Gaming News: Roguelikes!, Kinect is a winner, should screenshots be exclusives?, LOTRO F2P is a winner too, pre-ordering gets complex, melee misery in Cataclysm raiding, Rift thoughts

I enjoyed writing a series of Gaming News posts on Sundays through the latter half of 2010, but did become very aware of how the gaming news cycles work and how non-news (like whatever random musings Michael Pachter pulls out of his hat) end up becoming headlines.

So I’m going to try to focus this year on stories that are actually news or have some interesting commentary that relates to current gaming news. Feel free to send me links during the week if you see anything you’d like to suggest! All contributions will be attributed.

Best Roguelikes 2010

Any fellow fans of Roguelike games out there? Andrew Doull posted the results of his Roguelike of the Year poll (981 people voted!)

Winner by quite a high amount, with a total 39% of the vote was ToME so if you are a fan of the genre and want to see what’s hot at the moment, go check it out. It’s F2P of course. No, wait, I mean it’s freeware, you can play for free and if you like the game and want to support it, you can donate.

Kinect ships over 8 million units, coming to PCs ‘soon’

According to Steve Ballmer (Microsoft’s CEO), they have shipped 8 million Kinect units so far. Winextra (the link above) do some figure checking and conclude that MSoft have actually sold 2.5 million units, the 8 million figure is the number that they have shipped to suppliers (figures for how many of those have sold are not actually in yet, they might all have done). In any case, this is an astounding figure for a controller which is still not very well supported with games and requires a large amount of room space to even set up.

I’m still hoping to see someone take a shot (sic) at making a Kinect based shooter, I think out of all the current genres that would benefit from being able to drop the controller, it’s sports/ dance games, FPS and ‘point and click’ adventure games that would benefit the most. But really the ball is in the developers’ court at the moment. There are probably some awesome things that could be done with it, as soon as people can imagine them.

And my gut feel is that the biggest Kinect application, in the end, will not actually be a game. Maybe it’ll just be people using it for controlling the TV, maybe Kinect Avatar will spark off a whole new slew of virtual world mania, but this way of interacting with technology is only going to grow and spread.

However, I still find it creepy to think that my computer might be watching me. It’s bad enough with the cat.

Exclusive Screenshots

One thing you will notice if you read professional gaming blogs/ sites is that there’s a strange cosy relationship that they sometimes have with developers. I’m not sure at what point money changes hands, but this is why you’ll see exclusive interviews, screenshots etc on sites that you normally would not touch with a bargepole (Ten Ton Hammer with your annoying popups, I’m looking at you).

The guys at Rock Paper Shotgun went head to head with this culture this week when they published exclusive screenshots from another site WITH ATTRIBUTION and got threatened with legal action for their pains.

Standard internet posting etiquette usually states that it’s ok to quote other sites as long as you link back to them. We normally consider this polite. But how does that fit in with the idea of exclusive screenshots? I think swiping exclusive screenies should probably be off limits but there is also a point at which you have to say ,”the internet just doesn’t work like that.”

John Walker at RPS commented, “”But really, the idiocy of publishers giving out adverts for their games like precious, secret jewels has got to end. It’s self-defeating, and it’s deeply tedious for the readers of every other site/mag in the world who want to know about a game they may want to play.”

It’s certainly tedious for readers to be directed all around the houses for information rather than just being able to pick it up from their favourite news feed. In fact, I’d rather be able to pick up my gaming news straight from the official site and my pet bug is developers (Mythic used to do this a LOT) who publish all their news as exclusives on random news sites rather than on their own.

LOTRO revenue triples since they went F2P

In an interview with Ten Ton Hammer (podcast interview, no transcript), LOTRO’s executive producer reports that revenues on the game have tripled since it went F2P.

That’s great news for Turbine, and it’s unlikely that we’ll see any figures from Codemasters to be able to compare the EU numbers (or see how much of an advantage Turbine had from launching their version several weeks in advance). So we can assume that they’ll continue to do whatever they are doing. More bizarrely marked horses for all!

Perhaps not such a great result for players who don’t particularly want to be spammed with inducements to check out the cash shop, especially if they are already paying by subscription.

Rage Quit Jane offers another analysis of F2P players, “Thanks Suckers” (for buying expensive shiny cosmetic stuff for real money and keeping the game going). The bloodsuckers she’s talking about are the new EQ2 race which is being sold at a premium to people who want one now, and will be offered free to subscribers in a couple of months time. Or maybe she’s just talking about SOE.

The complexity of pre-order offers

A couple of pre-order deals that made my radar this week are the slew of Rift pre-order special deals, and Dragon Age 2 announcing a DLC which is included free if you pre-order the signature edition – ie. only if you PRE-order, as opposed to last time where you got the DLC free if you bought a copy that wasn’t second hand.

Hawley ponders on this trend in more detail, nostalgic for a time when you could just go buy the damned game and not feel that you have to check every possible pre-order combo to make sure you got the best deal.

I think this is one of the downsides of F2P. Not everyone enjoys the process of shopping or having to waste brain cycles figuring out how to get the best deal on something commodity based like a game or book or film. Whilst it leaves a gap in the market for blogs or websites that can do the analysis for you, it isn’t really fun.

Obviously for studios it’s all about the bottom line, but I wonder if making a simple process (buy box and play/ log in and play) into one that involves complicated buying decisions is really a good thing.

Melee vs Ranged in Cataclysm, round 2, and 3

I mentioned a week or so back that I thought there was some imbalance between ranged and melee in Cataclysm instancing. Just to show I’m not imagining it, here are a couple more authoritative views, from raiders.

Paragon got the world first kill on some heroic raid boss last week (has anyone else totally lost interest in the world firsts?), and published a note together with the kill shot on their website.

Dropping out melee characters in favor of ranged ones has been a recurring theme throughout this whole raiding tier, but we hope that it’s over now with only the end bosses and Sinestra left. Here’s to hoping next tier of raiding won’t favor ranged by design. Maybe even go wild and give some incentive to bring in melee, too.

(Incidentally, it’s a sign of how mature a guild Paragon are that they decided to use the publicity which they knew they’d get from a world first kill to highlight imbalances they saw in the game.)

Karuki at World of Ming also writes a very well written, heartfelt post about the woes of playing a melee class (Death Knight in this case) in Cataclysm heroics and raids.

My experience is with heroics at the moment. And I’m getting pretty good now at staying alive *flexes at heroic Stonecore* but the cost is spending more time out of melee range and being more cautious of the mobs. Which is fine, but won’t make the numbers look good.

Also an ex-guildie of mine, who is one of the finest melee dps players I know, isn’t pleased with how dps warriors are working out at the moment. So that’s something to look forwards to.

Reactions to Rift

Out of all the reactions I’ve read about Rift and the Rift beta/s, these two caught my eye. Caveat: I think it’s a very fun game.

Abalieno @ The Cesspit sees connections between Rift and Warhammer Online, in terms of the game engine, the programmers, and other themes, and doesn’t think Rift compares well.

Wolfshead writes about how he thinks combat in Rift could be improved. I don’t think there’s even a remote chance that they’ll redo the combat system at this stage in beta, and it’s not broken in any case. But I really enjoyed his analysis of how combat is the main way we communicate with the game world in MMOs these days.

And one of the reasons I stick with WoW and keep coming back to it is that underneath everything, Blizzard made the basic combat experience very snappy and fun. PvD is wondering though whether some of the WoW classes/ specs are edging a little close to each other in play style these days.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a quest

There was a time a few years back in which it felt as though everything in MMOs was a quest. Quests were the new hotness, back in an era where one of WoW’s major selling points on release was that you could level purely by questing.

The standard way to show players what they were expected to do in game was to have some NPC offer a quest. Quests were used for telling stories, as tutorials, filler quests, quests to make you explore the zone, hidden quests that rewarded you for exploring further afield, quests for sending you off to the next zone, quests for PvP, quests for raid bosses (occasionally). Then add in daily quests for xp/cash, daily instances, weekly battleground bonuses, quests to get you to use vehicles – quests were used to direct players towards all of these things. And of course, every time a quest is set up, there needs to be a reward attached.

Of course, not every game is WoW. LOTRO (for example) always had a clear set of grinding goals/ titles alongside the regular quests. There were titles and perks for exploring areas, using a class skill a set number of times, killing large amounts of various different mobs in different zones, and so on. EQ2 had its alternate advancement system. But even with all these extra possible goals, players still tend to rely on quests to show them where to go next and if they happen to miss the correct breadcrumb quest (maybe through just doing things in an unexpected order or being in the wrong zone) then they’re stuffed.

But these different sets of goals also made the games more complex and confusing for new players. Unless of course there were quests to introduce them (if nothing else, quests force players to go through set actions in a certain order which can make for a good UI tutorial.)  And – this is key – most games do not regularly adjust any such introduction quests to be accessible for newbies. There’s no quest in WoW to introduce newbies to the idea of glyphs, for example. There’s no quest to let newbies know which parts of TBC they can skip (isle of Quel’Danas, for example).

In A Tale in the Desert, you pretty much have to have a window open on the wiki while you play. In that game, nudging players to collaborate on huge problem solving tasks is a key part of the design and you are directed towards the wiki from inside the game. However, it’s very much a sandbox game (literally!) and although there are general goals for the player base, the more experienced players tend to leap on them quickly and instruct everyone else in what to do next for region progression. (So you might get your goals from other players as much as from the actual game.)

Another example is EVE. New players often complain of difficulty in setting goals because the game is so open ended and has so many possibilities. It’s easy to feel lost just because you don’t have a good idea about what your options and possibilities are when you begin.  Another way of putting this is that a new player would be at a significant disadvantage to an experienced one who was starting a new alt, because the experienced player would know the ins and outs of the game so well. They wouldn’t just know what they wanted to do, they’d also know what they needed to do to get there. One of the ways in which a player learns what they COULD do is by looking at what others are doing, which is actually quite tricky in EVE unless you read forums and blogs … or have joined a corps and have some experience with the game.

Encouraging players to ask each other for help is the traditional old school MMO way of managing this complexity. This often involved a lot of offline work with reading forums, bboards, and player written tutorials (large amounts of up to date information are not easy to transfer over a MMO in game interface.) But a lot of players don’t want to interact that much with others, and/ or they don’t want to make a commitment to a guild so they might not mix with the more experienced players who could answer those questions.

So quests do serve a really useful function. They’re great for directing players around in a way which doesn’t require them to talk to other players. They are potentially great tutorial devices, if players actually read the text. They also provide for a very specific and CRPG-friendly form of storytelling (if you break down your story into a series of steps).

We are seeing some innovations in questing at the moment (public quests, quests presented when you enter an area or pick up an item rather than always talking to the guy with the Q, better use of cut scenes and phasing and non-wall-of-text based storytelling) and also I don’t think that questing is still the “one size fits all” game mechanic of old.

  • Achievements and Titles in WoW have taken some of the pressure off raid and instance questlines. Players know that there will be an achievement for completing every instance – they also can look at the achievement list to find out a set of possible goals rather than needing a separate quest for each individual achievement.
  • Guild advancement is another type of non-quest based goal.
  • Increased use of social networking mechanics and shared scoreboards is another way to provide goals to players in MMOs.

None of these things are new, but to me the innovation is finding ways to introduce these things to new players in a way that isn’t complex, obscured and confusing. The innovation is in the UI.

When you complete an achievement in WoW, it zaps up on your screen with a zing and is also shared with both your guild and with anyone close by (as well as the Armoury). You know that someone has done /something/ and if you click the achievement on screen you will find out precisely what. Think of it as just another form of gold exclamation mark …

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.


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.

Another route to hard modes

Lots of single player computer games have options that the player can select to control difficulty. You start up and get the Easy/Medium/Hard options, so you pick Easy, right? After all, you want to at least finish the game now you’ve bought it. Or at least get a feel for how easy their Easy mode is before you ask them to ramp up whatever tweaks they do to make things harder.

Or maybe that’s just me. If  a game offers an Easy mode, I’ll pick that while I’m learning it. But then again, I don’t like every game enough to want to replay it so maybe that’s the only mode I’ll ever try. The only hard mode I did quite like was in the Civilisation games – I don’t particularly score well at it (I claim that this is because Civilisation is biased towards world domination and against winning through better SCIENCE!) but I like that picking a harder mode unlocks extra options and complexity for the player,

So if harder modes offer a richer game, or at least a slightly different one, then I’m personally more likely to try them.

So what is a hard mode, really?

Usually it means a tweak to internal parameters so that the game becomes more testing of whatever twitch-fest they’re focussing on. More enemies. Faster enemies. Tougher enemies. Sometimes they make your character weaker – less survival options. Or add more environmental variables.

It should lead to a more exciting game experience when you can’t just idly wander through the fields of mobs randomly letting off your AE nuke of choice without any fear for your toon’s safety. Or in fact without having to really think while playing the game.

If you look at a game like Plants vs Zombies, you can see how instead of setting a difficulty at the start, they increase difficulty with each level. This is the other way to set difficulties and it’s the one I prefer. Let the player start with the easiest mode, and then add more elements, tweak settings slightly for the next level, increase complexity slightly. And keep going until players either finish the game or find the difficulty level they’re comfortable with – hopefully by the time they reach either of these points they feel they have had their money’s worth and are ready to buy your next game.

But that’s not so great for a multi-player setting where players may be of different skills, experiences with this type of game, or even seeking different goals. The player looking for a relaxing casual social experience probably doesn’t want to play ultra-hard mode, and it isn’t because they’re some kind of slacker. It’s just because they aren’t looking for a testing experience. Hard isn’t always the same as fun.

All you can do with groups is to offer the different difficulties and let players decide among their own groups how they want to organise themselves and make that decision. You probably don’t want to force them all to start at the easiest level and gradually pick up more and more difficulty because they may not all be at the same level to start with.

In practice, MMOs tend to have their easy modes at level 1. And as you level up, gain more abilities, and probably try out the group content, then things get harder. A game like WoW introduces a lot of the elements you’ll later find in raids in their 5-man instances. This is why it matters if 5-mans are too easy, if they are, people won’t learn the things they need to learn. And MMOs have not been good traditionally at ramping up the solo difficulty, which is another valid criticism. It has tended to be groups only.

Designing the Hard Mode Encounter

In a Diablo/CoH style hard mode encounter they generally just increase the numbers of mobs, increase their damage, and increase their toughness. And sometimes that’s enough. It certainly can be enough to step up the pace and excitement without requiring people to radically change their playing style.

In a WoW-type hard mode encounter, the encounter is intended to more severely test part of the raid. So you get some hard modes that are just harder dps checks with a little extra survivability movement thrown in. You get some that add a lot of extra complexity – more movement required, more adds to handle, more elements for everyone to think about. You get some where the nature of the encounter changes dramatically.

I’ve heard some complaints with hard modes (and I know I’ve seen few myself – we had a pop  at Freya+1 last night and that was fun), but I figure they can’t all be winners. As long as most encounters are more fun and challenging for the hardcore raid groups in hard mode then the hard modes are doing their job and entertaining people.

So what is the best way to have difficulty settings for soloers?

One of my guildies hooked me on Hattrick a few months ago. It’s a web-based football manager game, and not one of those games that will take over your life. Once it’s all set up you can log in once or twice a week to set your team formations for next week’s games and check how things have been going.

(It is amusing to me that I’m not big on football but I love football manager games.)

And there’s one game element in Hattrick that I think is very smart indeed. Alongside your regular team, you can also coach youth players. This means that you will sometimes be able to promote a good youth player to your A-team and it will be much much cheaper than buying a player via the transfer market, also there’s a chance that you’ll raise a brilliant player who is much better than anyone you could have afforded to buy.

The game offers two different ways of managing the youth team. There’s the hands-off method where you just pay a certain amount per week towards upkeep of the youth team. Once you have set that up, it happens passively and you get the chance to promote a youth player once a week. Most of the players you get this way are pretty poor, but there’s always that chance that you could find a winner. (I think my current goalie was a youth promotion I got from using this method.)

Then there’s the more complex hands-on method where you can actually choose to run your own youth academy. If you do this, then you get to send scouts out to find new youth players, set up games for your youth team the same way you do for your main team, decide how you want to train them and listen to the trainers reports on how they are doing. And you decide when or if you want to promote a player to the main team or if you’d rather keep training them with the youth for longer (the youth academy generally has better training options).

So effectively, this game  has a solo ‘hard mode’. If you want the extra complexity, you can choose that. And it gives you much more control over the outcome of the youth team. If you don’t want to be bothered, then you pick the easier setup and although you won’t get as consistent results, you still are in with a chance of promoting a really good player.

I could imagine something like this for crafting in MMOs. People who hate crafting can just not do it. People who like to craft as a casual side-game could pick some non-complex crafting mechanism where you just hit a single button, and there’s more randomness involved in what you get. And people who love crafting and want to spend the extra time on it could pick a more complex crafting mechanic. It would take longer and require more thought but would give them more control over the whole process.

The complexity, it burns! Do you use gear lists?

We know that players love collecting gear because devs tell us so. It isn’t just so that we can customise how our characters look, but  so that we can tweak their stats as well. Even City of Heroes which always shunned the gear upgrade option has  stat-items that you can slot in to improve your skills.

So it’s a very common in-game decision point to pick up a new piece of gear and ask ‘Is this better than what I have now?’

In fact, it’s one of the classic MMO questions. Games are designed so that you have to ask this a lot (i.e. every time you get a drop, there is a decision making process). This is in the same way that the classic player question in a RPG is ‘what do I see?’ Or the classic GM question is ‘what do you want to do next?’

So how do you go about answering that question?

  • Maybe check how the gear looks if the game gives a preview option.
  • Maybe you have a rough idea which stats are best for your class so you can quickly compare.
  • Maybe you ask a friend (or your guild).
  • Maybe you did your homework in advance and already have a shopping list of items you want.
  • Maybe you have an addon which helps crunch the numbers.
  • Maybe you look it up on a website where someone else has calculated long lists of ‘best in slot’ gear.

If you find yourself drifting towards the lower half of that list, it means you needed to do some work outside the game to make that in-game decision. I personally think that gear is more fun when I feel competent to make a snap choice rather than go in with a shopping list approach. But I know for some collector types, they like to tick things off on lists.

In some ways, gear sets (ie. tier sets or matching sets) provide a game-generated shopping list. They don’t even need to be great in their own right to hit the ‘gotta have them all’ collector instinct. But in general, designers like to leave the gear complexity as a toy for players to play with.

But the one thing you do know is that to keep the decision making interesting, there need to be some bad options. Some poorly itemised gear. Some drops which are absolutely worse than what you currently are using. And if you grab one of those and sell your old gear, you’ll never get it back. It’s not necessarily a critically bad decision, there will always be more gear in future, but it may be an irrevocable one.

The complexity curve

Back in my pen and paper days, I did some writing for GURPS. It’s a universal RPG system that covers just about every genre imaginable with a variety of rules and background supplements. And they had one rulebook which was an odd outlier in rule complexity. GURPS Vehicles gave really complex rules for generating just about any type of vehicle you needed in a game – it had lots of physics based rules to make sure that you didn’t generate anything wildly implausible (for some value of wildly implausible). You really needed a spreadsheet to work it properly.

And we always expressed surprise that they were still selling it. None of the other rulebooks came close in complexity. It was just a strange case. But in fact, at the time, that rulebook was one of their strongest and most consistent sellers. There was a core of players who adored the complexity and were happy to sit around creating vehicles, whether or not they actually played the rest of the game. Some of them posted up their designs for other people to use or took requests from other games. They liked it as its own minigame.

So you get this odd complexity curve where things become more and more complex and then … people decide it’s too much hassle and go look it up instead, and only hardcore complexity fiends do the number crunching.

I know that I’ve been using gear lists for awhile in WoW. We don’t receive that many drops and I need to spend my hard-earned DKP to win one so I just want to get the best value that I can. And not feel like a lemon for missing a great item because I didn’t get how the stats worked.

But I feel lazy when I use gear lists. It’s taken the decision making part of the game away from me. Sure, I could do it myself but I’m not up for making complex spreadsheets (especially when I know that other people have done them better – see: landsoul’s dps warrior spreadsheet for example). I wanted to play an MMO, not a spreadsheet. Is that really so unreasonable?

Gear is fun. Upgrades are fun. But crazy complexity is only fun for a small minority. Do you use external addons or gear lists to help decide if a new item is better or worse than what you already have?

Everquest 2: Dragons vs Fae

This week, Arbitrary and I were determined to get our dragon ladies to level 20. I’m not sure if level 20 means anything really significant in EQ2 but when we first created the characters, we were given a quest that gave out a title if you made 20 within a limited amount of time. So it seemed like a good waypoint.

In practice, with the various levelling bonuses and recruit-a-friend bonuses, the actual levelling side was very quick and easy. And since we’d paused at around level 18 last week (OK, maybe we did sneak an extra session in over the weekend) we knew it wasn’t going to be overly traumatic to pick up the last two levels.

Gorowyn: City of Falling off Ledges

Gorowyn is the Sarnak city, and we’d wound up near one of the entrances so it seemed a shame not to go and explore. It is built inside a huge cave with different tiers of the city on ledges. You get around using lifts and pulleys and moving gondola-type things.

It wasn’t really a very convincing city. Seemed more like one of each sort of ‘necessary’ NPC (ie. class trainers, profession trainers, vendors, quest people, guards) laid out in standard pattern. And a pub, which I liked. I just think it lacks any sense that NPCs actually live there, and I wasn’t picking up much of a racial flavour to it either.

One thing we did like was that when you talk to the guards, you can ask directions to people by name. So if you are looking for a quest NPC, you can type in their name and the guard will illuminate a glowy trail leading you towards them.

There was also a certain amount of falling off ledges. I’ll come back to this as it seems to be a theme in EQ2 cities.

How are the dragons shaping up?

After our brief encounter with dragon civilisation, we decided to go on to the next quest hub and do what we do best – mass genocide.

Now when we created these characters, we picked them because we thought they looked cool. We noted that Sarnak were listed as evil (races in EQ2 are divided into good races, evil races, and neutral ones) but in the starting area we hadn’t seen much evidence of this. Sure, we were wandering around and decimating the local ecology but that’s just what characters do in these games, right? I hadn’t seen anything that tipped the Sarnak onto the evil side of the scale.

I think our genocide expeditions, where we were sent out to exterminate the opposing race via slaughter, biological warfare, and starving them to death kind of righted the balance on that one. I was almost disappointed when one of the NPCs stopped us and told us to go back to the city for more orders but it turned out to be OK. We were just being asked to halt the genocide because our dragon lords had decided these bird guys might (just might) be more useful alive.

I do like the writing so far. The quest NPCs don’t come across as being stupid, and don’t treat you as if you were stupid. It’s all very businesslike.

This particular quest hub was much more old school than the previous one. You know the setup where there’s a load of mobs out in the field, and a quest hub. And you get sent out to the same place on five different occasions, each time going a little bit further into the mob area, until finally you get to kill a named mob and they let you move somewhere more interesting?

It was that.

So at level 20, I’m quite liking the Fury. I’m not loving it, but there’s an element of ‘been there, seen that’ involved. Also, it’s a bit off-putting that anytime anyone asks in trade chat what classes are good, everyone tells them to play a Fury.  I’m also figuring out roughly how the buffs work – I think buffing characters have a concentration stat that controls how many buffs you can have active at any time. Some of the buffs are more like auras (ie. you put them up, they stay up until you cancel them, and they affect your whole group), others are timed buffs that need to be recast. There’s a runspeed group buff which has been a particular favourite.

I also get my first shapeshift at level 20. I can turn into a lioness. Rar! It’s a form with some melee combat bonuses (hadn’t thought the Fury was a melee class but what do I know) and more amusingly you can also cast spells in lion form and it has a silly cast animation.

I was amused that on one occasion, Arb ran in somewhere and pulled a ton of mobs by accident (or so she claimed!), I was healing, it was all a bit chaotic. When it calmed down we looked around and noticed that we were still alive and the mobs weren’t.

And I was like, “I don’t think my heals are all that good.” *facepalm* They’re fine, evidently.

She’s not all that thrilled with the Shadowknight, and part of that is not really grooving on the look of the class. At level 20, I look way better in my leathers than she does in her plate, and that’s not really inspiring. It may be that high level plate looks better but it’s hard to say from where we are now.

Checking out other classes

So the dragon duo was working well, we’d seen the dragon city and killed lots of stuff. But somehow we didn’t really love the characters. It seemed a good time to explore alternatives. EQ2 has tons of classes, and it was easy to make a list of other options that we both thought were interesting. Then we had to figure out which combination could end up with the same faction and starting area.

I am very impressed with at least one aspect of the class design. It feels as though you can get a good sense for how a class plays from very early on. I’m not sure if it’s an accurate sense but from scanning forums and talking to people, I think it could be. So the Fury is a healer/nuker with lots of buffs who relies heavily on DoTs/HoTs. The Shadowknight is a solid AE tank with some magical effects and buffs thrown in.

The next combination we decided to try out was Monk (unarmed fighter, it is tankish in nature but not really, if that makes sense) and Dirge (rogue type support class with lots of buffs). Both these classes are further in concept from types we have played before, which is part of the appeal I think.

Arb is still keen to try tanking, but hated the look of the plate armour. So the Monk, with its cool animations and ability names seemed like a good fit. I was bored of casting and wanted to hit stuff – didn’t really fancy the Warden so I picked on one of the other melee support classes.

The Dirge does remind me a bit of my burglar in LOTRO although I think I prefer the Dirge so far. You get to move around a lot in combat, and there are positional attacks and various stuns and debuffs that are set off by your melee moves. In addition, it has a ton of useful buffs. So more of a buffing than a debuffing class I think. Not sure how much of a problem it will be to not have a healer but there’s only two of us and not a full group, and the Dirge’s melee-oriented buffs might work out well.

We ended up picking Fae for our race which meant we got to check out the Fae starting area. I think Fae as a race may be a bit thick. They name their local landmarks things like ‘Drippy Cave’ and ‘Orc Hill’ and the NPCs act like idiots. I suspect the writers were going for a childlike gleeful view on life. We rolled our eyes and got on with it.

The best thing about playing Fae is the wings, which look awesome and also mean that when you (inevitably) fall off ledges, you actually glide gently to the ground instead of crashing down like a brick.

We did notice that this duo was more fragile than the tank/healer combo, but that just meant that we had to be more careful with the pulls. Drippy Cave (I can’t believe I walked into a place called Drippy Cave) was a trial by fire. We picked ourselves up and went back there about three times before perseverance and ‘not acting like bloodcrazed lunatics’ won out and we finally cleared our quests there.

I’m finding the area much more charming than the dragon starting area. I’m sure this is intentional but the introduction to the Fae city is also simply more engaging than the dragon equivalent.

So what’s next?

I think the aim now will be to get the Fae alts to 20 also and then decide which we feel like playing. The nice thing about playing as a duo is that we don’t feel any pressure to hurry to endgame so it doesn’t really matter if we futz around at low levels and try to work out what we want to play.

I still haven’t had much of a chance to look at tradeskills or the EQ2 cardgame, both of which I’m curious to try.

One thing I do feel about the game is that they throw a lot of complexity at you deliberately. There are mechanics which are simply more awkward than they need to be. The skill system is one of them. As I understand it, you get to learn two versions of every spell – and they’re both on the same cooldown. You can upgrade them separately so every time you either go up a  level or upgrade a spell, you’re supposed to check your spellbook to make sure you have the current best version of everything on your hotbar. But I could be entirely wrong, there’s just a lot going on that I don’t really comprehend.

I’m thinking that they’re aiming at players who love the idea of being thrown into an incomprehensible world and trying to figure it out. And I say this with no irony intended. It is quite an engrossing experience and a lot of players adore the challenge of complexity.

It just feels very … old school sometimes.