Friday, October 31, 2008

Up hill both ways in the snow!

Back in my day....

Any gamer that has been gaming for a few years has fond memories of their first games. For me, I played Ultima on an Apple II. I was able to run it off one of those fancy Floppy Disk Drives and not load from cassette. Your first games, much like your first kiss (or first beer), is remembered with much fondness. Some games stand the test of time, though most really were just okay. So much has improved not only in the presentation (aka graphics) but just game theory itself.

Not only does your first game make an impression, unique games (for their time) also leave their marks. For example. I have many fond memories of Ultima Online and Everquest, but today I would not play them. On one hand the games have change so much that they are almost completely different, but then I would not want to play them in their original format either.

So then we get Sequels. This week Fallout 3 came out. 10 year ago the first Fallout came out and was a seminal game in the CRPG industry. It gave life to the story based RPG market and really allowed a person to play good or evil, or something else. The world did change as you moved though it and what you did had effects in the end. Many games built on those ideas such that now it is required for today's Story based CRPG.

But like any sequel, there is the debate "Is this game a XXXXX?" This could be any game. In this case Fallout but I have had recent arguments over the 4th Edition DnD, as well as others in the pass.

Gamers love to argue.

However some gamers will also dismiss good games because the game isn't what they think it should have been. It is kind of sad, but it does not bother me. I look at each game on its own merits. I have played Fallout 3 for a few hours now, and I have enjoyed it. And being the contrarian that I am, I will happily argue either side of the debate. It does not change the fact that I enjoy this game as it is.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Summer Repeats

With AoC being a let down for me, and I have already finished Deus Ex 2 and Mass Effect (both of the fun games, but not much motivation for replay) I am seeing what else I can get for free-ish.

Being the old geek that I am, SOE really likes me. I think have been at the beginning of every game they have except Matrix Online. So right now I have free access to play Vanguard, Everquest and Everquest II, again. And I since they count veteran rewards since initial account creation and not timed played, I have a decent amount of swag waiting for me.

So this weekend I chose Vanguard. Of the games, it has the most interesting "other features" then the basic quest-grind-loot-level. I was a big fan of Vanguard Diplomacy and had a few server and world firsts to my credit when the game came out.

Most of the time was spent figuring out where I was again and what I could do. It took a while to relearn my character's skills, but I seemed to get the hang of it.

However, I realized something. I hate "quests." Well I hate the plethora of quests that are not littered in games these days. I thought it was a good thing when WoW made it possible to "quest" your way from 1 to 50. But then it seemed that was the only way. And with that many quests their importance and significance was diminished. And I felt like I was running around doing errands for just some bits of coin.

Going back I liked the early days of Dark Age of Camelot. There were enough quests to point you in the right direction to hunt at your level, but they were not a major part of your XP. Quests did offer rewards like good pieces of equipment for your level that although they were nice, not needed.

Also I think all "quests" should be solo-able. They are something to give you direction when you are on your own. You don't need a quest to kill and loot the Boss at the bottom of a dungeon. The "quest" reward should be looted there and then using something similar to the DDO treasure method. (Everyone gets an equal share and the "quest" items.")

Bring back the Epicness of quests by making them rarer and more significant. Make it such that you have a choice in how you want to achieve it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Story Hook

I was trying to reflect on recent games and why I get hooked or not.

And for the most part I will stay interested in a game along as I feel like I am progressing though the Story of the game. This goes for both single player and online RPGs. However there must be room for exploration and to go off the beaten paths for a while.

The trick is, I should always be able to jump right back in to the story at any time. Too many games with great story elements built in periods of time where you had to go wandering to collect XP in order to be powerful enough to meet the next challenge. Final Fantasy was very much like this.

This was one of the reasons I did not get hooked in to Age of Conan. Too many times I had to leave the main storyline quest to go "run errands" in order to continue on the main quest. On the other hand, I felt that the side quests in Lord of the Rings Online (for the starting areas) fit seamlessly in with the main story line quests. For the most part, the side quests put you in the same area as you were going to go to as the story quests.

WoW had some story in some of the quests, but it seemed to be an afterthought. Also it suffered from giving the player too many quests at once. So many that it devalued the whole notion of questing.

Going back to EQ, there were very few quests. Yet, I found almost everyone of them interesting. Even the Kill Ten Rats. Why, because there were not that many. Then again I was younger and just playing and seeing the world was new and exciting. I would actaully enjoy making the run from Freeport to Qeynos. Well for the first few times. But then I did not have to do that run often since there were things to do in both areas.

This isn't limited to Online games. CRPGs can do too much. The Elder Scrolls series are prone to being "too big." I played Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion, but I only ever finished Morrowind and that was though sheer force of will just to complete the story. And I did resort to a walk though to keep on track.

On the other hand, Fallout (and its various decedents) were just right in story and exploration. I never felt completely lost from the main line, but I still had time and fun to do other things in the world. Also it had the advantage to affect the game world. Granted you did not know of your importance to all the little areas until after you finished the game.

I have yet to stumble in to a MMORPG that fulfilled my need to be apart of the story and world such that I am compelled to continue to play. Not sure if I ever will, but I keep hoping with every game that comes out.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Gognard Speaks

Like any good blogging gaming geek, I have a long curriculum vitae of gaming. 30 some years to be honest. So over time, I have seen a lot and at times I get quite amused at where gaming is now. In that what is "new" really was done over 10 years ago by someone else in a different genre.

For example, the whole First Person Shooter came to its own with DOOM. Not that it was the first but it sort of defined the genre. Castle Wolfenstein 3D (also created by id software) was its prelude. Now, I first played Castle Wolfenstien back on my Apple II in 1981 and when I saw the 3D version I was amused and amazed. Being a good computer geek in college, I spent a good deal of time in the computer lab playing a both Wolfenstien and Doom. It did help that I was on staff in the lab as well. (Look ma, I am getting paid while gaming)

My first impression of Diablo was, "Oo, a graphical version of NetHack." And when I was able to ease my way in to Ulitima Online because I played and completed Ultima (before it needed any numbers) and I was a veteran of MUDs.

So for me. There isn't many new things coming out. However, there are many things that are being improving.

Lets take the next big hype: Warhammer

I was playing this 20 years ago in high school. Both the miniature game and the RPG. So I know a bit about this Intellectual Property. So what is new here?

- Crafting: So far it reminds me of The Elder Scrolls system of Alchemy and Enchantment.
- RvR: Well at least they are building off them selves from Dark Age of Camalot
- Class-Levels: Old as RPGs itself.
- Tome of Knowledge: Lord of the Rings had its Deed system, and many CRPGs had various versions of your personal journal and log.
- Public Quests: This is the most evolutionary idea. It is opening up the whole raid idea with out needing the pre-flight logistics. (getting 24+ of your friends together and coordinated)

Now I am not saying anything of this is a bad thing. I look forward to see how they pull this all off. I am wondering if I will ever find an online game that will keep me interested for more than 2 months.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

EVE: The Greatest Game I Rarely Play

Though out my postings I will bring up EVE quite a bit. First off because it is unique in that there isn't any online game like it. Also because I think they have shown that a quite few concepts that are tricky to do right can be done, given enough time and dedication.

What did EVE succeed in doing:

1) Create a completely player driven economy. Except for a very limited number of items, like skill books and very basic equipment, everything is player driven. It has either been found/looted by the players or manufacture from other components by players.

2) PvP with meaning. "Never fly anything you can not afford to lose." That is the golden rule of EVE. Because one day, you will lose it. This goes doubly so in PvP. You will lose your ship. It may take a while but one day, someone else will be luckier than you.

3) Free form character growth. You are not stuck in anyone mold in EVE. You can start doing one thing, then over time learn something completely new.

4) Conquest and Player Empires. Over its 5 years, there have been many major alliances and many of them have fallen. At anyone time there are maybe two or three active, and then lots of smaller ones. But over time all the big ones have fallen.

However there is one thing that makes EVE a difficult game to play. It is very slow.

First it takes a long time to figure out what is going on. Fortunately you can't make any mistakes in your first few days of playing that can not be corrected fairly quickly. At worse the skill you though you needed now, you will need later.

Second, it is the type of game where you must think long term. When I log in I not only think about what I am doing today, but what I must set in motion now in order to reap the benefit the next day, week or even month(s). I would spend almost as much time planning what I was going to do as actually doing it.

EVE is not the type of game you can just pop in and do something (other then change skill learning) and pop out. When I was managing a sizable manufacturing operation, I would spend about a half hour a day doing market research, buying supplies, setting up production items and list products. Even then I would still have to spend a few hours one night a week, just to move goods around as needed.

Even my purely combat character. Sure I could just go out and hunt 'rats for a half hour or run a quick mission, but still I would have to spend at least an hour a week doing logistics (suppling, recycling, etc.)

This level of commitment needed to play EVE is also part of its longevity. As you invest more time into the game the more likely you are to want to continue to play.

Every time I think about going back, I look at the fact that it will take me a few hours just to figure out what is going on again and what has changed. Some of that is offline reading, but still it is an investment of time.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Crafting: Buildin the better mouse trap in game

The Warhammer devs recently released a video podcast on Crafting in WAR.

It is interesting that their two design goals (no grinding useless items, no recipes) are not completely new. They are elements of crafting that are pre-WoW. What is sad is that recent MMOs usually tend to these elements. Lord of the Rings was almost exactly like WoW. Even Vanguard and EQ2 were mostly fixed recipes, you could add some extra bonuses in some items on the fly.

At least with Vanguard and EQ2 there was a bit of a mini-game in actually creating the items and there were various levels of quality.

But putting all that aside, what has and has not worked for crafting in MMORPGs?

The first problem you have to address is which is better. Crafted items or Looted items? For example, why should I spend all my time crafting a sword when it turns out to be a fairly common drop from mobs. Then there is the flip side, why take down bosses for loot if crafting can make a better item.

There are two options to this. First is the EVE and Pirates of the Burning Seas Method. Manufactured items and loot items are the same thing. There is the occasional "named" item that is better, but there is still some rarity.

The second option is to not have the same type items both as loot and crafted. In Star Wars Galaxies, all gear was player created. There was still useful loot like (like dragon pearls and holocrons) but you had no overlap between the two sources of goods.

The second problem is one of over supply. In order to maintain a need for crafting, everything that is craftable must be consumable or destroyable. Much in the same why that you have to regulate the money supply in a game, you have to regulate the item supply.

In EVE, every item can be broken down in to it component parts in order to make different things. Due to built in inefficiencies both in manufacturing and recycling, raw materials are slowly removed from the system with every step. Also every time a ship was destroyed, some of the components would be destroyed as well.

SWG had a fairly aggressive item decay system. Every time you used your weapon it slowly lost durability. The goal here is to make sure that there is enough crafting going on to replace all the decaying equipment at reasonable cost. A player will not spend more money on an item then it will yield in its life time. In fact most players will expect at least a 10:1 if not 100:1 return on investment. For example, If I spend 1000 credits on a rifle, I better be able to make at least 100,000 credits before I have to replace it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

We are all Individuals

There is a very weird empirical result of online game design:

The more freedom you offer in character creation and customization, the more everyone will be the same.

It is sort of a contradiction, but it is part of the reason why there are so few "classless" MMORPG systems out there. Now this isn't entirely true as there have been successful Classless games. It all has to do with the amount of freedom of character design is useful in the game. Yet, in the last two years, every major MMORPG release has been class-based.

So how do Classless Systems fail? And why are developers cautious around them?

Back in Ultima Online and Asheron's Call, you had the choice of picking any skills you wanted and create your character freely. Over time, it turned out that there was really only one build that the great majority of players used. AC was worse since there were skills that you could specialize in that were in the end completely useless except in the rarest of cases. A player may have an alt for some of the lesser used but profitable trade/craft skills, but for the most part it was one build or death.

Class based systems suffer a similar fate. WoW has all its classes and feat trees, however, there is usually two or three "accepted" builds for each class in order to be competitive. Now for the single/solo/small group player, you can get away a bit from not being optimal. But when the end game is competition with other players (though Raids and PvP) you have to get every last edge you can.

EVE and Star Wars Galaxies (Pre-NGE) were able to have open ended character design with limited similarities.

In SWG you could easily become a Master in multiple professions. And there were usually multiple professions for different tasks. For example, you could become a specialist in pistols, carbines, rifles or heavy weapons. Ideally neither one of the ranged combat groups was always better than the other. Same for the Melee combat groups, and the different Support/Buff, and Crafter Professions. (There also hybrid professions like the Bounty Hunter and Creature Handler, and they had their own interesting bits.)

The problem with SWG is that there was a point that you were "done" improving your character.

EVE has an open ended character creation and it is also functionally limitless. Your character can always learn more.

There are limited number of skills needed create a nice Raven Missile boat with a solid passive shield tank for missions, but a different set of skills are needed to fly an Apoc armor tank. Both ships fit the same general role, and have certain advantages depending on the specific task at hand.

But then if you want to go in to mining that is a whole different set of skills, not to mention manufacturing and a host of other tasks that are profitable in game.

Over time your character can learn multiple different fields and specialties. But what you are doing at the moment depends on the ship you are flying. Your character's combat skills mean nothing when you are piloting a freighter.

In order for a classless system to succeed it needs the following:

1) There are multiple ways doing one thing. With no one way being always the best.
2) There are many different thing that one can do.
3) Ability for continuous growth.

The problem now is make sure that each method of doing something is equivalent. In EVE there are 4 different type of primary weapon systems. Though it took a while for the devs to finally make sure that each weapon system had its place. And no one weapon system was best in all cases. SWG had the same balance problem between its ranged weapon groups at start.

Having many things to do means a lot more design. You can't just create a crafting mini-game to churn out products if those products have no use in the final cause of the game itself. Or what is the point of being stealthy and have the ability to avoid combat if in the end the game is all about combat?

In SWG it was all about the Galactic Civil War. Most professions had something that could directly contribute to the cause. But a few (entertainers) had very little direct impact on the war.

EVE is much more open ended. Your personal goals are yours alone. Though even in the game of alliance domination, everyone is needed. Building a Titian, requires many different professions, not just the industrialists to make them.