Posts Tagged ‘SWG’

The list of MMORPGs I have played over the years since starting SWG in 2003 is a relatively substantial one. SWG through the CU (but not NGE), City of Heroes, Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings (Beta only), Saga of Ryzom, Vanguard, and most recently World of Warcraft. The game I’ve played the longest (with periodic interruptions of months to as much as a year) is City of Heroes (I just hit my 36 month vet reward on that game, which is roughly 52 months old). The most recent one I tried was WOW.

My time in WOW did not last very long. It was fun for the first 10 levels or so, and then turned into a very boring, slow, tedious grind. But it wasn’t the combat grind, or the auction house grind, or the crafting grind that finally did WOW in for me. No, what killed WOW for me was spending nearly an hour just traveling from one place to another to turn in a quest, and then back again. In short, what murdered WOW for me was TRAVEL TIME.

Now, Travel Time in WOW is really not beyond the pale compared to other MMORPGs. One strange element to the game is that there is no sprint or burst run, which I find exceedingly odd. Most charactes move at a rate that could be characterized as a “fast walk,” and even mounts only move you as fast as what COH would call a “sprint.”  It will take you many minutes, even mounted, to get from point A to point B… usually through an area full of grey cons that holds not one feature of current (i.e., your level) interest. The monotony and tediousness of WOW travel is, I would say, typical of MMORPGs rather than unusual, and they do provide “flying mount” points to allowyou to move from point A to B more rapidly… but it’s not instantaneous, and flying a long distance with bats = time to go use the powder room or have a snack (it takes many minutes, though of course is much faster than running).

The problem WOW had, at least from my end, was that at the same time as I was playing it, I was still playing COH… and I am a long-time vet of COH. Starting at 14th level in COH, your character can (and mine always do) get a “travel power.” These include Flight, which is slow but essentially risk-free; SuperJump which is much faster but entails risk (each time you “touch down” in a zone your level or higher there is a chance you might land next to some aggro spawns — though it’s not hard to avoid them); Superspeed, which is a very fast travel mode but has no vertical ability, annoying in the zones with high vertical relief, of which there are many; and Teleport, which is the fastest mode and just as safe as flying (if you teleport up in the air) but annoying in that it requires constant clicking. The slowest of these travel modes, flight, will move you roughly as fast as the fastest possible travel mode in WOW (flying transport mounts).

In general, I select SuperJump as my travel power… it has no annoying features (like being unable to scale vertical surfaces), it’s quite fast (equivalent to roughly 70 mph), and it’s a lot of fun to hop around from roof to roof. The speed and convenience of SuperJump has a huge impact on my gameplay. From the point where I receive a mission, it’s usually less than a minute to get to the mission door and start the mission. Contrast this with over an hour a few times in WOW. In short, once you get to 14th level, the amount of “travel time sink” you are faced with is minimal — nearly non-existent. By 30th level, when your SuperJump power has gotten faster, you can jump longer and higher between “touch downs”, and you have probably enhanced it with a Jump enhancer to make it even better, you are zooming around the COH zones and getting to missions really quickly. Add to that the “cell phone” feature once you do a few missions for a contact, and you can literally spend an hour in COH doing 3 20-minute missions, with only seconds of down-time between them, if you so choose.

And of course, when I am in the mood for missions rather than travel, I do indeed so choose.

Now, it is often objected by folks who either like travel itself, or at least like the “realism” that travel brings to a game, that not having long-term travel can hinder certain elements of the game. For example, rapid-fire travel makes the world feel smaller. I don’t find this to be the case in COH, but part of that is due to the fact that the world is limited to a huge city. Still, the city does not feel small… it’s clearly as large as all 5 buroughs of NYC put together. Some of the zones can be many miles across (Independence Port is 2.5 miles long and over a mile wide, for instance). And yet, travel between zones is instantaneous (on the metro), and travel within a zone is very quick (with Flight, Superspeed, etc). I think the reason the city in COH feels large is because (a) the zones are large, and you still have to travel through them… the sense that you are moving FAST, helps you feel like you are also moving a LONG DISTANCE, and (b) there are lots of zones (30 or so), which makes you realize how huge the city really is once you get a feel for it.  I think COH has hit on the right balance of travel options to give players a good feel for the city size, while still minimizing the amount of time wasted in mindless (and not-fun) travel.

A second issue with speedy travel powers is that players might tend not to explore. There are often “Easter eggs” hidden in the landscape, and if you can just fly over it in 2 minutes, will you ever find them? In my experience this is not an issue in COH. Indeed, COH has 122 “exploration badges” that can be located. Many of these are in places that have no obvious physical features — instead being something like a normal-looking rooftop that just so happens to be the sight of a battle years ago between Statesman and Lord Recluse. There may be no graphical feature to distinguish it, but if you land on the roof or touch it in the right spot, you get a badge. Not only have the players found all 122 of these badges collectively, but many players have earned them all. My main character, Comet Flare, has has SuperJump since level 14, and yet, so far, she has 89 exploration badges to date… and most of the remaining ones are in zones that she is not a high enough level to explore safely yet. And Comet is by no means one of the highest badge collectors on my SuperGroup (guild), let alone my server. Indeed whole websites have sprung up like “badge-hunter.com” to take care of this for players and help them keep track of what badges they have earned, and which ones are left to earn. The history badges (of which Comet has 15 out of 17, again missing ones she is not a high enough level for yet), also require you to find specific spots in the city, and this time to click on plaques that bring up a popup window telling you some little tidbit about the history of the COH world.

What I have found from this experience is that far from discouraging players, including myself, from finding the “Easter eggs” in the world, giving me a convenient means of travel has given me a reason to look for them. Because the REST of my time is not being wasted on travel, I have time to just hop around the city (or fly around it, or teleport around it) looking for interesting spots. And I would say I have found just about every cool spot in just about ever zone in COH (Fraktal, my main, has found more spots, as a level 50, but I wasn’t using badge hunter when I played her, and badges hadn’t been implemented yet when she found some of the spots).

In the end, one thing I have definitely concluded from my joint WOW-COH experience is that I can no longer stomach the slow, plodding forms of travel most MMORPGs force upon their players. COH has spoiled me, by showing me that not only can travel be fun and quick in a game, but the things that people generally claim travel would ruin, have not been ruined in COH, but been enhanced. The world does not seems mall. The Easter eggs are still found by many players (indeed, finding them is a hobby to most of us). And I have not missed out on one drop of content. On the contrary, I have experienced it ALL, because I can get right to it without having to waste any time.

I don’t think I’ll be able to play any future MMORPGs unless they are at least as good with travel as COH is. I am hoping Champions Online will be… but I’m not sure if any other game will.

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After many years of playing other games (SWG, COH, Vanguard, GW), I finally in March or so, decided to try out World of Warcraft. I got the trial, which went well enough that I bought the game and expansion (Burning Crusade) in a single boxed set. One of my oldest and dearest friends plays WOW, and after some months of trying to convince him to at least try some other game without success, I decided to try joining him in WOW. Below I will post my review of the game to this point.

I will state up front, and this is a huge caveat, that I have only gotten one character past level 20 (and one is just at 20), and even that one is only 25. I have not grouped up much, because my friends in game are all level 70. I have not raided, not done any PVP, and only done a couple of dungeon instances. So, my experience is mostly soloing in the wide world, doing quests as given for my level by the quest-givers, except for those that require groups (since I haven’t grouped much). I personally don’t enjoy “pickup groups”, so I don’t do them. Keep these facts in mind as you read my review, and it’ll be a fair one as far as it goes.

Graphics 8/10
The graphics are reasonably good in WOW. They are certainly nothing spectacular, but given the hardware (low) requirements, they are better than I would have expected. There is a definite “style” to it — most features are greatly exagerated rather than being realistic as they would be in a game like Vanguard. For example, if one stands on the steps of some of the blood elf buildings, the “banister” (which is normally designed to be used as a support for walking up stairs, and therefore in a realistic game would be approximately waist high) is well over the tallest character’s head. I have seen characters with weapons that (to scale) appear to be about 12 feet long and 6 feet wide. Such weapons are clearly unrealistic, but they fit within the style of the game. I will admit that this unrealistic/exaggerated stile is not really to my taste, but it doesn’t come into play frequently enough to bother me all that much. Graphical elements such as spell and visual effects are reasonably well done, again, within the scope of the game’s hardware requirements. Graphically and SFX-wise, this game is certainly no City of Heroes (which came out the same year, incidentally)… but it’s quite good even by today’s (4+ year later) standards.

Character Design/Development – 5/10

Character design is really where WOW falls down on its face rather badly. Visually, all characters of a given race and gender are basically identical except for some minor variations in hair style or color. For example, one tauren is more or less indistinguishable from another, especially once they have all their gear and armor on. This is in contrast to other games, just as old if not older, such as Star Wars Galaxies, where you could control every detail of your character’s face and body, or City of Heroes, where you don’t have that sort of fine control but, for example, there are something like 100 different facial styles to choose from. In WOW once you choose your race and class, you are going look the same as any other character of the same race/class (wear the same kind of armor, have the same appearance, and so on). And so, appearance-wise, all characters of a given type are nearly the same.

Another important element to character design, however, is the statistical or “game mechanic” side, and WOW suffers here as well. For a given class, your entire character progression for stats, as well as for all skills and spells, is pre-determined. When you level up, stat increases are automatic. Skills unlock every 2 levels, and the unlocks are the same for everyone. As there is no limit (outside of being unable to afford them, which I’ve not yet seen happen to level 25) to how many skills you can learn at a given level (of those that have unlocked), there is no reason not to learn them, which is the only semblance of freedom that one has. In other words, let’s say at level 10, the skill “Holy Warrior” (made up as an example) unlocks for your paladin. It unlocks for every paladin at that level, and other than you trying to be silly, there’s no reason not to take it (it’s cheap to buy, and even if you don’t use it, it does not harm you to possess the skill).

The only real way that any variety at all can be introduced into a character is via the “Talent” system. This seems wide-open at first, with each class able to choose talents from three different specializations. For example, Paladins can choose from the “Holy” specialization, which is about healing people and fighting undead, or the “Protection” specialization, which is shields and auras and such for tanking, or the “Retribution” specialization, which is all about doing damage (in COH we’d call it “scranking”). You get 1 point per level to level 70, or about 61 total points, so there seems to be some freedom here. However, if you look carefully at the talent progression and how one buys them and how they unlock other talents, you will quickly realize that for most classes and most play styles, the only real option here is to choose one and pour all, or most, of your talents into it. For example, for soloing, most people recommend a build that puts 48 or more points into Retribution, which allows you to buy almost all of the Retribution tree, and leaves no room to do more than mildly dabble in the other trees. Building a “20/20/20” Paladin, while allowed in the game, really wouldn’t be very effective in the upper level game, so although it’s possible, no one does it.

The talent system is the real savior for WOW in this category, at least as far as it goes. If this were not here, all characters of a given race/class would be 100% identical. As it is, they’re about 75% the same anyway… but at least that’s an improvement. I’d give WOW a 1/10 in this category if not for talents. As it is, I think even 5/10 is pushing it.

Game system 6/10
WOW’s game system is one of the harder ones to rate. By “game system,” I mean things like how combat works in terms of tactics, button clicks, grouping mechanics, and the like, as well as how things like quests, mining, skinning, crafting, and the economy work. In terms of actual performance, WOW’s game system is bug free and rock solid. On the other hand, it’s not very interesting or engaging, at least to me. WOW seems to be built around the common, but really frustrating (to me) game design philosophy that “work = fun”. I think the problem here is the simplicity of the game engine. For example, combat is exceedingly simple and dull in WOW. You pretty much pick one guy about your level, and fight him one on one, mostly letting your character auto-attack, while throwing a “special” (skill, spell, talent) in every once in a while. For example, as my paladin, I start a seal on the target that makes him take double holy damage, then put a seal on myself that adds holy damage to my attacks. That takes 3 button presses. Then I sit there and watch my character auto-attack while I do nothing until the target dies. If I happen to get into trouble for some reason, I have 2 possible buttons I can click (realistically) — the Stun attack, which I can do once a minute, or the “break seal” move which will cancel the holy damage buff and do instant holy damage (lots of it) to the target. Then I can re-up the seal or something. There are some other skills and moves available, though not many, but there’s no reason to use any of them, as they all result in an overall decrease in DPS (which is the only thing that matters in a straight one-on-one combat). This is fun for about 30 minutes, and then becomes boring.

Similarly, quests are mind-numbingly monotonous in most cases. When they tell you to “go collect 10 bear paws”, you might think “Well, 10 bears, no big deal.” But you’d be wrong… a given bear only drops a “paw” (despite the fact that most bears have four of them while alive) maybe 10% of the time. So “Bring me 10 bear paws” really means “kill 100 bears.” As each one takes roughly a minute to find, kill, etc, this is a good hour and a half long quest, at least if one does it solo. Also, the drop rates are low enough with some of these that a few times I’ve not been sure I was killing the right thing, because the quest item didn’t drop until I had nailed 8 or 10 of them. The very first time this happened I actually abandoned the quest thinking I was either wrong about the target, or bugged (the second day I think, so at a low level). I figured it out by luck shortly thereafter, where I was asked to get harpy claws or something, the FIRST guy dropped a claw, and then 10 or 12 in a row didn’t, then another dropped… and I finally realized that there must be a 5-25% chance (varying by mob/quest) of getting the needed drop… I then of course went back, picked up the abandoned quest, and started that one over.

By the same token, mining, skinning, and especially crafting are all insanely tedious. I spent several hours one time collecting copper to do crafting with, which let me make a small number of craftable items, none of which could be sold at auction, or used by me (I was too high a level to bother with them)… so it’s just grinding throw-away stuff. The skill-up process for crafting and gathering is so entirely boring and objectionable (and only soloable), that I just gave up on it entirely after a few weeks. Only Vanguard’s system is worse (and not by much). Skinning is not too horrible but all the other gathering professions are an exercise in tedium.

Finally, the main feature of WOW that most people seem to like is the “instance.” The problem here is that instances require a level range and group size, and if you don’t have that, you’re stuck. One can, of course, sit there in global chat for an hour shouting “LFG!” but as I refuse to waste my time doing that, I’m mostly left unable to do dungeons. I joined a guild of a friend of mine, but they are all level 70, and of course, there is no “sidekick” feature in WOW the way there is in City of Heroes (after 4 years you’d think they’d notice this excellent system and copy it, as they’ve copied most of their other systems from other games). This means of course, that I can’t realistically play through an instance with them. Oh sure, they can come into a low level instance and wipe the whole map for me so I can get a quest done, but I don’t see much of a point to doing that. By refusing to let instances scale  (to party size and even level within tolerances)like  COH does, WOW has made it so I basically can’t do instances. On the other hand, even if I did them, the ones I’ve been in have seemed like little more than collections of enemy gangs tougher than, but otherwise not much different from, the ones you’d find on the outside. The bad guys are “elites” inside the dungeon, so that means you can’t solo them (unless you’re way above their level), and have to be in a group against them. I’m sure when in a 5-man team in an instanced dungeon, the combat is much more interesting thant it would be solo. But outside of this one feature, the rest of the game system is an exercise in tedium. I won’t even mention how you can’t get a mount until level 40, and even when you do, travel time is still a huge time sink.

In the end I don’t consider the WOW game system to be anything special. It’s mostly a bunch of grinding, and I don’t see any real innovation here. Combat is slow and plodding compared to games like COH or the launch version of SWG.

Role-Playing – N/R
I can’t rate roleplaying in WOW, mostly because I am not on a roleplaying server. This probably would surprise most people, but the problem is that a good friend of mine (and several “friends-in-law” — i.e., his friends, who have now become friends of mine by association in other games) is on a non-RP server, in a non-RP guild. I’d much rather try my hand at RPing, although to be honest I don’t really find the WOW world all that interersting to RP about. But in any case, since I have not tried it, I cannot rate it. I did hop onto an RP server for a while at one point just to see, and although I saw lots of folks around, nobody seemed to be RPing… but it’s not a big enough sampling for me to say for sure.

Performance 10/10

WOW is one of the best-performing games I have seen. My system is way more powerful than it needs, and even COH doesn’t lag on my system (and COH is a major performance hog), but even given that, WOW is excellent with performance. Lag is rarely evident even with lots of players, NPCs, and PVP going on, and I can easily multi-task with WOW running plus a virus scan going on and so forth.

Sound 9/10
Sound and music are quite good in WOW. Their sound effects for spells are good, and when they bother to put a voice-over into the game (which is not very often) the voices are usually well done. Animals sound realistic, monsters sound monsterish, weapons and spell effects sound good. The music is quite nice and I like how each area’s “theme” is enhanced by having the music match it. This is one of WOW’s better features.

User Interface – 5/10
The WOW interface is hard to rate, mainly because it can be modified (“modded”) and the popularity of the game has led to thousands of “modders” with different add-ons to the game. When played “vanilla,” without any mods at all, the user interface, to be blunt, sucks eggs. In fact I would say that WOW, for all the trillions of dollars and billions of users (hyperbole) they have, has the worst user interface I’ve ever seen in any MMORPG — and that’s saying something, given the incompetent manner in which the Vanguard UI was programmed. WOW’s is not, of course, buggy like Vanguard’s, but it’s entirely feature-less. Even simple, basic functions like being able to use the mouse to move elements of the UI around, such as moving your hotbar or your character skills screen, are not avaiable in the distributed version of the game.

The lack of waypoints or any meaningful way to track and organize quests is also rather surprising, again given the age of the game, and the amount of money they have to throw at it if they so desired. Here again, perhaps they wanted to leave this to the modding community, but this seems like it is something that is required for minimal in-game functionality. The idea that they can expect you to remember where “Jacob Runesword” is perhaps days after you were given the quest, is just preposterous. This is something the game should have done at least at the base level. COH, for example, has a very primitive Waypointing system, but it’s enough to find where you’re going and find your way back.

Now, the flip side of all this is that, along with a very basic (almost ameteurish) interface, they provided users with the ability to modify it, as I said above. And a lot of users have come along and taken care of most of these issues. TomTom + Lightheaded deals with quest and NPC tracking very effectively. Cartographer lets you add map notes. Auctioneer lets you scan and track the economy. There are other mods that I haven’t installed yet for tracking tradeskills and so forth. Many of these things are what I would consider “base” functionality, and the fact that, again, even the mess that is Vanguard managed to do most of these things even at its questionable launch, let alone now, makes me wonder why WOW did not bother to include some of these things. A friend suggested that the very moddability is why WOW did not include them, and perhaps that’s the case…. But the idea that every time a damn patch is uploaded for the main game, I have to go to three different websites and track down about 12 different add-ons just to give the game the same functionality that Vanguard, COH, SWG, and GW all had up front, is not a point in WOW’s favor.

Almost all the points here come from the fact that it is moddable, and that the modders have done a sweet job on covering all the holes left by the WOW development team. If I were to rate the vanialla UI as it comes out of the box, frankly I’d give ’em a 0.

Community – 7/10

The WOW community is huge and hard to rate. Many people have accused it of being a more immature community, but I’m not sure if I concur. There certainly is a huge amount of immature behavior on the WOW forums (both official and unofficial). On the other hand, all those modders out there who make, maintain, and offer for free all of those excellent mods like Auctioneer, Lightheaded, TomTom, Cartographer, TitanPanel, and so forth, are members of the community who are constructive, helpful, and doing these things out of the goodness of their hearts. Overall I’d say the WOW community is about average.

Fun – 5/10
My biggest problem with WOW is that it is just plain not very much fun. A friend of mine who tried WOW for the free month and then re-upped several times hoping it would be better each time put it well, saying, “Anytime I went back previously, it wasn’t a day or so before I started getting the feeling that the whole thing is one magnificently-produced timesink and not immediately fun enough for me to keep playing.” This is pretty much how I feel about WOW. It’s a nicely produced (other than the UI) game that is lovingly crafted to be a very high quality time sink, but not to be actually any fun. Oh, I’m sure the developers think it’s fun, and lots of players think it’s fun… but I really don’t.

I do recognize that what many people consider to be the “best parts of WOW” — Raids, PvP tournaments, and 5-man dungeon instances, are things I haven’t done much (or at all)… Though of course, other than the 5-man instances, those things really are not available to me until I hit level 70 anyway. The unfortunate decision was made long ago in WOW that basically “the real fun begins at level cap”, and most people just “grind” through levels 1-69 to get to the fun. I’m not a fan of doing “work” to get to the fun, and as a result, I’m probably not going to be long for WOW at this point.

One might ask why I play it at all… the answer is my friends (mentioned above). It’s worth a tedious game a few hours a week to interact with them. At one point I entertained the notion of one day hitting level 70 and playing with them, but it’s quite clear that I don’t have the stomach to do all the insane grinding that WOW requires in order to get to 70 (and by the time I get there, level cap will be raised to 80!).

Overall – 7/10
World of Warcraft is an “OK” game for an MMORPG… It does what most of the others do, and does those things without bugs, though also without a lot of extra bells and whistles (e.g., lame character creation, lame UI). It’s far too much work and too little fun for my taste, but milage will vary according to what people like. I know lots of people who are utterly addicted to it (whereas I have to force myself to log in a few hours a week in the hopes of interacting with one of my dearest friends — and would not log in at all but for him).

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What SOE needs to apologize for

Almost 2 years ago, SOE totally revamped and changed Star Wars Galaxies for a second time, and completely alienated the majority of its players once and for all. In the time since, hardly any of those “veteran” players have returned. Some of us take refuge in places where we still post our anger and disappointment, two years later, about the destruction of the game we loved. On MMORPG.COM, one of the writers posted asking “What can SOE do to win us back?” And in answer to his own question he said that one thing they absolutely must do is apologize for the entire thing. I agree with him, but I think there’s more to it than that, and this post will be about why I think that.

See, here’s the thing: They’ve said a few times either by implication or once or twice directly that the NGE “was a mistake.” But my concern here even if they apologize is, why do they think it was a mistake? It’s a mistake to them because they lost subscribers and company rep. On the other hand, it was a mistake, by my lights, because what they did was unethical and inexcusable. That is, they think it was bad because it had a bad end. I think it’s bad because, whatever the ends, the means were unacceptable. If we let them get away with “the end was bad so we apologize” then we are just as bad as they are, allowing the end to justify the means.

So, if they want to truly apologize, what they have to do is back up and say, “The end we were trying to achieve did not justify the unacceptable means we used to get there.” These unacceptable means include (1) overtly and knowingly misleading people about the expansion to get them to buy it when they otherwise would not; (2) as part of that deception, purposely waiting until the day after everyone’s CC account was charged to announce the massive upcoming change; (3) making all sorts of minor changes to the CU to purposely preserve the illusion that they were working on it and keep the NGE a secret; (4) refusing to even remotely consider that what the vet players were saying had some validity; (5) caring about the potential market more than the current fans.

They have never apologized for any of that (and I doubt they ever will). When they say they “made a mistake,” I do not get the feeling that they thought any of those 5 things were, themselves, a mistake, but rather, they think that “something” they did with the NGE lost them subscriptions. I’d bet you dollars to doughnuts most of them have no idea why they got so hammered in the subscription/reputation department. Their closest answer seems to be that once they found out we wouldn’t like it, they should’ve launched it more slowly or maybe on alternate servers or something. But they don’t understand why we didn’t like it. Yes some of that was them changing our old game, but the main factor was them utterly dismissing long-time, multi-year customers as irrelevant and thinking they could treat us any old crappy way they wanted and we’d still re-up our subs.

Now, this is partly our fault, because we HAD been loyal to the game through a lot of BS. The rangers and BEs can tell you about this. Skill boxes that had no skills… skills that didn’t work… recipe ingredients that never existed… uncraftable camo kits… etc… They stuck with it and were loyal, and I’m not really faulting that. After all I stuck with it through all sorts of Entertainer problems. But SOE took from this “No matter what we pull these idiot players still have 3 accounts each and keep paying us so we can do no wrong.

Of course what they did not count on was that it was not Star Wars that we were loyal to (the only thing, literally, that stayed the same from launch to NGE is the Star Wars theme, however corrupted and mis-handled), but the original game system, with all its flaws. But again, by sticking through the CU, which should have been unacceptable to most of us, and all the problems for months and years, they just thought they could keep messing with us.

This does not excuse their behavior… I am not blaming the victim. But, when they decided to do the 5 unethical and unacceptable things I mentioned above, if anyone raised objections, I’m sure that they said, “Don’t worry, these players live to be abused. Look how we’ve treated them so far. We’ve got them hooked.” And it is that attitude (“Don’t worry, even though what we are doing is wrong the players will let us”) that they need to be sorry for. That’s the part that was unethical. Making a mistake is a mistake, and is not, by itself, unethical. Knowing you are doing wrong, doing evil, and doing it anyway just because you think you can, that is unethical.

So, if SOE wants me to change my tune about SWG, they not only need to apologize, for “making mistakes”, but they need to be entirely specific and repentant about the reasons why these were mistakes. In short they would need to release an official statement that says something like this:

“We did purposely trick people into buying an expansion using false advertising, and we apologize for that. We knew you would all hate the NGE, and that is why we waited to announce it until we charged your CCs for the expansion, and we are sorry we did that. It was wrong. We even tried to deceive you further by making irrelevant changes to the CU that we knew would be over-written by the NGE, and for that we apologize. It was unethical. We tossed aside everything our loyal customers said and did, every suggestion they made, because we did not value them as highly as we valued the idea of all those people not playing the game. We listened to people who didn’t play rather than who did. That was wrong, because our current players had been loyal to us, and we should have repaid that loyalty in kind. We are sorry. For all these things we apologize. We understand why what we did was wrong, and will never do any of those things again.”

That would be a real apology with some teeth.

Of course, we will never get it. But… if they just say, “We’re sorry we rolled out the NGE the way they did,” that means nothing to me. It means not that they are sorry about what they did to us, but about what the NGE did to them.

And so, this is what I think “they need to apologize” has got to mean. Just “we made a mistake, sorry” ain’t gonna cut it with me, or a lot of vets. What they did was not “a mistake” — it was willful set of malicious, dirty tricks designed to scoop in money and disregard customer loyalty, time, effort, etc. It was on purpose, in other words. They only view it as a mistake because it failed, not because it was wrong. And until that changes we have gotten nowhere.

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The online RPGs of today — World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, Star Wars Galaxies, and so forth — all trace their lineage back to the same original source: pen and paper roleplaying games of the 80s and 90s. These are games like Dungeons and Dragons or Champions. One of the “holy grails” of computer game design, particularly designs that allow multiple players to interact, has been the re-creation of the pen-and-paper RPG experience. Unfortunately, though quite good, most pen and paper games do not convert well into an online setting. The reason for this has to do with how time works in the two media.

To see what I mean, let us use the commonly adopted technique in online games of the “time sink.” A “time sink” arises when the designer creates a chunk of the game that has as its purpose just taking up your time. An example would be making your character walk across 10 miles of basically empty terrain to get to a quest or mission area…. It might take half an hour to get from point A to point B, and the only thing you’re doing is wasting a lot of time. Or in Star Wars Galaxies (when it first launched) shuttles took 10 minutes to arrive at the station. Standing around waiting for the next shuttle so you could get to the place you wanted to go, was just a time sink.

As common as this design idea is in online games, it is totally absent from pen and paper games. For example, in D&D, resting was required every so often, but although a lot of time may have passed for the characters, resting is not a time sink in pen and paper D&D for the players. Unless you have a very odd DM, when your characters rest, your game group usually “fast forwards” to the end of the rest period (the DM may roll a 1d8 or something to see if a “wandering monster” attacks but, in the 7/8th of cases where one does not, the rest takes 10 seconds to “game out”). Basically, you say to the DM, “We bar the door with iron spikes, set a guard on our standard watch schedule, and rest 8 hours.” The DM says, “OK, everyone heals 10 HP and gets all their spells back. It’s now 9 AM.” (Or whatever.) And you move on.

In Pen and Paper, you have the ability to “telescope” the time activities take. “We walk down the hall for 100 yards” doesn’t take any longer to say than, “We walk 10 feet.” If nothing interesting happens during that 100 yard trip, the DM just lets you do it that fast. If you’ve cleaned out a dungeon, you might well be able to say, “We head outside and go back to town,” and the DM might roll 1d8, not get a 1, and say, “OK, back in town….” The game-play minutes are thus taken up by important things not by irrelevant things.

One of the serious issues online games have is that in the effort to achieve verisimilitude, they force you to live through every second of your character’s life, and this includes all the boring, tedious parts. That walk 5 miles from town to the dungeon through a low-level area where nothing interesting happens (because you are +10 levels above everything else)? In Pen and Paper, the DM just says, “You arrive without incident.” In an online game, you have to walk it whether it’s easy to get by or not, leading to tedium, boredom and, ultimately, a time sink.

You see, the designers of Pen and Paper games were smart enough to know what was fun. The resting and spell use and HP healing features of a game like D&D are all the way they are because Gygax et al. knew that you would just skip the boring parts. They didn’t expect the DM to make the players sit there feigning sleep for 8 hours (or even 8 minutes) just because their characters were resting. So the rest/spell/heal rules are there to enforce tactical game-play — i.e., you have a limited pool of points, spells, and so on that you can use over a finite series of battles. Say, for these 4 battles, you have this many spells. That means you can’t just “spam fireball” — because you will run out.

In online games this becomes a serious problem, because combat happens so much faster (in D&D, a battle between a party and a band of orcs might take half the night … in an MMORPG it probably takes half a minute, as it did in Neverwinter Nights). If you follow the same ratio, then having to rest every, say, 4 battles might mean once a week in D&D (for the 2 minutes resting takes in terms of book-keeping), but it might happen every 4 minutes in a video game. It then goes from something that adds flavor to the game on occasion, to something that controls the entire game and becomes onerous.

NWN, which is a single player or small group game, not an MMORPG, really didn’t deal with this well either. There were a variety of scripts you could use to make resting limited but not onerous (or at least that was their purpose) but they all had drawbacks and it often was necessary for my game group to replace them (I had a custom one that only allowed resting every 6 “game hours”, or about 12 minutes of play, which we found to be about right for our game-play style).

Frankly I’m not sure what to do about this, but I think games like City of Heros, Guild Wars, and others that just have continuous regeneration probably are more reasonable in an online, continuous-gameplay environment, than the punctuated regeneration that games like NWN, DDO, etc, have. The fundamental problem with punctuated regeneration is that sitting around watching your character not do anything is boring. One way or another that needs to be gotten around… and so far the methods of doing it have not really been satisfying.

Indeed I would go far to say this is one of the “great unsolved problems” of MMORPGs… The first MMORPG that comes up with a good way of making health, endurance, mana, etc, important tactically, without making it onerous to the player, and ultimately a huge time sink, is going to really have something.

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Today I’d like to focus on a common problem that gamers, particularly MMORPG players, have been citing in the computer game industry — namely, that the industry is producing stale, carbon copies of previous games, minor tweaks on prior successes, and is being very unoriginal with what is coming out in the near future. Some have proposed that the industry has lost its creative juice, and is running dry of originality.

I don’t think the industry is “dry”, in the sense that there’s nobody creative out there in the business of trying to make games. Instead, I think what happens is the process of game development is costly and so investors and those holding the purse-strings naturally gravitate toward that which seems, to them at least, to be less risky. In this case, it is less risky to produce a game that follows a proven and successful formula (the basic EQ/WOW formula) than to try and create something innovative that is totally unusual.

And to be fair to the purse-string-holders you can’t blame them. After all, if they made something totally unique, it could be a hit, but it could be a huge flop. On the other hand, if they copy WOW, they can be assured that probably enough people will try it and like it that they can at least make back most if not all of their initial funds outlay… so the chances of a catastrophic loss (such as investing $10 million and making back less than $1 million before sunsetting the servers) are minimized.

Of course, I’d submit that the chances of a massive success are also minimized, because once you’ve “Been there/done that” there is less chance of a breakout success. But again, investors tend to be risk-averse, and real creativity is risk-prone. After all if you aren’t producing a game that is similar to ones you know people like — if it’s totally new and original — then people *might* like it, but you really will have no idea until the game is in later stages of development and it might potentially be too late (with lots of money down the hole then).

I think there are in fact lots of unique, interesting, creative design ideas out there, in that lots of designers and budding developers have them. But the chances of getting them funded are very small… because if they are unique, cool, creative, and interesting, they are risky, and the investors don’t like that.

Of course to the end user, this does make the industry seem rather dry and stale, because all we see are the projects that are funded to completion. The super-nifty ideas that would be awesome if someone would just believe in them, but never get any funding — we never get to see those.

It’s the same in other creative industries. How many novels are out there that are wonderful, but nobody will take the chance of publishing them because they are so creative, and the author untested, that you can’t be sure the publication costs will be recouped by sales? Same thing in the computer industry. The more “out there” the idea, the harder it is to get funding/backing… which means you have a “weed out” process that sadly weeds out the wrong thing — getting rid of originality, rather than weeding out lack of quality.

There is one thing we, as players, can and I think must do (and I hope we do it). We can encourage and support oddball, creative, but fun projects. When a cool new game comes out with a totally different schema, instead of deriding it and flaming it because it doesn’t play just like what we are used to, we need to take a step back and ask if the game is fun on its own merits, regardless of how familiar it seems. After all if in 1935 (or whenever it was published) Parker Brothers had said Monopoly was “too different from checkers” and refused to publish it, look at how much fun millions of people would have been missing out on ever since.

The key as a player is, if you like Monopoly, NOT to expect every other game in the world to play just like Monopoly, but instead, try new games and be willing to enjoy Trivial Pursuit or Scattergories for themselves, not for their likeness to Monopoly.

Sadly too often the MMORPG fan base however does just the opposite. You can blame lots of people at SOE for what happened with both the Combat Upgrade and the New Game Experience, which were major changes to the fundamental game engine but the truth is this — the fans, many of them, had a very hard time accepting that SWG followed a fundamentally different game model than the other MMORPGs at the time (other than perhaps Ultima Online). Hundreds of thousands of people wanted it to basically be EQ with an SW skin, and when they found out it was not, they criticized the game, not for being fundamentally flawed in its own right, but for not being enough like what they were used to in EQ. (This is not to say that the launch version of SWG was without flaw, but rather, that some of the complains, and many of the most explosive arguments, were really based on the difference between SWG and the other “traditional” MMORPGs like EQ and DAOC, and not about the game itself on its own merits.)

You can find other examples in the MMORPG industry, such as the Saga of Ryzom, which like SWG follows a somewhat different game model, and pretty much every day on the Ryzom forums both at mmorpg.com and at Ryzom’s own website, there is at least one active thread where when you boil it all down, someone is compalining that Ryzom does not act exactly like every other traditional MMORPG (WOW, EQ, COH), and therefore is flawed. Again it’s not flawed because it’s internally imabalanced, but because it does not play enough like the older games.

With this kind of feedback it is not hard to see why game development companies are gun shy around truly unique and original ideas. We can’t directly make them change, but we can, as players be more open minded about things, so that when new and innovative ideas come out, we don’t immediately shoot them down for not having the exact features of a pre-existing game.

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