Category Archives: Wishlist

Instant Class Switches – The Last Bastion of Character Restriction

Some time ago Tesh voiced his support of Allods’ class change coupons in a minipost. While he called it the small and simple things, it is remarkable how this one feature among convenience features is still essentially taboo in most of today’s MMOs. And why is that?

When World of Warcraft started off in 2004, the answer to most player wishes concerning character freedom was NO. Over the years slowly but surely, the strict regiment of a character of one name, one race, one faction, with one same look and tedious respecs, changed completely. Today, there are hardly any final parameters left for an already created character. For a fee, you can not only change your server or your character’s looks but significant allegiances such as faction or race. With WotLK, Blizzard also introduced death knights, offering players not just a new class but instant level 55 character. For the Warlords of Draenor expansion, one instant level 90 per account has already been announced, in an attempt to draw parts of that retired audience back in.

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These guys could all be one character

In the light of such overwhelming flexibility, the question of instant class switches remains unanswered. You would think that in this day and age, where players are not only used to extensive alting and multi-classing in other games (Final Fantasy XI already featured this for the same character in 2002) but adjusting quickly to race -, spec- or faction-related switches, there were no genuine reasons left to prohibit such freedom in WoW or elsewhere.

What does it matter if I choose to go shaman with my priest? Will I not put in my own time to adjust to all the new abilities and have quests and dungeon runs as my harsh teachers? If I ever went back for WoD, boosting my old priest to level 90, I would essentially have to relearn the entire class after all this time. How is that so different? And who doesn’t already have several high-level alts anyway (except for me…), so why not make different classes available on the same character for those who like?

It makes no sense any more. I wonder when they’ll notice.

With a Crying and a Laughing Eye: A Look at GOTYs of 2013 and MMOs for 2014

It’s that time of the year and we are all horribly stressed. Everyone demands things from us at work and they only just remembered, there are trips to plan and if you are very unlucky, a ton of last minute Christmas presents to buy for your more-or-less loved ones. I am looking at my Steam wish list and wonder what to gift myself. It’s quiet right now, outside the world of consoles.

Looking back on a year of gaming, 2013 was as MMO-starved as initially expected. Even Wildstar took a pass at a well-timed launch, eager to make Q2 of 2014 even more unmanageable. Only TESO has finally come forth and snatched the magic date of 04.04.2014, fingers crossed! We shall see – such are the words of wise (and burnt) MMO veterans. I gave up on Guild Wars 2 this summer after the Bazaar of the Four(thousand) Achievements event and I am still stuck at the gates of Moria in LOTRO (edro, edro!). Other than that, I’ve had a look at TERA and found it to be very beautiful and just as flawed. I played some FFXIV:ARR too, only to forget about it. Such was my year of MMORPGs.

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In lieu of many new MMO stories to tell, I am excited for a new year packed with MMO launches and Wildstar isn’t even among them. Here go my most-anticipated MMOs of 2014:

1) The Elder Scrolls Online
While the game looks far from perfect depending on what gameplay video you watch on youtube, it shows all the flaws (ugly character models, clunky UI) of Skyrim – game of games. All things considered, I choose to trust those (as I have no choice here in the EU where no beta keys have been released) who have named it a true Skyrim experience and put my money on TESO for 2014. You can laugh and point fingers when the time comes as I’m sure you will. (I would).

2) Everquest Next & Landmark
Still unsure about how Landmark is going to work and play into EQN, I look forward to some of the design progress SOE intends to take up from GW2. Rallying Calls sound hot and the Adventurer Class finds me mildly excited. Not exactly boundless euphoria (the cartoony graphics are still a major turn-off) but I think we can expect a polished package from SOE, with some unique twists as usual. And if not, well it’s all free to play, right?

3) Archage
Another game to be published by Trion, Archage piqued my curiosity although I can’t quite say why. Maybe it’s because the entire character customization and backgrounds look like ArenaNet had some weekends to spare, or because the game is supposedly this awesome sandbox with 120 classes and non-instanced housing. I don’t care for naval combat but I admit sending other players to prison sounds appealing.

4) Skyforge
Nobody knows much about Skyforge, the fact aside that Team Allods and Obsidian Entertainment (Neverwinter Nights 2) have decided to join forces in developing a new MMO. While they didn’t bother releasing any information in English so far and the only existing “trailer” is a lot of repetitive blah in vibrant colors, I have lots of Allods love to give to this project. All that said, that 2014 launch is highly dubious.

MMOs aside, I look forward to The Witcher 3 (SO MUCH!), Dragon Age Inquisition, Child of Light and Tom Clancy’s: The Division. That last one looks like there might be some splendid coop play to be had and I need to compensate for Destiny not launching on PC.

esobridge2

This better be good!

As for my GOTYs of 2013

Outside the world of MMOs, 2013 has been a fantastic year for indie gaming. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve had the greatest fun with smaller titles this year, taking me completely aback and delivering the sort of experiences many AAA-games can only dream of. I’ve also been late to some parties in 2013 which is why not all of my personal GOTYs were actually released this year. Sue me.

1) Don’t Starve
This quirky, dark-humored and deeply complex rogue-like, with its Burton-esque flair and stellar soundtrack, is undoubtedly one of the craziest bangs for the buck of 2013. DS is a polished gem of hilarious proportions and everyone should get it! Nuff said.

2) Dust: An Elysian Tail
My great love of 2013, Dust is every bit the work of love of its tireless creator. It’s a beautiful game packed with retro and indie homage, intuitive and fun combat, deep story and loveable characters, secrets to hunt down (spoiler!) and a stunning soundtrack, making for an easy 12+ hours of gameplay at a ridiculous price. Not enough good things can be said about Dust: AET, indeed.

3) Bioshock Infinite
While much can be debated on behalf of BI’s story, there can be no doubt that it ranks among the greatest AAA-experiences of 2013. Stunning visuals, complex narrative and intriguing characters have made this rail shooter a must-play in my books (and I don’t shoot that often).

4) The Witcher 2
Rather late than never, I am currently still playing the Witcher 2 and have completely fallen in love with its characters and immersive way of story-telling. People have complained about the frequent cut scenes but you’ll hear no complaints from me. The Witcher 2 features some of the best dialogue I’ve ever seen in an RPG, a carefree way of making choices and beautiful, atmospheric settings (that to be fair, could be more completely accessible). Oh, and dragons!

5) LOTRO (my MMO saving grace!)
Impossibly late to this one, I started playing LOTRO between December 2012 and January 2013 and have been paying subscriptions ever since. Even if I’m complaining about the experience grind before Moria, LOTRO is probably among the Top 3 MMORPGs I have ever played, with hands down the most immersive MMO world I ever had the privilege to travel. Much of this is thanks to things like perfect scale and sound effects which we have yet to see in other games. Also: player music!

Looking back, I almost feel a little sad parting with 2013 now but nothing that a great new MMO can’t fix. Beware 2014, such weight already lieth on thy shoulders! Do we dare to unleash our expectations – or should we play it safe, for now?

P.S. I’ve played ‘Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons’ few days after writing this article and it is officially added to my GOTYs of 2013!

NBI: Armchair Game Designer. Or how that other MMO keeps ruining my Gameplay Experience

One of the two publicly elected topics of this year’s NBI talkback challenge is “armchair game designer” and several bloggers have already posted some fine entries all around ideal MMO design, mechanics, must-haves and wishlists. While I have some thoughts on the second topic of guilds too, it was the armchair that won my vote on the poll.

With few exceptions, most MMO players are rather outspoken hobby game designers of sorts. It’s quite remarkable how passionately and critically MMO design gets discussed up and down our blogs, message boards and other social media, compared to other genres where games are rarely debated with comparable stakes over longer periods of time. Of course that is hardly surprising if we consider how MMOs are these living worlds, made to last for years and unite players of all colors and playstyles under one banner. MMOs are multi-genre the way other titles never have to be and they do not only need to attract a wider audience but keep an audience interested that is bound to change tastes over the course of time. I could imagine easier tasks.

And yet, naturally I’ve done it too and keep doing it; every and now and then, I muse over how much better I could design certain game mechanics or how my ideal MMO is supposed to play. A bit of WoW’s polish, a good chunk of LOTRO’s approach to world and lore – a mix of Tera’s and GW2’s combat – loot from Rift and crafting from UO – oh and while I’m at it, the Arisen from Allods, please. That’s usually how these things go, until we have the perfect product straight from the great bazaar of mix’n match –
TheHomer

It’s tempting to believe that players could improve game design and mechanics – and for isolated instances they probably could. Yet, when it comes to creating the ideal game, I’ve a feeling my persistent yet fuzzy ideas and dreams have increasingly become a hindrance to my enjoyment of MMOs both present and future.

How “that other MMO” keeps ruining all the fun

The longer we’ve played MMOs, the more experiences we’ve accumulated in a particular genre, the stronger our inner armchair designer is getting. Those early months, maybe years of awe and wonder have finally passed. We know how this stuff is supposed to work and make us feel. Why can’t they do it already? That’s when that “other game” starts growing on our mind, starts to appear and manifest ever so subtly. That’s when the stages of carefree enjoyment and exploration become shorter and shorter in every subsequent MMO we play.

We compare. That’s a pretty human trait and in our personal lives too, comparing ourselves into misery is something most of us excel at. We compare less in beginnings simply because there’s less to compare to. Once that changes, our critical eye becomes ever more eager, faster and more merciless. I would wager that assessing a new MMO takes veterans nowadays a few hours at best, if even that.

I am guilty of that as anyone and it strikes me how many MMO debates and arguments aren’t so much criticizing actual design as they’re “opinion battles”. Whenever players demand that GW2 – a game that is fundamentally based on the idea of mass outdoor events and setup flexibility – should have a holy trinity or remove the silly zergfests already, that’s not GW2 being particularly broken but them simply preferring “that other game”. Every time WoW is bashed for cartoony graphics (I have done it) or welfare epics, somebody has stopped seeing WoW and started to see “that other game”. How often are we not actually criticizing bugs, imbalances or broken design but really just saying “why can’t this game be another game”? This goes for changes too: even if WoW has changed over the years, I’m sure many quitters would have been fine with changes they personally approved of.

To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with wanting different games or leaving an MMO. In fact that would be preferable to some of the ranting we sometimes see on official forums.  There’s nothing wrong either with arguing pros and cons of preferences, in fact as bloggers we do much of that. I find creative ideas interesting and passionate discussions entertaining, as long as we remember the rules of subjectivity vs. objectivity. The older I get, the harder I personally find keeping one (consistent) position. While I still have my preferences and undoubtedly want developers to cater to me as much as the next person, I can empathize with other views and playstyles. I used to be a different player in 2004 than I am in 2013.

And the longer I’ve been a traveler on this road, I find my inner armchair designer more and more of a nuisance. It keeps me from enjoying current games for what they are. It keeps dangling a carrot in front of me I can never reach; a carrot of something more, something better just around the corner. Add to this, that I don’t really know what “that other game” is as it seems to change gradually. I’m not convinced that if I ever got to see it go live, that it would actually be a good thing. Would I play this forever? Or would I not much rather tire of it the way I always do?

tesowind

Alas, dear armchair – this is where we say goodbye. I’m not saying I won’t have a seat on other blogs but when it comes to you and me, we must part ways in the future. There’s a real game or two just around the corner I intend to enjoy and make the most of. I’m not sure it will be perfect, given that perfection is an endless process, but it’s safe to say I’ll have no use for dusty, old furniture there. I’m sure you understand!

P.S. Speaking of furniture, I hope TESO gets player housing à la Wildstar! (ooops)

I want my global Village!

It’s the new old latest achievement: global servers and they all have them – The Elder Scrolls Online, Everquest Next, Shroud of the Avatar. Or so it is said. One of the biggest, if not the biggest item on my personal MMO wishlist right now, is global servers across regions so I can play with fellow bloggers and friends no matter what side of the Atlantic. In these modern times of online gaming and communities, nothing feels more overdue than the removal of one of the last barriers in gaming: regional servers.

Who has them truly? While everyone (minus Carbine who need to make everything complicated) is speaking of smart mega-servers pairing friends via friendlist features or other mechanics, it doesn’t seem like global MMO servers, as in global global (not regionally global) will see the light of day anytime soon. I’m no expert on state of the art world servers and cloud technology, so I can’t judge how much of the old “ping issues” argument rings true in 2013. I’ve played on both Japanese and American servers before and it was never an issue but that’s not to say that what works for few (willingly sleep-deprived) individuals, would work with everybody on board.

All is not lost though; like GW2 and FFXIV, TESO will feature free server choice no matter your game version. The folks over at the official @TESOnline twitter account were so kind as to actually shed light on this matter and clarify the question for me and others –

tesoservers

It’s a start and who knows, maybe one day at least guesting features will become cross-regional in MMOs. For my part, this means rolling my future main character(s) on NA, or both NA and EU if such should be possible, to be able to join many of my blogging friends out there. I really look forward to explore Tamriel in some proper company although I won’t likely be around much for prime time. Ah well.

At this point I’d also like to whine a little bit in public (who knows who’s listening!) for still not having received my TESO beta key – surely something went wrong there?? Pfft.

Two more things before the weekend

Before we’re all off to our weekly panem and circenses, two more tidbits from the world of bleeps and blurbs for all the resistant non-twitterers out there:

– The NBI is back! Head over to CMP and become a sponsor once more or for the first time! Let’s keep the MMO blogosphere alive!

– Handwriting memes are fun and everyone should do them (yeah yeah, life/world whatever)! Happy weekend global blogosphere!

sylshand

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.

The MMO blogosphere is here to stay – if you want it to

I’m not sure exactly what caused the recent stir of blogging-death related posts these past two weeks, or if it’s even a thing. Bloggers tend to magnify issues by joining in to comment or just muse on a matter. It doesn’t really mean everyone’s worried. That “golden age of MMO blogging”-theme has been spooking around ever since Cataclysm latest. So, let me just get this out of the way: I am not worried. It just so happens there’s a few more voices on this you shouldn’t miss.

Recently three more MMO bloggers, namely Jeromai, Azuriel and Jewel, have joined the debate and made some excellent points each on why things are starting to sound very doomy-gloomy and largely disproportional in some cases. Let me recite one of my favorite lines in this context: “…I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it”. Let’s not overdo it with the next generation and social media anxiety – you don’t wanna start sounding like your grandparents, do you? So, let’s highlight just a few tiny bits from the links above –

There are I few issues I think that are maybe giving this impression. Firstly is that some of the old cranky dinosaurs of the blogging world have been retiring in recent years, some that were part of those early communities. [Jewel]

Do you know what the upcoming generation’s great crime is? They have a choice, whereas we did not. Do you think the New Blogger Initiative failure rate of 73% is a new phenomenon? It is not. In fact, I was pretty surprised the number that survived was that high. Blogging is hard. [Azuriel]

Some grew up and got older and prioritized other things to do with their time than write blog posts – like start a family, begin a new job, play non-MMO games, continue playing MMOs but not bother to chronicle or document it. – The others, well, they haven’t gone anywhere. [Jeromai]

I don’t know about you but I think it would have been incredibly boring to just have one primary game most were talking about. Now we have multiple opinions about a variety of subjects spawned on by new experiences and it is an exciting time to be a part of. [Jewel]

Things aren’t worse; things are different. To some, maybe different is worse. In which case, you probably chose the wrong genre of game to write about in the first place. [Azuriel]

In short, if you want a blogging community, it behooves you to form your own. Go visit and bookmark your favorite sites to read and leave a comment here and there. Develop your own circle and fellowship. [Jeromai]

About everything that I believe about this current, colorful and diverse age of MMO blogging (and what makes a community for that matter) is covered in these three articles. As Shintar points out elsewhere in context of MMO players crying for community in games, there is something comparatively weird about beweeping a collective that you are still part of. Don’t want blogging / the MMO blogosphere to die? Keep writing!

[…]I wrote elsewhere that I personally favor today’s diversity among bloggers. and even if MMO blogging becomes smaller, that doesn’t have to be worse, either. do we need 100% growth for growth’s sake? or could it be that the blogosphere grows closer together that way, making for better discussions at times? all things pros and cons.

This was always a niche and as you said too, blog ‘failure rates’ were always high. maybe the biggest contribution to this topic from our side is to not stop blogging just because we believe others stop blogging. 😉 my personal blogosphere corner is only marginally smaller than ever. [Syl]

My blogroll has shed a few feathers in the last three years, mostly due to retiring WoW bloggers who either felt like WoW was dying or realized that they had no more to say about it. Now I can’t guess what other bloggers want from their blogosphere; I can only point out what it is I am looking for. For me, it’s always been about exchange – about the hot cross-blog debates, about shared topics, about great discussions (you guys are awesome!). I don’t require a hundred other bloggers or commenters per topic for this, in fact that would be very hard to manage (although you can bet I would try and reply to every comment). The great majority of my visitors per day are silent readers, as I am sure they are for all blogs. As far as reciprocal relationships go, I can maybe keep track of dialogues between 30 or so different people. Does it matter how many more exist besides that? Were MMO bloggers ever so much more than a tiny niche, really?

If we keep with the numbers, blogs are about being read first and foremost. Any more visible connection is the amazing icing on the cake that keeps so many of us going. And I don’t detect a decline of general interest or visitors on this or any of the other active, general MMO blogs on my blogroll. No more than is warranted by annual summer- and release low, anyway. I’ve started dabbling with youtube more recently (and it’s really just for fun) and I’m having the greatest time with the Battle Bards podcast. More social creative media are awesome in combination with blogging. As for twitter, I’m sorry I didn’t join sooner. It has made MMO blogging that much more personal.

Here to stay

There is room here for everybody. There is a community you can carve out for yourself and reach out to. There is an audience for every type of blogger. The same was true ten years ago – only, there was actually a lot less MMO audience around than there is today. As for WoW’s hayday well, fewer blogs on the same topic mean better chances for newer bloggers to get noticed.

The community is you. It’s us. If we keep writing, connecting and acknowledging each other, it’s us who decide what happens to the MMO blogosphere in the future. And it’s also the only way of telling aspiring bloggers than this is still very much a venture worth pursuing. Well, I think it is.

Happy weekend to all you MMO bloggers, readers and commenters out there. Here’s a silly picture of a cat for you! It’s Friday after all!

Badass is the new Sexy! That Female Armor Blargh

In context of the dinosaur-debate that is female armor and character representation in videogames, there have been several tumblrs I’ve been wanting to share with you for a while now. However, as these things go, something always came up and so I didn’t – so in case all these links are old news to you, I apologize. They’re really good though!

It’s no secret that I enjoy armor in MMOs and playing around with cosmetics. I’m a sucker for immersion in games and when it comes to my avatars, I treat them as virtual representations of myself. I also have a very clear idea of what’s proper armor in combat-centric games and MMOs are that. I’m happy to suspend disbelief where dragons and fireballs are concerned, but if you were to try convince me that my female fighter is fine with bare stomach and thighs (while her male counterparts are not), you’re going to have a very hard time.

Alas, that is my personal view. I realize that some people (women included) are quite happy with the way things are and never mind the boob and ass flaunting that is often part of the ‘female aesthetic’ in videogames. That’s good for you. Me, I like some serious armor on my chars that serves my personal escapism and power fantasies (as it usually does for male characters) rather than to delight others, usually male gamers. All I ask for is variety, especially in genres with customization sliders. That said, I draw a big line between what’s attractive and what is blunt objectification/sexualization of female characters. I too, like my characters to look good. I just don’t like them to be all about their nekidness and sexual availability – that perpetual stereotype.

“Badass is the new sexy” – Three links that make it visual so you can’t claim otherwise

 1) The Hawkeye Initiative
Quite often when you try to make the point about how female and male character representation in video games differ, you’ll face issues explaining the concept of skewed gender equivalence or “why male body proportions and gear serve power fantasies and female ones do not” – not seldomly when talking to men uneducated on the subject. This is also popularly known as the “…but what about the menz??”- debate. Lucky for us, The Hawkeye Initiative has taken this exact subject to heart not too long ago, showing audiences just how exactly male characters in game and comic culture would have to look and be presented like (body language, oh my) in order to create “sexy equilibrium” between genders. I know a fair amount of men gamers; I can say for certain none of them would be thrilled if all their male character choices in games looked like a doe-eyed batman in transparent thighs. Do I need say more?

2) Repair her Armor
I would very much like to believe that if you were to browse all the amazing female armor over at Repair her Armor, such as illustrated on this Guild Wars 2 concept art sheet, you would nod in agreement that this is some good-looking and adequate gear you’d have your female toons wear in a heartbeat. Page after page does this newly started project illustrate just how easily and effectively female armor could be adjusted and brought on par with male models, while looking every inch as shiny and aesthetically pleasing as before.

Of course, none of the “amended” armor on this website is the real one – just like that concept art sheet wasn’t. So, here I raise my question: who does truly think the fixed armor versions are worse / less attractive than their originals while being a lot less skimpy? Who indeed?

armorz

3) Badass Lady Armor
The Badass Lady Armor gallery is a project I started myself and that simply collects various game-related (mostly MMOs with some fantasy card- and boardgames in the mix) female armor I think looks fabulous. Criteria to be met are similar to the well-known Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor tumblr, although that one serves much wider a focus and also includes real life shots. I’ve always had an extensive videogame concept and fan art database on my personal PC, so this is an attempt at bringing together women’s armor I’d love to wear in MMOs.

And yes, boob plate is still represented in an overwhelming majority of all these pictures (as opposed to this); but I’d say this is a pretty stellar array of high quality images that was quite a journey to collect. Believe me when I say these picks are a stark minority among all MMO fan and concept art out there. However, I was still able to beat my goal of getting a 100 pictures to pass the test (also in terms of body language which spoils at least two thirds of all otherwise passable images), so yay for more badass armor in videogames! Let nobody claim more realistic female armor can’t also be good-looking or similar nonsense. Now if only developers / designers caught up with this soon!

Why Storytelling in MMORPGs is overrated

I am so tired of all the MMORPG lore I’m supposed to know about. Or care.
Why can’t I be the one writing history? (Syl)

I know there are players who would fiercely disagree with above sentiment; lovers of MMO lore for one thing and all those of you who feel that the player should not be the hero of the world. I’ve disagreed with that before – and I still do.

As great as the story of Arthas was in World of Warcraft and it’s one of the few I ever really cared for, it also made me a by-stander. I was allowed to accompany him through the Culling of Stratholme and assist Jaina several times over but I had neither power nor say in any of these matters. A load of good all the leveling up, gearing up and gaining reputation have done me. Worse though, what the story arch of Arthas really did for Warcraft was ending something; the central theme, the big ambivalent villain figure ended in Wrath of the Lich King. And on a personal level it’s where the game ended for me, too.

No matter what efforts have gone into writing the next expansion or attempting to introduce Deathwing as “that new threat” (another boring force-of-nature dragon in a fantasy game), everything after WotLK is basically “post Arthas” and we know it. That is the nature of storytelling: it ends. To tell a story, recounting events, is to acknowledge the flow of time. All good stories, the ones that engage and touch us, must end lest they not be literally point-less.

Who may be allowed to linger who is fulfilled by purpose? (C. Morgenstern)

tmd

Art by E. Foster

Is it really such a good thing to emphasize storytelling in a genre that wants its virtual worlds to exist forever? There’s a reason why the internal narrative of LOTRO, now in its fourth expansion, has only just reached the chapter of Rohan. It took the fellowship five and a half years (!) to get to that part of Middle-Earth and for a good reason. For what will happen if they ever reach their final destination? What will Turbine do after the One Ring was cast into the fiery chasm from whence it came? As long as their game goes strong it must never happen.

More Lore Bore

Narrative is an important part of the RPG genre; it adds depth to the fictional worlds we play in and the characters we meet, as far as we like to make NPCs an important part of the experience anyway. Traditionally, it can make us connect with individuals, identify more with quests we are given and add purpose to our stride. Yet, if my personal MMORPG experiences are any indication, lore and storytelling do not actually make for much player immersion. There is a disconnect between myself and a world I have “so much to learn about” (like a tourist purchasing a guide book), trying to follow the narrative’s red line and let’s face it: read lots and lots of text! Or alternatively listen to it.

I have all but switched off to my personal storyline in Guild Wars 2, those cut-scene screens cannot come off fast enough. Trehearne is the hero of the day and for all the forked story-choices I get to make, all roads inevitably lead to Zhaitan – yes, yet another faceless, boring fantasy game dragon. Never has a more formidable creature from our favorite genre’s bestiary known more “narrative mistreatment”. I am so detached from what is supposed to be my personal story(?), it feels like ArenaNet should have re-named the whole thing to “world campaign”. Only, the entire narrative doesn’t just feel disconnected from the player on a personal level, it is also not very well integrated in the rest of Tyria.

gw440

However, Guild Wars 2 storytelling failings are far from the exception. And I honestly think the constant demand for increased “story telling” in MMORPGs is mislead. The so-called fourth pillar of game design is overrated for this genre in particular, for should not the player drive the narrative rather than being driven by it? And it would be a good thing to remember how great stories are really created and why more and more story-driven quests and events in MMOs are in fact counter-productive to the immersive experience. Worlds are immersive when they engage us and make us partake – not listen to.

Don’t “tell me” the story

Great writing is the art of not saying things. It’s the skill of knowing which things to write and which to leave out. The greatest of authors understand that it won’t do to spell out all the details, secrets and twists about a story; this is not how interesting characters or plot are created. I believe typically most writers spend the first half of their journey learning to flesh out, formulate and construct interesting, complex plot-lines. After that, they spend the other half of the time removing information and un-saying too many words. I can confirm this for my own writing journey, that it’s a struggle of learning what not to say, rather than what to say and mustering that “courage for silence” which tangentially, is also a central theme in the education of teachers (which happens to be my professional background). Didactics 101 will teach you that for greatest learning effect, impact and longevity, your audience needs to make as many steps of the journey on their own as possible. They must try unearth and unravel the story (or learning subject) by themselves. The teacher should only ever be the prompter, the one asking questions and if required the fallback plan.

Accomplished (fiction) writing follows very much the same principles. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as grabbing the eraser and cutting extra holes into a story; we need to set up the things we aren’t telling and often that takes a lot more doing than just spilling the beans. Writers must balance that tiny margin between frustrating readers with gaps and inconsistencies versus treating them like children. Both shortcomings are equally bad.

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. (source – Syl)

I would re-phrase my above statement in this context to the following: “Half of the story building in MMOs relies on us connecting the dots by means of our own imagination. It’s when the real magic happens – the alchemy.”

Where does narrative happen? And impact? Not inside the game surely. They happen inside our minds and most exquisitely so when we connected the dots ourselves. When we have a sudden moment of understanding, of surprise, suspicion or that big game-altering epiphany: “Oh my god, a-ha!”

MMO players aren’t a lazy audience, they’re in fact experts when it comes to finding secrets, puzzling together bits and pieces of information scattered seemingly at random across the world. Yet, less and less are they being challenged to do this in MMORPGs. I’d like to play sherlock in the games I play in and unwind themes and stories in my own time. And I want to be part of them rather than just a reader plowing his way through chunks of narrative thrown at me ever so often by writers. Most of all: I want less story-telling and spelling it all out for me. Heck, less is a lot more here! Leave something to my imagination? It tends to be bigger than anything anyone could write.

Winding back the clock

I’ve been playing through several retro RPG hommages this last weekend, such as Half-Minute Hero or Evoland. While they’re parodies of oldschool console RPG tropes and mechanics, they made me think back on how much simpler stories used to be in this genre and how well I remember them in spite of this. Characters weren’t nearly as well written or complex, either. Yet that “blankness” or lack of certain pieces of information allowed me to make them “my own” a lot more than newer games do. It allowed me to project some of my own wishes and speculations into them and to keep looking for clues around the world to back me up. To this day, I still wonder about Crono, that mute “protagonist” from one of the greatest games in existence. And I still speculate over pieces of the puzzle that is the story in Xenogears. I like not getting answers to everything. It means I can find my own answers.

Interestingly enough, I came across two links in this context after starting to write this article. One is a Gamasutra analyzis on “Chrono Trigger’s Design Secrets“, a piece that focuses almost exclusively on the balance between delivering narrative versus emergent gameplay and freedom in the SNES classic. This big design challenge applies to MMORPGs too, maybe even a lot more so.

Thanks to modular narrative sections, carefully designed battles, and the use of levels to guide progression, players are given a sense of freedom while actually playing a relatively linear game and experiencing a set overall narrative — but Chrono Trigger‘s narrative freedom goes much deeper than that.

My second link is Total Biscuit’s critical Bioshock Infinite review on youtube. Most players agree that there’s not much in terms of open world in this shooter RPG and it doesn’t need to be – BI is a linear and heavily story-driven, visually stunning journey (with guns). The players is and always will remain a spectator. Yet, at one point through the video (39:40) TB comments on general exploration in Bioshock games:

Generally speaking the world itself tells a story way, way better than anything else would. Like, if you would’ve just said: Oh, I’m gonna tell a story through a bunch of exposition with dialogue – that’s not as strong as the way Bioshock has traditionally told its stories, because Bioshock shows you things. And it also leaves a lot to the imagination and a lot of conclusions which you yourself have to actually make. Which is in itself pretty fantastic.[…] And I would say that if you wanna design your game really well and you wanna do a reasonably open-world game which encourages exploration, you have got to do that stuff. You’ve got to have the world tell various stories.

While I’m not so sure this necessarily applies to BI in particular, I agree with it as a principle.

In conclusion: 3 maxims of storytelling in MMORPGs

I’ve touched on several issues of storytelling in RPGs and MMORPGs in this post, all of which intersect heavily but are also questions of their own. First and foremost whether MMORPGs should feature pre-written stories and if so, how much is too much? And how should ongoing narrative be driven and delivered in online games in order to engage the player and remove him from the spectator’s bench? I haven’t reached any final conclusions on this myself. However, in summary and based on insights from past games, I would state the following three “maxims” of storytelling in MMORPGs:

  • MMORPGs should avoid that one central and finite story arch. Instead, the world should feature various stories to be discovered by the player and followed in his own time.
  • There should be less story-telling and explaining going on. Instead, offer the player more engaging hunts for truth and connecting dots. Dare to leave gaps and not explain everything or everyone.
  • Narrative should be driven by the player as much as the other way around (at the very least).

 
These could possibly be refined or worded better. I think it’s safe to say that many MMO players do enjoy good stories but it’s a question of how they are initiated, how they engage and include us in the worlds we play in – whether they remain tales or become experiences.

Every minute spent on reading or listening to educational text blocks in MMOs is a minute in which I am a passive recipient rather than the player / hero. And with every such minute my world inevitably becomes a little bit smaller – more explained rather than explored, more narrated rather than experienced. What an unspeakable loss.

A Future of better player housing – from LOTRO to Wildstar

It’s probably a fair claim that player housing is one of the most wanted features in MMOs and yet also one of the trickiest to design and often misshapen ones. While the potential of letting users create and shape their own virtual space inside a game is endless, promising not just for more social interaction but longterm player attachment, developers of past titles have often missed to include that one imperative ingredient to all housing: significance. (Interchangeable with meaning, relevance or impact.)

housing

While it’s all good fun and giggles to decorate one’s own space and collect shinies, the attraction of housing is short-lived for the average player. Instanced housing is especially bad for this but even if an MMO offers outdoor housing or neighbourhoods such as LOTRO, there are only so many times one will invite friends over to marvel at interior design or enjoy tea at the expensive, golden party table. To make player housing an effective part of the game and community, there need to be more mechanics in place to create meaning and significance. There need to be reasons enough why people would want to spend time in/around their own house, why they would want to invite each other or explore homes. You want me to care about housing longterm? Tell me why!

Different ways to create meaningful player housing in MMOs

As romantic as the idea of an ingame “home” is, my guess is most MMO players aren’t looking to simply simulate a homebase. For one thing, we already have a home (duh). Secondly, players are already likely to pick individual homes for themselves – as in their favorite city or spot on the world map. One can build attachment to any place in an MMO. What really draws us in though are those places where we meet up, interact and do business. Places that have specific social functions, which is why cities have always been the heartbeat in games. They’re where stuff happens and where we want to hang out. I do not want to go sit quietly and alone at my instanced home’s doorstep in an MMO, even if it took me five days and as many corpseruns to get that doormat.

Ever since Turbine announced their player housing revamp for this year, I’ve been pondering on all the ways to bestow more meaning on LOTRO’s current housing model and better player housing in general. LOTRO is an interesting hybrid in the sense that while the system is instanced, neighbourhoods still hold a ton of social potential. It’s quite awesome how every single home has its own unique address which you can look up at the homestead gate. Alas, Turbine too failed at digging deeper with their housing system. For what its worth, here’s my round-up of suggestions on how to spice things up in the future and make player housing a more lively and exciting part of the game:

1) Cosmetics & Personalization:
Indoor and outdoor (yard) design should be a given. Design slots should be completely flexible within a building grid, similar to Minecraft. Do not force players to only put up “one painting per wall” or having to plant “small items in small slots, big items in big slots”. It’s limiting and makes decor feel generic.

Rather than offering x types of homes, let players build individual homes based on resources and property boundaries. Introduce painting, weaving, carpentering and farming professions. Make room and level expansions possible.

Feature nifty items such as a personal mailbox, message board, personal indoor tune, bookshelves (Skyrim), complete collectible themes/styles, quest/raid/guild trophies, pet barns and stables. LOTRO features an amazing score of collectible mounts, yet players cannot have any of them on display?

2) Social tools & opportunities
Instanced or not, every player home should have its unique address that can be looked up by others in a public “address book”. As an ever-curious and nosy explorer, I do not only enjoy traveling into the blue but looking up destinations an seeking out specific places. How about some yellow pages where home owners can add notes on what services or special features they offer?

Making a personal mailbox a requisite in order to receive any ingame mail comes to mind as a next step. Similarly extreme would be the measure of removing the auction house and instead letting players set up shops and vendor NPCs on their property, as was done in UO (and long is the list of players who worship it). Player shops create traffic and interaction, greatly increase the significance of professions and generate income for the owner. While we’re at it – remove banks too and make player houses the only place for safe storage!

Homes should be hubs for trade, gathering and crafting in general. Spending time on building and tending to the environment could each go with specific rewards and buffs. There are some great new ideas in Wildstar’s recent housing dev talk. Furthermore, player houses in the same area should be able to form mini-towns and unlock more features such as townhalls with special quests, market places with unique wares and the option to build custom event stages. Mini-towns could set up donation boxes in order to receive public funding for bigger buildings. Pecuniary administration is of course handled by the town-members elected major.

…Naturally, not all of these ideas are novel and some are obviously already live in LOTRO; however imagining all of them come together and taking it further, one can only muse how deep the rabbit hole of player housing may reach. There’s an untapped goldmine there if a developer is willing to take some bold steps and abandon a  few popular and convenient features that MMO players take for granted nowadays – being able to do and access anything from anywhere among them. It is impossible to restore meaning without limiting certain services in the game in favor of players frequenting their own and each others homes. Too long have city-dwelling NPCs taken over our virtual interactions. Just imagine: riding down your home street in LOTRO to do business at the market square, passing smoking chimneys (representing occupation) and busy neighbours laboring in their front yard. A micro-cosmos of its own. Where do I sign up?

A word on scale

While the recently published Wildstar update is very exciting, there is one thing that irritated me in the video documentary. What I’m talking about is scale which sadly seems to be off in Wildstar’s housing structures and related items, just the way scale is completely off in Guild Wars 2 – something I have lamented since day one. As great as monumental gates and streets made for giants seem at first, and Divinity’s Reach certainly is impressive, an off-balance environment scale in MMOs creates detachment. It feels unnatural and unauthentic in greater quantity. I do not want to sit in chairs that are three times too big for me or open doors that dwarf elephants. It’s hard to immerse myself while going through a Goldilocks experience. It’s not what I personally associate with a cosy home and it doesn’t create the atmosphere I feel when entering my small hut in LOTRO which is exactly the size it should be in relation to who’s supposed to inhabit it. Therefore, dear devs please take note: bigger isn’t always better!

hlp

That aside, I look forward to see Wildstar’s flying islands go live. They’ve yet to prove that having homes up in the sky is a good idea, but Carbine are making the biggest buzz about their housing right now and it’s nice to see developers taking this aspect so seriously. I am also super antsy for LOTRO’s update and hope to see a great many changes! To my fellow Middle-Earth travelers: what housing improvements would you like to see most? And what are people’s top must-haves for future player housing? May Wildstar herald much more goodness yet to come!

The Deathbed Fallacy. Or: Spare me your Gamer’s Remorse, Thank You!

(This post is dedicated to all the happy gamers out there. And the unhappy ones.)

I have one more month to go at the current job, much to my great delight. Imagine my surprise then when today, somewhat late, I discovered a distant co-worker talking about his WoW raiding spree some years ago, when he was still a progression raider on his horde shaman. Unfortunately however, WoW had “gone wrong” sometime after WotLK (which is true of course) and so he stopped his raiding career of many years and approximately 172 days of total playtime. What a familiar story.

However, my initial fuzzy surge of ex-raider fellowship was short-lived; three minutes into the conversation, the topic shifted to what an utter waste of time it had been to play as much WoW as he had. How could anyone in his right mind spend that much time on games? And with nothing to show for after such a long time? Never ever would he do anything like it again.

Of course! I can never be that lucky….after all this workplace just sucks in all respects!

From there this guy went to explain how he’s rather playing online poker these days and earn some money – because that activity at least has some financial upside (and hence must be utterly worthwhile compared to playing silly fantasy games). Of course my mind was reeling from all the familiar, hollow argumentation at that point, but what struck me the most about this person was the way his enthusiastic flashback of past WoW days turned into such a fundamental condemnation of the once cherished pastime. His eyes had been shining brightly thinking back on his raiding career. There was grim pride in his words when he clarified he’d been one of the “real raiders” on a popular German progression server. Not to mistake with one of the casual crowd! He had killed Arthas on 25man and more. He had “had everything”.

And quite obvious to me, he had enjoyed that greatly. To such a point, a distant shadow of that past glory was still surfacing on his now frowning face. And yet, somewhere along the line that same mind convinced itself that it had all been worthless. An odd ambiguity bespeaking a battle between feelings and reason.
I was just waiting for him to say it: how none of us wish we had played more videogames on our deathbed. At least he spared me that particular cringe.

What none of us wish

Besides the obvious thing, that there’s an awful lot of things we won’t be wishing for when facing death one day, no matter how much we have done them, the truth is most of us will never ever find ourselves on that proverbial death bed. You know, that peaceful and solemn end-of-days contemplation as we feel the last flicker of life leaving our body. That perfectly timed moment of retrospective. And even if by some chance we did, we wouldn’t be thinking of having played too many videogames; in fact I have this wild hunch we wouldn’t think about games at all. This entire analogy isn’t even a thing, it’s nonsensical and construed. Anyway.

Sometimes I still wonder, in a brief moment of desperate frustration, how long is it gonna take? How much more established do videogames need to become in contemporary, western culture to be regarded just as any other hobby out there that isn’t necessarily making “financial profit”(?) That isn’t productive on a first-glance or physically tangible level (tangible on many other levels though). Heck, some hobbies are actually downright detrimental to your health and wellbeing and even those are more accepted than gaming. It’s nuts.

Not to mention of course all the upsides and benefits of videogaming as a hobby / passion. So often documented by gamers out there. Again and again. I’ve talked about it myself, At least twice. I don’t feel the need to revisit this topic. By now there’s a multitude of studies and hard facts out there on all the things that gamers are better at, from hand-eye coordination to abstract thinking, from organizational to certain social skills. And then, in case you missed it in 2012, there’s pieces like this one that actually deal, literally, with the deathbed fallacy in context of videogaming. Yeah, it’s McGonigal again – she’s an enthusiast. And she has a point.

So, in case you still detect yourself in that thought process sometimes, privately maybe as you ponder how much “greater you could’ve been without videogames”, how games stifled your growth and progress in other areas when they’ve really just been an excuse from yourself, saving you from self-doubt and the realization that maybe you’re not going to be a big world changer, internationally acclaimed author, scientist or designer after all – here’s a short transcription from McGonigal’s 2012 TED talk:

“Hospice workers, the people who take care of us at the end of our
lives, recently issued a report on the most frequently expressed regrets
that people say when they are literally on their deathbeds. And that’s
what I wanna share with you today, the top five regrets of the dying:

  • Number 1: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • Number 2: I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  • Number 3: I wish I had let myself be happier.
  • Number 4: I wish I had the courage to express my true self.
  • Number 5: I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.” [source]

Now, I don’t think I need to further comment this list. I only wish you do yourself a favor: take it to heart. And while we’re at it: do me a favor and spare me from your goddamn gamer’s remorse.
If you feel the gaming blues sometime (I have), take some time off! If you aren’t enjoying games anymore, don’t play them! If you feel you’re spending too much time on games, play less games! If you feel you’re using games as an unhealthy outlet, ask for help.

….but spare me and the rest of the happily ever after gaming crowd. Spare me the underachiever complex and lamentation of failed grandeur which you so graciously bestow on everyone around you in one sweeping, condescending blow of rotten hindsight wisdom. I think videogames are fucking great – they have been for the past 28 years of my life! That’s for how long I’ve been playing them, so I think I too know a thing or two about the subject.

Just….SPARE ME. Thanks!