How long is a piece of string? How long is an MMO?

Bioware recently noted in an interview that SWTOR would launch with approximately 200 hours of content (core gameplay) per class of gameplay.

Keen, perhaps surprisingly, responded immediately with, “That’s not enough” on the basis that he reckoned he’d spent 144 hours levelling his new WoW shaman and kitting it out, and he’d rushed it (ie. could have spent a lot more time on levelling.)

It wouldn’t take a genius to reckon that via that comparison, it’s pretty much impossible for any new MMO to satisfy players like Keen. (Unless they have really compelling non-core gameplay content, whatever that means. I presume he’d be happy with a good instanced PvP type game for example.)

Whereas I read 200 hours and immediately compared that with Dragon Age: Origins, the lengthiest game that I’ve actually played to completion within the last few years. It took me 45 hours to finish my first run through of DAO and I could have taken longer. I didn’t finish all the side quests and I played on easy mode because I wanted to follow the story. And at the end of that 45 hour stint, I took take a break from gaming for a couple of weeks because it had been quite intense (ie. I’d probably have been more comfortable stretching the playing time over more days). So SWTOR is potentially offering me four times DAO’s content for each class … and I’m duly awed.

What is the right comparison for a new MMO?

An existing one? An existing single player game from the same developers? I don’t know. I just know that 200 hours of Bioware-type RPG could easily be 4-5 months of my time (and I’m not THAT casual of a player) especially when padded out with crafting, PvP, instancing, and chatting. Not to mention alts. Or time spent in other games too.

The WoW comparison

Here’s another WoW comparison. The new Hyjal/ firelands dailies comprise a complex questing grind, including opening up new phases and storylines at various points in the endeavour. Someone on the official boards calculated, assuming you do every available daily quest on every day, that this would take about a month.

ie. 32 days of doing every available Hyjal/ Firelands daily quest.

So how long would that actually take in hours? Hard to say: if you assume on average an hour a day for the first half and two hours a day for the second (rough approximation assuming that it takes longer to get through the later daily quests since there will be more of them), that’s around 48 hours. Then you can add a couple of hours extra for slightly lengthier quest chains as you unlock each new vendor for a round 50 hours or so.

Would you rather spend 50 hours in an MMO doing a complex daily rep grind, or playing the equivalent of DAO?

That isn’t as loaded a question as it sounds, the firelands dailies seem very well done to me. But they are still daily quests. And it takes Blizzard around 6 months or so to come out with each new patch, containing that much gameplay. And however fun DAO was to me, it’s still a single player game.

Bioware tweaks Mass Effect 3 for a larger market

In an investor Q&A yesterday, John Riccitello (CEO of EA) announced that Mass Effect 3 was going to be tweaked for a larger market via some handwavey changes that involve game mechanics.

You might think that – with an eye to the console best sellers of last year – they’d be aiming to CODBLOPSify the game and make it more shootery. But no, what they’re actually talking about is shooter-meets-RPG which is what I thought ME2 was anyway. (I’m still not finished with ME2, I was kind of getting bored with it for no explicable reason – I’m not actually that interested in any of the companions except Mordin so not motivated to go do their missions, and def. not motivated for any romantic involvements. It’s also a very questy game.) I suspect this is tied up with recent comments that they’re introducing a melee class into the next game.

But aside from all this is the question of how much you should really be changing the gameplay in a successful franchise to try to attract new players. What about the old players who liked it the way it was? Bioware fell foul of this audience with Dragon Age 2, another game that got rather streamlined away from the original DA:O mechanics.

We see the same reaction from MMO fans when any kind of content or mechanics is streamlined “to reach a wider audience.”

This is not because it’s inevitable that the game gets worse, it’s because players don’t like change. Also it’s very logical that if you liked a previous game, you’d want the devs to turn out another similar one so that you could like the new one for the same reasons. Yet, if things change that means they can get better …

For all the commercial drive to increase market size though, I think it’s a shame that games with a solid niche are prodded to change. And a shame for the solid niche gamers. One can only hope that gamers who loved the original ME1, original DA:O, original WoW, etc and don’t like the subsequent changes will be catered to by the indie crowd. (And will recognise games designed for them when they turn up.)

Thought of the Day: It’s so hard to talk about difficulty

The problem with discussing difficulty in games (and particularly MMOs) is that as soon as you comment that something is hard, you lay yourself open to loads of hardcore fanboys/girls leaping on your back and proclaiming that you are a noob and should l2p. Or else suggesting that you have no right to judge the game’s difficulty unless you’ve already completed it on the hardest possible mode.

Say that something isn’t hard and the reaction is likely to be the opposite – you might be labelled hardcore.

So it’s a discussion that can only really be had sensibly with mature gamers (note: this is not related to physical age), a category which is not in the majority on official bboards. It’s not that we can’t have these discussions, it’s just that there’s a lot of social pressure for MMO bloggers to pretend it isn’t happening.

Plus we should value the reviewers who are brave enough to say when they think some content is overtuned.

And fact is, particularly in games where there are difficulty settings, it’s very useful for gamers to get an idea of a) how much difficulty is most fun for them and b) which games have harder or easier tuning at different levels.

Think of it as like comparing clothes sizes in different shops. Some shops, a size 8 will be huge, and in others it will be tiny. And yet, if you say that M&S (or pick any clothes shop of your choice) cut their clothes on the large size, no one starts insulting you.

Anyway, for the record:

WoW heroic instances in Cataclysm were mostly OK for tuning, but some of the bosses were overtuned and Blizzard didn’t fix them fast enough. However the heroics were mostly way too long, and they still haven’t figured a way to stop people queueing for heroics before they have learned the normal modes so LFD was stuffed.

WoW normal raids in Cataclysm are not any harder than Wrath raids (eg. Ulduar, ICC). They may seem a bit harder for 10 man groups who used to run Wrath raids in 25 man gear.

Dragon Age: Origins was overturned in its normal difficulty mode. (Sorry Syncaine, but it was. See the comments in the link to follow that one.)

Torchlight was undertuned in normal mode.

Anyone else want to get anything off their chest about games they’ve played that seemed over or under tuned. (I don’t really include games like Demon Souls or Super Meat Boy that are sold on the basis of being hard and unforgiving.)

Dragon Age: Facebook

It was only a matter of time. In the run up to Dragon Age II, a new themed Facebook game called Dragon Age: Legends is being launched by Bioware. And you can sign up to the beta today. It’s going to introduce us to the region of the Free Marches, the primary setting for Dragon Age II. In the same vein as the web-based game that was released in the run up to Dragon Age: Origins, playing the game will give some unlocks for the main game when launched.

Dragon Age: Legends is only due to release one month before Dragon Age II, sometime in February 2011.

Screenshots, forums and a blog are linked to from the Dragon Age: Legends site, which is a little sparse so far, but one to watch.

[Funnily enough, Spinks and I were chatting about Dragon Age II the other day while both placing our pre-orders, and at the time we expressed how much we'd liked the web-based game (Dragon Age: Journeys I think was the name) and how we hoped they'd be another. Good timing, Bioware.]

Bad News, Good News, Cute Cat

Not too unhappy!

Last week I discovered my Dragon Age save files  have become somewhat corrupted, so I now can’t be bothered to finish my second playthrough, and I was relatively near the end (at the Arl Howe stuff).

I’m bummed, I preferred my second character, and got so far with it, but now I’ve shelved the game until Dragon Age 2 is out. I hope for less issues and I will be starting a new character anyway. Means I didn’t get to play quite a bit of the DLC (which I found not really to be worth the money) nor the expansion. I’ll live. One day I’ll go back to it. Perhaps.

It put me off gaming last week, since I sat down all ready to lose a day to finishing the game. Bad News.

On sunday, I dragged myself to the LotRO kin raid to Barad Guldur where we actually made progress in our fight against the Lieutenant of Dol Guldur. It’s been a while since I honestly thought we’d made any good progress, and more importantly I didn’t wipe the group once, so I have a little more faith in my ability to pay attention, even when I hate a fight. So that was my Good Luck in gaming. I know it sounds self-deprecating, but the fight is so annoying on a micro-management level, and includes (for me), healing, running around to try and hit a fell beast but moving out of range of its tail and mouth, watching for fear on others, watching for yellow and/or purple eyes on me and reacting accordingly – and all later in the evening than I would like, concentration-wise. So while I’m glad the group, as a whole, made progress, I’m more happy that I managed to hold my attention the entire however-many-attempts we had. I think, now, that we will be able to down him. But I still have no love lost to Barad Guldur and will be glad when we can go to Helegrod again!

(and in secondary good news, I get to play Deathspank for the PC roday after pre-ordering my first ever game on Steam!)

[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?

Which came first, the game or the story?

I’ve read a few posts recently on immersion in gaming, and Toskk summed up the problem neatly here. There are different types of immersion, and they don’t all happily coexist.

If I’m immersed in a story, the absolute last thing I want to do is stop and min-max my character stats (or worse, be forced to go back to a previous save point, redo my gear/stats and play through some of the story I have already seen). If I’m immersed in a game, I don’t want to have to sit through seventeen cut scenes and have to care about which option would give me the best reward. If I’m immersed in exploring an area, I don’t want to have to fight through some scheduled event or be forced to grind out reputation just to be allowed to enter the next zone. And if I’m immersed in a solo resource management game, I don’t want to be forced to group.

Immersion (or we can call it flow) is not only the goal of many gamers, but it is also the problem. Having to switch between a gaming mindset and a storytelling mindset not only kills immersion but also will annoy people who liked one side of the game but not the other.

Figuring out how to neatly merge some of these styles is the big challenge for the next generation of game designers. But most MMO gamers will agree that they’d enjoy a virtual world from which stories and interesting gaming challenges both flowed naturally. We know it is possible to some extent, as long as players are willing to compromise – games like Uncharted 2 merge the storytelling and gaming brilliantly well, to a limited extent. Dragon Age charmed over 3 million players with a similarly engaging take on a similar problem. And it looks as though Mass Effect 2 will be at least as successful.

Playing the game badly

It’s very easy to play a storytelling game badly. All you have to do is completely ignore the story so far when making decisions.

If you decide that your character has no social skills so you will insult everyone you meet, you’ll still get through the game. You may also get some very amusing interactions and possibly more fights. It will involve picking non-optimal conversation options, but from a storytelling point of view, it’s a perfectly good way to play through the game. And that’s a player decision, you CAN choose to not try to pick the ‘best’ option in any conversation and … it won’t lead to disaster, just a story consistent with the choices that you have made.

In a bad storytelling game (like, many old school text adventures), making the wrong decision early on can cripple you in endgame. It’s like having a sadistic storyteller just waiting for you to slip up. But a good game, like a good storyteller, will give you plenty of hints as to where a decision might lead. Or if a decision has random and unforeseen results, then you will be given a chance to deal with them.

I was pondering this when reading Ravious’ post on why he feels stressed by storytelling games. I feel he missed the point. In a good storytelling game, you don’t need to stress about making the wrong decision. If the decision is right for your character and the story you are telling, then it isn’t a wrong decision.

But what this means is that a true storytelling game should never be heavily reliant on min/maxing from the player. Because that would lead to one preferred route through the game, and would cut out any character concepts that were not in line with the min/max result.

For example, mages are really powerful in Dragon Age. A min/maxer would tell you to pick a mage, would tell you how to spec it, and would tell you which specialisations to select. But I finished the game on my dwarf rogue and never felt hampered – being able to play on an easier mode was a way for me to tell the game that I didn’t want min/maxing to get in the way of my story.

When stories flow out of games

Storytelling is all about the art of giving meaning to things that we encounter in life. If you read a good biography, it will read like a series of anecdotes (ie. small stories). No one’s life is really a story until a storyteller sits down and pats and moulds it into the right shape. A news story might be dull when it happens to you personally … until you see it written up in a newspaper at which point it becomes a proper narrative.

Or in other words, that sword +1 that you got from the GM is very dull. But Caliburn, the sword +1 which was a rare drop that you cleared an instance 40 times to get, and that you then used to go tank a raid boss? That has a story. Adding difficulty or grind to a game is one way to add meaning. When you overcome those barriers, the results feel more meaningful than if you just woke up and got your quest reward in the post.

But difficulty isn’t the only way. Seeing the virtual world around us respond to decisions we have made in the past makes those decisions more meaningful too. It’s just that difficulty is by far the easiest way to make these achievements meaningful to all players in a multi-player game.

In a solo game, there are other options. The game can adjust more easily to the player. But in a MMO … if anything is going to be genuinely difficult, it needs to be designed assuming min/maxers. So in an MMO, either everyone must min/max or else difficulty is going to be somehow adjustable and high end achievements lose some meaning.

Freeing up the stories

Then there are players like me who love the stories and the virtual worlds and even the gameplay, and don’t enjoy the min/max side of the games at all. I’d have much more fun in games if I never had to care about how my character was specced or geared. Those things are not fun for me. So I’m glad in WoW that people make up gear lists – I wish they weren’t necessary but at least they let me skip the parts of the game that I hate.

This is also why I don’t like collectible card games. I love playing them, but only if someone else puts together a deck for me. Deck Building, like other forms of min/maxing, simply doesn’t appeal. So really I’d be happier playing a non-collectible card game like Bridge or Fluxx (which is an awesome game that everyone should try) where it simply isn’t part of the game at all.

No wonder I loved Dragon Age so much. The game was designed to let you downplay gear and talent choices. And gave you a great personalised story anyway. I can only pity the people who played that game badly, because they were too scared to veer from the min/max path in case anything non-optimal happened.

Am I spoiled for MMOs?

Maybe I have been playing too much Dragon Age over the last few weeks (surely not!!!), but levelling a Death Knight through Dragonblight at the moment is a frustrating experience in comparison.

As Horde, you encounter Koltira the blood elf death knight in Agmar’s Hammer where he has some quests. I thought, “Hey! I saved your life in my origin story, you’re going to recognise me now and we can chill out together and bitch about what a jerk Arthas was and how much better things are now, right?” Nope. He treats you exactly the same as a death knight as any other class.

I should know better than to expect more, but I think the damage has now been done. The bar on my expectations has been raised.

Fellow DAO fans, do you think playing that game is going to change your expectations of MMOs?

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.

Links of the week

  1. We’ve seen a lot of discussion about Blizzard’s plans for the Icecrown patch (3.3). Fives writes the clearest and most heartfelt summary of them all. This isn’t just an analysis, it’s a love letter from a hardcore raid leader who sees his game on the verge of extinction. Six words that terrify Blizzard.
  2. The other big topic of discussion in gaming blogs has been some little shooter called Modern Warfare, perhaps you’ve heard of it? (It slays me that this outsold dragon age by about a zillion to one. Expect to see a slew of FPS based MMOs in about 5 years time.) Rock Paper Shotgun explains why the real problem with the ‘moral dilemma’ level wasn’t the moral dilemma, it’s that it was rubbish.
  3. As anyone who’s been keeping up with this blog knows, I’m totally enamoured of Dragon Age Origins. I finished my first play through earlier, but haven’t had time yet to marshall my thoughts. In the meantime, check out what the effervescent Tipa has to say in her DAO review. ElectricDeathRay also has a super review in the form of a love letter, explaining just why he loves the game so much.
  4. Overly Positive has another angle on DAO. In his view, Bioware have put their money where their mouth is and shown us now that they really are way ahead of the field in storytelling right now. So what does this mean for Star Wars: The Old Republic?
  5. The Final Fantasy XIV Core blog asks “What kind of gamer are you?” Apparently I’m a generic gamer, I’m not even sure if that’s good or not. (Or maybe a storyliner – they added that later after I’d read the post!)
  6. Dragonchaser takes a first look at skirmishes in LOTRO and loves what he sees. This is a really neat sounding feature that’s coming out in the next patch. It involves instances that scale from single player up to a full group. It involves randomised encounters. It involves customisable NPCs who can help out with healing, tanking, or dps. What’s not to love? (I think Tobold’s on crack when he says he’d rather play Cataclysm than Mirkwood – but more on that next week.)
  7. octalblack is upset because she thinks that people give Champions Online an unfairly hard time for the cash shop, where WoW gets a free pass. Why can’t people be consistent in how they criticise features? I fear the sad truth is that most people who criticise CO have no intention of playing it, whereas most people who talk about WoW are current players, so that affects how it’s seen.
  8. p@tsh@t echoes the feeling that a lot of oldtime MMO players have, which is that we’re slowly losing the worlds from our virtual worlds. Can the mass market support a virtual world or are we relegated to a shiny 3d chat room with a right click adventure menu?
  9. Anyone else noticed that lots of people are easing up on their MMO playing at the moment because of all the great single player games that have been coming out? Dusty asks (tongue in cheek?) whether single player games are ruining our MMOs.
  10. And in honour of Twilight, here’s an old Halloween link. The Escapist asks whether you can identify these 30 vampires in 30s.

By the way, check out the new banner, courtesy of Veneretio. I think it’s bluerifficly awesome, and not just because  this font makes me think of ice creams at the seaside.