Category Archives: MMO

Is Crowfall an MMO at all?

It seems like a simple enough question, but few people seem intent on asking it. Hell, even I had trouble describing my feelings on the matter until Bhagpuss came right out in the comments last time and proclaimed the emperor nude:

[Crowfall] might turn out to be a good game. In no way will it be anything I would recognize as an MMORPG.

In the Kickstarter video, the devs state that Crowfall is a marriage between a strategy game with a defined end-state and an MMO. However, most of the MMO community seems fine in describing it as a straight-up MMO. An MMO with… non-persistent worlds. Divided into servers. That end via victory conditions. Which sends you back to the Lobby, cough, Eternal Kingdoms.

Let’s call a spade a spade: Crowfall is Alterac Valley. With Landmark bolted on.

PvP focused gameplay? Check. Victory conditions? Check. Gather resources? Check. Instanced worlds? Check. Persistent characters that progress in levels? Check. Defined beginning, middle, and end? Check, check, and check.

    Competition for the Dregs space was fierce.

Competition for the Dregs space was fierce.

The analogy isn’t perfect, of course. You don’t bring out your Gnome bones or whatever outside the individual AV match… unless you count Honor and/or Reputation as resources (which they are). But my point is that Crowfall isn’t an MMO unless you happen to extend that definition to encompass a lot of lobby-based games. Such as, I dunno, League of Legends. Or Clash of Clans, even. Or, you know, every other lobby-based online game out there.

I’m not suggesting that Crowfall will be bad because it’s not an MMO. In fact, it might precisely be because it’s not an MMO that Crowfall avoids all the traditional pitfalls of the genre. As SynCaine points out though, there are all sorts of other problems that can occur once you start dealing with defined, close-to-zero sum competitions. What motivation is there to continue fighting a losing battle when another server is a click away? Hell, if the devs aren’t careful, the whole “multiple passively trained alts” thing could resemble P2W considering you could swap your losing alts for one on the winning team. Then again, everyone already has experience with these sort of issues in, you know, battlegrounds in other MMOs. So perhaps it won’t be that big a deal.

If you enjoyed old-school Alterac Valley though, Crowfall seems like the MMO game for you.

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Star Citizen and “Realism”

I have not really been following the development of Star Citizen beyond knowing that it had a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign. I mean, I know the premise and everything, but the name Chris Roberts holds about as much cachet with me as Raph Koster – both supposedly important dudes who made games I never played. Have they done anything lately? No? Okay then.

One thing that did catch my eye the other day though, was a short Massively article talking about Star Citizen’s “realistic” health and wound system. Feel free to read the source material itself. The basic idea is that the designers wanted to further the immersion by making a “fun” limb-based damage system. Take a lot of damage to an arm, and your arm gets blown off and/or ruined. There are a total of 10 specific areas to damage, with eight of them being arms or legs. The “Damaged” state is between 50% and 1% health, and… let me just quote it:

Damaged – Damaged limbs are useless and the player cannot use them unless they get them patched up in the field or taken to a mobile trauma system (see: Healing). This is the state right after the hurt phase, where the pain is so severe to the player, that no matter what limb is damaged, they will have a hard time being mobile. If one of their legs are damaged, they fall to the ground and crawl.

Now, there is something to be said about how the CoD/Battlefield-style run-and-gun regenerating health paradigm removes a lot of the weight of battle.¹ Take some damage, hide behind a wall, and ~15 seconds later you are good to go. Or perhaps rush into that occupied room with a shotgun and hope you get lucky, knowing you’ll get back to the fight faster than any of the other guys.

On the hand… Jesus Christ, can you imagine the grief potential? Enormous. I don’t care under what circumstances we have come to blows, I’m telling you now: I’m shooting your legs. I’m shooting your legs and then, whether or not I survive, you are spending the remaining time crawling pathetically across the floor to get anywhere. I am doing that because it is the most annoying thing I can possibly imagine. Screw headshots, if you want to invade my ship, you will spend the next 15 minutes crawling your way to the command chair over my dead body.

If you want to find me, I’ll be flying the most handicap inaccessible ship I can find. One with stairs!

That post about limb damage mentioned permadeath, which was the first I heard about it in Star Citizen, so I read that article too. The short version is that permadeath exists for lore reasons, but doesn’t actually matter. Taking a cue from Rogue Legacy, any time your character permanently dies, you simply start playing as whomever you marked as your next-of-kin. Since there are no RPG elements apparently (i.e. Skill Points), the most you lose is some reputation standing and whatever emotional attachment you’ve developed for a character in a permadeath-enabled game. Considering that the limb-damage system specifically talks about how difficult it will be to instantly die – a Ruined head might be jaw or eye damage instead of missing skull – it sounds like this might not be entirely relevant anyway.

I do not want to give the impression that I am not looking forward to Star Citizen, at least as much as anyone can about a game that could radically change at any moment. Space sims are not a genre I spend a lot of time thinking about, but I absolutely loved them in the past. I played Colony Wars for the PS1 way back in the day for an inordinate amount of time. The Zone of Enders series might not technically count as a space sim, but it is the first thing I think about whenever I see videos of Star Citizen dogfighting. I would seriously consider buying EVE: Valkyrie on Day 1, even though I’m not particularly impressed with CCP’s other spinoffs.

But if/when I do pick up Star Citizen, it will be in spite of mechanics such as limb-based damage and permadeath. I do not actually see such things adding anything of value to the game that would not have otherwise already been there. Instead, I foresee a future in which there will be a lot of people crawling around on the floor, hoping that Chris Roberts included a method to commit suicide and still wake up back at their spawn point.

¹ I don’t actually believe that much, if any, weight is removed in these games (or at least in Battlefield). Dying is already a miserable experience even with instant respawns, let alone in the context of not being able to capture an objective or prevent the capturing of your own. Attempts to penalize them further just makes the game harder, but not in a particularly fun way. Otherwise death penalties would all be “invalidate your CD key and force you to repurchase the game.”

Unfair Impressions: The Secret World

I started playing The Secret World yesterday.

I'm nothing if not predictable.

I’m nothing if not predictable.

I was going to start that sentence off with “On a whim,” but it occurs to me that there isn’t much of anything whimsical about starting an MMO. You have the 39.2 gb client download, the registration, and usually getting your billing information straightened out. TSW doesn’t have a subscription anymore, but even though I had downloaded it previously, I still had about 2 gigs worth of patches to download before I hit the character select screen.

In any case, I ran into my first issue on the character naming screen. TSW asks you to enter a first name, a last name, and then a nickname, the latter of which is supposedly your in-game name. But it mentions that people inspecting you can see the others. It occurred to me that this is perhaps the worst naming mechanic I’ve ever seen. Allowing last names not only allows for increased customization, but on a more practical level, it alleviates the problem with one’s name being taken by someone else. Not so with FunCom’s design team; I was not able to move forward with character creation because someone already took “Azuriel” as a nickname. I tried a number of variations, referenced my List of Cool Nouns, then decided that Azuriel Inanage’s nickname was “GQX.”

But... isn't the whole point... wha...?

But… isn’t the whole point… wha…?

The graphics are whatever. I turned everything up to Ultra just to see if it improved things, but decided an extra 15 fps was worth more than whatever it is that Tessellation does or what FXAA means.

I very nearly died in the tutorial area – at least, I assume it’s possible to die there – before I realized that TSW is in the post-WoW active combat genre, with active dodging and whatnot. I’m fine with this style of gameplay, although it seems more ridiculous than usual when people are doing it in a more “realistic” setting. Or maybe it is an art style issue; I had no problem with the way things were handled in GW2.

I stopped the game session in the training room where you can try out the various weapons and decide which one is for you. My understanding of TSW is that you can pretty much choose any abilities you want and can theoretically learn everything, but you would be severely disadvantaged in not specializing early on. I’d be fine with such a system, if the Ability Wheel was not the worst implementation of a skill tree that I had ever seen.

Conceptually, the Ability Wheel is fine. But has anyone ever tried to actually look through it as a new player with an eye for synergies? “Okay, this attack deals extra damage when the target is Afflicted. Alright, what causes Afflicted? Let me just browse every possible weapon in the game, including clicking on these nameless little cubes on the outside in no particular order…”

When secret society immersion goes too far...

When secret society immersion goes too far…

FunCom added “decks” to the game a while ago, which are basically preconstructed talent builds that you can follow along. This certainly would speed up the process, but I am not of the mind to commit to any one thing without knowing all the moving parts, especially if there isn’t a way to respec (or maybe there is?). How am I supposed to know what I’ll find fun a dozen hours from now, let along a hundred? Complex and deep character build options are fine, but I’m beginning to see the visceral appeal of the Diablo 3/WoW system of making one decision at a time.

In any case, my next session will begin with a combing of the internet for build explanations, or perhaps more simply a diagram of the synergies between the nine weapons. It’s cool that the fifth skill in the X tree can make the Y weapon a viable option, but it’s less cool missing out on that interaction because you can’t really see it due to the UI. I want something that will show me every instance of the word “Hinder” and the like, so I can decide that yes, pistols and claw weapons (or whatever) are a combination that is acceptable to me.

Bring It, 2014

The normal sort of thing to do is look back on what 2013 brought us, but ain’t nobody got time for that. And 2013 sucked anyway. Let’s see what’s in store for next year, yeah?

The Repopulation

For as much as crusty old bloggers harp about Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, I find it amusing how not a one of them (that I am aware of) has mentioned The Repopulation. What is it? Why, according to Kotaku it is the love child of SWG and UO. MMO? Check. Open-world sandbox? Check. Build your own towns? Check. No levels or classes? Check and check. Can just be a crafter all day, or dancer, or street performer? Ayep. Hell, they even claim you can seamlessly switch from hotkey MMO style combat to an action-oriented 1st/3rd-person shooter perspective. It’s a veritable pantheon of Jesus features.

You can craft a Portal turret pet. Need I say more?

You can craft a Portal turret pet. Need I say more?

Apparently the game is already in Alpha from a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, although they are giving it another $50k Kickstart for some reason or another. Closed Beta for backers starts in March. The end result will be a F2P MMO that sells “memberships” in tiers for a one-time purchase, which is perhaps the most novel business model I’ve seen yet. In fact, I think that was the last undiscovered videogame payment scheme. Achievement unlocked.

WildStar

It’s a thing.

Elder Scrolls Online

Also a thing.

EverQuest Next: Landmark

If Landmark ends up being anything more than a commercial disaster, it will be in spite of having the most vague, nonsensical marketing strategy I have ever witnessed. I mean, watch this promotional video. That was uploaded on December 6th, 2013, so it’s not from back when they didn’t know how they were going to cover up the EQN delay.

Okay, this does look kinda interesting.

Okay, this does look kinda interesting.

That being said, I am always keenly interested in anything that allows players to freeform create things in game spaces. I’m not talking about building a house somewhere in UO or other nonsense. I’m talking about actually being able to craft something that can effectively be used as a portfolio of game design. Hell, I still have all 11.6 gigs of Portal 2 installed because I imagined that one day I would get around to building my own puzzle as an example of level design. Did it happen? Nope. Could it have happened? Yep. PlanetSide 2’s Player Studio deal apparently had some budding designers banking $5000-$8000 in a quarter, for crafting the equivalent of hats and camo. Landmark will have the same sort of system in place, on a much larger scale.

So, Landmark is on the radar. I’m not convinced that it will actually be a “real” MMO in terms of it being entertaining to play the non-crafting bits, but who knows? Certainly not SOE, that’s for goddamn sure.

Destiny

Not a thing. Seriously, it’s Borderlands 2 Online minus a PC version. Which means I’m not playing it.

Firefall

I hadn’t even thought about this game since I ran into a bugged quest back in July. Actually, I take that back. I had an entire post ready to go entitled “Firefail” and it was to be accompanied by this picture:

Welp, so much for that.

Welp, so much for that.

Basically, I tried patching the game and got stuck at the last 0.04 MB. I truly did try everything, including a full uninstall of the game client and a redownload.

As it turns out, I might have dodged a bullet there. Apparently, the CEO of the game studio was fired after having spent millions of dollars on high-end camera equipment and, no joke, converting a tour bus into a mock-up of in-game transport. That bus job cost $3 million from an MMO game studio’s coffers. Oh, and I guess apparently the CEO announced that he unilaterally cancelled all PvP in a forum post? You can read a sort of insider view of the dirty laundry in this (verified!) Reddit thread.

WoW: Outlands 2.0

Probably a thing.

The Siren Call of Dynamism

Looks like we have the next Jesus game:

EverQuest Next Could Fix Everything Wrong With MMORPGs

I’ve played every major massively multiplayer role-playing game released since 1998, yet it feels like I’ve spent the past 15 years playing the same game over and over again. That’s a problem. EverQuest Next is the solution.

I probably should have stopped reading that Kotaku article right there, but I’m a masochist at heart.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the things I’m reading about EverQuest Next sound interesting. Voxel-based things, somehow without looking like Cube World. And… err… yeah. Classless/multi-class systems like The Secret World/FF11. Stylized graphics like WoW, Firefall, Wildstar. Red zones on the ground that you shouldn’t stand in, like most every game these days. Jumping and “parkour” (which means what, exactly, in this context?) like in Guild Wars 2. Reducing abilities down to eight, like Guild Wars 2 again. Dynamic events and “calls to arms” like Guild Wars 2 and Firefall and Warhammer. Hell, considering they brought over Jeremy Soule to do their soundtrack, they probably should have just called the game EverGuildQuestWars2Next.

Then there are the hype red flags. A StoryBricks-based AI that wanders around and sets up camp organically? Neat. But then I started reading this interview:

So, to better understand the Rallying Calls, I wasn’t clear on some things with David Georgeson’s example: say you’ve built a big city, and built these stone walls around it, and now an army has come for a siege. Is that something that happens over a couple hours, or a week?

McPherson: That army siege lasts until the players on the server have completed that stage.

[…]

With the “emergent AI,” though, how can you maintain something indefinitely? If the army comes to attack, and is defeated outright in an hour or the players just ignore it, what then? Do you keep spawning enemies?

Butler: Until the things that spawn them are destroyed.

[…]

So, if orcs are released into the world and wander around looking for areas they like, they’re not coming from some point and spreading outward, they’re spawning from camps they set up?

McPherson: Right, perfect example. So in phase four of this Rallying Call, four large orc warband camps spawn in the hills. Those camps are literally swarming with orcs.

Butler: And they’re unassailable.

McPherson: Until you meet the requirements to move on to that next area and eliminate those. Then you and your army push past them and assault them in their homeland.

Butler: You try to fireball the palisade walls in the orc camps, but the fireball doesn’t take down the walls because you need catapults, because that’s what unlocks the next phase and gives you the ability to assault the camps directly.

[…]

What happens if players don’t do any of this?

Butler: It’s simple, it doesn’t advance. So just like a chapter of a book, right? You’ve got your personal storyline, you’re playing through the game. Your personal contribution and the story that goes with it goes on at whatever pace you choose to pursue. The server has a storyline as well, expressed with these Rallying Calls. If players choose not to pursue them, the clock just doesn’t advance.

Oh. So… these things are completely indistinguishable from anything we’ve seen a thousand times before, all the way back to simple phased quests in WoW? Will there be a little “Catapults put into position: 0/2” blurb in the middle-right side of the screen too? How dynamic and revolutionary.

Getting back to the Kotaku article, the author presents his final conclusion like this:

Addressing the Real Problem

Boredom is the enemy of the MMORPG, plain and simple. Now matter how gorgeous the world, or how animated the player base or how compelling the game itself, eventually all of that content the developers spent years creating is going to grow stale.

That’s the real problem here. MMORPGs have traditionally been developed much like single-player games. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. They can be padded with downloadable content, but they’re still single-player games with other people crammed in there to keep us from realizing that we’re playing the same thing over and over again.

Maintaining a strong community helps, but its not enough. To really solve the core problem, you’ve got to create what so many games before have promised — a living, breathing, ever-changing world.

EverQuest Next sounds like the solution to me.

Now, he says he has been playing MMOs for the last 15 years, but I get the distinct impression that he hasn’t. All long-term compelling MMO content is player-based. An ever-changing world is irrelevant in comparison to a completely static world populated with other people you like hanging around with. People are still playing the original EverQuest for god’s sake! This is besides the fact that there isn’t a “living, breathing, ever-changing world” in EQN or anywhere.

Even if EQN or some future game actually managed to pull it off, would you even want to play it? As I pointed out back in 2011, player impact on the game world is considerably less interesting than many people make it out to be. Imagine if xxArthasDKlolxx killed an NPC and now you can never interact with said NPC again. Is that what you want? Feature sets that include “destructible environments” always have to be followed up by explanations about how it isn’t permanent, lest new players be introduced to a cratered wasteland made by bored griefers.

EVE has been in the news lately with its dynamic player impact, but all of that has been confined to player social structures, and not the game-world itself; star systems have changed ownership, but it’s not as though there are less NPCs or ice rocks in the universe.

That’s how you do dynamic content: with people. Whether orcs spawn in the valley or on the hill is extremely trivial, considering you still have to remove them in pretty much the same manner as you did 15 resets ago. GW2 has committed itself to two-week content obsoletion cycles, which I guess is one way to avoid the tedium of redoing the same thing over and over. Then again, even if the set pieces change, you are still interacting with the world the same way, more or less, as you did at level 1. “Kill this, click that, jump here, fill up your meter, claim rewards.”

I’m not saying that dynamic/changing content can’t be fun, I’m saying that dynamic content is not some silver bullet for boredom. Things might change randomly or dynamically, but your understanding of their mechanics only increases over time. Nils has talked about this years ago, as I have, but I think Klepsacovic summed it up more poetically here:

That last part is the key: anything I could think of.  Early on I did not imagine what else I could want to do in this world.  I’d done only a tiny fraction of what I could.  This had two effects.  One was that I had not run into a limit yet.  The other was that I could not imagine a limit.  I did not imagine that the sky ended, that the quests ended, that the raids could all be done.  These were all true, but since I did not know them and did not even imagine them, they were irrelevant.  I was running the infinite distance of a circular path.

Since then I’ve learned and my behavior has changed.  I do not run in circular paths.  I run out, find the edge, map it out, and then fill it in.  This means that very early on my mind has already filled the size of the world, so that all that can happen after are details, with nothing big to be revealed.  In my mind it looks like two strategies for filling in a circle.  Both start at the center.  One draws a line out to the edge and now the radius is known.  It then spirals inward, knowing exactly where it is headed.  The other starts the spiral at the center.  It will cover the same area, but it will do so not knowing where the edge is, what the limits are, until it reaches them.

Cynicism is easy, but it’s also an appropriate response to any claim that non-player dynamism is going to solve anything. You can still get bored playing a procedurally-generated game; if that fact is not the simplest indictment of the intellectual bankruptcy of Mike Fahey’s Kotaku argument, I don’t know what is. People are the only thing that will continue making a game interesting once you have mapped out the circle. The player-built structures and other such things might bridge the gap, but it won’t be enough if you aren’t making friends and setting down roots. Given how EQN is F2P though… well, I’m not holding out hope for a particularly stable, long-term community.

All that said, EQN is now on my radar. If it’s fun, I’ll play it. Hell, I’m kinda interested in the incredibly devious EQN Landmark “game” where you’ll likely pay SOE for the privilege of building content for them (Landmark is F2P, but that just means the costs are hidden). Imagine building your own house – as in, your IRL house – and placing that in game… or selling it to other people. I have never used Portal 2’s puzzle-making feature, but I am always a fan of developers giving players tools to build in-game stuff. Crowd-sourcing is great, but even better is the ability to sorta build your own game design portfolio.

Would I get bored with EQN eventually? No doubt. But I don’t see that inevitability as a negative – it is simply the natural consequence of learning and experiencing things. An MMO doesn’t have to last forever to be worth playing. People and relationships don’t last forever either, but I don’t see anyone saying those are a waste of time.

The Secret World’s Other Shoe, and Jay Wilson’s Apology for D3

A little over a week ago, I pointed out that Funcom’s The Secret World was not selling all that well; Funcom’s own public press release highlighted a (presumably optimistic) scenario in which they sell half a million boxes and have ~120k subscribers after a year.

As reported by Kotaku, that other shoe has dropped: 50% of Funcom’s staff has been laid off.

Some of these initiatives are part of normal procedure following the launch of a major project, such as adjustments to the customer service staffing based on the number of customers in the game as well as adjustments to the production team as the project goes into a post-launch phase following years of intense development. Many of those affected on the customer service team are on temporary contracts which is common for a live service such as ‘The Secret World’ where customer service demand shifts based on the game’s population levels.

Even the “good news” part of that – the developers/designers were less affected than “temp” customer service reps – comes across as bad news to my ears. After all, if the MMO was doing better, then one would presumably want to retain a robust CustServ department.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I wonder whether or not we should start using layoffs as a metric of MMO success. Obviously subscription numbers have been used as the de facto measurement for years, and I imagine it correlates with layoffs pretty strongly already, but I think most of us recognize the dissonance between claiming “Game X failed” while it still remains profitable. I mean, for god’s sake, Warhammer Online is still kicking it with a subscription¹. EA is not keeping that thing alive out of the goodness of its heart. In fact, arguably, keeping Warhammer alive is unnecessarily cruel.

Or… perhaps we would all be better off not bothering with arbitrary success or failure designations entirely.

…nah, this is the internet. There can only be one!

Speaking of immortals losing their heads…

You will be forgiven if you have not been following the “Example #38417 of How Social Media Will Ruin Your Day” Diablo 3 news story, staring Jay “And Double It” Wilson.

The short version is that one of the developers of the original Diablo (David Brevik) made some comments about Diablo 3 in an interview, and essentially said he would have made different decisions. More or less. The current developers of Diablo 3 did not like that too much, and Jay Wilson thought it was a good idea to respond on Facebook by saying, and I quote, “Fuck that loser.” You can read the Kotaku write-up if you like, as it includes snippets of the interview in question and a screencap of the Facebook post itself.

Looking at the other comments, I’d say Eric Bachour’s “You’d think that guy wasn’t responsible for Hellgate: London. Lol.” was the more epic burn.

In any case, Jay “Fuck that loser and Double It” Wilson has an official pseudo-apology up on the Diablo 3 boards. I do not expect you to actually click on that link, because most of it is PR bullshit (redundantly redundant much?). Well… alright, if you skip the first four paragraphs, things get more interesting. Or you can simply read this handy list of bullet-point quotes:

  • “We believe it’s a great game. But Diablo III has flaws. It is not perfect. Sales mean nothing if the game doesn’t live on in all of our hearts, and standing by our games is what Blizzard does.”
  • “If you don’t have that great feeling of a good drop being right around the corner — and the burst of excitement when it finally arrives — then we haven’t done our jobs right.”
  • “Out of our concern to make sure that Diablo III would have longevity, we were overly cautious about how we handled item drops and affixes. If 1.0.4 hasn’t fixed that, you can be sure we’ll continue to address it.”
  • “Part of the problem, however, is not just item drops, but the variety of things to do within the game. “
  • “As it stands, Diablo III simply does not provide the tools to allow players to scale the game challenge to something appropriate for them.”
  • “Later in the development of Diablo II, the ‘players 8’ command — which let people set monster difficulty — was added to address this issue, and we’re considering something similar for the next major Diablo III patch to allow players to make up their own minds about how hard or how easy is right for them.”
  • “The Auction House can short circuit the natural pace of item drops, making the game feel less rewarding for some players. This is a problem we recognize. At this point we’re not sure of the exact way to fix it, but we’re discussing it constantly, and we believe it’s a problem we can overcome.”

I have a spoiler alert for you Jay: that last bullet point ain’t going to happen. Not only is that cat out of the bag, it has been skinned in more than one way across all nine of its lives.

I played a few hours of D3 since the patch, and I have noticed three things:

  1. “Normal monster health increased by 10%” = +5 terribly boring seconds per mob.
  2. I can tank Act 3 Inferno elites in the same gear/skills I was 2-shot in pre-patch.
  3. Gold prices have gone from $2.50/million down to $1.06/million.

That last one is a real shame, as I was hoping to cash out my ~5 million gold and (combined with the few bucks from earlier sales) maybe purchase a month of WoW ahead of MoP. Then again, that would be kind of silly to do given the Scroll of Resurrection’s free server transfer bonus, and GW2’s imminent release notwithstanding. Oh well.

Kind of wonder if that dude who paid $200 for my friend’s 2H sword is still playing the game. I do not know which possibility would be more sad for him/her.

¹ Warhammer says it is F2P on the website, but as far as I can tell it operates more as an unlimited duration free trial than true F2P. For example, you cannot go to the capital cities, cannot engage in any economic transaction with another player, and are limited to “Tier 1 scenarios,” whatever the hell that means (it’s been years since the one month I played).

The City of Steam Alpha Preview for the Rest of Us

If your own blogroll is remotely similar to mine, you have probably heard quite enough about that City of Steam game. The alpha test was wrapping up this past weekend so the devs started handing out codes to just anyone… which would explain how I got one. The beta test will not start for another ~3 months give or take, and there isn’t even a target release date, so the question undoubtedly on your mind – as was on mine every time I read about the game elsewhere – is simple: why should I care about City of Steam?

Well, do you have a few minutes? If so, watch this:

Feel free to expand that into 1080p full-screen, which is the resolution I played at.

In case you were not aware, City of Steam is a browser-based F2P indie MMO. And the above was from its alpha state.

With the exception of Glitch and Kingdom of Loathing, I tend to stay away from browser-based games for… well, no particular reason. I suppose I never thought of them being “for me,” where that is defined by nebulous double-standards like a willingness to pay for a discrete product as long as I don’t have to use a cash shop or spam my friends. Then there is the soft-spot in my cold, black heart for games with character progression deep enough to optimize the fun out it, as one might squeeze whey from cheese. Except, in this disgusting analogy, I eat the whey.

What were we talking about again? Ah, City of Steam.

I have read some descriptions comparing it to Diablo, but the gameplay is more akin to, well, a typical MMO. All the dungeons are instanced, there are some dungeons within dungeons (Dunception!), you can form traditional MMO parties of up to 5-people, guilds exist, the hub areas act as lobbies of sorts, there are daily and story quests, extensive crafting/modding system that alter actual weapon/armor appearance on your avatar, and… let’s stop here. It’s alpha.

While I had an indie MMO developer’s attention though, I just had to ask some (perhaps impertinent) questions:

Me: This is kind of a Bigger question, but… why browser based instead of stand-alone game? Was it easier to go with browser, or more accessible?
Me: I know I can’t be the first one amazed with the graphics. They are very, very well done and came at a complete surprise. Which is kind of why I ask.
Gabriel V. Laforge: It made it more accessible; we wanted to go on the idea that it’s a lightweight game that almost anyone can just jump on and play
GL: hence the short loading times and no massive client downloads
GL: Unity 3D and loads of our own in-house tools really helped optimize that, without sacrificing all that much in terms of graphics or content

Me: Have the more high-profile MMO news – like 38 Studios collapse, SWTOR going F2P, Funcom stock crashes – affected how you build or design the game? Has it complicated the seeking of outside investors (assuming you need any)?
GL: Yes and no…. the game started out as being something we just really wanted to do. Our lead designer, David Lindsay, wrote a series of Roleplaying books, (The New Epoch), upon which the game is based
GL: as for competitors, well, those are large downloads to play, so we don’t necessarily consider ourselves in the same league
GL: we have nowhere near the team or budget they do ;)
GL: as for investment, we have had funding from an investor who helped us get this far, so we’re set on that end
GL: from here, we still have to decide whether we’ll publish independently, or sign on with a publisher (we’ll only go with one who can share the same vision of making this game with integrity…. we REALLY don’t want to go with a pay-to-win model or any crap like that)

Me: A lot of us in the blog world are speculating on whether the MMO genre in general is contracting. Some have suggested that its widespread popularity was just a “fad.” Is that something you worry about as an indie developer? Or are you simply happy to be able to do a job you love? :P
GL: personally, I’m just happy making games
GL: as a company, we’re trying to present something different, and if it works, all the better
GL: if not, we gave it our best
GL: so far though, we’ve been having very positive feedback and reviews, so we’re optimistic

Me: Are there multiple instances of the hub world? If so, how many people can there generally be?
GL: Instances are private for now, for solo and groups of up to 5
GL: we plan to have publick instances for a lot more players later on (we were limited by the endgine before, but now we can make it)
Me: I mean The Refuge [ed: the first main area].
Me: I see a bunch of people running around, but I imagine there is some kind of cap, right?
GL: We havent’ reached (broken) it yet, and have gone up to 600 PCU so far
Me: haha
Me: I’m pretty sure that’s more than I’ve seen in WoW ;)
GL: Really…? Lucky us! :D

Me: I noticed the Mount slot… this is a vague question, but how big of a world will CoS be at launch?
GL: Pretty darn big; Nexus, the City of Steam, it a massive metropolis
GL: there will be enough places to explore to keep people very busy ;)
GL: right now, Alpha has about 150 difference levels
GL: at launch, we plan to have more like something in the upper hundreds, maybe a thousand or so, with more added with future updates
GL: might not be open world, but it will have plenty of flavour
Me: have you settled on a max level yet?
GL: 30 for Alpha, 40 for Beta, and from there, beyond :) (once higher level content is added)
Me: For my audience (such as it is), I have to ask: will there be a Looking-For-Group feature to facilitate grouping for the 5-player content?
GL: We plan to, given engine limitations on whether we can pull it off, but yes, is planned :)

Assuming you are still with me at this point, you might be wondering why I am devoting all this space to a browser-based indie MMO in its alpha state. The answer is quite simple: this may be the future of the genre.

Perhaps not City of Steam specifically, but here is an indie developer doing its best to craft an MMO on a shoestring budget in a world of AAA companies getting 38 Studio’d. And what is impressing me here is that the “nightmare scenarios” we tell ourselves in the blog world might not actually be that bleak. I no longer feel that it has to be $50+ million budgets or bust. Whether it is City of Steam or another indie offering, I am now convinced the possibility exists.

The ACTUAL Secret World Review Score

Tobold picked up the story about how Funcom stocks tanked after The Secret World failed to hit arbitrary Metacritic scores. While the post is centered on the legitimacy of review scores to begin with and/or the aggregation thereof, the more salient point was acknowledge but left unexamined.

Let us not bury the actual lede here (emphasis added):

Case in point: The Secret World. It got a “low” metacritic score of 72, causing Funcom’s shares to tank, and the company to announce layoffs. But the metacritic score was just an average of some people absolutely loving the game, and others not being impressed with the unusual setting, progression system, or pure technical performance. The relevant number for a subscription MMORPG is obviously the number of subscribers and the time it manages to hold onto them, not the review score.

So… what are The Secret World subscription numbers? My guess: not good.

Companies are always pretty eager to belt off “250k/500k/1 million subs!” press releases, and as of the time of writing, Funcom has… well, not said much of anything. The launch day press release awkwardly mentions:

“[…] as of now several of the game’s dimensions – which can hold tens of thousands of gamers playing at the same time – have started filling up due to the ever-increasing number of players coming into the game.”

I cannot help but note that “several tens of thousands” is not, say, 100,000. I am not even sure if I can fault Funcom for their hesitant confusion here, as it mentions that over 1.5 million people signed up for the TSW beta. I am no MMO economist, but I imagine a less-than 7% sale rate from people willing to sign up for a beta for your game is a mite unusual.

Then again, isn’t that near the approximate rate of people who buy stuff in F2P games?

But let us dig deeper. According to VGChartz.com, TSW has sold… 0.05m copies. Um, wow. I only recently started using VGChartz though, so maybe they are not all that reliable. How often is it actually updated, anyway?

Oh. That often, eh?

I dunno, those look legitimate to me. “Nearly 50,000 players worldwide!” is not exactly the sort of MMO (or any game, for that matter) press release that would garner positive attention.

[Edit] As pointed out in the comments, VGChartz almost assuredly only counts physical box sales. The page for Diablo 3, for instance, indicates only 2.6 million sales whereas Blizzard has said 10 million. While good to know for future reference, it is not entirely germane to the point at hand, e.g. Funcom hasn’t belted off a 250k or even 100k subscriber press release. [/Edit]

But at this point, I am almost more interested in what Funcom themselves expected. You can read the press release everyone is quoting for the wrong reasons (e.g. “Metacritic is the devil”) here. Or, you know, let me do all the fun stuff for you (emphasis added):

Funcom has on several occasions presented two financial scenarios for the first 12 months following launch of the game; please refer to page 17 in the 1Q 2012 presentation *). Funcom does not consider it likely that either of them will be met.

To improve sales going forward, Funcom is currently enhancing distribution by launching the game on the Steam platform as well as focusing on key areas for improvement of the game and on-going activities on content updates, sales initiatives and communication. The effect of all these initiatives together with other factors impacting sales are difficult to predict, but based on the available early data, one scenario is that sales for the first 12 months following launch will be less than half of what was presented in the “Conan-like” scenario. It should be noted that the sales amount in the “Conan-like” scenario is significantly higher than for the game “Age of Conan”, due to the assumption of better retention implemented in the scenario. Also it should be noted that the company has significantly lower operational cost for The Secret World than what was the case for Age of Conan. As less initial sales than expected is considered an indicator of impairment, the company is currently evaluating the need for recognizing an impairment loss for the game in the profit and loss statement.

Oh how very meta of them! In order to solve this riddle, I have to navigate to a 3rd party website, download a PDF, and then open their 1Q 2012 presentation to page 17.

And the answer is…

01000010 01100101 01110100 01110111 01100101 01100101 01101110 00100000 00110010 00111000 00110000 01101011 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 00110100 00111001 00110000 01101011

*cough* Sorry.

I’m assuming posting this screenshot is not illegal.

In other words, Funcom anticipated The Secret World getting between 280k and 490k subscribers. That means the “one scenario” mentioned in the press release refers to 140k subscribers… after 12 months. Technically they are referring to sales, but at this point moving even 525,000 boxes seems a tad aggressive; it is “only” a ten-fold increase in sales since launch.

None of this is to suggest that The Secret World is a bad game – lord knows my blogroll is filled with positive posts from across the spectrum. Personally, I never had much interest in the game primarily because the most lauded feature, Investigative quests, represents what I consider to be bad game design elsewhere: the necessity to look up outside information. Morse Code headlights? Fuck that, I’m an American. If your quest items don’t have a giant, deep-fried corndog floating over them, I’ll Alt-Tab my way into a whole different game entirely. Adventure games like Myst have their place (uninstalled in my Steam library), but I am typically more interested in performance-based games than puzzle ones. The former tend to last longer and feature more granularity in its progression.

But, hey, 50,000 people can’t be wrong.

P.S. One of the more surprising things I stumbled across in the Q1 Report was the fact that Age of Conan is apparently still profitable and will continue to be into the foreseeable future. At least, that is what I assume “cash flow positive” translates into. The bad news is that Funcom themselves appear to be hemorrhaging money, even before taking into account TSW lead-up to release.

Where Are All the Bodies?

WoW subscriber losses since Q1 2011: 2,900,000.
SWTOR subscriber losses since Q1 2012: ~700,001.
Aion subscriber losses since 2011: ~600,000¹.
RIFT subscriber losses since 2011: 350,000¹.
LoTRO subscriber losses since 2011: 300,000¹.
EVE subscriber losses since Q2 2011: ~20,000¹.

Where are all the bodies?

Talk about fiscal cliffs…

It is seductively easy to imagine the MMO landscape as a zero-sum, closed universe. One developer’s bone-headed design mistake is another MMO’s gain. “Guild Wars 2 is going to nail the coffin shut on SWTOR/steal another million from WoW.” But it is fact that there are less people playing “traditional” MMOs today than there were in mid-2009. And there were fewer game options back then!

The graph up there is somewhat misleading in two ways. It does not represent the entire MMO market (browser-based games, etc), so it is entirely possible that in the journalistic sense the “MMO” market is doing perfectly fine. But it is misleading in the other direction too: do you really care how Second Life and Dofus and Asian MMOs are doing? There are a lot of games you will never play and/or people you cannot possibly play with that are propping up those numbers. The Truth™ is liable to paint a much bleaker picture.

I think we may need to start entertaining the notion that the entire genre – as we know it – has peaked. Not just the hot topic of F2P vs Subs, but the whole damn shebang. Classical arguments like “WoW lost subs because grinds/attunements/etc are good” become embarrassingly moot (if they were not already). Where are the bodies?

Whoever is leaving does not appear to be coming back for a second date, or even meeting new people; they have simply vanished back into the ether. Speculation on the whys seems moot as well, because there is zero indication the ex-pats transition anywhere else. Rather than go to the alternative MMOs that offer grinding/feature no grinding, they simply go away.

On a tangentially related subject, yesterday was my one-year WoW anti-anniversary:

A year ago yesterday I was doing Firelands dailies.

So… we have located at least one body. A body with an extra $179.88 in its pocket at that.

Where are the rest?

¹ Based on eyeballing this chart, which hasn’t been updated in a while.

What Could Mass Effect Online Look Like?

[Spoiler-Free Zone!]

In the last three days I have spent probably around 8-10 hours playing ME3’s multiplayer. My conclusion? Bioware might be onto something.

At its core, the ME3 multiplayer consists of ~11 rounds of 4-player co-op, Horde-style survival across six maps taken from the single-player game itself. Every third wave is what I’d call a “cash round,” in which you get a specific objective: King of the Hill, Kill 4 specific mobs, or Activate 4 Nodes. Completing those cash rounds successfully earns you credits whereas all the other rounds awards XP. During the final extraction wave, you have to be in the evac area by the end of the mission timer in order to get the highest point score bonus (e.g. XP).

The first thing I would say is this: the multiplayer is fun. It probably goes without saying, but if you enjoy the combat in any of the three Mass Effect games, you will enjoy it here too. You shoot from cover, you gain XP, level up, decide which weapons/mods to outfit your character with and so on.

Other bloggers have mentioned the similarities between the gear situation and Magic: the Gathering… and it’s true. There are three tiers of gear packs – 5k, 20k, and 60k credits – and each pack has 5 random “cards” that represent either one-use consumables (Medi-gel, extra ammo, missile launcher), new weapons (or upgrades to already found weapons), weapon mods, new races for a class, or class XP (which raises the baseline level of new characters of that class). The mid-line Veteran Pack comes with 1 Uncommon item or better, while the Spectre Pack has a guaranteed Rare “or better” (whatever that means).

I am not a huge fan of companies putting literal gambling in even their F2P offerings, mainly based on my Magic Online experience. I played the physical form of M:tG for nearly a decade already, but after a particularly bad night of Magic Online wherein I realized I paid $60+ on a series of Booster Drafts, I deleted the game off my hard-drive and went and bought WoW the next day.¹

That got me thinking though… how different is that really from random loot in MMOs? Could, in fact, Bioware turn Mass Effect into an MMO without much effort at all?

Most of the set pieces are already in place.

Classes/Talents/Abilities

Check, check, and check.

Originally, I found the ME2 pivot towards Biotic/Tech power spam (6 second cooldown Biotic Charge, what?) to be disconcerting. I suppose it doesn’t make any less sense than Omni-Tools materializing out of thin air or the titular mass effect, erm, effect in general. By the time I was halfway through ME3, the dynamism of power use was a core part of the entertaining gameplay.

You could even go so far as to imagine the Trinity system existing within the game realm, without too much of a stretch. Unlike Star Wars, it seems intuitively viable to heal people with Tech (Medi-Gel) or even Biotics, or perhaps simply refreshing their shielding with either. Or we could (perhaps preferably) see them go the purported Guild Wars 2 route and have shared role responsibilities – anyone can rez any downed member in the ME3 multiplayer, for example.

Races/Setting/Enemies

Mass Effect has them all in spades.

There are six races in multiplayer already, all with their own sort of racial-esque abilities, motivations, politics; we can imagine Batarians, Geth, Vorcha, or even Protheans being added to that count. I am not a fan of two-faction systems, so I would be overjoyed to see a situation wherein there are no “red vs blue” factions period, but rather players fighting for specific (mercenary?) movements of their choice. Did you choose Krogan and your friend choose Geth? No problem!

Indeed, without spoiling anything, the time period following the events of ME3 would be perfect, perfect for this kind of integrated gameplay. As Mass Effect players, we are already used to mission-based activities spread throughout the galaxy, taking orders from quest-givers, and so on and so forth. Expansions could come in the form of dormant² Relays or new star systems being discovered without breaking any suspension of disbelief.

As far as enemies go, while the main three – Geth, Cerberus, Reapers – have been… explored to various degrees, again, the time period following ME3 will undoubtedly be a fairly chaotic place. And remember, we got along perfectly fine in ME1 without having the geth be the only bad guys. There is no reason why pockets of resistance couldn’t spring up, pirates, mercenary groups, terrorist cells, or even the Salarian STG (or Spectres!) could decide they need to achieve X or Y goal, in opposition to your orders.

Shepard made galactic peace possible. It is up to us to maintain it.©

Itemization/Rewards/Crafting

Whether Bioware makes itemization deeper or keeps it fairly level, the fact is that it already exists. Shepard can wear 6-7 different helmets with different stats, independent of what kind of leg armor he/she has. “Tier sets” exist. There are dozens of different guns, upgrades, and weapon mods. It has been established that new item technologies can be researched and produced, all in the same universe in which “Fabrication Rights Management (FRM)” technology can keep certain items unique (e.g. effectively soulbound).

Now, I have a hard time imagining that chasing +5 Flaming Shotgun M-23 Katana V upgrades would sustain any sort of ME:O endgame the same way fantasy MMOs can get away with it. But sort of assumes there is necessarily an endgame gear grind at all. Which leads me to…

MMO Structure/Themepark vs Sandbox

I am going to suggest Synthesis here.

Is it possible to have a sandbox in the themepark? I have no idea. But as I was glancing at the Galaxy At War map, I could not help but notice how the southern portions were labeled as Earth Systems Alliance Space, Inner Council Space, Outer Council Space. Meanwhile the northern portions were the Attican Traverse and the Terminus Systems. So… perhaps Terminus = nul-sec? Hell, we can already imagine fighting over bases, planets, and star systems in the Mass Effect universe right? Meanwhile, the people who want missions from High Command can get them while following a proto-typical MMO/ME storyline.

It does occur to me that, in many ways, SWTOR has already laid claim to this particular niche. Voice acting, the dialog wheel, everyone having their own spaceship, and so on. But I believe, in retrospect, that Mass Effect Online would have been a much better fit; with SWTOR, too many mechanics were shoehorned into the MMO mold. The odds of Bioware eating up their own market-share with such a thematically similar product is basically zero, of course.

Something is going to happen with the franchise, though, and I can’t wait to see what that is.

P.S. Apparently Massively beat me to the punch by a day.

P.P.S. Then there is this.

¹ My entire opposition to MMOs up to that point had been “I refuse to keep paying for a game I already bought.” That $60 lasted me about 3 hours in Magic Online, but would have been four months in WoW.

² Shh… it could happen.