EA: Probably the worst company in the USA?

Fellow gamers, we are living in interesting times. Despite sales of games heading up year on year, the traditional AAA/ publisher-developer model is looking increasingly creaky. Making a AAA game is an expensive, risky process and the feedback I’m seeing from the industry is that they’re often not getting the (vast) sales they need to justify the risk. So we end up with games that seem successful to consumers being judged unsuccessful by the publisher because 1m/ 2m/ 3m/ etc. sales just isn’t enough.

This all has very little to do with Electronic Arts being voted worst company in the USA for the second year running on a consumerist.com poll. The likelihood of them actually being the worst company in the USA is pretty low, but it’s clearly something people feel strongly about. Also there’s a sense in which a lot of people have made up their minds to hate EA and will just assign any bad decision made by any developer under the publisher’s umbrella to feed their hatred. For example, it’s really unlikely that EA had much say in the ME3 ending (that was a purely Bioware decision), but it’s all grist to the mill.

I have no interest in defending EA, no doubt they deserve a lot of the flak. Plus you have to assume that gamers will a) be online a lot and thus able to vote in online polls and b) interested in gaming any voting system.

But as a non-US person, the surprising thing to me is that US consumers don’t hate the same sorts of companies that I think would win the poll here: energy companies, banks, railways/ airlines, tax evaders, any other annoying company that is generally a hassle to deal with or sets unduly high prices. The businessinsider post I linked above notes the same thing:

Usually, utilities, cable companies, and airlines come at the bottom of customer satisfaction ratings because the interactions people remember are paying bills, delayed flights, or dealing with outages.

EA’s a company that is supposed to entertain people. The fact that it’s won this poll twice in a row shows how much it needs to alter its priorities.

I just don’t think UK consumers would vote a gaming company top of the hate list. Then again, looking at the reactions to Mrs Thatcher’s death, maybe some organisations or iconic figures have just become acceptable figures of hate. (NB. without getting into the politics of it, I think people who disliked Mrs Thatcher have more grounds than the EA haters.)

Peter Moore (EA COO) touches on this in his statement, and tries to address some of the criticisms, pointing out that for many of them there are many more players who are happy with the state of things than are complaining. (Although I think he should have left SimCity off the list: too soon, Peter, too soon.) This definitely won’t do anything to satisfy the people who hate his company, a bit more humbleness might have gone further. But I’m not sure anything would stop people from hating on EA except being given a different hate target.

Maybe next year.

[WoW] Thoughts on 5.2 – Everybody walk the dinosaur

wow_dino

Sadly, dinosaur jousting is not (yet) in the game

Somewhere along the line, it stopped being acceptable for patches to be referred to just by their numbers (probably because it’s obscure, hard to remember, and vaguely techy), so patch 5.2 should more properly be known as The Thunder King. (Amusing comparison: in Jewish custom, books of the bible are traditionally known by the name of the first word in  that book. This has the advantage of not being stuck with names like “Deuteronomy.”  In WoW, we know our patches by the name of the last endboss.)

This is the big content patch of the expansion, involving a couple of new zones, a big new raid, bunch of progressive daily quests (ie. they are in phases) with associated scenarios as the phase advances, more crafting recipes, open world raid bosses, new pets and mounts, and new reputations. In particular, there are a lot of dinosaurs because REASONS.

I’m having fun hanging out with my guild, getting on with the daily quests, running some raids in normal mode with guildies and LFR, and unlocking the next phase of the Isle of Thunder, of which we are about to unlock the last part. I am starting to feel worn down by it though and I want to talk a little about why that is, and other impressions of the patch.

We got dailies in your dailies

I think the daily quest part of the patch has been really well done. I like the mechanic of having some randomly selected dailies every day, and of unlocking the next phase of the zone after enough have been (collectively) done. It’s pretty cool. This isn’t an “I’m burning out on dailies!” complaint, I quite enjoy them. But the effect of all these extra tiers of dailies on top of the daily heavy MoP endgame and the daily heavy last patch is a ponderous feel of “same old, same old.”

For all that, once you have all the rep and loot you want from the local rep vendors, it does at least give plenty of choice in how you’d like to earn your weekly valor points. I don’t see that as a bad thing at all.

The loot problem with large raids

When I say large raids, I mean raids with lots of bosses. In Throne of Thunder, there are 12 bosses. Not all wings are open yet for LFR so Blizzard have staggered the release of the raid in a similar way to what happened with Icecrown.

The loot problem is that if each boss can drop several items that might be relevant for your class/ spec, that is going to add up to a lot of duplication. I counted about seven different robes that my shadow priest could potentially get from ToT LFR, all of the same item level. (Which happens to be 2 iLevels lower than the robe I had upgraded from the last patch.) Getting loot is great! It’s always nice when the game gives you something. But it’s going to be very hard for me to be even mildly excited about any of those drops.

I know, transmogrification and cosmetic clothing. I should get excited because they all have different looks. But it’s still just a robe and my goblin is a shadow priest (ie. spends most of the time in shadow form where you can’t really make out the gear) so the lure of loot isn’t really pulling at me yet. And this is even before the last wing has unlocked in LFR. I shouldn’t be this blase about drops already.

So imagine most pieces of armour will be present in multiple varieties also. I wonder if it might have been better to be a bit stingier with the drops.

In any case, clearly it’s in normal/heroic mode and rep gear from the raid rep vendor that the more useful upgrades for me will come. This isn’t doing a great deal to motivate me into LFR unless my friends are around, and as soon as I have the few LFR upgrades that I want, I may get my valor points via the easier raids and heroics instead.

Difficulty and LFR

The conversation about difficulty is focussed at the moment on Durumu, the beholder boss. LFR groups fall like flies to this guy, three full wipes is the fewest I’ve ever had before we got him down. This is way out of line with how bosses usually fall to LFR groups.

And the reason is not because the mechanics are especially hard, it’s because there are some very key elements which are just hard to see. If you set up a purple foggy maze on a dark background where the safe area moves around and kill off anyone who accidentally strays into the (hard to see) maze for too long, it’s not a recipe for an easy boss kill. This type of difficulty is a mixture between punishing (if you don’t get it right, you will probably die and no one in the raid can save you), and needlessly visually obscured. It is the second part that is the problem.

On the bright side, having to figure out how to get past an annoyingly hard boss can sometimes bring out the best in LFR groups. After a couple of wipes, people tend to focus more on getting organised, marking the person/people who claim to be good at seeing the maze and getting everyone else to stack on them. And after managing the boss, the raid has tended to feel  more cohesive for the rest of the run – there is a sense of achievement. I think it’s interesting to observe. Even annoying difficulty isn’t always bad.

But Blizzard do still need to fix it because it’s annoying to die to stuff you can barely even see.

Getting the community to interact

In this patch, Blizzard have put a few new elements in to try to encourage more interaction. The Isle of Thunder has some rare elite mobs which drop desirable items (including a key to the new solo loot-grab scenario), and which need a few people to kill. You also don’t need to be in a group or raid to get loot if you have helped with the kill  I find that general chat on the isle is often used to report when one of these mobs is up, as a general invitation to people to come and pile in. So it seems to be working as a way to get players to communicate and invite random others to help. What they don’t tend to do is tell you where the rare mob is, so you’ll have to learn those locations on your own (or with the help of a handy website).

There are also a couple of new world bosses which need huge numbers of players (ie. more than one full raid) to kill. These also have been pretty successful in encouraging interaction. Word tends to get round when one of them is up via guild chat, trade chat, general chat in cities and everyone is welcome to come and pile in. Because you need that many warm bodies.

So do I like to see this kind of thing in the game. I think it’s worthwhile to have bosses with fairly simple mechanics but that require large numbers of players to kill, alongside content that is more difficult, more solo friendly, or favours elite groups. How busy/ popular those mobs will be when people no longer need the loot is hard to say. I see far fewer Sha of Anger (world boss from the start of MoP) groups being formed now than I used to, for example.

Do we expect every patch to be a mini expansion now?

There are some real bonuses to having patches that involve self contained zones and reputations and  easy stepping on points for players who had taken a break. Mostly because you can draw players back in who had previously gotten bored with the expansion  to see and play the new content.

The downside is that more of the things you had done previously in the expansion will feel deprecated. The rep and loot from the last patch will soon be replaced by the rep and loot from the current one. Keen had a good point I think where he argues that he wants time spend in MMOs to feel like an investment.

I see Blizzard trying to find a balance in which your achievements from the beginning of the expansion still feel valid and useful later on. For example, time spent maxing out the farm is still useful – you can still grow useful stuff on it. Mounts and pets are still useful and valid if you want to use them. Knowing the heroic instances and earlier LFR raids is still useful, they are good sources of valor points and knowing the fights will make it easier for you to shine/ your raid to kill them.

This balance between valid current content and deprecated old content has always been a point of contention in themepark style MMOs. In some ways, the games always feel purer a few months  after release — after the worst of the release bugs have been fixed but before the first expansion is released, because it simply isn’t a concern and all the content is current.

I wonder whether other MMOs find a better balance than WoW does.  I know in LOTRO I always used to feel that the older content felt more valid than old WoW raids, for example. I’m not sure if that is still the case.

Catching up: Kickstarters

I don’t know about any of you but I’m getting to a place with gaming kickstarters which is much closer to how I buy regular published games. I read the kickstarter, think “Sounds cool” and then “I’ll wait till it’s released and then pick up a copy if it’s any good.”

To get me to contribute these days, I’d need more emotional attachment to the project than just “Oh neat.” It would either have to sound like something I really want to play, involve a creator of whom I am a fan, or support a cause I care about. Maybe the sheen has just gone. Creators are finding new ways to use kickstarters – sometimes to raise awareness or for publicity more than for the kickstarter cash itself. This wasn’t really the original idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s terrible.

It’s just that in the grim dark future, instead of applying for a beta or preordering (or prepaying) to get your beta spot, it’ll only be open to people who paid more than $X in the kickstarter.  But the equating of “how much cash are you willing to put up” as a measure of your dedication as a fan is a trend that is only going to increase. It is also inherent in the F2P mindset. That’s more of a topic for a future post. For now, lets just say that fan enthusiasm is a commodity to be monetised. Fun times.

Anyhow, there have been a few large gaming kickstarters in the mix lately. Terra Silverspar sees this as a sign that kickstarter is going to be a bad thing for gaming in the longterm.

Many of big name developers using Kickstarter are furthest from strapped for cash to be able to produce the titles they are looking to produce, but they threw out these rather large figures at what they feel would need to be to create these games, some of them with not even a demo or name of the product to be seen, and even threw out shameless incentives to get people to pay more.

((…))

All they have to say is remember my one good game and they know their fans will jump on it, especially if said big name makes large promises that claim their in development product you’ve never seen will be like one of their famous games of the past.

This isn’t fundamentally different from the way hype works anyway. “New game X will be like old game Y that you really liked” is a fairly basic argument, especially if it’s backed up by having some of the same team involved. You pays your money and takes your chances.

However, phrases like “harkening back to his innovative early work,” “the team will revisit X’s design roots”, “this game is counter-revolutionary” et al lean towards a current view of kickstarter where it is getting used to support revolutionary (or not)  little indie games and old school (ie. not revolutionary) larger games. Except that the indie games struggle more with publicity than a big name celeb game designer.

Anyhow, I’m going to scan over some of the projects that I have either backed or been following.

Shroud of the Avatar (Lord British)

I know Arb is fond of this one, for sentimental reasons. This successful kickstarter has been controversial because Lord British (yeah I know, his real name is Richard Garriot) is wealthy enough in his own right that punters wonder why he can’t pitch a game to publishers without needing $1m of funding from the public first. Also controversial as the man is a dab hand at giving controversial interviews. Or in other words, he gives good media.

On the other hand, he is proposing making an open world RPG of the type he became famous for with the Ultima series. Shroud of the Avatar is a direct callback to Ultima, as your character was called “the avatar” in many of those games, although for legal reasons it won’t be using any of the Ultima IP (last seen being cast onto iOS via Ultima Forever). It is going to be a PC game. He is calling it a multiplayer game rather than an MMO so there is going to be some overlap with solo play and group play.

So if you liked that sort of game – which Arb and I did very much – it will be one to keep an eye on. I like open world RPGs, and that is what I expect this to be. The kickstarter almost doubled its $1m goal, so let’s see how it goes.

Jane Jensen (Moebius)

This is one of the first kickstarters that I backed, and I liked it because I admire Jane very much as a game writer and have fond memories of the Gabriel Knight games. Her studio has already put out an extra mini graphic adventure aimed at 5-9 year olds – which wasn’t anything I was interested in, but free perks are always nice and if I knew anyone with a kid and an iPad I’d happily give it to them. But the main attraction is Moebius, an adventure game which does not stray far from its Gabriel Knight roots.

RPG didn’t think much of the trailer but as a backer I’m happy, it looks pretty much to be what I would have expected. I look forwards to playing it on release and am happy I was able to support it.

Also she’s been great about monthly updates, free wallpapers, and generally being in touch and available.

Camelot Unchained

As a fan of DaoC (and Warhammer Online) I am always interested to see any project that Mark Jacobs is behind. He spent a few months building up publicity for this kickstarter before it launched, and is currently almost halfway to his $2m goal. It is a large goal, especially for a fairly niche type of game, so this will be an interesting one to watch.

Mark is doing a lot of publicity for this at the moment via interviews. He also has been quite active in the reddit, and I recall he always seemed to quite enjoy interacting on forums et al during DaoC also.

Although I really liked DaoC I am not backing this one, because all PvP all of the time isn’t for me. I do think it was a good idea to limit the scope of the game – PvE content in MMOs is expensive and there is definitely an audience for a smaller PvP focussed game. If it is your thing, feel free to go pledge them some cash as this kickstarter has just under a month to go.

A friend of mine commented that he thought this kickstarter was very jargon heavy and would be hard to follow for anyone who wasn’t into MMOs. I don’t think they are trying to get new players into the genre, the people who want to back this game will know what the jargon means.  I do wonder a bit about how developing their own game engine is going to impact on things. It isn’t that it is a terrible idea, just that having the core of your game as a new untried and untested piece of code adds some risk to the endeavour.

Double Fine

This is the kickstarter which really kicked off the phenomenon for gaming, raising $3m on an initial goal of $400k. The game now has a name (Broken Age), a website, a trailer, and you can preorder. They have also been releasing regular video updates for backers giving some insight into the development process.

I am looking forwards to seeing the game, and I like the concept a lot. The videos have been fun and it feels like a fun, different way to support a game genre that I like and get a cool game at the end.

Torment (Numenera)

This is the Planescape Torment sequel that isn’t set in Planescape. The concept of that confused me enough that I decided not to back it – I did however back Monte Cook’s Numenera pen and paper game so at least I’ll be able to decide if I like the setting before putting any money down for a computer game. (Oh and also I can wait for the game to be released to see if I want to play it.)

Fortunately, Torment isn’t dependent on my backing as the kickstarter raised a whopping $4m off an original goal of $900k. Planescape really was that popular. They’ve recruited Chris Avellone (original Planescape: Torment designer) onto the design team, among other experienced designers, and have already turned out some cool looking screenshots.

I’ll look forwards to seeing what they can do with the money. But I’m perfectly happy to wait until release before deciding if I want it.

Here’s an interview with Brian Fargo where he talks about his experiences with successfully running kickstarters for Torment and Wasteland.

Project Eternity

Another RPG (I have straightforwards tastes in gaming), this time to be developed by Obsidium Entertainment with the help of just under $4m raised via kickstarter off an initial goal of £1.1m. Chris Avellone is going to be busy with both this and Torment, and they’re likely to be quite similar games.

This one I did support, I liked the idea of knowing a bit about the team going into the project at the start. And I want to see what Obsidian can come up with. They have been sending out regular updates, and we’ll just have to see how it goes.

I also like that although they’ve been clear about their influences and what type of game it’s going to be, it doesn’t feel like so much of a namecheck as the Torment game. I will of course play both if they’re any good.

Does the death of Google Reader mean the death of blogging?

The difficulty was that Reader users, while hyperengaged with the product, never snowballed into the tens or hundreds of millions.

- Rob Fishman

So I heard the news last night via twitter that Google Reader is being retired in July. I promptly checked the source and then RTed it with my first reaction (“Nooo! Don’t take away my reader!”), then posted a comment about it on my favourite bboard which noted the news story and asked for suggestions about a replacement. I may also have whined about it on Facebook and signed a petition or two. There is of course also a twitter tag for #savegooglereader.

Only now, finally,  am I mentioning it in a blogpost which could show up in other people’s Google Reader RSS feeds.

Such is the social media landscape in 2013. And frankly, the fact I’m writing this on a wordpress blog and not a tumblr, and that I haven’t pinned the story on pinterest just shows where I’m lagging behind the times. None of this is remotely likely to change the decision, it’s just how we communicate these days.

It is perhaps interesting that many of my favourite MMO bloggers had pretty much the same reaction; my Reader is full of posts about the death of Reader today. I guess we all used Google Reader a lot to keep up with the various press releases, community blogs, online publications, and personal blogs so that we could pull them into a community of sorts, and write about them in our blogs. If you ever liked reading my link posts, for example, thank Google Reader. (There will be many more link posts before July as I try to get through all the marked posts in my backlog!)

You would be excused at this point for thinking that Google Reader was the only RSS reader in the world. Of course there are others, and if we love our RSS habits then we’ll pick one and transfer. But it was a very well loved application by the people who used it, and may take a place in history as one of the things that Google got very right, and then fairly wrong, and then ditched. (The fairly wrong was when they neutered the sharing facilities –- you used to be able to add small comments on stories in your news feed and then share them with your friends.)

Even though G+ does offer some of the same functionality, it’s just not as neat and focussed on sharing websites as Reader used to be. People have not, in general, warmed to it.

Some analysis by other people

Google Reader’s former product manager commented on Quora that Reader had been under threat for years and links the decision to Google+.

Rob Fishman has a comprehensive, lively post on buzzfeed around the what could have beens of Google Reader, the social network that google built without meaning to. He’s included a lot about the history of RSS and Google Reader.

Never rely on the cloud

We all know that relying on free programmes and resources made by third parties is kind of a foolish thing to do – or at least unreliable. What is given can be taken away. Yet we all do it, we assume perhaps that they know what they are doing and if they aren’t asking us for money it’s because they have something else figured out.

We all know, also, that loving the product isn’t enough if there aren’t enough like-minded people out there and the money isn’t either. And yet, I’d have happily paid for Google Reader and I will miss it when it is gone. And you have to wonder what will go next if the userbase isn’t large enough, blogger perhaps?

Bloggers and RSS Readers

So a lot of bloggers adore their favourite RSS reader. It’s not surprising, blogs (weblogs) originally started as online journals where people could share their favourite links that they had discovered from around the web. Finding links to articles that other people have written and then reading and commenting on them has always been the nuts and bolts of blogging.  All the standard blogging platforms offer an RSS feed, it’s probably displayed prominently on your favourite blogs.

Without Google Reader, people can always find alternatives, but such a huge lack of confidence in the medium from a big name company cannot bode well for the ecosystem.

It may be that blogging’s day in the sun is  waning. I don’t entirely know. People do still very much want to share their thoughts, and those thoughts don’t always fit into small messages. Self publishing your own content and being able to create your own curated newsfeed is also the very stuff of Web 2.0, and RSS happens to do it very well. Specialist newsreaders can handle much higher density of usage than a pretty graphical magazine-style front end –  you can skim headlines in a list much faster than wading through 17 pages of headers, paragraphs, and (of course) images.

Anyhow, I am checking out some alternatives. I am quite inclined to pick an open source or paid for service (theoldreader.com, feedly and newsblur are on my list to try), and this is a crowd sourced list of current readers if anyone is curious.

Do you use RSS Readers to support your blog reading/ writing?

[LOTRO] Moria updated, the five minute quest/s

lotro_drunkmoria

I may be drunk in this screenshot, but I can see where my next tankard of beer is!

Arb and I were excited to get to Moria with our current LOTRO alts. We had heard a lot about how what is possibly one of the greatest expansions in MMO history had been updated and since we had both adventured through the area before, we figured that we would notice what had changed.

And for our first few levels we puzzled over whether  we had noticed any changes at all! Oh, it was fun to revisit old quests and areas we hadn’t seen for literally years – The Bat Cave! The Library! The Chamber of the Crossroads! But it wasn’t clear that any of them really seemed changed per se. I think many of the quests have been streamlined, there are fewer mobstacles in the main highways, and it also helped a lot that both Arb and I used some of our store credit to buy goats (ie. mounts which you can use in Moria as well as above ground). We also found some new extra horse (goat?) routes in Moria, taking you swiftly to minor questgivers from the major settlements. If I hadn’t mentioned this before by the way, Moria is big. Really big. Also very three dimensional, those dwarves loved their stairs and bridges.

But it was only the other day that we encountered some of the new content. We were on our way to Orc Watch (read: getting lost) when a window popped up with a quest in it. When we accepted it, it turned out that this was a local area based quest with a five minute timer. That’s like a red flag from the game saying, “Hey! Stop meandering and getting lost in Moria and do THIS THING, it will only take five minutes.”  So we did! “That was unexpected and a bit of extra fun”, we thought. “Not to mention a bit of extra xp.”

Further down the route, we saw a glowing orc corpse with a quest ring above it. Again, this kicked off a set of brief and very local quests which were new to us.

Then later on, we ran into the quest shown in the screenshot above. I’m pretty sure this one, which sends you off to drink to the memory of a dead dwarf with dwarves in lots of the Moria settlements, used to exist before. But now, after having a drink, the screen goes white and you just appear in the next settlement – conveniently able to pick up the horse route before having your next drink and continuing. Evidently the idea is that you are too drunk to really remember how you got there. We loved this. It’s a bit bonkers but still in theme, but does mean you can get the more far lying horse routes really easily.

Funny thing about the pop up area quests is that they kind of filled the same function for us as dynamic quests in GW2. But it didn’t matter that they actually weren’t dynamic because we were never really planning to go back that way again, and if we did it would be on the way to somewhere else and we wouldn’t really plan to divert to do a quest we’d probably done before anyway.

Short form: Quick popup quests are good, especially when they are unexpected. Moria is still pretty cool, and the revamp kept all the cool stuff.

Can hardcore players destroy a MMO?

I bet anyone who ever played a massively multiplayer online game has come up against the scenario where you realise that someone you are playing with (or against) is putting way more time, effort, research and social networking into the game than you are.

  • Maybe it’s That Guy who undercuts all your glyph auctions half a second after you have posted them. Every single time.
  • Maybe it’s the really powerful and organised alliance who seem to have a zillion players in every timezone.
  • Maybe it’s The Guy in your raid group (or LFR) who is all geared and tweaked out and times his/her rotation to the millisecond.

It’s easy to feel demoralised if you are competitive and you see a situation where you know you don’t want to put in the time/ money/ effort to compete with that. This is one of the big structural problems with MMOs: how do you have a game where a wide variety of players can all play together without breaking the game? Do you encourage the hardcore players/ guilds to be part of a separate more hardcore endgame? Do you encourage players to play alongside others of similar mindset and give them separate instances  to mess around in?

Gevlon has a good take on this in a post about RMT where he muses that if you let players cash out their earnings from the auction house, it would attract a more professional crowd (note: his opinion of professionals is a bit higher than mine).

What effect would it have on the game? Every market fully covered, leaving no trading income to casual/newbie players, only similar professional traders could compete. The simpler income sources, like doing PvE would be covered by real world corporations using minimal wage labor (after all, ratting can be done by half-illiterates), leaving absolutely no in-game income source to the real players.

He even decided to cut back on his own trading, “giving more space to other players to play in Jita”. This isn’t a case where the hardcore would be destroying the economy, it would still function fine. Just there is a theoretical case where there are enough ultra competitive players to mean that there are no niches left for casuals in that side of the game.

There are other theoretical ways in which the ultra hardcore could push a game into a stasis from which it could never escape. You could imagine a turf holding game where all the turf ends up belonging to a few large alliances who have mutual non aggression pacts.

The only way out would be if the ruling alliances deliberately cut back on their expansionary plans (much like Gevlon describes in his trading) in order to promote a more ‘healthy’ ecosystem in the game. Where ‘healthy’ could mean anything from ‘more welcoming to new players’ to ‘more likely to give us some fun territory fights in the future.’

In a themepark game, this is all largely irrelevant (I think it’s mostly theoretical in most sandboxes too). There simply are fewer parts of the game where players would have this much control that a large powerful guild could simply win the game. But it’s interesting I think to compare with RL – sometimes looking to the long term good of the community might be worth more than going for pure domination.

Have you ever played a game where you felt you or your faction dominated so hard that it wasn’t fun any more, or where you gave up because you felt the hardcore players meant there was no point?

[Social Games] Game of Thrones, and other improvements in Facebook gaming

game of thrones

It’s ironic that just as people are cooling on Facebook as a gaming platform, the quality of gaming on  FB is improving in leaps and bounds. This has been a long trend, encompassing more classic games like Words with Friends and Draw Anything, as well as Bejewelled and Hidden Object style gameplay.

But the more typical social games themselves have also been improving. You can’t get away entirely from the more annoying aspects – the popup windows urging you to use the store to speed up your actions, or to spam your friends with invites and/or gifts (less of an issue if you have a spare gaming account and keep your FB gaming ‘friends’ separate from people you actually know) – but there are more games around now which feature more interesting options, and more intriguing gameplay.

Game of Thrones Ascent (now in beta) is a good example of the type. As you might guess from the title, this is the official game of the series so it isn’t surprising that it plays the TV theme at you when it loads. The team are also respectful to the IP, tying your own stories into the better known NPCs and noble houses that you’ll be familiar with from the books/ films. You play the founder of a minor noble house, swearing fealty to one of the larger houses (Lannister forever! I hold out the faint hope that Charles Dance with no shirt on might show up if I’m loyal enough!)  and getting a castle of your own to name and improve.

Along the way there is crafting, some castle simulation (you know the type of thing: improve various buildings, craft/trade various things), and you can recruit and train sellswords to send on adventures. You get to build up your skills as a fighter, merchant, or sneaky bastard and decide whether your noble values their family over the realm, the new ways over the old, and whether you prefer cunning or honesty. There is also a narrative thread about you building up your domains, which also ties into the storylines from the series (first book, so far) where you get little episodes with choices to make and that may also need you to send off your minions to do various things. It’s nicely done, and as I say, respectful to the IP.

There are also boss fights which are more like MMO raids where you can invite your friends to come help. I’ve seen this mechanic before in social games (for example in Rage of Bahamut) and it’s an interesting tweak on the social baseline. In the few I have seen so far, it is possible to finish off the boss mob alone, it will just take longer. The game also includes a chat window (which is a bit odd since it’s on Facebook which has a chat window anyway) which I guess means you could chat to your mates while taking out the big baddy.

There is also some gameplay I haven’t got to yet which involves PvP, possibly in alliances. It’s a very MMOish social game.

I’m finding this interesting enough for a blog post, it’s still in beta and can be a bit sluggish, but recommended if it’s your kind of thing!