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Why Aren’t You Playing Minecraft?

A lot of people are:

As noted in the Reddit thread where I first heard of this, the nigh-million concurrent players is only counting “PC (win/osx/linux) only, versions 1.3 and higher, modded or vanilla it doesn’t matter.” So not only is that number not even close to peak time, it does not count anyone playing on consoles or mobile devices. Or, you know, anyone playing offline.

For the record, as of June 2014 the sales broke down like this:

  • PC/Mac: 15 Million
  • 360: 12 Million
  • PS3: 3 Million
  • iOS/Android (Pocket Edition): 16.5 Million

It’s probably not a stretch to say Minecraft achieves concurrency numbers of 3 million or more any given day.

So the question I have to ask everyone – especially those constantly pining for “virtual worlds” – is why aren’t you playing Minecraft? Is this not everything you want in game? Crafting? Check. Small communities where name recognition matters? Check. No LFR/LFD? Check. Customization options? Check. Freedom to progress at your own pace? Check. A virtual world where things that matter happen around you? Check and check. And hey, it’s also a Buy-2-Play box model without a cash shop or other F2P shenanigans (as far as I know). If this isn’t a Jesus game, it’s at least a Moses.

I’m only being somewhat facetious here.

Minecraft isn’t for everyone (although it is for a lot of people), of course, but I always find it somewhat interesting in the reasons people give for why it isn’t good enough. Maybe there aren’t enough people per server? Maybe it’s the graphics? Or perhaps you are a little more attached to the traditional WoW content structure than you would have everyone else believe. After all, with the notable exception of Star Wars Galaxies and perhaps City of Heroes, many of the Jesus games are still around. Here is Dark Age of Camelot. Here is Ultima Online. Or if you prefer, Ultima Online Forever. EVE continues to be a thing. Hell, even EverQuest is still churning away. Is… there a reason you are not playing them instead of complaining about the “sorry state” of current MMOs?

I mean, I get it. A remade FF7 would be the ultimate exercise in nostalgerbation for me. There is no particular shame in saying you want an MMO to look like Wildstar but play like something that came out a decade (or more) ago. But I think it safe to say that it is a bit unrealistic. The original EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot had budgets around $3 million back in 1999 and 2001. By the time the original Guild Wars came out in 2005, that went up to $20-30 million. RIFT was $60-70 million. SWTOR was around $200 million. I don’t think you often get green-lit for budgets of that size for game-types that clearly weren’t profitable enough to save the original title (in the case of SWG/CoH).

Still, there may yet be hope for… well, if not for you, perhaps your kids. Minecraft is the third-best selling videogame of all time, behind Wii Sports and Tetris. Microsoft bought it for $2 billion. This type of game will very clearly continue to be serious business. Then again, I’m not entirely sure that (F2P?) copies of EQN: Landmark are flying off the digital shelf, nor that ArchAge is doing particularly well, nor that virtual world supporters are supporting (supposed) virtual worlds like The Repopulation.

Camelot Unchained got funded, although the release date appears to be mid-summer 2016. Star Citizen will also (maybe) come out in 2016, with it’s $68 million in crowdfunding. So there’s a horizon out there at least, even if the actual long-term profitability of virtual worlds remains to be seen.

In the meantime… you could always play Minecraft.

Sandbox Quests

Tobold made a post the other day that got me thinking about the more philosophical angle of the differences between themepark and sandbox games. In the post, Tobold relates the common DM nightmare of players striking off on their own, plundering the crypt/castle/ruins before technically getting the quest to do so. While one solution is the Warhammer-esque “Bears bears bears” method (retroactive credit), Tobold went with “All roads lead to Rome” where he simply moved the quest-giver to where the players were going. As I mentioned in the comments to his post, the latter is not particularly innovative; WoW has had the occasional mid-quest updates since Cataclysm, and GW2’s Hearts are all location-based and automatic rather than relying on quest-givers.

The thought that struck me though, was this: at what point does a sandbox become a themepark?

Take, for instance, Darkfall. I don’t think anyone would claim that Darkfall is anything other than a sandbox. But it also has what amounts to “quests” in any other game: Feats. I suppose these are more similar to achievements than quests per se, but they are basically “Do X, Receive Y” activities that drive player behavior. Would having Feats tied to NPCs in a town or camp change Darkfall into a themepark? I don’t see why they would.

It seems clear to me that the difference between sandboxes and themeparks are the difference between player-motivated actions and developer-motivated actions. Do what you want in Darkfall, do Siege of Orgrimmar/Timeless Isle/LDR/etc in WoW. But I am starting to think that that line is a bit fuzzier than it is typically portrayed. “Do what you want in Darkfall, but farming X over in Y is more rewarding than Z.” How different is that really than themeparks? And isn’t it possible for someone to treat a traditional themepark MMO as a sandbox?

So, now I’m thinking that the line between these two paradigms really comes down to developer attitude regarding content. If the developers feel that they have to create the content themselves, it’s a themepark; if the developers let players amuse themselves, it’s a sandbox. Am I missing something critical? I mean, player housing and non-instanced dungeons are prototypical sandbox qualities, but a Darkfall without either is still a sandbox, right? And clearly the line is not drawn at the mere existence of quests or directed player activity either.

Are these themepark/sandbox distinctions more arbitrary than we have been led to believe?

Review: Fallout: New Vegas

Game: Fallout: New Vegas
Recommended price: Full Price ($20)
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: 70+ hours
Buy If You Like: Fallout 3, Oblivion

The ever-important first vista shot.

The ever-important first vista shot.

When I played Fallout 3, it completely revolutionized the series to me. A storied veteran of the original Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics, the idea of a first-person non-grid-based combat game filled me with dread. Would it feel like Fallout? Why turn this series into a FPS?

By the end of the first hour, my fears (and free time) melted away in the vast furnace of Fallout 3’s immersive, brilliant post-apocalyptic world. I had already played games like Oblivion, but it was not until Fallout 3 that I truly appreciated the depths in Bethesda games; the ability to just strike out and roam. While it lacked the brilliant storytelling of the prior games, I felt it made up for it in all the unspoken narratives of the world around you. Suffice it to say, Fallout 3 remains in my top 5 games of all time.

This is not, of course, a Fallout 3 review.

Fallout: New Vegas is a noble attempt at having it both ways: the exploration and the narrative. You start not as a fresh-faced Vault Dweller, but as a middling Courier, shot in the head in media res ala Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. And in typical narrative-driven fashion, your quest for revenge starts at Point A and leads inexorably to Point B.

This is roaming on rails, at least for the first few dozen hours, with the slightest deviation leading to certain death. Strike North from the starting city and you will face level 20 Giant Radscorpions. Stray too far West outside the plot-directed Southerly route and Super Ghouls will eat your face off. Cut through the mountains to the East and you will inexplicably face the Blind Deathclaw guarding the path, conveniently immune to the effects of even your Stealth Boy invisibility cloak.

Decisions, decisions.

Decisions, decisions.

Between the visible fences of high-level monsters and being able to see New Vegas’s Lucky 38 tower from any vantage point in the game, F:NV starts off by feeling microscopic in comparison to Fallout 3. But a curious thing happens as you finally reach the Southern reaches of I-15 and turn East. “Tutorial Mode” over, the game suddenly opens up, blooming with hidden depth and density like some desert flower. There is still the highlighted yellow-brick plot road to follow, but you can actually strike out on your own at this point with less risk of instant death. I decided to plow my way to New Vegas proper at this point, stopping only at the various locations within sight along the way.

It ended up taking me over 40 hours just to reach the gates.

Combat in F:NV is more or less identical to Fallout 3: you can still treat the entire game as a normal FPS or you can pause the action in VATS mode to specifically target enemy extremities. Weapons skew a lot more towards traditional Spaghetti Western fare as befits the motif, but classic laser/plasma guns are not too far behind.

F:NV does feature some interesting innovations compared with its predecessor, including the use of Factions with mostly independent reputations. Don’t like the New California Republic? Join Caesar’s Legion. Or vice versa. Or screw them both and embrace Mr. House’s vision of the future. Or screw him too and embrace your own brand of justice. While the burgeoning complexities of the midgame collapses into an endgame constant, fundamentally the ending is one you can choose. Classic Fallout.

Well… mostly. While all of the set pieces are in place, including many of the same (recycled) posters last seen around the D.C. area, I could not help but feel that F:NV was… missing something. Something ephemeral, something intangible. F:NV is set in the same Fallout universe with the same people and the same post-apocalyptic problems. And perhaps that is what felt off. If this were the 1990s, F:NV would have been an expansion pack to Fallout 3, not a spiritual sequel.

I do kinda miss the Fallout 1 & 2-style depth to responses.

I do kinda miss the Fallout 1 & 2-style depth to responses.

Don’t get me wrong, there is more than enough to do in F:NV to justify its own existence. But it felt more like Fallout 3.5 than its own game. And yet, at the same time, F:NV feels like it didn’t have to be a Fallout game at all. Sure, there are Vaults and Nuka-Cola and Super Mutants aplenty. But the overarching narrative of revenge never felt personally compelling, and the coming clash between NCR and Caesar’s Legion seemed a digression. This game was Fallout when I was just wandering around, eager to scavenge what I can out of crumbling ruins I see just on the horizon. When I was the Courier just trying to make a final delivery for no particular reason? Not so much. The Platinum Chip is not too different from the Water Chip when it comes to plot McGuffins, but it felt different just the same. I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.

Ultimately, Fallout: New Vegas is not Fallout 3. For some people, that will be a relief; for others, a deficiency. But it is important to keep in mind the scale of this particular comparison. I am pulling out the microscope and judging the relative merits of Mt. Everest versus the Grand Canyon. I am quantifying and comparing the love felt for a firstborn son with that for a granddaughter. Fallout: New Vegas cannot be fairly judged by a jury of its peers because it has no peers other than Fallout 3… and possibly Skyrim/Oblivion. So while I still feel that Fallout 3 is better than Fallout: New Vegas, the latter is better than damn near every other videogame I have played. I am being so critical not because Fallout: New Vegas is a bad game, but precisely because it is so good.

DLC

There are four main pieces of DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, although at this point they will all likely be bundled with any Game of the Year copy you will buy. Briefly though, I will describe them for posterity.

Honest Hearts: Technically speaking, this was my least favorite of the DLCs. Heading into the outskirts of New Caanan, the Courier gets to interact with Burning Man, the hitherto presumed-dead former leader of Caesar’s armies. While there is a main plot concerning the story of revenge/redemption, it simply does not flow too well, in my opinion. I never really cared about the plights of the tribes or the lands they occupied.

Conversely, the sort of understated plot line of “The Father in the Cave” revealed via in-game computer archives was one of the more poignant mini-narratives I have seen in Fallout, if not in games period. If you’ve chosen to never play F:NV (and are still reading this review for some reason), go read the transcript here; it is presented in the Wiki exactly as you see it in-game, aside from actually exploring some of the locations (and seeing the traps) mentioned in the text.

Outside of that, the Hearts DLC does feature a lot more plant materials for use in homemade stimpacks, and an abundance of clean drinking water for those doing a Hardcore run.

Old World Blues: Modeled on 1950s-era space dramas, I found this DLC to be exceptionally fun and funny both. The premises push the boundaries of believability even in the Fallout universe (your brain is scooped out right at the start), but after a while it ceases to be particularly relevant as you blast giant mechanical radscorpions and other ridiculous enemies. As a sort of bonus, by the end of the DLC you essentially receive a remote mountain base with all sorts of crafting stations and other amenities that you can teleport to at any time.

Dead Money: While this DLC opens up with my least favorite gaming trope – the sort of Metroid-esque “remove all your gear” mechanic – it does sort of ratchet up the tension and make the rest of the storyline work. Collared with explosives, you are forced to try and open up a vault underneath one of the few surviving casinos outside of the New Vegas area. The limited weapon selection and deadly dust clouds skews the DLC more towards survival-horror than Fallout sidequest, but I was pleased with the plot, imagery, and ultimate payoff.

Lonesome Road: Out of the four, this DLC most fits the narrative of the game proper. I felt it a smidge too linear for my liking (although not as linear as Dead Money) and a bit too ridiculous in other places (trigger nuclear bombs to move wooden debris out of your way, what?), but out of the four this most fit the tone of Fallout games.

Unfair Impressions: Darkfall, Final (?)

I was not sure there was going to be a Day 3 to this series. Hell, Day 2 came as a complete surprise for that matter. My default expression in life is “Impress me,” to which Darkfall just laughs. “Okay, show me what you have to offer.” “Show yourself.” There is an inherent nobility to that uncompromising sentiment, a sense that all the other games out there selling themselves are, indeed, engaging in prostitution. Darkfall instead has the purity of your back yard, with the creek your mother told you to stay away from. No one gave you a quest to turn over rocks to see what lied beneath them; you just did it because you were there, and hey look at that weird bug, I wonder what happens when I… eww.

Sorry, sometimes I get carried away with my own bullshit.

#MMOLogic

#MMOLogic

In truth, I continued playing Darkfall because I was interested in how onerous it would be to make arrows for my Skirmisher. The spiders never dropped any coin, the vendors were asking for 30+ crafting mats for 1g, and my initial try at crafting wooden planks left me with not enough gold to purchase a pick axe to mine the requisite stone for arrowheads. Considering my character was ostensibly an archer, would the game allow me to run out of arrows?

Of course it would.

I abandoned the spider spawns, and tried the other starter monster spawn location. It too was farmed out; in fact, I don’t even know what mobs spawn there as none lived long enough for me to point at them. From the map, I noticed some ruins off to the west. If there’s ruins, there’s monsters. Sure enough, it was zombie spawn city.

My potential future. Kill me now.

My potential future. Kill me now.

While I sat on the fringes watching characters in clearly superior gear farming through the zombies like butter, it occurred to me that there is a distinction between sandboxes that few ever make. There is the sandbox in which you perform repetitive actions in order to have fun later, and there are the ones in which you have fun doing fun things that leads to more fun later. Darkfall, to me, is the former; Minecraft would be the latter. And the funny thing is that the former doesn’t sound all that different from what I was required to do in WoW.

The zombies that trickled past the farmers did end up dropping hard currency – around 1-3g every 5-10 mobs. Examining the pleasure I felt when I walked away with 22g at the end of the farming excursion was a sobering experience. There were likely better spots for gold farming, even in the protected newbie zones, but it was a glimpse back into the churning abyss of a grind without end. Work hard today so you can have fun later, as opposed to having fun… having fun.

In any case, I remain pleased that I gave Darkfall the ole college try. Every time I read Syncaine’s latest post about ganking a dude and stealing all his stuff (and his boat), or about how he AFK farmed while writing the post, I can visualize what exactly all those shenanigans looked like. And then realize that game he and others are playing exists primarily in their own minds.

Which isn’t a bad thing, of course. It’s just not my thing.