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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

CoH/V: How You Can Be Right And Wrong At The Same Time

Posted by UnSub Monday May 25 2009 at 3:48AM
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The Mission Architect (MA) system - where players could create their own missions and story arcs for in-game rewards - was always meant to get people talking about City of Heroes / Villains. What a pity that the things being said generally aren't that positive.

Fresh off the back of threatening to ban players for abusing the MA system, then banning them (but threads about bannings get deleted, making players unsure about what's happening), then framed by the excitement only a vague-defined expansion pack can bring, comes the news that 90-odd in-game badges introduced in I14 (April 2009) are going to be removed whenever I15 launches (I'm guessing August 31, 2009). Badges in CoH/V work in a similar fashion to Xbox Live Achievements - you unlock them for performing (mostly) in-game tasks, but in CoH/V certain combinations give your character extra buffs / powers / abilities. Badges have been part of CoH/V since Issue 2, which came out in September 2004.

The Halloween-related badges. Still in-game, but only really available during Halloween.

The Halloween-related badges. Still in-game, but only really available during Halloween when you farm doors for the right enemy types.

This is the first time such a large number of badges that have gone live are just being removed by the devs. Some badges have been changed over time - artwork, badge text, badge requirements etc have changed for particular badges - and some have been removed - Passport for instance, which was attached to a system that was never implemented but some people got anyway. Badges have also been removed in cases where heroes have achieved 'villain only' badges and vice versa. But never have badges been removed on such a scale before.

The dev's reason for taking out the badges boils down to not wanting MA to turn into a place to grind out badges - badges should instead reward during 'normal' play. Given that the Virtual Slayer badge requires you to defeat 50 000 enemies during MA test mode, it really seems that this wasn't always the idea. And yes, the Virtual Slayer badge is going to be disappearing. As are the Hall of Fame and Dev's Choice badges that were going to reward the best MA missions with a form of immortality, but apparently didn't survive the deluge of MA missions.

My view on this is that it was completely the right thing to do but incredibly wrong for the devs to do it. The short of it is that the badges that are coming out should never have gone live in the first place if, literally two months after introduction, they are coming out for what amounts to ideological design reasons. It is right for them to come out of CoH/V for what they encourage in-game, but it is wrong for them to be taken away from players who have earned them.

They aren't broken or bugged badges, or badges that allow for in-game exploits (even if they encourage in-game exploits to achieve them, but then so do the epic heal badges that are still in-game). So how did these badges launch only to be taken out again? Did the devs working on badges not talk to the devs working on MA, or even to the lead developer who has to sign off on everything? Is it a sign that the design philosophies of one developer group has been replaced by those of another post I14? 

Positron's badge list. I wonder how many he'll lose in I15?

Positron's badge list. I wonder how many he'll lose in I15?

I don't know. It could be that Champions Online has the Paragon Studio people under so much pressure that decisions aren't being made as well as they should be. Could also be as simple as one developer not checking with another about what kind of badges should be available through the MA system and going overboard with them (130 badges is a huge increase for an issue). I definitely agree with InfamousBrad that this kind of announcement - and the commentary that defeat X badges won't be the norm going forward - is a huge shift in design philosophy for CoH/V.

However, at the end of the day it is simple to work out: people are more annoyed if you give them something then take it away than if they'd never had that thing to start with. Although it is something I agree with for a number of reasons, pulling 90 or so badges from CoH/V players is yet another PR black eye for the highly touted MA system.

Playboy MMO Announced; No-One Cares

Posted by UnSub Thursday May 21 2009 at 3:25AM
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About two weeks ago, Jolt Online Gaming announced a browser-based MMO with a large, well known IP behind it: Playboy Manager. News sites dutifully carried the press release, then it sank without trace. It received less serious attention than the latest regionalised version of a Korean F2P title. No-one really cared.

There are a number of reasons for no-one caring about this title. Firstly, it is a pretty obvious attempt from Playboy to try and remain relevant in the Internet Age. The original success of Playboy as a brand wasn't the naked women - though they helped - nor the articles - which helped people pretend they were buying the magazine for something other than the naked women - but the lifestyle it portrayed. In short, Playboy stood for classy sleaze - you could be as debauched as you liked, but provided you finished off with caviar and champagne, you would still have style.

Cut to 2009, where the Playboy is in financial trouble, being primarily part of the print media category that could potentially face "unending losses". Online media delivers more than print media can, faster and in a (generally) more convenient and private format. This leaves Playboy, which used to trade on being a little bit naughty to drive its subscriptions, left out in the cold as people can now get things that are a lot (and again: A LOT) naughty very easily. And for free. The only real thing Playboy has left that has any real value is the brand - I'm sure that Playboy logo shifts a lot of mechandise - but they are desperately looking for another way to survive. A MMO is one attempt to grasp at another revenue channel and I'm sure "World of Warcraft" and "rolling in money" was said more than once during discussions between Jolt and Playboy.

It is, however, a grasp that is bound to fail. Sure, browser based titles with mini-games are increasingly popular, but the very name 'Playboy' is going to work against it - your IT manager might let Free Realms through, or your mother might not know what that is, but both will know exactly what a Playboy game will have in it. Now, your particular IT manager / mother might not care, but there are a lot who will. Plus there is the basic fact that the internet provides a lot more than even the extensive Playboy back catalogue to go and see without having to play through any mini-games.

Also, the game itself has you as a "crack talent agent" managing the careers of Playboy models. So, basically, you get to play as Eric Roberts circa "Star 80". Hmmm.

Eric Roberts as Paul Snider in "Star 80". Classy.

Eric Roberts as Paul Snider in "Star 80". Classy.

A Playboy MMO is a wild gambit for once great media brand and one that will probably work in Jolt's favour as Playboy picks up development costs (but might not survive long enough to collect any revenue from them). Also, it is interesting that Playboy have even made this grab, as ill-fated as it is bound to be. But I can't see it working. What Playboy was - a lifestyle magazine - has been superseded over time by others who do it better and by technology that undermines both its core appeal and entire media channel. All that is left is a brand desperately trying to find relevance - something, anything - in today's market place.

From FireSky to Gazillion: A Case of Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan?

Posted by UnSub Friday May 15 2009 at 4:26AM
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The funny thing about the internet is that when you post things, you can never be sure who is reading. Obscurity is no protection, because all it takes is one person to link it to a position of prominence and then everyone knows. This is especially the case for those people working in online games - people can dev stalk very quietly for years, sometimes for quite benign reasons (hey, I like to know what Positron might be up to!) and sometimes for not-quite-so-happy reasons (Sporkfire has a story where a player once posted up his real address on an online forums, which wouldn't be a good feeling at all).

This lesson popped up this week when then CME Studio Head Dan Elggren's wife posted up info on their blog that he was leaving CME / FireSky and going to Gazillion. Also part of the message was the mass exodus of staff that had occurred in recent times and that he wasn't getting paid for going to work. All in all it paints a sad picture of where CME / FireSky is right now and that Stargate Worlds only really "has a chance" to ship. It was another peek under the hood at a title and studio that held a lot of promise but now seems on a sure ride to oblivion.

However, I can't help but see Elggren's move is from one untested umbrella dev brand with a lot of unpublished MMOs heavily based on IPs to another untested umbrella dev brand with lots of unpublished MMOs heavily based on IPs. He's just switching Stargate for Marvel. And, not to throw any negative light on Mr Elggren's ability, but I can't see Gazillion's future as being much brighter than FireSky's.


City of Heroes / Villains: Going Rogue Expansion Announced

Posted by UnSub Tuesday May 12 2009 at 3:17AM
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Apparently it was announced by accident after the emails got sent out too soon, but CoH/V's first expansion since 2005 has been announced: Going Rogue.

This isn't a new issue, but a whole new expansion which would seem to indicate an entirely new city to explore and a new box copy on shelves. Also, from the email that went out:

City of Heroes Going Rogue officially opens the "mirror universe" of Praetoria and an all-new alignment system that explores the shades of gray that lie between Heroes and Villains. For the first time, Hero characters can become Villains and vice versa, enabling Heroes to cross over to the Rogue Isles™ and Villains to experience Paragon City™.

So, side switching in CoH/V will finally be implemented. Also discussed by the devs previously have been two new powersets: demon summoning and dual pistols.

Without doubt this is the major substance that Paragon Studios is going to be using to try to blunt the impact of its new competitors... but this is dependent on when the Going Rogue expansion actually launches. My initial thought was "Wow, a direct move against Champions Online!" which launches in July 2009, but that can't be right. Paragon Studios is already late with one issue - I15: Anniversary, which had obviously been planned to launch sometime in April 2009 when it actually was CoH's fifth anniversary - and a major new expansion isn't going to get beta tested, finalised and on shelves in just six weeks. It's more likely that Going Rogue is (at the earliest) a Q4 2009 release, if not maybe something for 2010 as a competitor for DCUO.

So, good news for CoH/V - more new content, more powersets, the highly requested side switching - but it is going to be a good while before players will get their hands on it.

... still the players, but the devs can rank right up there too.

A big issue with player created content is that there will always be opportunists, designing content that makes farming for XP easy. The Mission Architect (MA) system had a number of things taken out before launch to try to reduce this exploitation potential somewhat, but there were always going to be issues.

Farm missions (also called meow missions; I'm assuming that catgirls are somehow to blame) were (and are) pretty prevalent, which I've covered before. Using Rikti Communication Officers - a mob type that gave above average XP because it could summon mulitple Rikti mobs through a portal - was a common way: load up the mission with them, send the players in, mop up and reap the rewards. Also used were hiccups in the way XP is delivered to sidekicked team mates, so that a level 40 might get the XP rewards that should be given to a lvl 50. And so on.

Stop, or face my banzor ray! says PositronMatt Miller (aka Positron) came out on Tuesday to announce that players found abusing the MA system could face the loss of access to the MA system, the removal of badges and even the banning of accounts. And: it would be retroactive. This set off the biggest threadnaught in recent CoH/V memory, with enough players threatening to quit and go to Champions Online that you'd think Jack Emmert had done a deal with his old studio for some extra publicity. The core of complaints was the uncertainty over what the term 'abuse' meant. There was anger, there were tears, there was high drama.

This drama was mainly driven by the fact that their were a lot of players who were overtly and covertly worried that they'd been exploiting the system. Some were at least honest enough to admit they had probably at least come close - they'd done farm missions en masse to get the badges, to get the XP, to earn in-game currency / rewards, all on a huge scale over multiple characters. Ultimately this is because all that separates a farming team and a non-farming team is forward momentum: a farming team will repeatedly hit one mission / arc because it provides maximum rewards, a non-farming team will change missions / arcs and head towards the mission objectives slightly quicker. Their actual play style - lay waste to all before them - is pretty similar.

On Friday Positron decided enough was enough with the threadnaught and released a clarification: only the worst of the worst abusers would be banned. The forum community is slightly calmer as a result, but plenty are still looking for a fight or to score points off a dev.

Player created content is always going to be a risky thing - by giving players enough rope, a developer can end up hanging themselves. Positron dealt with it the wrong way - he was too blunt, which often got his predecessor Emmert in trouble - and ultimately angered a lot of players. As a developer, you can't just put tools for the player to create content and stand back, unless you want a train wreck. Along with some sensible restrictions on the toolset, developers have to also have to put a big "DO NOT DO THIS" list next to the tools so that players don't have have any excuse for creating content that could be considered abusive. This list shouldn't be in patch notes, or email, or on forums - it has to be with the tools. Heck, make it something that has to be clicked through every time a player publishes a mission.

Otherwise you risk alienating your player base from a feature a lot of people have come to try out.