Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Admin: Grinding To Valhalla

  • In an act of desperation, Randolph over at Grinding to Valhalla asked me to complete one of his One Shot Interviews. Said interview is now available here should you be so desperate for something to read. Maybe you're having trouble falling asleep and require a soporific? Just do not read before driving or operating heavy machinery.

  • Okay, that's it for blatant plugs. Back to my regularly scheduled idiocy.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Played Lately: Everquest 2

  • The regularity with which I make these posts borders on the comical. I'm tempted to exercise my copy-and-paste skills and call it done. However I love you all too much to resort to such trickery. (Well, maybe I don't love that guy over there. He smells funny.)

  • Inspired by the recent announcements from Tipa of West Karana and Stargrace of MmoQuests that each was packing up and moving over to the Antonia Bayle server, I decided the time had come to try Everquest 2 again. When I joined up earlier this year to harass Exeter from LootBot 3000, I rolled a new character on Antonia Bayle and had a lot of fun doing so. Of course, that only lasted a month as EQ2 always frustrates me around the twenty day mark. But since there was already a character on AB and I hadn't completely forgot how to play, I decided to give it another go. I thought I would make a few observations about my return. Don't be too surprised if I touch on topics raised by Wolfshead's in his First 15 on the game. That elephant just wandered in here and I can't avoid talking about it.

  • One of the things that has constantly frustrated be about EQ2 is the slow pace of combat. I have many spells of wildly different effectiveness on long cooldown timers. Enemies constantly resist my spells and they are very effective at disrupting my spellcasting. I never know when I start a fight whether or not I'm going to survive it. From the perspective of a former WoW, it is terribly frustrating.

  • But as I step back from that bias, I see that combat is not slow, it is deliberate. Each fight should be a struggle. I'm an adventurer, not a bug exterminator, and combat should be challenging. When joining one of my very, very rare PUGs to quest, I noticed combat went a lot smoother and more efficiently. EQ2 definitely rewards people for helping each other out.

  • While I've come to respect EQ2's combat system, I'm starting to despise the crafting. Somewhere between falling behind in my harvesting skills and the overly complicated crafting game, I have lost all interest in pursuing it anymore. I understand that many people sing its virtues so I would never ask SOE to throw it out. However I've got far too little patience for it. Of course, I barely had patience for LotRO's crafting and that was a click-and-wait system. So it's not EQ2, it's me.

  • One thing I have taken a greater interest in is my house. I only have a one room tenement in Gorowyn, but I've had some fun messing with what few decorations I have. This latest holiday, Tinkerfest, has been a boon in that department. I collected a bunch of housing items pretty quickly and put together a little gnome sized alcove for potential visitors. Not that I have any friends, but I like to be prepared.

  • Another thing Tinkerfest gave me was quick access to another questing zone, the Steamfont Mountains. I was able to clean out the lower level quests there within a few days, but I've been stymied by the big ones. So I decided to have a little adventure and see where I ended up. After a quick boat ride and a travel bell (What?!?) or two, I found my way to the Feerrott. The EQ2i Wiki tells me this is a parallel leveling zone to Steamfont, so I feel pretty lucky to have found it. Especially since I was aiming for the Enchanted Lands or Zek. It is kind of cool to set out on an adventure and have no real idea where I'll end up. I probably couldn't find my way back to Gorowyn if I didn't have a portal spell, but I feel accomplished just the same.

  • As I've been writing this, I found new impressions from Spinks of Welcome To Spinksville and Ysharros of Stylish Corpse about their time in Everquest 2. I see a lot of the fun and frustration I've had mirrored in their posts. SOE must be doing something right if so many people like me want to give Norrath another chance.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Bullet Points, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Random Shots: MM-Offline-RPGs

  • Purely by serendipity, I ran across a post by Tipa of West Karana from 2007 about turning Everquest into a single player game. The reason this struck me as funny was due to the games I've been playing lately, Phantasy Star Portable and Pangya: Fantasy Golf. Each started life as either a subscription or microtransaction based online game that has been re-released in single player form. Even more funny to me, while I've played both the online and offline versions of these games, I prefer the offline in both cases.

  • Contrary to what you might believe, I actually do like playing with other people. At worst, I have to put someone annoying on my ignore list or I have to avoid a global chat channel. I'm also not against group content in MMOs. Rewarding people for playing together with specialized content is a laudable goal. These aren't the reasons I'm arguing for single player MMO options.

  • What these games have shown is that they were originally developed to waste my time. Greed brings out the worst in people, doubly so for corporations. It is the same with game companies. Subscription games count on players paying from month to month, so there is an incentive to reward payers just enough to keep playing without ever letting them win the game. Microtransaction games need players to have a reason to spend money in their cash shops. Therefore they must make the game just difficult enough that the cash shop feels like a preferred alternative to make the game play better. These games have been purposefully broken in order to extract money from their players.

  • This is why these offline MMOs feel right to me. They feel more... humane.

  • In Phantasy Star Universe, rare items appear randomly and experience points accumulate slowly. The only way to earn both is to keep playing and repeating missions. You have to keep paying your subscription for the chance to get drops and advance your character. They give you just enough to keep you from unsubscribing in frustration. In Pangya, you earn in-game currency to buy upgraded equipment and improve your golfer, but at a slow rate. If you want to avoid that, you can go to the cash shop, spend real money, and get the gear immediately. Even worse, it's a better quality that what you could earn in the first place. Sure you can do it the hard way, but why when you can skip to the fun stuff?

  • This all sounds like par for the MMO course, I understand. I might not have noticed either if I hadn't played the offline versions of these games. The rare items and experience in Phantasy Star Portable are earned regularly since there is no incentive to hold them back. Pangya: Fantasy Golf doesn't have a cash shop so in-game currency is much more plentiful. They also took the statistic bonuses off the clothing since they can't earn any more money from you. It feels nice to play a game without someone rummaging through my wallet for spare change.

  • Like Tipa did two years ago, I've reached a point where I would like to see older MMOs refashioned for a single player experience. Can you imagine a World of Warcraft where every instance only needs to be completed once by a single player or with player controlled NPCs? Gear could be granted by quests instead of random drops to ensure proper distribution. You could still have crafting, but with much less of a grind to allow of different gear options. I would buy that game in an instant. And I would buy the expansions packs they would launch too.

  • The funny thing is, by going to a single player game, they could make Azeroth or any game world as vibrant as it was when their games first launched.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

News Filter: Forget Soloing Champions Online [Updated]

  • ***UPDATE 08/31/09*** - Now that Champions is out, I've written about soloing on a post right over here. If you don't want to click the link, at least take my word for it: soloing is great.

  • ***UPDATE*** - Via Syp in the comment section, we have this contradictory Tweet from Cryptic developer Randy Mosiondz:
    FYI, Champions Online is completely solo-friendly; any mentions to the contrary are incorrect.
    Thank goodness. Not sure where the disconnect was. I did track down a dev diary from 2008 stating that the game would have solo play available, but this isn't something that's emphasized anywhere on the Champions Online website. Considering what a dealbreaker soloability can be, I hope they push this facet of the game a little more (or at all).

  • Now someone get me a beta invite so I don't have to put up with third-party sources anymore.

  • And like that, my interest in Champions Online has fallen to nil.

  • AJ Glasser has a new article up over at Kotaku about the combat system. He was skeptical about whether Champions could break out of the cooldown standard used by, well, just about every MMO out there. Cryptic Studios, being the cool folks one would expect, invited him to a second hands-on session with the game to really dig into the system. The resulting story makes it sound like Cryptic is on to something more than just Hero Costumer 2.0.

  • It all sounded good until I got to this last bullet point:
    —The biggest criticism Emmert fears hearing is from superhero players who want a purely solo masked avenger experience. That's just not what Cryptic is out to do with Champions Online – so if any potential reviewers are reading this, think Justice League instead of Dark Knight going into it.

  • Normally, I can understand, even applaud, developers focusing on a specific type of game. So many MMOs are solo-centric nowadays that group-oriented players have been feeling left out in the cold. Good for Cryptic for filling that niche.

  • But why do they have to do it with the game I'm looking forward to?

  • Aion is coming out the same month. I wonder how solo friendly that will be.

  • /sigh

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Played Lately: Pangya: Fantasy Golf

  • It's funny to me the ways I become interested in certain games. Of all the stories, though, this must be the most circuitous. I first found out about Pangya from Piro, the creator of Megatokyo. His little rant about the cuteness of Kooh, along with the associated image, was enough to hook my interest. Pangya turned out to be a microtransaction-funded golfing MMO from Korea. And it was only available in Korea (and a few other Asian countries, I think). Since I don't read Korean, there wasn't much to do other than watch and wait for an English translation.

  • Next came Albatross 18, the US version as run by OGPlanet. I finally got to play a little fantasy golf and had a good time. The microtransactions carried over to this version, though, so I did not stick with the game very long. Also, I wasn't very good at it. Earlier in 2009, A18 shut down, taking all of my virtual goods and in-game funds with it.

  • And that brings us to this new release, a single player version for the PSP called Pangya: Fantasy Golf. All the best parts of the online versions are here and have been improved upon. I say best parts from a very specific point of view. The golf portions look and feel almost exactly the same. The graphics could have been ripped straight out of the PC version. The cute, anime styled characters are as expressive and colorful as before. The courses feel familiar right down to the grass textures. And the triple click golf swing and special shots play the same. They are more forgiving as well due to the default Beginner's Mode option.

  • With all of that the same, the reason this is a better version is due to the enhancements made to convert this to a single-player experience. Instead of restricting the game to free play rounds or tournaments, Pangya adds a story mode and single player tournaments. In Story Mode, we are introduced to the various characters, why they are on Pangya Inland, as well as acting as a tutorial. Completing a character's story unlocks the character for Tournament play. Tournament mode plays almost exactly like the online version, except without the annoying chat scrolling down the side. Tournament courses are unlocked by playing various golf minigames to earn the course license. Each tournament awards a costume for one of your characters, so the true collector will want to win them all.

  • Any modern golf game needs a shop to dress up your character and buy better equipment and Pangya follows suit. This is where the PSP shines over the online version. The best gear online can only be purchased through microtransactions. Other gear is available with in-game currency, but it takes a lot of play to earn enough to make a purchase. None of that matters here since the publisher no longer has its hand in your pocket. Pang, the in-game money, is earned freely and in sufficient quantity. And they've done away with pieces of clothing granting statistical bonuses, so costumes can be chosen for aesthetics alone. More shopping options are unlocked as you level up, but that feels like a reward for playing instead of a brick wall.

  • Since online golf has little more interaction than a shared leaderboard and chat, I don't feel like I'm losing much. In fact, since the microtransaction bias has been removed from the game, I find I prefer this version. Anyone who enjoys video game golf and would like a game with little fantasy and anime flourishes will find something to like. Pangya: Fantasy Golf is the best implementation of the franchise I have played. It has proven that my choice to try PSP gaming was the right one.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Bullet Points, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

News Filter: Whither The MMO Review

  • By way of happy MMO blogger Yeebo Fernbottom, I discovered that Eurogamer had gone through with its re-review of Darkfall. Kieron Gillen, an accomplished game and music journalist as well as the author of the awesome comic book Phonogram, not only gives a remarkable, in depth review of the game, but also muses on the original review kerfuffle, review ideas he scrapped, and how to go about writing an MMORPG review at all.

  • The review itself is both fair and entertaining, everything I want when I read about a game. Gillen walks a careful line that praises the game's positive aspect while tackling the issues where it fails. He does so without fear of offending Aventurine and the Darkfall fan base, and he does not go out of his way to offend them either.

  • The review sets a good technical example for MMO review writers. More importantly though, the meta-commentary should guide the debate about how MMOs should be reviewed in the future. It reminded me of Tipa's miniature tirade wherein she implied that MMOs are basically unreviewable. Gillen's idea is that there should be two reviews of a game: an initial review to tell you whether you should invest in the game and a follow up review to determine if the subscription is worthwhile. I understand why some might prefer a long term retrospective that encompasses the entire game experience, the realities and purposes of a consumer-oriented review don't allow for this kind of depth. I do think such a piece would be excellent for examining how an MMO has changed over time and whether or not a new player can find a place in an elder game community.

  • If you haven't read the re-review, you owe it to yourself to investigate the link above. Just steer clear of any rabid Darkfall fans.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Bullet Points, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Random Shots: Toward A Better Caster

  • Keen over at Keen and Graev's Gaming Blog posted his thoughts about the Aion beta weekend. While his sentiments echo others I've read, what caught my eye was his displeasure with the mage class in the game. Not that there is something wrong about the class, it's just that the Aion mage plays just like every other mage back to the beginning of time.

  • I see where he is coming from. Some games, like Warhammer Online, tried to dress this up with unusual resources to balance, but is all comes down to spamming hot keys over and over again. So today I'm going to play Junior MMO Designer and create my own caster mechanic. And by create I mean outright steal.

  • It will be no surprise based on how much fun I had with the class, but I want to make spellcasters play like the Warden from Lord of the Rings Online. For those of you who have not tried it, the warden fights through the Gambit system. You have three basic attack options: a spear thrust, a shield bash, and a shout. As you use each attack, a corresponding symbol is added to the Gambit line. Depending on the combination of symbols, a different gambit can then be launched with the special hot key. For instance, two spear symbols gets you the Deft Strike gambit (an increased damage attack) while a spear followed by a shield gives The Boot (an interrupt and stun). As your warden increases in level, the gambits increase in length until you can chain five symbols together for increasingly powerful abilities. The nice thing is that the gambits have a logical progression. If you know spear-shield is an interrupt, you find that spear-shield-spear is also an interrupt with extra attacks and spear-shield-spear-shield is an interrupt with more powerful attacks.

  • This is exactly what how I want to play a spellcaster. Here are a few ideas for magic using character:

  • Elementalist - Played almost exactly like the warden, I see the elementalist as a manipulation of arcane forces. Spells will be built with combinations of fire, water, earth, and air. Instead of each basic element acting like a small attack, spells will only be cast when the chain is built. Fire would be the offensive spell tree while earth would be defensive. Water give crowd control spells and air would be the utility tree.

    Some simple spells might be:
    • Fire-Fire for a standard attack,

    • Air-Air for an interrupt,

    • Water-Earth for a snare,

    • Water-Earth-Water for an area-of-effect snare,

    • and Fire-Earth-Fire-Earth-Fire as a meteor strike.

  • Cleric/Priest/Holy Dude/Dude-ette - For healing classes, I would use a similar system, but slightly modified. The cleric will still build spells the same way by adding various energies to the spell. But instead of casting them with a single hot key, the caster has the choice of two casting options: positive and negative. Positive spells would be healing or defensive and negative would be harmful spells. For instance, casting one spell positively might be a heal-over-time for a party member while the same spell cast negatively would be a damage-over-time to an enemy.

  • Runemaster - This finally idea is a little more off-the-wall than the warden template, but could be interesting nonetheless. For a runemaster, I envision spells built from individual runes. And instead of these rune words getting longer as a character levels, new spells will be built from an ever increasing variety of available runes. If you are familiar with the Ultima series, you might recognize where I'm going here. Just for flavor, you could change the rune into words of magic which the character would speak to cast a spell. The more I type, the more I'm starting to like this idea.

  • There you have it, three ways to buff up the MMO spellcaster. I look forward to your comments telling me exactly which game already has this system and why it sucks. Or you could just tell me it's stupid on principle. I'm fine with that.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Bullet Points, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Read Lately: Two For The Money by Max Allan Collins

  • For the last few years, my wife and I have attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. While we go primarily to see the authors' panels, there is no avoiding the large number of bookstore tents scattered around the UCLA campus. I take a large courier bag with me because I know she will find several books that are too good to pass up. I sigh and roll my eyes and carry that bag around until the end of the day. This year though, I was the one with the giant stack of books, and all but one were from Hard Case Crime. My very understanding wife did not roll her eyes once.

  • From that stack, I first dove into Two For The Money by Max Allan Collins. I read his The First Quarry previously and knew I wanted more. Actually, Two For The Money is a compilation of two prior books, Bait Money and Blood Money. As the second book is the sequel to the first, they fit well together, though there is a noticeable style difference between the two. Collins' prose is spare in both cases. The words hurry to get out of the plot's way, which is fitting for this type of novel. That is not a bad thing since the plot is a lot of fun.

  • Two For The Money is a story about an thief name Nolan who is getting on in years. They have been long years too since he's been avoided the Chicago mobster who has it in for him. As Bait Money begins, Nolan's cover has been blown and he needs to make one large score to even things with the Mafia. Only since no one will work with him anymore, Nolan has to pull the job with three inexperienced youngsters from another generation. And because Blood Money picks up right after, there's not a lot I can say about it.

  • Nolan, an admitted pastiche of Richard Stark's Parker, is a lot more likable than that description would imply. He's might have been a tough guy before, the circumstances at the beginning of the book have set him on his heels. He can't just push around people like the comic book collecting Jon, his new criminal partner. Since they are from different generations, Jon and Nolan don't have much in common. But Nolan becomes an unconventional father figure for the younger man, an act that softens the tough guy even more.

  • While I enjoyed his later novel more, there is a lot to like in Two For The Money. Max Allan Collins' work here is enjoyable and I look forward to more.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Bullet Points, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Random Shots: Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

  • After a drought of MMO blogging, I thought I would talk about travel times in MMO games. At least I was until I saw that Syp from Bio Break had knocked this subject out of the park. I'll try to form a few coherent thoughts anyway. /sigh

  • The world should be big - One of the things that attracts me to fantasy games is the size of the world. There should be wide open plains, sweeping vistas, huge mountain ranges, vast seas, and I'm running out of adjectives but you get the picture. Fantasy is not about doing things small. I want to play a hero of gigantic proportions and I want a world big enough for to deserve me. Playing the hero in a tiny little sandbox does not feel very epic.

    World of Warcraft earned its theme park designation not just because of the guided experience, but because of their use of forced perspectives to make the world feel larger than it actually is. Azeroth feels big even though it really is not. Flying mounts in the expansions showed us exactly how small those worlds really are.

  • Exploration should be an adventure - The reason a game needs a big world is so that there is something to explore. Richard Bartle was not wrong when he listed exploration as one of the four game categories. The size of the world dictates how many mysteries it can hold. Travel is an important part of exploration, so distances are the limiting factor.

    I understand there is a limited amount of hand-tailored content that can be placed into a game. One can design a nearly infinite world procedurally if you want to, but that would be just as pointless as too little content. People want to explore, they want to find something neat, and they want the journey to be a challenge. An infinite canvas is not a challenge, it's a chore. Too small a world, due to physical size or reduce travel options, expends exploration content too quickly.

  • Travel powers should be a reward - One of the reasons I wanted to play a mage in World of Warcraft was because of the ability to teleport around the world. The game didn't just give you the spell either. You had to travel to a city and purchase the spell for each potential destination. Nowadays there are so many options for teleporting, most people actually refuse my offer to summon a portal.

    When traveling abilities become commonplace, they lose a sense of wonder. Just look at gripes about Everquest's Plane of Knowledge to understand that fast travel options change the dynamics of a game. Travel powers should feel epic. They can only feel that way if they are limited and if the world is large enough to care about them.

  • Travel time should not be a punishment - While all of the above can be dismissed as fuzzy nostalgia for the old days of gaming, I hope I redeem myself here. Many times, games use travel times as a punishment. They're just stringing you along. And with a monthly subscription, they're charging you for every minute you spend on some mystical taxi. There is no reason to design a quest that sends you across the world to accomplish a single objective and then back again. That's not adventure, that's an errand. And it is a deliberate waste of time. Changing this one problem would make limited travel options much more palatable.

  • And that's it really. Travel can be good, unless it's bad. It all comes down to the developer acting responsible. Speeding up travel does not correct a bad design, it just masks it.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Bullet Points, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Random Shots: Sticker Shock

  • For as much as I love hearing his podcast, Shut Up, We're Talking, Darren from Common Sense Gamer posts the strangest things on his personal blog. The last couple of days, though, he's gone completely off his rocker and it's all over a horse. A rather expensive horse.

  • The game in question is Runes of Magic and the horse is ten dollars.

  • Does that shock you too? Would you balk at paying that much for jumble of electrons and light in your computer? Would it help if it was seven dollars or maybe five? Would it change your decision if you knew that all normal mounts expired after a certain duration but a $10 mount is permanent? Or how about if I told you that you could create a character, shop at the in-game store, and ride your horse right into the tutorial area? What if I told you that you could play the entire game for free but only had to pay real money for convenience like this horse?

  • Tobold has the right of it when he says that money has differing values for different people. So for Darren, ten dollars maybe more than he's willing to stomach. For myself, considering I think nothing of paying fifty dollars to purchase a game then spend fifteen dollars a month to subscribe, ten dollars as a one-time purchase sounds like a good deal. Of course, the horse is tied to a specific character so players with many alts might think twice about purchasing mounts for each.

  • Just as there is a decision to make about RMT vs. Subscriptions, there are a multitude of variations between RMT models. This is the reason why Dungeons & Dragons Online is allowing both RMT and subscriptions. There is no reason to drive away the audience just because they don't like your pricing model. Giving multiple ways to pay might help alleviate that sticker shock.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Bullet Points, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Played Lately: Age of Conan

  • I haven't been able to spend as much time in Age of Conan this week for various reasons, but was able to make a couple forays into Conall's Valley in Cimmeria. It seems I'm still in the honeymoon phase with the game since I'm still having a great time whenever I do log in.

  • The zone is beautiful. I know I said that about Tortage, but Funcom has really captured the barbaric north here. The villages are all huts with a couple wooden buildings and log palisades with muddy paths between them. Then when you step into Conall's Valley, you literally have to follow a path down the hill, past moose and wolves and rabbits, into a valley. And it's not just a ramp to change elevations. There are switchbacks and log bridges where the path has fallen away. But the most beautiful and terrifying sight is just east of the cleverly named Cimmerian Settlement. Just past the wall separating the Cimmerians from their Vanir enemies is a field of corpses skewered on pikes. This grotesquerie hits you right in the face with the brutality you see in this conflict.

  • Quests here are the standard "Kill Ten Rats," "Collect Ten Rat Tails," and "Fed-Ex" style. However the story dresses all of these up real pretty so you won't care as much. They do tend to mix multiple objectives in the same quest which makes them a little more interesting. The last quest I completed last night had me kill ten Vanir guardsmen, kill a specific Vanir supply master, and collect a supply crate from the camp. Nothing unusual but themed nicely.

  • I've quickly gone from level 21 when I left Tortage to my current 26. That's over the course of only two good play sessions and a couple stray hours here and there. Either the early leveling curve is a little low or I'm burning through content too fast. We'll see if the level 30 speed bump is still there as other people have warned.

  • There are, of course, other lands to explore and I have several breadcrumb quests leading me there. But now that I've found the next outpost, the just-as-cleverly named Mysterious Glade, I want to see what else I can do to lay waste to the Vanir invaders.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.