Developer Appreciation Week 2015 : Giving Thanks

The exceptional Rowan over at his corner of the web, (For the World is Hollow and) I Have Touched The Sky, has declared the week from March 28th till April 4th Developer Appreciation Week! I know I’m a little late to the party, this being April 4th and all, but I still wanted to say my peace before it expired. In this collective hobby of ours, that which we pour a great amount of our free time, that which encompasses a massive portion of our hard drives, and that which takes over our favorite news site preferences, we wouldn’t be where we are and our lives would be totally different were it not for game developers.

Gaming in general has taken over our collective consciousness. There isn’t a single person I know, not a single one, that hasn’t at some time been heavily invested in some video game at some time. This has led to a staggering amount of sales, and made arguably one of the biggest industries in the world, surpassing both the movie and music industry. And, I mean, I work in a pretty large industry myself, but there aren’t fans who consider my every move and what I’m working on to be of newsworthy importance like we do with the developers of the games we play.

Game developers are everyday people like you and me that get paid salaries similar to you and me, and yet they are our celebrities and we hold them to an almost superhuman status. We discuss ad nauseum what they say, hyper analyze every word they say, all because it affects how we spend our free time and how we open our wallets in pursuit of our hobby. And they take on this celebrity status willingly! To be honest, that’s a level of stress on a whole other level that not all of us would be able to handle.

So, to all of the game developers out there, thank you. Thank you for not only producing all of the fantastic games that we use to make our free time a lot less boring, but also for putting up with the height of the pedestal that we put you on. Thank you for producing quality artwork, for spending an unheard of amount of production hours for something that a number of us will skip 90% of just so we can hold it above our peers and berate it for “not having enough content”. Thank you for putting yourself out there, yourself personally, your life, just to develop a connection with us gamers, those that will praise you in one breath and then throw shade the next over some nerf. Thank you for being simultaneously both our superheroes and showing great humility, for putting up with us fans at our best and at our worst.

Thank you to the developers of the Ultima series past and present for starting my love of gaming, Richard Garriott, Warren Spector, Paul Neurath, Starr Long, and many others. Thank you.

To the developers of the fantastic MMO The Secret World past and present, Ragnar Tornquist, Joel Bylos, Joshua “Scrivnomancer” Doetsch, Romain “Tilty” Amiel, Laurie “Sezmra” Payne, and many others. Thank you.

To the developers of Star Trek Online past and present, a game which I have considered my “home MMO” for many years, Daniel Stahl, Craig Zinkievich, Christine Thompson, Al “Captain Gecko” Rivera, Nick “Tacofangs” Duguid, Thomas “The Cryptic Cat” Marrone, and many others. Thank you.

 

To the developers of the multitude of other games that have shaped the way I play and enjoy games over the years, Jane Jensen, Colin Johanson, Ree Soesbee, Chris Roberts, Sid Meier, Jon Van Canegham, and many, many, many, many, many, many others…

Thank you.

//Ocho

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The Elder Scrolls Online, Still Not Quite Getting it Right

Elder Scrolls Online

I’m picky. This should not come as a surprise to anybody by now, I’m very finicky about the way that I play the games I do. What this leads to, though, is a bunch of games that are just not designed for my playstyle, and that’s completely fine! That’s what makes gaming a great hobby, that not every game has to be made for everybody. However, when a game you really think and hope is made for you turns out not to be, it can be quite disappointing. This is kind of how I feel after trying out The Elder Scrolls Online.

Now, the last time I played Elder Scrolls Online, it was during the game’s beta, and I commented how I liked the look of the game, but felt that it just didn’t capture the “feel” of Elder Scrolls, that feeling of total freedom in a huge explorable world, chock full of so much lore that a full playthrough only scratches the surface. But I’m not one to judge a game fully in beta, especially one I *really* hope to like. So when Elder Scrolls Online flipped the switch to the buy-the-game-and-then-you-can-play-it model, I jumped on board with both feet.

Elder Scrolls Online, Fishing

I’m fishing! I have no idea why, but I can fish!

 

I should’ve trusted my initial instincts, though, which so far have been pretty spot-on. I jumped back into TESO, and due to streamers like the awesome CrazMadSci, I was pretty pumped to do so. There are immediate differences, the intro changed and dumps you right into your head city. I created a Redguard character in the Daggerfall Covenant, because Hammerfell is right next to High Rock, and after the intro I was dropped right into the city of Daggerfall! This is good. This feels open. You have the *option* of heading to the two intro islands or not, and options are good. Options are Elder Scrolls. Heck, in pretty much every TES game I’ve ever played I initially run off into a random direction, and when I get pretty powerful finally remember that “oh yeah, there’s a main story I could follow, too!”  Elder Scrolls is about options, not about linearity.

But it was also during the character creator that I found my first “huh?” moment. When creating a Redguard, I found that I could make their skin color… well… white. This immediately struck me as wrong. There aren’t any white Redguards! There could be light-brown skinned Redguards, sure, but not white. But… MMO. I get it. Also, a human race can join the Aldmeri Dominion? Generally, the only race other than elves that would be allowed into the Aldmeri Dominion are khajiit, because the high elves have basically tricked the khajiit over and over again over the millennia. To see *any* other race that’s not an elf take the Emperor’s throne would cause a reaction, and yet, human races can *join* the Dominion?! This makes no sense. But… MMO. I get it. It’s a bit of fracturing the lore to fit the game … it’s just too bad the lore is a tenet of the series… but whatever.

Elder Scrolls Online

Stros M’Kai, we meet again.

 

The skipping of the intro Islands, though? It lies, it’s not really an option. On the intro islands are collectible Skyshards that, if ignored, mean less skill points for your character. It’s an illusion of choice. Sure, you *could* not do them, but then you set yourself at a disadvantage with less skill points at your level until you come back to play them. So, fine, I did them. But I wasn’t happy about it.

My character sits at level 12 now, and making my way through Glenumbra from one quest chain ride leading right into the next quest chain ride (Grrrrr. It’s crazy, actually. I just finished up a quest chain to help rid a giant tree of… evil, I guess, and what did they tell me but “Oh! Someone stopped by while you were helping us! You should go find and help them!” This is about as far from options as one could get.) and I’ve been building him into what I love playing in Elder Scrolls, or pretty much any classless game that will allow me to, a leather-wearing, mace-and-shield wielding sneaking powerhouse that backs up his mace with healing magic. I’m almost ready for the first dungeon, I think, but when I see in chat people ask about DPS or tank or healing classes, I’m really not sure what I would fall into. DPS, as my armor gives me crit bonuses, I think? I use a shield, have taunt abilities, and heal myself, so maybe tank? I can heal others pretty well, too, so healer? I… have no idea, really. I’m all 3? Been pretty successful so far soloing, no problem keeping myself alive and beating down the enemy, but classifying myself in “standard” MMO terms? No idea.

And thus, if I can’t classify myself then others will judge me, as MMO players do. In fact, they already have a few times. The first time I tried to group up for the first dungeon I was *kicked out* of the group for my build. My DPS isn’t on par with pure-DPS players, my healing doesn’t stack up to healers, and I can’t tank like tanks can. Am I screwing myself over by not sticking to a trope? Basically, even though I’m playing the way I want, it’s quite possible I’m playing “wrong”. Any other Elder Scrolls game, I’m an unstoppable powerhouse and I have a blast. Here? I’m a noob, I’m a scrub. Not exactly a feeling that makes me want to log in.

Elder Scrolls Online

I have my mace, I have my shield, I’m wearing my leather. Come at me… nature!

 

It’s not all bad, though. Take a look at some of these screenshots! The game is drop dead gorgeous. Also, the quests themselves? Fascinating and well written stuff! Though not adding much to the overall story, they are quite Elder Scrollsy tableaus and are fun. Also, the few choices that I’ve made seem to have made differences. At the end of the Betnikh island chain, I pissed off the Captain of the ship I was sailing on so much that she kicked me off! She might’ve kicked me off anyway, again another illusion, but the choices *feel* pretty hefty, about as much heft as you can have in an MMO, I guess.

I don’t feel like these positives make up for the negatives, though. So once more I’m holding on to my initial assessment: The Elder Scrolls Online, though a very pretty WoW clone in it’s own right, does not live up to it’s Elder Scrolls pedigree. It’s too linear, it doesn’t respect and breaks it’s own hardcore lore just because, and they lie to the player that they can truly play the way they want to. If anything, playing TESO has made me want to research the lore a lot more, and even has given me cravings to jump back into the previous single player games!

Elder Scrolls Online

Dude, look at this place. Ballin’.

 

 

I may still level to cap, anyway, just because doing so might convince me to change my mind. I’m hoping it does, just because I hate being so disappointed with a game that labels itself as Elder Scrolls.

//Ocho

 

The King of the Underworld is Exploration

Ultima Underworld

Chalk another game off my backlog, I just completed Ultima Underworld and I must say it was much more than the game I was expecting. Sometimes when the nostalgia bug bites, you head back to an older game or two, and they just don’t hold up. It’s not as good as you remember it being, the graphics are just too dated to enjoy it, or times have changed so much that the flow of the game is totally opposed to today’s standards. Ultima Underworld, though, was more of a look into the future from the past.

Did I forget to mention that you could also play musical instruments in Underworld? Yup, you totally could. Not only that, but at one point it became integral to the main quest. Fishing, too. The amount of features stuffed into this one game, a game who this month is turning 23 years old, is absolutely staggering. Not only did the game hold up well over time, it held up well enough for me to play a complete runthrough of the game without even wanting to divert my attention elsewhere.

Ultima Underworld

I should… call Origin to receive a personal congratulations?! I wonder if any one of the old Origin employees or anyone at EA would honor this.

The best feature of Underworld, hands down, is it really nailed that feeling of exploration. The storyline was bare at best, and revolved around saving a maiden and finding a handful of particular items, using clues given by the NPCs you met. Finding them is what drove you forward, and every item you needed was just down one more level tucked into a far corner somewhere or held by some unsuspecting NPC, and all you had to do was find it. Around any corner could be a monster that would slap you around, a friendly face, a pile of treasure, a piece of lore, a freaking game of Pac-Man, a talking door, a developer homage, lava and waterfalls, a platform puzzle, etc. In other words, Ultima Underworld rewarded handsomely the person who explored every nook and cranny.

Ultima Underworld, Pac-Man

So I’m to collect these blue orbs as I run around this maze that’s filled with different colored ghosts. Sure, that sounds perfectly reasonable.

And not a single drop of procedural generation was used. The only randomness seemed to come from periodic monster spawns. After clearing a level occasionally you would meet a random monster, and these either didn’t happen often, or happened and they mixed in so well that they weren’t that noticeable. They didn’t use random encounters as an experience crutch, though, as is commonly found in a metric ton of other games. Everything was on purpose. But even with those rails, it felt like the rails didn’t exist.

Werit, another Star Trek Online player, makes a couple great points about the topic of exploration. If “exploration” is made procedurally generated, it doesn’t “feel” like you’re really exploring. It instead feels like you’re traveling down the highway and seeing yet another rest stop. A few restaurants, maybe a quirky gift shop, bathrooms, and that’s about it. If all you have to look forward to with more exploration is yet another rest stop, it doesn’t feel that fulfilling. And yet, Star Trek Online players, like many other players, are clamoring for more exploration!

Ultima Underworld really nailed what games today are still having problems trying to emulate. The Elder Scrolls series, I think, has come the closest to that feeling of rewarding exploration, where you could pick any direction and find rewarding adventure. That’s the reason why Skyrim has sold an almost mind-boggling amount of units. Rewarding exploration is what players really want. It is also why The Elder Scrolls Online didn’t fare so hot on release, their rails were showing too much.

Ultima Underworld, Warren Spector

A spectre named Warren, a not-so-subtle nod to Warren Spector. Wonder why he’s upset, though? Maybe the whole ‘ghost’ thing has something to do with it.

Not many younger players these days can stomach a game that has such dated graphics, no matter how good it is. Ultima Underworld, though, felt like listening to good classic rock. Different from today’s music, both in structure and style, but the soul never changes.

Playing Ultima Underworld evoked feelings like listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. You know that what you’re experiencing is from a different time period, but that does nothing to diminish the genius that went into producing it.

//Ocho

P.S. – By the way, mark it down. On March 2nd, 2015 the Internet was won by Ocho.

Ultima Underworld, Richard Garriott, Congratulations

P.S. – Supporting the Underworld Ascendant Kickstarter for me was a no brainer. It’s being produced by the same designer, Paul Neurath, someone who obviously knows what’s up. Their biggest hurdle, I believe, will be in topping what was an industry-changing game. No small feat.

P.P.S.- Here are links to my other two writeups on Underworld: My initial writeup, My mid-game writeup.

Ultima Underworld, Moongate

The whole Pink Floyd analogy was a little more apt, too. The run after the final encounter is a little… trippy.

Leaping Lizardmen! Heading Deeper into the Underworld

Ultima Underworld

Bica, yeshor’click! Remember in my previous post how I mentioned that Ultima Underworld really holds up, despite the fact the game is over 20+ years old? I really wasn’t kidding, it holds up really well. I’ve been playing for about a week now, and I’m pretty hooked. The more I play, the more I think this game was truly ahead of it’s time.

Since I’ve been playing for a while, I have a greater grasp on the whole experience. Previously I mentioned features such as: lighting, food and hunger mechanics, platform jumping, swimming, melee and ranged combat, magic, hiding, faction-based NPCs, thieving, trading and reputation, armor and weapon degradation, sandbox style gameplay, and an in-game map with the ability to add player-created notes. All of this definitely exists. But then throw into it even more features like Minecraft style crafting (use an ear of corn over a fire, and you get popcorn; use a rock hammer on rocks to create sling stones; etc.), simple but interesting quests, and multiple large and diverse levels to explore, and I can easily see why this game took the industry by storm. 1992!

 

I’m not being that greatly challenged, though. I remember when I was younger Ultima Underworld being downright daunting, but once I followed the User’s Guide and found stuff like a resurrection mechanic, and learned the magic and advancement system a little better (the Light and Create Food spell are downright necessities), the real challenge of the game comes down to simple inventory management, as the amount you can carry around with you is very small. But then I found that items don’t disappear. If I find a random corner of a level and drop a few pieces of armor I’ve been lugging around, I can come back days later and it will still be there. So even then, inventory management isn’t the end of the world.

Ultima Underworld

Die ghost! Wait… how does that work? Die… again?

 

 

Let me give you an example of one of the interesting quests, though. Now remember, this is Ultima, so there is no such thing as a quest log. All quests are dialogue driven, and nothing will point you where you need to go. On the 3rd level, I came across a race of lizardmen. Communicating with them, though, was a little… tricky. The lizardmen have their own separate language, you see. So, when talking to them, I mostly just apologized to them that I had no idea what they were saying. If this were any newer game, I would either believe I wasn’t supposed to know what they were saying, or that I would learn some ability and magically be able to understand them. ‘Click, not here.

I came across a human prisoner behind a set of bars in the lizardmen holdings and thought “Awesome. Here is where I learn the ability to talk to these guys.” The prisoner was mute. So on one side we have a prisoner who can’t speak, and the other a language we don’t understand. However, through descriptive charades, the prisoner let us know that, indeed, he knew the lizardmen language and would teach it to me if I agreed to help release him. I had to bring the words to him, though. The process was to talk to a lizardman, and write down a whole bunch of words, then take them back to the prisoner to play charades with him and continue like that until I had a firm grasp of the language. Once I did so, I was then able to communicate with all the other lizardmen! It came out that the prisoner had stolen food and attacked one of the lizardmen, and was sentenced to be executed. He would be pardoned, though, if I gave the lizardmen a whole bunch of food. It’s left up to the character, really. I decided to free him, but I still don’t feel great about that decision. I did keep my end of the bargain, though.

Ultima Underworld, Sseetharee

I can fully understand this now. Think I can add Thepa to my CV?

 

Overall, the main quest revolves around finding the kidnapped daughter of the local Baron. However, once entering the Abyss, it’s found to be more complex than that (thankfully). Through dream communication, you learn that she was kidnapped for a more malicious purpose, and the whole of Britannia is in peril. Of course it is. From what exactly, I’m not sure yet. Sseth, you need to find the Baron’s daughter, but you also need to collect eight different artifacts strewn throughout the Abyss. Again, the why isn’t quite clear yet, but as per the Ultima ethos, these artifacts are representations of the eight Britannian virtues and they can be anywhere and be anything. It’s even quite possible I’ve stumbled on a few already and I’m hoping I didn’t discard any of them in a random corner somewhere.

I have so far collected three artifacts, though, and have completed my exploration of the 4th level. I also feel pretty powerful at this point, and not a lot can stand under the onslaught of my mace. Come at me, Abyss!

//Ocho

P.S. – It looks like Ultima Ascendant has made their Kickstarter goal! Sweet. Can’t wait to give that a shot, too. But I have to say, to top the original 20+ year old game might take a little more effort than one would think.

I’m More Confused About What Crowfall Is Now That Their Kickstarter Launched

The Kickstarter for Crowfall, an MMO in development, just started yesterday. Taking a look at the Kickstarter advertising for the game, though, has left me more confused about what this game is trying to be. From news articles like those found on the new MassivelyOP.net, voxels, destructive environments, and strategy will be the general focus of the game, but the fundraising pitch makes it sound like it’s including a lot more than that. “It’s like Game of Thrones meets Eve Online” reads a tagline on the fundraising page. I’m reminded, though, of a lot of other games when you start going through the feature list.

One of the game’s shining mechanics seems to be that game locations will periodically reset. It appears that there will be two main areas for players to run around in, the “Eternal Kingdoms” and the “Campaign Worlds”. The “Eternal Kingdoms” seems to be where players will set up their main bases of permanent operation. Guilds will presumably be able to build castles and fortresses, and these estates will be around indefinitely. I’m thinking similar to Landmark here. Landmark with possible PvP focus, too, not just a building simulator.

The “Campaign Worlds”, on the other hand, will be the real battlegrounds of the game and will only be around for limited periods of time, until the resources are gathered and your side comes out victorious or not, at which point you return back to the Eternal Kingdoms. So these are like matches then, matches that take a while to complete but that do have a set “win” condition. Win conditions like A Tale in the Desert but more violence? You would be able to collect your spoils and bring them back to the Eternal Kingdoms to improve your character and holdings, though, so maybe not like ATiTD. Kind of feeling like it’s approaching Guild Wars 2 style World vs World a bit, but with actual win conditions instead of just time. In fact, the action combat appears to be very GW2-esque as well.

So maybe the tagline should be “Guild Wars 2’s WvW meets A Tale in the Desert meets Landmark”? I mean, that’s not as badass sounding as “Game of Thrones meets Eve Online” (both very “hardcore” IPs), but it does help me visualize it better. But then they throw this in there

“The beginning of each Campaign is like the first round of Civilization: players are dropped into a harsh environment, surrounded by Fog-of-War. The Worlds are filled with deadly monsters, haunted ruins, abandoned quarries… and the most dangerous predator of all, other players.

Craft weapons, scavenge armor, secure a stronghold, forge alliances and conquer the World.”

So… like H1Z1? Are the Campaign Worlds more survival-focused, maybe? This makes it sound like they’ll have a scavenger, band of survivors feel to them, where you battle not just the environment, but also other players to achieve the win conditions. No zombies, though. Well, maybe. These Campaign Worlds are slowly falling, entropy having it’s way with them, and the “Hunger” seems to be a driving factor in that. The Hunger seems to be the game’s main antagonist, a relentless, singularly focused enemy without remorse or empathy. Like the Borg, or… zombies. A rose by any other name.

But then they say they’re throwing in a heavy focus of strategy as well when they say “A seamless blend of an MMO with a large-scale Strategy game!” When mixed with PvP, “strategy” gaming is very reminiscent of MOBAs. Seeing as how MOBAs are wildly successful at the moment, I could see where they would also attempt this avenue for development as well.

So, then “Guild Wars 2 WvW meets A Tale in the Desert meets Landmark meets MOBAs meets H1Z1!” It certainly doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? This is why I don’t work in advertising.

At it’s base, though, it sounds like the most important aspects will be Guilds, Territory, Crafting, and PvP. Doesn’t sound like it’d be up my alley, only because my jump-in-jump-out playstyle doesn’t mesh well with territory holdings and PvP focus, which is the realm of more dedicated players.

So although maybe it’s right now not sounding like it’d be for me, it does sound like it’s something fresh and really pushing the boundaries. So I give it a lot of respect, it’s trying new avenues of gameplay with systems that are relatively familiar, and combining them to create this new species of MMO. That is awesome.

Tons of time left to go, and it looks like hitting their $800,000 goal really won’t be a problem. So if Crowfall sounds like it would be a nice addition to the stable of games you’re already playing, go check it out.

//Ocho

– So what do you think? Does it remind you of any other games as well? Is this the pattern we should expect for the evolution of the MMO genre, combining traits of games already played to make something new? Do you think I’m wrong and “Shut up, Ocho, it’s Eve Online meets Game of Thrones like they said! Jeez! It’s not that confusing, ya noob!”

– All images used in this post are linked from the Crowfall Kickstarter page and are not my own screenshots.

Onwards, Into the Stygian Abyss!

Ultima Underworld

My last few posts have been a little… heavy handed. I go through waves, I’ve found. A few posts of pointing out gaming’s psychological tactics and obscure cultural norms here and there, trying to get those who may be imbibing the kool-aid a little too deep to at least notice what flavor it is. But this here corner of the internet is about gaming and the celebration of the artform! To that end, I can’t make *every* post thought provoking, there has to be a wave of fluff, too. So, let me tell you about my latest gaming habits!

I’ve found myself lately pulled back into the comforting arms of nostalgia, a gaming haven I head to periodically which I love. Using a new system I’ve devised to make headway into my backlog, which has been working nicely, the RNG gods have decided the game I am to play is Ultima Underworld. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Ultima Underworld

Goldthirst, huh? I wonder what motivates this dude…

 

This comes at an great time. We are currently going through a wave of resurgence of all things Ultima. Broadsword picked up the license of Ultima Online and has been running with the 17 year old game, Shroud of the Avatar is coming along nicely picking up a dedicated community as it keeps moving in development, and still in the funding stage of it’s Kickstarter, Underworld Ascendant, a rework of Underworld, is ~ 80% funded with 2 weeks yet to go.

Ultima Underworld itself, though, is one of the cornerstones of gaming as we know it. Almost 23 years old, Releasing in 1992, it is noted to be the first role-playing game to feature first-person action in a 3D environment. One of the real OGs of gaming here. Paul Neurath, Underworld’s designer, when asked in an interview said I brought an early Underworld demo to the West Coast to show some folks, including developer friends. I recall how their jaws dropped wide as they watched the demo. You could see in their eyes that the gaming world had shifted. It even released before Wolfenstein 3D, and many shooters and RPGs to follow credited Underworld as an influence: Bioshock, Gears of War, The Elder Scrolls, Deus Ex, Half-Life, Tomb Raider, System Shock, and pretty much any game that lets your character move around in a 3D environment.

Ultima Underworld, Level 1 Map

For 1992 the addition of a player-annotated in-game map is mind blowing.

 

So how does it hold up? After a few hours, pretty dang well. Lighting, food and hunger mechanics, platform jumping, swimming, melee and ranged combat, magic, hiding, faction-based NPCs, thieving, trading and reputation, armor and weapon degradation, sandbox style gameplay, and an in-game map with the ability to add player-created notes. The only parts that don’t really hold up are the music, with a midi track that Dosbox has a hard time translating, and the main plot, so far relying on the outdated trope of “rescue the princess”. These can be forgiven, though. The game is old enough to buy itself a drink and times have certainly changed. Remember Troll dolls? They were at their height of popularity in 1992! That voice acting, though.

Ultima Underworld, Hagbard

Apparently everyone saw this girl but nobody decided to do anything. Well, it’s not like they throw the *nice* people into the Abyss.

 

We’ll see how far I get. These jawns weren’t known to be the quick jaunts of today. Taking weeks to complete was a serious badge of honor back then. However, I’ve already made it past any previous attempt, and I’ve already learned a whole bunch of new things (there’s a resurrection mechanic! I never knew that!).

Onwards, my friends, into the Stygian Abyss!

//Ocho

So what are *you* playing? Anything interesting?

If You Give Me A Free Option, I’ll Take It

Star Trek Online, Bathroom, Refresher

We are gamers. As gamers, overcoming challenges is kind of our primary thing. Any challenge, especially in the digital space, will be conquered. Speed runs through games where the developers want us to take our time? It’ll be done. Collect every single little collectible? Oh, definitely. Playing every single race/character combination? Of course. Replaying a game multiple time just to see every single possible ending? Par for the course. So if you dangle a carrot in front of us, and then tell us that, oh hey, there’s a way to acquire this carrot just by playing the game? Well bring it on.

The problem is, though, that we are in the Age of Free to Play. On one side you have the staunch Old Guard, banging on their drum of subscription, singing that one monthly fee gives them every single thing in the game and that the only advantage comes from your own drive, the challenges are badges of pride. On the other, you have the New Blood, those born into microtransactions, those that will flit from game to game wherever the crowd of public opinion takes them. “Everyone is playing this latest indie craze?! Then I have to play it, too!” To them, a subscription just doesn’t make sense. Why pay monthly for a game that they’ll be done with in a week? The market is changing to new demands, and so tries to cater to both.  But both sides have heavy influence. The Old Guard brings with it disposable income. The New Blood, their ample numbers and time. Their mixture brought about Free To Play.

Guild Wars 2, Plant Dragons

Dragons, dragons everywhere!

 

Though personally  I will wander from game to game and I do not find value in time-based subscriptions, my playstyle is steadfast that of the Old Guard. As such, I find myself torn whenever these MMOs offer ways of attaining store items through in-game methods. Neverwinter, Guild Wars 2, and Star Trek Online, for example, have ways of exchanging in-game acquired currency for store points. Wildstar and EvE Online have methods of exchanging in-game currency for subscription time. Lord of the Rings Online gives you store currency for performing achievements, and many other examples.

If you give me a method of playing your game for free, well then buy-gum I’m going to do so, not because I’m cheap, but just because the challenge was thrown down. For example, over the past two months, Star Trek Online has given away two Tier 6 ships, the Breen Sarr Theln Carrier and the Kobali Samsar Cruiser, with just quick daily mission requirements to get each, though you could use Lobi, the consolation lockbox credit, to buy them as well. For the Carrier, it was 25 days of the winter event foot race; for the cruiser, the anniversary mission and 15 days of Omega fragment hunting. I have prevailed and have both of the ships in my inventory! Challenge completed! But man, that much logging in, for those quick little events? The fun wore off quickly. So I have the ships, still in their boxes, and no desire to open them. The events burned me out.

If not for STO’s Lifetime subscription, I honestly probably wouldn’t even be playing. I would want to get everything for free by grinding for it, exchanging dilithium for store credits, just because the option is there. But that option is such a long grind that it numbs me to the game itself. It numbs me even with my lifetime!

This is why I haven’t put that much time in Neverwinter. Get a fantastic steed by just exchanging gems for store points, and grind ages for the gems, a never ending grind. Same with Lord of the Rings Online. I found myself in the early levels waiting and fighting other players for mosquito spawns just to complete a slayer challenge for store points. It’s not fun, but give me the option and playing any other way feels like cheating, and I pride myself on not cheating.

Neverwinter, Gelatinous Cube

Come at me, cube!

 

This is where being caught in the middle of the Old Guard and New Blood really sucks.  The Old Guard would just stick with one game, pay their sub and be happy. Grinds don’t bother them so much as it’s like other games don’t even exist, and their sub covers a lot of ground. The New Blood is cool with the little cheats. They get really upset at nerfs, they’re cool with the exploits that allow them to grind experience much faster than they should, the easy build guides, the experience boosters, all because they’re just moving on to another game soon anyway.

It’s a harsh realization when the games you enjoy playing have stopped catering to your specific playstyle. You feel like it’s passing you by. But then they offer another challenge, with a mighty fine carrot dangling on the end of the string again…

They know us so well.

//Ocho

The Star Trek Online Conundrum of Tier 6

Star Trek Online, Pathfinder

I find myself jumping back into Star Trek Online a lot lately, but it hasn’t entirely been for fun. Maintenance gaming, I guess is the best description I can come up with with how I’ve been playing. Gaming for the future, maybe? Chasing carrots, definitely, but the carrots aren’t really leading to meals.

I love STO. Picked it up at release and have played off and on for the full 5 years it’s been out. When the decision came through that they were going to start making “Featured Episodes” and coming out with episodes on a regular basis, this solidified the game for me. As a Star Trek fan, this was about as close as I’d come to seeing new Trek. That day, about a month before my wedding day, I signed up for the lifetime sub (and if my future wife complained, well… it was before the wedding so it didn’t count. She said yes, she knew what she was getting herself into!).

Over the years, I’ve stuck to one character and only a handful of ships. Only with recent changes to the game have they made switching ships a much less painful task, so I only stuck to the Long Range Science Vessel Retrofit, the Solanae Dyson Science Destroyer, and just recently the Pathfinder Long Range Science Vessel. Remember Voyager? Essentially that. What can I say, the Intrepid-based designs are just really sleek, streamlined, and sexy. So sue me.

Star Trek Online, Dyson Science Destroyer

The Dyson Science Destroyer, looking rather epic.

The Retrofit and Dyson are considered Tier 5 and are the ships I spent the most time in. The Retrofit was free for me, but after the Free-To-Play conversion it was considered a pay ship. It was an Endgame ship, though, and held it’s own as more and more Tier 5 ships were released, every new ship bearing a pricetag ranging from $10-$30.

This is how Star Trek Online makes it’s money: ship sales. You want to play the endgame content, buy a ship. Or you could grind for it, but really you’re paying to keep your sanity in this case. Ships, then, differed in your preferred playstyle. Science/DPS/Tank and all the mixtures, Tanky DPS, Sciency DPS, Sciency Tank. Each ship also had some hook that differentiated it. For the Retrofit, it was an Ablative Generator, the future-plating seen during the final episode of Voyager. Tier 5 ships are Admiral Tier, and hundreds of thousands of players supported the game in this way. All Tier 5 ships also are relatively equally balanced. This way worked well, from July of 2010 through October 2014, the release of Delta Rising, when it was announced they would be moving forward to Tier 6.

Tier 6 ships bring along with them a host of fun things. More power, more abilities, more customization, more hit points, leveling up your ship, special earned passives, etc. Fantastic. I went ahead and used my stipend points and bought the first ship I’ve ever used zen to purchase, the Pathfinder. All the fun new stuff, along with an upgraded Intrepid? I can dig it.

Star Trek Online, Long Range Science Vessel Retrofit

The equivalence of walking away from a large explosion.

But this is an MMO.

In MMOs, there is the unspoken rule that any improvements below when the improvements start becoming harder and harder to acquire is not important. Leveling gear is only meant to be held onto until you pick up an upgrade 20 minutes later. The new Tier 6 ships are easy to acquire, all you have to do is bust out the credit card or run one of the latest events. The Tier 6 upgrade, though, effectively makes all the Tier 5 ships, all the ships paid for by players, just another piece of leveling gear.

Tier 5 ships are just fine!‘ they told us. All the story content in Delta Rising can be completed with a Tier 5 (which it can), and you don’t *have* to upgrade to continue enjoying the game. Well, no, of course we don’t *have* to. But this is an MMO! Acquiring the best gear is a huge part of why we all play! They know this, though. They know the psychology of MMO players just as much as we obey it. If there is a huge upgrade to a key piece of gear, and it is within our reach, we will go after it.

Even throwing on the band-aid of a store token that can upgrade all Tier 5 ships to a Tier 5-Upgraded level is just a cover. The Tier 5U ships do not have the ability to add specializations, they do not offer extra passives, all they offer is just a buff to your ship’s hit points for $10. The token just gives your Tier 5 ships the ability to hold you over until you can get the Tier 6 you want.

All of this obviously did not sit well with a lot of players. Expansions in plenty of other games usually turns all your hard-earned gear into leveling gear again, which is fine, but not when you paid $20 for that gear. And then we were supposed to be fine with a $10 band-aid that still did not put us on par with Tier 6?

Star Trek Online, Delta Flyer

The Delta Flyer, flying in a timed race. Original, right?

I’m not going to say that Cryptic dropped the ball on this one, this was obviously a very calculated move for the future of the game. If anything, they’re holding onto the ball real tight. This whole ship upgrade thing, though, put a bad taste in a lot of players mouths. Will Cryptic do this again for the next expansion? If I buy Tier 6, are they just going to make Tier 7 and invalidate another purchase? Hate to say, but I think a lot of trust from a lot of players was lost on this one. Which is a serious shame because the story in Delta Rising is easily some of the best the writers have written yet, a real fine display of Star Trek’s iconic grey storytelling.

Personally, with my lifetime sub, I wasn’t affected much. I just bought the Pathfinder using stipend points. My two longest running ships, though, the T5 Retrofit and the T5-U Dyson, unless they come up with other uses for old ships they can effectively be mothballed. Using them when I have a Tier 6 is kind of pointless.

Because really, what MMO player is fine with just using leveling gear?

//Ocho

The Secret World Issue #11 Quality of Life Improvements

The Secret World, Orochi Tower, Tokyo

Today Joel Bylos, game director for The Secret World, released the February 2015 Game Director’s Letter and in it details the road forward for the completion of the Tokyo storyline. I haven’t discussed The Secret World in a while, but it is still one of the games I consider myself an avid player of. I even went so far as to purchase a Lifetime sub, figuring why pay every time for every little content update, when a solid one-time payment will net the points I need to continue playing for a long, long time.

My character, a pistol and elemental magic wielding Illuminati darling, is currently parked in Tokyo awaiting the next update, having finished the latest fantastic installment. A long term goal is to seriously update the QL level of my Tokyo gear, but the amount of grind needed to get there is significant and would involve running the same stories over and over, with the only new amusement of attempting to conquer some of the more ludicrous achievements. Not that bad, but playing other or new games for the first time is way better than grinding, and so he sits waiting.

The Secret World, Tokyo

Nothing says The Secret World like a chain smoking detective wearing a rabbit suit.

From hearing players reactions to The Secret World overall, there seem to be two patterns that emerge. 1) Not a lot of players tend to make it past the area of Blue Mountain before quitting, and 2) the amount of time it takes to kill one mob anywhere is exceptionally high. These are linked, though, as the difficulty curve really ramps up in those first couple of zones. Higher difficulty, AND a significant uptick in kill time? Even I didn’t get through it unscathed the first time I played, I remember taking a break around that time, too.

However, it wasn’t until I hit the end of the Beaumont story in Blue Mountain that the game finally clicked for me. That’s when it dawned on me that this wasn’t just another zombie story. That TSW really was much deeper than it was letting on. But I had to get to that point first! Thankfully, improvements are coming.

The Secret World, Tokyo, Inbeda

WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

Let’s take a look at that letter, shall we? Here is a rundown of the impending fixes.

  1. Reduction in the amount of time it takes to bring down monsters pre-Tokyo. – Hugely necessary. As I said above, this is a large issue for many players.
  2. Reduction in the mob density in the higher packed areas. – Not as necessary as 1, but welcome. It was very easy to trigger a string of never ending fights, and is one of the main reasons I started using a more AoE-centric build, as did others.
  3. Loot buff for rare mobs. – Sure, why not? A little extra blue gear, being the step between uncommon green and epic purple, never hurts.
  4. Overall mission reward restructure. – Nice. This will definitely help new players, as it was possible to hurt yourself in the early game. Understanding how gear works in TSW goes a long way.
  5. Story mission reward restructure. – Also nice. Leveling gear is leveling gear, though. It could be handed out like candy, it doesn’t matter a whole bunch. Like any other MMO, your gear only really starts to matter when it starts becoming farther and fewer between to acquire.
  6. Transylvanian story rewards an epic weapon. – Nice, but wait… Will we be able to go back and get this? A piece of epic gear has been awarded for the completion of every mission pack so far on offer. If they’re throwing this in there, will it be a retroactive reward for all? Epics aren’t that common to come by, after all.
  7. Upgraded tutorials. – Nice, but this may not be as helpful as they think. You can put up signs right in front of peoples faces sometimes, and they still won’t read them.
  8. Map improvements. – Doesn’t say specifically, but I’m thinking map icons. Can’t hurt.
  9. More achievements. – Always good for those that want them.
  10. Fast travel system improvements. – It’s about time. Not that there wasn’t a perfectly good workaround for it the entire time in game. Our characters are very hard to permanently kill as lore, so the fast travel amounted to killing ourselves, and then using the spirit world to choose where to resurrect. Badass, but way too much suicide involved. Now it’ll just be a point-and-click system. Not as badass, but more intuitive. I’m cool with it.
The Secret World, Tokyo

TSW has that way of making you come back for more.

The letter also went on to detail how when we finally enter the Tokyo Orochi tower that we’ll be met with an ever shifting dungeon. One of the downsides of grinding the TSW missions is that the missions are the same every single time, so the entertainment level drops after the first couple of times. So, at the very least, redoing the tower over and over again, at least it’ll be moderately different each time and up its replay value.

Overall, sounds like good stuff. Nothing monumental, but not every update needs to be on par with Beowulf. This will hopefully help bolster community numbers as players aren’t as fatigued when they reach Blue Mountain, and so might improve the overall population. TSW has one of the best communities in any game running, and more players will only make it better.

// Ocho

The End of Massively, The End of an Era, The Opening Door

Rumors had been swirling for a few weeks, but it wasn’t until Brianna Royce’s official post last Friday that the news finally sunk in. Massively, one of the few gaming news sites strictly dedicated to MMO news, is shutting down. AOL, Massively’s overlords, decided in their process of restructuring to shut down their gaming news coverage contingent, Joystiq, which holds both Massively and WoW Insider under it’s umbrella. This comes as not only a blow to the writers and avid readers, such as myself, but I feel will send shockwaves throughout the industry.

In my opinion, Massively stood as one of the last bastions of trustworthy gaming news out there. The more and more irrelevant “consumer revolt” who’s embers are slowly dying claims one of their highest tenets as “ethics in gaming journalism”. Well, Massively epitomized that. They stood up time and again for the consumers and never sugar coated a game in their genre that they didn’t feel lived up to it’s expectations. As a Philadelphia sports fan, this is second nature to me. When you’re passionate about a subject, you celebrate the highs but you push back when you see the subject falter. We are keenly aware of how good it could be, and we push it to live up to those standards. Massively pushed the MMO genre to live up to higher standards, and the genre reacted. Over the years, time and again we saw MMO developers take what the journalists at Massively said to heart and make changes to their games for the better. And those that didn’t listen? Well, let’s just say humble pie is hard to swallow.

This level of enthusiasm, which you could almost physically feel coming out of the text, earned the trust of many readers. Even in disagreement, which happened frequently, that trust still flowed. In this day and age of polarization, what news sources can we really trust? I won’t lie, the prospects are grim. MMORPG.com exists, but it’s hard to take them seriously with the uber-cluttered front page and propensity to deck their background in scantily clad characters. Fatal Hero has a decent missive, but they don’t cover MMOs often, and most of their pieces border on the over-compensating negative side. Personally, unjustified negativity tends to drive me away.

I won’t lie, when it comes to world news more and more I tend to get it from Facebook and Twitter. When it comes to trending stories, multiple outlets produce multiple stories and, when taken with appropriate doses of salt, combined the truth can rise to the surface. Information by inundation. The other day I was watching the RizeUpGaming weekly stream on Twitch and I asked the panel of hosts how they felt about Joystiq being shuttered, and their overall response was a resounding “meh”. They didn’t see the closure of the site as any big deal as it had stopped becoming their primary source of news ages ago. YouTube, Twitch, Reddit, Twitter, and other aggregation sites were where they said they received their information currently.

Is this the world that we’re heading into? If so, individual game bloggers, streamers, podcasters, and vloggers may be the last bastion of truth. Game and MMO bloggers tend to write with that same passion that the Massively writers possessed, just with not as much talent. We’re not writing to get famous, to become rich, for personal glory. No, we’re writing to make a difference, to give a voice to what we wish to see, to push the genre to the heights it could reach. We’re writing because we want to be a part of the overall conversation.

So though I may feel sad that Massively is the victim of AOL’s thrashing about to remain relevant, I am hopeful. The writers have passion. That passion, combined with their experience, means that if they wanted to continue writing they could probably easily find outlets that will take them, and those outlets would become better for it.

We may be seeing the end of Massively under AOL, but I certainly don’t think we have seen the end of Massively.

// Ocho

P.S. – So, hey, it’s been a while since my last post. If you’re reading this, thanks. I’ll probably be picking up blogging once more, if for no other reason than to help throw my pinch or two of dirt into the sudden hole. Over the past few months, I just didn’t feel like what I said would add anything to overall conversation, thoughts I had were better reflected and better written elsewhere. I still think that’s true, but I may still post more anyway.

Edit: Well it looks like we certainly haven’t seen the end of that Massively spirit, as the gang appears to have started numerous new outlets all under the banner of “Massively Overpowered”, including a Kickstarter to fund the overall site! That didn’t take long. Here are all the links, check them all out:

Kickstarter: Massively Overpowered Kickstarter

Site: MassivelyOP.com

Twitter: @MassivelyOP

Facebook: MassivelyOP

Twitch: MassivelyOverpowered

Podcast: Massively OP Podcast