SOE want to animate your face/voice into your avatar

Apparently:

SOE is adding new facial recognition tech to EverQuest 2 that lets the game track your movement and facial expressions and replicate them on your avatar in real-time. Voice chat is also built into the feature so that your character will animate naturally while you talk.

PCG have an interview with SOE’s director of development about this.

It may say something for my lack of enthusiasm that I could think of at least a zillion reasons why I might not want to do this, ranging from “I don’t have a webcam” to “what if it sees me picking my nose” or “what if my character is male and I’m not?” (The latter is presumably solvable using filters, which are mentioned in the interview.) PCG do also point out that most RPG players spend a lot of time looking at their characters’ backs rather than their faces.

Having said that, there may be something in the notion that any RPG will eventually have to come around to the idea. It’s just that MMO players are so used to using voice chat anyway outside of the game that having a lipsynch feature in game may be just a bridge too far. Not to mention wondering what the extra processing load might turn out to be.

However, it is true that a lot of human communication is passed via expressions and body language. I’m just not sure whether I prefer that CRPGs keep the communication fairly limited, its one of the things that makes them so good as escapist experiences. There was an originally a notion that your character in a virtual world was a character with a background and culture of its own (even if it wasn’t all that well detailed). The closer characters get to the players, the more that difference fades. In a way, real facial animation ™ is a kind of anti-story device. If you see someone’s character actually rolling on the floor laughing when someone tells a dick joke on vent, are you still going to think of them as a paladin of the light? Just saying.

[EQ2] In which EU players get the shaft

If you’re been reading this blog for awhile, you’ll have seen a few rants about EU players being treated differently from US players in MMOs. (And yes, this doesn’t even begin to cover some of the hassles that players outside either of these regions can have.)

SOE has pretty much taken the biscuit though, because they’ve just announced that they have inked a multi year deal to sell off the EU servers in 8 of their games to another company. When this happens, players who already have characters on US servers can keep playing them, but any new EU players will only have access to EU servers. US players though will lose any access to EU servers.

This from a company that actually got things very right in allowing any player to pick any server, while still labelling some of the servers for EU to help people pick ones in compatible timezones. So unsurprisingly, players felt that it was OK for them to make characters on any server and there are plenty of guilds on US servers with EU players (and vice versa, for people who maybe find their shifts work better with EU hours.) Clearly, people who are happily playing on US servers now do not need a company that can ensure the games “are a reflection of [their] region’s culture”.And any EU players on US servers won’t be able to recruit any of their RL friends any more.

Just to be clear, this is what EU players can expect:

We will offer a simple way for any current SOE European player to create a new account with ProSiebenSat.1 Games and to have their existing characters and game progress transferred and the value of any Station Cash in their SOE account granted to the new ProSiebenSat.1 Games account.

Under the new partnership between SOE and ProSiebenSat.1 Games, European players of the above mentioned SOE games will be able to play via ProSiebenSat.1 Games’s service and will not have access to U.S. servers.  However, existing EverQuest II players in Europe that have played on U.S. servers before the transition will be allowed to continue playing on those servers through their SOE accounts.

And this deal also covers upcoming games like Planetside 2 and the next EQ game. I think SOE may have just lost a lot of EU players. However, I think they’ve proven quite clearly in the past that they don’t mind pissing off some existing customers if they think they can attract more new ones in future.

Go straight to max level, do not pass GO

Abuzz in the MMO blogs this week is an idea that was thrown out by devs in the EQ2 forum, which is to allow returning players to create a max level character. Note: They aren’t actually doing this (yet), just discussing the idea.

Syp wonders if this proposal was a wise thing to throw out to the player base as an idea (and a commenter reads it as a sign of desperation). Keen wonders how it would diminish the rest of the gameworld, particularly the level 1-89 parts. I figure it’s certainly easier than revamping the entire lower level game, WoW-style, to make it quicker for a new player to work through the game.

In many ways it’s surprising that so few games have experimented with selling max level characters. There’s no doubt that some players would be interested, why else would there be such a flourishing trade in MMO accounts? Disallowing players from skipping the levelling game completely has typically been one of the MMO sacred cows, because the levelling side of the game is considered to be a key part of the experience. Not only that, but being able to level subsequent alts more quickly via twinking/heirlooms/ etc is what passes for New Game+ in MMOs.

Offering a max level character to returning players doesn’t force them to forgo the levelling game. It’s still there if they want it on alts (or on the high level character). Offering a max level character to returning players also doesn’t give them a free pass to endgame, it likely still needs the equivalent of EQ2 gear and rep.

But it does make me think hard about  the split between the CRPG solo-friendly levelling game and the raid/PvP/group needed endgame in current MMOs. And even if there was no levelling game, nor any levels, a new player coming in when a game is 4 years old is still going to have a lot of catching up to do one way or another. And MMO class design tends to include complexity just for the sake of making the levelling path more interesting (ie. by being able to gain new powers on a regular basis). I know my LOTRO characters have a lot of rarely used abilities, for example. Being thrown into the middle of that by being handed a max level character is just an invitation for people to go look up the usual rotations online.

I also wonder how many other learning grinds could potentially be skipped. Would the games be less fun if you could pay to assign a maxed out crafting skill to your character?

Traditionally the progression path has been one of the more fun things about MMOs. But increasingly, experienced players  are looking to speed things up. In WoW if you have the gold (and a well stocked auction house), you could level a crafting skill in a few hours. Not much slow, careful exciting progression there.

I want to argue against offering max level characters to returning players, but increasingly I can’t find much of a justification. If it’s that or being left to languish for a month in the levelling wilderness, it seems like a logical option — even though it will effectively make the majority of the gameworld completely optional.

But one thing is clear, this generation of MMOs is uncovering weaknesses in the old MUD progression, class, and crafting models. Let’s hope devs on new games can learn something interesting from this.

Is your character race purely cosmetic?

There is a long tradition, stretching back to the earliest MUDs, that players have a choice of fantasy races for their characters. It has become part of the MMO scenery, even though in many games it will never much affect your play. So is a race just cosmetic, just another way to customise your character visually?

PvD posted awhile back about how races are sold in the cash shop for EQ2X at the moment. You can buy options for that game in packs of three, and each pack is arranged to offer one popular race with two less popular ones. Other than that, there’s no rhyme or reason in the selections. This puzzled me as a concept – the idea of picking a race because ‘it was included free in the pack with the one I actually wanted’ feels like a very unintuitive way to make that choice.

I was minded of this because I have a friend who has a really strong preference for playing elves. If a game doesn’t offer elves, her interest drops. One of the things she is most excited about in Cataclysm is the ability to play a blood elf warrior for the first time. And this has nothing to do with game elements like racial abilities. She just likes elves. If she played EQ2X I don’t think she’d be too thrilled to see the elf races split between packs (she’d probably just pick the one she liked best and not bother with the others, whereas she’d have paid more for a pack that included all of them.) I know others who always play humans, and prefer to pick a human character who looks as close to themselves (in some idealised form) as possible. So some players go into the game with a vague idea of how they want their character to look or act and pick the race that fits it most closely.

For other people, the most important thing about picking a race is any in-game advantage. So optimal racial abilities or starting areas would play a bigger factor in the choice. If racial abilities change, these guys may take advantage of a paid race change in game.

Others are more interested in aesthetics. Which race looks prettiest or most badass? Which race/ class combination has the coolest looking armour?

And in some games, that’s pretty much it for racial identity. It’s all about how you look and whether you get any minor mechanical perks. EQ2X for example does have racial lore, but it isn’t equally emphasised for all races. You can easily go through a starting zone that seems to have been designed for another race without learning anything about your own.

When races are more than a collection of stats and a skin

Warcraft certainly wasn’t the first game to emphasise racial starting areas and lore. But their commitment to doing so has always been quite impressive. When you pick a race, you’re also picking a starting zone in which you’ll have about 20 levels worth of race specific content. (Unless you’re a gnome or troll, in which case hang in there for Cataclysm!)

This is fertile ground for roleplayers, who might go with the strongest lore or most appealing backstory. As well as their own starting areas, races have their own architectures, racial leaders, history, and in-game racial stereotypes. So gnomes are not just small and squeaky but also crazy scientists with silly names. Forsaken are sarcastic, deadpan, and have no moral compass. Dwarves like beer and blacksmithing (is there any game in which this is not the case?).

Racial lore is about to get a huge boost in Cataclysm with the addition of Archaeology to the game. I think this is going to be one of the most popular new mechanics that the expansion brings. And as a side-effect, it adds more oomph to the races and their backgrounds.

Why is this big at the moment? Because of course Cataclysm will add in two new races to the mix. They’ll have very solid racial abilities, new lore, new cool models, and since players like new stuff anyway they’re bound to be heavily played. And also, many classes will have new racial options in the expansion.

This is most striking for druids, who soon will be able to pick from two races per faction instead of just one fixed choice. And one of the most asked for screenshots from the beta was the picture of the new troll and worgen druid forms. I’m thinking this shows that a lot of people are mostly about the aesthetics with their racial choices.

Is it mostly about the looks for you? I wonder if people tend to pick their first character based on look/feel/ prior idea and maybe explore the lore of other races after they’ve played the game and are making alts.

EQ Next: Three Games, One IP

Well, looks like I was wrong to assume that another MMO based on Everquest wasn’t going to emerge (in the light of SOEs recent redundancies). SOE announced that very thing this weekend at Fanfest, their user convention.

Non-fans now have every reason to be confused. Between EQLive (aka EQ1), EQ Extended/ EQ2 and now EQ Next/ EQ3, there will eventually be three MMOs based on the same lore and background.

We don’t know a great deal yet about the new game, such as at what type of user it is aimed. Just a couple of pretty screenshots, and some comments (picked from the liveblog):

  • Harkening back to EQ1 but more stylized.
  • More interesting combat. More engaging.
  • designed from ground up with pvp in mind.
  • fewer classes (than EQ2)
  • the world should change around you
  • We haven’t announced the game because it’s still early in development. We haven’t even decided on raid and group sizes.

Notably, the original Everquest is cited as a greater influence here than EQ2. Perhaps EQ2 is now seen as an evolutionary dead end by SOE, leaving the new F2P servers to pick up any current gen gamers looking for a new world to explore, but with no intentions of following Blizzard in trying to evolve their game into anything too different.

Everquest is the marmite of MMOs. People either love it, hate it, or don’t understand the fuss at all. Me, I fall into the “don’t really get the fuss” category. I loved my first MMO (DaoC) and if Mythic announced an updated version then I’d be all over it, but EQ?  Meh. I played EQ2 for a few months and liked it, but there was nothing special or engaging about any of the lore I saw in game. I don’t think those old communities can be replicated any more with a modern audience.

However hearing that SOE wants to go back to their roots could be great news if you fall into the love faction. At least, depending on which parts of EQ they decide to focus on updating.

But for everyone else, they’ll have to come up with something more convincing because the farrow of “let’s make something inspired by EQ but more accessible” has already been quite thoroughly ploughed. Hopefully not involving semi naked elvish paladins.

Everquest 2 goes Free to Play (sort of), and keeps the rabble out

Following in the footsteps of LOTRO, Sony Online Entertainment announced yesterday that they are unveiling a new type of server for EQ2. They call it EQ2 Extra (EQ2X) and it includes a free to play option with a cut down choice of classes and races, no access to send mail or use the auctions, restricted bag space and gold cap, but full access to all of the content.

EQ2X players can also choose to subscribe to pick up an ongoing bundle of extra options for their characters (access to all of the races, etc etc). Now while I would expect to see a special item shop which allows EQ2X players to unlock bits and pieces for their character (such as an extra class or race or lifting the gold cap, for example) there’s no sign of any intent to go this way. You either take the free option with its limitations or upgrade to one of the EQ2X subscription options which each give a bundle of extra options … but are subscriptions (and work out slightly more expensive than a subscription on the regular subscription server).

I think they really should go with the item shop approach, personally. You need to nickle and dime F2P customers so they feel in control of what they spend, not offer strange subscription models. But what do I know?

And for anyone curious, the free options include:

  • Human, Erudite, Barbarian, Half-Elf races
  • Swashbuckler, Brigand, Wizard, Warlock, Guardian, Berserker, Templar, Inquisitor (ie. rogue, caster, tank, healer for either good or the evil faction.)

There have been a lot of posts about this, spurred on partly by SOEs dogged insistence as recent as last month that EQ2 would never go free to play. Ardwulf has checked out the alpha test and returned with a positive outlook.

However stripped down and restrictive the options, this still amounts to a LOT of free content. They’re going into beta with this in mid-August so anyone bored of WoW and looking for something to do before Cataclysm might want to take a look.

Appeasing the subscribing masses

One of the interesting sides to this scheme is that SOE will keep the current subscriber base completely separate from the F2P players. There will be new and separate servers for EQ2X. There won’t be any more 14 day free trial on the subscription servers (I can see the logic in this one, no sense confusing new players with too many different types of free options).

It will be possible for regular subscribers to pay to transfer a character to the EQ2X server but there’s no indication that transfers will be possible the other way.

This means that regular subscribers won’t be greatly affected by the new scheme. Except that they won’t get very many new players at all unless they go out and recruit them. On the other hand, they may end up stuck in a slowly diminishing bubble as natural player turnover favours the EQ2X servers, which may be more inviting to players who just want to try the game before they buy.

But on the other hand, newbies won’t be swamped with hardcore players who have been playing the game for years. It will be interesting to see how this goes. If the EQ2X servers really take off, then SOE win because any EQ2X subscribers will be paying more than the regular ones.

Or maybe new players will use the free time to check the game out, decide if they want to subscribe, and then reroll on the sub server if they do. I feel that regular sub players are likely to lose out – they won’t get the majority of the new players on their servers and unlike LOTRO, if they decide to take a break from the game, they won’t be able to keep logging in, playing lightly, and chatting to their friends.

I am mightily curious to see how this works out, but it’s certainly a cheap way to see the game. I just wonder if the classes they have chosen to give out for free will really give the best impression.

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.