Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Future of MMOs

Terranova had a posting by Bruce Damer recently asking if we are entering a New Virtual World Winter. MBP has also (jokingly) predicted the ending of MMOs and Tobolds also has a post up about dealing with game burnout. While I think the MMO market is certainly “stuck” at the moment with The World of Warcraft at the top and the rest fighting for table scraps, I don’t think this is the end of MMOs.

MMO Predictions:
Ok, here’s where I get out the crystal ball. Just so you know: reception on this thing has been hazy lately. In the future MMOs will involve:

- More flexible business models. Micro payments, or something similar, will be allowed in some games. Others may offer what is currently the box software via bit torrent sites, saving them a ton of money by not burning disks for game software, and only have monthly or other periodic payment plans. Some plans will also be pay-by-resource so that a casual gamer with no interest in raiding can play to the max level while hardcore, raiding gamers can pay for the extra raid instance access.

- Elements which have evolved into design standards (character inventories, bag space, UI elements, etc). There’s a tendency in software development that once something is standardized, it can be packaged and made extensible. Perhaps companies will spring up that build components that work between the different software layers in MMOs so large development companies can use the components and spend the rest of their money on other game play elements.

- More interactive and immersive NPC behaviors. EQ2 has voice-acting for NPCs and Oblivion’s AI gives NPCs daily schedules and behaviors which occur whether a player witnesses them or not. Combining these ideas, I think we’ll have more realistic NPC behavior including daily schedules. There would still be shops of NPCs for things like repairs, but NPCs would come and go. The repair headmaster may not be there at noon because he’s off to lunch – you’ll have to get your repairs done by one of the apprentices. Part of a quest may be to actually track down the quest giver. It would also be neat to allow more expanded social options – like being able to bargain with shop keeps and getting discounts if they like you.

- More interactive and immersive worlds. Not just a world free of instancing, though that would be nice, but one where there’s seasons. There are natural disasters and things related to battles occurring in the world. There would be mobs that don’t just wander – some run and hide while others are actively hunting players down.

- Improvements in story telling. In books, stories unfold by telling. In movies and television, stories unfold by showing. In MMOs, stories unfold by doing. Yet most story telling elements in the current crop of MMOs fall back on cut-scenes (showing) or quest text (telling). Improving the encounters to where the player is an active participant in a story and developing artistic techniques to alleviate the need to show or tell the player what role they are playing can help advance the player acting out what their role is in the story. Along with this, will be improvements in quest construction. We need to get away from meaningless kill ten seething thugs, then ten sneering thugs, then ten disgruntled thugs when they’re all bloody thugs in one spot. Streamlining questing and the storytelling that the questing is supposed to accomplish will improve games and make them less grindy, more interesting and more interactive for the participants.

In addition to improving the story-telling in MMOs with voice-acting for the NPCs, improvements in NPC body language and facial expressions can help. The NPC could talk to you in glowing terms but you could tell from their facial expression that they really don’t like you or are hiding something (and what they’re hiding, the player will have to discover themselves – again, by DOING).

Another way to get players involved more is too add branching for stories. Kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, player decisions have ramifications. If you help the king take out the leader of a trade guild, you get in good with the king but the trade guild hates you. If you help the trade guild instead, something else happens. I realize this may require instancing to accomplish. I’d go a step further and like to see general trends on a server have effect in the world. If more players help the king than the trade guild, something happens on the server (the trade guild revolts or helps an enemy kingdom gain a foothold on the king’s territory or something). Developers would have to be careful how they implement the quest lines. Basically, each player needs to feel like they had a hand in creating their world while at the same time not forcing too much conflict between players. Adventures may have to be divided into world adventures where everyone sees the same result and has access to the same parts and player adventures where each player decides their own results.

MMOs probably aren’t going to cease, however they will cease to exist as we know them today.

EQ2 - Continuing Adventures

I’ve been creating different alts in EQ2 since the opening of their Legacy campaign to get returning players. I’ve tried all three variants of the rogue class. Each has different but similar skills to use in combat (stuns, poisons, strikes from stealth, etc). While I have liked things about each of them, they all strike me as being a tad too much like the rogue in WoW and I lost interest. I tried an illusionist and a wizard and while the skills and play style of those classes seemed neat, I lost interest in those as well.

Then I created a halfling ranger. I had fun the other night peppering baddies full of arrows or stabbing the bejesus out of them. Seems like a class with a lot of solo power and would be somewhat useful in groups (though I imagine there’s a lot of rangers floating around). And, of course, his summon pie ability is awesome. (I kid you not: his racial trait is to summon pie, lol).

Playing EQ2 again lends itself to the inevitable comparisons to the other games I have played. One thing I like is the graphics style of the game. Yes, it is cartoony, however the characters and landscapes and objects are all well-integrated. In that world, everything that’s there feels like it belongs there. The more realistic game makers try to make their graphics, the harder it is to create items in games which allow for the suspension of disbelief. In the cartoony graphics of EQ2 or WoW, it doesn’t take much to create an item which fits. In a more photo-realistic game like LotRO, the slightest imperfection in a face, clothing item, or weapon can break the immersion factor. In addition to the graphics integration, there are little things that help the immersion along. When my hobbit burglar (LotRO) is speaking to a quest-giver, he’s basically talking to the NPC’s knees. My halfling ranger, on the other hand, cranes his neck and looks the NPC right in the face and the NPC looks down at him. NPCs / PCs actually looking at each other adds a lot to the animations and makes it feel more like they are really conversing. I’m liking the voice-acted NPC dialog as well; it adds to the feel of the place when I’m actually hearing what I’m being told instead of just reading it off a screen.

The only thing I don’t care for in EQ2 at this point is the boats. I love their travel system overall with the character sprint ability and so forth - just not the boats. In fact, there aren’t really even boats – just bells on the docks that you click on and insta-port to the next dock. There’s something to be said about the game tempo in WoW when you have to wait for the boat (or Zeppelin or Tram). You stand and wait for it and then it finally comes into view. You hop on board and eventually it will take off again. You can watch the place where you were float off into the distance as your ship leaves shore. Sometimes then you’ll get a loading screen though other routes happen in real time. It actually feels like you’re embarking on a voyage. You’re off to a new place to have great adventures. Same thing with riding the wyvrns / hippogryphs in WoW. Most fantasy books and stories tend to have passages savoring the place where the heroes are heading to. The feeling of place is served in games via the travel options. In EQ2, there’s no savoring the experience of travel. It’s just *poof* you’re here *poof* you’re there. It’s kind of like the train in City of Heroes (which I also didn’t care for).

Getting there is neat but the journey is important too.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Changed the link for Bildo to the Ramblings of Jobildo - also linking to his shiny new site!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Revisting EQ2

I decided to take advantage of the Living Legends campaign for players (both full subscriptions and trial accounts) who had been members but left EQ2. It turns out I had completely uninstalled the game so I needed to reinstall from my disks. Once that was taken care of, I signed in and got all the updates I had been missing (it took roughly two hours).

I have since been playing around with my different characters. Per Van Hemlock's post, I promptly logged on to my Gnome Necromancer and proceeded to fly around in the new clockwork illusion form. Gotta love it! And a neat feature is that, when sitting, the little propeller stops spinning and you actually deploy landing gear. Too much fun. After zipping around on my Gnome for a bit, I went back to character creation and found I could roll a Fae. The Fae starting zone was a new one to me, so I got a Fae swashbuckler set up. After running around on him for a bit, I noticed that the Fae zone felt a lot less boxed in than the starting zones for my Gnome or other "good" races. They expanded the map area a bit more and successfully concealed some of its edges with terrain features. Rather than questing in a tunnel, I felt more like I was free to roam a bit more.

Another thing about the Fae is their free-fall ability. Falling safely from any height combined with my swashbuckler stealth had me leaping from every tree fort and outpost I could climb into without caring a whole lot about the level of the mobs below me. As long as I didn't land directly on anything that could kill me, I'd be safe.

Note to developers: Anytime you can put in an ability to cater to the easily-amused crowd (turning into a clock-work helicopter, enabling characters to leap from heights without damage, etc.) you should do so. The abilities add almost nothing to the character or the game but provide countless hours of play as we, the easily amused, activate those abilities to the fullest extend of silliness possible.

One of my gripes the first go-around with EQ2 is that I couldn't sample the housing areas with a trial account. Well, they modified that a bit and as a returning player, I can now get a cheap house. I got all set up with a one-room apartment on a couple of my alts and got the housing quest items (a chandelier, a table and a mirror) along with some other housing-related goodies (a couple of books and a /claim item of a bonsai tree). Compared to LotRO's housing system of furniture placement hooks, I like EQ2's system of furniture placement a lot better. I could place items anywhere they would reasonably go. I couldn't stick my chandelier on a wall or the floor, but it would go anywhere I wanted it on the ceiling. Another neat feature is the ability to put items on other items. My halfling wizard has a little apartment and I put my table in a corner and put two books and a little vase on top of it.

I would love to see LotRO adopt such a system. I'd like to be able to put chairs next to my tables and actually place items on top of them (plates, mugs, etc.). I would also like to see books in the game. It would be awesome to have, say, a readable in-game book of all the riddles from the Hobbit or books of elvish lore to keep in my smial. Oblivion also had books you could pick up, read and keep in your residence. In Oblivion you could steal books too ... not that I would ever do such a thing. *shifty eyes*

Anyway, that's what's going on in my Everquest two adventures thus far.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Warhammer PvP

Slashdot has an article covering an interview with Jeff Hickman, Senior Producer for Warhammer Online (LINK). The post references the interview at BigDownload.com.

A promising quote from the article:
We generally start everything in our game with a thought toward PvP. PvP isn't the first thing we think of, but it's one of the first things. We think of Warhammer Online as a PvP game that also has monster and PvE content. So, when we balance our careers, we balance the content around player verses player, not fighting monsters. We balance the classes against each other. Then, instead of balancing those classes against the monsters, we balance the monsters against the classes. Our philosophy is to make the best PvP game in the world and build the PvE content around it. We know how much damage each class can do and take, plus all the utility each class can provide. So, instead of balancing each ability, we just need to modify the overall damage output and absorption of each career.
One of the big gripes of many PvP players is that there’s too much balancing classes between PvE and PvP which sacrifices one or the other. From his PvP first mentality, Jeff sounds like a man who gets it. I don’t mind the balancing act, but in a PvP game, balancing the classes for PvP should always precede PvE considerations.

PvE in service of PvP aims (like troop movements in the World of Warcraft's Alterac Valley) suit me fine. Some PvE elements enhance the appearance of epic battles. Other PvE aspects though (like Korrak the Bloodrager, also in WoW's Alterac Valley) detract from the experience by being nuisances at best and a raid-squashing distraction at worst.

The interview is an interesting read for those contemplating a jump to Warhammer.

In other news, some kinship mates and I in LotRO that had also played EQ2 have been thinking of taking them up on their recent offer of checking them out again. We're not thinking of a game switch, just to poke our heads in and see what's going on. Our discussions turned to why EQ2 didn't do as well as WoW did and what happened to Vanguard (another Sony Online Entertainment endeavor). Genda over at the Grouchy Gamer has a series of posts about what happened to Vanguard. It was interesting to read and rather poignant too. I also had high hopes for the game and wondered just what had happened over there to release such a dud.