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Epic Slant @ MMORPG

Articles from Epic Slant formatted for MMORPG.

Author: Ferrel_Thane

The old school wasn't about loot

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Friday July 24 2009 at 1:32PM
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You all probably know that I spend a lot of my free time reading MMO blogs and participating in forum discussions. To remain up to date with what is happening in the industry and keep my creativity flowing on Epic Slant it is pretty much a necessity. I spend most of my time reading about MMO Design since Guild Leadership isn’t something widely discussed. Sometimes, however, I end up in random places reading random things and they give me “old gamer rage.”

Not too long ago I was asked some questions by Tesh about being a guild leader and it brought back some memories about why I got into it to begin with. At virtually the same time, I happened to fall into a whole group of posts about how hardcore raiders are the devil and only care about having better gear than everyone else. We were being characterized as nothing more than greedy, epeen waving alpha males. To be frank, it upset me. That characterization might be true of this generation of competitive raiders (and I’m not saying it is) but it certainly wasn’t true of the original one.

In my MMO career I have had the distinct honor of being a member of three different competitive raid guilds. I was also blessed with the opportunity to take the top office of Iniquity for just over two years. I can say with complete confidence that during those days it was never about the loot. We were never chasing “the carrot.” Loot was a reward, of course, but it was just a tool that let you get to what really mattered: the win. That is right folks, in every “uber guild” I’ve ever been in, (and we’re not talking just one), we were all about the win. We won as a team and we lost as a team.

Tesh asked me if raiding was even fun and I had to be honest. A lot of times raiding was not fun. Learning new encounters was very difficult back then. Most guilds kept all their information hidden and only those who kept close ties exchanged information. We didn’t post full strategies and youtube videos that said, “Here is how you kill the dragon.” We would suffer through death after death after death just trying to work out the best tactics for our group of people. It was thankless and always a rush against the clock. We weren’t just competing against the mob but also against every other guild that wanted a shot at it. If we didn’t win someone else surely would. Most players these days cannot stomach that many losses. I want to tell a story about what it truly meant to be competitive.

In EQ2 Classic there was a group of weapons called “Prismatics.” They were at the time, peerless. To get one you had to complete an incredibly long quest and defeat multiple raid targets. The last of which was a dragon called Darathar. In those days, not a lot of guilds had defeated him and he was horribly bugged. In some fights he would simply heal to full when his script went badly. He was changed numerous times but Darathar 1.0 was the most difficult encounter out there at the time. Iniquity had worked all the way to him and for a week straight, hours a day, I threw us at that dragon. I could not count how many times we lost. It got so bad and we got so low that Khallid and Durrel, who at the time were playing at my house, looked over at me and said outside of Ventrilo, “Dude, we need more gear. Lets call it and farm a bit longer and we’ll get him. We’re close.” I had heard rumblings that they were going to tone Darathar down a bit and I did not want to miss beating the hard version. That is the thought that went through my head. Not “I want my epic now.” Not “We want his loot.” It was “I don’t want to beat 2.0 when only an elite few beat 1.0.” In the hardest moment of my life I looked at some of my best friends in the world and told them we weren’t leaving and they needed to just suck it up and win. They were understandably frustrated with me. I pushed and pushed and pushed, though, and that very night we won. We beat Darathar 1.0.

It was a labor of love, however, and any good raider will take the bad with the good. Each time that you got a mob a little lower than the last attempt there was a thrill and excitement. When the mob that you’ve been working on for days or weeks gets under 10% and you’re saying as calmly as you can in Ventrilo, “Settle, it isn’t dead yet – keep going,” your heart can do nothing but beat erratically. Each percentage takes an eternity but when it hits zero and the mob falls you would have heard in the Iniquity Ventrilo server cheers and elation the likes of which could rival any professional sports game. Nobody cared what it dropped the first times; it was that win that we wanted. I honestly could not tell you what Darathar dropped that night and, in truth, I don’t care. The only thing that I remember or care about is that my officers and I lead one of the finest group of players and friends to defeat something that only a few guilds across the entire game had. That is my passion. That was my drive.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’ve long since retired from that lifestyle. My work and personal life just don’t allow me to manage a guild 60+ hours a week and help it stay competitive. I have friends that do, though, and they’re part of the old school. They are not chasing after purple and gold items for the sake of the items. Guilds like ours use loot for two reasons. The first is pretty simple. If we don’t get that loot we can’t move to the next challenging encounter and win. The second might be what players who never have raided competitively are misinterpreting as greed. Winning was about the time. We won and lost because of the team. Loot was for rewarding individual achievement. Those who played well, attended consistently, and were team players were rewarded individually. The item means nothing. Being singled out and rewarded, however, was priceless. Ask any old Iniquity member, even those that hate me, and they will tell you that even though I was usually in the top three when it came to total points I rarely ever took an item first. I wanted to give it to a member and let them be rewarded. My reward was leading and winning.

In my life I have achieved a fair degree of success both professionally and in my private pursuits. I do not say that to brag or puff myself up. I only mention it so I can put the next statement into context. I am not yet a father, so this will change, but to date I have never felt more pride, more joy and more successful than when my guild defeated an incredibly difficult encounter. You may think it sad that I can get so involved in a game but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a group of friends, lead by myself and other officers, achieving something that only a handful of human beings could without cheating, exploiting or using dubious tactics. To me that means a lot and to have it tarnished by the notion that we were in it for the loot wounds me deeply. The loot is long gone but many of my closest friends are still my guild mates in Sodality. It is a testament to the bond we share and our loyalty to one another.

You may call me a jerk for being an advocate of the hardcore raider. You can say that we are (and in my case were) a minority that consumed the most content in the shortest amount of time. You may even say that I only cared that my guild and I had content to do but do not tell me that it was about loot. The old school wasn’t about loot. We were about camaraderie, loyalty, integrity and the win and we always will be.

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

Casual MMOs, the iPhone and you

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Friday July 17 2009 at 7:59AM
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There is a trend that I couldn’t help but notice as of late. More and more developers are suggesting that the AAA MMO is not the wave of the future and is soon to be an endangered species. Now there are (apparently) numerous casual games in development poised to replace our long term behemoth loves with their new, easy to play and stop playing offerings. One such game is the massively popular Free Realms. This MMO is free to play, extremely polished and lets players do whatever they want when they want. It is, without a doubt, a fun experience even if it isn’t heavy on the “long term build up to a single goal” style we’re familiar with.

I am a fan of what you would now call “hardcore” MMOs. By this I mean “the games we play more than an hour at a time to achieve something and frequently lead to raid or group content.” Previously you would call that an MMO and the hardcore was the top 5 or 10% that raided the hardest content. The “casualization” of the genre that WoW and many games to follow has brought have shifted the proverbial scale so that even relatively “easy” games look difficult. I’m not sure how I feel about that but I will agree about one thing, this is good for business.

If we should learn one thing from World of Warcraft and Free Realms it is that accessibility is king. We can no longer take the attitude that SOE did before the release of EverQuest that “if it is good they will come, even if the system requirements are insane.” These days good won’t cut it. If you expect someone to jump through hoops to play your game it had best be great, polished and new. On the surface this seems like a bad thing for people like me but I’m not so sure.

I believe that there will always be a new hardcore MMO around the corner. Even though there are new markets to expand into there will always be the solid base from which to pull. Many people will play the new casual games and then ask the question, “Is there more?” In a way, they are like a gateway drug. Most of us will crave a deeper experience besides simple mini-games and shallow (and I am not using this word with a negative connotation) character progression at one time or another. At the same time, however, those of us on the hardcore side will equally appreciate something that doesn’t constantly force us to grind. There is room for both.

In the future I imagine we’ll see MMOs on more than the PC. They have already crossed into the realm of the console and are growing in support there. I see them doing well on the cell phone of the future, though. A “play anywhere” type situation if you will. I can even imagine an MMO where you play mostly on your PC but can still achieve character progress via an application on your phone. Imagine a “lite” version of Eve on your iPhone where you can make basic character changes and chat. It would be easy to achieve since the groundwork is being laid.

I have most recently purchased an iPhone and am finding it amazing. I truly had no idea how powerful it was and what it could do. To poorly quote Buuncha, “Everytime someone buys an iPhone they just have to come over and show you every little thing they find. It is annoying.” I myself am doing it as I discover the power. It is like having a PS1 in my pocket. I’ve already checked out a few of the iPhone MMOs and while they are simple they offer a hint of what is to come. This is a captive audience that is growing daily and more than willing to fire off $2.99 here and there for a few hours of fun. I myself have been exploring Parallel Kingdoms and Epic Pet Wars (friend code kremolb if you want to join my posse). These freemium apps don’t offer much depth but they’re horribly addicting. If they tied into a larger ecosystem I would probably lose my job in a week.

It is hard to say what the future holds but I have a feeling it involves high powered cell phones and casual games. I hope it still includes long play session and deep games like EverQuest as well. There is no doubt, though, assumptions are being challenged and change is in the air. What do you think about it?

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

Back in the Saddle of LotRO

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Thursday July 16 2009 at 11:29AM
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It wasn’t that long ago that I mentioned Sodality and I have returned to Lord of the Rings Online to give it another shot after a long two year hiatus. Our original trip through was not that noteworthy and our impression of the game was quite low. Now that we’ve spent a few weeks in Middle Earth I feel it is fair to talk about some of our experiences this time around.

Guilds

With any MMO my major focus has been and always will be the guild interface. It is quite natural and logical for me to want the most bang for my buck when it comes to running Sodality in game. It is in this area that LotRO is the weakest. Very few features are offered to the guild leader and customization is pretty much non-existent. Additional ranks cannot be added and the names cannot be changed. There are no permission options and the interface is not very useful beyond seeing who is online and where they are playing.

To be honest I am surprised by this. The systems by which guilds are managed have come a long way in the last few years and LotRO is a mature product. In addition to that LotRO is a PvE focused game that highly encourages grouping and raids! You would think they would make guilds as useful as possible to encourage those activities. It is my hopes that sometime in the near future we’ll see an upgrade to these systems.

Content

In little over two years Turbine has added large amounts of content to their product. Middle Earth has grown by leaps and bounds with the free mini-expansions and the Mines of Moria. The amount of new quests that have been added is staggering. It honestly feels like there is more to do than can ever be done on one pass through the game. The quests do suffer some from the traditional “kill ten rats” plague but many are quite interesting and inventive. The stories are wonderful and the opportunity to interact with some of Middle Earth’s greatest heroes is quite intriguing. I am not a huge fan of the quest grind but LotRO makes it easy to tolerate.

LotRO also seems to cater to the microcore when it comes to raids and group content. There are a lot of twelve-man raids and grouping is supported from the alpha to the omega. At any time I have a half dozen group quests waiting for me and my friends. Dungeons abound and are both challenging and fun. To be honest I was almost shocked by this. I’ve been through so many PvP and solo focused games lately. Lord of the Rings Online has warmed my cold and jaded heart. I can group again!

Legendary Weapons are something I haven’t experienced yet but I love the sound of them. Weapons that can be improved over time and level with my character? That sounds good to me! I hope to learn more about these little goodies shortly.

There is a lot of positive aspects when it comes to the content department. The only real dig I can have on LotRO is that it is too much of a quest grind. Regular mobs just don’t give enough experience per kill to support traditional grinding. I know people generally don’t like to do this but I always feel like the option should be there. With that being my only “negative” however, I think the game is in good shape in this department.

Game Play

Game play has improved a lot since the last trip I took to LotRO. Combat moves much smoother and feels responsive. I also no longer feel like I’m just chasing mobs and attempting to attack as a melee. That was one of my complaints from before. It is much easier to close ground and actually engage a mob.

In game menus and the UI are also easy to work with. There is plenty of room for all my abilities and a lot of options when it comes to customization. The chat filters are easy to use and in general I don’t feel like I’m straining to find what I need. The controls are equally easy to customize and use and don’t leave me scratching my head. A new player would have no issue stepping right into this game.

One thing that does seem to get into the way of my game experience is the size of the character inventory. I have not found a way to expand it yet and the amount of space just isn’t that impressive. Loot frequently only stacks up to 10 items and I constantly find myself cleaning out my bags and feeling frustrated. There should be some way to improve this and, if there already is, someone please comment and let me know how!

Summary

Given my past experience with the game I was expecting very little. I am, however, pleased to say I received a whole lot! I am absolutely loving LotRO and by the huge surge of Sodality players into it I think they are too. Turbine has done a terrific job of turning this game around and pointing it in the right direction. With each book they refine the good and amend the bad. I can see staying here for quite some time if the raid content is as good as advertised.

The game does suffer when it comes to the guild interface and slightly in the intellectual property department. Due to the constraints of the IP you will frequently find yourself killing the same mobs from 1 to 60. It would go a long way to add a greater variety of models to those repeated encounters. When it comes to mobs, bigger and a different color doesn’t exactly do it for me. It is cute once or twice but over and over again is just abusive.

Beyond those minor complaints I am truly enjoying my return to Middle Earth. I think LotRO would be a great game for anyone who is interested in small raid encounters and grouping. Fans of the books would also find a trek through the various locations quite entertaining. I do expect my opinion to change and evolve as we near max level and the end game but, at least for now, I give Lord of the Rings Online nine out of ten gnolls.

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

The decline of the MMO Guild

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Saturday July 4 2009 at 10:46AM
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Pre-article disclaimer: I am not advocating for the reduction of solo content or the removal of that play style. Let it be clear that I am asking for more support for group content and focusing on how solo-centric design has a negative effect on guilds. I expect many people to respond with rabid "forced grouping" comments anyway.

Lately I’ve been immersing myself in the discussions going on regarding the struggle between the pro-solo and pro-group camps of MMO players. The newest bouts of debate have spilled into a few forum discussions and the comments and related articles by Wolfshead. With such a provocative topic I’ve been inspired to write on many different topics. The one I settled on, to begin with, is how this issue affects guilds. It is my contention that by focusing MMOs so heavily on solo content we are producing players ill-equipped to deal with guilds and, ultimately, weakening the need for such organizations.

The concept of player organizations is not a new one. They have existed for many years but, in my eyes, truly grew to a new height with the advent of the raid guild. These organizations are not unlike real world businesses in the fact that they monitor their member’s “hours” and pay them for that labor (DKP). They also have elaborate hierarchies and stringent policies by which someone is hired. This was sometimes taken to an insane degree and these organizations wielded massive amounts of control in EverQuest when it came to what content a player could experience.

To the uninitiated this may have seemed like an insane practice. In reality, however, it was quite the opposite. In those days the other individuals that were in your guild directly affected your experience of the game so it seemed perfectly reasonable to be quite picky. It was also not an experience that you usually repeated. Most of us were “company men.” It took me 11 months to become an official member of Silent Redemption but once I was in it was pretty much for life. I played about four years with them and when I retired I remained a member. It was that loyalty that ensured I had competent people to group and raid with. I was able to experience everything EQ had to offer before any other guild on the server and I made friendships that have lasted nearly 10 years. It was a labor of love so to speak.

Times are quite different these days. Most MMOs not only allow virtually every class to solo to max level they frequently ensure that that is the best way to do it. Grouping is frequently penalized. It is no wonder, then, that guilds have grown far less important. When I retired from high end raiding in EQ2 I moved on to try WoW. It shocked me at how much mobility players exhibited when it came to guilds. If one thing didn’t go their way they were off to a new guild or new server. I was frequently regaled with long histories of every guild someone had been in. It just seemed unnatural.

Initially I believed this decline to be localized to WoW. However, as Sodality has moved through different games I’ve found it to be wide spread. For every decent long term player we recruit we have to sift through ten or more terrible ones. It was confusing at first but the root cause seems all too clear now: MMOs aren’t really designed around mutual cooperation anymore. They’re designed around solo achievement.

The MMO experience is drastically different than it was five years ago. A player can log in, grab a bunch of quests and be lead by the nose to the appropriate location. Other players in the area are just the guys that are “slowing them down.” The games do offer a group option but the amount of content for that play style is on a steady decline and grouping to do solo mobs is inefficient. It quickly teaches the player that everyone else slows their experience and that by working solo they can achieve more. It, in essence, creates a sense of introversion.

This attitude is instilled so early in players that when they reach max level there are a large number of them that end up as terrible group mates. This is where the horrendous stories of PUGs come from. Those stories do more to turn players off to the idea of grouping and the cycle repeats. As players become less inclined to group they also place less value in guilds. What do those organizations offer anyway?

I often find that the answer is “drama” or “too much meddling.” This probably shouldn’t be surprising. If you’re used to doing everything solo, then you’ll have a harder time accepting external control. In addition, players that aren’t accustomed to working with others will have a harder time adjusting to the team environment, where looking out for number one isn’t the best course of action. There are external factors as well. Content is not as gated as it once was. In truth, only the very top end guilds can offer gear and experiences beyond what the average player can do solo or with a PUG raid. All of these factors ultimately lead to a very weak system for guilds to exist in.

There are ways to amend this situation, of course. The first of which is to make grouping viable once more. If players are encouraged to group early in the game they will be better trained to deal with other players later on. This can be achieved with inducements. There should be challenging and interesting content available and rewards to go along with it. I also feel that grouping should be the most effective way to level with solo existing but not necessarily better. I’m sure I’ll hear the usual rabid “forced grouping” shouts but that is truly a myth. If one play style is more effective than another that doesn’t constitute forcing a player to use it. The truth of the matter is grouping takes more effort and players will take the path of least resistance. If grouping is equal or worse than soloing, few people will do it. I must also note that it is imperative that grouping options start immediately, not at max level.

Once players are back in groups they will naturally gravitate towards guild to avoid terrible players and PUGs. They’ll also be more likely to stay in those organizations because they’ll be more adept at dealing with their peers. That would not be enough, however. I would also like to see guilds subsidized by development shops. Long lasting guilds should be rewarded for their stability. Equally so, long term members should be rewarded. There should be a real sense of loss when a player jumps from one guild to the other. I envision a system where guilds level like players and can pick bonuses. The longer the guild exists the more bonuses it will have and the longer a member stays in the guild the more of those bonuses they will get. That will reduce the amount of guild fractures and forming micro-organizations. Players will be forced to deal with each other and work out their differences.

I have been advocating for a more rich and feature-filled guild experience for a while now and I think this would be the optimum time to start implementation. These ideas can be brought to existing games and new ones alike. Building out the multi-player experience would not hurt the solo game and might just draw a lot more business as well. After all, once players start making those friendships and long term guild associations they might play long past when they would normally quit due to their sense of community. I know that kept me in both EQs longer than I would have been had I been a lone wolf. Everyone seems to believe the money is in the solo game and that may be true in the short term but isn’t conversion rate the most important aspect of the business?

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

Single Player RPGs: Character Advancement Part VI

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Sunday June 28 2009 at 11:05AM
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It has been a while since I did my last article in my Character Advancement series. This is mostly due to the fact that I have covered a lot of the basic (and crazy) topics that I had intended to. I had scheduled myself to do an in depth look at talent trees but, in all honesty, they’re just a structured form of alternate advancement points. I have decided to go in a different direction: theft.

Have you ever played a really great single player RPG and thought, “This would work well in an MMO?” There have been a number of occasions where I have and I thought it would be prudent to write about it. Today I want to cover two advancement systems that would translate easily into the MMO genre: Fallout and Final Fantasy X.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Fallout series I highly suggest you finish reading my article and then go out and buy Fallout 3. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Before you do so, however, I’ll give a quick break down on how advancement works in the series.

In the Fallout series your character is made up primarily by statistics and skills. Statistics have certain functions within the game that they modify (strength lets you carry more for instance). The stats directly give bonuses to related skills, while the skills modify more specific actions and set “barriers.” If you’re a thief, your lock picking skill makes opening locks easier but also limits you. Some locks require a certain level of skill before you can even try. Each time you level you’re given a set amount of skill points based on intelligence and allowed to pick one perk. It is the perks that make the game really shine.

Perks in Fallout have always been both fun and humorous. They modify your game play experience directly. Some are straight forward and offer large bonuses to skills or another stat point. Others are for pure enjoyment. The most famous one being Bloody Mess. For a player every other level unlocks a new set of perks that continue to become more powerful or useful. These perks help to specialize and define a character. Imagine how well that would work in an MMO.

Using Fallout as an example, an MMO could start every player off on equal footing without commitment. Players could come up with a general idea of what they want to be and distribute their statistic points accordingly. They could then select the skills they primarily plan to use. Each level, however, would give them new opportunities to specialize their character further or round themselves out. I’m sure, as with all skill based games, I’ll hear the old “but players could gimp themselves” argument. At this point, however, I think we need to start giving players more credit. If they can figure out Eve, they can figure out a Fallout like game. Obviously in an MMO you’d want more options than Fallout provides but the base is solid. I wonder why nobody has used this system yet.

Turning away from the direction-light Fallout experience I think the Final Fantasy X sphere grid offers a lot of potential to the MMO world. At the beginning of each character’s “life” in FFX they would be placed in a different location on the sphere grid. Each time one of the cast gained a level they would be able to move forward once to a node they’ve never visited or back to ones they previous have. The node is then activated with a loot item that corresponds (you would use a power sphere to active a strength node).

How could this work out in an MMO? Developers could start each class on a different point in the grid or on entirely different grids depending on if they wished to allow a multi-class experience or not. Much like in FFX players would have to find spheres as loot (these could even be crafted). The bonus of this is that you have an instant, player driven economy as players would be seeking the specific spheres that they need. Each level players could yield the traditional hp, mana, and basic abilities increase. The sphere grid could then be used to specialize a character to your play style.

Players could travel the grid throughout their character’s career to pick up the abilities, benefits and statistic increases that they want. You could also create different tiers of spheres to augment player progression. Solo mobs might drop a sphere that gives 100% of the nodes bonus but group mob dropped and crafted spheres might give a 110% bonus. You could even put clear forks into the grid to go from general classes to sub-classes and even down to specializations. This would give players a lot of opportunity to think about what they’d like to do. With a little effort I think this would be a great system for an MMO.

I think it would be interesting for MMO developers to borrow more from single player RPGs. We’ve seen so many “levels plus a talent tree” games that a change is well past due. What other systems would be good to steal? What are some of the problems with these? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
 

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

Ferrel's review of Neo Steam

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Friday June 19 2009 at 7:42AM
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When I saw the promotional material for Neo Steam I knew I had to play it. Atlus was offering a steam punk game that allowed me to play a large wolf character that wasn’t portrayed as a dim, savage barbarian! In my eyes those were all good things. The game released last week and I’ve had the opportunity to spend a decent amount of time with it. With many hours under my belt I thought it was a fair time to give my review. Before I get started I want to give a little background about Neo Steam and the “steam punk” genre.

Neo Steam is a free to play MMO that offers a range of payment plans and some premium content. Players are divided into two factions: The Republic of Rogwel and the Elred Kingdom. PvE is very important in the game but there are a lot of open PvP areas. Strangely enough, those areas pretty much include all of the cities. Neo Steam also has a very clear anime feel and relies heavily on graphics that might look right at home on an arcade console. It follows a standard level based progression with a talent tree like component. The game blends magic and technology for a different take on what we call “steam punk.”

Steam punk is an off-shoot of traditional fantasy that has been around for some time now but largely goes untapped in the gaming world. It is essentially a blend of fantasy elements and high technology that is brought about through steam and mechanical power. In a steam punk game it would not be that off base to see a robot battle a dragon. The robot, however, would not be made of transistors and circuit boards. It would be powered by a boiler and have all sorts of gears, cogs, springs, and sprockets. The genre really is quite unique and exciting. The most familiar example I can think of would be Final Fantasy VI (U.S. FF3). It is in that framework that Neo Steam is set.

Now that I’ve handled the background lets move on to the review itself. Downloading and installing the Neo Steam client is a breeze. The website is very clear about where it is located and the effort to get right into the game is minimal. I had it downloaded, installed and logged in within 90 minutes. In that regard, I have only good things to say about the game.

Character creation was a bit more simplistic than I anticipated it would be. Many races can only be one gender and the customization options are almost non-existent. It can be boiled down to a few quick choices: Which kingdom and what base class? Then you pick from a few faces, grab a hair color, and you’re pretty much off. It was good that I could get into the game quickly but I’m a guy who likes “a bit more than WoW but a lot less than every inch of a character having a slider” in my creation. Either way the process was intuitive and easy to understand. The descriptions of the races and classes were useful and didn’t leave me questioning what I wanted to be (not that I ever questioned. I was going to be a Lupine Justicar).

When I dropped into the game I was a bit surprised by how bright it was. In my experience the steam punk genre is always gritty and smokey. Much like turn of the century England. The town of Diren was nothing like that. It reminded me more of Disney Land. This isn’t really a complaint or a negative. Everyone is entitled to their own vision of a steam punk world. I nosed around a bit I was impressed with the general look and feel of the starting village. It was well animated and had a lot of useful features. NPCs were pretty clear about what services they offered and anyone who wanted to give me a quest whispered at my character and had a WoW style exclamation point over their head. In addition to that there was a quest keeper NPC that told me who had quests for me. That was a nice addition.

Just as I would with most MMOs I grabbed a basic quest or two and jumped outside of town to give the controls a once over. For the most part all of the usual hot keys work as you would expect. There were no strange letter to window mappings that I could find. I certainly had an easier time getting the information I wanted than when I first started Warhammer Online. The learning curve was quite low if you’re familiar with MMOs. What was peculiar was that the game is more mouse driven. You can move and initiate combat with the mouse easily. So much so that I don’t actually move with WASD. With all of that said I only have two real complaints with the default controls. The first is an issue of collision. If you click in the distance and your character collides with something it can often become hung up. You then have to rotate the camera, click off in a clear direction, and go around. The other one, and this is really odd, is that you have to right click your abilities in the hot bar to activate them. I won’t even hint at how many hours I played thinking I was using my abilities before I figured out I wasn’t.

The various environments I visited in Neo Steam were fairly attractive. I traveled through a city, an outpost, a village, a forest, a beach and a bone yard. Each felt distinct and had a fairly polished look. Some of the plants and other environmental objects were surround by “transparent” boxes that blocked what should be an unobstructed view. The game’s various locations seemed well enough put together and were engaging. I just can’t quite say they felt as magical and as polished as Free Realms or some of the other MMOs I’ve played recently.

On a less positive note I have to say I was disappointed with the character models. I can handle them being overly cute but the amount of detail, even on high settings and a great resolution, wasn’t really there. My lupine character just wasn’t what I hoped to see. Looking around at some of the other players I felt pretty much the same way about them. The attachment I normally build rather immediately for my new “Ferrel” or “Thane” just wasn’t there.

When it comes to the actual game play Neo Steam does above average. There is nothing really new here that I have found. You find a few quests, grab them, and go out to complete them. The game also seems pretty dependent on grinding. I didn’t find a ton of quests to do. Of course that has never been a problem for me. The only different thing the game does is foster an early relationship with a pet. Every character gets one and can tailor it to their needs. If you want a little friend to heal you, grab a Gear! Pets can level just like you and are worth keeping around. Beyond that, however, Neo Steam is largely like most every other MMO out there.

Given that Neo Steam is free to play I do not feel entirely justified in comparing it to games with a subscription model. I will say that its a faster paced MMO than most out there with a Diablo II feel. During the time I played I experienced no game stopping errors or crashes and generally had fun. The game is solid and has a more robust combat than Free Realms. It doesn’t quite look as polished, however, and certainly doesn’t seem to exceed the detail of Runes of Magic. I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of FFXI and wants usable interface or is into anime. In my eyes it is without a doubt the number two FtP combat oriented MMO that I’ve tried. Stacking it against the entire genre, however, I give it 6 out of 10 gnolls.

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

What are you willing to pay for?

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Monday June 15 2009 at 6:45AM
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There is no doubt about it, free to play and freemium MMOs are not going to up and disappear. It appears that this payment model will be growing in North America as games like Free Realms soar to 3 million users. Some players dislike these models because they see the games as cheap. Others are excited by the freedom of these games. That isn’t what I want to look at today however. I want to discuss what a player is willing to pay for. What do you consider premium features?

In some free to play MMOs real money buys you real power. In those games you can purchase high quality loot with your hard earn dollars. I am not a fan of that at all. It runs directly counter to one of the core reasons I play MMOs: PvE competition. Why would I bother raiding if I could spend $6.00 and get the same gear? Many games shy away from this and I applaud that. I don’t consider this a premium feature. I, in all honesty, see it as cheating. How about you?

A more common strategy is to offer convenience for money. There are all sorts of possibilities here. Do you want a faster mount? That will be $3.00. Perhaps you’re interested in a temporary experience potion? That will cost you $5.00. In truth, I don’t have an issue with any of that. I know experience potions seem like cheating but, to me, most MMOs begin when you hit max level. Everything before that is just “the stuff I went through.” If someone else wants to pay to shorten that time I’m alright with it. Others may disagree.

Those are some pretty obvious examples that we’ve all seen numerous times. I want to get a discussion going about what we haven’t seen yet and what we would like. I’ve come up with a list of things I’d be willing to pay for and about how much. Bare in mind that this is beyond what is required just to play the game. You can omit the basics. If you are so inclined, please do the same and post your own list!

1. I would love the ability to lock down my character name across all servers. Ferrel is not a fly by night name that I use flippantly. I have spent a long time building the reputation I have around it. I would hate for someone to tarnish it. I’d be willing to pay $1.00 extra every month to keep the name from falling into use. I’d even pay a one time fee to “create this character on all servers.” Anything to keep my good name.

2. One of the extra features that EQ2 offered was item tracking. The servers tracked who got an item and when. It was another way to show where you placed in the PvE game. That is a feature I loved and would gladly pay $1.00 a month for it.

3. On the guild side of things I would like to see server and game first tracking. When a guild legitimately defeated an encounter they would be added to the list. If it was found that they exploited to win their name would be removed. That has to be worth a couple dollars!

4. I covered this briefly in my prestige content article but it could also be worked in with premium content. I think players would enjoy the option to purchase costumes and such that have no impact on game play but look interesting. Several games already do this of course.

5. This one might get some people up in arms but I’d like to pay for mini-updates. Beyond live updates, expansions and general maintenance on an MMO I’d like to see quarterly mini-updates from a separate team. These could be as simple as a new PvE dungeon or a new PvP battleground. These mini-updates would have their own budget and would cost anywhere from about $3.00 to $7.00. I think that could add a lot of life to an MMO and reduce the cycle of interest and breaks.

Those are just a few things that I thought of. I’m sure I could come up with several more but I think that is a good start. I’m curious what everyone else would be willing to pay for though!

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

PvP Be Not Proud

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Friday June 12 2009 at 10:10AM
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I believe it was Scott Jennings who said the quickest way to get three digit comments was to write an article about PvP. I’m not sure if that will hold true on Epic Slant but I’m going to ignore his solid advice and do just that! Today I want to discuss my issues with “open PvP” and some of the myths that go along with it. Just so we’re all clear about this beforehand, (and I know some folks will ignore this disclaimer), I’m only talking about involuntary PvP. I’m not slandering RvR lakes, battlegrounds, arenas or any place where a player will knowingly go to battle others.

It continues to amaze me that more and more PvP focused games are being released. I recognize that many of these began their development cycle when everyone believed that this play style was the wave of the future but lets be honest, there are a lot of “me too” games out there for this. With the release of Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, Darkfall, and PvP MMO 12 Bravo, it has become clear that the market isn’t as big as imagined. Most of the games are niche titles with the exception of Warhammer Online. War is doing average for an MMO but it certainly isn’t the “million account” RvR powerhouse that everyone anticipated and I’m willing to bet a decent amount of players remain there for the generally well done PvE portion of the game. Why don’t these games gain on WoW then?

The biggest reason, in my eyes, is that there are a lot more of us who like PvP as a side dish than as the main course despite what online polls and forums say. In EQ1 we had a name for the PvP crowd: Vocal Minority. PvE players rarely stand up and demand that their play style be supported. Most of us always assumed that it would be there. It also doesn’t help that when we’re on forums doing just that we get shouted down. PvP is also the new “elite” of the MMO world and that can easily put off the casual MMO player. It can be denied but that group is what largely makes up the vast WoW audience. I’m not the sharpest spoon in the drawer but I can recognize trends. If you take the entire player base from ever PvP focused American MMO I’m not sure you’d even pass a million players and you certainly would exceed two million.

Beyond the demographic issue there is one massive flaw in all PvP systems: you need willing players, in equal amounts, at all times. MMOs are running 24 hours a day and if there is nobody to fight they quickly lose their appeal. I truly believe that massive wars will never happen in games due to just this reason. Look at Warhammer Online. Point out to me how many equal force large scale battles occur. In the six or so months I played barely any ever happened. One side usually had overwhelming force during certain hours. During other hours the other side did. The “war” was basically tug of war based on time, not skill. I love the idea behind the system. It just doesn’t work when players can be active at all times. Of course this truth and the lack of numbers are usually shouted down by the “skill” issue.

That is at the heart of what I want to get at and why I truly dislike involuntary PvP: skill. I have been before and will be called so again a carebear. This is what involuntary PvP advocates throw around as an insult. It essentially means I am a less skilled, less hardcore MMO player because I’m not willing to take the risks of an open world. If I had skills I’d be able to defend myself and everything would be good! Right? Wrong! In MMO PvP skills do not have that large of an impact. There are simply too many variables. You have level disparity, gear disparity, class disparity, numbers disparity and about twenty other disparities that I’ve written about in the past. The only true test of skill would be if two players were the exact same class, build, level, and had the same gear. That never happens though and, truly, those people who use the term carebear don’t really want the challenge of even matched PvP battles. They seem more interested in ganking.

I accept that I’ve just made a broad generalization but who hasn’t found it to be accurate? Ganking is exactly why I don’t like PvP. When I played on a PvP WoW server I had fun as long as I was fighting in my level range. Unfortunately, however, 90% of my time PvPing was me being destroyed by multiple max level characters. Many games have tried to have “reputation systems” and “consequences” but thus far nobody has made the negatives of those systems outweigh the enjoyment of gankers. Even in controlled systems you’ll find ganking. When PvP tiers are set up with 10 levels each it is not surprising to see that the people at the very top target the people at the very bottom. It is good strategy of course but call it what it is. Being 10 levels higher than someone else and destroying them isn’t skills.

So what is the bottom line here? Essentially this is just a call to developers. A studio will never succeed in making an open PvP world until you can deal with the issue of the ganker. They are real. Simply pulling a rug over that issue won’t make it go away.

The easiest method by which to mitigate the damage of the ganker is to contain PvP to known areas which, of course, means there isn’t open PvP. This can be done through battlegrounds, arenas, and specific PvP zones. Even a carebear like me can handle being ganked if I know I’m heading onto their turf.

A less popular but very effective method is to limit the level ranges in which players can compete. This is usually a 10 level difference (which I think is too much) but at least you don’t have max level characters running around level 30 zones destroying everyone of the opposing side.

Ensure that everyone has -some- friends. When you have to watch your back from literally everyone I think the game becomes more and more niche. It is good to know that at least your own race/class/faction stab you in the back when you turn around.

Finally, my last advice is more for PvP in general: don’t base your game on it. I know I’ll be shouted down but the last run of MMOs seem to bare out the theory that more people say they want PvP than actually do. PvP can be a big part of a game but if developers count on that as the main feature to keep players subscribed they’re setting themselves up for a smaller market. PvP isn’t “always changing.” It isn’t an excuse for less content. I really like Warhammer Online but saying that doing the same battleground for the 25th time is more dynamic than running the same dungeon the 25th time isn’t fair. Yes, the players change but the classes all pretty much act the same. There were plenty of repeat performances.

PvP is here to stay and I’m all for that. I really do enjoy it as a diversion from my PvE experience. I just think we need to look at ways to improve the systems we have and stop basing games on it. What do you think? I’m ready for the tide of pro PvP comments!

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

Prestige Content

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Monday June 8 2009 at 10:00AM
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I’ve often talked about how to increase re-playability in MMOs and lately I’ve been thinking about prestige content. While the mechanic is not largely used in American MMOs I feel that it does have merit. For those that are unfamiliar with the term prestige content it essentially means you gain access to different rewards through your actions in the game. I recognize that by that description I’ve summed up what MMOs are in general. Prestige content, however, suggests that those rewards require more effort than the usual game progression.

Prestige content is somewhat like achievements. If you complete a certain action or set of actions you’ll be treated to something fairly exclusive in your MMO of choice. The rewards could also scale from minor to major depending on the difficulty of archiving them. The possibilities are endless on what could be rewarded. Early rewards could be something as simple as a hair style that wasn’t available at character creation but earned from a special quest.

I think the concept can go a lot further than that though. Imagine a set of prestige races that can be unlocked for alternate characters. These could either be different versions of existing races or perhaps even more powerful ones. Having a slight advantage and a unique look would do a lot to increase player interest in playing through the game once more.

The biggest issue behind this sort of plan, however, is waste. Creating additional races that aren’t immediately available to all players can seem like a misuse of resources. Additionally, if the prestige races are very difficult to earn, you invest a lot of time for little reward. On the other side of things, however, if they’re too easy to earn they will not feel special. There would have to be a balance and that might be a tough one to fine. You also have to ask the question, “Is it acceptable for these races to just be better?”

The key thing to remember is that the achievements can be earned through any activity, not just the usual power gamer methods. They also don’t have to be races, that is just the example I used. The possibilities are endless though and I’d love to see what sort of creative ways this concept could be used. What do you think? Do you like velvet ropes in your MMOs?

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

Is Mission Running it?

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Friday June 5 2009 at 3:11PM
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It has been almost one month since I first joined the growing Eve Online community and I’ve had an opportunity to dabble in the many aspects of the game. The breadth and width of the universe is simply staggering. Given that I’m a combat and tactics fellow I’ve been investing a lot of time in becoming a shield tanking, missile firing, Caldari beast. Thus far that is working out quite well for me. I would almost say that it works too well.

I cannot pretend to say that I have invested as much skill training time in mining as I have in combat but I do have a few of the relevant skills at rank IV. No matter what I try to do I can’t seem to make more money mining than I do running missions. My mining focused friend who does have the skills can’t either. The value of salvage is just so high and the paid rewards from agents just get larger and larger with each level and quality increase. It was my assumption that this would level out but that does not seem to be the case. Mission running seems to be the alpha and omega of money generations right now.

There are a few good mining guides out there and I’ve read into them a big but they seem to lack a big picture view. They explain how to mine and what not to do but they don’t give any frame of reference with the rest of the game. I’ve yet to see a general explanation of how much ISK I should be making per hour given certain conditions. It leaves me wondering then if it is even worth my time to flirt with this industry?

I hope to hear from those more familiar with Eve. When does mining defeat mission running? Does it ever do so? Should I just be pleased that I built myself to run missions and continue to do so? I’d love to hear from a veteran.

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

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