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Completely random ideas and thoughts about MMO games, design, theory, and the industry itself.

Author: Coldren

De-Railed: From World of Warcraft to Darkfall – Babystep Interruptus

Posted by Coldren Monday January 25 2010 at 12:13PM
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[Author's Note: This is the second part to what I hope to be a continuing series of blog posts here at about my experience with Darkfall.]

I keep telling people I have bad luck. I don’t mean “never wins the lottery” or “missed a bus by 2 minutes” bad luck - That kind of bad luck I could deal with. But no, it can’t be that simple. My bad luck tends to be nuclear-grade bad luck. In those 2 examples, it would be far closer to the reality of it all to say “Can’t even win a game of Bingo with all but the center square filled in” or “Gets on the bus, only to have it stall, tires burst, and then explode into flames because of a freak combination of baking soda and vinegar.”

People far too optimistic keep saying “There’s no such thing as bad luck, it’s all in your head, blah, blah blah”. I wonder when people will start believing me.

And so it was that on my inaugural weekend with Darkfall, there were so many connection problems with the North American servers that they are reimbursing us for the down time. Due to the fact that it happened late in the evening (EST) Saturday/Sunday Morning when I have the most available time (Wife is asleep.. QUIET DOG!), the review won’t be quite as steeped in playtime as I had hoped. However, what I have experience thus far has more than enough substance to get this series of posts started. We’ll start with some basics of the game itself – Setup, installation, character creation, and the client.

Account Setup:
The setup of my Darfkall account was uneventful. I had no problems with my credit card, the website functioned flawlessly, and it was easy to do. It’s standard MMO-faire from this perspective.

Download and Installation:
If there was a bit-torrent alternative, I didn’t find it. The download of the setup executable was a few megs, and went by fairly quickly. Setup required that you download some versions of .NET and some Developer Kits so that you could run the program. This is a bit unnerving, but alright, I’ll go with the flow. From there on, it’s a typical patcher, so make sure you have about 9 or so hours on a DSL connection to download the remaining several gigs of the client.

Character Creation:
In case you didn’t know, you get one and only one character for the one and only one server you can access at this time. Don’t worry about skills and whatnot though, because you can theoretically cap every single skill on one character, so alt’s aren’t really required.

If there is any benefit to one race, stat or ability wise, I didn’t see it. It might be there and I just missed it, but there’s no highlight to tell you the major differences aside from aesthetics or alignment, since some races are naturally aligned with others. I almost always pick human, and this time was no exception.

The character creator is average. You have a few hair facial designs, a few hair colors, and a few optional pieces of jewelry. It wasn’t bad, but it’s certainly nothing of the caliber of Aion or just about any game by Cryptic, but I personally have no problem for that. It was good enough for my tastes. I’d almost say it still had more options than World of Warcraft.

The Client:
It should be noted that throughout all of my gameplay, the client itself did not crash once. The only times it did crash was when the server itself went down, or when my DSL connection died. It has so far been remarkably stable.

Connectivity and Movement:
When I COULD connect to the game, it has a pretty consistent low ping. I did however notice hitching or screen lag when fighting and sometimes moving. It's noticeable, but not game-breaking. I use a Geforce GTX 260 graphics card (No SLI) and the movement and animations were fairly fluid, even at higher video settings. Some, however, might feel they are a bit primitive. (I've heard people state somewhere that it seems like characters have a broom stuck up their.. well.. You know).

The World:
The first thing I noticed after signing in is the graphic style. I can’t quite put my finger on them. They’re just… Different. It’s almost like it’s a cell-shaded style with a hybrid of rendered textures. It’s a very unique blend, and something that honestly hasn’t been captured by any Youtube video I’ve ever seen of the game. Personally, I find them quite nice. It looks like it was designed to be nicely stylized, but low in Polygons. You really have to see it on your screen to understand.

There are some nice shadow effects, and the environment feels right. I swear that those trees are swaying in the wind. The water effects, while not spectacular, are unique in that it looks like the water is crashing on the shores, ebbing and flowing. The starter area of Heart of Eanna was my chosen location – A small fortress town on a peninsula surrounded by a forked river, and mountains beyond. It was nicely detailed and suited my palate just fine. Some people, however, might not like the style of the game, but it’s a matter of personal taste.

The Interface:
The biggest shock, barrier of entry, or deterrent from the game for me so far is the interface. As has been mentioned before, it’s probably among if not the weakest technical link in Darkfall. Here are some of the “Gotcha’s” I’ve noticed:

1) Controls – It makes sense that since Darkfall has an awful lot in common with an FPS (I swear, the more I think about it, it IS an FPS with different skills and armor in it) that the controls would be similar. For those of you like me who never play FPS games,there's a steep learning curve ahead of you.

You have your sprint, strafing, crouch, and jump buttons, and left click shoots/swings. This is awkward from the WoW standpoint, because the process to actually use an ability is at least a three step process, possibly four:

Equip the Weapon (Hotbar)
Unsheath the Weapon (R Key)
Optional: Select the ability or spell (Hotbar)
Left Click to fire/swing

All of this has to be done while moving and aiming. Now when you are done killing, to actually loot something, you have to sheathe your weapon, press H, drag and drop each individual item to your backpack (No right-clicking to loot), then unsheathe your weapon again. And since you can only have 10 slots per bar, you’ll be shift+num’ing a lot for spells, attacks based on weapon equipped, and general skills like “Rest” and “Bindstone Recall”.

Between switching weapons (melee, bow, staff) and using all of the related abilities related to whatever weapon you’re using, your real-life dexterity score needs to be a bit higher for Darkfall than it is for WoW.

2) The Quickbar – “Clickers” take note: You can’t click the hotbar anymore. Whenever you right-click to be able to use your mouse for anything but aiming, pressing on the hotbar will do you no good from what I have tried.. Come to think of it, haven’t tried putting potions on it.. I’ll look into that.

3) Chat Windows – By default, there are quite a few of them, separated into two groups, each with different tabs. There’s Race, Race Alliance, Public, Clan, and Monster. I’m not certain, but I think “Public” is the equivalent of “/Say”. I really don’t understand the reasoning behind not using the tried-and-true method of /s, /gu, /p, /as that every other MMO has. As it stands, you have to manually change tabs.

4) The Map - I understand exploration and making it take actual effort to get to know the lay of the land and the world, but I really don't think it would hurt if towns and cities were labeled on the world map at all times. It would also be nice if you could create markers (Can you?) to note monster spawn locations, as they are quite scattered and only indicated on the map when you have a corresponding quest.. And walking and searching, while it sometimes can be fun and exhilarating when you find something new, can feel tedious when you go great lengths of time without finding anything.

5) No UI Scaling - You can re-size windows, but you can't scale the content, which results in a lot of scrolling. It would be nice if I could actually scale the UI so it's less obtrusive and easier to read. It should be noted, you can make elements of the UI hidden and only appear when you right-click, but I'd like to have some things open but smaller at all times.

6) Skill/Stat Monitoring - Along the lines of number 5, it would be nice if there were some window or GUI that you could drag and drop skills and stats on so you can monitor their gains as you play. Sure, you can right click and have a whole mess of other GUI's open, but again, it'd be nice to simply have the option and for everything I like to monitor, I'd see nothing else when I right-clicked.

The UI is probably the thing I think needs to be updated the most, so far, to prevent people who come from games like WoW from signing on, then signing off in frustration. If you liked WoW's UI and won't settle for anything less, Darkfall is going to be a tough sell for you. For me personally, it's something I can get used to, but it needs to be far more accessible from a usability perspective to be feasible to a larger market. The challenge of the game should be the mechanics, not the controls.

Speaking of mechanics, in my next article, I’ll talk about the mechanics of gameplay itself, the community, and why I was NEW for (only) a day.

Thanks for reading!

De-Railed: From World of Warcraft To Darkfall

Posted by Coldren Thursday January 21 2010 at 1:08PM
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[Author's Note: This is the introduction to what I hope to be a continuing series of blog posts here at about my experience with Darkfall.]

It's a common topic of conversation here at, and indeed, almost any site that talks about MMO development or just  in general - Sandbox vs. Theme Park.  Open worlds with few restraints as apposed to a well thought-out and meticulously guided path.

Most games released after the earth-shattering success of World of Warcraft (WoW) follow a similar path, one well traveled and straight. They tend to guide the user with pre-defined classes through carefully constructed zones, formulaic advancement with minor variation in the form of quests and sub-specializations, culminating in an "End Game" consisting of raids requiring groups of people, item advancement, or carefully controlled or at least segregated PvP (Or RvR). All of this is usually accompanied by what I would consider by most standards to be fairly easy-to-use and/or customizable interfaces, a plethora of tools to aid the advancement process such as maps and quest indicators, and some form of rapid transportation (Not including mounts).  It's a complete package, usually wrapped in high-definition or stylistic graphics, shadows, and polished animations... Well, the good ones anyway. They're fun, easy to play, and the only real barrier of entry to any activity is time and contacts. I've seen some of the worst players in gear better than me, either carried by guilds or friends I can't say, or simply are persistent and available enough to excel beyond what I had achieved.

And you know what? There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. You have to be pragmatic about it, especially when considering the 8-ton mega gorilla. If no one enjoyed it, or no one thought they could compete with WoW, or no one thought money could be made by emulating it, it simply wouldn't happen. But money talks, and by and large, there is still money to be made off of these types of games. For all their differences and the constant debates, flaming, and fanaticism, games like Aion, Warhammer Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and even underdogs like Vanguard: Saga of Heroes or the aging Dark Age of Camelot are still with us today, in the same arena as WoW, and turning enough of a profit not to be shut down yet and in some cases are still growing. Sorry Tabula Rasa... We hardly knew ye.

But it wasn't always as thus. I should know - I'm old enough to remember.  My online gaming addiction started back with MUDs like Usurper and Legend of the Green Dragon. I started UO the first month after release, and it was a revelation - A gaphical MUD with almost as much depth! I was smitten. It was open and free, amazing complexity, no classes, lots of tools for RP'ing, and a cohesive world helped foster a sense of immersion that in some ways for me exceeded MUDs. You could take an axe, cut a tree and get logs, or use a dagger on a tree and get branches! Then make a camp fire! Amazing! Learning in what ways you could interact and use objects in the world was almost as important as what skills you chose - Did you know boxs placed on the ground in a row in a narrow passageway could stop skeletons from getting to you, creating a temporary safe haven? Yeah, eventually they fixed that, but it was damn cool at the time! I think someone even took the time to wall in Trinsic, keeping people who didn't have Teleport/Unlock  or Lock Picking in or out by putting walls of boxes filled with heavy ore and then locking them on my server...

True, there were some aspects I didn't like or understand why it would be allowed at the time, like PK'ing and dry looting with no consequences (Before stat loss), but I accepted the fact that it was these relatively unpleasant aspects that helped the world feel alive.  To this day, despite all of the changes the game has seen in its 12 years of operation,  for better or worse, it is in my mind the epitome of what a Sandbox should be. It was about exploration of the world, how you interacted with objects and people, and learning how to create templates for fun or function.

Dark Age of Camelot was my next game, and it was there that I came to enjoy PvP. Weather or not it was a lack of skill or my age, I never quite got into PvP in UO. DAoC was great stepping stone into that world because most of the time, you were fighting with others in a group - Soloists who survived for any amount of time were few, and often very skilled or had the right class to do it.   By using classes, it taught you the value of skills and item templates, even if they were restricted by class. The other side of that  was it was also here that I came to really understand how the balance of skills and abilities affect things in ways I never comprehended when I played UO.

Then of course came WoW. What really needs to be said here? It is a great, well designed game for what it is. Weather or not you like the style or method of which they implement things in the game is a matter of personal taste, and if you can't recognize and respect the level of skill, detail, and polish they have put into almost every feature and class in that game (Even if some of those things are heavily repeated and only slightly modified), then you're quite frankly, a rebel with out a cause.

But I feel, for me, the theme park has run it's course. Again, don't get me wrong, I've tried a lot of theme parks. DAoC, WoW, WAR, Tabula Rasa, Aion.. All have their fun rides and attractions. But eventually, the rides all feel familiar, and you're ready to try something new, or go back to something old.

But when you look around, options are limited. UO is still around, and it's still a great sandbox, but it feels like the game is simply buying time until it closes its doors, which will indeed be a loss to the entire MMO community, even if it lives on in the form of Free Shards.

Which of course brings me to Darkfall. I have to come clean here. I was one of those people who used to think the title was vaporeware. I always thought the concept was solid, but to be frank, after it's original annoucement some 6-8 years before it launched, I had no confidence that it would ever see the light of day. And the fanaticism and zealotry of it's followers who defended something that seemed to have every red flag to indicate it would never be released, the repeated delays and unkept promises by Tasos, and migration to Greece didn't help foster any good-will towards the game, or give me pause to rethink my position. It was a game that quite literally, until released, consisted solely of faith.

But as history has shown, I  was wrong, and the game is very real, and I can admit to that. That was the past. This is now. The game has been with us for almost a year now, and from every indicator, it's fulfilling it's niche role better with every patch.

So come with me, if you will, as I begin a journey and explore the world of Darkfall. You'll laugh, I'll cry, and for however long this journey might be, hopefully you'll be entertained and informed. I'll do my best to show you the good, the bad, and the ugly from someone who isn't "hardcore" or even a thoroughbred PvP'er (I don't even play FPS games!) .  My first "Days" experience will be hopefully posted soon, but play time and posting time is limited, so bare with me.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you keep reading!

Tell Me A Story

Posted by Coldren Friday January 30 2009 at 2:32PM
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The art of storytelling is one that is vastly underscored in modern society, particularly in America from my point of view. I can’t speak for other cultures, as I am not a world-weary traveler, but certainly in the good ole US of A, it seems to me that a good story teller is hard to come by.

With the evolution of the printed press leading up to the current digital age, the art has degraded from one of nuance, context, and finesse, to bite-sized snippets of supposedly factual statements linked together in an easily digestible form for the voracious masses to consume, and almost ultimately forget, with little effort to make this knowledge memorable. The depth, differentiation, and culture which used to be so important to a story’s legacy has given way to brevity, homogenization, and sterilization so as not to offend our highly evolved and delicate political sensibilities, and to ensure it can be digested within the limited time frames our “busy” life-styles can support.

Long gone are the days of elders gathering children around the camp fire, regaling them with a tale of an ancestor’s great battles, achievements, or simply their own heritage with the tone and inflection that would inspire, frighten, and awe them, creating a memorable experience so that the knowledge bequeathed to them might be passed down from generation to generation. Weather the stories were factual or fictional, for thousands of years this was mankind’s primary source of knowledge.

In its stead, we now have television, movies, Google, Wikipedia, comic books, and the occasional archaic volume of printed text which fewer and fewer individuals can be bothered to trouble themselves with. Fast-paced mediums for a fast-paced world

Now there are many perfectly valid arguments one could make at the behest of these “new technologies”, and they would not be wrong. Certainly, there are many advantages to the rapid and structured rendition of knowledge, and there are certainly advantages to sterility in the name of accuracy. But am I alone in thinking that the more we sacrifice at the altar of accelerated learning, the less memorable and more insignificant it all seems?

I find the more I play modern games, MMO and single player, the more I pine for a memorable story. This is not to say that there is an absence of good stories to be told, but it always as if the method in which they are structured and delivered seems to lend itself to being easily forgettable.

With MMO’s in particular, maybe it’s because the players are more or less relegated to spectators – There participation is inconsequential, their influence absent. You could state that virtual persistent worlds (i.e., Sandbox MMO’s) allow for players to influence the world far more than theme parks (Linear MMO’s such as World of Warcraft), but to date, does anyone really feel they can make a significant contribution to their virtual world?

If you were to ask me where the future of the modern MMO lies, it’s in storytelling. The first MMO to really give its players a persistent world where their impact is tangible will tap into a thus far unappreciated and relatively ignored market. When it gives each player the ability to tell their own story, and another the ability to be a part of it, static, development-directed content will be far less necessary in the right conditions.

What’s a good story worth? To paraphrase a quote from the end of The Kingdom of Heaven: “Nothing…Everything.”

The MMO Industry: Coding, Ideas, and Reality

Posted by Coldren Tuesday January 13 2009 at 2:56PM
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Greetings, everyone, and welcome to my first blog post.

As someone who has played MMO’s for almost the entirety of my adult life, it is a hobby and topic that I and many others are passionate about. I do what I can to keep up with the latest trends, ideas, and news from the MMO community at large. What follows is no doubt commonplace, but hopefully, answers I couldn’t find before, someone who knows more can help me find.

Like many others for whom this hobby is a passion, I have “an idea” for an MMO, or at least certain systems that make up an MMO. I know, I know, hundreds of thousands of others do, and few if none of them have ever been adopted, considered, or even looked at by professionals - Especially if they can’t provide proof-of-concept code. In my limited view, I find this rather odd, and peculiar about the MMO industry.

As an anecdotal example, I remember reading an article about someone who developed a cheap water purification system for third-world countries in an arid or desert climate. The design was very simple. It consisted of two pieces. The first was a clear, plastic cone with a curved base and a stopper or plug at the top. This plastic cone sat on top of a wider, black plastic curved base. What they would do is pour the dirty water into the black base, and set the clear, plastic cone on top with the plug in it, and let it sit. As the sun evaporated the water that was placed in the black base, the condensation would then drip down the side of the clear plastic cone, collecting in the curves at the base. When enough condensation had collected, they simply pick up the cone, flip it over, undo the plug, and out came the cleaner water that had condensed at its base.

It was a simple idea, but it was well thought-out. I doubt the man had any knowledge of plastics, or the machinery needed to mold the plastic, or the expertise to determine the costs involved. These aspects were all likely followed through by the people who adopted the design idea.

So why is it that in the MMO industry, an industry which faces constant accusations from its own user base of stagnation, is it commonly accepted that no matter how good your idea is, no one will ever adopt it unless you yourself can code it?

Some of these reasons seem rather intuitive, of course. Clearly someone who has NO knowledge of the complexity of an MMO, from the implementation and development of ideas, to the extreme complexity of its code and technology, to the infrastructure and resources and marketing efforts required to support it, may not understand why their ideas aren’t possible. But does this mean that all ideas from outside the industry, from someone who is just merely an end-user, are fundamentally unadoptable? That no one should ever even bother to try to think of them unless they are already in the industry, or have the vast technical knowledge required to demonstrate it?

Another example, take FedEx or UPS (I don’t recall which): Someone had the idea that they should try to schedule the delivery routes so that the trucks take as many right-turns as possible. The idea behind it was it would save them time, and therefore money, by reducing the need to cross lanes or traverse through apposing traffic. Did the person who came up with this idea have to have intimate knowledge of their navigation software, or GPS? Likely, the answer is no. They simply had the idea, and left it to professionals to make it possible.

So I ask this question, and hopefully people who are in the industry, professionals, or simply have a greater insight that I do not have, can provide some meaningful answers:

Is it possible, even if by the smallest chance of probability, that a really good idea that is well thought-out and documented with a strong logic behind it would ever get a second glance from a development studio that has the resources to make the idea a reality? That someone who can’t code software can still provide unique, creative ideas that can be harvested and brought to market?

I know it’s a general question, so I expect general answers. For some people, the thought and effort they put into their ideas isn’t for the money, or the notoriety - it’s in pursuit of their passion. It’s in the hopes that someone somewhere will see this idea, and say, “Hey, that’s a good idea. We should do that!”, and that an idea they thought up could be realized and enjoyed by others.

Is it all a pipe dream? Are we all just wasting our collective efforts?

Thank you for reading this far.