Tag design

Does Freedom Need To Come With Such A Price?

Darkfall startup

Get if off! Get it off! Get it...oh, that's the UI.

I decided to take up Aventurine on their $1 for 7 days offer and created a Darkfall account for the US server. After all, I have wanted to give that game a try for a long time and it seemed like a good way of doing it without having to pony up the ridiculous amount of money they charge for it.

Most Darkfall-fans often point out that you will hate the game at first, because the UI and controls are so different from other MMOs. I would like to second that. The UI and controls are not only bad, they are both a piece of stinking dung. They are completely and utterly worthless, like they have been created for the sole purpose of driving new players insane by just being stupid.

I haven’t played much more than one hour of Darkfall in total, rerolling three times because my character looked too silly when I finally got in the game. The one I have now looks pretty cool, a wolf-man pirate ready for some sandbox action. But the game is such a hassle to play, there’s nothing intuitive about it at all. Fighting goblins, looting, harvesting…all a pain to everything my gamer self has learned about design over the course of my gaming career.

I can’t help feeling that the UI is a prototype, that it was built this way to get the game up and running so it could be shown to investors. Then Aventurine ran out of money and didn’t have time to replace it, instead the game kept being designed around that mess. Darkfall-fans, including SynCaine, often say that it is like that for design reasons. I don’t buy it. If it is, it’s at least not good design.

UI setup

My UI after fiddling around with for a while.

While I will keep playing Darkfall for a bit, for despite the glaring flaws of the new player experience and the insane babble in the chat channels the world is quite inviting, I was reminded of my first time in EVE. Three years ago, EVE Online was hardly a very nice place to start out in. The introduction to the game was, just like in Darkfall, a mess. But the cluster was inviting enough for me to hang around, and slowly the designers at CCP have created a better way for new players to get a feel for its potential.

Perhaps Darkfall will go down the same route, perhaps with future patches or expansions Aventurine can dig deep into their own designs and rethink certain aspects of their game. Because seriously, just because it is a full PVP, full loot, warfare-focused MMO doesn’t mean that it has to be designed in a way that would give most intelligent people a headache (I am sure Darkfall has many intelligent players, they just seem to stay away from the chat channels – like in most MMOs, come to think of it…). Or does it? Ryzom can also be quite hard for people to learn. Do “sandbox” and “convoluted controls and game mechanics” go hand in hand?  Do you think that a MMO with mechanics similar to World of Warcraft or Allods Online ever could be the foundation of a good sandbox game?

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Hello Leveling, My Old Friend

Motivation. I don't have it.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I downloaded the World of Warcraft-client today. I have yet to resub, but the client is installed and ready to be played. For some reason, the cold weather we are having in Sweden makes me want to play again – that, and this post at Spinksville reminded me about how much fun raiding can actually be.

The tipping point came when I logged in to Star Wars Galaxies this morning. My Jedi is currently stationed in Anchorhead, where she does terminal missions for the rebels. That way I don’t have to bother with the Legacy quests and can ding about one level a day, if I do 8 – 10 missions. They are easy, fast and not terribly boring.

But then it hit me – I am so sick and tired of leveling.

My other running sub right now is Lord of the Rings Online. I got a 30-day key for the American servers from Stargrace, which I am really grateful for, and I am enjoying my rune-keeper (“Mister Smirky”, as I like to call him – his facial expression is one of constant arrogance). But I can’t stand leveling him.

In a way, I guess it’s World of Warcraft that ruined the whole thing for me. It’s not that level cap in any way has to be where the game actually starts, but the freedom of being maximum level is undervalued. All around me are people who keep saying that they enjoy the journey to cap, that they don’t rush, that leveling is fun in itself. But at some point, having had my gnome rogue at cap with brief moments of XP-gathering when a new expansion hit, I got spoiled.

In many ways, a MMO starts at level cap because you are suddenly free to do whatever you wish. I can raid, I can do instances, I can PvP, I can gather gear, theorycraft, focus on crafting, poke my nose, gaze at my navel. That goes for most games that use a leveling system, which – let’s face it – is more or less every MMO on the market.

I’ve reached level 47 in SWG, I have 43 levels to go. In guild chat, everyone is busy discussing heroics, PvP, crafting. They have the whole game in front of them, they can do whatever they feel like. Me? I can poke around my house or level. It’s driving me nuts.

People like to compare MMOs to single player games (there was a lot of talk when Dragon Age was released, for example), so let’s compare a MMO to a game like Modern Warfare 2. If you play it in multiplayer, there are levels. You unlock new ranks, new weapons, perks, attachments. The more you play, the more variety you get. But as a new player, coming in at level 1, you are still playing together with the people 50 levels above you.

I am not saying that a system that uses levels in the way most MMOs do is inherently broken. It’s a tried and tested system that’s been around for decades in various forms and shapes. To me, it doesn’t really matter – right now, I can’t stand the sight of a new XP-bar. Especially not in games where the community is already set, where level cap is the norm. Yet another reason why I have yet to use my retail code on my EverQuest 2 account. I can’t be bothered to level my assassin to enjoy the game the same way the rest of the people in my (lovely) guild do.

I want to explore new worlds, I want to explore new games. It’s not that. I love discovering a new MMO, I love learning a new system of crafting or combat.

I miss my gnome.

I will keep giving LotRO a chance, I owe it to the game (and the kindness of certain people). I am very much looking forward to seeing Star Trek Online launch, a brand new game with a pretty cool level system and fun space combat. I am still cautiously keeping my eye on Allods Online and I don’t plan to drop my SWG-sub. What I have to evaluate, though, is where the fun stops and the grind – even if the grind is only in my head – starts.

I guess I will join the choir of people who vowed to not keep playing when something starts to bore them. Leveling, for the time being, you have to go. I want the freedom to explore in a way I see fit, not being forced to either grind mobs or quests to reach a point where that freedom is available.

That’s what I mean when I say that most MMOs really start at level cap. Not raids, not gear. Freedom.

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Quote Of The Day #4: The Games We Play

This September, I was tired. And you know what? Arguing that games are a fascinating, brilliant medium is exhausting when the games industry itself doesn’t seem to be on your side. Sometimes you run out of juice, and the fight’s not worth it any more. Sometimes the time comes to unclench your fists, close your eyes and admit that yes, games suck. Yes, they are toys for children. Yes, they’re too violent. Yes, if we’re talking ways to efficiently waste both time and money they’re up there with foxhunting and divorce. (source)

I have to agree with Quintin about this. As games journalists, gamers and bloggers we spend so much time arguing for the sake of games. Sometimes, the industry doesn’t play along, and I wonder why we even bother. But, as Quintin goes on to say, sometimes a game comes along “that gets you perspective”. In this case, Solium Infernum.

After all, we love games for a reason, no?

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The art of imitating the art of World of Warcraft

Are you in charge of development of a new fantasy MMO, free-to-play or subscription based (or even both)? Is your game’s artwork very much “inspired” by World of Warcraft? Chances are that it is, so take a long look at this screenshot:

Were gonna eat your face.

We're gonna eat your face.

Can your art-department create characters that look this awesome while still being very much inspired by the boys and girls at Blizzard? If not, sack them and find new ones. Or just skip the whole inspiration-part and do something else. Oh, I don’t know, something a bit more innovative than carbon-copying the art style of the biggest MMO on the block (which you will fervently deny while dodging the whole point).

The above screenshot comes from Allods Online. Allods Online looks a lot like World of Warcraft, but somehow the art-guys at Astrum Nival managed to make their game look really, really good. Some of the concept art is truly fantastic and AO is a pleasure to look at. It’s in closed beta, but a few places might have keys left for it.

Note that I didn’t say anything about gameplay. AO still has to prove its worth in that department.

Update: While I was finishing up this post, Sera’s latest Anti-Aliased column was published at Massively, also touching on a similar subject. Go read!

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GRTV: Guild Wars 2 interviews

This has been in the archives for a long time, but was finally put online – I met Chris Lye and Jeff Grubb from ArenaNet on the same day as they finally revealed Guild Wars 2 during Gamescom earlier this year. Jeff Grubb was amazing to talk to, such a sweet guy, and I wish I had much more time to dig deeper into the lore than we did during this rather rushed interview. Embed-info at the end of the show, as usual.

Anyway, now I really want to play through Eye of the North…it’s staring at me from my bookshelf.

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The End Times: Post-apocalyptic sandbox or just another quest grind?

Syp, of Bio Break, wrote a great post about why you shouldn’t play Fallen Earth a couple of days ago. Syp is a big FE-fan, but he still manages to see the faults, for which I applaud him. And while I love Fallen Earth as well, more and more cracks are starting to show in the otherwise so lovely (in a barren, post-apocalyptic sense) facade.

I call it...mister Pointy.

I call it...mister Pointy.

I’m still sticking with what I said about immersion – Fallen Earth does such a great job when it comes to that. I am also having a lot of fun questing, fighting, harvesting and crafting. After all, who doesn’t love wearing a top hat while stabbing things to death with a pointy stick? I did have a head towel that had better stats on it, but seriously, there was no way I could stay away from the top hat. I look awesome, especially wearing my sunglasses. Killing coyotes or bandits never looked this good before.

But I can’t help thinking that I’m forgiving Fallen Earth for sins that I’ve blamed other MMOs of doing. While I am having fun playing it, I wonder if certain design choices that Icarus Studios have made that are just as damning here as they are in other games. So, I thought I’d take a look at things that are already in place, but which I personally hope will get fixed/changed before they make me burn out prematurely.

Read more

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The “revolution” has already happened

A constant hot topic in the MMO-blogosphere is how we can improve future MMOs. That’s a good thing, it’s a genre that could easily stagnate (even though I am not 100% convinced that it has) if the things that worked in older games keep getting copied until we only have a bunch of different WoW-clones to choose from. But it’s also interesting to see certain points being dragged up again and again, despite there actually being a game that manages to address them to a large degree. It’s not the perfect MMO in any way, but if there would be a new game that would include similar features, I am certain some would herald that new game as “revolutionary”.

Crimson Starfire just summed up some of the points that he (she? Sorry if that’s the case, Crimson) thinks should be addressed before we have a “MMORPG 2.0″. I could go digging after more similar posts, but I like how that post manages to distill a lot of the criticism that’s been flying around for a long time. Here are the points, all copied and pasted from World of Shadow:

  • Static worlds: Player actions have very little impact on the world. Kill something and it respawns moments later.
  • Everyone is a hero: Everyone follows the same quests and story lines.
  • NPC and monster AI: It’s laughable at best. Aggro bubbles? Seriously…
  • Balance: How do you make completely different classes equal in strength?
  • Grind: These will always exist but the disguises need some work.
  • Economy: When you get 10 silver for killing the same rat that respawns every 20 seconds, you know the economy will have issues.

Luckily, Crimson doesn’t just complain – he/she/it (“he” from now on) has a couple of solutions and suggestions for how we could address and solve those six points. And constantly, while reading the post, I am reminded by a small MMO from France. A MMO that a lot of people constantly overlook and that was way before its time when it launched. And, obviously, still is in many ways.

The game I am talking about is Ryzom. Poor underachieving Ryzom, fighting against constant financial trouble instead of getting the praise it deserves. Still going, getting a flurry of patches that includes updates to both game and storyline…yet no one seem to notice (except Massively, when you bug them enough – check the “thanks” at the bottom of that post…). Poor Ryzom, the kid in a classroom filled with fighting bullies, overlooked by both teachers and the other kids in the schoolyard. Yeah, you get my point by now. I think it deserves a lot more publicity and a lot more credit.

So, back to the list, and Crimson’s solutions (some of them paired together when appropriate, quotes in italics, check the original post to get their full context)…

Static Worlds & NPC AI:This brings me to the ‘world without a player’ scenario, where the world is ever changing on its own. Players should only ever speed up or slow down this process” and “If they can get away with adding an aggro bubble to a monster with a trigger to attack, then they will. There is nothing stopping NPC and monster AI from improving except the game budget“.

Now, Crimson does suggest that “[f]or every player action there needs to be an equal and opposite server reaction in order to maintain a dynamic equilibrium”, which is not present in Ryzom. But the world is certainly alive with or without the player. Ryzom has seasons and the wildlife migrates depending on which is active on the server at the time (every season lasts four days, replacing each other in a 16 day cycle). The creatures also have a primitive AI. Herbivores will react to players passing by, coming to sniff them or in some cases beg for attention. Sometimes they even break off from their herd to check out things, i.e. players, that make them curious. Also, carnivores hunt the herbivores, attacking and trying to kill them.

Depending on the season, certain materials might not be available. Since materials are the blood that keeps Ryzom ticking, players usually spend a lot of time mapping out where they can be found and at what time. Dangerous creatures have set aggro bubbles that does not change depending on player level, which means that you also have to learn how close you can go before being attacked (which can be very important when digging for rare resources). Since the wilderness of Ryzom is filled with dangerous creatures, going from one city to another is not something done without planning ahead – and preferably not alone. All of this creates at least the illusion of a world that exists on its own, without players being around or not.

Everyone is a hero & Balance: “[T]he only thing blocking this from happening is problem number 1: static worlds. Fix that and everyone can follow their own story to heroism” and “The balancing process can be sped up with better tools and analyzing techniques, but essentially it will always be a problem“.

I very much agree on the “everyone is a hero”-issue. I shall return to that in the near future, since I have a whole post about it planned. But it is a problem, but it’s far from happening in all MMOs. EVE Online is a perfect example where everyone is a super-human pod pilot. In City of Heroes everyone is a hero (it’s in the title!). And in Ryzom we are all refugees, we are all trying to re-build Atys and our society, while protecting what we’re building against the wildlife and the Kitin invaders. There is no raid boss to kill in order to save the world which we, and hundreds if not thousands just like us, will be back to kill again next week. There are world bosses, and named creatures walking around, but I always felt like they were more part of the world than in almost any game I’ve played before.

That does not mean that everyone is equal, though. Crafters especially can gain quite a lot of fame if they have self-discovered recipes (not drops, recipes they’ve researched themselves by putting together various pieces of materials to see what stats the equipment they are making will get). Guilds become famous through their deeds, through warfare against other guilds and for their trading or generosity. Since server population in Ryzom is still quite small it doesn’t take long before you start to recognize most guild names and what kind of play style or faction you associate them with.

The balance issue in Ryzom is, just like in EVE Online, quite easy to deal with. Certain skills might be better than others (even seen ranged DPS in Ryzom PvP? Ouch.), but everyone is able to learn all skills. It will take a long, long time, but it is theoretically possible. And, just like in EVE, a player can only reach a certain level in a skill, which means everyone is always able to catch up. All this while still allowing players to customize their characters and their builds as they see fit. The variety in looks, builds and equipment can be simply stunning. A game does not need classes to allow players to explore different ways to play. Classes are inherently restrictive and I for one would be happy to see them go.

Grind & Economy:If you give the player a different experience each time, the grind with be less prevalent” and “[t]he solution lies with getting a balance of currency generated with currency destroyed“.

I’m not going to go on record saying that there is no grind in Ryzom. Hell, there is a ton of grinding in Ryzom. It can be made a lot better, and a lot more fun, in groups – even resource gathering can be done by groups, where one player digs while the other is trying to keep the resource from blowing up in their faces (called “careplanning”). But the grind is quite prevalent at times, there’s no denying that. Hopefully, as time goes by, the developers will be able to address this part of the game.

Ryzom does take a whole new angle when it comes to economy though. Dappers, the “gold” of Ryzom, is more or less worthless. Sure, there are things that only dappers can buy (including mounts, banking animals and apartments), but when you have all that there’s nothing for you to spend more on. The “economy” of Ryzom is more or less based on trading and quid pro quo – you do me a favor, or get me a piece of armor that you can craft, I’ll help you in the future. Guilds trade constantly and anything from rare materials to experience catalysts gained from outposts change hands every day. The system, all built on trust and the concept of “you scratch my back, I scratch yours”, works. No economical back end that the developers need to keep constant track off.

Of course, that kind of economy does not fit into every MMO, even though I would love to see what would happen in World of Warcraft if you took out the AH and all the gold sinks (mounts, bank space, the Dalaran rings, etc). It’s very interesting to see in action though. It might not have been what the developers intended from the start, but if not it makes it so much more interesting.

As I said before, Ryzom is not the perfect MMO. It has a lot of issues, including the fact that it was never fully developed, that needs to be dealt with – hopefully it has a big enough paying community these days to at least make some of the old goals reality. We shall see. But what it does have can be amazing at times. Play it for a while and you will never play another MMO the same way again. You will miss the freedom, the community. You will curse at animals that just wanders around aimlessly and ignores you despite you jumping in a circle around them. You will miss the way the economy works, how players seem to help their friends in the knowledge that it will benefit everyone in the end.

Most of all, you will realise what a small revolution Ryzom was and, in many ways, still is. And it all happened back in 2004, when we all were busy staring blindly at Azeroth…

(Did I mention that Ryzom has a free trial? It does. Go download it and give it a try. I also didn’t mention the Ryzom Ring, which preceded CoH’s Mission Architecht with 5 years.)

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Oh Tabula Rasa, where are you now?

I was sorting through some old papers today and happened to come across a old press kit for Tabula Rasa from 2007. I have a bunch of these for various NCsoft games, they more or less all follow the same format, but I hadn’t seen this one for quite some time – it was hidden somewhere underneath old bills (paid, to the archives!) and piles of old photographs. In this day, when the axing of MMOs seems to be a hot topic, it was a fun find while still being kind of sad.

I actually liked Tabula Rasa in a way, even though it was hardly ready for release when it launched. It had some great ideas and I took part in some epic fights for outposts during my time with it (I actually reviewed it, scoring it a 7/10, but let’s not get into the whole “how do you review MMOs”-thing again). I never stayed past the initial 30 days, but it was on my list of games to get back to once it had been left to simmer for a while. Sadly, it didn’t turn around during the year it was active, and NCsoft decided to shut it down on February 28, 2009. I am sure that, if they had let it live longer, it could have done an Age of Conan and redeemed itself in the eyes of both players and company.

There’s no doubt that Tabula Rasa had huge problems, both as a game and because of the politics behind the scenes. It had cost a lot to develop and had taken 6 years to “finish”. But I think denying that it had potential is going too far. It was hardly an Auto Assault, of the worst MMOs I’ve ever played. But it could have used at least another 6 months to develop and it also should have adapted to what players had come to expect during the years it had been in development – during a press showing of the game I remember a journalist asking about “end-game”, to which the dev in charge of the event answered “end-game? What do you mean?”.

My first encounter with Tabula Rasa was a press trip to Austin to visit the NCsoft offices there. I met Richard Garriot, got a tour of his house, and I liked the guy – of course he was nice to the journalists, but he felt very honest and outgoing. At one point I told him that he was a super-geek, really living the life every nerd around the globe would want (including yours truly), to which he just laughed and said “I know! Isn’t it great?”. We also, of course, got a couple of hours of hands-on with Tabula Rasa. When I got back home I wrote an article about it, and to be honest I wasn’t all that excited – criticizing both the rather bland character design, the environments and the chaotic combat system.

When the game finally launched the following fall, the first thing that struck me was that it was exactly the game that we had played during our stay in Texas. It felt as if though the months between me flying out there and it ending up at retail had brought nothing to the game at all. I am sure developers and fans alike can point out things that actually had changed, but in the end the beta we played was the finished game we got. A lot has been said about the Tabula Rasa beta, how it “ruined” the game and expectations, and I mostly agree – it should have stayed out of the spotlight longer and Destination Games should have polished it a lot, lot more before release (and open beta). But then again, money talks and NCsoft were probably just trying to cut their losses at that point.

In the end, I miss Tabula Rasa. It’s gone, will never come back and we will never see what it could have been. The servers are closed, perhaps formatted and re-invested into Aion. What do I know? But together with Auto Assault, it probably taught NCsoft – and other MMO-companies – not to go out on a limb and invest in something different again. Too bad. I’ve said it before – believe in your product, give it support and love and it might just turn around. Tabula Rasa was hated from the start. No wonder it died before its time.

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Gender, feminism and their future in virtual worlds

Disclaimer: This post is all about my experiences in MMOs. It’s about what I’ve seen and should not be seen as a statement on how things look in virtual worlds in general. It’s not 100% truth, it’s all subjective and not very academic. It’s written in a rambling style because I’ve had too much coffee. Remember, please, that this is a blog, not a classroom or an academic institution. With that said, feel free to criticize me and my ideas. I always, always reserve the right to change my mind if I believe I’ve been proven wrong. Thank you.

Gender-play in MMOs is hardly a new subject. We’ve known about it for a long time – people like to play characters of the opposite sex. Sometimes they even roleplay members of the opposite sex. That last part has been the main interest of academics, especially the ones with a gender-slant, for a long time. For an obvious reason, it’s  interesting and fascinating. But it’s becoming old and for most MMO-theorists it’s old news.

That does not, in any way, make Sera Brennan’s recent post on Massively any less interesting. More often than not, the theories about why people gender-play in MMOs are written by heterosexual males or females from a distanced viewpoint. Sera, on the other hand, identifies himself/herself as a transgendered, as a female stuck in a male body (while still being heterosexual, mind you – far from all transgendered are gay). Not only does it take a lot of guts to write a post like that, it also brings a fresh perspective, written in the first person for once, about the subject of gender-play.

It got me thinking about my own experiences with gender in MMOs over the last couple of years. I believe I’m heterosexual, as far as I know I’m not attracted to men enough to call myself bi-sexual but I’ll keep an open mind, but I almost always play a female character in games when given the option to do so. It’s not about the old axiom that men like to play female characters because they would “rather stare at a female behind than a male for hundreds of hours” (that’s really getting tiresome, guys). It’s generally about female characters often being better designed than male (with a few exceptions, including EverQuest II and Lord of the Rings Online), probably because the designers are often male and have more fun designing females, or that it is much more interesting to identify with a virtual female than a male. After all, I’m male in the real world, something that I won’t be able to change until Kurzweil’s reality-bending nanomachines become a reality, so why play one in a virtual world when given an option to try something else?

Before we go any further, let’s take a look at feminism. That word is usually an invitation for trolls to come crawling out of the woodwork, stating that males and females alike are all burdened by gender stereotypes (usually wrapped in more or less veiled insults). That’s indeed very true, but feminism (for me – remember that this post is all subjective) puts the focus on the submission and oppression of women and how that relationship between male and female creates a reality in which everyone suffers. Men are supposed to be dominant, and many suffers from that, while women are supposed to be submissive, from which they suffer. By eliminating that dominance-submission relationship, feminism is able to deconstruct the gender-roles inherit in that particular relationship for the benefit of all. It’s all about where you look and (for me, again) feminism strikes from below, while other views on gender-problems looks at the problem from another direction. Read more

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MMO-quote of the day #3: What’s that smell?

Blizzard can list all the reasons under the sun why they haven’t implemented Player Housing, but when several smaller MMOs already have Player Housing, and have done a fething good job with it, Blizzard are just blowing smoke out their arse. (source)

Cap’n John on the subject of player housing in WoW over at Wolfshead’s blog. Take time to read the whole entry, great stuff and I very much agree. World of Warcraft not having player owned housing yet is borderline pathetic. “[I]t’s incredibly complex to do right and we’re not sure yet if it’s going to be the right thing for WoW in the long run”, my behind.

(I had to fight the urge to add a lolcat-pic to this entry. I’m very proud that I resisted.)

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Virtual worlds, massive multiplayer games and assorted ramblings

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