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MMORPG.com Staff Blog

The staff of MMORPG.com gets together to bring you some behind the scenes insights on stories, the industry and the site itself.

Author: staffblog

Contributors: BillMurphy,MikeB,garrett,SBFord,Grakulen,

What's Wrong With MMOs? D&D 4th ed. Has Answers

Posted by Stradden Thursday August 27 2009 at 11:27AM
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I know that I’ve talked about 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons before on the site. When this new edition of the classic franchise made its debut back in May of 2008, I can remember comparing it to MMORPGs. I remember talking about how this new iteration of a classic RPG concept would help to revitalize a flagging pen and paper franchise by making it more appealing to the swath of new gamers that are flocking to today’s MMOs. I remember thinking that, all in all, the system had its problems but that in the end, it was going to be a good thing for both Dungeons and Dragons and MMOs.

I’ve since changed my tune. After taking a good, hard look at 4th Edition and taking in all that it has to offer, I have come to the conclusion that some of my initial impressions were right. Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was clearly designed to be an MMO on paper. Among other things, it makes use of and actually recognizes classic MMO archetypes (healer, tank, DPS, etc), and it is designed in such a way that group play is necessary. The problem is that, at its core, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition actually comes to represent a lot of what is wrong with today’s MMOs:

Looking at the rules, and playing through them, it becomes clear that they are nothing more than an elaborate combat system. All of the diverse array of skills and other rules that appeared in earlier editions have been scaled back and boiled down to “what’s useful in combat”. Gone are the multitude of roleplaying-based skills that appeared even in the most recent edition of the game that made characters feel unique, not only in terms of what they could do in combat, but also in terms of who they were, as people.

In previous editions of the game, and most specifically the 3.5 rules system that came before, if I wanted my character to have spent some time learning how to be a master painter, there were rules to accommodate that. If I wanted my character to know about architecture, or engineering, there were rules for that too. Not only were there rules, but in order to have those hallmarks of individuality, in order for my character to have spent time learning how to cook, or paint, or dance, time had to be taken away from combat and combat related training. It was a conscious decision to lean toward roleplay that the old rules facilitated nicely. The new rules, not so much.

If, under the new rules, I want my character to be able to do any of the above mentioned activities, I can just make it up. The books and the game’s supporters will tell you that you don’t need specific rules or tools provided by the game in order to roleplay, in order to flesh out your character to a place beyond simply combat statistics.

While it is true that roleplay, whether in pen and paper or even in an MMO, is what you and your imagination make of it, not supporting rich characterization with official rules makes those of us who care about more than just the combat die rolls feel forgotten. Why create a rich, diverse world when the rules system that the game is built around really just hopping from epic combat to epic combat?

Now, I fully realize that combat is a big part of the fun, both in Dungeons and Dragons and in MMOs, but it hasn’t been strictly the combat that has kept me playing with my D&D group for the last fifteen years, it’s been the world and the characters. The combat, as cool as it often is, and as much fun as I always have doing it, I enjoy it more because I am personally invested in the fictional person that I have created and grown so that the cool combat and all of the kickass things that he can do actually have long term meaning. When the game rules don’t support both aspects, the character building and the awesome combat, I start to lose interest. That’s why I’ve “cancelled my subscription” to D&D 4E.

The problem, my friends, is epidemic and doesn’t stop in the lands of Dungeons and Dragons. If 4th Edition was indeed, as I suspect, built to be an MMO on paper, its mistakes put a magnifying glass to the larger problem surrounding today’s MMOs. They are, essentially, just elaborate combat systems moving characters from one combat encounter to the next with no real time, thought, energy of God forbid, development time focused into figuring out how to make players personally invested in their characters so that they might stay invested in the games over the longer term.

Are hardcore combat systems disguised as roleplaying games (either online or at the table) pushing product right now? Obviously the answer is yes. Otherwise a savvy company like Hasbro’s Wizards of the Coast wouldn’t have drastically changed their D&D formula and MMOs would be more personal character-centric. Are those same systems resulting in the long-term retention of a loyal customer base? Well, I know that Wizards of the coast has already lost at least one long time customer, I can’t really speak for anyone else… And how have subscriber retention numbers been holding out for MMOs these days when compared to their initial box sales? Not so good friends, not so good.

I’m not a business guru, and I can barely add two numbers together properly, but I always thought the name of the game with MMOs and PnP RPGs was retention and profit over time… Maybe someone should look into that.

Personal Note:

All of that being said, if you, like me, are looking for new rules that support role-playing in the same way that 3rd edition and 3.5 D&D did, I highly recommend checking out Paizo’s new product, Pathfinder (http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG). It’s a continuation of DnD the way that I, and I suspect many other long-time DnD players, like the game, with a good balance between combat and world and character building rules.

BlizzCon Live Blog

Posted by garrett Friday August 21 2009 at 2:38PM
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Hi Guys,

Watching BlizzCon at home during the storm. Cataclysm was announced just recently. With the new races everyone expected. Goblins will go to the Horde, while Worgens will be on the Alliance side. The old world of Azeroth will be getting the Cataclysmic face lift with old zones getting destroyed. Guild achievements and leveling will be added to the game.

 

3:47 PM EST- Goblins being discussed as Horde comic relief. Goblin mount revealed as a dune buggy.

3:49 PM EST - Upheval being discussed. In Cataclysm new stress between the Alliance and the Horde. The old world is not going to be the same upon the return from Northrend.

3:52 PM EST - New anger between the Horde and the Alliance. Horde story line with Garrosh. Blizzard is putting the war back into Warcraft.

 3:53 PM EST- Level cap to 85. Changes to the old zones. 5 Level increase.

3:55 pm EST- Worgen classes...no Paladins or Priests.

3:56 PM EST- Goblins...rocket belt. Goblin Rogue shown. 7 new zones.

3:57 PM EST - Mt. Hyjal, Uldum, The Lost Isles, Twilight Highlands, Suken City, Gilneas, and Deepholm.

4:00 PM EST - Classic world revamp. new art, quests, and items. Guild Advancement system.

4:00 PM EST - 20 Guild Levels, Guild Talent Tree, Choose Talents, cheaper repairs. Mass resurrection!!

4:01 PM EST - New Race/Class combos: Tauren Paladin, Gnome Priest, Dwarf Shaman shown.

4:03 PM EST - Phased Terrain. Similar to the Death Knight starting area. Coastline shown as flood comes in.

4:04 PM EST - Archaeology!! Ruins, discoveries in zones. Path of the Titans.

4:04 PM EST - 5 new Talent Points. Path of the Titans as new type of advancement. Choose new path no limited by class.

4:06 PM EST - Mastery System. More fun and interesting points for Talents. As you spend points in a talent tree you will get bonuses.

 4:08 PM EST - FLY EVERYWHERE!!!

4:10 PM EST - Barrens split. New level flow in the old zones.

4:11 PM EST Barrens regrown

4:12 PM EST Desolace grown from bleak to lush

4:13 PM EST New pieces of land

4:13 PM EST Darkshore revamped. Zoran Strand built up by the Horde

4:14 PM EST - NEW UNDERCITY!

4:15 PM EST - New zones being shown.

4:17 PM EST - Underwater combat mentioned. Underwater MOUNTS!

4:18 PM EST - Twilight Hammer now serve Deathwing.

4:20 PM EST - Temple of Earth shown. Concept art being shown. Deathwing breaking through the elemental plain of earth and arriving in Azeroth. Uldum shown as a new zone. Two dungeons being added. Egyptian style zone.

4: 22 PM EST - Uldum rumored to hold a super weapon. Tol' vir new race as stone like cat people.

4:24 PM EST - Mt. Hyjal being shown. Ragnaros returning.

4:29 PM EST - Dungeons and Raids. Fire Lands as a Raid. Elemental PLain of Fire and fight Ragnaros. Uldum will have two level up dungeons. Blackrock Caverns, new level up dungeon in Blackrock Spire. New art, creatures, boss fights.

4:31 PM EST - Grim Batol and Skywall. HEROIC DEADMINES AND SHADOWFANG KEEP!

4:32 PM EST - PVP!! New zone: Tol Barad as new PVP zone. Prison on an island. Horde and Alliance will fight over control of the island. Off battle times it will be a daily quest hub. When the battle activates players will fight over the prison.

4:34 PM EST - Battle for Gilneas battleground. New Arena Maps. Rated Battlegrounds!

4:35 PM EST - Rated Battlegrounds to act in similar manner to Arenas.

5:00 PM EST - DIABLO 3 PANEL STARTING!!

5:00 PM EST - Heroes Monsters and the new class the Monk. Leonard Boyarsky, Wyatt Cheng, Julian Love, and Jay Wilson.

5:02 PM EST - Monk, classic Pen & Paper influence. Fast, melee oriented, but fragile. Good contratc to the Barbarian. Polar opposite of the Barbarian. Fighting game influence. Wanted something different.

5:04 PM EST - Monk's Kit: Feels like a fighting game, Combos, Holy Magic, Speed over Toughness, Skills, a bit more challenging.

5:05 PM EST - Combined an Eastern Orthodox type with the Asian archtype. Religious, Spiritual side of Good. To prove their dedication, they have tattoos, very structured religious theme. They report to the Patriarchs. Holy Warriors of the Church.

5:07 PM EST - Skills, Combo system to add depth to melee moves. Combine combo moves mixing the Diablo 2 Assassin and the WoW Rogue.

5:10 PM EST - Skills: Way of the 100 Fists, Crippling Wave, Exploding Palm. Organ damage, if the character dies in bleed, huge explosion!

5:11 PM EST - Combine moves from all three skills which create different effects.

5:13 PM EST - Monk: Martial Arts action, Holy colors for powers and skills, and Runes. Another skill added called Seven Sided Strike, similar to Chain Lightening from Diablo 2 except you are the lightening.

5:15 PM EST - Art style for Seven Sided Strike shown. Heroes Level Up being shown.

5:17 PM EST - Witch Doctor Spider Totem changed to zombie corpse. Wizard's stone skin shown next, did not meet the Light Show expecttation. New look has a bright crystal feel over the character. New name for Stone Skin. Barbarian Whirlwind shown next. The Dune Dervish stole the Barbarian's Thunder in Whirlwind. New Whirlwind shown.

5:21 PM EST - Jay Wilson showing the Fury Hero System for the Barbarian. The Resource System being shown. Created a specific one for Diablo. Diablo pace very fast.

5:23 PM EST - Runes are items you find which you can socket into skills. Runes are not going away. The key goal is customizing characters and Runes will support customization.

5:26 PM EST - Runes will be changed based on skills. Runes disabled in playable demo for now.

5:26 PM EST - Monsters!

5:27 PM EST - Identifying monsters will be key for players. 5 different monsters on screen at the same time. New monsters all the time. Shape, profile and color in monster design.

5:29 PM EST - Monster Archtypes: Swarmer - weak typical melee. Ranged- Projectile, Arc, speed. Lieutenants - Tough, buff, spawners. Elites - tough, stronger, attacks. AOE - point blank, line, radial, cone. Weakener - debuff, slow, drainer. One offs: Sleeper, Alarm, Bee Hive, Linked.

5:35 PM EST - Sand Wasp shown. Nature, support role, rapid fire attack.

5:38 PM EST - Fallem - Fallen Fanily, shaman and the imp.

OK Guys, Q&A time. Im out for a while. Hope you enjoyed the coverage.

Why Don't We See Classless Games?

Posted by Stradden Friday August 21 2009 at 7:34AM
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A few weeks ago, I wrote a Staff Blog entry telling everyone why games with no levels weren’t likely to catch on within the industry. Going hand in hand with the idea of a game with no levels is the idea of a game with no classes. Again, there are many down sides to class-based systems. Classes are restrictive; they tend to shoehorn players into gameplay categories, specifically the familiar DPS, Tank, Healer triad. Classes as they are most often presented in MMOs also tend to highly restrict player choices, creating a feeling that every, say, 20th level Paladin is just like every other 20th level Paladin from attacks and abilities to armor and weapons.

Classes though, like levels, are a tried and tested game mechanic, going back all the way into the roots of the RPG genre and while some players will, perhaps rightfully, blame classes for the current woes they see in the industry, classes do play an important role in MMO design. Aside from the obvious and unnecessarily ominous sounding fact that classes allow developers to more easily predict and control player actions, there’s also a little system near and dear to many players’ hearts that would be hurt in the absence of the good ‘ol class-based trinity. Grouping.

In a world where many old time players are asking themselves what ever happened to MMO design that encouraged grouping, removing classes from the equation is going to throw an even bigger monkey wrench in the gears. There are two reasons to group. First, there’s the fun of playing with friends. Second, there’s the statistical and game mechanic advantage. The first is pretty self-explanatory and in an ideal world, the idea of fun and socialization would be what drives players to do anything in an MMO. The reality though is that the bulk of players will fall into the second category. Classes make it easier for players looking for the statistical advantage in group content to know who to invite into their party. You know, for example, that at minimum you’re going to need a tank a healer and a DPS, probably ranged and melee.

In the end, classes exist to create archetypes for players to follow in order to take the maximum advantage of what different role builds have to offer. Sure, you could let players choose their own abilities and build their own characters from the ground up, but in the end you’d wind up with a game that is almost impossible to balance, where rules lawyers and statistical bean counters would hold a distinct advantage.

The irony of this scenario is that in the end, after the best possible build in a classless game had been found and posted on every MMO website online, the game would actually be left with less diversity than classes have to offer as everyone rushes to build the ideal character.
 

Dragon Age: A Lesson For MMOs

Posted by Dana Wednesday August 19 2009 at 3:10PM
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Dragon Age is a single player RPG. There’s no way to even pretend it’s an MMO, so we were a bit surprised when Bioware asked MMORPG.com to go out to Edmonton and take a look at it.

What we saw was a fascinating RPG title that throws back to the golden age of games like Baldur’s Gate, but also advances the genre in significant ways. Ways that MMORPGs should pay attention to in the years to come.

It’s been a while since someone has put out a truly epic, PC-friendly RPG. While Dragon Age is headed to both consoles and PC, the game clearly has learned a lot from the MMO crowd in terms of interface and feel, and should be very familiar in some ways to MMO gamers. This familiarity though, makes what they showed us in Edmonton even more interesting. There’s no reason that MMOs couldn’t learn some lessons back. Although, I suppose, this is the same company making one right now (Star Wars: The Old Republic), so perhaps they will – at the very least – learn from themselves.

One part of our adventure in Edmonton was to see their GamesCon Demonstration. This focused on a very simple concept that seems to fill every inch of Dragon Age: choice that matters.

The demo was rather simple. They took a specific moment in the story, in this case a situation where the party has found a valuable religious artifact. A few ashes from this urn have the ability to cure any ailment in the world. Essentially, it’s the fountain of life. They need it to cure a poisoned ruler who will help the characters in their cause.

Once all the baddies are slain, tests passed and dungeons crawled. The player reaches the urn with a simple choice: take what you need and leave it there, or take what you need and destroy the rest.

Unlike many games where all choices are black and white, good and evil, Dragon Age focuses on shades of gray.

David Silverman, Dragon Age's Senior Product Manager, stood up and ran us through how he would handle the situation and his logic for doing so. According to him, these ashes, which had been hidden for so long, were too powerful and while they might be hard to get, if they fell into the hands of the enemy, it would make their quest a lot tougher.

He chose to pour some dragon’s blood in the urn and destroy all save a tiny pouch.

One neat element of Dragon Age is that the characters in the party definitely have minds and agendas of their own. In this particular group were two highly religious individuals and one who is far more chaotic.

The destruction of the ashes immediately set off half the party against the main character, while the chaotic Mage remained steadfast to the plan. The cleric and rogue were outraged at the destruction of such a valuable artifact and turned on the main character.

A fight ensued and both were killed. Permanently.

Then, as the now decimated party left the dungeon, they came across their guide. A historian, this man was thrilled to see that the main character had come out alive and with some ashes. He had plans to essentially turn the area into Disney Land. He envisioned studies, religious pilgrimages and more.

Eager to keep the secrets, still powerful, of the place quiet, the character tried to talk him out of it. It failed, and he left claiming only force would keep him quiet.

The main character tossed a dagger and hit the man square in the back of the head.

He had murdered three people in the name of secrecy, but, in his eyes, that did not make his character and party evil. He thought that those three deaths would save millions of other lives. A truly lawful good character may have spared those three lives, but what would happen later? What were the long term repercussions? He was not prepared to take that chance.

Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw then stood up and replayed the same scenario in another way.

In his version, he respected the artifact, pleased members of his party and didn’t kill anyone.

Laidlaw believed in the greater good of humanity and that the artifact would be protected and preserved. He allowed it to become a holy shrine and decided to take that risk.

When he left the dungeon, with his party intact, he had a much different experience. A dragon had long lived in the area to protect it, but Laidlaw wanted to make sure that the inevitable pilgrims were not decimated as they came to pay their respects.

What followed was an epic dragon fight. The battle was arduous – and let’s be honest, the devs cheated a bit for brevity’s sake – but in the end, that very rogue who had been killed in the other demo struck the fatal blow. A neat trick of Dragon Age is that they do custom little death animations for major monsters. In this case, the rogue mounted the dragon’s neck and stabbed it with her dual swords until it fell to the ground.

That’s the lesson of Dragon Age. Small choices can greatly alter the entirely gameplay experience. It matters who is with you, what options you choose and these choices have huge repercussions on the rest of the game.

The question becomes: What can MMOs learn from this?

With instancing, there is no reason games cannot have this level of content. Perhaps in an MMO each character cannot be the center of the known universe as they are in an RPG, but they can still make choices as a group within a dungeon that have a great impact on the rewards or even path they take to the end.

Too often, MMO quests are static point A to point B experiences and Dragon Age shows the difference between a well written, beautifully crafted RPG experience and the barebones work we see online.

The excuse that everyone has to be the hero is there, but it has become a crutch for poor story content and linear dungeons that require no thought or adventure. It’s time for MMORPG designers to go back to their RPG roots and look at titles like Dragon Age for what they can teach them. It’s clear from the amount of times Bioware referenced World of Warcraft last week that they did it in reverse.

It’s an old joke in games that everyone steals from everyone. Fact is, some things just work. That’s why they have hotbars and WASD with over the shoulder camera in Dragon Age (although you can also scroll out and play it isometric with point and click). They saw what is familiar in the genre these days for PC RPGs and took the best parts. Now it’s time for MMOs to do the same.

Why Groupless or Sololess Games Won't Happen

Posted by Stradden Friday August 14 2009 at 10:50AM
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There seem to be two pretty distinct camps in the war of Groups vs Solo. One believes that MMOs should be geared entirely toward group content, while the other believes that an MMO isn’t worth playing if solo play doesn’t get you everything and anything that grouping does. The truth, however, lies somewhere in between. That’s why you aren’t likely to see a successful game based solely on one concept or the other.

Groups and grouping mechanics are necessary to the success of an MMO because, in the end, MMOs are virtual worlds populated by thousands of players. If there are no goals that can only be accomplished by a number of people working together, then the game’s designers have missed the point entirely. Forget, for a moment, the fact that these are games and let’s pretend that they actually are virtual worlds, meant to in some way mirror our own. In life, while there’s much to be said for individual (solo) accomplishment, some things can’t be done without others and so should it be in an MMO.

While it isn’t the only way to scoialize, grouping does also help to promote the social aspects of the genre and takes full advantage of technology that allows us to work cooperatively online. I wholeheartedly agree that strong grouping mechanics are an important and necessary design element for a successful MMO.

Before the grouping side claims me as one of their own, I also happen to think that creating a game without solo content is folly of the worst kind. Players simply have to have the option of playing on their own in times when friends might not be around, and a pick up group just isn’t appealing. Solo play makes MMOs more accessible to more people. Should solo players be able to do everything a group can do? Of course not. Should the game design accommodate a path for them as well? Of course.

The answer to the solo vs. group content question isn’t one or the other, it’s both. The point that needs to be recognized is that while a game needs to accommodate both, a good design will also recognize that the goals for (and therefore rewards for) solo players and group players are different and should be approached as such.


 

Arguments Against Permanent Death

Posted by Stradden Friday August 7 2009 at 10:19AM
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It seems like the concept of permanent death is one that has been debated and turned over for years, with no real resolution. From what I can tell, there is a core group of people who are looking for a game that provides players the opportunity to permanently lose their characters in a game. I can see the upside to this particular feature, but honestly, of all of the features I’ve looked at in this blog, perma death is the one that presents the most obvious cons.

Like I said, I can see the benefit of perma death in an MMO. This particular feature would provide a unique gameplay experience where players are actually cautious rather than all about rushing in to every encounter. Then, when combat did break out, I would imagine that it would be an unequalled adrenaline rush for those involved. In short, for at least a short time, I can see a perma death game being entertaining.

On the other hand, and it’s an enormous hand… think Unicron’s hand from the old Transformers movie, there are a number of cons with the idea of perma death. Let’s, for the sake of brevity, look past the multitude of potential Customer Service issues and complaints that would be generated from issues like lag, greifing, hacks, cheats and the like. Let’s instead take a look at some of the other problems that permanent character death could cause.

First, there’s the fact that the roots of the main MMO genres don’t actually support it. Let’s see: There’s the Fantasy genre, where character resurrection is a recognized convention. Then there’s sci-fi where death is actually more or less considered to be a temporary condition at best (seriously, how many times did we have to watch Harry Kim die in Star Trek Voyager). Surely though the emerging popularity of the superhero / comic book genre in MMOs will provide a good launching pad for perma death… except for the fact that it’s the only genre that treats death with less respect than sci-fi does. Let’s face it. At least where these genres are concerned, audiences simply don’t want characters to stay dead. They develop attachments for the characters and don’t want to see them gone forever. Killed off? Sure, it makes great drama. Forever? No way.

Then there’s the idea of attachment. The whole idea of MMOs is that players develop an attachment to their characters. This makes the idea of permanent death inconceivable as it would be difficult for players to risk characters they are attached to in the day to day activities of MMO content and it would be almost as difficult to actually obtain that attachment in the first place as the character in question would have to survive long enough.

Don’t like those reasons? How about the fact that having to constantly re-roll characters and start from the beginning would actually create a stronger feeling of grind than currently exists in these games. How likely then is it that I would want to continue paying $15 a month in order to repeat the same content over and over again only to have to start all over again after making a single mistake.

Does everyone out there remember the handheld game Simon? For those who don’t, it’s a memory game based on repetition where you had to repeat a sequence of colors that got progressively longer every time you got it right. For those who do remember that torturous gadget, how many times did you have to fail and start again before you wanted to pitch the thing at a wall? That, my friends, is what the reality of perma death could look like.

I’m not saying that with enough thought and a careful design that perma death couldn’t be an interesting feature. I am, however, saying that for these reasons and other, it will never be a prominent MMO feature.
 

Patch 3.2

Posted by garrett Tuesday August 4 2009 at 7:19PM
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My server is still down for the Patch.

So I thought I would highlight some cool points for 3.2

I play a shaman so naturally how can I not be excited over the new totem interface. Cannot wait to drop all four totems at once and not worry. I do hate that they took away our spell interrupt from Earth Shock.

I also play a Death Knight, so getting hit with the nerf bat...again kinda sucks. It is not too bad though.

I expect to spend pretty much all of my time in the Arena on different raids and runs. I think this will pretty much make Naxx 10 pointless.

It seems now the Argent Crusade will make epics fall from the sky for everyone.

Well see you all when the server is back up!