Being rewarded for what you were going to do anyway (Rested xp in FF14, guild achievements in WoW).

Final Fantasy 14 is shaping up to be more innovative in many ways than many commenters were expecting.

The creators have said explicitly that their main audience is not current MMO hardcore players. Instead they’re aiming at players who like the Final Fantasy games and maybe haven’t gotten into MMOs before. So given that accessibility and similarity to previous single player games are at the top of the agenda, what have they come up with:

In the lastest FF installment, you can switch your character between any class between battles. The MMO will also feature this facility. Your main can level in any class available in the game (which includes some crafting classes as well as adventurers) and switch between them at any time.

Levelling becomes a weekly quest. Each week, you will be able to earn up to a certain amount of xp in each class and then the xp earned will tail down to zero.

Squenix attempt to explain this here:

Firstly, the concept for FINAL FANTASY XIV was to design a system of character progression that offers meaningful advancement for those with limited time to dedicate to playing. We did not want to create a game that forced people to play for hours on end to see their efforts rewarded.

Here is my simplified version:

Each week you can earn up to a threshold value of xp in each class. After this, the xp earned will tail to 0. However, the xp curve will slowly reset whenever you aren’t doing anything that would earn skill or experience points.

So you can max out your warrior xp, then do something non-xp related (not really sure what though – maybe exploring or RP) and your xp threshold will slowly reset.

As per the quote above, their goal with this system is to not force people to get all hardcore if they want to stay competitive. A nice side effect is that it tends to reward people who like to do lots of different things with their character anyway. So if you naturally would want to fight a bit, then craft a bit, then try healing for a bit, or go exploring for a bit – you will come out ahead here. You’ll be rewarded (or at least not penalised) for doing what you would have done anyway.

Compare this to current MMOs where if you want to keep up with your mates, you need to play at least as much as they do. Just think forwards to the release of Cataclysm – how many people will feel pressured to get to the level cap as fast as possible, taking as little time as they can to craft or explore or even read quest text on the way?

To me, this game just continues to sound better and better. I’m not going to cry for people whose ideal play style is to play non stop until they hit the level cap and are now complaining that the game is designed to stop that. This game is not for you. Some games are, this one is not.

So I think the general idea is good – although I’d wish that xp from one class only counted towards the threshold in that class. The devil is ivery much n the details here. Much depends on where they decide to set their thresholds and what sorts of activities are in game that don’t affect xp or skills. The other big issue here is how xp in groups and guildleves will work. If the game awards groups with more xp, then players will wear through their xp thresholds more quickly. If xp was turned off in instances, they would suddenly become useless for levelling.

In any case, the game is still in beta so they are liable to be tweaking many of these numbers.

The threshold values are being re-examined, and we plan to further adjust the different rates of earnable points based on feedback from our testers. <…> We also plan to improve experience point reduction rates, even more so than for skill points, considering the threshold is unaffected when changing class.

The main thing to take away is that if you were going to play in a way that never would have hit the thresholds anyway, you will only benefit from this mechanic. It’s an incentive to adopt that playstyle.

Grandfathering in Old Achievements in WoW

Blizzard this week did an about turn on previous thoughts about all guild achievements needing to be started from scratch in Cataclysm.

Apparently if you are in a raid guild which has acquired legendary items now, those will count towards an achievement in Cataclysm that is rewarded with a swanky guild mount.

I was noting in comments on Larisa’s blog that I find this devastatingly unfair. I speak as someone who worked on legendaries with a guild in Vanilla and is currently working on legendaries in a raid alliance right now. Neither of those previous efforts will count with anyone for anything because I am not in ‘the right sort of guild.’ The old 40 man guild split up (obviously) and the current raid set up won’t qualify for guild achievements.

I think it’s fine to record previous feats of strength if it is possible to do so. Meaningless achievements work fine for this. But those past achievements have already been rewarded in meaningful ways – otherwise we wouldn’t have done them at the time. It’s unnecessary to give some people an extra perk for doing what they would have done anyway, and unfair to only give it to people who happen to be in the right type of guild.

Maybe this is a deliberate tactic to encourage existing 25 man guilds to stay together and to use up the dog days of the expansion in scheduling endless runs to get old legendary items. And it is totally understandable that anyone who finds themselves in this situation would be pleased. But fair is one thing that it is not.

[E3 Best of the Rest]: WH40K, Black Prophecy, Jumpgate Evolution, Final Fantasy 14

Of the other upcoming MMOs showing at E3, these are the ones which caught my eye.

Final Fantasy 14

Why you want to play it:

  • It’s Final Fantasy. It will also be very pretty.
  • Squeenix have promised to build on their previous MMO experience with FF11. (This may or may not be a good thing depending on how you liked the previous game.)
  • They promise a very flexible job system, where it’s possible to change class within the game … or even create your own.
  • Intriguing Guild Leve system, which sounds as though it involves instanced quest areas, tailored to your group.
  • Will be possible to level as a crafter.

Why don’t you want to play it:

  • Is your PC a beast? If not, don’t apply. Squeenix have thoughtfully released an official benchmark program which will tell you just how much your setup fails. (I wish more MMO devs would do this actually, it’s nice to know if you can actually run a program before you buy.) There are plans to release the game on consoles also – still awaiting more information on this.
  • Story sounds incoherent.
  • It’s more of the same old fantasy MMO. Favourite FF races have been reskinned, there’s the obligatory tiny people, elves, catgirl race, etc. The costumes actually aren’t anywhere near as bad as most asian MMOs, so that’s something.

What’s the magic number?

  • 2010. Yup, they plan to release this year!

Where can I see more?

Now I like Final Fantasy and I’m intrigued to play this game, but since it looks as though my PC would struggle, it’s on the back burner for me. Having said that, I do appreciate the availability of the benchmark. Apparently they’re about to go into beta, and as I said above, they’re still talking about a 2010 release.

This is probably the largest of the MMOs to be released this year.

Jumpgate Evolution

Why you want to play it:

  • Space battles, dogfighting, all that cool stuff you can’t do in EVE because the autopilot does it instead.
  • 3-way PvP. Massive space combat focus – that’s what they’re aiming for.
  • Jumpgate. It’s also a sequel to an older MMO. Fans of the latter may be interested.

Why you don’t want to play it:

  • All PvP all of the time? We don’t yet know.
  • Too twitch-based for the typical MMO crowd?
  • Previous version has apparently been completely retooled. Whether this means good or bad things we’ve yet to see.

What’s the magic number?

  • 3. Fans of DaoC will remember that players raved about the PvP setup in the game, and in particular that there were three factions. This game also uses the three faction setup. Could it work again?

Where can I see more?

I’m interested in Jumpgate Evolution but it does sound as though the emphasis is increasingly on PvP. I still think a good space combat simulator with PvP territory control and fast, responsive gameplay should be able to find an audience (for example, all the fanboys who are currently agitating because SWTOR may not release with space combat). If they can pull this off I think they’ll do well. Good luck to them.

Black Prophecy

Black Prophecy is another space combat PvP style MMO. We don’t know a whole lot about this one although they did release some information about how players will be able to design and customise their own ships.

There is an E3 trailer but I’m not sure what state the demos are in. Black Prophecy is intended to be free to play (or at least, no subscription required) but obviously no final information about the pricing yet.

You can find the official website here.

Covers similar ground to Jumpgate, may the best game win.

Warhammer 40k

*sigh* One flashy trailer does not a game make.

However, THQ has a good track record and has made some popular RTS games based on the same IP. I’m not entirely sure how great a traditional MMO WH40k can really make –- it really is an exceedingly grim setting, plus of course all the trademark teenboy-friendly Games Workshop stylings (read: stupid armour, spikes, sexism, etc). But there’s plenty of scope for THQ to produce something genre-bending that could make a lot of fans very happy.

Here’s the Warhammer 40k Online fansite.

This is the official site, but not much on it yet.

Fallout Online

They don’t even have a trailer yet, just a website. You can however sign up for something, I don’t know what because the flash was loading very slowly and I couldn’t be bothered to wait and see.

I’m intrigued at the current popularity of post-apocalyptic games. But again, a Fallout MMO would make a lot of fans very happy.

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?

Redefining MMOs: Flexible Character Classes and the End of Niche Protection

Massively has laid down the gauntlet to bloggers to write about aspects of MMOs that are being redefined. And much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, character classes ain’t what they used to be.

Let’s go back to the pen and paper era. Dungeons and Dragons originally introduced character classes: some would be instantly recognisable to MMO players today and others wouldn’t quite fit. The D&D cleric was a healer but had a huge amount of utility spells too. The D&D warrior was a heavily armoured fighter but not really a tank as we’d understand it today. The D&D thief wasn’t really a dps class (although they could get in the odd lucky backstab) so much as a utility build.  Fans quickly developed rules for all sorts of weird and wonderful new character races, classes and subclasses. TSR themselves hefted in with druids and bards and assassins until there really was something for everyone. A lot of those classes had very specialised abilities, but it didn’t matter because a human GM was running the game and could balance encounters to make sure everyone felt useful. If the player party was lacking some vital role (ie. healer) then the GM could allow an NPC healer to go with them to help out.

Coding up the Classes

MUDs took some of the D&D classes and worked the mechanics around to get a playable game. Many utility spells were removed from casters because they needed a human GM to resolve their use (e.g. mind control or telepathy). The ones that stayed in were the ones that were easiest to code. MUD wizards often took a ‘more is better’ approach to classes and included more and more strange and wacky classes or races to attract new players to the game. Balance became an issue. MUD wizards wanted all of their classes to be popular and to be played so experimented with niche protection – some classes were given useful buffs, others had spells that were needed on different encounters.

And that’s where we move into MMOs. Earlier games like EQ and DaoC had a lot of classes, they were wildly fanciful, not well balanced, and there was really something for everyone. Many classes were given niche protection by being given essential raid or group buffs. Others were given the niche of off-healer or off-tank – these would later be considered as hybrids, their healing/ tanking wasn’t as strong as the main healer/ tank but in return they had better damage or buffs. Others were considered utility classes, with crowd control or several essential raid buffs. Putting a good PvP or raid group together was tricky, and a class could go from desired to undesired in the space of a single patch.

It was considered to be OK for a group friendly class (such as a main healer) to have pitiful soloing ability. It was a payoff for having such strong niche protection in groups. It was also considered fair by the player base for a PvP friendly class (such as a stealther) not to be in demand for PvE content.

Because there weren’t many MMO choices, and the levelling curve was so slow, people tended to stick with their main characters. Even with all the checks, balances, and niche protection, it would take a lot of time and effort to switch classes. It was considered quite radical when games actually allowed players to even respec, and it certainly wasn’t encouraged. (In DaoC, you had to go raid a dragon to be able to do this when it was first introduced.)

The era of ‘what if I want to actually play the whole game?’

More recent games set about reducing the number of niches to be protected, and addressing the (obvious) fact that people might want to both solo AND group, and they might want to play PvE AND PvP, and they might not want to go level up a new alt just to do it. In fact, with the amount of competition in the market right now, if a player picked a main class that didn’t work out, they might just leave the game and not come back.

WoW raised eyebrows by allowing unlimited respecs (at a cost), right off the bat. Guild Wars took this a step further by not only allowing but encouraging free and unlimited respecs between adventures; rejigging your character to face the challenge at hand became an important part of the game.

Later on, LOTRO would give their main tank and healer a solo friendly stance, boosting their soloing ability, but which they could turn off in groups for better tanking or healing. WAR let players configure their characters for different facets of the game without requiring them to change all their talents and skills. WoW’s dual specs take a sledgehammer approach and lets you save two very different specs and switch between them easily.

In any case, the trend is very clear. Players are being given options to respec or tailor their characters flexibly within game. Decisions made at the start are not set in stone. Champions Online doesn’t really have fixed classes, instead allowing players to build their own skillset. Free Realms lets them train up many different careers and switch as often as they like, Final Fantasy 14 is going to use a similar mechanic.

Whatever the game has in store, we expect our characters to be able to adjust and deal with it. And if we plan to play for several months or even years, our interests in game may change and we expect our characters to be able to adjust to that also. This gives designers more freedom in encounter planning also, you don’t have to require that every group has 17 different buffs and that each class has a specific role to play in every encounter.

But what will the fallout be of throwing away the niche protection? It served a useful role in making sure that people mixed with strangers and kept the game sociable. If you needed a minstrel for your DaoC group and none of your friends played that class, you’d be motivated to go play with new people. If one of your mates could just switch class to fill that role then yes, it’s easier to get the groups together, but what happens to the community?

We’ll find out in the next few years. Step lightly for here be dragons.