Thoughts for the Day

Gah! Seems like every time Real Life decides to get extraordinarily busy (as if I could post any less recently), the MMO industry decides to throw a party and get the ‘sphere all a-flutter.

Age of Conan

I blame Turbine, really. They made the switch twice – once for a failing game that pulled it back from the brink of closure into a realm of respectably-sized piles of gold coins, and once for a game that wasn’t failing because, well, we-can’t-just-leave-well-enough-alone-can-we-and-look-how-well-it-worked-for-that-other-one-we’ll-be-drowning-in-our-piles-of-money. The thing is, for however I feel about Turbine’s business decisions (take a wild guess), they got the F2P/hybrid model pretty much right. No matter how hard they toe the line between appropriate items in their Store and handicapping non-paying players, they have yet to really push into pay-to-win territory. I don’t like some of their decisions, but I also can’t point at any one item and say, “That’s just wrong.”

However, Unrated is not LotRO, and the model Funcom has chosen is just not good. It’s a sad rehash of Sony’s EQ2X, where the access tiers are just convoluted and too much of the game is walled off from the “freeloaders” (because that’s how you’re treating your potential customers, Funcom). If you look at the breakdown between Free and Premium accounts, it’s a little ridiculous. Two-thirds of the classes (and the most interesting ones at that!) are unavailable and great portions of the group content are walled away. And time-based passes to access dungeons? Really? Wow.

The thing about being Free to Play is that either you really go for it or you forget about it. Going halfway is really just nickel-and-diming your players, and we know it! As much as it pains me to say it sometimes, Turbine really has it right in the Cash Shop model – convenience items, cosmetics, and zones of side-quest content. That’s why the model works for LotRO – there’s always a central storyline to which everyone has access, from The Shire to Moria to Enedwaith. Age of Conan might have that, but I have to agree with Keen – going Free to Play doesn’t necessarily make AoC a game worth playing; I might check it out to get to the areas I never saw, but it’s certainly not worth putting money into. The restrictive model they’ve outlined only accomplishes two things – it alienates the players who might have considered paying for something, and it exploits the players who aren’t educated enough to know better. Neither is good business.

Burglar Changes

Orion posted a list of proposed changes to the Burglar and Warden classes yesterday. I won’t pretend to know enough about Wardens to comment. Burglar, on the other hand, is my one-and-only!

Overall, I like the changes. Here goes:

  • Removing some of our highest tier skills from the critical response chain certainly opens up some moment-to-moment options for us and will help with Power management as we don’t have to burn through a handful of other skills just to get to them.
  • Being able to toggle our “stances” (for lack of a better term) after defeat is HUGE. I understand not wanting Burglars to be able to flip back and forth during combat, but losing your stance after death in a group scenario is a major disadvantage. It means not burning Hide in Plain Sight just on the off chance that I might need it to get back into Mischief. So in reality this change frees up multiple skills, at least when playing in groups.
  • The consolidation for Seize Initiative and Escape Clause is nice, but not particularly thrilling. I don’t use either much. It’ll be nice to have another space on my hotbars, though!
  • Adding a 100% chance to Surprise Strike from stealth is a really nice change. Again, it’s more flexibility as I don’t have to save Aim up “just in case”.
  • Subtle Stab ticking off the cooldown timer for Mischievous Glee is great! It somehow “fits” in my mind with the tone of the class and the lore. I can just imagine my Burglar slipping through an Orc’s defenses, getting in a solid hit, and giggling the whole time! And it will greatly aid in survivability.

The last details – Riddle not breaking stealth and it working on all creatures – are the most jarring, and disappointing, changes proposed. I don’t PvMP much, but this could be a huge change to the battlefield in the Moors. More than anything, however, the proposed changes are just too drastic for an aspect of the class that I consider to be fundamental, both in how it plays and in how it fits into the lore. I’ve always thought that Turbine did a great job of building a familiar yet unique set of classes that fit well with the lore (every class being inspired by one of the key characters of the stories), and thought that they really hit the ball out of the park with the Burglar.

But making Riddle so much more…generic…just hurts. It’s a big stretch to the lore, which is important to me. And it robs us of the need to be more strategic in our solo and group play. Sure, many other players don’t understand or appreciate the Burglar, or see it’s usefulness in a group setting. But those that do understand all too well how much of a difference a good Burglar can make.I guess I understand Turbine’s motivation – making it more generally useful and desirable as a member of Fellowships – but it’s just not going in the right direction. If there is a need to expand the Crowd Control functions of the Burglar, at least find a way to do it that makes sense in the lore, instead of just stating “it works on everything now…have fun!”.

It’s almost entirely personal, but these last changes are, in my opinion, quite horrible. These kinds of changes reek of the WoW approach, where the developers start overreacting to a perceived deficiency (often perpetrated by the vocal minority) and don’t stay true to the theme, and vision, behind the design of a class. Then we end up with major overhauls every few months and every new expansion, and no one knows how to play their class or even cares to learn because “it’s just going to change in the next patch anyway”. There should be some aspects of every class that are sacrosanct, and for me the strategy involved in playing a Burglar is one of those.

It does say ‘Advanced Class’ when you create a Burglar. Leave it that way, please.

Free Server Transfers

The timing of the announcement was either sheer luck for Trion, or pure genius; either they stumbled into a pretty nice PR win or they’ve got people inside Blizzard feeding them info. Either way, I hope someone got paid a little extra. Kudos for that.

As a player, being able to move around for free is nice. I’ve been bitten by this before, and being charged anything, especially per character, stinks of a simple cash grab. If it’s meant to be a deterrent, just don’t allow them because otherwise it’s just insulting. I work with databases for a living, and I don’t care what anyone says – moving a set of rows from one database to another is a simple thing. If you can’t do that easily, then your system is designed VERY poorly. Legacy code is no excuse; how can you expect to run an ongoing service if your not willing to clean up your past mistakes?

And if you don’t think that Blizzard or Trion or Sony or whomever can’t pull up anything and everything about your characters, all in a few seconds, you are mistaken. What Trion has introduced is a completely automated system that costs them next to nothing and wins them huge points with their customers, especially in the context of what others charge.

I do agree with others, however, that it’s not entirely magnanimous nor is it as clear cut as the PR announcement. It’s not a free-for-all where anyone can go anywhere. This probably is a way to deal with population imbalances. But you know what? It’s FREE. And it shows that Trion values its customers by giving them the choice, well in advance of server merges, and it will continue to be an option. Every week. FOR FREE.

They’re not saints and its not driven by charity; I don’t expect them to be. But it’s a valuable service that they’re providing free of charge. So, overall, it’s a win for Trion.

That’s it for now!

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Awfully Quiet

This post by Wolfshead pretty much sums up (nicely, as usual!) where I’ve found myself the last few weeks when it comes to MMOs. I’m just feeling a little…blah. Maybe “bored”, but that’s not really the word. Malaise? Ennui? Apathy? Maybe. I’m still playing (mostly RIFT), and I want to log in but not for the reasons I usually do.

Seems like a one week vacation has turned into a four week break from almost all gaming. I’m still logging in when I can, but I find that I’m feeling a lot less of the urge to find time for MMOs. RIFT still has the lion’s share of my MMO attention these days; I haven’t logged into LotRO for more than ten minutes in the last two weeks, which makes me kind of sad. There are people in there that I miss (no, not you, Gimli).

And I think the issue is as Wolfshead describes it – I’m a little tired of doing the same mundane tasks over and over again, just in a new locale, under the guise of some kind of grand Quest To Save The World. Just like the three people standing next to me at an NPC. Just like everyone else.

Honestly, what keeps me logging into RIFT, and keeps me out of LotRO, is the prospect of seeing new sights and finding new places to explore. Yes, I’m still doing quests in RIFT, but it’s more a matter of convenience than anything else. “Sure, I’m headed out that way anyway, and I know I’ll have to wade through at least ten orcs, so…yeah…I can help out!” The experience is a nice bonus, and since I’m poking my head into every corner, I figure I can do a few “favors” at the same time.

But the utter helplessness of all these “people” standing around their outposts and villages, doling out mundane tasks that they should be doing for themselves – it wears on me. Last night I ran a task for a Defiant NPC that involved walking twenty meters from the camp. Literally – TWENTY meters. I killed two low-level mobs before I could reach the device that would magically complete some other device, that I would then be able to use on a rift not 100 meters from the camp.

I mean, c’mon people. Let’s get motivated here. The Defiants are supposed to be “The Vigil Helps Those Who Help Themselves” types. I believe a little initiative is warranted!

So that’s where I find myself. A lot of single-player excursions into games where I can explore a world  (Oblivion, The Witcher, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) and feel like I’m making a difference. Because that’s what I really feel the drive to do recently – explore. I want to see new spaces and discover all the secret little details; which is why RIFT has been so appealing while LotRO lingers unloved. But I don’t want to wade through shambling hordes of monsters and countless franchises of vending machine NPCs (McQuestGivers? Barter Kings?) to get there.

Ah, well. I’m still having fun, and that’s what really counts, right?

(Anyone know a good exploration-based, sandbox game out there? Doesn’t have to be an MMO…)

Winner Winner

Just screams "WINNER", doesn't it?

The issue of equal opportunity in the games I play (or “Return on Investment”) is one that I struggle with constantly; I agree with SynCaine that the Everybody Wins philosophy is a short-term cheat with seriously detrimental long-term implications.  If we don’t know how to lose, and lose graciously, not only are we are handicapping ourselves for the realities all around us, but we rob ourselves of any real value achieved in winning when we actually manage it. However, as an adult with a handful (admittedly small-ish) of actual responsibilities and limited free time, I feel the pull of maximized return on my effort. Time is, after all, the most precious of commodities; disposable cash I’ve got (somewhat), free time for gaming, not so much.

As the father of two young boys, the whole subject is very real for me – team sports are looming on the horizon. And while I want my boys to succeed, it’s more important to me that they learn the nature, and true value, of competition. It’s not about the winning or receiving praise and recognition. It’s about striving to be the best that you can. The outcome, win or lose, should be secondary, at best, to the real purpose at hand; winning should be the bonus, not the goal (or worse, the expectation). This is a lesson I very much want my kids to learn, and if they don’t take to it in team sports, well, there’s always activities that are more individual or less competitive. I’ve had a very recent, personal experience with this; an organization with whom I’ve worked and learned for several years has decided to elevate me to the “next level”. It was an extraordinary feeling, having years of work recognized by those you respect, and I want them to feel that same sense of pride. But they have to earn it.

However, the lessons of competition are never something I would expect them to learn from MMOs; at least, not any of the current crop that are finding mass appeal. Because Syn is right – WoW and its brethren don’t really encourage players to improve. Not in a competitive, “top of the heap” sense. For that I might (someday) point them to strategy games or shooters or…*gasp*… Real World team sports!

Case in Point

But there are lessons to be learned, even in the themeparks as they stand today. Lessons such as cooperation, teamwork, and courtesy to others (okay, maybe not in WoW); social skills like leadership, coordinating groups, and listening. I guess it really depends on what you seek going into these games. If you’re looking for skill-based, sink-or-swim game design maybe the themeparks aren’t for you. Which begs the question – why are you playing RIFT (or WoW, or LotRO, or whatever)?

I know my personal answer (story, story, STORY!). Which always leads me to my constant conundrum – paying the price to see the sights. I love a great challenge, but don’t have the availability to tackle the current design for “challenge” in MMOs (a.k.a. “the grind”). And while I wouldn’t want any game I play to go down the Path of Ultimate Accessibility a la WoW, I don’t really have the time to burn playing the truly challenging alternatives. My drive is always to experience the content – all of it – whether it’s in the form of stories/quests or simply exploration.

Like I said, I’ve got more disposable money than free time, which is convenient for the corporate “sponsors” of our favorite pastime! To whom do you think they’re going to cater – the competitive-but-nonetheless-niche-audience cyberathlete or the time-starved-wallet-heavy buttonmasher?

Sorry, Syn.

Hope They’re ‘Listening’

Wise words from a wise man.

Here’s to hoping that someone at Turbine’s read Syp’s piece and takes it to heart. Better yet, take it to the Board Room. The anniversary festival this year is a disaster; the only thing keeping me from calling it an ‘unmitigated disaster’ is that I just don’t care enough to get worked up over it. Everything about the entire situation reeks of the worst type of game design/customer relationship management, and nothing about the festival or its rewards is even slightly appealing enough to motivate me to care. And guess what happens when your paying customers stop caring about your entertainment product?

That’s right.

The thing is, I want to care. So very, very badly. With Isengard in sight and Rohan just over the next horizon (the fact that they even discussed mounted combat in a recent interview got my pulse up!), there are so many reasons for me to want to be invested in LotRO. In theory.

In reality, I’m just a little bit at a loss. LotRO is becoming “death by a thousand cuts” for me – one tiny (or not so tiny) decision at a time, it’s bleeding the fun out of it. And in the face of some extremely strong competition, both current and future, having a disenchanted player-base is not a situation in which I think any MMO company would want to find themselves.

Oh, we're going to Mordor, Turbine...like it or not.

I just want to see Mordor. I want to fight beside Gandalf at the siege of Gondor. I want to stand behind Aragorn and watch the Black Gates crumble. And I’ll get there, even if I have to carry Turbine and throw them into the fires myself.

I want to finish what I began four years ago; I knew it would be a long road and never did I expect that we would have arrived by now. But it was there, that final goal, whispering in the back of my head, on that first day I logged in. How could we not have wished for it, even back then?

But I feel like someone at Turbine knows all this, expects it from at least a portion of the players, and therefor thinks they can drag us through hell on  the way; because we’ll take it. Because they can.

Can they? Sometimes I wonder.

Another Week in the Sun

This week marks our (almost) yearly family trip to Florida, so I’m pretty much out of the loop for gaming. This laptop can run LotRO, but it’s not much good for group activities. Besides, the whole thing is a good excuse to take a break and catch up on some sleep; it’s amazing how different it feels getting a nearly full night of sleep (kids still make the “full night” fairly improbable). Still, smartphones and WiFi mean we aren’t completely cut off, so keeping up with the news is still possible.

Somehow it slipped my attention that I’d be on vacation during the end of the first World Event in RIFT; normally, I’d bemoan the fact that I missed such an event, but it seems that I didn’t really miss anything and, given my gaming schedule, it’s not likely that I would have been able to get in to see the end anyway. I’m a little upset about how the whole thing played out, but mostly from the position of “detached observer”. I was barely able to accumulate enough shardstones to buy the few items I really wanted, and other than that I wasn’t particularly invested in the event. I was more interested in it as a concept – that it seemed technically feasible and demonstrated Trion’s intentions.

I’ve ponied up for the Founder’s Pricing (which, to be honest, is pretty tame compared to LotRO‘s Founder’s deal) and subbed for the next three months, which I would have done even without the River of Souls. However, it seems that Trion really has fumbled for the first time. But possibly not for reasons fully within their control; the “Bring a Friend” weekend was probably planned well in advance, and the unexpected delay in releasing Phase 2 just created a truly unfortunate set of circumstances; despite giving “priority access” to subscribers, once a visitor is actually in the game, I imagine that Trion would not kick them out for a paying customer.

While I agree with Syncaine about the overall response from players (outrageous entitlement and completely undue rage), I do have two points where I disagree. First, technical issues prevented players who wanted to play and were online at the time from entering the game world. That’s not the fault of players, is a pretty straightforward problem, and is an issue that Trion needs to address.

The second issue is much larger, and it’s something that makes me think twice about long-term investment in RIFT – the nature of dynamic events and exactly how far Trion wants to take the “dynamic” nature of the game. Syncaine is right – it’s just not reasonable (but then again, how often are we reasonable in our demands?) for players to laud Trion for providing a more dynamic world, while at the same time screaming about that same dynamic content not being available to them at any time they choose to log in. It’s an issue that Trion will have to work hard to tackle – how do you make a truly dynamic world, one that’s always changing, while at the same time providing equal opportunity and access to all players no matter what time of day/week/month they choose to log in? It would seem that one cannot accommodate the other.

My guess is that there are a lot of conversations about this very topic going on right now; Trion has already acknowledged their missteps and seems to realize the nature of their error. My guess would be that, in the future, “dynamic content” will fall into one of a few categories:

  • World Events – these will come and go, but each phase will last several days or weeks instead of being as brief as the final phases of River of Souls.
  • “One offs” – these will be very short events (days or even hours) that have minimal impact on the world, almost no real benefit (i.e. loot drops/currencies), but provide the “living world” feel and are fun for those who experience them.
  • Rifts/Invasions – these are well established and will continue as they always have.
  • Something else(?)

It will be interesting to see the outcome, and considering that the next World Event is probably right around the corner, I think we’ll see how their design decisions have shifted based on this first event.

In other news (for the games I play!), Turbine announced the Fourth Anniversary Celebration. I’m always a fan of Turbine’s events, but this one just seems like more of the same. Not to mention that it’s apparently quite a grind (when Goldenstar decides to skip, you know there are issues). The mount is nice, and I’ll certainly be working towards it, and I’ve always liked the “Beer Battle” (I still have a title to achieve, if this is the same mini-game as what’s in the seasonal festival), but nonetheless it seems like there is a distinct lack of content to motivate participation. I know that they can’t “hit one out of the park” every time, but after the rather bland Spring Festival, I was hoping for something a bit…more. Four years is an achievement, but not exactly an easy milestone to promote – it’s not a multiple of five. I’m hoping that they really pull out the stops for next year!

That’s about it for now. Back to the beach!

Can There Be Good Grind?

Another festival come and gone in LotRO, another new mount for my stable and a few new items in my wardrobe (this year’s Festival cloaks were particularly nice!). I always enjoy Turbine’s events, and even though this Spring Festival hadn’t undergone the overhaul that the previous Harvest and Winter Festivals saw, it was still a good time. Stomping shrews, for all of its barbarity, has always been one of my favorite mini-games in LotRO.

Thanks to the extra quest at the Hedge Maze, this particular festival saw me accomplish a goal I’ve held in-game for a very long time – achieving Kindred with both the Inn League and the Ale Association. Getting to Kindred with the Ale Association was fairly straightforward; the number of quests available during each festival made it a fast climb up to the top, but for every quest completed there is a loss to Inn League reputation. You gain more than you lose, so if one is diligent enough and does all of the courier quests for both groups, the net effect is a gain for both. But I’m stubborn, and once I reached Kindred with the Ale Association, I went for the long route so I wouldn’t lose my status. This means there’s normally only one quest available – The Inn League trial run.

Let’s just say I’ve done a lot of drinking in-game over the last three years. It’s a good thing the Inn League makes you check your liver during the initiation quests, because at this point I’d be on my death bed from a catastrophic failure of any number of organs. (I wonder how many Badges of Taste it will cost me to get it back?)

Of course, the hard part now is getting the Badges to buy the Inn League mount. That’s going to entail a loss of reputation no matter what, so I guess it’s time for some math.

I was really happy to have completed this particular achievement; not only because, towards the end, the Trial Run was getting a little stale, but also because it represents the completion of a goal I set for myself a few years ago. So often in MMO’s we measure time in hours or days – at most months – and while I’m not maligning a standard in-game achievement, I think it speaks volumes to our attitudes about commitment and the rather shallow value of “achievement” in our gaming. If it can’t be completed in a gaming session or two, it’s generally labeled as a “grind” (valid or not).

On the other end of the “satisfaction spectrum”, I also managed to finish up the last of my slayer deeds in the Misty Mountains (on to Evendim!). While the Inn League reputation brought me a real sense of accomplishment (and even a touch of pride), completing these only brought a feeling of having finished a chore and a sense of relief that I’d never, ever go back and do that again. Which makes me kind of sad. Having all desire to go back to an area as beautiful as the Misty Mountains absolutely obliterated, it’s just not nice.

Which leads me to my point; not all grind has to be bad.

Grinding out 240 Signature mobs for a tick on one of my virtues and a ten cent tip is not fun; especially when it’s only purpose is to “extend the gameplay”.  Which it does, I suppose, but not for fun. Running the same quest nearly a hundred times, while somewhat tedious, led to real satisfaction. The former took a few hours, the later a few years, and yet I would do the Inn League reputation again. So what’s the difference?

It comes down to intent. And context. Killing Giants in the Misty Mountains only took a few hours, thanks to a Deed Accelerator (which may be the real issue here – I don’t like feeling like my hand has been forced) and has a real impact on character development, albeit a fairly small one. But it’s tacked onto the game, artificially adding hours to my “gameplay”, and has absolutely no context within the stories or character progression. I’m not killing them for a reason, I’m just wandering around Giant Halls until I fill a progress bar. Running a series of drinking games, while not of direct benefit to the world or even my character, makes sense within the context of the world and the factions with which I’m trying to curry favor. They only take 20 minutes or so, spread out over years, so the time investment is minor at any given time. And it’s fun, or funny. Both.

To be sure, it’s a fine line and a very difficult balance to attain. And it’s an issue of personal preference. For some people grinding out hundreds of mobs constitutes fun, or at least fun enough to stomach. Maybe it’s meditative. Or cathartic. The point is that, done right, long-term achievements can be extremely rewarding without being downright tedious. Even those that require repetitive tasks.

It’s Been a Long, Long Time

This past weekend was all about RIFT for me; I even took last Friday off and had one of those ultra-rare gaming marathons! Six solid hours of RIFT, followed by a few good sessions over the “official” weekend…good times.

I have to say that I’m very impressed with the new World Event. Though, so far, the event doesn’t seem like much more than a few daily quests, some new vendor items, and an increased number of Death rifts. I’m looking forward to seeing the next two phases, however, and if the whole thing is an indication of Trion’s ability to roll out dynamic content, I’m pretty excited about the future of the game. Supposedly Trion has built a framework for delivering this kind of content into the game, so my guess is we’ll be seeing a lot of this kind of activity. It’s not Update 2, but so far River of Souls feels like a success.

I stretched some long-unused “MMO muscles” this weekend, and did a lot of things I haven’t done for far too long. I’ve pretty much come down on the side of the Defiants – running a Paladin/Warlord/Void Knight tank for groups and a Riftblade/Champion/Paragon for “fun” when running solo. The Warrior is a class I haven’t played in a very, very long time – the last time I considered a tank as my main was when I played World of Warcraft oh-so-many-years-ago. It’s a very different experience trying to keep all the attention on me, instead of staying out of sight as a Burglar. Though with RIFT‘s system of “all-things-to-everyone” classes, I’m still not sure if Warrior is my true calling. What’s still surprising is the almost complete lack of interest I still have (don’t have?) in Rogues. Not like me at all.

I managed to run my first dungeon as well – Iron Tombs. It’s fairly standard as far as dungeons go, but I wouldn’t expect much more for the first dungeon players experience. Aside from being a bit of a maze, the Great Barrows is pretty straight forward. As much as RIFT seems custom-built for MMO aficionados, Trion still has to keep new players in mind. And introducing complex scenarios requiring the type of coordination to which veteran gamers are accustomed isn’t exactly the easiest way to break in first-timers. I particularly liked one mechanic involving “Death Shards” – mounds being tended by keepers that need to be killed first, then the Shards spawn waves of undead as you destroy them. The first time we took one down, no one knew about the spawns, so we had it down to less than half health when we suddenly realized we were swamped with monsters. At first I thought they were just a few non-elite adds, but it turned out they appear as the Death Shards lose health. Very nice – nice mechanic, requires a bit of coordination, but not overwhelming.

Still, it was a fun time and I ended up running it twice – once with a group with one healing Cleric, a Chloromancer, and two Rogues and the other group with two Clerics (one healing, one…not), an Elementalist, and another Warrior. It was appropriately scaled for 5 players, and I’m absolutely impressed that Trion can create any group content so finely tuned that it can require certain roles but still be flexible enough to allow for the kinds of class mixtures we ended up having available.

I was surprised at how lazy I’ve gotten on the social aspects of these games; apparently having a solid and active Kinship, while immeasurably helpful and fun, has caused me to forget how to make friends. “Pick up groups” were never my favorite, but so far they’ve been necessary and actually quite fun.