Category Archives: Setting

Valheim Mountain Report

Valheim’s mountains are probably the best realization of the theme I have ever seen in a game, period. I live next to some of the most famous mountains on earth, so I think I should know. The entire biome IS basically one big climb between different levels of high altitude with peaks in between. The terrain is often treacherous and descent can be tricky. Some parts are so steep you literally feel like a mountain climber, hopping from ledge to ledge with stamina breaks in between. Then there’s the weather, the fantastic snow storms and high fog that blind you. And the beautiful light around the campfire at night.

Valheim mountain side

The mountains are deadly at first until you get that wolf cape sorted and don’t have to rely on frost resistance potions. The golems hit very hard and the fenrings make your blood freeze when first you face them. But everything gets much easier once you’ve tracked down that elusive silver for better gear.

Valheim mountain snow

Silver is very hard and heavy to transport which was annoying until we figured out this neat trick: pack your bags as full as you can and just relog to another seed where your character has logged out in a safe hub standing besides a couple of chests. Unload there and return to raiding the mountain. Rinse and repeat. Once you feel you’ve collected enough resources, get home to your main base where your storage and smelter stand. Do the relog game one more time and transfer the silver from chest to chest. May feel a little cheaty but not really. Traveling between worlds is an intentional Valheim feature.

Valheim mountain campfire

If I have one complaint it’s that the mountains, unlike the previous biomes, don’t really feel like a full zone. Going there feels like a trip with the primary purpose of finding silver. Maybe it’s the whole climbing aspect and the lack of crypt-like content that shortens the experience somewhat. That’s not to say that the design and atmosphere aren’t great but there’s not much else to explore after you find Moder’s marker which is the stage we’re at now. I’ve not read much about Valheim’s fourth boss but I look forward to a fun dragon fight!

MMO Forests, Jungles and GW2 I can’t hear you, lalallaaa

Fall has started to paint the trees around here this time of the year. The morning air is brisk but the days are mild and sunny. Sunlight touched leaves turn from crimson to copper and gold. The brilliance of fall is breathtaking before it submits to winter cold.

This morning

Just this morning

Fall is a tricky season to get right in MMOs for its wide spectrum of colors and different moods. The Plains of Ashford in GW2 come to mind or LOTRO’s Trollshaws, both stunning in their own right. That reminds me that I wished games simulated the turning of seasons more dynamically and persistently than they usually do – just imagine Elwynn Forest going through the seasons with you, instead of seasonal themes being divided by static zones.

MMO forests be it fall, winter or spring, are some of the most popular zones among the player base. Design-wise I imagine it’s easier to create player immersion with a forest setting than a desert or plains, so plentiful are your options with forests. That makes them more design intense for sure, yet also more rewarding when done right. And then there’s jungles; forests of a different kind which by my anecdotal experience, are a lot less popular somehow than the classic, northern European or Canadian role models. Before Heart of Thorns launched, several bloggers were expressing their (premature) dislike for the concept of the new zones.

World of Warcraft is well-known for its jungle maps from Stranglethorn Vale and Un’Goro Crater to the more recent Tanaan Jungle. I remember detesting STV with a passion as an early WoW player – the colors, the noises, the way you had to navigate terrain. My partner on the other hand loved questing there, getting all his pages together for the Nesringwary questline while I bought most of mine on the auction house and thank god for no bind on pickup!

So, what is it with jungles that makes me cringe where forests don’t? I’d say most of it is guilt by association because frankly, I have very little experience with real world jungles and I understand there are hundreds of different kinds. Yet simplified, jungles mean heat and damp; they’re wild, sticky, oppressive, unnerving, chaotic and dangerous in my mind. And there are mosquitoes! Forests on the other hand are cool, composed and quiet. They can be dark and spooky of course but also very reassuring and lonely, in a good way. There is a special German word for the loneliness inside forests that cannot be adequately translated to English: “Waldeinsamkeit” (forest loneliness). It is a feeling of isolation and yet, being solemnly embraced by the forest.

The new zones in Heart of Thorns

I’m hearing good things about the new GW2 expansion so far, particularly about the zone design which is something of a surprise. There’s only so much you dare deduct from pre-expansion announcements, but I was certainly among those unimpressed by ANet’s information on Maguuma Jungle and its altered gameplay at the time. However, it seems my concerns were unfounded: Jeromai reports the jungle in HoT feels a lot different than expected, with amazing zone design and screenshots to show for it. Bhagpuss too has been full of praise since his first day impressions. Two strong votes from fellow explorers for an expansion I had no intention of acquiring anytime soon (damn youuu!).


I am currently overloaded with new games on Steam and subbed to FFXIV and Wildstar, where I have yet to make an earnest attempt at decorating the new plot. Also, I really don’t have much time for gaming at all right now so ARGH……I’ll just ignore everyone talking about the beauty of HoT henceforward, close my eyes and go lalallllaaaaaaaaaaaa I can’t hear youuuuu!

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


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


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.


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:


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.

EQNext’s Sandbox: A look at Landmark and the Adventurer Class (Gamescom)

This year’s Gamescom has come and gone and with it, more juicy info on Everquest Next was let off by David Georgeson during SOE’s presentation. What caught my eye in particular, were some very new and interesting tidbits concerning EQN Landmark and a so far unrevealed class concept, called the Adventurer Class. Okay Sony, this is how you get my attention.

(For those who still aren’t quite sure what EQNext Landmark is: Landmark is essentially the Minecraft mode for new Norrath. Players will not only get creative/constructive but social tools to realize and share their own idea of a virtual fantasy world. Landmark is to be released this winter 2013 and is free-to-play.)

Massively have an article up on that specific part in SOE’s GC presentation, which starts around 14minutes into the embedded video on the bottom there. Here’s a summary of the most exciting takeaways, even if not all of it is completely novel:

  • Players can create their own, completely customized MMO world having the entire design repertoire of EQN at their disposal. Whether they create a more high/low fantasy, sci-fi or pirate themed setting, is up to them. You can basically go wild with the tools you are given.
  • Players will start off playing the Adventurer class in Landmark. This is a new class which introduces players to overall character mechanics in EQN. Not just that, by playing Landmark the Adventurer class will then be unlocked for players to play in EQN. Which means, multi-classing becomes available from level 1 for those with an Adventurer toon. In addition, players can transfer their Landmark character to EQN, if they so desire. (Unfortunately Georgeson doesn’t give further details on “what type” of class the Adventurer will be within EQN.)
  • “Landmark” is the name for the random starting locations in the world. They’re represented by giant monuments and meant to serve as hubs for players to find each other – and as the game progresses, to create and set up open-air player markets. There will also be teleport stones called Wizard Spirals.
  • Players can plant flags in unclaimed territory inside Landmark, claiming a spot to shape further and utilize for themselves (early American settlers will know that one).



All miiiine!

There is more and it’s definitely worth watching the entire video, if you’re interested in this sort of gameplay and EQNext’s sandbox. Ever since John Smedley made that bold claim, players have been on the lookout for proof and indication that EQNext is indeed not going to be just another themepark/buffet/whatever. And so far, we’ve no reason to believe it isn’t going to be; a lot of what have been actual EQN reveals this August 2013 point at an MMO using Guild Wars 2’s notebook and adding more scribbles.

Not that this is bad by any means – I love what GW2 has done for the genre, and I like to see EQN improve on that (especially where events and NPCs/questing are concerned). I’ve also sorta given up on my wishes for a sandbox MMO that actually does what the definition inspires for me – by now, it’s as wishy-washy a term as any other. That’s why SOE’s two-lane approach might actually be the better thing and it seems clear that anyone yearning for that more sandboxy, radical open-world gameplay might be looking at Landmark as their game/world of choice. While SOE keep adding reasons for Landmark players to also want to play (and pay for goods in) EQN, I wonder if they’ve not created some strong competition for their new MMO from within. That’s assuming Landmark will indeed prove to be a fully fledged, independent MMORP world – without the standard “G”.

We’ve yet to hear how SOE plan to earn their money with EQN but unless they intend to monetize both titles equally, they will want the main force of their player base to play EQN eventually, rather than just Landmark. So what does that truly mean for the quality, independence and allowed scope of the latter? I guess we have to wait and see.

[LOTRO] Putting a Finger on the Magic

Have you ever felt like a complete fraud while playing an MMO? As if you were the world’s biggest newb, way behind and knew nothing about this longtime interest of yours? That’s a bit how I’ve felt ever since playing Lord of the Rings Online. What on earth was I thinking not playing this sooner? What’s wrong with me?? Sigh.

I can’t turn the clock back and maybe it isn’t always the worst thing to let an MMO mature before jumping in. Still, I find myself baffled at how great a game LOTRO has become while so many of us were busy playing WoW, Rift and other titles, probably thinking this Tolkien-inspired soon-free-to-play game couldn’t quite cut it. How wrong I was.

Ever since, I’ve been trying to put my finger on the magic that makes LOTRO. By now I can say it’s possibly the most atmospheric and immersive MMO world I’ve ever traveled. This isn’t hyperbole; I wish I could say WoW had been as good at selling the experience – or Final Fantasy, Age of Conan, Rift or Guild Wars 2. But even that last one cannot quite compete and it’s not about the graphics. Tyria is the most visually stunning world there is. But Turbine’s Middle-Earth does something to the senses none of the others do – so well, you are willing to ignore other undeniable shortcomings. What’s going on here?

The Sound of Magic

Simply put, it’s the sound. It’s the fabulous sound effects in LOTRO that make it that much more immersive compared to other MMOs. It actually took me playing this game to realize something fundamental about us as human beings: just how much of our processing and understanding of the world around us relies on sounds. You will raise an eyebrow now, thinking “well of course, duh” – but think about it! We’re one of the few species that value their eyesight before all else. We’ve shaped our entire world, our society and culture around the function of our “first sense”. We live in a very visual world where we constantly judge how pretty things and people are. We are untrained and crippled when it comes to our hearing capacity. The experiences and sensitivity of blind people fascinate us.

And yet our brain registers, records and categorizes sounds nonstop without us realizing. Hearing requires no conscious effort; it happens in spite of us, there’s no closing our ears. Because of that, sounds are closely linked to everything we experience in our lives, even if we don’t know it. They are a constant undercurrent, the way smells and odours can be. And like those they can trigger emotional responses and memories.

“Half of the world building in MMOs relies on us completing the picture with our own mental imagery. It’s when the real magic happens – the alchemy.”

We know how a river sounds or wind howling around a corner. We know the tune of morning birds compared to evening birds. Most importantly, we know how places sound; it is not enough to add a soundclip or two to create a virtual environment. It takes an entire orchestra to create that real sense and association with “world”.

We know how a forest sounds. A beach. A farm. There’s cracklings and rustlings, whistling and jingling, huffing and puffing, japping and blabbering all simultaneously coming from different directions and sources. Plus, that sound canvas changes constantly as we move around. Our world does not consist of static, isolated sound bites. LOTRO captures that.

The Sound of Bree

The first time I rode my horse through the town of Bree, I was delighted at the “sound” of it; the low muttering, combined with jingling harness and the merry clap-clap of hooves on cobblestone. Around us, the town added its very own tune to the melody: carts being pushed around, NPC chatter, hammering, bells, fountains, birds in the blue sky above. Different sounds and noises around every corner. It was overwhelming authenticity. And oddly soothing.

That’s when it struck me: this immense, untapped potential that is sound in most MMOs. Not ambient and background music, as much as I love those too – but intentional, planned out and distinctive sound effects and “maps”. Whenever I approach a swamp or forest in LOTRO, I am already looking forward to the multi-dimensional (or -sensual) experience. Amazingly it carries even further: thanks to the quality of sounds, I can actually smell the forest in LOTRO. That third sense, forever out of a videogame’s reach, becomes tangible. The audio and visuals create such an impact together that my mental memory of forests triggers an idea, a hint of typical forest smells. This is truly powerful stuff.

The scent of sweet bark mixed with turf. Just a hint of rotten leaves and murky water.

Landscaping Sounds

Middle-Earth is the most authentic and plausible MMO world imaginable. You could attribute that to Tolkien’s legacy, the detailed lore, yet bringing that to life in an MMO is no given. It’s just as hard as world building is for all games. And yet the answer seems simple: making use of your player base’s mental triggers and associations. Taking lessons from how we process real world and translating that into game design.

No matter if an MMO simulates real world environments or more fictional, fantastic places, developers should take LOTRO’s example to heart; game worlds are as much about distinctive sound/noise compositions as they are about landscaping, zone design or sophisticated weather effects. Make your trip as multi-dimensional as you possibly can for biggest impact.

I would never want to miss this focus again in any MMO. Already I dread future comparisons. And yeah, LOTRO could do with better character models, a UI revamp and a complete questing and combat overhaul. But oh the sceneries, the travel and the sound effects of LOTRO are a one-of-a-kind package most other MMOs can only dream of! For those who have eyes to see. And especially ears to hear.

[GW2] Of Lost Shores and Found Hopes

In 2001 when I was still for the most part playing console games, I became enamored with a so-called social simulation game called Animal Crossing on Nintendo’s Gamecube. It was the first of its kind for me and slightly ahead of a time of many more social sim, build-your-house farmville-whatnot type of games to come – even if not necessarily on console. AC was offline and it was mostly a game about building your own little animal town and community, planting different types of plants, collecting bugs and butterflies and digging up fossils for your personal museum. It was typical in triggering collector’s drive but rather evolutionary and unique on several other accounts which kept me playing with a passion. I am not one for pure Sims games; I love decorating my house in Skyrim as much as the next person but I won’t spend weeks doing that same thing in any game.

What AC did in remarkable ways however was introducing a sense of real time to a classic console audience grown with offline and limited session gameplay. Not just that, AC had unqiue (!) events, impact and a sense of punishment that was completely unknown in that time and space continuum. It blew my mind at the time with its merciless “internal clock”. Just few examples of what would regularly happen to you in AC:

    • Numerous seasonal events to be celebrated with the town folk. The events were announced in advance, either on the town board or by gossip you needed to overhear. The events were entirely restricted to a specific date and time frame synched to your console’s system clock.
    • Unpredictable one-time (or very rare) offers of certain NPCs such as the mayor, to re-arrange roads or bridges for you. Appointments where you were ordered to be “at the beach at 5pm next Tuesday evening”.
    • When neglected for too long, your town would be overtaken by wild plant life, your house needed cleaning from vermin and the townspeople would move away for good (sending you angry goodbye letters or rant at you for having been away and never call). AC’s NPCs had the uncanniest AI in general; they would build different types of relationships with you depending on what you did, how you spoke to them or what “you ONCE promised me!”.
    • If trying to trick “game progress” by resetting the console without saving your game, you would be visited by “Mr. Resetti” at your doorstep. While this angry mole would let you off with a very long speech about integrity and morals the first time around, punishment for such behaviour would increase drastically with every consecutive reset. (He actually once repainted my house in puke green!)

…While this might sound trivial by today’s standards, it was absolutely HUGE in 2001, given its platform. I actually put down a note in my school agenda back then so I wouldn’t miss meeting erm, “my town mayor at the beach next Tuesday evening”. Within two weeks I had my room mates thoroughly hooked to AC (and how glad I was the town had room for four player houses).

Today, I think back very fondly on this particular sim title. It introduced a sense of time and impact in a way that only few games did with such limited means. And that gets me to the core of this slowly unfolding argument, on why things like unpredictable or rare events are exciting in games and why MMO players keep talking about missing impact or punishment all the time. The common denominator behind all these features – impact, consequence, punishment, you-name-it – is time. It’s a sense of time passing and progressing. It is what gives things meaning, not just in games but actually in our short-span lives too. All these different features are mere consequences and side-effects of a notion of time flowing; “impact and punishment” are always after-effects. They cannot exist without introducing progressive time in an MMO. They cannot exist in limbo.

Time adds meaning to things because it creates a before and after. This is fundamental for any game world that is designed to simulate, feel alive and authentic. A world where randomness, consequence and lasting effect exist. A world where memorable stuff happens, events happen.

The amazing Mr. Resetti

On the Lost Shores event

I’ll not bore my regular readers by pointing out again how much I applaud ArenaNet for daring to be different and sticking to one-time events after this Halloween. Apparently the outcry after last night has been significant once more but it’s my very personal hope that three time’s going to be a charm and these loud players will have given up after Christmas, moving on to other MMOs catering to their every wish and personal real-life agenda. One more thing I love about a subscription-less MMOs in that context: not feeling the same pressure to constantly “appease the irritated”, turning game design and direction into loudest-whiner-whack-a-mole.

On to the Lost Shores, I was actually there for the full thing. Mixed is a very mild way of calling an experience that I would otherwise describe as two thirds horribly boring, repetitive grind and one third epic encounter. Now, I don’t know how many players ANet had in mind when they designed their one-time scenario, but I happened to be on an overflow with about 40 more players in that same spot. And for a good 2.5 hours it was painful drudgery, as we slowly escorted Mother Karka across a map swarming with the same bunch of normal, veteran and champion bugs coming at us over and over, wave after wave after wave, while the world’s slowest progress bar mocked us in the right-hand corner of our screens. 50% of the time players were ressing each other, which is one of the remarkable things that keep happening without fail in GW2 – players paying attention to one another. Other than that though, there was wayyy too much of the same…and after two hours it started showing. The “raid” lost focus and got increasingly chaotic. Some players quit, no doubt finding a good night’s sleep (Sunday night too) more appealing than another wave of one hundred karka. I have to admit I was tempted to leave myself but stubbornness to see this through got the better of me (hardcore raider remnant, no doubt).

Silithus – I did not ever wish to see thee again! The Lost Shores came awfully close to those bug nightmares of yore. While I cannot complain about lag like some other players did, I am once more marveling at some of the design choices ANet made in preparation for this event. How many players out there would seriously find several hours of more or less the same bug-slaying remotely appealing or at least epic? Was the event actually designed with smaller groups in mind, banned to overflow servers? Could there not have been (better) ways to address group size and pacing issues?

Like with GW2’s dungeons (on which I have my personal observations to share soon), I am cringing at the discrepancy that is “a good idea vs. execution” in some of ANet’s gameplay and design choices. I am starting to wonder if this company actually still believes in the old fashioned virtue of suffering? Already the badly designed Clock Tower event for Halloween showed this ambiguity between what constitutes difficulty in games vs. what is actually just bad, lazy or broken design (even if it results in some particularly torture-proof players feeling horribly challenged and thus rewarded after attempt 501).

And I get it: mass events and zergs can be lots of fun and certainly feel epic in scale. I’ve no issue with such events in GW2, in fact I find them quite enjoyable. I could’ve lived with one part of the Lost Shores event being a zerg against the same few bugs, but there was nothing epic in that as the night stretched before me and all I could think of was to “get this done with”. Maybe I just put my expectations too high?

On the bright side (yeah there was some of that) our little troupe of the persistent found back to a hysterical sense of humor in zone chat, which is always one of the nicer social side-effects in MMOs – that “bonding through pain” effect when things look dire or simply beyond reason. There were some great laughs later into the night although I doubt the developers would’ve shared any of it. There were also some parts of the battle that were more challenging and fun (such as the veteran karka “steamroll”) and for those who actually made it past the final battle there was – wait for it – some nice loot! I couldn’t believe my eyes when the chest dropped several exotic armor pieces, a 20-slot bag and exotic accessory upgrade!

This must have been the first time in GW2 when I actually got a useful reward for doing something special – especially hard or long or painful. So just maybe ANet are learning their lessons step by step as we go along and sooner or later we’ll not only get to see epic scale, one-time events with good loot, but also enjoyable combat with great stories to tell on top? As long as things are going somewhere, one can always hope!

World of Shameless Magic

Most MMO players would probably agree the best MMOs they ever played during their gaming career had the full “package”; that ominous word all of us understand and nobody can explain (well). MMOs are different from other games not just due to aspects like character identification, development or longterm dedication – they’re also virtual worlds and simulations, which means above all they need a coherent theme and setting, they need a past, present and future which are also realized through narrative. That doesn’t even brush the pandora’s box that is gameplay yet. When Angry Joe claims the most important aspect of any game is gameplay, he is probably right – but for that to even matter MMOs especially need to best so many hurdles first and do so many things right in terms of package, it’s unreal. Frankly, it is a miracle there’s even a handful of MMOs out there right now that people love and keep playing for years!

I think theme is one of those things that gets overlooked or at least underestimated in some MMO debates. When Tobold talks about how innovation is “not enough”, I fully agree with him – just like I agree with Kemwer that it’s no MMO player’s “duty” to support (= pay for) games he doesn’t actually enjoy, just to make a statement pro innovation. That is a ludicrous (and risky) idea; why would I support something that doesn’t even appeal to me personally? Whenever I refer to the refreshing aspects of GW2 for example and all the ways it’s innovative, I am actually talking about innovations I enjoy. Innovations that to me are worth supporting, to drive the genre forward. First and foremost though, I am looking to play good games – innovation is a bonus and (just) a part of that whole MMO package. Or in other words, as commented in Kemwer’s thread (and edited for typos ahem) –

“If there’s a thing we know about suc­cess­ful MMOs then it’s that they need to have the full pack­age; pol­ish and a wide appeal. only THEN can we also start talk­ing about inno­va­tion, the way WoW took a con­cept and improved on it — and the way GW2 does too. but for that to even be appre­ci­ated by a wider audi­ence, they need to do an awful lot of things right first. and they actu­ally need to know which things must NOT be inno­vated on in order not to alien­ate your audi­ence entirely! it’s a very tricky line to thread.”

So…what role does overall theme/setting actually play in package? While Tobold dismissed this aspect rather quickly by making fun of “don’t bother innovating too much or giving us anything other than swords, elves and dragons”, I think that point in particular warrants further thought. Can we really dismiss that TSW serves the more niche horror or “goth” theme in regards to its current playerbase troubles? I say no. At the very least it plays an equal role as other popular concerns, such as the gameplay formula, looks or lack of polish…in fact, I would go further than that.

The unlimited fantasy formula

If we turn back the clock to consider all MMOs that there went ever since Ultima Online, the common denominator of almost every game with wide appeal is fantasy setting. A world of classic sword & sorcery – a world of magic. Yes, I know about City of Heroes, Fallen Earth or Eve Online; I would argue that superheroes are awfully close to mages and paladins though and that to some extent fallout and sci-fi themes still share many aspects of fantastic journeys. That said, Eve is the only MMO of the non-fantasy lot that can claim anything resembling “wide appeal”. On the other side stand MMO giant WoW, Rift, Aion and Guild Wars – and a not inconsiderable amount of players invested in anything between LotRO to DDO to the FFs. There is plenty to choose from in fantasy games!

Why is that though? Are developers just scared to seriously attempt non-fantasy MMOs since y’know, “UO and EQ started it all and let’s not risk it” – or is it the absence of players in games like CoH or Fallen Earth confirming what most of them suspected all along? And if the majority of the MMO playerbase indeed wants fantasy settings – is there any point / need in going for different?

There are several reasons why I think the classic fantasy formula works so well and why it IS risky to attempt innovation in this particular corner. MMOs are already a niche to begin with, so any developer would need to consider if breaking down that audience further is actually the sensible thing to do. Especially if you cannot also provide a very polished package. But let’s look at some pro fantasy points:

1. Not just “elves and dragons”
To state that fantasy is basically limitless is well duuhhh…but the fantasy genre is actually huge and almost all MMOs borrow from a much wider palette than just sword&sorcery tradition. Fantasy encompasses everything from fairytales to folklore, mythology, medieval history (Age of Conan is a fantasy MMO that actually keeps a focus on the world of humans), ghost stories, steampunk….you name it. Strictly speaking everything that isn’t a reality simulation could be included, certainly science fiction and horror do too. However, let’s stay on the more romantic and magical side of things for now and consider that scope alone. It’s vast – and unlike creating a “pirate MMO” or “zombie MMO”, it isn’t nearly as thematically restricted. There is diversity enough to actually create an entire world out of it, a world with a past, present and future that players like to explore and dwell in for longer. Which brings me to point 2.

2. Where would you rather build your home?
Whether the game literally allows you to or not, MMOs are about building a second home for yourself / your character – or that’s how it used to be. Despite some doomsaying concerning “casual MMOs” in this context, I believe an awful lot of MMO players are still looking for that immersive experience, that virtual world they consider a home – or at least a cosy and familiar place to return to, to relax and unwind. Developers certainly want to create this appeal in order to keep a longterm playerbase around. So, let’s put this to the test: all MMO players who feel like pitching tent longterm in one of the following sceneries, please raise your hands –

(Click image to enlarge)

…No? I thought so.
Yeah, I’m being intentionally dramatic with these image choices; yet, TSW is certainly no charming, frivolous or particularly relaxing world. In fact there’s a lot of grimdark to be found and just how much of that will you serve yourself with the frequency MMOs are “supposed” to be played? It was really a comment by Bhagpuss that drove this point home for me:

We cancelled both out TSW accounts yesterday[…] In both “reasons for leaving” forms we included the unremittingly bleak, depressing settings and subject matter. There’s nowhere near enough conspiracy and far too much horror. It was sold as “everything is true” but it turned out to be “everything is much worse than you ever imagined”.

I love the quality of the writing and the wonderful detail and art direction and I don’t actively dislike the setting, but all horror all the time is just wearing and not much fun in the long run. Needs a lot more light to go with all that shade.”

Dark and gritty themes work well for single, shorter session gameplay; it’s why zombie shooters are popular or taking in that one hour fright dosage in Amnesia. In fact horror games can be a lot of fun like that. But to dwell in such an atmosphere all the time? No thanks!

3) Kicking magic ass is awesome
Not much to explain here; humanity has been obsessed with and certainly entertained by the idea of inexplicable magical forces, abilities and powers since forever. Marvel superhero or fire spec mage – we love to dream of otherworldly powers (rather than just physics and mundane technology), committing heroic deeds and conquering vicious foes with our sword of awesomeness. Or else what’s the goddamn point??

4) Fantasy Fans, Geeks, Gamers
There is a very fluent line between people calling themselves geeks, fantasy fans and gamers in that demography I personally familiarize with. I would take all such labels with a pinch of salt but it’s no big revelation than many MMO players are also fantasy fans who read fantasy books, collect artbooks or love fantasy movies. My personal experience proves that many (not all) of them do – and if you ever run a forum poll on “which one of you has seen the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy more than once…extended?”, I predict the outcome would be exponentially higher in an MMO forum than let’s say a FPS or errr…tennis forum. Just sayin’. Players impact on genre and genre impacts on players.

…All in all rather strong arguments pro fantasy setting in MMOs. Even if it weren’t any of the above though, there still gotta be some very good other reasons why developers think the fantasy formula so safe. “It’s just lazyness” is insufficient an explanation. There’s an obvious, assumed risk so one must ask about its origins. Why do not more developers bother to go all out and create a polished, full package, non-fantasy MMO? Speculations welcome.

The fantasy in Guild Wars 2

To end on a GW2 note and live up to my current tune, Spinks recently reported how “it’s been awhile since I played a fantasy game that wasn’t afraid to be magical.” This didn’t occur to me at first, so dazzling and colorful, warm and welcoming are the vistas and general atmosphere of Tyria. The world is so soaked in magic that you take it for granted and while it’s not all srs bzns, it doesn’t compromise and relent on that point.

Tyria is the kind of world where I can go to be a magical hero. It’s the kind of world where I want to build myself a home under that old yew tree, next to a murmuring river bend. A place to rest this adventurer’s tired old bones for a good while. A place that never gets old.

Myself  shamelessly magical in GW2

[GW2] An altered questing experience

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Maybe the most profound impression this last beta weekend has left me with, is the questing experience in Guild Wars 2. I am reluctant to even call it “questing”, so overused is this term ever since World of Warcraft and so heavy with negative meaning. What I’ve experienced instead in GW2 is adventuring in the truest sense: being a traveler on an unknown road, inquisitive and curious, ready for chance meetings and whatever the world may present me with. Now, we’ve known for a while about ANet’s different approach to quests – the free for all, public and dynamic events. But knowing this or having read about it somewhere does nothing to prepare you for how it really feels to travel the roads of Tyria. You have to do it yourself. You have to be there and spend a couple of hours before the message sinks in with all its gravity.

It was maybe 8 hours into this second beta, when I had seen a big part of the Norn starting area and began to extend my reach, visiting other places like Queensdale (Humans) or the Plains of Ashford (Charr), exploring maps in greater detail. I was around level 18 and had just helped a traveling salesman to get safely to market, when it hit me: there is no quest log.

Ye gods….I have no quest log!

I can’t express properly just how liberating it felt to realize this, that there was no “homework” for my character. No predefined road. In GW2 it is not the quests that drive you from A to B, to discover certain areas or the next quest hub. Instead, you simply wander around and by blundering onto a site (often it finds you), you are presented with an ongoing situation or are asked for help. That is when an event marker or summary will appear on your screen – but it will disappear again as soon as you leave this region or if you fulfilled your mission. This means your screen is empty when leaving events behind and you also don’t just accumulate more and more jobs. The only ongoing, railway type of questline is your personal story and that one waits for you in patient and unobtrusive fashion. The only time I did consult my zone map was in order to avoid too high level content or to check whether I hadn’t accidentally missed a corner.

This difference in approach, that quests and events are tied to locations rather than to your character, makes a huge impact on the enjoyment of exploration. One may justifiably call this a great paradigm shift from the classic, WoW-shaped questing system of MMOs. Rather than already knowing where to go and what you’ll have to do there, you have to figure it out on site. Add to this that events will usually let you assist in several different ways and have several stages or chapters, depending on when you got there.

Things don’t stop there though: the questing experience becomes even less linear once you realize that you really want to go everywhere – that it makes sense to go everywhere. With the level down-ranking in place (your HP constantly changes depending on where you are) and flat leveling curve, it does not matter where you go to do events, gain experience or karma points, as long as you steer clear of higher level content which is rather quick on the ball punishing transgressions. In fact you do want to visit alternative places especially to earn extra skill points. The bottom line is that there are no strict “starting areas” anymore. All the maps are yours and the world feels bigger than ever. Feel that there’s not enough to do on “your map”? Well then, move your butt somewhere else! Pacing is not the same concern when you have so many areas to choose from.

All these innovations have added a great deal to my enjoyment of this beta weekend and made for the kind of immersive gameplay experience I haven’t had since Skyrim. ANet has achieved a splendid thing and I look forward to them improving the system further where balance and rewards, impact and cooperation are concerned. I will not complain about these issues though; at this point in time I am simply too happy with the overall concept realized in this upcoming and visually stunning MMO.

Talking about stunning…

To say that the world of Guild Wars 2 is breathtakingly beautiful, even on a PC as dated as my own, falls horribly short. The visuals and art style are far beyond anything I had personally hoped for and the wonderful soundtrack of Jeremy Soule (which could be more frequent in places) adds further depth and atmosphere. I’ve stood under a pine tree showering me with snow; I felt the sea spray on my face.

My most remarkable moment of the entire beta was in Godlost Swamp though: standing in the middle of a shallow lake, an eagle flew by me and then circled around me maybe four times. Then, he actually plunged into the water, caught a fish (I assume..) and soared up into the sky. I LIVE FOR THIS SHIT!

And because it was all so wonderful, I decided to create a small screenshot gallery (not mobile friendly) with some of the most beautiful shots I’ve taken this weekend. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do! And I hope the third beta weekend won’t be too long!

Why I don’t play SWTOR

I’ve been struggling a bit lately with the fact that I’m not playing SWTOR, while most bloggers I read are currently somewhere up in space. Let me explain. Besides the obvious thing, that this is a general MMO blog where I usually stay up-to-date with all major releases, I really like trying new MMOs. I certainly haven’t played every game in existence, but with the exception of Aion or LotRO, I’ve dipped my toe into most major titles that have come out the past 7 years. When times are quiet, I will even go back in time and try out older games just to get first-hand impressions. I like to know what I’m talking about. I also really love newbie level.

So, why not SWTOR then? Surely the game qualifies as “major title” – it comes with a big name, history and team behind it. You can expect a high level of technical polish and crowded servers. It appears that after some initial sign-up and subscription gripes, most players are content for the moment, few audio or UI issues aside. I don’t care for small complications like that – although I really think a flawless launch without server crashes and queues should be a standard these days (kudos to Trion here).

Yet – I can’t overcome my skepticism. I blame it on not enough time available, but that’s rarely the truth. A few things just bug me about SWTOR, have always bugged me ever since the early previews – to the point of remaining turned off despite reading more enthusiastic reviews of late. Even the ever-critic Nils calls it “worth 50euros for anyone into RPGs or MMOs” and Shintar has opened a brand new blog dedicated to SWTOR. So what’s my problem? And will I be able to change my mind yet?

Judge for yourself, maybe from more first-hand experience. Here are my major SWTOR “bias”:

  • SWTOR looks horrid. Okay, let me re-phrase this: it looks incredibly dated. I’m not as single-minded that graphics are all I care about in an MMO, but I DO expect a title launched in 2011 to look considerably better than WoW. It doesn’t have to be the world’s greatest render-job, but Rift’s graphics are what I consider the minimum; its graphical polish, the atmosphere, the variety and “life” in your environment, the flora and fauna. Elaborate effects for shading, wind, fire and water. I’ve checked out plenty of SWTOR footage and screenshots since its launch and it’s just not there – the landscapes look sterile and dead, some textures remind you of the clone stamp tool in Photoshop. The cities are impressive, but anything remotely “organic” falls short. If I compare desert shots from Tatooine with desert scenarios I’ve recently played through in Uncharted or Fable 3….not good. I get it – we’re in outer space, scale and distances are vast, so you’re bound to see more boring, empty spaces. Still: really???
  • SWTOR is Sci-fi; this too needs some explanation: I like the Star Wars franchise, I love the old movie trilogy. But the Star Wars films, as is widely agreed on, are in fact more “fantasy than sci-fi”. The story of Luke Skywalker, his quest to master the Force, overthrow the Galactic Empire, destroy the Deathstar and discovering his true identity in the process, could just as well have been staged in a traditional medieval or sword&sorcery setting. This is also why many fantasy fans still dig SW, when they would never watch Star Trek or Babylon 5. To me, SW is fantasy with light sabers – no issues there. SWTOR on the other hand, does not benefit exclusively from story appeal. It’s an MMO, which means it relies on different factors to create lasting player enjoyment. Being the protagonist in this tale, the deviating settings, the combat, the weapons & technology, the space-ships etc. all impact on my first-hand experience. And I personally really prefer sword&sorcery based MMOs, I can’t help that.
  • SWTOR appeals to single-players; I’ve actually been told a couple of times now, that this isn’t “necessarily true”. I get it, you CAN always group up if you like to – that is as much a consolation to me as it was in WoW, to be honest. If part of SWTOR’s appeal is what Tobold compared to the “Tortage effect”, I worry about the game’s longterm appeal and community. I’m not sure I need to play SWTOR just to soloplay through the main storyline and send around NPC companions (which I already eye with worry as it is). Another point that’s worrying me in terms of cooperation is that combat is apparently slow and umm boring, but then it seems most players agree that SWTOR brings little new compared to WoW there, anyway.
  • SWTOR and Electronic Arts; this is maybe a minor gripe, but for me it adds to the rest. Sure, EA did bring us titles like the Sims, Battlefield or Dragon Age in the past years, but some of the recent publicity the publisher caused left me with a very bitter aftertaste. Notably the Origin debacle at Battlefield 3 launch or their ridiculous BF3 forum policy argument. Intransparent personal data security in EULAs or phony player censorship doesn’t exactly warm me towards trusting EA or any company for that matter (hello Blizzard RealID debacle). Our BF3 pre-order was canceled over this – in the end it’s a matter of principle. How far are you willing to compromise (and compromise yourself literally) just to play online games? Needless to say, posts like this one don’t improve matters for me.

There you have it, all my negativity. Yet the thing is, I’m not putting it out here to rant – I would like to like SWTOR and give it a chance. There’s frankly not much else around for a while. There are features that interest me about the game: classes, multi-mob combat, difficulty level, just to name a few. I could also imagine that the sheer scale of the settings would greatly satisfy the exploration junkie in me (and traveling between different planets is kinda win).

I don’t know. For the moment I just can’t bring myself to overcome my gripes and enter my CC details to try out a game I might only play for 5 days. Am I wrong – am I right? You tell me. Maybe someone will yet be able to dispel my SWTOR doubts…Until then, the inner battle continues.

Storybricks: breathing life into NPCs

Jaina Proudmoore, powerful sorceress of the Kirin Tor. We first met her in Theramore Isle, doing her bidding in a series of quests, before she buggered off to save the world from the Burning Legion, following Medivh, falling in love with Arthas Menethil. Last we saw her, she had changed – “she’s become too whiny”, some said, her mind addled with the quest to save beloved Arthas, until she finally succumbs to reality during the Halls of Reflection scenario in the Wrath of the Lich King.

Remember Jaina? I’m sure you do.

Sheddle Glossgleam of Dalaran is a special little gnome. He resides in the Threads of Fate shop, just above Paldesse whom the clothwearers among you must surely know, so many times have you stood at her side and browsed her wares. I’ve talked about Sheddle in the past and why he stands out in a crowd of anonymous, faceless NPCs out there. I hope since then you’ve paid him a visit or two. Did you know that he has a secret thing for Paldesse? I wonder how they manage to maintain such problematic a relationship…

The truth is, it’s hard to remember much about most NPCs that co-exist with us in MMOs and frankly, it’s a crying shame. Unless a developer decides to promote a special character to hero status, we rarely remember the face or story of the innumerable characters we meet on our travels or visit frequently. If they even have a story. Our virtual worlds are flooded with characters of every size and color – they populate our towns and cities, they work in our shops providing the most crucial services, they hand us our very first quest as we begin to explore the new world.

Yet, we have no idea who they are. In fact, most of the time we don’t even stop to have a look around as we enter a new town or quest hub, let alone talk to every NPC or listen to what it has to say. Mostly because none of them have much to say, anyway – and so we click our way through loot and service windows, counting on nothing out of the ordinary to happen. And usually we are quite right about that.

MMO developers have a long way to go when it comes to creating more plausible NPCs in their games, characters that actually deserve notice and justify our attention over more than potential rewards alone. Why does such an omnipresent aspect of gameplay remain game “furniture” – at best making for an escort quest or popular quest-giver, more frequently serving as a shell for your average service window? Why do NPCs get so little impact on a world they co-inhabit?

Introducing Storybricks: more than just dialogues with NPCs

Namaste Entertainment intend to change the oversight that has been NPCs in videogames these past years. With Storybricks, a project in progress, they want to breathe life into non-player characters (and the entire world from there) and to make them a more engaging, fun and fundamental part of online gaming experiences. And not just that: they want you to invent your own NPCs and scenarios with them!

After having been invited to see a demo on Storybricks, I’d like to try and summarize for you what it’s all about in few simplified words: Storybricks is an ingame tool-set that will enable players to create their own stories about and with NPCs, allowing them to write complete scenarios in quest-like fashion by defining an NPC’s pre-determinants/history, basic attributes and behavior towards other players, down to more complex relationships, adding setting and even NPC inter-relations. That means you will not just set a stage and invent a story for other players to experience, but each NPC is being attributed his own, individual AI, whereby it reacts hostile or friendly towards you and will change and adjust its behavior long-term, depending on your actions. Not enough with that, your choices and actions might not only influence your reputation with one NPC, but other NPCs associated with it. There is no accounting for what consequences your actions might have!

Namaste intend for their Storybricks system to be an easy to approach, self-explanatory tool where the player/creator can choose between building a more simple scenario with help of a vast variety of pre-defined functions and actions, or defining every step down the road himself for a more unique experience. On an UI level, this means you will be working with so-called “bricks” that allow for an unlimited number of combinations for each NPC. It’s really up to you how far you decide to go.

When it comes to how such player-generated content could be implemented and made available for others to play, Namaste are still in the phase of evaluation. Technically there are many options: allow players to write scenarios for existing NPCs they enjoy, let players create NPCs and stories from scratch that can then be offered like a “module” – similar to downloading apps from an app-store.

There is great potential here in terms of tapping a player-base’s creativity and making for unique, non-repetitive questing experiences; if developers cannot put much time and effort into creating interesting NPCs and ongoing lore, why not make your player-base solve the issue for you?

There are concerns too of course – on the surface: dynamic implementation, choice-impact relation and realization, balance, polish and including the multi-player aspect. Also, regulating potentially conflicting NPC stories. However, Namaste are aware of these pitfalls and they have time to find just the right answers over the course of many months to come. The more feedback they are receiving at this stage, the better they can work out solutions.

Worried? It ain’t “all or nothing”!

Now, from a more classic MMO-driven point of view, you might have some justified doubts. Do you really care to know that much about NPCs? Are MMOs not much more about interacting with real people, rather than NPCs in Fable or Dragon Age Origins -manner? And what if you simply do not enjoy story writing and inventing characters?

The answer to concerns such as these are very simple: first off, Storybricks is entirely optional a feature. If you’re not one for creating content yourself, it simply means more quests and more interesting NPCs will be available for you to interact with. Or not. But if the successes of games such as Little Big Planet or Forza-I tell us anything, then a great many gamers actually love to add to their favorite games, to create content and share it with others. Think about it: just how much time do players already spend every day interacting with NPCs – daily quest givers, service providers? The number must be enormous.

Why not exchange that experience for a more unique one? Why not play new, player-created content all the time, instead of dailies and other repeatables? Assuming the content is dynamic, meaningful and well-implemented? It’s not all or nothing from here: Storybricks has the potential to add considerably to any type of MMO. It remains up to individual players how much they want to get out of it.

Everyone wins – A big palette of potential

For developers the advantages of Storybricks seem evident: get customers to add unique content to your game, in an area where you cannot necessarily spare the resources or focus in equal amounts. Provide for a long-lasting, almost unlimited source of new adventures, rather than adding more and more repeatable content, boring your players to death as they wait for the next expansion or patch. By this, make your world flow more naturally, feeling more alive, dynamic and exciting.

For the online player, it is an unprecedented opportunity to direct his own MMO experiences and to unleash his creativity and hidden talents. Once more, players become creators rather than mere consumers in their virtual home. The complexity of Storybricks, the far-reaching NPC relations add elements such as meaning of choice, impact and consequence to gameplay, making for an altogether more immersive experience. Add to that an unebbing flow of new quest scenarios to play through.

I fully endorse a project with the potential to add that much depth to MMOs and bringing players back to the table. It feels like we have finally reached the “post-WoW era”, with future online games needing to set themselves apart, improving and innovating in areas very lackluster so far. We can all feel a turning point in this exhausted industry – refreshing concepts such as Storybricks are exactly what we need.

What the team at Namaste needs from you to help them on their journey, is feedback: ideas, suggestions, critique. They have been reaching out to a variety of bloggers and gaming networks these past weeks and they want more, as many suggestions as they can possibly get this early into development. So, if you have any time to spare, are interested in demo testing and want your NPCs to become a more exciting and memorable part of online adventures, check out their website and get in touch. I for one, will definitely keep a very close eye on Storybricks from here!