The WoW hate: Why 2009 is not 2005.

September 15, 2009

Taken from a comment on TAGN, #16:

@Syn: So was WoW the debbil when you were spending all waking hours of your life raiding MC (ca. 2005-06) or are these merely the rantings of the repentant sinner who has since found salvation?

The credibility gap for me is that its hard to believe a game (and company) that once earned so much of your time now deserves the amount of time you spend tearing it apart– particularly the gameplay and features that have since been added of which you are admittedly completely ignorant. Such opinions are utterly devoid of weight for want of any direct experience.

What on earth would you do if WoW suddenly ceased to be? The silence coming from your blog would be deafening. Give it a rest once in a while. Seriously. It completely taints your otherwise interesting, insightful and generally well-written posts and comments.

The above is a good synopsis of a few comments here whenever WoW is mentioned, and I believe it deserves some explanation. For starters, while back in college I did play WoW far more than I play any MMO today, WoW was not my only game at that time, and certainly not my first MMO.  Nor was it exactly hard to find that time for it in college, as anyone who has been to college knows its the most expensive four year vacation of your life, and the amount of free time you have is mind numbing. And let’s not kid ourselves, 2005 WoW is not 2009 WoW by a long shot, and as I’ve repeated quite often, the changes Blizzard has done since 2005 have not exactly thrilled me.

In addition to WoW overall just being far easier or ‘dumbed down’ now than in 2005, it’s also far more solo-hero based, and what little Warcraft lore and spirit it had has been replaced with space goats. Not only are welfare epics not a big deal anymore, but the very definition of epic has indeed been shattered, as today anyone with a skull to bang on a keyboard is decked out in ‘epics’. In 2005 MC itself was a challenge. In 2009 running MC without fire resist gear passes for a ‘hard mode’ challenge, rewarding you with a pink pony for you to link in chat for the world to see. Basically, it’s a very, very different game, and from my viewpoint an inferior game.

Now if WoW had 50k subs today, I would not care to mention it, like I don’t mention the 100s of other MMOs making changes that have 10k users and close to zero influence on the genre. But with 11 million solo-heroes running around, and games like WAR being influenced by WoW to including far too much pointless PvE content to satisfy some bean counter who stumbled into a design meeting, it’s going to get mentioned. Notice back when WAR had 750k+ subs WoW got queue-anywhere battlegrounds, and the (then) open-world PvP (RvR) Wintergrasp was being hyped to kingdom come, plus some Bliz exec was talking about how Horde vs Alliance was really the ‘core’ of what WoW was all about? And just now Bliz finally caught up and included xp from PvP. How much is WAR influencing WoW today, with it being down to 200k or whatever subs? Right or wrong, when you are the top dog you guide the market, and as long as Blizzard continues to trumpet solo-heroes over the MM in MMO, I’ll write about it. Phasing is just one more step back for the genre, and with Cataclysm coming, I’m sure Blizzard has a few more steps planned.

And this is the MMO genre we are talking about, and MMOs over time evolve and change. I loved UO in 1997, but today UO is a soulless excuse for a WoW clone, and even on a ‘classic’ server it’s simply not the same game. Does that mean I can’t mention how great UO was back in the day, because in 2009 it’s different? That I enjoyed 2005 WoW does not mean I’d enjoy 2009 WoW, or that the design I supported in 2005 is the same design in 2009.

If I had a blog back in 2004, I would have written how I believe instancing ruins the feel of an MMO, and how WoW’s (then) limited reliance on them is a crutch rather than a feature. Funny enough, at a job interview for Turbine I said exactly that when interviewing for a spot on the LotRO design team, not knowing that the soon-to-be released DDO was one long string of instances. I did not get the job, DDO is now F2P. Yet in 2009, when compared to something like phasing, instancing looks like a BOOST to the MM from MMO. Things change. I still love the fact that DarkFall is one big world without a single instance, and because of that design I get that ‘worldy’ feel from it I’ve not really felt since UO. The point is everyone has a preference for their games, and MMOs likely more so than any other genre. As someone who started in 1997 with the first major MMORPG, one that happened to be a sandbox and not a themepark, I have my preference, and since WoW is today’s biggest influencer in my favorite genre, Blizzard doing either best to remove the MM from MMO is something that is going to draw my criticism.

Community Service: Go help the old folks

September 14, 2009

In his three year review post, TAGN shows that while he sends many a carebear to this blog, my little following of basement dwelling sociopaths on the crusade of the miserable don’t return the favor as often. This needs to be fixed, so head over to his excellent site and catch up on all things noob.

(Just don’t mention the quest log not being mapped to the L key, touchy subject)

Level one, and god-mode already?

September 11, 2009

Why do we assume the first mob we fight in an MMO should be an easy kill?

I’m serious, how many MMOs can you name where the first mob you face has a legitimate chance to kill you? I mentioned the goblins in DarkFall yesterday, and certainly in Ultima Online the first mob you faced could kill you since the game did not have quests and you were not placed specifically close to easy mobs, but any others? WoW, WAR, EQ2, LotRO, etc, all start you off with mobs for miles that roll over when you look at them funny.

Of course the first reaction to this is “you want to give a good first impression”, and certainly you don’t want a totally new player getting one shotted, teabagged, and have a pop-up appear with a link to the account page, but if the first encounter actually required more than just standing still and auto-attacking a targeted mob, would it be that horrible to not succeed immediately and you know, have to learn one or two things before seeing some success? The first ‘mob’ in Mario one shot killed you; did everyone immediately turn off their NES and smash the cartridge? Nope, you got another life, ran back a few steps, and learned to jump over/on the little guy. How is it that all the little kids playing their NES back in the late 80s could deal with a minor setback, yet in 2009 the 18+ crowd playing MMOs needs to be spoon-feed for the first few (or 80) levels before any remote challenge is presented?

I’m not saying the average MMO should be Nintendo Hard, but does it have to be My Little Pony easy? I remember a few years back people joked about a Hello Kitty Online MMO (before it became a reality), and how anyone who could not handle playing MMO X should just go play that (In a way this was the precursor to the current “Go back to WoW” phrase we use now). How much easier is Hello Kitty Online compared to WoW? I mean really, how much harder is it to reach level 80 in WoW compared to doing whatever in HKO? Does it bother anyone else that most current MMOs have literally ZERO challenge for hours/days, and what little challenge exists is tucked away in a corner? What happened to gradually getting better at a game like Tetris or Mario, where you truly did start off as a noob and gained more competence as you played? How is it that in 2009 a few purple pixels, and a hollow ‘ding’ rewarding nothing more than successfully typing in your account password is enough to make people overlook the utter lack of any challenge or growth?

The other side of open-world accessibility.

September 10, 2009

I wrote yesterday of the benefits of DarkFall’s smaller power curve and how it allows a new player to jump right into playing with his friends/guild, and today I want to talk about the other side of that equation, the negatives of such an open and free roaming world.

My example from yesterday worked because the ‘new’ player was already familiar with the game having played the EU version, and he had an established base of people to play with thanks to the guild, but what about a totally new players? Once they get passed learning the basics of the interface and controls (which notably is harder if they HAVE played another MMO, especially one that uses a WoW-like UI ), what can a totally new player expect? For starters, the game places you in front of an NPC, one that starts you on the somewhat long chain of noobie quests designed to teach you all the basics of DarkFall. Starting the chain is of course totally optional, and if you don’t talk to the NPC, you might miss the quests altogether.

But let’s assume our new player understands the UI/controls, and has picked up the first noobie quests, what now? The game will direct you to a goblin spawn, marked on your map, and ask you to kill a few. While this is very standard for an MMO, a new player in DarkFall has a few more hurdles to overcome before he returns to the NPC to claim his reward. For starters, the mobs in DarkFall do more than just run up to you and wait to die. Goblins generally agro 2-3 at a time, most will shoot you with a bow before switching to melee, and will run when they get low on health at a speed that makes chasing them down not all that trivial. Most new players are going to die from their first encounter with mobs in DarkFall, which is all but impossible in most other MMOs. The goblins are certainly possible to kill solo as a new player, and the average MMO gamer should get it, but even then things are not that easy as at any point a PK may show up and kill you with brutal efficiency. It’s likely you won’t have much of anything to lose, and the first time you get PK’ed is a very “Welcome to DarkFall” moment, but it still sets you back and makes finishing that goblin quest that much harder.

Even with success against goblins in PvE, DarkFall presents other challenges. Until you know to bank often, stick to ‘safer’ spawns, learn when to trust people, etc, it’s going to seem like a very harsh world at times. Which is not to say that at ALL times a noobie in DarkFall is going to be miserable and get picked on, most likely they will live a normal noobie life and learn the basics while just enjoying the game, but it’s certainly possible for someone to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, more than once a day, and have a really rough first few days. Depending on the player, those first few setbacks might be enough to cancel an account, and that’s not good for business.

The reason these initial problems exist is rather complicated. For one, you can’t make just noobie goblins super easy and still allow them to drop loot, as that would just cause everyone on the server to farm them over other targets (this was the case before the PvE patch that made other mobs easier and drop better stuff), and the last thing you want to do is give veteran players MORE incentive to hang around the starter zones. Another issue is the combat system in DarkFall, in that it’s more player-skill based than other games, which means when you are a noobie not only are your character skills low, your player skills are also low. It’s nice that BOTH can improve over time, but at the start it does put you at a larger disadvantage. At least in WoW you can be totally clueless and still auto-attack all the mobs around you and win.

Another issue is that when you first enter DarkFall, you get placed right into the world. Starter cities are still used by veteran players, PKs swing by, and if you travel just a little too far in any one direction, you will quickly find yourself overmatched and very likely lost. It’s possible for someone to mistakenly kill another player, go red, and be re-bound to a chaos stone. Chaos stones are in the middle of no-where, with no bank or NPC access, and getting back into ‘blue’ status can be a more or less impossible task for a starting player. The system is needed to keep players from rampantly ganking people in town, but it does have its downside.

Those issues, among many others, are what make getting into a sandbox MMO more difficult for the average player than a themepark. It works great for knowledgeable players or those with a higher level of patience, but as we know that puts you into niche territory. Designers can only bend the rules so much for new players without hurting their game overall, and players are very smart in exploring/exploiting any advantages given to them. Ultimately I believe that like most things in a sandbox, it’s up to the player community to try and soften the learning curve for new players and get them into the game. It already happens in EVE with EVE University Corp teaching new players, and many guilds in DarkFall will advise their members not to raid starter towns, but that’s only the beginning. A combination of developer tools and player community initiatives is needed to get perspective players past the noobie phase and comfortable with the game.

Day one accessibility from an unlikely source.

September 9, 2009

It’s something that has been said before, but it bears repeating: an MMO without levels is just infinitely more accessible than one with, yet the majority of the AAA MMOs out today feature level-gating, and rather than deal with the root cause they continue to add systems (mentoring for levels, gems/sockets for gear) to try and mitigate the original issue.

Here’s the scenario that prompted the above. A returning guild-mate in DarkFall logs in for the first time to play with his old friends, and ON THAT DAY he is given some gear from the guild bank, a mount, and he gets an invite to a group that is heading out to capture some village control points to boost the guilds gold income. While out to capture those villages, the group has a few PvP encounters, and day-one guy is able to contribute in a meaningful way due to his knowledge of the game from having played on the EU server. Since the enemy can’t just look at his level and write him off, and since the difference in his damage compared to others is not THAT noticeable, he is just another opponent to anyone who fights the group. He is also given a siege hammer and is able to help capture those points, so rather then being a tag-along, he is doing nearly the same amount of good for this guild on day one that members who have been playing for months are currently doing. The key factor was that he wanted to contribute, and his time was the most important attribute in determining his contribution.

He’s not told to run the noobie quests, he does not have to complete the starting tutorial area, we don’t need to run him through hours of content before he catches up; day one the guy is basically a full-time player in a guild that’s deep into the ‘end-game’ of DarkFall’s clan vs clan action. And that basically applies to anyone in the guild. When forming a group for anything, you don’t ask people to link achievements, what tier their gear is at, or how high their level is; you just add them in if they are willing to go. We know who our top PvP guys are, we know when it’s time to pull out the top-shelf gear, and we know when the PvP is ‘serious business’ and you shut up and follow orders, but that 10% or so aside, most days are just log in, see what’s up, and go out and do it. Lovely accessible freedom from a game most consider on the exact opposite end of the most accessible game in the space, WoW. It’s also part of the reason I’m avoiding Aion; I can’t get myself excited about 25+ levels of WoW-like PvE just to reach some PvP or anything resembling something new, no matter how pretty the game might be.

What clearing your HD tells you about the state of gaming

September 8, 2009

My main gaming PC was in need of a purge (and it looks like I’m not the only one with that idea), and so on Friday I did a hard drive wipe and a fresh install of Vista (which is all one-click easy thanks to Alien Respawn). It’s funny how many of the things previously on the drive are found as ‘must haves’ once the install is complete. Xfire and Ventrilo were up first, followed by DarkFall. It took two days before I installed Warhammer Online, and that games time might be coming to an end. I still need to install Blood Bowl, but once that’s done I think I’m all set.

I would say 2009 is looking like a sad year for gaming, but between DarkFall literally being more fun each day (and especially each patch), and Blood Bowl being the perfect tactical game on the side, I’m not exactly lacking for things to fill my gaming time with, nor do I see that changing anytime soon. I do wish WAR was better (or just good enough to keep more CoWs playing nightly, as I don’t really have any major issue with it myself), and nothing new in the MMO space looks interesting (CO I have zero interest in, WoW as a girl (Aion) I’m all set on, and other games are too far off to really think about). Dragon Age is coming soon, which should be a great solo RPG to spend some time with, and eventually Blizzard will release StarCraft 2 and bring be back into the RTS genre, so it’s not like there is NOTHING on the gaming horizon.

Your family vacation, McDonalds, and the MMO genre

September 4, 2009

Keen has a well written post about his return to WoW and what the game is all about now. Read it made me realize the difference between some people in the real world, one that also seems to apply to the MMO genre, and one which is somewhat related to my post below.

Playing WoW is like taking your family vacation to Disney World every year, or going to Paris and eating at McDonalds. For most people change is something to fear rather than embrace, and for those people WoW caters to them perfectly. The safety of a daily quest is the same safety McDonalds in Paris provides. You can ignore the unknown French food and feel safe knowing that your Big Mac in Paris is going to be just like your Big Mac in the USA. Going to Disney World every year (often at the same time every year) is a far more guaranteed experience than going to a new country and seeing something different. You know Space Mountain is going to be the same ride every year, while you might not like everything about some new country you are visiting.

Now I’d rather be punched in the face than visit Disney World every year, and I’d much rather try something new and local than visit a McDonalds in a foreign country (even if it’s only to discover that I hate French food), but  I accept that I’m in the minority here. Disney World is packed every year, McDonalds is global, and WoW has X million players. The good news is that just like the real world has vacation spots with small local restaurants available around the globe, the MMO genre now has successful niche titles surviving (and in some cases thriving) as well.


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