Monthly Archives: September 2010

More Drama: Why Are We Like This?

Not so much a post about MMOs today, as much as about the gaming industry in general…

I’m talking about this:

“Bungie are a very unusual company. They’re probably the last remaining high quality independent developer.”

Bobby Kotick, CEO, Activision Blizzard

And of course, an inevitable response:

“You were quoted saying that Bungie is the last remaining high quality independent developer. As a former executive vice president of Bungie, I need to tell you: If this is true, you’re screwed.”

Peter Tamte, President, Atomic Games

Tamte proceeds to challenge Activision on its vision and ability to innovate, and issues a (ridiculous) challenge. Now, we the gaming public get only pieces of both sides, most likely taken out of context. Kotick may be well-known for making vastly unpopular, broad generalizations and for putting investors and profit before customers and fun (shocker!), but what would prompt anyone to make a statement like this? Being at the top of the heap doesn’t mean you get to piss on everyone “below” you.

And, honestly, why would Tamte even bother to respond? Paying it more attention, and devoting time and energy to a public response just lends validity to that type of behavior. I get the “stand up for the little guy”, and I even agree with Tamte. But the best response is often no response – let it fly by in our consciousness and die a quick death of inattention. Shrug it off; is Kotick’s opinion of your company that critical, or carry so much weight, that you need to do anything other than ignore it?

Why does it always break down to smack-talk? Why is this considered “news” for our industry? (As a somewhat related aside, Manifest Pixel posted a good argument on the validity of the label “Games Journalism” – well worth a read.)

What prompted this post was a response on Kotaku:

“The video game industry is so weird.

It is strange how the constant verbal sparring between companies is publicly disseminated by the game industry, yet it has no effects on the game or the game sales.

[…] It essentially feels like it’s melodrama for the sake of itself. The only value existing in the artificial sense of social interaction with people that are otherwise inaccessible.

I mean we don’t see article’s elsewhere about how much of a jerk the CEO for Hostess is.”

This got me thinking about the video games industry as a whole, and how we seem to be unique in our behavior (both the industry of developers/producers and the fans). You don’t see this kind of behavior in any other form of mass media. Movies, books, television – none of them compare to the drama to which we subject ourselves. Why does the games industry behave in such a juvenile manner? It’s almost as if the stereotypical behavior of their audience has somehow bled into the thinking of these companies; “Our customer are trash-talking teenagers, so we have to be the same way…” I think this is a part of it, but there’s something more to it.

One, I don’t think we (gamers) necessarily see this kind of behavior in other forms of media and art because we’re not plugged into those circles the way we are into gaming culture. If we were heavily involved in movies, we might take notice of this kind of news (if it exists, I have no idea). We have sites entirely devoted to “news” about our hobby, why wouldn’t other hobbies? And because our sites tend to be focused quite narrowly (on average, only covering games) we don’t tend to see any information on other forms of media.

Two (and this one if far more responsible), I think that the games industry is somewhat unique in that it’s relatively young for a form of mass media, and is “growing up” in the age of the Internet. In an age of instant gratification and immediate, ubiquitous access to information, the games industry is saddled with creating products that have budgets similar to movies and television but which require years of development. Combine these factors:

  1. Incredibly complex technology to produce a “leading edge” product, requiring years of work hours to produce, which often leads to:
  2. INSANE budgets that become immense investments requiring mass popularity just to cut a profit
  3. Built by a combination of corporates, artists, and “IT geeks”, often at odds with one another

And you get the melodrama we see on a daily basis coming across gaming Web sites. I’m guessing that a good amount of it is intentional. Maybe not conspiratorial in the sense of developers-playing-the-gamers, but certainly as a means to maintain attention on any given product. How else do you keep your company, and product, in the headlines for months (or years) at a time when your audience has the overall attention span of a toddler?  We may grind our teeth every time Kotick opens his mouth, or facepalm every time David Allen or Derek Smart decide to extend their personal vendettas onto the Internet, but the fact is we pay attention. We criticize, but their antics work after a fashion.

In the end, I agree with Tamte, and I’m not the biggest fan of Activision, or Kotick. If we’re just talking about making good games, they’re mediocre at best; if we’re talking about advancing the art of creating fun games, Activision (not counting Blizzard) isn’t exactly a leader. They are a victim of their own success, and fill a role in the industry that may not be the most exciting or forward-thinking, but is necessary nonetheless. They release solid entries in established franchises. There’s fun there, but ‘change’ for them is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Numbingly slow, but there is change.

But I also see the ability to innovate as a natural part of being in Tamte’s position as “the little guy”; major corporations answer to a host of authorities – from investors to the Board of Directors to the SEC and big sums of money draw huge attention. Yes, companies tend to play it safe when maximum profits are Priority One, and this often becomes (or appears as) laziness. Smaller companies don’t necessarily have these pressures, and can afford to take some risks. As Tamte states, in many ways they need to take these risks. It’s a trade-off.

But does any of the above really require the kind of one-up-manship, character assassination, and verbal sniping that is so rampant in gaming circles? Does maintaining attention on a company truly equate to increased attention for a product, and therefore increased sales? Isn’t it enough to present a product leading up to release, and let the game sink or swim on the merits of its content, instead of on the reputation or notoriety of the company releasing it? One would think so, but if you do you’re not in Marketing.

When I think about the future of the gaming industry, I look at my four-year-old son. For him, computers and the Internet are not things to be learned. They simply are, and he’s never known any different. He learns them the same way he learns to speak – by watching and playing and not being afraid to make mistakes or ask questions. He absorbs those skills in a way that only children can, and now knows more about some things technical than his mother (his old man still has the edge, but for how long?). Because these things are a natural part of his world, he will see things technology can do, and devise things he wants technology to do, that we will never see or imagine. Should he choose to create games, I can only hope that the tools with which he will work will enable his generation to create in such a way that they can put aside the puerile tactics being employed today, and mature the industry.

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And Then I Said, “HOLY @%*#!”

I actually chuckled (really it was closer to giggling, but…), all while mashing buttons and furiously trying to find the right angle of attack.

Like many people this weekend, I grabbed a key for the “Open Beta” of Vindictus. Technical difficulties earlier this week aside, I have to say it went fairly well as far as beta’s tend to go. This one felt like a real beta, too, because late last week they were still patching issues, and one of said patches actually required me to uninstall and reinstall the client. Normally, I would count this as a solid strike against a game, as Turbine and others have set the bar high for smooth launches, and most “open” beta’s these days tend to be marketing tools using a client that’s as close to release as possible. But something about this struck my nostalgic nerve and I actually didn’t mind.

Of course, all of the issues happened after I had gotten a few hours into the game so none of it really mattered at that point. It blew me away. The title and lead paragraph pretty much sum up my initial reaction. Luckily my children weren’t around to hear my stream of expletives (“potty-mouth” as my older son describes it). I’ve been playing games for a long time, and would say I fall solidly into the “jaded-but-optimistic” category of MMO gamer; any game that can make me laugh with the pure joy of unadulterated fun has done many, many something’s right. That was what Vindictus did for me.

The game’s combat is what I think Age of Conan was supposed to be – brutal and fast and cinematic and brutal. Instead of the wall of buttons plaguing so many titles, there are two basic techniques – light attack and strong attack. Special attacks are a matter of combining strings of light and strong attacks. It plays much more like a brawler than your typical MMO. Except this brawler has has cooperative online play with a host of RPG systems piled on top (character advancement, questing, crafting, etc.). Ravious at Kill Ten Rats has a great breakdown of what it’s all about.

Personally, there are a lot of things I think Vindictus does really, really well. The combat is immensely satisfying. The game is gorgeous and, because it uses Valve’s Source engine, it is highly interactive – good portions of the dungeons are destructible, and debris can be picked up and used as temporary weapons. The game uses physics to great affect, both in a few environmental puzzles and in combat itself; being thrown across a room by a huge gnoll both looks extremely cool and made me cringe at the same time. So far, it doesn’t appear that the primary goal is the better-to-best gear hamster wheel; equipment does bring stat boosts but more than gear, titles and achievements confer significant bonuses. It’s a nice departure from that particular grind, though I get a feeling there will be some kind of grind. Isn’t there always?

The only issues I currently have are minor for now, but could prove to be bigger problems in the future. One, there are currently only two classes (out of five) that are open to play. One is a dual-wielding DPS class and the other seems to be a sword-and-shield tank (I didn’t get around to playing this class). Not sure of what they plan to offer, but I seriously hope there is going to be a ranged class (at least) and, ideally, a something like a stealth class. Two, there are only two areas to play in right now – Perilous Ruins (the starter dungeons) and Hoarfrost Hollow. However, it looks as though Nexon has every intention of opening up more content, as there is an inactive “warp” point leading out of the town (presumably to areas inland) and the docks that currently lead to the dungeons have many more boats than the two that lead to the open areas. Also, considering the game is free, both are minor and should be resolved quickly if Nexon wants to see any kind of success (I haven’t done any research into what’s currently available in Korea where the game is live under the name Mabinogi Heroes).

I’ve read a few arguments over whether Vindictus should be classified a real MMO; honestly, I don’t think it matters. In many ways, its closer to Guild Wars or Dungeons & Dragons Online (is it any wonder I like it so much?); there is a town that functions as a lobby, leading to instanced areas (dungeons) where you complete quests. Considering both Guild Wars and DDO are both acknowledged as MMOs, I’m not sure of the merit of denying Vindictus the same classification. Again, not that it matters. The game is enormously fun, and that’s what it’s really about.

The game still has some issues to iron out, but so far it’s a solid offering from Nexon that, all things considered, will probably get me to spend some money. Right now I can’t see playing it full-time, but as a Free To Play title, it’ll be easy to come and go as I please. And right now, it’s at the top of my list, and was the only game I played this past weekend.

Naming Conventions

In my recent adventures through Middle Earth (mostly as messenger-aide to various members of the Gray Company), I found myself in areas I hadn’t visited in a long, long time, facing an odd mixture of completely oblivious creatures (the original occupants) and overtly hostile monsters (new creatures added for Book 3, mostly in instances).

I’m grateful to Turbine for giving us a reason to return to some of the original areas (beyond the occasional need to grind a deed long neglected), and I sincerely hope for more of this type of content. If it were my choice alone, I would have them providing us numerous reasons to “live” in some of the original zones – they are beautiful and compelling and would be worth our time if only there were something we could do there. But then we’re talking “virtual world” instead of the wonderful story-driven game we all love.

For the Volume 1 quests I opted not to take the map rewards, hoofing it from one location to the next (or using Swift Travel where I could). This provided me with a nice tour of the old areas, and also brought an odd “habit” of Turbine’s to my attention – their incessant need to label nearly all creatures in the game with “unique” names. For NPCs, this generally results in a host of “named” people with whom I can interact, for story or for commerce, and whom I promptly forget. You’re not <insert name here>, you’re Ost-Galadh-Provisioner-Guy. Beyond that, it’s just not important to me and no connection is really made (the obvious exceptions here are the well-known players of the lore).

The dwarves of Moria were probably the worst when it came to this anonymity-through-overload. There are apparently only so many combinations of Dwarven syllables possible before one has to resort to truly minor variations. But you can hardly blame Turbine for this, as Tolkien was known for using similar names to denote lineage – i.e. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, son of Arador. The tendency for similar names works well on small numbers (Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Dwalin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Dori, Nori, Ori) but when you try to scale this to a virtual world, problems arise. Credit goes to Turbine for actually making the effort to name so many of the dwarfs in Moria, but towards the middle they all melted together into a bearded blur, his name ending in ‘-ori’, and endowed with the magical power to be in a dozen places at once all throughout Khazad-dum. The only distinction was what he was asking me to kill.

With monsters, this results in something perhaps a little less obvious. Each zone is populated with a variety of types of monsters, with several variations within a specific area (screenshots above and right). For example, in The Shire, we find Wolves, Snarling Wolves, Wolf Hunters, Bold Wolves (etc. etc.), while in Bree-lands we have Dusk-Wolves of the Snarling, Bold, Scavenger, Feral, Howling, Maddened, Growling, Young, and Monstrous variants (and perhaps more!). Within a single zone, it’s a little less noticeable (at least, it was to me), but when you’re visiting nearly every zone in Eriador within a few hours, and choose to ride through on your own, you get a glimpse of the bigger picture. Taken as a whole, there are well over 30 “types” of wolves found in Middle-Earth.

What exactly is this meant to accomplish?

Provide a sense of variety? Differentiate monsters? Snarling Dusk-wolves are a bit challenging, but Monstrous are dangerous…? I suppose I can see the logic behind this design decision, but I have to wonder: How much effort does Turbine put into determining and cataloging all of these, and for what return? Does battling an Orc Marauder seem somehow more fulfilling or challenging than an Orc Despoiler? Each particular monster uses a different set of abilities, and hence a slightly different strategy, but Turbine already does a great job at visually distinguishing the variants of most monsters (Orcs in this example); skinny-tall Orcs use ranged attacks, hunched-shaman Orcs are the “healers”, bulky-tall Orcs use disarms and stuns, and normal Orcs are…well…normal. For those creatures that cannot be distinguished so easily, the UI provides what we need to know – Hit Points, Power, and “rank” (normal, Signature, Elite, etc.).

Does using numerous naming variations serve any purpose beyond the illusion of variety? Perhaps they do help some players determine, at a glance, the relevance of a monster (“I’m hunting Blackvenom Spiders for their venom-sacs…”) or the relative strength, but can anyone really keep up with the distinctions? And does anyone really care? Would any of us mind if we were just fighting an “Orc”? If it were up to me to design this, here’s an idea of how I would do it:

Before...and After

Before...and After

The interface still provides all of the necessary information: color-coded “conning” system (the floating icon), active target (the ring at their feet), and because the Hit Point/Power Bar doesn’t need to change, it’s a quick glance to tell a normal from a Signature from an Elite (beyond the obvious visual differences that are so common). For those of us who crave more detail, the Tooltip box can provide the rest (only slightly modified because I don’t particularly care what variant of Warg I’m fighting, but we shouldn’t discard all of Turbine’s hard work).

I became so irked by the “naming issue” that I decided to do a little experiment. And surprisingly, the result improved the game quite significantly. I turned off floating names.

What I quickly realized was how much of a handicap floating names creates when playing, and how lazy it had made me. When they are on, the game immediately becomes a simple game of “dodge-or-divebomb the colored text”. I was either charting my movement to stay out of aggro range, or head directly towards, the text. Not the monster, but the words so conveniently hovering over its head. I paid minimal (if any) attention to my surroundings, and I was barely looking at the monster I was attacking.

Turning them off has its downside; NPCs do become more anonymous (not particularly drastic in my mind) and it does become much harder to quickly identify other players who should receive “special attention” (i.e. kinmates and roleplayers). The vitals display could still suffice, or Turbine could resolve the issue with another small item on many of our wishlists – kinship tabards and badges (or another similar visual identifier).

Either way, the benefits outweigh any loss of functionality. LotRO became almost an entirely new game; my immersion, and hence enjoyment, shot skyward. I began to pay close attention to my surroundings, and became a far more active participant. Starting this experiment in Mirkwood proved a special treat -Fanged Ruin-Hunters at night really tend to appear out of nowhere!

Labor of Love, Likely Lost

Thing is, the game almost looks like this...

Apparently I got lucky sometime over the Labor Day weekend last week; I managed to get a key for the Final Fantasy XIV Open Beta pretty early in. However, that luck was severely offset by the fact that patching the game caused something in my machine to go horribly wrong, resulting in a cyclical round of blue screens and reboots. After troubleshooting countless possible issues, I finally bit the bullet and rolled it back a week, apparently solving the problem.

Needless to say, I did not head into the beta with warm feelings towards the game.

Having spent several hours reading, and a few hours actually wandering around the world and playing, I can honestly say that I’m torn over Final Fantasy XIV. There’s a few very significant things to like about the game; but at the same time there are some issues that make me seriously doubt both the long-term viability of the game, and its value to me as a player with limited time to spend gaming.

At the top of my “Yes List”, the game is unbelievably gorgeous and has a depth to its lore that is apparent from the beginning, even if one is unfamiliar with the Final Fantasy franchise. As an MMO Sightseer, these are huge for me; the game’s visuals are incredible, and even on my upper-mid level computer, everything ran fairly well. FFXIV is about as close as I’ve seen to a game running at CG quality visuals. It’s not a perfect match, but it comes much closer than anything else I’ve seen.

The extensive use of cutscenes to set and tell the story has so far been pretty good. And I do mean extensive; I spent more of my first two hour session watching and reading than I did actually playing. The transition from cutscene back into the game is fairly smooth, as they appear to use the game engine instead of full CG. And why shouldn’t they, considering the level of detail they can get out of it?

And the game has the appearance of accessibility. The levequest system seems to work really well for achieving something in a short play session. Using the crystals (I don’t remember what they’re called at the moment) to bind and travel looks good, and the system can even be used to “warp” back to your bound location upon completing a levequest. At least, this is as far as I understand things to work, as after a certain point, I stopped reading. Which leads me to the other side of the coin.

See, those three things – visuals, lore, and accessibility – work for me. They gave me a reason to keep logging on (at least for the time being) despite the obvious flaws and the fact that the game did horrible things to my computer. But they’re clearly not going to work for everyone, especially not a “typical” gamer. Many just don’t have the attention spans (no offense, but we all know this is true), the patience, or the desire to put in that much effort.

There were plenty of things the game has in place that definitely fall onto the “No, Thanks, List”. Because the game is technically still in beta, I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on these, as there is still time for Square to address these issues. And considering that they have a patch for the Open Beta client nearly every day, there’s even a chance that some of these may be addressed before launch. So here’s the (not-so-brief) short list:

  • I have serious doubts as to Square’s ability to complete a smooth launch. If the Open Beta is any indication, we’re looking at several months before their infrastructure can handle the load. This is unacceptable at this stage of MMO development.
  • It remains to be seen how the game will run on “lower-end” machines. And by “lower-end”, I don’t mean the average, WoW-lower-end. I mean the lower end of the game’s ridiculous system requirements. This is not how to attract a large audience, and stinks of Sony’s poorly-conceived, last generation mindset of “people should want this product so badly, they will save up and sacrifice for it and pay whatever we ask of them”. We all saw how well that worked out for Sony.
  • Square has made some…interesting…design decisions for the game’s interface and keymappings. Gone are so many of the conventions (good conventions) we’ve come to expect. Yes, it’s very clean and minimal, but it’s obtuse in the worst way. And it’s fairly obvious that it’s intentionally designed this way, because its consistent in it’s confusing, punishing design. It almost feels like Square wants you to suffer to play their game.
  • The new player experience is Abysmal. Capital ‘A’. It’s atrocious. It reeks of old-school thinking, where it was okay to drop a new player into the game with little to no instruction or acclimation. And considering the issues with the interface, they’re going to lose a lot of customers in the first month from frustration alone. I’ve been gaming for over two decades, and playing MMOs for nearly half that, and I was still looking up keymappings after a dozen-plus hours.
  • I get the feeling there is a higher-than-normal grind hidden behind all of the supposed effort Square has put into addressing probably the largest concern most players had with Final Fantasy XI. Sure, the fatigue system might help even out the field for the time it takes to get to the level cap, and the levequests are nicely engineered to keep you busy, but…still. This is just a gut feeling, and I don’t have anything solid to back it up, but the feeling is still there.

All of the above only leads me to one conclusion – whether Square admits it or not, whether they themselves believe it or not, they are building a niche game. Possibly a very large niche, but a niche nonetheless. Their technical issues with Open Beta point to an overwhelming response they were not equipped to handle, and the complex, convoluted interface is clearly in favor of the “hardcore” Power Gamer. As much as they’ve touted that this Final Fantasy will be more friendly to a wide audience, what I’ve seen so far blatantly refutes those statements. This is not a game for the casual or inexperienced MMO-er. This is a game designed for Final Fantasy XI players.

Not that this is a bad thing; it just doesn’t quite fit with what I’ve heard and read Square Enix state about the game so far.

Still, despite the frustrations I’ve had with the issues above, there is something about the game that keeps me coming back. There’s a definite draw there, and it has me seriously considering picking it up and subscribing (after I see how the launch plays out). It was truly nice to have some of the old-school MMO experience back; of walking into an area and not seeing a half-dozen exclamation points to point me on my merry way, of having to interact with all of the NPCs, and actually explore. The game has a distinct “sandbox” feel to it. Not so much in that the players have complete freedom to go everywhere and do as they please (because you really, really can’t and don’t), but in the fact that I had to find my own way, and I could choose to try going anywhere, be punished for bad decisions, and not be led by the hand.

So this became something of a review without my intending it. Clearly, Square has put a lot of work, energy, and love into Final Fantasy XIV. But also just as clear is their expectation that players return a near-equal amount of work and energy (and maybe love). I’m hopeful that this won’t be lost on me, as I’d really like to experience the world they’ve built. I couldn’t say whether or not the game will make its launch target of late September. For all I’ve experienced, there could be more than enough content to justify the game as “Ready”. But I still have my doubts. I’ll be keeping a close watch on this one.

Did I Miss Something?

Two quick screenshots today, from recent adventures in gathering the Grey Host.

What the...?

What is THAT? What the heck is that??!?!!

Did I miss something my first time through the North Downs? Where did that gateway come from? Needless to say, it caught me by surprise, and stumbling across it was a really nice moment! I guess I need to start looking up a bit more.

Impressive!

Before I could even get over my shock, Turbine hits me with Tham Umdur! All I could do was say, “whoa…”.

Maybe it was residual awe from what’s right outside (see above), but this area hit me full-on with two fists crammed full of pure Cool. Nearly blinded by Sheer Awesomeness!

A whole village built into a cave? Are you kidding me?? It was so atmospheric, so captivating for some reason, that I stayed around and explored the entire area even after finishing off the quest objectives. If that’s not an indication of great visual design, I don’t want to know what is.

This is the reason LotRO continues to hold my (nearly) full attention, how it keeps pulling me back in. Little surprises and not-so-little details and utterly gorgeous design.

Bravo, Turbine! Bravo!

(/gushing)