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

ArcheAge Noob Closed Beta Impressions

ArcheAge, Firran

Recently I have found myself quite interested in the upcoming Trion title ArcheAge. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. ArcheAge is an Asian-inspired fantasy sandbox title where player vs player combat is the norm coupled with a full player-driven crafting economy. MMO purists should be rejoicing, for those that constantly complain about the “downfall” of MMOs and the “dirty casuals” that infect the genre, this is a title that actively promotes their preferred style of play.

Believe it or not, I don’t subscribe to that ancient style of thinking. I take no joy in slaying other live players, or the imaginary competition of loot races, I’m not a fan of PvP. I’m also not a fan of crafting, either, as most crafting systems entail as much entertainment as watching grass grow. I get more enjoyment standing in front of my sink, instead of a crafting station, cleaning dishes for 20 minutes. That at least nets me clean dishes, something a lot more valuable to me than digital ingots.

Yet it’s the pureness of the concept, the overwhelming statement of “this is not the game for you” that is quite tempting. It’s a challenge and feels like the perfect chance to test whether this MMO style really is for me or not. Plus, it’s always good to try new things. So, ArcheAge beckons.

I didn’t pay for it, though. Despite the overwhelming prevalence these days of paid alphas and betas and the ridiculous prices thereof, there were plenty of free beta keys to go around. With that in hand I set the 20+ GB download to start and promptly went and played Marvel Heroes for a while. Don’t look at me like that. Marvel Heroes has come a long way since it started and is really a fun dungeon brawler! Nightcrawler is a freaking blast to play. About 2 hours of downloading ArcheAge later, though, I was able to get in.

ArcheAge, Firran

Sure, this is a “water buffalo”… I guess…

Why is it in Beta, anyway?

First, I get it. This game doesn’t actually need testing. It’s been released in Japan for the past year, and Korea for the past year and a half. So this whole beta is nothing more than a sales ploy. At most, Trion is testing for translation accuracy and different cultural metrics so they can accurately determine prices for cash-shop items for the NA/European audience. That’s cool, though, and they’d be fools to not take advantage of the hype and make boatloads of money while they’re testing. In that effect, charging for alpha/beta makes sense. At least the game is polished and playable, which is a lot more than I can say for most paid betas.

Logging in, I created my first character, a Charr Caitian Firran. As in most fantasy, the choice was elves, humans, other humans, and cat people. Throw in a short race, and you could have the lineup for every other fantasy game. Oh, wait… that’s being planned. I opted for the non-boring race that wasn’t aligned with those dirty elves. Some pretty great cutscenes followed, describing how the Firran were a nomadic race, how they were at war with the “other humans” and beat them but then became lazy and then got beat themselves, and how they were once more on the cultural upswing. Sweet. In fact, all the cutscenes were pretty sweet. Nice art style and good exposition that wasn’t useless or felt out-of-place.

ArcheAge, Firran

Now THAT’s a moon.

We Heard You Liked Punctuation…

I approached my first NPC, I saw it, and I sighed heavily: A giant yellow exclamation point. This again? Could be me, could be that I’m getting old, but the yellow exclamation point has been done to death. They told me some short statement and sent me along the road to the next hub. Here, same, and they sent me to the next hub, and to the next hub, and to the next hub. Go kill 10 rats, then come back here so I can send you to the next hub. This is one of the many reasons I don’t play World of Warcraft anymore. This style of gameplay was popular and novel over a decade ago. It’s lame. We haven’t grown out of it yet? At least cover it up better to make it not FEEL like hub-jumping.

I know, though, that the whole point of ArcheAge isn’t the story. So these hubs just give brief exposition, a little cultural identity and send you forward, ever forward, sometimes without much sense, and very quickly. At the end of my session I was already level 10, and had been through 6 different quest hubs.

This is by far not the meat of ArcheAge. Sad thing was, though, this wasn’t even a real taste. If you want your whole game to be based around crafting, trade and PvP, then, I don’t know, why not have that from the very beginning? Why start with Game A and then slowly merge into Game B? If people are coming for Game B, then give them Game B! Why have them slog through Game A first, especially a really terrible, half-assed Game A?

ArcheAge, Firran

So. Darn. Cute.

But, Wait! It’s not All Question Marks! 

There were some really great novel concepts, though, that were shown in the introductory zone. Use of supplies to help build structures. Nice graphics. Musical instruments used by anybody to give bonuses and help in healing. Getting your first mount and raising it from a cub (alright, it took about a minute to fully grow, but it showed the promise of more). Having your mount fight by your side (couldn’t get this to work initially, my mount wouldn’t get out of follow, but the commands were there, so it’s coming), putting armor on your mount. Housing. Working with a farm.

The jewel, though, is the class system. Fully switchable and seems so deep it makes TESO’s look like child’s play.

I started with an offense “occult” as my first specialization. Next, I chose a physical “defense” style. Not sure if I can make those work, but who knows. Could be fun. Last, I picked a “music” style, because why not? The combination, as random as it is, is called a “Dark Aegis”.

A dark magic slinging, shield bearing, music blasting cat-man riding a huge fanged white lion. I can totally dig it.

ArcheAge, Fiiran

A Dark Aegis and his snowlion, ready to… do something in the next zone, I guess.

More, Please

If I’m allowed in future betas without paying, I’ll definitely keep it up. So far I feel like I truly haven’t experienced ArcheAge. I want to taste more and start getting to the real game before I make any lasting impressions or commitments. The game feels really solid and true to their intent, even if the starting zones may not fully reflect it. From watching ArcheAge streamers on Twitch like Pookahontus, even the PvP looks like a blast to play. Maybe I’ve just taken PvP a little too serious all this time.

But who knows if it will catch on. I’m an anti-social MMO gamer at heart and this is a cooperative game. But even in my casual style, if I can still feel like I make a contribution it may make it into my rotation.

My suggestion to you, dear reader, is that if you can snag a beta key you should at least give the game a shot. Like anything else, you never know if you’ll like it until you try it.

// Ocho

As a Gamer, Do You Really Want Difficulty?

Skyrim, Difficulty

This thought has come to mind a little too often for me, lately. Do we enjoy difficulty? If we claim a game we are playing to be difficult, is this a good thing, or a bad thing? On the surface, I would say my individual answer is yes. I know I personally enjoy a game that is more challenging, one that takes a bit of thought process or learned skill to get through. But are the games we are playing really difficult, do we just convince ourselves that they are, and do gamers today really want difficulty?

This topic is a lot more complex than the surface belies. As so happens, one of the myriad podcasts that I listen to, How To Murder Time (which I highly suggest you listen to as well), recently delved into the topic of difficulty, covered it pretty extensively, and led me to this post.

Super Meat Boy, Difficulty in Games

Huh? Wha?!

MMO Skill is an Illusion

What is difficulty, anyway? I think this is where the root of the issue lies. Difficulty can have a whole plethora of different meanings. The first one that jumps to mind, and the first one the podcast brings up, is “twitch” skill. It’s found in it’s purest form in games that don’t offer many character development options and has level design that keeps getting more and more challenging, like Super Meat Boy. The Super Mario games are a great example, too. Sure, Mario can get larger by ingesting fungus but overall it’s the levels that increase in difficulty. Completing the game becomes the accomplishment. It pits a specific level of skill that, if yours is too low, you’ll never beat the game.

But what game nowadays has that kind of challenge? Even FPS multiplayer shooter games like Titanfall, which just released, has leveling progression in which you gain experience to attain access to better weapons and a bigger toolset to use against your foes. If you’re then faced against a new, lower level player, sure, the lower level has a chance to use their skill to beat you, but the higher level players still have a decided edge. In this sense, are we leveling just to make content easier? Do we even want difficulty at all, if we work hard to nullify it?

You’ve seen the roosters strutting around in whatever MMO you’re playing these days. Those peacocks of the gaming world, strutting around in all the best and shiniest gear. And good for them, it shows their dedication to the game that they were able to get their hands on said loot. But was it really difficult to do so?

Guild Wars 2, Halloween, Difficulty in Games

I call this place… Pain in the Ass Tower.

In the grand scheme of things, here is the defacto MMO progression:

  • Do content, get loot, level up.
  • Use levels and loot to do higher level content, get better loot, level up.
  • Repeat until max level.
  • Continue to run content and get more loot (or just take the shortcut and buy it from other players on the auction house), which makes top level content easier.
  • Keep running content until maximum loot power is achieved and game becomes too easy.
  • Leave game out of boredom/complain about not having enough content on forums.

At that point, even the most difficult content becomes a cakewalk, but we’ve earned that through the time we put in to get that loot. Reward is good. But the entire time during this progression, the difficulty really hasn’t changed. We level up, our gear levels up, and the content matches difficulty stride for stride. It’s a linear progression. We do normal dungeons until they get too easy, then we do elite dungeons until they get too easy, then we do nightmare dungeons until we gear up to maximum and stop running them as they become too easy.

Our reward for running content is just to make content easier.

I’ve even heard content in The Elder Scrolls Online becomes trivial if you come back to it overleveled. A boss that gave you a hard time in the past suddenly is not so tough when you’re 10 levels higher, are they? The difficulty in TESO, then, just comes in rushing forward too fast. I am starting to hear more and more good things about the “exploration” aspect of TESO, but have yet to be convinced that it’s more than an illusion buried in the willing suspension (which relates to the next section).

The Walking Dead, Difficulty in Gaming

The Walking Dead isn’t a difficult game to play, it’s a difficult game to *watch*.

Puzzle Solving is Entirely Optional

But difficulty through skill is not the only level of difficulty. As Jon and Tim go on to discuss, it could also be about puzzle-solving. This is my favorite, by far, and one of the reasons I love The Secret World. As a content filler gap they recently just added four new investigation missions to the game, which I consider to be the real meat and potatoes of TSW. I’ve already completed one, and without giving away any details, I had to pull some real mind-bending out-of-game stuff to figure it out (keep a smartphone handy).

But this kind of difficulty is only challenging to the player that wants to do it in the first place. Puzzle difficulty is entirely by choice if the player wants to challenge themselves or not. I’m not one to cheat, but sites like Youtube, Dulfy.net, TSWDB.com, Star Trek Online wiki, and a plethora of others just hand out the answers to anyone willing to search. I even had a search term today that led someone to this site where they were looking for the answers to one of the new TSW missions! They just came out on Tuesday! They didn’t find it here, of course, but that they even were looking in the first place means something.

This isn’t a recent issue, though. I remember buying games at Gamestop and part of the salesperson’s spiel was to try to sell the guide to go along with it. Nothing has really changed, except it now costs a lot less effort and money to find the answers to these puzzles and quest guides.

Gabriel Knight, Difficulty in Games

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

/rant start

And find those answers gamers do in droves. So much that it’s even demanded by the community in some situations:

Oh, going into a dungeon you’ve never been in before and you haven’t researched it? What a scrub. What, do you just want to be carried by everyone else? You want to waste everyone else’s time? How lazy and selfish!

Seriously, this is why I don’t PUG or have any want to run group content at all. The communal expectation to be professionally knowledgeable about dungeons you’ve never set foot in are too high. There is no such thing as a noob the second those guides hit the internet, only “selfish” gamers.

Then it comes back to the skill to perform the guides steps, but “skill” in MMOs is really intrinsically linked to one’s Gearscore (read: random loot tables over time). That’s why the demands you see from the community for running PUGs keeps getting more and more ridiculous. These elitists don’t want a challenge! They don’t want to enjoy content with strangers! They’re lazy and want the most reward given for the least amount of effort, and so demand that from others, unceremoniously booting those who don’t live up to their demanding standards. Only those on the right side of the bell-curve may apply.

Can you tell I’m a little burnt out and jaded?

/rant end

The Secret World, Difficulty in Gaming

Still one of my favorite moments all-time from MMO gaming.

Wrangling Herds of Cats, Though

Finally, there is, arguably, the only real true form of challenge left posed by MMOs today: dealing with each other. Kind of the point of MMOs right? Playing with others? But the highest level raid content, or just content made too difficult to solo is in these games for a reason. And that is the challenge of working with and coordinating a group of people who are all only looking out for their own self interests. The content itself may not even really be that difficult (of course it’s not, “correctly” geared players mitigate the risk of failure), but organizing a group of 10-15 people to all do the same thing at the same time, with no real guarantee of reward, is impressive as hell!

The amount of time and energy driven to herding players to a single goal is outstanding. I know. Not from gaming, mind you, but I was a higher-up in a student run theatre company, and the experience is very similar. In the professional world, at least employees are being paid, but getting people to be dedicated to a common goal when it won’t put food on their table is not exactly easy. It’s why I put my time in theatre on my CV. It shows the skill of leadership when your charges are only present of their own whims. Having formal education in human psychology and group dynamics, though, doesn’t hurt.

However, I’d still caution against putting “Raid Leader” on a resume, if only because the social stigma against gamers is still heavily present in society. The skill, though, the pure skill of human wrangling, is universal and still quite impressive.

Guild Wars 2, Difficulty in Gaming

I’ve never wanted to punch a cloud in the face so much.

More Than A Struggle

Aside from having to deal with each other, we’ve gone from the days of a game’s content becoming easier with actual time, practice, and mental gymnastics, to becoming easier through in-game power ups and cheats. Do we get the same amount of accomplishment, though? I think what we gain is a lot more tangible.

We get great stories, we get great visuals, we get a sense of accomplishment not only at the end, but all the way through. We get lost in a great world. We get shared achievement. We get a thriving community that we can gladly raise our hand and claim to be a part of. We get a sense of belonging.

We get everything but difficulty.

// Ocho

 

 

Twitch Plays Pokemon: A Social Experiment

Pokemon, Twitch Plays Pokemon

Do you want to look into the eye of madness? See the inextricable fabric of humanity’s desires mashed together into a never ending stream of consciousness? If so, then you need to head on over to Twitch and start watching Twitch Plays Pokemon right now.

Twitch Plays Pokemon is a social experiment that has absolutely fascinated me over the past couple days. In a nutshell, it’s a stream of an emulation of the Gameboy version of Pokemon Red that is being played by the entire viewing community. According to the page’s FAQ, an IRC bot translates the community’s chat into keyboard commands, and performs them in real time to the best of the emulator’s ability. Watching right now there are currently ~85000 viewers, and many of them are participating simultaneously in a glorious cacophony of text .

As my Twitter compatriot @Dunny0 so aptly pointed out, the concept of this experiment seems to be based on the infinite monkey theorum. An infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters with infinite time will eventually create the complete works of William Shakespeare… or something like that. Out of chaos, order. This seems to be rooted in a similar theory but Pokemon is, at it’s core, a very linear game. So there is a path that the community must tread in order to make progress.

Well, against all common sense and odds, progress is definitely being made.

Twitch Plays Pokemon, Pokemon

Red was trapped in the corner by the NPC girl talking about Revives for about 7 minutes. To attempt making the situation less awkward, Red ended up buying 2 Great Balls.

Even though the times I have played Pokemon I can’t get past the second or third badge without getting bored, the Twitch community has already progressed farther than I ever have and have achieved, at the time of this writing, FOUR BADGES!! FOUR!!!

What is this… I can’t even… FOUR?!!!

How” is the immediate question that comes to mind, and the only answer I can really give is “guided chaos“. Every entry, if the emulator acknowledges it, is completed. Menus open and close instantly, items are moved around at random. Pokemons have names like “CCC” (sadly, CCC, the Hitmonlee received from the Saffron City Fighting Dojo, was accidentally released into the wild the first time Red stepped up to get it out of PC storage), other names like “AAJST (????”, or my personal favorite, a Zubat named “JJSSSSS-“. Small menus, the community is just not skilled enough to navigate easily. Every time the menu opens, there’s the chance of deleting items or sending caught pokemon into the wild.

Twitch Plays Pokemon, Pokemon

But yet the game has very specific goals. Get to the next trainer, earn the next badge, get a key, an item, teach a move to a Pokemon, etc. If you know the game, then you know where and what to do next, which the community obviously does. The hard part, then, is simply in getting the community to do it. I do wonder if there will come a time when an in-game obstacle is simply insurmountable with the chaotic nature of this experiment, and what will happen then? And if not, CAN 85000 people Really beat the game, all working in a maelstrom of digital noise?

Twitch Plays Pokemon, Pokemon

Of course, aside from the anarchy there is also a “democracy” setting, where only the most popular option in a brief timespan is the accepted entry. This would help in menus and the PC where more adroit keypresses are needed, but that still ends up being a slow process. And even when democracy mode is achieved, just like our own US government, efforts are made to block all progress during the democracy until anarchy is once again established. Instead of filibusters and refusals to pass funding measures, though, the dreaded “start9” is used, which tells the emulator to press the ‘start’ button 9 times in a row, hindering progress. As you can see from the screenshot above and the multiple people saying “democracy”, the way to get to that mode is by a majority vote from the community.

To be fair, though, as a spectator “anarchy” is a lot more entertaining to watch.

//Ocho

P.S. – If you want a recap of what is going on, or want to get caught up on what you missed, the Reddit community has a Twitch Plays Pokemon page up that gives a play-by-play in real time. I highly suggest watching that as well, as watching the actual feed can drive you mad if you watch it too long. You know the saying: “If you gaze into the Twitch Plays Pokemon, the Twitch Plays Pokemon gazes also into you.”