Guild Wars: Some plus and minus observations

May 28, 2010

As Aria and I have been slowly (level 7 atm) making our way through Guild Wars NightFall, a few things jump out as talking point. I’m still having a good time overall with the game, Aria is 50/50 with it mostly due to the amount of travel vs combat/content, but I know until we hit level 20 we are not really seeing the ‘real’ GW.

One thing that currently does strike me as a little odd is the pacing of the outdoor areas. We have yet to really hit our stride and battle in an area that feels right. Either we are fighting mobs that we plow right over, or we are fighting things 3-4 levels above us and dying more often than not. The oddest part of it all is I don’t believe we are skipping ahead or going out of order, but rather that the jump in levels is a bit drastic between one side of a quest hub and the other. Again, my guess is once you hit level 20 this becomes a non-issue, but right now it’s noticeable. A level indicator on quests would be rather helpful in this regard IMO. Am I missing an option for this?

I can’t talk about how Aria’s Elementalist plays, but my Dervish is again both interesting and also at times annoying. I have a good selection of self-buffs to cast, which give both a benefit while they are running and then a secondary benefit when they end. This combo of benefits is interesting. It’s also annoying because the buffs only last 20-30 seconds, which means you end up recasting them before every single fight. With 3-4 buffs being used, that’s a good amount of click-and-wait time before you clear yet another group of mobs.

The interesting thing is that many of my special attacks also remove a self-buff when executed, meaning that not only do I deal the special attacks damage, but I also get the ending benefit of whatever self-buff is removed. The annoying thing is that you then re-cast buffs if what you are fighting is still alive after one round of ‘attack and remove buffs’. Overall I think I like the system, and certainly in tougher fights it’s nice to plan ahead and pull off combos as you need them, but it does make the Dervish a bit micro-heavy for common mobs.

Finally, while overall I like the hero system GW has going for it, it also feels a little lacking. I like it because it in essence gives you another character to level, assign skills, and equip gear with. As those are core values of any RPG, and I enjoy RPGs, I like heroes for those aspects. It’s always nice to have a sword drop, and despite the fact that my Dervish uses scythes, I still benefit from the sword because I can have my hero Koss the warrior use it. Plus without having to roll an alt I can get an idea for how a warrior plays and the type of abilities they get. As we pick up more heroes, this will only increase.

Another huge bonus is that Aria and I can field a full party of four just by bringing out our heroes. While this does remove a major aspect of an MMO, grouping with others, for us it works well because of how quickly we jump in and out of the game. I would not want this kind of option in my main MMO, but in a side game it’s great, and I believe GWs makes for an excellent side game (no monthly sub being a key factor). Being able to mix and match heroes based on your class and what you need/want is another nice perk.

The major downside with heroes in GW however is that they are too automated. Once you assign their skills and gear them up, they basically play themselves. This is great for run-of-the-mill mobs, but it either trivializes or leaves you feeling a little helpless against tougher mobs. If the heroes do too good a job, you end up feeling like the game is playing itself. If they don’t do enough, you end up wishing you had more control. Given how heavily instanced GW is, I’d think an interesting option would be to allow a party leader to slow down time, and in this slo-mo mode you can assign specific actions to a hero in an almost RTS/TBS control style. That could never work in a virtual world setting, but in a 1-4 man instance, why not?

Like I said initially though, I’m still very much into exploring more of GW and its different functions and systems, plus it’s saying something that the graphics still look great given the games age. I can see why it’s not really an MMO, but then I can see why it’s not really an MMO for a lot of good reasons. More to come as we get further in.

MMO: It’s not a game

May 27, 2010

First, it must be really fun to be this good at DarkFall. Quality stuff as always Umberto. Oh and don’t mind the creepy girl right at the beginning, this is an actual DF PvP vid of high quality.

Personal jealousy aside, today’s topic is in response to my last post proclaiming SW:TOR as DOA. What I was getting at is TOR sounds like it will be a terrible MMO, not that it will be a terrible game. Those are two very, very different things. I would no be at all surprised if TOR is a very enjoyable game, with good graphics, sound, gameplay, all of that. It’s just going to suck terribly as an MMO.

Consider this: if you got 40 hours of entertainment out of a game before you were ‘done’, would you be satisfied? If I’m talking about a single player game like Dragon Age, hell yes. If I’m talking about an MMO, I’m likely just getting out of the ‘noobie’ phase and getting myself settled.

Perhaps a better way of putting it is like this: how many single player games have you played for 100+ hours, let alone 500+? Now how many MMOs have you played 500+, or even 1000+? How many times have you loaded up a single player game just to farm one mob/area for a few hours? How many WEEKS have you spent in the same instance/zone/spawn camp in an MMO?

My point being, MMOs are very different from all other games in how people play them. In a single player game, I can start as a street beggar and save the world in 40 hours. In an MMO, I might finally be able to fight something other than a boar after 40 hours (and most likely, I’ve upgraded to an angry, evil, hairy, or giant boar). One is not more ‘right’ than the other, but it’s a totally different set of expectations.

People are drawn to an MMO for the permanence, the character growth, and the sense of ‘making progress’ as related to the world and others (even if ultimately that progress has as much lasting impact as a single player game: zero). None of this exists in a single player game, at least not on the scale it does in an MMO. That’s why killing boars for an hour in a single player game seems god-awful, while in an MMO its par for the course. It’s why a single player game needs to have a combat system that is accessible and entertaining for 40 hours, while an MMO combat system has to be interesting for 1000, even at the expense of it taking 40 or so hours to really ‘get’ it.

And no, you can’t have both. You can’t be saving the world every 40 hours AND get 1000+ hours of gameplay out of a title. It’s simply impossible to create that much content, and even if it WAS possible, it would not be all that much fun. I mean saving the world is epic once or twice, but after the tenth time? Here comes YASTWQ (Yet another save the world quest), and unless it has a ‘best in slot’ reward, I’m not doing it. And remember how easy to pick up and play that combat system was in the last single player game you played? How much fun are you having with it after the 500th hour? That sweet combo or neat trick is not nearly as sweet or neat after you have pulled it off for the 1000th time, and that’s EXACTLY what happens in an MMO.

Now it’s entirely possible SW:TOR is aiming for a different set of players than those who enjoy MMOs, and perhaps the whole point is to get you in for 40 hours and have you step away, only to come back once more (RMT fueled) content has been added. Maybe.

Problem is, since BioWare tagged the game as an MMO, it’s going to be covered by just about every single MMO blog, and those blogs are written by MMO players. We don’t take kindly to running out of content after 40 hours, no matter how much fun we had in that short initial timespan (well most of us, some will no doubt gush for a week or so about how SW:TOR is the new jesus, but a month later we will still be reading the follow-up ragequit post). This won’t stop SW:TOR from selling 1million+ copies, but hype alone can do that (WAR, AoC). What’s very likely to happen however is that after a month or so, the overall feeling towards SW:TOR is going to be rather negative, and not to give all of us too much credit, but I do believe blogs and forums DO influence potential customers enough to ultimately matter, and I think this, along with disappointing the MMO crowd, is what SW:TOR is going to be remembered for most.

Character progression: Why SW:TOR is DOA

May 25, 2010

The style and impact of character progression is an issue that every MMO must consider, and it’s an issue that far too often is misunderstood by many players (and devs for that matter). The concept of ‘the grind’ is heavily related here, and while many have negative feelings towards it, it remains a vital need for any MMO looking to not only survive, but to growth and prosper long-term.

The core issue here is that while we all love playing massive, MULTIPLAYER, online games, what drives most of us to log in day after day is PERSONAL progression; that feeling that you are getting stronger, that you are able to do more, and that you are better off at the end of the week then you were at the beginning. In short, we are always chasing the ‘ding’, be it the traditional leveling ding, an item upgrade, or reaching a certain skill level. The importance of this can’t be stressed enough, and the simple fact that many MMO players will move on from a game shortly after they have ‘maxed out’ is clear evidence of this.

Raiding guilds don’t move on from an instance once they feel they have seen the content enough to be satisfied, they move on once they no longer need the ‘ding’ of the item upgrades it offers. If that happens to be the final raiding instance (aka, the best items), the guild goes into hibernation.

WoW of course is the perfect example of this, and one glance at the actual content being run and its gameplay quality (vs the items it drops) should be evidence enough to anyone still thinking it’s the content itself that drives player action. Given the choice between a boring raid with good loot and a great raid that features no upgrades, the raiding guild will see the great raid once (maybe), and then spend weeks/months farming the boring raid. Consider the MMO you are playing today and I’m sure you will see a similar pattern.

Now I’m not saying that the ‘ding’ is ALL you need in an MMO, that would be silly. You DO need great, balanced, engaging, bug-free content to entertain your players, but the fact remains that no matter how great your content is, if it does not further character progression, it won’t be effective (effective being content that keeps MMO players entertained (paying) for the months and months we go between updates).

The second piece of the puzzle is power creep. You simply can’t have your current playerbase continually getting more powerful if you expect new players to be able to come in and get into the action, be it PvE or PvP.

Most PvE games handle this by simply starting over. Raise the level cap a few levels and all those months/years of ‘gearing up’ at the old cap is reset, and everyone is back to square one. While this is not very MMO-like in terms of a persistent world and continual progression, it’s the easiest way to balance things, and most players today seem to accept it.

The funny evolution of exclusion also plays into this. ‘Back in the day’ you would be excluded from a group based on your level, while today you are excluded based on your gearscore. Same basic concept, same character progression basis, just a different name for the ‘ding’; perception is king.

PvP-based MMOs on the other hand can’t be so easily reset. For one, games like EVE or DarkFall feature more persistent worlds than a game like WoW, and so a reset would cause more havoc than simply wiping all gearscore totals. The other issue is that those games feature more direct player interaction (PvP) than something a bit more insulated. In a raiding guild you are only competing with other members of your guild for a raid spot, while in a PvP game you need to keep up with all players who could potentially be an enemy. It’s this competition that also makes the need to progress more important, as you want to reach the level of being ‘viable’ as soon as possible. Just like a raider would never walk into an instance without his gear, a PvP’er never likes to face someone who beats him simply on the basis of character progression.

So while vertical progression with a reset is acceptable (though I would argue far from ideal) in a PvE setting, quick viability and endless horizontal progression is key to a more PvP-focused MMO. The difficult part comes in pulling this off, and I feel EVE has done the best job in this area so far. Pilots are able to quickly jump in and actually contribute early on, while as time goes on they are simply expanding their options rather than growing more powerful in any one area. DarkFall is making progress in this regard as well, with the current (incomplete) specialization system and hopefully ultimately with the addition of prestige classes. Short-term fixes like the rebalancing of the hitpoint formula and the increased gains to ‘core’ functionality are solid (if unfortunately late) steps as well.

Regardless of the system in place, one thing is for certain; we play MMOs to progress, and we leave MMOs when progression is no longer possible (or deemed worthwhile). Short of the server being down and the game constantly crashing, all other issues are secondary to this core fundamental issue, and the better an MMO is able to solve it, the brighter its future.

Which is why, IMO, SW:TOR is DOA. One-time content and story are not what you build a long-term viable MMO on, no matter how compelling that content becomes. Players will see it once, love it, and then look around, see no further progression possible, and go back to grinding X or chasing shiny Y. It’s what we do.

Just another DarkFall weekend

May 24, 2010

For a ‘dead’ PvP area, Ruby sure does see a lot of action. From getting attacked while farming, attacking others already farming, and solo and group raids on Ghana, it’s tough to go for an extended amount of time without something interrupting whatever you are doing. Not that this is a complaint of course, PvP is always good, but it does make one wonder just how little the more vocal members of ForumFall must actually play the game itself when they go on and on about how there is no PvP going on in parts of the world.

One such PvP encounter happened this weekend while we were working on the Fire Dragon as about 10 enemies attacked our spot on a small island. Of course I missed the entire fight thanks to the Fire Dragon nuking me down just moments before, but from what I heard on vent it was a good throwdown with the enemies eventually taking everyone down. Thanks to Ghana being so close, we quickly regeared and headed back out. As expected, the group that just wiped us was trying to finish the dragon, who was at 15% or so at this point, and again another fight broke out. This time we pushed into them quickly, and after a short exchange they tried to flee across the water. A few went down while diving underwater (I’m specced aquashot and was able to deal some nice damage with my bow here), and a few more were killed on the shore as the rest mounted up and fled.

Having regained some of our lost loot (I believe they piled the best stuff on one character and had him recall home), we once again picked up our bows and finished the dragon, getting 80k plus an infernal chest for our efforts. In a continued string of luck, I’m now two for two when rolling for loot and got another rank 60 greatsword made by the clan.

And that r60 helps stem the loss we took a little later, when we got a group together to do some PvP around our hamlet of Bladethorp and headed north to Albertworth. You know things are not going to turn out well when the scout you send into the city dies before he can even take a step back to retreat. Our group of five got chased out by 10 or more, and after crossing some water and getting two others to join us, we engaged and had a little brawl. Things were looking up initially, and I was able to somehow sneak behind them on a mount and deliver some nice frost axe backshots. Sadly the surprise only lasted for a moment, because soon I had someone take the horse out from under me and I found myself in the middle of a few enemies. With greatsword swinging, I temporarily cut my way back to our group and was able to start regaining my stats, but at this point people on vent were reporting going down and before I knew it I had a guy chopping at my head from his mount. I was able to dodge him, duck behind some trees and rocks, and just as I spawned my battlehorn to ride back into the fight, the world starts spinning and I’m insta-killed. The saddest part? The killer is a ‘lizard’, one of the weak little mobs that spawns in the area we were fighting in. Of all the luck…

Not being ones to take a beating lightly, we regrouped in Bladethorpe, got our group up to 11 people, and went back into Albertworth. Our initial push was solid, and we forced the enemies who survived into their keep. It was in the keep that things got bogged down, as a deathly choke point developed on the stairs leading up. Being unable to finish off the geared enemies, we never took full control of the city and slowly we started to get picked apart. Making a hasty retreat out of the keep, and with a sliver of health remaining, I was able to get on a horse and make my way out of the city with a few enemies in pursuit. Luckily they did not chase very far, and I made it to Bladethorpe in one piece. Most of the raiding party was not so lucky.

Good thing the server is dead though, otherwise I’d never be able to farm up more gear in peace.

(DarkFall-related post disclaimer/reminder. If you click the image link near the top-right of this page and buy a DarkFall account, I get paid 20% of the client cost. If you believe this taints my views and reporting on DarkFall, your opinion is wrong.)

Defining dynamic

May 21, 2010

Talk about dynamic events has been somewhat constant since ArenaNet shared information about the idea, with KTR posting some new comments, Tobold and Keen putting posts up, and on this blog I put my own thoughts down on the subject as well. I’m still not sure this won’t be more than PQ2.0, but rather than continue down that path today I instead want to talk about what dynamic means to me in an MMO.

When I think of dynamic events I think of a developer setting up some random variables and letting them loose on a virtual world. The interesting and yet dangerous thing here is that since the developers don’t fully know the results, much less the players, the event could go horribly wrong for a number of reasons.

Let’s say the event in question is an undead horde rising up to attack an empire. The devs identify locations the horde could arise from, what mobs have a chance of spawning, and what their behavior will be (hold, attack, retreat, etc). Other random factors could include the appearance of special mobs such as necromancers to speed up the growth process, vampires to act as champions, or human cultists to infiltrate cities and act from within. But all of this is randomized, so one location in the world might only see a few skeletons protecting a graveyard while another might get 3-4 necromancers that overnight create a city-crushing horde.

Of course what happens next is where the real player-driven randomness kicks in. If a strong guild attacks the three necromancer spawn early, they might defeat all of them and that area will be safe. If you are not online or around when this happens, you miss out. If on the other hand the graveyard of skeletons is left unchecked, it might eventually get a vampire champion and a cult of humans, leading it to grow to such a size/power that the local players are unable to stop it, and in turn they lose a city or a questing area. If the player population continues to ignore the area, the horde continues to spread and its champions get stronger as time goes on. Since variables rather than a script are in control, nothing is to stop the area from getting a silly amount of necromancers and being swarmed, or a vampire champion growing to an unstoppable power level.

At some point the devs might have to step in if the players are unable to handle things, but this just presents an in-game lore-based opportunity for some NPC hero (maybe GM controlled?) to rise up and aid the players in pushing the evil back. Again however it’s entirely possible that without such aid, entire areas of the game world might become death zones, and while veterans will know to avoid such places for the time being, newer players might instead view this as the game being impossible and simply not fun. The randomness creates a lot of variety, but not all of it will be positive for everyone.

For any of this to happen you would need a fairly open-ended MMO with a dev team willing to take some significant risks, not to mention some impressive technology to correctly handle it all, but when the topic of dynamic content comes up, this ultimately is what I envision, and hence why what GW2 is pitching does not meet MY expectations.

An offer not even worth refusing

May 21, 2010

Dear internet advertising people,

Offering me $10 to advertise on my blog is not a very tempting proposition. You see, I’ve already earned more in the time it took me to read your email than what you are offering, and while tripling that amount sure sounds catchy, tripling next-to-nothing is just triple nothing. And no, I won’t email you back to discuss rates, because my guess is suggesting you move the decimal place two spots to the right and making this a monthly payment is just slightly, slightly out of your budget.

And don’t look at me like I’m being unreasonable here, I can’t even buy a goddamn mount for what you are offering!

The not-so-dynamic events in GW2

May 20, 2010

My original idea for today’s post was to take a pre-release description of Warhammer’s Public Quests, replace mentions of WAR with Guild Wars 2 and PQs with Dynamic Events. Then laziness kicked in, so you are just going to have to pretend that actually happened and you got totally fooled. Got you.

Point being, they would sound very, very similar. Which is not to say that DE will be exactly like PQs, my guess is they will be a bit more involved and progressive, but they won’t really leave an impact on the game world like I think some are imagining right now, nor will they be quite as ‘dynamic’ as they sound on paper.

Here is the root problem with DE leaving an impact: the setup is players vs AI, and so if the AI is ‘winning’, the players feel bad and the AI does not care. It’s the AI not caring that makes it perfect for raid bosses, because no matter how many times you kill a boss, he will never ragequit and take his toys with him. Kill a player even once and he might up and leave, and while that is also likely in a player vs player setup, at least in that situation the joy of victory is experienced by a paying customer rather than an emotionless script.

That’s why ogres smashing a village and disabling some player-functionality (trainers, flight point, shops, whatever) is not nearly as cool as it sounds, especially if the majority of the players around have no motivation to reclaim it and those who do can’t do it alone. I know the events will scale and all that, but are you really going to have an epic adventure if you alone can push back an invasion and ‘save’ a town? (The correct answer here is no. If you believe the answer is yes, gtfo of the MMO genre, please).

Another problem with DE that has been hinted at but not directly expressed is that they won’t be unique or have their outcomes be truly dynamic. They will ebb and flow between pre-set stages, and are built to repeat once certain conditions are met. This is ok initially, but once the min/maxers get done with things they will figure out the optimal DE cycle for maximum reward, and even if that cycle includes silly things like letting the ogres destroy a town so that the big town boss spawns so he can be killed to get the ‘good epics’, the players will go along with this. Anyone remember keep trading in WAR? Exactly. And once the cycle is figured out and the best rewards are being dished out, the time it will take for players to ‘max out’ on the event cycle will be far shorter than the devs originally intended it to be.

To prevent the above, the system would instead have to be a bunch of variables (number of ogres that spawn, their strength, their goal, ect) that are then let loose on the world, and however things play out is how they play out. If the ogres are not handled, they not only burn the closest town, they then move on to burn the next, and the next, until they are knocking on the door of the capital. Or they stay put and build a truly massive fortress to launch ever-increasing raids on everyone. Problem with this of course is that uncontrolled, the NPC ogres are in effect griefing the world, disables large sections of content and making a true mess of things. For some (myself included) that sounds like a lot of fun, for most (WoW players) that sounds terribly inconvenient and a good reason to go back to grinding daily quests in isolation. I don’t think ArenaNet is looking to attract my style of gaming, and so DE won’t have nearly the impact or free flow nature that some are already drooling about.

Not that having better-working PQs is a bad thing, and they will most likely be entertaining content in their own right. I just don’t think they are going to live up to the hype coming with them, nor the elevated expectations that that hype has created.


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