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Ambre's blogroom on

A place to share my ideas, expectations, thoughts and impressions about my favorite gaming genre : MMORPGs. I plan to write articles about the games I play, the new MMO releases, but also some meta-theory about MMO design and virtual worlds.

Author: Ambre

Is there a future for Themeparks ?

Posted by Ambre Wednesday April 20 2011 at 9:57AM
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Aren't we... ?


Yesterday I was playing one of our core themepark MMO, and I was really playing the game. I mean I was paying attention to the story, actually reading the quests for once and trying to feel the immersion (no I'm not talking about the game on that pic above if you're wondering). So I happened to talk to this guy, the chief of the village, and after some investigation I was basically telling him how much he screwed up, his close allies had already betrayed him, he was getting old and stupid, and his village was on the verge of being invaded and burnt down to the ground. So he gave me a nice pair of boots. Wait... What ? Seriously ? I told him how much he sucked and he gave me some boots ? He could have done anything from slapping me, to putting me into jail, or even bursting into tears, but instead no... you're a good boy, take this new shiny piece of gear and keep running the little errands for every NPC around. At this point I realized how pointless it was that every NPC I talked to had to give me something. Even the beggar lost in the forest happened to have some particularly interesting shiny stuff fitting perfectly my class he had no desire for. As every two minutes of my gameplay had to be rewarded by a new piece of gear, in the end the whole stuff meaning absolutely nothing, the very future began to unfold before my eyes : ultra modern themeparks will end up equipping this new gear for me automatically so I won't even have to notice that I got it in the first place and the circle will be completed. What's the point already ?

I remember playing the old D&D pen and paper games, when you got that +2 sword it really meant something, and it never fell out of a random NPC's pocket, not even talking about most of the other games you did not have any stats on stuff at all. Imagine a modern fantasy MMO where the only gear you could get was your own clothes, your bag and a sword. Nothing more, and nothing magic. Maybe later you would get a magical item, but much later, only after great achievements story-wise, or having defeated powerful enemies, and that would be just a maybe, no guarantee. But wait... oh no, it couldn't work because players would not feel this constant gratification that entice them to keep coming for more. Still I start to feel that we have reached a point when instant gratification doesn't mean squat, because it's not tied to anything meaningful : no challenge, no risk. Just click a few things on the screen, and you get your new loot with better inflated stats. For all those years how is it possible we haven't come up with something better ? Or something different ?

'That's the way MMOs are. Just quit if you don't like it, some rabid forum fan could tell me, you've just burned yourself out on the whole genre.' No I haven't sir. I'm just vomitting quests and bind on pick-up gear at the moment, because I got fed by too much of that over the last years. Let me vomit in peace, and accessorily have a good rant about it (you're not compelled to read it). Still I assure you if it can ease you that I don't feel any more clever or smart in the process, as if I would have understood something extraordinarily subtile in our favorite genre that others wouldn't have, and I quite envy people who can still have tons of fun the way it is. But seriously, why does every new game that comes out has to repeat those exact same mechanics on every single aspect (and accessorily fail) ? Like that constant bind on pick up loot overdose we're being fed with quest after quest (Teala wrote a good blog article here on about gear overdose).


The WoW model

You still want to take on the undefeated cow... ?


When talking about Rift recently in an interview with Gamasutra, Scott Hartsman its executive producer said 'it's got to have plenty of the traditional stuff that people want in an MMO as well as a whole lot of things that make it unique'. Later he says 'So, yeah, if you look at a game like World of Warcraft, how many tens of millions have touched that game in its life? […] You can build a really ridiculously healthy business by just making that group of people happy. If nothing else, we definitely know the audience that we're going after'. The picture is pretty clear. Scott's game is not meant to revolutionnize the MMO market, just to appeal to its already existing playerbase, and most of them being found in WoW, Rift is meant to offer WoW players a similar experience with new perks. Let's just hope for the sake of the process the new perks hold on, because otherwise once the newness wears off most of the attracted players will be back to WoW or their previous online game in no-time.

And that pretty much sums up almost every MMO release since 2006 (the new perks never holding on). Is it that WoW got too big and made too much money for game developpers not to feel the pressure of having to try the same recipe ? And if they didn't want to, their producers or investors would tell them they had to anyway ? All hail to WoW, the master, the king, and the god of themeparks. It invented the genre, the style, mastered it in every possible way and just crushed every direct concurrent into oblivion. When asked a few years ago what he would do if he could take over control of one major MMORPG , Richard Bartle said 'I'd take over World of Warcraft and I'd close it'. Not many understood what he meant back then, and he got flamed alot for that, but it does makes perfect sense in a way. If WoW wasn't here we would probably see a much more diverse creation in terms of MMO games, Rift wouldn't be Rift, WAR wouldn't be WAR, AoC wouldn't be AoC, or maybe they would all be truly themselves, that is completely different one from another.

I still think that bashing on WoW is a little too easy though, and doesnt answer anything. WoW is a really good game in its kind, it does what it does, and it does it well. As long as people keep on subscribing to the game it has no reason to change anything, they should even make it more of a themepark every new patch as it seems to be what makes its success in the first place. On the other hand I pity other companies game developpers, publishers or whoever, whatever their reason is, for not having the bollocks to at least try to create something different, to try to 'create', period. Virtual worlds could offer infinite different kind of models and mechanics for their players to immerse in, why do developpers have to stick with the WoW-clone model, the very same mechanics, and the inflated gear stats ? I know alot of people don't like the 'WoW-clone' expression, as it's been overused on the forums, but on this precise point it's a bit simpler to write and to understand than something like the 'themepark level based RPG quest and inflated bop-gear grind with a token collecting rinse and repeat instanced end-game'. Even on this long expression you miss alot of unique features WoW has and other mmos copy without any shame, like no real penalty or risk to lose anything, end game raids, regular level raises, class system, auction houses... etc. And if you think the 'themepark level based RPG quest and inflated bop-gear grind with a token collecting rinse and repeat instanced end game' is the only kind of MMORPG possible in the whole world and people should stop playing MMORPGs if they don't like it, well... think again. Seriously do. And don't ever work for a game company... please !

The collapse of Themeparks, is it ever coming ?

WoW's attraction and playerbase has become so strong, that it does not only affect players who boycott other MMOs they could potentially like better (yes there are some older games that play differently, and yes I have some friends who never wanted to give a fair chance to anything else than WoW even when they claimed they got bored with it). It also dramatically affects other MMO companies, and game developpers who can't seem to get rid of its influence. It's like starting from scratch they already have the WoW's model on their draft when designing a new game, not a blank page as they should have. They look at what they could change, and come to the conclusion they'd better not change too much (hey Rift !). That doesn't necessarily mean they make bad games, not at all, just that they make the same old thing over and over and over. When does it stop ?

It can stop when players stop to buy these games in the first place, and therefore developpers realize that the shiny model doesn't work anymore. But who says that's the case ? Players as a matter of fact have already stopped to subscribe to most of them (but to WoW of course). But they still run like a horde of starving fanboys to every new release that promises them the moon (me being the first more often than I'd like to admit). So those will always sell like 1M boxes and even if they end up having 50k subs 10 months later some of them will still be profitable. So when do we learn ? When will we be able to really make up our minds and send a clear message to the devs : 'guys WoW is cool, but we already have WoW if we want to play it, can't you try to make something that plays differently for once ?' No bind on pick-up gear grind, or no levels, or maybe no classes, no endgame raids, no instanced dungeons, no repetitive quest grind, no meaningless death. Don't necessarily remove all of those : just remove one, two, or three and we could already have a very original game compared to what we've witnessed recently.

But here I'm assuming a little too fast that no other Themepark like WoW but WoW himself could ever be successful. By successful I don't mean profitable, as I'm talking from a player's perspective and not an investor's perspective (I'm sure some rushed sub based themeparks with overpriced cash shops have managed to be profitable despite falling really fast in terms of population). By successful I mean getting an expanding world and playerbase, the ability to constantly attract new players, even if starting small. I'm talking about creating a game that makes its players want to stay on the medium or long term, talk about it to their friends and family even after the first few months, and not just rush to the max level and quit. Can a WoW-clone... sorry a Themepark ever achieve that ? Do we want more themeparks because that's the style of MMO we like, and it happens we just got unlucky with the recent ones ?

I don't believe in hazard when things can be explained by logic, and therefore I don't think the last batch of themeparks we got those last 5 years that miserably failed is due to just bad luck, bad devs, bad companies and rushed products. I tend to think that most of the MMO playerbase, and even the WoW's players, are already bored to death by the ultra classic themeparks mechanics, or if they are not completely it's routine already and they aren't surprised anymore. That explains why when a new MMOs comes out you have so many players eager to spend 50$ to try it out right now. Once they see it's same old same old, or once they get bored by the themepark model once again, sometime not even knowing what's exactly the cause, they just go back to WoW or their former game where most of their friends and guildmates still are. Considering this, it looks difficult for a pure themepark to be really successful other than directly beating WoW, they can enjoy a moderate success certainly (as Lotro had, and Lotro is quite an original game on several of its mechanics by the way), but they cannot live up to the hype made both by all the aspirations and projections of players, and the added boredom of 6 years of the same WoW mechanics making players secretely hope this new game is gonna be different and surprising when it's not meant to be in the first place by the devs themselves. But who knows ? Maybe a new themepark will come soon and prove me wrong. I kinda hope so. Is it possible ?


Is SWTOR the savior ?

How can't this be great as a MMO... ?


It looks like we have the perfect candidate coming (and now I'm putting my anti-flame +10 titanadamantium-vest because I'm about to touch to the sacrosanct of the holy things, how dare I !). Star Wars: the Old Republic is the new star wars MMO by Bioware, I guess I don't have to tell you what SWTOR is, everyone knows that as it has generated tremendous expectations from most of the MMO community. Will SWTOR be a themepark with the very same underlying mechanics as WoW ? Let Bioware's president answer the question "It [WoW] has established standards, it's established how you play an MMO. Every MMO that comes out, I play and look at it. And if they break any of the WoW rules, in my book that's pretty dumb." It's very little doubt that SWTOR is gonna be a themepark with all the classic WoW stuff, we've had enough infos so far on the game to be pretty sure on those points. I'm not saying either it will be totally unoriginal, they try to add some new perks of course, and in this case they work really hard on the storyline and on quest mechanics to give players more choices and replayability. SWTOR has captured all the dreams and hopes of so many players, there is little doubt that the game is gonna sell millions of boxes and the servers gonna explode the first two weeks. And even all of that could not be enough for Bioware/EA as it seems they're looking to challenge the big one, Blizzard's mastodon, playing on its field (and they will probably need at least 1M subs for a while just to break even on their huge costs).

I won't take a risk and predict what kind of success or failure one should expect from SWTOR. But whatever it is I think it could be pretty determinant for the future of MMOs. If SWTOR succeeds, reaches the 1M+ sub mark, or even more and stays there, it will prove that there is a future for themeparks if they're done really well, with a lot of investment and time. It will say to the developpers : you can challenge WoW and go after its playerbase, but don't try to do it if you don't play in the very very large budget league (I hope they get the second part of the message, but I'm afraid they won't). On the other hand, SWTOR's failure would be cataclysmic for the genre in the first place, but on the longer term could be beneficial (please don't hate me for saying that !). It would send a clear message : players don't want more of the same old, they already have WoW when they want to play it, not every virtual world has to use the very same mechanics. Eat that devs ! Think better next time. SWTOR could also fail because it would be poorly done, but all the recent stuff I've read or watched about the game make me think it won't, and I really hope it won't. They're working really hard on this one, they're not afraid to postpone its release until it's ready, and all the changes they've managed to pull off since last year look good enough to make me think they know what a themepark is and they're ready to do it well. I could say I already got my popcorn and I'm ready to watch the big show from a good safe distance, but I must admit I'm pretty much more likely to get personally involved and also spam my login button the night SWTOR releases. Yea, I know. You're a MMO addict or you're not.

What do you guys think ? Will we ever see a themepark get as successful as WoW, or even just break the 1M sub bar ? Is there still a future for those games, outside Blizzard's next-gen Titan, or should developpers stop to be hypnotized by the mastodon, start to really think by themselves and create from scratch new games and new worlds with different mechanics ?

How casuals have changed MMOs

Posted by Ambre Tuesday March 29 2011 at 7:53PM
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Introduction : the point of this article is not to oppose casual players versus hardcores, to argue in favor of one playstyle against the other, or isn't any kind of a rant. I should add I have myself recently become much more of a casual player than before, and could definitely fit in this category according to the article. The point here is just to state facts, and to show how the whole MMO market has shift from a 'hardcore' niche market, to appeal a much broader and casual audience, mainly for profit reasons. Thus the kind of experience those games provide has drastically changed in the last five years in a direction that reflects the playerbase change. But it also had unexpected consequences in the form of  tremendous expectations from gamers that developpers can't seem to realistically fulfill anymore.


The setting : MMO worlds


MMO games are different from single player games, in the sense they want to keep people playing as long as possible. That can be explained by financial reasons (MMO players pay a monthly subscription and not only a singletime payment), but it's also structural to what is a MMORPG :  a world to inhabit, in which you're supposed to spend a significant amount of time so that this world comes alive and a community can emerge. If players leave your world fast once they have completed basic gameplay objectives for example, then your world is probably dieing, and as a MMO your game is dieing.


Old MMOs were truly worlds you could spend thousands of hours into. They were designed in that way. The consequence was often you couldnt do anything meaningful in them if you didn't have alot of playtime. A single session of 1 or 2 hours had no sense : that could just be the time you spent forming a group, taking a boat, meeting with people. Your implication inside the world was proportionnal to the time you spent in, and that's perfectly natural if you think about a MMO in the sense of a 'true world'.


You don't really inhabit a world if you only spend a few hours per week in it, you're just a visitor, but definitely not an actor. Virtual worlds could have room for both, visitors and actors, but they can't participate in the same way. And older MMO games, based on RPG leveling mechanics, used to be frustrating for visitors because the time they spent in wasnt enough to complete the most basic tasks. They would always stay on the periphery, getting a taste of the thing, but could never eat it any of it, share it and bond with the community of actors.


The transition


As MMOs have started to become more and more 'financial products' whose goals were in the first place to make money and less 'a new alternative gaming genre' the following events successively happened in the last 5 or 6 years :

- The simplification of old mechanics started to attract a whole new audience, much less hardcore than the former one. That is the best seen in the Everquest -> WoW transition.

- The new audience plays maybe 3 or 5 times less, but it's irrelevant from a financial point of view because they pay the same monthly fee* as the older audience. And for obvious social reasons they represent a much bigger market than the few old hardcores.

- MMOs started to cater more and more to the broader audience, simplification of mechanics, faster leveling, linear questing, instances, open grouping, dungeon finders... etc. To the point they became soloable RPG games built in an environnment mimicing a massive virtual world, rather than a virtual world inhabited with characters obeying to RPG mechanics.


In other words MMOs have stopped to be worlds with game mechanics, and they've become more games mimicing worlds. (The difference is portreyed in the the previous games vs worlds article on this blog). They removed everything that added to the realism of what a world in a particular setting could be (exploration, danger, the need to regroup with others to complete objectives) in the favor of what is "immediately fun" in a game.


Those are just facts, once again not a critic of any playstyle. Simply put in caricatural terms, older MMOs were extremely immersive but could also be a real pain in the butt, newer ones provide immediate fun and no sort of pain but become much more quickly boring. The former were inaccessible to the majority of potential gamers, the later are. The majority cannot spend their life (or a large part of it) in a virtual world for very simple time constraints. As people don't inhabit those worlds anymore, they've become games you play with when that suits you, not universes you immerse yourself in and you need to get back to as often as you can.


The backfire


The funny and unexpected thing in this transformation is that it in some way backfired on the very same companies who first tried to provide fun instead of immersion for money reasons. Indeed gamers are much more exigeant than inhabitants you throw into a world. Inhabitants don't complain when you throw them in the middle of nowhere : they take time to explore discover and understand the rules and cope with them. Then they start to form true bonds, friendships, alliances and become themselves a creative force inside your world making their own stories. You as a developper are constantly adjusting the parameters of the world you created, but you don't have to tell them what to do all the time.


On the other hand gamers** are very exigeant customers who ask to be entertained all the way long, more like spectators watching a movie. You can't just throw them somewhere and tell them : go on now, you're on your own. You need to constantly feed them with what they call "content". If whevener on the way they run out of content, they feel the game is badly lacking and they're likely to leave it. Content in whatever form it takes (linear questing, dungeons, battlegrounds and raids usually) is always at the end you providing to them the story. They will never build their own story in your game, mostly because it was not the way you as a developper designed the MMO : you made a game to follow, not a world to explore and create in.


Useless to say, to provide gamers hundreds of hours of quality content, new things to do all the time so those don't feel too repetitive, holding their hand all the way long but still giving them the feeling they're achieving something on their own, is not only a huge amount of work, and a very difficult balance. It's a crazy task. You can put many years of work into it, your best ideas and efforts, and will only get at the end "bah same old thing again", or "been there, played 16 hours a day for a week, nothing to do at the endgame, bye". What can you do, seriously ? You just got trapped in your own design, trying to produce a movie-type game supposed to keep players on a rail track forever when realistic means and constraints make that this kind of thing is not supposed to hold them for that long, and finally suits much more a single RPG game model, a one-time payment game, than a massive online world with a monthly subscription.


The future, and I will let it for now as a question.


Is there a future for MMOs out of this loop of soloable RPG online games that provide immediate fun but no long term immersion ? Is there a new balance between games and worlds that can be found ? And if yes, how ? How is it possible to create worlds immersive enough for everyone without being frustrating for casual players ? What do you think ?



* That is not true in Korea for example where players pay hourly fees and not monthly fees. And it's interested to notice that accordingly to the point mentionned, korean MMOs cater more to their hardcore crowd than occidental games do.

** Here I mean gamers in the sense of MMO players looking more for a gaming RPG experience than an immersive world experience. Not gamers in the general sense.

Games vs Worlds

Posted by Ambre Thursday March 10 2011 at 8:41PM
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Are MMORPGs games or are they worlds ? Arent those two the same ? If they're not, why cant they be both at the same time ?


In a world you can get lost.

- In a world, getting lost is part of a bigger scheme called exploration. If exploration is always successful (that is you go directly in a straight line each time to what you're looking for), there is no more exploration. It kills itself.

- In a game, you can't get lost. Why ? Because it wouldn't be fun. It can sometime be fun a while after, when you recall old memories, or because of the consequences and what or who you may encounter in that process, but in the moment it's just painful to get lost.


In a world you can lose.

- In a world, there must be some part of danger. That's where the challenge is. You're going to be confronted by this danger, and you're going to defeat it, or not. But knowing you can lose, and losing can be meaningful is what makes your successes even greater, and what makes them eventually memorable.

- In a game, you can only win at the end. Otherwise it wouldn't be fun, and certainly frustrating for a part of the playerbase, who are paying customers after all. So everything must be made easy enough so that at the end everyone, or most manage to win. Nothing wrong, that's how most games are designed nowadays.


In a world noone tells you what to do next.

- If there is anyone to tell you what to do next, you're not in a world. You're on a railtrack, looking at what looks to be a world but is just decor. It's because noone tells you what to do next, that suddenly you feel you're in a world. You can go wherever you want, and what are you gonna find next ? You don't know, that's the point.

- In a game, you're told what to do next : you've finished a quest and another one pops up. You've finished a bunch of quests in an area, no problem another quest will tell you which area to go next. In this way, you'll never be out of things to do. Well that's good too. More like watching a movie. The script is already written, you don't decide what it is, but it's fine.


MMOs used in the past to be more worlds (EQ, UO, and even a game like L2). Since WoW, made by a game company Blizzard (nothing pejorative here), and its success, they tend to be more games. And their keyword is "fun". It must be "fun" all the time. Getting lost is not fun, dieing with consequences is not fun, having to strive to find your own way is not fun, and sometime... even having to think about your character development, or anything else, is not fun.


What could be wrong with fun ? How a game having "fun" as its core concept can ever fail ? Well nothing is that wrong with fun.

fun = fun, sure.

fun+fun = cool; ok.

But fun+fun+fun+fun+fun+fun+fun... = uncertain result.

At the end it may just equal boredom, that is by definition the feeling created by the repetition of always the same thing without anything that gonna challenge and change that, ever.

A world on the other hand is sometime unfun, because you may not achieve what you want there, and it can really be a pain. But unless you've explored every facet it offers, or you couldnt get into it in the first place, it won't bore you.


What does the MMO genre need the most today ? More games or more worlds ? What do you think ?

City of Heroes : an underrated gem

Posted by Ambre Thursday August 12 2010 at 6:48PM
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City of Heroes is a Super-Hero comic genre MMORPG that was launched in 2004, and which is about to release its second major expansion, Going Rogue. Even if it's considered by many an old game by now, it has proven that in MMORPGs quality, depth and content can easily withstand the test of time.

City of Heroes has pretty decent graphics, even if they're not the most shiny and up-to-date ones, they should not prevent any MMO fan to still enjoy the game today. It has unique mechanics, a huge character building system, tons of content, and a pretty friendly community. As every game it has its strong and weaker points, and as every game it's definitely not for everybody. But considering the uniqueness and the depth of this MMO in a genre where too many games look dangerously the same nowadays, it's not something a true MMO fan should pass on lightly. I'll try in this article to summarize both its qualities as its flaws, so every player should be able to make his own opinion and see if it's worth giving it a try or not.


Customization and character building

If you love customization, if you want your character to look unique, to feel unique, to actually perform in a unique way, then this is your game. I cannot insist enough on this aspect of the game. A true CoH player, most of the time will find other MMO games pretty lackluster in terms of the narrow corridors they want your character to stick in : pick a race, a class, an hair color and a few talents and that's it. Well not in City of Heroes.

In CoH, not only you're character will have its unique apparence (and after having leveled tons of different characters I still have to find someone who make similar costumes as mine). But the creation system allow you to pretty much create your own class, choosing an archetype, a primary powerset, a secondary powerset, only that resulting in more than 500 hundred different possibilities. Of course a Fire/Regen scrapper and a Spines/Invulnerability one will both deal damage mostly in the melee range, but believe me they do not play the same at all. And even when you've made this choice of your primary and secondary powers, it's still up to you which powers you'll pick and how you will enhance each of them. At the end the build customization is almost infinite... well not completely, but believe me you can play this game several years without having the feeling you've gone through all of it.


(In CoH, you can also customize the appearance of your powers)


Games like WoW have popularized a certain aspect of building a character, that is mainly picking talents and choosing the right gear for a maximum efficiency. Eventually you will not have to really think about it, it's simpler to just look on the forums and copy what is considered the best min/max build of the moment. In CoH building a character is not only a science, it's also an art. There are so many possibilities for just one character, noone can tell you which one you should pick, or what exactly you have to do. It's also something you can put alot of time and thought in, and still learn new things constantly year after year. Even if one year ago, I thought I had a solid grasp on how to build my toons, right now with more experience I would choose completely different approaches in many cases.

It can be confusing at the beginning, and it's not always easy to understand if you're making the right choice or you're gimping your character, but the player community in CoH is one of the most informative and helpful I've ever seen in any game so far. Just ask your questions in game, or even better on the boards, they will answer.


(An example of an enhancement build in CoH)


Team dynamics and instanced missions

City of Heroes is a true team based MMO, and that does not mean you cannot solo : you can, and you can even solo most of the content. But it's so much better with a team (it makes the leveling most of the time faster too), that City of Heroes players mostly level in teams. Also CoH has the most unique team dynamics I have yet to see in any MMORPG. It blows out of the water the holy trinity of tank/dps/healer allowing so many other possibilities. You can freely mix tanking, dpsing, controls, debuffs, buffs & healing to create the most efficient team. In some situations a pure debuff team will manage to achieve things a classic tank, dps, heal one would really struggle to : controls and debuffs are very strong roles in CoH, they can make the most scaring enemy packs pretty much harmless.

There are many situations when a healer or a tank is not needed at all. And this is one of the most interesting point in this game : you usually play in teams up to 8 players to go through most of the content, and each time it's a different experience. At lower levels you often see new players thinking the classic way : 'well before we start this mission, we need a tank, and a healer'. Now you don't, because you have no idea for example what the Dark defender in your team will be able to do to those enemies, and you'd better take a few more blasters to burn mobs even faster ! The fact is you have ways of dealing with enemies in this game that do not exist at all elsewhere. It's not just about tanking their attacks, dpsing them and healing their damage. You don't believe me ? Well try a Mind/Kinetics controller for example : you'll be surprised !

Most of the content in the game is instanced, and you run it with your team. But it still keeps a real sense of freedom, because the game possess many large open zones, you can fly, super-run or super-jump through, go talk to your contacts, and you can also hunt mobs outside when you want. Yet it's not the new popularized model of leveling you're going to find in most recent games : solo questing in an open world. Never will any contact ask you to bring him 10 wolf tails or 10 bad guys watches. Instead, you run through many different instanced missions, and usually in 8 man teams for getting the best of it.

Do not worry, finding other people to play with is relatively easy. The community there is very friendly, really like to team, just be sure to choose a very active server like Freedom or Virtue, so you'll be able to find PuGs almost 24/7, whatever level or build you are.


(A CoH team in action...)


Player generated content & unique mechanics

CoH is one of the only MMO around that allows players to generate their own content and entirely level through it with their friends if they want, or run the content of other people. It's called the 'Mission Architect', or 'Architect Entertainment', most often abbreviated as AE. It's your choice if you prefer to run the developpers content ,or missions created by other players. Almost each zone of the game contains an 'AE' building that allows you to do that, create your own stories, run other players stories.

PS : Note that this has been the subject for quite a controversy when it was first introduced, because many players exploited the system to get the maximum rewards for a minimum effort. The devs did not very well handle the situation either, while tolerating it at the beginning, they suddenly went to punish some of their players very harshly, going as far as to delete characters, which was very badly received by the community, and never completely stopped the exploiters. It created quite an uproar, many arguments, and even today the question of the liberty of players to generate their own content is not completely answered. Still this feature is totally unique to the MMORPG genre as far as I know, and despite all its turbulent history, it's really worth checking.

Also City of Heroes has been the first MMO to introduce other very innovative game mechanics many years ago, that have slowly begun to get integrated in more recent games.

Achievements who were introduced in World of Warcraft Wrath of the Lich King expansion, have actually been an integrant part of CoH since its beginning, where they're called badges.

Another example is the sidekicking option which automatically scales the level of your teamates to the level of your team leader. You play with a friend who has double the playtime of yours and he always outlevels you in MMOs ? No problem, not only you'll always be able to play and enjoy the game with him, run the same content as him, but also each of you will keep on leveling at their own speed.

The auto-scaling instance system also makes sure that the difficulty, the size of the mob spawn is always up to your team size. You started a mission alone, but suddently a few friends join you and enter the mission : the pack of mobs you'll fight will grow at the same time, accordingly to your new team size. All those mechanics look so obvious when you already know them, you sometime do not understand how they cannot have become mainstream yet. But here they are, and they've been working in CoH for many years already.


But this game has no loot, inventory or craft ?

It's often a critic we can read from people who do not really know the game (or knew it at an early stage), but it's not true. There is some loot, items and craft, they are just not like in most of the other games. The loot system in CoH is not based on items that will change your appareance, because you entirely control your appearance from the costume creator, and believe me it's so much better. It's based around enhancements that modify the way your powers work. Imagine your hero can cast a Fireball for example, well you can decide if you want to slot an enhancement that will boost the damage of your Fireball, or its accuracy, its range, its recharge... That is the enhancement system. And some of those enhancements at higher levels can be extremely powerful, as well as extremely rare and expensive.

The crafting system is related to how you create specific enhancements (called Invention Origin or IOs) and it adds another huge amount of depth to character building. Invention Origin sets allow you to tweak almost everything on a character, his accuracy, the recharge cooldowns of its powers, his running speed, his defense... etc, not only power by power but also on a global level.

The fact that enhancements are not bound to your character creates also a very active economy based on the exchange of rare IO sets and recipes, and marketeering in CoH is a strong part of the game for most veteran players.


(Playing a Claws/Dark Armor scrapper in a mission...)


Perfect ? Nothing is...

Most of the things I've written so far could give the impression that CoH is a perfect game, that has absolutely no flaw. Of course it's not true. The game has its problems, and although they're in some way subjective (what could be a very annoying problem for one person, might be nothing for another one), most people will agree the game has some weak points :

  • Lack of endgame : endgame is actually a relatively recent concept in MMOs (it was not that common before World of Warcraft introduced it). And not every MMO has chosen to go through the level cap raise every year. I really prefer the way CoH has been sticking with its 50 levels until today : in CoH you can actually really finish a character, its gear will not get outdated every 3 months. But it's also true than once your character is 50, and well slotted with the best enhancements available, there is not much left to do. The new player might find there are quite some things, but for the veteran player it's really not that much. Also many players got recently disappointed when they anounced that the new expansion Going Rogue will not add much for the high level characters, but its main new zones will be level 1-20.

  • It's not a PvP game : the PvP is pretty much dead in CoH nowadays. It used to be kind of special, very fast paced, unbalanced, hardcore, with odd mechanics, and it definitely had its fans. But they tried in a catastrophic patch (Issue 13) to make it more casual and more similar to the other games : it utterly failed. Most of the PvP community has quit, and what is left of the PvP system is nowadays barely playable due to much too heavy diminishing returns and counter-intuitive mechanics. And unfortunately, they never had the courage (it takes some...) to revert their changes to the old PvP format.

  • The beginning of the game is not the most fun part, and unfortunately many new players never pass this barrier. When your super-hero is low level (below 20) you do not always feel super. You have weak enhancements at your disposal that do not make much of a difference when you try to tweak your powers, and you often run into annoying endurance problems... The game is so much better past levels 20-30. Also note that their free trial is really limited, it does not allow you to level past level 14 and it will never show you the best side of the game, that's really too bad. It's almost certain however that Going Rogue with its new level 1-20 zones will improve the early game experience. Although I'm not sure if it will be available for trial players, most likely not.

  • The content can feel repetitive for some players : it's highly subjective, but in some ways you could say that most of the missions look the same : enter a building, kill baddies, find and click a glowing item. It's a point where a game like Dungeons & Dragons Online got really original designing unique kind of instances, but that's less the case in CoH. For some players it will not be a problem : Diablo used to have repetitive and randomly generated content and was still highly addictive, for others it will be an issue. You'll have to try it to judge by yourself.


(A Fire/Kinetics Controller is one of the most popular combination in the game...)


Summary (TL;DR)


You should definitely try this game if :

  • You're looking for something new and original, different from the more recent mainstream games.

  • You like customization, and you do not mind spending some time tweaking your character, thinking about your build, studying original and sometime complex game mechanics.

  • You want a team based MMO, and you do not mind repeating similar kind of instanced missions as long as the team dynamics are fun and varied.

  • You like to level many different kind of characters, you also like the idea that you can actually 'finish' a character and move on to another one.


However this game might not be your cup of tea if :

  • You do not like instanced missions, you want an open world and solo quests.

  • You're a 'one character' player, you do not like to reroll and you expect alot of endgame content to keep on playing your main.

  • You're a PvP player, and for you leveling a toon and tweaking it is only a step before competing with other players.

  • You don't want to invest any money in the game and plan to use the free trial only : in this case unfortunately you will not see the best side of the game.

The Fragmentation of MMO communities

Posted by Ambre Tuesday August 10 2010 at 12:12PM
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MMOs have changed. The kind of game we used to play more than 5 years ago is not anymore. Mainly because the players themselves have changed. MMO games have developped a much more casual side and have attracted a whole new population that would not have played the older games. Players more than 5 years ago used to be passionate gamers, and they formed very tight communities. Right now in a MMO there is a whole range of different players not looking at all for the same kind of gaming experience : casual, hardcores, PvErs, PvPers, very young players, older ones, newbies, veterans, couples or families playing together... etc. And all those kind of players don't always mesh well together, they tend to regroup with the people they already know and form smaller closed groups inside a bigger anonymous community.

I was not that long ago excited about Aion's release. Paradoxically I was less excited by the game itself, as I knew it would not be really innovative, but more by being a part of something new : a server community. On older games, people leveled together, used to know each other by chatting and then formed guilds according to their preferences and friendships that were made inside the game. Each new game starting, or new server starting was the opportunity of taking part in something new and meeting other people. There was excitement not only for the game, but also for the community aspects.


(A MMO crowd...)


Those times have changed however, and it's no more what it used to be. Now we see things that would not have made sense at all a few years ago. Guilds recruiting months before the game has even started, not even caring to know who they recruit. Guilds spamming the general chat the first evening on the pre-release to recruit anyone willing to join, just in order to grow fast. Most guildies or group of friends playing together on Teamspeak or Ventrilo totally ignoring the chat or the other players around. What used to be something really open with people eager to meet and know each other has become closed and narrow. If you form a team to complete some group quest nowadays and try to chat with other people you most of the time hit a wall. They just do not care. I'm not talking about the people who cannot write, spell or play decently, they are another issue, but even the most serious and competent players are already at the same time on Teamspeak or Ventrilo talking with their friends or their guild and will just communicate with the rest of the server in a very minimalistic way: 'Hi' and 'bye'.


That's what we can call a fragmentation of the MMO communities. Players tend to regroup with other players of the same kind (playtimes/age/PvE or PvP/old friends... etc), and avoid other interactions. It's the same thing in our modern societies, and there is absolutely nothing you can do against that. I have noticed that most of my good MMO friends also act this way : they're not really interested in meeting other people or interacting with them, they're already happy with our little group of players on Teamspeak where we have a great atmosphere. Still, I feel we miss alot.


There has been those last years such a terrible drop in the MMO communities quality, politeness, helpfulness, generosity having been totally dropped off for much lower quality behaviour standings, you cannot totally blame players for avoiding interactions with random players they do not know. Still, I think it's a mistake. The more you go in that direction, the more fragmented MMO communities become.  We may all end up playing with only 2 or 3 friends when they are online, and alone when they're not, or in guilds where basically noone cares about each other, but just participate in order to get the best gear possible. Feeling alone in a crowd when noone is going to talk to you, but asking for your money, and therefore you're not going to answer to anyone, isn't it what our modern towns have become ? That's not what MMO environments used to be a few years ago, but that is what they're changing into. Anonymous crowds of players running around pursuing their own little interest, only talking to a few already known people.


(An anonymous crowd...)


That's definitely not something we can be happy with. Most of the older players have this syndrom of their 'first MMO where everything looked so shiny and magic', and that they cannot find back. Of course this can be explained as a 'first time' syndrom, that is before things used to get known by heart. And even if it's probably the main reason, it's not the only one in my opinion. Communities used to be more friendly, more eager to communicate, to share things, to experience and play together, to meet other people and make new friends. Each new start, server or game launch was a start from zero, and everything was possible. This played a large part in making the older games full of excitement and adventure, even if they had rough and flawed mechanics compared to our standards today.


I do not see a solution to this change on a global scale, and I do not think there is any. However there is always a solution on a personnal level : sometime unplug your Teamspeak, use your fingers to write, invite players you do not know to party with you and talk to them while partying. I do it often. It's disappointing a large part of the time, I will not lie to you. But for the few very good people I have met this way those last 2 or 3 years, I would do it again if I had to. I will keep on writing to other people in MMO games. Will you too ?


PS : This article was written one year ago, and was never published. Unfortunately I don't think it has become really dated in any way. I just edited a few things before publishing. And to be completely honest I must notice that this last year I've myself become a bit more anonymous and distant  in MMOs with players I do not know already...

Aion so far...

Posted by Ambre Tuesday September 29 2009 at 11:23AM
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Writing about Aion ten days after the headstart, there are two things you want to talk about : the early gameplay, and the queues. Even if most people agree, for now, that the game looks much more polished and attractive that what AoC and WAR were at their release, the very long login queues have made alot of people really mad.

First of all, it seems those long queues happen mostly on EU servers, and no more on the NA ones according to what I read, and for a reason I can not really figure. If I try to login on my server (Vidar) at a peak time I'll get around 2:30 hours of queue, and even sometime it's hard to get in the queue as you keep being rejected by a message saying the server is completely full. For some people it's the sign that Ncsoft totally failed to get a smooth launch, others tend to think that it's a good sign for the game on a longer term. Let's put all this into perspective so that we can understand both points of view.

From the perspective of a guy who works all the day long, come back at home and tries to log in at 7 or 8 pm having just two or three hours of playtime, it's intolerable : he just won't be able to play the game. And it's even worse during the week-end actually. On the other hand from the perspective of someone who has more flexible spare time and can play early in the day or late at night, it's bearable : you just avoid the peak time, or in case you can't you launch the queue, go to do something else and come back 2 hours later. It's too easy to blame other players for not being patient when you're in the second category, and harder not to blame Ncsoft when you're in the first one.

Fortunately I have the chance to be in the second at the moment, and even if my server is one of the most crowded ones, I have managed to stay cool until now about this issue. I tend to think that on the long term it's indeed better for the game : after the hype will be gone, we will certainly have more active servers. It prooves also that the game seems to have a decent success, at least more than what Ncosft expected. Nethertheless I perfectly understand the frustration of many players who feel they have been ripped off from something they paid for. And still, my only interrogation would be : why does it happen mostly on EU servers ? If they had it right on the NA side, I do not see a reason why EU players could not have the same service.


 (Doesnt seem I have to get in a queue there...^^)


I started the first day of the headstart, at 9 pm, and the servers went up right on schedule : I could log in then with a few more hundred people in the first two minutes. The first view I got in the game, and I regret I did not screen it, was like 200 players around the first newbie npc. I was surprised my game did not really lag at this point. And I just realized a few hours later what it really meant and that was big : this game will be stable for large PvP battles. And for anyone who played WAR, AoC, or even WoW's Lake Wintergrasp, that's huge. However that many people around for everything and any quest did not make the game immersive at the headstart. You either wanted to rush in front to avoid the big mass, what I did first on my sorceress, or later to stay behind, but that was not satisfying as more and more people were joining the game anyway. Fortunately Ncsoft had the good idea to offer up to 10 different channels (or instances) for the first newbie zones 1-20. When a mob or a quest item was too much camped you could switch to another channel to keep on going. Actually I cannot imagine how I could have played and enjoyed the game if they did not offer that.


(Clicking on the cute ribbit when 10 other people try to do the same thing each time it spawns does not make it easy...)


I leveled a sorceress up to 19 in the first two or three days, and kinda liked it. I will not insist too much on the gameplay, the quests, it's very classic. If you read this article right now, you probably now already alot about the game. If not, try to imagine WoW with a little touch of Lineage or Korean MMOs and you will get the correct idea. The class I chose felt really good, despise the fact I had to sit a bit too much to my taste to recover my mana while being in a team. As I was a bit ahead of my friends, I decided to try an assassin for a few levels to get an idea of another class and totally enjoyed this class, much more than my first choice actually. The fighting was funnier, more punchy, more dynamic, required a bit more skills in my opinion and no mana downtime in teams, so I decided to stick with my second choice and I have not regreted it yet.

My asmodean assassin is now level 21 and doing fine. I like the game even if it's certainly not a revolution in the MMO genre. It's really solid, well done, the art in the game is fantastic as is the music and the atmosphere. It made me remind that I never really completely enjoyed WoW back when I was playing it for those precise reasons : I never liked its art and music and did not feel that immersed, I mostly played it for its PvP. On the other hand Aion is everything I could dream of as far as graphics, atmosphere and immersion can go, and it reminds me Lineage 2 on those points, but with certainly better mechanics.


(My Assassin...)


(My sorceress...)


However I've been playing a bit less those last two or three days. Since I have reached level 20, there is only one channel for everybody now. Damn it. The first area after level 20 on my server is so crowded that you can barely find a single quest mob, and I found myself logging out twice early in the evening recently just because I did not feel like playing the run around and Ksing game with other players, or chain grinding on non quest mobs in another area. Not a big issue, it will be over soon I guess. Or anyway I plan to catch some friends to team up and grind on the elite mobs as soon as possible.

I had also my two first PvP experiences on my assassin while I was PvEing, each of them involving being rooted, slowed and getting 3 or 4 shot relatively fast by level 30+ people to whom I stood no chance. Not a problem at all, that's the PvP game and it seems it has alot of potential on the long run. I'm more worried about the community at the moment, because unless you play in a big guild on Teamspeak ignoring everyone else in your faction around (that many good players do, and I do not like it as it's not my conception of a MMO), you have to team and cooperate with random players to get things done. And what I have seen so far is a bit less than what I expected in terms of a mature and convivial community. Hopefully it will improve in a month or two. My small guild for now is just 3 friends and me, we are still not sure to recruit more until we decide we will stay on the game at least for a decent amount of time. We will see how it goes.


(Aion's graphics are immersive and gorgeous...)


It has globally been a really solid headstart until now, at least for people who could avoid or stand with the queues. No crash, no bug, no disconnect for me so far, everything is going smooth, but maybe the big and anti-immersive masses of players. You can not complain about that anyway when you participate in a release, that was to be expected especially if the game is successful and that is what everyone hopes it will be. My character is really fun to play at the moment in PvE, and I find it more reactive and punchy than my old WoW rogues. It got a bit slow around level 12-14, but once you pass level 16 you have enough skills and cooldowns to be active most of a fight. The global cooldown being really shorter than WoW's one, it makes for exciting and furious fights. Also contrarily to WoW, you can move around the mob in PvE and gain benefit from that, so it's definitely more fun than standing still in front of it and repeating always the same skill sequence. However I cannot say that it will be as good in PvP later, I have not really gone into that yet.

You can certainly not rate a MMO on its first ten days. It's a bit too early. We need to see much more of it, especially the Abyss and its PvP. But if I had to bet prior to the headstart, I would have actually expected to be disappointed by Aion. And it's not the case. I cannot say I have a blast playing the game, but I certainly do enjoy it. It's a truly beautiful game. Even if it looked so classic and unoriginal on the paper mechanics wise, what they did in this game, they did it really well. The long waiting queues, even if unpleasant, must also mean that alot of people really want to play this game right now. And that's certainly for a reason.


PS : trying to log in the game at 6 pm right now makes for 2 hours of queue. It's definitely going worse as before I could enter in 15-20 mins at this time and the very long queues did not start before 7-8 pm.

DDO : What a good surprise !

Posted by Ambre Thursday September 17 2009 at 10:55PM
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There was one week left before Aoin's release, and nothing really compelling I wanted to play. As I was constantly seeing banners on the forums for this new 'DDO Unlimited' launch, I thought I should give it a try – and yes that's how bad advertising is, it always eventually works.

Dungeons & Dragons Online was first released in 2006 by Turbine (Asheron's Call 1 & 2, and Lord of the Rings Online are other Turbine's main games). Back at this time I didnt pay attention to this release at all, even being an old Dungeons and Dragons PnP fan. Especially as the game did not make people talk about it that much. It soon acquired the reputation of being more of a 'roleplayer' niche game, and something that most true MMO fans should avoid for being heavily instanced.

Turbine recently relaunched the game on a Free-to-Play model under the name 'DDO Unlimited', not exactly free as of course you have to pay to unlock content and special features. Obviously relaunching the game as a F2P, even with more content, doesn't sound that compelling : it's not like the game was successful at all. Nethertheless Turbine did a good job advertising the game this time, and managed to present this relaunch as an opportunity for the game to get his public, rather than a failure and a downgrade. Note that they also sued Atari, DDO's first publisher, for what they claim had been a very lackluster promotion campaign back in 2006.

I asked a few friends if they were ready to give it a try during this break week before Aion, and there we started. Everything began really smoothly : DDO has this great 'Turbine download manager' option that allows you to start creating your character and playing after just 10 mins of download, and continue to play while the manager still keeps downloading the game. I made a female Elf Barbarian, that sounded pretty awful to the min/maxer demon that dwells inside me and may sometimes get the upper hand, and it certainly is. But I thought it looked cool.



I was not hooked instantly in the game. At the start there were some things I did like, and some I did not like at all. First of all the graphics are pretty decent, I personnally like them as they remind me Asheron's Call 2, one of my first MMOs (both games were made by Turbine). The tutorial was good, the action fun from the start, I liked the dungeon's atmosphere even if I thought that could become repetitive really fast.

However I did not like the D&D rules as MMO game mechanics from the start. For example I had to choose many things at my character creation, stats, feats, enhancements, but at the end all I was doing inside a dungeon was letting my left mouse button clicked to hack and slash through mobs that were dieing pretty fast. I had 10 skills on my bar at level 1, but nothing I found useful, mostly short cooldowns I saw no difference at all while I was using them or not. Something the old WoW player who used to manage his 4 bars of skills during intense arena matches finds pretty lackluster.

Nethertheless, dungeon after dungeon, starting to get some gear, more hit points, and playing with friends, the game slowly started to get addicting. It really captured well this old Dungeons & Dragons feeling that was mostly about the aventure, the exploration, but also group dynamics and players interactions around a table. I started also reading on the boards about characters builds, and I found out it was pretty deep and complex.

Even if it doesn't translate in tons of different and cool skills to use for a fighter for example, everything you choose will affect the game in one way or another and the harder it becomes as you level, the more you'll start to understand what you've done right or wrong. There are also tons of ways your choices will affect the way you play your character, as everything happening in there is based on stat rolls, skill rolls, save rolls... etc, but of course at the beginning you certainly fail to understand all that.


(Taverns can be pretty crowded at any hour in this game...)


Basically each quest in the game is an instance, like a dungeon, a cave, or sometime an outdoor map linked to one or several dungeons (which are other instances inside an instance then). Their instancing model is close to Guild Wars actually as you will only meet other players who are not in your team in towns. But as much as I disliked GW's PvE and mostly played their arena PvP, I must say I found everything to be really well done in DDO's instanced PvE. You can redo each quest as much as you want, and unlock higher difficulty modes by completing them. And that's very handy because that means you can always play with your friends, even if you don't have already done the same exact dungeons before, everything is still accessible. However, there are experience diminishing returns so that you will not be tempted to farm always the same easy quest.

You can play solo if you want and hire an henchman to help you, but the game has definitely been made around teamplay, be it with friends or with random players. There are tons of people on Cannith, the server I chose, and mostly what seems to be a very friendly and informative community. It's really easy to find pickup groups there as far as I have seen, as well as people who're willing to help and inform you.

The really fun thing about this game, is that those dungeons feel really different from let's say a WoW instance. They also do feel different one from each other. It's not about bashing mobs and looting them, at least not only. There are tons of things that usually happen there : like solving puzzles, avoiding and disarming deadly traps, spotting hidden hideways, making good jump or tumble rolls when you want to access this remote area... etc. The teamplay is essential there. Sometimes it's ok just to charge and bash, the game is easy at the beginning. However the more you level, the more you need to start to be cautious and think about what you're doing. Because just a single trap can kill you, or a caster boss can hold you and two shoot you with nasty spells if you let him cast alone behind his minions. There you start to see how those tons of resist or special potions, scrolls and wands can be helpful, as well as the tons of skills and enhancements you have to build for your toon.


(Some of those traps can one shoot you on higher difficulty settings, and not going with a rogue you must be very careful...)


By the way DDO is the first MMO I ever played that actually doesn't reward you for killing mobs at all, and that's quite an innovation. The progression and the experience your character gains are entirely objective based. That means you can choose to play a stealthy character that is going to skip most of the encounters to go directly to the main objective and it's totally fine. It makes for a great diversity of playstyles, and the more you go through the different styles of missions, as well as the endless possibilities to build your character, the more you start to see the really strong points of DDO.

I was actually surprised by the ton of content there is in the game. I actually thought the tutorial starting town was the main town, but it gets much bigger once you get to Stormreach the capital. The dungeons also start to be more complex, to feel different, some of them with scripted stories and so far I have not had this 'being there done that' feeling that so often goes along with quest based MMOs. Neither has some npc asked me to bring him back 10 wolf tails. Even if I must admit that mostly playing in a team I rarely read quest dialogs, what you're supposed to do is really different from one adventure to another. It has just been 3-4 days of gameplay however, and that's for sure to early to know if the game does or does not really get repetitive later.

The max level in the game is 20, each level being divided in 5 ranks. Each rank you get an action point to spend for new new enhancements to your main feats and skills, each level you become globally stronger and gain more hit points as well as new feats, new spells for casters, and sometime stat points. The progression level wise is much slower than what you get used in other games however, but the ranks make up for that. If you reach level 5 in the game, you have already achieved something and seen some content.

The combat system is quite good too and really fast paced. It's close to Age of Conan as you don't have to target a mob to hit it, you just hit what is in front of you, and sometime that's more than one mob if they're closed to each other. And I must say that AoEing large packs of kobolds with some good greatsword swings is a lot of fun. The hit points and spell points regeneration is special however as you cannot regain them like in the other games : you need to find rest stones for that, or get healed or recharged by spells or potions. Sometime you have to attack this room full of kobolds with only half your hit points, while your healer has only one or two heals left, and it can be quite a challenge. It also makes for something really original and different once you pass on the annoying factor that it's not like in every other MMO you have played before - yes, we're all conservative in the first place, and need to be convinced when facing something new.


(Making your way through Kobolds and Troglodytes is always fun...)


Once you reach level 4 or 5, you quickly understand however that the 'free' model was too good to be true. Getting to the next area after Stormreach Harbor, you will find most of the quests to be locked. There are still a few you can do with a free account, but for most of the content you need either to pay in the cash shop to unlock adventures packs, or to get a VIP month. Well, nothing that shocking and we cannot blame Turbine either for that, they have to pay for their bills, their servers and also make some money from their game eventually. And I think their payment model is quite well thought actually. If you unlock for example a new race or a content pack from their cash shop you get it bound to your account for life. Or if you choose to pay 15$ a month, you get everything unlocked, but just for one month. So it's either F2P or P2P, you choose. But at the end, you still have to pay to fully enjoy the game.

I must say that I had so much fun in the game those last three evenings that I would have instantly subscribed for a month if there wasn't Aion's release coming in a few days. Now that's quite a dilemna. I will probably rather keep on playing DDO this end of the week on a free account, then move to my Aion's preorder (most of my friends preordered too) and see how it goes. If I don't like Aion that much for one reason or another, I will definitely go back to see more of DDO, and this time with a VIP month pass. Anyway in the worse case scenario, I'll be long of two good MMO games to play with, and that's certainly not that an unfortunate position.

I must say that DDO is really a refreshing experience I did not expect at all. At the same time it did a great job to recapture the spirit of the 'Dungeons & Dragons' pen & paper game sessions as they were played a long time ago, it also feels like something original in the MMO genre compared to the other games out there. Definitely something you should give a try if you're short of anything good to play, and can gather a few friends to go with you.

To sum it up, you should definitely check DDO if :

-You're looking for something different from the mainstream MMOs and you don't mind to loose some of your usual routines for a game that has its own depth and complexity.
- You like to spend alot of time thinking about your character development and your build choices.
- You like to party with other players, either friends or random people.
- You like exploration in MMO games, you like also being surprised, or have to think about how to complete a quest or mission.


However you're less likely to enjoy it if :

- You're looking for something standard that will not be too complex or too long to get into.
- You don't like the possibility that your character may be gimped due to bad creation and leveling choices, and that you may have to restart it.
- You like to solo alot while leveling, you don't want to PuG.
- You don't like instanced games, you prefer to play in an open world the whole time.
- You like PvP and don't want to play a pure PvE game.


New MMO games : has it become riskier not to take risks ?

Posted by Ambre Wednesday September 16 2009 at 12:25PM
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First of all I must say I got the idea of this article by reading a recent interview of Ragnar Tornquist on Eurogamer. Ragnar is the lead designer of Funcom's next MMO : The Secret World. At a point in the interview Eurogamer asked him if he thinks it has become riskier not to take risks when developping a new MMO game. In other words : giving players the same old thing that already exists elsewhere without trying to be too much innovative. Ragnar said he definitely thinks so, he also explained that they started to work on their next game as something close to WoW, mechanics wise, but on a different setting and universe. Then later they drastically changed their way, going for a game without levels for example, trying to be more original and different.

I can already see some of you with radar warnings flashing on : 'Funcom', 'Age of Conan', 'Alert' ! I know several people who played the Age of Conan release, were utterly disappointed and felt like they've been ripped off. And they're certainly right in some way. I tend to think however that those guys are professionnals, and have certainly learnt from their mistakes. Actually if I had to bet money, I would rather put it on Funcom's next game, than on a totally unknown new company. By the way the article is quite interesting, and the game's lore and universe look appealing. Of course, we'll have to play the game before being able to say anything for sure, and this one will probably need a few more years of development.


Back on our topic : has it become riskier not to take risks ? What would mean precisely 'to take risks'. If you have read my previous article about Richard Bartle's theory, you know what I call a 'weak feature' in a MMOG. It's a feature which tends to restrain an aspect of the game in a very definite and controllable corridor. That is actually a slightly different definition to the one I gave previously, which was Richard Bartle's definiton, but I need also to keep you guys interested with new ideas and concepts sometimes, not repeating always the same things ;)

One way to evaluate and understand a MMO is its inner dualism between freedom versus control. On one hand you need to make your players free: they're not watching a movie, they want to feel they achieve something on their own, they may take decisions that affect their future in the game, as well as the future of others. On the other hand, as a developper, you can't let everyone totally free and everything be done. You need to keep things working as intended in one way or another, and you can't let your game being spoiled because you have let players exploit it too easily.

Richard Bartle defined 'weak features' as being introduced by MMO companies under the pressure they have to necessarily attract newbies in order to succeed. He says they make the game easier and more appealing on the short-term, but remove alot of depth and possibilities on the longer term. Some examples of weak features : a death without penalty, an instanced PvE end game, items bind on pick up, a linear leveling quest system. All those features make your game less exploitable, in other words more controllable. If for example you could loose xp, stats or items by dying in your game, you would be likely to see some griefing and player killing going around, therefore players complaining about it, casuals feeling they cannot defend themselves fairly against hardcore... etc. On the other hand, if there is no penalty for death, and you can't drop any of your items, you make sure nothing of that can happen. In one way or another all those weak features tend to compartmentalize the game : they make sure nothing really bad can happen. On the other hand, they make less likely that anything really exciting can happen too.

Have you read the recent news in EVE Online ? The biggest player made bank in the game having to freeze all the accounts after its CEO stole a big part of their fundings. Or several others in the same vein recently. This is the kind of news you will never see in World of Warcraft : it would be more about how the last hardcore guild killed all the new expansion bosses even before it was released, or about some random guild drama, but that's nothing so exciting anyway. That's the difference between a game which has chose freedom over control, as opposed to one which went the opposite way.

What I call taking risks in a MMO game is definitely giving players more freedom, more possibilities than what they have been accustomed to. This freedom can be used for the best, and sometime also for the worse as we said: it's definitely risky from a game developper perspective. I don't call taking risks on the other hand, putting blue exclamation and question marks above NPC heads instead of yellow ones. The last sentence is ironic of course, but you certainly see what I mean there. In other words I don't call taking risks making a new shiny MMO, with great graphics like Age of Conan or Aion, but with already very well-known gameplays and game mechanics. Let's be clear : those guys take risks of course, there are millions of dollars on the table, their game may be a success or not ! But on the innovation side, and as an answer to what is really an MMORP game, they definitely chose to take as fewer risks as they could.

1. Developpers have become too cautious, want to keep almost everything under control in their game, and therefore keep players in very narrow grinding corridors.
2. Taking risks, on the contrary, would be to allow players to do things they couldnt do in their previous games, not the opposite.
3. That is more freedom, less control.


I often take World of Warcraft as a reference of the 'weak features' aggregation model and 'control freak' it is in my articles. Still I have to say I have nothing against WoW. I really think it's a great game. You may enjoy it or not, but at least from a commercial point of view, you have to recognize they must have done something right to get their 10M+ subscribers. They took what already existed before, fashioned it in a new and more accessible way and made a very well polished, simple, and addicting game. Let them enjoy their success for years and years.

However when every other game being released tries to be 'another WoW', instead of going their own original path they should have gone in the first place, that starts to be annoying. Especially when you have already played WoW for a few years, and have become bored of it. Too bad for you if it's your case, you've got spoiled for ninety percent of the recent MMO games on the market. Copying WoW has unfortunately been the trend of those last 3 years, without any success we may say, and it seems developpers start to understand it may have not been a good idea. I might be wrong. but I really hope they do. We as players already have WoW if we want to play it anyway. If we want to play another game, we'd better get something different. And that's not really what we got those 3 last years for sure.


What would mean 'riskier not to take risks' ? That would be game developpers thinking they have to be truly innovative to succeed today. That they can't just release another game with the same exact mechanics as what has been already done dozens of times and hope to get their share of the pie : because being unoriginal in your core game mechanics would mean to be more likely to fail than to succeed.

As I said in a previous article, I think we are witnessing a growing maturity of the playerbase, more and more players not wanting the same old thing again, and developpers might have spotted that. But I'm not sure actually they got the whole freedom vs control concept. Innovation can also be done inside the over-controlled scheme, that is still with instanced PvE, instanced PvP, bind on pickup items... and everything else on the list. It's still better than no innovation at all of course. But you can remove levels and experience for a skill based game for example while keeping everything very linear and under close control, that's possible. And I really think the key point is the freedom you give to your players. You have to accept at some point that things may go wrong in your game, you just can't control everything and on the contrary should be pleased for the initiatives your players take. Because great things may happen in your game too, those that make you proud you gave to your players the possibility to make those things happen.

And I tend to think that nowadays every good new MMO game should try to be more of a 'sandbox' than a 'themepark' if compared to what has been done those last years (two other words to represent the freedom vs control opposition). Remember more than ten years ago, when we had Ultima Online. We were just at what we thought was the very beginning of an exciting adventure full of promises. But when the next games being realeased actually allowed you to do less and less than the previous ones, there was definitely something wrong going on. They tried to compensate by giving you more to watch, and make it more polished and shiny. But that's just an illusion, at the end you're still not the one taking the decisions, not the one fashioning your game experience and surroundings to your own image. You're only the one watching a pre-thought and pre-calculated movie of your character following very narrow paths and grinding corridors.

Sandbox doesn't necessarily mean hardcore PvP, and random PKs as some people may fear, you could also make great sandbox PvE games, why not. It's all about giving you, the player, some choices, some meaningful decisions affecting your game, affecting the lore, which are not only 'should I go for elf or human for my character ?'. And I have a feeling that those paths have not been enough explored yet, if some of them have ever been explored at all. We're definitely playing one of the most exciting gaming genre that has ever been invented since chess and poker. Please game developpers and designers, please don't close the chapter... not yet. There must be much more to experience before we can say the genre is closed, if we may ever say that.

RMTs : they have already won

Posted by Ambre Friday September 11 2009 at 1:02PM
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RMTs have always been a very controversial matter in MMO games. They used to be considered as cheating by most of the playerbase. But more recently the free-to-play games using RMTs as payment basis have become more and more popular, and some big names have started to introduce RMTs also, but in a more disguised way.

What does RMT stand for exactly ? Real Money Transactions. It's primarily about buying in-game money, items or any meaningful advantage in a virtual game with real money, other than your monthly subscription fee of course.


Let's face it. For many people who have a job, or some kind of income, 15$/month as a subscription fee is not expensive at all. It's even pretty cheap considering the time you can spend in a MMO game. When you go out for a night, take a few drinks, or even go for a restaurant, it's likely to cost you much more than that. On the other hand if you spend the evening on your favorite MMO, it will cost almost nothing. Even if you figure in the PC cost you have to change once every few years, your internet and electricity bills, MMO games could be one of the cheapest kind of entertainment you might find actually.

But that's counting without the money some are ready to pay to add to their enjoyment. Recently I was reading free-to-play MMOs boards. They're not free of course, everyone knows that those games are designed so that if you get into them you'll have to spend money one day or another, or you'll be put at a serious disadvantage. I was surprised to read in a post a guy saying he had just spent 2000$ the last 4 months on his game, and being angry by the way because he felt the customer service wasn't responsive enough compared to the price their items had cost him. Another post, about an husband and his wife starting a new F2P (or free-to-play), the guy said that prior to even starting playing the game he had already bought for 400$ cash shop currency to be sure they would have enough during their leveling.

Actually I'm pretty sure you and I would be surprised to know exactly how many people do spend $ for in game virtual currencies or advantages, other than the games subscription fees, and how much some of them may spend. And it's certainly nothing new. The account selling business has been available since the very beginning of MMOs, and those can be pretty expensive (200-500$ and sometime more).


In other words, a MMO game has much more potential money to take from its rich and addicted players than a 15$/month sub, that's for sure.

Until recently all this money went to the gold-sellers and farmers companies like IGE, or the people who were quitting a game and selling their accounts. It has been estimated that the global world business of virtual gaming items and currencies had a 9 digit figure, that is several hundred of millions dollars each year. Of course the game companies started to figure how they could get a part of this money for themselves, and even if they're not that sure yet they want it, their shareholders might not be long to convince them.

Let's sum it up :

1. Many players can afford much more than 15$/month for their favorite MMO.
2. This total money represents at least several hundred millions $ per year on a global basis.
3. Game companies logically want a part of this money, if not the totality.



Do you really think Blizzard needs you to transfer to another server, or to change your name ? It's a service they offer that they advertise on their main site. They wouldn't advertise for something they're reluctant to give you, would they ? No of course, they make alot of money from this actually. And think about it : it is extremely helpful for people who buy and trade accounts. They already spent several hundreds $ to buy this new and shiny level 80 character account, they will certainly need to change its appearance, and transfer it to a new server under a new name. Blizzard doesn't mind at all actually, especially as long as they can sell the new account holder expensive services on the way. That's how they cleverly get a part of the global RMT money, favorizing it in a way, but without giving it any form of recognition, and not impacting their game too much either. Of course alot of other players might be tempted to change their name or server also, and for that Blizzard will gladly take the money too.

Recently they added a faction change service, that means you can transfer from alliance to horde or vice versa, and then select the race you want on the other side provided it's compatible with your class. They also announced they plan to add a race change service in the same faction very soon.

Are those really RMTs one could argue ? Sure they are : they offer something meaningful in the game, against real money. But they don't give an unfair advantage compared to those who can't purchase them, right ? That would be really unpopular if it was really the case, and of course it's still not like they're selling you epic items or leveling services, no, not yet.

But you can look at it this way. Imagine for example you and a friend play characters at the max level, and decide to join some other friends who play on a different server different side at max level too. Let's say you have some cash to spend, and your friend can't afford it. You'll be able for 30$ to switch your character to the other side, and then still will need a 25$ transfer (how petty Blizzard !) to join your new server. Your friend will have to relevel 1-80 all the way long, that will take him a few weeks or months according to his play times. He will then just be in greens while you'll have your shiny level 80 character with all its epics for just 55$, a bargain ! Is it not an advantage you got over him ? It certainly is.

I'm not judging Blizzard or anyone here, just stating facts. I used to play WoW alot. It happened once I had friends playing on a different faction and server. I would have been very happy to have this faction transfer service back then, or to be able to change my Troll mage into a Blood Elf on my main server. I would certainly have moaned about the cost, but I would have liked Blizzard for implementing those nethertheless. And I can tell you, Blizzard would have liked me for buying them too.



Blizzard is not alone on this business, and there are several different models that are being tested. SOE tried to get more than server transfers and characters renames by adding cash shops into their games, selling fluff, average stuff and other small advantages. They got alot of bad publicity for that. They obviously went too far, too fast. Players are not ready to accept cash shops in MMOs having already a subscription fee, and certainly for good reasons. We can't be sure however that this won't be standard one day or another. EVE Online went another successful way (yes, these guys seem to do everything right) allowing people to buy and sell the month subscription for in game money, that's another way to sell in game money for cash money while keeping the economy overall balanced.

What would be the limit people would tolerate right now ? Could Blizzard sell you class changing ? Or the possibility to start your character directly at level 55 like the heroic class ? Those look like the next logical steps if they continue to push their RMT model further. Would people really complain, or would they praise Blizz for that ? As someone ironically posted on the boards recently and he made me laugh, 'Blizzard could add the RMTs they want, people would still defend them and say they're more polished'. Personnally I think those things are meant to come, it's just about time.


One thing is sure however that noone is going to argue about. If for one reason or another, your favorite MMO company could not charge you a cent for any of the extra services or transfers, those would never have been implemented in the first place. Instead they would be giving you very logical and well-thought reasons why they think all of this would be really bad for the game ;)

First steps on Aion

Posted by Ambre Thursday September 10 2009 at 4:19PM
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Ok, I said I wasn't going to play the beta, mainly because I didnt want to spoil my pleasure on the release, by knowing already the quests and areas. Obviously I changed my mind. Reading some of my friends testing and commenting about the game wanted me to just have a look inside.


And it was a good move. First of all, I found out the Elyos starting zone, characters, as well the global ambiance a bit underwhelming (I was about to play on this side and to convince my friends to play Elyos too). I don't know really why, but the first two levels there made me more think about a korean version of "Little house on the prairie", than a true PvP fantasy game. I felt like I was playing another free-to-play generic MMO, and that's never good, especially when you have already tried 45 of those, without any kind of success, in your moments of MMO boredom and despair.

Secondarily, the sound of my scout hitting mobs with her dagger got on my nerves after 5 kills, I tried to tweak the sound settings without any success : I was certainly not on the right track to play her 48 levels more, or even 8 more... (I had planned to go Ranger, or maybe Assassin).

Then I had the clever idea to create an Asmodean mage on another server, and it was like night and day ! First of all, the asmodean atmosphere looked much more original and therefore more immersive to me. My character there looked much better also, I felt as being an Asmodean, she had more personnality and charism than what I could achieve on the Elyos side... Well I guess I was born to be an asmodean in this game ;)


(Enjoy this screen, it was a tall order to take one with my mac keyboard, gameguard blocking everything to remap the PrintScreen key...)


Surprisingly also the game looked much more like WoW than Lineage 2 to me : environment, controls, UI, quests, spell casting... etc. On the other hand the characters design and art are much closer to L2, and that's good news.

The game has a great overall fluidity, skills responsiveness... etc. It reminded me of WAR, but as an opposite. That's exactly the kind of gameplay experience I was expecting from WAR the first time I logged into with a Dark Elf sorceress. No need to say I was utterly disappointed back then as I found everything to be choppy, clunky and even kinda rubbish. It's not the case in Aion where I feel the game has been very well done.


(A screen about the "griphon-like flight" in Aion... that just looks truly awesome ! On 1680x1050 it makes for a great desktop wallpaper)


It's of course too early to judge or review the game, but my first impression is really positive (on the Asmodean side). But for the moment it's more about how I enjoyed the first levels, than what I think the game is going to be. I don't really expect much about Aion's PvE : best case scenario it will be like WoW, worst case scenario... It will be like WoW ;)

I need first to experience the PvP there, as well as the teamplay and also find out how mature and friendly the community will be before being able to say if I really like the game or not. My mage (future sorceress at the release) is level 8 at the moment and I won't probably play her much above level 10 during the beta I think.


More news to come if I keep on playing a bit the beta, to do a few more levels or maybe to try new classes.