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Vicarious Existence

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

Author: UnSub

The Twelve Trials of UnSub - DDO: Stormreach, Part 2 of 2

Posted by UnSub Friday January 25 2008 at 9:52PM
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Day 7: More soloing. One of the missions I tried was in the Waterworks, where 6 'rare' (and by 'rare', I mean 'very powerful') monsters need to be defeated to reach an objective. Given that it seemed each rare monster killed me 3 times to every one I managed to bag, I gave up on this mission. Some of the other missions were fun though - smashing gambling tables and chasing thieves through sewers has its moments. That is one thing I will say about DDO: Stormreach - the variety of missions is pretty good, even if most of them are achieved by killing everything in your path. That said, I wouldn't want to repeat each of these things 4 times unless I was in a good team.
One other thing that is getting to me is the lack of information about what certain items do when you mouse-over them. I bought several potions of Improved Vitality I because I thought they were healing potions - it turns out that they buff healing spells instead. It's not a good idea that newb players need to have a D&D rulebook nearby to find out what a potion does before drinking it - it should be right there in the item description.
I'm hopeful I'll get to lvl 3 before the trial runs out - I want a level of Rogue so I can do some of the more thief-ish things like pick locks and disarm traps.
Still fun.
Day 8: Doesn't look like I'll make it to level 3 before the trial runs out. Nuts.
At this point I think I've completed every first- and second-level quest within Stormreach (outside of the Waterworks) at the Solo level of difficulty. Since I'm not really that keen to redo all those missions again at Normal difficulty just to get XP, I've started to take a trip outside the walls of Stormreach and into the Cerulean Hills - another adventure area where you wander around and slaughter the local wildlife, but one where I've been doing better than the Waterworks. I haven't found any of the 'rare' creatures yet (who will probably crush my character and use its body as some sort of cave decoration) but I've been impressed with the Explorer areas you come across - areas like hidden caves or special enemies that the DM voice informs you of. Of the few I've found, I particularly liked finding Loligar the gargoyle, who offered a friendly fight and let me circle strafe my way to victory. It was a nice discovery.
Another thing I like - the tips that flash up on every loading screen between instances. I've learned quite a few things looking at them and it's good for the game to have.
For my final few sessions, I might try teaming up and going through these adventure areas - I don't think I'm going to miss much if people just run full tilt through them, murdering any unfortunate creature who crosses our path and it's always good to have more fodder team mates between you and the bigger monster with a special name.
Day 9: I tried teaming up, but most of the players were doing high level quests I couldn't hook into. Then I tried to start up my own team, which wasn't the easiest thing to do - you go through the Social screen, then click on 'Create Team', then set your team parameters (it seemed to me that you had to set a quest, or at least once you'd selected a quest you couldn't go back to leaving the quest bit blank) then set a flag that you were looking for team mates. The layout was a bit non-intuitive, leaving me to hunt around to work out what to do. Regardless, no-one was interested in joining a lvl 2 team until I was 5 minutes away from logging off. Also, the 'looking for team' is apparently something most people ignore and the icon - a big glowing disk above your head - actively blocks your vision when fighting at range. That was a bit of poor design right there.
It has occurred to me that I've said nothing about DDO: Stormreach's graphics or sound. To me, both are perfectly adequate. The graphics are a bit murky and fuzzy at times and the sound can be non-descript, but neither are problematic or exceptional.
Day 10: I found a solo quest at the Lighthouse I hadn't done, but apart from that it was running to the Waterworks or to the Hills where I'd last versus the normal monsters but the 'rare' monsters would stomp me into the ground. Also, no-one wanted a lvl 2 ranger on a team. After probably 7 days of fun, the last few sessions ended up with me feeling frustrated - hardly the feeling a game dev would want you to be in when you are deciding whether to pay for the game or not. UnSub Subion ended up at level 2.3 (almost at 2.4).
Overall Opinion: All in all, the trial of Dungeons and Dragons: Stormreach has shown the game to be not as bad as I'd heard. It's a fun game for casual players. That said, it's still a one-note game and seems like a big missed opportunity. On first glance it seems like DDO: Stormreach does pretty much everything a D&D MMO should, but the issue is there isn't much depth there. While there are players out there who play D&D as a dungeon crawl / monty haul experience, a large part of the progression of pen-and-paper D&D has been to increase the scope of this beyond the offering of only dungeons and dragons. DDO: Stormreach just doesn't have any scope to it, or if it does, the trial does a lousy job in showing it off.
That said, I think I'd have found DDO: Stormreach a much more fun experience if I'd had a team of friends backing me up. D&D is an inherently social game (I'll leave the ironies of that unstated) so it makes sense that the online version would work better with a social group. While I think repeating the same map four times is a lazy way of recycling content, a team would make it fly by. Of course, if teaming is meant to be such a key part of it, I can't help but wonder why the team management tools are so awful. Perhaps you get used to them, but I don't think knowing at a glance which mission our team is meant to be doing is a big thing to ask for.
Now, the key question: would I pay for DDO: Stormreach based on the trial? No, not if it's just me. If I could coerce a couple of my cheapskate fiscally responsible friends to sign up at the same time though, well, DDO: Stormreach might be worth a month or two. In many ways DDO: Stormreach feels like it should be a free-to-play game anyway, given how content is recycled and the lack of depth... but you know, I had fun for most of it, which means I'll at least come back in 12 months time and see what's gone on since then. 

Konhke Reaches A Deal with Perpetual Entertainment; Stops Suing

Posted by UnSub Friday January 25 2008 at 9:43PM
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It has been reported that Konhke has dropped it's lawsuit against Perpetual Entertainment after they reached a deal. PE managed to drop in their view that the legal action was "vague, uncertain, ambiguous and unintelligible" before the deal was reached and both parties agreed to shut up about it, making sure they had the last 'nyah nyah nyah' on the issue.

If I were in Konhke's shoes (which I'm not) I probably would have taken any reasonable deal that PE offered - getting something to cover the cost of work done would probably be more important than getting the potential extra payment if Gods and Heroes had shipped. It would also probably be a better bet to take the money now than to wait and see what PE does next.

PE has become a MMO development studio with no announced games and a MMO middleware platform with only one announced client (Bioware). While the STO license may have been sold to a third party (again, I haven't seen any concrete information about the 'why' surrounding the sale) it would be a short-term capital boost. If PE had looked to really rake in the money from STO, then Kohnke may have looked to hold out for the full amount detailed in their original filing. As is, given PE's currently publicly known situation, I don't think they look too healthy.

On a side note, Perpetual Entertainment's website is down to only a homepage and an email address. You can't even look at info on PE's middleware platform. Take the money and run, Kohnke.

The Twelve Trials of UnSub - DDO: Stormreach, Part 1 of 2

Posted by UnSub Monday January 21 2008 at 2:14AM
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I know that in my original entry I said I'd wait until the end to post up my opinion of the trial I was playing, but I've started keeping a day-by-day review of what has been happening, so it makes sense to split it in half and post the first bit.

Day 1: Try to start it. Get long error. Technical support entries suggest that I may have downloaded a corrupted version of the client and that I should delete it and re-download it (2659 Mb, if I remember correctly). I'm sorry, but is this an ONLINE GAME? You know, which UPDATES and PATCHES content regularly through the DOWNLOADING of FILES from the internet? Seriously - have a verify file button that tests which files are corrupted and automatically fixes them. Other MMOs have such a feature. Re-download the entire client? What year is this?

With my finger literally over the delete button in Add / Remove Programs, I give something else a shot. Turns out that DDO didn't like me trying to play on an account that didn't have Admin privileges. So I got in when I switched to Admin.

Watched a nice CGI movie - something about evil lurking and some guy being dangerous because he's now finished swimming. Or something. Looked good though.

Started the game. Made myself a Warforged Ranger, so I've got myself a robot dual-wielder (well, at lvl 2 he gets to dual-wield without pentalty). UnSub Subion went into action doing the tutorial quest (I love how easy it is to switch between mouselook and mouse cursor) and a few of the early quests in Stormreach, all solo. Combat is pretty dynamic (real-time targetting, actual hits based on rolls of the 'dice') and kept me moving. I got about half-way to lvl 2 during my first play session.

I will say that the modifications to the D&D pen-and-paper system threw me a bit. I'm not a hardcore 3.5 Ed player of those rules, but I knew enough about them to find the earning of skill points before leveling a bit odd. Also: no Monk class? Drows and Warforged as races, but no Monk class? What an odd decision.  Also, I'm concerned about spending those skill points 'right', so for now I'm just going to focus on lvling up and getting some better gear.

All in all, a fun first session.

Day 2: More questing, more solving everyone's problems for them. Apparently in a world full of heroes, the common folk lose the ability of self-reliance or any sense of personal responsibility.

I find the auto-targeting system odd since I can target mobs through walls and doors - I have often hit Tab to find an enemy who is actually around a corner and who I can't see. It makes it hard for a mob to sneak up on me though, which is good, but it isn't very D&D to have automatic X-ray vision. Another quirk is that the text options for a lot of the quest givers either seem to make my character seem like a soft-headed boob or a heartless jerk. It doesn't appear to matter though, but I'm not always happy with the choices I've got. Final thing: the Dungeon Master voice that decides to tell you about things, like how you feel or what you hear. Pointless sometimes, hilarious other times (when he does 'voices' of characters) but overall a nice touch.

Got closer to lvl 2, but I'm still not there. Given that Warforged can't wear the armour they find and a Longsword / Handaxe, Light Hammer / Starter Mace and Composite Bow weapon combo seems to be doing alright, I don't have much to spend on yet. As such, I spent my ability points to get a damage resistance ability and another point in Search (which never seems to find much).

Still fun, if a bit repetitive.

Day 3: No play time - servers down when I tried to log in.

Day 4: Had a nice play experience today where a much higher lvl character gave my male Warforged Ranger a number of magic weapons for just being near him. Thank you Hasa - I'm sure the +1 items were all inventory fodder to you, but they've made my character's life just that touch easier.

Got to lvl 2 - took another level of Ranger, so I'm now able to dual wield without penalty. Dual longswords +1 have been fun, but I've enjoyed more the ability to one-shot kobolds with my Composite Longbow. It's been fun to take on a stack of them and then wittle them down one by one as they run at me. I also did a quest called 'Stealthy Repossession, which I thought would be an interesting way of testing out how stealth worked in-game. However, when I aggroed one of the Kobold Prophets (who you can't kill more than six of in order to complete the mission) he just kept following me. In the end, I completed 'Stealthy Repossession' with probably 10 + Kobold Prophets running around after me while I trained them to areas far enough away to hit the switches I needed to open the doors before they came back.

Also I got a Docent as an item. What's a Docent? Why, it's an armour item for Warforged that changes how they look and adds some armour bonuses. Nice, but I wouldn't know what they do based on their description text.

It's at this point I should probably state that DDO: Stormreach has the Video Game Hatred of Barrels and Boxes in full effect; every time you see a barrel or most types of crates or urns, you can smash them and maybe get something to drop. Nothing says 'high fantasy heroics' than smashing every storage container in a dungeon.

Still fun enough.

Day 5: Time to team. Checking out the Social Panel made it pretty easy to find which teams were looking for people and there were a few that I could join with. As such, it was pretty easy to find a team within minutes.

Actual team play was less than easy, however. The team was spread over all of Stormreach and no-one appeared to have an idea of what to do. It was impossible to work out which mission we were doing or where we were meant to be meeting. Then, when we entered a mission, it was like a full force sprint to the end of it. The quest description text for 'Durk's Got a Secret' says it's a 'Long' mission. It took a team of six 5 minutes to complete, with everyone running as fast as possible from encounter to encounter. Little was said in the way of dialogue - I suppose they may have been using some sort of Teamspeak - and ever other lvl 1 or 2 character on the team hit all the secret doors and extra bits like they'd done it a million times before (which they probably had). Seconds after the mission ended, the team split up with nary a word of goodbye. Okay then, nice knowing you all.

My second team was quite a bit friendlier, but it was still a rush through the dungeon to get to the treasure. I generally couldn't keep up on the loot whoring since I didn't know my way around, but it was a nicer group experience overall and lasted a few missions. It was still impossible to work out which mission the team was going to do (or, if there is an easy way, it wasn't obvious) and the team broke up when it looked like the experience acquisition rate might drop off for a second when some players went off to sell items or visit trainers.

For a game like DDO: Stormreach, where teaming is arguably a core of the game (more on this in a bit), having such a weak team management system really seems like a lazy oversight. I don't care about players dropping out of teams so quickly, but the inability to set a team mission or manage players regarding where they need to go is a huge miss-step.

I say that teaming is a core part of the play experience because of the way the quests are organised. Almost all of the quests have 4 different difficulty options - Solo, Normal, Hard, Elite - that they can be set at. In order to do the non-easy difficulty sessions you will need a team to support you. The quest will be exactly the same in terms of layout, but the different difficulty settings influence how hard the enemies are to fight (and probably some other things, like the damage that traps do). So DDO: Stormreach's idea of content is the same map, four times, if you want to experience 'the full game' (and get all the phat loot and experience points). Most players will want to rely on teams for some of those quests, yet running a team isn't particularly easy to do without lots of verbal pointers to team mates. It's an odd disconnect in my book.

Ended up soloing a bit more after that and got a bit further into level 2. A good team could make this game a lot more fun, but it's okay as a casual diversion. Don't think I'd end up paying for this though. Five days left in this Trial...

Day 6: Didn't play. Chores and other real life things to do.

Part 2 to follow soon-ish...

I Know I'm Late: Perpetual Entertainment Loses STO License

Posted by UnSub Monday January 21 2008 at 2:07AM
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I'm a week late, but given my earlier entries...

It appears that Perpetual Entertainment has lost the Star Trek Online license to another developer. The interesting thing here is that I haven't seen any information that says if PE jumped (i.e. sold off the license to another company for the money) or was pushed (i.e. that PE lost the IP rights because Paramount Studios pulled their plug). Ignoring the merits of the STO license as a MMO, I'd suspect that if PE thought they could make money on it, they'd have kept it. Still, it would be an expensive thing to keep running since they have no income from their games (since they have released none), minimal income from their middleware (last I heard, only Bioware has licensed it) and a lawsuit against Kohnke in the wings.

Earlier rumours are that Cryptic Studios (formerly City of Heroes / City of Villains, now Marvel Universe Online) is the developer who picked up the STO license and have also interviewed some PE devs who were working on STO. No official confirmation one way or the other, but Cryptic does have a chunk of change from their sale of CoH/V to the publisher NCsoft (assuming they haven't had to spend it on MUO one way or another) so they could possibly afford to buy the IP and develop it.

I'll wait for confirmation, but it looks like my prediction - that STO would never ship from PE - is correct. I have no vendetta against PE, but I certainly have doubted a number of decisions they have made that have become public knowledge. It always seemed that STO was an ambitious license that would probably be beyond them - the fact they've handed it off / were forced off the field is no great surprise to me.

Hmm, perhaps Gods and Heroes will suddenly reappear on PE's radar...

UPDATE: I've read elsewhere that PE is going to become a middleware-only company and doesn't plan on developing any more MMOs. That's probably a good move, especially since no MMO middleware company who tries to concurrently develop a MMO game (or MMO game company who tries to develop commercial middleware) actually seems to succeed on both fronts.

The Twelve Trials of UnSub

Posted by UnSub Sunday January 13 2008 at 8:04PM
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It's the start of a New Year, and what better way to start a New Year than with setting yourself with some challenges?

Well, there probably are better ways to start a New Year, but I'm going to challenge myself in 2008 by trialling 12 MMOs that have passed me by but I should experience. Some of these MMOs will be good, some will be bad and some will be ... interesting. These MMOs passed me by for a number of reasons  - they were too old, too uninteresting at the time, too niche, too poorly reviewed, etc - but now that I can play them on a free trial, they are worth having a look at so that I can at least say I've played them, rather than just reading about them.

The rules:

1) No box purchase required. In fact, I'd prefer to play every single trial for free, but there is one MMO that has a small price for its trial period and I really want to give it a shot, so it won't be completely for free. I'll be doing this on the cheap, however.

2) I play the trial period only and as a total newb. I'm not going to be doing a lot of pre-reading on forums / guides to find out how I should play or what class I should roll or where I should go. The point of a trial is to give players the ability to experience the game for themselves - if you actually need to read a 15 000 guide to find out how to play 'properly', then the trial will be a failure and the game shouldn't be offering them. (Also: you've developed it wrong.)

3) At the end of each trial, I'll do a write up on it and post it on this blog. Things like how fun the game was to play, how friendly the community was and how likely I'd be to subscribe based on the trial. All ratings will be highly subjective and also likely to be highly sarcastic.

4) The character I will trial with will be UnSub and I'll play him as whatever seems cool to me based on their up-front descriptions (e.g. robots and lizardmen are good, as are ninjas, martial arts and dual-wielding). If that name is unavailable, I'll create a variant and run with that. Say hi to me if you see me in-game. In-game gifts won't be accepted, however, unless you are willing to give every trialist the same thing.

That's it. I won't be posting a list of the games I want to trial because I want to play it by ear - no point in listing Elf Bowling Online now if it closes its doors within the next month, is there? However, I can list the first trial I've signed up for. To start off, I thought I should go with a big name that really disappointed a lot of people on launch, a MMO that everyone knows the name of but not that many chose to play and, most importantly, a title that should have been a slam dunk success but only raised questions about whether the devs could be trusted with another big IP title.

First cab off the rank will be Turbine's Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach.

Games That MMOs Should Learn From, Part 1 of y

Posted by UnSub Wednesday January 2 2008 at 9:10AM
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3D MMOs have become a genre unto themselves (or so says I - you can argue about what a genre is in the comments section) since arguably coming into a recognisable existence with Meridian 59. They've certainly been around long enough that we can see duplicate systems of duplicate systems popping up all over the place, with features pioneered in one MMO being taken and implemented into another one, possibly with some minor changes. However, if MMOs are going to avoid the fate of entering an Ouroboros of self-referential obscurity where only the hardest-of-hardcore fans dwell, fans of the MMO genre really have to hope that MMO devs are looking outside of their favourite MMOs and at other games in completely different genres for examples of thing to bring in and evolve their MMO with.

I'm not going to pretend that the list below is going to include every single game that MMO devs could learn from, or that I'm going to write them all down in one go (I'll add in further games to this blog at later dates), but there are some games out there that have features that really should make their way into the MMO genre.

Here goes:

Ultima Online (PC): Yeah, I know - I just said MMO devs should look outside the genre and here I am, putting UO first on the list. But there's a good reason for this - UO encountered pretty much every problem that occurred in MMOs likely before your favourite MMO was a twinkle in its devs' eyes. PvP? Ganking? RMT? In-game prostitution? Player-run areas? All seen within UO and dealt with, along with a whole lot more. It frustrates me no end to see new MMOs released with no apparent idea that all the problems they currently face existed and were dealt with in the late 90s (and hello to Fury here). Sure, maybe UO's solution is not the solution for your MMO-of-choice, but even discounting an option provides you with a path to potentially take.

Seriously - go play UO, or learn about it, about why the Trammel patch was important and why its like will never be seen again.

Blade Runner (PC): "There was a Blade Runner game?" I hear you cry. Yep, and it was awesome. Ignoring the cult sci-fi IP, it had one extremely neat feature that every MMO should pick up - it randomised the narrative.

It wasn't full randomisation - the story still had a beginning, middle and an end - but it randomised a lot of what happened between those the start and the end to make each play through fresh. Evidence at a crime scene that was visible in one play through couldn't be found in the next play through. Characters may or may not be at certain locations depending on the time you arrived and between different play throughs. MMOs want players to hang around as long as possible, yet continually offer the same starting experience over and over. Why not take a leaf from Blader Runner's book and develop content that won't be available to all players from the get go? Start a player off with a random letter or book to deliver, which will lead to other quests that their next character will not be able to experience. Make it so that a quest-giving contact available on one play through isn't automatically available on the next. The aim should be that no two characters' (from the same player) PvE experience should be the same - something new pops up or a quest that they hadn't seen before draws them in to play another month or two.

Of course, the semi-random content has to be more involved than "Kill X" or "Deliver Y". It's also got to lead somewhere that's involving. But it's a heck of a lot more meaningful to developing an immersive in-game experience than having the same quest givers stand in the same place to give the same quests.

Street Fighter II (Arcade): A classic, certainly, but one that MMO developers can certainly learn from. SFII did a number of PvP things very right:

  1. Easy to learn, hard to master.
  2. Fun from the very start.
  3. PvP sees characters behave very differently but still be balanced.
  4. Minimal individual loss from any defeat, minimal individual gain from any victory.

Sure, a one-on-one 2D arcade fighter is arguably simpler than a 3D MMO, but the principles that make SFII great should be taken on board as the basics for any MMO looking to make PvP something that the majority of players actually want to get involved in.

Summer Games: Or Skate or Die. Or California Games. Or any other mini-game collection that allowed players to play short, sharp, fun mini-games based around a theme. Mini-games that have a point and, more importantly, are fun can contribute hugely to a MMO and serve as nice diversion to the main deal, but often mini-games in MMOs seem designed to be an absolute chore and make grinding throw 300 orclings a barrel of laughs by comparison.

There are a whole host of mini-game types out there that could be added into modern MMOs and tweaked to fit the theme that would also add a lot to the MMO experience. The thing about MMO players is that you can never be quite sure what they are going to love or hate, so it's better to give them lots of options that they can choose fun from rather than trying to force them to see fun according to a single focused dev Vision.

Medal of Honour: Frontline: MOH:F did something that pretty much no MMO does - start the game off with a bang. Yes, they ripped off homaged "Saving Private Ryan" in doing so, but it doesn't matter - MOH:F started the game with the player in no doubt about the seriousness of what they were doing or the danger they faced. And that was just the tutorial mission.

MMOs tend to start off much more sedately - "Hello kind sir / madam, here is how you move, now please, go and kill five ants to show me you know how to fight". After you've done this kind of thing twice, you're asleep at the wheel through the tutorial. MMOs really need to build the atmosphere and tone of the game from the very start, so if the lore is all about how your character is going to save the world, starting them off by killing ants is a very poor way of making the player feel like they are actually going to reach that destiny. Another great example of this kind of start is BioShock - it has an incredibly impressive introduction that sucks you into the game world right from the start.

There are just a few games I think MMOs could learn from if they wanted to improve. I'm sure that some have some of the above features, but overall, I haven't really seen them implemented (so if they exist, please let me know below!). There are other games that are important too - I'll add to this list in future blog entries.