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The Lunch Break Blog

For those of us who would rather be leveling right now.

Author: cmagoun

The League of Vaguely Similar Gentlemen (The Pitfalls of Open Character Systems)

Posted by cmagoun Thursday May 26 2011 at 12:03PM
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Last post, I discussed the realization that, even though I like the concept of open character systems with lots of free-form power and skill choices, the reality of those systems often left me cold. I used Champions Online as my main example because it has one of the most wide open systems in the market.

In CO, powers are divided into power frameworks (fire, ice, gadgets, darkness, etc.). However, powers from all powersets are available to you at any time, regardless of what framework you start with. Higher tier powers require you to either have x powers from a certain framework, or x+y total powers (from any framework). This means that specialists will get access to (sometimes) better powers more quickly, but eventually generalists will get access to those powers as well.

On paper, this is a fine system... and it does work OK in practice. However, in my experience, I find the most of my characters, and indeed most characters in the game, have lots of similar powers and a similar playstyle.

Is this sameness endemic to all open models? In a system where players choose their powers and skills, are you always going to see hordes of FOTM tankmages roaming around? Are systems that tie characters to tightly defined roles always going to provide a more interesting play experience than open systems? I don't know. Ultimately, I realize that I want to love CO's character system, but I don't. I want to get into the freedom of leveling up my skills in a game like Darkfall, but know that to be competitive, I should read a guide and level and skip the same skills as everyone else.

Enough questions -- let's take a look at ways an open system might avoid these pitfalls and provide more varied characters.

Meaningful (and non-obvious) Choices

If you are going to give your system choices, take pains to make them meaningful. If you have a dozen blasts (fire blast, ice blast, etc.) and all of them are identical except for their special effects, there is no meaningful choice there. Give each blast different combat stats and secondary effects -- and make sure those effects are big enough so that we can see the difference.

Of course, this brings up a ton of balance issues. If your fire blast has a secondary DoT, your ice blast slows opponents, and your lightning blast does more up-front damage and also has a chance to stun, you had better make sure that each of those powers is desirable in some way. If there is a clear winner, expect players to figure that out and choose it over the others... and then post a guide... and then you have a host of unused powers -- an obvious choice is as bad as no choice.

The answer here is not to make the powers the same, but to make sure that their stats and effects are such that every power is interesting and useful to some subset of characters at some point in their game. For instance, though our fire blast might not do as much instant damage as our lightning, we can make the DoT good enough that it is the best overall damage. The ice blast might do relatively poor damage in comparison, but its slow effect is good enough that it actually helps mitigate damage and control enemies on the battlefield. Thus, a PvE damage dealer might be inclined to choose the fire blast, whereas a tank might use the ice blast and a PvP blaster might lean toward the lightning.

Tradeoffs

In Champions Online, the basic formula for a successful character is to take a single-target, hard-hitting attack, an AoE attack, a passive defense, a shield, an emergency click defense, one or more self-heals, and something that will help you generate energy. In general, this is the blueprint for success. Not all characters follow this blueprint, but most do and thus, you see a lot of characters with this standard set of powers.

The fact that there is a standard build isn't necessarily a problem. What causes the problem is that this blueprint is pretty easy to implement and requires absolutely no tradeoffs be made. In CO, you have access to enough power choices and advantage points so that there is no need to skimp on anything. You can take the best blasts, the best defenses, the best self-heals without having to prioritize any of them. So, all of these wonderful power choices you have are mostly meaningless because you can easily choose all of the powers you need with a few extra powers to spare.

Open systems allow you to have access to all of the powers as they create their characters. Because of this, there has to be some kind of scarcity to force you to make hard choices. If you have the best single-target attack in the game, then something else has to give. One way to force these tradeoffs would be to draw both power picks and the effectiveness of those powers from the same pool of character build points.

Let's take our CO success blueprint, but assume that over the course of his career, every character got 100 build points. A base level power costs 10 points. Ranking up a power cost 5 more points per level, until a top-of-class power cost a total of 25 points.

I could get each of my "blueprint" powers now for a total of 70 points, which leaves me 30 points to rank up a few of my powers. I have every standard power I need to succeed, but I am mediocore in most of them. However, if I want a top-of-the-line single target attack, passive defense and a shield, that will cost me 75 points, meaning I have room for only two more powers and I am going to have to skip something.

Multiple Paths to Success

In tabletop RPGs and single player CRPGs, one way that tradeoffs are created is to include a significant non-combat component in the game. You can choose to be a superb combatant, but to do so, you have to skimp on your stealth or diplomacy skills. Ignoring these non-combat skills will close off possible quest solutions, or even close off some content. Conversely, you might choose to be a great confidence man, but then you are going to have a harder time in combat scenarios.

Of course, this works because most tabletop games and many single player RPGs allow for multiple ways to succeed at the game. If you are a great fighter, you can fight your way through a quest. However, if the enemies are too difficult for you, you may have to use stealth and avoid combat, or talk your way out of dangerous situations.

Having multiple paths to success is critical in allowing the player choices when he is building his character. If you are playing a single player CRPG and you are picking the stealth and diplomacy skills for your character, aren't you are going to be a little annoyed to find that there are no stealthy or diplomatic solutions to the game's quests? Or worse, that all of the stealthy and diplomatic gameplay options just lead to combat anyways?

Of course, if you are designing an MMO, your options are more limited. Most MMOs are combat games and very few of them have many viable options to advance other than fighting. When we balance an MMO, we are balancing the combat system and when we say we need "multiple paths to success", that means there need to be multiple ways to succeed at combat.

Still, there are options. If we break down powers roughly into offense and defense, we still have tons of effects.

Offensive Effects: Direct damage, dots, damage auras, damage reflection, pets, delayed (or conditional) damage (a power that damages an enemy when he moves or blocks), buffs, debuffs, confusion (where mobs attack each other), knockback (falling damage), traps, area of effect damage

Defensive Effects: Avoidance, resistance, pets, knockback, buffs, debuffs, stuns, roots, snares, confusion, direct heals, heals over time, reactive heals, damage shields, active blocks

If you allow all of these different types of effects to be powerful, then you can see how a character specializing in pets and traps, would play differently than a character who focused on direct damage and avoidance... and how both of those characters would be different than one that had a little bit of each of those effects.

If you omit or marginalize most of these effects, then you end up with too few ways to succeed and thus no tradeoffs and thus monotonous builds. 

There is more to discuss... but I think this post has lingered long enough. Hopefully, it will give you some food for thought and prompt a discussion or two about your favorite game.

The Tyranny of Choice (or The Darkside of Open)

Posted by cmagoun Friday May 13 2011 at 7:53AM
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One way to classify character development systems in rpgs is how open or closed they are. An open character development system allows the player to choose his character's abilities and skills. A closed system determines a character's abilities based on some pre-determined role -- usually the class picked at character creation.

Now, I don't know of too many systems that fall on the extremes of the open/closed scale. Most open systems have some restrictions on your power choices and most closed systems allow some degree of choice. Games tend to fall somewhere along a continuum. For instance, I would consider Champions Online (gold) and Darkfall to have two of the most open character development systems ever seen in MMOs. By comparison, City of Heroes (where about 80% or more of your powers are determined at character creation, just not the order or how developed those powers will end up) is mostly a closed system. Modern WoW falls heavily on the closed end of the scale, with players having little choice in how they develop as they level up. Though it casts characters in a specific calling at character creation, Rift allows such variation within those callings, that I would have to consider it an amazingly open system.

In theory, when it comes to character development, I am a big fan of open systems that allow lots of choices. I like to pour over long lists of powers, looking for just the right blend of synergies that will make my character powerful. I also like playing concept builds -- self-buffing melee mages, drain tanks, characters whose sole purpose is to produce hideous amounts of knockback -- the more variety, choices and permutations, the better.

So, it would stand to reason that I would enjoy Champions' character development more than City of Heroes'. Champions offers a huge number of power combinations and permutations. CoH offers a ton of different types of characters to play, but once you pick, you pretty much know your build.

And I do sorta like CO's character development. I have about 8 characters in Champs and play a couple of them on a semi-regular basis. But, after a hard look at all of my characters, I realized a sad fact: all of my Champions Online characters were built the same.

Not exactly the same, mind you. Just mostly the same. Every character has an area attack to deal with henchmen. Every character has a hard-hitting single target attack. Nearly all of the characters have the force shield with the Energy Sheath (for energy regen). Most characters have a defensive passive. Self-heals: Check! Emergency click power: Check! Damage enhancer: Check! The specific powers may be different, but in general, the builds are alike. They have similar types of powers and more importantly, they play alike.

(I had a similar experience in Darkfall -- in a game where you can have any skill you want, why was everyone leveling two-handed swords, swimming and fire magic?)

In contrast, my dozen or so CoH characters are all wildly different from one another. I suppose I expect that from CoH since essentially, that game has something close to 300+ classes from which to choose. But take a game with much less variation... Nowadays, WoW has perhaps one of the least interesting character building systems on the market, but of course, my WoW ranger and warlock are nothing alike.

So, my question is, why with all of these wonderful choices, do I end up with the same result over and over? Is this inherent to all open systems, or is this just a flaw in the current designs out there? Should game developers even waste their time with open character systems, when more restrictive systems seem to offer a better game experience?

Personally, I still like the idea of open systems, but I do admit that I have had more fun in games with more restrictive systems. Still, I am not yet willing to throw in the towel. Next post, I am going to try to answer some of the questions posed above.

Back to the Grind

Posted by cmagoun Wednesday May 11 2011 at 2:25PM
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So, after a brief stint posting at another quality MMO site, and then getting burned out on MMOs altogether, I have recently gotten that itch that I am sure is familiar to many of us.

No... the other itch. And ewwwww...

You know, that itch when you hear your buddies talking about their favorite builds over a cup of coffee, hear idle water cooler chat about last night's dungeon run, or read an article about the ideal itemization in some heretofor uncreated ideal game. It's the same itch that makes salmon swim miles upstream to spawn and the same itch that makes Granny sit for hours in a dark, smoke-filled room, pumping away your inheritance into a slot machine one nickle at a time.

THAT itch.

I am sure you all know the drill by now. You burn out, and then after a few months, the desire to play an MMO returns and you start looking to resub your games. I started out slowly, putzing around on my Champions Online account, curious as to how the free-to-play move went for them. Then my friends convinced me to resub to CoX for issues 19-20 to see the new Incarnate content.

That all went well. Both CO and CoX are fun enough... but at this point, neither of them are novel and neither held my interest very long. For a while, I thought about subbing to SOE's DC Universe Online, but Sony managed to convince me to hold off for a bit... and change my bank account numbers.

It looked bleak -- certainly, this was the shortest re-love affair with MMOs to date! Fortunately, another friend of mine shot me a trial key to Rift and though much of Rift strikes me as MMO deja vu, it had just enough going for it to get me onto the bandwagon.

Of course, with the desire to play MMOs comes the desire to read and write about them. And so that is why I am back here and back to this blog. Hopefully, in the next few days, we will find something interesting to talk about concerning Rift, Champions, CoX, and MMOs and design in general.

Zoning Into a New Instance

Posted by cmagoun Wednesday September 9 2009 at 7:36AM
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Greetings everyone. I am just dropping a quick note to tell you that my blog is moving. I have a new post up on the topic of instances and you can check it out here. I plan to be posting soon about my experiences in Champions Online, and about game design in general. Please drop by and check it out.

Thanks,

Chris

 

Taking Your Ball and Going Home ... Again?

Posted by cmagoun Monday August 24 2009 at 3:22PM
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The Champions Online Open Beta is coming to a close soon and it has been a pretty fun week. Sure there are still some really ugly bugs hanging out there, and I am sure many powers and sets will have to be tweaked, and lots of additional content will have to be added, and my guess is that once you get to max level, there isn't much to do. However, all of that does not dissuade me from wanting to sub this game -- the fun factor overrides all of that badness.

There is one thing -- one huge, ugly, annoying thing that bugged me about the open beta. Us.

See, a couple days ago, Cryptic started tweaking the rate of XP gain for mobs and quests. My guess is that it had been artificially increased to allow people to test more of the game, and to give the devs some data on leveling rates. Now, I never noticed the exact rate at which I gained XP, but I did notice how darn fast my characters were zooming through the low levels. My understanding is they jammed the XP rate down very hard, which from my CoX experience is the way of Cryptic -- nerf big, then tweak back up. In any case, the XP was flowing like water and then it wasn't.

The change didn't bother me. What bothered me is the forum reaction to that change. Several threads popped up where people moaned, griped and threatened. "You have just lost a lifetime subscriber!", "I am cancelling my preorder today.", "I will give Cryptic 30 days to revert back to the way it was or else." Ugh... Look, I am a glutton for some good forum drama any day of the week; it is a deep-rooted character flaw. Lately though, I find that I am becoming tired of our community's penchant for knee-jerk, childish reactions to our games and their development.

I have always felt that MMOs were in a unique position -- somewhere between a product, a service and a community. Most media is produced without our direct input. There might be a select few testers, or a focus group giving input, but you are pretty much out of the loop until you watch the movie, or pop the game into your PC. MMOs are a continuing effort and though input is limited at the beginning of the development cycle, it opens up as the game progresses and ultimately includes us. Unlike any other entertainment medium, MMO users have the opportunity to shape the direction of their game through their play, their discussions, their suggestions and their criticism. But if you were a community manager, or a developer, who would you rather listen to, players who think before they post and post reasoned, constructive arguments, or those who rant, rave, insult and threaten to quit over each change?

Sooner or later, the kid who keeps threatening to "take their ball and go home" finds that the group got another ball. Sure MMO developers can't get their own ball; they need us to keep playing and paying. However, they could just stop listening to us. They know that those of us that read and post are just a small minority of the playerbase. We are important, because we care enough to discuss our favorite games (perhaps to the point of taking them too seriously) and our feedback guides and shapes the game over the course of years. That's powerful. Let's not give that power up by devolving into whining and threats when a change doesn't suit us.

But if you do feel the need to leave... can I have your stuff?
 

Champs Online Mini-Review

Posted by cmagoun Friday August 21 2009 at 12:57PM
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Last post, I promised a mini-review of Champions Online, so here it is. Keep in mind, I am no expert. I have played a whopping two sessions and have 4 characters ranging between levels 6-10, so I have little experience beyond the tutorials and the first zones. Still, I think I have enough time in to have formed a reasoned opinion.

Note: I have no screenshots because my main gaming machine is toast. The machine I am using to play is pretty rough and I have to run on the barest of settings. When I get my new, improved, smokin' box, I will post screenshots if anyone is interested.

Obviously, the first thing you will do upon starting Champions Online is create a hero. Actually, the very first thing you will do is stare at a seemingly interminable loading screen... The first time I started Champs Online (and after each patch), it seemed to load very slowly. There are two main parts to creating a hero, creating your costume and choosing your stats and powers. Let's look at each of these separately.

Costume Creation

Because CO was developed by the team that made the City Of games, I expected good things from the costume creator and overall, it is a great tool. At a basic level, it is the same as the costume creator in CoX. You choose various parts of your costume (head, body, legs) and get a set of dropdowns that let you put various costume pieces on your character. However, the CO team has made a few improvements to the concept.

First is that before even getting to your costume, you are presented with two sets of sliders, one for your hero's face and another for his body. You can adjust the size and position of your nose, eyes, mouth, the height and fullness of your cheeks, your chin... Same with the proportions of your body. There is lots to play with here.

Second is that once you are onto creating your costume, you will notice there are more dropdowns on each body part. CO "layers" costume pieces, giving more possible mix and match looks. So, you might pick a basic chest piece and then layer a jacket over that, or various arm pieces that go over your bicep, or shoulder.

Third, you have more color choices for each item. A few items have two colors like in CoX, but most items have 3 or 4 colors. This allows for more varied color schemes and cooler designs for emblems.

Overall, the costume designer is an improvement, but there are a few issues. First off, there is the simple fact that with more options and choices, more skill is required to get the ideal look. In CoX, you could always choose a couple of non-clashing colors, pick the same pattern for top and bottom and pretty much go. CO's designer will reward the skilled and the patient, and for those who aren't ... well, get ready for Millenium City's version of What Not To Wear.

Another issue with the costume creator is the fact that they seem to have missed some of the basic patterns. If I choose the default, two-color pattern for my chest (which is two stripes under the arms and down the sides of the hero), there is no matching pattern for a skirt. Instead you have to choose a more complex, four-color pattern and tweak the colors to that it matches the top.

In any case, the costume designer is nice, and will only get better over time as more options are added.

Character Creation

Though you will likely spend the lion's share of your character creation time creating your costume, you also have to choose your hero's power and stats before you begin. CO makes this easy by providing 18 power frameworks from which to pick. Each framework comes with two powers, your "energy builder" and your (for lack of a better term) "starter attack".

In addition, the framework determines your starting stats. CO has eight basic stats: strength, dexterity, constitution, endurance, recovery, intelligence, ego and presence. Each of these stats affects your combat abilities like your crit chance, your energy, hit points, and your ability to resist damage. In addition, each stat modifies the effectiveness of your powers. For example, your force field's power (if you pick that power from the force framework) is modified by your ego. Melee damage powers are increased by your strength.

Picking a framework ensures you get starter powers and stats to match. However, you are free to go it alone and create a "custom framework". In a custom framework, you can pick your energy builder and starter attack from any of the 18 frameworks. In addition, with a custom framework, you are able to pick how your stats are distributed from a long list of possible loadouts.

Having run 4 characters through the turorials and starter missions, I am fairly happy with how character creation plays out. Characters aren't that much different from each other to begin with, since you get the same to types of powers -- the energy builder and the starter attack. Everyone starts as a mini-blaster. However, each framework's beginning powers are slightly different. My gadgeteer would charge her experimental blaster to full to open a combat because that would give a chance to confuse, or knock the opponent up. However, she would then have to use her energy builder. My archer (at low levels, mind you) never has to fire her energy builder because her starter attack is amazingly energy efficient. The electric control set's energy builder can apply a debuff to an opponent which allows subsequent attacks to arc to other enemys. The darkness starter applies a fear effect.

Combat

Ahh... the much discussed combat system. Lots of people like it; lots of people hate it. Before I get into my opinion, let's take an objective look at the system, keeping in mind my relatively low-level experiences.

Much like CoX's combat is based on endurance, CO's combat has a central concept of Energy. Your max energy is based on your Endurance stat and is used to power most of your interesting attacks (i.e. almost anything BUT the builder attack). You also have an "equilibrium point", based on your Recovery that determines your starting energy when you are at rest. So, I might have 100 max energy (based on my Endurance) and start a combat having 55/100 (because of my Recovery).

From levels 1-6, combat pretty much plays out like this: You approach your target, fire off your starter attack (which costs energy) once or twice. Then, you are probably low on energy, so you toggle on your energy builder which fires quickly, does a little damage, and rebuilds your reserve in a few seconds. Once you have enough energy to blast away again, you fire your starter attack once or twice. Most powers don't have cooldowns and it is simply a question of having sufficient energy.

Now, this certainly isn't the height of strategy, but against henchmen, it plays very quickly and you will likely take on two or three at once without trouble. Taking on harder enemies such as villains, super-villains and master villains will require you to use the active block mechanic.

You block by pressing the Shift key and while blocking, you cannot attack and can only move slowly, but you take reduced damage from attacks. Most tough enemies have some kind of uber-attack that they charge up and if it hits, you will take around half your health. You will want to block in these cases. It isn't hard to do, but you will be tempted to time it properly to maximize your damage potential.

Is it boring? Look, it certainly isn't the height of strategy, but it plays out fast enough and has just enough challenging moments to NOT be boring, even at low levels it feels fast. At levels 1-6, it is certainly no more boring that playing a newbie WoW or CoX character.

Now, as you level up, you get a few more options and you start to see that there might be more to the game than you first thought...

Character Development (and more Combat)

As you level in CO, you gain points to spend on powers, power advantages, stat focuses (super-stats) and talents (which as far as I can tell, also increase stats). Let's start with powers. Powers in each framework are tiered, in that to buy a power from tier 2, you need 3 same-framework powers from tier 1, or 5 tier 1 powers from any framework. However, beyond that limitation, you are free to pick any power you like from any framework.

You also get access to power advantages points as you level. Advantage points can be used to level up a power, increasing its damage, or hold duration, or to buy "Advantages" for a power. Each power has certain advantages that can be applied to it and each advantage changes the way the power works in some significant way. For instance, you could make your starter attack an AoE instead of a single-target attack, or you might add a vampiric component to a hold power.

In addition to powers and advantages, you can also create two different builds and choose gear, and a role for each. A role applies a set of character-wide modifiers to your hit points, energy generation, and the efficiency of the various types of powers you have. So, you can pick an offensive role, which lowers your hit points and defenses, but ups your attacks and energy generation. You can pick a defensive role, which cuts your attacks, but increases the power of all your defensive powers. This allows a character to have a viable solo build, and a second team build where he tanks... or you could have two different loadouts for PvP and PvE.

The freedom to pick the exact powers you want, and then significantly customize those powers is huge. I loved the variety of characters in CoX, but I never felt I was building a character as much as I was just choosing him. Once you picked archetype, primary and secondary powersets, the rest was just leveling up to gain access to the powers you knew you were going to pick. So far, CO feels like I am experimenting and building the character level by level.

As an example, one of my characters has the Gadgeteer framework. This set starts with a couple of blasts. As I leveled, I took an advantage to my energy builder that made it a short-range cone. I also took the Gauntlet Chainsaw, which is a melee cone and chose and offensive role, so now the Gadgeteer is a short range, AoE-based killer, able to cut down hordes of henchmen in seconds. However, there are trade-offs. My hit points are crappy and I have spent lots of picks on increasing my Endurance and Recovery so that I can run the hungry chainsaw longer. This means my Intelligence is lower than it should be and my robot pets are underperforming a little.

Another character is my Archery toon. The archer starts with a pretty good, energy efficient attack (I mentioned earlier that she didn't fire her builder until level 6-7). Well, I tried out a couple of the rest of the archery attacks and was underwhelmed, so I leveled up the attack I had and spent my advantage points to make it an AoE attack. Then, I went instead with a defensive power that allows me to backflip away from an opponent, increasing my dodge chance, and I dipped into the martial arts framework and took a passive dodge bonus that increases with my Dexterity. The archer likes Dexterity and it increases her crit chance... now it increases her defense as well. She is now an awesome, if somewhat straightforward combatant.

There is even more to get into with gear, crafting and perks, but let's leave that for later. For now, with the little I have seen, I am very happy with how many options I have with the character builder. This system lends itself to endless tweaking, experimenting and researching builds. Oh... and you can test new powers before you lock in your puchases and respec the last 10 choices you make at any time.

Problems

CO has its share of issues. One is the traditional WoW questing system. Generally, you come upon a quest hub, collect all the ! bearing NPCs, head out, fight stuff, collect crap and return to the now ? bearing NPCs to get your cookies. Eh... ok, I am not a fan of this system, and it seems a little out of genre for me, but it is the MMO standard, so I can understand why they went this way.

However, one thing that bugs me about this system is that it discourages teaming. To team in CO for questing, you have to make sure everyone has the same quests. You can share quests, but invariably, someone has not completed a prerequisite step, or some number of your quests are not sharable. Add to that the fact that then you have to keep the team sort of together as you search for the various bits you are supposed to collect... or worse, there is no need to stay together because you are usually questing in a zone where a team makes the enemies trivial.

Team-questing in WoW has the same issues, but at least there, no one can run as fast as a drag-racer, or zoom off into the sky. Oh yeah... people don't team for quests in WoW anyways... they team instances, but teaming for quests just slows you down.

I would say they should seriously consider adding the CoX (actually Anarchy Online was the first I think) mission door model to CO. The random instanced missions keep everyone together and focused. I am not saying get rid of open-world questing, because I like the open-world feel, but give us that option for teams and pickup groups.

Another problem is that there are still lots of buggy issues to overcome. There are missions that cannot be completed, others where you can complete them, but the instructions aren't clear. There are the occassional client crash-to-desktop errors. The game runs fairly well at this point, but there are still a few too many problems to claim a "clean release" just yet.

Overall

Overall, I am impressed with CO. It is a good game and I think there is a lot of interesting stuff to uncover in the character development system. The combat is probably not for everyone... it is a mix between Marvel Ultimate Alliance, WoW and CoX, but it is engaging enough and I am interested to see how it plays out as I progress through the game. If you like CoX, but also like games with stats and gear, or if you like lots of customization in the look and performance of your character, give CO a look.

Champions Online MIGHT Suck (... as bad as your favorite game)

Posted by cmagoun Wednesday August 19 2009 at 12:44PM
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There has been quite a bit of noise about Champions Online the past few days due to the NDA being lifted, both on mmorpg.com and more interestingly (to me) my own little gaming clique. See, lots of people talk about "true sandboxes" or "hardcore PvP" or "WoW-Killer" games. My group has a similar concept and that is the CoH-Killer. For my gaming crew, CoH set the bar for the MMO experience with its character customization, its fast, flashy action, its "Oh Wow I Can Fly" movement powers, its ease of access and convenience of play. Now, that's not to say that CoX is without its flaws; it has tons of huge, gaping flaws. However, it is the one game that kept us all playing together for more than 2 years, the one game that could drag my dad and my son into MMOs for any length of time, the one game that turned my ultra-casual gaming friend into a drooling, rampaging 4-boxer. So, even with its numerous flaws, for my group at least, CoX sets the gold standard.

But CoH is old and tired and most of us have seen it all before. A lot of what drives the MMO habit is a search for novelty and for many of us, CoH is out of tricks. So, you can imagine my group's excitement as we approach the release of the supposed spiritual successor to CoX. Champions Online is developed by Cryptic, and has behind it the same creative brains that delivered the much-vaunted CoX. So I think for us, this game was the Second Coming of CoX -- the Next-Gen, New and Improved, Now with More Awesome, Prodigal Gaming Messiah... City of Cooler Than City of Heroes.

And then, the Open Beta started and the NDA lifted.

Of course, there was the FilePlanet woes, and the patcher woes, and folks had some trouble getting the game installed, and others had trouble getting into the game. Pretty much everyone in my gaming group had issues as well and that gave them a little bit of anxious waiting time to sit around and ...

... READ THE FIRST WAVE OF REVIEWS!!!

I love the first wave of post-NDA reviews. (I enjoy thunderstorms and blizzards too... and Pina Coladas... and getting caught in the rain.) There is just something about the post-NDA “I am angry because my latest Gaming Savior turned out to be Just Another MMO and I Am Personally Offended” crowd that makes for interesting lunch-time reading. Pretty much every recent MMO release has had this bit of bile and CO is no exception.

Now, I pay attention to a lot of MMOs and I knew what was coming. A few of my friends didn't expect such a negative outpouring and were swayed by the reviews. A flurry of emails followed where people chatted about what they expected out of CO, how it compared to CoX, and the points made in the reviews... at one point I realized that many (if not all) of the negative points centered around stuff like

Repetitive combat where you bang the same sequence of keys over and over
Serious PvP balance issues
Serious PvE balance issues
PvE content that quickly becomes trivial
A weak/non-existent endgame
Nothing to do but fighting
All builds require X power(s)
No variation in builds
Teaming making the game too easy
No point to teaming
Crafting is dull
Crafting is useless compared to drops


Strange... take out the crafting one and you could pretty much apply all of those negative points to CoX. Add in crafting and you have... every other MMO in existence. I find it telling that, if you read forums and reviews, most of the popular and successful MMOs have a very similar laundry list of problems as do failing MMOs. First off, most games copy heavily from each other, and they still all copy from the Everquest generation games which all copy heavily from text MUDs and BBS games. Second, for every feature in a game that you enjoy, someone else just absolutely hates that feature... to the point where they will post about it, argue about it and call you a fanboi for even mentioning it. Just remember:

YOUR FAVORITE GAME SUCKS!

And Champions Online MIGHT suck, but even with all of the post-NDA folks spewing bile, you won't really know until you try it. Now, through the first day of this drama, my computer has been dead, so all I could do is be jealous that my friends would be able to see this new, incredibly flawed game before I would. I managed to cobble together a machine though, and have the game patched and ready to go, so I am anxious to try CO and see what all the fuss is about. Expect a mini-review soon.

It's All About the Feedback

Posted by cmagoun Wednesday August 5 2009 at 12:16AM
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It's midnight here and I find myself with raging heartburn and unable to sleep. So, to take my mind off of the random anxieties that flitter about when it is dark and quiet... you know, stuff like, "Did I lock the garage door? Are we going to get this project done on time? Is raw sewage going to start shooting out of the basement toilet?" Don't laugh, that last one was a little too close for comfort today...

Aw heck laugh because there is just something about the mental image of a geyser of poo that make the Jr. High kid in me chuckle uncontrollably.

In any case, to take my mind off of all that, I am once again thinking about games and systems -- what makes them good, what makes them fun. Of course, I have pounded the drum of interactivity and decision making before and so I won't beat that dead horse any more (tonight). The best game systems are interactive and involve making decisions.

But there is another side to that equation as well. Without sufficient information, there is no decision making. Let's do a thought experiement: pretend I have a combat system with lots of depth. I have tons of different types of attacks the player can use. I have effects for who has the higher ground as well as terrain effects. I have different weapons with different stats and uses in combat.

You are playing my game and find yourself in a tight stairwell, fighting two goblins armed with wicked daggers from the high ground. Do you pull your shortsword and use your Quick Thrust, or do you pull the polearm and Sweep Attack? Or do you cast a spell? Or run?

Of course, there is no answer because I haven't given you enough information. (Though just so you know, in my MMO, gobins will be horribly overpowered, so if I were you, I'd run.) Do the daggers have a speed advantage? Does the polearm take penalties for being used in closed quarters? Can spells be interrupted by fast melee attacks? Can I even outrun goblins?

Players need information -- the more the better. There are two types of information useful in computer games. The first is encyclopedic information. This is how much damage a sword does; what are the exact effects of a spell. Tooltip kind of stuff.

I think most games do this fairly well... the one offender in recent memory has been rehabilitated: City of Heroes, when it first came out, did not actually list the exact effects of any powers. A blast would do "light radiation damage" or "heavy slashing damage"... whatever that meant. In fact, no one knew exactly what it meant at all, since "heavy" meant heavy for your archetype... but that might mean "crappy" in the scheme of things.

Why no numbers? I don't know... some claptrap about "ruining immersion" and "thwarting minmaxers". Ugh! Of course, players spent untold hours getting those numbers through experimentation and finally, the game developers put the numbers in. No one's immersion was harmed; the minmaxers could put away their sliderules. Everyone was made happy, so it's all water under the bridge.

So yeah, everyone does the tooltip stuff. The other kind of information is direct, in-game, feedback. Show me what is happening as it happens. If my polearm takes penalties when I am in a cramped hallway, show me. Give me an onscreen message, show my penalty numbers above my head, or make an animation where my blade slams awkwardly into the wall, causing me to stumble. At the very least, put it into the combat log so later I can see why the goblins gutted me so quickly.

Feedback is critical. Putting it into your game shows the player the depth of your system and allows him to interact with it. It also adds an additional set of rewards. If a system shows me feedback when I do something correctly or get a bonus, I am certain to chase those bonuses more.

Heck, take game mechanics out of the picture. Every action in your game should have sufficient feedback. No user action in the UI should quietly fail and only the most trivial should quietly succeed. If I try to stuff a sword into a helmet slot, I should get a "Hey Dummy!" message somewhere. If I right click an object and it just disappears from my inventory... I am going to wonder where it went. But if you put the little coin clanking noise in there, I will probably realize I just sold the Sword of Ultimate Ultimateness as vendor trash and hopefully buy it back.

Anyone got 100 gold? I really need to buy this sword.

In any case, it is 1:00 AM here now and my heartburn is gone and my eyes are getting dry and heavy. My body is giving me feedback that it is probably time to get to bed.

This is NOT a Post About Darkfall

Posted by cmagoun Saturday August 1 2009 at 8:35AM
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Another evening of trolling Facebook, checking email and logging into WoW to check my auctions and  an exciting message comes in -- I have been accepted into the beta for Dawntide!!! Woohoo Dawntide!!! Goodbye WoW!!! Hello Dawntide!!!

Yeah, you're right, I'd never heard of it either.

I learned about Dawntide while reading through another MMO news site. The article was brief, nothing more than "Hey look, another indy developer trying its hand at the MMO market. Good luck with that... closed beta starts soon."  But there were links to the Dawntide Webpage (which is a little sparse at the moment) and the forums and the information there intrigued me so I signed up for a beta account.

At which point, the tiny Jack Emmert on my shoulder cried out, "Nooooooooooo!!!"

"What is it now, Jack?"

"You don't want to sign up for an MMO beta now. Not with Champions Online just around the corner. How you will enjoy OUR open beta? The preorder head-start? Those crisp new Cryptic Bucks? Dr. Destroyer and Foxbat aren't going to defeat themselves, you know... well maybe Foxbat, but in any case you know with great power comes... "

Jack had been on my case for a couple of months now. He screamed when I contemplated buying Darkfall (just to see what all the fuss was about, honest). He yelled just as I was about to hit the "Preorder Now" button for Aion. He wept silently when I restarted WoW (because WoW is inevitable). As the release of CO got closer, he just got worse and worse. This past week he had taken to screaming and tearing at his eyes everytime I got undressed to take a shower... though come to think of it, that might be totally unrelated to MMOs. Nonetheless, I was getting sick of mini-Jack's living arrangements and so I stuffed him into a drawer.

Unfortunately, he is tougher than he looks and I was reduced to wrestling him one-handed, because just then, Blizzard Customer Support called.

"Mr. Magoun, we here at Blizzard hope you enjoyed your latest 2 week stint in World of Warcraft and would like to ask you to kindly forget to cancel your subscription again in December, so we can bill you well into next year..."

It was a short call. Between the unmistakable sounds of hand-to-hand combat with a figment of my imagination, and me periodically shouting, "Shut up and get in the drawer, Jack!!"  The Blizzard rep hung up reassured of my mental incompetence.

With Jack in the drawer and Blizzard ringing my credit card company, we are finally alone and able to talk about

Dawntide is the latest in a line of attempts from a small development house to create the next great freeform, sandbox MMO in the vein of Ultima Online, old SWG and Shadowbane. Their website contains a one-page blurb about their goals and lists some intriguing key features:

Open ended character development
Completely player driven economy
Complex crafting and resource system
Territorial ownership and warfare
Epic end goals for every type of player
Innovative research/technology mechanics

Exciting stuff, but I think we have heard all that before. How does Dawntide play and can it reach its lofty goals? I have no idea. I do know two things however. First, beta is scheduled to start sometime today and I have a patched and ready-to-go client. Second, the developer of Dawntide, Working As Intended, is not enforcing an NDA on its testers. In fact, they are doing exactly the opposite, they want people to talk about their upcoming game. No really... just ask them

"You may be wondering where the NDA that comes with most beta tests is. There isn't one, because fundamentally we want people to talk about Dawntide and show things off, and we need to know when something is broken. If people find something wrong with the game, they're going to tell other people it's a bad game regardless of any NDA. Feel free to take and post screenshots and discuss the game with your friends."

I think that is a great move on their part. It gets people talking about their game which would otherwise go unnoticed in the sea of high-grade releases coming soon and it gives the impression that these are devs who aren't interested in spin. Good or bad, we are going to know what their game is about.

So... what does that mean? Well, it means that as often as I am able, I am going to chronicle my new adventures through the world of Dawntide. Once the beta servers have started, you guys can follow me around as I see if Working As Intended can deliver the sandbox they have hinted at.

Just as soon as I figure out how to post a screenshot on this blog :P

When Need and Greed Collide (and Why Does Everything Look Orange Now?)

Posted by cmagoun Friday July 24 2009 at 2:13PM
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So, I've always wanted to play Horde on WoW. I have a soft spot in my heart for orcs and trolls in any fantasy game and I think the Tauren have the only male models that don't look like crap. Unfortunately, I have never really been able to play Horde. There has always been someone in my group of friends that was already playing Alliance, or wanted to play a paladin, or hated Horde or whatever.

Seemingly everyone in my gaming circle has had a similar revelation, because this time through, everyone decided to roll Horde. Cool... so Silfain, the Blood Elf paladin was born.

Man, I hate elves. I hate the ears. I hate the "peace with nature" BS. I hate the Legolas clones. I hate the names where someone has replaced every I with a Y. I hate the "ooooh mysterious" glowy eyes. I hate the "elves are soooo magical" vibe. I hate the naked pole dancing outside of the bank. Just hate everything about them. But, of all the interesting class choices I was eyeing were taken. We had a warlock, a couple of shadow priests, a shaman, a hunter. Pretty much everything I wanted to play or had never played, someone else in the group was doing. That left paladin and that left blood elf.  And so Silfain, the self-loathing Blood Elf paladin was born and to meet up with everyone else, made the run to the ...

UNGODLY EYESEARING BRIGHT ORANGE DESERT...

Ugh... miles and miles of nothing but bright orange pouring out of my 24" monitor. So bright and orange that the neighbors called 911 because when they looked out their window, all they could see was a fiery glow coming from my office window and me seemingly passed out at the keyboard... (which I understand is how all of us look on opium World of Warcraft.) Nonetheless, I got used to the desert as my eyes adjusted to the light (though I am no longer permitted to drive at night in Pennsylvania for some reason) and found the starter Horde areas to be pleasant enough.

One nice thing about the Horde starting regions is that once you get to level 11-13 or so, you can start into Ragefire Chasm which is the first instance. This is great. We have a large group of people playing on voice chat and everyone is into doing the instances as 5-10 mans, so it is cool that after one quick night of leveling (with a few people catching up on their own solo), we could get to something interesting.

We broke into two teams of 4. Our team had one of the more experienced players on it and so he led. Our team consisted of Silfain tanking, a rogue, a druid healing and a mage. Looked decent enough to me, though our leader seemed a little hesitant about going in with my 13th level pally tanking... but as fortune would have it, right before we entered, we got a friendly tell from a 15th level warrior, "Can I join you? Which I took the liberty of translating from this guy's native language. The message was actually something closer to "teamplz".

Even with the warning flags flying full mast, the team leader figured a warrior was just what we needed. The pally was a "weaker tank" he thought and so invited our new warrior friend.

Except our warrior friend didn't really tank. Half the time, he charged ahead and got initial aggro for the most part, but as soon as anything peeled off, he would ignore it entirely and let it eat the mage or druid. If someone attempted a pull, the warrior would attack one guy and allow the others to eat the puller. Not necessarily a huge deal, because I was handling the aggro control duties (though without any taunt-style powers) generally pretty well. It wasn't smooth going... I had to run around quite a bit to corral the warrior's "leavings", but we managed and once we killed our mobs, we would head up to assist the warrior who, as often as not, was already onto the next fight. There were a couple times where our warrior friend jumped the gun a little too much and charged onto the next battle when the casters were out of mana.

Still we were moving fairly quickly and no one had died and it was fun enough.

But at some point, after we dealt with our cultists and ran up to the warrior to help him with his, his true colors started to bleed through.

Warrior: let me solo them a while

Me: Huh?

Warrior: the mobs. let me solo them for a while.

Me: Why?

Warrior: don't you think I'm good enough?

Me: What are you talking about?

Warrior: I can solo here

Me: Why did you ask to be on a team if you wanted to solo the instance?

Warrior: well I can't solo EVERY fight

So we were supposed to sit around while uber-warrior boy fought. Unless, of course, he was having trouble, in which case, we could actually... you know... play. Good to know that our new warrior friend thought he signed on with a group of henchmen bots whose sole job it was to save his butt once he got to the 4 pulls in the instance. I should have introduced him to Guild Wars.

And our team leader ought to have kicked him... but we didn't. Instead, we continued fighting until the next...

Warrior: let me solo these guys

Me: No

Warrior: ok

So we figured that was that.

Then came the first boss. Our leader pointed out a patrol he wanted to kill before aggroing the boss. Unfortunately, our buddy had decided he wanted to solo the boss a little before we got there. He charged and we immediately moved in to help. Ultimately, we won the battle and the patrol didn't come down on us. Still, I think the group leader was starting to get annoyed at this point.

And yes, as in any annoying player story, there was the "Need"ing of loot. First there was the needing of the gems, malachite, silly stuff and then a couple trashy greens. I hadn't noticed, but at some point the leader mentioned, "Why did you just need that malachite?"

Warrior: what's wrong with needing

I will spare you the long-winded explanation of need vs. greed; you have likely heard it all before. The point is, we'd already been down the road more than once by the time we capped that first boss (for which I got an achievement, which is cool). A blue sword dropped and our warrior friend needed it.

Leader: Yo warrior-guy, are you going to equip that sword?

Warrior: can't use it

Leader: What do you mean you can't use it?

Warrior: have to find training. can't use it

Leader: You shouldn't need something unless it is an upgrade you can use right now. If you can't equip it, you shouldn't need it.

Warrior: what's wrong with need

(kick)

Warrior: why you kick... (poof)

We continued as a 4-man team and completed the instance. It helped a bit that I leveled into a taunt power and the mage leveled into his sheep spell. And though I had a good time, I have to admit, I was a little annoyed at our warrior friend. Not because of the sword -- though the sword would have gone to me and it was an upgrade.

No, what drives me nuts is the disregard for the group's etiquette. Regardless of what we said, or his saying "ok", this guy was soloing and we were along for the ride. There was not a moment of teamplay from our warrior friend. Not once did he help with aggro management. Not once did he check on the healer's mana before charging into his next fight. Not once did he pay attention to anything the leader said... and he certainly didn't catch the need vs. greed concept.

Normally, I like dicey groups. Groups where everything goes super-smooth are lucrative, but can also be boring. I like near-misses and double pulls and running out of mana in the middle of a pitched battle. I don't mind the occassional team wipe... yelling, "Jon, nooooooooooooooo!" into the mike while the mage blasts the bad guy from across the chasm and a level down, only to see him and his two dozen buddies clamor around the corner three minutes later to wipe us from the face of the dungeon.

I love that crap.

But I also like good team play and people generally watching out for each other. I like when people go out of their way to keep their teammates alive... and having fun. I like when someone sees an item that would be perfect for them and yet, they ASK before needing it, just in case the group had something else in mind.

So, the next time someone asks if they can solo mobs in an instance... the correct answer is yes, you can solo in instances...(kick)