Quests, goals, and mechanical horses

rifthorse

Finally hit level 40 on my character in Rift (yes, I know most of the blogosphere is off in tier 2 expert dungeons, which is sort of equivalent to hard mode heroics), and was able to buy one of the coolest mounts in any game ever. This is why you roll Defiant. It’s all about the mechanical horse. This is a copper one, although you can’t really see that in the screenie, I call it Rusty. I always pick boring brown horses when I have the choice, there’s probably something Freudian in that.

Now the mechanical horse and my great desire to virtually own a copy of same has really made me think about how I feel about quests in games. Because even as a low level noob, you will get to see NPCs with mechanical horses, you will see the mechanical horse vendor when you first head into Meridian. And you will KNOW that one day, if you want one, it will be yours. You can browse the available mechanical horses and decide which one you prefer. And you also can easily find the requirements –- you will need to be level 40 and have 35 plat to spend. It’s not like having a quest pop up in your quest journal, but no less of a quest all the same.

WoW pretty much went the same route with their mounts. As your lowbie character travels out of the starting zones, you will encounter the mount vendor with all their ‘wares’ out on display. It’s just that none of them are as cool as a mechanical horse.

Wolfshead posts a thinly veiled screed against WoW and all it’s scions, specifically focussing on the evils of quests this week. I can’t really agree with him; whatever the downsides are to quests, I rather enjoy having a variety of short and longterm goals in game. Quests serve a useful storytelling purpose in many CRPGs. And if they didn’t exist in MMOs then all that would happen is that people would find the most efficient way to level via grinding and just do that – we know this because it’s how levelling used to work.

And yet, they can be improved. Quests like the unofficial ‘where’s my mechanical horse?!’ aren’t official quests, they’re more like game-specific goals which I make for my character. And they always feel more personal than a coded quest, even if every other player on my faction shares the exact same goals. (And if you don’t want a mechanical horse, then I do not know you.)

Sims Medieval has a good modern take on questing – you’ll have some immediate goals to be getting on with, and your characters will also have more longterm ambitions. Plus you as the player may also have some goals which aren’t codified, but will influence how you play.

I’m looking forwards at some point (ie. when I have more free time) to picking up LA Noir, which looks to mark a point where even Rockstar Games abandon the full sandbox in favour of more questing, to see how they handle giving the PC some goals and direction.

But speaking of WoW, the main issue I had with Cataclysm questing is best described as sugar rush. I liked the zones well enough (Vash’jir and Deepholme in particular are brilliant), but everything was so fast, so quickly consumed. My character was travelling quickly, killing quickly, finding things quickly – with no downtime it’s just a lot to take in.

I think the questing layout in Rift is better in general than WoW. Not because they’re more streamlined, because they aren’t. Not because the storylines or writing are better, because they probably aren’t. But because they seem to preserve a better balance between exploring a zone and zipping through it so quickly that you can’t really remember it a few days later. And also because there is a better mix of linear quests, hidden stuff to explore and dynamic events. The pacing seems to work better, for me. Plus it has mechanical horses.

So my view on quests as gameplay is that they’re a useful way to project linear storytelling into a virtual world, but that we’re not done with them yet. I hope to see more devs experiment with ways to encourage players to set and celebrate their own goals, formed through interacting personally with the game world and NPCs. Or in other words, it doesn’t start and end with the gold exclamation mark.

[Rift] Trion was able to build this in a cave … with a box of scraps!

Another day, another set of Rift patch notes. Trion have been adding stuff to their game at a fairly spectacular pace, and the next patch promises a slew of new types of rift, cosmetic clothing, and a massive amount of tweaks to classes, zones, quests, and instances.

Further in the future will be the Rift random dungeon finder, of which screenshots are here. Yes, it’s looking remarkably like the WoW version although you’ll note there’s the option of a support role in addition to tank/heal/dps. (Wonder who would use that, maybe off-healers and buffing souls such as Bard and Archon.)

Whilst all this activity is deeply impressive and makes you wonder what else they have planned, it’s also easy to feel overwhelmed by changes to the game. I don’t know how exactly they will be able to introduce all this new stuff to players in future, but it feels right that their main priority right now is throwing in more stuff for the first wave of players, be it endgame or fluff. Later in the game’s life, they may have to choose between maintaining this level of new mechanics and supporting newer players.

Still, the release rate is astounding compared to other MMOs I have played. They knocked up a whole cosmetic clothing system very quickly there, something which WoW still hasn’t done (and there was a suggestion at one point that Blizzard would do something along those lines for Cataclysm, so it isn’t purely on game design issues that it doesn’t exist.)

The one reservation I do have is on trying to figure out which way the game is going. If LFG going to be good for Rift in the long term? I suspect the answer to this really comes down to the player base and the instance tuning more than the random group maker itself. If players build a social expectation that LFG groups will be friendly and co-operative then it could work fine.

However, what we can’t see from the screenie is whether there will be gear requirements for the higher tier dungeons. Or whether people will queue for the best rewards possible regardless of whether or not they’re able to contribute …

But what do I know, I’m still just level 34 on my main and trucking along happily. May have to ease off a bit due to upcoming exams, sadly, which means that Trion will probably have introduced at least 17 brand new dynamic game mechanics by the time I reach max level.

Changing attitudes towards crowd control

Crowd control: the ability to take at least one enemy temporarily out of the fight by use of mind control, hypnotism, a cosh over the head, crazy transformation spell, rooting them to the ground, freezing them in ice – it’s as old as Dungeons and Dragons itself, which makes it rather older as a concept than any MMO.

In Rift this week we ran another 5-man instance in guild. This time it was King’s Breach, and when settling down at the start we discussed which abilities and offspecs people had available. I mentioned I could do some crowd control as well as dps, and so did Pewter. The rest of the group reacted positively, “Great, two crowd control spells available, let’s rock.”

This is part of the whole old school feel of Rift, because in my experience, as soon as people get more focussed on running dungeons quickly, CC goes out of the window. This is mostly because if you have strong (*coff* overpowered *coff*) tanks, healers, and dps with strong AE, then it’s just much faster to burn all the enemies down at once than it is to kill them one at a time with CC.

I was reading WoW forums this week and I saw a new argument against the use of CC in instances:

The thing about CC is you are doing it for the Healer, no one else. One mob less dealing damage makes the Healer’s life easier. However, for tanks (and DPS to a lesser extent), CCing makes their job HARDER. Making sure not to break CC distracts you from doing your proper job.

I think this shows part of the influence of LFD. It’s not so much about the group picking a tactic as, “oh, we only use CC if the healer needs it.” This makes CC sound more like a crutch in PvE than an interesting and valid tactic in its own right.

And more importantly, it means that if you do get a bad pull or an unexpected patrol, a quick thinking CC player is wasting their time, because the other players will either ignore it or simply not recognise the crowd control spell effects.

[Rift] What if you held an event and everybody came?

rift_liferift random picture of a life rift, it’s pretty cool though.

If you have been following the Rift gossip, you’ll know that the River of Souls live event that they had been running recently came to a head and an abrupt end.

The first stage of the event lasted for a couple of weeks, involved daily quests that everyone could get involved with, as well as encouraging people to focus on death rifts. You could end up with some shinies like pets and mounts and trinkets. This part seemed pretty successful to me, everyone knew that there was something going on and players did get enthusiastic about chasing all the death rifts down.

The second and third stage took place over a couple of hours that may have been announced on the bboards, but were a wash to me. Plus the last one was in a high level zone. And then the servers crashed.

Oh well, better luck next time, Trion. I’m sure it was a learning experience for them, and this was Scott Hartsman’s initial feedback. My immediate reaction was that because stage one had lasted for a fortnight, I’d kind of expected stage 2 to last for awhile as well. I also assume there was some storyline, but have no idea what it was.

Still, never mind. That’s how the cookie crumbles with dynamic content and players need to stop saying, “I must see EVERYTHING” and start saying, “OK, I can’t see everything but was the thing I was doing fun?”

riftcat

(a quest with a cat)

What I did do last weekend was run Foul Cascade (one of the instances) with a guild group, which was loads of fun. Oh how I’ve missed instances where you had to explore for an hour before you were able to find the entrance! (OK, not really but it was kind of cool the first time that we had to all explore around the place to find the entrance for this one, it’s a bit remote.)

They don’t drift far from the WoW instance model – there are a few groups of adds, and then a boss fight of some kind which may require some tactics. Rinse and repeat. And then finally you can unlock the end boss of the instance. There are also patrols.

People having access to a variety of souls and builds makes building the group much easier. I could see how in harder content you’ll often have a choice of which character should tank and which should heal and might want to tune it to the specific fight.

One of the issues though with this level of flexibility is that people haven’t always had a lot of practice with all their variant builds. I’m not really sure what the answer is to this, there’s only so much you can practice solo and with no damage meters it’s hard to gauge whether you’ve got a dps build right or not. But in friendly guild groups it’s less of an issue, and if one healer is struggling to solo heal an encounter, chances are someone can respec to help.

I still feel that people are unduly harsh on Rift’s PvE game. I do really enjoy exploring the zones (they’re quite generous about letting you run up steep slopes), gathering, and following the various storylines.  I was amused this week at the bareknuckle fighters in my current zone, where you can keep challenging all comers to a fight. Eventually there are achievements you can get if you don’t get bored of it first.  Or alternatively you could team up with a friend or two and go hunt the named mobs who are scattered around the vicinity to get special hunter tokens.

I thought they were both cool examples of random stuff to do that was scattered around the world. It’s something that WoW very much lacks these days.

So many games, so little time

It’s that time of the year again – just as the weather is getting warmer and everyone is recovering from the inevitable colds, flu, and chest infections and wants to be outside (apologies to anyone in the southern hemisphere for the UK bias) – what happens? We get hit with a slew of AAA computer games. And offers on old ones.

Games I am playing at the moment:

Rift – I really do enjoy Rift, and I don’t think people are anywhere near appreciative enough of the PvE/ questing content. It’s not revolutionary but bug free and nicely executed. Technically it’s good too – there’s a nice variety of kill quests, collect quests, use the item quests, use something in the environment quests, etc etc. And if you actually read the storyline quests in each zone, they’re good fun.

It’s a very easy game to spend an hour or so in quietly, even if you don’t feel like running the Rifts, instances or warfronts. Of course my character is still only level 30 so I can’t speak for the endgame. I intend to write longer posts about Rift since I’m happy with my 6 month sub, love the warlock, and looking forwards to seeing how things go. It is noticeable that the population has dropped off after the first month, but maybe they’re just all busy with single player games. Tipa writes a more thoughtful review here.

Dragon Age 2 – I haven’t gotten very far with my second play through as a mage yet, but it’s on the back burner. The more I think about this game (and I have been thinking about it) the more I love what they were trying to do. I find that a) I’m quite forgiving of games that fail to meet their vision if I agree with the vision and b) my characters in Bioware games default to Captain Jack style bisexual (he’ll screw anything as long as it’s gorgeous).

Mass Effect 2:  Since Bioware have been giving this away free to DA2 purchasers, it would have been rude not to download it. I got as far as where Shepherd first meets the Illustrated Man but haven’t really felt the need to play it since. I want to, even though I think I have probably forgotten the various commands for switching guns and … whatever other shooter stuff it does. It’s strange that the Dragon Age games have been so compelling for me but I struggle to get very far with either of the ME ones. I don’t think ME3 is on my shopping list either, now that Bioware have been busy perfecting the shootery gameplay which I’m so bad at.

The Witcher: Another game that I really like but have not been driven to play for ages. Picked this up in the Steam Sale over Xmas and enjoyed the parts that I did play. Again, I wonder if I’ll be able to remember the controls or whether I should just restart from the beginning if I get the urge.

Dragon Quest IX: This is the game which for me defines why it doesn’t matter if you never finish a CRPG. I’m still barely half way through, I think, but wandering around and fighting animated cucumbers never gets old. It would be dull on a PC but on a handheld that you play for 30 mins at a time on train journeys, it’s great.

Sims Medieval: The issue I have with this game is that it’s not really the sort of thing you can just pick up for 30 mins: it needs time, preferably more time than you have. My evil Sim queen got pregnant and I got bored waiting for her to drop the sprog. I will go back to it, because I think they did a lot of things right with this game and I’ve barely scratched the surface. In particular the idea of a simulation game using genre simulation rules rather than real world to help with telling genre-appropriate stories has HUGE potential. Imagine if it has been Sims Fairy Tale instead of Sims Medieval — I think that’s where the franchise needs to go. An unholy mix of simulation and storytelling, and I’d be so there.

LOTRO: Finished the most recent epic book content and enjoyed it a lot. Very tempted to sign up for some casual raiding but I have one major issue. I don’t understand the new legendary item changes, so I have no idea how bad my gear is or how to improve it.

You’ll notice a running thread in my more peripatetic games which is that one of the barriers to me continuing with it is worrying about whether I will remember how to play. Remember this, because it’s just as valid with MMOs that you put down for a while and then pick up again.

On the queue or the wishlist:

Pirates of the Burning Sea: I still really want to find time for this because I loved it! But wow it’s been hard to find time.

Bioshock: I remembered being recommended this game so picked it up from the recent Steam sale for a pittance.

Portal 2: Out next week, in case you missed the hype. Tempted to wait a few months until it is cheaper.

Witcher 2: I think I should finish the first game really, and have some concerns about how well it might run on my system. But it sounds as though it will be awesome.

Steamlands: Some kind of bizarro steampunk tank building/tower defense game? I don’t know, I just know that I’m already sold on it.

Rift: Small objects of desire (and dragon age 2 links)

rift_hatstripey

Sadly, flu has gotten in the way of gaming this week (boo!) but I have had a bit of time on Rift. And one thing I realise is that sometimes it’s the small things – the new hat, the new mount – that really pull a character together.

Words cannot express how much I love this hood in the left hand picture. A mage with a hood like that and carrying a big staff looks wise and stuff, as though they might know the secrets of the universe. That’s what I want in my mage!

The stripey antelope mount is also delightful. It has this whippet thin, athletic and yet alien look to it which makes it very convincing as a mount. I also like the way my character is seated on the saddle, again it looks convincing to me.

In other news, I ran my first instance in Rift this week thanks to Arb and other players in the guild. Arb did a super job of tanking it, I was healing via my Chloromancer spec which was mostly fine but seems to lack some spike healing punch when you really need it. I think it’ll work out fine with more practice, and people were happy to have a Chloro around. The actual spec is quite fun, it has that shadow priest feel where you’re mostly healing via doing damage but you do have some specialist heals, channels, and utility spells (ie. to cause a mob to heal the next player it attacks rather than damage them) to pad it out which makes the Chloromancer rather interesting to play. I don’t find healing in PvP as much fun as CC in this game – you just don’t get the sense of making as much difference as a healer which is odd but there you go.

I’m also still really enjoying the Warlock as a primary damage/ soloing spec. Being able to switch life into mana, and charge into life/ damage just gives a nice amount of flexibility if things go a bit pear shaped.

More on Dragon Age 2

Oh yeah, and because it’s DA2 week and I’m over excited here are a couple of links:

PC Gamer review of Dragon Age 2

Interview with lead writer and designer of DA2

And … let’s talk about choosing characters in Rift!

rift_rift

How time flies when you’re having fun in betas. Before you know it, tomorrow is head start day for Rift and even though I’m run off my feet at the moment with flu (which sucks, don’t get it!) and various other games such as the Darkspore beta and Tuesday night Spreadsheet-Pirates I have been getting increasingly excited to play Rift over the various betas.

I respect bloggers like Tipa’s decision to avoid beta so that everything is new at release, but at the same time it has helped me to decide which souls I love and to get to know some of the people in my Rift guild, mostly made up of friends from LOTRO and twitter. (Incidentally, I disagree wholeheartedly with Ravious on the faction coolness factor on the grounds that … Defiants get to ride robo-mechanical-horses. It doesn’t get cooler than that!)

I was getting very confused over classes and souls until I decided to just try and remake a class I’d enjoyed from a different game. In DaoC, my sorceress was a master of AE Crowd Control, used lots of dots and lifetaps, could charm pets and had a run speed buff.

I ditched the pet idea instantly because I never really liked being stuck with a pet and started a new character as a Dominator/ Warlock. Suddenly it clicked. What I’m finding now is that I love the Warlock so I’ll use that as primary/ secondary in some kind of dps build and then maybe add Chloromancer/ Warlock as a main healer build. That still leaves the possibility of a heavy CC build for PvP.

In many ways, ‘choosing’ a character is wrong word for Rift character generation. Designing a character would be closer to how it works in practice.

I’m not sure why I am so hooked on casters in this game, but I have been enjoying it in beta immensely. Arb has been through far worse torment on deciding on a class and soul combo and I know she’s not the only one.

One thing I have noticed is that Trion has actually put a fair amount of content in the game for explorers. There are artifacts to collect and puzzles to solve in each zone. But you have to wonder what the point is when Rift Junkies has guides up to all the puzzles already …

Do you prefer to know this sort of information in advance to make sure that you don’t accidentally miss anything, or do you prefer to find it out (possibly alongside your guild)?

Male and female NPC armour in Rift

riftcenturions

These characters are both Meridian Centurions guarding the main Defiant city in Rift. So the ranks and roles are equivalent. And yet the guy gets a full set of studded armour and the girl gets a skimpy bikini.

The actual player gear is fine, but this NPC armour difference is really pushing it. I think what struck me more was that they’re equivalent ranks in the same army so they should at least be in a uniform that matches.

I’ve seen a lot of really nice NPC clothing in the game, so … it’s just the actual army who fight in bikinis I guess. Hurrah for technomagic.

MMO nostalgia aka why you couldn’t pay me to play EQ

I’ve heard a lot of excited talk on the MMO blogs I read about the new EQ progression server. Yes, you too could travel back in time and experience what it was like to play a game with crappy graphics, arsey raiders, and where it was considered normal to camp a rare spawn for 17 hours.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a BBC article about it from 2002. (He’s talking about a 3-5 day wait for a single quest mob to spawn and believe it or not, some people actually waited and did not decide, “This game is shite.”)

So why are players flocking back to try the new (‘old’) servers?

I can only assume nostalgia, and an attempt to capture the memories of playing MMOs when communities were forced to be more tight knit, everything and everyone was new, and maybe to reclaim some of their forgotten youth, especially if other ex-players can also be cajoled into going back. You can’t actually go back to those times, people know now which the best classes are, what the best shortcuts are, and I wonder how many of them really do want to spend hours camping the same spawn of mobs to level. I suppose we’ll find out. SoE sensibly gave old players the first month for free, which explains part of the popularity.

To understand some of my disdain you also have to understand that MMO dinos (ie. old players) cut their teeth on a handful of games (note: I’m not including MUDs or MUSHes here). These in the west would typically have been Ultima Online, Meridian, EQ, Dark Age of Camelot, and Asheron’s Call. Whichever game you played will have shaped your expectations of how MMOs should be. And because games back then were so time consuming, typically you would not have played more than one if you were seriously into it.

So I think DaoC was the best old school game ever, despite its flaws, and EQ with its big breasted elven paladins, stupid long spawn times, crazy hardcore endgame players, and exclusive guilds was an evolutionary dead end which unfortunately caught on with new gamers who weren’t experienced enough to know better.

Tobold is enamoured with encouraging players to go back and try it to find out how awful it really was – actually he wants hardcore players to find out how hard it is, but I’m translating into english here. I actually think all of the elements on his list of good things about EQ have been improved by every single game since, especially WoW. And thank Thrall for that.

I would say skip it. Play the Rift open beta instead, it’s equally free. You’ll have more fun, you have way way way more chance to get the actual new game feel if that’s what you want, and you’ll be able to support a new company at a time they really need it.

Arb and I are both playing Rift at the moment so expect to hear more about that in future.

Don’t go adventuring without your makeup bag

This is a post I half wrote ages ago but put aside because I thought it was kind of petty. But I was playing with the character generation on the Rift beta and suddenly it took me right back.  One of the options you get on female characters is to select one of about 10 different styles of makeup. Rift is by no means the only game that assumes you would want to dress up your (female) character with dramatic makeup, it’s just the latest that caught my eye.

riftmakeup

They’ve put a lot of graphical effort into the makeup design in this game. I noticed that it’s race specific (the Eth for example, have egyptian style heavy kohl on the eyes) and quite artfully done. Maybe they have a would-be makeup artist on staff. (My major beef, for what it’s worth, is that on one of the races there seemed to be a permanent pout with lipgloss that I couldn’t get rid of. I really dislike lipgloss.)

riftmakeupelf

I can understand why characters in a game might be given the option to wear make-up, even though I think it’s silly for a fighting adventurer to have access to a full makeup kit and use it like a film star. It’s part of daily life for a lot of people, and I know women who don’t consider themselves properly dressed without a layer of slap. I can understand why city dwellers or nobles in other settings might have the option to wear make-up too, it’s been a part of human interaction for thousands of years.

riftmakeupdrarf

I even get that we’re all bombarded with images of pretty women with expertly applied make-up in TV, films, adverts, and so on so it’s natural that a lot of players want that look for their character. In a game world where you can go into battle in a platemail bikini and high heels (hi Aion), it doesn’t seem smart to quibble about a bit of face paint.

I’m also impressed by the amount of effort the Rift artists put into all the different makeup combinations on the different races. These screenshots don’t really do the face paint justice.

Even though it feels like a lot of effort for something that no one else will ever really see in game, including the player – I mean how often do you stare another character in the face from close enough range to see their makeup?

rifteth

But it does my head in to imagine makeup as being a fixed thing that you have to decide on at character generation and can never actually change afterwards. And please please please give me the option to turn off the lip gloss.