Can we close the book on ‘accessibility’ now?

September 18, 2014

File this as example 164,239 of “difficulty is good for everyone, faceroll is bad”: EVE Burner missions killing people make them enjoyable. This is pretty good timing too, given that Blizzard just confirmed example 164,238 (WotLK, the ‘accessible’ age, was when WoW started declining), and Tobold is here to provide example 164,240, where he had to stop face-rolling in Destiny (a ‘casual AAA game’ everyone) due to running into something with a challenge, and actually had to think up a way to get around it. Oh the horror.

Not that this is news to most. The most popular game out overall is based on scaling PvP difficulty (LoL), the most popular and profitable mobile game is based on scaling PvP difficulty (CoC), and the most popular gaming franchise (CoD) is based primarily around PvP of scaling difficulty (server selection). It’s almost like people are trying to tell devs something, and they are saying it with what counts (money rather than words).


Subtraction by addition

September 3, 2014

One of the lazier strawmen in MMO blogging land is to dismiss the success of an older MMO by stating that fewer people play it today. I’m sure you have read some version of “If UO did so many things right, why aren’t more people playing it today?” on one blog or another. The overall ‘why’ is a pretty complex topic that I won’t fully get into today, but what I do want to talk about is the fact that MMOs can get worse.

Time is one factor. As the months and years go by, a game ages. Visuals that at release looked great might not be so hot anymore. A feature that was special at release might be common in most games a few years later. You don’t have the newest, hottest feature. Etc, etc.

All of the above however doesn’t have to happen in an MMO. You can upgrade your visuals. You can patch in new features. You can introduce whatever the newest technology trend is (super servers for example). Just because WoW today looks like a game from 2005, or EQ2 looks like something from 1999, doesn’t mean that’s just how things go. EVE today looks like a game released in 2014, and its technical backend is still miles ahead of everyone else. UO did an engine update. So did DDO. Plenty of other examples exist. That’s a major selling point of the genre after all; you aren’t just buying a game as-is today, you are buying into a service that will evolve and improve as time goes on.

Yet while the intent of every update is to make an MMO better, not all do so. Of course famous examples like UO’s Trammel, SWG’s NGE, or DoAC’s ToA are well known and deservedly hated, but all MMOs have had some update that has driven someone away. Now most updates are positive, but even if a change brings or retains more people than it drives away, someone somewhere is going to hate that you did X instead of Y.

And sometimes an MMO does just get worse due to updates. How many half-decent MMOs have become complete dreck because of a F2P switch? Remember when LotRO was all about staying true to the lore, or when loading screens weren’t an opportunity to spam with you a cash-shop ad? When EVE forced you into the captains quarters? Etc, etc.

So yes, even if I did love what UO was in 97, that doesn’t mean that the 2014 version with elves, ninjas, and god knows what else is a game I want to play. Due to updates, the passing of time, and a multitude of other factors, in 2014 I’m not playing UO. That doesn’t change the fact that 1997 UO did a lot of things better than MMOs today, including 2014 UO, and that today’s devs could still learn a lot from it, or other once-successful MMOs.

And hopefully, they learn the right lessons, and make the right update, to actually make there MMO better with each update. Seems to be a rare thing these days.


FFXIV: Removing the alt hurdle

August 19, 2014

One thing that annoys me about a lot of MMOs is “add it for the bullet” features. Basically stuff like crafting, PvP, ‘exploration’, etc tacked on when they don’t fit just so the back of the box (or in modern terms, the Steam page) can include that aspect of the game in a bullet list.

Most of the time the addition is little more than a distraction and a waste of dev time, but occasionally it ends up crippling the main point of your MMO (PvP gear being better for raiding, throwaway PvE deciding PvP balance, etc). I always point out that EVE is the best-designed MMO out, and it’s primarily for this reason; everything is important, and everything works together. That’s very difficult to do, but is critically important if you are actually attempting to achieve a virtual world (most modern-day MMOs don’t aim for that of course).

FFXIV is by no means a virtual world. It’s as themepark as MMOs come, but it also features a crafting/gathering game that is, well, an actual game rather than a throwaway feature. I can’t talk yet about how it integrates with everything at the level cap, but even halfway in there is a lot to like about it.

The main thing I like is that FFXIV lets you play one character you identify with, but due to how job switching works, you don’t constantly progress in power in everything and have to ‘downlevel’ should you go back to something. This means that when I switch from my main class down to something new, I feel like I’m playing at level 1 rather than being a max-level character with reduced stats simulating level 1 (usually poorly). This also means my main level job stays put, so playing side stuff doesn’t put me ahead, which pretty key for enjoying the game as a duo. It’s not a totally new concept in the genre, but it’s by far the cleanest implementation I’ve seen in an MMO.

Crafting and gathering greatly benefit here because each profession is its own job rather than skill, meaning you actually level up your miner or blacksmith job, so a level 1-10 zone that you finished as your primary class becomes relevant and challenging again when you enter it as your level 4 miner, and again it’s not ‘fake’ challenge with the game down-leveling you (FFXIV also does that should you enter an area above level, and it feels as wonky as in other MMOs).

The same applies for different combat classes. I finished the 1-20 quests in one area for my main job, but rather than down-level to experience the other two starting area questing zones, if I switch to a new combat job everything feels appropriate, while I still retain the name and look of my character. It sounds like a minor thing, but feels very smooth and makes enjoying all aspects of the game much easier without the ‘roll an alt’ hurdle.

I’ve got more but RL just happened and it’s off to the hospital right now (blogger dedication!), clan is expanding.


Cash shop item creation clarification

August 11, 2014

This somewhat jumped out at me about Pathfinder planning to sell in-game items, and how some argued that because said items are tradable in-game, the system is basically the same as PLEX. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Not even close.

The massive difference is that with cash-shop items, the store itself is creating something of use in the game. This means that, theoretically, there is an unlimited supply of, say, tents in PFO. No matter how many are bought in the cash shop, another can always be bough, at exactly the same price as the first. The game’s cash shop is creating items.

With PLEX, CCP isn’t creating an item or money. They are simply letting you trade/sell 30 days of subscriber time to others, represented in-game as a license. No item of in-game function is created. That is the critical difference. Without PLEX all players would pay there $15 a month directly, with PLEX some can opt to have others pay for them in exchange for trading some of their in-game work (ISK) for it. But PLEX doesn’t create that ISK, unlike in PFO where the shop IS creating something.

Just a quick note, but for whatever reason it stuck out and bothered me.


Final Fantasy XIV: Initial impressions

August 6, 2014

My wife and I recently started playing Final Fantasy XIV, in part because it’s been a long while since we played an MMO together, and also because her chain-playing LoL ranked games isn’t healthy for anyone. Currently we are level 13, and the game overall has been enjoyable.

In terms of graphics the game is pretty fantastic IMO, even better than ESO. FF avoids a lot of the uncanny-valley problems ESO ran into with character models, and in terms of landscape I’d say they are about even. Effects and such seem more impressive or appropriate in FF, and I think it blows ESO out of the water in terms of animations, story presentation, and just the overall impact the graphics have on the enjoyment of the game.

We both play at 1900×1200, and on my current machine (i7 Sandbridge overclocked to 4ghz, ) I can easily run the game fully maxed out at a stable 60fps, while the now 6 year old Alienware runs the game near the default “standard desktop” settings well-enough. The only notable issue is that sometimes, quest NPCs don’t instantly load on the older PC, which is a bit annoying as my wife sometimes has to wait a few seconds for them to appear. After some settings tweaks this happens less often however (maybe once or twice per hour).

Sound isn’t always a huge factor in MMOs, but in FF it most certainly is. From the awesome nostalgia of the classic FF theme used on the home page, to mixing in the battle theme after a fight, FF14 is an MMO that uses its rich and storied IP and puts it to good use, rather than feeling weighed down by it ala ESO.

On the gameplay front so far everything feels solid. It’s most certainly a themepark MMO, but rather than trying to mix in a thousand things to try to be something else, FF14 embraces that model and refines it down to the best parts.

It has a central storyline quest chain, but unlike in say GW2, here you actually are the central hero actually doing stuff, rather than a silent and nameless sidekick. At the same time, it’s presented in better fashion than the “you are a god slayer on day one” that was the ESO main chain. It’s also build into the zones, so you aren’t returning to the ‘main chain’ instanced hole in the ground. It’s a bit early to definitively say if the story and progression fully pay off, but so far it’s interesting and something we look forward to rather than just being in item on a checklist.

Speaking of checklist items, I do like the fact that FF14 doesn’t flood you with 10 quests the moment you step into a quest hub, but rather seems to always have 2-4 quests at a time, with more opening up as you finish the first batch, often with logical references or reasons as to why someone now wants you to do something. It might seem like a small thing, but IMO it really does help you focus on each item rather than just looking on the map and seeing where the concentration of ‘stuff to do’ is highest. To me this is a perfect example of refining the themepark model to make it better. Sure ultimately most of these quests are pretty standard “kill 5 of this”, “collect 3 of that”, “go talk to that guy” tasks, but how they are presented and their pacing goes a long away.

This ‘less is more’ design also extends to items. Rather than being flooded with random junk or ‘white’ items, so far it seems like questing is the main source of upgrades (haven’t gotten into crafting), and they are paced well. The game auto-loots mobs for you, but since most times you just get a bit of money, you aren’t really focused on killing something for what it drops, but rather because it’s a quest objective. I very much appreciate not having to play the “dump 90% of your inventory at a vendor” game after every questing session. The lack of gear flooding also means it’s easier to focus on questing and actually playing rather than on constantly fiddling to gain +1 to whatever stat.

Finally but perhaps most importantly, I’m really enjoying the combat. This is again another example of refining themepark combat rather than trying to do too much. FF14 is pretty standard tab-target combat, but I think it’s slower than games like GW2 or ESO in terms of global cooldowns and how often you mash skills, which IMO is a plus (I can actually watch the animations rather than focusing on a hotbar!). If I want FPS-like combat, I can play Darkfall or, you know, a FPS. I don’t really need or want my MMO with target locking to half-ass ‘action’ combat just to say it has ‘action’ combat. You don’t; you just have more annoying/spammy tab-target combat.

Currently the only stuff we haven’t been thrilled with have been the public quests, called Fates in FF14. So far almost all have been ‘kill a bunch of stuff until the bar fills’, and then they just end. I think what really made WAR’s PQs great is they had stages, and each PQ felt like it escalated during those stages. Stage one was normal mobs, stage two was tougher mobs or larger waves, and stage three you got a boss. That felt like an event; and at the end you left feeling you actually accomplished something. With Fates you just feel like you killed a few mobs for a bit of XP. I think the lack of a more meaningful reward, combined with the lack of a visual leaderboard and ‘end of PQ summery’ screen, also diminish the experience. WAR’s PQs felt like they belonged to the zone they were in, Fates feel like someone put a spawn circle at random spots in the zone and called it a day.

The nice thing about playing the game at a casual pace is that we now just skip over Fates and continue on with the stuff we enjoy, and the game doesn’t punish us for it. If anything, it seems we are a bit ahead of the XP curve just from questing.

Couple of quick questions for FF14 vets:

I think the group size is 4, is that correct? And I’ve heard that if you duo, you can fill the other two spots with combat pets? Details here would be cool. I’m playing a tank and Aria is playing a dps mage, can we get/hire a healer and another dps NPC? So far we haven’t come across any such option.

When does dungeon content start, and how does that work? Group finder?

I’m pretty sure at end-game you have raiding, but is there anything else? Something that would work well for our duo? How is the raiding overall, if we decide to go down that path?


What happened to all those WoW-babies?

August 4, 2014

TAGN, in a post about the closing of Vanguard, brings back a theory that was pretty popular around the 2006(ish) timeframe; mainly that those who played WoW would ‘grow up’ to eventually play a ‘real MMO’. Let’s revisit that theory today.

As I mentioned in the comments section over there, I think a good number of WoW players did ‘grow up’ and went looking for something better/deeper. How many is the impossible question, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that if WoW never happened, the MMO genre wouldn’t be the size it is today, supporting all of the different MMOs we have out. To that extend, WoW did bring in a lot of new players, and those players did ‘grow up’ to look for something else.

The problem today is ‘something else’ is either EVE, meh at best, or minor-league garbage. Now let’s be very clear here; no MMO was ever or will ever be a ‘WoW-killer’, but that is mostly due to the fact that WoW was a pop-culture phenomenon. Yes, prior to WotLK it was also a very good MMO, but it wasn’t 12m+ players good.

The same can be said today about League of Legends, the ‘real’ WoW killer; it’s a very good game, yes, but it’s not 40-60m or however many active accounts Riot has. LoL right now is benefitting from similar pop-culture status that WoW did, though arguable to a lesser extent because ‘vidyagames’ are more common and accepted today than even in 2006, so playing something popular isn’t front-page news-worthy.

I think a similar story can be written about the current massive success of Clash of Clans (the #1 grossing app still). Farmville laid the groundwork, and without doubt some of those players ‘graduated’ to a ‘real game’ in CoC. Because much like WoW and LoL, CoC is a great game, but is its design really “highest-grossing app out for over a year” great? Or did the pop-culture snowball effect kick in at some point and millions upon millions of people started playing because everyone else was, or because TV told them to?

Let’s get back to MMOs, or more accurately, the lack of either a great one or few with proper aspirations. I think the market size for a great MMO ala EVE is around the 500k-2m range. EVE is the king for virtual world design, but even by its own admission is somewhat niche. It might be the perfect version of Excel in Space, but at the end of the day it’s still Excel in Space. But I think a more mass-market, well-done MMO can get and retain around 2m players. Problem is every title that has tried has been horribly flawed and failed. LotRO, WAR, Rift, SW:TOR, ESO (I miss anyone?); all aimed at millions and fell well short, as each just isn’t great (or even good).

Then we had the problem of niche titles not defining their niche correctly. I think (hope) we are somewhat past this as indicated by titles like Pathfinder Online, Shroud of the Avatar, and Camelot Unchained. None of those titles have promised to be a WoW killer, or to be the next big thing. All, from what I have seen, are embracing their niche, and I hope that embracing extends to the business plan and surviving on 50k players or so. The only big whale I see crashing is Star Citizen, and even that has already kinda made its money (which is insane, but a totally different topic).

So yes, the WoW babies grew up. Not all 12m however, which confused not just readers but also the industry as a whole for a number of years. Seems like people are finally figuring it out, and now we just have to wait for the results when the next wave is released.


Sandbox end-game: Why keep playing long-term?

July 21, 2014

Let’s talk PvP sandbox MMO end-game today.

One of my outstanding questions from the whole Warhammer Online saga is in a perfect world, what was the end-game for that MMO? I mean we know it was to raid the other faction’s capital city and sack it, but was that it? If it was, in that perfect world, how many times could the players repeat that activity before getting bored? And if there was something greater, did Mark Jacobs or anyone from Mythic ever talk about it?

Darkfall has a similar problem, where the end-game is territory control, but due to a broken economy and the overall trivial nature of acquiring gear, no one really needs or desperately wants holdings, and the fights that result over them are thinly disguised “fights for the sake of fighting”. The criticism that the game is an awkward oversized arena stems from this general lack of greater purpose.

Finally EVE, as usual, is the best example in the genre in terms of end-game, as null-sec has value and giant organizations via to control it. The current ‘crisis’ is that 2-3 groups control it too well, and the barrier of entry for anyone outside of those 2-3 groups is practically impossible to overcome (short of those established groups imploding and creating a vacuum of power). EVE also benefits here because it has other end-games, though most revolve around the acquisition and use of money.

End-game is one of the issues I thought about when writing up my PvE Sandbox posts, and my solution is rather than relying on the players to create ‘content’ by fighting each other, the game world itself would drive players into action by having mobs attacking their holdings, and for the world overall to be in flux based on player actions and success. This would be further sustainable with AI tweaks or mob changes; whenever the players would get too comfortable with the challenges facing them, whenever they got too good at fighting back the mobs, the devs could step in and alter things to keep it interesting.

Looking forward to some future MMOs like Camelot Unchained and Pathfinder, what are the true end-games for those titles? Both have territory control mechanics, but will they have the depth and detail of EVE to avoid the problems currently facing Darkfall’s end-game? Will either bring something new, interesting, and sustainable to the table to keep players happily playing/paying?


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