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Editor's Note

Jon Wood, the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, gives his opinions on news, games, and all things MMORPG.

Author: Stradden

Speaking With Your Wallet

Posted by Stradden Friday November 6 2009 at 2:14PM
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The responses to my column this week got me to thinking about a lot of things, not the least of which is where companies draw the line between making games for players to enjoy and making games in order to make the most profit possible.

It’s an interesting question, really and after thinking about it for a while, I have come to the conclusion that there must be some kind of disconnect happening somewhere because the two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

Shouldn’t making good games and having great customer service actually be what’s best for a company’s bottom line? I mean, that’s what they do. That’s what confuses me so much when people start complaining that this game company or that game company is “selling out” and “doesn’t care about their players, they just care about profits.” Given that it’s the players who provide the profits, you wouldn’t think we’d hear that quite as often as we do.

Personally, I think what’s happening is that people aren’t necessarily making their voices heard in the most effective way possible: by making it unprofitable for companies to ignore them.

Sure, going out and posting on forums certainly gets people riled up, but in today’s world where people will complain bitterly on the internet and then go out and buy the product anyway, it’s a less meaningful gesture than it once was.

As businesses, game companies are going to rely less on word of mouth in forums and more on the metrics and other information that is gathered in response to any given change, or initiative. If they see a decline in numbers and in their bottom lines, that’s when the powers that be, the folks who make all of the final decisions stand up and take notice.

My friends, there’s only one way to effectively give your say when it comes to voicing your displeasure with a game company’s decision. Stop giving them your money. Vote with your wallets. In the end, if you’re not pissed off enough to stop giving them your hard earned cash, they’re going to assume that you’re just blowing off some steam and will continue to provide revenue for them.

In the world of single player games, when Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2, a number of concerned players of the first game were upset because they felt that the original game would, as a matter of course, fall by the wayside and free updates that were promised would never come to fruition.

Of course, this meant that many game forums went up in flames as people lost their minds and vocalized it as loudly as possible online. Even with all of the uproar, it wasn’t until a rational boycott program was put into effect that Valve stood up and took notice, eventually properly addressing player concerns (there are some who believe that the Crash Course addition to the game was a direct result of this).

In the end, it’s the bottom line stuff that companies are going to listen to. That’s why most MMOs ask you why you’ve cancelled when you cancel your sub. It’s not because they enjoy reading the large number of profanity-laced responses, but because it can give them an idea of what needs changing should a pattern develop.

So, that’s voting with your wallet. It’s a strong way for an individual to send a strong message.
 

Player Polarization... Fanbois vs Trolls and How it Hurts

Posted by Stradden Friday October 10 2008 at 1:16PM
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Did I miss a memo?

Was I out sick the day that we, as MMORPG fans, decided that there would be a law stating that only one MMORPG may be popular or even considered good at any point in time and that those who disagree must fight tooth and nail until a winner is declared?

I have to assume that this is what happened, because what I am seeing more and more of with the release of every new MMORPG is a concerted effort by those who enjoy new release MMO X to convince the world that the game is the greatest thing since the microchip and a counter effort from fans of MMO A,B and C trying with all of their might and energy to prove that MMO X is the biggest waste of money ever to see the light of day.

Have we really become so polarized as fans that there is only good and bad with no in between? Has it really come to a point where my enjoyment of a game has to mean that no other opinion is valid?

I really wish I’d been there the day that memo was handed out, because this attitude has created a number of serious problems that are doing nothing but hurting the industry as a whole:

Hyperbole

The first thing I want to talk about is the damage being done by the hyperbole and exaggeration that have become commonplace in the world of MMORPGs. Every single day, on numerous forums and elsewhere, I read that MMO X (and you really can fit pretty much any title into that space… go ahead, pick a title and I bet you’ll find these examples) is the buggiest game ever, or it’s a scam by the developers, or it’s an unplayable PoS, or it’s exactly like MMO Y, or that MMO X killed babies (ok, I made that one up). The list goes on.

Don’t worry, there’s plenty of hyperbole going around on the other side of the coin as well: Game X is going to kill WoW in a week, or Game X has no bugs, or Game X had the smoothest launch ever, etc. etc. etc.

The problem is, where everyone is jumping up and down to tell you how extremely good a game is or how extremely bad a game is without any real commentary or follow-up or apparent thought whatsoever that extends beyond personal opinion, people have just stopped listening, and who can blame them? Other players who are looking for genuine thoughts on a game are going to pass right by these overly glowing or overly critical assessments and discount the posts as more of that garbage you read on the internets through that series of tubes. Developers (who read these and other forums far more than you think) who you might be trying to convince of your point of view are going to do the same thing, I assure you.

I’m not saying that sometimes these harshest of criticisms and glowingest of praises aren’t completely justified. After all, there IS going to be a worst launch ever, there IS going to be a smoothest launch ever. It’s really just a good old fashioned case of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Everyone’s heard these arm flailing arguments so many times now that no one believes them. They`ve lost all meaning, even when they`re valid.

The net result here is that when MMO X really is an unplayable mess that was probably some studio’s version of a scam, or when MMO Y really does exceed all expectations and revolutionize the way we see MMOs, no one’s going to be able to talk about it. Well they will, but who’s going to listen?

Name Calling

One of the single worst after effects of the single-game supremacy philosophy we talked about earlier is the name calling, or maybe it would be more appropriate to call it labelling if we’re going to use the jargon of the politically correct.

Anyone who has attended school, or seminars at work, or even turned on a television over the last couple of decades knows that labelling is a dangerous thing. Labelling allows us to easily dismiss the ideas and thoughts of others who differ from us without giving the other side any consideration at all. It de-humanizes the “other side” so that we don’t have to admit that people who aren’t like us (or in this case who don’t share our opinions) are simply wrong.

The terms Fanboi and Troll are thrown around way too often in the MMO realm and are used in the exact same way as all of those nasty labels that you learned about in school. These days, anyone that has anything good to say about a game is nothing but a raging fanboy, but anyone who has anything remotely negative to say about a game is a flaming troll.

Personally, I don’t really agree with the use of either of these terms, even in extreme conditions, but just for kicks let’s look at what appear to be the accepted definitions of Fanboy and Troll (at least to the best of my understanding):

Fanboy: A person who blindly supports a game without question or a critical eye and at every opportunity regardless of the game’s actual state or condition. Generally, they are characterized by overly defensive and optimistic posts and the tendency to label anyone who happens to dislike their chosen game a Troll.

Troll: A person who blindly hates a game without question or an eye for positive aspects regardless of the game’s actual state or condition. Generally, they are categorized by overly critical and pessimistic posts and have a tendency to label anyone who even remotely enjoys the game that they troll as a Fanboy.

So, what we’re left with is the total inability to have any sort of rational discussion about the pros and cons of any game when arguments on one side dismiss the other as being either a troll or a fanboy. Because each label represents such an extreme, it is impossible (once those labels are applied) to have a meaningful dialogue that accepts both the good aspects of the game and the negative.

A lack of legitimate discussion between players makes it very difficult to make any kind of assessment as to a game’s value, or even the value of the opinions being offered.

Escalating, Outlandish Claims and Demands

The last problem that I`m going to talk about that is being caused by this kind of extreme polarization comes in the form of escalating, outlandish claims. If we assume that all discussion about any new MMO is going to involve a great and almost overwhelming number of these extreme posts and claims, we have to also assume that as these things become the norm, we are going to see an escalation to another extreme.

Players who are dissatisfied with MMO X will now be seen calling for the resignations or firings of entire dev teams, or of specific individuals, while players who feel that MMO Y is the bee's knees are predicting doom for every other MMO, claiming that entire game populations will now move to their game leaving even the most popular games as barren wastelands.

At best, this serves to rile up players with opposing viewpoints. At worst, these attitudes are damaging to players, companies and the industry as a whole.


Escalating Hype Machines

As player polarization becomes more and more extreme, it seems as though we are seeing an escalation in the perceived hype machines that surround the releases of these games. Sometimes, this is the fault of an over-zealous marketing team attempting to appeal to as many potential players as possible without too much thought toward the final launch day product, but other times, the hype-machine is spun out of control by over-zealous fans of the game. Viral marketing is becoming a bigger and bigger aspect of game promotion. Word of mouth on forums and the like go a long way to promoting a game toward launch and fans who feel that in order to have their voices heard amongst the din of extreme opinion will often over-exaggerate the positive points of a game and will help to (notice I won`t go so far as to say that they solely cause… that isn`t the case) promote unrealistic expectations which lead to disappointment when the product finally reaches the market.

Once these unrealistic expectations are not met (and it really seems like they never will be), it starts the whole vicious cycle again, creating three distinct groups of players. Those who liked it from the beginning and like it now, those who didn`t like the game to begin with and who point to the not meeting of the raised expectations as reasons to further hate the game and those who had no strong feelings before launch and ended up either liking it, putting them in one camp, or being disappointed by the not meeting of hype and join the other side.

Conclusion

In the end, most of these problems are caused by good old fashioned human nature and the nature of the internet. I think though that there are some things that we, as fans, can do to help and the answer really comes down to a very basic concept: Not every MMO is going to appeal to every MMO player. As the genre has evolved (some say for the better, some say for the worse), games are being made to fit many different play styles so that even MMORPG genre fans are going to have different opinions. I think that part of the solution is to simply acknowledge that while we may totally disagree with someone`s point of view, it is possible that we are both right or at least that the other person is welcome to his or her own opinion. If we, as a collective, could hold to this thought, there might not be so much reason for one person or another to exaggerate their claims. If we acknowledge that while I may have had a bug free experience with MMO X`s launch, that other poster may be experiencing problems that we`re not seeing.

Now, I`m not really a ``love makes the world go `round`` kind of guy, but in the end just taking a step back and not immediately dismissing the thoughts of people whose opinions differ from our own might be just what the doctor ordered and might let us all enjoy our MMO hobby just a little bit more.

Remember, I`m not writing this to try to discourage honest discourse on the subject of any game. Any game has the potential to be liked, it has the potential to need work and it has the potential to suck. Honest and level opinions are never a bad thing…

Comic Con Day One - Impressions of Stargate Worlds and DC Universe

Posted by Stradden Friday July 25 2008 at 9:51AM
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Day one of Comic Con San Diego is now behind us, but there are still lots of things for us to see and do, even if we limit ourselves to just MMOs the day is going to be relatively full, but there’s no point in talking about today, when we can talk about yesterday to much better effect.

I’m not going to bore you with details of my day, but I’m going to cut right to the MMORPG chase and tell you about the things that I have seen that we just haven’t seen before.

Stargate Worlds

Firesky, the company behind the upcoming Stargate Worlds has gone all out this Comic Con. Everything here, it seems, is branded with Stargate Worlds: ads in the program, full bus ads, Jaffa and Air Force personnel literally everywhere, and almost every bottle of water in the building has a Stargate Worlds label on it.

I’m not by any means saying that advertising = good game. What I am saying though is that Firesky has proven to me that they are serious about their game. Add that to the fact that they have been paired for the entire Con with the Stargate television show (Dan Elgrin, the producer of the game, was even a part of the red carpet press line at the premiere of the new Stargate movie), and you have evidence that while they may have been press quiet for a while, they have certainly been working behind the scenes, both on the game (I’ll touch on that in a moment) and on their relationship with MGM.

While we haven’t yet attended our meeting and interview with the Cheyenne Mountain (now Firesky) folks, I did drop by their booth yesterday and got to see some more gameplay footage.

I have been concerned for a long time that this game was going to look exactly like Tabula Rasa. Let’s face it, it’s a semi-futuristic universe where people are firing a lot of ranged weapons and cover and position matter. Sound familiar?

I am relieved to say that even a quick look at the gameplay videos pretty quickly dispels those thoughts. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tabula Rasa and the way that it looks, but we have one already. I was hoping that SGW wouldn’t be a clone / copy and it looks like it isn’t.

The graphics, for a game in the stage of production that SGW is in, are really pretty great and what you would expect from a AAA MMO set to release in 2009. I’ll have to check into it, but from what I saw, you won’t be looking at your standard MMORPG User Interface either. I didn’t notice an action bar at the bottom of the screen at all.

DC Universe Online

I didn’t get a long look at this one, but like SGW we’ll be talking to them later in the convention and I have been promised some great info.
The first thing that I can tell you about DC Universe is that they actually have a playable demo up and running at the convention. For a game that is still in its pre-production phase, that’s a mighty feat indeed. I have to warn you though, I did see an awful lot of console controllers moving around.

From what I could see, the game looks more like a superhero action game than it does a superhero MMORPG (meaning that it doesn’t look too much like City of Heroes). The look of the game, as you’ve probably already seen through screenshots and early trailer videos, is fantastic. Very DC Comics.

I overheard one of the developers talking about the features that will be in the game, and the points that stood out most to me:

- We’d like to launch with Metropolis and Gotham and places like the Bat Cave.
- You will be doing missions with heroes like Batman and Superman
- The heroes will remember your actions. If you failed once, or didn’t do their quest, they are less likely to give you missions in the future.

While I know that this wasn’t the detailed tell-all about these games that some of you may have liked, I hope you enjoyed it as an appetizer for next week when we release our interviews.

Well, off to the Con for day two!
 

Thoughts on the G4 Stargate Worlds Video

Posted by Stradden Thursday July 3 2008 at 9:44AM
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Last night, G4TV aired a segment on the upcoming MMORPG from Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment, Stargate Worlds.

The video itself, which can be watched in its entirety here, not only provided a few tidbits of new information about the upcoming game, but also gives us our first look at the gameplay itself. I’m going to use this blog entry to talk a little bit about my impressions of the video and what we learned.

What We Learned


The X-Play segment didn’t provide a whole lot of new information for people who have been following the game’s development, but they did clarify a number of issues:

The characters from the TV series will make appearances in the game, and they will be voiced by the actors.

Personally, I like this development. It’s something that Cheyenne Mountain has been  teasing us with almost since the game was announced. It seems like a no-brainer to me from a design perspective. If they want us to believe that this game will somehow run congruently with the show, and that it is a continuation of the lore, then they more or less had to make the familiar faces available to players for interaction.

They are not going for a first person shooter style in combat

There has been some speculation amongst fans that SGW should be using a more first-person inspired combat style for their game. After all, they have been touting their combat system since day one. Tactics, they tell us, are going to be very important in the game. Things like cover, line of sight, etc are going to be very important.

From where I stand, while a first person combat system would have been cool, I don’t know if that would have really fit in with what the developers are trying to accomplish. I think that a more standard MMORPG combat system is probably a good idea.

To me, the combat portions of the video took me immediately back to Tabula Rasa. In fact, the two games seem to share a combat system (I’m sure that further details will show that they are actually quite different). I’m hoping that they find a way to make players feel a little bit more like they were in control than Tabula Rasa did. In that game, I never quite felt like I was in control of actually shooting the enemies. I think the best way to describe it would be Storm Trooper syndrome: I point the gun and I pull the trigger, but where that lazer ends up is anyone’s guess.
 

General Impressions

Art Direction


I thought that, for the most part, the game looks like it’s coming along nicely. As I’m seeing more and more of it coming together, I’m really digging the art style of the game. Like they said in the video, they’re not going for photo-realism, and I think that was a wise move. Trying to make the game look too real would have undermined the idea that they can get away with more in terms of what they create and add to the TV series lore. With a slightly more stylized (but nothing I would go so far as to call cartoony) art style, they have the freedoms to make the players look cooler and more heroic.

Speed

The trailer moved along at a pretty good clip, giving the impression that this is going to be a fast-paced game. Hopefully, the team has learned from the past mistakes of others and won’t make the game so fast paced that the players lose sight of what they’re doing.

All of that being said, I also noticed that some of the animations were sped up considerably (check out the speed at which the “ripples” on the gate shimmer. It’s way too fast), so it’s really hard to tell how much of the game we got to see in real time. Hard to blame anyone at CME though, they were very specific about the fact that they are in very early alpha.

Overall

Overall, I have high hopes for this game, and if agreeing to this profile on G4 was CME’s way of reminding the MMO world that they exist and are in development, they probably succeeded. We expect to hear a lot more from that team about this game over the summer, so stay tuned!
 

Missing Sandboxes - Some thoughts on their rarity

Posted by Stradden Thursday June 26 2008 at 10:00AM
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I’ve been giving some thoughts over the last few days about the direction that MMORPGs have been headed. Looking at the games that have launched in the last year or two, as well as the games in development that are scheduled to release in the next year or so, it is clear that the industry has sifted away from its sandbox roots and is becoming firmly entrenched in the guided experience game design.

I should start out by saying that I personally think that there is room for both design styles in the genre, and I honestly do enjoy the guided experience model. With that being said, I feel very strongly that the genre needs another good, solid sandbox game to remind us that there are approaches out there that differ from what has become the norm.

Some of the reasons that the guided experience has become the dominant design choice for MMOs of today are pretty obvious when you give it some thought:

World of Warcraft: While I hate to admit it, the success of WoW may be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a big, AAA sandbox launch. It would be hard to argue against the fact that Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is the bar by which the genre is judged. When investors hear the MMORPG acronym, WoW and the WoW design model are what come to mind. It’s a proven system, and when you’re talking about money, proven is better.

Easier to Design: The thing about encouraging players to do whatever they want in the world is that you have to provide support for the unpredictable. In a guided experience MMO, developers can control and localize the content. They know roughly where the bulk of their players will be at any given level and can tailor specific content with that in mind. In a true sandbox game, this becomes much more difficult.

Choice is Bad: After having attended a number of Game Developer’s Conferences, there are a number of tidbits of information that I have picked up. One of those pieces of information is that studies show that, on average, people don’t like too much choice. That’s one of the reasons, for example, that character creators often have a simple method and an “advanced” option.

Sandbox-style games ask players to make all kinds of decisions. In fact, in a good sandbox game, nearly everything is a decision. A guided experience is exactly what it sounds like it is. Players are left to make very few decisions on their own and are told exactly when and where the action is.

Technological Concerns: While this may seem like a bit of a thin argument, Technology does raise an interesting concern when talking about a sandbox game vs. a guided experience MMO. Currently, the best example of a AAA sandbox MMO is EVE Online. Eve Online uses some of the most sophisticated server technology to allow all of their players to exist together on a single server.

In my opinion, any AAA sandbox game would have to have this feature in order to be successful, the public would demand it. That being said, in this scenario, something would have to take a hit and it would most likely be graphics. EVE is able to accomplish their stunning graphics because being set in space gives them the advantage of having to render only a small amount of the vast universe that their world encompasses.

Doubtless these aren’t the only reasons. That’s one of the reasons that I wrote this blog entry. I’m curious to see what you all think about the subject of sandbox MMOs. Instead of simply complaining that none are being made, it might be helpful for us to get to the bottom of the issue.

Launch Day Preview - Some Thoughts on AoC

Posted by Stradden Tuesday May 20 2008 at 10:47AM
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Well, today is the day that many have been looking forward to for quite some time. For some, it has been as long as five years. In case you have been living under a big ‘ol MMO rock for the last few months, and don’t know what I’m talking about, today marks the launch of Funcom’s Age of Conan.

To celebrate, or perhaps commemorate the event, I decided to write this little entry in my ever-expanding blog. No, this isn’t an official review. I haven’t spent nearly enough time in-game to properly review the game. What I can do though, is put together an article on my thoughts about the game from my experiences in Closed Beta and in Early Access.

Let’s start by talking a little bit about Funcom’s beta. I’m going to go out on a limb here and proclaim the Fileplanet Open Beta to have been a bit of a gaffe on Funcom’s part. By that I mean that it shouldn’t have happened. My opinion may have changed if they had called it a Fileplanet Preview or something similar, but it left a bad taste in the mouths of some people, being told they had to pay for a beta (actually, they weren’t paying for the beta, they were paying for a Fileplanet membership, but why muddy this with logic?), and then being brought in for an extremely buggy experience (not that everyone was having the same bad time. Personally, I hardly crashed at all and experienced very little lag).

It was this very buggy experience that had a large number of people expressing concerns about the game’s launch, pointing back to Funcom’s Anarchy Online launch and its issues (it had a few) and suggesting (ok, suggesting is the wrong word, let’s say loudly proclaiming) that Age of Conan would fall flat on its Hyborian butt come the 20th.

Well, today is the 20th, and it seems as though Funcom has pulled through. I’m not saying that there are no bugs, what MMO launches totally without them, but the game that people will be playing today is vastly improved from the one that they got to see during “Open Beta”.

But in the end, you know all of this. I’m here to give you my opinion. Not on the rigmarole that led up to the game’s launch. That’s two or three different blog entries right there, but on the game itself.

When I look at a new MMO for the first time, there are a number of different factors that I try to take into account. From this, I have a good chance of knowing within the first eight hours of gameplay whether this game is the game for me.

I know these aren’t the same elements that everyone uses, and that this isn’t universal, but I do want to share them just the same, and let you know how Age of Conan stacked up in my mind:

Story:

Do I have a good sense of who my character is and what they are doing in the game world?

Age of Conan:


The opening cinematic in AoC does a pretty good job of introducing me to my character. There’s nothing like a little bit of drama to help out in this department. I think though that the best story decision that Funcom made comes in the form of Tortage - Night, where players can move apart from the multiplayer aspect of the game for a time and move through their own stories solo.

I know what some of you are thinking, and it’s one of the first thoughts that I had when I first heard about this. “Why should I play an MMO that’s really just a single player RPG in disguise?”

The answer to the question, I’ve come to realize after playing through a few times, is that while yes, you can segregate yourself off from the rest of the population, no, it doesn’t play like a single player game. Not quite.

In order to make this mechanic work, Funcom did a couple of things right:

First, they give the player a good, solid storyline grounding as a reason for the shift.

Second, they gave the players complete and total control over a) when they switch from day to night and b) whether they do it at all. Even without the night time solo adventures, players can still be entertained by what seemed like a plethora of daytime quests.

Third, they made the night quests engaging, immersive and full of life. As I’ve said in previous writings about AoC, the dialogue and voice acting are stellar. It was through these night quests that I really got a firm grip on each of my characters and their motivations.

Gameplay:

Is the gameplay innovative and interesting?

Age of Conan:

Gameplay is one of those tricky words. Everyone uses it and no one quite has the same definition for it. For me, I’m using it to mean the way that I interact with the game world. Combat always seems to play a large role in that and in Conan, where I haven’t had the chance as yet to do much else, it plays a huge role.

Since this is just a launch day preview and I can go into detail on other stuff later, let’s talk combat:

In my opinion, Age of Conan has the single most innovative combat system to-date in MMOs. I have, of course, read the criticisms that many people have about Conan’s combat system. I’ve read the posts from people who call the system “a button mashing mess” and I’ve read the posts from people who say that combat in AoC is just like the combat in every other MMO. To those people, I respectfully suggest that you haven’t taken the time to actually look at the system of combat.

Let’s start with the melee combo combat, since that‘s where most of my experience is at this point. On the surface, I can see how people might mistake this for button-mashing. After all, you’re really just pushing a button for your combo, and then pushing another button to activate it. That’s not just button mashing, that’s twice the button mashing that you’d get in your average MMO that only requires one click to activate a move.

That particular argument falls apart though when you look at the fact that that buttons you choose to mash, and when you mash them play a more significant part in the combat than mashing the buttons alone.

For those of you who may not know, Age of Conan takes a number of factors beyond an armor class and weapon type into account when deciding combat. The primary example of Conan’s unique combat is in shield placement. Enemies in Age of Conan protect themselves using shields, swords and the like. If you attack a defended side, you will do less damage than if you manage to get them on a side that is undefended. While my explanation of the system is quite poor, we just happen to have a video that explains it nicely: http://www.mmorpg.com/gamelist.cfm/game/191/view/videos/play/1223

My point is that because of this system, Age of Conan combat goes way beyond simple button mashing. Instead, players need to make a number of decisions on the fly, and since the shielding on an enemy shifts during combat, what worked well at the beginning of the fight might not do so well at the end.

Personally, I found the combat to be a decent keyboard simulation of the thought processes that go through your head during a real sword fight: Where is my opponent weak? How do I attack that area? Where should I be standing for optimum effect? Which of the moves that I know (in real sword fighting for me, it’s like two) will hit him hard and where he’s not defended?

To me, that’s the key to the combat and what makes it so much fun. It keeps me on my toes and engaged far more than any MMO combat that I’ve played up to this point.

Obviously, melee combat isn’t the be all and end all of combat in Age of Conan, though I should admit that I’ve spent most of my time playing melee classes so I will only touch on ranged and magical combat.

Both seem to use the same principle of combat as the melee, requiring players to be in the right position to cause the right amount of damage (or in the case of healers, to heal). It’s a tricky balance, using twitch combat, but Age of Conan seems to have done it well. Look for more on ranged and magical combat in a full review.

Visuals:

Sure, some people call it graphics, but in the end, for me, it comes down to how it actually looks on the screen, and not how technically impressive the graphics are, so I’ll go with visuals.

Age of Conan:


Again, a big win for the team at Funcom. This is one of the best looking games (forget just MMOs) that I’ve played on my PC recently. I’ve read the posts that speak against the graphics in Conan and they very rarely criticize the actual look of the game. Instead, they criticize the technical issues that are raised by a graphically intensive game like this.

First, there are complaints about the level of system that is required to run the game. While this has certainly improved since the beta, I can see their point. It is a well known fact that World of Warcraft was successful in part because of the fact that it would run on systems that were out of date and there are those who feel that Funcom should have done the same thing. I respectfully disagree.

While I do agree that making Conan so that it would be accessible by the largest number of people possible may seem like a great idea, and should, logically, just make good business sense, I just don’t think that that was the game that Funcom was interested in making.

I suspect that the look of Hyboria was as important an element to this game as the combat or any other game mechanic in creating the game that Funcom wanted to build. If the world didn’t look as gritty and “real” as it does, something would be lost not only graphically, but more universally throughout the game in terms of immersion and capturing the essence of Conan.

By creating a game with higher system requirements, Funcom has:

a) broken away from the WoW mould. While both are MMORPGs and share a number of elements, their purposes and goals (other than, of course, to make money) are quite different. This decision pretty clearly says “we’re not trying to be WoW, and aren’t just trying to steal as many players away from it as possible”.

b) helped to set a new standard that will help to drive MMOs toward the top end of gaming.

c) placed longevity on their game from the other side. By this I mean that while the higher system requirements may be a deterrent to some initially, they should keep the game looking nicer (compared to its peers and other games being developed) for longer, maybe even extending the life of the game. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not this turns out to be a good move.

Well, I am rapidly running out of time for this brief preview, so I’m going to just lay all of my cards down on the table and answer the question that you probably started reading this preview to have answered.

Should I go out and buy Age of Conan?

My answer to the question is pretty simple. If you are a fan of MMOs, and are looking for something that’s close enough to the games that you know to be fun, but different and innovative enough to catch your interest, I would highly recommend Age of Conan.

I wouldn’t suggest going out and buying a lifetime membership (not that it exists), because the game is stylized enough that it’s not going to appeal to everyone’s tastes (what could), but even just to try it out and see what it has to offer, Age of Conan is more than worth the box price (30 days free with purchase).

Parting Words


Please keep in mind though that while I say quite honestly that AoC is an innovative new MMO, it isn’t a sandbox game. For some, anything that isn’t a sandbox will be called a “Wow clone”, and that’s fine.

For my part, Age of Conan has provided me with a new and exciting game to play, different from any other guided experience MMO not only in terms of mechanics like the combat I talked about earlier, but also in terms of look, feel and story presentation. Gamer to gamer, I think you should check it out.

The Age of Conan Beta Debate: Now With One More Theory

Posted by Stradden Wednesday April 30 2008 at 9:05AM
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When I wrote yesterday’s article, “Product Director Speaks on Fileplanet Open Beta”, I had no idea that it would prove to be so volatile, prompting 120 replies overnight. I, being the madman that I am, have waded through the entirety of it and I have found that people are still proposing alternate theories on why exactly Funcom chose to go with a  Fileplanet download.

I’m not one of those people. I may be in the minority, but I just wasn’t surprised by the initial decision from the company to go through Fileplanet for a beta.  It’s not the first time a company has chosen this route for open beta distribution. Heck, I remember back when I was working on Wish, we distributed our client through good ‘ol FP and that was back in 2005. I remember someone telling me back then that this would become the standard for MMO beta distribution and I still can‘t disagree.

I know that people are running up one side of Jorgen’s answers (from the article) and down the other, but I think that there are some people who are misinterpreting  some of what has been said, and I wanted to offer my two cents. I should premise this by saying that while I will admit that Age of Conan is one of the games that I am looking forward to, I’m not personally invested enough to make up stories on their behalf (as I will inevitably be accused of doing).

Issue

The first thing that I have noticed is that near the end of the 120 replies (and throughout), people are still talking about Funcom making a profit from the beta. People feel that it was a decision made in ordre to “grab a quick buck” before launch.

Jon’s theory:


Ok, here’s my theory on this… I don’t think that Funcom is getting any money from the FP beta. The cost involved is Fileplanet’s subscription fee. I’m pretty sure that Fileplanet is keeping that money themselves as it’s their business model. Sure, the AoC beta was a nice get for them, it will probably bring in some new blood and it gets their name out there, but I don’t think that the people at FP are saying, ‘ok, let’s give the money in secret back to Funcom. Shhhh”. It just doesn’t make any business sense on their end.

In the end, Fileplanet is a for-profit website that is meant to make IGN money. I’m not knocking that. Most high end video game websites are for-profit. I’m just saying that we don’t usually give companies their money back.

Also, what would Funcom really have to gain by doing this? Let’s say for a moment that there is some kind of kick back. Let’s assume that, for the sake of argument, that it’s half of the subscription cost. There are 50,000 keys. Let’s say again for the sake of argument that the Age of Conan beta draws in twice that number of new subscribers to FP (I suspect that number is inflated). That’s 100,000 sign-ups. If Funcom were getting $2.50 for each one, that’s $250,000. While that sounds like a lot of money to someone like me, it really isn’t much in the scope of a multi-million dollar game. Take into account that the average game developer is (according to a recent survey) paid $73,316. That works out to about 3.4 employees worth on money. Not insignificant, but certainly not worth destroying Funcom customer relations over. Remember, Funcom is a business and AoC, while it holds a lot of weight, isn’t the be all and end all of the company.

Now, I know that this is very basic math, but to me, it just makes sense.

Do I think that Funcom isn’t getting anything out of the deal? Of course not. Fileplanet is a high-profile site. The Funcom beta being there brings attention to the game. Drumming up interest and raising the profile of your game right before launch is a valuable thing. It just isn’t monetary kickback.

Issue

People are still seeing a conspiracy (or at least rip-off) over the level 13 cap on the Fileplanet beta.

Jon’s Theory


While I totally agree with people who say that the level 13 cap should probably have been mentioned somewhere in the promotions for the beta, I think that Jorgen’s answer about the choice makes sense. In the end, their game is story-driven. They want to save the discovery of the story until the game has launched.

The thing is that there were a couple of lingual missteps here. While Jorgen addressed one of them, in saying that they probably should have called it the Fileplanet beta rather than an open beta, I would go one step further and say that it probably should have been called the “Fileplanet beta preview”. In the end, that’s what it is. It’s a preview. The AoC General Beta is still alive and kicking and is separate from the FP “Open Beta”. I honestly think that Funcom heard their audience calling for some kind of an open beta preview (when people complain that there won’t be an OB, I would suggest that it’s because they want to test the game before buying). And rather than not providing players any chance to try the game pre-launch, I think that the AoC folks probably set up this deal with Fileplanet in an attempt to give players a bit of a preview.

If indeed this was intended as a preview rather than a beta, then the lvl 13 cap makes sense. Think of it like a pre-release demo. Those are always very limited in terms of how much of the game you can experience.

Issue
It would have been easy to just distribute a torrent.

Jon’s Theory


I want to preface this bit by saying that I’m not a network expert, and I don’t really know a whole lot about Torrents and how they work. I’ve used them before, but don’t know a lot beyond that. I’m just going to say a few things that seem like common sense to me.

First, wouldn’t releasing through a torrent still require a massive amount of organization on Funcom’s part? I don’t know about the technical stuff, but even the distribution of keys seems like it would be a chore that it might be best to farm out.

Second, wouldn’t distributing via torrent be less secure? I don’t know for sure, but it seems like it would be.

Third, wouldn’t distributing via torrent be less professional? I can’t remember the last time that a professional company asked me to download a torrent. Also, to lay people like me, the word torrent pushes the brain to thoughts of illegal downloading. I’m not saying that’s all they’re used for. It’s not, but there is a very powerful perception in the realm of people who don’t really use torrents (there are more out there than you may think).

I honestly don’t know about this one, but I suspect that even if it could have been done, it just wasn’t worth the headache.

Ok, this is getting long in the tooth for a blog entry, so I am going to cut it short.

My intention here is not to try to convince people to play Age of Conan. In the end, everyone’s MMO tastes are a little bit different. I suspect that AoC will make some people very happy, while for others, it won’t be their cup of tea. The reason I wrote this blog entry is to try to just propose some non-conspiratorial answers to the legitimate questions that have been raised about these issues. Do I claim to be right? No, I don’t. I do not know with 100% certainty that anything I said above is the case. But I wonder if these explanations are any less plausible than a lot of what I read in response to yesterday’s article.

Betas, Dev vs. Dev and More!

Posted by Stradden Friday April 25 2008 at 10:12AM
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Well, I'm finally back from Comic Con. Actually, I've been back since Monday, but things have been busy around the office since we got back and I haven't had a chance to really sit down to put my thoughts down on paper.

New York Comic Con


All week, you've (hopefully) been reading our coverage in terms of articles coming out of our exclusive interviews. We were really thrilled to talk to so many MMO people about their games and I would like to thank everyone for taking the time to talk to us.

It wasn't just interviews though. There were also panels (that you will be hearing about from us next week). Now, I know we often cover panels from shows here at MMORPG.com, but these panels may have been the best that I have ever attended. The reasons are many and varied, but I think it breaks down to the fact that a) it was a fan con and the panels were attended by fans of the games and b) all of the panelists seemed more relaxed than at your standard GDC panel. Whatever the reasons, it boiled down to some really great talks.

DvD = Dev vs. Dev


So often, I hear people talking about how the Ae of Conan Devs must be happy whenever things go bad for the Warhammer guys, or that one development studio is sabotaging another in some way.

As fans, in our minds, I think that we have built up this fantastic rivalry between all of the top MMO development studios. Certainly the fans of the games (particularly Warhammer and Age of Conan) are pretty constantly at each others' throats. Why shouldn't the devs be the same way?

Well, I hate to be burster of bubbles, but as much as I might like to see it, it just doesn't seem to be there. Don't get me wrong, everyone thinks their game is the best game. It's the nature of the beast, but in the end, everyone's rooting for everyone else (except Blizzard).

I thought about this as I was watching a panel that had Jason Stone (Funcom) sitting next to Jeff Hickman (Ea Mythic), next to Craig Alexander (Turbine), next to Scott Cuthbertson (38 Studios) next to Matthew Woodward (CCP). Those are some pretty hefty names (the WAR dev sitting next tot he Conan dev was great).

During that talk, they appeared more like comrades in arms than anything else. One fan actually even asked the question and they were quite candid in their answers. I'm sure the official article will spell it out better, but in the end, they said that everyone is rooting for everyone else. They're at the point where the genre is still growing and they're not fighting for every last person. When things tighten up though, then you might see more heated rivalries.

So, again, sorry to burst bubbles, but as the hordes of attacking fans crash against the walls of their opposing games, it isn't the devs leading the charge.

Beta Beta Beta


I know for fact that I've talked about this subject before. I know that it comes up every single time that a game gets closer to launch. This time, it comes witha shiny new Age of Conan wrapper.

Ok, first, I want to take a second to remind people what a beta actually is: A beta is a test of a game. Generally speaking, open betas (which is more the subject of this rant) are stress-tests of the game so that developers can make sure that larger groups of players won't explode the game. Betas are a chance for the players and the developers to work together to make sure that the final, launched product runs as smoothly as possible.

What a beta is not, is a chance to try the game for free. So often in the last few days, I've seen threads on this site and others made by people who are complaining because they don't like how the beta is being run, or they say they won't play the game if they don't get in... You know the kinds of posts I'm talking about. I have a news flash folks. That's not the purpose of beta and if you are one of those people who look at betas as nothing but a chance to try a game for free, you lose the right to compain when and if the game is buggy at launch.

I know that people are going to argue that betas just aren't what they once were. Well, that's true. People will also argue that betas, especially open betas, have been used in recent years in the same way; as marketing tools. Again I say, you're right. Over the last few years, the meaning of open beta has changed and some companies have used it as as free trial. To them I say, shame on you.

It is becuase open betas have been treated this way by a few in the past that companies today can't hold a proper beta without being subjected to people who feel entitled to a free look at the game. This is counter productive for everyone. The game company doesn't get the feedback they wanted, and the player doesn't get the play experience that he / she was looking for.

Would it be like to me whine like this if I didn't have a solution? Well, yes, but this time I do:

There is no doubt in my mind as a player that offering players a free trial upon or just before launch is a good idea. If you've made a good game, it will be a great boost (if you made a bad game, I can't help you). Players want to know that they will have a good experience before investing even in the price of the box. If your game offers that, which it should, don't be afraid to show people outside of your testing process.

I guess I'm essentially trying to say that both players and developers are responsbile for the misconceptions about betas, and I think that changing a few words would do wonders for clearing up this fiasco.

First, devs, add a "free trial" phase. Treat it just like a promotional open beta, but just own up to what it is. If you want to use a portion of pre-launch to promote the game via free gameplay, just be hoenst about it and call it what it is.

Second, players, if what you're looking for is a free trial of the game, stop whining about beta. Instead, you should be using your voice to pressure companies to hold actual free trials. That's what you're really looking for, isn't it?
Oh yeah, while I'm on the subject... If you've only ever played the beta for a game (or worse yet, the alpha), you don't have the experience necessary to make that judgement. Games change, sometimes quite significantly between beta and launch. Don't get me wrong, the game may still suck after it's launched, but if you haven't played the launch client, you don't know if the game sucks. You can say the beta sucked. You can't say the game sucked. You haven't played the game.

NY Comic Con - Day One

Posted by Stradden Saturday April 19 2008 at 7:41AM
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Ya know, it's nice to have a job that you enjoy and where you can have fun. I'm one of those lucky people who actually has that and this weekend is one of the times where I just can't forget it. For those of you who don't know (or didn't read the title before clicking in here), the MMORPG.com team is in New York City for Comic Con.

This was my first, so I wasn`t sure what to expect. After experiencing my first day at one and getting a good night`s sleep, I have to say that I`m impressed. I think it`s the carnival-like atmosphere that impresses me. I`m not knocking industry conventions like GDC, but any time you throw fans into the mix, be they comic fans, MMO fans, or overall ``nerds``, you`re going to have a good time.

In the interest of time, I`m going to give a little rundown of some of the more interesting parts of yesterday so as not to bore you with my few total geek-outs. I`m also going to throw a few pictures up here (more to come when I get back to the office).

Costumes!


Man, when people head to Comic Con, some of them go all out. I saw: A Witch Hunter, Jesus, Jedi, numerous Starfleet goons, Princess Leia, SG team members, a surprising number of really cool Storm Trooper costumes, Superman, Spiderman, Princess Leia, Commandos, Hazmat workers, Princess Leia, Imperia Soldiers, Princess Leia...

Ok, if you noticed that I said Princess Leia a bunch of times, please don`t email me or comment to point it out. I know, and it was intentional. There were lots and lots of Princess Leias. I`m not complaining mind you, I`m just saying...

It wasn`t the variety  of costumes that amused me so much as the pairings. I have a couple of really great pictures of Superman posing with one of the Princess Leias (there are many copies and they have a plan), an SG member posing with a Jedi a hasmat person using a metal detector on Bobba Fett... To me, this is hilarious.

CCP - Mwhahaha

EVE Online has a booth over on the show floor. While our interview wasn`t today, we did end up poking around the booth a little bit. While we were there, we got a demo of one of CCP North America`s board games called Mwhahahaha. Yup. That`s really the name of the game. In it, you play an amusingly named super-villain who is trying to take over the world at the same time as four other super-villains with amusing names are trying to take over the world. This game is hilarious. I have never laughed so hard while playing a board game. If you ever have the chance to pick up a copy, please do so.

I`m one of those people who genuinely thinks that board games are underrated. I loved them as a kid and as a ``grown up``, I think I enjoy them even more. They`re a lost art that people are abandoning in favor of games of the video variety. It`s a shamer really.  

X-Files - I Want To Believe

Chris Carter, the creator of X-Files, and Frank Spotnitz held a trailer screening for the upcoming film. I`d like to tell you that they answered a lot of questions about the movie but really what I saw was two men artfully dodging questions for half an hour. Now, I`m not criticizing that. They really were hilarious and they were very up front about the fact that a) they were there promoting the movie and b) they were going to be keeping everything about the movie to themselves lest one of us blog-type people run home and blow the mystery of the movie. Still though, some people insist on either going up to the question area and saying either, ``I don`t have a question, but I really liked the show`` or they would ask specific questions about the movie after they were told that they wouldn`t be answered. In the case of the fawning fan, I can`t stand when people do that. It embarasses us all. Nobody cares that you liked the show. We all liked the show. That`s why we`re there. In the case of the second question, seriously, if they say they can`t talk about it, they can`t talk about it. It`s not like they`re going to say, ``Well, there`s a carefully planned marketing campaign that hinges on people being surprised at the movie, but since someone I don`t know asked me at Comic Con, I`ll just blow the whole thing.``

I`d love to chat more, but day two is starting.
   

Thoughts on Spellborn and LotRO Dwarves

Posted by Stradden Friday April 11 2008 at 10:42AM
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It’s been a while since I updated my blog. It’s not for any nefarious reason, just that I’ve been pretty busy with work and haven’t had time to write. I know that sounds silly given that this is my job, but we’ll not get into too much detail.

I decided to write this week, because I saw some issues in the news that I thought might be fun to address. I’ll start with a publisher announcement.

The Chronicles of Spellborn


Yesterday, Spellborn International, the company behind (guess what?) The Chronicles of Spellborn, announced that they had signed a letter of intent with a US-based publisher.

Why is this important? Well, for the longest time, we kept hearing that while they were ok for a European publisher (and areas beyond that), Spellborn just hadn’t found a publisher for the US market. This caused a number of people to begin to ask a lot of questions about the game. The number one thing that I heard was “The game must be in trouble if they can’t find a US publisher”.

Honestly, I’m not sure that one is an indication of the other. One thing for us North Americans to remember is that not all of the upcoming MMOs that we’re looking forward to are actually being made here in North America. In fact, if you look at it, just off the top of my head you’ve got EVE Online, which was and is developed in Iceland. Age of Conan is being made in Norway. Earthrise, another highly anticipated game, is being made in Bulgaria. The Chronicles of Spellborn calls The Netherlands its home.

Of all of these games, I would say that Spellborn probably has the most intentionally European feel to it (just check out the art style), departing a great deal from what we think of as “American-Style” MMOs like EverQuest and World of Warcraft both in terms of cosmetic look and even functional design.

My personal feeling is that the head honchos over at Spellborn wanted a US publisher, but probably not bad enough to a) give up control over certain aspects of the game or b) settle for something less than they are looking for.

Ok, I’m pretty much done waxing poetic about Spellborn. I will say this though: It’s an interesting and innovative game being made by an indie company that takes MMO conventions and turns them on their ears. If you’re one of the people who has been complaining about “WoW clones”, there is no reason you shouldn’t at least try this game when it launches in the Fall. I’m not necessarily saying you’re going to like it, everyone has different tastes, but I am saying that if you don’t at least take a look, you lose your right to complain about WoW clones.

Lord of the Rings


LotRO has been my MMO of choice lately (although I pledge my undying video game fealty to Battlefield 2142). I had played a while back with an elf character. I moved on after I reached about level 17. Not because I wasn’t enjoying the game, but because work meant that I had to go on and play something else for a while. When the time came to jump into the game again, I decided against playing my elf character. One of the things that I had really been enjoying about LotRO was the sense of story that I got. I stand by the fact that LotRO has some of the best written quests and story arcs in MMOs today (I’m not saying they’re all to my taste, but for the most part, they get a thumbs up). Unfortuantely, I had forgotten what my elf was up to in my time away (memory like a goldfish, I swear) and decided, along with my News Manager, to roll up a new Dwarf. Well, let me say congrats to whichever Turbine employees are responsible for the Dwarves and their early quests. I’ve been having a blast with Abrawlin (get it… a’brawlin… it’s hilarious to me).

I know I’m not your average MMO player. I know that most people don’t really pay a lot of attention to the quests and the quality of writing and dialogue, but for me, it’s a make or break. If a game doesn’t have these things, I can still look at it objectively and talk about its features, but it’s not going to be a personal favorite. When I first heard that Turbine was developing LotRO, I assumed that there was no way they would be able to both capture the feeling of Middle Earth and write engaging storylines and dialogue, but in the end they surprised me and I just wanted to take a minute to say that. Well done Turbine story team!

Ok, that’s enough of my babble for today, but I’m hoping to get this going weekly again so I can offer commentary on and maybe even the occasional insight about the week’s news.

 

-Jon

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