Gaming News: RealID was merely a setback, Dragon Age 2 announced, Firaxis hit by layoffs, E3 Game Critics Awards

I’ll start with my one and only World Cup joke, in honour of the World Cup finals: France, the only national side with 21 strikers.

Incidentally, Paul the Psychic Octopus now has his own facebook page (we assume under his real name).

WoW players love their pseudonyms

Blizzard this week announced that new Starcraft 2 and Cataclysm forums would require all posters to display their real names, as currently shown on their battle.net realID. Following widespread backlash from the community, they later withdrew the part about displaying real names in favour of a forum id.

Normally “Company A announces X. Company B then unannouces it 3 days later” would not be news. But the big story here is in quite how loud and unanimous the feedback from players against this change really was. There were crazy huge forum threads (I think the Blizzard IT team who kept those forums up all week under the heavy load are the unsung heroes of the piece), posts and comments all over the blogosphere, and reports in numerous national media. I am not sure that anyone would have predicted that quite so many people felt so strongly about their pseudonymity. I certainly would not. On a less pleasant note, some protestors also publicised information about Blizzard/Activision employees including addresses, details of family/ kids etc. I can’t condone this, but it undoubtedly was effective.

I do notice though that in many of the media pieces, they mention that gaming forums often use ids. Whilst failing to mention that this is thoroughly mainstream practice online outside facebook and many of the selfsame publications allow people to register with ids to comment on their own news stories.

We have assumed for awhile now that the spread of real names across the internet is inevitable. If nothing else, the facebook generation who were introduced to the internet via facebook will consider it normal. But now I wonder. There are certainly advantages to pseudonymity, many of which have been raised in this week’s discussions.

Anyhow, there is no doubt more to be said on the topic of internet privacy, as well as how to clean up gaming culture for the mainstream. The only arguments I have little time for in this debate are those who claim that it isn’t important.

Dragon Age 2, now more Mass Effectish

One of the other stories which caught my eye this week was that Dragon Age is apparently Bioware’s biggest selling title. I would have expected to see Mass Effect/ Mass Effect 2 in that position, and if you look at the actual article, Rob Bartel’s quote is:

“last November it was the single most globally successful title we’ve put out to date”

Last November was before ME2 was released. So – yeah – draw your own conclusions.

Anyhow, this week Bioware announced Dragon Age 2, a sort of sequel to the first game which features a different protagonist, different continent, updated graphics, and possibly very different style of combat. I hope the trademark blood spatters stay in though.

Unlike the original game, DA2 won’t offer the option of multiple character origins. Players will play Hawke (a character who, like Shepherd, can be either male or female) and the game tells the story of his/her rise to power over a period of 10 years. I do love that Bioware takes a different storytelling style with each DA release with the first being a classic ‘callow youth goes on adventure and saves world’ story, then Awakenings where you have to establish a power base around your keep, and now a 10 year epic tale.

Some commentators have said that they think the new DA2 sounds too much like ME in style for their tastes, and that the hero won’t feel as though it belongs as much to the player. We’ll have to wait and see.

Layoffs at Civilisation Developer

Firaxis laid 20 developers off this week, presumably a sign that they haven’t yet started work on Civ 6.

E3 Game Critic Awards announced

Every year, a poll is taken of critics from various publications to see which games or hardware presented at E3 most impressed them. The winners for this year’s awards were published this week.

I don’t see anything here that is either surprising or exciting (except maybe that Portal 2 beat SWTOR for best PC game). The critics liked the DS3 a lot. Games which got a shout out include Civ 5 (best strategy), Portal 2 (best PC game, best action/adventure), SWTOR (best RPG), Rage (best console game, best action game, best graphics).

I’m assuming here that ‘Best Action Game’ means best shooter, and I don’t really get why they don’t call it best shooter. But what do I know?

Blizzard backs down on forums – a million voices cried out and were heard

This is the post, from Michael Morhaime:

I’d like to take some time to speak with all of you regarding our desire to make the Blizzard forums a better place for players to discuss our games. We’ve been constantly monitoring the feedback you’ve given us, as well as internally discussing your concerns about the use of real names on our forums. As a result of those discussions, we’ve decided at this time that real names will not be required for posting on official Blizzard forums.

It’s important to note that we still remain committed to improving our forums. Our efforts are driven 100% by the desire to find ways to make our community areas more welcoming for players and encourage more constructive conversations about our games. We will still move forward with new forum features such as conversation threading, the ability to rate posts up or down, improved search functionality, and more. However, when we launch the new StarCraft II forums that include these new features, you will be posting by your StarCraft II Battle.net character name + character code, not your real name. The upgraded World of Warcraft forums with these new features will launch close to the release of Cataclysm, and also will not require your real name.

So that’s good news.

And just a brief word about internet activism too – sometimes it works. So please, if in your travels you come across some other issue which hits you this hard, not just gaming related … remember this week.

In which Blizzard drinks the realID coolaid

So here’s my brief list of people who might have a legitimate reason for not wanting their real name to show up on Blizzard forums:

  • anyone who is worried about gender/ racial harassment and whose name reveals their gender/ race/ etc
  • anyone worried about harassment from other players for any other reason (eg. nasty ex-partner, etc.)
  • any community manager – these guys regularly get death threats. (Albeit not from realID accounts, I assume.)
  • anyone unlucky enough to share their name with a convicted criminal, paedophile, or anyone famous (expect to get harassed in game.)
  • anyone with an unusual name who works in a field where it would look really bad if they play games with minors in their spare time (eg. teaching), esp. where many people might not understand gaming culture.
  • anyone who prefers to keep their gaming life separate from their professional life, and who knows people who play WoW who they would prefer did not also know their characters.
  • anyone who prefers to choose who knows their real name, rather than ‘anyone who browses the forums’

I’m just puzzled at Blizzard taking the step from, “Of course you will be able to control who sees your realID,” to “we changed our minds and decided that anyone who browses forums should see it.” I presume forums will definitely be easier to moderate when no one posts to them.

Note: I realise that just about everyone is posting about this. But the more people complain the more it gets heard.

Gaming News: Landmarks for Wizard 101 and Free Realms, Rumour Control (SWTOR beta, DCUO pricing, APB adverts), CoH expansion dated, Blizzard writing contest

If you have somehow escaped knowing this, Steam have a really good sale on at the moment. Also, we’re about to lose at football again. Is that really news?

Numbers are up for Free Realms and Wizard 101

Good news everyone! Kid friendly non-subscription MMOs have posted some great numbers this week. Wizard 101 registered its 10 millionth player this week, with Free Realms claiming it’s jaw-droppingly 12th million signup.

Obviously the majority of these players are not actually paying to play, and many of them probably registered, checked out the game, and never came back. But props to both studios for getting the word out. Millions of players found out about those games  somehow – probably not through the gaming press — and came to check them out. That is not a small accomplishment.

If you want to join the party, you can get to Wizard 101 here, and Free Realms here. They’re both solid, kid oriented games.

Assorted Rumors, we’ve got them here!

The beta test for Star Wars: The Old Republic is widely rumoured to have started this weekend. Apparently 100-200 people received invitations to a game testing program, and SWTOR community managers have clarified what is and isn’t covered by their NDA (a fairly good sign that there’s something going on.)

Anyone care to bet that Blizzard will end up releasing Diablo 3 in the same month that SWTOR goes live? Anyone?

Sony confirmed this week that they’re going with an old fashioned subscription pricing setup for DC Universe Online. Or should I say, “old fashioned subscription model but probably with a cash shop anyway”? It’s interesting that they decided not to distinguish their game from CoH and Champions Online by going with a different pricing model. Clearly they’ve looked at their various portfolio of games and run the numbers, and think that they’re playing to a more hardcore audience here.

APB continues to flirt with controversy by deciding to play audio ads to players – even paying players. I don’t personally feel that one advert every three hours or so is something to get worked up about, is this even the sort of game that people play for three hours straight? Still, it takes double dipping to a new level if you look at income sources. Players pay for hours, plus there’s a cash shop, plus income from advertising.

I don’t imagine there’s all that much cash YET in in-game advertising, but I’ll be interested to see if it catches on.

Turbine is rumoured to be working on a new console MMO, with the assistance of Twisted Pixel. Scott@Pumping Irony guesses that this might be a Harry Potter game, given that Turbine is now owned by Warner Brothers who own that licence. I think I’d go with that as my guess also.

On a more local level, politicians had been talking excitedly here about the possibility of some kind of tax break for gaming companies. This went out of the window in the recent ‘austerity’ budget. But was there undue influence from outside companies lobbying against this? Did ‘one of the biggest gaming companies in the world’ really sabotage the tax break? The local gaming industry body says no, government made that decision all on their own. I’m inclined to believe them, this wasn’t a budget in which there was ever going to be much support for tax breaks.

And finally, is Linden Labs (the developer of Second Life) in trouble? They’ve just sacked their CEO and earlier this year they made 30% of the staff redundant. There is no good spin for that sort of story. They’re going down.

Going Rogue goes live in August

NCSoft announced that 17th August is the date for City of Heroes players to pencil into their diaries.  Going Rogue always sounded to be an interesting expansion, promising moral choices for players and the possibility for heroes to become villains or vice versa. I’ll be curious to hear more about it (probably from my husband since he’s a huge fan :) ).

I think they’ve done well to pick a date which is in the traditional MMO doldrums, before the rush of new games in the Autumn and Winter months. Maybe players who are bored with their other games will be lured into picking up an old fan favourite to see what they have to offer.

Anyone thinking of trying this?

Blizzard seeks fanfic writers

Last year’s contest was evidently popular because Blizzard is again running a fanfic competition. If you have any stories to tell that are set in the gameworlds of Diablo, Starcraft, or Warcraft, this could be your chance to shine.

These are last year’s winners if anyone wants to gauge the possible standard of entries. I rather enjoyed the winner (bit too elfy is my only criticism.)

Being alone in a MMO

336295941_00e23f305fAlejandra Mavroski@Flickr

So the rumours are increasing that patch 3.3.5 is due to drop imminently in WoW, and with it the RealID integration that could potentially make privacy  a thing of the past. One of my reservations about the new scheme is that if you swap RealIDs with a friend, they can see who all of your alts are.

But sometimes, I just want to log on and not be bothered by anyone. Just to pretend I am alone to explore peacefully in a big virtual world, with no social obligations at all.

I used to game with a Finnish friend who would periodically gquit and spend a week or two guildless. Then he’d rejoin. He said it was ‘his log cabin’ time and he’d go hang out in some unpopular zone where he’d never see another player. Now that’s a little extreme, but I wonder how many people enjoy the anonymity of being able to make a new low level alt, tell no one who you are, and just melt into the virtual world.

I used to notice this a lot when my boyfriend (now husband) first moved in with me. We were living in a small one-bedroom flat and whilst there was room for us both, there wasn’t much ‘solo room’ for anyone. And sometimes, being logged into the computer and playing a single player game almost felt as though it genuinely did add some virtual space to the house. For a lot of players, living in cities or far away from open land, being able to explore a virtual world is more virtual space than they might actually see in a year.

As well as an alt or two to just chill out, my bank alts are usually guildless. There’s no special reason for it, but I quite enjoy being able to drop online to quickly check auctions without being drawn into conversations or pestered to play my ((insert group specced character of choice)). I suspect that a lot of healers in particular lean on anonymous alts for some quality solo time in game.

The other bonus of an anonymous alt is that you can easily avoid players you don’t like. I’m sure we all are far too mature to harbour grudges against guildies or other players BUT if one was so inclined, one could log in an alt and check the /who list to make sure the object of derision was not online. Maybe it’s kiddie and immature but we’ve all done it!

So understand my concern about RealID. Even with close personal friends and family, we may sometimes want anonymous alts. This is entirely the type of behaviour that Facebook and, it now appears, Blizzard would like to wipe out. They find it deceptive. They find it unfriendly. But I know my anonymous alts are neither of those things. They’re just an attempt to find some extra me-time online when I can’t do it in any other way. If they didn’t exist, I’d probably go for a long walk or hide in my bedroom with a book.

Do you have anonymous alts? Would you be happy to share that information with your friends list?

Blizzard drops a Cataclysm bombshell: Guild levelling, raid lockouts, and so much for alternate advancement

I mentioned in news yesterday that Blizzard had announced that some projected Cataclysm features have been dropped. There will no doubt be more – we haven’t heard anything about the dance studio lately, for example. Here’s all the new information from wowhead, who were invited to the PR session for being a good, well behaved fansite. (Never let it be said that Blizzard don’t understand how to use rewards to get players/fansites to behave.)

The realities of coding a big project are that an idea which looked good on paper might prove too difficult or time consuming when it comes down to implementation. Or maybe there are design issues which weren’t obvious at the blue sky phase but that become crippling later on. So given that Blizzard likes to make lots of blue sky announcements years before the release of an expansion (which I think is just a bad idea), it’s inevitable that some of them won’t make it to live.

And with both of the big dropped systems – guild talents, and path of the titans, it’s fairly clear where the design issues lie. Also, as I said yesterday, it’s a good sign that they’re publically finalising the scope on the expansion. That means its moving into the final implementation stage.

So lets talk about guilds in Cataclysm

We do know that guild changes are to be front and centre to the new expansion. Guilds will be able to rise in levels, which they do via players doing stuff (quests, raids, battlegrounds, the usual) and via guild achievements (which involve lots of players doing stuff). There are 25 guild levels in total and at each level, the guild gets a new perk.

We don’t yet know what these will be but they may well include new mounts, tabards, livery for mounts (your mount can show your guild emblem), cloaks, and possibly other fancy things like extra % gold/xp for members and teleports (imagine being able to teleport to dalaran as a guild ability, rather than from an expensive ring).

So the intent is clear. If a guild has lots of active members, everyone in the guild will benefit. Blizzard measures activity via achievements because that’s what they’re like. RP guilds won’t be getting anything for organising cool events because it’s difficult to measure. I hope Blizzard can at least find a way to let guilds petition for one off achievements or guild xp for organising cool stuff (maybe via a feedback form.) But doubt that they will. Social or casual guilds also may lose out – Blizzard is very clear now that players are expected to ‘do game stuff’.

Also if you want to access these new guild rewards, you may need to pay with cold, hard gold. And you’ll need to have earned enough reputation with your guild by doing stuff. ie. not by sucking up to the GM as is traditional. Again the intent is clear – you need to be active within that guild to be able to access those rewards which the guild had earned.

We don’t know how hard it’ll be to become exalted with a guild but can probably assume that if you stay in the same guild all expansion, you’ll get exalted very quickly and by doing exactly the same things as you would to level the guild anyway.

Goodbye to guild talents, and good riddance. The original idea with guild talents was that as a guild levelled up, the GM could spend guild talent points to customise that guild. I’m delighted to see that concept go. It would only ever have been fun for GMs, and would have forced guilds to specialise in PvP/ PvE/ levelling/ etc. Plus the potential for inter-guild drama about how to spend the talent points was high.

I’m still on the fence about many of these guild plans. They aren’t bad in themselves, but I wish Blizzard could be less controlling or find ways to let players decide what sort of behaviour they want to give guild reputation for. I’d also like to see guild rep for helping people in your guild do stuff – like lower level group quests and the like. It seems wrong to me that this isn’t mentioned.

Path of the Titans dies in a fire

If you haven’t been following the press releases closely, you could be excused not knowing what this was. Path of the Titans was intended to be an alternate advancement scheme for WoW. Players could pick a titan of their choice, and by following/ doing stuff to help it, they’d be rewarded with points to spend in an entirely new set of non-class specific talent trees.

The idea is that this would broaden out the game and provide an alternate method for advancement for players. But no more, this concept was canned at the PR meeting.

I’m saddened because it sounded fun and different, even though it would probably have just been some kind of daily quest grind in practice. One of the big complaints about Path of the Titans was that if it affected gameplay, then raiders might feel forced to do it. And I suspect this is the underlying reason that it went. Lots of new abilities to balance, and disagreement on whether the Paths should be mandatory for raiding or not. Blizzard has a lot of stuff to balance for Cataclysms – big class redesigns, big crafting redesign, for example. And that’s probably limiting how confident they are in adding a whole new layer of complexity at the same time.

The argument of “raiders will feel forced to do X” is a rod that Blizzard has made for its own back. Actually, as Gevlon is proving, you don’t need to be pimped out to do normal mode raids in WoW. But in the minds of the playerbase, raiding is still a trial by fire and raiders must PROVE THEIR DEDICATION by doing every possible grind which the game allows to maximise that last % of damage/healing/ etc.

What this all proves to me is that for Alternate Advancement to really work, it truly needs to be Alternate. So whatever type of character progression is offered, it has to be something that is perpendicular to raid progression. ie. probably not to do with improving your character’s fighting ability. The reason EQ2 has alternate advancement which does improve fighting skills is that SOE have shown no interest in making raiding more accessible, and their raiders don’t whine if they are asked to jump through more hoops.

But still, you have to enjoy the incongruity between raiders being bored stiff on one hand, and yet complaining about the possibility of having more to do.

In any case, Path of the Titans is gone. And it has not really been replaced with anything. Instead, the new archaeology secondary skill will become some kind of collecting game with cosmetic rewards. Again I think the WoW team took a leaf from the EQ2 playbook because a lot of players love collecting things. I think Archaeology will be extremely popular with players, especially soloers. So good job on Blizz if they can come out with a fun implementation. It will also be good for traders because while searching for archaeology nodes, people will probably gather herbs/ore at the same time, which will end up in the AH, one way or another.

Raid Lockouts

I actually have no idea where Blizzard are going with raid lockouts, although I’m in favour of giving players more flexibility about what they do and when and with whom.

So in Cataclysm, you’ll be able to split a 25 man lockout into one or more 10 man lockouts. From a casual point of view, this will be great if we have 25 people signed up to the first raid night in the week but not enough on subsequent nights. It will not make life easier for raid leaders who have to decide who comes on the 10 man night and who stays – eg. if 19 people signed up.

The other change is that raid locks will allow a player to join several different raids during a week, as long as each raid is more progressed than the next. Or in other words, you are never allowed to kill the same boss more than once a week.

So for example, if you miss the first night of your guild raid and they kill the first 4 bosses in an instance, you could join a PUG and kill those 4 bosses and then join your guild raid the next night. I cannot really see this as being good for PUGs, especially if people increasingly drop before the last boss.

But anyhow, we’ll see how it goes.

Blizzard finally flexes some NDA muscle

Yesterday Blizzard decided to clear up what  a Non Disclosure Agreement actually means, and asked mmo-champion to remove the Cataclysm Alpha information.

Two points come to mind first:

1. The NDA isn’t just a legal agreement

When a beta is under NDA, in the gaming world it mostly means in practice that people agree not to talk about anything they have seen or heard from anyone else about it. Think of it as a gentleman’s agreement with the vague possibility of legal action behind it. Truth is, any legal action is going to ask, “how much damage in $$$ did this leak actually do” and it would be hard to  justify that a gaming NDA leak made much of a difference to the bottom line. As a lot of people have commented, it may actually raise interest and awareness.

So if we keep the NDA, it’s either because we can’t get the information or else out of a sense of goodwill. So for all Blizzard have likely sent legal letters to Boubouille (owner of mmo-champion), they equally could just have asked him formally to take the information down without any threats at all. Most fansites would comply.

So what does an NDA really signify? Just that the game is at a stage in development when the owners would rather people not discuss the details – probably because they’re either still in flux or they’re worried about bad reviews. In this case, bad reviews won’t be an issue. WoW is WoW.

And if you run a blog or fansite, all you need to decide is whether you support that or not. It’s nothing to do with whether you actually signed a legal agreement. “This game is in NDA” signifies a stage in development.  I’ll prefer to comply with NDAs –– obv. much easier when I’m not in the beta anyway – unless they’re doing something which I feel I need to break in the gamer public interest.

2. You know, Blizzard have actually released a lot of OFFICIAL information about Cataclysm

If we could stop talking about half-cut priest talents and new screenshots of Mulgore (which look surprisingly like the current version) for a moment, there is a lot of official blue information around about Cataclysm.

  • We’ve had class previews – which did mention a lot of the talents that people are busy ‘analysing’ from alpha build.
  • We’ve had previews of zones.
  • We’ve had previews of instances.
  • We’ve had previews of the new races.

I don’t see any special reason why people need to go searching out alpha data on warez sites that will infect their computers with dreaded lurgy (this was one of the arguments in favour of leaks being on ‘official’ fansites). What more could they need to know? You really want to see half-baked talents that are probably going to be tweaked several times even before beta?

Also, I freaking hate the argument that ‘well, if we didn’t leak it they’d just go and get it anyway from more dangerous sources’. It’s like saying that software vendors should just give away their code because people will only go pirate it and the poor pirating babies might pick up a nasty virus along the way.

Hello? If you go pirating software or poking around for alpha leaks, then don’t complain if you pick up a computer virus.