The Great Divide III

More than levels and more than lore, you know what divides players from other players most?  The players.  And nothing divides players faster than giving them exactly what they want.

People look back at EverQuest and they make fun of the difficulty of the game.  In fact, they often laugh it off as not being difficult at all but instead as being imposing or broken or wasteful.  They look back and remember (or just hear stories about if they never actually played in that era of MMOs themselves) dying to a rat and they belittle the experience.  Killed by a rat?  And why is my hero killing rats anyway?  But you know what?  They weren’t rats.  They were large rats.  They were giant rats.  They were diseased rats.  Even if the name of the monster was just “a rat” the thing was the size of a large dog.  And those weren’t beetles you were killing, they were fire beetles.  But people complained.  It was too hard.  Leveling was too slow.  There weren’t enough quests.  The spawn times were too long.  The loot didn’t drop fast enough.  Raids were too big and required too many people.

So, later generations of games have given players everything they asked for.  Easier fights (I’ve actually played WoW characters up to level 30 without ever dying), faster levels (I have a level 39 character that was level 33 three days ago, and that was in just 3 or 4 hours of playtime, maybe 5) and quests… good gods are there quests.  Dozens of them.  You can’t swing a dead rat without hitting a score of floating exclamation points.  I haven’t run into a spawn time greater than a couple of minutes, even for elites and bosses (raid instance locking doesn’t count).  My bags are so full of good loot from mobs and quests that my only choice is to vendor most of it because it’s too common to be worth selling to other players.  And I don’t need 65 or 100 people to kill a god anymore, I just need 9 people to go with me, maybe 19 or 24.

The one thing players don’t need so much anymore?  Other players.

I’ve mentioned before that I recently returned to WoW to try to play with some friends.  Haven’t actually played with them much, in part because of level disparities, but also because our schedules don’t seem to line up very often.  Doesn’t matter though.  I don’t actually need them to play.  In fact, playing without them is faster.  No problems of people being in different phases or on different sections of quest chains, no issues of level problems, and I can get fast and easy exp, gaining a couple of levels a night, fighting monsters that in no way actually have a chance in hell of beating me as long as I keep mashing my attack keys.  Hell, I have a druid who’s gear is so out of whack (and this is all found and quested stuff, I haven’t bought anything from the auction house) that I play with no fear of ever running out of mana.  Most of the time I play in cat or bear form, and between fights I pop out to normal and heal myself, then back to melee.  The wife’s hunter is even more insane.  The speed at which she kills means she rarely ever needs healing at all.  When we play together, I don’t even bother staying in normal form.

I’ve tried to play with other people, but it’s actually hard.  Grinding exp from monsters isn’t worth it, and finding people on the same quests is a losing battle.  I could queue up for dungeon runs, but that’ll just put me in a random group with random people who I will likely never see again.  Back before I quit the last time, I was in a guild, and we had guild chat and a vent server and it was very social… except for the fact that none of us were actually playing together.  On the same server, sure.  Sometimes even in the same zone, but grouping up always slowed somebody down.

At least in EQ, the only people slowed down by grouping were the quad kiting druids and wizards, fear kiting necros, and the occasional AE or charm kiting bard.  Even that isn’t true anymore as I actually saw with my own eyes a cleric soloing even con mobs the last time I returned to game, and not kiting either, he was standing toe to toe.

Now, don’t take this as railing against solo players.  While I personally don’t enjoy doing it, I do realize that it is what other people want.  I mean, WoW has 12 million players not because that many people suddenly realized they wanted to play MMOs.  It’s because that many more people were able to play the game because they didn’t need to actually have other people to play with.  And there is nothing wrong with that… except that many of these people refuse to acknowledge the impact that their style of play has on people who do want to group and play with others.  The impact is in server resources and population make up.  In older games where the majority of people were wanting/needing to group up, finding groups was easy.  These days, with the majority of people not wanting to be reliant on other players, finding groups is hard.  So much so that Blizzard actually had to make cross server instances possible and a group finding tool just to alleviate the pressure.  The issue now is that for many of the people who want from grouping what used to be an integral part of grouping (the social interaction and bonding), the LFG tool is an empty gesture.  It solves the symptom of not being able to find a group while completely destroying the ability to bond with those players.

But how do you solve that?  Again and again on this blog you’ll see me advocate the single server design for games because I whole-heartedly believe that the best way to solve player problems is to allow the players to solve their own problems.  If finding better groups is as easy as travelling to another part of the game world that is a much better solution that trying to get different game worlds to be able to share a player pool for certain kinds of grouping.  However, given that at this point Blizzard, and most game companies, can’t redesign their entire server structure to be a single server design, what then?  Free server moves?  That seems like the best possibility, and perhaps put a lockout so that a player only gets one free move every 90 days or something, and if they want additional moves they can pay for them.  If I meet cool people in the dungeon finder, I might move to their server if it were periodically free, but I can’t see myself ever paying $25 to move a character based on the interaction of an hour or two.  Nor would I pay $25 to blindly move to a random server in the hopes of finding more people to group with.

Once again, though, looking forward at new games, I’m less enthused about wanting to play them because of the divisions between players.  Even in the Rift betas that I’ve been playing in, I’ve got friends playing on 5 or 6 different servers playing with subsets of their own friends, and none of us are playing with all our friends, or even have the capability of playing with all our friends without creating characters on a bunch of servers, on both factions, and maintaining characters at several different level tiers.

Anticipation 2011

So far, I’m looking forward to only one game this year.  And it isn’t Star Wars: The Old Republic (which, personally, I think is going to “fail” insomuch as MMOs fail by not beating WoW and allowing the company to pass out money hats).  Last year, despite owning many games, all of which I really wanted to play, I only played one game a lot (not alot), and that was Red Dead Redemption.  Even though I’ve never been a big fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, something about RDR just clicked, and it was probably the setting and tone of the tale.  I played it all the way through, I played the multi-player for many hours, and I bought all the DLC for it.  It was the best game of the year.  Well, maybe a tie between it and Minecraft.

I’m going to call it already, and say that the best game of 2011 is going to be L.A. Noire.  I mean, just look at this…

I don’t often get super excited about games.  I try to keep my expectations low or at least reasonable.  But it just isn’t possible here.

What about you?  What game are you eagerly awaiting?

Zed-box 360

Last week, Undead Labs announced their partnership with Microsoft and plans to release their upcoming Zombie MMO title exclusive to the Xbox 360.  As an owner of a 360 who does not own a PS3, this news excites me greatly.

They followed that up with a Q&A of their own and a rundown of links to other sites covering the news.

It is safe to say that there is no other MMO, or even game, that I am looking forward to more than this.  I just hope it doesn’t disappoint.

I also hope that Capcom is watching, because a Dead Rising 3 with even more multiplayer capabilities would be kinda awesome.

Anyway, here is a gaggle of concept art lovingly swiped from the Undead Labs site.  Hopefully they won’t mind.

Once more unto the Rift

Last beta I didn’t get much chance to play.  I messed around the character creator and read up on the base classes and logged in.  The game informed me that my graphics drivers were out of date and I spent what little time I was in game chugging along in a partial slide show.  This past weekend’s beta was much better.  I logged in my already created character, I ran through the introduction area, and I made it through the first few quest hubs.

Most of the game is fairly standard, and that’s not a bad thing.  The UI is familiar without cloning (it doesn’t look like the World of Warcraft interface even though it mostly functions like it), and the game play follows suit.  Others have praised the soul system, and I will too.  I really enjoy crafting my character from three parts and controlling how he forms as he advances.  To me, the simple genius of it is astounding: you climb up the tree adding passive traits (damage bonuses, spell modifiers, etc) and the number of points spent there determines which active abilities you unlock.  It is the best part of a class system melded with the best parts of a skill system.  Add in that you can build several specs on a single character and you come very close to what I’ve always wanted in a game: the ability to play a single character in multiple roles without having to resort to creating alts.  And even if you did decide to create alts, you really only need to make 4 characters – one of each base: warrior, cleric, mage, rogue.

The public group and rift mechanics are also fantastic.  While they can get repetitive if that’s all you do, mixed in with the traditional quest grind it makes the game feel fresh without feeling alien.  Last night on Shadefallen, Freemarch came under heavy attack from Death, with foot holds in every town and all the players banding together in groups to beat them back.  For soloing, I had been playing a Justicar/Shaman/Druid with a fairly balanced build to focus on making me a better fighter and increasing my 1-on-1 survivability.  But once the giant assault began, I bought a second role, used the same souls but spent more points on the Justicar to reduce my threat and utilize my area heals to assist the raid.  It worked out pretty well.  I spent the bulk of the evening switching between those roles, the solo build for the early waves of any rift and then to the raid build for the later waves.  From the builds to the rifts to the raids, it was much more exciting that any other MMO I’ve played.  Even my precious EverQuest.

I really enjoy the Justicar and Shaman aspects of what I’ve played so far, the fighting cleric appeals to me in so many ways.  If I so buy the game, I can easily see myself playing that for the long haul, though I may ditch the Druid in favor of a different third.  The fairy pet annoys me.

Now I just need to convince the wife and all my friends to switch to Rift.

The Great Divide

So, I’ve started playing World of Warcraft again.  In large part to play with a couple of friends.  The wife and I have been playing a couple of weeks now, but we’ve yet to actually play with the friends we came to join.  You see, they started before us and as such they are about ten or so levels ahead.  We have been trying to catch up, but since they keep playing also we essentially only succeed in keep the gap consistent.

Another friend of ours decided to join us too.  A little later than us.  He’s about ten or so levels behind us and in similar fashion he is trying to catch up but is really only keeping the gap consistent.

People keep telling me that it’ll be okay when we hit the level cap, which will only take a couple of months (or so they tell me).  For the moment, the wife and I are splitting our time between some characters to try and slow ourselves down a bit, which will let the man behind us catch up but lets the people in front of us get further away.

I really dislike this, and it happens in every game.  Well, not in EVE.  Whenever I get into discussions about class based or skill based systems, after going back and forth for a long while I always end up settling on the fact that either system works and either can be better and that it all depends on the quality of the system.  But one tangent that always emerges is that I wish less MMOs were level based.

I understand that, in general, people like levels, because it’s an easy way to measure progress and be rewarded.  Ding! But levels divide your players, which can be good (spreading them out over different level appropriate areas) and bad (you now have to deal with special coding for any PvP interactions around the power increases levels provide and prevention of power leveling, etc).  In my opinion, games need to find other ways to reward people, and to separate power from what is essentially time played.  In EVE, it doesn’t matter if you’ve played for 5 years or 5 months, once you get into a ship the only thing that matters are the skills related to that ship.  And a 5 month player can kick the ass of a 5 year player given the right ships and situation.  But when was the last time a level 15 killed a level 80 in WoW?  Never?  Is it because the level 80 is better or because he’s been around longer?  Neither actually, it’s because the game doesn’t allow people of that sort of disparity to fight in most cases because they are well aware of the futility of the position of the level 15 player.

We need an alternative to levels/time defining power in fantasy games.  And we need ways for people to play together no matter how long they’ve been playing without starting over.

Favorite Game of 2010

After skipping a number of Gamer Banters, this month’s topic caught my attention: “What was your favorite game you played this year?”

I played a few games this year that I really enjoyed.  Among them, Red Dead Redemption and Dead Rising 2 (and Case Zero) and Free Realms and Wizard 101 and a slew of others… but the standout, the one that has to be my favorite game of 2010 is the little indie that could, Minecraft.

The most amazing thing about it is that before and when I picked it up, I was in the LEGO Universe beta feeling like something was missing… and then I found Minecraft and knew what it was: absolute freedom.  As a kid I really loved dumping out the giant box of LEGOs and building stuff, and I had wanted that from LEGO Universe, which ended up having too much traditional MMO in it.  But in Minecraft I could run around and do pretty much anything that I wanted.  Sure, the survival modes of Minecraft are fun, but being able to just run around and create awesome stuff is just incredible.  Check out the map for this server that I play around on.

If you want to play this, buy it soon, because on the 20th of this month it moves from Alpha to Beta and the price is going up.

This post was part of Gamer Banter, a monthly video game discussion coordinated by Terry at Game Couch. If you’re interested in being part of this, please email him for details.

Other takes:
Extra Guy
Yuki-Pedia
Zath
Man Fat
Game Couch
The Game Fanatics

The Nightmare is nearly over

WARNING: This post is going to contain spoilers for both Red Dead Redemption and the Undead Nightmare DLC.  Continue at your own risk…

I really enjoyed playing Red Dead Redemption.  The world was really well crafted, and the story of the game was top notch.  I had issues with the game play, or more specifically the game controls, a few times, but it was minor complaints that were far overshadowed by the awesomeness of the rest.  The game even threw me for a loop when (and I’ve already warned you about spoilers, but here is a second warning – stop reading if you don’t want spoilers … ) John Marston died saving his family and then the game picked up a few years later with you playing his son.  One of the biggest complaints I heard about the game from many people is that they didn’t want to play the son, they wanted to keep playing John.  For me, however, it made playing John special.  I can only be him for the duration of the game.  I can’t play him in multi-player, and I can’t play him in the sandbox world that extends after the story is done.  Despite Jack Marston having a few annoying phrases he seems to repeat endlessly, I don’t mind playing as Jack, trying to carry on his father’s name and keep it clean to honor his memory.

Then along comes Undead Nightmare.  This DLC is single player and it puts you back into John Marston.  The story is set after John has gone home to be with his family, but before the government men have him killed.  A zombie plague has fallen across the land, his wife and son have both been bitten and turned, and John sets off to find a cure.  Much like the original game, the story here is extremely well done.  You meet most of the characters from the original game in this new twisted reality and it just works (unless you are the sort of person who simply cannot stand to have zombies in your westerns).  Once you complete the story and set everything back right, John is back where he needs to be to complete the story, as if this whole thing were a true nightmare and it never happened… well, almost.  Because they put in challenges that you might not complete before finishing the story, they decided to do like the original game and allow you to continue playing in the sandbox.  You get a cut scene that explains how a few years later, someone triggers the undead plague again and John Marston rises from the grave, retaining his soul because of a thing you did during the original nightmare.  This is where the game loses me…

In pretty much all my forays into things dealing with the undead, one bit remains constant: I do not want to be a zombie.  As much as I love zombies as a setting and zombies as monsters, I despise zombies as main characters.  And while I found Jack’s whining in the original game to be irritating, Zombie John’s groaning and other noises make me want to play with the sound off.  I hate it.  I really, really hate it.  Zombie John practically ruins the game for me.  I still want to play, do the challenges and whatnot, but I’d really prefer to not do it as a member of the undead.

Anyway, unlike the original game, which I still mess around with now and then, once I’m done with the last couple challenges I doubt I’ll ever fire up single player Undead Nightmare again.  Multi-player, on the other hand… I might be playing this forever…

Dead Rising 2

Dead Rising 2This can’t possibly be a full review of the game, because at this point I’ve only played it through once, and if you are familiar with the original, you know that means that I failed.  I messed up a case, let survivors die and then eventually got stupidly overwhelmed by zombies.  However, death isn’t the end in a Dead Rising game.  Death just means I get to start over, while keeping my levels and skills and whatnot.  Oh, and clothes.  One of the silliest bits in the DR games is that when you start over your character will have on the clothes he was wearing when he died.  In the original, that meant that if you died after the abduction, you could wind up watching the opening cinematics in your skivvies.  In my case, I’m wearing footy pajamas, a fedora and a Groucho Marx disguise.

I digress…  The simple fact is that DR2 is the kind of sequel you love to get.  It understands what was great about the original and makes it better, and also understands what was tedious and fixes that too.  My biggest issue with the original was that the survivors all sucked.  No matter what weapons you gave them, they didn’t seem to be able to fight.  In DR2, I actually plan my routes so that I’ll have 2 or 3 or more survivors, armed with guns, when I get to a psycho or run certain parts of the game.  The survivors actually, you know, help!  But don’t just take my word for it, read this review as well.

Anyway.  I’m totally loving this game, and think that everyone should play it (and the original too, and Case 0 if they are on the 360, and Case West on the 360 when it comes out, and Dead Rising 3 when they inevitably make it).  I still haven’t played around with the co-op or multiplayer, but I’ll be doing that this weekend.

If you are going to have Class…

Personally, I think I would be much happier in an MMO without classes.  I’d rather a gear based system or a skill based system, and if you dig around here you can find all the reasons why (mostly it’s because I want to move toward getting away from “level” as a separator and the focus of play), notably this post last week.  But, if a game is going to have classes, I think I would prefer a game to simplify it at much as possible.

Rather than try to make a dozen classes, look at your combat design and build classes based off of it.  For example, let’s take the most popular design, the trinity.  Tank, DPS, heal.  Or, in other terms, taking, dealing and recovery.  Really, a game designed this way only needs three classes.  Four if you really want to split up melee based DPS and range/magic/whatever based DPS, but functionally they are the same.  If your game is going to have a small group of players potentially fighting groups of NPC enemies larger than their group, you might want to also have a crowd control class.

Once you establish your primary roles, those are your classes.  But to keep a game from being too samey, as your classes level, give them talent trees that allow the player to add flavor to their character.  In my opinion, the talent trees should essentially define a secondary role/class for the character.

For example, rather than having a warrior, a priest, and a paladin in your game, have only a warrior and a priest, then give the warrior a talent tree of priest-lite skills and the priest a tree of warrior-lite skills.  If your game only has three classes (your game is 100% trinity based), then a warrior would have two trees – a priest tree and a DPS tree.  Your priest would have warrior and DPS trees.  And your DPS would have warrior and priest trees.  The one thing you want to avoid, however, is having a tree that improves directly on the base class.  Warriors do not get a warrior tree.  The reason for this is to avoid having a clear “optimal path” for development.  In WoW, for example, if you search around you can probably find the mathematically proven superior talent tree build for a tanking warrior.  Any player who takes a “fun” skill over the optimal path may find themselves unable to get into some raiding guilds.  All max level warriors should be as good at being a warrior as every other max level warrior, the difference will be in their gear (theoretically available to everyone through effort or auction) and in their tree which doesn’t affect their ability to take damage, taunt enemies, and whatever else you’ve determined is the primary role of the warrior.

Primarily, I like this idea for it’s simplification of balance.  If you have one tanking class, you only need to adjust his ability to tank up or down and needed.  If you have a half dozen tanking/semi-tanking classes, now you have to make sure that semi-tank A isn’t better than tank B without making semi-tank A useless and all sorts of complicated gyrations just to keep all the plates spinning.

Anyway… those are just my thoughts.  I could be wrong.

The Secondary Market

It was April 9th of this year.  I went down to the bookstore at the first opportunity I’d had to pick up the latest of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books.  At the store there was a shelf right inside the door with about three or four dozen copies of the hardback.  I picked one up and flipped it over to make sure I had enough cash to buy it when suddenly I saw a second rack of books.  Above it was a sign for “Previously Owned Books” and on that shelf was a copy of the book I had in my hands, only instead of being $26 like the one I was holding, it was $20.  Sure, I had $30 on me and could afford to buy the new copy, but who doesn’t want to save $6?  I put the new copy down and picked up the used copy, bought it, and marched home with my new book to read.

The preceding paragraph isn’t true.  I’m not sure it could be.  Yeah, you can buy used books, but the number of times you’ll have the opportunity to buy a used copy of a hardcover book just three days after release is so small as to be non-existent.  But what am I getting at?

I posted a couple weeks ago about the issue that blew up the gaming sphere of the Internet.  Discussion has continued, and many people keep on trying to equate the sale of used games with the sale of used… well… anything else.  My book example above, I’ve never seen that happen.  I’ve also never seen someone buy a $30,ooo car, drive it for 2 or 3 days and then go sell it to CarMax for half the value so that CarMax can sell it for $28,000 (if anything, they’d return to the dealer and try to undo the sale and get a lot more of their money back).  Now, I’ve seen that happen with music CDs, but that’s because people buy, rip and then resell since they don’t need the CD anymore to enjoy the music, but that is a whole different issue.  We aren’t talking about people making illegal copies of games.  But speaking of games, I’ve known plenty of folks who will buy a game new, play it for 3 days, either finishing it or disliking it, and then sell it to Gamestop or some other used game reseller.  I have walked into a Gamestop just 2 or 3 days after the release of a new game and found used copies $5 to $10 cheaper than the new one sharing shelf space with the new copy.

The fact is, in most products with a healthy secondary market, that secondary market doesn’t have a large impact on the initial release and first month (or two) of sales, and that is really the meat of the matter.  Video games, in some respects, have such a short shelf life (except for the occasional blockbuster that bucks the norm) that anything which hurts that hurts the industry.  To combat that you have companies trying to offer multiplayer experiences that encourage the consumer to retain the game instead of reselling it, and one-time access codes that reduce the value of the game on resale.  And of course you have digital distribution models that prevent reselling altogether.

I think secondary markets are great, even vital, but I also think that the creators of a product need a reasonable amount of time to make their money before the secondary market kicks in and takes that away.  I don’t like the idea that game companies are looking for ways to eliminate or hamstring the used games market, but I also hate seeing places like Gamestop selling used games within that first month of release, knowing that’s it’s contributing to less profits for the creators (and more for the secondary market).

Eventually, I think the game companies will win, and destroy the secondary market with unlock codes and digital distribution.  Imagine a future where you buy a game for $60 and inside is a one-time code that you must enter to play the game.  If you buy the game used, it’s little more than a demo, giving you 30-60 minutes of play unless you buy an unlock code from the marketplace for $60 (perhaps a bit less… $50?  $40?) to open the rest of the game.  Suddenly, the used game would only have a limited value (the disc being needed in the drive to play), which kills the resale value.  Your $60 first purchase becomes a $5 resale that Gamestop can sell for $10… or maybe Gamestop can sell you the disc AND the unlock code for $60.  Who knows…

Luckily for me, I only buy games that I know that I’ll keep, and I don’t buy used games (if I want an older game, I’ll just buy in new when it drops to $20 on Amazon or at BestBuy).  But I do occasionally lend a game to a friend, or borrow one, and whatever they do will impact that as well.  We’ll just have to wait and see what they decide to do…

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