Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Upcoming Line-Up of Lesser Known MMOs

While I'm having fun in Warhammer at the moment I know some people are looking forward to to other MMOs that are just around the corner. I'm not just talking about Wrath of the Lich King either. There's a decent line up of smaller sized games lined up to release not that far from now. Most of them are waiting for the Warhammer vs Warcraft fight to die down a bit before releasing, but we should see them in Spring 2009. Even more exciting is that fact that most of them aren't your traditional fantasy MMORPG.

Chronicles of Spellborn - Nov 28th 2008
This game is the only traditional fantasy game out of the bunch, but it follows a weird dystopian setting where the world has been shattered. The combat system uses elements of First Person Shooters and players have to target their opponents. The game has nine classes, but the game is more oriented around a complex skill system. The game seems to be following more along the model established by Ultima Online then normal DIKU based games. In fact in the game items are mostly decorative and have no effect on player stats. It should be an interesting game though I doubt it will be for everyone. Still if you're not a fan of either Warhammer or WotLK , but like fantasy games then this could be for you.

Aion - Q1 2009 already released in Korea
This game is coming from eastern studio NCSoft and is far from the traditional elves and orcs type of MMO. Players get to choose between two different types of angelic looking races who are war with each other. One is a very standard looking angel and the other is more a raven feathered one. A third NPC faction is in the game which is made of dragon looking beings which will sometimes be allied with one faction or the other. Combat is traditional and oriented around a class based system which most MMO fans should pick up right away. The big selling feature of the game is that elements of flight are heavily incorporated into the game. As you level up you can fly for longer periods of time which open up special skills and the ability to visit more locations.

Jumpgate Evolution - Spring 2009 (could change)
The eventual success of EVE Online has encouraged a couple other companies to try making their own space based MMO. Jumpgate Evolution seems to be the one most closely following in EVE Online's footsteps and is sticking with mostly ship to ship combat. Blackstar and StarTrek Online on the other hand have decided to incorporate large portions of avatar gameplay. Blackstar is still shopping for a publisher and StarTrek Online is still a long way off, so Jumpgate Evolution is likely to be the only space based MMO we see for awhile. It should be an interesting game since NetDevil has promised a experience more friendly to new users then EVE Online. If you've followed the recent Zero Punctuation review of EVE Online then you know the game's heavy dependence on numbers and complex skills systems greatly limit its appeal.

Stargate Worlds - Spring 2009 (could change)
I'm probably the least excited about this game though I'm a huge fan of the shows. The game uses first person shooter combat and is organized around working in small squads. They are going with a class system though apparently everyone will be able to learn the medic skill and thus be able to heal. The real draw for the game will be that its supposed to be very true to the Stargate license and will allow players to choose among the most popular races. The Stargate lore also works perfectly with instancing and provides an easy method of transportation between the different worlds. The only reason I'm not excited about this game is because of Tabula Rasa which turned me off FPS elements in MMOs.

Champions Online - Spring 2009
Cryptic Studios started working on Marvel Online with Microsoft after they sold the rights for City of Heroes to NCSoft. However, Microsoft and Marvel decided the MMO market was too crowded and they pull out of the project. Using the proceeds from the sale of City of Heroes they bought the license to the popular table top rpg, Champions. Using the Champions license and the backbone of the work they did on Marvel Online they have quickly created a decent looking game. Champions Online uses a interesting style of cell shaded graphics which gives it an authentic comic book feel. The combat is supposed to be similar to City of Heroes, but with powers sets and abilities being much more customizable. Also Cryptic has sworn to avoid a lot the procedural generated content which turned so many away from City of Heroes.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Some Fine Tuning for Warhammer

So far I haven't found many bugs in Warhammer, which is a great change of pace after playing Age of Conan for a couple months. Still you can tell that Mythic had to rush the game out faster then they wanted to since they're a couple holes in the their user interface and basic game design. I know its unreasonable to expect a newly released MMO to have all the ease-of-use features that older games have in them. Still some of these items should have become apparent in beta testing and I'm not really sure all of them can be categorized as low priority. I guess we should just be glad that Mythic isn't churning out a ton of broken patches to try to fix these issues. I know Funcom went that route and sometimes their patches introduced more problems then they solved. Then again it would be nice to get some of these addressed within the next month.

1) Public Quest Difficulty Levels
Some public quests are just much more difficult then others. In particular there's a couple chapter 5 and 6 ones that have a Lord at the last stage of it. I'm guessing this type of mob is a step up from Hero and they hit insanely hard for their level. So far I've never seen any public quest with a Lord at the last stage actually get completed. Most of the time on the Order side I only see 3-4 people in a public quest, but I've also seen groups of 12-15 fail against Lords. I don't know if the loot for these public quests are higher, but they seem to be exponentially more difficult.

2) Restrictive Class/Race Itemization
I never really played a Mythic game before so I'm unsure if this is their normal itemization scheme. Basically almost every item dropped in the game is restricted to one class and sometimes one race. This would seem to make getting gear quite impossible except that it looks like loot tables are dynamic. When an item drops it sometimes actually appears different to everyone in the group. Thus someone may see Warrior Priest boots and someone else may see Witch Hunter boots. Its very confusing and a lot of fights break out because it looks like someone is rolling "need" on items they can't use. Of course a person really could be rolling "need" on an item they can't use, but there's no way for other people to verify. This has created an environment where everyone just rolls need.

3) Chicken Mechanic needs some fine tuning
Some classes are going to have problems with the chicken mechanic while trying to finish PvE content. In particular this problem pops up in public quest areas where some players are still flagged for RvR. My Warrior-Priest has some attacks that automatically heal anyone around me. If anyone around me is flagged for RvR then it also flags me if I heal or buff them. Then BAM, I'm a chicken. I'm not sure if this is intended or not, but it makes finishing content a pain in the neck. This happened to me after I had just leveled to rank 12 in the middle of a public quest with rank 10 mobs. It wasn't like I was doing really low level content.

4) Ability to link Items to other players
I thought this was a basic functionality that every MMO was supposed to have. Some people told me that Mythic had some weird rules about linking items in Dark Age of Camelot, but I believe they just prevent linking items in general chat. I have no idea why you can't link items in Warhammer, but I'd be willing to bet it has something to do with the unique itemization and loot distribution that Mythic uses in the game. Age of Conan had a similar problem where item statistics reflected the buffs and damage modifiers of the person looking at the item.

5) Right click functionality on names in chat
Just a small personal peeve here, but player names that come through the chat window have no right click functionality. I've gotten used to easily reporting spam, adding someone to ignore, or inviting someone to my group by using this feature. I understand the open grouping system makes it easier to fill groups, but it doesn't really work over long distances. It would be helpful to be able to just right click on a name especially when getting requests for a group invite through a tell.

I was going to list out a couple more items I noticed, but I see there are already forum threads and blogs that have gone into much greater detail. On mine own personal list I really only consider the first item to be game breaking at the moment. The others are important, but players can work around them. Though as people get max rank and items start becoming more important the itemization issue is going to turn critical. Mythic needs to greatly improve the Auction House functionality so that its easier to redistribute the items that everyone is rolling need on. They also could tinker with the looting system so its more obvious when people are rolling on items they don't need. I see what Mythic was trying to do by basically making a token system where the token trade-in is done automatically when loot is rolled for. However, they need some transparency in the system since it's very ninja friendly at the moment.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Five Reasons Destruction is more popular than Order

The population imbalances that currently exist on many of Warhammer's servers seem to be the direct opposite of how players distributed themselves in World of Warcraft. It's a little weird that evil races would be so popular in one game over the other especially considering their similarity. Yet the trend does exist as most Destruction players have noticed long login queues and very few opponents in the RvR zones. As I mentioned a couple days ago, this probably has a lot to do with Order players taking advantage of the quick scenario timers to earn renown points. However, this doesn't explain why so many people initially decided to choose Destruction in the first place.

If you travel back in time you might remember the article from Terra Nova where a writer accused the Horde faction of being evil. This is laughable in the face of some of the Destruction quests in Warhammer, but back in 2005 the Horde were considered the "bad guy" faction. I believe the article was originally written to highlight moral choices in video games, but the author also hinted that it was the reason why the Horde were so unpopular. Other people also pointed out that their races tended to be ugly, especially the female versions. It was thought that this discouraged many players from choosing to play Horde. Also since battlegrounds weren't in the game at launch there was no queue advantage for being on the smaller side.

Warhammer Online launched with both scenarios and no traditional raid content. You would think this would discourage people from choosing the more populous faction. Unlike classic World of Warcraft there just aren't as many immediate advantages to being on the larger side. A numbers advantage may help in the RvR zones, but a lot of those depend on participation from both factions. In fact I believe a lot of quests located in the RvR zones require players to kill a certain number of enemy opponents. Trying to accomplish this on a server with a 2:1 population ratio is going to be impossible and I think most people realize it. So why are people stilling queueing up to play Destruction?

There are several theories out there.

1) Mythic really hyped the side of Destruction
I don't think Mythic favors one faction over another, but all the early promotional material focused on Destruction. It wasn't until a few months ago that I started getting more information on the Order classes. I think that Mythic started polishing the Destruction side first and it affected the availability of material to the marketing department.

2) Goblins are just plain cool
In general the short races tend to be less popular in most games. However, goblins seem to buck the trend with their gremlin like appearance and insane sense of humor. There was a very strong demand for goblins to become the new playable race in the Burning Crusade expansion. I remember several polls where they came out as the number one choice by players. In Warhammer Online they have two very well defined classes with a lot of information that was released early on.

3) Both sides have humans
One statistic that remains the same throughout almost every fantasy MMO is that humans are the favorite race. It seems in general that people are more comfortable playing a character that looks human. In World of Warcraft only the Alliance had humans and it probably contributed to their popularity over the Horde. In Warhammer since both sides have access to this most superior race it doesn't negatively affect the population balance.

4) Destruction really is Evil
An interesting theory is that the Horde weren't made evil enough. Starting with Warcraft III, it seems that Blizzard decided to portray the Horde as a collection of "noble savage" races who just wanted the freedom to form their own nation. Players who might like role playing as bloodthirsty monsters saw little difference between the Horde and the Alliance. Thus when one side had an obvious advantage in world combat they had no problems switching. Mythic has made it quite obvious that their is no moral ambiguity with Destruction, they are bloodthirsty monsters.

5) PvP fans like Destruction
In World of Warcraft the Horde quickly gained a reputation for being the better PvP faction. The quicker battleground queues and smaller number of raiding guilds made the faction focus more on player versus player combat. Also Blizzard had attempted to increase the faction's popularity by giving them superior racial abilities which gave them a slight advantage in the arenas. Since Warhammer Online is more PvP focused it make sense that it attracts more Horde players then Alliance. This unfortunately hints that more Order players will leave the game when Wrath of the Lich King comes out.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

EA keeps SecuRom, eases install limit

I know it seems like Spore's DRM problem is becoming my own personal crusade, but overbearing copyright laws have always gotten me angry. EA has made some very bad decisions with the game and keeps proving that it has no intentions of changing its ways. They should be trying to avoid bad PR. It's certainly not going to help them compete against Activision-Blizzard. What's really frustrating is that Spore doesn't even need DRM controls to fight piracy. EA could easily make it so new creature download/uploads could only be done with a valid copy of the game over the internet. People without an internet connection and pirates could still play the game, but they would be missing half the fun. There would be a major benefit to having a legitimate copy of the game.

Instead EA is sticking with SecuRom which really doesn't make any sense. Some people think EA is trying to fight against the used game market, but I thought that was more of a console problem since most stores don't trade in used PC games. Another theory I've heard is that EA doesn't want the cost of running a server constantly like a MMO without having subscription revenue. If this is true then it hints that they do plan to eventually close the servers which validate new installations of Spore and transfer creatures? If you read through all the EULA information then you know they have the legal right. I'm sure they don't want to anger their customers any further, but a few years down the line they probably figure few people will be playing. The ability to prevent new installations of a game could be their eventual approach to forcing episodic gaming.

I didn't think much about this theory at first, but EA recently lessened some of the restrictions on Spore's DRM controls. EA decided to increase the number of installations up to five and push a patch which would allow multiple accounts on the same copy of Spore. These address most of the issues that casual gamers had with the DRM. However, they are still going to keep SecuRom active on every copy of Spore. This tells me that EA considers keeping SecuRom more important then preventing game sharing or used game sales. Either their shareholders are really out of touch and are insisting on DRM or else EA really does plan on eventually turning off all future installations of Spore. On thing for sure is that with Spore being cracked and available before the commercial release, is that it does not prevent "zero day" piracy as they claim.

Update 9-24-08:
Class Action Lawsuite filed against EA for Spore DRM.

Monday, September 22, 2008

For Order: Scenarios > Public Quests

I've noticed that some of the concerns people had about public quests are starting to come true already. Not that they are anti-social or encourage any other type of negative behavior. Instead it looks like a lot of them cannot be finished because of the wild population imbalance on some servers. Several notable bloggers had expressed doubts that public quests would remain fun as Warhammer Online got older and less people were leveling characters. I had expected this to be the case eventually, but thought it would be a couple years. However, after leveling several human characters through the chapter 1-5 areas I've noticed that a lot of the public quests areas are permanently empty.

The problem is that the faction imbalance has become so great that on most servers the Order faction has almost instant scenario timers. Players are thus flocking to scenarios since they can quickly earn both experience and renown points. Not only does this quickly level a player, but the renown points basically give double rewards. Ranks of renown not only open up access to powerful armor sets, but they also can be spent to boost character stats. Public quests on the other hand often have lesser rewards that take much longer to earn. Also they do not give out the renown points which play such a crucial role in improving your character.

As a result the rewards are clearly in favor of players doing scenarios to the exclusion of public quests. About the only ones I've seen with any players participating have been those near the major towns. Now in the Tier 2 area I did notice that the rally master offers a blue quality item for maxing out influence. This might encourage some people to do public quests, but from what I've seen the renown gear offers complete sets of items of better quality. It might have been better if Mythic had designed the system so that rewards for certain item slots couldn't be earned through RvR. Then again Warhammer Online is supposed to be PvP oriented so I could see some players complaining if they were forced to do public quests.

The problem only really exists for the Order at the moment, so a player could always re-roll if they wanted to level by doing public quests. Destruction may have hour long scenario queues on some servers, but they also have mass numbers on their side. I've seen them dominate the open world RvR areas and I'm sure they have more then enough players for all their public quest areas. After all it makes sense to move between each public quest in the same chapter since they have different rewards in their loot bags. Hopefully, over time more people will roll Order and the scenario timers will start to balance out. If not I'm already dreading trying out the end game RvR battles. The funny thing is I just wanted to play a squig herder, but after playing WoW I refuse to do long queue times ever again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Video Games Almost Mainstream

It's nice to see the news media not putting a negative spin on a video game story even though the two industries have long been arch enemies. Still it's pretty hard to shine a negative light on the recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center. I guess they could frighten older viewers with the study's finding that 97% of teenagers in America play video games. But quite frankly that's getting old. Most parents who aren't completely nuts know that video games don't turn children into vicious, psycho killers. Only politicians who like appealing to reliable senior citizen voters still spout out such nonsense and associate video games with things like laziness, low intelligence, and violence.

If you think I'm wrong just look at the recent primary season where several candidates tried to drum up votes by making such claims. Even the youngest guy running has gone on about how video games make today's youth lazy. It's been standard practice to do this since the game Mortal Kombat first caught the attention of politicians. Luckily, things have changed in recent years to give the video game industry a better degree of respectability. The number one factor has to be the huge amount of money game releases like Grand Theft Auto IV and Halo 3 have brought in. When you have an industry that all of a sudden makes more money then Hollywood you can't help, but realize its not the whipping boy it use to be.

That's not to say that some people don't continue to scare uneducated parents with imaginary threats to their children. Not too long ago we had the Virgina Tech shootings which drew every pop psychologist and psycho claiming that the killer had been trained on video games. Of course this proved false and in fact the killer was probably more influenced by the wide media attention such school shootings always attract. It's not just violence either the media also loves to jump on any kind of sexual reference in a video game. Even though games are often much less sexual then a PG-13 movie they often have scenes blown out of proportion.

Who can forget the Mass Effect coverage on FOX News where they didn't even try to get any of their facts straight. I particularly thought the SexBox title was hilarious, but it displayed such a staggering amount of ignorance that my head hurt. Thankfully, if there's one thing the Pew study showed is that video games are well on their way to becoming mainstream. Ten years from now it will be impossible for the same kind of story to be aired by any news outlet. Of course by then I'm sure my generation will be worrying about how dangerous virtual reality pods are to our children.

P.S. Also interesting to note is that the Pew study found that MMOs were played by around 21% of teenage gamers.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Warhammer Queue Conjecture

The head start for Warhammer Online kicked off without too many problems yesterday as players who ordered the collectors edition begin to sign into the game. The only issues seemed to be related to the queue system which quickly started enforcing timers on the more popular servers. As many bloggers have noted the two faction system used in Warhammer is particularly sensitive to population imbalances compared to Dark Age of Camelot. As a result Mythic has been forced to use a queue system to make sure the player population never favors one faction over the other. This is especially important during the game's start since many players will be jumping into the RvR areas and Scenarios right away. If one faction is more numerous then the other it could ruin the early PvP experience for the players and hurt the game's numbers.

Mythic will most likely relax the stringent queue system after the initial burst of players have finished choosing their primary servers. It's natural for servers to have spikes in populations and I think Mythic just wants to avoid the skewed population problems that initially hurt World of Warcraft's battlegrounds. Blizzard eventually managed to fix their problem by creating battlegroups which allowed cross server battles. Unfortunately, the same trick won't work for Warhammer Online since it will have multiple RvR zones which are part of the open world. The queue system is always going to be needed to balance the fighting in these areas. At the moment it looks like pre-made guilds are just going to have to be careful about what Warhammer servers they attempt start on.

Rough estimates on standard MMO servers
-The average MMO server tends to have between 5,000-10,000 simultaneous players
-High population servers are ones that continually approach the upper limit
-High population definitions have very little to do with the number of characters on it

SWAG Estimates on Warhammer Queue
I would guess that Mythic wants less then a 10% difference between the two factions as the servers are initially populated with players. I'm also guessing this difference is hooked into a weighted round robin system so that a entire faction is never prevented from ever getting into a server.

Say Warhammer runs on a server able to handle 12,000 active players with no problems. If it were at full capacity then it would only allow a difference of 1,200 players at 10%. This give the smaller faction around 5400 players and the larger faction 6600 players. If the queue system was weighted on a 1-10% difference then it would award the next 10 slots to the smaller faction before awarding 1 slot to the larger faction.

There are both good and bad points to using a faction based queue system. The major benefit is that it will balance open world pvp content on each server. World of Warcraft has long had a problem with open world PvP objectives like Halaa and the Auchindoun Wastes always being held by the more populous faction. This tends to make earning the rewards almost impossible for the smaller faction unless they attempt it late at night. A side benefit is that will also prevent the scenario queue times from becoming too unbalanced. The only problem is that players are likely to hate the queues especially in cases where unstable connection or computer crashes result in a long wait to get back in. Such a system pretty much makes raiding impossible very difficult to coordinate which might be why Warhammer Online only has large scale PvP encounters.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Spore's DRM backlash branches out

I was surprised to see that the backlash against Spore's DRM has spread from Amazon.com to other review sites. Even the famous Metacritic.com is being affected as the user review for the game has gone down to a 5.1 out of 10. Most of the comments are talking about the uselessness of such protection schemes when the game shows up on bit-torrent websites before its even officially released. Even worse some people are claiming that this version of SecuRom still accidentally disables disc-drives and causes computer crashes. This was a problem with an earlier version of the software and it looks like the problem can still occur on some machines.

Such a large number of negative reviews does tend to get noticed and not just by IT and Gaming journals. Both the Motley Fool and Forbes have released articles about EA's decision to continue including the invasive DRM in their games. They look at the issue from a financial point of view in that SecuRom actually seems to be encouraging piracy rather then preventing it. Not only that but it continues to provides bad PR which a imposing company like EA can ill afford. As more mainstream journalists start picking up this story I can only see the decision coming into question more often.

I already noticed that the Washington Post picked up the story on Sunday and highlighted some of the key problems with the DRM scheme. Other news sites have followed and found interesting things like the game not allowing multiple Sporepedia accounts on the same computer. This wouldn't be so bad except that the manual specificaly mentions that you can have multiple accounts so families could keep their creatures separate. What's worse is that common bit-torrent tracking sites have reported that the hacked version of Spore is fast approaching the most illegally downloaded game ever.

Apparently, it has already reached over half a million downloaded copies through different bit-torrent web sites. Most games quickly fall off the top spot of these illegal sites, but it seems as if Spore is bucking the trend and staying at number one. Most people are theorizing that the word has gotten out about SecuRom and its causing tech savy people to risk downloading the dangerous "warez" versions of the game. The thinking seems to be that if they are going to risk their computer crashing from a virus then its best not to pay 50$ for it. Illegal software has always had this risk and normal gamers tend to avoid "warez" because of this reason.

However, the stringent DRM on Spore seems to have created so many issues and worries that it's actually more of a problem then any potential virus. Thus a move to reduce the losses from piracy by EA has actually made them worse. As Spore continues to get negative reviews on Amazon.com the game is slowly dropping down the video game bestseller list. It seems that DRM opponents have finally found a successfully strategy for getting the word out to the average consumer. In the past, such movements for Mass Effect and Bioshock have failed since they were mostly limited to technical forums. EA has to be worried about something similar happening for the release of Red Alert 3 next month though they are raising the install limit to five for that game.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Should you migrate to Warhammer?

Well Warhammer Online is lining up to be the big man on campus this month and it looks like a lot of people are at least going to try out the game. Sales predictions for the game expect it will do at least as well as Age of Conan, which sold around 700,000 boxes in it's first two months. Of course demand for Warhammer Online is expected to be much higher and some people estimate the game can easily move 650,000 units just in September. I'm more of a subscription precognitive myself and I see the game pulling in around 2 million players by the end of the year. Still just because the game is going to pick up momentum doesn't mean you should jump ship just yet. This is especially true if you are new to World of Warcraft

Warhammer shares a lot of similarities with World of Warcraft despite what some people will claim, but it's not an exact clone. Just because you like one doesn't mean you are going to like the other. In fact, the entire gameplay emphasis is very different in Warhammer Online then World of Warcraft. It's much more oriented on accomplishing goals in groups or at the very least an organized mob of players. The closest thing I can think of as a comparison are the Sunwell Island quests that Blizzard required players to do to open up Magister's Terrace. However, Mythic is much better at this type of gameplay and even has a loot system that rewards everyone who helped out.

On the other hand I have a feeling that World of Warcraft is going to continue to produce superior quality dungeon and raid content in the next expansion. Warhammer Online doesn't have introduce a dungeon until its midlevel and I believe it will have a much smaller emphasis on single group content. This hasn't exactly worked out for games like Lord of the Rings Online in the past, but then again Warhammer Online has much more PvP content. Indeed there actually 80 PvP levels in the game which control the distribution of gear in the game. These levels are objective goals and not subjective like the arena ratings find in World of Warcraft. Theoretically this mean everyone should be able to earn them eventually. This is much more acceptable to the casual PvP crowd though it may disgust classic PvP fans from Ulitima Online.

Also factor you might want to take into consideration is that Mythic seems more against so called "fluff features" then even Blizzard. While World of Warcraft has long avoided implementing player housing, its at least finally allowing the customization of avatars by creating the barber shop. You're unlikely to ever see anything similar in Warhammer Online though there is a system where war trophies can be place on an avatar's armor. Still the lack of player housing and crafting professions in the game reveals Warhammer Online is more about player made conflict then player made content. I doubt the game will draw many fans from games like Everquest 2 and Vanguard who enjoy complex crafting systems and other detailed sub-systems like diplomancy. Indeed a lot of the people I know who aren't that impressed with Warhammer Online favor games which could be considered more complex.

There's a simple pattern to Diku based games which sort of groups games like the following.

PvE with Player Content: City of Heroes >> Everquest II >> Vanguard >> LOTRO
Classic PvE: Everquest >> Final Fantasy XI >> World of Warcraft
Classic PvP: Ultima Online >> EVE Online >> Age of Conan
Casual PvP: Guild Wars >> World of Warcraft >> Warhammer

It's very basic but you can get the casual correlations between the games. In general World of Warcraft has the broadest appeal, but mostly because it has made enough money to implement the best features from other games. I think their attempts at early casual PvP was greatly influenced by the success of Guild Wars. Other PvE games like Everquest II and City of Heroes have successfully used crafting and content creation tools to get some of the appeal that social games like Second Life and Habbo Hotel have going for them. These types of games often have complex sub-systems which can confuse new players, but experienced players find it more rewarding then simple hit-to-combine gameplay. The classic PvP games follow a more free-for-all style that some players feel is more exciting and interesting. It however does give the least amount of value to items (least DIKU) which can turn off a lot of potential players.

In general if you have liked more then two games in a category you can follow the chart to get a good guess about how you will feel about Warhammer.

PvE with Player Content: No depth and plays too much like WoW.
Classic PvE: Good for a short period of time until all dungeons beaten.
Classic PvP: Too easy and dependent on gear.
Casual PvP: Perfect until I tire of the same scenarios and RvR zones.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Instancing the Newbie Experience

I tried out a decent amount of new MMOs last year and I noticed some interesting trends concerning newbie zones. It seems that a lot of developers now prefer to use shared instances to create a common newbie zone. This is very different then what I was originally used to in my games, but I've grown to like the idea. Instances give the developer more control over the beginning experience and allows scripting and storytelling that might be hard to pull off in the regular game world. Also older games can increase the currency drop rate in the starting instance to offset any inflation that occurs. Nothing is more annoying then creating a character in World of Warcraft and seeing most items your level going for several gold.

There are a couple problems using an instance as a newbie zone, but thankfully most developers seem aware of the situation. In World of Warcraft and Everquest there is a newbie zone for almost every race and this adds some re-playability to trying out different characters. Unfortunately, this also leads to balance problems with some areas being better designed and more popular then other ones. I like how classic Everquest introduced a common newbie instance later on in the game to combat this problem. A player can choose to either play through the Gloomingdeep Mines instance or go to their race's starting area. The experience and items are much better in the Gloomingdeep Mines, but someone might have already played through it several times. In general I'm always in favor of anything that gives players more choices.

Restricting players to a single choice almost always results in bad blood. I'm sure Funcom thought a single newbie zone in Age of Conan would allow them to put more time and effort into the experience. They were correct since Tortage is probably the most fun and polished part of the game. However, they forgot to account for the lack of re-playability by having a single newbie zone. The day quests are always the same and it can get old quickly if you play the same archetype since that makes the night quests also the same. The game later splits into three different areas after Tortage, but they aren't setup for low level characters. This was especially devastating for Age of Conan since a lot of end game content was broken and creating new characters was one of the only things players could do once they reached max level.

I guess from my experiences I think it might be better to have small newbie areas for each race and then introduce a shared instance later on in the game. Lord of the Rings has two shared newbie instances, but they're hardcoded to the races you play. Since I liked the humans and halflings I found myself playing through the Archet scenario over and over again. I really wish they had separate starting zones for both races and maybe made the shared instance optional. Blizzard seems to be going this route with the new Death Knight class which gets a starting instance inside the plaguelands. It seems like the instance will involve a lot of lore and equip the character for their journey to the Outlands. I'm believe players will be able to skip it though if they just want to go straight to the Light's Hope Cathedral.

Already players have asked if other classes can get inside the instance or if it will only be for Death Knights. As far as I can tell there are some specific scripted events which would prevent it from being a good instance for other classes. However, if players keep clamoring for a shared leveling instance I could see a WoW version of the Gloomingdeep Mines being made. With the way World of Warcraft is stating to get a little end game heavy it will probably happen sooner rather then later. After all players have long asked for new mid or low end content and this would fit the bill. It's funny that Warhammer Online avoids this situation since the beginning areas for each faction are linked by flight path. Also by introducing RvR areas into the early game it allows players to level by PvP which has a lot of replay value.

P.S. What did everyone think about Fringe?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Double Dipping

Besides being a disgusting habit at the o'devours table, the term "double dipping" can also refer to unfair pricing schemes that charge customers two separate fees for one product. It's very similar to micro-transactions in that the seller is splitting the actual cost of a product so that the buyer doesn't feel as if they are spending as much. I've also heard it mentioned recently when referring to MMO's that run multiple payment schemes. Usually, this occurs when a game charges a monthly subscription and also has a healthy micro-transaction market on the side. While most players aren't forced to to pay the two different fees there are advantages to for those who do.

I had been looking into Wizard101 recently since it was one of the few MMOs I had seen which used a collectible card game for combat. While this makes some of the battles much longer then other combat systems it also introduces a layer of strategy missing from most MMORPGs. However, I had been reluctant to try the game since I was dreading that the game would adopt a payment system of selling virtual booster packs of cards. If anyone has experience with real world trading card games then you know how expensive this payment method can get for the players. Even worse it gives a competitive edge to those willing to pour more money into the game.

I was relieved when I found out that Wizard101 would use a standard subscription model and only charge 10$ a month. It had even setup a free tier where a small portion of the game world was free to play. Unfortunately, the good news ends there since Wizard101 also uses a micro-transaction system which allows the purchase of a special currency called crowns. I'm not 100% against the idea of micro-transactions in a game as long as they aren't structured to give an advantage to players with more money. I think certain items like non-combat pets or special particle effects are fine if people want to add a status symbol to their avatar. However, the crowns in the game can be used to buy armor sets with stats on them. That's just makes me feel a bit uncomfortable with the game since developers could balance additional content around buying crowns.

This "double dipping" isn't just a problem with MMOs exploring new payment models either. If you look at large game companies like EA they are effectively using DRM controls to potentially double dip their customers. I have a couple classic games like Master of Orion 2 and Command and Conqueror which I have probably installed 15-20 times since I first purchased them. Sometimes it was because I bought a new computer, but other times it was because I had removed the program to make room on my PC. While storage space as increased greatly on modern computers so has the size of media files. It's not unrealistic to think that gamers might uninstall a game to make room on their machines and then want to reinstall it at a later date.

I know I've been stuck on the DRM issue in Spore for two days now, but I think it has chilling implications for the entire PC market as a whole. After all if invasive DRM controls become standard I sure we'll eventually see them appearing in MMOs. But wait MMOs are subscription based, why would a company need to put DRM into one? Well you have to admit that some companies think they lose money when family members or room mates share accounts. DRM could easily limit gamers so that a MMO could only be patched onto one machine. After all most workplaces are required to have separate licenses for a single employee's laptop and desktop. It makes perfect sense to most corporate entities that the same logic should apply to game software. After all if a single company can convince people to re-buy a game after every three installs it's only a matter of time before they all start doing it. Except Stardock, those guys kick ass.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Lessons in Customer Service

EA had some customer service woes this weekend in not one, but two different games. The first example is the one most people will be familiar and involves the latest beta weekend for the upcoming Warhammer Online. The America version went off with only minor hitches and most players reported much better performance then the last preview weekend. Unfortunately, the European version was a disaster with the account server not accepting any one's key codes. This doesn't come as a surprise as Tobold suspected this might be a problem a full 24 hours before the preview weekend was supposed to start. It seems funny that a game with European origins would have worse support then the United States but local distributors always play a part in these type of situations.

The problem wouldn't be so bad except of course that EA Mythic has adopted the rather dubious strategy of running a MMO without hosting any forums. This may have been viable back in the early age of MMO development, but games now deal with much larger audiences. Not having official forums opens a company up to all types of opportunities for miscommunication. I'm not sure of the reasoning behind this move, but I can only assume it's an attempt to avoid the problems World of Warcraft has had with its forums. Whatever the reason, I'm not sure the community sites where Mark Jacobs normally posts announcements can stand up to the kind of heat this type of situation creates. I really hope EA Mythic changes their mind on the forum subject or else fan site forums are going to become a cesspit of bad advertising for Warhammer. You can't expect community websites to do the same type of moderation as a full time CM staff.

The other customer situation that plagued EA was one that I thought had been resolved earlier in the year. I remember there being quite a outpouring of nerd rage when someone found out that EA was planning on using SecuRom to DRM protect Mass Effect and Spore. The bad press got so bad that eventually EA issued a statement saying they were cutting back to a "lighter" version of SecuRom. A couple of the more draconian features of SecuRom were cut back and it seemed liked the consumer had won. The story unfortunately goes very wrong since last week Spore was accidentally released early in Australia and a cracked version of Spore appear on the torrent sites within four hours.

That's right, the supposed secure DRM was cracked in only hours and available through the Internet before most consumers could even buy the game. That might not have been enough to cause a incident, but some gamers started reading the fine print on the "lighter" SecuRom. That's when it was discovered there were only three activations allowed before the DVD became a useless coaster. There was a note about being able to deal with EA's customer service department for more activations, but most people assumed you would have to mail in proofs of purchase and other forms of documentation that no one keeps. It would be like trying to collect those rebates that CompUSA and BestBuy used to advertise on their computers until they were sued into submission.

The situation has really devolved into a situation where SecuRom is rewarding the pirates for not buying the game and hurting the honest customers. I thought Blizzard was the master of unintended consequences, but other companies can make mistakes on the same scale it looks like. The story gets even better as hordes of frustrated fans of the game have taken to amazon.com to write 1-star reviews of the game. Apparently the reviews started to snowball as people looking to buy the game through amazon started reading the reviews and then writing their own. Even the big game sites have picked up the story as the number of 1-star reviews has passed the 500 mark. Of course Spore is still the number one seller in the games category but losing sales is losing sales.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Catching Blizzard's Bad Ideas

I've made no secret that one of my favorite MMOs is World of Warcraft. I've played a lot of games since the genre got started and nothing has kept my attention as long as Blizzard's masterpiece. Still I don't claim that the game is perfect or even that I agree with every design decision they make. It's inevitable that MMOs make decisions about class balance or patch content that not everyone agrees with. Still Blizzard seems to be cursed with this amazing ability to introduce features which have the complete opposite intended effect they wanted. It's not like it comes as a surprise to the people who play the game either. Often players can immediately spot a change or feature which might cause problems. It's simply a result of us having more time to play the game and not having to worry about ever "working" on it.

I still remember when they introduced Naraxxamas as the last content patch right before the Burning Crusade. Blizzard had just finished patching in a series of new raid content and most guilds were still working their way through it. It didn't matter if you were a raider or a casual player the Naraxxamas patch just seemed like it would be wasted effort. This unfortunately turned out to be true since less then 1% of the player population were actually able to experience the new zone. Luckily, Blizzard gets to re-use the content for Wrath of the Lich King since no one got to the see it the first time around. Other really bad ideas mostly involved putting rewards behind flimsy objectives and time sinks. Blizzard expected players to try to achieve the rewards head on and kept being surprised as players figured out ways around the time sinks.

Things have gotten better lately as Blizzard seems to be paying more attention to how they place rewards in the game. Indeed several major patches in the Burning Crusade showed a much better understanding of how raiding and mount costs affected the virtual economy. The test server also started to get patches earlier and often allowed eager fans to run through several iterations of a patch. The beta for Wrath of the Lich King is serving the same purpose despite some early attempts to lock down information coming from it. The lifting of the NDA has proved very advantageous for Blizzard since several bloggers pointed out that an achievement for being the first to reach max level might have some bad side effects. Most people trying to get the special title would probably just share a single account, but someone might push themselves to play for a unhealthy amount of time.

I'm not really sure why anyone working at Blizzard thought this was a good idea to begin with. It definitely shows that even though things have improved, the same type of short sighted game design can still occur. Luckily, I think having design decisions revealed to the WoW community ahead of time helps catch these problems before they get implemented. Could you imagine what would happen if some kid killed themselves by doing a 40 hour WoW marathon? It may seem far fetched, but it's happened in other countries. Don't they realize this is a close election year and the video game industry is just one death away from being used as a scapegoat? Politics aside I also get tired of MMO developers giving critics like Jonathan Blow ammunition when they talk about unethical game design. Hopefully, as long as lines of good communication exist between players and developers, World of Warcraft can avoid any more ooops game design moments.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Graphic Worries

News has been spreading across the blogosphere that every one's favorite 800 lb. gorilla will be eventually updating its graphics engine. That's not to say there will be giant graphics update though I'm sure some fans would love it. Instead it looks like Blizzard will be rolling out the improvements slowly over multiple expansions. I'm not sure if this is what most hardcore fans want, but I know it should help keep the older computers that can run WoW from suddenly crashing. I've never really been able to decide if people like the exaggerated graphics of World of Warcraft or if they just like the fact it can run on a 7 year old computer? I'm personally a fan of the huge shoulder armor and stylistic use of color in the game. Lord of the Rings and Vanguard both seemed to have a unhealthy obsession with gray and brown by comparison.

Leaving the issue of color usage behind its obvious that World of Warcraft is starting to look a bit dated especially compared to games like Age of Conan. Yet if WoW is already scheduling a graphics overall, what does this mean for Warhammer? I only have my experience from the preview weekend, but I wasn't that impressed with the character models. I did mostly play as the Greenskins so that might be the reason. I've also been told that the preview weekend might not have had high detail textures turned on which would make a difference. Still I wonder if Warhammer is going to have problems pulling in new gamers a couple years from now because it looks ancient. I mean I still pull out my copy of Master of Orion every once and awhile, but I know a lot of newer gamers are turned off by older looking graphics.

I think what we really need is a game to come out with very stylistic models and landscapes, but done with a high attention to detail and animation. I know that gameplay mechanics are the number one quality you should look for in a game. Still I don't think its impossible that a good MMO might come out with top of the line graphics. I mean if Age of Conan had simply waited a few more months and debugged its dungeons and PvP systems it could have been that game. If Warhammer is as successful as I think it will be initially then it should reinforce the notion that stylistic and exaggerated graphics are the way to go. As more developers try to emulate the market leaders someone is going to make a game that uses the same style of graphics but with much more impressive water, shading, and textures. That game will make a lot of money.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Gamer Bill of Rights

The disappointing performance of E3 this year continues to be highlighted by the success of other gaming conventions that have risen to higher prominence in recent years. PAX is perhaps one of the most well known and often has a lot of demos for upcoming games which fans are happy to eat up. Also the convention has gained a reputation as a place for smaller publishers to announce press releases to a large fan based audience. You're not going to find next year's release schedule for EA or Square-Enix being announced at PAX, but interesting information does surface. This year one story that caught my eye was that Stardock was pushing the adoption of a Gamer's Bill of Rights. With the fight between pirates and the video game industry intensifying it often seems like the average gamer is caught between a rock and a hardplace.

The amount of DRM that is acceptable to put on a game has been slowly increasing and causing headaches for customers. Also there seems to be a decrease in quality and innovation as sequels and companies that specialize in them have made a fortune in lackluster games. Huge marketing budgets for threatening and bribing review sites have become standard practice as seen with last year's gamespot scandal. Even MMO's are affected since it's become standard practice with a lot of companies to lie about what features will be in the game at release. Should Blizzard have been able to talk about the Black Temple to reviewers when it wasn't patch in until much later? Should Age of Conan been able to advertise their "PvP" mechanics even though most them still have been implemented?

The Gamer's Bill of Rights seems to address these issues and it would be nice if it was widely adopted by game publishers.

  1. Gamers shall have the right to return games that don’t work with their computers for a full refund.
  2. Gamers shall have the right to demand that games be released in a finished state.
  3. Gamers shall have the right to expect meaningful updates after a game’s release.
  4. Gamers shall have the right to demand that download managers and updaters not force themselves to run or be forced to load in order to play a game.
  5. Gamers shall have the right to expect that the minimum requirements for a game will mean that the game will play adequately on that computer.
  6. Gamers shall have the right to expect that games won’t install hidden drivers or other potentially harmful software without their consent.
  7. Gamers shall have the right to re-download the latest versions of the games they own at any time.
  8. Gamers shall have the right to not be treated as potential criminals by developers or publishers.
  9. Gamers shall have the right to demand that a single-player game not force them to be connected to the Internet every time they wish to play.
  10. Gamers shall have the right that games which are installed to the hard drive shall not require a CD/DVD to remain in the drive to play.
Most of these are hard to apply to the MMO industry except for the one about games not being released in a finished state. We're real familiar with that one. The problem of course is that MMOs in general seem to be horribly managed and the ones that are released in a finished state are often the most expensive to produce. In my time with the genre I think only World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings, and Guild Wars fit the definition of being finished at release. The vast majority of games in the MMO genre often release with missing or broken content in the hopes that initial box sales will fund the development hours required to patch the game. This is why I think so many MMOs are guilty of overspending on marketing and fudging on their feature list so they can produce hype.

We'll have to wait and see if this Gamer Bill of Rights gains any traction within the industry. It would be nice to see more finished products in the MMO industry and a generally lessening of DRM controls for PC games. I believe Warhammer will release very stable, but it has the large budget which makes such an accomplishment easier to pull off. I'm not so sure that smaller games like Stargate Worlds and Jumpgate Evolution could justify balancing their budget towards a period of polishing the game before release. After all, there's very little motivation to make a polished product unless gamers change their spending habits. If we keep pre-ordering unfinished games like Age of Conan or putting up with harmful DRM like SecuRom we're denying that we want any rights as game consumers.