AA: Good design can’t overcome a bad business model and stupidity

October 27, 2014

Whelp, things went downhill fast huh?

To some extent this should have been obvious, given that ArcheAge is a F2P MMO, the very clear minor-leagues of the genre. Maybe I was trying to convince myself otherwise, or maybe a particularly bleak dry-spell was to blame, or I was just coming off the terribad roller-coaster ride that was DF:UW. Either way, I currently have zero motivation to log into AA, and my sub has been canceled.

What’s interesting about AA is that from a design perspective it gets so much right, both big and little. I’ve covered a lot of them here, and hopefully future MMOs take a note or two on the better aspects of AA. If this is but one of the general directions the genre is going in, I’m ok with that. But ultimately the game was doomed by two major factors, one predictable (F2P), the other somewhat a surprise (Trion).

The F2P aspect is obvious. The Pay4Power aspect is brutal, as is the cheese factor of the cash shop. The taint of F2P is felt in almost all aspects, and the fact that being a subscriber only takes you out of ‘worthless to anyone but bots’ free territory and into ‘you are paying but not enough, give us more!’ land doesn’t make you feel good. The daily loyalty points you get, which only allow you to buy a few things in the shop, are more of a slap to the face than anything else.

But again that part was somewhat predictable, and I’ve played such MMOs before and not minded it that much (Atlantica Online is by far the best example of this IMO).

The F2P factor becomes a bigger issue than normal when mixed with disaster number two; Trion.

I’ve joked and not joked about Trion before, but I say this now being 100% serious; I’ve never experience a bigger disaster than what Trion has done with AA. It’s borderline criminal to be this incompetent on so many levels, and to be so dishonest about all of it.

Very recent and easy example; remember how for the first month, whenever anything was going wrong with AA, Trion would answer everything with basically “we’ll pass a note to XLGames, as we are just the publisher and can’t do anything”? Funny how for some reason (accounts unsubbing) suddenly a month later Trion is having GMs spam chat with how often they catch a hacker, and it seems not a day goes by that Trion is releasing a statement about what they are doing about the rampant cheating in the game. They have even gone so far as following up on specific Reddit threads, supposedly having someone go into the database and confirm that so-and-so was legit and didn’t hack.

You know what might have helped Trion? You not waiting until people slapped you with the wallet-vote before you did something. Maybe instead of waiting until everyone has chat turned off due to spam, you could have launched the game with chat restrictions? It’s a joke, especially because the ‘crackdown’ on hacking is not only too late, it also only catches the idiots stupid enough to run a well-known and easily available hack kit on patch day. Everyone else is still sitting pretty, and Trion knows it but won’t do a thing about it.

The real shame here is that in a genre with so few decent options, one was taking away not because of its core design, but because of its business model and the incompetent fools tasked with simply porting the game over and doing some basic maintenance.

Even when we get something nice, it’s tainted to such a degree that you are forced out. Real shame.


AA: View from level 50

October 21, 2014

I recently hit the current level cap of 50 in ArcheAge, so now is a good time to talk about that experience, what changes, and plans going forward.

First thing however is how effortless getting to 50 was. Not only is the leveling experience fairly short by MMO standards, but almost everything you do in the game gives XP. Spend some timing mining? You got a ton of XP. Did some work around the farm? XP. Trade run? Bit of XP. I’d say easily 40% of my XP was gained from non-quest activities, and that number could have been a lot higher had I wanted it to be (I actually enjoyed blitzing the quests and just whacking mobs).

In AA however, more than in any themepark I’ve played so far, getting to the cap isn’t a game-shifting event. There really is no “game starts at cap” for AA, for a number of reasons.

One is that you still care about getting more XP. Because of how the skill trees work, and the large number of them, you will likely want to level more than your original three up (assuming you didn’t switch midway to 50, in which case you haven’t hit 50 in all 3 of your current trees anyway). Additionally things like your combat pet or mount also need to hit 50, so you care about XP there. Keeping XP relevant even though your character level is at the cap is pretty brilliant, because you avoid the motivational and design issue of only some players benefitting from an activity that factors XP into its reward. Blizzard had this problem in WoW (TBC days anyway), and tried to solve the problem by having quests convert their XP reward into giving out more gold, but the way AA does it is not only cleaner, but feels more natural as well.

Beyond the issue of XP, what you actually do at 50 is what you were doing at 49. You still do your farming, you still work on your crafting skills, you still chase after better gear, and you still jump into stuff like rifts, zone battles, trade routes, the arena, etc. And because all of those things still give XP, you are also progressing on that front should you decide to as well. The whole thing just feels very ‘sandbox’, while still using more themeparky elements like XP and quests.

Going forward I have plenty of personal goals to chase after, in addition to working on larger, guild-wide goals (dungeon runs, zone bosses, arena team, getting more land and a bigger house, pirate adventures, etc). And assuming Trion doesn’t Trion things (ha), the next continent is opening soon with additional content options as well.


Some people play MMOs, some play EVE

October 20, 2014

To say that EVE is a different kind of MMO is perhaps the biggest understatement in gaming. Year after year events happen in EVE that no other game will likely ever come close to replicating, and the game’s depth, complexity, and sheer scale draw and hold some of the best and brightest players. There is perhaps no finer example of this then the most recent Rooks and Kings’ masterpiece, Clarion Call 4. It’s over an hour long, and my only criticisms is that it isn’t two.

There is just so much to love here. There is of course the utter brilliance of the tactics used, and the razor sharp execution of those tactics. But almost as amazing is the begrudging respect you hear from the victims. The name “Rooks and Kings” means something (usual quick death) to tens of thousands, despite the group being very small by EVE Corp or Alliance standards.

That kind of earned respect, over many years of excellence, just doesn’t happen in other MMOs. In WoW the ‘top’ raiding guild and roster changes yearly, if not monthly, and the excitement or respect generated by being a world first is both short lived and quickly forgotten. In LoL, which just had it’s amazing world championship (more on that in another post), who is king also changes year to year, and while the names and teams impress, they also quickly burn out of view. Who won season 1, and who was on those teams? Would even 1% of all LoL players know? Because certainly far more than 1% of all EVE players know R&K, and have known about them since before the first game of LoL was ever played.

That R&K have been around in EVE for so long isn’t an accident, just like the CFC being so large and dominant is no accident. It’s a reflect of what CCP has created, and a reminder that no one else is even close, and haven’t been for more than ten years now.

Edit: H/T to TAGN for reminding me to blog about this video.


PvE-only servers don’t actually work

October 17, 2014

Would CCP be better off if they created a PvE-only server for EVE? Some carebears would argue yes, because since EVE only has a PvP server, they don’t play. On the surface that makes sense; PvP-only games are indeed locking anyone who sees PvP and runs in the opposite direction out. But lets play this out a little further shall we?

On that PvE-only EVE server, the economy would be a total joke. Ships would rarely be lost, everyone could fly around perfectly safe in all-officer fit ships, the most lucrative PvE (null, WH) could be farmed without risk, mining afk would never end negatively, and all those multi-billion-ISK-in-a-transport traders would never be ganked. So unless you also expect CCP to basically completely change the game on almost all levels, the economy part of EVE wouldn’t work on a PvE server.

Furthermore, the PvE challenge on such a server would also be a joke. Remember, everyone is flying around in all-officer fits, which makes them far more powerful than the standard PvE ship found in the game today. Beyond just that, outside of high-sec you can now use a Titan to farm all day without a single fear of a hot drop. Are the carebears expecting CCP to fix this as well? How, tune PvE to officer-fit Titans in terms of difficulty? Just accept that all PvE would quickly become faceroll in difficulty (more so than it already is in EVE)?

And now the biggest question, why the hell are you going to play EVE for years here? You are sitting in an officer-fit Titan, with a wallet full of ISK, a hanger with every ship and fitting you ever wanted, and having safely explored everything there is to see, with all content being trivial and with nothing else to do. What’s your motivation to keep playing/paying?

There is a reason EVE is the only MMO out to grow and maintain sub numbers for more than ten years, and that reason is directly tied to PvP. So while yes, certain carebears stay away, the game has proven that other carebears stay, year after (10) year, because of what PvP brings to the game (among other things, a sink that keeps the economy and basically the whole game going).

A lot of those currently playing WOULD switch to the PvE server, because most people are child-like and would eat candy until they died if you let them. They WOULD get bored and walk away from the game. That is why you don’t open a PvE-only server; because it would allow MMO children to spoil themselves into quitting, and in the long run that’s bad for business.

So help save the kids, and your MMO; don’t go PvE-only and kill yourself and everyone playing!

PS: The same applies to AA. Think about how many of that game’s core mechanics rely on PvP to balance or keep them interesting. How many seemingly PvE-only activities would lose long-term value or purpose in a completely safe world?


AA: Surprisingly good questing

October 6, 2014

One bad ArcheAge post (because Trion) needs to be balanced with a positive one, so let’s talk about the great questing!

The above line actually isn’t sarcasm.

AA has surprisingly entertaining questing for an MMO. Now I’m not talking about the quest text, because I’ve been skimming and mostly skipping that due to the fairly terrible translation; I’m talking about the mechanics. AA has all of them. Probably literally. If there is a quest mechanic out there, I’m guessing AA uses it. And that is a huge plus when talking about a sandbox that, more than most other games, really does let you gain XP in viable ways without touching a quest.

AA will allow you to quest as if the game was WoW. You can go from one standard quest hub to the next, never branch out, and most likely hit the level cap. I think you’d have a terribly boring time, but a sandbox is about choice, and if you choose to bore yourself, that’s on you.

AA also has some ‘out of the way’ quests. Sometimes these are one or two simple steps and act as an XP bonus, while other times they are cross-zone multi-step epics with suitable rewards. These reward moving off the standard ‘quest path’ and digging into the side bits of a zone, or killing a named mob (or bunch of random mobs) to see what happens. The nice thing is that sometimes nothing happens, so you don’t always expect every action to be rewarded. When you are, it feels like you actually found something.

Then there are a slew of hidden quests. Some are only ‘hidden’ until you click an item to start them, while others require quite a bit more legwork.

My favorite so far featured a set of five tombs, and the normal quest progression only takes you to one of those. When you kill a mob inside that tomb, you get a drop that seems to have no purpose. If you read a book at the bottom of that tomb, it hints at something behind a locked door, and that in order to open it you must collect the four broken pieces. However the pieces aren’t called “key piece 1”, but rather broken armor piece.

Still without anything showing in your quest log, you can opt to head into the other four tombs and kill the named mob for the broken armor pieces. Once you have all four, you head to the fifth to craft the key on an anvil at the bottom. With that key you can finally open the sealed door in the first tomb, which then takes you to a bit of a boss fight and finally, only after that mob is dead, do you have something show up on your quest log, which directs you to the NPC to claim your reward. Totally optional, not exactly mickey mouse to complete, and actually fun questing content. A nice piece of advanced ‘themepark’ in a sandbox.

AA has a pretty short level 1-to-cap game (I’m currently 41 and haven’t really been trying to gain XP all that much. If I had to guess, I’d say you could hit 50 in a week with some semi-serious grinding.), but that short leveling game does have some nice PvE content. Why it really works great in AA is that you don’t have to just quest until the cap and then do other stuff.

The way I’m currently playing, I’m doing that ‘other stuff’ 80% of the time, and when I need a break or playing for 30 minutes at off hours, I’ll do some questing and I’ll enjoy it. Hell sometimes I’ll even be amused by a quest. That’s more than enough in my book here; given how good the ‘other stuff’ is in AA.

 

 


AA: Trade Routes bring life to the roads and waves

October 1, 2014

With ArcheAge being a sandbox, it’s somewhat difficult to talk about just one aspect of the game without the post spiraling into a dozen other supporting topics. If I focus too much on just the actual topic, I feel like much of the ‘why’ behind the activity is lost, while if I keep things too broad, the little details that can be critical (like the jump/walk difference with portals) would not be given the attention they deserve. Hopefully I can strike a decent balance.

Let’s talk about trade routes today. At a high level trade routes in AA require you to craft a pack at a specific crafting station, when crafted the pack goes on your back and slows you down, you bring the pack to a one of various NPCs in different zones, and when you arrive you turn the pack in for a gold, resource, or token reward. Pretty basic right?

Each zone has, I believe, two different trade packs that can be crafted. Each pack has a different set of materials you need, and these materials come from farms, be it crops or livestock. You also must buy a somewhat inexpensive item from an NPC to finish the pack. This means that the system ties nicely into the harvesting aspect of the game, and setting up your farm to produce the right products for a certain trade pack feels a bit like setting up production chains in city building econ games ala Tropico or The Settlers. You can of course buy the materials off the auction house, but that will generally cut into your profits.

Once crafted the pack weights you down, reducing your movement speed and disabling the use of your glider or basic mount. You can use a special donkey mount, as well as certain vehicles to speed you up. You can also take advantage of the NPC transportation options such as carriages or air ships.

One very cool aspect of AA you will shortly notice is that players use roads to travel, rather than always going in a straight line from point A to point B like one would in most other games (especially games with flying mounts). This is mostly due to trade routes, as you want to avoid catching agro and having mobs slow you down, or agro on your lower level donkey mount and disable it until you heal it. You certainly feel like you are living in a virtual world traveling down a road with a pack on your back, seeing other traders pass you by, be they on foot, on a donkey, or one of the various steam-punk vehicles. It’s one of those nice little details that answers the question “how do you make roads feel like roads in an MMO?”.

Where you decide to travel with your pack is another important question. If you want to avoid PvP, you can stay on your side of the world. This however limits you to only getting gold as a possible reward, while intercontinental travel gives you the option to select a trade-only resource reward or gilda tokens, which are used for things like buying a house, ship, or vehicle blueprint. You can also access a ‘trade report’ window that shows you current prices of the various trade packs and NPCs, which fluctuate based on turn-in volume, meaning the same route you did yesterday might not be as profitable today. Again just another little touch that breaks up the ‘grind’ that is all too common in MMOs.

If you go with the higher risk/reward option of intercontinental travel, if you get killed you drop your trade pack for anyone else to pick up and turn in. Should the pack be turned in, you will still receive 20% of the reward, but the player who turned it in will get the other 80%.

This opens up a lot of gameplay options, from pirates on the seas to mercenary protection guilds. It also highly encourages guild runs of trade packs, and raises the appeal of the larger ships, especially the merchant ship that can actually hold trade packs so guild members can better defend the ship.

Ultimately trade packs are just one of many options to acquire wealth in AA. You never ‘need’ to run one, and when you do, the game has lots of options on how to do so. They bring life to the virtual world, create demand and a ‘sink’ for basic goods, enable opt-in loot-based PvP, and can be used as both a major guild activity or as calm, easy downtime task for a solo player.

They aren’t a tacked-on ‘bullet list’ feature, but rather a solid and fun piece of AA’s virtual world puzzle.


AA: The true spiritual successor to UO

September 30, 2014

With the lead weight that is Trion and F2P covered yesterday, let’s start digging into WHY you should tolerate Trion and play ArcheAge anyway, because yea, you should be if you enjoy virtual worlds and smart MMO design.

I always go back to this point, but for me the perfect MMO is basically a great RPG game that doesn’t end and greatly benefits from the fact that you are playing with others. It’s because of this that I inherently dislike themeparks over virtual worlds; a themepark MMO has an end, and it also has a preset path you travel along to reach that end.

When this is done well you get quality themeparks like 2005 WoW or FFXIV, which can be very entertaining but ultimately not hit the highs of a great virtual world. Nothing a themepark can do will ever top the best moments in games like UO or EVE for me; by design they simply aren’t capable of such highs, and so themeparks in general are a ‘waste’ of MMO development time compared to crafting virtual worlds.

To call ArcheAge a ‘sandpark’ is selling the game short, or getting an EG-level of experience with the title and claiming you ‘get it’. One flaw AA has is that its first 15-20 levels, which in retrospect are basically an overly long and probably unnecessary tutorial, are classic themepark questing gameplay, and if you don’t know better you might think that is actually a major part of what AA is about. But it’s not, not at all really. It would be like saying mission running in EVE is a major focus of the game, with the other bits being side activities, and hence EVE is a ‘sandpark’.

The truth is that AA is very much a virtual world, and it is indeed a modern-day version of UO. Where UO had very rough “bring the NPC here” ‘quests’, AA has all the questing mechanics and systems of today’s MMOs covered. Where UO had basic crafting, AA has crafting depth deeper than most titles in the genre, and crafting that isn’t a tacked-on mini-game but rather a core feature. Where UO had effective yet simplified combat, AA has all the lessons learned about modern tab-target combat included. Where UO had basic but open character building, AA has a very refined skill-tree setup, with a good mix of options and tradeoffs. Where UO had a large but somewhat unrefined world, AA has a ‘zones without actually being zones’ world, one that feels open yet at the same time organized, focused, and interesting.

Some or all of those points might be covered in future posts, but that’s AA in a nutshell; a virtual world MMORPG the feels like it was made in 2014, with 17 or so years of MMO lessons learned under it.

AA also feels like an MMO made by someone who has actually played an MMO before. For instance, players start with the ability to recall, which works just like it does in most MMOs; use the ability, and you get sent back to your bind spot for free. Simple yet useful. But AA also gives you a teleport book, which has all of your discovered teleport spots, along with a tab for your personal locations (such as your house). To teleport, you must have a craftable item in your inventory, and rather than moving you to the spot, a portal opens. If you jump through the portal, you teleport. Simple again, right?

Only if you have been paying attention to the genre, your first thought should be “someone is going to open a portal in the starting area to a death trap and grief new players”, or “someone is going to use portals to make PvP a complete cluster”. And if AA was made by someone who had never played an MMO, like say SOE or Trion, portals wouldn’t require you to JUMP through them rather than WALK through them. But XLGames made AA, and clearly at least one person there has played an MMO, and so they added that little yet critical tweak to something as basic as moving around.

Plus if SOE or Trion were in charge, not only would the game have gone live with the grief portals, but then the fix those clowncars would have added would be to make portals only work for the player who summoned them, killing another awesome feature that AA has going for it; being able to open a portal for your whole guild/group, and regardless of level or if someone has that location or not, everyone being able to travel together without the usual hassle and, wait for it, play together in an MMO. Mindblowing! And this is just one of many examples of AA feeling like a ‘next gen’ MMO, rather than telling us it is in some manifesto and delivering yet another generic and completely forgettable themepark experience. A title that has learned from previous MMOs and feels like it has actually been designed to not neuter, limit, or ‘make everything accessible’, but just solve the previous issues or flaws while still retaining what made the original ideas so great in the first place.

Speaking of feel, AA has that feel of playing to progress forward, without ‘forward’ being some developer-defined thing like a level cap, or a certain item level, or clearing a certain tier of raiding. It feels similar to playing EVE, that feel of always need more ISK, but not needing to always do the most ISK-effective activity just because the game or the devs laid out the path that way for you. I might not have a clear plan for the eggs I gather from the chickens on a farm, but damnit, gathering those eggs IS progress, however big or small it might be. And if a day comes where I can’t stand the thought of gathering another egg, or watering another plant, I can stop doing that completely and, so long as I have another income stream, never be forced to do that activity ever again while still being able to progress forward.

That is sadly the all-too-rare ‘feel’ of a sandbox, the ability to progress forward in a number of different ways, without any one way being the ‘right’ or the ‘required’ way.

Finally, don’t believe the lies and misinformation spread by some, because while AA certainly has a good amount of PvP-focus to it, it is even more limited than EVE in just how open that PvP is. Should you choose so, you can avoid PvP completely and still quest, farm, trade, and progress. Up to level 30 all questing zones are protected (you can attack enemy players and flag yourself, but they can’t attack you), and within those zones you can set up a house or a farm, complete trade runs, harvest, fish, etc. Even further zones change from allowing PvP to not, so a trade route, house, or farm placed in one of those zones could still be tended by someone looking to avoid PvP so long as they enter when the zone is safe (which is visible from the world map).

Your risk vs reward ratio won’t be the same as someone who does head into more dangerous territory, but AA is far from the fully FFA PvP experience of games such as Darkfall or Mortal Online. As stated above, this is yet another example of the game clearly learning from previous games, and rather than taking the easy or limited route, there exists a nicely working balance that caters to many different types of players.

Ultimately I believe AA is worth your time if you are looking for a solid virtual world experience. It’s not without flaws, certainly, but especially in a genre with such slim pickings, it’s easily one of the better-crafted experiences outside of New Eden.

 


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