Friday, 12 February 2016

Taking One For The Team: Group Play In MMORPGs

I woke up this morning to find myself thinking about yesterday's topic. In the comments to the previous post superior-realities (whose blog wasn't in the blogroll for some reason, really should have been, is now) pointed out that an absence of the Trinity and/or Holy Trinity is not synonymous with the presence of Action Combat. This is true.

In retrospect I see that I was using Trinity play as shorthand for an older, more traditional style of group play in general. It's a pity I didn't know that when I was writing that piece but then I rarely know what I'm writing about until I get to the end and read it back, by which time I've often run out of time or energy to start over and do it properly. That's the difference between blogging and writing articles, in a nutshell.

Anyway, as a result of the discussion that arose I had kind of an insight. Not an epiphany, nothing so dramatic. Not even a very original idea, I'm sure, but one that was fresh to me. It's this: grouping in MMOs is a team sport.

Superior-realities suggested that Trinity play prevents each individual player from seeing more than a fraction of the whole of any combat: "My issue with the trinity", he says, "is simply how stilted and limiting it is. Each role experiences only a fraction of combat. Only tanks directly interact with enemies, only healers get to directly support their allies, and only DPS get to fun the of big crits and impressive kills.".

And here, I think, we have something. Back in the old days, group play in MMOs was openly acknowledged to be a team game. I'd somehow forgotten. Maybe newer players never knew.

Some scenarios naturally encourage a team ethic...
Whether we're talking pick-up groups, guild runs or long-established, tight-knit parties of friends, every four or five or six or eight person party that set foot in a dungeon or spawned an instance bore very close comparison with a sports team. Doing a dungeon in a PUG was like playing a childhood scratch match with a side picked from whoever happened to have turned up at the Rec that afternoon. Not everyone had the right kit, skill levels were variable to put it kindly, there may even have been someone who'd never played the game before and didn't know the rules.

Organization and expectation rose from there but no matter the focus and experience and commitment of the individuals involved one thing remained constant: defined team roles. Just as you wouldn't play baseball or cricket or football (any flavor) without first agreeing on who's on first or who keeps goal or stands behind the wicket, so you wouldn't build a traditional group without deciding who's going to pull, who's the off-tank, who's main-healing...

When I was at school I played a number of different team games. It was absolutely the case that I only experienced a fraction of every game directly. When I was keeping goal I was in the frenzied center of the action for brief, terrifying moments but I often spent minutes at a time standing alone, peering towards the far end of the pitch, trying to make out what was going on up the other end. As a center-forward playing field hockey, forbidden to cross my own half-way line, I had the same experience in reverse.

It is not the lot of a team player to enjoy the full experience of the game in the round. It's his or her joy and frustration to know some parts of it in extreme detail, some at the periphery and the rest only in long-shot, from conversation in the changing room or the bar afterwards.

Others, not so much.
This, naturally, is not how a tennis player sees the world. A tennis player really can do all the things. There is not a single moment of a singles match in which each player isn't fully and completely engaged. Each player gets to serve. Each player gets to receive.

Over the years MMOs have tried to give everyone that single-player experience even in content designed for groups. It doesn't work. Giving everyone access to all the roles at once gets you no closer to everyone experiencing everything to the full than it did when roles were handled with exclusivity. Each individual player only knows his or her small part of the battle, no matter what.

When this approach is applied to open-world content like Public Quests and Dynamic Events the result is as though centuries of sophistication and progress had been rolled back. Instead of a tightly codified, highly-disciplined sport played professionally by experts you have everyone in the entire village trying to kick a dead sheep across two miles of muddy field. Which isn't to say that's not a fun way to spend an afternoon...

That's a contrast between raiding and zerging, though, which is outside the brief of this piece. When it comes to single-group content, what we like to call "Dungeon Play" for convenience' sake, it's an attempt doomed to failure. Much though we might like to, we just can't all have all the things all the time.

In a supposedly free-form, self-structuring set-up like GW2's dungeons, what happens is that players, deprived of strong, specific group roles, devise full-group strategies that allow the group to act as though it were a single player. If no-one is given the tools to Tank alone or Heal alone then the default is for everyone to do as much damage as possible as fast as possible - hence the Zerker Meta, which Anet professes to abhor and yet which has yet to be broken, let alone replaced.

You can have too many specialists.

This kind of system doesn't give a player a wider, deeper, broader experience of content. All it does is turn group content into surrogate solo content that you can only experience if you find several other players willing to solo alongside you.

Okay, I know that's an extreme take on what is in reality a more flexible and varied process, but in essence the "I can do everything" mode is, at best, no better at providing variety for the player than the old Trinitarian vision. Mostly, I would contend, it's considerably worse.

In the end, though, that doesn't matter so much. What matters is whether we see group content as team-based or individual-based. If it's going to be the former then we are always going to need roles and those roles will need to be clearly defined and understood.

They don't by any means need to be exclusive or singular. You don't even need to make players play Alts to see the full picture. With its Soul system Rift, for example, was able to design around clear group roles while allowing every player to have access to all of them on the same character. However you choose to parcel them up, though, if you don't have the firm roles in the first place, you have removed a whole layer of complexity, involvement and, I would say, satisfaction from the game.

This is what I would like: clear, defined roles that require the deployment of specific, solid, effective abilities at a pace that's conducive to considered, rational decision-making. And I'd like all of this to be happening in a real-time "live" environment, where errors have consequences and concentration and application are essential if success is to be achieved.

When I choose to party up I want to experience play that is substantively different to that which I experience when soloing. I'm grouping with other people because I want to be part of a team. I understand that there's a trade-off. I know it means there will be things I don't get to do for myself. That is the point. That's why I grouped.

Otherwise, why not let's make everything soloable and stick with that?

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Take A Moment: MMOs And The Trinity

That old zombie warhorse The Holy Trinity is up and shambling once again, raised from its fitful slumber by opposing op eds at MMOGames penned by Isarii and Liore. Murph offers up an excellent entry to the Dead Horse Stakes with his click-bait-titled "Your MMORPG Holy Trinity is a crock" to which Jeromai replies, wearily, "Why Are We Even Arguing About The Holy Trinity?"

My feeling is that it's pretty unlikely that anything anyone writes on a blog or a specialist interest site is going to change opinions one way or another. At this stage of the argument we're all indulging in the online equivalent of sitting around the pub table, banging on about our individual hobby-horses, while everyone else flips beermats and waits for their turn to pontificate. And there's nothing wrong with that!

I find myself in an odd position. I would openly advocate a return to the Trinity, yet I've spent the last three and a half years playing the heck out of GW2, one of the MMOs widely considered to have done everything in its power to tear that Trinity down and stamp on the pieces. I frequently denigrate so-called "action rpgs" while tub-thumping on behalf of traditional stand-and-cast tab target gameplay, yet this week alone I've written about playing and enjoying no fewer than three center-reticule oriented mouse-thrashers.

So, what's going on? Well, I think Karinshastha, commenting in Murph's thread, expressed it perfectly. If I did "Quote of the Day" posts this would be a prime contender:

"If one wishes to remove trinity elements or play them down, one would have to accept a somewhat more accelerated and perhaps also competitive pace of play. I suppose you could roughly map it to the recent findings released by Quantic Foundry (“The Growing 35+ Gamer Market”) which essentially correlate competitiveness with youth and strategic play with all ages with the qualification that strategic play is valued by older gamers.".
In other words, I'm making the best of what I'm being given but only because no-one is really giving me what I want. The market is taking time to adjust to the new reality: not all gamers are 15 year old boys any more.

By contrast, Jeromai equates The Trinity with both simplicity and laziness "The “it’s too hard for me to understand anything more complex” “casuals want to just drop in and have mindless fun, and feel comforted and familiar with a system they’ve already learned argument" is how he describes it. I think that's just plain wrong.

Forty tanks, no healer.

There was very little that was "mindless" about clearing through Chardok or Sebilis or Lower Guk, inching through claustrophobic tunnels filled with hostile creatures, any one of which could easily kill any one of your group, or quite possibly all at the same time. As a plate-armored tank ,expected to take the lead, every step was freighted with the stark knowledge that, without healing from your cleric, you wouldn't survive a single fight. What's more, if you fell, your body would lie there in the dust or the damp, all your worldly possessions lost with it, while you awoke miles away, facing the prospect of fighting your way back, in your skivvies, wielding your second-best sword.

Meanwhile, the cleric would be equally painfully aware that his ability to keep the tank up and fighting depended on that tank's skill in turning the mob, positioning it efficiently and holding its attention long enough for the rest of the party to finish it. As for the rest of that party, they had a myriad of tasks to consider as they judged how much they dared to damage the creature without making the tank's job impossible, kept an eye out for any of the creature's allies, assessed their dwindling resources and generally remained fully engaged with and aware of their environment at all times.

MIndless? Simple? I should frickin' coco! It was a thinking person's game back then, not a contest of reflexes and reaction times. A tense, high-stakes game of strategy and tactics. More like a game of three-dimensional chess crossed with Russian roulette than a quick hand of Snap.

It may well be that the Trinity has become debased by the general downgrading of content over the years to fit the imagined short attention span of the wider audience developers wish to attract but if so that's a symptom of a much wider malaise. It's not in itself the problem, or the fault, of the Trinity gameplay. Neither is it a structural or a mechanical shortcoming per se.

No, the issue, and with it the key to meaningful, thoughtful, intelligent Trinity-based gameplay, is pacing. All of those games from the past that built on a platform of Tanking, Healing and Crowd Control were slower than any game you'll play today. Not just a little slower - much slower. For the full flavor of the meat to flood through it needs to be chewed steadily and for a long time.

In true Trinity play there were no such things as "trash mobs". Every fight, every single fight, from the guards at the gate to the final Boss, could lead to a full party wipe. If that happened it could mean, at best, half an hour or more just to get everyone back in place to try again. If the group wasn't well-bonded, more likely it would mean the end of productive play for the session and the fracturing of that group.

Individual fights with what would now be called "trash" might take three, four, five minutes. There would be a constant concern over whether the fight was taking too long. Long enough that a roamer might come around and add, making the outcome even more uncertain. Long enough that mobs already killed might begin to respawn.

Strategy Meeting

The Tank might need to decide mid-fight to move the mob to a safer spot because the ranger, with a better view, spotted a roamer on the move. The cleric might find mana running low and need to judge the merit of sitting to regain a little more against the risk of "sitting agro" pulling the attention of the mob away from the taunting tank and onto himself.

I could go on and on and, yes, on. This is all old ground. I've been over it before so many times. I can only conjure a tiny, tiny handful of the potential outcomes and events that every player under the Trinity would have been considering every time the Monk ran back into the room and flopped down with a slavering monster tight on his bare heels.

I really don't think it's possible to convey to players now, who weren't there then, just how complex the possible range of interactions between players and players, players and mobs and, yes, mobs and mobs, used to be. The level of complexity simply dwarfed anything I've experienced in the genre in a decade and the reason for that is pacing.

Trust me, you don't need an opposable thumb. I'm asking you to tank, not hitchhike.

For that level of complexity to be viable as entertainment requires long, slow combat that gives everyone time to look around, to think and to plan, even while everything still happens in "real time". At any moment, a sudden explosion of action could send the entire movie into fast-forward. From calm reflection to frenzied firefighting in an instant was the transit when bad luck or misjudgment brought potential doom and destruction to the room.

When older players hanker after The Trinity that is what I believe they are yearning for. The chance to have every fight matter, not just the Boss fights. The luxury of being able to make meaningful choices based on coherent, fully-developed chains of thought, not merely on reaction and reflex. The opportunity to play characters with quirks and foibles and preferences, not toons with rotations and optimal strats.

Over the past decade or so there have been trends towards slow food, slow travel, slow living all around. It's about time for some slow gaming. Past time. The Trinity is no magic answer to the genre's problems but it is a sign and it's pointing in a good direction.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

One Careless Owner : Dragon Nest Oracle

Meet Doradella. She shouldn't exist.

The European version of Dragon Nest: Oracle published by Shanda Games fell over last week and very nearly couldn't get up. I've been neglecting DN:O for too long and this near death experience prompted me to fire it up and log back in - not least to get my hands on the hefty compensation package on offer.

Only the launcher no longer works. It throws an error every time that apparently suggests the server is offline. I futzed around with that for a while and then had a brainwave. Why not re-download it via Steam?

Oh, I am becoming assimilated, and so fast. Here I am turning to Steam to solve all my MMO problems. It's so slick. I fear it.

So Steam did its astonishingly efficient thing and set me up to play Dragon Nest again. I tapped in my old username and password and that seemed to work. Only things didn't look quite the same.

The log in screen was completely different. There was only one server in the list (busy, too) and I didn't recognize the name. When I logged in there was no sign of good old Squished Dora, just a row of empty character slots.

After a few ins and outs to see if anything changed and a visit to the website to log into my account I was none the wiser. I couldn't tell whether I was really looking at my old account or whether Steam had set me up with a new one using the same details.

There are other possibilities of course. Maybe the recent meltdown vaporized my account. Maybe my account has been deleted through lack of use. Maybe, and at the moment this is the explanation I favor, I wasn't actually playing on DN:O EU at all.

I can still get the old installation to bring up the log in screen there. It looks completely different, it says clearly that there is no server available, and the game title is in Chinese (or maybe Korean). Who knows where I was playing last time?

I know it wasn't the Nexon version that's running in North America and Oceania. That's the version I used to play several years ago. It's region locked now. It's also a somewhat different game. I remember being an Engineer there with a robot butler and that class is now the Academic with no hired help. Same little girl though, same giant gun.

So, I've started Dragon Nest (Oracle) twice already. Maybe third time's the charm. Rather than faff about opening a Ticket asking for the restoration of an account that may never have existed I thought I might as well just re-roll.

Hence, Doradella. Dora was taken. Possibly by me. She's now in some kind of Guild by default. NPC guild I assume. That never happened before. The quest text is the same but the UI for it is completely different. Not better. Not worse. Just different.I'm really confused...

When in doubt, kill stuff. It took me about two hours to get to Level 9. It's always faster when you don't have to read the quest text. I like DN:O's crazy plot and crazier translation a lot but I've read it before. As my Bubble Gun chewed through goblins and bats by the dozen I thought I spotted differences from the game I remember but really, who knows?

I'm determined to get back to at least where I was. I hope Shanda have their back-up plan sorted out after nearly going out of business for lack of one. I really don't want to have to do this over for a fourth time.

I also really hope I can get my Squished title back. That was just about my favorite title in any MMO ever. I can't actually remember how I got it. Maybe I blogged about it...

One last thing. Steam isn't perfect after all. Or, rather, it doesn't integrate seamlessly with every game. I wondered why I'd taken a bunch of screenshots and every one of them came out with a whopping great "Select Retreat Location" window slapped across the middle. That window only appears in game at the very end of a dungeon.Then it occurred to me - you press F12 to bring that window up. F12 is also the default Steam screenshot key.

Lucky I had FRAPS running too. Good old FRAPS never lets me down.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

On Patrol : Valiance Online

Another day, another download. This time it's Valliance Online, one of several contenders for the cape of Spiritual Successor to City of Heroes. I forget the names of the others.

I only remember Valliance because of their open door policy. A while back they had a sneak peak/tech demo up and now there's a pre-alpha build available for any interested parties to test drive.

Unlike the Early Access cash grabs of yesterday's post, this is a genuine "come and help us kick this thing into shape" community effort. There are no "Packages" to buy, no NDA agreements to sign, no application forms to fill out. Just an email address, a password and a download and you're in.

City of Heroes was famous for its immensely flexible and varied character creation system. There were supposedly people who played the game for a fair old while without ever getting any further than the character create screen.

Any would-be successor is going to have to at least attempt to replicate that. Valiance is planning on ninety different power sets. For now, though, choice is fairly straightforward. I went with my basic Super Hero fallback, a fire-flinger.

When it comes to choosing costumes and clothing for a new character I tend towards the blue end of the spectrum but fire powers almost dictate reds and oranges so that's where I went.

It was challenging to choose a look, not because of a lack of options but because nothing I selected actually displayed on the image I was looking at. In the end I just clicked Accept and hoped for the best. I think that's why she has huge thighs and a tiny head. At least the color scheme seems to have worked.

Emerging into the dazzling sunlight  found myself in a city eerily reminiscent of the skyscraper streets I remember, albeit dimly, from the original City of Heroes beta all those however many years ago. My abiding memory of that game, which I beta-tested but declined to buy, is of huge plazas, towering buildings and wide, blank streets populated by an unseemly crowd of muggers and petty criminals all just asking for some rough super-hero justice.

If that's what SilverHelm, the developers, are going for then they're on the right track. The very first, introductory mission had me running off across town in search of an elderly couple who'd just been mugged in broad daylight.

When I say "run" I mean prance like a six-year old who's just watched The Bionic Woman for the first time and realized what she wants to do with the rest of her life. I know it's just a pre-alpha and all these animations will be tweaked and toned to unrecognizability but boy, I wish they'd keep this running anim. It's adorable.

Also, when I say "across town" I mean across town. Maybe the designer had the inevitable plethora of movement powers in mind - super-speed, flight, teleporting - but my poor character just has one small heal and a fireball about the size and potency of a burning paper bag. Don't they even have moving walkways in this vision of the future?

So, getting to the mugged couple took a while. Luckily, like all NPCs, they seemed to have nothing better to do than stand around and tell their story to every passing stranger. They also seemed remarkably unphased by their unpleasant experience, chatty even.

They gave me a good description of the perps.  Not that I needed one because a little marker pops up with each quest to give you both direction and distance to your target. It's amazing anyone bothers to break the law with this kind of infallible surveillance.

Another kilometer jog and I found them. Three ne'er-do-wells loitering on a walkway above what might be a sports stadium someday. I would have laid about them with fiery retribution only that was the point when I realized I didn't have any fiery retribution to hand.

Somewhere on the long jog one of my hotbars must have fallen off. You can see it clearly in the second screenshot, nestled neatly below the other one, but when I came to use it it just wasn't there. All I had was a heal and try as you might you can't heal someone into jail.

So I revived and ran back. That was fun. On the way I fiddled about with the options but wherever my bar had gone it was staying there, out of reach.

In the end I tried casting with the keyboard, which worked, technically, in that I threw some fire at a bad guy. Unfortunately, by the time he was beginning to look a bit singed he and his two pals had put me on the floor again. For the first fight in the starting zone I think this might be a tad overtuned.

For a project "in the Pre-Alpha, but moving towards the Alpha phase" Valiance feels quite solid. Super-hero MMOs have never really done much for me although given my very, very long love affair with the comic book version they really should. I'm very glad they exist, though, and I'd be very happy to see more of them.

Good luck to Valiance and all the other CoH flagwavers. May there always be enough muggers and mad scientists to keep your streets full of screaming citizens and happy players both!

Monday, 8 February 2016

The Hard Road To Lambda Mall : Otherland

2016 has taken a somewhat surprising turn as far as MMOs go. Looking ahead from the dying days of the old year, once again there didn't seem to be anything very much to look forward to beyond more of the same.

Heart of Thorns was solidly in place. Expansions for every other MMO I play or might consider playing were either not announced yet or drifting far off beyond a haze, release date unknown. Daily news reports for the genre seemed mostly to feature minor updates and tweaks to established favorites and the incremental, glacial progress of a plethora of crowd-funded hopefuls that may or may not eventually reach some state we could generously describe as "done".

Then, out of the blue, one of my favorite bolt-holes received a death sentence. I didn't expect to spend most of a week and a half in January playing City of Steam, that's for sure. For every door that closes, though, as they say...

Blade and Soul is a title that some people have been watching for years but it had passed me by almost entirely. I knew the name, I had the very vaguest understanding that it had released in some other territory and done not terribly well - that was about it. Something about martial arts? Oh and it was an ARPG.

Now I'm playing it and enjoying it. Not sure how that happened.

Otherland, on the other hand, is a project I've been following, in desultory fashion, since the day it was announced. There have been various points at which I could have played some testbed version but didn't. For the last few months it's been in Early Access yet, although I thought about buying in, I never did.

Now I'm playing it I enjoying it? That's hard to say.

There's been a roiling torrent of discussion over the merits and drawbacks of Early Access as the concept has bedded in and taken hold over the last two or three years. I was an early adopter with Landmark, a purchase I have never for a moment regretted, but until now that remained my own venture into the minefield of half-released half-games.

Otherland offers a prime example of why the buyer should beware. It is, to put it politely, buggy as hell. There are even bugs in the tutorial for which the developers' advice on the official forum is to delete your character and roll again. This is at the same time that PR puffs are being sent out promoting the addition of four new zones.

You might, rightly, think that before you start adding more to your game you might consider getting the parts you already have into working order but no, that is not the Way of Early Access, so it seems. One of the most successful of all Early Access titles, ARK, has almost made adding new content while disregarding shortcomings a defining feature and people seem to be fine with that.

There's something of the tottering run of a toddler about all this. To stay on their feet these Early Access titles have to keep running regardless. If they paused for just a second to look around them and consider their position they'd fall in a heap.

Not for them the painstaking iterative processes of a five-year development plan, nor the slow, steady, incremental climb of a traditional alpha/beta/launch development arc. No, just get the damn thing out there, start taking the money, bosh it up as we go and keep adding bells and whistles to bring in more punters all the while.

The people behind the current version of Otherland, Drago Entertainment, do get something of a pass on this. After all, the game was dead in the water before they stepped in. If they weren't around then presumably we wouldn't have the chance to play the game at all in any form.

And that would be a shame because Otherland has...something. Not the vast, sprawling, overwhelming something-everything of Tad Williams' monstrously huge trilogy on which it's based, but at least a clear and present ambiance that reflects some of the strangeness of that setting.

So far I've made it only as far as Lambda Mall, the central facilities hub in both the game and the books. The real (or unreal) world lies outside. To get even that far has been a struggle.

Not because the gameplay is hard. So far it seems to consist of the regular MMO cycle: talk to NPC, kill enemy, interact with object, talk to NPC again. Combat is simple to the point of being simplistic.

No, the difficulty stands in bugs that block progression completely. In order to arrive at Lambda Mall it's first necessary to negotiate the basic tutorial, then a zone known as "Limbo" and finally a third zone, in which your character and his or her helpers are held prisoner in cages.

I managed to avoid the gamebreaking bug in the tutorial itself but I hit one in Limbo. The portal to the next area would not permit any interaction from my character. He was left to stand in frustration as a stream of NPCs he'd saved plunged through the tesseract to freedom, stranding him in Limbo all alone.

That one I "fixed" by dropping and retaking the quest half a dozen times over three separate sessions until, for no apparent reason, it just worked. There followed a rather impressive cut scene that, in the way of these things, wiped away any lingering frustration and freshened me up to carry on.

Until the next bug. This time it was a crate that wouldn't open. Inside were my weapons, taken from me by the finger-wagging gang leader at the top of the post and without which my character would be spending the rest of his dismal imaginary virtual life in a 12x12 boxroom underground.

Again repetition won through. Take quest, try quest, fail quest, delete quest. Close game. Relog. Take quest, try quest, fail quest... I think it took about half a dozen tries before, once again, it just worked.

This is all so familiar. Back in the days of real betas and playing on Test servers I treated this kind of thing as routine. It was part of the deal - players volunteered to test stuff for free on the understanding that they got to see new games and new content before anyone else. Even then some people grumbled about companies getting their QA work done for nothing and companies occasionally felt badly enough about that to hand out rewards to testers just for showing up.

Now here we are, not only testing the games in our own time for no reward but paying for the privilege. This is what's called "progress". Or possibly irony. Or being played for a sucker. One of the above.

In the end, though, you have to face the fact that no-one is making any of us do any of this. I downloaded Otherland because I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. I stubborned my way through the bugs and glitches because I really wanted to see Lambda Mall, a place I remembered both from the novels and the original promos for the game.

Along the way there was something of a plot that seemed mildly intriguing and my character began to acquire a marginal personality that started some vestigial attachment process going. When, due to the inept response feedback of the inadequate selection UI in the makeover store, my character received an unintentional gender re-assignment and emerged as a woman (with the wrong facial features and the wrong haircut to boot) I actually felt more attached to her still.

I've always enjoyed buggy MMOs. I don't like game-breaking bugs. How could anyone? I would prefer not to have to do quests five times just to get them to work once. But glitches and strangeness have a charm all their own.

No, if I end up not playing Otherland all that much it won't be because of the ropy, unstable, unfinished nature of the product. It will be because it's wearing. The data-cluster textures, the harsh neon, the strip mall styling, the Blade Runner on a Budget just wears me down.

After an hour my eyes hurt and my soul feels abraded. It's not a world I can relax in and that's a problem not just with Otherland but with all hard-SF settings. Sharp edges, harsh color palettes, hard surfaces, ugly fonts, clinical UIs, they all make for a tiring place to spend an evening. I love reading SF but I've never been as keen on watching it and I certainly don't have a hankering to live the life vicariously.

Of course, one of the key aspects of Tad Williams trilogy is that Otherland can, quite literally, be anywhere, anything you want it to be. So it may be that, once I step through a portal at Lambda Mall and emerge in Four Square or Water Isle it won't feel that way at all.

We'll see, because I am, at least, interested enough to go and look. Otherland does have something. Whether it has enough of whatever it is to make a mark in the current climate I doubt but it's here now and while the opportunity to explore it exists it would be foolish not to take it. Bugs permitting, naturally.

What lies ahead for the rest of this year I wouldn't presume to say. I have no plans at all, for example, to try Black Desert, which launches in March, but I would have said the same about Blade and Soul.  

Dragon Nest:Oracle, another game that, like City of Steam, I've let slide, has just had a massive technical failure, on the back of which I've re-downloaded and installed it via Steam because my local client no longer works.

WvW, which had seemed moribund to the point of collapse has suddenly revived to the extent that last night there were fifty people in the queue for Eternal Battlegrounds and big fights on the other maps at the same time.

There's really no second-guessing all this stuff. My big plan for 2016 is not to have a plan. I'll just take it as it comes.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

New, Shiny : Blade and Soul

Like Ironweakness I'm finding a lot more to like about Blade and Soul than I expected when I downloaded it on a whim last week. Kaozz promised in the comments to my first impressions post that "the game gets a bit more interesting as you move along past the initial zone" and it certainly does that.

After a few short sessions my Summoner has reached the heady heights of level 9. Leveling seems well-paced so far. Just killing things gives a not-insignificant amount of xp, which is something I always like to see, but the greater part comes from questing, as usual with every MMO since WoW.

There are quest hubs but thankfully the flow from one to another feels relatively natural. You can move back and forth between them quite freely although there do seem to be triggers that open new options, as you'd expect, so there is a degree of direction. The quests themselves are anything but original and some of the dialog, while efficiently translated, seems strangely stilted but I've seen much, much worse.

The bulk of the petty tasks I've been asked to carry out for guards, gravediggers and minor officials have verged on the believable. There's a peculiar meta-textual frisson hanging behind much of the action, partly encouraged by the thought-balloons in which NPCs counterpoint their own bluster and blow with self-doubts or self-delusion.

Sometimes, they also seem more acutely aware than the average questgiver of the ironies of their position. I can't recall having heard so many excuses and explanations and apologies in other quest-based MMOs as people apparently rooted to the spot send me to do jobs they could and should be doing for themselves. I'm finding it quite amusing.

Visually the game is beautiful yet weirdly artificial. There's a really great sense of space with the mountains looming at the back and the sky a great bowl overhead. The shoreline has a spritz of salt air about it and the bamboo jungle looks dense and deep.

Everything is so clean, though. The light glows, the trees look like someone comes out in the evening and polishes the trunks - it's like a managed park rather than farmland or wilderness. And the buildings still sometimes have a sense of movie flats about them.

There are some very odd transitions as you move from area to area. We're all used to the way that a snowy area in an MMO can slide unfeasibly into some lava-strewn badland but Blade and Soul slips from day to night at the turn of a graveyard path and then back again around the next corner. There's probably an explanation. I imagine magic has something to do with it.

Nevertheless I like it. It's intensely photogenic, which is handy because Blade and Soul categorically has the best screenshot UI I have ever used in an MMO. Not only does the game give written and spoken confirmation every time you take a picture but you get an in-game album in which you can open and inspect the shots you've just taken. It's fantastically useful for someone who not only takes screenshots obsessively for the fun of it but also to serve as illustrations for pieces like this.

Solo gameplay is solid. Fights are still easy and I still haven't needed to learn what most of my abilities do. There are solo dungeons from very early on in the game. I found myself half-way through one without even realizing that's where I was until I noticed the mobs weren't respawning.

They're decent dungeons, too, in that they look like actual places, where the inhabitants seem to have a reason to be holed up. They even have something to do that's superficially convincing. Mostly guarding boxes and patrolling paths but hey, it's better than literally just standing there in empty rooms.

Loot, rewards and skill progression is making my head hurt. Things I receive often seem to be locked and require keys, which I also have, although I'm not sure if they're the right ones. There are things called "Soul Shields" that drop in pieces that look uncannily like slices of pizza. You put them together to make complete sets with set bonuses or you can mix and match. You can have a spare one as well.

There's a lot of that sort of thing. The behind-the-scenes part is very busy. It feels like an MMO that's been around for a good while, which I guess it has. There's that sense of systems piled on top of systems that you get in games that have been running for a year or three. Odd to find such complexity in a supposedly brand new game but maybe it's an Eastern thing - I remember the much-missed Zentia, of which Blade and Soul sporadically reminds me, feeling much the same.

I know, though, that if I should end up playing B&S for a while, all this will come to seem like second nature. When I think of the insane complexities of systems in EQ2, for example, this really is nothing. When you become invested in these worlds and the games set within them, confusion gives way to welcome fascination.

And perhaps I might play Blade and Soul for a while, after all. It has a good vibe. Not only does it look good and feel good to play, the conversation in open chat has been refreshingly positive. There's a constant flurry of LFG requests for dungeons with intriguing names. Wouldn't you want to party up to go visit the Pot Dog Shelter?

When some poor inadequate who didn't get enough love as a child started up in chat about some trolling enterprise he had going with new players the reaction was particularly heartening. No-one was amused but neither did anyone call him names or swear at him. The reaction was one of bemused sadness. "Why would you do that? That's not nice!", someone said.

I blocked him along with a couple of hyperactive gold sellers but that was the only disruption to the peaceful, casual, lighthearted mood as I went about my merry way poisoning bandits and setting their homes on fire while my disturbing black and white cat cheered me on. Good times.

There's something about Blade and Soul that makes me doubt whether I could ever become drawn into its world the way I fell into Tyria or even Telon. Something about the sheen and the glow and the oversized structures makes everything feel a little ephemeral, unreal. As Ironweakness says, though, who knows? Maybe I will end up with character at the cap and no real idea how or why I got there.

Wouldn't be the first time.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

H1Z1: Take 2

Yesterday Daybreak Games announced that H1Z1, their already-aging but still Early Access zombie survival game, will split in two. Reaction has been predictably negative, as reaction to just about anything with DBG's name attached tends to be. Thanks, Smed.

Keen sums up the general feeling with the very title of his post on the subject: WTF is Daybreak Doing? The very idea of marketing and selling the same game in discrete packages to different audiences is outrageous, desperate, just plain nuts.


I've thought for years - probably since around the time Planes of Power codified the raid end-game - that many MMOs could, very effectively and sensibly, be partitioned off into segments and sold and marketed separately. I used to say back then, often, usually to a thudding silence, that Raiding, just to take one example, is and should be a game in itself, not a whole second game bolted on to the end of a perfectly good existing one.

As a non-raider playing EverQuest at that time, I'd have jumped at the option to play on a non-raiding server with its own development team, dedicated to producing and maintaining non-raid content. Over the years we've all seen how MMOs have to try to provide entirely separate, unconnected, often mutually destructive progression ladders to satisfy cadres of players who have no time, respect or interest for each other. We've seen how well that works for everyone.

Balancing the whole game to meet the needs and requirements of Raiding, PvP, RvR, open world PvE, instanced group PvE, soloing, leveling, roleplaying, crafting, housing and decorating etc etc etc turns almost all long-lasting games into rats' nests of dirty compromise. Diminishing resources end up chasing increasing demands, serving legacy interest groups that frequently contain the game and the company's bitterest critics: players who profess to hate the game they're playing and what it's become, yet still won't leave.

It's not as if splitting a game into two parts (or three or a dozen) is even anything new. It's been happening ever since Ultima Online span off its consensual PvP/PvE shard,Trammel back at the turn of the millennium.  When it comes down to it, how different is having two versions of H1Z1 for sale in the digital store from a game having PvE and PvP servers? Or indeed, as EQ and EQ2 used to do, having four different PvP ruleset servers, half a dozen varying PvE ruleset servers, F2P servers, Premium servers and even a Pay-to-Win server (remember The Bazaar?).

Just about every MMO I've ever played that's been successful enough to hang around for a year or two has gone down this route. Almost the only exceptions are the few that operate on a single shard like EVE, and even that's a poor counterpoint, with CCP spinning their IP across multiple games on different platforms, while sharing the same universe.

The idea that having two versions of H1Z1 will negatively impact development resources is just fatuous. Development resources in MMOs are already fatally compromised and always have been. ArenaNet, operating what is unarguably one of the genres bigger and more successful MMOs right now, has a massive development team and yet they profess, perpetually, to be heavily stretched.

The current extensive and much-needed WvW revamp had to wait years beyond the point
at which everyone could clearly see it was urgently needed, simply because resources were not available. Each new, major game development, change or project cannibalizes resources from all the others, spawning anger and resentment in every group that, often rightly, feels its own needs are being ignored.

Splitting a game like H1Z1 into two entirely separate games may not alleviate any of that stress. It may not produce any additional resources or make anything happen any faster. It may not make players feel any happier that their chosen format is getting a fair shake compared to its mirror.

It may not, in other words, make anything better but I fail to see how it can make anything worse. At the very least it adds some clarity. If you want an open world zombie survival game, you can buy one and play it without having to work around a bunch of fight-to-the-death FPS crazies. And vice versa.

What if you want both? Well buy both. It's two games. You want two games? Buy two games. That, as we all know, is the point, because, as we've seen from Trion's recent inelegant (okay, ugly) revisions to their payment model, the latest in a lengthening line of attempts by MMO producers to row back from the supposed commitments they made to "Free To Play", a model whose mechanics and modes most of them seemingly didn't fully grasp at the time, getting MMO players to pay for anything is hard.

I'm the worst possible example. F2P has been fantastic for me. Hardly any MMO locks anything that interests me behind a paywall these days. All the bits of the game that I relish - exploring, leveling, pottering around in low level zones imagining I'm myself aged about eight, just after the last coat in the wardrobe gave way to snowy pine branches - they're all there waiting for me to enjoy them for nothing.

Like most people, so it seems, I don't spend anything in most MMOS. Not on premium perks nor in the cash shop. Great for me until the game closes down. And I don't want the game to close down. Any of the games. I understand that bills have to be paid and I sympathize with companies that need to come up with ways of making that happen. Especially unambiguous, straightforward ways, like selling me content in discrete packages - DLC, Expansions, Games.

So, if splitting MMOs into their component parts and selling only the bits that interest people to those people, separately, turns out to be more financially rewarding for the people making and maintaining those games then so be it. I don't have any ethical objections.

The big question, of course, is whether it will bring in more money. Maybe it will just split the same audience and make no difference. Maybe it will put some people off, who would like to play both styles but balk at paying twice for the privilege. We'll have to wait and see.

It seems to me, though, to be an experiment very well worth trying. If ANet announced tomorrow that they were going to split the revamped WvW from the base game when it launches and sell it as a standalone with separate development I'd be open-minded. If they announced they were going to spin off an open-world version of GW2 with one-time events, no raiding and no pseudo end-game I'd be ecstatic.

Harder, of course, to pull something like that off in a game that's up and running, which is why Early Access, that period when we players get to watch the band rehearsing before the real show starts, is a better time to try something like this, see how it flies.

Many MMO fans, particularly the more jaded, have been agitating for years for the genre to move to a tighter, more focused, niche-based approach. This is something of a move in that direction and worth encouraging for that reason alone. It probably won't change much but if it should turn out to be successful it may have influence. If there's one thing MMO companies do understand, after all, it's how to borrow each others' clothes.

So, good luck with your new twins, Daybreak. Now can we have some kind of update on EQNext?

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide