Aion: Eminem’s “Kim” track, final verse, final line.

October 30, 2009

Watching Aion bleed out in record time is, to be honest, enjoyable for me.

Part of that just comes from my general dislike that the genre of gaming I enjoy most has, on the AAA level, gone from persistent worlds and virtual communities to candy-covered themeparks full of solo-heroes. I know Aion failing won’t completely change that around, but it can’t hurt either.

Another part of the enjoyment is watching what is an obviously flawed PvP setup (forced two-sided gear-based PvP with an exploitable PvE element that gives PvP rewards) fail in dramatic fashion. How anyone can think a setup like that will just work itself out in 2009 is beyond me. 1998, sure, but we have over 10 years of MMO history to look back on now; did NCSoft learn NOTHING from UO/AC-DT/DAoC/SB?

And finally, on a more personal level, many of the fools that left DarkFall for the pretty pastures of Aion PvP are now rapidly flapping their fairy wings and flying back. While it may be rude to say “I told you so”, it does still feel good to say it. Welcome back to Agon fairies, rebind your tab key.

DarkFall: Bounty Hunter event aftermath.

October 29, 2009

Last night the NA DarkFall server saw its first major player-driven event, a bounty hunter chase that went off very well considering it was the first of its kind in DF. I was able to log on just after the start, and Apollo already had a group together ready to rumble. Most of the server’s big names showed up, and the center of Agon became a PvP hotspot for a few hours on a Wednesday night.

The event showed me two things. First, the DF player base on NA is very willing to get behind community-driven events like this and things like the NEW clan initiative. I think everyone playing DarkFall is just happy to finally have a real fantasy PvP MMO not crippled by technical shortfalls (ShadowBane), and so are willing to pull together and make things happen for the good of the game. When server moral counts so much because your game is so reliant on word-of-mouth promotion, it’s interesting and encouraging to watch the players (with some GM support, which was nice to see) step up and provide some content to mix things up.

The other thing such an event shows is just how much potential a sandbox MMO has when it comes to player-generated content. The best aspects of DarkFall (PvP, huge world, zero instancing) were all on display because a few players decided to pool some funds together and have the entire server hunt them. As it was just the first such event, no doubt future events will not only be more creative, but also more tightly executed and with more refined twists and surprises. Plus like any good sandbox, such ‘content’ will never become obsolete because a new patch brought the next tier of shiny suits to collect. If anything, more options will be added as Aventurine adds more tools for the players to use as they see fit. This event was made possible, in part, because a crafters name shows up when you make an item. That simple feature, along with items never being bound, allows for a bounty hunter event to take place. You don’t need overly complicated systems and hard-coded motivational factors to get the most out of your game and player base in a sandbox, just some creative players and community support behind them.

DarkFall’s version of EVE University

October 28, 2009

As frequent readers here know, one of the reasons I greatly prefer a sandbox MMO over a themepark is the amount of control players have in shaping their game and the world around them. While that control is a double edged sword (EVE University vs Goonswarm), I’ll take that risk over a foam sword (themepark) any day of the week.

And much like EVE Online has the player-created and run EVE University to guide new players, DarkFall on the NA server now has NEW. Similar in idea to its Ultima Online Siege Perilous forefather, the idea behind NEW is to give young DarkFall players a chance to learn about the game without getting constantly rolled while trying to solo kill goblins. It is, in a good way, UO’s Trammel. In a good way because its player controlled, it’s not absolute (30 day time limit until players are kicked from NEW), and other players are free to raid NEW’s city of Hammerdale (Yes, Apollo’s old city. In a way we did our part by building it up for all the new guys. At least that’s our story damnit!).

It’s those raiders that, IMO, will really draw those younger players into DarkFall. They will see PvP firsthand, and assuming NEW grows to a reasonable size, they won’t always be sitting ducks. Add in the fact that many of the server’s biggest alliances support the idea, and Hammerdale itself is perhaps the safest city in the game in terms of being taken in a siege, which will help to prevent the previously common ‘city loss ragequit’. And with the city being a well-known location for player activity, that will just make it a natural hotspot, be it for PvE, trade, or PvP. All of these factors added together create an almost perfect environment to show the best of DarkFall, and that’s exactly what you need to get those MMO hooks into someone. Now about that free trial Aventurine…

edit: Oh and speaking of AV, good job for quickly making the NEW thread a sticky and writing a Spotlight piece about it as well. That shows everyone they are paying attention to what is happening in their game, and that they clearly support such player-driven ideas. Also in the Spotlight a few days back was a player-run Bounty Hunter event. Between this and the hints of GM-run events, I’m feeling good about AV’s involvement in DarkFall beyond just adding more stuff and tweaking balance.

Dragon Age does hype the right way

October 27, 2009

My anticipation for Dragon Age has been slowly ramping up, and not in the usual ‘watch ever movie/screen shot asap!’ way. I actually made it a point to avoid all that in order to keep the experience of playing the game as spoiler-free as possible, and so my expectations going in are ‘It should be a quality RPG experience’ and nothing more. But two unique pieces of ‘hype’ have managed to get my all fanboi’ed-up this past week. First was the release of the character creator, and now Dragon Age Journeys, two very different tools to get people excited about an upcoming title.

The release of the character creator is genius for a few reasons. One, it’s very cheap promotion for the game, since it’s already been created and I’m guessing it’s not very difficult to cut it from the full game and release it as a separate download. But the real genius is that usually having 300 different face options in a game is more of a pain than a plus. I mean I’d rather actually start playing within the first 5 minutes than continue to tweak nose sliders to get my character ‘just right’ (and since I’m talking as an MMO fan here, I think we all know exactly how far we are willing to go to get little crap just right). But on its own, with the game not out yet, hell yea I’m going to sit there for 30+ minutes tweaking every last slider and option, and you better believe I’m damn ready to play the game when I’m looking at the best damn RPG hero EVA! Like I said, genius.

And now that I have my character created and ready, along comes Dragon Age Journeys to not only provide a fun turn-based strategy/rpg, but also to give me additional backstory/lore about that created hero’s world. And much like the character creator, when the real game is released you want to play RIGHT NOW, so you might skip some of the background stuff just to get into the meat of things (and in turn you might miss some of the detail of the world/story), but when the games release is still weeks away, even little bits of lore or story will get eaten up. Genius part two.

And so here I sit, exactly one week away from release day, Direct2Drive pre-order waiting, and without having downloaded every video or read every dev log/forum, I’m hyped for Dragon Age in a somewhat natural (if we can call it that) way. I know enough of the story/world to look forward to it without feeling like anything has been spoiled, and I have a character which I’m excited to play rolled up and ready to go. Nov 3rd can’t come soon enough now.

More Aion vs Fallen Earth observations

October 26, 2009

The trending examples provided by the recently released Aion and Fallen Earth continue, and some interesting if not entirely unexpected observations can be made. Today’s topic is player reaction, and how it differs when comparing a niche game (FE) versus a mass-market (Aion) game.

The quick take is this: An average mass-market game is a slow burn, while a niche game is a black/white type of deal.

Niche games are niche for a reason; there is a small group of people who really, really like what the product offers, and then everyone else looks at the same thing and goes “wtf is fun about THAT?” That’s the black/white aspect of it, as very few people will look at a niche product and just go “eh, that’s just ok”.

On the other hand, a mass-market game is DESIGNED to appeal to as many people as possible, and the best way to go about this is to play it safe and avoid any black/white reactions. Some people may dislike generic questing, but very few players will outright avoid a game because its leveling gameplay is focused around MMO-style questing, and many players will feel ‘comfortable’ progressing in that manner. Mix together a few ‘safe’ gameplay styles, hope it comes together, and bam, mass-market MMO.

And now, a few months later, we are seeing how the two styles progress. The ‘slow burn’ is starting to sink into some Aion players, as what was initially considered comfortable is now ‘more of the same’. Executed at a top-notch level, ‘more of the same’ might be good enough, but anything less than spectacular and the feeling of burnout is only accelerated. Since you drew from a mass market audience, the majority of your player base is not heavily invested in what you specifically offer, and so even the smallest excuse to leave might be taken. If you are bothered by something in Aion, you always have WoW, LotRO, WAR, EQ2, AoC etc to fall back on. Sure each game is a bit different, but all more or less achieve the same thing, just in different flavors.

On the other hand, for the niche that Fallen Earth caters to it’s basically the only game in town. Sure the jump animation might not be spot on, or you might run into a bug or three, but if you are part of the niche, you will take that bug and ten more before you leave FE and make the switch to a mass market game. FE would have to do something drastic (Trammel, NGE) to push away those it caters to. At the same time, those who are just now trying FE (for free) are having a tough time seeing what all the fuss is about, having read blog after blog gushing about it (it also does not help that the niche is likely highly represented among bloggers). That’s natural, because remember we are talking about a NICHE product, and its niche because only a small subset of the gaming population finds what it offers appealing. That the majority will find a product like Fallen Earth lacking is not a shot at the game (directly anyway), as they never were the intended audience anyway. When your niche starts taking shots, well then you better start listening.

DDO: Too fast?

October 22, 2009

Am I the only one who thinks DDO would be a better game if everything inside a dungeon was at 50% speed?

I think they have a great combat system, one that is both a little action hack-n-slash and also has some nice depth and utility to it. The problem is that everything moves so fast, things are either dead before you blink or you have wiped. All those great utility spells and abilities get ignored because you just don’t have enough time to use then effectively. How many times have you been inside a dungeon, the front of the party spots the enemy boss, and by the time the trailing member rounds the corner, the mob is dead or stepping over the bodies of your party?

Shocking! Asian grind game is grindy

October 21, 2009

This is rather amussing.

Damn NCSoft for tricking everyone into believe this Asian import with a year+ record of well documented grinding would be a grind. Those bastards.

(Bonus points for kicking those with high-end rigs in the nuts once they reach end-game. Why would the end-game need to work for everyone just a year after release?)

More DarkFall expansion details

October 21, 2009

The bad news about the next DarkFall expansion/patch is that is has been delayed until mid-November. The good news is we have some more info about what it will contain. Clicky here to read the Spotlight piece and all the ForumFall that goes with it.

Before I talk about some of the details mentioned, I find it very humorous that Aventurine just kind of throws this information out there, without the usual PR-ish spin of most devs. Not just because it’s a nice change of pace, but because (and part of me thinks this is intentional) it always drives ForumFall up a wall and back with speculation and ‘slap in the face’ crying. ForumFall really is its own game, and I for one appreciate it on those occasional slow moments at work.

As for the details themselves, racial bonuses were previewed, and while we don’t have the full scope yet overall I think anything that separates one character from another in DarkFall is a good thing, even if those differences are minor. Already the difference races have individual starting stats, different hitbox sizes, and adjusted weapon reach, and none of those things makes any one race significantly better than the other. My guess is these changes will be more along those lines.

The crafting and item changes are also good, logical balance changes. Heavy (expensive) armor SHOULD offer better protection in exchange for magic ability, and having more players PvP’ing in more expensive gear will just raise the stakes. Plus with more heavy armor being used, the demand will increase and high-skilled crafters will see bigger rewards for their efforts. And speaking of effort, giving bigger skill gains for crafting more expensive items not only makes sense, but will in part reduce crafting feeling like a big grind. You will be producing useful items, and while skilling up you can in turn either sell or use those items instead of producing a thousand chain sleeves and mass selling them to a vendor.

Also hinted at in a different Spotlight was a change to the siege system. No details were given, but hopefully the change in some way reduces the overall length of a typical siege, especially since more often than not the first four hours currently are spent sitting around looking at a clan stone or shard holder. Aventurine has pulled unexpected changes/additions out before (village system), perhaps this change will also be something surprising.

Finally the very expected nerf to magic in the form of shared cooldowns. Anything who has been around the MMO block knew this was coming (they don’t call it flavor of the MONTH for nothing), and it’s certainly a much needed change. More archery and melee in PvP is a good thing for DarkFall.

No confirmation if this patch delay also affects EU to NA transfers.

Dealing with the undesirables of any MMO community.

October 20, 2009

Yesterday’s post was about the theory/dream of a persistent world with a reactive ecosystem, among other features. One of the very valid arguments against this setup is the possibility of the players themselves not playing nice and ruining everything. It’s a well established fact that if griefing is possible, it will happen. But there are different types of greifing, and even more opinions of what constitutes griefing versus what’s accepted behavior. And ultimately, a game has two basic options: set limits to all players, or create a player environment that creates those limits.

Let’s stereotype and assuming our griefer is a basement-dwelling 13yr old who’s mom never hugged him enough, and now he is in your MMO doing whatever he can do to get a reaction out of you for ‘the lulz’. He corpse camps you for hours for no personal gain, he spams chat channels with ‘big kid’ four letter words, and he has way more time to play than you do so he gets ahead and has a level/gear/time advantage.

One solution is to set rules that don’t allow said kid to do what he wants. Make it impossible to corpse camp, allow ignore to work in chat channels, and remove direct competition so his level/gear/time has zero impact on your game. You give up some things with all your other players, but you keep the world ‘safe’ and everyone protected.

The other solution is to design and encourage your players to play a certain way, one that makes life very difficult for the griefer. If the best content is limited to groups, community becomes a factor. If you are the pariah of the server, you get cut off, especially if you don’t allow for easy switching of servers, names, or reputation. Of course you walk the fine line here between encouraging a community and forced-grouping, but that’s why game devs make the big bucks, right?

The larger point however is that when designing any MMO, you either live in fear of your players, or you embrace and guide them. Fear is the ‘easy’ choice, because limiting options and setting hard and fast rules will yield expected, but limited, results. It’s far more difficult and risky to set rules to guide them, and hope that those rules are enough to establish the type of community you envisioned. The one bonus an MMO has is that the rules can change mid-game, but we have seen all too often dev teams being reluctant to make changes, especially ones that ultimately lead to the admission that a previous system was flawed or broken.

What the MMORPG genre could (and should) be.

October 19, 2009

Last Friday’s post, and the links in the comments to Raph Koster’s posts (here, here, and here) (Thanks Brian) about the old Ultima Online eco system have sparked some old memories of what got me interested in the MMORPG genre way back in 1996 or so, reading about what UO will be like and how it will be a completely new gaming experience, lifting the single player RPG to new highs thanks to thousands of player characters all playing their role in a virtual world. It also reminded me why the current on-rails themepark trend of popular MMOs annoys me as much as it does, because that style of design is almost the exact opposite of what originally drew me in. Prepare for a wall of text incoming, but before we get to my wall, I strongly encourage everyone to read the three posts by Raph first, as they will give you an excellent idea of what the original vision (little v) for a virtual world was all about.

I remember telling a friend of mine about UO before either of us got into the beta. I told him it would be just like the other Ultima games, but all of the characters would be played by real people and not the computer (I was wrong about this, as UO did indeed have some npcs like shop keepers and guards), and how this would allow for endless content instead of ‘finishing’ the game. One thing that always drew me to RPGs was their setting, a fantasy world, and one ‘flaw’ I always saw in them was that no matter how much you liked a certain setting, at some point the game would end and that was it. I saw Ultima Online as the solution to that problem, because as long as I was willing to log in, the adventure never had to end, especially because the development team would stay around and continue to add more for everyone to do, and continue to shape and change the world rather than moving on once the game shipped.

In 1997 when UO was released, it basically delivered on all my expectations. My character started in the town of Yew, and I was free to explore and develop my character as I saw fit. Others were running around doing their thing, guilds were formed to bring together like-minded individuals, and everyone was just wandering around trying to figure it all out (well almost everyone, the powergamers from beta were busy doing their thing, becoming the uber-power PKs that roamed around, but they too played their part as dangerous villains). As this was really the first game of its type, literally everyone was a noob, and just seeing another player character run by was a thrill for everyone. Imagine the first week of any new MMO, but extended for weeks if not months.

I remember scouting the area around Yew with my friend, finding what local monsters we could fight, where the local dungeon was, and what spots were ideal for mining or logging. We managed to place a small house near some mountains, and this became our home to roam out of. We built up our characters to be both adventurers and crafters, and we became friends with those who also lived around us. We also quickly learned the common paths of local PKs, and where their houses were placed. We played the role of total noobs to a T, and it was truly great.

And while some of that greatness can never be replicated because you only play your first MMORPG once, part of it can. The sense of a new world (rather than a starting zone), of freedom, of things changing around you because of player actions (either your own or others), all those things can still happen today like they did back in 1997. Reading Raph’s posts, it’s very clear how much technology limited what they could accomplish, and it’s terribly exciting to thing that today, in 2009, some of those limitations no longer exist. Today’s servers COULD run all those ecology scripts in real time, allowing every area of the world to have its own feel, a feel that would be a combination of player action and the randomness of those scripts themselves.

I also think the challenges of designing a virtual world go much deeper than just providing the shiniest ride and reward to take a player on. Take being a shopkeeper for example. It’s clear to everyone that standing around waiting for a customer is not a lot of fun (the current example of this being to spam trade chat with your wares), but what is fun is crafting/gathering your goods, setting prices, finding a good location to sell from, and all the other macro economic activities that go with running a business. It’s up to the designers to figure out ways to cut out the boring activities and keep you focused on the fun. (In UO you could have an NPC vendor do the standing around for you, while you just worried about keeping him stocked and his prices accurate in hopefully a good location) The solution should not be the easy way out, to simply provide NPCs that sell you the gear so everyone can focus on just combat (or in a themepark, to keep you on track towards some ‘end game’).

The same can be said for the old ecology system overall. Just because the original one planned for UO did not work does not mean the solution is to scrap it entirely and add in static spawns. Why did the system fail, and what needed to be done to make it work? In the years since UO’s release, we have seen very clearly that players will go to great lengths to be rewarded (even if the reward is absolutely meaningless like achievements), and so knowing this it should be very possible to tune an ecology system to function correctly.

Raph talked about the questing system that was never finished, how certain NPCs would have quests for players if certain conditions were met. The common example is a farmer with sheep, who asks players to kill off some wolves that have been killing his animals. In today’s MMOs, this is seen as the most boring of starter quests, the now famous ‘kill ten rats’ style of quests we do just to get it done. Bla bla bla farmer story, we have heard it a thousand times, and we know damn well he will still have an issue when we roll our next alt.

But what if more depended on this simple quest? What if instead of an NPC, the farm was player-owned? What if the player who owned the farm could only collect wool from his sheep if the wolves were kept at bay, but because he can’t be online 24/7, he sets his NPC farmer to give out a reward for anyone who kills local wolves once their population is high enough to bother him? If not enough players are interested, he can increase the reward. If too many players do it, his NPC farmer stops offering the quest. The more time the local wolves are kept at bay, the higher that players farm output is, providing more wool for him to craft with. If his farm gets too big and successful, it attracts more than just wolves (the famous dragon perhaps?). And what if instead of owning just one farm, that player owns three or four such locations, and so must manage a complex set of quests and rewards to keep his whole economic foundation going, where his game is more about collecting resources and setting rewards than heading out to slay monsters. A mine with Kobolds, a fishing vessel and kraken, a lumber yard with bandits, on and on. If integrated into the ecology system, perhaps one week it’s wolves bothering you, the next its bandits, and after that whatever monsters the local town drives towards you. You drive them away from you, and they migrate to the next guys farm, or are forced to attack the local village. As the players react, the ‘story’ continues, without a single patch or update from the development team. If things ever get too far out of whack, send in God (the GMs) and make the needed corrections.

The original thing that drew me to this genre was that the virtual world was what you make of it, and that as a player you could leave your mark in a number of ways. Ultima Online accomplished some of this, but if anything it left more OFF the table than on, in part because of technology limitations and also because it’s very idea was so new and fresh. No one back in 1997 could really predict how thousands of players would interact with a huge world, and so naturally mistakes were made. The genre has had over 10 years to mature now, and both technology and ideas have progressed (or regressed) greatly. It’s very clear that for the majority of those playing MMOs today, the idea of just being a member of a virtual world is not nearly as appealing as being a ‘hero’ rewarded with ‘epics’, even if you are a clone hero using epics that everyone else has. But the MMORPG genre is not about spoon-feeding millions as they solo-hero their way through for a few months. Lets leave that to the MMO (or themepark, or whatever else we want to call it) genre, where the key to success is measured in how well you execute a series of kill ten rat quests and how sparkly your character can be.

And because you will alienate (at least initially) those millions, you can’t exactly expect a huge budget or massive team. But UO never had that massive team (not by today’s standards certainly), nor did EVE, nor does DarkFall. And while both EVE and DarkFall do some interesting things with the virtual world concept, neither has really captured the full potential of the genre. EVE’s technology has shown that thousands of players all in one ‘world’ is very possible, and that players will naturally find their little spot in the world and build local communities. DarkFall is a good step towards putting player-skill into the MMORPG equation, rather than combat being a straight math problem of who has more HP/DPS. And while both games have lots of room to continue to grow and expand, neither is very likely to create that perfect virtual world of player-driven content. Perhaps no game ever will, but that does not mean we should settle for what passes as an MMORPG today and assume the genre is fully grown. If anything, after 10+ years, we are just beginning.


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