Category Archives: Rants

Weekend Wildstar Wrap-up: It’s all Blizzard’s Fault

If there is just one observation or rule that, after almost four years of meta blogging, I may declare applies without fail when there are two sides to a passionate debate, it’s the following:

Both sides of the argument want exactly the same. That’s been the case each and every time I’ve experienced engaged and complex discussions on this here blog or elsewhere; two or more people arguing for the same thing but believing in opposite ways of achieving it. Your prime example for this is the ‘grouping and facilitation’ debate where some will argue pro enforced grouping for more community while others believe grouping, in order to be the real thing, needs to happen naturally and dynamically. It’s important to understand that on the most basic level, these players all want the same thing.

Quite an entertaining phenomenon in retrospective, it usually takes a moment to sink in. Once you’ve distanced yourself from a topic, you’ll detect such patterns a lot more clearly even if that won’t bring you any closer to a satisfying solution.

In which Blizzard gets all the blame

In what has proven to be a universally divisive topic for Wildstar this week and probably for a while to come, I argued that the 12step attunement needs toning down in order to accommodate a wider variety of both casual and hardcore players. While my argument in favor of inclusion wasn’t my only point, it’s as important to me as it is obviously to others. Liore followed-up disagreeing with pretty much most of my logic, explaining why to her the attunement chain adds direction, content and more playstyle variety. Bottom line: we both argued in favor of diversity/freedom, albeit for different target audiences that are sadly all too often mutually exclusive in MMOs.

That brings me to a second, more vexing matter: World of Warcraft’s continued influence on our perception of design dynamics and as a consequence, its impact on our not-so carefree experiences of new games such as Wildstar. Liore makes an explicit WoW reference in her article, in which she equates not having hard attunements with “being just… like… WoW” because well, like me she’s played and seen a lot of WoW. Just like that, I referred to WoW attunements in my own post and ended up responding (guilty..):

Funny enough unlike for you, to me this [read: the current status of the attunement] is all exactly like WoW and not unlike WoW. I raided in vanilla and it was considered hardcore, the way WS raiding seems right now.

And today, in an interesting update over at Tobold’s, the comment section is full of arguments, speculations and assumptions inspired by past experiences in – you guessed it – WoW. All the while, somewhere else an anti-Wildstar brigade is forming within WoW’s disgruntled and bored community as we speak, because apparently Wildstar is appealing to many of that same demography. Shocker.

wowglass

Our WoW glasses need to be smashed.

….It’s all WoW. WoW, wow, wow. Whether we’re for something or against it, whether it’s totally cool because different from WoW or dangerously close to being like WoW, WoW is the all-encompassing factor and ultimate perspective. Apparently we cannot free ourselves from the mind print that this MMO has left in our collective memory. If something happened in WoW, well it’s probably gonna happen in Wildstar, right? Wrong!

To close a week of intense feels: it’s clearly all Blizzard’s fault. Happy weekend everybody – to the Nexus as well as Azeroth! Stay classy!

What the players want – who can say?

In a recent comment over here, blogosphere buddy Bhagpuss made an unsuspecting remark which at its core is a most familiar sentiment to all longterm MMO players, I’m sure:

[…]But that’s just what GW2 has become and, as people are prone to say, it is what it is. It could have grown into something very much more but apparently that’s not what the majority of players wanted so there you go.

I am going to blatantly take this quote out of its specific context and write a longer, more generalized post about it (sorry Bhag!).

What’s what the players want?

“What the players wanted” and any variation thereof is a commonly used phrase and reaction to MMO design, more often MMO design changes, that vexes me on a personal level. And oh, I have done it myself: how many times did I not do the “now reap what you sowed! (and I hope you suffocate on it)” fist-shake in gloomy retrospective whenever WoW changed for the worse over the years since 2004, in my very personal opinion? In a less considerate moment I’d love to blame all of you out there who are still playing for the state of the game. You ruined WoW for me or something.

But let’s get back to more rational debate. Every time MMOs change/evolve design direction the way so many have, the way GW2 has done from a non-commital “grind-and endgame-free” vision to what it is today, are we really in the position to say that it’s what the players wanted? If so, how do we know? More importantly, where would developers get such corroborated information?

(*)Not once in my 12 years-and-ongoing MMO career did I ever receive a developer letter asking me what I wanted. Not once did I receive a legit, official request or poll along the lines of “Dear Syl, please vote now if you would like to see achievements introduced to our game” or “…please let us know if you’re happy about another +5 level-cap increase with more gear grind at its end”. That would be spelling it out of course (and not a bad thing either).

Not once did anything remotely similar happen to me. And unless there is a secret society of select MMO players out there that receive these kind of emails when I’m not, other players don’t either. So, where and how exactly does the playerbase actively get to decide over an existing game’s direction? Surely not on chaotic message boards that no CM can effectively interpret and where it’s only ever the loudest voices that get noticed. Everyone should have figured that out by now.

DustSpeck

So maybe it’s the silent majority? Only, how does one speak on behalf of a silent group of people? Are they just “everyone else that is not on forums and twitter” that you therefore get to refer to easily for any given purpose since hey, it’s not like they’re saying anything to oppose you? Are we a homogenous mass of people just because we don’t scream and shout?

For me, it doesn’t work that way. It won’t do to retrospectively declare that things are the way they are because they went along with it. There’s a big difference here for me to actively shaping a process. To clarify: I’m not saying that developers should be telepathic and my main point is not to blame any particular group in the gaming industry for this situation (although clearly someone is to blame) – but you don’t get to tell me it’s what I wanted when it clearly wasn’t what I wanted and I never told you that it was.

Voting with your wallet blah

Here’s another catch-phrase I’ve come to dislike over the last few years: just vote with your wallet. The reason for my dislike is the simple truth of it and yet, it falls so horribly short in taking reality into account. I’m a part of a collective whose power is only as big or small as that same collective. I am also an enthusiast in a changing industry and on a wider scope, a human being in a constantly changing world. I’m not generally opposed to change; I’m constantly trying to evaluate which changes to embrace and which not to. Do I pay for an alpha? A beta? A collector’s edition? Do I pre-order? Kickstart? My head hurts.

I did vote with my wallet and unsubscribed from WoW at the end of WotLK, after a 6 years run of raiding madness. It has clearly made no impact whatsoever. If anything, Blizzard has become even less of a company I like to endorse than I did back then. But hey, I have the grim satisfaction of voting with my wallet, right? At least I don’t appear to be agreeing with this product anymore.

Whatever the silent player is supposed to do, I can’t seem to win. That’s why I object so strongly to the sentiment of absolute player/customer responsibility. As far as game design and development goes, the powers at work are way more complex and obscure than what any of us could influence. As much as players love to think they’re shaping games and as much as we love to blame others for when things turn badly, the much more likely scenario is that somewhere in an office, someone in a fancy suit with too many spreadsheets has figured out exactly which design directions to push in order to maximize monetization or subs or co-dependence. Sure, every once in a while a developer will ask us directly what we’d like on some social media platform, usually years or at least months before launch because that’s a good time to crowd-source and get cosy with fans. But videogame design is not a democracy, first and foremost it’s business and sneaky psychology.

wallet

BLAH

And players tend to go along with stuff. There may be some fluctuation but overall we are a flexible bunch when it comes to franchises we’ve come to love or where we’ve simply invested so much time already that it’s hard to leave behind the trophies and fancy dresses. Design directions don’t change over night either; they trickle down ever so slowly until we’ve all but forgotten where we came from and one small change at a time seems as harmless as the last one. That’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s a way of doing business and shaping your audience to fit your product.

In summary to this conundrum I will say this: I never wanted achievements in WoW, the cross-sever dungeons or flying mounts. And I certainly never ever asked for an achievement tab greeting me at the login screen of GW2 – game of too many back items and weapon skins. I didn’t ask for that, more importantly didn’t vote on that. Maybe others did consciously and some unconsciously and I could blame that second group’s lack of action but it tires me to do so. As long as nobody is sending each and every one of their paying customers an official, transparent and individual request to vote on a game’s direction, I am sure as hell not going to take responsibility (or credit) for the way that MMOs are changing and neither should anyone else. Sorry developers but that one’s still on you!

(*) Clarification: I’m not saying I want these kinds of democratic player votes on game design; I don’t for various reasons. What I’m saying is since I am clearly not in a democracy here, you don’t get to share responsibility or retrospective blame with me democratically, either (let alone putting it all on players).

So that Elder Scrolls Online NDA was lifted, if not my Spirits

I want to say ‘finally’ but last Friday’s NDA lift for ESO was so shamefully overdue that I almost didn’t care to post about it. The game is due in April and already selling a much debated collector’s edition, so how nice to finally give the fanbase a voice two months before launch. We will try not to interpret the long hesitation. Personally, I believe Zenimax have caused this launch more harm by keeping ESO under NDA for as long as they have. Not only wasn’t the press particularly gentle once the press NDA got lifted (see RPS or Ten Ton Hammer for reference), the title would’ve benefited from the buzz created by more balanced and positive blogger reviews. After all, there are still many players excited for ESO.

I used to be one of them but alas, that enthusiasm was shaken in its foundations after participating in two of the more recent beta stress test weekends in January and February 2014. To be fair, I didn’t have the bar set very high for ESO: I expected it to feel more dated and traditional than the other upcoming AAAs this year, less polished and overall pandering to the Skyrim demography. Yet in retrospective, the Skyrim comparison is doing things far too big a favor.

My quick and dirty ESO review

While I don’t wish to rain on anyone’s parade, this much anticipated game has dropped on the 2014 priority list much to my chagrin. I don’t intend on buying at launch, in fact I am not sure I’m gonna buy at all for as long as there is also a monthly subscription. Subscriptions aren’t a financing issue for me but like everyone else, I draw comparisons and try to justify the expense. ESO, for me, is not in the right shape to ask for a sub. But let’s have a more detailed look, shall we?

The Good (at first glance):

The settings of ESO are very pretty. Having visited every faction’s starting zone, I liked them all equally as far as overall zone design, weather effects and light cycles go. The world feels more realistic than in many other MMOs, if that’s a criteria for anybody. I love the mature and authentic look of ESO.

eso1

The diversity of character customization is a forte of the franchise and ESO is no exception. While some basic faces across all races feel too templatey still, you won’t be missing options inside the rugged, old, scarred or unattractive spectrum; like every ES title before it, ESO makes it hard (but not impossible) to create your staple beauty. Really big props go to armor design which doesn’t discriminate gender and keeps things in the realm of the practical.

eso2

She looks alright.

The crafting system appears to be complex and rewarding. While I’ve only meddled with it briefly, I could see crafters getting their share of attention and I didn’t expect anything less from this MMO. I liked the crafting hubs too and many of the small details for tools and ingredients.

The Bad (or why I was so appalled):

ESO gotta have the most sloppy and inaccurate combat I have experienced since [add random console hack’n slay title here]. What was already a boring exercise of throwing lackluster magic balls as a caster, went downhill fast once I experienced the completely unresponsive dual-wielding mess of melee mode. Combat is missing feedback, aiming is off and animations are frankly awful. I don’t want to look like a WoW undead when moving around hitting stuff. There is nothing of Skyrim’s more impactful combat and precisely aimed shots to be found!

While we’re talking animations, they are mostly horrible. I made a particularly awful acquaintance out in the wild with an eagle circling my head, its flight animation as graceful as a tour bus trying to squeeze into a beetle’s parking space. It’s great that ESO has birds flying around, you just don’t want to look at them too closely.

eso3

The wonderful cave intro.

As beautiful as the world is, as dead does it feel traveling from place to place. The NPCs do precious little which is a stark contrast to MMOs like FFXIV for example, that comes with complex scripts for NPC behavior and events. Towns feel empty and there’s no life bustling inside unless it’s created by a bunch of coincidental players. This was very disturbing for me, especially since the more dynamic mechanics in Skyrim would constantly throw you into unpredictable situations and have quests and NPCs involve you actively. This is something that GW2 managed to do while being an MMO, so ESO gets no pass from me here.

Questing is a traditional and straight-forward fetch and delivery, featuring the transparent quest window and occasional dialogue choices that franchise fans will know too well. Friends of the tunnel experience in MMOs will be glad to hear that ESO makes you play through the same dark pit for 15 minutes on every new character. As far as the NPCs and (much praised?) voice acting go, I was under-whelmed and sometimes appalled at the sound and look of some of them, their shrill voices and bland, badly written humor harassing me during several multi-step quest chains. The early “John Cleese” appearance has already been criticized by others but I reached my personal high point with this remarkable fellow here:

eso4

(It only looks as if Eiman has to go really badly…this is his usual facial expression.)

A difficult closure

At this point, I don’t know when I will be ready to give ESO another go. My admittedly short beta testings were a painfully disappointing experience and while they might not be completely fair or balanced, they are lacking in ways that cannot be made up by playing the game longer or praying for the unlikely wonders of another two months of final polishing. My issues with the game are of no subtle nature – they are fundamental. Which makes me think that ESO just might not be the MMO for me after all. That is something I have to accept and which makes my return to the wonderfully dynamic and physical world of Skyrim all the more likely. I used to dream of adventures in ESO but that arrow to the knee was quick. Ah well!

Those MMO “Intro Scenarios”

So I’ve been playing some new games lately that I can’t talk about just yet but while being stuck at 92% of a patch that clearly hates me, I started musing on an old pet peeve of mine, namely MMO intro scenarios. To be perfectly up-front: they’re annoying.

I’ve never been the patient tutorial kind, not for the many oldschool RPGs I have played nor any other type of games, even though I’ll acknowledge there are genres where tutorials make a lot of sense. I’ve had a quick look at Reus over Xmas and would’ve been pretty lost without one. Then again, I gladly skip the tutorial in Witcher 2 because there’s nothing a key mapping menu can’t tell me if I really need it. For most games, I want tutorials to be optional.

blarghtut

Or MAYBE, I could just play the game first!

Now, MMO tutorials are different in the sense that the large majority of them won’t just run players through a quick session of popups and UI-exposition – no, MMOs after all have narrative ambition! Instead, many feel compelled to invent some type of forgettable intro quest chain to demonstrate basic controls and menus to the player. What’s worse, they’ll have you start in some artificial, not rarely underground type of restricted area (two words: Allods Empire) that you really hate and, if you’re very unlucky, will have to re-visit and linearly follow through on every new character created of the same faction. Oh gawd.

Is it asked too much that I can just jump into a fresh MMO and be blown away by a brand new world? A wide vista opening in front of me, with beautiful starting zone music coming my way? Do I need to spend the first 20 minutes down in some pit, tunnel, whatever, faking interest in NPCs I can’t possibly care about yet, so when the game decides to kick me out I can’t even talk first impressions to friends because ALL I’VE SEEN WAS A TUNNEL?

Last time I checked, this was a genre where I have all the time in the world and where I don’t need to learn everything there is to know in the first few minutes.

I love you vanilla WoW. I love you still for so many things you did right, simply because you didn’t know better.

P.S. Obviously not all MMOs feature the exact intro scenario described above and many, like GW2, Rift or LOTRO, are allowing players to start outdoors. Still, tutorials and instruction pop-ups have become more obtrusive in recent years and I’ve seen way too many tunnel stories lately….and that’s all I’m saying.

Deliberating TESO

The beginning of a new year is a time for predictions good and bad. Gamers look forward to their most wanted launches of the year in enthusiastic or more reluctant anticipation. As for mainstream media, it’s an opportunity to be sensationalist and snide because nothing brings more hits than condemning yet-to-be-released titles or already revealing the GOTYs of 2014 in January. January.

I have no MMO predictions to share for 2014 and even if I did, I’d like to keep them positive. Whatever feeling one might have about upcoming AAA-titles, 2014 will be a year of new releases – of buzz and growth and lots of discussion. The genre is moving forward or at the very least, it’s moving and new games will infuse our conversations. For this reason, 2014 is already the better year for MMOs in my book than 2013 ever was. There’s no real failure for this genre as long as new games keep coming out. Once they stop being developed that’s when we’re in trouble.

sadponie

What do you mean, no more MMOs? [belen02 @ deviantart.com]

Condemning TESO – A brief Chronology

So, what happened? A few days ago in good old Kotaku stunt manner, a member of said news site declared publicly on twitter that The Elder Scrolls Online “apparently has a price tag of $200 million”, only to delete the tweet soon after because it’s bad journalism to make claims without any fact to back them up. However, that’s exactly how effective internet rumors start and that brief tweet was enough to set the gaming community completely ablaze over a simple, uncorroborated figure.

As if that wasn’t silly enough, Zenimax’ own Matt Firor then added more fuel to the fire by making very unfortunate, sarcastic remarks on how TESO could never ever have cost nearly that much because hey, look at our game – it’s crap! (just to paraphrase mildly). Now, I do somewhat appreciate the obvious eyeroll from Firor but it wasn’t the greatest way to address the budget question and infuse trust and enthusiasm in your anxious player base.

After all of that commotion had already spawned myriads of sub-tweets, message board threads and blog posts, Forbes (yes, they do video game journalism) ventured forth to declare TESO the “Greatest Videogame Disaster of 2014” two days ago. The article is essentially a summary of old news and concerns long debated among MMO players, but since the rest of the world needs time to catch up with us, it has gone viral not least thanks to its sensationalist headline.

All the while, I am scratching my head a little over what exactly has caused some of the vocal TESO malady in the wake of this budget rumor. Mainly, I have three questions regarding the most popular concerns (in the Forbes article and elsewhere) that I just can’t seem to figure out:

1) What does $200 millions even mean?
Maybe the person holding authority over efficient MMO budgeting could please come forth and enlighten the rest of us what TESO at its current state should legitimately have cost. Of course nobody knows similar figures for AAA-ventures Wildstar or Everquest Next and it seems the best course of action to make sure your numbers never get out lest you not be met with omg-SWTOR-hysteria. By the way, wasn’t it $300 millions for SWTOR? Or $500? If you really want to bore google, you can find them all. In truth, I’ve never found an MMO player nor videogame journalist who had an inkling of all the costs related to a particular MMO development (they tend not be public!) but now that we know (not) that TESO cost 200 MILLIONS….that changes everything!

2) How is it news that this is “just a Skyrim Online”?
It’s been clear from the beginning that an ES MMO wasn’t going to re-invent the genre wheel. When TESO was finally officially confirmed in 2012, the game had been in development for several years, which also means prior to Skyrim’s success and during an era of still solid WoW rulership. You can bet a franchise as traditional as Elder Scrolls dipping their first toe into MMO territory, was going to keep things conservative under these circumstances. There is also the ES fanbase to consider which doesn’t necessarily consist of online players. So yes, of course an ES MMO will essentially boil down to something like “Morrowind/Oblivion/Skyrim Online”. What else would it be? One doesn’t turn to TESO for big MMO innovations in 2014. Duh?

skymmo3) Nobody ever wanted an ES MMO. Really?
Considering TESO’s imminent launch this April 2014, it’s not only a grossly cynical statement that nobody ever wanted an Elder Scrolls MMO, it is also simply untrue. For every new installment be it Oblivion, Morrowind or Skyrim, fans have debated and fervently hypothesized up and down social networks how awesome an online Elder Scrolls or at least coop function for Skyrim could have been. I myself addressed this topic after Skyrim on this blog, preferring a coop option to the MMO. Of course TESO was already being developed then but the general MMO discussion for Elder Scrolls games is a thing among gamers and an old thing at that. To say the developers has no legitimate reason to believe such a project might be of interest to their fans, as the Forbes article has done, is bogus. If anything, that interest has increased over the last few years.

From where I personally stand nothing has changed in terms of looking forward to TESO this 2014. I trust all the beta testers who have told me that it’s essentially “just Skyrim Online” and all those who have mixed feelings about the game’s polish or long-term appeal. It’s more or less what I am expecting. Of course, there is the subscription concern and a free-to-play switch is probably in the books for TESO as is the case for so many MMOs nowadays.

No doubt, TESO is going to be the traditionalist among 2014 MMO releases and it will need to charm franchise fans. Pre-condemning the title for these reasons however, seems rather oblivious to the fact that many players still like traditional MMOs and that we’re living in times where switching to free-to-play is not a failure but proven business model. Either way, I’ll be playing TESO with or without a sub and I will make final judgements after all the big contenders of 2014 have had their fair shot. For now, my MMO sky is still lit with promise and lots of opportunity!

masky

Holding a torch for MMOs until proven otherwise.

Off the Chest – Rant Edition: Ballroom MMOs, The Emperor’s new Indie and Fantasy Games

otc

Am I gonna rant. I can’t say I’ve been particularly amused where some recent developments in the game industry are concerned. In fact, I detect a backward trend – of faux values or faulty conclusions, especially where game journalism is concerned, a celebration of pretentiousness and a hype of the trivial that makes me wonder when we stopped asking games for everything in order to receive something, preferably better.

Ever, Jane – Bringing Women’s Fantasies to Video Games

If there’s one thing I personally like to do less than having to read one more Jane Austen novel in my life, it’s playing a Jane Austen MMO. To be perfectly clear here: I’ve no issue with players excited for new, non-combative MMO concepts nor the developers of EJ for that matter. I am incredulous that kickstarter was funded but whatever floats your boat. If ballroom dances replace “epic raids” for you and gossip is a preferable form of combat, why not knock yourself out in a romanticized historical period setting where women were worth less than silver cutlery – yes why not? That prospect is about as exciting and empowering to me as root canal treatment but what has really kicked off this whole EJ-rant is the subtle assumption that this particular game is somehow for women. Or as was stated so wonderfully in a recent interview title on MMORPG.com: Ever, Jane – Bringing Women’s Fantasies to Video Games!

gossipis

Whoever is responsible for that wording on one of the most popular MMO gaming sites today, needs to seriously check themselves. I gotta say, it’s a depressing time for female gamers when the MMO worlds we are seeking out ignore us completely or make us a mere afterthought – and the ones we don’t wish to be part of are supposedly MADE for us! Oh the lofty art of gossip, such a womanly skill indeed!

Indiemania – Because nostalgia fills in all the gaps! NOT.

In April 2012 Jim Sterling of Gamefront asked the provocative but very reasonable question of whether we are being too generous to indie games. One year and a half later, after having had some of the best times with stellar titles such as Don’t Starve and Dust: AET this 2013, as well as some of the most incredulous laughs since Atari multigame packs (ou…ya), I echo his sentiment. The unabashed praise that some indie games have received of late by game journos for doing one thing right (thank god for commenters) as opposed to the top level criticism received by full-package, all-around polished titles such as Bioshock Infinite or Assassin’s Creed IV BF, is nothing short of a baffling double standard – not to mention unjust towards anyone involved in creating latter games. For some reason it’s become a very personal, almost unacceptable matter to sternly criticize indie developers. Yet, with big labels it’s still “anything goes” because no real people and livelihoods are involved there.

As Rampant Coyote recently pointed out, what makes the indie “revolution” so great is the liberation, the literal independence from investors, publishers and distributors due to the chance for smaller venues to get noticed in a sea of big fish –

The whole “revolution” and term “indie” was really about a back-door way to set ourselves apart from the guys spending millions of dollars on TV ads, so that gamers *might* take look off the beaten path once in a while and see what we were doing. To the people (especially the press) who weren’t really paying attention, sure – it’s a revolution. Or maybe just a revelation. They turn the corner from their thoroughfare and say, “Holy crap, when did all THIS stuff get built?” and don’t realize it’s all been there forever. [Rampant Coyote]

What indie absolutely isn’t, is a commendation of any kind; an assurance of quality or innovation or worse, an excuse for laziness and mediocrity. Naturally, the successes of titles such as Braid have created a bubble, encouraged an unmanageable flood of cheap copies and lazy attempts at retro homage to a point where ugly pixel graphics and 8bit bleeps are associated with being subversive, deviant or new wave. As someone who actually doesn’t consider retro new wave because I‘ve been to original retro, I’ve endured original retro, let me say this: there is no inherent virtue in pixel graphics. None.

sbss

Superbrothers Sword & Sorcery

Now, some games make the retro look their own; they take it a step further, creating something beautiful or unique. These games are rare. They stand out from the crowd and justify simplicity. They don’t look retro because they “were rushed” or “didn’t have the manpower” or “funds”. They still deliver a package. One of my favorite games this year was created by one guy – it features the most polished 12-hours gameplay experience, retro and contemporary indie homages alike, a deep story with loveable characters, secrets to discover and an off-the-charts soundtrack. You’ll hear no one-man indie excuses from Dean Dodrill.

I have no indie love for indie’s sake. I’ve no love for games that get slack for reason XY when others don’t – that’s not how I perceive my role as a gamer. I’ve no love for game journalists celebrating the emperor’s new clothes in a rush of undifferentiated or artsy hype, at no one’s service but their own. I’ve no love for developers trying to get a free pass for pushing my nostalgia buttons –

We should all strive to look past the smoke and mirrors of modern indie developers, to see which ones are passing off shitty games as indie darlings by pulling on our nostalgic heartstrings. We ought to tell an emotionally engaging art game from one that’s just making indirect references to the “human condition” in order to look smarter than it is. [source]

I am not interested in asking less of games. I still want games to get better in every way possible. And I hope this has something outrageously good going for it, because it sure as hell doesn’t look that way. We can have the morals and the story, as well as the package? Sorry I even asked! (GOTY of 2014: PONG!)

Seriously, there’s no such thing as enough (good) fantasy MMOs

This last argument isn’t so much a rant as a disagreement really and an evergreen at that. The lovely Mike Foster over at Massively recently ventured forth to state that we have had enough fantasy MMOs already – to which I had to respectfully disagree on twitter:

syltweet

Now I do get the genre fatigue, I really do but let’s remember correlation. If players are tired of dead horses such as ever being the hero, the holy trinity, traditional questing and foreseeable ends, then that’s an issue of gameplay first and foremost: of mechanics, of writing, of balance and overall lack of imagination. Which is rather ironic given the setting. We should absolutely ask for more.

However, kill ten rats is still kill ten rats in a zombie or space shooter MMO. Personally, I can’t wait to play more fantasy MMOs in the future with dragons and shameless magic of which there can’t ever be enough. I also hope they’ll do new things, show us new twists while playing differently, daring to use their unique fantasy on the fantasy. If you got the setting down, surely you can start focusing elsewhere?

And if everything fails, I can still go ballroom dancing in Ever, Jane. I wonder if I can bring my retro flamethrower.

Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

The epic quest of kill ten rats has humble beginnings. Once upon a time the explorers of virtual worlds received hardly a hint of where to go or what to do but such are not the times we live in. Those who embarked on this journey before Blizzard’s time will remember that era of glorious uncertainty but early WoW players too, know how considerably the questing experience has changed over the course of a decade. The “kill ten rats” of yore and the “kill ten rats” of today have precious little in common.

Kill ten rats: a history of epic questing

Year #1
Player X overhears NPC talking of a special breed of rats with silver pelts that may exist “somewhere”. Player finds said rats by accident one day. Player kills rats, loots five pelts in 30 minutes. Player feels special. Wahey.

Year #2
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts and deliver them. Player finds said rats one day, thanks to friendly advice in zone chat. Player kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #3
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Player finds said rats after some searching, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #4
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. Player finds said rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #5
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! Player can’t miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #6
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! Player can’t possibly miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #7
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC.

Year #8
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

Year #9+
After reading the achievement tab, player X finds NPC with an exclamation mark, also indicated on the mini-map. NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and epic pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

..Such explorers we are. Paradoxically, the shorter, the safer, the more navigated and convenient our questing has become over the years, the more MMOs have felt the need to reward us for it. That makes no sense whatsoever but it’s not a coincidence either. More on that later.

Why I hate Achievements

A fair warning: I don’t like achievements. I get why some players like, nay love achievements but I really don’t. More importantly, I don’t think they have any business in this genre.

The unconditionally worst thing that has ever happened to MMOs are achievements. Hate is a strong word and applies for my case of die-hard explorerdom although it need not be yours. Nothing feels more counter-intuitive, more obtrusive or immersion-breaking to me than the flashy achievement fonts and in-your-face achievement tabs that greet me in most of today’s MMOs – yes, even at the bloody login screen of once-great Guild Wars 2. Sic transit gloria mundi virtualis. When did all this happen?

While that’s achievements on the surface, repercussions reach much further. Several times on this blog have I raised the question of why virtual worlds need to save time, why players need to be told what to do and where to go by which path when developers have spent years creating vast open worlds of beauty. What’s it all for – just a pretty, expensive paint around a game telling me what’s an achievement?

Who would wish to complete a world? Completionism, pre-defined paths and goals, extrinsic motivators – none of these go with my personal sense of exploration. Every time unwanted and un-asked for achievements pop up in an MMO, my chosen modus operandi is disturbed or hindered. Every time that happens, that delicate illusion of virtual world is shattered. Worse, there’s no opt-in (why?).

The greatest RPG I’ve ever played was a game I didn’t complete. Where things happened at random, sometimes or never again. Where going south was as good as going north and an endless sense of mystery added depth and immensity to the world.

Even if you can’t design endless worlds, you can create size through mystery. Exploration feeds off mystery – and mystery is neither excellent nor should it be fully solvable.

Mystery resists.  Mystery refuses.  It will not yield.  Not to me.

Mystery resists closure.  It resists completion and clean getaways.  It, instead, insists.  I’m not done with you yet.  Get back over here.

Mystery is not merely the unknown.  It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know.  It is unknowability itself.  It is futile and essential.

Why do we diminish our own experience?  Are we afraid of not connecting, of confirming our solitude? [T. Thompson]

No really, go read the whole thing.

When the journey is no longer the reward…we need more rewards?

Whether you agree with my passionate sentiments or not, what most design critics can agree on is the relationship between journey/effort and goal/reward in games; the required balance in order to make either feel significant. Long and hard journeys with never a memento to show for feel unfulfilled, just as easy and plentiful loot won’t be remembered by anybody. More than that though, whenever players think back on their greatest achievements in MMOs, they don’t usually name purple swords and special titles but rather the road that led there, the obstacles that had to be overcome in the company of comrades. Naturally, loot matters too and we’ll keep those special items forever – yet loot like an epilogue, is only the last part of that story.

The journey is the reward. Knowing that we did it, that we’ve accomplished something. The shiny purple sword is a representation of that experienced, gratifying victory. It means nothing if we got it for a bargain on the flea market. (Okay maybe if there was an achievement for that….)

So, if the journey becomes ever shorter, ever more straight-forward and without mystery, what will a game attempt in order to compensate for lack of win? Will it pile on the rewards, the titles, the achievements – desperate to convince us we achieved something anyway?

I don’t need to be told I achieved something in shrill and flashing colors. I should be able to feel it and to judge it was a worthy cause. That’s when you may reward me with items, sometimes, so I may carry them with me to tell the world about my adventures.

And whither there? I cannot say. For now, let’s leave it a mystery!

Remembering FFXI and: Why I’m not playing FFXIV A Realm Reborn. Yet.

Square-Enix have officially halted digital sales for FFXIV:ARR due to an “overwhelming demand” and unlike for Guild Wars 2 one year ago, nobody can say they’re surprised. The blogosphere is abuzz with FFXIV impressions and even those who wouldn’t touch Final Fantasy with a stick in the past, are willing to have a look at A Realm Reborn which is quite remarkable to say the least. I always hoped that this title would be given a second chance; to see it appeal to the western market way more than its predecessor, which launched in a time pre-WoW, is pretty amazing. The fact that I have to be careful about how I criticize the game in my usual circles these days, is funny.

FFXI was my very serious introduction to the genre back in 2002. My love for this franchise is no secret and is frequently highlighted during Battle Bards podcast episodes. I will defend Chocobos to death if I have to and tell the world why Square deserve all current fandom for being consistent, faithful and shamelessly magical on so many levels. There are not many franchises out there that have not only seen as many years, but bested cross-platform and cross-genre hurdles the way the Final Fantasy series have. FFXI is one of the most successful subscription MMOs to date.

So really, nobody wanted ARR to be awesome and great more than me. I signed up for the beta the moment I was able to. I spent time on the character customization, questing and exploring the starting areas, playing different classes. Yet all things considered, I’m sad to say that FFXIV isn’t on my list of current MMOs. I was even tempted to write that final “why I’m not playing…”-post the way I usually do, but then decided against it. Despite the fact that I was majorly disappointed by the beta and that ARR has had a rather horrendous launch, I’m willing to give it another go in a couple of weeks or months, when SE have had time to address the biggest issues. Why is that? Because of FFXI memories and my hopes to see some of that return one day.

My very personal ARR (beta) impressions

Before jumping into retrospective, let me explain briefly why my ARR beta impressions can only be summarized as “an exercise in datedness”. Maybe I’m applying higher standards to this relaunch – in any case I have zero tolerance for its particular shortcomings. From the very beginning, SE’s communication in terms of beta dates, feedbacking / NDA and actual DOWNLOAD LINK were beyond abysmal. Polish in this regard, be it customer info or smooth account and payment management, were never this company’s forte. FFXI veterans shiver in fear thinking back on Play Online account management. Still….because it is 11 years later and because this is a relaunch, I expected better. This is poor guys. Poor!

After discovering the download link for ARR in some forum thread (…), successfully installing and finishing a somewhat strangely organized character customization where all the female voices sounded like pornstars before climax, my Lalafell Conjurer was thrown into Gridania. Instantly I was critted for 500k of wearisome tiny speech-bubble exposition. I get it…this is the uhhh “tutorial phase” for all the complete MMO newcomers out there (so many of them!). So, after clicking away what seemed like an eternity in Lalafell years, I did my best to navigate the horribly designed starting area with help of the equally horrible town map. Oh and teleport thingies….which didn’t seem to have names on the map – yet the beautifully long dropdown menu for picking destinations required me to know. Trial & error, said I!

What’s with all the double confirmations, by the way? Do I really want to – really really? Is this game developed by Microsoft Windows? …

All of this wouldn’t have been so horrible if ARR didn’t send you all around town for the most lazily designed and unimaginative fetch&delivery quests since kill ten rats. First I wasn’t sure if they were kidding when asking me to pick up 6 sparkling vegetables lying around right before my nose. Then it turned out this quest wasn’t the exception. That’s when cold desperation took hold of me.

There was also a “do this emote”-quest for variety. It was my absolute highlight.

eorz2

Outside town the world was a beautiful as ever. Yeah, they know how to do that stuff. Pulling mobs was weird in a group, what really irritated me however was how combat was still slow and formulaic. Also, SE have apparently not caught up with the whole shared tapping and nodes concept that makes newer MMOs so enjoyable. Sigh.

…There’s more and Jewel did a good job rounding things up elsewhere, so I’ll stop here. I know some of these issues were fixed since beta, the biggest offenders however remain and have me worried for the game’s future. To clarify, it’s great so many players are enjoying the current state of ARR, and if you happen to enjoy the more traditional or oldschool approach to all things MMO mechanics, more power to you! Still, I feel let down by the lack of polish and creativity in many areas, considering how a re-launch of an already once-failed title will have much to prove in the long run.

Remembering FFXI

This is where the ranting ends because there is much to love about the FF Online franchise. When I think back on my days in FFXI, many things stand out in my memory – things that made it worth my time and that may similarly change my opinion of ARR. To list just a few highlights:

  • FFXI was one of the first MMOs to introduce multi-guilding via linkshells. I loved the idea, I still think it’s a good one.
  • There was the insanely well-designed and flexible class system, with added hero classes. I was a Red Mage / Bard and up to date no cooler implementation for an MMO bard class exists to my knowledge.
  • As bad as auction houses were, as great was the simplicity of individual player shops via public inventory bag.
  • SE have always understood the importance of player housing.
  • Beautiful character, animations, spell effects and gear design. A beautiful world to play in, full of nostalgia and the most wonderful music.
  • Party combos actually mattered

My main reason for stopping FFXI was mostly twofold: the money and exp grind was insane for the average player – and FFXI was a game of merciless forced grouping after lvl 16ish with no soloability and setup flexibility whatsoever. I could’ve lived with much of its other imperfections and overall punishment but these main factors proved too detrimental to my longterm enjoyment and acceptance.

Needless to say, much got fixed and balanced as the game progressed. However, by that time there was another MMO called World of Warcraft demanding all of my attention. Which is where my worries for FFXIV come in: what’s gonna happen to subscriber numbers early 2014, when all novelty has worn off and the game will have to put up with some serious competition? It’s easy to love things when they are new. Which is why I do have my hopes up that ARR will see some much required fixing and polishing during the coming months, as more players engage with it and leave vital feedback. One can only hope for Eorzea because right now, things just aren’t “good enough” – yet.

[GW2] Just can’t get their throat stuffed

Back from summer break, which I spent castle hunting and aching from bike tours, I was reluctantly excited for the Bazaar of the Four Winds update in GW2 which follows ANet’s recent announcement of aiming for bi-weekly content patches in the future. Yep, that sounds wild – and you’ve heard it here first! Really, it’s a rare thing when a MMO developer goes and fulfills what you’ve wished for specifically on your blog in the past. That has me convinced I need to continue my wishlist category!

In the end however it’s not just the frequency of new content that matters. Is it content? – Or is it rather that someone at ANet just can’t seem to get their throat stuffed on back items?

gw827

Ye shiny graphics, they don’t fool me.

GW2: The Magic Formula

As you arch an eyebrow at above expression, let me elaborate: it’s a liberty I am taking on this here blog from time to time that I literally translate sayings and idioms over from my native tongue. Every now and then there’s an expression just too perfect and impossible to translate adequately – and in this case it’s GW2 (and other MMOs for that matter) just not getting enough already of the same item-grinds and achievements. Are we there yet? Do we have enough yet?

Seems not. They can’t get their throat stuffed (or full) of the same old or maybe it’s really what the player base wants. I don’t know – it’s not like anyone is allowed to complain much about an essentially free-to-play MMO but then, I’ll keep doing it. Personally, I find it highly insulting that we aren’t only grinding items and achievements with every new “content patch” but the same items! Welcome to GW2’s magic event formula: new weapon and armor skins, new back items, mini-games and jumping puzzles! Oh and that last one is all around you this time because the friggin’ bazaar is sky-borne! I have been to one of the world’s biggest, most famed and wondrous bazaars: it was dark, cramped and stuffy, like a city’s underbelly maze. I would’ve preferred this a hundred times over to the lofty acrobatics required to get to the Bazaar of the Four Winds – but nomen est omen so doh @self!

Magic formula ranting aside, I am still looking for the actual content here. My first impressions are bitter and sarcastic (I’m sure you needed this update) but Syp is having fun and so I shall give this investigation some more time. I understand that several achis are linked to an event further down the line, so maybe I can bring myself to care about that. That said, I am starting to take grim pride in the pitiful amount of achievement points I’ve accumulated on my character so far (which apparently is going to disadvantage me now too); it’s one of the more bizarre side-effects this current generation of MMOs has had on me that I am developing inverted snobbery where things like gear or achievements are concerned. Achieving nothing is the new purple!

Anyway, there’s apparently a “best dive” achievement for this event that sounds right up my alley. Nothing feels more adequate than throwing yourself off a high cliff in desperation after facing even more back items and jumping puzzles! Fingers crossed my PC won’t crash again as my character swan-dives from 10’000 feet altitude. Geronimooo!

Wildstar and why I don’t like the Explorer path

Just when I thought I was pretty much not going to play Wildstar this year, Zenimax Online dropped the bomb and announced that The Elder Scrolls Online release date would be pushed back to spring 2014, to meet the launch date of Sony and Microsoft’s next-generation consoles. That’s one of the many things this “MMOs go console”-trend is gonna do for us in the future: delay stuff. Porting to different systems, creating individual interfaces and testing everything cross-platform takes time. Well, great. If it meant that the MMO community is growing, I could probably live with that but since servers will be split between different systems, there’s not really an upside there for PC players other than that Zenimax make more money (which will hopefully go back into designing great, future content updates).

So…Wildstar. A while ago I mentioned that no doubt this is a polished game with a good shot at the World of Warcraft demography. Since then, Carbine have been pretty open about it too – yes, we’re coming for ya, Blizzard! Only, we have the updated questing system and awesome player housing, along with all the PG-rated candyland. The latter is still one of my biggest qualms with the game: I am so over the Warcraft cartoon aesthetic. I do greatly appreciate the maturity in MMOs like Age of Conan or LOTRO, Rift and GW2 too are on my good side even if slightly more to the center of that Venn diagram. Wildstar shoots the hyper-fantasy rocket into deep space where it crashes somewhere between Outland and a Pixar movie. This is certainly no sword&sorcery MMO. But I digress.

venn

Feeling the Explorer path

Carbine’s spin on the Bartle profiles is interesting and if I was to choose a path for myself, no doubt that would be the explorer’s. Or such would’ve been my initial reaction because y’know – wandering around at random is awesome, listening to the world, discovering secrets and taking the long road whenever possible. Only, that’s not really what exploration means every time.

It struck me that while exploration has been widely praised in GW2 (and justly so), it’s also one of the most popularly gamified activities in the entire game. Players say exploration and mean “climbing all vistas”, hitting all pre-marked (!) points, “doing all jumping puzzles”, “getting the 100% achievement”. See that there? – Not me! I couldn’t care less if my world map is complete in GW2, I’ve a feeling it’s currently somewhere around 60% and that’s with me playing since launch. When I explore I don’t set out to find every last corner of a zone, let alone doing silly jumping puzzles. Oh, how I hate them. I want to smell the flowers and go wherever chance takes me. As for “mapping the world” –

“…there’s nothing worse to me than a world that’s fully discovered, fully mapped and fully understood. The moment we draw the last line in that picture is the moment we limit our world, the moment where it becomes small and finite – when hypothesis and speculation become hard fact and there is no more ‘may be’.

To a traveler and explorer “finishing a world” is the death of his playstyle. I want to stand at the shore of the southern sea and wonder forever what may lie beyond.” [source]

What am I gonna do once I’ve mapped the entire world? Let’s not map it!

Now, seems to me Wildstar’s explorer sounds an awful lot like exploration in GW2. The shiny somewhat wishy-washy job descriptions on the official page can’t conceal what gets very obvious in this explorer showcase or devspeak: climby vista-missions and timed (!) scavenger hunts, power maps (more jumping), achievements, completionism…on the clock.

To clarify: I realize that achievements can be a great motivator for some players to go and travel the world at all, although I can’t judge how much they are actually seeing and exploring it when they’re out hunting marks. In any case, that makes me wonder about two things: a) Is this path for people who are already explorers (and therefore need no achievements as ‘incentives’) or is it just another coat of paint for the achiever? And b) What’s in it for me who finds achievement spam, event markers and countdowns obtrusive to the exploratory experience rather than helpful?

Of course that begs one more question, namely what the hell I was expecting and I guess that’s fair. Exploration being such an intrinsically motivated activity for me of almost meditative quality, there’s just no active setting up or instrumentalizing this in an MMO, the way the devs would like to. Explorers like me need a living, breathing open world first and foremost, one that doesn’t flaunt its riches and doesn’t scream at you but offers reward in terms of discovering secrets and random events. Proper scale and size matter too, extensive travel and eye candy – plenty of that. It’s especially nice if you can “do” things – leave a mark, create or change something no matter how small (how would player-created geocaching do in MMOs I wonder?). What I’d like to see too is literally drawing your own maps instead of getting world map view all the time.

I’d be up for more erring in general; it’s bizarre beyond words that designers spend years creating virtual worlds and then hand you all the maps, event/location markers and even lists of “what you can do there” (aka achievements) from the get-go. And then they wonder why it all lasted a few weeks only.

Anyway, my preferred modus operandi isn’t nearly enough for a fully fledged, gamified playstyle with tangible progression and rewards, I get it. So for now the big question of which path to pick in Wildstar is back on the table. I’ll probably have to do the usual: “force” my inner explorer on any given path. It appears Settler is quite en vogue, so maybe I should just roll Kill…err Soldier out of spite and blow up all those jumping puzzles they no doubt created.