[Links] No news is good news edition

I wish I could package some of the good cheer that has enveloped us here from hosting the Olympics the last couple of weeks; whatever doubts people had beforehand, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t enjoyed the whole thing. Plus Paralympics still to come (that’s the one where I actually have a ticket to go see the Athletics Winking smile ). I’m surprised that the blogosphere hasn’t picked up on the Olympic theme more, I was half expecting to see discussions around sportsmanship in gaming (like: hardcore Olympic athletes don’t smack talk each other, and they congratulate each other after a good race/ bout) and whether e-sports might ever be included in a modern modern pentathlon. Alas, it was not to be.

Big up though to The Godmother who does share my Olympic enthusiasms!

The Secret World: one month in

The Secret World launched on June 29th, which means that it has now passed the one month mark, which also means time for some punditry on how things are going. Short form: not meeting publisher expectations. Blogger reactions on the other hand have been very positive. Players are enjoying the game and the general buzz has been good; unfortunately not in projected numbers, it seems. (So: philosophically, does that mean the game is a success or a failure?)

Scott at Broken Toys quotes from Funcom’s note to shareholders, highlighting  that projected sales for TSW will not be met. This is bad news for players, and likely worse for employees as at least 10% of them will be laid off.

Flosch at Random Waypoint gives his first reaction to this:

I really want TSW to succeed. It’s earned its right to succeed, and it shows that Funcom seems to be a company able of learning, which in and of itself is rare enough that it should be rewarded, not punished. Plus, I am having so much fun in the game now! It would be sad to see Funcom fail 100 meters before the finish.

Sente at A Ding World notes that the sales for TSW are pretty much in line with his expectations, that it’s likely that retention will be better than for similar MMOs, and that TSW is going to be available on Steam which might also extend its reach.

I did not expect then to sell over a million copies of the game and if they sell 500K copies of the game the first year I think that is fairly reasonable actually in todays market. Not because the game is bad, far from it. I think the game is great – but I think it is also a game that does not go out of its way to attract the big masses.

I see a general theme that solid games are being released onto the market but because the pre-launch predictions by publishers have been wildly over optimistic, costs aren’t kept in line and a game that probably should have been a success may end up labelled a failure. We’ve seen it with 38 Studios, SWTOR, and now TSW. It’s a failure of the marketing team (stupid projections) and bean counters, not necessarily of  design.

Terra Silverspar also writes a good review of TSW at one month in, explaining what she does and doesn’t like about it.

If I were to give this an overall, I would say wait until it goes Free to Play. I’ve heard they are adding more hairstyles and such, but hell, I hear a lot of things about MMOs that just launch that turn out to actually do very little. I really did want to like this game, as I said, but it just buried itself under the weight of a lot of things that just make it not very fun for me to play.

EQ2 will require players to pay for future content in cash, not coins

SOE have been very up front about tweaking their F2P offerings if the money isn’t coming in quickly enough, and I wonder if this heralds a general trend.

Starting Monday, August 27th, 2012, we will no longer accept Station Cash as a payment method for Expansions and DLC Packs. Real-world currency will be the only way to purchase these products.

So basically: like most other F2P publishers, SOE allow you to buy their in-house virtual currency with real money and then spend that virtual currency in their cash shop. They are now not going to sell expansions and DLC in that cash shop, instead you’ll have to buy those in actual cash from their website (which we could call the real cash cash shop, or something.) The cash shop will now be restricted to cosmetic items, bag space, and the other usual suspects.

Presumably this was because players were stocking up on the virtual currency when there were sales on with the aim of using it to buy future expansions/ DLC – we can call this “acting like sensible and forward thinking consumers who are confident in making a long term commitment to the game.” So rather than just making the DLC more expensive in virtual currency terms, they decided to remove it from the cash shop altogether so I guess they have more control over what people pay for it and when.

Monetization changes in MMOs generally mean that not enough money was being generated using the previous method. So maybe the virtual currency is now being seen as a hindrance in selling that type of content. This is likely to be pretty rough for anyone who was stockpiling virtual currency in EQ2 with the aim of buying future DLC; that’s now money down the drain that they can only spend on virtual goods and other stuff they might not want.

In a quite prescient post, Green Armadillo wonders if it’s possible to monetise an MMO via DLC. I think games like Wizard 101 seem to manage OK but I don’t follow them closely enough to know if they are also putting more pressure on players to spend more.

My conclusion is that it’s better not to plan too far ahead with MMOs these days. Don’t assume that your game of choice won’t shift to F2P in under 10 months. Don’t assume that your virtual currency hoard will pay for an expansion next year. In a genre that’s traditionally all about the long term planning, it rather sucks to be forced into short termism but c’est la vie.

In vaguely related terms, Jester discusses specific money making strategies in EVE connected with the faction wars.

CCP in general and Dr. EyjoG in particular have been bemoaning the fact that there is too much ISK in the game for quite some time which is why you’re seeing an increasing number of sinks in the game.  The recent addition of the need to purchase data-cores for ISK is a good example.

There are two main reasons for a dev to want to introduce more money sinks into a game. One is for game balance reasons, to keep people who have built up huge money hoards motivated and give them stuff to spend the cash on. EVE has a second reason, which is to generate more income, because of the mechanic by which players can exchange RL money for in game cash (via PLEX). Players can never really be sure whether changes are made for the balance reason or the monetisation reason (or both).

Dust to Dust

CCP’s new FPS game, Dust 514, is in beta at the moment, and we’re starting to get some feedback from players. The exciting thing about this concept is that it hooks into EVE so players can interact by blowing each other up or something. The rather unexciting thing is that EVE is a PC game and Dust is a Playstation 3 exclusive, so it looks as though CCP are aiming for very different audiences (ie. as opposed to EVE players who like FPS games.)

Chris at Game by Night casts a FPS-fan’s eyes over the game. He finds the learning curve steep, and wonders whether existing console FPS players will find that a turn off.

CCP makes it pretty clear that they’re looking to expand the MMO audience to a whole new demographic, which is awesome. <…> My concern, however, is that they’re stacking the chips against them. Excel Online is alive and well in DUST. Look at the first video in this link. I see that depth and think “wow, that’s awesome.” Your average Call of Duty player will probably think, “holy sh*t, that’s a lot of stuff to worry about.”

My prediction is that players who get over the learning curve will absolutely fall in love with the game. There’s really nothing else like it or even trying to be. There are design quirks but I’m also very much aware that this is CCP’s first try at something other than a PC MMO.

TAGN notes that CCP have recently raised $20mil in new funding. If that is based on Dust popularity, then CCP may have a lot riding on this one. Will their funders give them enough time to build a core playerbase slowly and grow it, or would an indifferent launch hit the parent company hard? It will be interesting to watch this one from the sidelines, because a game with a steep learning curve might not be the one to pull in loads and loads of F2P players.

What else is in the links file

Ratshag hangs up his blogging hat; he’ll be greatly missed and I wish him and his family the best of luck for the future. (I was going to say that he’s always been a voice of reason, but maybe voice of unreason is more accurate Winking smile )

Pixelated Executioner tells the story of what happened when he reported another player for racism in WoW.

Stropp explains why he thinks that Windows 8 will be a catastrophe for gamers.

G. Christopher Williams writes in PopMatters about why some people are really interested in whether their opponents are upset in PvP.

Many bloggers and current SWTOR players share their reactions to the news that SWTOR is transitioning to F2P in November. Ravelation compares her experiences in LOTRO with the proposed SWTOR setup.

Welshtroll reflects on why he loses enthusiasm for games when they go F2P.

It seems that the GW2 honeymoon period may be over as the cold light of reality breaks over the darkest hype. One of the questions seasoned gamers are asking is what sort of longevity the game might have without a traditional PvE endgame. Kadomi presents a carefully thought out list of pros and cons for the game, explaining her final decision not to play.

Kurn writes about his decision to leave WoW after playing and raiding for many years:

It’s not just because I’ve been playing for nearly seven years. It’s not just because I’m tired and have other stuff in my real life I should really be paying attention to, either.

It’s because I have satisfied my curiosity.

Tzufit wonders where new or inexperienced players are going to learn to raid in WoW these days. I suspect they might go to older content, as I do see raids run to Wrath and TBC raids for transmog purposes. But Cataclysm certainly didn’t provide an easy learning curve for new raiders.

Day Z, the incredibly popular zombie survival mod for ARMA is being turned into a stand alone game.

Keith Stewart at Hookshotinc shares his confessions of a middle aged gaming writer.

I am aware, when I go on press trips now, that I am old enough to be the father of some of the other journalists I am with. <…> I am ancient enough to remember playing games in black and white, on old Grandstand consoles; I played Pac-Man in a Blackpool arcade when it first arrived in Britain; I even remember when Sega was a serious force in the industry. That stuff makes me feel like Rutger Hauer as the majestic yet dying replicant in Bladerunner – I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

Aly at Mistress of Illusions muses on why L2P (learn to play) is such a popular insult in MMOs, and what this might mean for GW2:

Speaking of Guild Wars 2, there has been criticism regarding the learning curve. Namely, that there is one. People don’t want watered down game play or another WoW clone, but when presented with something different, some people can’t handle being taken out of their comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong, there’s valid criticisms to be made but no complaint should ever begin with the phrase “I had to learn…” It’s a new game. You should have to learn. There’s nothing wrong with learning, and it’s a shame that a generation of gamers have stigmatized the act of learning.

Jeromai urges players, and particularly bloggers, not to let other players’ opinions of a game affect their enjoyment. He also admits to his love of cheesy games, and notes in the comments:

But my real point is, Popcap and other casual game manufacturers can hide some seriously solid gameplay behind initially unappealing to the so-called ‘hardcore’ gamer looks, and we will slowly get to that as I fiddle around with the games.

Bits and pieces; and thoughts from 3 years ago about the future of MMOs

Happy Sunday (and Happy Jubilee if you are the queen – seems a bit harsh of people to make two octo/nonogenarians stand around for hours on a cold and windy river, but what do I know?) This isn’t really a links post so much as a quick news roundup, some whining about Diablo, and a moment of insight where I realise that some of the stuff I used to post was pretty smart.

New games to get excited about, current games to get excited about

CD Projekt, best known for their work on The Witcher CRPGs, have announced that their next game will feature a Cyberpunk setting. In fact, it’s THE Cyberpunk setting for RPG players because they’ll be using the setting from R S Talsorian’s Cyberpunk RPG. So all you glitterboys, slicers, and fixers get your netrunning shoes on. I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it that this is super-exciting for any fans of the genre, and Cyberpunk should be a great match for the dark noirish stories that CD Projekt have shown they enjoy tackling in previous outings. It’d be nice if they would also let us play female characters this time around, but let’s not run before we can walk.

Rift announced its first expansion: Storm Legion. It will feature tons of new stuff including huge new continent, 10 more levels, new souls, a woman on the front of their expansion website who isn’t wearing much — yup, it’s all there. New expansions are generally a good sign for MMOs and the Rift devs have been earning their reputation for ploughing plenty of new content into the game all year, so things are looking good for Rifties. They do have a free trial up to level 20 if you want to try the game out.

An excellent new Humble Indie Bundle has gone on sale, featuring Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Psychonauts, LIMBO, and Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery , with Bastion thrown in as a bonus if you pay more than the current average (standing at $7.84 at the moment). It’s a feature of the indie bundles that you decide what you want to pay so if you’re feeling cheap, you could get the four main games for almost no money at all. They are all indie games that have garnered good reviews, especially Psychonauts if you are a fan of platform/adventure games.

In their ongoing crusade to make the always-online experience of Diablo 3 best in breed, Blizzard have now introduced autojoining the General Chat Channel when you log in. This has not been met with universal acclaim. While I find it annoyingly spammy and prone to gold seller chat, occasionally General Chat surprises you. I’ve sometimes heard people offer to help anyone out with hard bosses, which either is quite decent of them or else is a new cunning way to steal accounts – you pay your money and take your choice.

Personally my barbarian has reached an impasse with Izual in Hell Mode. Getting him down would require a serious amount of kiting given my current DPS and … I just don’t enjoy kiting on a melee class that much. So I shall be tooling around on alts instead, no point playing past the point of unfun. One thing Blizzard did get right though is the secret level (don’t click this link unless you want spoilers), which requires a special blacksmithing recipe and ingredients, all of which are rare drops in specific locations and may be farmed. Farming for this stuff with Arb has actually been pretty fun, for Diablo variants of fun. This is exactly what I was talking about when I was wondering why Blizzard hadn’t developed the farming side of the game.

So how DID soloing affect MMOs?

Milady reflects about MMOs evolving into an ‘always alone together’ singleplayer theme park  type of experience, and is nostalgic for a time when singleplayer and multiplayer experiences seemed to sit more comfortably side by side in MMOs. She wonders where players who enjoyed the multiplayer side of things will go if new MMOs tilt so far towards soloers.

The problem is that, although I can think as alone-together MMOs as a valid choice, especially for that demographic that can’t participate in the social part of them, there is no such choice when all are designed this way.

This reminded me of some thoughts I posted a few years ago about what might happen to MMOs if the proportion of soloers continued to increase. It was contentious at the time and attracted more comments than anything I’d ever written. Now I look back and – it seems prescient.

What happens if MMOs develop along lines such that most people are soloing most of the time? There’s no downtime built in where you might have to talk to people you didn’t know? There may not be enough of the more hardcore to form all the guilds those people might want to join? The people who would have been running those guilds are all going casual/ solo/ in small groups of RL friends instead?

Would a game like that really have much of a community at all? Is there any support network left for anyone at all?

Does ‘news’ about bugs mess with our gaming?

Quick post: In today’s SWTOR patch, a bug has been fixed in which one of the social emotes messed with combat.

Yes, it’s bad and needed to be fixed quickly, which is happening. But what intrigues me is how many news sites (like Massively, RPS etc) posted up about this bug as part of their news cycle yesterday.  As a player, I would usually assume the polite thing to do is quietly inform the devs about any bugs, and not tell absolutely everyone else on the planet first so that they can mess with the game too. I’m not sure how that exactly would apply to news sites, but it felt odd to me reading stories that seem designed to encourage players to use exploits in a recently released game.

Do you feel it’s legitimate news, or are there ethical issues around publicising bugs in multi-player games?

[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.

Gaming News: Pirates of the Burning Sea goes F2P, Jedi Sage in SWTOR, EQ2 Vampires, Betas for Rift and TF2, LOTRO F2P tweaks

This week will mark the release of possibly the biggest PC game launch of the year. It’s also a game which will be downloaded directly by a large number of players (possibly even the majority) and will no doubt be showing up in a lot of Xmas stockings and making a lot of gamers, both casual and hardcore very happy, especially if the developer is up to their usual standards.

I speak of course of Bejeweled 3 (subtitle – what else can we do with a 3 colour match game?).

Joking aside, I love Popcap and there’s no reason not to think this’ll be great. I can see me buying a few copies as presents for gamer-friendly friends/ family. Plus it’s something to do while waiting in WoW server queues for Cataclysm.

Speaking of which, Blizzard have released a final release trailer for the new WoW expansion. It’s called The World Reborn and is a flythrough of some of the new stuff – that elemental plane of air looks incredible.

In other news, EA have announced that they will be looking to cut down their game output next year. I thought they said that last year too.

The post that caught my eye this week was Larisa’s discussion about why she’s not doing anything special to prepare for Cataclysm. This in an environment where hardcore players probably have all the maps and quests planned out from various beta information already.

RPS have also, astoundingly, finally found a writer who likes WoW to write about it.

Pirates of the Burning Sea launches F2P

Ever wanted to be a pirate, sailing the spanish main? Well now you can do it without a monthly sub in PotBS, it’s a pretty game and a rather different setting to most other MMOs on the market. There’s also quite a sandbox economy/ PvP vibe alongside the quests and naval combat and most importantly, characters can have the best range of beards I think I’ve ever seen in a game. I liked the female customisation a lot also, the costumes are just that cool.

Jedi Wizard gets renamed

The unfortunately named Jedi Wizard class is being renamed to Jedi Sage in SWTOR, following an online poll.

They also have a developer blog up this week about crew skills and crafting in the game. One of the things I like is that they definitely have a notion of casual crafters vs hardcore crafters and that each type of player should be able to get something out of the system. So casual crafters should be able to fairly easily make gear that is on par (or slightly above) drops, but there will be better gear available to be crafted by players who want to put more time into it.

I’m rapidly thinking that the crafting in this game is looking like one of the big plus points. I’m also getting fonder of the graphics, it’s not fancy but it doesn’t need to be.

New vampire race for EQ2

Well, at least they aren’t vampire elves. Arkenor says what a lot of other people are thinking, which is wtf SOE? (I’m more puzzled that he thinks this is a step towards becoming more like WoW which wasn’t especially vamped out last time I checked.) Having said that, maybe people would like a bloodsucking race. It’s certainly been part of fantasy gaming since at least original D&D.

But if you do want one, hang in there because it’s being given as a reward  for people who remain subscribed between Dec and Feb. What we don’t know is how overpowered it will be compared to the other races – a usual tactic to ‘encourage’ players to want one.

Green Armadillo suspects it will show up in the cash shop as a buyable race sometime later.

Beta Watch: Rift and TF2

A couple of betas that we heard more about this week. Trion Worlds’ Rift has a beta weekend event this weekend. It sounds from the website to be a very classic WoW-like MMO but with some interesting twists and lore. It isn’t a typical fantasy setting and the races and background look quite fun.  It also looks very pretty in screenshots.  There’s an NDA up to stop beta testers talking about it too much but expect to hear more about this game as it nears launch. Might be one to watch if you preferred vanilla WoW to the current version.

The other game with some extra beta zing is Team Fortress 2, for which Valve have opened a public test server where you’ll be able to try some of the new patch changes and give feedback before they go live.

Tweaks to the LOTRO F2P setup

The December Producers’ letter for LOTRO explains some of the changes they have made recently, including removal of radiance and changes in some of the pricing. For example, Lonelands is now free to all players whereas at launch of F2P, you had to buy access to the quests in the zone.

There are also going to be cosmetic pets.

As a player, the main take home message for this is wait as long as you can before buying anything because prices are tending to go down and more content being made available for free the longer you wait.

And also, if you do buy something, do so because you want it at the time and try to be sanguine about the notion that prices are likely to change later on.

Gaming News: LOTRO goes F2P, Zynga buys Warstorm Dev, Sony announces Clone Wars Online, DC Online, Buzz about Halflife 3

Good news everyone, I didn’t have to make up any news this week!

LOTRO, Darkfall: Free as in Beer (the first round is on the house)

In case anyone had escaped the internet LOTRO blogging blitz, yes Turbine have announced that their  AAA Lord of the Rings MMO will be offering a wider variety of payment schemes from sometime this Autumn, so probably around November. Which does, yes, include some non-subscription cash shop options.

The big news from my point of view is that this is going to happen for the Euro servers as well as the US ones (unlike DDO). So we may actually retain some players. We still don’t know exactly how the changeover will affect existing players. So expect to hear more about that as the deadline approaches.

In other freemium news, Darkfall has announced a new 14 day free trial. So if you’re curious to test Aventurine’s claims that their MMO is not just a hardcore PvP gankfest with a confusing UI but actually does sport some challenging PvE also, this is your chance.

Zynga pays a high price for Challenge Games

Continuing to buy their way to dominance of Facebook games, Zynga announced a new acquisition this week. Challenge Games have made a name for themselves producing innovative social games like Warstorm (a collectible card type game) and Ponzi (a game that pokes fun at corporate life), with the obligatory cash shop purchases built in.

So it’s clear that Zynga recognise that they’ve been weak at innovation in this area – all of their more popular games right now were based on polishing other existing games. And this is how they plan to plug the gap. Challenge now becomes Zynga’s Austin office.

Sony announces two new MMOs, internet ignores one of them

Sony announced that they are releasing two new MMOs this year:

Care to guess which one got all the attention? Hint: It wasn’t DCU Online. This can’t bode well for the superhero MMO, maybe the popular interest in playing superheroes just isn’t there or is already well catered for with City of Heroes (due an expansion later this year too) and Champions Online. I was actually surprised by how few of the blogs and news outlets I read had much to say about it.

Everyone seems far more taken by the notion of Clone Wars Adventures, myself included. Maybe Sony have some agile PR campaign planned for DCUO later this year to stir up some excitement.

November is looking pretty busy this year for MMO releases, especially if Cataclysm ends up with a November release date too (which is likely). And we still don’t have dates for Final Fantasy 14, which also could potentially release this year, not to mention other smaller games (Jumpgate Evolution, Black Prophecy, TERA, etc.)

Valve cancels the Portal 2 demo at E3… what are they planning?

Lots of gaming journalists this week received a note from Aperture Science to announce the cancellation of the Portal 2 demo at E3. It will be replaced with A Surprise. RPS speculate whether the surprise might be related to a Half-Life 3 announcement.

From working my way through Portal (what a great game!!), I can only say that I regard announcements from Aperture Science with a degree of .. uh … cynicism. My 2c says that it is in fact going to be the Portal 2 demo, but maybe they’ll zap visiting hacks with cake guns or something similarly amusing to the public.

In any case, Valve could teach Sony a thing or three about PR campaigns. Maybe Portal 2 could include a Batman level to hype DCUO or something…

Puzzling PR #2, and a great article on casual/ hardcore gaming

Most puzzling comment made in an interview I saw this week was from Bioware, on the topic of Mass Effect 3. Apparently the third story is where they are going to bring some more fun and lightness into the trilogy, like the ewoks in Star Wars.

But I thought that everyone hated the ewoks and also, what if existing players love the games BECAUSE they aren’t fun and light hearted. Just a thought. Why are devs so scared of the grimdark, I wonder. It obviously does sell.

And because I forgot this from yesterday’s link post, everyone should go and read Greg Costyikan’s great article in The Escapist in which he ponders why publishers and retailers have been trying so hard to drive a wedge between casual and hardcore gamers. After all, don’t lots of people play both, and have been since the very dawn of gaming?

Stories of the Week

I thought it might be fun to experiment for a month or so by summarising some main gaming related stories of the week on Sundays, with some links and comments.

Warhammer Online takes your lunch money

Another nail in the coffin of the subscription based MMO was placed this week, as Mythic Entertainment made one of the worst possible customer relations faux-pas and billed many of their playerbase several times by mistake. i.e. to the tune of several hundred dollars (plus any bank related expenses if the account went overdrawn). Charges are being reversed, but it’s likely that the PR damage has already been done. wasdstomp gives his personal experience of being charged 16 times.

Now, if you engage in a lot of online commerce, then it’s quite likely that you’ve had to deal with mistaken payments on at least one occasion. This happens more frequently than anyone likes to admit. Arkenor relates a billing error from STO, for example, although this isn’t anywhere near the same scale as Mythic’s screwup.

But still, there’s an element of trust in passing credit/ debit card details around online and although the system is only as secure as users can make it (and it is a good idea to check through your monthly statements regularly, just to keep an eye on these things), this kind of breach of trust is the sort of thing which persuades players not to bother with MMOs at all.

Having said that, old timers are used to all sorts of wacky game-related screwups and as long as the company turn it around, fix the problem and reimburses everyone speedily, many of the playerbase will give them a second chance. Especially if EA (Mythic’s parent company) could sweeten the deal with … say  … beta spots for a certain upcoming MMO which really could use some good word of mouth.

It always makes me sad to report bad news about WAR. There were so many things to like about that game, it feels like kicking a puppy.

Anyhow, if you were affected, Chris at Game By Night has some advice on practical advice on how to sort out your refund and complaint, from a banking insider.

Apparently WoW has an expansion coming out

No dates yet for Cataclysm but various press outlets report that they’ve had emails about registering for the press beta.

And in case you somehow missed it, Blizzard have been coming out with some class previews for Cataclysm, including wide ranging changes and new abilities. None of this is yet set in stone, but is a useful pointer to where they are heading.

One of the early reviews was for priests, who will get an ability to pull a raid/group member to their location (Leap of Faith). This received a lot of kneejerk reaction, including a stern shake of the head from Tobold, and epic QQ from Tamarind.

Personally I think it sounds like fun and I hope that this does make it into the game in some form. But the fact that I could think of at least three ways to grief people with it before figuring out even one legitimate use doesn’t bode well.  I think something a little more subtle (maybe a spell to wipe threat from a friendly player) would have been more priestlike, but then that has different issues in PvP.

What I like about the idea is that it shows that Blizzard understand that standing passively at the back is one reason that healing isn’t as fun as it could be. So giving priests more power to affect a fight directly, rather than at one step removed, is one of the ways they are exploring to make heals more fun.

Other high(?)lights of the preview:

  • Bye bye tree form (Will try to comment more on this next week since I do also play a resto druid – basically I’m really happy with the proposed changes.)
  • Bye Bye blood dps and unholy/ frost tanking builds. (I guess the great DK flexibility experiment either failed or was too much effort. DK tanks are my prediction for more overpowered tank next expansion.)
  • Mages get the bloodlust/ heroism analogue. (I wonder if they should have just removed that buff from the game or toned it the hell down, it makes way too much difference in 5 man instances and I’m still not sure whether 10 mans are balanced around it – Blizzard claims not but is that really possible?)

And there were also announcements about the rage normalisation changes and hunters using focus instead of mana, neither of which was unexpected although they’ll both be sweeping change.

Over the next few weeks, a lot of current players will be analysing these previews and trying to decide which class to play in Cataclysm. The classes with the sexier updates will attract more people. I didn’t really see anything which made me wonder ‘why the hell are they doing THAT?’ Well, except maybe leap of faith …

One thing is for sure, that’s a hell of a lot of balancing for Blizzard to try to get right.

And if you were wondering about the paladin update, that isn’t due out until next Friday (16th). For the class which has most epitomised Blizzard’s Wrath ethos,  will it be more buffs, the nerfbat, or a complete redesign? Paladins have certainly rocketed in popularity over the course of the expansion, and they were never an unpopular class. But has Blizzard decided to call time?  Personally I’ll call it a win if they can make it impossible for low level tankadins to forget Righteous Fury (their tanking buff).


Improving Roleplaying: Sharing our Stories

This is the fifth post in a series about improving roleplaying in MMOs. Previous posts in the series were:

All roleplaying involves telling stories about our characters with other people. They may not always be exciting stories, but they are ours. Through those stories, characters change and grow. Farmboys become heroes, students get bitten by radioactive spiders, political movements rise and fall, love triangles form and reform, characters meet new people, destroy threats, and write their own histories into the story books.

Our characters and their stories exist in the same virtual world, so to bring that world to life, we need to share those tales. People need to know what other characters have done in the past or are doing in the present – it might affect their own story. If you ask any roleplayer what they’d most like to see in a game, it is very likely that they’d want to see their stories affect the gameworld around them. Since other players form a large part of that setting, this means finding a way to share those stories or at least the parts that might affect other people. If you engineer a revolution in a city in the woods and no one knows about it, did it still happen?

Keeping everyone up to date on everything is an impossibly complex task in a large game. Even with as few as 20 players, it’s hard work to keep the updates rolling. Even if you just focus on the parts that affect people individually. But we can take a leaf out of the real world and how we keep up with the news in real life. We can focus on picking out the relevant information and figuring how to let people tap into it to improve the RP experience. We can ponder opting in to information streams, and locating people based on their current plots and goals.

In the end, there are two main tasks here.

  1. How do we share our stories? This involves sharing events that happened before the game started (ie. character backstories or histories), sharing the history of events which have already happened in the game so that new players can catch up, and sharing information or collaborating about plots on which we are working at the moment.
  2. How do we get other people to read our stories and act on them appropriately? Most people have limited interest in other people’s stories unless they are personally affected (this is true of the RL news too). So how can we pick out the information generated by other players/ characters and show people only the parts that might affect them?

Why bother with character backgrounds?

In some games, players can write a few paragraphs about their character’s background (ie. what they did before the game started) and store it somewhere in the UI where other players can read it. I asked last week how many players actually read other character backgrounds. Quite a few people said that they did.

The purpose of a character background is to answer the questions, “Who am I, and how did I get here?” where ‘here’ is the point at which the character ‘goes live’. From a roleplaying point of view, the background also gives you a jumping off point for RP. It explains who the character is, and perhaps why s/he became that way. A publically accessible background can let other people hook into that story too.

  • For example: If you came from one specific town, then other players whose characters are from the same area can RP that they knew you as a child. (note: it is polite to whisper someone first to ask permission and check that they’re OK with the connection before launching into RP about it.)
  • Another example: If your character is a notorious crook and someone else plays a policeman, this might suggest RPing that you have crossed paths in the past.

We call these types of starting points ‘plot hooks’. So part of the purpose of a RP character background is to provide plot hooks for both yourself (e.g.. “my character is searching for her lost brother”) and for other people (e.g.. “I am a notorious con artist, anyone in law enforcement probably recognises my name and curses it daily. I might even have ripped your character off in the past. Contact me to work out a story.”) So backgrounds are not just self indulgent fanfic, they can provide useful RP pointers both for the player herself and for other players too.

Here are some things that make people more likely to read backgrounds:

  • the game rewards you in some way for reading/ acting on other player’s backstories (this happened in MUSHes)
  • background is short and easily accessible from in game. No one is asking you to read and memorise a novella.
  • background is well written.
  • background belongs to a character you play with regularly so you either like the player or think you might want to use it in RP with them
  • you are given hints that the background might be interesting
  1. character looks interesting (has a good costume)
  2. character acts interesting (maybe you see them roleplaying)
  3. you find the lore interesting and know that the other player does too (maybe they posted on forums or said something in a channel that caught your eye)
  4. the game itself tends to inspire interesting backgrounds (superheroes in particular often have strong backstories, it’s just part of the genre. hobbits in LOTRO probably don’t.)
  • You are bored or have some downtime and it’s something to do
  • You were asked to read it, or they read yours first and you want to reciprocate
  • You regularly read character backgrounds whenever you get the chance .. and you get the chance

So the background story can be both interesting and useful to roleplayers. If given the opportunity, more people read them than we otherwise might assume. Actually discussing how to write a compelling, non-clichéd backstory with which others will want to interact is a whole different issue and not something I’m going to cover today.

But a block of text on the screen is not the only way to introduce a character’s history to other people.

Towards more interactive backstories

The great advantage of freeform writing – the blank box of text – is that you can write anything. The problem with freeform writing is that people can write anything. It can be totally off-genre, it can be poorly written, it can miss the point completely (people who don’t understand that a backstory is history and use it instead to describe their characters’ clothes, for example), it can be wildly unbalanced or simply unbelievable, it may not fit with the game lore.

We could try to distill out the information that is useful to other players, while still giving people some room to just write about their characters. To do this, we’d need to think about what other people might want to know, and we’d need to encourage players to decide which of the information in their background might be publically known. (It’s silly to put information in your background that contains major spoilers or that you have to ask other people not to use.)

They might want to know where the character is from. You could imagine a game which put you through a series of questions while doing your starter zone. Maybe you are offered a map of the world and allowed to pick in precisely which region your character grew up. Then add in some kind of search function and it becomes easy to see who else is from the same region. Maybe even give them their own chat channel. Mark on the list which characters are new to the game so that more experienced characters can (if they want) make an effort to involve them.

They might want to know which in-game organisations you have been associated with. Is your character religious? Does it have links with the city guard? Was your character’s mother an army officer? Does it have criminal contacts? Again, being able to somehow associate yourself with those groups means other players wouldn’t have to pick through all the background information to find out who they might know. Instead they could just do a search, or even have the information delivered to them.

They might want to know what other plot hooks are associated with a character. In a MUSH it would not have been especially unusual for players to be asked to think up a couple of plot hooks for themselves to put into their background information.

Players also might want to be able to collaborate on backgrounds. If you have a great idea for a family of travelling players, you may want to find out if anything like that already exists in the game, or if anyone else is interested too. It isn’t as easy to find good collaborators as it might sound. Not only do you have to roughly share the same goals, you need to be on similar time zones, have similar play styles, and be able to get on OOC. You won’t know if all these things are true until you actually spend some time roleplaying with other people, so there’s a good chance that even if you could put up some kind of advert for people to join your band of travellng players and got some responses, most of them wouldn’t work out.

Having said that, sometimes it is possible to collaborate on backgrounds without committing yourself to a heavy RP schedule. You could agree to have been members of the same band of travelling players in the past, for example, and then collaborate to decide what happened to the group, why it split up, and whether there might be some good plot hooks there for people.

We can also make use of social media for our collaborations these days. It doesn’t all have to be mailing lists, bulletin boards, and IRC. I see this as a big trend in MMOs and it will be fantastic for roleplayers, who do need to coordinate with other players.

Bottom Line: If we abandon the totally freeform backstory, we can make it easier for players to hook up and interact in MMOs. I think this is true for a lot of MMO roleplaying – by narrowing the scope and limiting options, we can get a more productive and accessible RP environment.

There will always be room also for the totally freeform style of roleplaying. It may require small, disciplined groups, good GMs, and a lot of give and take, but it works just as well in MMOs as in chatrooms. However, it will never be accessible or massive. Complexity in sharing backstories and coordinating schedules is one of the things which simply does not scale well.

Recording our In-Game Stories

If history is made by the players in a roleplaying game, then where is the history recorded in a persistent RP MMO. Who knows about how the game has changed and what plots have been run? Even on a small scale, who can keep up with the social drift within a small RP circle? Who is sleeping with who? And why? What does a new player need to know to catch up?

Again, this is a huge and complex problem when large numbers of players are involved. Most people don’t want to be told to go read novel-length write ups of things that happened before they even joined the game.

So how can we get the news out and how can we record it? Wikis have been some use in this respect but have the problem of RL news outlets – who is going to keep updating them, who is going to keep them free from bias?

I don’t have a good answer to this one. In the past we have archived stories using player logs (in a text based game, it’s easy to store the log of a scene online), we have set up forums and encouraged people to keep their stories updated, we have allowed people to alter their character backgrounds to keep them current, we have seen people write in-game newspapers and news files or summaries.

So rather than run on, I’ll just say again that it is a huge problem. If lots of players are actively RPing then there are a lot of stories to keep track of, and no one can really hope to track them all. The best you can hope for is to channel players into a smaller number of larger plots and try to note any major worldchanging events that would affect large numbers of people.

Again, making good use of social media is where today’s MMOs can really start to shine. We’re on the cusp of this really taking off – we’ve seen integration with MMOs and websites, twitter, chat channels, achievement lists, and other information that can be accessed outside the game. You could imagine a newsfeed that is accessible within and outside the game and is updated based on in game world events and character plots.

Achievements in particular show the progress of a character’s story. As they are currently, they don’t do this in a very exciting or compelling way, but they do record the story of “I did this, then I did that, then I did that,” in a way to which other players can relate.

Fanfic

I will be honest, I am not a fan of fanfic. But writing stories about events that happened to your character in game is a time honored way of recording a personal history. Whether it’s a fully blown novella, a set of comedy sketches, or a blog/in-character diary, it is another way for players to find out what has been going on in game.

Allowing players to link somehow to external sites on which they can store fanfic, visualisations, family trees, descriptions of their character’s homes, or anything else that helps to flesh out the character and share its story would reward people for the extra work. It would also let them explore each other’s writing and character stories. It is something that devs could easily encourage, just by making it accessible from inside the game.

More mechanical methods to share stories and collaborate

Achievements, gear lists, calendars, automated scene logs, progression histories and guild histories can all be part of a character’s ongoing story. And these have the advantage of not requiring players to pour their souls into fanfic or spend hours working on a character website. Calendars and sign up lists in particular represent a form of online collaboration that is still in its infancy. We could have in game whiteboards, methods for people to collaborate on storytelling or working out backgrounds or organising RP events, and I expect to see more of these things as time goes on.

In particular there is a lot of work going on at the moment in tools for joint storytelling. It isn’t happening in the MMO field, but if it exists then players will use it. And if it is brought into the MMOs, people will use them in MMOs.

We could imagine scene schedulers, plot arc schedulers, co-operative NPC design (usually in MMOs someone will play the NPC as a low level alt) and so on.

But with all these complex character stories going on, who can stand back and see the long view of how they all intersect? This has always been an issue with scaling up roleplaying. So many stories going on in parallel and it’s difficult to see how things play out on the grander scale. The complexity involved is terrifying. You can’t code your way out of complexity, but you can look for ways to make it easier to manage.