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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, for the record:

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

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

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

Torchlight was undertuned in normal mode.

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

Gaming News: Google App Store, Zynga ties the knot with Facebook, Aion server mergers, Blizzcon, DS to overtake PS2 in sales

Google shows off some longer term plans

At the I/O developer conference in San Francisco this week, Google announced their plans to launch an online web app store (for Chrome and Chrome OS). Undoubtedly games will feature heavily on the list, and Plants v Zombies and Lego Star Wars (are there any platforms on which those don’t run?) have already been announced.

Possibly of even more interest, Unity Technologies also announced that their 3D engine will run natively in Chrome – that is to say, with no  plugin. At any rate, marketing speak aside, that means that unity based games will run smoothly and quickly in Chrome. It’s certainly good news for Unity developers, and that’s good news for gamers also.

Is Chrome shaping up to be the gamer’s browser of choice? Google certainly hope so.

And in another big announcement, Google introduced an open source royalty free video format, WebM. It will be included as part of HTML5 and, of course, will be supported by YouTube. Adobe plan to build support for the codec into Flash as well.

Farmville Devs sign a 5 year deal with Facebook

A week can be such a long time in gaming politics. Last week everyone was speculating that Zynga planned to dump Facebook and go it alone (as if!) and this week brings the announcement that actually the two companies have signed some sort of cooperation deal for the next 5 years.

Facebook’s plans to force all app developers to use their new facebook credit currency for RMT, so that Facebook can take a cut,  is hardly going to be welcomed by the developers. But we can only speculate about whether Zynga was forced to the table (because they need Facebook more than vice versa), or whether they held the platform owner to a hard bargained deal.

In any case, all is smiles and flowers in the Farmville world. And expect to see facebook credits making a very real bid to become the global internet RMT transaction currency of choice. Scared yet? Well, you can always install a Farmville gamebar on your browser and let Zynga keep tabs on everything that you ever do online …

Playdom buy Acclaim, Perfectworld buys a stake in Runic

There are a couple of company related announcements. Playdom, the social gaming publisher, has acquired Acclaim. Acclaim have developed and run several F2P MMOs so it will be interesting to see what Playdom plans to do with them. I remember liking Chronicles of Spellbourne when I tried it, so let’s hope this leads to good things.

In other news, Runic Games announced that Torchlight had sold 500k copies worldwide since it’s release. Which is excellent for any game. And Perfect World Entertainment (a Chinese MMO Publisher) has acquired a majority stake in the company. We know that Runic had mentioned a MMO version of Torchlight, could Perfect World be the partner to help bring it to market?

Aion Announced Server Mergers

Aion producer released a community letter, with lots of information about forthcoming plans. They’re offering character customisation and transfer options, there are new patches coming soon and information about what’s going on with the Korean patches also even further out.

But it is the server merges that will attract most of the attention. Usually associated with a drop in population, merging servers is a way to bolster existing servers. However, it’s never really been a good sign for the health of a game.

In the same week, Everquest also announced server mergers … but they’ve been running for 10 years, as opposed to less than one.

Blizzcon Tickets to go on Sale on June 2nd and 5th

Put your lucky socks on if you want to snag a ticket to Blizzcon, even at the eye-popping price of $150 they’re bound to sell out immediately. The convention itself will take place on Oct 22/23 in Anaheim and the smart money says that Blizzard will announce their next gen MMO there. The unsmart money (ie. me) is hoping they’ll at least announce a date for Diablo 3.

In other Blizzard related news, they’re trialling a new premium service for WoW in which subscribers who pay an extra $3 per month can access the auction house remotely either from the web or from iDevices. They’re also disabling a naughty addon which made hard raid encounters much easier by allowing you to draw on other people’s screens. I never used it myself, but it does show that the lines between which addon is considered ok and which is forcibly disabled can be very unclear.

Blizzard also resolved their legal issues in Korea by agreeing to everything the Korean Govt asked for, and censoring blood, swearing and cigarettes from Star Craft 2. I imagine there will still be plenty of good, wholesome, old-fashioned genocide though. And apparently the corruption scandal in Korea’s professional Star Craft scene is looking worse the more it gets investigated.

DS to Become Biggest Selling Console of All Time

I love my DS, and it was my faithful companion on many long train journeys to and from my father’s flat when he was ill last year. So I find it heart warming to report that DS sales are likely to overtake those of the PS2 later this year.

It’s just a great little console, and the games have been pitched absolutely perfectly at a puzzle loving, brain training older audience, as well as the usual crop of pokemon (of which I still need to buy the latest sometime) and other kid pleasers. This little console has done a lot to open up the gaming market, and in my opinion, Nintendo deseves all the sales that it gets.

Sharing predictions, and looking forwards

This is the time of year where everyone traditionally makes some predictions for the next year, so that we all can laugh at how wrong they were in 12 months time.

Here’s a few links to bloggers who are putting their necks on the line:

The big trend in 2009 was the rise and rise of social gaming via facebook games. They’re not strictly MMOs, although massive numbers of players are involved and they are online. But a lot of investor interest is focussed again on online gaming, so I’m sure this will have some kind of knock-on effect on more traditional styled MMOs. We’ll see more effort next year put into translating the fantastically successful social networking, gift giving, strategy/ resource focus and virtual goods buying mechanisms into other gaming areas. And we’ll probably see more of this type of approach in non-gaming sites as well.

Many of the new MMOs of 2009 seem to have disappointed fans and pundits with their subscription numbers. Champions Online in particular has seemed like a flash in the pan from where I have been sitting. I’m still intrigued that so many people were happy to line up to pay for a lifetime subscription though, and I think that’s a trend worth noting.  Aion has been fairly successful but again, the pattern of excitement at launch followed by a few months of disillusionment (with the grind, on this one) is repeated. People will simply have to revise their expectations for how new MMOs behave at launch — they won’t actually revise their predictions though.

Free Realms is one that I was predicting to possibly take a slice of the WoW market. I liked the game when I tried it, but the non-existent social side failed to hook me in. SOE have struggled with their free to play model here, and shifted to an ‘all pay after level 5′ model which isn’t the same thing at all. I hope they see more success with the game in 2010 and find their audience because it was nicely executed.

Darkfall launched to a finely targeted hardcore PvP audience and has flourished, despite criticism. But this largely on the basis of catering to their core audience (not a bad idea for any business, really) rather than aiming to be something that they are not.

Fallen Earth surprised a lot of players with its focussed old style crafting and scavenging post apocalyptic playstyle.  Again, it’s a game that is focussed squarely at a core audience and aims to make those players happy.

Another trend (this is another gimme) will be the rise of gaming on smartphones. I don’t think the iPhone will take over the world, and it might be that cross-platform games will be the biggest success of 2010. It may come down to the social networking in the end and not wanting to be restricted to playing with people who use the same model of phone, rather than the better graphics you could get by tailoring to a single hardware platform. There will be some big game that uses location based technology and maybe even augmented reality — it may look better in demos than in practice but it will get vast amounts of press attention.

And the last trend I wanted to highlight was the snap sales we have seen on Steam and other online digital vendors. The sales have been very successful, and the unpredictable nature of them and the huge discounts has gotten a lot of player attention, even though there is now a good chance that you will feel like an idiot if you buy any game at full price only to see it at deep discount for one day only a couple of weeks later. I think we’ll see MMOs trying to experiment with a similar model, and maybe even occasional sales on 3 or 6 month subscriptions to keep interest up (in sub games at least).

WoW

Much of the remaining Icecrown Citadel content will be dazzling.  Players will love the cut scenes the first time they see them and will generally agree that the raid encounters are as fun as anything Blizzard ever designed — at the same time as complaining that they’re too accessible. The hard modes will have a better difficulty ramp than TotGC (ie. more people will get past the first boss) to give midcore guilds something to aim at.

The Oculus will be blown up in one of the pre-Cataclysm events.

A few months down the line, it will be generally agreed that the  dungeon finder is more successful in the EU and Taiwan than in the US. No one will dare to comment on why this might be, except to bitch that the rest of the world is cheating by having a less individualist culture.

Cataclysm will launch in Q3 2010. All the people who quit WoW in the first six months of the year due to boredom at having nothing to do with their pimped out characters will return to create new worgen. The updated Azeroth will be widely lauded but everyone will complain again as soon as they get to Outland. They will mess up the tuning again and return to the harder dungeon instances of TBC, which will be nerfed again after lots of complaints. But people will never be sure whether the dungeons actually were harder or whether players had just forgotten how to handle hard content.

People will get bored with the new expansion quickly. The guild changes will be successful but too late to save the shattered social fabric of the game. WoW players will continue to devastate other new games, but now they’ve also failed to learn standard dungeon etiquette (ie. stay till the end of the run, work with the rest of the group, play nice with loot, etc etc) in favour of hopping in and out whenever they want to and complaining if an instance takes longer than 10 minutes.

There will be at least one major unexpected announcement before Cataclysm that will throw the hype machine into overdrive. Possibly solo instances or something that involves more solo content. Hopefully also they’ll sneak in some extra ideas which won’t garner so much attention but will make seasoned gamers happy (like cosmetic clothing).

Then there will be the expected announcements about underwater zones, dance studios, and lots of pictures of female worgen.

LOTRO

There will be another expansion in 2010 but it still won’t be Rohan. Turbine will start playing around with more methods to help players catch up more quickly. The game will chug along happily and although they will make tuning mistakes, the players who like it will mostly be pleased with any new additions. Zombie Columbus will continue to delight with every new design he gets involved with.

Other new games

Star Wars won’t release before Cataclysm, even if it means delaying until 2011.

Star Trek Online will meet with more success than Champions Online. It’s hard to call this one without having seen the beta but I was intrigued by the demo that I saw, there’s plenty of interest in the IP, and I think many players would like a space combat MMO that isn’t EVE. The longevity of the game will depend on social factors rather than solo content.

Final Fantasy XIV will do very well, surprising the pundits who forget how many fans the Final Fantasy franchise has, and that FF gets a shot in the arm with the release of FFXIII towards the beginning of 2010. Their separation of crafting and fighting classes will make a lot of crafting fans happy. If they are able to release before Cataclysm, they will have a huge influx of bored WoW players looking for something to do before their world resets.

Torchlight will release an MMO (or at least a beta) before the end of the year. Everyone will exclaim that it is fun, and then move on to Cataclysm.

Guild Wars 2 won’t release in 2010.

Neither will Diablo III.

CCP will announce their Vampire MMO which will go into beta in 2010.

Mass Effect 2 will be amazing. Voice acting is the new black?

Blizzard will still not announce anything about their next MMO because they actually threw away the current design this year and are starting again from scratch.

Neither will Jumpgate Evolution (it makes me sad to write this because I was looking forwards to that game, but we really haven’t heard much about it.)

Although there will be a lot of talk about free to play models, there will be a better understanding of how and where that model works. WAR may try to convert from subscription to F2P, but it won’t help (again, makes me sad to write that). AAA developers will continue to push the payment model of subscriptions plus virtual goods plus anything else they can think of. However, extended trials will be more common, and maybe even WoW will offer the first 10 levels free as a Cataclysm enticement.

I think 2010 will be a better year for MMOs than the past one, we’re moving out of a recession for a start and lessons of the last year will also have been learned. The games I am mostly looking forwards to are the final fantasy ones, both single player and MMO. And if buzz from the STO beta is good, I’m also jonesing for a good space fighting game so I hope that one will fit. Because there isn’t much else in the pipeline.

Do you have any predictions? Anything you are particularly looking forwards to, gaming wise?

Torchlight: Imagine if Diablo had fishing

fullscreen

I mentioned Torchlight in dispatches last week, and the game was released yesterday to a flurry of excitement and acclaim.

If you liked Diablo, this game is going to feel like coming home. The devs (who include some of the Diablo II team) have captured perfectly the visceral feel of the old game. It even uses many of the same keybinds – alt to look for items on the floor, shift to stand and shoot, mouse clicks to move. Even down to the music, it’s obvious where the inspiration for Torchlight is coming from (the composer had also worked on Diablo).

But influences aside, from what I’ve seen so far it’s a darned good game. It’s fast paced, pretty, adds functionality that people would have LOVED if it had been in Diablo 2, has good voicework for a little game and I’m already pondering how I can keep this post short so that I can sneak in another half hour of play before heading off out today.

Torchlight is currently a single player  game with no multi-player features. The team are currently working on using it as the basis for a future F2P MMO.

If you are intrigued and want to try it, there is a demo available on Steam. The full game costs $20/£15 and there’s a free level editor included, so expect to see a lot of player generated content coming down the wires.

Some of the extra features:

  1. The pet. Roguelikes (the big influence for Diablo) come in two types, those with pets (nethack) and those without (angband). Torchlight lets you have a lynx or a dog. You can equip it with items, teach it spells, send it off to town to sell unwanted items, and feed it fish to give it a temporary shapeshift. You can change the pet’s stance to aggressive, defensive, or passive but other than that, it does its own thing and fights alongside you. I’m glad my RL cat can’t cast fireballs is all I’m saying.
  2. Fishing! While wandering the depths you may come across a fishing hole, and like any self respecting adventurer you naturally carry a fishing rod (10’ pole?) wherever you go, just in case. Fishing in this game is a simple minigame which is more fun than in any MMO I’ve ever fished. It’s hard to explain why, because you’re still sitting and waiting for your character to hook something and then clicking to pull the line at the right moment. I have some screenies below.
  3. Shared bank vault. You have two bank vaults, one for your character and one which is shared between all of your alts so you can save those awesome items for a future character.
  4. Diablo had a slightly awkward control mechanism where everything was controlled by mouse clicks and you swapped which abilities were accessed by the mouse via number keys. Torchlight is smoother, you do bind abilities to the left and right mouse button (attack seems a good one for the left click) but you can also bind abilities to number keys and use those alongside.
  5. TNT barrels. Everyone always liked destroying barrels, right? Well now you can take a few mobs out at the same time. This is particularly good fun with the Vanquisher who is a bow/gun user so can destroy the barrels from a safe distance.

(Edited to add: Because someone asked, it’s shift+F9 to take screenshots, and they are stored at C:\Documents and Settings\<username>\Application Data\runic games\torchlight\)

More on Fishing

fishing hole

First, find your fishing hole.

howtofish

When you click on the fishing hole, your character gets the fishing rod out and settles down to wait.

The fishing icon comes up and the two blue circles around it pulsate slowly. When they converge to make a single blue circle, you click on the hook icon….

caught one

There!

yayfish

And the fish is reeled in so that you can find out what you’ve caught.

Fish are placed directly into the fish slot in your bags, where you can mouse over to find the different buffs  your pet receives when  you feed it the fish.