[News Bits] DA2 DLC, How much do popcap want for that zombie?, CoH goes F2P, Diablo 3 followers for normal mode only, more on EVE

Apologies for a bits and pieces posts, there’s a lot of news out this week that I thought was interesting but not really enough to write a whole blog post about.

First DLC announced for Dragon Age 2

Arb and I are keeping a weather eye out for announcements about Comic Con 2011 since we’re going to be there (have I mentioned this enough times yet? :) It’s less than a month away now.)

Bioware chipped in this week with the announcement that they’ll be offering demos of Mass Effect 3, SWTOR, and Dragon Age 2 Legacy – the first DLC for that game. The SWTOR announcement is in a different link but I’m sure that was a no brainer anyway. We’ll be aiming to check those out, if only in the hope of picking up freebies such as the inflatable swords which have been on offer the last couple of years.

We don’t know much about Legacy apart from the title, but already starting to wonder whose legacy we’re talking about here, exactly. I would be quite curious to find out what happened to Kirkwall after I left in a blaze of glory skulked out in the night with my batshit insane blond boyfriend of doom. Surely the world can’t keep on turning without Hawke to set it straight/break it horribly??!

ArenaNet will also be demoing Guild Wars 2 at Comic Con this year, so hopefully we’ll be able to report on that as well. As well as snag freebies, obviously.

Is Zynga going to buy Popcap?

Venturebeat reports rumours that Popcap (makers of Bejewelled and Plants vs Zombies, amongst many others) is in talks to be acquired. It’s not known yet if it is true, but they naughtily bander Zynga’s name around as a prospective suitor.

I think the most depressing sentence in the article is:

PopCap is an appealing target for almost any game company because it has several extremely popular games that can be turned into franchises.

I suspect that a lot of us would rather have new games than Bejewelled 17: the slightly sparklier version.

City of Heroes (finally) goes free to play

This is good news! City of Heroes announces that later this year, they’re switching to a model which will allow players to play for free or go with a subscription model. It sounds as though they’re going with a LOTRO-type of approach where subscribers get some free currency to spend in the game shop (which has plenty of fun cosmetic costumes) as part of their monthly deal.

Here’s the side-by-side comparison of what subscribers get in comparison to F2P players. And again like LOTRO, if you have ever paid a sub for CoH previously you get some perks when the game switches over compared to a new F2P player (Note: F2P players are limited to 2 alts unless they buy more slots, it’s not clear to me if older players will be able to keep all their alts if they come back except for directly purchased slots.)

I’m happy about this news partly because it’s a fun game which I think will lend itself very well to this model, and also because I have friends who play and now it’ll be way easier for me to join them occasionally.

Followers in Diablo 3 are for noobs only

Anyone who thought Blizzard had caught the companion bug from Bioware and were planning to amp up the importance of  followers in Diablo 3 can think again. Apparently the main use for followers is to help new players in normal mode in single player (and get them used to playing in a group – although this may backfire once they find how annoying real people are compared to their faithful NPCs). They will become less useful in hard mode, pointless in nightmare, and not available at all in multiplayer.

They’re there to make the single-player, normal difficulty experience feel more cooperative and to aid in enhancing the story. These factors lose some importance in multiplayer and in the higher difficulty settings of the game, and as such, the followers won’t be as relevant there.

EVE and Microtransactions

The latest on EVE is that someone has leaked an internal memo about plans for microtransactions in CCP’s games. Eve News 24 discusses the cosmetic cash shop prices and the data in the memo.

One of the main reasons that I think long term players get concerned about some of these microtransaction plans is that there’s a point where you wonder how far game devs are putting profit above making fun games. And if your main concern as a consumer is to buy (and pay for) fun games, you’d probably like THAT to be their main focus.

Clearly it’s great if companies that make good products do well. But at what cost?

The other main issue – probably mostly for old dinos like me – is that we like virtual worlds because they’re separate from the rat race of the real world. It’s because the real world doesn’t have much effect on the game world that the game world can be relaxed and fun, and being relaxed and fun is important for being able to play. The more the game favours real world tilts, the less ‘fun’ it gets. It’s like the way people always seem to have more fun in betas, because they know there’s no major consequence for failure or not optimising.  Maybe fun is a minority interest.

[Dragon Age 2] Sorting out the DLC and unlockables

da2_hawke1 Lizzy Hawke leans insouciently against a wall in her shiny dragon platemail – a rare scene when she isn’t covered in actual blood spatters.

Hurrah, my copy of Dragon Age 2 arrived today. Apologies for slow blog updates but (aside from the stupid flu) I have to kick arse, take names, and sort out Kirkwall.

When you load up the game, any unlockable DLC (for example, if you have the signature edition, or got some items for signing up to the newsletter) won’t download automatically.

da2_loading

 

What you’ll need to do is get the loading screen up (as shown above) and log into your bioware/ EA account as part of the process. If you then select either extras/ unlockables or downloadable content, the game will open a browser window for you and it’ll be directed to your account on the Bioware Social Network.

da2_redeem

If you select Profile/Redeem Promo Code (if you have a promo code, for example in the signature or collector’s edition) then you can enter that to tie the DLC to your account. Then if you go to Profile/ Your registered game content you’ll see a list of every item/ DLC registered to your account and next to each one is an info button when you can check how to download it.

I do think they could make this process more streamlined but it’s not actually hard once you figure out that you have to use your bioware/EA account to tie things together.

Happy questing, more on DA2 when I’ve had more time with it. For now, I’m one of those annoying people who likes to play through on ultra-easy combat settings – I’ll leave a more tactical play through for next time!

[Dragon Age] Season of the Witch (Hunt)

For any fans of Dragon Age Origins who have been living in a bubble, today marks the latest (maybe the last) DLC release for the game. It’s called Witch Hunt, is set a year or so after the end of DAO and … you’ll get to find out what happened to Morrigan. Not only that, but one of the three companions is the Dog. (Or /A/ dog, if your warden didn’t survive or you want to play a different character.)

Bioware promise the chance here for players to tie up the last loose end from the original game. What happened to Morrigan and her unborn child? Personally, I can’t wait to find out.

The original game had a pretty satisfying ending, so I don’t feel that Bioware have been holding out on anything or released an incomplete game. They’ve also been as good as their word about supporting the game with DLC – a mixed bag according to reviews but a nice collection of different takes on how a DLC should play out. (Surprisingly I can’t find a page reviewing all of them but the pick of the bunch seem to be Stone Prisoner, Warden’s Keep, Leliana’s Song). Do you want a quick gear hunt? A chance to play parts of the game through a different perspective? A prequel from the point of view of one of the companions? More golems?

If they have fallen down it’s partly because players expected the same quality from the DLC as from the original game. A tricky expectation to manage when the original was fully voiced (with the notable exception of the main character) and took years to develop. And the other reason is because when you are paying piece-wise for content, the price is always going to be compared against the original game and the original will always look like better value for money. You can buy DAO for about £12 on Amazon at the moment – that’s about 40-60 hours gaming. A 1-2 hr DLC can’t compare with that for price/value.

I’m glad DAO has done well for Bioware, it was a fantastically enjoyable gaming experience for me so anything that encourages them to do more sits well here. And then all that remains is the inevitable game of the year edition with all of the DLC bundled in. Maybe some DLC-bundles for the holiday season too for people who already own the original.

Anyhow, I’m looking forwards to Witch Hunt. Who is with me? And if you’ve played any of the other DLC, what did you think of them?

Dragon Age: Your Ending, and My Summary

White_DAO_Logo

After an epic 45 hour punctuated session of gaming, my journey in Dragon Age has come to an end … for now. It was a bitter-sweet ending — the Archdemon was slain (this surely can’t be a spoiler if you were paying any attention at all), life goes on, my fellowship of NPC companions split up and everyone went their separate ways. I think I did right by them, mostly, but at the end it was just me and my faithful dog, Bitey, and the long open road.

Was my character still the same self-centred but basically well-meaning casteless Carta bruiser that was introduced in the dwarf commoner origin? I think so, but she’d changed. She’d seen the world above, faced horrors underground, faced her inner demons on a religious pilgrimage, and locked horns with some hard bitten political mavens in the Landsmeet. And killed lots of darkspawn, too. A story where the characters have room to change and grow is a good story. My Dragon Age story could easily have been told from the perspective of any one of the companions too, because they also changed and grew and faced their own inner demons.

I enjoyed reading how other peoples’ stories ended in an rpg.net thread setup for the purpose (link is full of spoilers, you’ve been warned). Because rpg.net was originally a community of pen and paper roleplayers, you’ll see a lot of people describe how they RPed their characters, why they made decisions IC, and where that led.

And although there are good endings and less good endings (depending on your point of view), I don’t get the feeling that this is a game that you win or lose. Either way, you have your own story.  I’ve also felt strongly while playing Dragon Age that I wanted to talk to people about how their stories were going, what choices they made, and to compare experiences. Even though it’s a single player game, it was an experience I very much wanted to share.

And now, I’m already planning on playing through it again:

  • I want to try playing on a harder mode now that I understand the mechanics more fully.
  • I want to play through as different origins and races.
  • I want to  learn more about the lore by playing through the game differently. How does Orzammar treat non-dwarves? Does the Landsmeet treat you differently if you are a human noble?
  • I want to tinker around with the storyline by trying different options and seeing what happens.
  • I want to get to know different companions. I only had time to strike up in depth relationships with a handful of them.
  • My dwarf girl was not the romantic type. (I laughed at Zevran and told him to get lost when he called me a sex goddess.) I’d like to play a more romantic type and see how some of those play out.
  • I’d like to do more of the sidequests and dragon slaying. In my play through, I decided that stopping the Blight was my first priority so I didn’t want to waste too much time or take too many risks outside hat.
  • I want to try some of the DLC content – I could do that on my main character but it might be more storywise to run through it on a second one.

So there’s plenty of incentive to keep playing the game, although I think I’ll take a break first. One thing I do note though – I have this notion of ‘playing around with the story’. I’ll be able to go back in and try out some ‘what if’s. There’s no other media than games in which you can approach a story in that way. To rewind and try different choices or different approaches and then see what happens. You can’t do that with a book (barring game books) or a film.

The experience players have with the Dragon Age story isn’t just of going through cut scenes and railroaded platform or combat sequences. You engage with the actual story as a gamer. Your choices drive it, your roleplaying decisions guide it,  and although you control the direction, you can’t always predict how the story will go because it drives you too. The story is the keystone of the game, and its emotional heart.

Is it limited? Yes, it’s only a computer game, and what you end up with are variations on a theme rather than radically, utterly different stories. But I think they are different enough and interesting enough to compel me to want to play with the possibilities given.

I dismiss  the complaints about lack of originality. The best parts of the game are the less original sections, and all fantasy relies on using existing mythical threads to weave a story that appeals to people on a very instinctive level.

For example, the section where you search for the Ashes of Andraste is very clearly based on the Arthurian grail quest. There are monsters to fight, hardships, moral dilemmas, puzzles, revelations and a strong sense of religious pilgrimage. But even a story so well known as the quest for the grail feels fresh and different when you are experiencing it alongside your character. If the emotional core of the story is present and is appealing and FUN, it really doesn’t matter if it is original or not.

(Conversely, it’s easy to tell an unusual story in a way that’s confusing or fails to grab people.)

Issues and Pacing

I love Dragon Age but the game isn’t perfect. There are ways in which it could be streamlined and better presented, although I think the game does succeed totally in many ways.

It is a long game. Sections like the Mage Tower and the Deep Roads can drag, especially if you try to play them through in a single session. But it also simulates a long and difficult journey very well. The sense of ‘oh no, not another set of darkspawn’ is part of the story being told.

From a gameplay point of view, it’s open to discussion whether some segments are too drawn out. (It would be slicker to have decided what the optimal length of game session was and to design the sub-quests around that baseline.) But that decision is an artistic storytelling decision on pacing, not a gameplay one on ‘how many mobs should be in that pack to challenge the player?’

I enjoyed the sense of the long and drawn out journeys in my quests so I don’t have an issue with the pacing there. But as I say, that’s a subjective opinion, others may differ or might have wanted an option to let the game know that you wanted things sped up.

The end game doesn’t allow enough time to tie up loose ends emotionally with the rest of the NPC companions. If you’ve gotten very close to any of them, it would have been nice to have some extended conversation options on the night before the last battle, it would have given a better sense of closure. Tamarind discusses his story here (spoilers behind the link) and explains why he really needed to have words with Alistair … if the game had allowed it.

The DLC is handled awkwardly at the end. The problem here with the storytelling is that this game definitely has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The DLC should logistically happen in the middle while your character is out adventuring and before the final battle. But clearly players are going to finish the story and Bioware still wants to sell DLC to them.  So after the final set of cut scenes and ‘this is what happened to your companions afterwards’, you’re left back in camp and told that for the purpose of ‘continuing your adventures’ you can assume you’re back in the midgame.

I don’t have the heart to really complain about this. I’m glad I had my neat ending and wouldn’t have wanted to skip that just to leave my character in a convenient spot storywise for DLC. A story that was designed at the start to have up to two years of optional but available DLC wouldn’t be able to have that neat ending, it would be more MMO like. Maybe in future games, they’ll have better ideas for how to make this gel more neatly.

Anyway, I’m back to Lothering with my new mage-in-search-of-a-husband. Instead of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it’ll be like Pride and Prejudice with Darkspawn.

And thank you Bioware, for restoring my faith in storytelling in computer games.

The convergence of single player and multiplayer games

There’s a rumour going around that the next wave of Call of Duty games will include  options to buy into online subscription extras. So you’ll buy the game, and also be able to sub up for whatever services they decide to provide online. Maybe they’ll throw in some additional DLC on top.

Dragon Age is a single player game, with a 2 year DLC plan (38% through now, and how about them deep roads, by the way? Now that’s how to do horror.) They also have a social site where you can compare quests and achievements with friends, and a bulletin board too. Plus a tie in with their flash game to earn more loot for the standalone game.

And does anyone not think that Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3 will also have subscription options?

Increasingly we’ve seen MMOs also poking around with models which involve box sales plus monthly subscriptions for extra content/patches/server maintenance, and options to buy extras via a cash shop as well.

There’s a convergence coming, and as MMO players, it’s all about how the gaming side took over the virtual world. And about whether we really want to be playing with massive amounts of people anyway. How much difference is there really between logging on for the weekly COD session with friends or the weekly fixed group in a MMO?

These days we understand a subscription as meaning a stream of ongoing content, and complain if the content doesn’t come fast enough. All those things that old MMO dinos lament about the good old days nowlook laughable because so many of the old MMOs were simply bad games. Poor gameplay, poor balance, timesinks, complexity … none of these things made for great gameplay. But the gameplay wasn’t the compelling factor that people miss. Those days of MMOs as virtual worlds are almost gone now, and I wonder if  that is the big reason that new MMOs struggle to get players to sub for more than a month or two.

It isn’t just their merits as games, it’s that perhaps the majority of gamers are looking for doses of solid gameplay, rather than a new virtual home.