Daily Blogroll Oct 21: Tanks for the Memories edition

Ophiga and friend

The big news yesterday was the dropping of the Press NDA for Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. I read all the press reviews I could find; I’ll point to some of those later on, but almost all of them credited the storyline for pulling them deeper into the game. The game mechanics may be old hat, and the standard roles, dungeons and raids are present, but the story, by all accounts, is worth the price of admission.

I still fondly remember the story from the original Knights of the Old Republic. I played the game twice, once good and once evil, and the story didn’t change that much, but that was okay because it was a good story.

That’s really the job of an MMO, isn’t it? To give you something that gets you to log in again each day, and then when you shut the game down one last time, to leave you with some memories.

I don’t HAVE a screenshot of SWTOR, so up there is a shot of my DDO rogue with a Favored Soul hireling. We’ve destroyed a generation of kobolds and I made two new discoveries in the Sands of Menechtarum, but in a few minutes, I and my hireling would be dead. Stupid swarm of revenge-minded kobolds and their named chief…

News? We have that.
Continue reading Daily Blogroll Oct 21: Tanks for the Memories edition

Semi-Annual Blogroll: Sheep may safely graze edition

The SOE sheep live in danger

I work a full day in the office, then strap my laptop to my back, pedal home and work a full night as well. It’s called crunch time, this is the third month of it, and work people pay me to do is taking priority over writing which nobody pays me anything to do. If I were working on a game, I could excitedly drop hints about it, but the only way you’ll see what I’m writing is if you need to be bonded. Or you happened to be a bond agent. BUT! If you ARE, well, we’ve got something pretty amazing for you this summer :)

On the plus side, that picture is part of my commute. One of the bennies about biking to work is that it’s more acceptable to just stop by the side of the road, outside someone’s house, and start taking pictures. If someone popped out of a CAR and started snapping shots, well, people would stare.

The Great Sony Hack of 2011

Big news these last couple of months has been the hack attack upon Sony’s PlayStation Network as well as Sony Online Entertainment’s customer data servers. This was a crime, perpetrated upon Sony and SOE by criminals, and they have essentially turned my PS3 into a brick, made them the object of a million rants and they are costing themselves and their partners thousands of dollars each minute the service is unavailable. It’s just a tragedy.

I feel Sony, though, is drawing this out needlessly. Sony has the best engineers in the world. I can’t believe that they couldn’t have saved their forensic data and plugged whatever security holes were used to break in in more than a couple of days. I don’t think anyone on the outside has any idea why Sony has floated May 31st as a “go live” date. I just don’t know.

But I worry. I worry about SOE and their games. SOE just recently had some pretty massive layoffs. After a strong start, their latest MMO, DC Universe Online, tanked on the PC. That can’t be good with such an expensive IP. Now that game is looking at a month and a half of nobody being able to play it. PC players have already abandoned it, and PS3 players will be playing some other game. So, DCUO is likely dead now. Vanguard’s handful of players can’t be expected to stick around, so that game is dead. SWG only had until SWTOR came out to live, anyway; ironically, pre-NGE SWG might have been different enough from SWTOR to co-exist. Anyway, SWG – dead.

Free Realms — unknown. I played it for awhile, but the constant money grubbing turned me off. I think kids will be happy to return to it after a delay, where adults might find something better to do. Plus, it had only barely launched on the PS3, so it’s ripe for a relaunch. Clone Wars Adventures – minigame portals like CWA can survive global thermonuclear war. They are the cockroaches of gaming.

Anyone who plays EQ is there because of all the games available to them, EQ is the one they want. It will survive. EQ2… and its F2P cousin, EQ2X… will survive, but look for massive server mergers; perhaps EQ2 will finally fold into EQ2X.

For the games in development, Planetside Next and EverQuest Next… I can’t imagine SOE will have enough revenue to continue serious work on these games. They have to focus on rebuilding their money properties right now. I feel SOE’s best hope is to separate from Sony, lose the mandate to put their MMOs on the PS3, and focus their efforts on a couple of really high performing games. I think it’s long past time for SOE to become Verant once again.

Skype is Microsoft’s new MMO!

The US Navy, via a program at the Naval Postgraduate School which I have totally visited (yay Monterey!), is soon to launch an online, collaborative brainstorming tool called MMOWGLI, which stands for “I Bet I Can Come Up With A Silly Acronym, Leveraging the Internet”. Anyway, “players” will be presented with some real world scenarios and will be able to collaborate with others on possible solutions using a graphical tool. Which is great; all the armchair admirals will finally be able to make their voices heard. Someone at work, when I mentioned this, said in response to the initial scenario of dealing with the Somali pirates that are harassing shipping off the coast of Africa, “shoot them all”. That could be an option!

I think it’s a great idea. I just hate that the term “MMO”, which we’ve come to use as shorthand for MMORPG – massively multiplayer online role playing game – being applied to any online activity involving more than two people. And what I hate more is the professional gaming press jumping on that same bandwagon, when they should really know better.

The worst are those places which try and explain that MMOs are games like WoW, except for this one. Kudos to that writer for also trying to compare it to a MUD, which it isn’t.

My old WoW guild

WoW loses half a million players, attributes it to a rounding error

So, news comes that WoW has lost a small percentage of their user-base, a marginal number of players that would total more than the active base of any other subscription MMO in the world.

Upshot is, their two year expansion cycle just isn’t working for them any more. People chew through all the new content in a few months (if that), and then drift off to other games, like Rift.

All these years, Blizzard has told us that this is how long it takes to come up with an expansion’s worth of quality content. It can’t be rushed, hurried or scheduled. It’s done when it’s done. But, now Blizz feels it actually could churn the stuff out a lot faster than that if it wanted to. It’s vowed to push Diablo 3 out the door sometime this year, instead of somewhere in this decade, their previous estimate. There’s a new sense of urgency coming out of Irvine, and I feel it’s long overdue. World of Warcraft IS the elder game now, and it has to move fast to keep relevant.

It’s not about the money — they have record profits, and if they ever feel they need more cash, they can add some more mounts to the cash shop and make an achievement for buying them all. For Blizzard, it’s about remaining the game that people think of when they think “MMO”.

We Heart Lucent Heart!

Masively Multiplayer dating sim Lucent Heart’s latest North American beta, “B.F.F.”, starts today. So here’s your chance to find your best guy or girl online, team up and kick some bully butt. I can’t say enough about this game. Everyone should play it. WoW-killer.

A fan who won a contest will be cosplaying at E3. So if you’re there, get a picture taken with her. Remember, if you’re lucky enough, you too could someday grow up to be a booth babe. It can happen!

Argh, so soon?

Time to hit the road and go to work. I miss blogging :(

The best MMO for a new player?

Reader Velmonte asks:

Tipa, what game would you consider for a person who is just breaking into the world of mmo’s? One of my friends, has been wanting to try one, but I need to suggest a game that has basic quests, but is still fun, colorful, and immersive. I was hoping you could help me out! Thanks!

This is a really great question. With new MMOs coming out every day and hundreds to choose from, it can be crazy trying to find the perfect game. Fact is, maybe you can’t find the perfect game first try, or maybe after playing an MMO a bit, you find yourself ready for something new.

The most important question to ask when looking for a MMO is, are my friends playing this game? MMOs are all meant to be played with other people; otherwise, single player RPGs like Bioware’s excellent Dragon Age: Origins will give the adventure, quests and party building without worrying about finding other players.

The second consideration is, will this game work on my machine? If you have a MacBook and don’t want to use Boot Camp to boot into Windows, your choices are very limited (but there are some options). If you have an older machine, you may not have a great experience with some of the later games.

I haven’t played every MMO out there, but I’d like to go through some of the games I have played with an eye toward the things (aside from friends playing) that would be most inviting to a new player. I’d look for interesting game play, games that start off easy and gradually show their depth, great graphics, great character customization, and active new player communities.

World of Warcraft must be mentioned first; it’s the MMO so popular that when most people think of the genre, they think of WoW. WoW’s content is famously easy, with the changes made to the game over the past few years making it one of the easiest MMOs to play, ever. It is colorful and runs on most any computer, even the Macs. Character customization isn’t the best — you will find your character’s face on lots of other people’s characters — and the community at this point is expert at WoW and unforgiving of new players. The newbie areas are also largely empty, though that should change when the next expansion adds two new races and completely redesigned newbie areas. Also, the Looking For Dungeon (LFD) tool makes finding groups automatic, but you will find that most dungeon groups expect every member to be extremely familiar with each dungeon and able to handle each encounter with little or no discussion. WoW does so many things right, that it’s easy to overlook the very few things it does wrong.

Lord of the Rings Online started out playing much like WoW, but in the years since has found its own niche. LotRO is deeply based on the lore of J.R.R. Tolkein’s books, and your character will follow, lead and meet the Fellowship and together you fight the evil legions of Mordor and restore peace to Middle Earth. Your character is far more customizable, and you can equip gear just for show to give you complete control over your character’s appearance. With housing, frequent festivals and celebrations and a variety of non-combat skills like playing actual music on in-game instruments, LotRO has built itself a strong and newbie-friendly community. Its high system requirements are the only blemish on this excellent game.

The sequel to the grandfather of 3D MMORPGs, EverQuest 2 takes customizability to an entirely new level. Its housing and massive guild halls make interior decorating a popular player occupation, supported by many trade skills. Crafting is a respected career path, with no combat at all required if you want to pursue that path (although most crafters mix adventuring in with their knitting). EQ2 boasts several stellar newbie experiences deep with plot and lore, so you are immediately immersed in the world. From the faerie-like Fae to the dark and manipulative dark elves to the wandering frogloks to the conniving ratonga, no other MMO gives you the number of classes, races and individuality of EQ2. This does mean that EQ2 can seem daunting to a new player. Like many older MMOs, the newbie areas will be largely desolate and the groups you do find will assume you know the game well. The game also requires a fairly hefty computer, and few would call EQ2 colorful.

Wizard101 is one of my favorites. The game is colorful, features a unique combat mechanic involving playing cards and building decks that starts out simple but leads to great depth, and has a variety of non-combat activities like home decoration and crafting. Though the game is nominally a subscription game, you can play the first several areas for free to get a taste, and have the option of purchasing access to new areas instead of subscribing. The characters, though colorful, have little individuality — you’ll see many copies of your character in the world. The game is also targeted for children and young teens, though many adults do play. The chat censoring and other kid-friendly features may be off-putting to older players. The game runs well on low system requirements, and I considered W101 to be the best new MMO of 2008.

Free Realms is an odd little nugget of an MMO. The developers couldn’t decide upon just one theme to the game, so they put in everything they could think of to make a game where the only goal is to make sure you are never more than ten seconds from doing something new. Characters can have one or many jobs, evenly split between combat jobs like brawler and ninja and non combat jobs like miner and postman. Each non-combat job opens mini-games, often themed for the area, based on some of the most famous casual games ever made. Add in player housing, pet training, the occasional live band performance, everywhere a new game to play, and a player population recently reported to be 10 million strong, and you have an unmatched new player experience. You will find clones of your character everywhere, and the highly stylized player characters may not be to everyone’s tastes. The game is free to play, though the cash shop is heavily promoted.

Out of all the Asian imports I’ve played, Dream of Mirror Online was probably for me the most successful. Your character is drawn from the real world into a mirror world full of Mirror Kings and only you (naturally) can save the world. Follow the plot through cut scenes, mysteries, and bizarre and over-the-top boss battles in various parallel universes, or discover and breed rare pets and hang out in town socializing, it’s up to you. The fairly unique class system lets your character take on any role and mix and match the abilities from any two classes to make your character your own. (This system is somewhat similar to FFXI Online’s, and Free Realms has echoes of it as well). Since each new class means going back through the newbie areas, even a couple of years into the game’s Western launch, the newbie areas are still full of players. The real-time harvesting is a way to get some of the drudgery of harvesting done without having to be physically present at the computer. If you don’t mind a strong anime/manga bend to the graphics, this might be the game for you.

Any of these would, I think, be an excellent introduction to the world of MMOs, and perhaps a permanent home for a new player. Other games, like Dungeons and Dragons Online, EVE Online, the original EverQuest, Aion, Warhammer, Age of Conan, Darkfall and Allods Online would appeal more to the experienced gamer. Most of these games have demos or free trials, and I’d urge a new player to give a couple of them a try to find out which appeals to them most. If you aren’t having fun in a game, it’s best to just move on. There’s so many choices available these days that there’s bound to be a fit for everyone.

If someone is looking for a deep game full of story and lore and “worldness”, and their computer can handle it, I’d recommend Lord of the Rings Online. For sheer casual fun, Free Realms. For kids or adults looking for a more strategic but always fun game, Wizard101. For the most freedom and individuality, EQ2. For the best social tools, DoMO. For the easiest game that can run on anything, WoW. Whatever you are looking for, one of these games likely has it.

Free Realms and Sturgeon’s Law

In 1958, noted science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon wrote that 90% of science fiction was crud, which was generalized and explained that 90% of EVERYTHING is crud.

I loved doing the Daily Blogroll, but the loss of a couple hours out of each day are only one reason I have put them on hold for now. It’s mostly because I came to understand that MMOs aren’t immune from Sturgeon’s Law, and that for every good, original MMO, there are nine that are crap. Writing about those nine crappy MMOs as if they were good and fun was exhausting. I’m not gonna name names; I vote for which goes in the fun pile and which goes in the crap pile by how I spend my time online, and it should be pretty obvious how that goes with me. And my definition of crap vs crumpets probably isn’t yours.

I’m just going to point out that blaming WoW players for coming to your game in droves and then leaving after a month because they placed your game in that famous 90% is kinda short-sighted. Why would you think WoW players would want a game like WoW, anyway? They already HAVE one.

What makes a game crappy? It’s not bugs or server queues, it’s granted that every game has bugs and deals with over-popularity at some point, and that all will deal with these problems. A game is crappy when it has no reason to exist other than the hubris of its developers. Do we NEED another fantasy MMO with fed-ex quests and classes and leveling? No, we don’t. There’s hundreds out there right now. You could play one a day from now until doomsday (in 2012), probably. If you think your game is going to make any sort of splash in that very deep pond, well, you’re wrong. Spending millions in advertising might get people in the door, but won’t stop them from walking right back out.

Anyway, I didn’t want to talk about crappy games, I wanted to talk about Free Realms.

Free Realms is Free. You can make a character and choose from any of a wide variety of jobs and swap between them at any time. If you pay a little, you get even COOLER jobs. I was pretty excited about the game when it launched, but the gameplay just got kinda repetitive and I found I was only leveling my final class — the wizard — in order to get more Hogwart’s-style wizard outfits. That wasn’t worth buying a card at Best Buy to play after awhile.

Now it seems I don’t have to worry about playing all, any more, because Free Realms is no longer free. The Teal Terrapin noticed in a Massively story that SOE is adopting a Wizard101-style “free-mium” model, where your first four levels are free, but after that, you must pay.

Creative Director Laralyn McWilliams insists this was a change players asked for.

Players have asked to try out all of the jobs, and we listened. So as of early November, free player characters that are newly created will be able to play any job (Ninja, Chef, Postman, Kart Driver, Demo Derby Driver, Brawler, Miner, Soccer Star, Archer, Wizard, Medic, Blacksmith, Warrior) in Free Realms up to level five for free. When level four is completed, the job becomes Members Only.

… so we’re given to believe.

Was there really a great outcry from Free Realms players to make the game not be free any more?

In Wizard101, you can either subscribe or pay to unlock new areas as you come to them. Once you unlock an area, it is unlocked forever, and for all your current or future characters. Letting your Free Realms membership expire means you won’t be able to play any job that has leveled past level 5. This isn’t unusual for a subscription game, but it is rather odd for a free to play game, that usually try to encourage people to spend time online.

But then, Free Realms is no longer a F2P game.