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Ambre's blogroom on

A place to share my ideas, expectations, thoughts and impressions about my favorite gaming genre : MMORPGs. I plan to write articles about the games I play, the new MMO releases, but also some meta-theory about MMO design and virtual worlds.

Author: Ambre

Aion so far...

Posted by Ambre Tuesday September 29 2009 at 11:23AM
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Writing about Aion ten days after the headstart, there are two things you want to talk about : the early gameplay, and the queues. Even if most people agree, for now, that the game looks much more polished and attractive that what AoC and WAR were at their release, the very long login queues have made alot of people really mad.

First of all, it seems those long queues happen mostly on EU servers, and no more on the NA ones according to what I read, and for a reason I can not really figure. If I try to login on my server (Vidar) at a peak time I'll get around 2:30 hours of queue, and even sometime it's hard to get in the queue as you keep being rejected by a message saying the server is completely full. For some people it's the sign that Ncsoft totally failed to get a smooth launch, others tend to think that it's a good sign for the game on a longer term. Let's put all this into perspective so that we can understand both points of view.

From the perspective of a guy who works all the day long, come back at home and tries to log in at 7 or 8 pm having just two or three hours of playtime, it's intolerable : he just won't be able to play the game. And it's even worse during the week-end actually. On the other hand from the perspective of someone who has more flexible spare time and can play early in the day or late at night, it's bearable : you just avoid the peak time, or in case you can't you launch the queue, go to do something else and come back 2 hours later. It's too easy to blame other players for not being patient when you're in the second category, and harder not to blame Ncsoft when you're in the first one.

Fortunately I have the chance to be in the second at the moment, and even if my server is one of the most crowded ones, I have managed to stay cool until now about this issue. I tend to think that on the long term it's indeed better for the game : after the hype will be gone, we will certainly have more active servers. It prooves also that the game seems to have a decent success, at least more than what Ncosft expected. Nethertheless I perfectly understand the frustration of many players who feel they have been ripped off from something they paid for. And still, my only interrogation would be : why does it happen mostly on EU servers ? If they had it right on the NA side, I do not see a reason why EU players could not have the same service.


 (Doesnt seem I have to get in a queue there...^^)


I started the first day of the headstart, at 9 pm, and the servers went up right on schedule : I could log in then with a few more hundred people in the first two minutes. The first view I got in the game, and I regret I did not screen it, was like 200 players around the first newbie npc. I was surprised my game did not really lag at this point. And I just realized a few hours later what it really meant and that was big : this game will be stable for large PvP battles. And for anyone who played WAR, AoC, or even WoW's Lake Wintergrasp, that's huge. However that many people around for everything and any quest did not make the game immersive at the headstart. You either wanted to rush in front to avoid the big mass, what I did first on my sorceress, or later to stay behind, but that was not satisfying as more and more people were joining the game anyway. Fortunately Ncsoft had the good idea to offer up to 10 different channels (or instances) for the first newbie zones 1-20. When a mob or a quest item was too much camped you could switch to another channel to keep on going. Actually I cannot imagine how I could have played and enjoyed the game if they did not offer that.


(Clicking on the cute ribbit when 10 other people try to do the same thing each time it spawns does not make it easy...)


I leveled a sorceress up to 19 in the first two or three days, and kinda liked it. I will not insist too much on the gameplay, the quests, it's very classic. If you read this article right now, you probably now already alot about the game. If not, try to imagine WoW with a little touch of Lineage or Korean MMOs and you will get the correct idea. The class I chose felt really good, despise the fact I had to sit a bit too much to my taste to recover my mana while being in a team. As I was a bit ahead of my friends, I decided to try an assassin for a few levels to get an idea of another class and totally enjoyed this class, much more than my first choice actually. The fighting was funnier, more punchy, more dynamic, required a bit more skills in my opinion and no mana downtime in teams, so I decided to stick with my second choice and I have not regreted it yet.

My asmodean assassin is now level 21 and doing fine. I like the game even if it's certainly not a revolution in the MMO genre. It's really solid, well done, the art in the game is fantastic as is the music and the atmosphere. It made me remind that I never really completely enjoyed WoW back when I was playing it for those precise reasons : I never liked its art and music and did not feel that immersed, I mostly played it for its PvP. On the other hand Aion is everything I could dream of as far as graphics, atmosphere and immersion can go, and it reminds me Lineage 2 on those points, but with certainly better mechanics.


(My Assassin...)


(My sorceress...)


However I've been playing a bit less those last two or three days. Since I have reached level 20, there is only one channel for everybody now. Damn it. The first area after level 20 on my server is so crowded that you can barely find a single quest mob, and I found myself logging out twice early in the evening recently just because I did not feel like playing the run around and Ksing game with other players, or chain grinding on non quest mobs in another area. Not a big issue, it will be over soon I guess. Or anyway I plan to catch some friends to team up and grind on the elite mobs as soon as possible.

I had also my two first PvP experiences on my assassin while I was PvEing, each of them involving being rooted, slowed and getting 3 or 4 shot relatively fast by level 30+ people to whom I stood no chance. Not a problem at all, that's the PvP game and it seems it has alot of potential on the long run. I'm more worried about the community at the moment, because unless you play in a big guild on Teamspeak ignoring everyone else in your faction around (that many good players do, and I do not like it as it's not my conception of a MMO), you have to team and cooperate with random players to get things done. And what I have seen so far is a bit less than what I expected in terms of a mature and convivial community. Hopefully it will improve in a month or two. My small guild for now is just 3 friends and me, we are still not sure to recruit more until we decide we will stay on the game at least for a decent amount of time. We will see how it goes.


(Aion's graphics are immersive and gorgeous...)


It has globally been a really solid headstart until now, at least for people who could avoid or stand with the queues. No crash, no bug, no disconnect for me so far, everything is going smooth, but maybe the big and anti-immersive masses of players. You can not complain about that anyway when you participate in a release, that was to be expected especially if the game is successful and that is what everyone hopes it will be. My character is really fun to play at the moment in PvE, and I find it more reactive and punchy than my old WoW rogues. It got a bit slow around level 12-14, but once you pass level 16 you have enough skills and cooldowns to be active most of a fight. The global cooldown being really shorter than WoW's one, it makes for exciting and furious fights. Also contrarily to WoW, you can move around the mob in PvE and gain benefit from that, so it's definitely more fun than standing still in front of it and repeating always the same skill sequence. However I cannot say that it will be as good in PvP later, I have not really gone into that yet.

You can certainly not rate a MMO on its first ten days. It's a bit too early. We need to see much more of it, especially the Abyss and its PvP. But if I had to bet prior to the headstart, I would have actually expected to be disappointed by Aion. And it's not the case. I cannot say I have a blast playing the game, but I certainly do enjoy it. It's a truly beautiful game. Even if it looked so classic and unoriginal on the paper mechanics wise, what they did in this game, they did it really well. The long waiting queues, even if unpleasant, must also mean that alot of people really want to play this game right now. And that's certainly for a reason.


PS : trying to log in the game at 6 pm right now makes for 2 hours of queue. It's definitely going worse as before I could enter in 15-20 mins at this time and the very long queues did not start before 7-8 pm.

DDO : What a good surprise !

Posted by Ambre Thursday September 17 2009 at 10:55PM
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There was one week left before Aoin's release, and nothing really compelling I wanted to play. As I was constantly seeing banners on the forums for this new 'DDO Unlimited' launch, I thought I should give it a try – and yes that's how bad advertising is, it always eventually works.

Dungeons & Dragons Online was first released in 2006 by Turbine (Asheron's Call 1 & 2, and Lord of the Rings Online are other Turbine's main games). Back at this time I didnt pay attention to this release at all, even being an old Dungeons and Dragons PnP fan. Especially as the game did not make people talk about it that much. It soon acquired the reputation of being more of a 'roleplayer' niche game, and something that most true MMO fans should avoid for being heavily instanced.

Turbine recently relaunched the game on a Free-to-Play model under the name 'DDO Unlimited', not exactly free as of course you have to pay to unlock content and special features. Obviously relaunching the game as a F2P, even with more content, doesn't sound that compelling : it's not like the game was successful at all. Nethertheless Turbine did a good job advertising the game this time, and managed to present this relaunch as an opportunity for the game to get his public, rather than a failure and a downgrade. Note that they also sued Atari, DDO's first publisher, for what they claim had been a very lackluster promotion campaign back in 2006.

I asked a few friends if they were ready to give it a try during this break week before Aion, and there we started. Everything began really smoothly : DDO has this great 'Turbine download manager' option that allows you to start creating your character and playing after just 10 mins of download, and continue to play while the manager still keeps downloading the game. I made a female Elf Barbarian, that sounded pretty awful to the min/maxer demon that dwells inside me and may sometimes get the upper hand, and it certainly is. But I thought it looked cool.



I was not hooked instantly in the game. At the start there were some things I did like, and some I did not like at all. First of all the graphics are pretty decent, I personnally like them as they remind me Asheron's Call 2, one of my first MMOs (both games were made by Turbine). The tutorial was good, the action fun from the start, I liked the dungeon's atmosphere even if I thought that could become repetitive really fast.

However I did not like the D&D rules as MMO game mechanics from the start. For example I had to choose many things at my character creation, stats, feats, enhancements, but at the end all I was doing inside a dungeon was letting my left mouse button clicked to hack and slash through mobs that were dieing pretty fast. I had 10 skills on my bar at level 1, but nothing I found useful, mostly short cooldowns I saw no difference at all while I was using them or not. Something the old WoW player who used to manage his 4 bars of skills during intense arena matches finds pretty lackluster.

Nethertheless, dungeon after dungeon, starting to get some gear, more hit points, and playing with friends, the game slowly started to get addicting. It really captured well this old Dungeons & Dragons feeling that was mostly about the aventure, the exploration, but also group dynamics and players interactions around a table. I started also reading on the boards about characters builds, and I found out it was pretty deep and complex.

Even if it doesn't translate in tons of different and cool skills to use for a fighter for example, everything you choose will affect the game in one way or another and the harder it becomes as you level, the more you'll start to understand what you've done right or wrong. There are also tons of ways your choices will affect the way you play your character, as everything happening in there is based on stat rolls, skill rolls, save rolls... etc, but of course at the beginning you certainly fail to understand all that.


(Taverns can be pretty crowded at any hour in this game...)


Basically each quest in the game is an instance, like a dungeon, a cave, or sometime an outdoor map linked to one or several dungeons (which are other instances inside an instance then). Their instancing model is close to Guild Wars actually as you will only meet other players who are not in your team in towns. But as much as I disliked GW's PvE and mostly played their arena PvP, I must say I found everything to be really well done in DDO's instanced PvE. You can redo each quest as much as you want, and unlock higher difficulty modes by completing them. And that's very handy because that means you can always play with your friends, even if you don't have already done the same exact dungeons before, everything is still accessible. However, there are experience diminishing returns so that you will not be tempted to farm always the same easy quest.

You can play solo if you want and hire an henchman to help you, but the game has definitely been made around teamplay, be it with friends or with random players. There are tons of people on Cannith, the server I chose, and mostly what seems to be a very friendly and informative community. It's really easy to find pickup groups there as far as I have seen, as well as people who're willing to help and inform you.

The really fun thing about this game, is that those dungeons feel really different from let's say a WoW instance. They also do feel different one from each other. It's not about bashing mobs and looting them, at least not only. There are tons of things that usually happen there : like solving puzzles, avoiding and disarming deadly traps, spotting hidden hideways, making good jump or tumble rolls when you want to access this remote area... etc. The teamplay is essential there. Sometimes it's ok just to charge and bash, the game is easy at the beginning. However the more you level, the more you need to start to be cautious and think about what you're doing. Because just a single trap can kill you, or a caster boss can hold you and two shoot you with nasty spells if you let him cast alone behind his minions. There you start to see how those tons of resist or special potions, scrolls and wands can be helpful, as well as the tons of skills and enhancements you have to build for your toon.


(Some of those traps can one shoot you on higher difficulty settings, and not going with a rogue you must be very careful...)


By the way DDO is the first MMO I ever played that actually doesn't reward you for killing mobs at all, and that's quite an innovation. The progression and the experience your character gains are entirely objective based. That means you can choose to play a stealthy character that is going to skip most of the encounters to go directly to the main objective and it's totally fine. It makes for a great diversity of playstyles, and the more you go through the different styles of missions, as well as the endless possibilities to build your character, the more you start to see the really strong points of DDO.

I was actually surprised by the ton of content there is in the game. I actually thought the tutorial starting town was the main town, but it gets much bigger once you get to Stormreach the capital. The dungeons also start to be more complex, to feel different, some of them with scripted stories and so far I have not had this 'being there done that' feeling that so often goes along with quest based MMOs. Neither has some npc asked me to bring him back 10 wolf tails. Even if I must admit that mostly playing in a team I rarely read quest dialogs, what you're supposed to do is really different from one adventure to another. It has just been 3-4 days of gameplay however, and that's for sure to early to know if the game does or does not really get repetitive later.

The max level in the game is 20, each level being divided in 5 ranks. Each rank you get an action point to spend for new new enhancements to your main feats and skills, each level you become globally stronger and gain more hit points as well as new feats, new spells for casters, and sometime stat points. The progression level wise is much slower than what you get used in other games however, but the ranks make up for that. If you reach level 5 in the game, you have already achieved something and seen some content.

The combat system is quite good too and really fast paced. It's close to Age of Conan as you don't have to target a mob to hit it, you just hit what is in front of you, and sometime that's more than one mob if they're closed to each other. And I must say that AoEing large packs of kobolds with some good greatsword swings is a lot of fun. The hit points and spell points regeneration is special however as you cannot regain them like in the other games : you need to find rest stones for that, or get healed or recharged by spells or potions. Sometime you have to attack this room full of kobolds with only half your hit points, while your healer has only one or two heals left, and it can be quite a challenge. It also makes for something really original and different once you pass on the annoying factor that it's not like in every other MMO you have played before - yes, we're all conservative in the first place, and need to be convinced when facing something new.


(Making your way through Kobolds and Troglodytes is always fun...)


Once you reach level 4 or 5, you quickly understand however that the 'free' model was too good to be true. Getting to the next area after Stormreach Harbor, you will find most of the quests to be locked. There are still a few you can do with a free account, but for most of the content you need either to pay in the cash shop to unlock adventures packs, or to get a VIP month. Well, nothing that shocking and we cannot blame Turbine either for that, they have to pay for their bills, their servers and also make some money from their game eventually. And I think their payment model is quite well thought actually. If you unlock for example a new race or a content pack from their cash shop you get it bound to your account for life. Or if you choose to pay 15$ a month, you get everything unlocked, but just for one month. So it's either F2P or P2P, you choose. But at the end, you still have to pay to fully enjoy the game.

I must say that I had so much fun in the game those last three evenings that I would have instantly subscribed for a month if there wasn't Aion's release coming in a few days. Now that's quite a dilemna. I will probably rather keep on playing DDO this end of the week on a free account, then move to my Aion's preorder (most of my friends preordered too) and see how it goes. If I don't like Aion that much for one reason or another, I will definitely go back to see more of DDO, and this time with a VIP month pass. Anyway in the worse case scenario, I'll be long of two good MMO games to play with, and that's certainly not that an unfortunate position.

I must say that DDO is really a refreshing experience I did not expect at all. At the same time it did a great job to recapture the spirit of the 'Dungeons & Dragons' pen & paper game sessions as they were played a long time ago, it also feels like something original in the MMO genre compared to the other games out there. Definitely something you should give a try if you're short of anything good to play, and can gather a few friends to go with you.

To sum it up, you should definitely check DDO if :

-You're looking for something different from the mainstream MMOs and you don't mind to loose some of your usual routines for a game that has its own depth and complexity.
- You like to spend alot of time thinking about your character development and your build choices.
- You like to party with other players, either friends or random people.
- You like exploration in MMO games, you like also being surprised, or have to think about how to complete a quest or mission.


However you're less likely to enjoy it if :

- You're looking for something standard that will not be too complex or too long to get into.
- You don't like the possibility that your character may be gimped due to bad creation and leveling choices, and that you may have to restart it.
- You like to solo alot while leveling, you don't want to PuG.
- You don't like instanced games, you prefer to play in an open world the whole time.
- You like PvP and don't want to play a pure PvE game.


New MMO games : has it become riskier not to take risks ?

Posted by Ambre Wednesday September 16 2009 at 12:25PM
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First of all I must say I got the idea of this article by reading a recent interview of Ragnar Tornquist on Eurogamer. Ragnar is the lead designer of Funcom's next MMO : The Secret World. At a point in the interview Eurogamer asked him if he thinks it has become riskier not to take risks when developping a new MMO game. In other words : giving players the same old thing that already exists elsewhere without trying to be too much innovative. Ragnar said he definitely thinks so, he also explained that they started to work on their next game as something close to WoW, mechanics wise, but on a different setting and universe. Then later they drastically changed their way, going for a game without levels for example, trying to be more original and different.

I can already see some of you with radar warnings flashing on : 'Funcom', 'Age of Conan', 'Alert' ! I know several people who played the Age of Conan release, were utterly disappointed and felt like they've been ripped off. And they're certainly right in some way. I tend to think however that those guys are professionnals, and have certainly learnt from their mistakes. Actually if I had to bet money, I would rather put it on Funcom's next game, than on a totally unknown new company. By the way the article is quite interesting, and the game's lore and universe look appealing. Of course, we'll have to play the game before being able to say anything for sure, and this one will probably need a few more years of development.


Back on our topic : has it become riskier not to take risks ? What would mean precisely 'to take risks'. If you have read my previous article about Richard Bartle's theory, you know what I call a 'weak feature' in a MMOG. It's a feature which tends to restrain an aspect of the game in a very definite and controllable corridor. That is actually a slightly different definition to the one I gave previously, which was Richard Bartle's definiton, but I need also to keep you guys interested with new ideas and concepts sometimes, not repeating always the same things ;)

One way to evaluate and understand a MMO is its inner dualism between freedom versus control. On one hand you need to make your players free: they're not watching a movie, they want to feel they achieve something on their own, they may take decisions that affect their future in the game, as well as the future of others. On the other hand, as a developper, you can't let everyone totally free and everything be done. You need to keep things working as intended in one way or another, and you can't let your game being spoiled because you have let players exploit it too easily.

Richard Bartle defined 'weak features' as being introduced by MMO companies under the pressure they have to necessarily attract newbies in order to succeed. He says they make the game easier and more appealing on the short-term, but remove alot of depth and possibilities on the longer term. Some examples of weak features : a death without penalty, an instanced PvE end game, items bind on pick up, a linear leveling quest system. All those features make your game less exploitable, in other words more controllable. If for example you could loose xp, stats or items by dying in your game, you would be likely to see some griefing and player killing going around, therefore players complaining about it, casuals feeling they cannot defend themselves fairly against hardcore... etc. On the other hand, if there is no penalty for death, and you can't drop any of your items, you make sure nothing of that can happen. In one way or another all those weak features tend to compartmentalize the game : they make sure nothing really bad can happen. On the other hand, they make less likely that anything really exciting can happen too.

Have you read the recent news in EVE Online ? The biggest player made bank in the game having to freeze all the accounts after its CEO stole a big part of their fundings. Or several others in the same vein recently. This is the kind of news you will never see in World of Warcraft : it would be more about how the last hardcore guild killed all the new expansion bosses even before it was released, or about some random guild drama, but that's nothing so exciting anyway. That's the difference between a game which has chose freedom over control, as opposed to one which went the opposite way.

What I call taking risks in a MMO game is definitely giving players more freedom, more possibilities than what they have been accustomed to. This freedom can be used for the best, and sometime also for the worse as we said: it's definitely risky from a game developper perspective. I don't call taking risks on the other hand, putting blue exclamation and question marks above NPC heads instead of yellow ones. The last sentence is ironic of course, but you certainly see what I mean there. In other words I don't call taking risks making a new shiny MMO, with great graphics like Age of Conan or Aion, but with already very well-known gameplays and game mechanics. Let's be clear : those guys take risks of course, there are millions of dollars on the table, their game may be a success or not ! But on the innovation side, and as an answer to what is really an MMORP game, they definitely chose to take as fewer risks as they could.

1. Developpers have become too cautious, want to keep almost everything under control in their game, and therefore keep players in very narrow grinding corridors.
2. Taking risks, on the contrary, would be to allow players to do things they couldnt do in their previous games, not the opposite.
3. That is more freedom, less control.


I often take World of Warcraft as a reference of the 'weak features' aggregation model and 'control freak' it is in my articles. Still I have to say I have nothing against WoW. I really think it's a great game. You may enjoy it or not, but at least from a commercial point of view, you have to recognize they must have done something right to get their 10M+ subscribers. They took what already existed before, fashioned it in a new and more accessible way and made a very well polished, simple, and addicting game. Let them enjoy their success for years and years.

However when every other game being released tries to be 'another WoW', instead of going their own original path they should have gone in the first place, that starts to be annoying. Especially when you have already played WoW for a few years, and have become bored of it. Too bad for you if it's your case, you've got spoiled for ninety percent of the recent MMO games on the market. Copying WoW has unfortunately been the trend of those last 3 years, without any success we may say, and it seems developpers start to understand it may have not been a good idea. I might be wrong. but I really hope they do. We as players already have WoW if we want to play it anyway. If we want to play another game, we'd better get something different. And that's not really what we got those 3 last years for sure.


What would mean 'riskier not to take risks' ? That would be game developpers thinking they have to be truly innovative to succeed today. That they can't just release another game with the same exact mechanics as what has been already done dozens of times and hope to get their share of the pie : because being unoriginal in your core game mechanics would mean to be more likely to fail than to succeed.

As I said in a previous article, I think we are witnessing a growing maturity of the playerbase, more and more players not wanting the same old thing again, and developpers might have spotted that. But I'm not sure actually they got the whole freedom vs control concept. Innovation can also be done inside the over-controlled scheme, that is still with instanced PvE, instanced PvP, bind on pickup items... and everything else on the list. It's still better than no innovation at all of course. But you can remove levels and experience for a skill based game for example while keeping everything very linear and under close control, that's possible. And I really think the key point is the freedom you give to your players. You have to accept at some point that things may go wrong in your game, you just can't control everything and on the contrary should be pleased for the initiatives your players take. Because great things may happen in your game too, those that make you proud you gave to your players the possibility to make those things happen.

And I tend to think that nowadays every good new MMO game should try to be more of a 'sandbox' than a 'themepark' if compared to what has been done those last years (two other words to represent the freedom vs control opposition). Remember more than ten years ago, when we had Ultima Online. We were just at what we thought was the very beginning of an exciting adventure full of promises. But when the next games being realeased actually allowed you to do less and less than the previous ones, there was definitely something wrong going on. They tried to compensate by giving you more to watch, and make it more polished and shiny. But that's just an illusion, at the end you're still not the one taking the decisions, not the one fashioning your game experience and surroundings to your own image. You're only the one watching a pre-thought and pre-calculated movie of your character following very narrow paths and grinding corridors.

Sandbox doesn't necessarily mean hardcore PvP, and random PKs as some people may fear, you could also make great sandbox PvE games, why not. It's all about giving you, the player, some choices, some meaningful decisions affecting your game, affecting the lore, which are not only 'should I go for elf or human for my character ?'. And I have a feeling that those paths have not been enough explored yet, if some of them have ever been explored at all. We're definitely playing one of the most exciting gaming genre that has ever been invented since chess and poker. Please game developpers and designers, please don't close the chapter... not yet. There must be much more to experience before we can say the genre is closed, if we may ever say that.

RMTs : they have already won

Posted by Ambre Friday September 11 2009 at 1:02PM
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RMTs have always been a very controversial matter in MMO games. They used to be considered as cheating by most of the playerbase. But more recently the free-to-play games using RMTs as payment basis have become more and more popular, and some big names have started to introduce RMTs also, but in a more disguised way.

What does RMT stand for exactly ? Real Money Transactions. It's primarily about buying in-game money, items or any meaningful advantage in a virtual game with real money, other than your monthly subscription fee of course.


Let's face it. For many people who have a job, or some kind of income, 15$/month as a subscription fee is not expensive at all. It's even pretty cheap considering the time you can spend in a MMO game. When you go out for a night, take a few drinks, or even go for a restaurant, it's likely to cost you much more than that. On the other hand if you spend the evening on your favorite MMO, it will cost almost nothing. Even if you figure in the PC cost you have to change once every few years, your internet and electricity bills, MMO games could be one of the cheapest kind of entertainment you might find actually.

But that's counting without the money some are ready to pay to add to their enjoyment. Recently I was reading free-to-play MMOs boards. They're not free of course, everyone knows that those games are designed so that if you get into them you'll have to spend money one day or another, or you'll be put at a serious disadvantage. I was surprised to read in a post a guy saying he had just spent 2000$ the last 4 months on his game, and being angry by the way because he felt the customer service wasn't responsive enough compared to the price their items had cost him. Another post, about an husband and his wife starting a new F2P (or free-to-play), the guy said that prior to even starting playing the game he had already bought for 400$ cash shop currency to be sure they would have enough during their leveling.

Actually I'm pretty sure you and I would be surprised to know exactly how many people do spend $ for in game virtual currencies or advantages, other than the games subscription fees, and how much some of them may spend. And it's certainly nothing new. The account selling business has been available since the very beginning of MMOs, and those can be pretty expensive (200-500$ and sometime more).


In other words, a MMO game has much more potential money to take from its rich and addicted players than a 15$/month sub, that's for sure.

Until recently all this money went to the gold-sellers and farmers companies like IGE, or the people who were quitting a game and selling their accounts. It has been estimated that the global world business of virtual gaming items and currencies had a 9 digit figure, that is several hundred of millions dollars each year. Of course the game companies started to figure how they could get a part of this money for themselves, and even if they're not that sure yet they want it, their shareholders might not be long to convince them.

Let's sum it up :

1. Many players can afford much more than 15$/month for their favorite MMO.
2. This total money represents at least several hundred millions $ per year on a global basis.
3. Game companies logically want a part of this money, if not the totality.



Do you really think Blizzard needs you to transfer to another server, or to change your name ? It's a service they offer that they advertise on their main site. They wouldn't advertise for something they're reluctant to give you, would they ? No of course, they make alot of money from this actually. And think about it : it is extremely helpful for people who buy and trade accounts. They already spent several hundreds $ to buy this new and shiny level 80 character account, they will certainly need to change its appearance, and transfer it to a new server under a new name. Blizzard doesn't mind at all actually, especially as long as they can sell the new account holder expensive services on the way. That's how they cleverly get a part of the global RMT money, favorizing it in a way, but without giving it any form of recognition, and not impacting their game too much either. Of course alot of other players might be tempted to change their name or server also, and for that Blizzard will gladly take the money too.

Recently they added a faction change service, that means you can transfer from alliance to horde or vice versa, and then select the race you want on the other side provided it's compatible with your class. They also announced they plan to add a race change service in the same faction very soon.

Are those really RMTs one could argue ? Sure they are : they offer something meaningful in the game, against real money. But they don't give an unfair advantage compared to those who can't purchase them, right ? That would be really unpopular if it was really the case, and of course it's still not like they're selling you epic items or leveling services, no, not yet.

But you can look at it this way. Imagine for example you and a friend play characters at the max level, and decide to join some other friends who play on a different server different side at max level too. Let's say you have some cash to spend, and your friend can't afford it. You'll be able for 30$ to switch your character to the other side, and then still will need a 25$ transfer (how petty Blizzard !) to join your new server. Your friend will have to relevel 1-80 all the way long, that will take him a few weeks or months according to his play times. He will then just be in greens while you'll have your shiny level 80 character with all its epics for just 55$, a bargain ! Is it not an advantage you got over him ? It certainly is.

I'm not judging Blizzard or anyone here, just stating facts. I used to play WoW alot. It happened once I had friends playing on a different faction and server. I would have been very happy to have this faction transfer service back then, or to be able to change my Troll mage into a Blood Elf on my main server. I would certainly have moaned about the cost, but I would have liked Blizzard for implementing those nethertheless. And I can tell you, Blizzard would have liked me for buying them too.



Blizzard is not alone on this business, and there are several different models that are being tested. SOE tried to get more than server transfers and characters renames by adding cash shops into their games, selling fluff, average stuff and other small advantages. They got alot of bad publicity for that. They obviously went too far, too fast. Players are not ready to accept cash shops in MMOs having already a subscription fee, and certainly for good reasons. We can't be sure however that this won't be standard one day or another. EVE Online went another successful way (yes, these guys seem to do everything right) allowing people to buy and sell the month subscription for in game money, that's another way to sell in game money for cash money while keeping the economy overall balanced.

What would be the limit people would tolerate right now ? Could Blizzard sell you class changing ? Or the possibility to start your character directly at level 55 like the heroic class ? Those look like the next logical steps if they continue to push their RMT model further. Would people really complain, or would they praise Blizz for that ? As someone ironically posted on the boards recently and he made me laugh, 'Blizzard could add the RMTs they want, people would still defend them and say they're more polished'. Personnally I think those things are meant to come, it's just about time.


One thing is sure however that noone is going to argue about. If for one reason or another, your favorite MMO company could not charge you a cent for any of the extra services or transfers, those would never have been implemented in the first place. Instead they would be giving you very logical and well-thought reasons why they think all of this would be really bad for the game ;)

First steps on Aion

Posted by Ambre Thursday September 10 2009 at 4:19PM
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Ok, I said I wasn't going to play the beta, mainly because I didnt want to spoil my pleasure on the release, by knowing already the quests and areas. Obviously I changed my mind. Reading some of my friends testing and commenting about the game wanted me to just have a look inside.


And it was a good move. First of all, I found out the Elyos starting zone, characters, as well the global ambiance a bit underwhelming (I was about to play on this side and to convince my friends to play Elyos too). I don't know really why, but the first two levels there made me more think about a korean version of "Little house on the prairie", than a true PvP fantasy game. I felt like I was playing another free-to-play generic MMO, and that's never good, especially when you have already tried 45 of those, without any kind of success, in your moments of MMO boredom and despair.

Secondarily, the sound of my scout hitting mobs with her dagger got on my nerves after 5 kills, I tried to tweak the sound settings without any success : I was certainly not on the right track to play her 48 levels more, or even 8 more... (I had planned to go Ranger, or maybe Assassin).

Then I had the clever idea to create an Asmodean mage on another server, and it was like night and day ! First of all, the asmodean atmosphere looked much more original and therefore more immersive to me. My character there looked much better also, I felt as being an Asmodean, she had more personnality and charism than what I could achieve on the Elyos side... Well I guess I was born to be an asmodean in this game ;)


(Enjoy this screen, it was a tall order to take one with my mac keyboard, gameguard blocking everything to remap the PrintScreen key...)


Surprisingly also the game looked much more like WoW than Lineage 2 to me : environment, controls, UI, quests, spell casting... etc. On the other hand the characters design and art are much closer to L2, and that's good news.

The game has a great overall fluidity, skills responsiveness... etc. It reminded me of WAR, but as an opposite. That's exactly the kind of gameplay experience I was expecting from WAR the first time I logged into with a Dark Elf sorceress. No need to say I was utterly disappointed back then as I found everything to be choppy, clunky and even kinda rubbish. It's not the case in Aion where I feel the game has been very well done.


(A screen about the "griphon-like flight" in Aion... that just looks truly awesome ! On 1680x1050 it makes for a great desktop wallpaper)


It's of course too early to judge or review the game, but my first impression is really positive (on the Asmodean side). But for the moment it's more about how I enjoyed the first levels, than what I think the game is going to be. I don't really expect much about Aion's PvE : best case scenario it will be like WoW, worst case scenario... It will be like WoW ;)

I need first to experience the PvP there, as well as the teamplay and also find out how mature and friendly the community will be before being able to say if I really like the game or not. My mage (future sorceress at the release) is level 8 at the moment and I won't probably play her much above level 10 during the beta I think.


More news to come if I keep on playing a bit the beta, to do a few more levels or maybe to try new classes.

I hate 'bind' items, I really do !

Posted by Ambre Wednesday September 9 2009 at 7:00PM
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Did I say I hate bind items already ? I mean all the bind on pickup, bind on equip, bind on your *** stuff, and whatever. I have already moaned enough about this on Teamspeak, as well as on forums, and apparently it wasn't enough so it's time now to expel all that bad frustration in a good written rant ! (and also to explain why I bring up this stuff secondarily)

A few months ago, I was testing a super-hero MMO closed beta, I'll let you guess which one, it's an easy guess. When I just popped into the game the first time, the first thing I saw on my screen was a NPC character with a yellow exclamation mark over his head. That was the moment I actually started to feel like things were going bad. After killing a few mobs around as the guy asked me to, I saw it turned into a yellow question mark : it was just going worse. But after looting a shiny item on a mob, I double clicked on it and a window popped in the middle of my screen with 'Are you sure you want to equip this item ? You won't be able to trade it anymore', this time I really started to want to kick somebody in the teeth !

Bring me the MMO genius who invented this stupid crap right now, I need to take it out on somebody !

Well, more seriously... I'm a trading guy. In every game I played, trading items with other players is my true pleasure. I remember something like nine or ten years ago when I was playing Diablo 2, I was spending most of my time trading unique items and I had a blast. At the end I had 3 or 4 accounts full of characters to hold the unique stuff (yes, Blizzard hadn't really got into the bank concept back then). Of course it wasn't a MMO, but one of my first multiplayer online experiences, and since then trading in multi-player games has always been for me a part of the fun.

Then came the party poopers, and the first big name to introduce this mechanic if I remember well was Everquest 1. You could still exchange most of your stuff there, but the very high grade stuff dropping from raid bosses was bound : that means that once you got it, it couldn't be sold or traded to any other player, nor to any of your alts. And that's when in-game economies started to go down. Blizzard took the idea from Everquest 1, as some of the main developpers from WoW were former raid leaders from EQ1 big guild names (thanks to Jeff Kaplan), and it became mainstream. Nowadays, you have to get lucky to find a good AAA title which allows you to trade anything meaningful from your stuff.



 The main idea behind this move has always been presented as a way to counter gold sellers and farmers, so that they couldnt sell you what is really worthy in the game. Seriously I don't give a **** ! I really don't ! Do I shock you ? But look at this from my tiny little perspective : since when gold sellers and cheaters are supposed to be lead designers of the games I play ? Is limiting the freedom of players in a game and what they can achieve the best thing to do so that the gold farmers have less things to sell you ? Following this thought process we should as well remove anything tradable from the game, even the money itself, so we'll be totally safe from gold sellers at the end. We would just have removed one of the most exciting features from a virtual world : a working and dynamic player-made economy.

What really comes to my mind about the 'bind item' feature, is that it's not only an answer to cheaters and gold farmers. But I tend to think that it's also a way to keep control of what is going on in your game. You want to be sure everyone is going to get his share of loot with the usual grind, exactly the way you want them to get it ? Don't allow them to trade items, as simple as that. What would happen if you allowed WoW players to sell and trade their epics ? How many thousands of gold would you need to buy the last tier 9 item ? Developpers don't know, and they don't want to know. They can't control this, and everything they can't control makes them afraid : it could drive some casuals out of the game if they saw prices they may never be able to afford. Or some players could make an in-game living on trading raid items, never put their feet into a PvE raid, and still have the best stuff available ?

How ugly would all this look to the 'bind on pick-up' police, and the 'pay your dues' raid regiment officers ! Yes, but that's what virtual realities are about : Freedom. Freedom to move, freedom to loot, freedom to trade, freedom to attack or defend... Freedom.

Can you make everything possible and everyone totally free in a MMO game ? Of course not, you can't. It wouldn't be technically possible, and would probably feel too chaotic. Anyway it's never good news when control gets the upper hand on freedom on almost every aspect of a game. At the end nothing really bad can happen... certainly, but that means also nothing great, intense and really surprising can happen either.


Am I ready to renounce to some of my gaming comfort for more freedom in the games I play ? I am, without a doubt. As someone famous once said, 'I would rather be exposed to the inconveniencies attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it'.

Why MMOs are designed by newbies – Richard Bartle's visionary article from 2004

Posted by Ambre Tuesday September 8 2009 at 5:35PM
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Recently as I was surfing on different blogs, I came upon an interesting article from a guy named Richard Bartle, and I had no idea who he was at that time. Nethertheless the article was very cleverly written, and the thoughts being developped there pointed exactly at the main flaws of the MMO genre we may have noticed those last years : a lack of originality, and a really hard time being truly innovative.

It's only after thinking a bit about it that I found out the article was written in 2004: I was shocked ! It was not a very precise description and explanation of the present situation in the MMO genre, it was a truly visionary article at the time it was written, and that was even before World of Warcraft release. No surprise after all, or not that much, Richard Bartle is considered by many as the father of the MMO genre and has been spending all those last years conceiving games, teaching about game design or also being a consultant for some major gaming companies.

Let's sum up his 2004 article, and see how well he predicted what has happened those last years on the MMO scene.


1. Richard Bartle's first point (and I will refer to RB for the rest of this article) is that a MMORPG (or a virtual world) doesnt function like a regular or solo RPG game in its relation to its playerbase. A regular computer game will most of the time perform well or badly according to its first months sales : if alot of people buy it, play it just a few hours and have fun during that time, it will be considered as a success.

On the other hand a MMOG needs to keep a constant, if not a growing population to survive, and that even months after its release. A MMO world whose population is decreasing is a dying world, therefore a dying game. And you can't expect all of your first hand players to stay forever, or even for a few years, as unavoidably some will leave. They need to be replaced, and they'd better be replaced by more players if you want your game to really succeed. Every MMO game is the same, and the genre as a whole is eagerly waiting for new players and new subscribers. That means that a MMO has to attract newbies to survive. Not only one game can get all the newbies, and the other will have the oldies, or the hardcore gamers... No, that certainly cannot work this way. Every game on its own has to attract newbies to survive, as a microcosm, each one works as a reflection of the whole genre.

Note that the term newbies is not necessarily pejorative, it's just a way to say 'new players to the game', or 'new players to the genre'.


2. RB's second point is very well developped in his article, and I'm going only to sum it up here. Newbies, and even players as a whole, are essentially conservative toward the features they want in a game. If their first big MMO had let's say feature A, B and C, they also will want those same features repeated in their next game or they just won't join. And paradoxically that's also true if they left their previous game because of C being responsible for their boredom on the long term. They will still ask for C in their next game ! Most of the time of course, they couldn't explain what made them leave their previous game and they ignore C is one of the reasons.

C could be many things, as a death without any consequence, a possibility to rebuild your characteristics and talents as much as you want, an instanced PvE raid game... etc. Newbies are convervative and want a repetition of the same features they already know well, so that they can immediately feel at ease in the game.


3. The last point of RB's theory starts to wrap everything up. Newbies always prefer what is short-term good for their enjoyment, that is often long-term bad. If something is implemented that is meant to be long-term good for the game, but not that easy to adjust to in the short-term, they will complain and may quit. On the other hand they're looking for features that make their enjoyment immediate, even if it might make it shorter and less intense.

And that explains the introduction of alot of 'weak' features in recent MMOs, that are known to be short-term good because easier to deal with, but long-term bad because they tend to partition and compartmentalize the game, spoiling every kind of real immersion, surprise or new form of experience.


Let's sum it up :

1. MMOs need to attract newbies to evolve and survive.
2. Newbies are conservative and want a repetition of the same features they have already experienced before.
3. Newbies prefer weak features to be implemented in the game, that are often short-term good, but long-term bad.


A non-exhaustive list of weak features could be : death without any penalty, instanced PvE, instanced PvP, items bind on pick up, impossibility to attack any other player unless he's in the opposite faction, or impossibility to attack any other player at all, possibility to rebuild your character's stats and talents as much as you want, no possible loss of experience or stats, no possible loss of items or wealth, no possible treason to your faction, race, class, a possibility to solo all your leveling, a linear leveling quest system... etc. We could go on further and further. But you should start to see what I'm talking about.

Yes all those features have become mainstream, and if a game is released tomorrow with just one or two of those missing, it already takes a risk. If it is released with several or most of them missing, it will be considered as a commercial suicide, and will have really to proove alot before gaining a large playerbase (EVE Online is a good example that this can still happen fortunately !).


It's time that we, as players, start realizing that those 'weak' features we become so much used to, are also the ones responsible for the long-term boredom we sometime experience, the unoriginality, the repetitiveness of the content from one game to another. And I'm pretty sure that the older gamers (and not necessarily the oldest ones) will perfectly know what I'm talking about. That doesnt mean game designers should get rid of all of those 'weak' features of course, but at least start to look at their new game from a different perspective rather than taking as being a mandatory feature what has just worked before. There is so much to offer in virtual worlds and virtual realities as a whole : do we really want only levels, items bind on pick up, and PvE raids until the end ?

And that is RB's last point I kept in mind : is there still hope for MMO games to evolve beyond this overdone compartmentalization and this loss of freedom ? This hope would be called a 'growing maturity' of the playerbase. That means players realizing they don't want anymore to be spoon-fed with the same old thing over and over, but asking for innovations, even if it's at the cost of loosing some of their usual comfort.


If you're interested or share some of those ideas, you should definitely look at Richard Bartle's article.

Why fanboism is bad for the players, and for the games (part 2/2)

Posted by Ambre Monday September 7 2009 at 5:55PM
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To explain the interaction between 'fanboism' and the game producers strategical choices, we must look at this other recent phenomenon in the MMO world, that is called the 'hype'.

Hype is another word for advertising we could say, and it's nothing new, companies which try to sell a product need some form of advertising up to a point, at least so that their product should be known, and meet its genuine customers.

But we know that things start to go wrong, when the companies put much more creativity and originality in the advertisement itself than into the product they want to sell you. And that doesnt stand only for MMOs. Just look at your TV ads, and you'll see alot of what I'm talking about : the amount of creativity and originality used to make you believe that the washing powder A washes better than the washing powder B probably largely exceeds the amount of thought and conception that has been put into each of those products to really differentiate them. At the end, the washing powder A and B are similar, the only difference is what you gonna believe, that is which advertisement will have caught your attention the most.



Fortunately, we have not come to this yet with MMOs, and we can pretty much say without any doubt that the MMO A and the MMO B don't only differ in their advertisement, but also in their content. MMOs are not washing powders and we're not close to that point, certainly. But are we getting closer ? That could be possible.

Until recently, and if we except the World of Warcraft huge phenomenon, MMO companies didnt have the kind of business to heavily invest into TV ads. They have rather used the internet, putting some banners here and there for their game. But they found out something much more interesting. What else could be better to advertise your game than having the players themselves promoting and fighting for your title everywhere on the gaming boards ?

That's where game designers (or hype managers should I say ?) meet the fanboys to create this phenomenon we called the 'MMO hype'. The MMO companies have intuitively perfectly understood what is the 'pre-launch' or 'non-gaming' 'fanboism' (as I defined it in the previous part of this article), and went to exploit it to their advantage. Concretely they started to feed fanboys with exactly the kind of food they starve for, announcing anything about their game only to excite any form of potential fanboism, even when they know that what they announced is very unlikely to meet a release ever.


(Announced........................................... vs Released............................................)


Take for example Warhammer Online. Seriously, Paul Barnett has done an amazing 'hyping' job. If you watched some of his podcasts, you really know what I mean. The guy was just brillant, he looked so sincerely enthusiast and motivated by his game, it was almost contagious and after watching a few of his internet movies it made you want to play the game really bad (like the first picture above makes you want to eat a Big Mac, right ? However unfortunately the second doesnt, and that's why you rarely see it...). Note that I do not have anything against Paul Barnett himself : the guy has done his job, and he has done it amazingly well in my opinion. If I ran any kind of business and needed a commercial to promote some of my products, I would choose him over one thousand of other persons for sure. 

Nethertheless, the pre-launch fanboys can feel almost like they have been scammed once the game ships in, especially if it's flawed on many points, and that was the case with Warhammer Online. Many of them turn then into 'haters' that won't find any peace of mind before they have posted at least a good hundred of insults and bashing posts on the boards, directed toward the game, the designers, the players, the genre and the world itself. Just some bad frustration that needs to be expelled in one form or another. Surprisingly, we can see here how 'fanboys' and 'haters' are just part of one same big phenomenon, even when they seem to be so much the opposite one of each other. Some die-hards fanboys will still fight for their game until the end, but I tend to think they're pretty rare actually compared to the numbers who will have left the ship before it sinks.



At the end everyone meets his fate, and everyone must pay for what has been taken prior to any real experience or delivery : the excessive amount of imaginative and illusory pleasure for some, or the excessive amount of cash from the pre-orders and boxes sales for the others. The lesson will be learnt, and will be learnt the tough way. More energy could have been spent making the game really good than having people think it's really good. Less hype would certainly be met with less boxes sales the first month, but it could also give some time to your company to fix and improve your game. Less hype would certainly also result in much less frustration for the players. Promising everything right out of the box, and then failing blatantly to meet the expectations you've raised yourself, give a large majority of the playerbase good reasons to avoid your game definitely, even when it gets way better after a few patches (Age of Conan is a good example).

And what if a 'hyped' game would be really good ? Wouldn't it change everything we have said about the bad side-effect of the hype and the fanboism ? Not really. A really good game will always succeed and meet its playerbase no matter what. A bad game will not. Players don't need to fuel their imagination for games that don't exist yet, and companies to try to get the fanboy's money before even managing to have their game working properly. Making every other good, bad or average game looking great, new and shiny through a large amount of hype, while at the same time they're barely innovative compared to what already exists, at the very end will lead MMOs to be similar to washing powders in their unoriginality. This can never be good for the genre as a whole, and it's definitely not what we expect from our favorite game designers and MMO companies. 

Why Fanboism is bad for the players, and for the games (part 1/2)

Posted by Ambre Monday September 7 2009 at 3:34PM
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Fanboism has become a new trend as well as a new expression used more and more on the MMO boards those last two years.

Fanboism, as it is related to the MMO genre, primarily describes the attitude of a player who will defend a game blindly, up to the point that he won't tolerate any form of critic toward the game, and any negative comment will be met by sheer aggression. This definition is obviously a bit rough as there can be a large range of so called fanboys, but if you have been off the boards for those last two years it should be enough to catch up and understand what we're talking about. Usually calling someone a fanboy, or 'fanboi', is just another way to say his opinion doesnt matter, and of course the term has been abused alot in one way or another.

Nethertheless, 'fanboism', as it is related to the MMO genre, has been a pretty recent phenomenon, and this article will focus more on the phenomenon itself.

(A pure fanboy stereotype...)


I will define and distinguish between two forms of 'MMO fanboism', that to my mind are essentially different one from each other.

- The post-launch, or 'gaming' fanboy. He has set his heart on a released game, he's playing the game right now, enjoying it alot, and he wants to share his enthusiasm.

- The pre-launch, or 'non-gaming' fanboy. He is hyping and arguing over a game he hasnt played, mostly because the game doesnt exist yet , or only in a very closed alpha stage.


I don't really have a problem with the 'gaming' fanboy. His reasoning is quite simple, and we can all fall into this trap once in a while.

1. I like this game alot => 2. this is a great game => 3. everyone should like this game => 4. people who don't like it or bash it are just stupid haters.

Obviously 1 is fine, and so is 2 as long you don't lose your essential capacity to relativize, that is to say : 'this is a great game (for me)'. But 2 => 3 is more than suspicious. When you cross this line, usually you've just gone totally wrong, and I think I don't need to explain why. Our history is full of people who thought that their ideas, their theories, their 'ism' were the best and should be adopted by everyone for the sake of all whether they like it or not, and they have always proven to be gone totally wrong.

Let's say that the post-launch or 'gaming' fanboy has just lost his balance and inner capacity to relativize, being driven by his sheer and genuine enthusiasm. As I said, anyone can make this mistake once in a while.


(A caricature showing that people can be pretty harsh with the fanboys...)


Let's now look at the second category, the pre-launch or 'non-gaming' fanboy. There is a fundamental difference here : this guy just doesnt play the game, and most of the time his game doesnt even exist yet. He's talking about something he hasnt played and he knows nothing about, but the the very positive comments the company developping the game has sold him. And still it's enough for him to take a very defensive position and feel offended by anyone who could genuinely doubt about his 'precious'. The scheme would be the following :

1. I think I will like this game alot => 2. This will be a great game => 3. Everyone should see right now that this will be a great game => 4. People who are doubtful or think the game won't be that good are just wrong, I need to step in and correct them.

The process of thought is pretty close to what we just described for the gaming fanboy. But the main difference is : none of this reasoning is supported by experience. Essentially I would say that 1. is already wrong. And that makes a world of difference because that's not only his thought process that is flawed but its basis also.
Of course it's fine to read about an incoming game and be excited. Let's say you were a fan of the Diablo series for example, and they're really close to release Diablo 3 : you're excited because you're eager to play the game. That's pretty normal. Or let's say they have just announced Diablo 3 and given a few hints about what is going to be in the game. Still you know that the game is not meant to be released before a few years. So you say to yourself 'cool they gonna make it, well it's still a long time to go anyway, we'll see'.
But when we're talking about a game that has not even been played by anyone, still doesnt exist except on the drawing board, and players start to take a form of pleasure from it, there is something biased and wrong. How can you enjoy something that doesnt exist ? You're not playing the game, right, you're playing with your imagination of the game. And as your imagination will prefer to conceive a perfect game rather than a flawed one, you start not only to refer, defend and argue about something that just exists in your imagination, but your action and thought process is totally disconnected from any form of experience and reality.
When you start to hype a game that doesn't exist, you just draw some pleasure from somewhere  where there should not have been any form of pleasure in the first place, or a really limited one. It's like spending money you don't have, as simple as that. You might probably be the first person to be really disappointed with the game once it's released and you've played it enough to find out that, of course, it can't meet your 'perfect imaginary' expectations. In other words, you have already burnt yourself out on this game.


Read part 2 here.

What can we expect from Aion ? (part 2/2)

Posted by Ambre Monday September 7 2009 at 12:50AM
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Yes Aion art-work and graphics are gorgeous. You may like or not like the genre however. If you're hostile to 'anime' or 'manga'-like art, Aion might not be your cup of tea in this domain. However if you're neutral toward the genre, or if you like it as I do, you will concede that Ncsoft studio and artists have once again done an amazing job. I for one have often wondered what World of Warcraft would have been if it had, let's say Lineage 2 kind of graphics and art direction. I never liked the art style of WoW, and especially how the characters were drawn, which has always looked bit rough to me. I admit WoW is very well done on many points, and the game's overall fluidity alone can justify the type of textures they chose, as well as the cartoony approach I have no problem with, but on the art department I'm definitely not a fan of their work.

The beautiful art direction in this game is one of its strengths. You don't make a great game with shallow mechanics and beautiful graphics for sure, and if it didnt have its amazing sandbox PvP Lineage 2 would definitely fall into that category. But if you add to a solid, bug-free and running well mechanic system an extraordinary well done art-style and graphics, and especially if the whole is said to run well even on low-end computers, you've already made one big step toward creating an original and successful game with its own personnality and style.

Of course art is always a matter of taste and personnal preference, but you definitely prefer to evolve in a world where you love how things are drawn and colored, how they appear to your eyes, than the opposite. Art, design, is always the first thing you'll see when you log in a game, and even if after months of play time you may not see it as much anymore, the first impression a game can make on you is always crucial. I've returned to L2 recently and reactivated my old account I havent touched for 4 years. It was not a successful return for sure, as I couldnt stand up with the game mechanics for long, but I learnt one thing. I noticed how much the quality of the graphics, the gorgeous style of my characters, the design of the world and environment, impacted my feeling of immersion alot. Like this feeling when you used your superspeed power your first time in City of Heroes (for those who have played it), or your first griphon trip in WoW back in 2005 at its release. Or also the first time my Lineage 2 spellsinger went in a cave or dungeon in the world of Aden. Those moments are pure magic. Surprisingly I could experience something close to that again, on a game I had played a lot, that is already 5 years old, and it was mainly due to the excellent art direction of the game, the characters and the environment's design. Let's say I'm not expecting less from Aion.

Lineage 2 Art...

Versus Aion Art...

As I have already mentionned, the game was released one year ago in Korea, and is only being released now in the NA/European market. I tend to think it's a very clever move from Ncsoft and it prooves they have a very good knowledge about the main differences between the Asian and the NA/European market. I'm pretty sure that Aion 1.0 would not have been as successful in occident, as might be Aion 1.5 as a release. I remember when Linage 2 was released, just after the open beta : the game was empty. It's not like there was no quest to do past a certain level, there was no quest at all, nor were the textures for most of the armors implemented, nor the skills past a certain level, and not even the castle sieges that were supposed to be the center of the game. I remember at that time, everyone thought it was normal : it was a MMO, the game was just being developped continuously, better and better stuff was meant to come.

We, as players, have changed so much. We all know that nowadays such a release would be more than catastrophic. As noone tolerates anymore a game without an 'end-game', how many people would tolerate a game released without either an endgame nor the second half of its leveling ladder being complete ? And like Lineage 2, not to the same extent however, it's a little how Aion 1.0 looks like : you start to be short on quests past level 25 and have to start grinding mobs as an example. Even if I don't mind at all teamplay grinding, when the game has been thought and designed toward questlines that would be very unpopular in a new MMO today.

Ncsoft decision to push back the game only for the NA/European release tends to show they think that koreans and asians are still more tolerant toward early MMO releases : they can stand with the game being not complete, provided they like the graphics and the main mechanics being developped. It's obviously not the case for us. Where does the difference come from ? Probably most of our playerbase has gone through WoW, or some of us even discovered the MMORPG genre with WoW, and got entirely accustomed to its content standing. While most of the asian playerbase has gone first through the Lineage series, Ragnarok and a few other games less known in occident which were hugely successful there, games that never followed the 'WoW model', at least in terms of quantity of content present at the release. So for sure, releasing the game with one full year of content added is the right move to secure its launch in occident, and considering such petty matters than the monetary change rates, they have probably more money to make with a solid north america and european release, than with their asian version of the game (petty for us at first sight, not for them indeed as at the end of the day, their number of subscribers will dictate the future of both their game and their team).

To answer to the question, what to expect from Aion, we should also ask ourselves why we play MMORPGs. That's a big question, and I certainly wont explore it thoroughly in this present article, if such a thing is even possible. But there is certainly an easy and immediate answer that can be given to that question : it's a fact we're playing MMORPGs, we're not playing solo-RPGs. That means we enjoy playing with other people, we're eager to meet new friends, and we like the social interactions those kind of games can provide us, be it entirely cooperative as in PvE settings, as well as sometime conflictual in PvP. And I have high hopes on Aion team-work gameplay. Aion hasnt enforced the 'team only' setting as some of our old-school MMOs did like Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, or as it was in L2, that would be really unpopular today.

But the game still has very definite classes, oriented toward very specific team roles, and also nice incentives to team and grind in the old school fashion, as well as to team for more efficiency in PvP too. And I must say I'm certainly not in for one more solo-oriented MMORPG (yes I'm looking at you Champions Online), that mere concept being a total contradiction to my mind. I feel that Aion chose a middle way, and that could be the right decision. Despite having a linear leveling quest system, it tries to offer a possible solo experience, as well as a strong incentive for PvE and PvP teamplay. And that's very good news for my gaming 'open-socialness', or 'not liking to play solo in massive multiplayer games'.

There are many things about the game I wanted to talk about and I didnt, like their 3rd faction system with 2 players factions and one NPC faction, or also the big class balance issues we've got in L2 that would totally spoil the game for US and Europeans players if Ncsoft studio havent really improved on that point (but according to what I read, they certainly have). Anyway, a lot about the technical and gameplay aspects of the game have already been written and shared on many forums and blogs. I wanted to start with a more general perspective about the game, and share a few ideas about my vision and experience of MMOs. I will certainly keep on with my first impressions on the game after the release.

I must say that even if I preordered the game (being sure I want to play it at the release, it's good to have it already installed on my hard-drive and ready to play), I dont plan to participate in any of the betas, nor the open beta. First, I don't like to have my characters deleted, and I can't invest time and effort the same way in the game knowing the servers gonna be wiped before the release. And secondly, I know I have lost a lot of my patience already with recent and classic MMOs, I prefer not to spoil my pleasure and to keep all my energy for the release.

To conclude, I would say that if you still have some hope in the MMO genre, even when it's with classic and well known mechanics, and if at this end of september you're short of any good game to play, you should definitely check Aion. Who knows, it could be your game. I for one would just say : 'May the magic operate, once again !'

What can we expect from Aion ? (Part 1/2)

Posted by Ambre Monday September 7 2009 at 12:14AM
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So far 2009 has proven to be very poor in terms of MMO releases, but it's counting without the new AAA title coming from Ncsoft studios, Aion. The game itself has already been released for more than one year in Korea, and will be launching soon with alot of added content in NA/Europe, from patch 1.0 to 1.5. To me this is a very clever move from Ncsoft compared to what they did with their previous main fantasy title, Lineage 2.

Having played Lineage 2 for more than 1,5 years (2004-2005), my position toward Aion has been quite ambiguous. During a long time I said I wasn't expecting much from the game, and for several reasons. I didnt really check it that much on the boards and websites when it started to get hyped alot, but as we were getting closer to the release I started to get interested in it, and thought that it could revive in one way or another my 'MMO's enthusiasm' that has been quite tarnished those last months.

Let's talk abit about Lineage 2 first, the previous big fantasy MMO from Ncsoft studios. Lineage 2 was a pretty bad game, yes it was, and according to many characteristics that have become 'MMO standards' those last years : it was awful. The game mechanics were pretty awful, the PvE was very blank, the grind was horrible, the interface, controls and customization were catastrophic, the balance between different classes was non-existent. The game became mainstream for a generation of low quality free-to-play games people are used to naming 'korean grinders' or 'asian grinders'. And if you have played or tried one of those games you can easily figure out what I'm talking about.

But at the same time the game had two main exceptionnal features you couldnt pass on. First it was gorgeous, beautiful and immersive. The art design was the best I've ever seen in any game (note that it's subjective, and you have to like 'anime' and 'manga' style to agree with me on this point). Second, there was a true sandbox PvP system where politics and alliances played a huge part, something not that far from what EVE Online has become those two last years. It was thrilling, full of suprises and the way things went on our server, many legends were built and many stories became true history that hundreds and thousands of players will remember for a long time. Despite all its flaws, I've spent my best MMO years on L2, got there my best MMO memories so far as well as my main MMO friends I've been keeping playing with on different games since then. Many people may have that kind of stories for their first MMO though, I just need to mention them to show that for me, the game has been something truly unique and immersive.

Understanding Lineage 2 is a good starting point to understand Aion. As a matter of fact, the two games may not have been done by the exact same team, but it's the same studio. However Aion is not Lineage 3 (Lineage 3 has been on the drawing board for quite a long time now, and is probably not meant to be released in a close future due to several issues). And that being said, with Aion it's pretty obvious they chose a different direction. First, of course they were strongly influenced by the game that changed the MMO market, that is World of Warcraft. They took a lot of elements from WoW to improve their PvE, some of them for the best, and some others for the worse in my opinion, but it's obvious that globally Aion's PvE will be much more enjoyable and well done than Lineage 2's was (remember that in L2 there was no quest, or only useless ones, and an awfully long grind where you were supposed to bash the same monster 10 hours each day to only gain 10-15% experience in your level toward the end game).

What I do not like however is that they also took the same model for their PvP, and chose a RvR, or faction versus faction approach. For many people who have only played DaoC, WoW or WAR it's fine. They like RvR and they think (and are probably right from their perspective) that RvR can be really great when well done and designed. For the people who have played and enjoyed EVE online, L2, Shadowbane or any other sandbox PvP game they will understand what I mean when I say that they chose a 'weak' PvP model. In RvR you dont choose your enemies, they're just the guys from the other faction, the other realm, the other name's color on your screen that usually is red, and whenever they appear you know you're just supposed to fight them. Why should it be any different, some people may ask ? Well, PvP is really different in games like EVE or L2 where politics are really fascinating, where alliances are made and undone on a monthly basis, where you have to choose carefully your guild, friends and allies, and where there is a whole range of colors in between the deep red and the blue/green when you consider attacking another player. At the end you're really not playing the same game, not playing the same PvP. I could go on further on this subject, but it's not the point of this article.

So let's just know that Aion chose a more casual approach to their PvP in this game, that was more influenced by Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft than by Lineage or EVE, that they called PvPvE. PvPvE in my opinion is just a name supposed to sound like something totally new, while actually it's already been done many times, but not always very well. What does PvPvE mean ? That PvP may occur during your PvE experience, you're fighting mobs, you have just rallied a team to fight a boss... You may be attacked by the other faction and may have to managed both PvE and PvP at the same time. That's just another name for 'world PvP', right ? So one could argue that WoW had the concept and the idea first, even if it's obvious that WoW went a totally different way. Both their PvE and PvP became more and more instanced and more separated, patch after patch, expansion after expansion, and nowadays their world PvP mostly comes down to ganking, when people choose to play it, that is rarely.

So Aion took the concept of what WoW world PvP could have been and never was, or was just for one year during the WoW vanilla era. Even if it's not the sandbox PvP some players could dream of, it's not such a bad move when you think about it, at least in the perspective of making the game really popular. It obviously caters more to the casual players than any hardcore PvP system, but at the same time it's not totally what some would call a 'carebear' system as fights may occur at any time, and you're not supposed to be totally safe when fighting mobs and grinding. A strong and well made RvR that can also impact the end-game PvE and raise some challenges can certainly make for a good mix at the end.

So the more we talk about Aion's features, the closer we get to the recent mainstream MMOs concepts and ideas. And that's a critic you've probably read a lot about Aion on different boards : 'It's a WoW clone !'. 'WoW clone' has become a new expression to point out games that mainly tried to copy World of Warcraft on every point they could, hoping to get a part of their big subscription numbers, while at the same time being often not as good as than the original on most of their features. Actually the expression is not correct if you look at it a bit closer. There is no WoW clone on the market, if there was one really, it should have met the same kind of success WoW did, and it's obviously not the case. WoW is unique, and so is every other mmorpg. But we can understand the point behind the expression, as 'trying to stay as close as possible to what worked very well so far on the MMO market', and I would call it being 'conservative', as opposed to being 'innovative'.

 If you read this endless argument on Aion's relative boards, you've probably seen several times something like 'Aion is just another WoW clone !' being answered 'All the mmos are the same, if you don't like it that way, you should stop with the genre'. Obviously both points are not correct, or if they still hold some truth, it should more be seen as heavy exagerations to make a point. Aion is certainly not a 'WoW clone' and has a deep and very well apparent personnality, as we'll talk about this later in this article. On the other hand, no it's not true that every mmorpg is the same : not every mmorpg has a linear quest system to guide you through the levels, not every mmorpg has very strict and predefined classes, with strong roles as tank, healer, support and with little customization available, not every mmorpg has a faction vs faction only or RvR PvP system... etc, I could go on further.

So what about all this 'WoW clone argument' ? As I said before Aion made a choice, and it's about being more 'conservative' than being 'innovative'. It's not that hard for MMO developpers to spot what worked and works well in the genre, what players liked, what they subscribed for, and what they didnt want to experience more, or only as a small niche. So when they have to enter the arena, and offer a new MMO game to players, there is the safe way to do it, and the risky one.

The safe way consists in designing their game so that it will offer more of the experience that worked in other games and made them a success, than what was controversial and drove a part of the player base out of the game, or what is unknown to work or not, because nobody has done it yet. The upside is that, if you do things well and succeed in what you planned in the conservative way, you will end with a very solid game, that will be probably enjoyed by many different types of players, and I think that's what Aion may be. The downside is that, first of all people who already got too much of the current mmos wont find any kind of novelty in what you created, and your game may never be 'TEH' game for most of your playerbase, but just something they play while waiting for something newer and more innovative title to be released. Of course, there is another downside which is pretty obvious, if you give to the players too much of the old mmo experience, without doing things very well and without adding any touch of true originality, your game will utterly fail and we all saw in the 2008 releases at least one 'AAA' title, if not two of them, meeting this kind of fate.

Aion will certainly fulfill the first of those two downsides, if you're already bored with the very classic MMOs, the game might not be 'the' game you'll spent your next two or three years on. But from what I've seen and read, and how things went with this game already released one year ago in Asia, I'm pretty confident it won't meet WAR and AoC fate, at least not in the same extent. It would be long to explain exactly why, and that would require first of all to analyze both that two games and explained what went wrong in each of them (maybe an idea for a further article ?). But let's say that Aion will most likely be released pretty bug-free, with a gorgeous art-work behind, beautiful graphic design, solid mechanics (even though one could argue they're unoriginal and make a point here), one year of content already delivered since the Korean release. That's not a 100% recipe for a real success of course, and there are always chances that things might go wrong one way or another, but that's certainly a safe basis to think that the game won't utterly fail so that they will loose 90% of their subscribers after 6 months. They might not retain all of them, but they will certainly retain some.

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