Gaming News: Gamescom News (GW2, Diablo III et al), Skaven for Warhammer Online, Age of Empires goes F2P, Blizzard sues private server, 90% kids in the US play online games

It’s been a week of new trailers and press releases, as opposed to actual news.

One of the more interesting forum snippets that Player vs Developer picked up is that the majority of F2P players in Dungeons and Dragons Online don’t reach the endgame. I’m not surprised by this, given that the free to play model encourages more casual players who’ll tend to be less engaged with a game and probably more likely to drift away if it gets grindy. And also that we know that even in WoW, most casual players don’t get past level 10 in any case. But I also wonder how much of this is the model that allows you to unlock content for all alts at the same time. So once you have bought a few low level instances, you might as well level a few alts through them because … hey, you’ve already paid.

There are also rumours that Realtime Worlds (devs for APB) have found a buyer. Hopefully more news on that shortly.

Bits and Pieces from Gamescom

I thought the Best of Gamescom awards were quite interesting this year in that although Star Wars: the Old Republic was nominated for both best game and best online game, it didn’t win either. Guild Wars 2 won best online game of the convention, though. And that’s via voting from people who were there and tried the demos. I suspect that to be more of a judgement on the demos than anything else, but I really think that the Best of Gamescom category should be made up of games which already won their own categories. And maybe they should make the developers have a steel cage death match fight too.

Also any voting in which Gran Turismo 5 wins out over Kirby’s Epic Yarn is not reflecting my personal tastes so is largely irrelevant to me ;)

Blizzard turned up with some more information about crafting in Diablo III. Comments have noted seeing similar elements to WoW, but I suspect that’s missing the point. Or maybe it is the point. I’m looking forwards to hearing more about D3 at Blizzcon, it’s probably going to be the biggest ever PC game when it does launch. They also commented in interview that Cataclysm needs a couple more months before release.

Arenanet brought a video of Guild Wars 2 gameplay.

(edited to add: Yarr suggests in comments that people might find this to be a better and more informative link.)

There is also a Portal 2 trailer.

THQ also ruffled the Warhammer 40k fans by noting in interview that their upcoming MMO would not allow players to play as space marines from the beginning. I don’t really get why people are upset about this since inquisitors are way cooler!! *ducks the flames* but you probably won’t be able to play those either.

Bioware Mythic mention skaven, fans go wild

Mythic discussed future plans for WAR in an interview this week which mentioned ‘an RvR pack’ which would involve skaven but not as a standard race that players could play from level 1.

They expanded on this  in a chat session. There will be a new PvP zone, new renown ranks to earn, and a focus on open world RvR. We’ll expect more announcements on this fairly soon.

Age of Empires to go Free to Play

Microsoft is planning to release an online version of their popular RTS, Age of Empires. And it will use the free to play/ freemium model.

Apparently there will be levelling and quests and incentives to team up with other people. It will be quite interesting to see how this works out for a RTS game and why they aren’t going the battle.net route of matching opponents instead.

I suspect it’s easier to make and balance a cooperative game. And also, they’re keen to provide some permanence for your capital city which means that it can’t be nuked while you’re offline.

Blizzard sues private WoW server, wins $88mil

So the story is that someone was running a successful private WoW server, with a F2P type model. Blizzard found out and sued them. And was given a huge punitive award by the courts.

Lum notes that the private server had more players than most other MMOs out there, although I think that since it was F2P that most of them probably weren’t paying, or else registered to see what it was all about but didn’t play much. What is real is that the owner earned $3 million from the private server, and with that kind of money on the table, you can see where the incentive lies. And also why Blizzard pressed for a large award.

The question on the table is whether this indicates a large latent demand for WoW to go free to play. I suspect there probably are plenty of people who’d love to pay their way past bits of the  game they don’t want to play, and lots of others who think it would work out cheaper for them with a F2P model.

The kids are online

A report this week based on a survey of 5000 kids across the US showed that over 90% of ‘tween’ kids (8-15) play online games. My first reaction is to be surprised that 90% of kids in the US have access to game capable PCs or consoles and internet connections, so I’m assuming this survey is based purely on those in families which do have these things.

I mean, who gives an 8 year old an iPhone anyway?

More worrying was the facebook statistic:

Facebook is now the favorite website among tween (8-11) boys and teen (12-15) girls.

This is interesting because Facebook’s policy states:

  • No information from children under age 13. If you are under age 13, please do not attempt to register for Facebook or provide any personal information about yourself to us. If we learn that we have collected personal information from a child under age 13, we will delete that information as quickly as possible. If you believe that we might have any information from a child under age 13, please contact us through this help page.”

Yes, you can play facebook games through someone else’s account, but … I wonder. Or is it just that it’s the easiest website for kids to remember and to tell surveys if asked to name one?

EQ2 Extended in Open Beta, has a bumpy ride

The free to play version of EQ2 is now in open beta, so feel free to go try it.

But don’t buy anything (who buys anything in a beta? Honestly, people!!) if you already have a subscriber account, because you might accidentally lose everything. I’m sure SOE will figure out a way to give all the stuff back and fix the bug, but that one is pretty epic.

Having said that, it’s great that people actually do buy stuff in the beta because it helps to find these sorts of bugs.

Have you tried the Starcraft 2 beta?

So, it’s about a week now until the launch of Starcraft 2, which is undoubtedly going to be one of the big gaming events of the year.

I linked yesterday to reports that the game cost more than $100m to develop, and at least one commenter wondered what they had spent it on. (edited to add: this rumour has since been debunked.) One of the interesting comments made by Mike Morhaime in the interview was this:

We’ve brought in a lot of new players in the beta testing who’ve been playing ‘World of Warcraft’ but have never tried Starcraft

So it sounds as though just about every WoW player who opted into the SC2 beta will have had an invite. Players and bloggers have noted that beta testing phases have increasingly been used as marketing tools over the last few years, and here it is in black and white.

Alas, in my case the marketing may have backfired. I did try the game and thought it was fun. But after losing every single match I ever tried, I conclude that I’m just not experienced enough an RTS player to play this thing. And maybe not really motivated enough to spend hours reading guides and watching replays to learn from scratch.

My conclusion from my beta experience: Good game, will make a lot of SC players happy, but not for newbies. This could be completely wrong if the single player game (not part of the beta) actually turns out to have a top notch tutorial. But then again, if you are deliberately trying to get new players to try your beta, perhaps it would be a good idea to include the tutorial parts of the game …

So have you tried the Starcraft 2 beta, and if so, what did you think? Did it look as though it cost $100m? You looking forwards to release?

Gaming News: Changes at Cryptic and Mythic, Bioware SWTOR multiplayer demo, Steam Sale, World of Tank and Need for Speed beta

News is a bit thin on the ground this week, must be the silly season.

Crew Changes at Cryptic

Craig Zinkievich is leaving his role as executive producer of Star Trek Online. In his leaving letter, he says that he’s decided to take a break from Cryptic and focus on other things, none of which seem to be work related.

Hope he enjoys his break, whether it was enforced or not. The vacant position has been filled, but it’s hard to know what this might mean for STO. It’s not usually a good sign when the producer packs up.

Mythic changes name again

Mythic has changed its name again and is now Bioware Mythic, in a move which makes the actual organisation of MMO studios within EA very clear (ie. Bioware has not also changed its name to Bioware Mythic.)

They also this week finally completed the handover from GOA for running the EU servers. Remind me why we need special EU servers again? Aside from various beta shenanigans and a really awful website, I found GOA did a decent job on running the EU side of WAR. Bootae’s Bloody Blog agrees. Let’s hope Mythic can at least do as well.

SWTOR multiplayer demo

Some of the E3 reports mentioned that journalists had played through a multiplayer SWTOR demo which showed different classes taking up different roles. The official multiplayer demo trailer has now been released. Moon over Endor discusses this along with the rest of the E3 news.

Steam continues to demonstrate how to run a cash shop

Today is the last day of the infamous Steam Summer Sale. If you don’t yet own World of Goo then I do not know you! (Mount and Blade, and Portal are also awesome.)

Syp writes a plaintive post about all the great deals he was forced to pick up this week.

I snagged Gothic 3 and Thief 3, two games I always meant to try but never got around to. I might still never get around to it but at least they’re there on my PC now … or something.

Steam has basically eliminated the myth of the short tail for computer games. Older games will sell, they just need to be enticingly priced and easily available. There have also been some good MMO deals this week, including EVE and Champions Online.

A couple of beta announcements

Yup, struggling for news this week.

World of Tanks enters its closed beta. Sounds dull to me but it’s nice to see the genre expanding. Not sure what you do with your tank other than drive around in it and shoot other tanks – does that make for a good MMO?  But what do I know?

Need for Speed: World is also opening up its beta this week. It is technically an MMO, and to be honest, this sounds way more interesting to me than the tank one. At least with a racing sim, I see the possibilities in training up your car/driver/support team/ manufacturer. Either way, I’m definitely intrigued to hear more about this one.

Monster Hunter Frontier Online tops Japanese xbox sales

This was an interesting story from Massively. An xbox exclusive MMO has made it to the top of the sales charts in Japan. No mention of it being released abroad but with all the anxious discussions about MMOs on consoles, it’s interesting to see proof of concept.

Ask not what you can do for your guild …

Yesterday, the NDA on the Cataclysm beta was lifted so if anyone thought they weren’t getting enough information about that yet … expect to drown in it from now until release. If the sheer volume of data is overwhelming, then comfort yourself in the knowledge that many things will still change before launch day. So you could reasonably just save your energy and ignore it all until you get to play personally.

Top sites for info:

Comparing with the current expansion, the NDA for Wrath was lifted on July 18th for a Release date of November 13th. If Blizzard are running a similar timetable for this expansion, then they’re aiming for a release in late October. So maybe a couple of weeks after Final Fantasy 14 goes live on the PC (Sept 30th).

A look at the proposed guild perks

I’m right in the overwhelmed with data category but I was curious to check out some of the guild perks which are currently in the Cataclysm beta.

This is definitely going to change guild dynamics. And I wonder if actually these new guild abilities will encourage good practice and help guilds to differentiate themselves.

For example, some of the perks on offer will automatically pay money into the guild bank every time a guild member loots a mob. So what are guilds going to do with that cash?

  • You could pay repair costs for guild members.
  • You could pay out bank dividends every month (just divide the contents of the bank by the number of players.)
  • You could run a guild lottery – let people enter by paying in crafted or gathered items (ie. something useful) in return for a chance to win the monthly pot. I’m considering doing this for my little friendly guild.
  • you could provide guild members with consumables or even crafted goods
  • you could pay for mounts, or for starting bags for new alts
  • you could keep it all for yourself and your alts …

But the main thing is, a guild will be expected to do something with this new resource, and to inform guild members what they plan to do. Other perks include increased honor points (from PvP kills) for guild members, better results from gathering, reduced repair costs, and shorter hearthstone cooldowns.

The other one which caught my eye in the list was:

Chug-A-Lug (Rank 1): The duration of buffs from all guild cauldrons and feasts is increased by 50%.

We haven’t seen cauldrons for awhile. In TBC a cauldron was a type of resistance potion which could be used by an entire group or raid. So it looks as though guild alchemists will again be able to provide an entire group with a potion or elixir buff.

In any case, being in a guild with any or all of these perks is going to be quite a sizeable advantage for a player. And I wonder whether the perks and the push towards being guilded will make more people question what sorts of services they think a good guild ought to offer to members. Will people still be satisfied with what they get from their current guild, or will GMs be expected to offer more?

To test or not to test

Yesterday saw two large and long awaited projects either begin a new phase of testing or open signups for beta testers. I’m talking about Google Wave and Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Google Wave is The Next Big Thing that is going to change online communication as we know it, etc (until the next thing comes along). From what I can gather, you can treat a wave as though it was email, twitter, instant messenger, or even a blog. You can embed video, links, pictures, games, comments, edits, voice chat … and anything else anyone can write an addon to do. Or in other words, I actually have no specific idea how I’d use this thing at all but I see the possibilities there for collaborative working and gaming, and I want to experiment with it myself and find out. Naturally I’ll do my best to break it along the way and pass on any bugs I locate.

SWTOR is just a game.

No guesses as to which beta I’m more keen to get into at the moment.

How things are shaping up for Aion

It was back into the world of Atreia last weekend for a second bite at the Aion beta cherry. This time we had the chance to play Asmodeans — the evil faction of winged humanoids — up to level 10. The game now has a release date (September) and it’s looking better than ever.

A few baseline observations first. As an MMO Aion has clearly learned many many lessons from the current generation of games. Questing is smooth and takes you neatly on a tour of the newbie zones. The writing (and localisation) is great, although they still need to translate the help system. Controls are smooth and easy to pick up, using a lot of the standard UI features that players will be used to.

Character classes will be familiar also. There are two heavy armour classes (one tank, one dps), two casters (one nuker, one pet based), two healers (one ranged, one melee), and two non-caster dps (one dual wielding melee, one bow user).

They have also taken some design aspects from Asian MMOs which are less familiar to western players. Casters have to rest to regain mana (i.e. you use the rest command which makes you sit down). There’s no auction house, instead players can populate their own private vendor and set it out for other players to look at. This means that in any populated area, you’ll have to push your way past hordes of players in vendor mode. And if you want to buy, you’ll need to browse all the vendors individually.

(Edited to add: OK, I’m wrong and there is an Auction House in the capital city. Sorry for misinformation. But we were just playing from levels 1-10 in a weekend beta, and all the populated areas were heavy with player vendors so I’m just saying what I saw.)

You can also kill-steal – if two people who aren’t grouped attack the same mob then the xp/loot goes to whoever did the most damage.

It’s beautiful. I’ll keep coming back to this (and so will everyone else who writes about the game) because the game is absolutely stunning. This is partly because they’ve thrown out the ‘green and brown for more realism’ rulebook that EQ2 and LOTRO designers are so attached to and used the whole paintbox. It’s a colourful game. It also runs very well on my mid-range system. No glitches, no crashes, no slomo frame rates, no falling down holes in the map.

It isn’t just the backdrops and character designs either. The animations are fantastic; your character looks around, fidgets, licks her lips, and acts as if she’s a part of the world around her. Animals are brilliantly animated also.

If you like pretty games and want to be blown away, it’ll be worth a month of anyone’s money just to see it in action.

Storytelling Innovations

It’s very easy to sweep Aion away under the category of ‘been there, seen that’, but that would miss some of the innovations. One of them is the neat insertion of cut scenes into quest dialogue. Not every quest or discovery comes with a cut scene but occasionally you’ll get a few seconds of camera work which does give a more cinematic experience.

In particular, we loved the little cut scene that showed you exactly what happened to some poor mage’s beloved pet when we were playing the good angels last time around. It was unexpected, short enough not to be annoying, and very funny.

But the most stunning thing about the initial storylines is the great use they make of flashbacks and flash forwards. All characters start as human, and after level 9 you are able to do a quest to ascend (ie. get your wings, be transformed into an immortal angel being). Your character starts with a bad case of memory loss, but during the first ten levels, you meet people who are able to share visions of yourself in the past.

And what you see is downright amazing. You see your own character, wings and all, in awesome high level armour, in some amazing looking PvP zone. NPCs address you as Lord. You are able to play through some of the flashback sequence. It’s an amazing way to show the player what lies in store for the character if they keep playing. I’d defy anyone not to think ‘Oo, that looks cool. I’d like to do that.’

Another tweak that I loved was that the Asmodeans start as part of a gang of raiders. Your character in particular is quite an incompetent/ inexperienced raider at the beginning. And one of the NPCs lectures you when you accept a quest, saying that a true raider shouldn’t say wimpy things like ‘As you will’ when they accept a quest. They should say ‘THE TASK IS MINE’ and storm off to do it. Well, your character evidently takes this to heart because for every quest after that, the phrase you click to accept is ‘the task is mine’. It amused me, anyway.

So far, everything I have seen has also been soloable, but don’t expect that to last. There are definitely higher level quests which you’ll need to group up for. Classes do also vary at which levels they get various useful survivability skills (I struggled on my caster until she picked up a self-shield and knockback, at which point it became very easy.)

How about the PvP?

As far as I can tell, the endgame is all about PvP. There’s an open zone (or several) where you can fight other players and mobs, and capture keeps, Warhammer style. Because of the wings, PvP will have a 3D aspect. I suspect this means that casters will be more effective than melee because it’s much easier to manoeuvre in 3D when you have more range to play with. However, you can’t fly indefinitely. Your wings will get tired and you will need to come down to earth to rest them.

But I haven’t tried the PvP myself yet so I could be talking out of my hat.

When two tribes go to war

Because of the PvP side, I have to wonder how well the two factions will be balanced. They have access to identical classes, but that won’t mean much if players have a strong bias to one or the other.

Based on what I have seen in beta, I suspect most people will pick Asmodean. They seem that bit cooler, that bit more beautiful, that bit more exotic, and that bit better written. They also aren’t eeeeevil in the same way that we’re used to seeing, they’ve just had a rough deal and are more pragmatic in their drive to survive.

I will be amazed if this is not an issue.

How to get the wings

I don’t normally do this but I picked up a search term this week on the blog for ‘How do I get wings in Aion?’. So just for the record (and to prove I did it), the Ascension quest will appear in your quest log when you reach level 9. Just do that quest. You’ll get the wings, and you’ll also get to visit your local gorgeous angelic city of choice.

It’s a small world?

Summing up, it’s a beautiful game. It will blow you away if you let it. The actual gameplay feels very similar to current generation MMOs so it will be very easy to pick up for new players. Wings are great, flying is too. If you’re bored of your current game and want to try something similar (with wings) but a bit different, it’s got to be worth a shot.

I do think I get a bit worn out on the tourguide model of quest based levelling. They do it well in Aion, but a tour is still a tour. The world doesn’t feel large to me yet, and I’m not sure how many things there are to do or see if you choose to run off the rails. Also the Asmodean quests and starting areas have a bit too much in common with the Elyos – they’re good but it doesn’t really feel like a completely different experience. Similar mobs, similar terrain layout, and so on.

I know that for me, there is something missing. A sense of the world around me, perhaps. When everything is on rails there just isn’t any room for things to be there just because it would be a better simulation of a world if they were there. I’m also not thrilled with the player merchants or kill stealing. But if the quality of storytelling remains this good, it’s tempting to at least run through it once, to see how things end.

The next beta weekend phase starts on July 2nd. So scramble around for a beta key before then (or you can get one if you pre-order).