Blog Archives

H1Z1 Pre-Alpha Early Release

So after a rather extraordinarily long amount of time, it appears as though the F2P SOE PlanetZombieSide MMO might actually be released on 1/15/15. On Steam Early Access. For the low, low price of $20, or an indeterminate amount of money if you want to alpha-test the super-secret special modes.

I am poking fun at the EA payment model – ahem, Early Access – but honestly I am not nearly as miffed as Keen. I too remember the days when game companies would ration out alpha/beta access for free… and I remember that same access commanding tremendous cash values on eBay. $100+ beta Gmail invites, anyone? So it makes perfect sense to me that a game company would see that situation and decide to cut out the middleman. They get prepaid game development, and you get a Kickstarter you can actually sorta play.

What I am infinitely more concerned about is the state of H1Z1 generally. The topics have not really changed since the last time I talked about it (“4-6 weeks away” back in April 2014…), but these days I am almost cringing at the PlanetSide 2 engine usage. Don’t get me wrong, Ps2 can certainly look really awesome. It also ends up looking extremely angular with a poor sense of physicality, collision, and ephemeral bodies. All of that is perfectly acceptable in a sci-fi FPS (especially one with 100s of people in close-quarters), but have you seen these H1Z1 streams? The outdoors look okay with the trees and hills and such, but indoors? It’s… too modular.

Perhaps these are the sorts of things that get papered over with better textures in beta or whatever, but the Ps2 vibe is weirding me out. That and the fact that it’s difficult to go back to manikin-on-a-pole style character interaction after the more grab-y Dead Island/State of Decay/etc style. I suppose the current system is more conducive to MMO design, but it’s tough to go back.

On Clones

Let’s talk about Overwatch for a second.

A lot of the Overwatch reactions that I have been reading on blogs basically revolves around the “TF2 clone” observation. And it’s true: Overwatch does kinda sorta maybe look like TF2 when you squint at it. But I get the feeling from many of the posts that “being a clone” is somehow being considered a value judgment against the game.

Which is a little weird considering WoW was a clone of EQ, LoL was a clone of DotA, and so on. In other words, being a clone of something has very little to do with the merit of the final product. Unless the gameplay was directly cut and paste from the source material, it’s entirely possible for one or two (or more) key tweaks to change the overall feeling of a game. And if you don’t believe that, you haven’t been playing MMOs for very long.

As for myself, I remain mostly ambivalent towards Overwatch. I have played a grand total of about an hour of TF2, which was long enough for me to realize I have little interest in diving into seven years of accumulated competitive minutia; learning the maps, the weapons, the classes, and strategies of each while playing against hardened veterans isn’t exactly my idea of fun. Even if it were a total TF2 clone, Overwatch acts as a rather convenient “reset” of sorts that levels the playing field between vets and newbs, at least for a time. So in that sense, I am interested in playing it and seeing if it’s fun.

At the same time, my experience with Titanfall is giving me pause about the 6v6 format. I have long stated that Titanfall is an amazing game, but the smaller team size means a lot of pressure is put on the skill level of your best and worst players. In other words, a big fish on the enemy team can crowd out the pond. Which is the way things are “suppose to be,” but I’m not particularly inclined to play games in which I spend the majority of the time on the respawn screen. I much prefer larger games like Battlefield and PlanetSide in that gaming gods can rule some minor fiefdom (typically the air game) while everyone else is pounding the ground and having fun.

I don’t necessarily need to win to have fun playing something, but do 6v6 maps give the necessary space to have fun? Typically not, in my experience. We’ll see.

The Littlest Things

In the midst of a bout of gaming ennui, I find myself coming back time and again to PlanetSide 2. The game has some serious structural issues – to say that it’s still in Beta is somewhat less of a joke these days – and there is every indication that a sustainable population might not be there for too much longer. I created characters of each faction back when you were unable to have multiple factions on the same server, but a series of server merges have resulted in all three being on the same one (out of two) NA server.

In fact, going by that website, Ps2 has gone from 28 servers worldwide down to… 5. My routine when booting up the game is to filter the four continent maps by Ally Activity, and only choose to play if one continent has more than three hexes with at least 24+ friendly player activity. It is… not guaranteed, even during EST prime time.

So why am I still playing at all? It’s a good question, and the only real explanation is this: the Phoenix Launcher.

My “main” character was initially a member of the Vanu faction, which is based around laser/plasma weapons. Each faction has access to “empire-specific” weapons that have no real analog amongst the others. Technically all non-NS weapons are unique, but the difference between the LMG that has more ammo vs the less-ammo-but-higher-damage vs the middling one without bullet drop is not all that great. The empire-specific weapons are a whole other ballgame though.

The difference between the empire-specific rocket launchers is perhaps the greatest in the game. The Vanu have a charge-up laser launcher that has basically zero travel time. The TR have a lock-on rocket launcher that fires five rockets in a row. And the NC? The Phoenix Launcher, which fires a camera-guided and steerable rocket.

I have “quit” PlanetSide 2 several times already, for a number of reasons. But lately I keep coming back for the Phoenix Launcher because it is about the most fun I have had in a FPS… at least in a while. Which is bizarre because only the Heavy Assault class can use the weapon, and it is not as though I spend all my time playing just that class. It’s like the mere possibility of my being able to steer a rocket up over cover and around the cliff the enemy tank is hiding behind is enough to get the juices flowing. I’ll repair the base turrets as an Engineer and play Medic to forward a base assault just to set up the opportunity later to ride some rockets around.

In the abstract, I clearly enjoy the base gameplay too. And that’s true. But without the Phoenix Launcher, that would not have been enough for me to justify my continued play.

I cannot quite decide if that is sad, or precisely the way things should be.

Restart

Ever come back from an extended videogame break – be it vacation, work project, family thing, etc – and just have no interest in anything whatsoever? Or perhaps more paradoxically, have so many conflicting interests that you end up spending your entire free time with procrastinating activities? I have just blown a solid three hours that could have been more productively used progressing through any number of games. Instead, I’m talking to you guys and playing Dungeon Keeper. You know, that almost universally reviled app from the studio that no longer exists?

I’m actually kinda a big deal in that game. The highest ELO bracket is 3200 and I’m 3500+. I don’t actually know where that puts me rank-wise, especially because the designers were dumb and allowed people to farm rank at super-low levels for several months, but at least I’m legit.

I don't know why either.

I don’t know why either.

In any case, this post was not an elaborate ploy to humble-brag about my Dungeon Keeper prowess. Rather, how do you guys bootstrap yourself out of a post-break gaming slump?

I logged into Planetside 2 for long enough to remember why I hate-love that game (fun gunplay followed by 10+ minutes of camping empty bases) and my Wildstar log-in didn’t last much longer because, hey, Medics still feel terrible. Do you pick a game at random and just plow forward? Do you have an old standby? Or do you just give in to the ennui and take a nap or whatever?

TitanSide PlanetFall

After gorging myself on Titanfall for the past few days, I just wanted to re-affirm my impressions from earlier.

This = Very Fun

This = Very Fun

Essentially, Titanfall is the quintessential wirehead game: an absolute orgy of sensory experiences surrounding a hungry engine of time destruction. Respawns take less than five seconds. Time-to-Kill is better measured in mouse clicks. The game is so frantic and fast-paced that the 90 seconds inbetween matches feels like an eternity. This is the sort of game where nobody would have time to type “GOGOGO” if there were even a chat interface in-game, which there isn’t. There’s one in the lobby, but it’s sole function seems to be pre-game prognosticating (“Lame, they have two G6 players. GG”) and post-game trash talking/ragequits. There is also voice chat, but it too seems superfluous – what sort of coordination is possible or even necessary when your foes could be cloaked and across the map in 15 seconds or less?

I have never owned a Call of Duty or Medal of Honor game, so this could all be old news for some of you. I cut my teeth on Counter-Strike and Halo and Battlefield 2 which, at least back in the day, seemed to take a bit longer.

This = Less Fun

This = Less Fun

What is somewhat sad is my motivation for playing the game. Essentially, I’m playing it as a PlanetSide 2 substitute. They aren’t really comparable games at all, but sometimes you just want to shoot people in the face, sci-fi style. PlanetSide 2 was failing on the “people to shoot” front, and there is every indication that it’s eternal beta is catching up with it. Specifically, either it’s hemorrhaging players or hemorrhaging paying customers (or both). Anything less than a 24v24 hex is a waste of time, and even the few freebie kills from the spawn room of hopeless defenses is losing its luster.

And by the way, can I just reiterate how asinine faction-specific game experiences can be? I chose VS more than a year ago and have almost all of my unlocks and such spent on that character. There is not a single moment in which I have not regret that choice. I have infinite more fun on my TR and NC alts based solely on their faction-specific missile launchers. Infinite! About the only redeeming factor for VS is the Lasher (which is garbage 98% of the time) and the fact that the Scythe fighter jet thing doesn’t have bars across the cockpit windows. That’s it. A single TR or NC dude with a rocket launcher is a threat; a single VS dude with a missile launcher is a threat 10 minutes from now.

I brought up the Titanfall vs PlanetSide 2 comparison for another reason: I’m realizing the inherent imbalance of level-based unlocks. In Ps2, you are given a menu to select upgrades from. In Titanfall, you unlock things at certain levels, or occasionally based on achievements. I recently unlocked Satchel charges, for example, and it is better than grenades by a factor of a little over 9000. Most upgrades are technically sidegrades-with-downsides, but usually you’ll find that you can more than compensate for the trade-off. What you can’t really compensate for is that your guns or whatever can/will be weaker than those who played longer.

In any case, the one thing Titanfall absolutely must fix (and soon) is it’s utterly repulsive and/or non-existent matchmaking system. There is a “beta” version out there for Attrition and Hardpoint modes, but I cannot begin to imagine what that is supposed to mean in any context. Is it really that difficult to not have matches like this:

This = Rage Quit Worthy

This = Rage Quit Worthy

Those special symbols are sorta like the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer tags, e.g. it denotes a player who hit level 50 and reset their progress to level 1. After “Generation 2″ it also requires you to earn 4-5 special achievements in order to unlock the, ahem, next generation. It’s not fucking titan science to, you know, spread those guys around. Hell, I don’t even care if the G5 player is a skill-less noob somehow (pretty difficult to imagine), it’s just goddamn demoralizing heading into a 6v6 match of any kind looking down that sort of barrel. Give us the G5 and G2 and let them keep the G4 and G3. Bam! Balance! What’s worse is that you’re stuck in the same lobby of people from match to match unless you specifically leave, which tends to cement the winning teams harder and harder.

Anyway: Titanfall. Shooty-shooty, explosions, instant-kill jump kicks, wall-running. I spacebar through the 5-second kill cams so I can perma-sprint into the adrenalin high faster.

Smedbombs

John Smedley, the president of SOE, did a Reddit AMA a little while ago and dropped some bombs.

If you could relaunch a shutdown title which one would you pick and what would you do differently this time?

SWG. I would do everything differently.

SWG PLAYERS – OUR NEXT GAME (not announced yet) IS DEDICATED TO YOU. Once we launch it… you can come home now. (source)

Here are some more snippets:

His response to the closing of Free Realms was rather depressing:

1) Are you planning on adding more family-friendly options? First there was Toontown Online, then there was Free Realms, and CWA. Is there another youth-oriented game planned?

1) No. No more kids games. Kids don’t spend well and it’s very difficult to run a kids game. Turns out Kids do mean stuff to each other a lot. (source)

There was another question/answer that I felt was rather interesting, concerning card games:

Will Legends of Norrath also be sunsetted in the near future?

no. Actually after seeing what Blizzard did with Hearthstone it’s given us some other ideas…. LoN is an awesome card game. We can take that to the next level. (source)

The whole WoW-clone phenomenon is well established, but I still find it interesting seeing it take place in real-time.

Factoids from Smed

In the midst of phat beats the Smedster was laying down yesterday, there were a few random facts I didn’t want to let slip through the cracks.

In practice, our primary job is making fun games. That always comes first. PS2 was a $25M investment. (source)

It is pretty rare that we get to see how much a game costs directly from a knowledgeable source.

Player Studio items – let me make this simple. We excluded them because we didn’t like the idea of giving away someone else’s item. The player who made it would get no revenue in that case because it’s a free item. We are considering just eating the cost of this. Either way we are likely going to allow Player Studio items. (source)

In case you were wondering about the “eating the cost” comment for Player Studio items. Here is a bigger drop though:

We’re in the middle of developing Everquest Next Landmark (on schedule right now for end of this month). We rebooted the game 3 times. It was a massive delay and it hurt us financially. But it was the right thing to do for us, and for the industry. Most importantly you all are going to get to play something we’re very proud of and we think is a whole lot of fun. (source)

Emphasis added. So… the weird sort of “marketing” surrounding EQN:L is starting to make sense. Namely, SOE didn’t know what the hell they were doing either. That’s almost comforting. But a little scary too, considering it appears as though SOE is going to be leaning on EQN:L for financial stability.

We’ll have to see how it plays out, but for my part, I am liable to start my SOE subscription back up once I can start playing EQN:L given how I’ll likely be getting PlanetSide 2 bonuses as well.

October Surprise(s)

October is shaping up to be a busy month.

Hearthstone is going to have its first (and only) beta wipe coinciding with a large rebalancing patch. And apparently more opt-in beta waves. Which is an important distinction from open beta, which this will not be. The good news is that there isn’t going to be any further beta wipes, so progression for those that are in the beta is going to be permanent thereafter.

The “rebalancing” is of most interest to me (of course), as Blizzard is going to have a thread a needle made out of graphene. I have talked about some of the imbalanced cards before, but the most salient point is that the devs do not have the same access to the balance “knobs” as they do in, say, WoW or Diablo 3. Hypothetically, making the Pint-Sized Summoner go from costing 2 mana to 3, for example, is an enormous balancing change that has wide-ranging repercussions on how (and if) the card is played at all. I would personally change the Pint-Sized Summoner to be a 1/1 or maybe a 1/2; the former makes it a dead draw against Mage and Rogue decks, but honestly, I don’t feel like an Arena game should revolve around whether you have a turn-2 removal spell in your opening hand. Maybe they could change it to be only 1 mana off the cost of creatures and leave the rest alone?

Speaking of digital card games, Hex will be beginning its Alpha testing on October 8th. To be honest, even with the weekly Kickstarter updates, I sorta forgot about the fact that I pledged $85 (!) to this game nearly 5 months ago. And even more honestly, Hearthstone kinda sucked all the oxygen out of the CCG room. For however lame its been to go 0-3 or my most recent 3-3 record in the Hearthstone Arena, at least I could choose to pay $0 for those games; going back to $6 drafts will be rough. The Alpha test will give everyone 4 copies of all PvP cards, so at least I won’t have to decide whether to “waste” all my Kickstarter packs before the game comes out (which hopefully dilute the skill pool a bit).

Although I have not been playing it regularly, PlanetSide 2 is due for a huge optimization patch on October 23rd. I’m not actually all that excited about it, even though the devs are supposedly touting a ~30% gain in frame rates across all types of computer configurations. Why? First of all, this optimization work is at the expense of everything else. Changes to the Infiltrator class? Pushed back. New air weapons pushed back. New continent pushed back. And so on.

A fire was clearly lit under someone’s ass about poor performance, but with players leaving in droves, I’m not sure that chasing after the ones that left over computer issues is a winning proposition. And that leads me to reason number two: it’s all really a cynical ploy to get the game ready for the PlayStation 4. “Cynical” as in they only bothered caring about performance nearly a year after release, and only when the opportunity to cash in on a new market presented itself.

I’m a little bitter, if you can’t tell. Every time I get the bug to go play some more of PS2, I hit Instant Action and am sent to some deserted facility that changed hands an hour ago. And when I do happen to find some action, it inevitably dies down quickly and I’m left staring at the 5, 10, 15 minute capture timer. “Open world” and “emergent gameplay” is nice and all, but when I end up playing longer on my phone waiting for something to happen in the main game, something has gone horribly wrong. Ain’t nobody got time to wait around empty bases.

Luckily for me, and rather unfortunately for Sony, Battlefield 4 comes out October 29th.

I am not really all that certain I will be purchasing it on Day 1, although I had a blast playing Battlefield 3 for the six or so months that I was doing so. Looking back in my archives, I didn’t really talk about my experiences with it all that much. Basically, I see it as PlanetSide 2 without the waiting. While BF3 is technically more similar to Call of Duty than a sort of “open world” like PS2, the reality is that all PS2 brings to the table (or my table, anyway) is the ability to hop into a vehicle or airplane without having to wait/steal it from someone else. Every single other thing is better in BF3 – the shooting, the graphics, the action, the tactics, the depth. Again, technically, PS2 can have deeper strategy via Outfits and the like, but to the average player in the average game session, BF3 can’t be beat.

I haven’t really been following the Battlefield 4 news all that closely, but I find it interesting that the new game modes are being heavily skewed towards Call of Duty. Not that CoD invented any of them, of course, but I am more referring to that sort of play-style. Domination, Defuse, Team Deathmatch, Squad Deathmatch, and Rush are all CoDish to me. Conquest is still there in all its glory though, and Obliteration sounds somewhat interesting with its hot potato gameplay. But sometimes I just feel like shooting people in the face, you know? So that’s probably okay. Plus, technically every game mode will be available in all 10 maps, so it is not as though you’re stuck in the same handful of maps for every Conquest game.

Also coming in October: Terraria‘s 1.2 Patch, Don’t Starve‘s final two content patches (October 1st and presumably the final one 3 weeks later), and I guess GTA Online.

Regarding the latter, I am, of course, holding out for the PC release.

First Impression: Firefall (Beta)

Downloaded the Firefall open beta client yesterday because, you know, Press™.

For those not keeping track at home, Firefall is… well, hell if I actually know. Without looking it up, I’m assuming it’s a F2P MMO set in an open-world, over-the-shoulder Borderlands 2 with bugs taking the place of bandits. After looking it up, it seems the devs want to emphasize the fact that it is a skill-based action shooter with sandbox MMO elements. Apparently the world is a not level-restricted, but the highest-ranked “dungeons” will need full groups with crafted gear. Which sounds like roundabout levels to me, but let’s play along.

One of my biggest fears with new MMOs – or any game which expects me to be playing for 50+ hours – is losing on the character select screen. How am I supposed to know which class will be the most fun months from now? And even if I luck into the best class for me, how will I know it won’t radically change (or get nerfed) years later? So, right away, Firefall got some major brownie points with me once I understood that a “class” means a Battleframe, which you can swap out at pretty much any time. Need a healer? Jump into your healer suit and go play.

In the future, even clothes are rationed.

In a twist, the Assault and Engineer classes have less armor than the healer and rogue.

Loincloth starting armor tropes aside, I think the whole Battleframe direction is pretty clever. Not only are you allowing people to play whatever role is necessary at the time, having independent frames means a player has to “level-up” multiple times while still allowing for quick catch-up. In other words, it’s horizontal progression. PlanetSide 2 has this same sort of thing, where you might have to purchase various levels of Flak Armor for each class (which is expensive with Certs), or you can just focus on playing Light Assault or Medic and save your currency.

In any case, from the extremely limited amount of time I spent playing, things seem fun enough. They certainly looked good, at any rate.

Borderlands 2 with an actual color palate.

Borderlands 2 with an actual color palate.

Some people might not like the sort of cel-shaded motif here, but this sort of thing has never bothered me. If the game runs better and has more options for crazy effects, then I will “sacrifice” ultra-realistic graphics any day. Plus: everyone has jetpacks, right from the start.

I can’t give much more of an impression beyond the above, as I was unable to progress past the second “quest.” The first quest was to follow a waypoint, and the second was to kill some bugs and then return to purchase your sidearm from a vendor. Unfortunately, either I am completely oblivious (possible) or the the game was bugging out for me (likely) seeing as how no menu would appear after interacting with said vendor:

How about you give me a gun and I don't shoot your face off?

How about you give me a gun and I don’t shoot your face off?

Since the mouse controls your aim, I know that I successfully clicked ‘E’ on the vendor because the crosshair disappeared and an actual mouse pointer appeared. But no menu. I tried highlighting the guns in the background, clicking on every on-screen icon-looking thing, reloading the client, and finally restarting my computer. Open beta is open beta, but I was left feeling pretty disappointed all the same. Hell, I couldn’t even submit a ticket because that interface wasn’t showing up either. I could probably submit a bug report on the forums… or I could go play some other game that works instead.

While I was clicking around, I did notice something particularly interesting:

Customizable interface right out of the box?!

Customizable interface right out of the box?!

That’s right, you can move shit around your screen and I think resize elements right from the start. It might seem like a small thing, and it arguably is small, but it begs the question of why some MMOs *cough* require you to download 432 mods to do the same sort of things. Artistic restrictions? General laziness? More of this sort of thing, please.

I might check back in on Firefall later to see if the problem resolves itself, or I might simply wait until release. Until then, feel free to try it out yourself.

Worst of All Worlds

A few days ago Tobold made what seemed to be a reasonable argument that F2P games are just like cell phone plans – some plans work better than others depending on how much you use the phone. That seems fine, until you realize that phone carriers typically give you a choice between subscriptions and buying minutes, even for the same phone model. But more than that, what I want to talk about is how/why I feel that F2P is always bad for me as a player.

I’m one of those people that derive pleasure from “optimizing the fun out of games.” Of course, I don’t actually see it as fun reduction at all; if anything, I get the most entertainment possible when I can lever the whole of my mind in opposition to the game designer. It is not that I want to discover the ultimate ability/gear combo to make the game trivial (most games have cheat codes, Save file hacks, etc), it is that I want the game to be difficult or deep enough to drive me to discover it using the tools the designer gave me. The optimization part is simply the nominal destination of a thoroughly engaging and fun journey getting there.

This brings me (back) to the topic of F2P. One of the common defenses of F2P is that it evens the playing field between the time-rich and the people with limited time. Frankly, I feel that is bullshit right off the bat. One of the hallmarks of a fair game is everyone playing by consistent rules – if I have to kill 1000 boars, everyone has to kill 1000 boars. If killing that many boars takes 15 hours, then yes, someone who can spent 15 hours a day playing the game will have an “advantage” over someone who can only play two hours.¹ Then again, a particularly skillful player might be able to figure out how to kill the required number of boars in only 10 hours, perhaps by optimizing his/her equipment, farming strategy, and/or ability rotation. The “time-rich” player might still have the “advantage,” but their brute-force approach is inefficient.

The typical F2P experience is thus the worst of all possible worlds for players like myself. I am both time and money “rich” (i.e. I have disposable income), which already presents uncomfortable gaming decisions on a daily basis. If you have no money or no time, the solution to any F2P problem is pretty obvious: grind it out or pay to skip the grind. Conversely, those of us who can do both are stuck rationalizing every possible decision all the time. “Do I grind for another 2 hours, or do I just spend the $5?” Maybe the default should be pay-to-skip in that scenario, but what about all the other games you could be purchasing with that same $5? Is “saving” two hours in one game worth purchasing a different game that could last you 20 hours by itself?

The real kicker though is the fact that F2P more or less invalidates any real sense of optimization. All of us already know that the most efficient move in a F2P game is to load up on XP potions, convert cash into in-game currency to clean out the AH, and open lockboxes all day until we have everything of any value. There is no possible way to beat that. “Just figure out the most efficient path without spending money.” Playing with an artificial handicap is simply not as engaging to me. You can technically increase the difficulty of a FPS by decreasing your mouse sensitivity, but that will never feel as satisfying as having more intelligent opponents.

Where I agree with Tobold is that F2P is here to stay. Outside of the CoDs and Battlefields and Counter-Strikes of the world, I’m not sure many multiplayer games could exist on their own in sustainable numbers. Astute readers will also know that I have been playing PlanetSide 2 for 230+ hours now and that’s a F2P game. Then again, I also spent over $100 in Ps2 thus far, including being “subscribed” for the last six consecutive months (efficiency, yo). Not to mention how I bought helmets and camo for my characters almost entirely because of the extremely slight advantage that they bring (arguably P2W).

I am not against F2P games on principal, it’s just that they quite literally cannot be as fun to me as they could be. I play these games to submerge myself in their fiction. Being constantly reminded that for the low, low price of $4.99 I could have X, Y, and Z not only breaks the immersion and puts a price tag on my hitherto priceless time, it also serves as a reminder that the solution to every problem is just a credit card away.

¹ Advantage is in scare-quotes because I don’t recognize an advantage as being “playing the same game more.”