Cataclysm: Peacebloom v Ghouls

singingsunflower

Anyone who was paying attention to the latest list of Cataclysm achievements will have noticed a couple for surviving waves of “Peacebloom v Ghouls.” And if, like me, you love Popcap games you were probably dancing around at that point, because it could only mean one thing: Plants v Zombies comes to Warcraft.

And as an example of why Blizzard is always so feted for their polish, not only have they implemented a version as a minigame, but one of the rewards is a singing sunflower pet. And it will be voiced by Laura Shighara, who is the composer for the original PvZ score and song.

Here is a video of the WoW minigame in action, with some voiceover explaining what is going on.

Does anyone else wonder how this fits into the new ‘no advertising on MMOs’ scheme at Activision? Sure, it’ll be great fun but I’d be astounded if it doesn’t also sell a lot of PvZ (which is an awesome game, incidentally).

Minigames in MMOs

Lots of MMOs feature mini games of some sort. You could even argue that combat is a type of minigame, as is playing with the economy. But it’s the instanced style of minigame that has the possibility to be so anti-immersive. Not only does it take you out of the main virtual world, but into another one with completely different rules.

And the sad thing is that the parts of MMOs which probably should be minigames (crafting!) usually aren’t.

Anyhow, if you love the sound of Peacebloom v Ghouls and are curious about other games which offer a lot of slickly executed minigames to try while wandering around the world, hie thee to Free Realms. It’s a very neat game and has lots and lots of cool minigames (including tower defence, bejewelled-style match-3 games, and cart racing) to try out as you explore.

SOEs latest Clone Wars Adventures is also chock full of minigames, although without the virtual world to wander as well. (This game is more like a minigame arcade.)

You might also want to check out Wizard 101, in which combat works far more like a card based minigame than a typical MMO and which also has an arcade of rather addictive minigames to help you regen mana.

Feel free to recommend any games in comments and I’ll add them to the list.

Gaming News: Layoffs at SOE, PC Zone kicks the bucket, Tale in the Desert’s new telling, Is Bobby Kotick a gamer?, Free Realms lifetime bargain

This week there has been a lot of debate on monetization of computer games. This has been an ongoing issue – how do people want to pay for games which they play over a long period of time (aside from ‘not at all, please’). And surely a game which provides 100 hours of play should be worth more than one where the player gets bored after an hour and never tries it again, shouldn’t it?

This week’s debate was kicked off again by analyst Michael Pachter. In any case, it’s clear that if you are in the business of selling expensive AAA certain best sellers with online multiplayer support that you fully expect players to keep playing for several hours a week for the next few months … then you’ll want to look at getting more money out of the punters via subscriptions and cash shops. Also you don’t want to take too many risks with your games – this is the current Activision model.

If you are in the business of selling a wider range of games and you hope that players will buy lots of them before they find one that they want to put more time into, then massive variety in the games on offer and lots of choices about demos, freemium, try before you buy, and optional DLC are the way to go. EA is heading this way.

There will be blood. The only certain outcome is that we will all end up paying more for online gaming. And that Blizzard will try to keep battle.net free for as long as they can since they’ve said repeatedly that they want to do that. Good luck there then.

Sony News: Layoffs, Free Realm cheap subs, security issues

SOE this week announced that they were laying off 4% of their staff (35 employees). Massively have done some digging and noted that this mostly affects EQ2 and Vanguard staff. I’ll call it now and say that there’s no way that SOE are working on Everquest 3. Feel free to mock me if I am proved wrong later.

This week, they also announced a good temporary deal on lifetime subscriptions to Free Realms. The Ancient Gaming Noob wonders whether SOE are in need of a quick burst of funds, which may be the case. But I suspect that actually people who have paid a ‘lifetime sub’ (which in this case comes down to the same price as a boxed game) are more likely to keep dropping in and playing the game occasionally, which also means more likely to spend money in the cash shop.

Also, I bet a lot of people who tried Free Realms and liked it but weren’t really drawn in enough to keep playing will pay the cheap lifetime cost, just to ‘keep the option open in future since the price is so good right now’.

Or in other words, I think this will draw in a lot of people who otherwise had no intention at all of paying for subscriptions. SOE is assuming this outweighs the income they get from people who actually did pay for subs, which I am guessing isn’t many. It’ll be interesting to see how this all works out. And also bear in mind they’re launching a new FR style star wars game this autumn so they’ll be hoping that some current active FR players will be spending cash in that too.

And the final SOE news this week is that they’ve had a security alert for EQ2/ station accounts. That is not good.

Layoffs at Rockstar

More layoffs in the game industry were in the news this week. Rockstar has apparently laid off 40 of the Red Dead Redemption team, proving again that making a best selling award winnning game is no guarantee of industry job security.

I think they also the win “worst use of management speak” award for this year so far for:

As Rockstar San Diego transitions from the launch of Red Dead Redemption onto future projects, we are realigning our resources in order to continue to develop games as effectively as possible.

PC Zone, end of an era

I always hated PC Zone so I don’t care if it died, but for those who do care, a 17 year old UK gaming magazine closed its doors this month.

PC Gamer has far far better coverage of the sorts of games I actually like (MMOs, adventure games, puzzle games, DS games etc) which is why I actually buy it occasionally. I hope that PC Zone’s demise is an indicator that the core audience is not what it used to be.

Activision wonders if hardcore gamers love them enough

Several stories this week about Activision:

  1. Activision Publishing’s CEO says that they need to fix their hardcore reputation. By which he means that they want hardcore gamers to love them. They have possibly realised that this is not currently the case although it will not in any way stop people from buying their games.
  2. Tim Schafer, respected game developer, has some choice words about Bobby Kotick and calls him a total dick who doesn’t like games.
  3. Item 1 above may explain why Activision actually responded to Tim Schafer’s comments. Their spokeswoman points out that Tim has never actually met Kotick and claims, “Bobby has always been passionate about games and loves the videogame industry.” Notably, she doesn’t try to claim that he isn’t a total dick.

Apparently Starcraft 2 cost $100m to make. But we don’t know how much of that Blizzard spent on painting the logo all over airliners. In any case, the game is released on 27th July, at which point they’ll start making all that money back. The sheer sums involved are now comparable to blockbuster movie development. That’s where the industry is.

A new tale in the desert telling to start soon

Tale in the Desert, the indie darling social/crafting MMO starts a new telling soon. (A telling is basically a reboot of the game, so if you are curious to get in on the ground floor, that’s the time to do it.)

I plan to write more on TitD soon. I did play it for a few months during Telling 3 and it’s  an absolutely fascinating game. It is also not one without its problems – the big problem in social games being the other players.

Gaming News: Landmarks for Wizard 101 and Free Realms, Rumour Control (SWTOR beta, DCUO pricing, APB adverts), CoH expansion dated, Blizzard writing contest

If you have somehow escaped knowing this, Steam have a really good sale on at the moment. Also, we’re about to lose at football again. Is that really news?

Numbers are up for Free Realms and Wizard 101

Good news everyone! Kid friendly non-subscription MMOs have posted some great numbers this week. Wizard 101 registered its 10 millionth player this week, with Free Realms claiming it’s jaw-droppingly 12th million signup.

Obviously the majority of these players are not actually paying to play, and many of them probably registered, checked out the game, and never came back. But props to both studios for getting the word out. Millions of players found out about those games  somehow – probably not through the gaming press — and came to check them out. That is not a small accomplishment.

If you want to join the party, you can get to Wizard 101 here, and Free Realms here. They’re both solid, kid oriented games.

Assorted Rumors, we’ve got them here!

The beta test for Star Wars: The Old Republic is widely rumoured to have started this weekend. Apparently 100-200 people received invitations to a game testing program, and SWTOR community managers have clarified what is and isn’t covered by their NDA (a fairly good sign that there’s something going on.)

Anyone care to bet that Blizzard will end up releasing Diablo 3 in the same month that SWTOR goes live? Anyone?

Sony confirmed this week that they’re going with an old fashioned subscription pricing setup for DC Universe Online. Or should I say, “old fashioned subscription model but probably with a cash shop anyway”? It’s interesting that they decided not to distinguish their game from CoH and Champions Online by going with a different pricing model. Clearly they’ve looked at their various portfolio of games and run the numbers, and think that they’re playing to a more hardcore audience here.

APB continues to flirt with controversy by deciding to play audio ads to players – even paying players. I don’t personally feel that one advert every three hours or so is something to get worked up about, is this even the sort of game that people play for three hours straight? Still, it takes double dipping to a new level if you look at income sources. Players pay for hours, plus there’s a cash shop, plus income from advertising.

I don’t imagine there’s all that much cash YET in in-game advertising, but I’ll be interested to see if it catches on.

Turbine is rumoured to be working on a new console MMO, with the assistance of Twisted Pixel. Scott@Pumping Irony guesses that this might be a Harry Potter game, given that Turbine is now owned by Warner Brothers who own that licence. I think I’d go with that as my guess also.

On a more local level, politicians had been talking excitedly here about the possibility of some kind of tax break for gaming companies. This went out of the window in the recent ‘austerity’ budget. But was there undue influence from outside companies lobbying against this? Did ‘one of the biggest gaming companies in the world’ really sabotage the tax break? The local gaming industry body says no, government made that decision all on their own. I’m inclined to believe them, this wasn’t a budget in which there was ever going to be much support for tax breaks.

And finally, is Linden Labs (the developer of Second Life) in trouble? They’ve just sacked their CEO and earlier this year they made 30% of the staff redundant. There is no good spin for that sort of story. They’re going down.

Going Rogue goes live in August

NCSoft announced that 17th August is the date for City of Heroes players to pencil into their diaries.  Going Rogue always sounded to be an interesting expansion, promising moral choices for players and the possibility for heroes to become villains or vice versa. I’ll be curious to hear more about it (probably from my husband since he’s a huge fan :) ).

I think they’ve done well to pick a date which is in the traditional MMO doldrums, before the rush of new games in the Autumn and Winter months. Maybe players who are bored with their other games will be lured into picking up an old fan favourite to see what they have to offer.

Anyone thinking of trying this?

Blizzard seeks fanfic writers

Last year’s contest was evidently popular because Blizzard is again running a fanfic competition. If you have any stories to tell that are set in the gameworlds of Diablo, Starcraft, or Warcraft, this could be your chance to shine.

These are last year’s winners if anyone wants to gauge the possible standard of entries. I rather enjoyed the winner (bit too elfy is my only criticism.)

Gaming News: First PS3 MMO?, Cataclysm Alpha, Lucasarts Execs resign, and Games Workshop sue Fan Site

The local news of course is that our election on Thursday produced a hung parliament. I was practically in the news myself when our demo for electoral reform made the front pages. I still think, “What do we want? Electoral reform. When do we want it? Now!” is not very catchy.

Free Realms for the PS3

Free Realms, Sony’s kid friendly MMO, will be demoed on the PS3 at next month’s E3 convention. It’s a fun, colourful game with plenty to do and see and also does not rely heavily on in game communication, so that might just be a very good fit indeed.

SOE have said a lot in the past about their goals to get MMOs onto consoles but this is the first game in their stable to actually make the leap.

I’m intrigued to see how this might work and how they’ll handle the pricing, but it’s a fun little game for all that and I’ll certainly be trying out the PS3 port. For research purposes only, you understand and not at all because I want a calico pet cat in every game which allows it. (You can train your cat to do tricks in FR.)

Cataclysm Alpha Test Begins

Friends and family alpha test began this week of Blizzard’s new WoW expansion. The client was leaked and fully data-mined and posted all over the web approximately 2s later.

The wow.com editors attempt to justify this by explaining that it’s all Blizzard’s fault for not paying attention to employee’s concerns (but we don’t know what these mysterious concerns might be). Or Blizzard could just sack anyone who leaks information that is clearly marked company confidential, like any other business would do. Assuming that it came from an employee, of course.

I’ll come back to this topic later. But it’s clear that either Blizzard fansites make too much money from printing leaked info to stop doing it, or else Blizzard just doesn’t have the goodwill from the playerbase which is what mostly keeps other NDAs under wraps.

Someone has managed to run WoW on an iPad

Gaikai have shown off their vaunted streaming gaming technology by demonstrating that it can be used to run WoW on an iPad.

But they don’t answer the most important question that this raises: is finger-turning worse than keypad turning?

Lucasarts President Resigns

This week several executives resigned from Lucasarts along with the company’s president. There is always a story behind mass senior resignations but in this case we don’t have much information on what is going on behind the scenes. It isn’t necessarily bad news for the developer, per se.

Lucasarts say that no current game development (such as Star Wars) will be affected, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? The fact that the company announced that they are searching for a replacement implies that he actually did resign rather than being pushed (when someone is fired, there is usually already a replacement lined up.)

Games Workshop sue Warhammer Online fansite

This was one of the more unexpected news stories of the week, and really should have all fansites on their toes.

The main fan-run bboard and community for Warhammer Online is called Warhammer Alliance. It has been up for months (maybe even years) before Mythic’s Warhammer MMO went live, and was bought out by Curse to be part of their fansite stable. Yes, that’s the same curse.com who host a lot of WoW addons.

And now, Games Workshop are suing Curse for trademark infringement among a host of other issues. The issue is the name of the fansite. They claim that Warhammer Alliance implies that the site is formally associated with Games Workshop.

Or in other words, Curse is in profit and GW wants a cut. It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit goes, if Curse even attempt to fight it rather than just settling out of court. I suspect that Curse et al have a good case, but that the costs of legal action against GW could be prohibitive.

However, if I was involved with a fansite that had gleefully picked a game specific name without asking permission first from the trademark holders, I would be watching this one with interest. Anyone else think Blizzard might have a case to claim that wow.com infringed their trademarks if they get pissed off by  … for example … consistent leaks about new expansions?

Peace on Earth and RMT to Games Companies

We are approaching the time of year when for many people in the western world, Christian or not, thoughts turn to charity. How can we use our hard earned money to help other people and make the world a better place?

Among the many good causes who’d like a slice of that pie, this week sees a couple more game companies throwing their hats into the ring. (I feel like it’s RMT week or something.)

Say you love her, buy her a minipet (on WoW)

There were a couple of big(ish) WoW news items that came up yesterday. People seem to be mostly ignoring the fact that you’ll soon be able to earn arena points from winning battlegrounds which is a pretty big climbdown on Blizzard’s part, in favour of the minipets added to the Blizzard shop.

So, for $10/£9 (this is an extortionate exchange rate for us, by the way) you can now buy yourself a funky minipet with special moves to add to your collection. Or, smartly, they have made it very easy to buy one as a gift for someone else who plays Warcraft. Is letting people buy minipets going to break the game? Nope. It’s not functionally all that different than giving them away with rare cards in the CCG. It is, however, another step towards a fully fledged item store. Maybe they just weren’t making enough money. I think they are smart enough to avoid selling items that will affect gameplay but the temptation to see if they could push their players just a little further is always going to be there.

It also raises questions along the lines of “How much is a minipet worth anyway?” For the price of both minipets you could snag yourself a copy of Torchlight, for example. The answer of course is that it’s worth whatever people are willing to pay and from forums I frequent, I see a lot of people enthusiastically buying the new pets either for themselves or for partners/friends. The pets themselves are undoubtedly high quality, as such things go, with their special emotes and animations.

They plan to add more pets to the shop as time goes on. I wonder if they’ll go as far as a ‘pet of the month’ club where you just increase your sub to cover the monthly minipet too. I suspect a lot of players would spring for that.

Free Realms not so free after all

Player vs Developer spotted an announcement buried deep in an interview about Free Realms about a shift in philosophy for that game also. Previously, a large part of the game was free to play. If you picked up a monthly sub you got access to more powerful and interesting classes to play, and access to extra quests and activities. In addition they had an item shop selling many of the usual suspects (pets, cosmetic items, potions, equipment).

In early November (ie. nowish, I guess) that’s all set to change. The game is now only free to play up to level 5 in any career, although that now includes the jobs which had previously been locked to subscribers. But if you want to keep playing after that, you have to subscribe. Naturally the cash shop will remain available. Pre-existing characters will still be allowed to level up to 20 on the previously free jobs.

I can only assume that they feel they’ll make more money from switching to a full subscription game. Maybe the free to play wasn’t working out as well as they’d hoped? (I suspect the issue is to do with targetting kids as their main audience, they’re just not a market with much disposable income to spend on cosmetic gear and pets.)

Why choose between subscriptions and RMT when you can have both?

What both of these announcements have in common is that they show that the big western AAA MMOs are playing around with different payment methods and seem to be settling on the one which is least advantageous to players.

To whit: they’re going with a mandatory subscription, possibly a mandatory box sale for the initial game and expansions, and also throwing in an item store.

We’ve seen it in Champions Online, we’ve seen it in EQ2, we’ve seen it in WoW (they’re just more explicitly selling cosmetic items now), and if the model sticks, they probably won’t be the last ones down the line.

It’s widely held that some of the indie games have more favourable RMT schemes, such as Wizard 101 and Puzzle Pirates. Ultimately, I think they’re going to be the outliers though. STO is likely to use a similar scheme to Champions given that it’s coming from the same company. And who knows yet what Bioware will decide to do with their Star Wars game?

And that leaves Dungeons and Dragons Online, where the free to play model seems so far to be working for them very well (unless you’re in Europe). So well, in fact, that they’ve just opened another server. Have they just monetized better by charging for instances? Will anyone else follow their lead?

Brief encounters: Free Realms, Metaplace, Galactrix

a href=My journey in Free Realms continues to be one of discovery. This week I finally figured out how to take screenshots whilst simultaneously failing to take any good ones. Funny how that goes.

To take a screenshot: F12

To remove the UI (so you can get a clean screenshot): F10

If using Windows XP, screenshots will be stored in C:\Program Files\Sony Online Entertainment\Installed Games\Free Realms\ImageCaptureOutput

(NB. If the program actually asked you before it installed where you’d like it to go, this might have been more obvious — this is one of the minor side effects from it being such a seamless install.)

I’m approaching FR from an exploring point of view, so if I find myself getting bored or distracted from one activity, I just go and do something else. So it’s quite interesting for me to check what levels I have in different careers because it shows which minigames I most enjoyed:

Higher than 15: Card Duellist, Miner, Blacksmith

Higher than 5: Wizard, Ninja, Pet Trainer, Adventurer

Higher than 1: Brawler, Archer, Warrior, Chef, Postman

So this week I did try out a few of the combat careers, but was put off by the grind. I think this would be much more fun with someone else to play with. But given FR’s total lack of a working friends list, continuing awkwardness of befriending people you actually know, and my lack of being able to persuade my other half/ sisters to play, that will going to have to go on the back burner (for me at least).

I have liked the little mini combat encounters and dungeons that I have seen. But the 2* difficulty ones that you get after level 5 are harsh to solo on my little wizard, who doesn’t get any crowd control until level 10.

Miner and Blacksmith are both more solo friendly. I’m impressed that Tobold has hit level 20 in both, I was finding Blacksmith fun in small spurts but rather grindy overall. It doesn’t help that I still don’t much care for smelting. However, fun in small spurts is what this game is all about for me. I don’t need long sessions and I think it works best if you approach it like a bag of licorice allsorts (ie. just grab a handful of different flavours and see what you get).

I also tried out the Pet Trainer this week, although have still resisted the urge to buy a Pookie of my own (next week I’ll try to get a picture of her side by side with my cat to show the similarity). If you don’t own a pet — which costs real money — you can ‘borrow’ one for 20 mins at a time to train with. I was able to get to level 7 in the first 20 minute session;  the pet animations and sounds are absolutely enchanting, even to a tomboy like me.

I particularly love the way that the pet really gives the impression of slowly learning its new trick. And the trainer (ie. you) is so obviously trying to encourage it.

I’ve decided to limit myself to a similar monthly spend to a regular MMO with Free Realms to see how it goes. I may well buy the pet next month. I noticed that some cost more than others and note in the flavour text that they help you with treasure hunting. I’m guessing that this means they’ll help you sniff out collections when you are out in the world with them, but have not been able to test this yet.

In the spirit of getting more value from my paid month, I also exercised my option to make an alt. Two things I noticed here:

  1. With the alt, I was given the option to skip the tutorial. Hurrah.
  2. Male characters get the option to have cool tribal type face markings and female ones get make-up or sparkly hearts/flowers/butterflies? I’m not making any specially feminist snark here but I know that as a kid I wasn’t into girly stuff and I don’t see the point in limiting options. Plus who is to say that some boys might not want the face sparklies?

In any case, congratulations are due to the Free Realms team for having achieved a million signups in a very short period of time. They’ve made a great little game and thoroughly deserve it. (They also celebrated this with a new loading screen which no longer shows the character with the guitar ;) ). Now, about that friends list …

Metaplace is now in open beta

If you like building stuff, check out Metaplace. I haven’t had a lot of time yet to experiment but the little starting tutorial will give you a flavour for the power behind the tools. As is often the case with tutorials, there seems to be a huge gap between where the tutorial stops and what  you really want to know to do the things you want to do. But I’ll be amazed if a prolific fan community doesn’t spring up to fill in the gaps.

So… Galactrix

I’ve had a couple of train journeys worth of Puzzlequest Galactrix which is not enough for a proper review (even by my lax standards). But I am really liking the ideas behind it, and it does have the freedom of movement I want to see in a Space-type game — that sense of ‘I can fly anywhere in the galaxy!!’.

But crikey it does spend a lot of time saving and loading data. Does the DS have no RAM or is the DS port just  too ambitious/  unoptimised for that platform’s requirements? (One of my jobs in my last place of work was porting code/ drivers from specialist hardware to PCs or vice versa but you don’t need to be an expert to see when the job is … a bit lacking.)

Still, I’m having fun and that’s all I really ask from a game. First impressions from Galactrix — money well spent!

Getting to know Free Realms

I have real problems in exploring Free Realms. It’s not the game, it’s me! Every time I decide to go check out some place that looked interesting on the map, I get distracted by something else I’ve come across on the way.

Truly, it is the game of, ‘I’ll just go and … OOO SHINY!’

I’m amused by how well trained I am from WoW to use quest chains to help me focus. Fortunately a lot of the careers (probably all of them but I still have some left to check!) have quest chains associated with them to introduce you to trainers and get you settled in.

On the other hand, why would it really matter if you get distracted as long as you found something else to do that was fun? There’s no sense of rush or urgency in the game. Oddly enough despite this, some of the minigames do provide a sense of achievement.

This week I’ve attempted to explore, and picked up all of the warpstones except for Briarheart which is my mission for today — unless I get distracted en route.

Warpstones are Free Realms’ equivalent of stable masters, although with fewer restrictions. You can open up your map from anywhere and click on any warpstone that you have already discovered to teleport there straight away.

If you do want more in the way of guides, zam.com (known previously as allakhazam.com, it’s had a revamp) has a shiny Free Realms site.

Collections

I’ve also discovered collections this week. There are lots  of different things you can collect in game, some are actual items and others are areas to explore. For example, one collection requires you to have visited all of the warpstones.

Every town in the game looks to have its own set of discovery collections which you can acquire by exploring the town. But you have to really focus on it, just wandering randomly around the town won’t do it.

The item collections are more similar to collections in EQ2. As you travel around you will sometimes see glowing items on the floor. Click on those and you may have an item for your collection. I still have a lot to find out about collections for myself, I think some items may turn up as part of minigames, some may depend on your current career, and some on where you are. I’m wishing I’d made better notes on where I was when I found different items but I did promise myself to play this in a relaxed way so I won’t fret about it.

To check your collections,  open up the My Quests and Collections tab. It’s bound to L.

Playing with friends

The friendslist server still seems to be down as much as it is up, and it’s just as awkward as before to add people to your friends list if they aren’t actually in the game.

But I was happy to find when playing with my sister that once friended, if she was in the game and I wasn’t, I could click on her name in the web interface and not only be logged into the same server, but also in the same location.

I wish more MMOs would do this, it’s great.

Pete@Dragonchasers noticed this also, along with 6 other things about Free Realms which are easy to miss.

Have not yet persuaded husband to try FR but he was watching over my shoulders with interest as I played the mining minigame so who knows?

When minigames kick your butt

I had meant to try more of the careers but I keep drifting back to mining. There is a particularly knotty challenge on one of the mining quests to beat a score of 100k while mining iron and I was ridiculously pleased when I finally was able to do it.

Note: If you are at Lavender Coast,  trying to find the iron nodes, and wondering why they all seem to be hidden behind the barrier, walk straight past the barrier and keep heading west. You will soon get to the path into the mine.

Heilig@Brasse.com has a good mining guide. I don’t really feel a guide is necessary here but he goes through the basic strategies and tiles to watch out for.

Although I did enjoy the card game, I’m at the point where I’d really like to try building a deck around a different element and I just don’t see any way to get enough cards to do that without spending some cash. It’s not just a case of buying one pack of 10 cards (at £4 per pack, the same price as a month’s sub). I don’t really know how many I’d  need to buy, so I’ll keep playing the odd match with my mechanical deck but I’m not sure that it will keep my interest.

Other things I did this week were spend a bit more time on the brawler (trainer is in the tutorial area) and ninja (trainer is in Lakeshore). These are both combat/MMO type classes. You start with two abilities of which one is a basic attack. And that’s it until you hit level 5.

Unfortunately level 5 requires a bit of grinding. The combat careers felt more grindy to me than the mining but the truth is I really did spend a lot more time on mining. When each mining minigame takes 5 minutes, it’s hard to compare with a combat minigame that takes a minute at most.

Speaking of the combat minigame, the idea of it is growing on me. None of the enemies in game is aggro, until you click on it and are transported into the minigame. This sees you in a small area where you can wander around and fight until everything else is dead. Some of the minigames have ministories to go with them — eg. mob X has kidnapped someone, can you save them?!

They are reminding me more and more of random encounters in D&D.

There are also instances which you can go and explore. Those will take a little longer to clear.

So what about the less free part?

I plunked down my £4 for one month’s sub, just to see how the other half live. As well as access to the other five jobs and some subscriber only quests, there are extra subscriber-only minigames that you may run into as you explore.

(You can see now why I was getting so easily distracted).

I found an archaeology minigame that was similar to mining, and a skiing type minigame that I need to go back and check properly. I’m sure there’s a lot more than I haven’t yet found.

Of the other careers, it was blacksmith that I decided to try first. This job lets you use the materials you can gather from mining to turn out shiny weapons. The blacksmithing minigame is similar in style to the harvesting one, but you do need to make sure you have all your materials handy. Some can be bought cheaply from a trade vendor, and there seems to be one near every anvil.

Others you’ll need from a miner. And that miner will need to be someone who doesn’t mind smelting. This conflicts me because much as I love the mining minigame, I’m really not fond of the smelting one (it’s similar to the way cooking works in game and therefore not really for the mouse-clumsy).

Since most people would want crafted weapons but there’s no obvious way to sell them, I wonder if your only option if you don’t know a smith is to spam The Sanctuary (or a town of your choice) with requests.

I’m hoping to check out at least some of the other jobs this week. Just for reference, the location of the tutors is as follows:

  • Archer: Lugabow in Greenwood Forest (south west part)
  • Blacksmith: Smitty in Snow Hill
  • Brawler: Tutorial
  • Card Duelist: Sam Potts or Poe Tatters in The Sanctuary
  • Chef: Tutorial (or Simone at Crossroads)
  • Medic: Nurse Naia in The Sanctuary
  • Miner: Therin in Snow Hill, you have to go all the way into the mine.
  • Ninja: Master Ty in Lakeshore
  • Pet Trainer: Zachary in Stillwater Crossing or Mercy Merrywing in Highroad Junction  (I have trained my RL cat to … actually no I haven’t, she just does what she wants anyway.)
  • Postman: Felipe in The Sanctuary
  • Warrior: Drill Sergeant Dewey in Snow Hill
  • Wizard: Fizzlesticks (take the path North out of Lakeshore and follow over the bridge, then turn left as the road forks and go to the Robgoblin camp)

But the drag of getting a combat job to level 5 is dragging at my heels, after all, there’s mining to be done and …. OO, SHINY!

Review: Free Realms

Free Realms is Sony’s engaging new teen-friendly MMO, and as Zoso so wisely sums up, “It’s free and it has realms.” I’ll go into that more later but in practice Sony claim that you can access about 60% of the game without paying.

The game itself is bright, friendly, and doesn’t have heavy hardware requirements. There’s plenty to do and see, it’s very easy to get started, and Sony are keen to impress on parents how safe an environment it is for kids. Free Realms is also exceptionally polished for a newly released MMO, and the pretty avatars have a good variety of quests, mini-games, and different environments to explore.

It is a super game for casual players, or even just players who like casual games. Whether or not it has the kid appeal that Sony are hoping for remains to be seen.

So we begin

One thing that the team have gotten very right is how quick it is to get into the game. You sign up on the website and can create your character before you even load the game up.  You can choose between a human or a small winged pixie, and although the range of customisation options isn’t huge, it is  easy to create a pretty avatar of your own. It’s also nice to see a choice of dark-skinned options for characters. I loved the character design, they’re nicely drawn and appealing.

For naming, you have the choice between using the semi-random name generator (it’s random but you can tweak it) or submitting your own custom name to be approved later. If you go with the latter, you will then get to generate a semi-random name to use while the approval process is going through. They were approving the names very quickly when I tried and it’s an innovation I wish more MMOs would use, particularly on RP servers.

Then you select the ‘play’ button and after a few minutes wait for the initial download, you pick your server and you’re in. The game continues to download segments while you play, which is why the initial download is so fast. I love this system of content delivery. You get straight into things without having to either buy a box or wait several hours for a massive download and it’s been working very smoothly indeed.

The starting tutorial is laboriously slow and non-optional, and holds your hand while you move around and try out a couple of careers. But that’s me speaking as an MMO vet, and it’s a small enough price to pay so that kids and people who are newer to the genre can have a quiet environment in which to find their feet.

Free as in bird

One of the endearing things about Free Realms is that there are so many choices about what to do. And no penalties for making ‘incorrect’ choices. If you aren’t in a mood to do quests you won’t regret it two months later. If you get bored of mining and decide to go have a beach party with some friends, it doesn’t matter.

It can feel very confusing when you are first thrown into the world proper. It’s so bright and so shiny and there are lots of icons all over the place beckoning you to go and investigate, and no railroaded directions on what to do next.

What you SHOULD do next is go and play. Try things out. Lose the mindset that says “what’s the optimal thing for me to do next” because there probably isn’t one.

To me this takes the notion of a theme park game up a whole notch. I have seen real life theme parks that were less theme parkish than Free Realms. you only have to look at the (beautifully colourful and interactive) map to see how the different attractions are laid out. Want to play chess or do some demolition derby? It’s easy to mouse over the map until you find the nearest chess table or driving minigame.

There are quests around also if you’re stuck for things to do. And you only have to talk to any of the local trainers to be introduced to one of the many in game careers.

A look at the careers and minigames

There are several careers in which characters can progress and endearingly, you can switch between them whenever you want. Each one is distinguished by it’s own minigame, and as you play the minigame you can go up in levels (I’m not really sure why this matters, but for those who like to see numbers ticking up the option is there):

  • Kart Drivers play a racing game
  • Demolition Derby has a Mario Kart minigame
  • Cooks have a set of minigames where for each recipe, you get to chop, smash, slice, fry, and stir your way to victory.
  • Mining and harvesting share a bejewelled-alike pattern matching game.
  • Brawlers have a more standard MMO experience, where you select hotbuttons to use your different attacks on mobs.
  • Card Duelists have a fully featured card playing minigame which is based on a Magic: The Gathering style of collectible card game. There’s some decent depth to the game, it’s beautifully implemented, and good fun to play.
  • Pet Trainers can train their pets in a Nintendogs type of setup. Note that you do have to shell out real cash to acquire a permanent pet, but you can pick up temporary ones for free in game to practice your training skill.
  • There’s a post office career too that I haven’t tried yet.
  • And there are other careers that are only accessible if you choose to pay the 5$ pcm subscription (medic, wizard, fighter, blacksmith, archer).

Of the ones I tried, the card duelling and the harvesting bejewelled game were the real winners for me. I thought the car steered like a slug in the demolition derby, and the brawler just wasn’t interesting (I have a WoW account if I want to play that kind of game, after all).

You will notice though that there’s nothing here that’s very novel. All the mini-games are based on tried and tested games. You can also play chess, draughts or several versions of tower defence (which is one of my favourite casual games so no complaints from me), none of which have careers attached.

Despite being aimed at kids, the mini-games themselves offer a good level of challenge. Bejewelled is bejewelled. The game comprehensively beat me at chess (but to be fair, so do 9 year olds). The cooking minigame required fast reactions if you wanted to get the best scores.

Mini-games as a way of life

Most things that you do in FR will take you into a minigame of some sort. If you see a mob and want to fight, you have to walk up and click on it to get into the fighting minigame, for example. And it did make me think about how dull MMO playing often is. The ‘minigame’ of farming mobs is simply a lot less interesting than bejewelled. Although the FR minigames are way more fun than typical MMO solo fights or crafting, they aren’t visceral in the same way.

One thing I did note is that despite the bright cartoony graphics, I don’t find the game at all cute. I think this is down to lack of personality but I can’t really put my finger on anything in particular.

So where are all the people?

I found it surprisingly difficult to add people to my friends list. You can do this either by seeing them in game or by being on the same server at the same time and typing their name into the friends window.  Since you pick your server when you log in (another subtle but smart innovation) it means you need to prearrange with your friends to be online so that you can friend them. It doesn’t really feel like a safety measure because random people try to friend you when you wander past anyway (you do get to option of whether to allow them to be your friend or not though). There are also no guilds.

As far as playing with others goes, you can certainly play against other people in some of the minigames. The card duellist, car racing, and demolition derby in particular. Keen spent more time playing the MMO-type side of the game in beta and had fun grouping up with friends to go kill stuff (he liked the dungeons, which I haven’t seen yet).

So there are options to play with and against other people. But the minigames I liked were just as good solo. I’m hoping at some point  to try some of the group content but given the total lack of a looking for groups function and the difficulty of adding people to the friends list, I’m at a loss to figure out how. Can’t see me getting the other half to try this one.

Show me the money?

If you do decide to give Sony your money (and they’re reasonably shameless about asking for it), you have two options:

  1. Pay the $5 pcm subscription for access to all the careers and sub-locked quests. I think there is also a level cap for regular careers if you aren’t a subscriber but I hadn’t hit it yet. Since you don’t need a particular level to play the minigames I’m not sure how much this matters.
  2. Pay for tokens which can be used to buy items in game such as a permanent pet, clothing, and booster packs for the card game.

I think a lot of people will take them up on the monthly sub, it’s cheap and does unlock a fair amount of content. But the main money maker is likely to be the card booster packs.

Collectible Card Games (CCG) have the ring of gambling about them. You pay your money and get your booster pack and if you are lucky you’ll get powerful or rare cards. If not, then you won’t. CCG in an MMO where there’s pressure to keep up with lots of other players sounds like the sort of environment where if you don’t pay, you might as well not turn up. It’s like being in constant tournament mode.

I’m not sure if they have some kind of ranking system which will match you against people who have spent similar amounts (I’m betting not, because that would negate the idea of spending more to be better than others) but I wouldn’t want to be the parent of a keen and competitive card duellist.

Good Points

  • It’s pretty and has low hardware requirements
  • Quick to set up and get started
  • Very polished implementation. Fun minigames.
  • Lots of choices of things to do in game. Very easy to switch from one activity to another.
  • Lovely map.

Bad points

  • Friends list is awkward.
  • It’s not actually free to play, although a lot is. Adjust expectations accordingly.
  • A little unfocussed. Is it trying to be fun for kids or fun for adults?
  • Poor customisation options. Maybe because it’s trying to be simple for kids but you have very limited options to rearrange the UI, remap the keyboard, etc.

It’s harsh to complain about what isn’t there in a new MMO. After all, this is just the beginning (and a very polished beginning it is). But Sony do have plans for the game:

There are some things that we actually have talked about, but they just didn’t make it in time for launch. We do still have soccer coming. I know Smed has been talking about that a lot. I can’t give any exact dates for any of these because we’re in player feedback mode right now. So we really want to make sure that the game is solid, we’ve nailed all the bugs and that we’re paying attention in the forums and paying attention to what people are talking about. So that’s our first priority right now, which is making changes and pleasing the customers that we already have.
We do still plan to let you have a garage and let you customize your car, which was always something we’ve talked about. Also some new jobs that we have in the works, but that’s all I can talk about that’s in the pipe. It’s not close as in next month, but it’s definitely something you’ll see sooner rather than later.

Hopefully one of the new jobs in the works will be the rock star which is hinted at enticingly in one of the pictures in the loading screen that shows a female character with a guitar.

I can’t help being disappointed that there’s so little educational content in a game aimed at kids. Even a couple of minigames involving words and numbers (Scrabble and Sudoku?), a world map (Risk?) or a little more reference to real world mining and extracting techniques in the mining minigame would have gone a long way.

When Sony talked earlier about the lack of directed quests making more room for kids to create their own stories, I was also expecting more … storytelling tools. A fashion designer maybe, or collaborative drawing package, but no. What they actually meant is that there is no story. There’s no lore, no background to the world, no reason to do any of the quests besides ‘NPC x has lost her chickens, go find them.’ One of the other things that makes the card duellist stand out is that the introductory quests actually do have a story.

So the game is great as far as it goes. The mini-games are fun and challenging. I hope it’s successful and finds its audience. I’m sure I’ll be hanging out in Free Realms (my character is called Linnet Lightfoot) also for the odd game of penguin defence or to do some mining. I may even try the subscription or succumb to the temptation to get the permanent pet (I can’t stand Nintendogs is the stupid thing, just one of the  cats looks exactly like my cat and … yes I know, it’s very lame but still tempted). But if this is the future of MMOs then I’ll bow out after this generation of games.

You see, I like my stories.

Other Reviews

Syp explains why he wasn’t all that impressed

Dusty@ Of Course I’ll Play it tries the game with his own kids

Jennifer’s first impressions are mixed

Tipa has a technicolour review with lots of pictures.

Tobold really liked the card game, if only Sony would let him give them his money

2 games that could be WoW-beaters

It’s  fashionable to say that Warcraft has grown so large now that there will never be any single WoW beater. It’s less of a game and more of a force of nature, a historical blip which will go down in records as a milestone in humanity’s takeup of the internet, social networking, and online virtual worlds.

If you play World of Warcraft, you are part of a historical phenomenon. You’ll be able to look back and tell your grandchildren (or you could just twitter them now if you have any), “Yes, I played that game. We all did.”

Anyone who thinks it’s just another game isn’t paying attention. As to why it got so large — a perfect storm of quality game, smart marketing, lack of competition (at the time it launched), opening the market to more casual players, and a crazy social networking effect. It’s anyone’s guess. Probably a lot of these factors.

Then again, a few years ago who would have guessed that Facebook would so totally overwhelm MySpace, or that twitter would become such a big thing? That’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is … anyone who tried the new formats would realise almost immediately. I don’t know about you but as soon as I saw Facebook I knew it was a better social platform than MySpace. Scrabble sealed the deal. (Admittedly I haven’t logged into Facebook for months, I got bored of being invited into stupid groups by people who weren’t my friends.)

Similarly, ten years ago it didn’t take very long to realise how quickly mobile phones would take off as soon as the prices came down — you only had to try one for a day to see the difference it made. Going further back, how quickly do you think Sony Walkman‘s took off? Very fast. You only had to use it for an hour or two to see how cool it was to be able to take your music around with you.

If a virtual world comes along that suits a lot of people better than WoW, they will switch. This will happen faster if the barrier to switching is low. It will happen faster if it targets a large section of the WoW audience that isn’t currently 100% happy with the game they have. In order for it to become a WoW-beater, it will need to not only steal Warcraft players but also open whole new markets. And one thing is for sure, it won’t be a game that is ‘mostly like Warcraft but with a few tweaks’ or ‘like WoW but with superheroes/ spaceships/ vampires instead of fantasy.’

It may not even be a game at all.

Free Realms

I’m not in the beta test of FR, although I’ve mentioned it previously. The reason I think Free Realms will challenge WoW is because a lot of WoW players aren’t that interested in the ‘gamier’ side of it as an MMO. They love the shiny production values and attractive stylised graphics, but the endgame world of people calling you a moron  if you don’t put out enough dps in some instance, or smack talk in battleground chat don’t appeal to them (tbh they don’t appeal to a lot of people).

Maybe what they really want is a friendly virtual world where they can dress up their characters, collect minipets, play minigames with their friends, and chat.  Where no one will whine at them about their specs, or expect them to dedicate 2+ nights per week to raiding if they’re ever going to see the cool storylines or get the best loot.

FR looks to have great production values, be very accessible, be focus grouped to death about what casual MMO players want, be a friendly environment where people can easily play with their families/ less hardcore players. And of course, it’s free — or at least you can do most of the stuff you’d want for free, with options to pay for extras.

You just have to look at the comments to this Massively post which asked what people were looking forwards to about Free Realms to see how many gamers would like a relaxing environment to play with less game-crazed family members.

There’s an opening there for a lot of players to move to a game they’d find suited their preferences more than WoW.  I might wish that more virtual worlds might be generated that were a bit less childish, because cartoon animals and generic cuteness don’t do much for me (and I’m really not that desperate to socialise with 12 year olds unless they are actually family), but to a lot of people and a lot of kids, that has a high appeal.  I’ll certainly be trying it out, if only to hang out with friends who aren’t hardcore MMO players but might be tempted into this one.

Sony’s main competition with FR is probably more the social worlds aimed at kids than it is WoW but that just means that there’s a huge market out there for them to tap into. Can they attract players from Habbo Hotel to their new offering?  They’ll certainly try.

I know I’m looking forwards to playing (and writing about) it when it does go live.

Diablo III

D3 could appeal to a different segment of current WoW players. It will almost certainly have a grimmer, gritter, more gothic atmosphere than Warcraft (admittedly not difficult). It has a vast built-in fanbase, based on players who loved the previous game. It’s made by Blizzard so will be prominently advertised all over the official sites.

And it will take the core group gameplay of WoW and distill it into its purest essence. A lot of WoW players aren’t really interested in socialising, or trying to earn gold, or immersing themselves into a virtual world.

All Blizzard have to do is let the online version of D3 have access to some kind of auction house, a way to mail gear to your alts, and more fully featured chat than Diablo II and that alone will fulful a lot of the player interaction options that many current WoW players want.

They want to group up easily and find some action when they feel like it. They want to be able to buy and sell on an auction house. And they may want some light chat inbetween. But a lot of people don’t care about exploring, don’t want the hassle of being tied to a guild, and don’t want deep interactions. It will be like all the fun casual gaming parts of WoW without any of the hassle. And if they are more in a mood to play solo, then it has a cracking solo mode too. Of course you can play the whole game solo, that’s what it is.

It may even be that the downloadable content model will let Blizzard offer the equivalent of raid content for Diablo III.

(Note: this assumes that it’s a good game, of course.)

Why D3 and not any of the other current games with online multiplayer options? Because it’s not a shooter. Because it has that massive built in fanbase. Because the concept of talent trees came from Diablo in the first place. Because of the loot. Because it’s dark fantasy.

And I would love to be a fly on the wall in Blizzard HQ as they try to figure out whether or not to give D3 the things it needs to succeed (ie. auction house, mail, etc) or whether doing so might threaten their cashcow.

Both Free Realms and Diablo III offer a (potentially) better version of some aspect of a virtual world or game where WoW falls down. That has to appeal to people. Heck, it appeals to me, and I love the whole idea of virtual worlds. I think they both stand to challenge WoW to decide exactly what it does have to offer to casual players.

I was thinking myself that it would be a bad thing if Ulduar turned out to be too hard. Because if you’re bored with Naxx and slamming your head against a wall in Ulduar, what else is there to do in endgame? It’s a consequence of pushing more of the population into raiding instead of providing more casual endgame activities that Blizzard itself is now in a Raid-or-Die loop with Warcraft. If players can’t raid, perhaps the game itself will die … slowly …

But there will never be a WoW-beater. And the reason is that many WoW players dont’ see themselves as gamers and certainly not MMO gamers. They are WoW players. It has become a hobby in itself. When they get bored, they won’t necessarily switch to another computer game at all.

What do you think? If you had the chance to switch to a game that just offered the core parts of WoW that you loved and none of the bits you dislike, would you go?