Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dr. Horrible Free Again

The popular sing along blog Dr. Horrible was picked up by yesterday and is once again free to watch. The show had a free premiere week on Hulu and then switched over to being available on itunes for a couple dollars. I'm guessing demand was high enough that Hulu ended up paying Joss Whedon and company some money for the show. This hopefully foreshadows that sales of the DVD will also be strong. I was remiss in posting about Dr. Horrible when it came out since it seemed to have magically spread across the entire blogsphere. I'm guess the nerd appeal of The Guild's Felcia Day had a lot to do with it being covered by most of the major MMO blogs.

Anyways if somehow you haven't seen it yet I suggest checking it out. It's something new that you probably haven't seen before and it actually quite funny. The songs are catchy and also fit into the story without being contrived. You don't even need to be a fan of musicals to appreciate it. Just read some of the comments on Hulu and you'll see a lot of them say things along the lines of "I normally hate musicals, but this was the most awesome thing I've ever seen". The last act of the show has mixed reviews mostly because of the ending. Still the impressive support for the show probably hints that projects like these will start to become much more common in the future.

Update: Joss is considering a sequel according to some news sources.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

War is not Perfect and WoW doesn't know everything

Warhammer has so many interesting ideas that I must say I'm getting excited as September gets closer. Just today I noticed Tobold did a post on the game's open grouping system and how it might encourage players to team up more often. Of course he's careful to remark that the system's usefulness depends on how quest items and experience are divided between group members. Grouping will still remain unpopular if Mythic makes the boneheaded mistake of making soloing better for gaining experience and completing quests. Even a good idea can be ruined by bad implementation. Warhammer is the new guy, but just because he has a clean slate doesn't mean he's perfect.

What I'm trying to say is that Warhammer is not the MMO messiah by virtue of being unreleased. I highly suspect that it will have the best PvP experience in a MMO, but it's impossible to know that at the moment. Even the people in beta don't know, since the experience between live and beta could be quite different. Things always change when people are involved and the more people, the quicker the change. Some of the PvP content could work differently when subjected to things like population imbalances or bot programs. That's not to say those will be an issue for Warhammer. In fact I believe they are using faction based queues to control server population and hired Punkbuster to prevent bots. Still I'm sure we can expect one or two things to pop up which will surprise everyone.

The other side of this argument is that World of Warcraft is not the best MMO by virtue of it being the most popular. There are parts of the game that many players will agree were implemented very poorly. I'm looking at you, honor ranking system. Also World of Warcraft often has a lot of criticism directed at it by older gamers who have more experience in the MMO genre. This probably lends some weight to the argument that it mostly polished established gameplay mechanics instead of revolutionizing anything. That's not to say releasing with polished content wasn't an accomplishment. Just look at all the buggy MMO launches last year to get an idea how hard of a goal it is. Still its ridiculous to portray Blizzard as a game design guru simply because they have the money to delay games while the polish them to a bright shine.

The truth is that neither game is perfect and they are a lot more alike on the surface then fanboys on either side are willing to admit. I get the difference between RvR and PvE treadmills, but it still doesn't change the fact that the first thing people see is orcs and humans fighting each other. I guess the real problem is that the fans might be taking their cues from the developers. I'm pretty sure that Mythic and Blizzard are dueling with release dates by leaking information to game retailers. It's actually kind of childish and I don't see why they can't just reach an agreement. Have EA's lawyers call up Activision's lawyers and get us a solid schedule for god's sake. I thought I might reading too much into the release dates and then I hear a nice story about Paul Barnett saying Warhammer is basically ready to ship now if they wanted.

Arggg, I'm just going to ignore the release date fencing for now and plan on playing Spore in September.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Did Funcom lose money by releasing early?

I was playing some Age of Conan over the weekend and exploring some of the updated content in the Khopshef province. One of my friends was on and had a equal level character so we ended up grouping and burning through some of the mid level quests in the zone. I was surprised by how deserted it was and most of the people we saw were higher level jerks who would instant kill us for fun. The people our own level would hide if they saw us and then try attacking later while we were fighting mobs. When I did my first round of leveling the asshat behavior wasn't this bad, but I guess most of the normal people have left the game by now. I can see why the Zero Punctuation review said Age of Conan was in need of some idiot fumigation.

The low number of people we saw in Khopshef Province got me curious about actual realm populations and I thought maybe the number of versions off the zone would reveal a dip in players. I was shocked to see only one version of Khopshef was running and the same held true for the other nearby starting area, the Wildlands. I had noticed earlier that mid-level zones like the Field of the Dead and the Noble District were getting sparse and only had one or two versions running. However, I thought the lower level content would be more populous. Just earlier in the month I had seen Khopshef have four versions up and running. I checked in several times over the weekend and saw the story was always the same. Age of Conan had suffered a much more severe dip in numbers then I thought.

Based on what I've seen in the game my estimate for the number of subscribers in Age of Conan is between 100-200k. I can't believe the numbers dropped that low since I was expecting a 50% drop at most and I thought the game would continue getting at least some new players. I think I underestimated the effect of negative word of mouth from blogs. While I had come across a few people who liked the game most people tore it shreds while comparing it to either World of Warcraft or Warhammer. The game is in a much better state then it was at release and it seems obvious they would have held onto more subscribers if they had just delayed a month or two. Since I'm a numbers kind of guy I started to create a scenario for just how much Funcom suffered from releasing early.

1) Age of Conan lost more then half its subscribers
2) Warhammer releases in September
3) Warhammer will effect the number of AoC subscribers in October
4) Funcom would have kept more subscribers if they held back the release

Scenario 1: Current Day
May: 700k accounts * 50$ = 35M
Jun: 300k active accounts * 15$ = 4.5M
Jul: 200k active accounts * 15$ = 3M
Aug: 200k active accounts * 15$ = 3M
Sep: 200k active accounts * 15$ = 3M
Oct: 50k active accounts * 15$ = .75M
Grand Total: 49.25 Million

Scenario 2: Held Release Till July
May: Worked on Itemization and UI updates
Jun: Worked on PvP system
Jul: 700k accounts * 50$ = 35M
Aug: 600k active accounts * 15$ = 9M
Sep: 600k active accounts * 15$ = 9M
Oct: 200k active accounts * 15$ = 3M
Grand Total: 56 Million

The main reason that Funcom lost so many accounts was that the game had a lot of untested content after Tortage. If they had let in more beta testers during May and Jun and cooked up a real PvP system then I think that would have kept a lot more people in the game. They were still going to lose a decent number of people after the first month because of high technical requirements and the overuse of instancing. However, if Funcom had just waited a bit longer I figure Age of Conan would have mimicked City of Heroes and maintained a subscriber base between 120-175k for several years after release. Instead what we have is a situation where I suspect they'll have to do some server mergers after Warhammer.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Slash Content or Release with Bugs?

There's a long standing theory that World of Warcraft has changed the MMO market because of the high degree of polished it had upon release. While it wasn't 100% bug free, it did have a lot of content which was surprisingly stable and fun to play. It was a sharp contrast to EverQuest 2 which was going through a tough regiment of constant patches at the time. It sort of reminds me how Age of Conan is currently going through it's own weekly patch cycle. It's almost like Funcom had it's head in the sand and missed the epic battle between SOE and Blizzard in 2004.

It's not like Funcom is the only developer to ignore MMO history. The way Sigil handled the release of Vanguard has made it the poster child for incomplete and buggy games. Then again it's not like Pirates of the Burning Sea or Tabula Rasa were shinning examples of polished MMO design either. Even the successful Lord of the Rings only managed to match Blizzard's polish by leaving large stretches of their game barren of content. More content was patched in eventually, but it didn't stop their initial subscription numbers from quickly going downhill. It's funny, but the most complete and polished game after World of Warcraft might actually be Guild Wars.

I have to wonder if ArenaNet had a better idea of how much content they needed to develop for their game compared to other MMOs. Since they were only focused on box sales I bet their development cycle was tighter and had more in common with console games. It seems a weakness of MMO developers is under estimating how much time it will take to finish content. They have a habit of spending way too much time on one part of the game and then having to knock their timeline back. Eventually, they start to run out of money and they make the decision to release with bugs like Funcom/Sigil or slash content like LOTR/Warhammer.

So how the hell did World of Warcraft managed to release with so few bugs and a decent amount of content? Well quite frankly, I think Blizzard had a lot of experienced people working on the game and Vivendi did authorize around 50 million dollars for its development. It may not be necessary to spend that much, but if you want a game with complete and bug free content that might be the cost. It'll be interesting to see how much Mythic has invested into Warhammer when they finally release the numbers. I'm willing to bet it will be under what Blizzard spent but then again I think they are trying to do it in three years instead of four. At the very least Mythic didn't slash any content required for leveling so they are one step ahead of Lord of the Rings.

It's quite obvious that while World of Warcraft raised the bar for MMOs, it's set it way too high for most development studios. I know a couple games like Tabula Rasa and Vanguard cost almost as much money as World of Warcraft and still produced crappy games at release. I think the missing ingredient might be an experienced team combined with ungodly sums of money. I know Tabula Rasa suffered from a lot of hands stirring the pot as people left and came onto the project. Sigil on the other hand was a brand new company and had a lot of ex-developers trying to do project management. Luckily, I think Mythic has the right combination of experience and money. In fact the only reason they probably had to cut any content was that they spent so much time advertising/hyping their game.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

New Types of MMO Combat

It's been a long held criticism that MMO's have changed very little in their combat systems over the years. The same mixture of auto-attack and hotbar abilities that Everquest popularized can be found in the majority of modern games today. What little innovation we've seen has involved mixing first person shooter elements into combat. Unfortunately, a lot of MMO fans are still only interested in fantasy settings that don't mix well with FPS style combat. Also FPS fans are used to getting multiplayer services for free and don't see the need to pay a monthly subscription. While eventually I believe a FPS based MMO will succeed its always going to have a limited amount of appeal because it's combining two genres with very different tastes.

However, there does seem to be some hope coming from the far corners of the MMO universe. There are a couple of games that are oriented on youth and use gameplay mechanics that haven't been explored very much in the MMO genre. Both Wakfu and Wizard101 seem to be aimed at slowing combat down in hopes of introducing more strategy and tactical elements. On the opposite side of the spectrum we have Champions Online and Age of Conan which are trying to speed combat up so that it appeals to console gamers. Having learned from the past mistakes of Tabula Rasa and Planetside they are avoiding the FPS trap. Instead these two games have combat styles which is reminiscent of cooperative fighting games. I expect both these games to do well with their Xbox 360 port.

This game has a combat system based on the game mechanics of collectible card games. If you're familiar with Magic the Gathering then you could easily pick up Wizard101. The art seems to be heavily influenced by Harry Potter and is stylized instead of being realistic. Since the combat is based on card combat the battles are considerable longer when compared to most other MMOs. However, this doesn't seem to make them boring since I know several beta testers who are gushing over the game. Also it seems that the Wizard101 characters has the same high degree of customization and pet options which has made MapleStory so successful. I'm not sure if this game will be micro-transaction based, but it seems to be designed to take advantage of such a model. I only hope this doesn't turn off too many traditional MMO subscribers. If you're interested go on over to West Karana for several write-ups about the game.

I know a little bit less about Wakfu then I do some of the other games I'm going into. It's the successor of a game called Dofus which is made by French developer, Ankama. There are several gameplay videos for Wakfu and it looks to play a lot like a tactical fantasy game such as OgreTactics or Shining Force. If you're familiar with the genre then it will come as no surprise that Wakfu will be a turn based MMO. I know it seems like a step backwards from the real time gameplay we're used to experiencing, but I think it could work. The artwork and combat animations are a mixture of sprite models and anime cell shading and remind me a lot of the Disgaea titles. I'm not sure of their payment model, but I know Dofus uses a sliding scale subscription model that is supposed to be very fair. I just hope the translation into English is well done. I don't want to hear anymore "All your base are belong to us" jokes.

Champions Online
But wait a second Relm, isn't Champions Online just going to use the same combat system as City of Heroes? Smack. Wrong. It looks like Cryptic has learned from some of their earlier mistakes and is getting away from putting all attacks on cool-downs. My early understanding of the combat system is that it will be more console like where your basic hit and kick buttons will give you power that can be used to execute your special attacks. While I know this will probably be called button mashing in a comment five seconds after I post, its a very popular mechanic in console fighting games. I have a feeling that Cryptic will make the first real successful MMO that sells well on the console. I'm sure SOE will get envious with all the money they are investing to turn the PS3 into some kind of MMO console.

Age of Conan
I've mentioned before how Funcom designed Age of Conan from the start to be compatible with consoles. It's a good thing they released on the PC first though. I have a feeling that console owners are much less tolerant of unfinished games and Funcom would probably now be involved in some kind of class action lawsuit if they released on the Xbox last May. As much as I hate the old "pay us to beta test" trick that Funcom pulled, I still love the combat system in the game. It should translate very well to console controls and will be coming out around the same time as Champions Online. I think the combination of Age of Conan and Champions releasing on the Xbox 360 are far more likely to make it the MMO console. I have a distinct feeling that SOE is barking up the wrong tree with the Agency.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Age of Conan's PvP System

Well it looks like Funcom pushed the first iteration of their PvP system onto their test server and it looks like a doosie. It's a combination of notoriety and PvP levels working together to form a "risk versus reward" system. Basically players gain 100 PvP experience by killing a similar level player, but lose a static amount of PvP experience by dying. Thus if you routinely die more often then you win a fight, you're not going to be racing through the levels. Luckily, you can't lose a PvP level once earned so you don't have to worry about that being a problem. The rewards are spread across ten PvP levels and actually have to be purchased by the player.

What really makes the PvP system interesting is that notoriety will greatly affect players who try to gain PvP levels by going on a killing spree. Players can either be flagged as innocent, criminal, or murderer. Innocents can't be attacked without flagging yourself as a criminal and gaining murder points. Criminals stay flagged for 5 minutes unless they attack another innocent or do another activity which re-flags them. If a criminal manages to gain 100 murder points then they become flagged as a murderer. Only time will de-flag you as a murderer and it looks like 1 hour of real time will decay 1 murder point. The penalties for being a murder are quite stiff and should be avoided.

Murderers lose double the PvP experience when they die and give double the PvP experience to people who kill them. Murderers will also dropped one of their items when killed by a player. Guards will attack murderers on site and Traders will not talk to them. Any players who trade or group with a murderer or criminal will be flagged a criminal. It's basically the line you don't want to cross unless you enjoy the notoriety. The entire system seems designed to encourage some ganking and PvP, but griefing will quickly rack up the murder points. Killing players at a rez point, at a zone line, or who are lower level then you seems to increase the number of murder points.

There are definitely going to be some ways to abuse this system especially with the amount of bugs that Funcom usually has in it's code. Still the system looks fun on paper and might actually be a step above what World of Warcraft offers. There are a couple unanswered questions I have that mainly revolve how the PvP mini games and siege wars fit into the system. Also this system will probably encouraging griefers to level up multiple characters, that way they can simply log out when they become flagged as a murderer. Another issue is that Funcom is going to have to be careful when setting murder points penalties. After all if a player kills a really low level innocent by an accidental AOE, how many murder points do they deserve? I don't want to have to spend a day camped out simply because a level 20 got in the way when I used a 2hand combo.

P.S This is the first iteration and we can expect things to change as bugs and exploits are pointed out by the testers.

Actual Patch Notes:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dates solidfying for WoW and War

Well the upcoming MMO war is getting it's start date a bit more solidified as time moves on. Many software retailers are marking down Warhammer with a September/October release date which seems to be consistent with the recent cut back of content by Mythic. What I find funny is that the Wrath of the Lich King beta was announced soon after Mythic made their move. Based on past betas run by Blizzard this put the release date somewhere around November. I get the distinct feeling that Blizzard is afraid of leaving the MMO market alone with Warhammer for too long. With the Burning Crusade we saw Blizzard extending their release date by a couple months to get everything nice and neat. This year I doubt they will be able to do this and we might get to witness the rare event of Blizzard actually making a deadline.

Mythic has a lot of content they recently cut from the initial Warhammer release and I bet it can easily be packaged into free patches for the game. Plus most of this content is going to be primarily PvP combat which has a longer shelf life then new raids or dungeons. Mythic can easily use the addition of more capitol cities as a method for introducing new scenarios and sieges into the game. Blizzard should be aware of the long lasting effect of PvP content since they haven't introduced a new battleground in years and they're still popular as hell. In my opinion Blizzard needs to throw down a lot of new content almost right on top of Warhammer if they don't want to lose a good portion of their subscribers.

I believe that Warhammer will easily set a new sales record for a MMO when it releases. We're probably looking at a number that reaches over the one million mark in the first week or two. A lot of these people are going to be coming from World of Warcraft, but aren't going to cancel their old subscriptions during the first month of play. After that time frame though a lot of people will start to make the choice to go with one game or the other. If the Wrath of the Lich King expansion isn't directly on the horizon at this point then most people are going to stick with Warhammer. The raiders will probably switch back as soon as Wrath of the Lich King comes out, but I don't think their numbers will be that high.

Quite frankly for the longest time a lot of people raided simply because World of Warcraft was the most appealing game around and its end-game was raiding. Blizzard has slowly been trying to introduce other activities oriented around PvP, but it's been an uphill battle. Warhammer is going to enter the scene with what looks like a very complex and rewarding PvP system right off the bat. Blizzard is trying to match Warhammer by introducing things like Lake Wintergrasp and siege engines. However, their most impressive content keeps on being PvE oriented like the Occulus dungeon or the new achievement system. I thought that Blizzard might be in a position to take the crown once again, but I'm beginning to wonder if they can do it without introducing some new PvP concept that Warhammer doesn't have.

The month of October will most likely be the showdown between these two games. Mythic will be announcing patches for Warhammer and experiencing that first steady surge of new players. Blizzard will probably be releasing lore and screenshot walkthroughs of its more impressive WotLK dungeons. As the first free month ends for Warhammer and the release date gets closer for WotLK we'll start to see the numbers moving one way or the other. While neither company will announce the declining growth of subscription numbers, both will trumpet rising subscription numbers. Thus depending on performance either Mythic or Blizzard will issue a press release and we'll know who is outperforming the other. Then again it could be that MMO players decide that 30$ a month isn't that much and both games have growth well into the new year.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Shared Character Advancement in WoW and War

The very nature of using a class based system in a MMO means that your adding replayability into your game. Each class has it's own way of playing and can have a different array of attacks, maneuvers, and strategies. The best games out there even distinguish their classes further by adding in separate quest lines. Yet as much as this adds replayability to the game, it doesn't add any new content to it. A new class may have a revolutionary combat mechanic that attracts a lot of people to try it out, but it doesn't mean everyone is going to play it all the way through the game. Even on reaching max level a new character often has to worry about extensive reputation, honor, and equipment grinds. Often the time investment to improve a character after reaching max level proves greater then the actual leveling.

There's no real reason why a lot of these grinds need to be repeated for each character. I know some people have a lot of free time on their hands, but the days of MMOs being designed for the jobless is over. Gamers are older now and might want to actually bring an alt to a raid without investing another two hundred hours in reputation grinds. That's why I suggest an account wide sharing of certain achievements. Reputations with various NPC factions would be the most useful, but it could be expanded even further. Equipment could be allowed to be shared on the same account between different characters. I hate random loot tables and I always seemed to get drops for the character I'm not playing at the moment. The "Bind on Equip" system most games use could be changed so that players could put items in a shared account bank slot.

Now this is not a new idea and the main reason it hasn't been implemented before is that developers realize the amount of time that some players devote to the game. Its unhealthy in my opinion to play more then 40 hours a week and quite frankly causes loss of muscle mass. That doesn't mean that some hardcore players don't spend all week leveling up multiple classes and doing end game content with them. However, if a game had shared advancement for reputation, honor, or gear progression then this would reduce the amount of time it took to advance multiple characters. These hardcore players could get bored and leave earlier in this case and we all know they're the viral advertising underground for MMOs. I'm being a bit sarcastic here, but I believe that's the general thinking that has prevent shared advancement in the past.

I think Warhammer might be breaking this trend since I hear that its Tome of Knowledge will be a universal source of information for all characters on the account. This would help out a lot since most of the features in the tome require a specific task to unlock. For example, statistical information on mobs is supposedly unlocked the more you fight a certain type. So if my main character spent a lot of time fighting wolves then all my other characters should be able to open the Tome of Knowledge and see the wolf hitpoint range and attacks. It's not as good as having shared equipment, but its a step in the right direction. Just think how useful it will be to have a list of quests you've discovered in a zone. When you bring a new character into that zone you should be able to quickly pick up all the quests since the locations are already marked.

Blizzard not to be outdone has also announced they will be introducing a limited form of shared character advancement. In Wrath of the Lich King there will apparently be items which are bound to a player's account instead of a single character. These items are supposed to be very powerful and are intended as twinking material. I can only think this is being done to encourage players to level multiple characters, though it could also have an affect on the lower level battlegrounds. Depending on the level range of these items they will definitely change the current balance of power in the specialized battlegrounds. If you have ever done the level 19 Warsong Gulch or the level 29 Arathi Baisin games then you know how competitive the twinking can be in those brackets.

Neither World of Warcraft or Warhammer are totally embracing shared character advancement, but they are both making their own attempts to experiment with the concept. I have a feeling that other upcoming MMOs will probably avoid the concept entirely until one or the other has worked out all the kinks. After all, I could be wrong in my estimation of the impact of shared character advancement. Maybe making equipment bound to account will cause so many arguments over loot that no one will group anymore? There's always unintended consequences to major design innovation and sometimes I guess it's best to take baby steps when applying it to a 50 million dollar piece of software.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

MMO Villains

Video games have always strongly depended on the concept of a villain. Almost every genre from action adventure to real time strategy uses the idea of a "bad guy" to help drive the story and game play. Games are a lot like movies in this regard since the lack of an obvious antagonist usually means your watching something very boring. MMOs may be a fairly new type of entertainment, but they also follow the villain hierarchy that exists in movies, games, and comic books.

The Villain Hierarchy:
1) Have a ton of minions who evoke no empathy (mobs)
2) Have some henchmen that the player can only fight after slaying lots of minions (mini-bosses)
3) Have a final shadowy main bad guy in the background (boss)

It's a simple formula but there are a lot of variations to the three main rules depending on what type of genre your playing. Real time strategy games usually go with the megalomaniac villain who wants to take over the world which fits in with the game play quite nicely. First person shooters on the other hand seem to prefer going with a mad scientist or alien queen. You would think the two wouldn't have much in common, but they spur the story along in a similar manner by sending disgusting creatures to kill the hero. I think this is so players can feel more justified using extreme violence to protect themselves since the enemies are so ugly.

MMOs traditionally try to appear more massive in scope then normal video games so their villains are often portrayed as having huge armies and controlling entire countries. A simple mad scientist just doesn't work when your game can potentially have 10,000 heroes all fighting evil at the same time. This is why fantasy MMO's almost always bring evil gods into the equation. They have the reputation for having hordes of devoted followers and terrible monsters, which heroes can spend endless hours fighting against. The list of evil gods in MMOs is quite extensive with Sauron, Arthas, Innourak, Cazic-Thule, and Sargeras just being the tip of the iceberg.

Games which aren't so deeply entrench in fantasy have more options when deciding their villains. Some like City of Heroes decided to use a multitude of evil villain factions, but I always felt an overall mastermind was necessary. World of Warcraft uses a couple separate villain factions like the Chromatic Brood, the Burning Legion and the Scourge. But in the background its Sargeras whose pulling the strings and is the root cause of all three. I think this gives the game a nice layered approached to its lore and I bet a lot of lore junkies liked slowly finding out that there was a mastermind behind everything.

I just wish the vast majority of the villains weren't the same old archetypes we've been seeing in dungeons and dragons since the seventies. There's a ton of other options and game worlds like World of Warcraft and City of Heroes have the advantage since they allow both magic and technology.

Different MMO Villain Archetypes:

Crime Lord
Nothing is more evil then greed and there are some interesting design choices a MMO can make if their main villain is a criminal. The action becomes less about saving the world and more about preventing a heist or a drug deal. The crime lord may not have endless armies, but they also keep a couple of bruisers and hit-men near them.

Madman Nihilist
The standard villain of Japanese role playing games seems to fit right in with most MMO plot lines. I always think a villain is more terrifying when they are just plain insane. Also there seems to be some sort of association with evil clowns like Cefka in Final Fantasy 6, Violator in Spawn, and even the original Joker.

One of my favorite villain types and a classic from the early comic book days. They are often characterized by having private armies and fondness for advanced technology. Ming the Merciless or Kane from Command and Conqueror are some definite examples of megalomania that I can think up off the top of my head.

Super Computer
Ever since mankind first programmed machines to mimic the intelligence of a retarded three year old we've been afraid of what would happen if they ever got any smarter. Witness the massive amounts of evil machine based lifeforms in our entertainment like Brainiac, Skynet, and HAL. They're all emotionless geniuses that want to destroy all humans.

Over-Used Villains in MMOs:

Evil Overlord
The classic Dungeons and Dragons villain stereotype who usually threatens small kingdoms and has a princess held hostage. They're usually some type of noble and have a title in front of their name like Count or Baron.

Evil Wizard
Do I really need to say anything. Heroes have swords and use brute force while villains have spells and use intelligence. It's a very lame stereotype that has existed for quite some time and it's just now starting to change. Age of Conan is a step back in my opinion since almost every "mage" uses evil demon power in the game.

Mad Scientist
A modern update to the Evil Wizard but the same basic principals apply. One thing I though interesting is that while a Evil Wizard can sometimes rule a country, the Mad Scientist is almost always regulated to controlling a city or large town. I guess its because they can't teleport magically from place to place or something.

Evil God
Sauron isn't really a god in the classical greek sense, but he is mostly immortal and powerful. It seems fantasy literature will always measured itself against the original "bad guy" and as a result it's filled with evil gods and goblin like minions. It gets old after awhile especially in the MMO genre which often uses fantasy literature as inspiration for its lore.

If anyone has some more villain mastermind archetypes, feel free to put them into the comments. I'm not really looking for classes but more an overall personality/motivation description. After all unlike video games most MMO's should never allow the hero to actually defeat the main villain in the game. I doubt World of Warcraft will ever let us fight Sargeras.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Taking Jagex seriously

I've been hearing a lot about Jagex starting to expand its current MMO operations by actually improving the base graphics for its popular Runescape MMO. As much as it pains me to admit it, Runescape qualifies as "popular" since the free portion of the game has had tens of millions of free accounts created. These free accounts are subject to banner adds and probably bring in a decent amount of revenue for Jagex. Of course, the more solid revenue stream is the 1.2 million subscribers who pay five dollars a month for access to additions skills and game content. The graphics upgrade which is slightly above EverQuest classic level will increase the subscription rate to about six dollars a month and most likely have no impact on subscriber numbers. That should be a decent boost to their monthly revenue.

Also interesting is that apparently Jagex has saved up enough money to start work on a science fiction based browser game which they are calling Mechscape. Not much is known about the game, but if visions of giants robots aren't already rolling around in your head then you're a bit slow. Since Runescape has always had a big appeal with the younger crowd you can probably expect a game about giants robots and spaceships to appeal to their target audience. A big part of Jagex's success is that the free portion of the game helps it achieve that critical mass needed to keep interest in a MMO alive. Since you can expect Mechscape to follow the same pricing structure I think Jagex is probably the only MMO company that doesn't have to worry about cannibalizing its own playerbase.

I've avoided talking about the gameplay in Runescape because I'm personally not a fan. I understand the need for item loss and item decay in some games, but it seems to be present in Runescape for no reason at all. You almost never lose all your items when you die and there are ways that sometimes you can save everything on your character. It all seems a bit random and just depends on the circumstances in which die. I've always noticed a tendency for free to play games to take items away from players randomly. It's like since you aren't paying for a subscription you have less ownership rights over the equipment you've collected for your character. Now a game like EVE Online destroys player ships when they die, but that's tied into a complex crafting economy.

So while I probably won't ever play Runescape or Mechscape because of their design decisions, I definitely take them seriously. They started off as just a couple brothers working from their home and have expanded into a decent sized company. Plus their combination of free-to-play and subscription accounts seems to be a winning formula that can keep people playing a MMO over a longer period of time then most other games. As they expand their portfolio of games they'll have opportunities to use their browser based platform to offer things like social networking applications and perhaps we'll see an all-access pass eventually. Runescape might be something that a lot of MMO players laugh at, but it has the potential to become as big as SOE or NCSoft in a very short period of time.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Stargate Worlds hunkers down until WoW War Conflict over

A recent interview conducted by Massively has shed a little more light on the upcoming Stargate Worlds MMO. I had known very little about this game other then their art direction which seemed to be a slightly stylized. Their characters don't have the exaggerated shoulder pads and weapons made famous by World of Warcraft, but neither are they trying to create photo realistic Fabios like Age of Conan. All in all I thought the graphics look like something I might see on a console game based on Stargate SG-1. I'm going to assume this means minimum hardware requirements to run the game which is a big relief after Age of Conan.

Also forthcoming were some basic design elements then went into the game play. Looks like the game is going to be organized into small squads which look like they might only be four members. They plan on using the Stargate as the perfect mechanism to explain instancing in the game. Some "worlds" through the Stargate will only be a single zone while others are going to have multiple areas. Its seems a lot like how Tabula Rasa set itself up only with wormholes instead of teleport pads. Also interesting was that the developers were full of confidence that they could release at the end of this year if they were so inclined.

However, the developers implied they didn't want to complete directly with Warhammer or Wrath of the Lich King. I can see the intelligence in such a decision though the vague details on combat and itemization made me think they are still far from completion of the game. That more likely then the WoW War Conflict is the reason they aren't going to be pressing a 4th quarter release. While I hate to judge a game so early I definitely don't see Stargate Worlds being the MMO that opens up the sci-fi genre. I simply don't hear any impressive new ideas from the game design team. The one different idea I heard in the interview is the archaeologist class which could despawn mobs using conversation skills. Ummm, while it fits how annoying Daniel Jackson was in the tv show, I'm not sure it would be a fun feature to actually play.

Then again I typing this up without the interview opened up in front of me so maybe I'm judging it a bit harshly from memory. Still the more I hear about Stargate Worlds the more I think its just going to be an average game. I think we'll have to wait for either a Starcraft MMO or KOTOR Online to make sci-fi popular in MMOs.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Weekend of Big News

We had a couple surprise announcements come out over this weekend and MMO bloggers are having a field day. It seems I spend a couple days disconnected and the next thing I know the MMO industry has lost a studio and part of an entire game. It's always sad to hear news about cutbacks since it can influence the entire market. Luckily, in this case we're dealing with unique cases and I think we'll still see heavy investment in MMO development. Still I'm going to be watching upcoming games much more closely for signs of trouble.

Mythic cutbacks on Warhammer content

It looks like Mythic was told not to push back its release date on Warhammer again. I've heard they made some big improvements to the game since Spring, but haven't had time to polish all the content. As a result their dropping four classes and four starting cities from the game. I've heard a lot of denial from fans and Mark Jacob that that was not a decision handed down from EA. Coincidence speaks otherwise since all of a sudden EA Mythic is being allowed to go back to their former Mythic title. It just hints horribly that a marketing department somewhere thought this would offset suspicion of EA's involvement in rushing the release date.

I'd much rather see Mythic delay again and release with all the content in Warhammer, but that would probably mean releasing directly against Wrath of the Lich King. It's become obvious ever since Age of Conan that Warhammer's best chance of success is to release before Blizzard is done with their expansion. I mean if 700,000 gamers flocked to an unfinished product like Age of Conan then EA knows that Warhammer is likely to pull in even more. However, this advantage can be lost if Wrath of the Lich King comes out in all its shiny new glory. It will probably dominate the MMO landscape for at least five months.

Flagship Studios was Axed

Its funny that a studio that focused on Diablo clones would crumble soon after Diablo 3 was announced. I'm sure it wasn't directly related to the announcement, but more a result of Hellgate London not selling well anywhere outside of Korea. Its a shame though since their other game Mythos was in the process of being turned into a nice little MMO. My guess is that HanbitSoft will take over the development of Mythos and we'll probably see it eventually being released in North America. I just hope that some of the developers of Flagship will be backed to work on the project. A lot of them are former members of Blizzard North who founded the Diablo series.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is Cryptic Studios and 2K Games a good match?

Interesting news came out today that 2K Games is going to handle the publishing of Champions Online for Cryptic Studios. Cryptic had previously stated they were looking forward to publishing their own games after parting ways with their previous publisher, NCSoft. It had been rumoured that Cryptic Studios and NCSoft had often butted heads over the direction of the wildly popular City of Heroes MMO. Cryptic eventually sold the game to NCSoft and started working on a new MMO which eventually became Champions Online. I'm surprised to see they are once again joining up with another company to get their game published and I wonder if it hints at financial trouble.

Then again it's a badly kept secret that Cryptic Studios probably acquired the rights to Star Trek Online from the now defunct Perpetual Entertainment. This searching out for a publisher could be a sign that Cryptic Studios wants to focus its monetary assets on development for the game instead of getting into the manufacturing and marketing business. It seems like they have learned from their previous experience since this time they found a publisher which has no experience with MMOs. This may seem counter-intuitive until you realize that it was probably NCSoft's "expertise" in the MMO industry which caused them to constantly butt heads with Cryptic Studios.

Cryptic will probably not have to worry about 2K Games making constant suggestions to their development team on how to improve their MMO. There's no proof that's what happen with NCSoft, but several major changes to City of Heroes/Villains were pushed down the pipeline after the sale of the game. One of them was slightly RMT like and allowed players to purchase additional characters slots on a server. Jack Emmert of Cryptic Studios is a known detractor of RMT practices in the MMO market and I would have loved to see the meeting where NCSoft first brought the idea up. I'm not a big follower of City of Heroes news so I don't know if this has been hashed out in forums years ago of if I'm way off base.

What I do know is that Take-Two will be at this year's E3 and might be showing off some 2K Game products. I doubt they will have anything related to Cryptic Studios, but E3 is often used for surprise announcements. Maybe we can cross our fingers and get a firm release date for Champions Online. The countdown page that Cryptic has for Star Trek Online, ooops I mean its unknown space MMO is set to expire later this month. This probably means no mention of the game will appear at this year's E3. Also on a side note EA is still going after Take-Two Interactive, so theoretically 2K Games could fall under the EA umbrella by the time Champions Online was released. I'm not sure if that would have any effect on the publishing deal, but it would be humorous if EA's logo appeared on Champions Online.

Update: Based on a moderator post at Champions-Online they will be at this year's E3. Even if we don't get a release date, we should at least see some more game play footage.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Could it be E3's last year?

I've been following the E3 tradeshow ever since I started to get really involved in gaming. At first it was just reviews and second hand posts from bloggers who had managed to gain access. However, as gaming became more popular it made the tradeshow popular enough that G4TV could make money just by covering it. Finally, I started getting some of the previews and game announcements first hand. Apparently this was a bad thing though since some developers thought the tradeshow started to become too much about marketing. I honestly don't see the problem with this, but then again I wasn't the one who had to fork over large sums of money to put together the dog and pony show.

Anyways, about two years ago the ESA decided to tone down E3 and turn it into something more for the internal game industry. I never really understood the reasoning behind the decision since it seemed like the main purpose of the tradeshow was to highlight their products to the buyers. If only a few "professional" journalists and other game developers are present who exactly is viewing your product? You think the game industry would know that gamers get most of their information from blogs instead of news sites. Even the professional video game sites are avoided by some since evidence of studios buying reviews scores keeps popping up. In general the smaller size of the show and stricter credentials requirements for press hampered the ability of the show to create any buzz.

The ESA did attempt to make a separate show for displaying their games to the public, called the Entertainment for All Expo. Like the name implies it was open to the public and featured decently priced admission. A lot of the big names in the video game world seemed to be missing from this expo though and it only gathered around 18,000 attendees in 2007. If that number seems large to you then you weren't at E3 2006 which had an estimated 60,000 attendees. Instead it looks like the bloggers and buzz for the old E3 expo started to head to the Game Developer's Conference. The GDC website claims that the event gathered over 16,000 attendees last year and from the amount of news I heard this year I can only assumed it was larger.

It's funny but developers really hate big crowded events and actually talking to players. Almost every developer blog I read celebrated not having to share space with a bunch of noisy mouth breathers anymore. Some like Lum were a little bit more circumspect about it, but the general feeling was one of relief. Of course now the ESA has two crappy tradeshows on its hands instead of a single overly successful one. To give you an idea of relative scale; the 2007 Penny Arcade Expo brought in 37,000 gamers while the combined E3 and Entertainment for All expos brought in only around 24,000. That's right an expo organized by a web comic was able to generate more interest for games then the ESA's offerings.

Now you can see why there's a trend of big game publishers starting to leave the ESA. It's not just the lack of interest for its annual tradeshows either. Last year the ESA changed locations for E3 and incurred large costs which it passed directly onto its members. There have also been some negative feedback to its new president and some of the decisions he has made. The association seems to be walking on thin ice now and a successful E3 would do a lot to keep its remaining members from leaving. It's almost guaranteed though that if things don't turn around for the ESA then this could be the last E3. It would be kind of sad to see such an infamous part of gaming culture disappear, but does it really serve a purpose anymore?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Item Stats and Age of Conan

Age of Conan has made an impressive splash in initial subscriptions numbers, but sometimes I just can't help but get the feeling that it's developers are kind of slow on the uptake. Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh or just a sign I'm developing the same kind of love-hate relationship I had with SOE for so many years. In any case, there are just so many flaws in their interface that I can't help but think they designed it to be obtuse on purpose. Things get even worse when you combine it with poorly explained stats and bad itemization. It's like they were trying to design a DIKU based MMO, but didn't feel the need to use any numbers.

The one decision that really puzzles me is that Funcom thought it would be a good idea to dynamically display item stats based on the owner. So if my conqueror is in berzerker stance then any weapon I link to another person shows a huge base damage increase. It's fun to make it seem like I have a god-like 2 hander, but its annoying when I'm trying to see if a drop is an improvement for any of my friends. The entire system basically requires you to have an item in your inventory before you know if its an upgrade for your character. Thank goodness armor is mostly immune from this affect, but it really screws around with weapon shopping.

Age of Conan is still keeping me entertained despite the abundant amount of flaws. I recently started running an arena questline with a friend where we fight increasingly difficult challengers while a NPC crowd cheers on in the background. I can only do this with one friend at the moment since the quest is currently broken and the rest of my small guild can't even get in. They are supposedly fixing it in this week's patch, but most of my friends have probably out leveled the rewards. Actually, I can't really tell if they've out leveled the rewards since we can't really judge the quality of the weapon rewards.

It's not like this is the only problem with item stats either. As I mentioned before itemization is still messed up a bit though Funcom seems to be fixing the issue piecemeal during each patch. I'm still finding green quality weapons from quests which are better then higher level blues. Most of the drops off mobs have been fixed, but it's obvious they still need to go through all the quest rewards. Funcom has a really good game underneath all of the bad interface design and they seem to realize it. The problem of course is that most people expect a better designed game after World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings launched so smoothly. That's not to say WoW didn't have bugs or LOTR didn't have huge content gaps. However, both games had a much better interface and itemization that made sense from the start.

I sometimes think Funcom depended too much on outdated design specs from Anarchy Online when coming up with their interface. It's like they got off the MMO design train circa 2001 and haven't hopped back on until recently. At least they acknowledge they have a problem and seem to be in the middle of a major UI overhaul. Unfortunately, they have already lost a decent amount of subscribers. It's not as bad as Tabula Rasa since even if they lost half their subscribers after the first month they still would have 350,000 players. Still if Funcom doesn't want to lose everyone to Warhammer later in the year they need to get things updated to modern design standards. No more giant black bars that cover the screen when you loot.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Could Wrath of the Lich King win the war?

The war for best MMO of the year is still up in the air. For the longest time everyone thought it would be a duel to the death between Wrath of the Lich King and Warhammer. I think we were all surprised when Age of Conan showed such a strong release and made it seemed like it also might be in the running. The game's shine has worn off now and fans are starting to clamour for Funcom to deliver on all the promises it made. The developers are trying, but it's obvious they released too early to take advantage of the lack of competition. Funcom has said that they have had over 700,000 accounts made since release, but that number is probably not reflective of current active subscribers.

This has once again become a contest between Wrath of the Lich King and Warhammer. The current hype paints Warhammer as the most likely winner though that's not based on probable box sales. Warhammer is not going to sell more boxes then Wrath of the Lich King no matter how popular it becomes. World of Warcraft has too many accounts already established that are going to boost the demand for it. If you think about the monthly churn rate which has been estimated at about 4-5%, then World of Warcraft most likely has around 20-30 million inactive accounts. Not all of these players are going to be coming back for the expansion, but a portion of them will be reactivated.

Warhammer has little chance to win if you look only at initial sales numbers. However, it's really the quality of the game play that sets the long term popularity of a game. A lot of video games based on movies sell well because of their relation to a license, but they soon disappear into obscurity. Wrath of the Lich King is going to win in initial sales, but the numbers will start to shift if Warhammer is the better game. That's not to say that Blizzard is just going to stand by and let EA Mythic make a better game then them. World of Warcraft finally has some decent competition and that's spurring Blizzard into being more innovative. (still slow as hell though)

I've mentioned before that people have made fun of the initial feature list announced for Wrath of the Lich King since it was surprisingly lackluster. Now all of sudden Blizzard is mentioning new ideas like a dungeon done while flying on dragonback. I find it suspicious that Blizzard has held onto such a gem for so long. This might be because they wished to protect their design ideas, but more likely I think its because they just recently started putting effort into innovation. This is probably a good idea since even buggy Age of Conan was able to easily steal 700,000 players away from them for a month. And this is a game that had a lot of negative press from their open beta disaster.

I'm sure Rob Pardo has nightmares about how many players Warhammer is going to steal away for their initial release. I think the hype surrounding Warhammer has caused Blizzard to go into overdrive trying to come up with new ideas to improve their expansion. The game that is now starting to take shape definitely doesn't look like what was announced at Blizzcon last year. Instead we've got a game that is opening up casual raiding and introducing a lot of new combat features oriented around flying mounts. It seems obvious that Blizzard knows EA Mythic is going to be beat them on PvP content and they've decided to try to steamroll them on the PvE side.

That's not to say that Blizzard is ignoring the PvP side since they are very familiar with taking features from other games and integrating them into their own. One only has to look at Lake Wintergrasp to know that any popular feature in Warhammer is soon going to have a baby brother in World of Warcraft. It may not be streamlined into a RvR experience, but it might be enough to keep players from trying out the new kid on the block. Plus, I think Warhammer's hype is starting to get so thick that it's posing a danger to the actual game. The recent Bartle incident is enough to show that fanboism has reached an all time high for the game. With so many expectations being so high, I can't help but think that there could be some major disappointment when it releases.

I personally thought I would be avoiding WotLK because my interests have started to focus more on PvP combat in MMOs. I've had some bad luck with guilds breaking up because of Karazhan and well equipped members guild hopping. This made me finally give up on raiding and just focused on small group content. Imagine my surprise when I started to find arenas and battlegrounds just as satisfying as raiding when decent rewards were included. Warhammer seemed like the next logical step since most of its content was focused on similar PvP encounters. However, I've found out playing Age of Conan that I still like PvE content. I just needed something new that I could actually run with a small group. If Wrath of the Lich King can introduce much better PvE content and stay only a little bit behind Warhammer in PvP features then I might be returning to Azeroth sooner then I thought.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Tipa over at West Karana had a great idea of making a genealogy chart for MMOs based on their feature listings. This would allow you to get an idea of what games a person might like based on their previous favorites. I love this idea since its often hard recommending a game to friends since tastes can differ so wildly. I thought EverQuest 2 was a fine game, but one of my friends thought it was uninspired looking after playing the free trial. It was actually a pain trying to find a game all my friend liked after World of Warcraft since we all liked different things about the game.

A couple of friends even started trying some of those free-to-play games you see advertised all over the place. I thought that might be a good idea since they wouldn't cost anything to try out. Unfortunately, most of those games like Rappelz are severely lacking when compared to World of Warcraft and have a much more limited feature list. If you wanted to navigate the free-to-play landscape then having a feature genealogy chart would be very handy. I myself hate games which use a click to move interface, which eliminates a lot of the micro-transaction based games for me. Still if I could find ones that had a different control scheme I might try them out.

I think it would also be nice to expand this idea out to include different game developers. I've noticed that some developers have similar styles of how they design a games, while others are polar opposites. Just look at how Blizzard and Funcom handle their patch content. Blizzard is very well known for its "When its ready" method which pisses me off since I swear they only have six guys working on Wrath of the Lich King. Funcom on the other hand has shown a willingness to just push things right out the door with limited testing. I wish I could pick and choose parts of a game that specific developers worked on so I got a Frakengame monster with the best qualities from my favorite studios.

My Dream Game

Quest Design - Blizzard
Art - Blizzard
Dungeons - Blizzard
Economy - EVE Online
End Game Content - SOE
Combat - Age of Conan
Content Updates - Turbine
PvP (instanced and world) - EA Mythic

So I guess my dream game look something like this on the feature genealogy chart.

40% World of Warcraft
20% Warhammer
10% EVE
10% EQ2
10% Age of Conan
10% LOTR

Evil noindex tag

Ever since I switched to the new blogger template I have noticed a huge drop in my daily traffic. I was concerned, but I thought it could have been related to my lessening focus on World of Warcraft. Also, I don't really barrage my site with ads and the links we're still working so I've just been ignoring the problem. However, a friend of mine recently told me he couldn't find my blog directly listed on any search engines. I checked and sure enough only links to my blog through other websites were showing up. All of sudden it was a matter of honor since I couldn't let WoWInsider be the first site to show up when someone typed Relmstein into Google.

The problem was of course something simple and stupid that most people fixed right away, a year ago! When blogger first started using XML templates it looks like there was a little bug which would insert the nofollow and noindex tags. This of course puts a damper on sites getting into any of the search engines. If anyone else has this problem you just have to delete the tags from your template's code. The whole mess has made me think again about switching to wordpress, but I'm pretty lazy. Anyways was just wondering if anyone out in blogsphere had a good comparison between using wordpress and blogger.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Seamless World Design

I've noticed that a lot of experienced MMO players tend to dislike zoning and often go on and on about their hatred for instances. Most players who are were introduced to the genre via World of Warcraft also dislike zoning, but mostly just in the over-world. Instances themselves have become a major selling point in modern MMOs and it solves too many problems to ignore. One only has to search the Age of Conan forums for posts about "The Cistern" to see some of the problems old school public dungeons have.

You'll notice a lot of seamless world design if you look at the top performing subscription based games in the Western market. World of Warcraft is the largest one and has raised a generation of MMO players who are very unfamiliar with the loading screen. Lord of the Rings Online is very similar in its zone transition though it heavily uses instances for quest instances. The last one in the top 5 is probably EVE Online which I think was one of the first games to experiment with a seamless world design. I'm the least familiar with that game but I believe its systems of jumpgates allowed them to build a universe without having to divide it up between different servers.

I can see the appeal for avoiding MMOs that are dependent on loading between zones. Since I'm currently playing Age of Conan I know zoning can be a crap shoot sometimes. I'm not sure if its memory leaks, but the game has a high tendency to freeze up while zoning. EverQuest had similar problems though if I remember correctly SOE managed to make it much smoother as the game got older. Perhaps the biggest problem was the different rates at which computers are able to load between zones. Having a computer better then the rest of your group members could get you killed, if you zoned into a dangerous area long before everyone else.

I'm not a server architecture expect, but I would be willing to bet that seamless world design requires a bigger investment in hardware then a zone design. When MMOs were just getting started I'm sure a lot of companies didn't see the benefit in spending the money since subscription revenue was hard to predict. Now that there are so many games over 150,000 users I think a lot of studios can seriously consider a seamless world design. Also as the market becomes more crowded its going to be a competitive feature for a game to have. Heck, when you consider how many people played World of Warcraft as their first MMO it might be a required feature to have.