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Epic Slant @ MMORPG

Articles from Epic Slant formatted for MMORPG.

Author: Ferrel_Thane

Single Player RPGs: Character Advancement Part VI

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Sunday June 28 2009 at 12:05PM
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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 8:42AM
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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 7:45AM
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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 11:10AM
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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 11:00AM
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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 4:11PM
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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.

Eve Blog Banter #8

Posted by Ferrel_Thane Tuesday June 2 2009 at 9:25AM
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I was browsing around the Eve blogs and I noticed there is a community not unlike that of the Warhammer Cross Promotion Initiative. It is known as the Eve Blog Banter and was started up by Crazy Kinux. The current topic of discussion is “What new game mechanic or mechanics would you like to see created and brought into the EVE Online universe and how would this be incorporated into the current game universe?” That seemed right up my alley even if I did find the blog post rather late! I do so love to promote features in MMOs that I am playing so I figured late is better than never.

The basic game mechanic behind Eve Online character progression is skill advancement. The method by which skills are gained is both intriguing and unique when it comes to MMOs. Skills are purchased on the market like any other commodity and then trained in real time. At this very moment Ferrel Thane is learning to use missile launchers at rank V. This will complete by Tuesday. In general, I love the system. I like that even when I’m not playing my character progresses in some way but I want more control of my destiny!

The mechanic that I would suggest would be training time bonuses through active skill usage. I envision that you could pick a small amount of skills, anywhere from three to five, and set them as “primaries.” This queue could only be changed once ever 24 to 48 hours. During that time period if a player acted in a way that would require the use of those skills they would receive a small discount on their training times. To make the system a bit more clear I think an example is in order.

My character Ferrel is a missile focused character. Due to that she selects Missile Launcher Operation, Warhead Upgrades, and Standard Missiles as her primary skills for the 24 hour period. In that play session we’ll say Ferrel generates roughly 120 minutes worth of time using those three skills. When the 24 hour timer rolls over the “training time” required by those next level of skills will be reduced by 6 minutes each (in my example we’re assuming 30 seconds off for every 10 minutes using the skills, not played). It isn’t much but it would add up over time.

I think the system would lead to a bit more engagement by the “log in, set queue, log ou”t players. They might feel that better gains could be made by just playing a little more and engaging in the profession of their choice. This would also give those “skill watchers” like me a bit more feeling of control. I find that it is important to me that what I’m doing directly effects my progression. I do realize these actions of Eve are rewarded with ISK and that there is a line of progression there but I am far more into skills.

In truth the current system does work wonderfully. I just have a small issue with the disconnect between my actions and my progression. Giving players like myself the ability to explore more than one progression and shorten the total training time might go a long way to our retention. This could also be used as a way to catch newer players up to where they need to be. There is a chance for abuse but as long as the rewards are kept small I think there may be room in Eve for active progression!

Originally posted on Epic Slant.

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