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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

The Twelve Trials of UnSub: Wizard101

Posted by UnSub Monday September 22 2008 at 9:22AM
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Given that my last two blog entries were apparently narrowminded and unfair, it's time to move onto a safer area - trialing existing MMOs. I'd heard about Wizard101 launching with a free play version and something in it called to me to at least give it a shot. I'm glad I did because Wizard101 was a fun breath of fresh air that makes me wonder some of the other MMO developers seem to be struggling in making games that are, you know, fun.

The easiest way to describe Wizard101 is TownTown by way of Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering. It's been designed as child friendly with a hero wizard theme and combat is done via a spell deck system. Even if you know nothing of the above properties, the tutorial is very friendly and thorough (although I did wish the more advanced combat lesson you get from the Arena contact had come a touch earlier) and playing starts out easy before slowly unfolding the depth of strategy that the combat system has.

Character creation sees you answer a number of questions and have a school of magic suggested to you (out of Ice, Storm, Life, Death, Fire, Myth and Balance - there is an online version of these questions if you want to try it out) or you can just choose your preferred school. All spells from that school are awarded free as you reach the appropriate levels - levelling up gives you access to training points that can be used to buy powers from other schools. Cosmetic customisation is really limited to just face and hair, because as soon as you get equipment your default clothes will be covered (hopefully by something in a matching colour scheme and / or designed to not make you look like a junior pimp).

Pimp hat? Check. Pimp cane? Check.

Pimp hat? Check. Pimp cane? Check.

Quests are handed out in the standard MMO way, with most distances being fairly easy to cover and quests generally don't take long to complete (although there are some "Find <hidden item>" that span several zones are are meant to take longer).

Combat is turn based, seeing opponents choose from spell cards to case on themselves, on opponents or on friends. In general, you select a card and a target and once all parties have readied an action, the round starts. As spells are cast you see an animated sequence play out that shows the effect of the spell - generally an attack in the early stages, since that's the majority of the cards you will have.

As you level up, you get access to more powerful monsters as well as cards that can debuff your opponent or buff you, deepening the choices you have to make. Do you cast an ice spell debuff on your opponent so the next time they get hit by an ice spell they take extra damage? Or should you cast shields on yourself? Or should you just use small monsters to nickle and dime your opponent to death? Or save up and cast the bigger monsters in your arsenal? Tactics and strategy matter, especially against some of the tougher enemies.

Although turn based, other players can easily join in on your combat - if they enter the combat circle they will be sent to an available position and will wait until the next round starts. Of course, this might see another wandering monster join in fighting against the both of you - combat can be up to 4 opponents on each side.

Given that Wizard101 has been designed with children in mind, you are restricted to using pre-designed sayings in chat (typed chat opens up when you subscribe) and your character name is made by you selecting from three different lists. Things are pretty silent in the starting areas of Wizard101, but given that players will often leap into combat with you at the drop of a hat and there are loads of players around, it is very hard to feel lonely.

Even wizards wear hoodies.

Even wizards wear hoodies.

The reality of Wizard101 is that you will spend most of your time running from quest to contact to quest, fighting monsters in order to achieve quest objectives. Given that the combat is fun (although some of the animations can get a bit boring after seeing them repeatedly) and the game well paced enough that you'll get a new spell to add to your deck pretty regularly, I found myself really enjoying Wizard101. There are gripes - having a spell Fizzle (i.e. fail to cast) that ends up costing you the fight is a special kind of frustration - but they are minor.

The overly cutesy graphics may put some off while others might not want to play a "kid's game" or a "card game", but Wizard101 was one of the few games I've trialled and after a few sessions was ready to hand over my credit card details. I actually hated running out of quests I could do (I've got more quests, but they are in zones the free trial doesn't allow access to) at lvl 9 - I really wanted to get to lvl 10 and get access to a few more spell cards!

As a bit of trivia, Wizard101 is developed by KingsIsle Entertainment, some of whom are ex-Wolfpack (so ex-Shadowbane). It's interesting to think that these guys have gone from Play2Crush to this kind of cute, cuddly IP, but a number of very nice design features and very slick game mechanics show that there are some very experienced people behind this title. I also have to be impressed by the size of the trial area - there is plenty to do and the fact that there are dozens more areas available for paying subscribers means that paying $10 a month to play certainly appears to be good value.

In Which I Poke Fun At Fallen Earth Yet Again

Posted by UnSub Tuesday September 16 2008 at 11:14PM
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Believe it or not, I actually want Fallen Earth (FE) to be a great MMO. It seems to have a number of things on offer that aren't being put forward by any other developers out there. It's using a "show, don't tell" philosophy of releasing information for the most part, with only occasional incidences of "you know what we told you before? Well, we've changed it" that tends to infect the MMO PR industry.

But with that said, there are some pretty basic traps that Fallen Earth has fell prey to and one of those is using GoogleAds to offset the cost of their official forums. While I understand the rationale, it just makes things look unprofessional. Especially when you come across these kind of ads:

The Fallen Earth Forums advertising a WoW gold selling site.

(And yes, I had done a search on "Tabula Rasa official forums" just to see what would come up for a different forum argument.)

"Aha!" you might think, "that was on the old FE forums! They've just got a facelift and this kind of thing won't happen any more!"

Well...

An ad on the Fallen Earth forums for a Runescape moneymaking guide

I couldn't get the WoW ad to reappear, but there were certainly other interesting ones. Personally I don't know why the GoogleAds I see the most of keep relating to dating services (which I don't need) but this one made me laugh:

An ad on the Fallen Earth forums advertising a BBW dating service

I can't help but wonder what the heck GoogleAds is picking off the page of a MMO forum if it chooses a BBW dating service as the most appropriate ad to display!

Tiggs has just joined FE / Icarus in a community management role. Let's hope she sees the sense in dropping the ads so the official forums doesn't resemble a fansite.

If You Want Laughs, Do Stand-Up: Gimmick Dev Accounts Have Got To Go

Posted by UnSub Saturday September 6 2008 at 7:31AM
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It probably isn't a new thing in terms of MMO community management, but I've seen a number of gimmick developer accounts pop up in games that otherwise want to be taken seriously. By 'gimmick dev accounts' I mean devs who create a personality and stay 'in-character' when they post in forums. (For the most part they appear to be forum moderator accounts, but there may be exceptions so I'll push the definition out to include all devs.)

I don't follow every MMO so can't comment on every single one of these, but the ones I'm aware of are:

  • SuperModerator of City of Heroes / City of Villains. He was created to be have a more 'golden age' personality (i.e. more formal speech, uses words like 'swell', saves kittens from trees, that sort of thing) and didn't appear in the Community Digest so that threads he posted in didn't draw extra attention from players. It looks like this account has been informally retired, perhaps since a few new mods have started to managed the CoH/V boards.
  • Son of Landshark and Captain Pouches of Fallen Earth. Captain Pouches started out as an FE joke - a wombat assassin dev, or something - but has since become a formal account of someone within FE LLC / Icarus Studios. Son of Landshark premiered in this thread, which left even long-term FE community members (who found Captain Pouches funny as an in-joke) with a solid case of the WTFs.
  • Foxbat of Champions Online. Foxbat is a "humourous" character within the Chamions Universe - think Batman if Bruce Wayne had no tragedy in his life, was a selfish git raised on comics and was into world domination - and this account uses that personality style in their posts. Weapon of preference is a super powered ping pong ball gun.

It might just be me, I admit, but I don't find any of the above funny. I really think having someone in position of authority pretending to be a clown doesn't make them appear friendlier, it just makes them look like a clown. I'm all for more dev intereaction with the community, but hiding behind a joke account isn't the way to go. At best it is a weak joke that can wear out its welcome and / or confuse people; at worst it is outright insulting to the player community that the dev doesn't even bother posting as who they are.

If a dev wants to be funny, they need to do it under their own name or a consistent non-gimmick account. If they fall flat on their face, so be it, but that's the risk you take in trying to be funny - hiding behind a gimmick account isn't clever, but is insulting. Heck, if JLove, lead costume designer for CoH/V can post stuff like this under his own name, there really isn't a reason for gimmick dev accounts at all:

Player: "I am definitely buying the Pack to support the game. One of the reasons we were able to get the VEATs in I12 was due to the sales of the Wedding Packs. If buying cyborg packs will allow more resources to be put into the release of I13."

JLove: "What are you talking about? We all bought solid gold football helmets hand crafted by the moon pope and hired a bunch of Welsh Oxford educated super models to have a kobe steak fight. We lost 3 weeks worth of work time because of the E coli outbreak. It was worth every dirty penny. Now we're all jones'in for another round, so please help us chase the dragon. Daddy needs another hit."

Player: "Does it have leg armor?"

JLove: "No, Yes, Maybe, I don't know. I haven't even seen anything yet. Beep Beep Beep, what that sound? It's the sound of a truck load of your rent money going into my already to fat pockets. No, ready ask the team of Guatemalan children that I now outsource to because of the massive boat loads of money I now make from the micro packs."

Why A MMO Without an Official Forum is Like a Zoo With No Fences

Posted by UnSub Tuesday September 2 2008 at 1:23AM
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There's been, and probably will continue to be, quite a bit of debate about whether or not MMOs should have centralised official forums or should let fansites take the burden of operating forums for community members. On the "we don't need no official forums" side is NCsoft's Tabula Rasa, which uses fansites directly, and Mark Jacobs of Mythic, who doesn't hold official forums in particularly high regard.

On the "we have official forums; come to them" are pretty much every other MMO on the market. Quality of the official forums varies wildly from game to game, with some MMOs having more popular fansite forums than official forums and visa versa. In general though, most players probably start off in the offical forums since that's the logical place to begin.

With due respect, any MMO that thinks they can operate without official forums (or something that is so close to a forum-style communication structure) is deluding itself. Jacobs is technically correct about what official forums contain, but he misses the point - that these are his customers talking to each other and sometimes to him. Most of the time, what these customers say is pretty high on noise, but that's how the internet works - you have to plow though the noise to find the signal, and sometimes the signal comes from surprising places. Having a centralised forum allows a MMO to develop a community - which is, compared to just offering a gaming experience, probably more important to the long-term health of a MMO. Communities can be sticky things. They hold players to the game long after they would have quit if they were only considering how much they were enjoying the game.

Of course, fansites can do the same thing with their forums; fansites can certainly build communities. But, in my opinion, fansites work better at creating common-interest communities (e.g. a guild, or the role-players, or the PvPers), not large sprawling all-in communities you see on arise on official forums. Having 100 splintered fansite communities doesn't make it easier to communicate to them or listen to them; it makes it harder. If there is a fire to fight, the community manager staff have to (or: should - sometimes they think releasing a PR statement on one site is enough, but it doesn't work if different fansites run off on different tangents) deal with it in numerous places at one time, rather than dealing with everything in a central forum.

Also, it might not take much for the operator of an officially-sanctioned (or close enough, if they've been favoured with interviews and exclusive content) fansite to turn against the MMO it follows. It might not be much - a mail-out that they don't get, a rude PM from someone on the MMO staff following some fansite forum comments, a nerf to the operator's favourite class or item - but suddenly you have an uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) rant site that has in the past been given a lot of official credibility. You can look at the EQ2Flames drama for an example of this.

Forum drama does create epic lulz, but like most clowns it isn't really that funny.

Forum drama does create epic lulz, but like most clowns it isn't really that funny.

So, not only does the MMO team lose face as the operator rants their little heart out (sometimes spilling privileged information they know) but a relationship has to be built up with at least one other fansite so that players will start hearing the 'correct' dev message again.

Having a MMO without an official forum is like having a zoo with no fences - you can't control where things wander and feeding time can turn very messy indeed. An official forum at least keeps the majority in one place and lets communication occur more easily. There will always be some fans who prefer fansites - that's fine. But those fansites tend to closely follow the information on official forums and, if those players want to get heard, they know they need to comment on the main site.

If official forums suck, it is because they have been allowed to suck by the community managers (CMs). CMs have to draw a line in the sand and say, "This is too far," then act when players cross that line. If the WoW official forums suck, it is because Blizzard doesn't care enough for them not to suck.

There have been cases where official forums have been criticism-shy, deleting every negative word that might appear. This is stupid behaviour. Some criticism of the MMO is necessary, even desirable, because it will point out what players feel is important. Who knows, the group consensus of the players might be right? Fansites might not be nearly as well managed and discussions are likely to be between smaller groups of people who already mostly agree with some key issues (e.g. PvPers tend not to care what the RPers think, and visa versa), so their criticism is likely to be slanted heavily and not examined objectively.

If MMO CMs / devs want to stop the majority of negative behaviour that goes on in a forum, all they need to do is remove the anonimity. Make people post under their real names, even if it is just a first name and initial. Well-run official forums actually require CM and dev interaction too - if you leave a zoo as breeding grounds for the bored and restless because you give them little to do, you shouldn't be surprised when it produces only manure.

As more people start playing MMOs - and as the MMO category expands to include more people playing different types of games - I'm sure the debate over whether or not the effort of officially managing communities is worth it will increase. In my opinion, it is, and the cost of running official forums is well worth it for what it returns in information and customer involvement in a MMO title.

Why the Whiners Win: Social Psychology at Work in Online Communities

Posted by UnSub Monday September 1 2008 at 4:25AM
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MMO communities can often appear to devolve in to 'us vs them' arguments, or the loudest (i.e. those who post the most) people being the ones who appear to be driving popular sentiment. I've thought for a while now this was due to the way forums work - whoever can post the most can control the direction of the conversation, particularly if they can do it over a page or so, since most people don't read all of a multi-page thread before posting their opinion. Sometimes this control can take a perfectly sensible conversation off into realms of idiocy, particularly when a bunch of people jump in with "/agree" or "/signed" posts. It can appear that a large number of people support some very stupid ideas.

However, it turns out that there is a reason for this kind of behaviour hardwired into us - a psychological study has indicated that if only one member of a community repeats their opinion several times, bystanders are likely to take that opinion as representative of the whole group. If three people repeat the same opinion, the results are a bit stronger, but not by much. It's the repetition that makes people think that the opinion is held by the majority and, barring a bystander having a strong contrary opinion, it makes them more likely to hold that opinion too.

As a social animal, humans generally hate sticking out. So, if the first time you've ever heard of the +4 Rogue Dark Sword of Enlightenment being overpowered is in a thread where everyone is saying the same thing (despite it being an echo chamber fueled by the same three people) then you are more likely to think that Dark Sword must be overpowered... and then "why haven't those stupid devs nerfed the Dark Sword already!!!".

So the next time you see something posted that you disagree with, it is in your interest to comment. The more devs / customer managers see a diversity of opinion, the more likely they aren't going to think that the loudest voice has the majority on their side.