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On Sidequests

Syp over at Biobreak recently suggested a bold move: killing the MMO sidequest.

While I can certainly defend main story quests — such as zone/planet-wide chains or a personal story arc that goes through most of the game — side missions lack positive qualities that make them desirable. Let’s call them for what they really are: busy work. Side quests are small tasks that offer no real story, no significant reward, and only serve to pad out your quest log and allow dev teams to be able to boast ridiculously high quest tallies for patches and expansions (“200 new quests! Of which only 15 are memorable in any way!”).

[…]

Let’s think about it. If your favorite MMO one day yanked all of its side quests, leaving only factional, zone, dungeon, and overarching story arcs intact, would it really suffer for it? Would you bemoan their loss? Players are forever asking to be able to just play through the main storylines without all of these diversions down rabbit trails, so why not give it to them? Just increase XP for the main quests and work on providing other forms of much more meaningful content that can serve as a focus for players’ time.

Following the post, there were a dozen or so commenters who were in favor of the proposal. Which got me thinking… are they on to something?

Not really.

Sidequests are vitally important to any MMO, or single-player RPG for that matter. Or, at least, they should be. See, one of the primary purposes of sidequests is pacing. Which is absolutely different from filler. Filler is the pointless busywork that a designer adds to pad the game’s playtime. I am all for the death of filler, which is bad pretty much by definition.

Pacing, meanwhile, is all about enhancing the main story. How do you enhance a story? By fleshing it out. Giving context to its development. Allowing breathing room in which to digest the latest narrative bombshell. Bringing the world in which the story exists to life.

For example, Lord of the Rings is a 1178-page story about [spoiler alert] destroying a magic ring. Frodo’s travails towards and around Mount Doom are the Main Story Quest (MSQ). Hell, I’ll even concede that all that business with Aragorn and Helm’s Deep and the throne of Gondor and all of those pitched battles are a part of that same MSQ, despite them being a literal distraction so that Frodo could complete the only quest that actually mattered.

Having said that, the reason why we care about Frodo destroying the ring in the first place is because of the rest of it. We care about the supporting characters, we care about the Shire, we care about the world in which these people inhabit. MSQs are good at driving action forward, but they are terrible at world-building. That is sort of by design: there is an expectation that details included in a MSQ will be relevant to the future of the MSQ, Chekhov Gun-style. You cannot have the MSQ examine the life of an average farmer toiling under the weight of an oppressive regime without expecting said farmer eventually being executed/liberated in a later chapter.

Sidequests are the mechanism by which imaginary worlds are built. Bad, filler sidequests do not tell you anything about the world other than its inability to kill ten rats. Good sidequests create minor characters and story hooks and introduce you to the world which you are trying to save… even if you are still killing ten rats to do so. The MSQ asks you to save the world, and sidequests tell you why.

Then there are the mechanical, game design aspects of sidequests. In an MMO, there is often considerably more physical world built than strictly necessary to drive the MSQ forward. Indeed, a MSQ that somehow forced you to explore every inch of every zone in sequence would feel forced and arbitrary (see: FF14). Sidequests, meanwhile, provide optional incentives to explore all four corners of the map, to face different enemy types in different areas, and so on. Well, “optional” unless the XP from sidequests are required in order to level up enough to fight in the next zone. However, again, that would be an example of bad sidequests.

About two months ago, I was less bullish on sidequests than this post. At the time, I was playing FF14, which is exceptionally bad in the boring, vapid sidequest department. In fact, FF14 is exceptionally bad in the MSQ department, with nearly everyone stating that the story really starts getting good… once you reach the original endgame. In the meantime, I suppose I’m just expected to endure these pointless, trivial tasks like flying around to the various capitals and deliver letters?

On the other hand, I have also been playing Mass Effect: Andromeda. While not as good as the original trilogy, Andromeda absolutely has engaged me in even the most repetitive of sidequests. Why? Because I like it there. I like the world Bioware has created, I like the characters and the amusing banter they get involved in. I could listen to Peebee and Drack talk about shit all day. In fact, I have, inbetween sidequests to scan minerals and other “busy work.” Work that required me to explore every corner of each planet and have an “excuse” to engage in one of the best iterations of a Mass Effect combat system yet.

If you do not care about the game world, or do not care for the combat system, then yes, there isn’t much distinguishing legit sidequests from filler. But in a well-crafted game, the sidequests shouldn’t be mandatory to begin with. In which case, there isn’t a reason to kill them; just ignore them and move on with the story.

CAN there be another MMO success?

While Syncaine laments that the MMO genre hasn’t gone anywhere in 12 years, I was left pondering a different question: can the MMO genre go anywhere? Can there be another breakout success?

I would suggest the question is less straightforward than it might seem, for a few reasons.

The first reason is due to the nature of the genre itself. Even if you are a super-fan of Half-Life 2 and believe it to be the best game ever invented… you still likely bought and paid for other FPS titles in the past 12 years. The same is not necessarily true of MMOs. I’d wager that most people that stick with the MMO genre long-term generally find one game and settle in. And why wouldn’t you? Someone would move on from Half-Life 2 because eventually you would run out of content to explore. That is much less likely in MMOs, because they are updated regularly, expansions are released, other players generate content, and so on.

The above generates the curious (and fairly unique) phenomenon that a lot of MMO players – possibly even a majority – are still actually playing the most influential MMOs (Ultima Online 1997; EverQuest 1999; EVE Online 2003; Second Life 2003; World of Warcraft 2004). If the market for FPS titles is 40 million people, each new FPS has 40 million potential customers. Meanwhile, the market for MMOs is X – Y, where Y is the number of people currently satisfied with their present virtual home.

The second issue is one of definitions. While it might not seem so at first, “MMO” as traditionally defined is rather restrictive. For example, most people would suggest that Crowfall is a MMO, despite its “persistent” worlds having an expiration date. That sounds more like a long-lasting lobby to me. But why is Crowfall an MMO and Destiny not? Or PlanetSide 2, which is arguably more persistent than either? A game like Fallout 3 can be said to move both the FPS and RPG genres forward in specific ways, but MMO-ish games often fall outside the standard MMO purview, thus limiting potential genre-changing titles. In other words, experimental MMOs can innovate themselves right out of the genre.

Third, a given game can only really be considered influential if it, or its derivatives, are a success. Consider the glaring omission from the Top 50 list: Star Wars Galaxies. I would have thought that with the amount of name-drops SWG receives in just about every MMO dev design sheet, it would be a shoo-in contender for sure. But if you think about it, not only has SWG shut down, but I don’t even know if any other game claiming its mantle has survived or even been released yet. Anyone know of any? Regardless, this means a given game must both shake up the genre and be successful in a general sense to count – just the first is not enough. Which leads me to the next point.

Fourth, not to be alarmist or anything, but… I’m pretty sure the MMO genre as we know it has peaked. As recently as 3-4 years ago, over half the MMO market was just WoW, and WoW has lost half of said playerbase since then, and is still top dog by a factor of 3-4, minimum. Where did all the bodies go? Not to other MMOs, for sure.

This leads me to the question in the title: CAN there by another MMO success? FF14 has come the closest, but is there anyone out there that seriously believes we will see a second WoW-like coming ever again? I personally doubt it. There was always an element of “right time, right place” to WoW’s meteoric rise, and not only has that time passed, but there is pressure coming in from other genres co-opting the traditional MMO strengths, in the same way we see “RPG elements” everywhere today.

So, basically, I do not see that list of late 90s/early 00s-only influential titles as a deficiency of development testicular fortitude, but rather a simple systemic and semantic issue. Other genres can take greater risks because they need only make one sale, not twelve per year in a F2P environment, while also maintaining a healthy population. Even if smaller MMOs were released and did innovate, chances are they remain too small to be “Massive” or just shut down after a few years and thus no longer be influential.

It is lose-lose-lose for everyone, but there it is.

Doom Averted (?)

About two weeks ago, I warned that the financial numbers weren’t looking too hot for Wildstar. Today’s news is that Wildstar is going Free-to-Play. This Fall. Which I’m assuming means that NCSoft is going to give Carbine a chance to bail the submerged vessel out a bit longer before pulling the plug, to mix metaphors.

I would say I am not particularly optimistic that Wildstar will get a second life from the F2P transition, but now that I think about it, MMOs shutting down is more rare than you think. TERA is still around. People are still playing RIFT. Hell, you can go download Age of Conan off of Steam right now, and when was the last time you even heard of that game? The City of Heroes episode sort of underlines NCSoft’s view on profitability, but the status quo seems to heavily lean towards zombie MMOs.

As for me, I shan’t be returning to Nexus. I have read about the inroads the devs (those who remain anyway) have made in terms of smoothing out the hardcore cupcake edges, and that’s great. Unfortunately, I had a much more fundamental problem with the game, as described a year ago:

And that’s when I realized that I don’t really like my Medic. Not just healing, which is a total clusterfuck, but… all of it. I enjoy the concept of the class, and even the sort of niche it occupies as an AoE healer. But guys, there is a profound sense of deadening when you realize how utterly shallow the combat system is. I get why Carbine did things this way – the only way the bullet-hell gameplay works is by reducing everything down to 5 buttons – but it puts enormous pressure on those few abilities to be fun to press. This isn’t like WoW where you can go Arcane or Frost if you dislike the Fire rotation. Every (DPS) class is basically a Ret paladin. Enjoy.

There are a lot of things you can dislike about an MMO and still play anyway. You know, raiding instead of PvP, or vice versa. When you don’t like pushing the buttons though… well, you’re going to be doing that quite a bit. Or not, in my case.

Good luck, Wildstar. Something tells me you’re going to need it.

Tautology of Value

Keen has a post up on the nature of F2P that, at first blush, reads as a truism. Namely, that one should be suspicious of any F2P title – after all, if the developers thought it were a valuable product, they would be pricing it accordingly.

Why do we have to pretend games are free or better yet that they have to be free in order for people to want to play them? MMO gamers are capable of identifying whether a product is worth being paid for or not. A good product will sell. A poor one will not.

This prescriptive sentiment has always bugged me. In one of the comments someone else asserts:

A great product will sell itself.

These all read as tautologies to me. How do you know if a game is great? It sells itself. And games that sell themselves are great, by definition.

…except we all have examples of underrated masterpieces, and garbage that sells millions of copies every year. Unless we are ready to admit that Star Wars Galaxies was terrible and Candy Crush Saga is one of the best videogames of all time, we need to decouple a game’s quality from its sales performance. There is correlation on a good day, but just as often there is not.

Similarly, the trend towards F2P is not necessarily one of naked greed and cynicism. I will be the first to admit that I prefer the antiquated “buy the box” or subscription models, as I believe it properly aligns developer incentives (i.e. make better content vs more cash shop items). But in 2015, there is one reality every developer must face:

1) F2P competition exists.

If you are all set to release a subscription-based MOBA in an environment where League of Legends still exists, you are going to have a bad time. The same is true for subscription-based MMOs these days. It is easy to claim that Wildstar (etc) failed not because of the subscription model, but because it wasn’t good enough to justify a subscription model. But that still sounds tautological to me. “If the game was good, it would not have failed.” Or to shorten it: “If it were good, it would not be bad.”

In the present MMO environment, it isn’t enough to simply be good – one has to be as good or better than all the alternatives, many of which are F2P. This is especially salient in MMOs considering the social dynamics are pretty much the only reason why you would continue playing the game. We can imagine a scenario in which the perfect (to you) MMO is released… but it ends up as a ghost town, and subsequently loses most (or all) of its value.

Which makes this part of Keen’s post a little ridiculous:

Charging for a game is absolutely acceptable, and it won’t dissuade people from playing.

Of course charging a subscription or box price will dissuade people from playing, else lowering prices would not generate any increased sales. Obviously there are people out there willing to purchase $60 titles on Day 1; what is less obvious is whether there are enough. Unless you are willing to settle for Minecraft, most MMOs are released with $60+ million price-tags which need to be recouped by volume. Populations in the 100,000 range simply can’t cut it anymore, nevermind the negative social effects of low server concurrency. It is quite a pickle that you place MMO developers in when they either need to craft a more valuable product than WoW (etc) or go with an extremely low-budget project… which will still be called a failure anyway due to low sales volume. “A good product sells,” remember?

Overall, I do think the warning vis-a-vis F2P games is sound – there is no payment model better suited to erode consumer surplus than F2P. And there are certainly a million and one examples of very bad, very cynical F2P cash-grabs. But I do not agree that good games necessarily sell (or sell themselves), I do not agree that sales is necessarily an indicator of quality at all, and I would suggest that developers have many perfectly valid reasons to “give their product away” even if they could have charged for it. In fact, they very well may have to these days, just to get enough warm bodies in the door to achieve the social critical mass that MMOs require.

Impression: Firefall

When we last left Firefall, it was in the beta and I was labeling it “Firefail” in a moment of supreme cleverness. Basically, an early tutorial quest that required me to pick up a handgun wouldn’t complete, and a later re-attempt at playing the beta found me unable to download the final 0.04 MB of the file.

This time around, everything worked and I have spent ~13 hours across last week getting a feel for the game.

Booty Shorts are the future.

Booty Shorts are the future.

Firefall is a F2P 3rd-person shooter MMO, vaguely reminiscent of Mass Effect + Borderlands. You play as an ARES pilot, a sort of mercenary with the ability to swap in and out of battleframes, which are themselves the equivalent of classes. Different battleframes have different abilities and primary weapons, and each battleframe levels up independently of each other. At certain levels, you unlock Perks which can (usually) then be applied to your character no matter the battleframe you are wearing.

There are story quests of sorts you can follow in Firefall, although the main thrust of the game has more to do with random, open-world questing than normal MMOs. For example, a 15-minute story quest and a 2-minute quest to repair a generic Thumper generally give the same amount of XP.

The open-world part of questing is emphasized by the literal open-world: aside from needing to click on towers to push back the “Melding” – and the level-based mobs, a huge change from the early beta – you can generally run anywhere. And the world is absolutely HUGE in this game. Huge and vertical, even. Considering every battleframe has a jetpack (of differing quality), this lends itself quite nicely to exploring.

One of the better Glider jumps I've encountered.

One of the better Glider jumps I’ve encountered.

As always, there are downsides. Although the world is huge, it also feels relatively empty. Part of this is literal emptiness, but part of this also comes from the vast distances between quests and the cash shop-based restrictions to moving around. For example, you can purchase a cash shop vehicle right away, or wait until level 25 to get one with a cooldown. Technically you can craft 1-time use transportation solutions (Gliders) too, but it’s generally easier to just turn on auto-run inbetween waypoints as you browse Reddit on your phone.

I like how you have one character that swaps battleframes rather than a stable of alts, but in practice everything ends up feeling more restrictive than less. If you’re playing Assault, I hope you enjoy your grenade launcher primary, because that’s the same weapon you’ll be using forever. If you swap to Engineer for a change of pace after 12 levels, suddenly you’re going to need to hoof it back to the starting zone and kill level 2 mobs again, assuming you even have low-level weapons to use. Since the story missions aren’t particularly rewarding, the end result is you repairing Thumpers 200 times just to get back to where you were in the first place.

CardioFall

CardioFall

The shooty bits are fun for fans of shooty bits, but… it’s hard to describe, but there’s some essential element missing. “Substance” is the best word I can use to describe it – you feel like you are shooting at ghosts all the time. There is technically collision, mind you, it’s just that the enemies never feel like they belong anywhere or behave particularly rationally. On some of the random missions you will walk into a room that is filled with 30+ enemies and get mowed down without understanding why the room had 30+ dudes in it. Was it intentional? A bug? Was it actually a hidden group quest? I actually survived that cave, but mainly by abusing the poor AI rather than any sort of fancy shooting on my part.

Overall, I don’t anticipate playing Firefall for much longer. The game is F2P and it does seem like you could get a lot of gameplay in legitimately without feeling too much like a 2nd-rate citizen. Hitting level 40 (the cap) supposedly gives you the ability to purchase one of the 10 cash shop classes, although you can technically get them off the AH for in-game currency as well. That said, it’s hard to imagine hitting the cap and playing the same routine missions again and again, this time with a different primary gun.

So… Firefall. Certainly not the worst F2P game I have ever played, but there are better options.

MMO vs Co-Op

I was browsing the official Wildstar forums yesterday, and came across a(nother) thread on the building toxicity of the game’s LFG tool in Veteran (e.g. heroic) Dungeons. Anyone who has ever played WoW for more than a hot minute could point out the problem with the bizarre, and frankly naive, design decision Carbine has settled on: beginning Cataclysm-era coordinated difficulty combined with Gold Medal or Bust reward structures. I mean, what kind of intelligent person says “If any of this group of five cross-realm strangers dies, they get no epics even if they eventually succeed” and believes that is a good idea?

By the way, do you remember back in WoW when you could kick someone before the last boss dropped its loot? Yeah, Wildstar allows that. If you queue into a 3-man guild unit, you will only receive a chance to roll on gear on their mercy. TBC BRILLIANCE, HO!

Anyway, the typical Apologist refrain is “just don’t PUG veteran dungeons.” Hard to argue with that. Until now:

And you see thats a sad part …..why play an mmo if your only playing with certain people to get things done? your in an mmo ffs, why not try and actually get things done with random people you don’t know? thats sort of defeating the purpose OF being an mmo and not just a coop game =/

I don’t know about you, but this (poorly punctuated) post turned nearly everything I just blithely accepted as given in MMOs on its head.

People criticize solo-friendly designs – “You’re taking the Massively Multiplayer out of MMO!” – and yet not much forum-space has been given to the notion that being sequestered in your guild of friends/acquaintances isn’t very MMO-ish either. What’s so Massively Multiplayer about your even 40m (or typically much less) raiding guild? Does it even matter that there are other players running around outside of your guild tag?

Seems to me that when you zoom out a bit, there just isn’t a whole lot of difference between the srsbsn guild member and solipsistic solo player – everything outside of the circle is just background radiation.

H1Z1-fit

As you may or may not have heard, SOE is coming out with a zombie apocalypse MMO called DayZ Online H1Z1. This was, in fact, what Smedley was talking about vis-a-vis the MMO that SWG veterans “could come home to.” Because… crafting? Whatever.

By the way, I’m with Syp on pronouncing H1Z1 as “hizzy.” Because just with the Xbone before it, these companies need to take a little more thought with how they name their products.

The details of the game are sketchy. Not in the ambiguous sense, but rather in the “there’s no possible way that will work” sense. Right off the top, this is a F2P full-loot FFA PvP game. In fact, the Tweets (sigh) are suggesting that the current design is permadeath, but I have a hard time imagining rerolling an entirely new character each time. I mean, if your character’s facial features and other customizations are somehow saved, is that really permadeath? Another feature is player housing that exists in the world, and people can set it on fire, presumably even while you are offline. That sounds totally reasonable, amirite? There will also be “trading,” which I understand as a euphemism for looting things off the corpses of traders. There are also no levels, which combined with the F2P aspect, seems to indicate the potential for an infinite firebombing army to reduce all player-owned structures to cinder at 4am.

Now, conceivably, these are solvable problems. Smedley has mentioned the existence of different server types, some of which will likely be PvZ-only. Some might even offer player housing protection on by default ala Minecraft. I have little doubt that we’ll also see housing immunity (or at least insurance) for 2000 Station Cash. The question mark is whether they’ll sell items directly, which could become problematic with a full-loot PvP system. “Hah, I totally ganked that dude and stole his $10 golden revolver.” [Fake edit: you keep your customization]

As a PS2 player, I wouldn't put this past them.

As a PlanetSide 2 player, I wouldn’t put this past them.

Speaking of monetization, Smedley has a Reddit thread up right now asking for ideas. No, seriously, he does. Currently, he seems pretty adamant that A) they will not be selling weapons at all, and B) they have a “preference” to not selling anything that helps with survival. Everything else is conceivably on the table… other than just asking for a goddamn subscription or box purchase. Many of the ideas so far revolve around pets, animations, clothing, and in-game advertisements ala Battlefield 2142. To his credit, Smedley shot down that last one, although ironically that would be something that made complete sense in the context of the game.

As far as the map size goes, well, here is Smedley:

I’ve seen a bunch of people asking questions about the Map size. Forgelight is built to handle arbitrarily sized worlds. Our plan is simple – we’re building the core of “anywhere USA”. When we first open it up to users the map will be huge, but nowhere near as big as it’s going to be in short order. Our Map Editing system allows us to quickly add massive areas. We want to make sure we clearly understand how the players are playing the game before we do that. On Planetside 2 we made a mistake by making multiple continents before we had a strong enough idea of what worked and what didn’t. This game is different. We’re doing it smarter. […]

So not to worry. Zombie Apocalypse isn’t going to be any fun if it’s like Disneyland on Spring Break and super crowded. We want remote.. haunting… being scared when you see someone. Your first instinct needs to be to hide. If there are 20 players in your view it’s not a very convincing Apocalypse :)

Ah. So… an MMO where actively avoiding other people is the only sane way to play. Hey, at least I already have a lot of practice doing just that.

This is the part of the post where I balance the negativity of the preceding paragraphs with some halfhearted praise. So… uh… well. I liked State of Decay? Using the PlanetSide 2 engine means they will have a quick development cycle, although it also means there won’t be any actual physics. The “play as a zombie” mode sounds like it could be fun. And… yeah. I feel kinda bad for The Forest guys, although maybe I shouldn’t – at least The Forest doesn’t feature full-loot PvP.

H1Z1 will be up on Steam’s Early Release program in 4-6 weeks for $20. Why are we paying money for the privledge of alpha-testing free-to-play games? Because fuck you, that’s why.

Review: The Witcher 2

Game: The Witcher 2
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~36 hours
Buy If You Like: The Witcher, atmospheric and political fantasy gobbledegook

The atmosphere is almost - almost - enough to carry the entire game.

The atmosphere is almost – almost – enough to carry the entire game.

The Witcher 2 (TW2) is a sequel to the original, fairly ground-breaking game following the travails of Geralt of Rivia. Geralt’s profession is a Witcher, a human who has mutated his own genes in order to more effectively fight the monsters that spontaneously appeared in the world many years ago. After the events in the original game, Geralt was playing bodyguard to a king only to see his charge assassinated in his presence and then framed for the crime. TW2 takes place immediately following those events, and the wider ramifications and intrigue surrounding a recent batch of regicide.

I am going to be completely honest here at the beginning by saying that I finished playing TW2 only grudgingly, and after several months-long breaks inbetween. The game features a decently robust journaling system that will allow you to read up on what you are supposed to be doing and the general lore of the entire game world, but the litany of nonsense fantasy pronouns and references to the original game events (and the books they are predicated on) is truly unending. While I am willing to admit that the breaks I took inbetween playing certainly contributed to my general confusion, I do not absolve the game from what I feel was a profound lack of engagement. “Why was I doing this again?” “So I’m fighting this guy, but it’s important I don’t kill him, because I want this valley to become independent, so that… err?”

One of the major strengths of the first Witcher was its creation of what felt like a distinctly authentic atmosphere. Most fantasy games have a sort of whitewashed, Disney quality to them at odds with the historical reality of peasantry who bathed infrequently, had access to few paved roads, and a general unconcern with hygiene. The Witcher felt dirty, gritty, and real. I am happy to report TW2 continues in that praise-worthy tradition. Hovels look like hovels, trolls like like trolls, and you can practically smell the NPCs through the screen. The casual race discrimination (in terms of humans vs nonhumans) and ease in which people’s lives are upended or destroyed feels correct in a way practically unique to the genre.

Layered on top of this “fantasy realism” are the most banal, discordant, gamey quests and mechanics that I’ve ever seen.

Good ole meta-humor.

Good ole meta-humor.

We are talking about completely shameless fetch quests, kill 20 monster quests, and boomerang quests that shatter any sense of immersion in the fictional world. In fact, by the end, I hated the game world for its perfectly realistic twisted pathways and obstacles, as I was forced to circumvent them dozens of times as I did quests A, B, and C in sequence. And can I talk about the map for a second here? Literally the worst, most useless map in any videogame I have ever played. Shit made no sense, and zooming out gives you a view of the overworld that had zero to do with anything given how you were actually trapped in small zones around the one main location of the Chapter.

The combat in the first Witcher was not particularly deep or complicated. Combat in TW2 has actually devolved to the point where I was feeling nostalgic for the timed button pressed of the original as a measure of skill. All you do here is left-click for a quick attack and right-click for a strong attack. You can block, cast a Sign, roll-Dodge, or use an item too, but combat never felt integrated into the game world at all. Maybe the devs were intentionally trying to ensure you didn’t feel like a badass playing as a Witcher. Well… mission accomplished.

By far the worst aspect of the game though (map aside), is the direction that they took potions. See, potions are an important part of the game’s fiction; Witchers mutate themselves almost solely so they can brew potions that let them regenerate health, have extra power, and so on. In the first game, you could drink potions at any time, but could only meditate (e.g. sleep off the toxic potion side-effects) at certain locations. Which was dumb. However, TW2 decided to let you meditate almost anywhere, but you must be meditating before you can drink a potion. When can you not meditate? In combat, near combat, or somewhere where combat is implied to be occurring. The issue is that your abilities are balanced around potion use but potions only last for 10 real-time minutes. So you spend the entire goddamn game quicksaving every 30-seconds because getting into combat without having potions up is suicide, but you can’t exactly be running around with potions up the whole time, especially when you are exploring.

Only in The Witcher series...

Only in The Witcher series…

I am belaboring the utter travesty of the combat system because I’m at a point in my life where this shit just doesn’t fly any more. I used to suffer through all kinds of JRPG combat systems for the fruit that was their (quirky) plots. You can’t really even say that TW2 would have been a better Adventure game though, because the physicality of fighting is important to understanding the world Geralt and friends inhabit. You can’t cut-scene every battle, after all.

Ultimately, I think what killed The Witcher 2 for me was the simple fact that the rest of the gaming world continued moving. Yeah, this is a game that came out in 2011, so a certain amount of slack should be given. But… I can’t. If you have played Skyrim, for example, coming into this game will be physically painful – you will chafe at not being able to hop off the wall where you want, not being able to attack when you want, not being able to go where you want, not being able to drink goddamn potions when you want. All of which is a real shame, because The Witcher 2 features a wide array of morally grey choices that actually change large portions of the game, rather than being “mere” emotional placebos.

But, you know what? I kinda want to have fun when I’m playing video games and The Witcher 2 offered me the opposite of that. I’m keeping an eye on The Witcher 3 because I enjoy the game world they have created and the choices you can make inside of it, but I am oh so wary. And oh so tired of poorly implemented game features/design.

Guild Wars 2 is Fastest Selling Western MMO

During my futile hunt for Hearthstone Beta keys (c’mon Press™, don’t fail me now), I stumbled upon this GameBreaker.tv article about Guild Wars 2 sales:

With over 3 million units sold in the first nine months of availability, Guild Wars 2 is the fastest selling MMO ever in the western market.

That’s no small feat right there. Riding a wave of acclaim and accolades, Guild Wars 2 has set a high bar for quality, and it has earned them a spot in MMORPG history according to an official ArenaNet press release. 3 million units sold in the game’s first nine months of availability puts it at the top of the record books in Europe and North America according to DFC Intelligence, a strategic market research and consulting firm focused on interactive entertainment.

Technically, it may have been 3 million by January 2013. Either way, this news was mildly intriguing, considering how distant from GW2’s actual release it came.

Still, it got me curious about some other numbers and figures. For example, here is an article from VG247 parsing the latest financials that indicate GW2 box sales are down. Which… shouldn’t exactly be surprising given that that is exactly what happens with any box game, right? Then there is the admittedly anecdotal Digital Dozen feature that NoizyGamer puts out every Tuesday, measuring the Xfire hours logged. The latest pretty much show a 50% decline from December, but it’s still roughly half that of WoW today, hour-wise. So, it is probably safe to say that the game’s population is doing alright and ArenaNet deserves the accolades for its legitimate record-breaking, even if the timing is a bit PR-ish.

I was trying to find numbers on how WoW did by comparison back in the day, but it turns out Blizzard doesn’t like giving out those numbers. The best I could find was this old article from 2009, which stated Blizzard sold 8.9 million retail boxes to date in the US alone. As point of reference, MMOData.net (thank god they’re back) shows that halfway through 2009 the Western numbers were steady at ~5.25 million subscribers. There is no way to know the breakdown between US vs Europe, or even whether the numbers are even intelligible given how it counts both box and expansion sales, but there it is.

Just for giggles though: the 2010 census states there were 205,794,364 Americans aged 18-64. A Pew article says 62% of American adults aged 18+ owned a desktop circa mid-2009. If we do a bit of rounding (a couple ten thousand) and assume that every desktop computer could run WoW (no possible way that’s remotely accurate), we have a pool of 127.6 million potential MMOers of which WoW reached… 6.98% of. Back in 2009.

Take away the people whose computers couldn’t handle WoW and then further reduce by those who have no interest in RPGs (let alone online ones) and then the people with PCs but no broadband and… well, you can start to see why market saturation is/was a legitimate concern.

Optional Difficulty

I am finding myself with conflicting opinions on optional difficulty.

On the one hand, options are good. The distribution of peoples’ skill levels is a gradient, and not usually well-served by binary distinctions. We can easily imagine someone not being challenged at Normal difficulty, but perhaps overwhelmed when the switch is flipped to Hard – doubling monster HP and the like is overkill when all the person needed was +50%.

On the other hand… I might have become a bit corrupted by years of extrinsic MMO rewards.

You see, I just finished playing A Valley Without Wind, which I found to be fairly easy overall. The game actually features one of the most generously granular difficulty options I have ever seen though: it features 5+ different difficulty settings in three independent categories. At any time, you can boost the platforming difficulty up a few notches while lowering the actual fighting bits, or raising the “city-building” aspect to maximum while all but removing everything else.

Despite feeling like the game was a bit easy, I did not change the difficulty at all. “Why would I? It’s not like I get any better items or anything.” Oh. Oh my.

To be fair (to myself), this attitude changes depending on the game. I played on the highest difficulty in Magic 2013, for example, and couldn’t imagine playing on anything lower. X-COM was completed on Normal Ironman, as I imagined that at least Ironman was the “intended” difficulty. And actually, that is my usual metric: what did the designers intend to be the “real” difficulty? “Whatever is appropriate to you” is not a real answer to the question, as most times the difficulty is “Base +/- 100%.” I want to know what the Base is, and judge from there.

Now, it is also possible this is a specific game issue, e.g. I just don’t care all that much about AVWW. I had no problem with turning on Hardcore mode in my second playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas, for example, and actually felt like it made the game more interesting/fun when you couldn’t carry around 1000+ rounds of every ammunition type. Conversely, I did not see how mobs having more HP in AVWW was going to improve the gaming experience at all – left-clicking a few more times while you continue kiting isn’t really more fun.

In any event, this scenario has given me a somewhat greater appreciation for the “forced” difficulty games out there… at least the ones that fall within my natural ability, of course. While I still believe it is better overall to tune a game to cover a wide range of personal abilities, I hate having to arbitrarily decide what is an appropriate challenge to me. I don’t want easy games, but I don’t necessarily want a more tedious experience either (i.e. everything takes longer to kill + you’re more likely to die). Just give me a challenging game and let me figure out how to beat it on my own, without tempting me to cheese it with metagaming.