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Complaints Incorporated: MMO Edition!

I maintain a general blog on technology, politics, economics and whatever else crosses my mind. Basically talking to myself but without the stigma of implied insanity. Since MMO's have been a big part of my life, it seemed to make sense to expand here.

Author: mlambert890

Review: World of Warcraft

Posted by mlambert890 Friday January 1 2010 at 4:17AM
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Score: 8 / 10

I'm going to try something a bit different in this blog space.  I believe in short, simple, reviews that get to the point quickly, but effectively.  With that in mind, let's talk about WoW.  I doubt there is anyone reading this who doesn't already have an opinion of this game (most likely formed from first-hand experience), so I consider this one more practice.

WoW is the gold standard of the MMO genre in terms of commercial success.  It has been said that Microsoft feels that any entry into the MMO space that cannot achieve "WoW scale" isn't worth pursuing (hence their history of extreme MMO ADD).  Blizzard took an already tremendously successful IP (Warcraft), leveraged their considerable resources and expertise, and put together what is arguably the most polished MMO in terms of technical execution and the "most accessible" in terms of gameplay.  It runs well on nearly any machine, is colorful and lively in appearance (perhaps too much so - detractors will liken it to a cartoon or a Disney ride) and has a fairly solid score and good ambient sound.  Gameplay is straight up classic - the holy trinity, fedex quests, button mash combat, linear progression followed by a raid and gear focused end game and limited character development beyond equipment and skills.  To this mix it adds reasonable PVP (including battlefields and open world) and, in the latest expansions, some interesting twists on large scale raiding.  In a nutshell, WoW is a fairly easy game whose appeal lies mainly in the gentle learning curve and low bar of entry and the compelling world design and IP.  It is deceptive, however, in that if you do become immersed, there is a near endless grind beneath the surface and an "end game" raid progression that rivals the original Everquest (both the good and the bad), but mercifully trades contested shared dungeons for instancing.  Crafting is a simple affair with limited value (unfortunately typical of the genre) and there are few "frills", but the storyline and lore are engaging and Blizzard continues to invest heavily in the game with some extremely compelling content on the horizon.

In summary, for what it is attempting to accomplish, Blizzard pretty much hits the bulls-eye.  It certainly  cannot be all things to all people, and as the king of the hill will always be the favorite target of the cynical and jaded, but it is difficult to not recommend WoW as a fantastic example of the best of what the genre has to offer.

Balanced Reality

Posted by mlambert890 Friday January 1 2010 at 3:45AM
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This is one of those "contraversial subjects".  Among the ranks of the passionate, and MMO gamers are certainly that, nearly any topic can become religion.  PVP vs PVE, level vs skill progression, subscription models, playstyle conflicts, RPing; these are all topics which lead to epic "debates" and, more often, degenerate into hopelessly cliche flame wars.  I intend to opine on all of these topics in this space.  This entry, though, is about one which doesn't quite get the airtime of some of the others, so I thought it appropriate to lead with it.  Give it the respect I believe it's due, in other words.

Persistent world games hold, as a big part of their appeal, the fact that they are simulating a world.  Presenting a virtual world where real folks step into an avatar, interract, and spend a good deal of time.  It seems natural that the more a virtual world attempts to mirror a "real" world, the more convincing and immersive it will be.  Or does it?  At the core, these are still games, and a game must be fun to keep you engaged.  And lets be honest, there is a great deal about the "real world" which is simply not fun.  We do a lot of things to keep surviving that we certainly wouldn't choose to do were the optional.  Not many folks keep going on the 9-5 grind after hitting Mega-Millions.

So it stands to reason that what is really needed is a careful balance.  And like so many aspects of MMO gaming, "balance" is where the trouble begins.  How much reality is "enough"?  How much is "too much" and is there a such thing as "too little"?  Complicating matters is the fact that this is all subjective and there is certainly no paradigm that will please every player.  A game is a business, however, so if you are a developer, it is worth investing some thought and reserach into an approach that will please the largest number of players and keep them coming back.  World of Warcraft, as the clear 800 lb gorilla of the industry, is clearly doing something right in this area.  It is also a game with which nearly everyone is familiar, so it serves as a good model with which to draw comparison.

If you ask what I think WoW got right in terms of immersion and "realism", I would say it primarly excels in the little things.  The brilliance of Blizzard was in implementing some small features that were not difficult but pay huge dividends.  Footprints in the snow.  Seeing your breath in the cold.  Sitting in a chair.  These are tremeondously powerful for the player seeking immersion and have no negative impact (and can safely be ignored) for the folks who couldn't care less.  Along the same lines are the jumping and rearing animations for mounts, the very minor damage caused by fire, and the liberal usage of regular animals for atmosphere (level 1 bunnies, chickens, cows and the like).

Blizzard is a mature and experienced game studio, so they went well beyond these small touches.  There were some major design decisions that had broad impact on the game.   Foremost among these is the ability to roam the world seemlessly (zoneless structure).  For me personally, this had tremendous impact; being able to see a mountain miles distant, and eventually walk there.  Complementing the seemless world is the day/night cycle and the weather system (added later, but done pretty well).   In addition, Blizzard integrated their lore quite well in terms of preserving the unique character of the races when it came to the look and feel of their areas and architecture, as well as liberally populating any central area with atmospheric NPCs (merchants, farmers, and even children) who often run through scripted routines.  It is subtle, but highly immersive, that as you travel from Stormwind out to the wilderness you go from seeing children playing, to seeing scattered farms, to seeing borderland fortresses to eventually finding ruins, small encampments, bandits and remote strongholds. 

So they got a lot right, but what, if anything, did they possibly get wrong?  The designers of WoW made some clear concessions to gameplay that have set standards which, among some, have lowered the bar.  Quest givers are clearly marked with giant floating question marks an exclamation points.  Fantastic for quick and easy gameplay, but hardly immersive and possibly even too easy.  To ensure performance stayed high on nearly any system, the character models are simple, customization is limited, and the art style is very much cartoonish (I love it and find it true to the Warcraft universe, but it is certainly polarizing).  Food and drink is used purely to speed recovery or provide a bonus, weather is window dressing only (no negative effects from the environment) and while the world is vast and seemless, there is a handy travel system which cuts travel times down to almost nothing once you have made the journey the hard way at least once (I think the balance is great here, but of course some feel there is still too much travel while others feel it is too easy).

These are all fairly minor concessions and don't usually lead to too much debate.  There are some major ones as well.  Player housing is non-existent.  This one is harder for me to wrap my mind around.  Folks who have no interest can pretty easily ignore it (their arguments against generally can be distilled down to "I don't like it and therefore don't want you to have it" with various specious arguments to support that position) and for folks who want it, it creates an entirely new dimension to the game.  It is one of the areas where I believe Everquest 2 soundly bests WoW and it is in no way a detriment to the players in EQ2 who have no interest in it.  Perhaps the most major concession to gameplay, though, is the death penalty (or lack thereof).  Now this is one that is debated endlessly.  It can be reasonably said that WoW changed the landscape of MMOs in terms of "challenge".  WoW essentially has no death penalty and nearly every game has followed suit.  I must admit that I am on the fence with this one.  While I can't say I ever enjoyed Everquest "corpse runs" and exp loss, they definitely added a feeling of anxiety to any adventure that simply is not there in WoW.  Like it or not, having essentially no risk does somewhat cheapen the reward and it certainly hurts immersion.  How real can the world ever feel if something as fundamental as death is nothing but a minor inconvenience?  While I would never want to go back to brutal death penalties, it might be interesting to see developers come up with something that incents you to not die and drives your  behavior towards truly wanting your character to survive an encounter each time (and not "die your way through")  The last major concession to gameplay is a direct result of the WoW brand of PvP.  There is an unbridgeable chasm between "factions" in WoW.  Either you are Horde, or you are Alliance.  Real world communication isn't even possible unless you go outside the game.  While I understand the reasoning for this from a gameplay perspective, I feel there is lost opportunity here.

So WoW gets a lot right, and makes some concessions that please most and alienate some (if there subscriber numbers are to be taken as an indicator).  I mentioned housing as one area where I feel Blizzard loses ground to Sony.  There are a few others.  EQ2 does a really great job of making "language" something you can either care about in the game, or ignore.  And building on that, EQ2 gives us a glimpse of  some of the potential I believe WoW leaves on the table.  While PVP from a gameplay experience is an unfortunate afterthought in EQ2, some of the mechanisms around it are fantastic.  The notion of "switching sides" exists.  Early on in the game, inter-faction trade was possible via a broker (this was eventually dumbed down, unfortunately) and the concept of an "exile" faction was added (although not well implemented).  In addition, at least one city sits outside of the primary factions and contains its own complex, NPC based, faction interraction.  I think it would be compelling to see a developer take the gameplay polish of WoW and combine it with some of the more non-conventional structures of EQ2.

Overall, I think the balance of reality will continue to be something developers grapple with.  It is most likely low on the list of most gamers, so I expect progress will be slow.  I have some ideas (ones which can actually be implemented) that I think would make for a great balanced environment and I may share these in a future entry.  I do think those of us who crave immersion owe WoW a debt of grattitude though.  Much like the near absence of a death penalty have become "standard fare", so too have little atmospheric touches and a more "living" world and these are things I think everyone can agree are all good.

Character Sheet

Posted by mlambert890 Friday January 1 2010 at 2:46AM
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My thinking is that, if you're doing a blog with a particular focus (especially an extremely niche one like "MMORPG Gaming") you need to take some time and attempt to establish some credibility.  So right off the bat, I'm trying to capture some "old school" cred here with the title of this entry.  As the title implies, my background goes all the way back to the PnP days.  I started with Dungeons and Dragons at the ripe old age of 7 or so (playing with some neighbors who were much older and cool enough to tolerate a precocious youngster - and NO there was no molestation involved!) and eventually moved on to Gamma World and AD&D before finally leaving PnP behind.  In the interest of full disclosure, though, spiritually I still feel very invested in PnP and my collection of source books is ridiculous for someone who uses them primarily to decorate a book case.

My first bit of computer kit was a Timex Sinclair 1000 which I received for my 8th birthday and eventually disassembled and killed.  From there I moved to the Atari 400, then 800XL, then Tandy 1000 8088 clone (after having somehow convinced my mother to spend two grand - something which in restrospect, I realize is incomprehensible and still carry some guilt for!).  From there I moved to a Zenith 8086 clone before making the leap to the world of the GUI with the Atari 520ST.  By this point I was 15 or so and starting to buy things with my own money.  I indulged some Apple fetishism with a Laser 128 Apple //c clone and eventually siezed my "holy grail", a Mac 512.  Lots of money either burned or invested depending on your point of view, and many, many hours spent CRPGing.  My hacking and gaming and tinkering with computers and consoles (in parallel to all of these personal computers I owned nearly every contemporary console throughout the years) eventually lead me to a career in technology and a lifelong passion for gaming.  It wasn't until 1997, however, that a childhood dream was finally realized.

In 1997, Origin released Ultima Online.  For anyone of my generation with an interest in computers and fantasy role playing, Ultima is iconic.  It can be difficult for folks who were born well after those early, primordial, days to understand the monumental impact of Ultima.  More than Bards Tale, or Wizardry (as great as those franchises were) Ultima truly managed to capture the essence of fantasy on a computer screen.  The Gold Box games would later revolutionize the genre again and, much later, Final Fantasy would come and really redefine the paradigm altogether.  But Ultima was the progenitor.  And anyone who ever played a CRPG in the dark, disconnected days before the Internet, knows what it is to have dreamt of a science fiction future where the "online" community of the text based BBS MUDS (dial up modems, reading and typing, taking turns via message) would combine with the rich, immersive, graphical experience of a single player game.  Well in 1997, our dream came true.  Thousands of players, real players, went online and started interracting in the classic world of Garriott's imagining.  It was persistent, it felt real and, for a brief time, it was wonderful.

Of course it wasn't long before reality set in and a new era was truly born.  Persistent, interractive, subscription based worlds meant class balance and cheating and virtual currency had real meaning and being the hero of the story was no longer a unique experience.  We had discovered utopia and lost our innocence in one fell swoop and there was no going back.  Sadly, I quickly became disheartened with Ultima and was considering giving this strange "Meridian 59" thing a try when Verant dropped their bomb.

The next 4 years of my gaming life were devoted to the fiend known as Everquest.  It is difficult to convey the true power of that game for those who missed it entirely.  More than Ultima Online, ironically, Everquest was the Ultima of the MMORPG genre.  It truly delivered on the immersive experience we had all dreamt of and that is why, despite its somewhat shallow nature and all of its flaws, it became a legend.  Of course as a maverick, it also established some standards which, in retrospect, we have clung to for far too long.  The simplistic notion of a progression ladder which makes so much sense in a linear, single player, game, often frustrates in a peristent world.  Similarly, the concepts of the "balanced party" and its diametrical opposite, the "super hero", unless carefully balanced, can alienate and embitter legions of players.  Of course it was all a learning experience and for every malcontent frothing at the keyboard, there was a devout worshipper happily soldiering along.  So from the classic world all the way through the Gates of Discord, I saw nearly every square inch of Norrath (and its companion alternate and extra planar realms), invested a lot of time and possibly too much emotion, made real life friends and enemies (some of which have persisted) and even attended a convention, before finally moving on.  Of course I had moments of indiscretion during those years.  Brief flings and flirtations with the hot new thing; Dark Age of Camelot, Horizons (original beta tester), Anarchy Online (finally sci-fi!), Asherons Call, and countless others.  But always Everquest kept me coming back.  Always she waited with open arms.

Eventually I moved on to World of Warcraft and Everquest II.  City of Heroes remained a guilty side pleasure since its original release and City of Villains was added to that as soon as it hit beta.  Dozens of games came and went.  Dungeons and Dragons online, Runes of Magic, Lineage II, Matrix, Star Wars Galaxies, Saga of Ryzon, Atlantica, Vanguard, Lord of the Rings Online (lifetime sub!), Age of Conan, EVE, Chronicles of the Spellborn and many many more that I have forgotten.  These days I maintain no subscriptions and have left MMO gaming nearly completely behind.  In the final accounting my highest achievements are level 80 with 132 or so achievement points on my Everquest II wizard, level 80 with reasonable 12 man epic gear on my WoW mage, level 75 with 600 AA and a patchwork of solo and legacy raid gear on my original Everquest wizard and a rogues gallery of heroes and villains up to a max of 45 (my dual blade, regen scrapper).

The genre will always hold a fascination for me and so here I am.  Even if these days I am more likely to write and opine on it then play, and even if it is likely that F2P and an extremely casual approach fit my playstyle better than P2P and hardcore grinding, I think you might find that this space is worth checking out now and again; if nothing else than to give you something to think about or provide some sentimental nostalgia.  Of course that's assuming I can get off my lazy ass and put together another post after this one!  If you hung in there this long, thanks for reading!