Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fantasy - The Only Frontier?

Over on Moorgard's blog, he wrote a short piece in response to an initial question here. Why are most MMORPGs based in the Fantasy genre?

I don't want to sound jaded or take anything away from the creativity of world designers, but I think Fantasy is the predominant MMORPG genre for a very simple reason: It's EASY.

Let's say for a moment that we decided to make an MMORPG out of a modern-day realistic genre. What types of characters can we offer a player? We have combat, stealth, charisma, and intelligence-based skills in our real world.

Combat in a modern setting is fairly similar to any other genre, even if the weapons aren't always the same. Guns would probably be the weapons of choice for most "adventurers" based on a combination of range and lethality, but more archaic modes of fighting still exist and can be used and identified with.

Stealth wouldn't change too much. Technology can make stealth less viable, but so can magic "detection" spells, racial vision traits, and the like.

Charisma in a realistic world could mean anything from a supermodel using looks to influence NPCs to a diplomat or clergyman invoking a silver tongue. This can all be viable if developers put some effort into it (one of EverQuest 2's flaws, in my opinion, is the utter lack of Charisma. Diplomacy is one of the few things Vanguard got right!)

Intelligence offers a lot of possibilities for careers to roleplay, but not as many in-the-moment systemic options. If a fighter gets shot, a realistic medic can't charge into the middle of a firefight and fix up the wound on an active combatant. A chemist could whip up any number of concoctions to solve a variety of problems, but chemistry takes time and often non-portable equipment. Same goes for, say, Engineers.

The suspension of disbelief inherent in a Fantasy genre where we're told "magic exists" makes it all so much easier. Even when it's not something a PC himself can do, you can always end a plot-line in a manner such as, "With Blud'Spirt the Demon Lord out of the way, Sparklefart the Sage was freed and cast his Spell of Temporal Bridge-Shifting, thus instantly summoning the Ancient Span of Prince Fulbar out of the past, which in turn enabled the Swamp Elf army to cross the Chasm of Shadowy Rainbows."

Drawing up blueprints, hiring a team of contractors, and overseeing the erection of a large bridge just doesn't "pop" in the same way.

Now of course, I'm just talking about a modern, realistic genre here. SOE's upcoming The Agency looks to be set in a semi-realistic environment, but it's a hybrid RPG/Shooter. That's a big difference from a straight-up RPG.

I have played tabletop RPGs in my day that were "realistic" in their genre and rules. They never quite stuck with me, and based on the big-name tabletop games I can think of off of the top of my head, the less-fantastical RPGs never did too well with anyone else, either.

If I'm going to play an RPG, would I really want to play a technical trainer whose height of adventure is braving the wilds of Southern California traffic every day? That's not an RPG - that's a Sim. MMOSIM was tried once, and it didn't work too well.

What if I played an RPG where I was a soldier in Vietnam? There's plenty of grim and grisly plot to keep things interesting, but come on, I learned about that stuff in school. Gaming isn't homework!

We don't play RPGs to do "normal" stuff. We play RPGs to have experiences well beyond the bounds of what could be accomplished in normal life. As such, ANY successful MMORPG that emerges on the market is going to be "fantastic" in nature.

Look at the genres we have seen thusfar. Swords & sorcery "fantasy," science fiction, and superhero. Those are the big MMORPG players. Are any of them REALLY different?
Sci-fi like Star Wars or Star Trek hide behind technobabble to recreate the same basic things that magic objects accomplish in a Fantasy world.

Superhero powers are almost identical to magic in effect, but with different backstories.
Alien races and/or mutants in either of the above are little different than the humanoid races and horrible monsters that we have in an EverQuest.

ANY game (all MMORPGs that I know of) where you can die and re-spawn is purely fantasy. Even sci-fi cloning doesn't make sense if you have retention from after the time you dropped off your DNA.

So fine, basically all MMORPGs can be boiled down to "Fantasy" if we argue things a certain way. But that's not what the original question was. Clearly, the intent of the original question was regarding Swords & Sorcery Fantasy as opposed to other storytelling milieus.

I'm going to stick with my "it's easy" explanation:
  • Origins - Earth's history contains hundreds of creation myths that already have a D&D feel to them (or, more to the point, D&D borrows from ancient creation myths). Making a new story about how a group of gods created the races as their children yadda yadda isn't really new at all. That doesn't make it uninteresting, but it does make it easier than coming up with something totally original.
  • Magic vs. Technobabble - People expect gadgets to come with some means of explaining how they work. Magic just IS. We wiggle our fingers a certain way and fire shoots from our fingertips. Sometimes there's code words involved, or even reagents, but apart from potion recipes, magic rarely has to explain that Part A was glued to Part B and infused with Radioactive Substance Q to produce Effect XX. Magic tends to measure will or intent in ways technology can't.
  • MUDcestors - The graphical MMORPGs of today were born from the text MUDs of yesterday. The text MUDs were designed by (heroic) nerds who wanted to bring their tabletop D&D games to life. D&D was born from the legacy of Tolkien.

What else needs to be said? RPGs have evolved to offer a wide variety of choices over the years, but High Fantasy is where it started. It's been bred into us. We gamers know and comprehend the ins-and-outs of wizards and warriors, mazes and monsters, and all-powerful rings better than anything else.

Game designers are artists. They want to take the visions in their heads and bring them to spectacular life. Most of those visions, thanks to how we grew up, are of talismans and dragons. If that's your passion, then that's the sort of game you'll be best at making.

From a business standpoint, games also need money. EverQuest was huge while Earth & Beyond sucked the pipe. Tell a publisher or venture capitalist that you're going to improve upon the EverQuest formula and out comes the blank check! Now World of Warcraft has the throne, and companies want a piece of THAT fantasy pie instead.

So far, games like City of Heroes and EVE Online haven't been able to achieve a high enough profit margin to spawn many competitors. After debacles like Auto Assault, really unique MMOs are going to be hard to secure funding for. That's what has led us to the market we have today, and I don't think it's going to change significantly in the near future.

...for the record, I'm not necessarily happy about that. I love high fantasy, but I do want to see new things as well!!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Goodbye, Sir!


...about 3 weeks ago, EQ2Flames' administrator "LFG" broke a story on his website that Scott "Gallenite" Hartsman is leaving Sony Online Entertainment and EverQuest 2.

I didn't really know what to think. On one hand, the gaming world eats itself all the time. People get poached from one team to the next, and anyone that studies the MMO market further than the polyps up WoW's arse knows that EQ2 is a really well-put-together game. I expect that if we knew real numbers (i.e. not this guy), we'd find EQ2 to be the #2 MMO in America (albeit a distant, non-overhyped one).

Would it make sense that another company wanted Scott to join a project and lead it to greatness? Oh absolutely. Would it make sense if Scott wanted to strike out on his own, put together a team, and bring some new vision in his head to life? Yes and no. We can always hope, at least, that such a venture would turn out better than...Sigil. Ugh.

On the other hand, being the head honcho behind EQ2's successes over the last couple years HAD to feel good. Personally, I tend to think that you don't turn your back on a good thing if you enjoy what you're doing, and, more importantly, believe in it. Obviously, that could mean that Scott wasn't enjoying himself so much anymore. Having never worked in an artistic industry, I don't think I could relate, but I could imagine that if one has a brain full of ideas, one could start to feel some major wanderlust just working on a single game for years and years.

Well, reading the debate on EQ2Flames was interesting. Some felt LFG was full of crap, some believed him. Some thanked him for telling us when no official news was coming out, while others criticised him for violating Scott's privacy. I definitely fell into the pack that thought it was a bit rude to break this story prematurely. Much as I love gossip, I envisioned Scott's various business and personal inboxes exploding with questions that he wasn't prepared to answer yet. That sucks. I had to bite my tongue (fingers?) to keep myself from joining in the deluge with a "Say it ain't so" whine-fest.

Well, it's official now. Scott has left SOE. The news wasn't could it be when LFG's story was so old? And really, the silence about the topic from Scott and/or SOE was very telling. If the story was bogus, there'd have been a denial. That said, I was still a bit heartbroken (the part of my heart devoted to gaming) to see the news confirmed.

From a human-to-human perspective, I can look at lots of different reasons why Scott MIGHT have left SOE and say, "Good for you, Scott! I hope you got a killer new opportunity!" Unfortunately, the gamer side of me says, "Dammit, Gallenite, come back before someone else kills the game!"

Gallenite's replacement is Bruce "Froech" Ferguson. I know him mostly by name only - he was around during the beta and at launch, but my role in the beta was not so much about testing. I didn't read the forums too closely at that point, and as such I don't know much about Froech's past. In the few days he's publicly had the job, he's already gotten the joy of handling one massive PR debacle. You REALLY have to love your job to be willing to take that kind of abuse from customers.

But I'm not here to talk about Froech, I'm here to talk about Scott Hartsman. Sir, my hat is off to you. You headed up an effort that took a game that was great at launch (I thought, at least), and made it about 10 times greater. I wish I knew what you were doing next, but suffice to say expectations are higher than Snoop Dogg & Willie Nelson sharing a hot air balloon bong-picnic.

Please don't stay too quiet!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dr. BadParse, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Race

When I'm not gaming or raising my kiddie (though I am trying to raise a gamer, so there's some crossover), I spend nearly 40 hours a week as a Technical Trainer. I have plenty of experience with the issues related to CHANGE. People just don't like it! Even if you give them a new piece of software that will help them work 10 times more efficiently, there's always pockets of resistance and scowling faces to go with them.

With the launch of Kunark this week comes a flurry of changes to every character - even those whose owners haven't purchased the expansion - in the form of revamped Racial Traditions. It's a real glass half-full/half-empty situation. One could say that any updates to the Tradition system are a hugely-positive change, because the vast majority of the racial perks of old were just about useless anytime after level 30. Some bonus powers are better than none...RIGHT?

According to a very vocal (like nails on a blackboard) crowd, this is as wrong as can be. You see, now that most of the Tradition choices either scale with level or provide static bonuses that are always useful (like crit %), your choice of race is a little more meaningful than it used to be. A little.

One of my favorites so far is a guy on EQ2Flames who proclaimed himself the most-screwed by these changes because he's a Barbarian Wizard. Oh was he angry! The anti-change arguments tend to carry a few key points, which I'll try to sum up sans excessive cursing:

1) Race choice has never mattered before
2) SOE promised at launch that all races could play all classes with equal effectiveness
3) People with more-unique race/class choices are being penalized

My responses:

1) That's not true at all. For most of us, stat points make a difference, because we haven't maxed out our primary stats. If I choose between Erudite Wizard or Troll Wizard, I'm sacrificing a rather large amount of intelligence that will absolutely have an effect on my damage output, and it'll still be relevant at higher levels unless I deck out in fabled gear and lots and lots of buffs/potions/etc.

The same applies to melee classes. Damage and to-hit chance modified by Strength, hitpoints modified by Stamina, Agility boosting avoidance (not much, but it adds up).

But it isn't just base stats. Not all Racial Traditions of old were very interesting, but some made a good impact. My Human Monk got +5 Defense, which is wonderful at any level. My Gnome Wizard got Intelligence bonuses and a de-agro power which always served him well. Ogres got some decent options to boost physical stats which, along with their natural stats, made them excel at melee...though over time, levels and gear make a +5 here and there matter a lot less.

2) SOE never promised that all races would be equal! They promised that all races could play all classes, and that's exactly what they delivered. If Race didn't matter at all, EQ2 would lose a lot of replayability.

I happen to love my Ogre Conjuror because when his pet dies, he can take a couple more hits than average. The new Ogre revamps will actually make that more pronounced, and I'm excited.

Come on, you didn't make a Troll Fury because you thought he'd be uber, you made him because it was fun and interesting and unique. And you know what? It still is!

3) The notion that you're being "penalized" by the new traditions is just silly. Failing to get a certain bonus (especially while receiving others) is not logically equivalent to a penalty. Even for as wordy as I am, I don't think I can expand on this simple notion.

So what's to blame for all this overreaction? I think most of you know the answer!



Parsing itself is not the absolute root of all evil, but how good or evil it is all depends on how you use it. You want to parse yourself to see how you perform under various circumstances? Go right ahead! If I'm grouped with friends and we have a little competition to see who can out-DPS the other, that can even be fun...

But if I'm in a pickup group and some assclown spams some numbers and accuses me of not working hard enough, well, he can just bite me. Not that this happens very often, and hasn't happened in a long time, but I also avoid the most parse-happy environment: raiding.

So what we have now are a bunch of whiners who are pissed off because their Mages are going to have 2% less chance to score critical blasts than their equally-equipped (but race-appropriate) counterparts. Apply similar logic to other race/class combos to get the melee or priest versions.

Well, you know what? EQ2 isn't an exercise in math. EQ2 isn't a real-time strategy game. EQ2 is - believe it or not - A ROLEPLAYING GAME. Some of you might have seen the letters "RPG" thrown around before. That doesn't mean "Rocket Propelled Grenade!"

Any good RPG is as deep in lore and character development as it is the numerical mechanics. As such, even if the old Racial Traditions weren't very awe-inspiring, they still at LEAST showed us that the various races of Norrath were intended to be better at some things than others, be it stats, tradeskills, or resistances.

And now that those intentions have coalesced into something more meaningful, you're going to throw a hissy fit because you aren't as maxed-out as the guy next to you? You're going to demand something as goof-ass as a "racial respec?" If you really gave a damn about RPG-system min/maxing, you'd have taken one of the plainly-obvious choices for your class in the first place, even if the impact was minimal.

So to sum up: Stop parsing and just do your best on every fight, pick some new Traditions and find their most opportune uses, and ...uh... GET OVER IT.

The rest of us thank you.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Busy busy busy!

Sure, I hoped to get a little traffic boost following my last post, but it's really been quite incredible. Thank you all! :)

As an aside, "Lightballoon's" real (character) name was leaked (NOT by me) on a large, unofficial EQ2 message forum. I guess this led to a few people around the community sending him tells to inform him that he's a complete dipshit. He has since accused me of writing his name on my blog and asked me to remove it. I even did a text search just to make sure I didn't slip up, and sure enough, I have not. So yeah...that happened.

I hate to slack off after all this, just in case I get some return visitors, but it's going to be a short while before I make another normal post here. I have two major* writings in the works - one to be posted eventually here when allowed, and one to be displayed in a place TBA once it's all set in stone. I haven't finished either item yet, so I doubt I'll have time to write much here until I clean up this to-do list.

I'll be in touch!

*full of loquaciosity (tm)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

BUT SOE PUT IT THERE - A Tale of Supreme Jackassery

Wow, what a week! Being a guild leader can be an extremely rewarding and enjoyable position. Just about every night I chime in on guild chat, offering up my services and/or nigh-encyclopedic knowledge of (most of) Norrath to any members willing to take me up on it. I love it when folks take me up on my offers and I can lead a quest or crawl group to greater glory and riches. Good times.

BUT, the burden of leadership means handling the problems that come up. I think, for the most part, that the casual environment we've fostered has kept us below-average on drama, but welcoming in players of all types also raises the risk that you'll get the occasional bad egg.

It was that time again! A recent influx of new recruits wound up revealing one of the worst eggs I've yet had the displeasure of dealing with! Naturally, in this place, I shall change his name. Let's call him...Lightballoon. (bonus points if you know where I'm stealing that name from!)

Lightballoon had only been in my guild for a scant couple weeks, and was on the verge of moving up from trial member to full member. Then I login one night and find one of my officers needs to talk to me about him.

Turns out we got a complaint about Lightballoon from someone who was in a pickup group with him. Apparently, this group had gotten together (with my member in charge) to kill a named mob or low-level epic. Upon succeeding and obtaining a nice chest full of items, the group noticed that Lightballoon had the loot set to Leader Only, as he promptly assigned all the loot to himself.

Lightballoon's explanation to the group was that he never promised them any loot, and since SOE made the Leader Only loot function, they surely intended it to be used in the way he used it. Therefore, the rest of the group had neither right nor reason to complain.

Bad? Yes....but it gets worse! The group demanded the name of an officer of my guild. Lightballoon's response? He told them that HE was the GUILD LEADER.

So my officer takes all this in and was, needless to say, a bit appalled. Still, as bad as the complaints were, you always have to hear the other side, put on your B.S. Detector (tinkering skill 321), and try to figure out what really happened. It's important to trust your guildmates, but you also have to make sure someone isn't giving your guild a bad reputation.

Often, this can be a lengthy ordeal. Much to my surprise, despite the really loathsome behavior being reported, this was not one of those times. Regarding the item hoarding, his response was that he shouldn't be punished for using a perfectly legal grouping option, and chided the other guy for being a crybaby that was just mad because he didn't win the loot. How do you win loot when the group leader assigns it all to himself, you may ask? Our friend didn't seem to have a real answer for that.

As for pretending to by my guild's leader? He not only clearly admitted to doing it, but justified it with....hell, here's a direct quote from my officer's log of the conversation. I don't usually post such things, but Lightballoon said it better than I could ever do justice to: "does nortah [sic] not have a 1st amendment[?]"

As a matter of fact, Norrath does NOT have a First Amendment. As a big fan of the First Amendment and a former student of its applications, I may become compelled to write more about this some other day ;)

In my brief talk with Lightballoon, he was similarly unrepentant about his behavior. I know MY guild doesn't need a person like on our roster, and through I wouldn't dare to speak for all guilds, I'm willing to bet very few would disagree with me.

Lightballoon logged off while we were debating his future. Before long, the officer who originally confronted him sent him a polite mail wishing him luck in his future endeavors, and booted him from the guild. "Good riddance," we all said, but alas, the story isn't over yet!

Later that night, Lightballoon logged back on, got his mail, and sent me a tell. His message to me was essentially that I'd be sorry I booted him out, and that he'd be back. Not exactly the scariest threat ever...

Sometime within 48 hours, Lightballoon had not, in fact, re-joined my guild, but rather made his own instead! My guild's name is "Circle of Shadows." His guild's name was "Circles of Shadows." Amazingly-creative, no?

It's bad enough when a current member goes out of his way to make my guild look bad; you can bet that I'm sure as hell not going to let another guild pull shenanigans and wind up with the complaints coming to me! As I think would be expected, I wrote a petition as soon as I found out about this.

My petition took a couple days to get a response, and in the middle of my waiting, the situation got stupider yet! I'm waiting for a group to assemble to go try out the new Shard of Fear for the first time, and suddenly I start getting tells from Lightballoon!

This time he's decided to inform me that he's going to harass me personally and members of my guild. He's going to convince my members to leave us and join him, and he won't stop until we cease to exist...


...I take 50 platinum out of the guild bank and give it to him. If I concede to him and pay him off, he'll leave us alone and we'll never hear from him again. He had moles already planted in our guild, waiting for the opportunity to sow the seeds of our demise, and he promised that I "would be shocked at how high up [his] friends go."

Well, what else can you do when confronted with such overwhelming adversity? I did what any good guild leader would do: I immediately ported home, gouged-out the contributions of my wonderful, hard-working guild members, met Lightballoon outside the gates of Qeynos, knelt before him, and gave him his well-deserved bounty.

Wait, was THAT what I did? My memory is fuzzy now...I either gave him his money... or /reported large blocks of his text, added to my previous petition, and smiled widely as the GMs nuked his crappy guild and suspended his account for a few days. Lightballoon is back in the game now, and even started another new guild, but I haven't heard a peep from him.

I have little doubt that people who work with Lightballoon in the future will continue to have issues with his "BUT SOE PUT IT THERE" looting habits, but I can't save the whole world, can I? The best thing anyone can do when joining a pick-up group is to check the loot rules before you help out too much, and ESPECIALLY before engaging named and epic mobs. In time, he'll no doubt have one of the worst personal reputations on the server, and all I can say is: I'm glad he ain't mine to deal with anymore!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Future Fantasy?

Amongst my first RPG experiences - computer or otherwise - was one of the all-time greats: Ultima IV. To this day I'm still perplexed by how much I love that game despite my absolute frustration with it. The Virtue system was SUCH a bugger and distinctly UN-fun at times. Take the one NPC who asks you if you're The Avatar, where if you say yes you lose Humility, and if you say no you lose Honesty; either way demolishing your avatarhood (avatarship? avatarosity? avatarliciousness?). Bad designer, bad bad bad!

That is to say, I never won the damn game. Eventually I was so fed up that I traded it to a school chum for Ultima I, just so I could see more in the series and, hopefully, learn that they weren't all so diabolical.

I was dumbstruck by Ultima I. In the Ultima IV world I was used to, the height of technology was a hot air balloon. In Ultima V (which I didn't have at the time, but had heard about), glass weaponry was the new hotness. But Ultima I? The Ultima that took place years - if not generations - before the ones I was already familiar with? Oh let's see...lightsabers, laser guns, and a freakin' SPACE SHUTTLE, complete with combat against baddies that bore a striking, low-res similarity to TIE Fighters!

As a Star Wars fan, I'm perfectly OK with the notion of mixing a little Sci-Fi into my Fantasy story. Not in every game, of course, but I have great fondness for Star Wars games, the Wizardry series, and especially Alternate Reality.

I haven't played all the Ultima games, and I don't pretend to know all the lore, but I've played Ultima I, I understand that Ultima III involved a demonic supercomputer, and then IV comes along and it's all gone. Geographically-speaking, Brittania didn't change into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, though there was undoubtedly some continental shift taking place. How does a whole planet just devolve? So far as I know, there was never a lore explanation for this, nor do I know of the people of Brittania ever recovering from this technological debacle in generations to follow. What was so bad about the fantasy/sci-fi mix? It made Origin a lot of money!

I'm often amazed at how accepting we are of our fantastic worlds never evolving. It isn't just gaming worlds, but literature as well. Gandalf roamed Middle Earth for thousands of years with nothing but horses and carts at best. Belgarath (a personal favorite) can recall an approximate 9000 year existence, during which time the height of technological development seemed to be a well-kept international highway. Harry Potter's wizarding world developed right alongside muggle technology, yet considers telephones to be quaint and silly compared to owl post, despite the fact that phones provide instant communication while owls require time to fly.

And that, dear readers, brings me to EverQuest 2 and the world of Norrath. I admit knowing essentially nothing about fare inspired by the EQ MMOs (Lords of EverQuest, Champions of Norrath, a handful of novels), but we have a 1000-year timeline to look at just among the 3 MMOs currently out there: EverQuest 1 set the zero-point, with EverQuest Online Adventures set 500 years earlier, and EverQuest 2 set 500 years later.

Scholars abound, so it would be hard to argue that Norrath is in a dark age, yet all but one of the races shun technology in favor of manual labor and/or magic. The one race that truly invents are the Gnomes, and I'd argue that even they haven't changed so much. In EQ1 there was already a subversive, self-aware element hanging out in the caves under Ak'Anon, and the big change is that the Gnomes got their asses SkyNetted out of their home city. The Tinkering skill of today offers more options and toys than the EQ1 version, but on the whole it seems surprising that in 500 years, such technology hasn't led to the production of, say, a personal computer.

I could certainly understand if the experiences of the gnomes dissuaded the rest of the races from embracing the art of robotics, but what about some intermediary steps between discovering metal alloys and artificial intelligence?

Explosives have been discovered, but no one (gnome or otherwise - come on humans, innovate!) came up with the idea of a slugthrower? Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of gunplay, but from a sociological-lore-writing standpoint, I don't understand why authors/designers shy away from letting their societies develop.

Personally, I think societal advancement over time could provide really interesting options for the EverQuest license. In a gaming genre much maligned for focusing too much on fantasy while settings like sci-fi, superhero, or even modern-realism go widely unused, I'd love to see the true FUTURE of Norrath. Let's brainstorm!

EQ2010 - Elves, dragons, and magic mix with politics, mafia, and machine guns (at least in Freeportopolis) in a gritty modern-day setting. Sound like Shadowrun? Well, it should. The Shadowrun-style genre is basically non-existent in the MMO world, and that should really change. Since Microsoft seems content to stay out of the MMO market and just make Shadowrun into a lame shooter, another company should pick up the slack.

EverQuest 5399: The Final Frontier - What would the world and universe be like if both magic and technology kept growing and evolving into the space age? Alien forms aren't a totally new concept in Norrath, so what if there's more to their invasion methods besides a wearisome "dimensional portal?" Phaser Gun or Fireball Spell - you decide!

EQAftermath - Far into the future, the races of Norrath went to war and destroyed just about everything, including their entire record of history. The remnants of the races start to form small societies again, but technology is setback to medieval at best, and even magic is more scarce than before. (This would be handy when EQ2 characters are up to level 200, soloing Nagafen, and the fantasty genre needs a healthy reboot :)

So what do you think, fair reader? Should fantasy worlds evolve over time into the future just as the real world does, or should modern and sci-fi stories only be based on their own independent backgrounds? What else would be a fun new take on the world of Norrath? Any Photoshoppers wanna make some FutureEQ box art?

Saturday, October 6, 2007


Wow, what a rough week. I'm swimming in games with no time to play them! Ever since July, when my wife and I played, fell in love with, and subsequently purchased a Wii, we've had more games than I know what to do with, and it just keeps getting worse! (or better, depending on how you think about it) And now this week I've had guests in town and done practically NO gaming. I feel so dirty...

But I have a few minutes of quiet now, so I thought it might be fun to do a rundown of all the games taunting me.


EverQuest 2: Well duh. It doesn't take much time looking at this blog to know that EQ2 is my primary game of choice. Between the monthly fee and being a guild leader, I always feel like EQ2 should be where I spend most of my gaming time, and thankfully, spending my time there is also great fun! Kunark is due out soon, which means a ton more to explore and consume. I'm at once excited while very much mourning my sleep schedule.

Legends of Norrath: I'm actually a little bit afraid of LoN. Much as I do hate the pricing scheme for virtual-pseudo-property, I love the game so much that I bought a bunch of cards anyway. I'm done now - I have enough cards to build decent, fun (not min/max) decks - but someday they're going to bring out expansion sets, and that's where the fear comes in. I may eventually have to give up LoN just so I don't wind up in debt with nothing to show for it! Still, this is kickass game that everyone should try out. As a big fan of turn-based strategy games, this one is already up there with my all-time favorites.

Oblivion: I haven't played this game in ages, but it's an awesome game and I never finished the main storyline. Phooey.


Wii Sports: When we bought the Wii, I intended to do at least a little bit of Wii Sports every day, because it's a lot of fun and it's better exercise than we'll see out of MMORPGs until they go fully virtual reality on treadmills. This not-too-lofty goal hasn't panned out, however, because I have too many other games to play.

Ravin' Rabbids: I'm happy to say I actually did win the story mode of this game, but darned if there doesn't appear to be a whole bunch more to unlock via the score modes. This is, however, likely to collect a lot of dust until and unless we have visitors over for a Wii Party.

Wario Ware: Easily in the top 10 crack-addled games I've ever played! I think I'm about 75% through the main game story-ish mode, but haven't had time for it in quite a while. I really should try to finish it, though, because only when the story mode is completed can you finally see what the multiplayer options are. (this, for the record, is a really lame design choice)

Boogie: My kid still loves it, and I think the karaoke mode can be fun, but for the most part this one has been a real dud, as pretty-well explained in my previous Boogie review. This is on the list because we still have a lot to unlock, but it may be a crazy long time until this one gets marked "Complete."

Big Brain Academy: I really believe that this game could function as advertised and make your brain more agile with daily use. I don't have time for daily use, so my brain isn't progressing as it should. Much like Wii Sports, I haven't made this into the workout it should be.

Super Monkey Ball: This was a birthday present (not from me) to my wife, and I admit I haven't really touched it. But it's there, waiting for someone to start monkey-balling like crazy.

Elebits: This was a birthday present TO me. Excellent game! Some of the controls can be a bit difficult to get the hang of (opening doors, for instance, which I suck at), but I LOVE LOVE LOVE the world. In the spirit of Katamari games, Elebits features what is more-or-less a fully-interactive world. In theory, any object you see can be picked up and manipulated if your "capture gun" is strong enough, and the physics model - though poor at damaging things that collide - is great for chain reactions of objects smashing into each other as you toss them around.

Twilight Princess: Another birthday present to me, this one is turning out to be a nice family game. My daughter doesn't want to trying playing it, but there's a lot of cut scenes and dialogue, and she just loves watching. She even helped me figure out a couple puzzles, which either speaks highly of her or poorly of me ;) I'm sure I've only barely scratched the surface of this one, but I look forward to discovering more and more of the plot!

Link to the Past: Yeah yeah I know, this game is ANCIENT. I downloaded it a while back because it's supposed to be one of the best adventure games ever made, and yet I'd never played it. The Wii Virtual Console helped me correct that, but now I find myself 2/3 of the way through, and distracted by tons of other games. I can definitely see the appeal, however, and fully understand why Link to the Past has been raved about for so many years.

Board Games

Descent: I can't tell you much about this game because I've NEVER played it. It was a very nice gift, and it looks like a lot of fun, but I haven't had folks over for a board game night in forever. I really, REALLY need to explore this one someday!

Talisman 4th Edition: Ohhhhh, sweet sweet Talisman, how I adore you. Thanks to another very nice gift many years ago, I have Talisman 2nd Edition with a few of the expansions. Then, I also bought the Talsiman 3rd Edition reprint that was made a few years back, which is severely stymied by Games Workshop's jerkwadly decision to refuse to reprint the expansions. But a brand new 4th Edition - no doubt already selling like hotcakes - is highly likely to get the full treatment, so I'm in, and desperately awaiting the package to come in the mail. This will likely get a column of its own someday.

Soooooo, yeah. Not counting future games that I really want - like the new Simpsons game later this month or the TBD-release of the Wii version of Beautiful Katamari - that's only 14 games I own vying for my attention. This is bad.

Friday, September 28, 2007

EQ2 - Casual Friendly? Part 2: Guild Boogaloo

Alright, we've covered the ins and outs of EQ2's casual-friendliness on the player level. I think it's hard to argue that EQ2 is NOT a good choice of games for the casual player. Sure, it might take a bit more effort to level up than some other games, and if you craft you actually have to pay attention rather than have the game do 99% of the work for you, but there's plenty of content for the casual crowd nonetheless.

Now I'd like to take a look at a different aspect of the game: Guilds. Membership in a strong, healthy guild is a valuable part of many people's lives, but not necessarily necessary. Each character we make is required to have a race and class. Levelling up isn't technically required, but it is if you want to see your money's worth of the world. Wearing equipment is essential to survival.

I can only think of a couple core character traits that are optional: Your artisan class, and being in a guild. Just as anyone could solo from 1-70 if they choose, so could anyone do it without ever being in a guild. Pickup groups are also an option, though if you do a good job you're likely to get many queries about recruitment into a guild. Pickup raiding isn't highly likely, but you make enough friends in pickup groups and it could happen.

By the strictest definition of a guild, there's really no reason why one couldn't be an absolutely casual structure used by a handful of good friends who want an extra chatline. I even know of people who hire 5 folks to help them make a guild, then keep the guild as a 1-man operation to give them and their alts extra bank slots (not that I condone this).

Still, the EQ2 guild system offers a whole lot more than that, and most guilds choose to venture down the path leading to toys and bragging rights: Guild Levels. Quick Robin, to the Bat Time Machine!

As with so many things, EQ2 at launch had a pretty tough system for gaining guild exp. Firstly, only certain people tagged as Patrons were allowed to contribute to guild exp when completing writs and heritage quests. Anyone not flagged as a Patron could still do these quests, but only personal status would be gained. If you flagged someone as a Patron and they weren't pulling their weight, the whole guild was getting screwed. If someone contributed a lot as a Patron and then, say, stopped playing, you could un-Patron them to make room for someone new, but in doing so you would lose their contributions thus far.

What's more, that wasn't the only way to lose guild exp (including de-levelling, which wasn't possible for players, but guilds could sure do it). Every day (or was it hourly?), Patrons and their associated guilds lost a small chunk of exp, forcing a lifestyle wherein once you started working on guild levels, you were stuck having to grind out at least a certain minimum number of writs every day just to maintain the status quo, much less make progress.

One of my favorite memories of the Guild Level system at launch was the Maj'Dul carpet prize for Guild Level 30. Approximately 750,000 Status Points (a hefty sum before Status Items) and 66 platinum to get a totally unique, 48% mount. Can you say OUCH? I don't even have 66 platinum NOW, 3 years into the game! (admittedly, I am a bit spendy)

EQ2 guilds at launch were NOT casual friendly. Argue otherwise if you can.

Since then, with various intermediary steps along the way, we find ourselves in a much more relaxed atmosphere: Patrons are eliminated and everyone from a guild can contribute to levels equally, prices on the spiffier prizes (mounts and houses) have been made a lot more reasonable, and guilds NEVER lose exp, even if contributing members leave the guild entirely.

Most guilds are able to level a lot faster now than in previous times, not just because exp decay went bye-bye, but also because most of us have a much better Status-to-Exp ratio than we had before. Any time you earn status, the amount you earn is divided by a certain number - the result turning into guild exp contribution. That number used to range between 6 and 24, depending on the size of your guild. Now that number is 10 for everybody, which, again, makes MOST guilds level faster.

Uh oh..."most" guilds? Someone got left out of the joy of the 10% conversion rate? Yes, someone did. Very, very small guilds of between 6 and 9 members actually receive LESS exp per status gain than they did under previous rules. (Actually, so do guilds of less than 6 members, but while the strict definition of a guild only requires 6 members to form it, not maintain it, the spirit of the idea of a guild is still a band of at least enough members to form a full group with. As such, it's hard for me to feel sympathy for their loss of the ~17% conversion rate. Sorry.)

Annnnnnnyway, we do see a ding here against the little guy, and the little guy is most-often also the casual guy. Much as I can't quite relate, as my own guild hasn't had less than 10 members since its first 5 minutes of life, I do still feel bad for the legitimate small guilds of the world. You see, the giant guilds have had an advantage on levelling quickly ever since Patrons went away. A guild of exactly 24 people had the worst conversion rate of all, but anything over 24 contributing characters made the *effective* conversion rate slowly climb back up again, eventually matching or beating the prospects of the smallest guilds.

So yeah, though by now the conversion rate changes happened long ago, it was still a hit to an aspect of surviving as a casual guild. In fact, a guild of 6 contributing members at launch continued with the same rate throughout the various changes, so far as I recall, up until the across-the-board shift to 10% during Game Update 29.

When we go all the way back in time, the Status Items I keep bringing up didn't exist for casual, hardcore, large, or small guilds to use. They later became a tool used by all types of guilds as a significant source of guild exp, but were abused by certain ass clowns leading to a major nerf. That nerf hurts all casual guilds, in my opinion, large or small, and it hurts us notably more than raiding guilds because they get status from killing epics.

Up to this point, I do see a couple changes to the guild system that aren't so great for casual guilds, but I see a lot of positives, too. The hardcore guilds were able to level up steadily even back during the patron/decay days at launch. Now any guild can level up at its own pace without having to set daily goals and such.

Something should be said about the Guild Recruitment Window/System, however. Having ANY tool in place is better than nothing, but the current tool is massively biased towards the established guilds that don't need as much help (this has been acknowledged by SOE). The pros and cons of that tool, as well as what simple improvements could make it more fair to all, probably deserves a separate column someday.

And the future? What will the future bring? I think what most are expecting to impact guilds of the future are the upcoming Guild Houses. When will we see these? Definitely not with Kunark, and most likely about 6-8 months afterwards. By then I'm sure we'll have a handful of Level 80 guilds in the world, though probably not too many thanks to the Status Item nerf ;)

We don't know what the fortress-like compounds will offer guilds, but I'd be shocked if we didn't see enough functionality to serve as mini-cities: Broker, mender, banker, vendor, and crafting. Perhaps even some modes of fast transport. To acquire these perks, expect guild level requirements for the right to purchase, and no doubt a LOT of money to buy what you've unlocked.

When a guild can offer a fully-functioning, one-stop shop for all your needs, that's a BIG lure to prospective members. We could definitely see a shift towards bigger guilds gobbling up smaller guilds like Pac-Man on PCP.

A smaller, casual guild made up of close friends that desperately want to maintain their distinct identity shouldn't be affected by this. It can be fun to make your own way from scratch, and you can bet many will choose to keep doing this.

Many other small guilds, however, will probably find a very-understandable distaste for the long, arduous guild level climb, and choose to merge into a bigger, more established guild.

The hardcore raiding guilds of the world shouldn't be too affected by guild housing at all, and almost definitely not in a negative way. The really hardcore raiders tend to keep their rosters trim and aren't likely to accept large numbers of refugees seeking greater uberness. Also in their favor is an often bloated guild bank full of funds that result from selling excess raid loot. That'll make building the actual house much easier without having to rely on the contributions of large rosters.

Family-style, raid-capable guilds probably have the most to gain from Guild Houses. They'll accept (if not seek out) merger offers, take in folks of all levels, and pool their resources to grow stronger faster.

As for guilds like my own - large, high level, but extremely casual and non-raiding - I expect we'll come out about even. A roster like ours flows in cycles anyway, occasionally losing clusters of people to raid-focused pastures. We'll have a nice guild house, but not the nicest. Smaller guilds seeking cool toys in a casual atmosphere may consolidate with the bigger casual guilds.

The end result for the future? I think we will see a shift towards fewer, larger guilds, but not exactly the death of the casual guild. I think casual guilds always have to be there as an option - especially as the players who first fed the MMO genre get older - and we need to remember the difference between small and casual.

Is SOE intentionally trying to destroy casual guilds, or any other part of the casual lifestyle? Nah, I think that's just foolishness. EQ2 wouldn't survive without a base of non-hardcore players who just want to relax and have fun in this virtual world.

I would caution the devs, however, to be very careful as they lay out the requirements and pricings for Guild House features. Make sure not to put all the most sought-after features in the upper level requirements. Please closely study the amount of money that 90% of the guilds have access to, and keep housing prices in the realm of something reasonable to work towards. If Guild Houses - or any other future feature - play too strongly to the top tier, THEN we'll find ourselves with a problem with EQ2's casual atmosphere.

That said, the overwhelming majority changes to adventuring, crafting, and guilds over the last 3 years have been to the benefit of casual playstyles, and making EQ2 a more accessible game for all. I *THINK* we can count on the devs to remember their evolution of guilds so far when making plans for something as major as guild housing, but we're also way too far out to judge at this point. We'll look again in about 6 months!

Monday, September 24, 2007

EQ2 - Casual Friendly? Part 1

I want to take a little time to address an offshoot topic that I saw bandied about on the official EQ2 forums following the recent status item changes. Someone had posited that this nerf was a sign of things to come, and that EQ2 would gradually cease to be a casual-friendly game.

As I sit down to write, I don't feel remotely convinced of this. Yes, I think the Status Item nerf was an unfair hit to casual-but-venerable guilds, but it isn't going to kill MY guild, and I don't think it'll kill others.

But hey, maybe amidst my stream-of-consciousness rambling, it'll turn out that EQ2 is, in fact, becoming less casual-friendly. Let's find out!

Usually, when I start a topic along these lines, I like to look into history first. Today will, of course, be no different.

From beta into launch, EQ2 was - I thought - a terrific game, but not what I'd call casual-friendly. The developers promised that anyone who desired COULD level from 1 to 50 by soloing. I'm pretty sure this promise was kept, but anyone taking this path probably would have been bored out of their minds. Some overland content was soloable, but maybe only half of it at best. Heroic and solo encounters lived together in perfect harmony (their harmony, not ours), making it difficult to find stable/safe hunting grounds. Dungeons, meanwhile, were basically 100% heroic.

Thing is, much as I love the casual play, I didn't see this as a bad thing. EQ2 at launch didn't force grouping, per se, but it was pretty much required if you wanted to see or do anything cool. Of course, at launch everybody was the same level and finding groups was extremely easy with the first couple tiers absolutely packed with people. A few years into a game like this, and the world's population inverts - most people are now in the high end zones, with little activity (especially for pickup groups) in the first few tiers.

Forced grouping can be frustrating at times, but it has a wonderful side effect of making you meet new people! My guild at launch was mostly people I already knew, but with differing playtime schedules and (eventually) a widening level range, I still looked for strangers to fill slots in groups from time to time. It's always a gamble with a pickup group, but in my experience these aren't Vegas-style odds! Sometimes you do lose, but I also made some new, lasting friendships in those early days of EQ2 that never would have come to be had EQ2 not made grouping a way of life.

Fast-forwarding 3 years, a whole lot has changed, and mostly for the better. As I said earlier, the zones with heavy population are the higher level areas, which can leave a true-newbie feeling left out in the cold if he needs to find a group but can't.

Nowadays, overland zones are primarily soloable content with lengthy, interesting quest lines full of varied content. This is extremely valuable, because soloing from 1-50/60/70/80 has evolved from a slow, boring grindfest into something actually quite fun. I've done certain favorite quest lines 5 or 6 times with different characters and still enjoy them because of the variety of tasks the quests require!

Going back to statements from early design interviews that didn't come true at launch, most dungeons in the world now have a modest amount of non-heroic content in their entrance areas. This allows players to be able to hang out in a zone and wait for a group opportunity without having to be totally idle the whole time.

Heck, in a move I can only assume was an adaptive measure to the population centers, some low level dungeons (Vermin's Snye) are now primarily populated by non-heroic content; exceptions usually being of the Named variety. It's entirely possible that as the level cap raises, this trend will spread out to more low and mid-level dungeons.

In the past, long, heroic quests were needed not only to gain access to some dungeon or instanced content (Nektropos Castle, Cauldron Hollow, Tower of the Drafling), but even to overland areas for Tiers 4 and 5. If you were unable or unwilling to find a group to do the access quests with, you could have very possibly run out of content long before maxing out your level! Nowadays, most of those former access quests are for lovers of lore, overland zones are wide open, and instances that remain locked (Cove of Decay) are the exception to the rule.

I will admit that, as a quest fanatic, a lot of my time is spent soloing because I'm none-too-keen on gathering groups just to help me win some little token quest. I'm also a guild leader who frequently groups with others in need, but when accomplishing my personal goals, I tend to be alone. Because of that, there's still quite a bit of content I've never seen. For example, I've yet to set foot in most of Fallen Dynasty, Nektropos Castle V3, and I haven't gone further than a couple rooms into Unrest. Much as I would like to see and experience these areas, however, I don't make that list with regret. Quite the contrary, I think it's fantastic that after all this time, I still have areas of Norrath left to discover!

From where I'm sitting, the only problems arise for the solo casual gamer when they take an attitude that they've been cheated out of content. Not that this happens all the time, mind you, but there's always a small "entitlement" crowd that wants access to the best stuff (content, loot, toys) without having to leave their comfort zone.

Much as I've grown to appreciate soloing in EQ2, I'm afraid I'm a bit of a hardliner on this. In EQ2, soloing is possible, fun, and a large amount of content is devoted to it. If that's not enough, then I will simply point out that Oblivion is a beautiful game - both in graphics and content - and I give it my highest recommendation for a strictly single-player fantasy RPG experience.

It seems to me that as a solo/casual player, there's a TON to do. I know from personal experience that, with combat exp turned on, there's TOO much content for one or even two characters to make a dent in. Frankly, if you really take the time to explore the non-heroic areas of Norrath, and focus on more than just the next bubble of exp, the amount of time you can spend is likely on par with a huge single-player game like Oblivion, but then you get to add social and multi-player aspects on top of that. And finally, in this stage of MMO development, can anyone really see SOE turning away from the inclusion of a plethora of casual content in future expansions? They're trying to bring in MORE of the crowd, not less!

At this point in my writing, I feel like I am, perhaps, focusing a little too much on the word "solo." A casual player in a casual-friendly game should not definitively be a soloer. On the other hand, when grouping isn't forced and exp can be gained quickly and efficiently without a group, that winds up being the method of choice for a huge portion of the population. The solo levelling-up may just be the stepping stone to bigger groups in tougher areas, but the number of people in Dungeon X compared to the number of people in Adjacent Overland Y is usually quite tiny. Most folks are running around in solo content - not *always* by themselves - but using that content for quick exp, quests, achievements, etc.

Still, the hypothesis that inspired me to start this column arose from a discussion about guilds, so what about casual guilds? Are casual guilds destined to become an endangered species? Are we already an endangered species and just don't know it yet? Tune in next time as I dig through what guilds can and can't do in part two of this article!

Friday, September 14, 2007

In the Wake of GU38 - A New Proposal on "Reverse Writs"

It's hardly a secret that I'm none-too-pleased about the Status Item changes found in Game Update 38. It's too bad, too, because the changes to dual wielding, Bloodlines spells, and the appearance slots really made for a fantastic update, only to be tarnished and overshadowed by a frustrating nerf.

Let's take a step back in history, shall we? (take note of the bit in bold)

July 20, 2005 - Game Update 12
- Earn experience for your guild by collecting status loot!

- In addition to completing writs that are assigned to you by city NPCs, you can now earn guild status by turning in new kinds of dropped items.

- Many of the NPCs around Norrath now have a chance to drop items that the major political factions in each of city are after. Be on the lookout for these new types of Scrying Stones, Amulets, Sealed Documents, and Relics. There are different varieties of each of these items for each level range.

- You can sell these new items for status points to the same NPCs that assign writ quests. This is a whole new way to increase your guild level and personal status.

- Regardless of whether or not you are in a guild, status loot can be traded to other players or sold to regular NPC merchants for cash.

Leading up to their launch, the new status items were billed as a form of Reverse Writs. While a normal Writ (aka City Task) would ask you to venture out into the field and kill specific mobs in exchange for a reward, a Reverse Writ status item could be found on most any mob, but in return for this be worth far less status per item. It would, I believe, take 12-15 Tier 2 status items to be worth as much status as a Tier 2 Writ asking you to kill 8-12 of one specific mob type.

If you wanted oodles of status to level up your guild, City Tasks were still far-and-away the way to go, but status items certainly helped! In the higher tiers, the ratio of points-per-item vs. points-per-Writ got a little bit better, too. As more high level characters were out there killing mobs en masse, more valuable status items entered the world, and this came to be a very significant contributor to total Guild Experience and Levels.

Fast forwarding, as we all know by now, this system was badly abused by certain guilds that managed to nigh-instantly hit the new level cap within hours of the last couple expansion launches. While I do blame those guilds for being Choadly McChoadlersons, it does seem like there's WAY too many status items in the world, and SOE probably should have examined the drop rate a good two years ago.

Now we're sitting in the aftermath of a huge nerf meant to prevent guilds from levelling too fast. I still hold to my previous statements that the new system is a severe punishment to innocent casual guilds that are high level while still carrying a roster with significant numbers of low and mid-level characters. BUT, what's done is done, and it seems we're just going to have to learn to live with it.

That said, when I loot a status item now, I can't help feeling that it's nowhere near as useful as it used to be. Most of my characters (of any level) don't need huge pools of status points, and they have more than they need anyway thanks to Heritage Quests (which I adore). Only my level 70 main has the ability to possibly win status items that can give us Guild Exp after Kunark launches, and last I checked, the market for selling lower level status items was pretty yawntastic.

My point in all this is that we should get back to considering what these status items were originally intended to be: REVERSE WRITS

What do we get from completing a normal writ? We get Status Points, Guild Experience, and Faction with a writ-giving sect of your home town.

What do we get from selling a status item? We get a few Status Points, and sometimes Guild Experience if you meet the criteria.

What happened to Faction? From a roleplay perspective, status items are worth whatever they're worth because they hold value as a trophy or recovered treasured from an enemy of the city. Writs have us killing enemies of the city; status items are the result of killing enemies of the city. They're fundamentally the same, except that writs provide you a directed goal.

And so, this leads me to my proposal:
Give faction for status item sales!

This should, of course, be tied to character level just as regular writs are, and mentoring can't let you turn in lower tier items, just as it doesn't let you get lower tier writs.

It would be a fine balancing act to make the status items worth turning in without making faction TOO easy to get, but for starters, let's say 1 point of faction per item per tier. So if my level 57 Inquisitor finds a Cobalt Relic on a mob, we have a Tier 6 character selling a Tier 6 item for 6 points of faction.

For those calculating at home, that would be 1667 Tier 6 status item sales to gain one full faction rank with one city sect. On paper, that doesn't look too easy to me, and could possibly even stand to be doubled (we do have to think ahead towards future tiers being worth more, though it's also likely that the higher level players get, the less meaningful the city faction system will be in its current form).

Normal players that don't buy out entire markets-full of items would find this to be a handy booster to their faction efforts, perhaps saving them a few writs-worth of work while pushing for a faction title. And it would make Reverse Writs a little more meaningful!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Sins of the Uber Are Not the Sins of the Rest

Guild Levels in EQ2 are supposed to be a sort of status symbol. In truth, this system gives you only very few useful items in the long run - fast mounts, for instance - but lots and lots of toys, titles, and clothing, along with money savings on housing and horses. Considering that the absolute fastest mount in the game costs 14 platinum more than the 100% FREE quested carpet from Desert of Flames, yet is only 25% faster (50% vs. 40%), levelling up a guild rapidly shows itself to be a wholly optional part of the EQ2 experience.

Still, for most of us, levelling a guild is hard work, and the toys are just fun enough to keep us reaching for more. There's a great feeling of accomplishment when you hit the next plateau every 10 levels, especially now that such achievements are broadcast to the whole server as well.

So what about the guilds that didn't work quite as hard? And, in fact, did they not work hard? Some guilds have managed to bring up their levels with wondrous rapidity, and the big secret to their success has been quite simple: "status items." If not the official name, that's the term I'll be using here, at least, to indicate the corpse-looted relics/amulets/documents/scrying stones that can be sold to special merchants in exchange for status points.

I remember when Kingdom of Sky launched. Back then, the amount of guild experience you received per block of status points (from any source) was based on the number of people in your guild. Guilds with 6 or less members received the best conversion rate, and guilds with 24 or more members received the worst. Now, on paper, this was actually an advantage for very large guilds. If you had a guild of 48 members, for instance, where everybody was gaining status points, your overall levelling would basically come twice as fast as any guild from 6-24 members.

Again, that's assuming everybody pulled their weight, but still, a nice potential advantage. Unfortunately, this wasn't good enough for SOME guilds, who saw the loopholes in the system and decided to exploit them. If a large guild pooled thousands of status items into their guild leader's pocket, and then temporarily deguilded, leaving the roster at the 6-or-less mark, their status items would all be worth 4 times as much as if they'd each turned in their treasures individually, as the devs intended them to do. Personally, I like being able to show how long I've been in my guild, and how much I've contributed over time (deguilding clears your status contribution records), but for some, being the first to max out their guild level was far more important.

This practice led to the meteoric ascension of a handful of guilds come Expansion Launch Day - I believe for both Kingdom of Sky and Echoes of Faydwer - and in turn really pissed off members of the community who were trying to do things the "right way." No matter which side of that debate you fall on, there's NO debate that SOE clearly didn't intend for guilds to fill up all 10 new guild levels within hours of the cap increase!

I have very little to say in support of this practice, but I will grant one minor point: Buying status items take money, and money comes from SOME form of work and effort, be it adventuring or tradeskilling. That's all I've got in defense of this practice, and I don't think it's anywhere near enough to justify keeping the full status quo.

Now, with Game update 38 looming (next Wednesday, perhaps?), and Rise of Kunark right around the corner, we high level guilds find ourselves at a crossroads: SOE plans to nerf the living crap out of status items, incorporating a tier system that only allows you to gain guild experience when selling status items commensurate with the level of your guild; e.g. a T5 Ebon Relic gives ZERO GUILD EXP to a level 60 guild. This, frankly, sucks eggs and needs to be stopped.

Just because my guild is high level doesn't mean all my MEMBERS are high level. We got to GL60 the casual way, and we're quite proud to have done it! To this day, we still accept true EQ2 newbies, and help them get their sea legs. Even at low levels, those status items can add up quickly into a couple thousand points of guild exp contribution, which is a good feeling for them and ties in directly with our ranking system. And let me make it clear, 2000 guild exp for a level 55 guild is a drop in the bucket and certainly not game-breaking.

There's *3* ways to gain status points: Status items, quests (writs/heritage), and killing epic mobs. Low level characters do very little epic-killing, and now you're taking away their ability to contribute to mid-to-high level guilds via status items. All that leaves is questing, and grinding out writs at low levels means missing out on a lot of other excellent content!

The casual-but-venerable guilds of Norrath are about to punished because of the exploitative behavior of a small handful of twinks that need to be first at anything and everything they can get their grubby little hands on.

SOE, if you feel status items are broken, fine, but the solution you've thrown onto the test server is NOT the way to fix it. I don't want guilds going from 60 to 80 in a day either, but punishing MY guild isn't the right way to stop this from happening! Let's talk solutions:

Proposal #1: Eviscerate the drop rate of status items. I've shopped for status items before, and the numbers of them available on the broker is nothing short of STAGGERING. The up-side of this is that we have a market for the ubers of the world to put money back into the economy by buying status items off the little guy. The down-sides are that the ubers can use the status items to level much too quickly, and that quite a few of the status sellers aren't little guys, but rather plat farmers. So if the drop rate of status items plummets by 50% or more, there's not as much loot for the ubers to buy up, and the plat farmers lose a lucrative source of income. (note: this proposal won't stop guilds who've already stocked up for Kunark, but we need to think long-term as well)

Proposal #2: Put the VALUE of the status items on the ol' chopping block. Maybe guilds level too quickly with status items because they're just worth too much, especially in higher tiers! 1 platinum could buy me enough T5-T7 status items to equal hours of writ-grinding madness. Cut the amount these items are worth in half and you hamstring the Kunark problem while keeping the system useful and fair to EVERYBODY.

Proposal #3: Make status items NOTRADE and, perhaps, subject to Trivial Loot Code. After all, the whole point of these items is that they're trophies recognized by my home city for defeating enemies, so why should I be able to trade them to an undeserving schlub who didn't do the glorious work? This step would obliterate the status item market, of course, but it would be the most effective long-term solution to the problem at hand.

Finally, if the above are all unacceptable, how about a tempered version of what's currently on Test?

Proposal #4: The value of status items SCALES based on your guild level. If you sell an item of lower tier than your guild's level, it's worth - let's say - 10% less per tier. From a roleplay perspective, it seems only fair that city officials would be less impressed over time if a reputable guild is hunting weaker foes, but to cut off the status completely just ain't right from a gameplay perspective. How about if on Kunark launch day, a guild member selling T2 Coral Scrying Stones on behalf of my T7 guild only gets 5 Guild Exp per stone instead of the current 10 or the ZERO on test?

I can live with a compromise, so let's have one! Please SOE, be reasonable!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

On Whining and Entitlement

I am so proud to be a gamer, and yet frequently so disappointed in the behavior of certain members of my ilk. What we often seen on the forums that is expressed in whiny rants appears to be a form of steadfast tunnel vision that renders people totally incapable of forming reasonable conclusions about many topics. Legends of Norrath is scheduled to launch today, last I saw, and I'd like to hit a particular issue that's been driving me batty.

What I want to talk about are LoN's "Loot Cards." These are the rare-ish cards that occasionally show up in your booster packs that give you the ability to redeem and claim spiffy little items in EQ1 and 2.

The whining takes different directions, but they generally boil down to a few arguments:
  1. People getting special access to items that should be available in EQ without playing LoN
  2. People spending real life money for in-game items
  3. The items are overpowered

#1 actually crosses over to another thread I noticed yesterday, regarding a cloak in EQ2 that's only available to attendees of the recent Fan Faire.

The notion is that people who invest money in Trip X or Game Y are getting perks that others feel entitled to. I could understand the "unfair" argument if the special prizes involved Fabled equipment, Master 3 spell upgrades, or the like, but they don't. They involve TOYS. In almost every case, the prize-factor of the items gained from attending events or participating in LoN are based on visuals.

For instance, you can get a cloak that gives you a featherfall-type ability and, depending on which cloak, lets you breathe water, turns you into a box (illusion), or a couple other things. Featherfall and Water Breath are handy powers, but nothing that can't currently be obtained in game, just on different items. Turning into a box is a very unique illusion that can't be obtained elsewhere (yet), but it's JUST an illusion, and therefore a toy.

You can get a few different mounts that have 50% runspeed boosts. This equals the fastest mounts currently available in EQ2, and anything coming out with Kunark isn't likely to be more than a couple percent faster if faster at all. At worst, people who aren't in Level 60 guilds can RARELY pull a card out of LoN that lets them get a Guild Level 60-quality mount. Once again, the only distinguishing factor about these mounts is that the graphics are currently unique to LoN rewards. These are very nice toys, but toys nonetheless.

The most polarizing of the Loot Cards seem to be the items (one in EQ1, one in EQ2) that give/gave a whole ton of mana/power back to the user, but could only be used about once per REAL LIFE day. These aren't toys, and they certainly aren't visual, but with a 20-24 hour recast timer, AND being extremely rare, you wouldn't think they'd be that unbalancing. But we'll come back to that...

Argument #2 has a bit of feasibility to it. Yes, I can spend oodles of RL money to increase my chances of getting a cool EQ2 item. But there is a difference between spending a set amount of cash to get UberItem Q transferred directly to me, versus spending potentially infinite amounts of cash and possibly never getting the item I want.

And alternatively, there WILL be a few lucky punks who never play LoN, one day stumble upon a booster pack drop while adventuring, and redeem it only to find one of the most sought-after items out there. That'll totally happen, and because it can and will, I think #2 loses its steam. Spending money is for the impatient who "need" their cool items NOW.

The impatience factor is, as a general rule, the same factor that drives the RMT market, but with three key differences: You're mostly getting toys, you aren't guaranteed to get your toys, and the toys you get don't come from exploits/duping, theft, scripting, accounts funded by stolen credit cards, etc.

So as much as I'm against RMT, and even though I feel the purchasable card packs are way overpriced, I still don't see a problem here.

But that leads us to Argument #3: Are the items overpowered? Firstly, anyone who argues the illusion items or featherfall toys are overpowered can take a flying leap. Toys toys toys.

The 50% runspeed mounts - Overpowered? I don't deny I'd love to get one, but because of the visuals, not the power! My guild did recently hit Guild Level 60, so I have 50% mounts available to me anyway, and in a plat-to-dollar conversion, it'd be cheaper to buy the mount directly than to buy pack after pack looking for one. While it's true that this mount allows players to skirt the normal guild level requirements to get the top speed mounts, this is, once again, a very rare item. Besides, there's lots of high level guilds that accept members of wide level ranges, so it isn't really that hard to use a guild just to get a mount if you don't mind being a twerp about it. I've certainly known quite a few people that have done just that!

The big item causing controversy, as mentioned earlier, are the power/mana recovery items. In EQ2, this item has already been nerfed, but did it need to be? In EQ1, the item sounds to have retained its original form, which should be more or less a full mana heal once every 20 hours. What this has led to - amazingly - is raiders complaining that these items are destined to become standard, required gear for raiding guilds.

Will a power heal make a raid easier? Sure, of course it will. Will it make impossible raids possible? Once in a long while maybe, but not commonly! There's two main steps to raiding that we need to consider:
Step 1 - Get the baddie under control.
Step 2 - Sustain healing AND DPS until the baddie is relieved of his burden of life (or unlife).

Step 1 is extremely important, very difficult, and all the power heals in the world won't save you. This is the step where most aspiring raiders fail. Pulling, placing, and setting-up a raid encounter requires a great deal of patience and timing, NOT mana.

Step 2 is the tactical phase. Keep your DPS up without falling to AE or adds, and keep your tank alive without running out of mana. Here is where the LoN recharge items can help you. YES, if you have a team of 6 healers and all 6 have one shot 100% power recharges, that can win a raid for you.

But for gods' (plural 'cause it's Norrath) sakes, that's ONE bit of victory assistance PER DAY. If you use it help you clear a zone, then you won't have the oomph to beat the boss. If you use it on the boss, congrats, but you still did all the hard work to get to him in the first place!

At worst, you could use the new persistent instance rules (EQ2 only, so far as I know) to have these power refills help you on 5 nameds in a zone over a 5 day period, but that dooms your no-doubt amateur raid force to one really SLOW, BORING week. Is it worth it? You still need the pull and setup, you still need the tactics, ALL this item does is get you over a hump that's probably caused by not being equipped or tactically-prepared for the raid you're trying.

Was it really worth all the bitching and moaning that led to a nerfing on the EQ2 side of things? Had I gotten one of these items in my boosters, it might have been nice in my non-raid, casual play once in a while, you know. Nothing to imbalance the game, just an occasional get out of jail free card. Not that the nerfed item isn't still useful, but not quite the same level of emergency lifesaver. Thanks for ruining it for the rest of us, whiners. Have fun protecting your elite raider status.

Monday, August 27, 2007

And You're Gonna Boogie Oogie Oogie 'Til You Just Can't Stand it No More!

So EA puts out this game called Boogie - a new entry in the follow-directions music game genre started by Dance Dance Revolution, and bulked up by the vastly overrated Guitar Hero games (sorry folks, it's just DDR with your fingers, NOT anything like playing guitar).

Boogie takes the dancing from DDR but places the control into your hands rather than your feet. While one could theoretically play DDR with a controller instead of a dance pad just by pushing directional buttons, Boogie uses the Wiimote's motion sensors to let you control your dancer much like a victim of the Imperius Curse (!) is controlled by wand point - totally subject to your whim, but following your directions with jerky motions and a certain creepiness.

When I first read about Boogie, one of the key selling points for me was that EA had made a decision to allow freeform "dancing" rather than only giving you points for following a specific dance route ala DDR or Guitar Hero. This sounded awesome to me because I've been trying to find some Wii games that my daughter can play to have fun, without having to worry much about winning or losing. Now, EA did deliver on the freeform idea - you only have to follow directions for certain special moves - but they failed to make the game FUN to such a degree I wonder if it was on purpose.

Don't get me wrong, my daughter actually likes the game, but she's 4 years old, and Boogie is supposed to be for ages 10+! For me, the dancing portion of Boogie is abysmally simplistic, and changing the difficulty only makes it harder to earn medals and adds absolutely nothing to the gameplay itself.

You can flick your Wiimote up, down, left, or right to make your dancer dance. Diagonals do nothing, so far as I can tell. Each of those directions has one or two dance moves your dancer will execute. If you do the same direction over and over in perfect rhythm, your dancer will start to do a more flashy move....over and over and over and over until you choose a new direction. You can use the nunchuck joystick to move your character around on the stage. This is useful for collecting bonus points that appear randomly on the stage, and probably adds something to the video playback feature, but does nothing in terms of gameplay and, in fact, probably costs you points because you aren't dancing while you move. Finally, if you jump through the hoops long enough, you can execute super-moves, which do require you to follow a pattern in rhythm, but score lots of bonus points.

So the actual movements you do are a bit dull, and the movements your character does in response are duller yet. That's still not SO bad, because a game like this really is what you make of it. I could play Wii Baseball while sitting down and using one arm to mimic a pseudo-swing, but that's no fun. Similarly, I can sit or stand still and flick the Wiimote to the song rhythm, or I can get into the spirit and move my feet a little.

No, where Boogie utterly failed me is in its critique of RHYTHM. I can't make my dancer look even marginally competent (do flashy moves) unless I stick to the beat, but the beat that Boogie forces me into is HORRIBLE for dancing! Just because a song is written in - let's say - 4/4 time doesn't mean you're moving your feet/arms/legs/head on those exact beats. That's great for ballroom dancing, perhaps, but quite by definition the exact opposite of the rhythm you'd feel when dancing to a disco song full of syncopated beats! I started playing music when I was about 3 years old; I KNOW I have a good sense of rhythm, and I KNOW that if Boogie tells me otherwise, Boogie is - simply - full of crap. Scoring a lot of points means sacrificing myself to the metronomed beat exuding from the Wiimote's speaker, and it is positively maddening!

On the up side, dancing isn't all Boogie is made to do. Boogie comes with a USB microphone and a Karaoke feature that actually isn't bad! I've read reviews about the karaoke that discredit it, saying that it doesn't care what words you sing if words at all, so long as you get the notes right. And yes, that seems to be true - I could "Moo" my way through a song and still rack up the points if my Moos are on pitch. Is that a bad thing, though? If I go to real life karaoke, I care a very little if the singer gets every word right so long as we're having fun, and having fun at karaoke is often best exhibited by a lack of aural bleeding. This is, similarly, why I have a pretty low tolerance for The Singing Bee's contestants ;)

From a game-for-my-child perspective, the colorful characters and their customizable outfits are a plus.

And when it comes to pluses, that's about it, I'm afraid. I'm *OK* with my Boogie purchase because I have a small child who thinks it's fun. If not for that, I'd probably not have bought it in the first place, but if for some reason I did, I'd be a very unhappy customer. There's better Wii party-style games to be had, so if that's all you're looking for, skip this one!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Legends of Norrath - First Week Thoughts

Well, I've got to say, I'm impressed. When I learned about Legends of Norrath at the recent Vegas Fan Faire, I was, frankly, kinda ticked. I haven't played a collectible trading card game in probably around a decade, and I hadn't been missing it. Not that TCGs were always bad - the strategy aspect is very appealing to me - but they got awfully expensive back in my college days, and they never seemed worth getting back into.

Now we have this new wave of ONLINE TCGs. Online? What the hell? This isn't like solitaire, where I'm playing with the same "deck" over and over, and at worst the computer version keeps me honest. This isn't like video poker, where once the deck is "shuffled" via randomization, the play-the-odds aspect is exactly the same as regular poker.

No, the idea behind a trading card game, and one of the defining aspects that made it so much fun to begin with, was the rush of opening a pack of cards and seeing what's inside. You take your cards, file them away, and they're collectible, so maybe you take the rare ones you don't absolutely need and place them in protective sleeves to retain their value - like a baseball card collection only geekier. So to collect virtual cards in this same manner seems....wrong. To me.

I can't say I necessarily would have given LoN a fair shake had I not attended the Fan Faire. But since I get to try it early, free (optionally), and - even if the game turned out to suck - got some chances at making server item discoveries (of which I amazingly have ZERO, despite playing EQ2 non-stop since beta), I figured I should take advantage of the offer :)

I always said about EQ2 that the graphics were great, but had nothing to do with why I have yet to find a game to take me away from it. The gameplay is what's most important! LoN gets major kudos in a similar regard: I may not like the notion of an online TCG, but so far I'm very impressed with the gameplay!

LoN offers a really interesting dynamic that I never got out of TCGs a decade ago. Magic: the Gathering, for instance, was all about building an army and slaughtering the other guy. Star Trek's TCG had combat between cards you laid down, but winning was focused on completing missions. (It was also terrible - just the fact that the Red Alert mechanic ever existed means someone should be shot)

LoN offers you a choice of paths: Try to slaughter the other guy, represented by an avatar with personalized stats (unlike MtG, where everyone starts with 20 health points and no stats), or be the first to complete 4 quests of increasing difficulty. You can choose to build a deck focused on one tactic or the other, or make a balanced deck that can flexibly take either path.

I spent most of the last week on tutorials and scenarios. The scenarios are a sort of short, single-player campaign not unlike other computer strategy games, wherein you must use the resources available to you to tackle opponents who have various themes, tactics, challenges, and special abilities.

A few of the scenarios are amazing, while others are amazingly frustrating. Droon was the first such bastard. ANY fight he gets into, he gets 4 points of damage absorption, which makes him extremely hard to EVER hurt (doing more than 4 damage in a combat is tough), and nearly impossible to kill. Beating him by questing isn't impossible by any means, but you still have to build an army to hold his army at bay, so you can't just go with a 100% questing deck. The best thing I can say about Droon is that he made me learn all the ins-and-outs of the deck builder utility!

There were some other tricky scenarios, some more fun in their challenges than others, but the worst has to be the last one. Ok ok, the last scenario in a campaign SHOULD be the hardest - I'm aware of that - but Miragul's ability to resurrect (at no cost) ANY unit out of his graveyard once per turn makes him just god-awful. It isn't hard to start the game accelerating faster than Miragul and get a couple quests under your belt, but once he gets up to 6 power and lays down Mayong Mistmoore, there's pretty much no stopping him. I'm going to have to try making an all-combat deck of extremely cheap creatures and see if I can just out-attrition him.

Frustrating as some scenarios may be, however, they really are fun, and definitely help get your brain buffed-up for when you take on other humans.

Speaking of humans...I finally played against another human last night. Good times! I managed to win, but it was close - both our avatars were down to 1 hitpoint when I finished him off with a Kick, for which I felt kinda cheap. I'm very much looking forward to more matches, and especially some tournament action. I hope there'll be a test of the tournament system near the end of beta, too, so we can see how it works (and maybe win a sweet carpet? ;)

So, what are the downsides of Legends of Norrath? Well, as I said, the gameplay is very engaging, and of course there's bugs, but bugs get fixed. The only thing that really bothers me about LoN is tangibility. I accept that, at this point, I'm just some old coot who only looks back fondly on how things were "back in my day." That said, it still bugs me!

I think it's the way the cards are marketed and "packaged" more than anything. The Legends of Norrath store (link here***) shows booster packs in little tear-open plastic sleeves and starter decks in colorful, art-laden boxes. But that's not even that bad compared to the "case of booster packs' you can buy. There's actually a little picture of a store display box full of booster packs, and you get a small discount for buying 36 at once. ($2.75 per pack instead of $3)

I used to pay $3 per booster pack for Magic cards, Star Wars cards, and any other TCG I once fiddled with. But had I kept those cards, I could still go to them 20 years from now and they'll be there, waiting for me to get nostalgic. I could invest hundreds of dollars into LoN, and 20 years from now they'll be so much digitized dust in the wind.

Simply put, $3 per booster feels like way too much for virtual property, and what makes me REALLY mad is that I like the game enough to have already bought a few anyway. Grrrrrr.

There'll be free boosters that drop off of mobs in EQ1 and EQ2, but we won't know how rare they'll be until LoN goes live. Mayyyyybe it'll turn out that they aren't terribly rare, and perhaps even that LoN will prove to be a dandy, lower-profit marketing tool to get more EQ subscribers rather than the other way around. I'd LOVE that, frankly. IF, in fact, those dropped boosters aren't very rare after all, I'll quit my bitching about the price for purchasing extras, I promise ;)

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