in another MMO and now are lonely, ever so lonely. I especially like the ones who champion a game which hasn't even released yet. Fanboys somehow believe that marketing material on their future game allows them to make detailed comparisons with current MMOs. I don't know if anyone has followed the history of any video game ever released but "THEY LIE". Until you sit down and start going through the half way point for a MMO, you never really know how the game plays or what is actually included in it.

If you want to know a secret then lean in close. I've never bought a MMO which I didn't think was worth the money. And you're talking to the guy who bought the normal version of Tabula Rasa for 50$ and now has to see the collectors edition for 15$ in the bargain bin. I've had some problems with SOE and their expansions for original EverQuest but that was a long time ago. In general most MMOs are worthwhile products and there have only been a few in the history of the genre which most people can say were horrible. Even most of the games which were horrible at release eventually improved enough that they became worthwhile later on. Vanguard and Anarchy Online are prime examples of this trend.

I'm comfortable with the subscription model because quite frankly I'm lazy and I don't like keeping track of a whole bunch of micro-transactions. I also don't really trust them, because every time I calculate how much I spent in arcades as a kid I feel like I was robbed. If there is one redeeming feature of the free to play model though is that it would probably but an end to fanboism in the MMO genre. Groups of friends could easily moved from game to game based on what they felt like doing that evening and not have to commit to a single game. This would annihilate the need to convert people to your game and spew out unrealistic critiques of every game you weren't playing. Of course for this to work someone actually has to make a free to play game which doesn't look like crap or play like ProgressQuest.

Monday, June 23, 2008

All Modern MMOs are not WoW Clones

In light of recent comments by Richard Bartle about MMOs being too similar I thought it would be fun to list out why some future games might prove him wrong. Not all new games emulate World of Warcraft despite the popular opinion that says otherwise. Its funny since I bet the professor was probably trying to appeal to believers of the WoW clone theory when he stepped on a landmine. Even though Warhammer is the original IP which spawned Warcraft people get very defensive when you compare the two. In all honesty the two games have very different game mechanics underneath the hood, even if they share a similar paint job.

Professor Bartle also is at a disadvantage since he thinks of designing game worlds like they were still text based. It was a lot easier to program off-the-wall revolutionary ideas for text based games since there were less limitations. Modern games have to worry about graphics engines and physics processing and can't just say depend on pure imagination. Also quite frankly text based games were more niche based and dealt with hobbyists instead of customers. MMOs can't get away with treating their players like some of the old MUD games. Perma Death, world resets, and trapped rooms that deleted all items are just not going to cut it anymore.

I'm off my little rant on the glory days of MUDs, so without further adieu here is what I'm looking forward from future MMOs.

Champions Online
This game has a very strong skill based system which introduces weaknesses at the cost of increasing your power sets. Also very intriguing is the idea of designing your own arch-nemesis who will follow you throughout the game. I've been watching the new episodes of the Venture Brothers and I laugh out loud thinking about being able design a similar superhero/villain conflict in MMO form. This game will introduce player made content and control over lore that I have never seen in any other MMO to date.

Warhammer Online
While Realm vs. Realm combat has been done before in Dark Age of Camelot, I think Warhammer is really changing the entire concept. In the past, a lot of MMOs ignored PvP content since they didn't want to force direct competition between their customers. Warhammer is changing this trend by creating an all encompassing PvP system which doesn't necessarily depend on direct combat. Public Quests, Zones Control, and even Dungeon Running will all be tied together as part of factional warfare. This will be the first game where every player will be participating in PvP in some manner.

Stargate Worlds
I'm not that experienced with MUDs but I believe a majority of them were stuck in the fantasy setting just as much as MMOs are nowadays. In fact I believe the problem was inherited from MUDs which probably relied too often on D&D modules for sources of lore. Its only going take one successful sci-fi MMO to blow this trend away and I eagerly await any game that looks solid enough to accomplish this. If MMOs can break out of their dependency on high fantasy then I think they will have become more "revolutionary" then MUDs in my book.

Long Term Viability of Tabula Rasa

If you follow my blog then know that I enjoyed a stint playing Tabula Rasa earlier this year. It's a very different game from most other MMOs and I had a lot fun blowing up alien scum. Unfortunately, the elements of the game that weren't MMO oriented slowly started getting on my nerves. Eventually as I started getting into the mid game I noticed that the game borrowed more heavily from the FPS genre then I originally thought. There were also some unfinished systems like raiding and PvP which made the end-game seem like a ghost town.

Age of Conan has many of the same problems that Tabula Rasa had upon release and people have been quick to make comparisons . Even though the two games have very different settings and gameplay, they share similar problems with itemization and missing end-game content. This hasn't stopped Age of Conan from selling substantially more boxes then Tabula Rasa. If you look online for Tabula Rasa boxes then you'll notice they have substantially dropped the price to almost the cost of a month's subscription. Indeed you can even find the collector's edition for around 15$.

So why is there such a difference in success between the two games even though they are very similar in quality? Well one major point is that Age of Conan took advantage of WoW ennui. Back when Tabula Rasa launched there was still the Magister's Terrace content on the horizon. Fast forward five months later and the new content is mostly consumed and recent changes have reduced the popularity of WoW's arena system. Another major issue has to be the setting difference between the two games. Most MMO players find even Age of Conan's low fantasy setting more acceptable then sci-fi.

NCSoft's breakdown of its recent quarterly profit statement has drawn even more attention to Tabula Rasa. The company is well known for giving very detailed information on each of its properties. However, in the most recent statement they gave very little information on Tabula Rasa. This has sparked a lot of speculation about Tabula Rasa's profitability and its future. Auto Assault was NCSoft's last under performing MMO and it was eventually closed down. The game only ever had an estimated 10-15,000 subscribers though it managed to stay operational for about a year.

The problem is that MMO maintenance costs very little, but adding content requires a decent income stream. Thus a lot of poor quality MMOs are still around since they make enough money to keep their servers up, but not enough to actually improve the game. All development work is cut once a MMO has dropped too many subscribers and the game goes into standby mode. Auto Assault eventually reached this point and NCSoft decided that it would be bad advertising to let the game keep on going.

Tabula Rasa is much more vulnerable to going into standby mode since it cost magnitudes more to develop then Auto Assault. NCSoft already knows its not going to recoup the development cost on Tabula Rasa as you can tell by the price cut on all the boxes. Right now they are just trying to keep enough subscribers to make the game profitable and still pay developers to keep keep the game updated with content. I admire the development team but I'm not sure how long Tabula Rasa can keep it up.

In my opinion you can look at Vanguard which has around 50,000 subscribers to get an idea of the amount of players it takes to make a game profitable and worth updating. It's hard to get numbers for Tabula Rasa but with only four servers there is an effective limit to how many subscribers they can possibly have. In my opinion its probably hanging around 30-40k at the moment.

The game is starting to get some good press because of recent improvement patches but it might be too late. It will be almost impossible to attract new players once Warhammer and Wrath of the Lich King come out. They need to add some devoted subscribers within the next few months or else they are going into standby mode and probably getting shut down. Without the addition of an All-Access pass for NCSoft games I see this happening by the end of the year.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Queuing Tells = Bad Idea

One of the dangers of trying out new designs in a MMO is that you might make yourself vulnerable to problems which have mostly been solved in other games. Take the /who and /tell command, which have been used by gold spammers for quite some time. Most modern games now have systems in place that allow you to ignore unwanted messages and quickly report them to a GM. The tell system in Funcom though actually stores messages even while a player is offline. As a result a lot of people are logging into Age of Conan and being greeted with a ton of gold spam.

Since most of the tells are being sent by disposable characters who are often deleted after a round of gold spamming, there is no point putting them on an ignore list. It's kind of funny seeing a game system abused right away and in such a severe manner. It makes you wonder what the developers were even thinking when they chose to store tell messages for offline players. Did no one even see the potential for gold spammers to make use of the system?

I think from now on every MMO studio needs to hire a group of people whose only job is to poke holes in their game design. I'm not even talking about beta testers though more of them would be nice also. No what I'm talking about is a group of guys who sit at the far end of the table who say repeatedly "That isn't a good idea, and here's why". Some systems like the honor ranking system in WoW, the crafting system in Tabula Rasa, and the chat UI in Age of Conan are just too horrible and and they should never had made it off the drawing board. Some of these issue need to start being caught before they are even coded and definitely not after they've been implemented.

Event Instances in Age of Conan

In my experiences instancing is generally used for only two purposes. One is to create a private dungeon for a group of players and the other is to control zone overcrowding. Over the years its become standard for almost all dungeons to be private instances and no one is really surprised by that application. More controversial is the use of instancing to limit the player population in a specific zone. Most players are willing to admit that this is useful in creating balanced PvP areas but that it shouldn't be used in general purpose questing areas. While it prevents a lot of player confrontation over mobs spawns and quest objectives it also segments the overall community.

What's interesting to me is that I've seemed to stumbled onto a sub species of instancing which I haven't come across before. During the last year and a half I've been trying out some of the newer MMO releases and I haven't run into anything like the event instances I've seen in Age of Conan. Their design seems short and sweet in that they mirror a single boss encounter with maybe a little bit of trash clearing. The itemization in Age of Conan is still unstable but in general from what I've seen the rewards are rare quality, but not as good as those dropped from bosses in a full dungeon. It seems to be the perfect solution for people who like group content and might only be on for a short period of time.

Treasury of the Ancients
This is the newly renovated event instance which seems to be working quite well though I hear you can bug it if your party repeatedly wipes. On normal mode it's fairly easy and is used for completing several quests. On Epic mode though it makes the mobs elite and the final boss drops two blue items around level 39. The zone is basically a long hallway with statues on each side with a treasure chamber at the end. When you get to the end of the hallway it becomes blocked off by statues and then they starting coming alive two at a time. After defeating all the statues you can go into the chamber and fight a big boss statue that has a heal over time and spits out smaller ones. It reminds me of the last boss in Uldamann except you don't have to go a horribly designed dungeon first to fight him.

The Armsman Tavern Arena
There is a small underground arena under the tavern in the Tortania Noble district. The quest leading to it was bugged for some people but apparently its been fixed now so everyone can get access. Inside is a rez point and a fight promoter who you talk to before each fight. You can talk to him and get a chance to "spill blood" or if you came in with a group you can ask for "a challenge". Both options will make it so you can enter the arena at which point the gates will close and your opponent will come out. On the "spill blood" fights there are some nice green rewards and your opponents tend to be animals with lots of knock-back effects. On the challenge mode you'll run into some decent elite opponents which allow you to earn some blue rewards.

Both of these instances are small and required less development work then a full dungeon but seem to be very popular. They have a lot of the artistic detail and atmosphere that really fun dungeons have. In the Treasury of the Ancients all the statues will move slightly and turn their heads to look at you and its easy to be surprised by the ones that actually come to life. In the arena there are a crowd of nobles in the stands and you can see them cheering or booing you as you fight. Overall I'm pleasantly surprised with how both instances turned out even though the idea of an instance with a single boss sounded stupid to me at first.

I've heard in Wrath of the Lich King that every single group dungeon is going to be multi-winged with each part designed to only take an hour to complete. While sometimes I don't have a lot of time to play and want something quick, I also like the option for a more complex dungeons. The multi-wing approach is convenient but every instance in them tends to be too linear and streamlined for me. I wonder if it wouldn't be a better idea to make some of the instances in multi-wing dungeon more complex, but intersperse a couple of short event instances into the mix.

Actually if you look at event instances in Age of Conan you'll realize that Funcom simply took raid encounters like Onyxia and Gruul and scaled them down to make them more accessible. It's a great idea since raid fights in MMOs are often some of the best parts of the game. Its just that most people don't have the time to jump through the hoops that large raiding guilds often require. Anyways I hope to see more of these event instances or mini raid encounters in Age of Conan as I level and that other games pick up the trend.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gaming and Tiered Internet Pricing

Back at the begining of the year I had read about Time Warner experimenting with different pricing structures for their internet access. At the time I thought little about it since it was just a test program and I didn't think it had a chance in hell of becoming accepted. Most people are smart enough to want to avoid overly complex billing systems. One only has to look at cellphones and credit card contracts to find out that the consumer loses when excessive legalse is added to a service.

However, other cable companies have recently started complaining about heavy users who they say are responsible for consuming more then 46% of their bandwidth. This wouldn't really be that much of a problem except that existing cable lines can't support the growing demand for internet bandwidth. New internet applications and an increasing amount of online games seem to be behind this trend and actually detract from the demand for traditional television. Some conspiracy theories say cable companies would really like to use tiered pricing to stop the increasing amount of television content going online.

In an effort to raise money for laying new cable line the cable companies say they need a more competitive pricing structure. Thus Time Warner and others are trying to pitch to their customers that most of them are only light internet users and they would pay less under a new pricing plan. This would be correct in the short term but eventually with the increasing popularity of the Internet everyone will become a heavy user. However, most cable companies would love to lay the groundwork for internet overage fees before this becomes the case and more people would protest the change.

One only has to look at the tier pricing Time Warner is using in the test area where a 5 GB a month plan would cost 30$ and a 40 GB a month plan would cost 55$. Most gamers seeing the options would obviously opt to have the 40 GB plan and think they were safe. But the problem is that if your techno savy enough to play online games then you also probably downloading music, movies, and other forms of media. What about streaming sites like Hulu and Youtube? The truth is that within five years almost no one is going to be able to survive on 5 GB a month.

I'll say again its obvious that the real goal here is to allow internet service providers to collect overage fees in much the same manner as cell phone providers. In the initial test program Time Warner only charges 1$ per 1 GB over your limit. But once overage fees are established you know they would quickly get out of control. Anyone who has ever had a huge overdraft fee on a bank account for a small overage amount knows what I'm talking about. Plus once fees enter into the picture most companies have no ethical problem manipulating circumstances to produce the highest potential overage fees.

P.S. Anyone want to guess the amount of bandwidth Age of Conan patches will take up this month alone? So far I'm guess 7 GB at least.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Holding Back Content

One true fact of MMOs is that developers will never be able to produce content as fast as players are able to consume it. It's a major problem for most games since the most dedicated fans play so much that they quickly burn through all the dungeons, quests, and raids. As time passes the end game gets filled with more and more players chopping at the bit for something new. If the developers can't feed them anything then what used to be dedicated fans can quickly turn into very negative critics.

Game studios have come up with different tactics for dealing with the problem. SOE tends to come out with very quick expansions which they support by charging top dollar. This seems to work with their smaller subscription base who are devoted enough to spend a little bit more for new content. Other games though that are supported by a more casual player base can't rely on their customers willing to shell out 50$ every six months. The problem is that subscription based games with large player bases are almost expected to give out free content since they make so much money from the monthly fee.

Blizzard had seemed to stumble upon the answer to this problem by holding back content from their initial game releases. Raid dungeons like Zul'amon and Black Temple were mostly done during the initial Burning Crusade development, but held back for patch content. I'm sure only a small group of developers were left to get these instances ready while the rest were put on SC2 or WotLK. This isn't a bad strategy actually and I've talked about it before on my blog.

The reason I bring it up again is that now the strategy seems to be biting them on the ass. I think they've gotten too used to always having something in reserve and now they don't have enough developers working on World of Warcraft. I also have a feeling that WotLK is taking longer then they initially expected and its keeping them from putting developers to work on patch content. Warhammer and WotLK also seem to be in some sort of weird competition with each other and I suspect they've got a case of feature bloat causing delays.

In the mean time current World of Warcraft players are left a little desperate for new content and Warhammer fans are having to survive just on the words of Paul Barnett. It funny that Age of Conan is having the opposite problem where they probably should have held some content back for additional polishing. They are fixing things in each patch but it's obvious things are a bit hectic at the moment. I wonder if they should have held off their release a few more months, but that would have probably given them less time to collect fees from bored World of Warcraft players.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Are MMOs slowly turning away from dungeons?

So far I'm a fan of Age of Conan and and I've made it over the mid level hump that is usually the deciding factor in whether I stick with a MMO or not. In both Tabula Rasa and Lord of the Rings I spent about three months playing and trying out the different classes but never really got a character past the middle levels. In the end I noticed my play sessions were becoming shorter and decided to cancel my account. I think part of the reason was definitely a lack of dungeon content in those games. Tabula Rasa and Lord of the Rings both over used quest instances in place of real dungeons and that just kills a game for me. In all honesty Age of Conan should be in the same situation but they saved themselves by being a little bit more forward thinking in their instance design.

Funcom definitely put a lot of effort into their art assets and they managed to avoid having any instances look too similar. Even the early quest instances like the Burshur House, Pyramid of the Ancients, and the Maze all look very different. During the early levels of Tabula Rasa I kept seeing the same enemy base and cave environments over and over again. Lord of the Rings was better with its quest instances but had very few real dungeons. While Age of Conan doesn't introduce a real dungeon until right before its mid game, it at least allows you to choose an epic version of an instance. Thus you can sort of turn the early quest instances into dungeons if you want some experience working in groups.

And isn't the whole point of having dungeons, so that players can gain experience working as a team? You don't want people getting to the end game and having no idea of how to play their class in a group environment. World of Warcraft is notorious for bad pick up groups but at least it has a nice spread of dungeons throughout all of its levels. The problem was that the rewards weren't really that good and a lot of players waited until higher levels before running dungeons. I think Scarlet Monastery was the first one that people actually ran because it had quick instances with decent rewards.

I think developers have interpreted players skipping a lot of the lower end dungeons in World of Warcraft to mean that players would rather have solo content. It certainly seems like this is the case based on the latest string of MMO releases. Even Everquest 2 had an expansion where it was faster to solo quest then visit any of the dungeons! I can even see why developers are doing this since it's so quick to level nowadays that lower level dungeon gear doesn't even get worn that long. This is especially bad in games with itemization problems, where a slightly higher common item is better then a rare. In situations like these developers are unintentional steering players away from the group content.

In all honesty there is too much time spend on developing quests over dungeon content in modern games. The skill set is less intensive for creating a standard "kill ten rats" quest and I'm sure it's cheaper. Dungeons involve hiring a lot more artists and programmers and probably cost an arm and a leg. But I think its worth it, especially with the decreasing quality of quests I'm seeing in modern MMOs. I think most game studios have a standard set of tools used for creating quests and they're just randomly turning Q/A people into quest designers. I like questing over grinding but some of the dialogue that's getting written is just soooo bad.

In the end I would like a format where there was a real dungeon every ten levels and a shared quest instance every five levels. The shared quest instances in the beginning of Age of Conan were a lot fun, even with the gankers. Though most of the objectives in these instances were soloable you still saw other people and it made the game world seem more alive. Also the longer you go not having a real dungeon the harder it becomes for players to actually pick up how to play in a group. I know that I really didn't get to experience tanking in Age of Conan until level 37 and that I probably caused some deaths while learning how to position mobs.

Monday, June 09, 2008

What the hell does "polished" mean anyways?

Some words in the MMO industry are used way too frequently by developers and as a result lose any unique meaning they might have once had. After Everquest the words "next generation" was the popular term to spew out if you wanted to hype your game. Apparently, there are multiple generations of MMOs but no one is really sure what differentiates them or even if they share any common design elements. It's like asking a person to define the age range for Generation X or Generation Y. You'll get so many different opinions that the terms are basically useless as adjectives.

I've personally seen the term "polished" go through the same overuse pattern that "next generation" went through. I know this isn't a news flash since I believe even Sigil used the term when describing their work on Vanguard. How their tongues didn't blacken and fall off from that liberty with the truth I'll never know? Anyways the term "polished" once had a very simple meaning that tied directly into a game's release. It first started popping up with World of Warcraft and basically meant the developers spent enough time working on the game so that the first users weren't really beta testers. Previous MMO philosophy being that as long as the servers could stay up for longer then a hour then you went ahead and released.

Nowadays "polished" can mean a game is fun, easy to learn, has stable servers, has good artwork, has a custom UI, is casual friendly, has endgame content, and well the list really goes on and on. Basically, what was first used to describe how complete World of Warcraft was at release can now stand in for any of it's features. In fact I think it would be hard to find any MMO in the future which won't have the word "polished" used to describe it. At least now there is a common assumption that any game which uses the term must be reasonably stable upon release. Hopefully, this means it will be mysteriously absent on games that are planning on following in Vanguard's footsteps.

P.S. SOE has actually given Vanguard a lot of love lately and its greatly improved from what I hear. But honestly there are only so many disaster launches and Vanguard was probably the most spec-tac-ular. NGE is a close second.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Choosing your allies in FFA PvP

There's are some very interesting opportunities for dealing with griefers when you're playing a free for all PVP game. Other games which use factions automatically assign you permanent allies and don't really give you a say in the matter. Thus sometimes you'll find yourself allied with someone who thinks anonymity gives them the right to act like a jackass. In most games I've played you can't really do anything about it except put the person on ignore and avoid them. Factions seem great for encouraging open world PvP but they tend to put you constantly in situations where you hate your fellow allies.

In World of Warcraft there were several times where I really hated the faction system, especially when playing alliance. The horde could only gank me, but my fellow alliance could roll need on items they couldn't use and repeatedly go AFK next to me in battlegrounds. It's was enough to make me want to tear my hair out when AFKers would yell at me for fighting instead of just losing so they could get marks quicker. Recently in Age of Conan I've come across a couple situations that really showed me the difference between being able to choose your allies and having them forced on you. I still think factions are the best way to go for large scale PvP but free for all doesn't seem as stupid as I used to think.

1) A friend of mine has a low end computer and loading can be a problem for him in Age of Conan. While coming out of the Sanctum of Burning Souls one night he was ganked by a player. Later that same night he got to point out the player in question while in a full group. Everyone got to have fun taking care of someone who camped zone lines. It's funny, but griefers and greifing guilds are starting to become "KOS" to players on our server. It actually kind of neat the way you can't hide behind a faction to protect your griefing addiction.

2) We repeatedly had a member of our group roll need on items he couldn't wear in a dungeon. The first time no one else needed it but we had specifically listed our loot procedures. The second time it happened he had barely managed to wrap his hands on the ill gotten item before he was kicked from group. Almost instinctively everyone moved in and slaughtered him. We then continued on our merry way and even ran the dungeon again.

3) A bad situation a friend of mine had was when a griefer told everyone in his group that he knew of a secret boss in the dungeon and that they had to jump onto a ledge to get to him. The second everyone had jumped down he then left the group and tried to use knockbacks to force people to fall to their deaths. I'm sure he thought it was amusing but it didn't work like he planned since not everyone fell for it. Still it stressed the importance of choosing who your allies are in a free for all type of game. Now I know why corporations are so paranoid in EVE Online.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Low and High Fantasy in MMOs

Tolkien is pretty much the undisputed source of modern day fantasy, but his style only represents a portion of the genre nowadays. Those that follow exactly in Tolkien's footsteps often use the term "high fantasy" to describe their work. It's very easy to distinguish this classic approach from more modern sub-genres of fantasy since it almost always deals in the absolute alignment of forces for either good or evil.

In Middle Earth these forces were represented by the elves on the side of good and the orcs on the side of evil. This has lead to high fantasy often being associated with classic non human races like elves, halflings, and dwarves. While this tends to be true in some sense it’s really the nature of the main characters which define the genre. If the protagonist is a hero and has no inner struggles in deciding their actions then this tends to hint of high fantasy.

Low fantasy on the other hand tends to deal with a more human portrayal of main characters. The main characters struggle with their actions and may do things which are self serving or even petty in some regards. While we may not admire these characters as much as high fantasy ones they are easier for us to relate with. Recently I've seen a lot of low fantasy used in television programs like Heroes, Battlestar Galatica, and Lost. It seems that what has been a popular trend in books for awhile now is starting to make its way into other forms of media.

In general most MMOs have stuck with classic high fantasy since Tolkien's work was the original influence for Dungeons and Dragons. However, there have been a few games, usually oriented around PvP, which have adopted lore more in line with low fantasy. Age of Conan is probably the most well known and I've heard varying opinions on the style of its storyline. Some people see low fantasy has not having a clear purpose and feel that the lack of an absolute evil makes the story less grandiose. Others find that being able to relate to their characters makes them better able to enjoy the story.

It's funny since in the fall we're going to see the release of Warhammer which follows very strongly in the footsteps of other high fantasy games. Indeed I would say Warhammer has more absolute versions of good and evil then even World of Warcraft. So while the PvP looks like the best I've ever seen in a MMO, I wonder if their lore will produce lopsided factions. In general the Horde were less popular in World of Warcraft, but at least the lore in Azeroth didn't make the orcs into mindless minions of evil, like those in Middle Earth. It should be interesting to see how the factions fill up in the game and if they have worse problems then World of Warcraft.

Monday, June 02, 2008

What's Age of Conan doing differently in Tradeskills?

In general most MMOs spend very little time putting any innovation into their crafting systems. Almost every game I've seen lately has followed the same old template. Developers restrict the rarity of crafting patterns by locking them behind very grind intensive methods. This can include random loot tables, reputations, or high level raid encounters. Either way the idea is to make it so very few people can make items which are more useful then the average dungeon drop. Then to complete the old pattern they make it so tradeskills require lots and lots of resources to level up.

It's brilliant in that eveyone will want to have a tradeskill maxed out in case they get lucky and win or grind themselves a rare pattern. This in turns puts a huge demand into the market for raw tradeskill materials which are farmed mostly from nodes instead of mobs. Since the demand is so high for raw materials it often attracts professional farmers to the nodes instead of killing the mobs needed for questing and leveling. Also supplying raw materials for tradeskills doesn't produce the same influx of a gold into an economy like rapidly killing respawning mobs.

Age of Conan seems to be following a slightly different template for it's tradeskill design. First it seems like all item patterns are earned by doing quests which increase in difficulty. I find it hard to believe that you will get rare patterns just by following a long questline but that seems to be the case. I'm wondering if the later level quests will require rare drops from dungeons or raids which would fit more into the standard method of restricting rare patterns. It's something worth watching though. Especially, if you could quest yourself into a legendary weapon/armor smith.

Gathering in Age of Conan also uses a questline to determine what types of resource nodes you can harvest. The first quest for woodcutting I got required 20 ash branches which wasn't too bad, but the one afterwards required a rare type of ash that only drops from a node about 1 in 100 times. Thus you find yourself gathering about 120 ash to complete the first two quests. Thankfully, afterwards you just have to gather Yew which is pretty common. In general the gathering questline seem to follow a common, rare, common component pattern.

Gathering is very easy in Age of Conan since they have three zones dedicated to nothing but resource gathering and player cities. It's almost as if Funcom designed these zones on purpose to attract farmers. They're beautiful, but very empty with no aggressive mobs or non tradeskill quests to work on. There's a small chance mobs will spawn on you when click on a node but other then that its pretty safe. I'm sure this will be the place where the tradeskill grinders will hang out and it should keep them out of the leveling zones. Zones like the wildlands have plenty of resource nodes but they're constantly being emptied by players so you only ever get one or two resources from each one.

I think this is an improvement over World of Warcraft at least in gathering. Nothing more annoying then having a quest to kill elementals in WoW since they were always camped for their primals. Since primals served as the unofficial legal tender for farmers it kept all the spots where elementals spawned permanently camped. Age of Conan seems to be avoiding any similar problems by sticking mostly to nodes gathering. I even think cloth is made from cotton nodes instead of dropping off humanoid mobs. All in all I think Age of Conan is making small baby steps to a better crafting sytem but I'd rather see something more complex like what EVE Online uses.