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.

 


AA: Housing the way it should be done

September 25, 2014

If you ask any well-informed MMO player what two games have/had the best housing in the genre, the answer will be UO and SWG. It’s those two titles by a landslide, with basically everyone else in a distant, forgettable pile. The common thread between those two classics? Open world, non-instanced housing. Instanced housing by comparison is just a sad, cheap Sims knockoff mini-game the devs tossed in to +1 their MMO bullet list of features.

Moving past the obviously predictable, ArcheAge also has open-world housing, which already puts it ahead of most. Layer on top of that real functionality (farming that is critical to crafting, which itself is critical for everything else), and you have the basis for something pretty special.

If we go back to UO (and perhaps SWG, although my experience with that game is limited because, well, it was SW), the two biggest issues people had were the ‘urban sprawl’ of too many houses, and the fact that once a house was placed, that was basically it for that spot. AA has systems that fix both problems.

For the urban sprawl issue, housing is limited to certain spots, although said spots are often varied and in interesting spots rather than generic “housing corner” areas. When you come across housing locations they still feel organic, while at the same time you won’t find a house plopped in the middle of your quest location. It’s a solid compromise, though it perhaps leans a little too much towards themepark; I would have preferred more ‘prime location’ housing areas, though perhaps that’s something that happens in the later zones (still just level 26).

The second and IMO bigger issue of houses never going away is fixed with the tax system. If you don’t pay your taxes, you eventually lose ownership, the land is cleared, and someone else is able to come along and claim it. This system will ensure that inactive accounts can’t clutter a server, and will also make hunting for a housing spot a constant activity, rather than the one-and-done scan that it was in early UO (UO would later add a taxing system as well, I believe).

The big non-issue with open-world housing is availability, and especially with prime location availability. A location is a prime location because it’s limited. In the real world a large portion of a house’s value is based on location, meaning not everyone can have a mansion in the most ideal spot. This creates structure, demand, and a pecking order. Those with more can afford better, and almost everyone works to move on up the ladder.

An MMO retaining the gameplay of moving on up isn’t a negative, unless of course you are an entitled little brat who just stands around crying ‘gimmie gimmie gimmie’ and doesn’t actually want to work towards something. For everyone else, the added value of location is fantastic, as it gives everyone something to work towards. Players can make a solid income by snatching up locations and reselling them, and just about anyone can get something if they pay enough. That isn’t a problem, it’s an amazing feature. Tossing all of that in the trash by instancing your housing is a crime, not an improvement, and it’s nice to see at least one game build on a great feature from previously great MMOs.

On our server (Ollo) we currently have a large chunk of land claimed in one of the level 50 zones, as one of us was able to get in early and make a deal, basically buying out a guild that had put down a few houses in that area. Currently we have this section claimed by placing one small house and multiple farms around it (preventing others from interrupting our ‘chain of land’), but this area will be redone with a bigger house and more structured farming as soon as we have the resource to do so. It’s an exciting, long-term plan that will not only provide a good looking, but also highly functional space for us to use for our future housing and crafting needs. Unless of course we flip it for something better, which is always an option. Again, more on the personal side in a future post.


Why we all need AA to be successful

September 24, 2014

I should have a “specific to me” post about my ArcheAge experience when I’m around level 30 (currently 23), but today I want to talk more ‘big picture’ about the game and the genre, because I think a lot of interesting things are happening.

Trion hinted that they have well over 2 million active players right now, which is double the number they had signed up for beta. As both beta and release are ‘free’, that’s pretty interesting. What caused a million+ people to get into AA now rather than show interest when it was in beta? Positive word-of-mouth, just general release hype, or something else?

The 2 million number is also interesting, as that’s also the number of subscribed accounts FFXIV has last we heard. With WoW down to 5 million or so and dropping, are we really that far away from the day WoW is no longer the biggest MMO out in the West (I think MMOs in the East have already surpassed it, but the East isn’t a place I keep an eye on for such things.)? One can only hope, as it will mean the genre is out of the shadow of that once-great, now-bleh title.

Another funny bit about AA and FFXIV; they both beat WoW, but in different ways. FFXIV is vanilla WoW done right for 2014; its focused, and what it focuses on it does very, very well. AA is a 2014 version of what WoW could/should be; it has a bit of EVERYTHING, but that everything fits together to form a virtual world rather than a collection of lobby activities, all without insulting the ability of the player.

Moving to AA specifically, what does this mean for the genre if the game is able to retain players like FFXIV has? What if AA has 2 million+ subs after 6 months? For one I think it would drive home the fact that launching the game as F2P was a mistake by Trion, especially because of how poorly the F2P crap has been layered over the otherwise solid foundation of the game (remember AA was developed and launched as a sub MMO initially). That said, if AA is successful, might it become the first MMO to move OUT of the F2P minor leagues? One can hope.

And if AA is successful, along with some of the other upcoming virtual world titles, does this mean the genre has finally turned the corner and will return to what it should be? That part still seems a little too good to be true, but at least there is some hope, unlike what we had in prior years. Cautious optimism everyone!


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.


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