Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Star Wars Galaxies: the Death of a Sandbox

Star Wars galaxies is one of those games I've read a ton about, but never really clicked with me. However, the news that SOE was shutting it down got me to sub up and see what the game is really like while I still could. I've been dutifully putting in at least a few hours a week, and I managed to get up to about level 40 on my main which is tons further than I’ve ever made it before.

This is my non-main, a Rodian jedi I got up to 14 or so.
He didn't even have a light saber yet.

During my playtime I’ve come to regard the game as deeply flawed. For one, the graphics engine has aged poorly. I get really mediocre frame rates on a PC with specs much better than anything you could have put together when the game launched. Further, the single quest line that runs through the game becomes incredibly dull and repetitive by the time you get to Naboo. If you break a step in the quest (which I did once manage to do) pretty much the only remaining leveling activities are grinding random mobs or doing terminal missions. The combat is also generally really slow paced. It reminds me more of the original Everquest than anything else I’m familiar with. The fact that mobs can often shoot you through walls or tend start running around spastically in the middle of combat doesn’t help. Finally, even after 40 levels I still sometimes feel like I’m fighting with the controls. I certainly would not have played so much SWG in the past few weeks if they weren’t shuttering it tomorrow night.

This is my main, a level 40 Trandoshan commando.

However, the other thing that’s really struck me about the game is how unique it is. Despite SOE’s best attempt to “WoWify” the game with the NGE, it remains very much a sandbox. A single poorly done quest chain (the Legacy quest series) can’t hide the fact that the planets are absolutely huge spaces almost entirely lacking directed content. They were designed for you to head off into the wilderness in a random direction and find your own fun, be it gathering resources or clearing out camps of mobs to level a combat class, and that’s still what they really work best for. Stumbling onto Jabba’s palace, the waterfalls outside the capital of Naboo, or something else you remember from the movies is a potential bonus.

Even in my brief time playing my commando ended up with a heck of a lot of vehicles. Here is his land speeder. It is the starter ground vehicle, you get it from a quest nearly the moment you are out of the tutorial area.

Further, the fact that combat is now level based, and that you are locked into classes instead of the using the old mix-and-match skill based profession system, does not alter the presence of two non–combat classes: Entertainers and Traders. Entertainers are pretty much what they sound like, the easiest way to level one is to dance or play music in bars for tips. Traders are the crafting profession, and can choose to specialize in areas as diverse as the construction of robots to the construction of star ships and housing goods. On top of that, all classes (even the combat classes) can choose to forgo specializing in their class abilities and instead put points into a tree that allows them to raise various sorts of pets, from fluff to combat pets to mounts.

His speeder bike. You can only get this model from player crafters, and it's the fastest ground transport in the game.

There are a lot of other details that make the game feel like more of a sandbox than a theme-park. The economy is almost entirely driven by crafted goods. There are few avenues for getting good gear outside of the trading terminals. There are also tons of side games. There’s a factional conquest system where players determine whether the Empire or the Alliance controls different towns. You can get shot by NPCs if you find yourself on the wrong side of that system, which sometimes makes talking to quest givers in the middle of a town pretty interesting. There’s a Chronicles system that lets you design quests for other players. There’s also the fact that you can build your house pretty much anywhere. One of my cooler moments was stumbling on some guy’s house in the middle of nowhere and going from room to room admiring his trophies and vast weapon collections.

A random mount my commando got from a quest.

In my time in SWG I have managed to prove to myself that the game really isn’t for me. I generally lose focus and get bored after roughly an hour of play. However, I’ve also found that we are losing a really unique MMO that for the most part is not being replaced by SWTOR. Sure they are both MMOs with a Star Wars IP, but mechanically they are ages apart from each other.

You get this spaceship from a quest in the tutorial area that's easy to miss.

SWTOR is perhaps the apex of theme-park design. Even Tobold, who has stated repeatedly that MMO players don’t give a rat’s behind about Bioware’s 4th pillar, has found the narratives compelling. In contrast, SWG is still for the most part a contentless sandbox with hidden depth in every direction (despite the NGE). In the current game you can board a starship and fly over miles of virtual landscapes; then point your nose at the sky, fly to the edge of the atmosphere, and zone into space where a whole new game that has nothing to do with the ground game opens up (piloting levels, ship upgrades, factional space warfare!). Even if the moment to moment gameplay is a bore to me, I have to admit I find that sense of freedom and limitless possibility compelling.

At some point in the last few weeks, I got his final vehicle as a loyalty reward...a freaking space yacht! Unfortunately this is the only view I ever got of it because I could not for the life of me figure out how to rotate my camera while flying a ship.

SWG wasn't made for me. I’m too addicted to narratives, and I find a lot of the basic mechanics to be dated and clunky. But for players that crave the kind of freedom and depth that is on offer in SWG, yeah sure I’ll shed a tear of sympathy. Have a virtual drink on me SWG fans. This week we mourn the loss one of one of the premier MMO sandboxes.

This it what the yacht really looks like. So long SWG. I will not mourn you, but I'll always wonder what you could have become if not for your untimely demise.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dear Santa

[I'm not going to spread this chain any further, but I thank Blue Kae for inspiring me to post this] .

Dear Santa,

It's been a while since I've written to you. I don't even visit you in the mall these days, I know I've been lax. I do sometimes donate a little bit of money when I see you out ringing a bell next to one of those Salvation Army buckets, so there's that. In any case I hope that I've been sufficiently well behaved that you aren't planning to come to my house and jam coal in my socks later this month. If you are planning to bring me something pleasant, I have a few requests:

1. For the love of all that is holy do not allow WoW style modding in SWTOR. When I play WoW, every time I see players having e-peen battles about their gearscores or DPS meter results, I want to stab them for boning my immersion. Please don't let SWTOR go there.

2. It would be pretty keen if you could get my early access to SWTOR bumped up by a day or two. I didn't pre-order until November, so there's something like a million pre-orders in line in front of me.

3. More reasoned critiques of MMOs on the interwebs, and less "this MMO is teh suxxors because it wasn't designed to cater to my peculiar whims." The comments on this post over at Ardwulf's layer speak to what I'm talking about, if that's a bit too vague.

4. Tolerance. More tolerance among gamers with different tastes. Remind every one that just because someone likes a game that one MMO gamer or group of gamers finds stale does not mean that the someone in question is new to MMOs, a drooling fanboy blinded by an IP, or mentally deficient. Different strokes for different folks and all that. More tolerance just generally (political, religious, ect.) would be nice while we are on the subject.

Any or all of that would be great. Also, please say hello to Mrs. Claus and Rudolf for me. They were kind of a big deal when I was six and I still think of them. Let me know what kind of cookies you prefer, and if skim milk is OK or if I need to go out and get something more substantial.

Yours sincerely,


Monday, November 28, 2011

SWTOR: Weekend Beta Impressions

Like everyone else and their granny, I spent the weekend playing the beta of Star Wars the Old Rebublic. I went into the beta mainly to see how the game looks and runs on my current PC, which is almost three years old now. It runs just fine, but I can also see that I'll have to replace my PC in another year or so if I want to keep playing modern games. In any case there is nothing to stop me from getting SWTOR, I'm going to go ahead and pre-order it this week. Here follows my impressions, organized by topic. For the TLDR crowd, skip to the bottom for some quick likes and dislikes.

What I did:

I played a Bounty Hunter up to level 12, mainly because it's a class I have little interest in and don't plan to play when the game goes live. I also played an Empire Agent up to level 6 to see what playing through the same area on two different classes is like. I'm happy to report that the class quests take up enough of your playtime that even going through the exact same zone back to back, and thus doing the same open world quests, I wasn't bored. Preliminaries out of the way, what did I think?

Is it re-skinned WoW?

If you are bored with quest driven thempark MMOs ala WoW, LoTRO, Rift, ect. this game is not for you. Not to say that SWTOR isn't an improvement over those games in terms of narrative presentation, it really is. The quest givers relay your quests through a cut scene. During the cut scene you make dialogue choices that affect the conversation, and potentially whether your companion's opinion of you improves or is reduced and what quest reward you get. Most quests have at least two different ways they can be completed, one evil d-bag option and one "let's just all try to get along" option.

That's all very well done and a big improvement over the passive wall of text you get in most MMOs. However, in between these cuts scenes you are very much playing a typical quest driven MMO. You have a check-list of objectives off to the right of the screen; usually collect X, kill Y, or interact with Z; and a map that shows you where to go to knock off your objectives. As many others have already noted, in between the interactive cut scenes you may as well be playing a Star Wars skinned version of WoW or LoTRO. If that simple fact sends you into an apoplectic fit of nerd rage or fills your heart with apathy, stay far away from this's not for you.

How much do class quests really add to the WoW questing formula?

In my opinion, a lot. I've never played a MMO that had such detailed class quests as SWTOR. On any given character, you are going to spend roughly 1/3 of your playtime doing quests unique to your class. You'll get to see parts of each zone that other classes don't, and the overarching narrative that motivates you as you work through a zone will be completely different. I'm not sure that you could really say that there are 8 single player Knights of the Old Republics of content on offer, but three or four... definitely. This is a game that will have a lot of replayability.

On companions:

The big surprise for me was the companion system, which I liked a lot more than I expected to. As soon as I got my companion I immediately was much stronger. Fights that were dicey before became almost trivial. Looking at my companion's stats she was nearly as powerful as my main character, with similar base DPS and hit points. She was more of a party member than a pet. She also topped off my health any time we weren't in combat, reducing my downtime considerably. Finally, she had her own likes and dislikes. When I chose dialogue options that sounded cocky [e.g., "Of course I got it done, what did you expect?"] or that indicated we expected to get paid [e.g., "Ahh credits. You used the magic word. What do you propose?"] her opinion of me improved. When I chose options that were Evil [e.g., "Sure I'd be happy to poison innocent children"] her opinion of me went down. That basic system has always been present in the Old Republic games, but it feels much more like a core mechanic in SWTOR.

Is it more of a "Role Playing Game" than WoW?

I'd argue yes. A side effect of the dialogue mechanics is that, more than any MMO I've played, you need to decide what motivates your character and what their personality is like. You are almost forced to do some internal roleplaying just to have some criterion on which to choose dialogue options. For example, early on I decided that my Bounty Hunter completed any contract taken under the original terms, no exceptions. In some cases that led to him doing nice stuff like insisting that a man's son be freed from gangsters instead of taking a bribe. In other cases that led to him doing some real dickish stuff such as murdering a boy's father in front of him. My next character through the zone refused to do any quests that didn't seem to have some bearing on her mission, and always pushed for the outcome that would best reinforce her cover identity. It led to some very different outcomes in some cases. You also need to decide early on whether you care what your companion thinks about you. That will considerably alter the dynamics of conversations and interactions with your companion.

Likes and Dislikes


-very polished for a pre-release game. Only encountered one bug, no crashes.

-combat is fun and fast paced. Nice to be able to reliably take on groups of two or three. The synergy between different combat abilities is nice.

-like that every class can heal out of combat at will. Lets you really push your limits in a fight without incurring much downtime.

-loved the art direction. Definitely very Star Warsy.

-love the narratives and their presentation. Far superior to any MMO I've played, and on par with many of Bioware's offline offerings.

-group content is entirely optional but abundant. Balance of group to solo content very similar to launch LoTRO. Group content yields great rewards, but...requires a group. PuGs were plentiful when I played.


-travel times can get really excessive. Maps are huge, and often an objective is on the opposite side of the map from a quest giver. Speeder bikes or something like them need to get handed out for free at level ten. By level 12 I was spending almost as much time running as doing anything.

-no way, at least that I could tell, to preview outfits on your NPC companion. Left me guessing when I had to choose among gear rewards for her that had identical stats.

-maps are crowded. You often have to wade through a lot of irrelevant mobs to get to a quest objective. You can usually just ignore them and run off their aggro, but it's still annoying.

-the talent trees. They have made the same mistake that many designers make of forcing you to fritter away points on tons of boring talents (that have almost no impact on how you play) to get to the interesting ones. It feels like WoW did at launch in this respect. Imo, inferior to the talents systems in current WoW, LoTRO, or Rift. Big qualifier: obviously at the ripe old age of 12 I was not very far into the system, this is just my overall impression of the trees.

-the community is seemingly going to be very big and kind of WoWish. Expect to see a lot of characters with names like "Fruitloops" being followed around by female companions stripped to their underwear.

-what the hell is up with that orange pixel?


Great game, I will be there at launch. However, I'm not at all certain I'll be still be playing in six months. Issues that seem like annoyances (e.g., travel times, mob density) at first have a way of becoming game killing grievances once the novelty of a game wears off. For me the longevity of the game will likely come down to how quickly Bioware is able to address my few concerns with the game post launch.

Friday, November 18, 2011

On hit points

One topic that seems to come up every so often is that hit points/ health/ morale are kind of absurd. Whether or not you agree with Wilhelm that they are especially absurd when using a blaster, I think we can all agree that the ability to withstand multiple lethal attacks is a fairly baldfaced sacrifice of realism in favor of gameplay. It's one of those things like level based combat and the fact that death doesn't actually kill you that we all just kind of accept as necessary evils.

I've always thought the concept of hit points was a bit silly, even back in my PnP RPG days. In D&D, the maximum damage that a longsword can do, barring strength bonuses and such, is eight points. So if you stab someone in the heart or cut their head off with a longsword (i.e., do as much damage as it is possible to do to someone with it), that equals eight points of damage. So how on earth does anyone get to have more than eight hit points? Gary Gygax explained that all the damage that you take until you get down to your last few HP represents your character getting minor wounds or becoming exhausted. Only once you are worn down do you become vulnerable to a fatal blow. However, that always struck me as a pretty weak-sauce attempt to justify a mechanic that existed purely for (perfectly obvious) gameplay reasons. It also fails to explain how a character can end up with enough hit points to stand in lava for a few rounds.

I used to to mess around with the concept of hit points in my campaigns on occasion. For example, I once ran a Dungeons and Dragons campaign where most normal humans couldn't ever have more than nine hit points (1d6+3 for a high con bonus). In order to have so many hit points that a single sword stroke from a strong guy couldn't kill you, you had to either be a lot bigger than a human, a magical being, or a individual with some kind of divine power. Player characters were not normal humans (or elves, or gnomes or whatever), they were "annointed" under the protection of a deity that had some purpose for them. As you went up in levels you became literally harder to kill. If someone hit you with a sword for eight points of damage, it would go right through your chest and you would laugh it off like a vampire in a horror movie. All your wounds would heal nearly instantly, at least until you had regenerated all the damage you could take (i.e., used up your hit points). I'm not aware of too many MMOs that have used this justification for health bars. Rift, at least, does something similar.

For better or worse, virtually every RPG online or off has something like hit points. Both PCs and mobs can generally endure multiple seemingly fatal blows (weapon hits for max damage, grenades, lightening strikes, and the like). Further, I don't really see any good alternatives. When I envision a RPG where everyone and everything can die in a single hit, it doesn't sound like a lot of fun. It sounds like a game where you spend more time in the graveyard than playing, and one where a level 70 character doesn't feel a lot more powerful than a level one character.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Sights from Isenguard

Minor spoilers abound ahead, be warned!

I'm about halfway through the Rise of Isenguard expansion in Lord of the Rings Online, I just started in the Gap of Rohan over the weekend. Towards the end of the first zone you catch a glimpse of a Dunlander village where preparations for war are busily underway. One thing that's pretty neat about this scene is all those tiny guys you see in the distance are moving around. In order that animating so many dudes doesn't murder your frame rates, the normal models are replaced with lower poly ones that look just fine at this distance. I can't help but wonder if this is some of the same tech we are going to see used for depicting big battles such as Helm's Deep.

I also shot some film of this, but my first attempt at filming with FRAPS didn't turn out so well.

In between the first zone and the second, a book quest has you kidnapped and taken to Isengaurd where you engage in manual labor. In some ways the quest didn't make a lot of sense, for example they don't confiscate any of your gear when you get there:

Silene with her warden soon after arriving in the dungeons of Isenguard.

As you complete tasks, you earn a set of cosmetic prison rags. Once I had enough for a full set, I immediately bought and new cosmetic slot so I could equip them:

Full prisoner's regalia.

The zones where you are engaging in labor are fairly large, and you spend a lot of time running around between locations. However, you can get temporary 50% runspeed buffs by picking fights with gaurds. I'm not sure if that stacked with my normal runspeed buff or not, but I was running fast through most of the area. Despite the mechanical oddities of the quests, the storyline you experience down there is pretty neat. There are also a lot of cool things to see. One of your first stops is a dining hall where you mop up slop:

Reminds me of Harry Potter for some reason...

After that you perform a variety of menial tasks, such as hauling crates of weapons for these guys:

Eventually you make your way into the tower of Orthanc itself, where some fairly nerdastic encounters await if you are into the novels:

Saruman's audience chamber.

The wizard himself.

Orthanc and the grounds of Isenguard before Saruman screwed them up.

Gandalf trapped on the roof of Orthanc.

A bit of oddness is that you actually play as Wormtongue for a while. Soon after that, you free yourself and move on to the Gap of Rohan.

One thing I have mixed feelings about is that the expansion is a total gear reset, which I suppose was inevitable. The gear I spent so much time getting since Moria launched was completely replaced by the time I was 70 or so, including my second age bow. I like how the new armor looks, for once they managed to include a helmet that doesn't look utterly stupid. I also like a lot of the texture work on the new pieces. This is Silene in her quested gear, standing in her house:

I can't remember the last time I had my helmet turned on in LoTRO.

All in all I'm still having a lot of fun with the new expansion. It's looking to last me pretty much up until the launch of SWTOR.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

MMOs are a dying genre!!! ...or maybe not

Using the power of Google Insights, Tobold recently asserted that interest in massively multplayer online roleplaying games is declining. Looking at the most recent google insights results, interest in "mmmorpg" is down almost 40% from the peak in 2009. You get similar results from mmo. This isn't total voodoo, this tool does a very good job of reproducing trends we pretty much all agree are real. For example the peaks and declines in interest in Age of Conan and Warhammer Online. That is about how the populations went, as far as I can recall.

All that said, I found myself wondering whether "mmo" and "mmorpg" are really the best search terms to use. Those are pretty generic after all. What happens if we get a little more specific? Check out "ftp mmo" and "ftp mmorpg". They are both in the middle of historical peaks of interest, at least judged by google searches. Compare to the results for "subscription mmorpg." Pretty clear difference in the trends. That also seems to accurately reflect where the market is going. A lot of commentators have posited that SWTOR is going to be the last really big budget sub based MMO that we will see, and I tend to agree. Even now, the diversity and quality of FtP MMOs is such that being asked to buy a box and agree to a sub plan just to try a game out seems a bit daft. SWToR is more than likely the last game I'll be willing to do that for.

Talking to a friend of mine about this last night while hunting boars in LoTRO (yes, it was boars..of course it was boars), he posited that maybe everyone already knows what an MMO is by now and so fewer people are Googling "mmo" and "mmorpg." Relatively few people need help figuring out what MMOs are, they need help picking out one to try. The results for "best mmo" back him up. The number of searches has been steadily increasing, and is projected to continue to do so for at least the next few years.

A certain subset of bloggers do indeed seem to be losing interest in modern MMOs. However, I've seen no evidence that the overall mmo market is in decline. One game, WoW, losing 20% of their subs (and still being played by millions) does not mean that MMOs are a declining genre. The games I play regularly seem to be chugging along just fine, despite the proclamations of doom that have hounded them since launch. Further, I personally will be astounded if SWTOR isn't a hit, regardless of whether it's innovative enough to satisfy the jaded veterans of the blogosphere. If quest based "theme park" MMOs and cash shops are abhorrent to you, the genre has left you behind. As for me and John Q., we're doing just fine.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On Isenguard, the new LoTRO expansion

It's fantastic. By far the most fun I've had in the Lord of the Rings Online since the launch of Moria. It expands on Tolkien's narrative in completely logical ways. It also offers vistas that I can absolutely imagine him creating if he had lived long enough to do it.

The home of the falcon clan. One of the few clans of Dunlander's that were never corrupted by Sauroman's promises.

I know that I'm generally a positive Perry (as opposed to a negative Nancy). But I really think Turbine knocked this one out of the park, at least from the perspective of a soloist. What the new end game is like remains to be seen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Where did September go?

The greater part of September seems to have vanished. This has been one of those weeks where I got a lot done and still don't feel like I'm on top of everything. A lot of neat little news tidbits have caught my eye, but I haven't taken time out to comment on them. So now I ramble...

SWG: Star Wars Galaxies just launched atmospheric flight. You can now summon your space-ship and fly it around on planets. If you fly straight up you even zone into space once you get 6 kilometers up. They launched it just in time for me on the heritage quest chain, since I am now frequently being sent to targets in excess of 10km away. Not too bad now that I can fly there in my space-ship. It must have been a real up bitch up until last week.

This is the ship you get for free by doing an optional side quest in the tutorial area. I have no idea how you get a ship "the normal way."

DCUO goes FtP: DC Universe Online is going to go free to play. It seems a bit odd to have three different Super Hero themed MMO options available for FtP. In fact, as far as premium FtP MMOs go, capes and tights is now seemingly the most crowded market apart from fantasy. DCUO is unlikely to compete very strongly with Champions Online or City of Heroes/ Villains, since the bulk of its current audience is on the PS3. If it were PC only, I doubt DCUO really could compete with CO or COH given how much deeper the latter games are.

That said, as a full featured FtP console MMO I can see where DCUO might carve out a niche. Even if you are willing to sub, the other two MMO options on consoles are pretty abysmal by modern standards. Both are grindy and practically require you to group to make progress on most classes. On top of that FFXI, the most sucessful console MMO to date, has systems that are obtuse even by old school MMO standards deeply embedded. Console gamers are still an untapped MMO market.

LoTRO: The Rise of Isenguard launches on Tuesday. That's four days! A great dev diary/ preview of Orthank went up on the web a few days ago. It looks really cool to me. Those are narratives I want to experience. Between Isenguard, dabbling in SWG until it shutters, and hanging out with my DDO guild a couple of nights a week it looks like my spare time is accounted for until around the launch of SW:TOR.

KoTOR II vs SWTOR: Speaking of SW:TOR, playing SWG awakened an urge in me to play a Star Wars RPG with a UI that doesn't fight your every desire tooth and nail... and that has a storyline I'd ever give a crap about. I never quite finished Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II and so I spent an afternoon with it last weekend. The graphics are really dated. However, the storyline is really engaging. Soon I found myself not caring about the sparse environments and clunky animation, I just wanted to know what happens next. That's a feature lacking from most MMO narratives, and something I hope that SW:ToR will finally remedy.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Do modern MMO communities suck?

This post over at I Have Touched the Sky (which contains one of my favorite quotes from the original Conan stories, btw) led me to this post over at Scary Booster, where Scary seems to have had some really bad experiences with other MMO gamers lately. In short, he feels that modern MMO communities are filled with asshats. He makes it sound almost as bad as X-box live ["shudder"].

You will encounter some pretty caustic personalities when playing MMOs for sure. Forums devoted to MMOs seem to be especially caustic. See the forum devoted to any new and popular MMO over at or the official Blizzard forums for example. The first time I saw someone use the response "I hope you die in a fire" in a forum thread was at the latter locale. It did not seem facetious from the back and forth in the rest of the thread, and it honestly made sick to my stomach to read it. However, I've since gotten so used to people being insane over-the-top dickheads on the net that I barely even notice such statements nowadays.

All that said, are the people playing MMOs by and large idgits? I'd say no, absolutely not in my experience. Much as in real life, when I take the time to interact with someone they usually turn out to be pretty nice in most MMOs I play. Even in the famously craptastic community of WoW, I met a lot of great people. The density of assholes there is pretty high, I have to admit. Dungeon Finder PUGs are especially bad. But I doubt the bad apples constitute even 10% of the overall playerbase. That's the worst MMO community I've encountered, by a wide margin. It's also one of the communities where I made the most friends. Really big communities have more of people every sort, both awesome and sucky, than smaller ones.

In the great majority of MMOs I've played, the community is actually pretty good. This may be shocking to those that primarily play WoW, but in the majority of MMOs you can actually get decent advice by using zone chat. When I first started DDO, I would often ask a question in the newbie channel and some random person would start a tell conversation with me to help me out. Even at higher levels, when my level 6 [characters max out at 20 in DDO] wizard couldn't figure out where to buy his spells, a random player grouped with me and transported me to the vendor I needed.

I don't consider DDO a fluke. The last time I played DAoC, I got really helpful advice on character builds using zone chat. The last time I played CoH, PuGs were abundant and every one of the dozen or so I played in went really well. The last time I logged into EQ2X, a random player was giving away absolutely gargantuan (and expensive to make) bags to newbies. I've encountered quite a few dicks while playing MMOs, but acts of random kindness from strangers stand out in my mind more.

Finally, as proof that not all MMO communities utterly suck, I want to point to the official Minstrel message board over at Minstrels are getting nerfed, and nerfed hard in the upcoming expansion. The power cost of their heals is reportedly nearly doubling. Their maximum healing output is also getting nerfed. According to beta testers, a minnie will have to get to 75 and get a rareish magic item to be able to put out as much healing as they currently can at 65. In short, it's practically the apocalypse for the most popular healing class in the game.

Check out this thread about it in the minnie forum (you need to get about halfway down the first page before you start seeing reports of how bad things are in the beta). Yeah, there are a lot of players complaining. But most of them seem to be reacting with "Yeah, it sucks. But we will deal with it. We'll just have to play better." I'm a pretty even keeled. However, if I had a high level minnie I suspect I'd be screaming bloody murder over the changes. That any message board could be largely populated by players so calm and contemplative boggles my mind in the modern internet era.

The internet is indeed filled with asshats. However, I'd argue that the places inhabited by MMO gamers are better places to be than most.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Quick Hits, First of September Edition

A lot of tidbits have been on my mind lately.

SWG: I finally made it to my second planet in Star Wars Galaxies, Naboo:

You really really want to buy a swoop soon
as you can afford one.

Once you get over the steeper than usual initial learning curve, there really is a fun game buried in there. I've been tempted to make a short "things I wish I knew when I started" post. There are a lot of simple things you need to be aware of that aren't documented well in the game. I've spent the last month discovering most by accident. However, with the SOE refusing all new subs in a few weeks, I can't imagine who would benefit from "helpful tips for newbies" post. More and more I'm feeling that it's a real shame SOE will have to close SWG down. It has almost nothing in common with TOR save setting, there is no reason these two Star Wars games could not coexist.

Nerdbashing provokes Nerdrage: I'm sure few of you missed the small tempest that erupted across the net over this post at Gizmondo. Most of the reactions were pretty negative, and I have to agree that the author of the post does come across as a fairly self absorbed and judgmental. However, I also think some commentators took the whole thing a little too personally; some of the backlash went too far in my opinion. It's her loss, no big deal. That said . . .

Is being into something nerdy really that big of a deal? To me the entire ruckus raised an interesting question. If you have a nerdy hobby like MtG or MMOs, are you automatically expected to advertise that fact to a potential date? I did once get a phone number from someone at a film festival by telling her about my Kingdom of Loathing character and how studly he was with his chef hat and frilly skirt. However, I consider that a bit of a fluke ;-) If I were going to dabble in online dating, I don't think "MMO gamer" is how I'd want my profile to define me. At the same time, scaring off folks like the author of that column with your profile might actually be a good thing. I have mixed feelings about the issue.

STO going FtP: all I can say is "Yay!" I'm still a little leery of Champions Online and Star Trek Online because my power supply died thrice previously when I was playing them. However, my new power supply is a lot bigger than my old ones and should be able to handle my GFX card being pushed to the max. The launch of FtP STO is likely going to be what pushes me to test that theory.

DDO: I'm still going strong in Dungeons and Dragons Online. The game really is a heck of a lot more fun in parties than solo, and lately someone has been on and looking to run something in my guild almost every time I stick my head in. Even solo, I've discovered the game is much more fun with an NPC than without. I rarely explore without one now. The game is also surprisingly pretty for an old game that runs on almost any system:

The gate to the plane of madness.

That's all I've got for now. Happy Labor Day weekend!

Friday, August 26, 2011

A neighborly suggestion for those using voice chat

[Warning, a bit of a rant. I spent last night experiencing one of my pet peeves in a party.]

I know that some of us live in less than ideal environments for gaming. You might not be able to help the fact that there are screaming kids, a really loud television, or perhaps constant machine gun fire and explosions where you are playing from. If you are in a party using voice chat, the background noise can be a little annoying and distracting to the rest of the party. However, I know that not everyone can afford living quarters with more that one room and/ or a secure bombproof bunker to game from. I'm not here to judge.

That said, if you are gaming from a room filled with screaming children, a desk near a blaring television [apparently being watched by someone legally deaf], a sidewalk near an active jackhammer, the middle of an ongoing gun-battle, the runway of a major airport, or an environment with similar constant levels of background noise....


Believe me sir, or madam, your party will thank you.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Played Lately: Middle of August Edition

Austin: Things have been slow on the blog because I spent last week in Austin, Texas. It was my first time there, and I really enjoyed myself. Great food, great nightlife, but hot as the dickens. During the summer months something like a million bats hang out under a bridge near the hotel I was staying in. They all fly out in a giant cloud near dusk. It's an impressive sight (I didn't film that, but it was filmed from nearly the exact spot I watched them). Since I've been back, mainly I've been catching up on busywork in my job. However I have managed to get some gaming in.

SWG: since it's only going to be around for a few more months, I decided to stick my head into Star Wars Galaxies and give it one final try. Yeeboe the Rodian Jedi has been played the most. He also has the most pinp looking landspeeder of my 'toons so far:

My only goal in this last run at SWG is to get a character, any character, off of Tatooine. I'm enjoying it a bit more this time around than my last attempt, I suspect largely because I was prepared ahead of time for the clunky UI. Following the game's single quest line I've made it to 20 so far. I did have one quest in my chain assign me to take down level 19-20 mobs when I was only level 13, but an evening of mission terminal runs (procedurally generated kill quests for very high XP) got me high enough to taken them down.

LoTRO: I've also been putting some time into Lord of the Rings Online. My two goals there are to max out weaponsmithing on a low level alt, and to get my champion through all of the book quests before Isenguard launches.

DDO: Finally, I've taken up Dungeons and Dragons Online again. My extremely small guild has finally earned it's first airship:

It looks kind of like a rooster...

Even the lowest level guild airship comes with some nice perks. There is a shared storage chest that allows anyone in the guild to trade items. So far we are using it mainly to give crafting mats to the one character that's taken it up. There are also slots for NPCs that can be purchased with either platinum (in game currency) or Turbine points. An NPC lasts for about a week once you purchase them. Each NPC casts a unique buff for free on any guildy that talks to them. The buffs last an hour and stack with every magic item and spell buff in the game. The nicer NPCs are available for Turbine points at lower guild levels than it takes to buy them with platinum, however even our very low level guild is only paying TP for one of our three NPCs at this point. We are currently using NPCs that give a small buff to skills and offense, a buff to defense, and a buff to all incoming healing.

As the guild levels better airships will become available that let us slot more guild amenities, and NPCs with better buffs. All in all it's one of the more rewarding and interesting guild leveling systems I've seen.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Thoughts on Diablo III

Several Diablo III news items have been making the rounds today. The two big ones are that (1) DIII is launching with an online for real-life-cash auction house (Blizzard will take a small cut of all transactions) and (2) DIII will require a live internet connection to play, even solo.

I'm not sure how I feel about either. Certainly online enabled characters should be hosted on Blizzard's servers, not locally. Otherwise you get fiascoes like Phantasy Star Online back in the Dreamcast days, where everyone you met online was running around with ultra rare weapons that were best-in-slot. However, not providing some option for players to create locally hosted strictly-solo characters that are unable to interact with any of the online elements at all (multiplayer, the auction house, ect.) seems like a pretty baldfaced way of forcing players to come into contact with the new RMT auction house.

I expect both Blizzard and players with too much spare time are going to make a lot of money on this new system. I personally don't think legitimizing the sale of items for cash bodes well for the genre. This is very much going to be a pay-to-win system. Of course in any game as big as DIII is bound to be, there will be a market for items; if not legit then black. It will be a lot easier for Blizzard to control a legitimate market than one trying to stay off their radar. Everquest II has also been doing something similar for years with Station Exchange, and it has yet to trigger the apocalypse.

Regardless, I can't help but think the RMT AH is primarily motivated by profit. If you can release a product and make a-hell-of-a-lot-of-money, or a-hell-of-a-lot-of-money x3 ...what do you do? I also think that, for better or worse, Heartlessgamer has the right of it on this issue for most potential customers.

Another less commented on tidbit comes from Eurogamer, which has a glowing preview of the beta up. One item that really stuck out to me when I read it:

"Each character now has just six active skill slots (and three powerful passives, replacing the more complex traits from last year). Skills simply unlock as you level up, as do the slots - you start with two. Skill points and character respecs have followed attribute points into the bin, and skills can be swapped in and out of slots completely at will."

All I can say is "Thank goodness!" One of my major gripes with Diablo II was that it was far too easy to gimp yourself. You pretty much had to max out a skill to see whether it bit or not, and all too often the answer was "Yes, yes absolutely this skill sucks no mater how much you invest." Having skills do what they are supposed to from the get go and making them swappable on the fly sounds like a lot of fun. I also think it's interesting that Borderlands is mentioned in the article by one of the developers as an influence. Borderlands is probably my favorite Rogue-like of the modern generation.

I will almost certainly not be playing DIII on launch day. I'm not going to pay $60 for a game that jams RMT down my throat when there are similar, and less expensive, products that don't available. However, it does look like it's going to be a lot of fun, and I will likely get it whenever the price gets down to the $30-$40 range.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why do I still care about Star Wars, and what am I expecting from SWTOR?

This post over at Blue Kae got me wondering why I am so much looking forward to Star Wars the Old Republic (which I have yet to pre-order, but plan to soon). My expectations for it as a viable long term MMO commitment aren't particularly stellar. However, as a game that I'll play for a month or two and enjoy, they are pretty high. More broadly, why do still I care about the Star Wars franchise at all after George Lucas pissed all over it with his atrocious prequels?

The prequels bit, to be sure. Considered as pure visual spectacles they were impressive. However, that's all Lucas seemed to care about. Considered as narratives they were utter failures. None of the characters were believable or compelling. For example, the "romance" between Padme and Anikan has to be among the least believable in cinema history. The movies seemed to almost be actively attempting to sabotage some of the more compelling elements of the original trilogy. Me watching Ep I: "Midichlorians? Really?!? WTF?" The movies were an absolute insult to Star Wars fans, and arguably to American moviegoers in general. [More entertaining takes on these issues here and here].

Despite my dislike of the prequels, I still find the Star Wars universe intriguing. It seamlessly blends fantasy and science fiction elements in a way that few other franchises do. Perhaps ironically, games based on the prequels were generally much better than the movies they were based on. Even if GL was an utter hack, game designers seemed to generally get the feel of Star Wars right (a few travesties excepted). While GL was putting out mindless incoherent drivel every two years, some of my favorite games set in the Star Wars universe also came out.

Star Wars Star Fighter I and II were among my favorite PS2 games, and considered as side stories that expanded the Star Wars franchise they were a screaming ton better than the movies. Not as simmy as the old X-wing PC games (which I also adored), but they still gave you a believable illusion of flying around in a star fighter. The last stage of SWSF remains among the most impressive experiences I've ever had in a game. I also really enjoyed the pod racing games on the N64, the DC, and the PS2. A long kind of silly scene in the first movie inspired sci-fi racers that compared favorably with Wipeout and Extreme G.

But those games were small potatoes. The games that really truly convinced me that the Star Wars universe remained a compelling setting for narratives were KoTOR and KoTOR II. Say what you will of the bugs in KoTOR II (none of which I actually experienced, but many others did), it had an extremely compelling narrative. Further, KoTOR remains one of my all time favorite games. I have never experienced heartbreak in a game like I did going through the evil track there. Some of the things I did toward the end disturb me a bit to this day.

When I see evil played out in a movie, I don't feel in any way responsible for it. However, when I actively choose to have my character screw someone over in a game, it can make me experience real twinges of guilt. KoTOR showed me how games can be a compelling artistic medium in a way that's quite distinct from passive experiences like books and movies.

When it comes right down to it, I'm a fan of Star Wars as much for the fun I've I've had playing various games set in the universe as I am from the movies I saw as a child (Ep. IV-VI). Because of that, the atrocious prequels really didn't do much to diminish my love of the franchise. Episode I may have been one of the stupidest movies ever filmed, but flying around in one of those neat backwards looking retro Star Fighters and blowing shit up sure was fun in SWSF. And the Old Republic has jack all to do with the characters and events of the prequels. KoTOR I and II were the real sequels to Ep IV-VI in my mind, not the horrific train wrecks that GL filmed.

On the balance I'm really looking forward to SWTOR. I'm expecting KoTOR III, and really nothing more. If it turns out to be a decent MMO on top of that, so much the better. Regardless, I expect to get $60 worth of fun out of it. And that's all I really need to be satisfied. If you don't care about Star Wars, and particularly if you didn't like the KoTOR games, I can see that there would be nothing too exciting about SWTOR to you. Apart from having a deeper narrative than most, it looks to be a pretty by the numbers quest/ level based MMO. However, if you are a fan of KoTOR (most game critics certainly were), there's every reason to be excited about it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

On Vanity: Cosmetic Slots = Gameplay

I absolutely love the ability to slot cosmetic items. Making my toon look the way I want is a game in-of itself as far as I'm concerned. Giving me cosmetic slots to fool with gives me a ton of extra gameplay, and for what would seem relatively few development resources . . .save implementing the system in the first place, of course. As an example, this is what my dwarf champion in LoTRO would look like in his current gear:

It's fine, there is nothing terribly wrong with it [Edit: on further reflection, this is only a step removed from a blind rodeo clown outfit...what were they thinking?]. However, to me it doesn't look like he is really wearing heavy plate armor. Instead he looks to be wearing some odd combination of plate and leather armor.

This is what I've been using for my appearance slots for the last year, and it looks like more like real armor. However, it still doesn't look quite as sturdy as I'd like. Plus I've simply gotten bored with the look.

Quite by accident, I discovered that there are NPC vendors in Thorin's Hall that sell gear that really does look like plate armor. Cheap NPC vendor armor, plus gray dye and a nicer helmet, and viola! This is what my guy is using for his appearance slots now, and to me it looks like he could take a tank shell in the chest and still get up:

The stats on the armor he is wearing (the top screenshot) are very good for his level. He is currently level 53, and it's impossible to craft him a better set of armor until he hits level 58. In fact it took almost six weeks to craft the set he's wearing using guild recipes. Few, if any, random drops or quest rewards will be an upgrade to him until much higher levels. Were I playing a number of other MMOs, I'd be forced to appear as the top screenshot at least until level 58, or take a severe stat hit. In LoTRO I have the freedom to decide how I'd like to look.

Just getting this set of appearance armor together gave me a good hour or two of (to me) really fun gameplay. It also made some random low level vendor items actually serve a useful gameplay purpose. The stats on the gear in his cosmetic slots are so terrible from a stat perspective that they have no functional reason to exist in the game; as seems to be standard with all vendor gear in MMOs for some reason. However, because of the appearance slot system they provided me with a great customization option.

Appearance customization slots also partially alleviate another issue that a lot of MMOs seem to have. Once the level cap passes a given set of raid content to a certain degree, there is really no reason for that content to exist any more. Players are not going to fool with it once the stats on the gear you can get are horrible compared to normal top level solo quest rewards. For example Molten Core and Blackwing Lair currently have no reason for existing in World of Warcraft. They are old level 60 raid dungeons. As badass as some of the armor you can get there looks, there's no real reason for it to be in game right now (or there wasn't when I last played, there was talk of revamping BWL to drop gear relevant to 85s, they may have implemented that by now for all I know). However, if WoW had appearance slots I can totally see going in to get those armor sets on a small party of bored level 85s.

Cosmetic slots turn obsolete encounters and vendor trash into potentially compelling content, even to bored players twiddling their thumbs at the level cap. I've never been able to understand why they aren't a standard feature of more MMOs.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Where have I been? Where am I going? Adventures in navel gazing.

For the last few weeks, I've been asking myself "What am I trying to do with this blog?" To post my ruminations on this subject seems almost unimaginably self indulgent, but here I go. . . ;-)

There were a few key points I had in mind when I started this blog. I wanted it to be nearly a strict MMO blog. I also wanted to point out in various ways that I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong wrong with the MMO genre. There are a great diversity of products available catering to a wide variety of tastes. In fact, for all the whining about a "lack of innovation" in modern MMOs, there are tons of downright experimental games out there. Ironically enough, most whiners will dismiss existing innovative games without bothering to even investigate them. If you really want to see more innovation in MMO space, you need to vote with your wallet or at least enough of your spare time to download some trials.

Another big theme I had in mind is that I think the venom aimed at some of the more popular MMOs is misplaced, and somewhat toxic to the social community that engages in discourse about MMOs. There seems to be this idea floating around in some corners of the net that if developers weren't so blinded by the success of games like WoW, Rift, and LoTRO that we'd see more "innovative" and "immersive" big budget MMOs. What innovative and immersive would look like is rarely described in any detail, but in some cases it seem to be code for EQ or Ultima Online with modern graphics. Since developers apparently aren't paying attention to any games but the more popular ones, all "theme-park MMOs" must be attacked as often and loudly as possible. If you generate enough noise, eventually developers will take note and stop putting big budgets behind "WoW clones."

The thing is, that won't work. First off, for any number of financial reasons, you'd be a real ass to spend tens of millions of dollars on an unproven game design that caters to a market of unknown size. No-one in their right mind is likely to do it. However, let's assume for the sake of argument that wasn't true. If you were a game developer, would seeing one or even several bloggers and message board commentators constantly whine that a particular fairly popular game "is teh suxxors" convince you that they represent a large untapped market? Particularly when they usually don't express what they actually do want in any real detail, and the few details offered differ from one angry ranter to the next?

Posting something along the lines of "This game is a WoW clone with zero innovation, everyone that likes it is one of the mindless morons ruining the MMO genre" accomplishes nothing save making the poster sound obsessed, angry, and possessed of rather fringe tastes. What developer would see that and think "Yeah, I want to spend millions developing something for that guy!" It's certainly nothing like a compelling argument for whatever you want to see developed.

Lately, I've begun feel that I'm in danger of becoming utterly repetitive if I keep revisiting these basic themes. I now find myself wondering where I want to go. I'd like to hit 200 posts by the end of the year, but that's a fairly arbitrary goal. The MMO news lately hasn't really inspired me. Of course it's to be expected that things get a bit slow in the middle of the summer. I do consider this something akin to my MMO personal record, so expect to see the occasional "What I've been up to" posts regardless. However, I think I need to change what I've been doing a bit to stay engaged with the blog. I have a couple of ideas I've been tossing around, expect to see some changes, minor or major, in the coming weeks.

One fantastic side effect of running this blog is that I've gotten to get to know so many generally like minded individuals. Most of my blogroll was unknown to me when I started this. It's been great finding out that there is a solid group of knowledgeable and generally upbeat MMO commentators. Many of the highest profile MMO blogs read like three note tunes, sophisticated trolling attempts, or narcissistic whining to me. That was mostly what I was familiar with when I started this, and it's great to know I was mistaken. Of course the converse is that I don't see as clear a need for a blog in this format as I did when I started. I now feel less a voice in the wilderness than a member of a community I didn't know existed.

[EDIT] Bit of a drastic re-write for clarity. I'm not going anywhere, and have never seriously considered shutting down the blog. This whole post is more of a thought exercise for me than anything else.

Friday, June 24, 2011

SWG shutting down

This has to be the most stunning MMO news in a while to me: Star Wars Galaxies will be shutting down on December 15th. I saw "SWG shutting down" as the title of a thread over at MMORPG.COM and just assumed it was a troll post at first. But, no, really, it's shutting down (official announcement here).

You can find an interview with John Smedly about it here. It contains as direct an admission that the NGE was a mistake as I've seen, it's kind of a gloomy read. While I can't say I was a huge fan of the game personally, I did find the sheer number and depth of sandbox activities available there impressive as hell. It is also a game that had a really devoted community. The few times I tried it I always found players of the game to be helpful and welcoming.

I really thought that we were going to see two full featured Star Wars MMOs coexisting peacefully for the next few years. The mechanics of SWG and The Old Republic are so wildly different they really would have competed very little with each other. I feel really bad for all the players still devoted to the game. If an announcement like this came down the pipe about LoTRO, it would be a real kick in the gut to me. I also feel bad for the devotes of sandbox MMOs, we will be losing one of the more expansive ones.

Rest in peace SWG, you'll be missed.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

LoTRO: after a while the free stuff really adds up

I've been playing Lord of the Rings Online since open beta. I've pre-ordered at every opportunity, and gotten free stuff each time. I also went lifer fairly early on which got me more free stuff. I got yet more free stuff by subscribing to PC Gamer around the time LoTRO launched (it came with a code as part of a promotional preview). Finally, I decided to buy the most expensive version of the Isenguard pre-order that went live last week, because I simply could not commit to one color for the cloaks, horses, and outfits for all of my characters (yes, I can be squirrely like that). Just for giggles I started a new level one character and unpacked everything he started with, this is what his bags look like:

The list of stuff he started with includes 2 pocket items, four cosmetic items, five mounts, and nine cloaks, in addition to miscellaneous items like a writ of passage, Ithilden coins, and scented candles. I have my choice of 8 basic looks for my cloak (2 of the 9 are nearly identical):

One of these...

or these...

or these:

I can also pick between two different cosmetic outfits:

I have three colors to pick from for the one on the right.

In addition, I'll get a slow horse at level 8 and four additional mounts as I level, a goat and three full speed horses at 20 (if I recall correctly). The horses are especially nice since they start with 200 hit points, 100 more than a normal mount, but 50 hit points less than a faction mount.

I'm certainly not complaining, it's actually a lot of fun to be able to customize new characters so heavily right out of the gate. Not having to use level 1 hobo gear for my appearance slots is very nice. However, I'm starting to wonder what else they can reasonably offer as pre-order bonuses that won't be unbalanced or completely redundant with what's in the game already. For newer players it's not much of an issue, I doubt a ton of players are getting 9 cloaks to pick from every time they roll a new 'toon. However, for old timers like me the amount of stuff you get with a new character is starting to border on the absurd, and much of it is definitely redundant.

All that said, Turbine seems to have found the Achilles heel of my wallet. I'll likely happily keep pre-ordering expansions for the random free stuff every single time I can.