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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 2:32PM
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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 8:59AM
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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 12:29PM
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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 11:46AM
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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.

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