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.

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Dragon Quest IX and some musings on wandering monsters

Dragon Quest IX arrived on my DS this weekend, so if the posts this week are a little slow, you can blame the slimes. I have barely had a chance to scratch the surface of this game but I already love it dearly.

Twitter (140 word) review so far: DQ9 will make RPG fans very very happy. It’s a single player MMO in a box. Slimes adorable. Kill them all.

Since I really can’t write a proper review yet, here is one from The Telegraph. (Insert whine about the difficulty of getting screenshots from a DS unless you are a media outlet who get a special cable.)

The game starts with you doing some customising of your character – you can pick hairstyle and colour, eyes, a face, a gender and a name. Then you are dropped into one of the prettiest little prologues I’ve seen in any game ever. You are a Celestrian (this involves wings and a halo) and the guardian angel of a sweet little village. Your job is to make the villagers happy and keep them safe, even in the afterlife. This is one of the best in game motivations I have ever seen for nudging you to accept lots of random quests from people.

And DQ continues to do a great job with modernising the whole notion of quests. Later on you will be guilt tripped into helping some people, and pointed towards which quests are optional and can be happily ignored. There will be classes to choose from, companions to pick up (and customise), gear to collect and equip, skill points to spend, turn based combat, dungeons and open world areas to explore and (many many) monsters to slay.

There is also the possibility of having other players in your party via wifi, and your character can even learn some emotes to allow rudimentary conversation if you do this.

This is a game which, like Torchlight, just makes me happy when I am playing it. Maybe it’s the mixture of the old school RPG (wander around, kill things and take their stuff, level up), the JRPG storyline (you are a little angel that fell out of heaven and now you have to wander the world and help people), the gorgeous DS graphics, gameplay, and beating up slimes – but I’m having a great time with this one. Recommended to any RPG fans who own a DS.

Also, we need more games which let you play a martial artist who fights with a fan.

Dragon Quest and the numbers game

Apparently (according to wikipedia) DQ9 had 2 million pre-orders when it went live in Japan. 2 million pre-orders. And that’s just in Japan.

It’s pretty much guaranteed to break more records when the western numbers are in too.

The cult of the wandering monster

One of the other interesting notes from wikipedia was that this is the first Dragon Quest game in which you can actually see monsters in the open world before you attack them. It was very much a trope of JRPG (and some regular RPG also) that you would wander around the game world and every so often the game would decide, “Ah, time for a fight” and would launch you into a random fight.

This came straight from D&D, which had wandering monster tables on which the DM could roll if players looked bored. The original idea of the wandering monsters was that a DM could set up two types of fight. There would be static fights with mobs that had been designed into the scenario in advance, and there would also be the possibility for random encounters.

The wandering monster was the most simple of all random encounters. “Roll D10 to see what attacks you.” The aim was to make travelling through the world more interesting, because whilst fantasy epics do involve a lot of travel, it’s not very interesting to RP through it step by step. So instead, travel was modelled as some descriptions of the landscape, punctuated by brief encounters with wandering monsters.

(AD&D also, infamously, had a wandering streetwalker table for when players were exploring cities, “Roll d10 to see if you encounter a wanton wench, a strumpet, a call girl, a pimp, etc.” Even at the time we thought this was very silly.)

Later, scenarios evolved more interesting types of random encounter. It didn’t have to just be a random rust monster that wandered into camp, it might be some brief but amusing encounter (a band of travelling players need help to put on a show, etc.), or even the seed of a mini-adventure that players could choose to follow up or not. Yet in computer RPGs, the wandering monster had the great bonus of being very easy to code so it remained popular.

One of the great bonuses of MMOs, with their persistent immersive worlds, is that players could always expect to see monsters wandering the world before they attacked. There would be no ‘wandering monsters’ coming out of nowhere – although WoW experimented with very large wanderers such as the Fel Reaver, even they could be seen from a distance.

One of the exciting things about games like Warhammer Online and  Guild Wars 2 is that their public quests look to be reviving the notion of the random encounter, quests that just happen in the world as you wander through it and with which you can get involved.

Gambling with pre-order bonuses and beta access

gamblingphoto by waffler@flickr

The current trend in MMOs is to include early access to the game, pre-launch, as part of a pre-order deal. So if you pre-order a game like Aion (no bias intended, I’m just picking it as the next big game to launch), the publishers throw in free access to the closed beta and to any other headstart type early access. You may get other perks also.

So what’s to stop you taking the pre-order to get the beta access and then cancelling? Nothing. In fact, if you aren’t sure that the game is for you  it’s a smart way to check it out. Embrace the pre-order as a way to get a free trial. Be careful of whatever NDAs are in place. When the NDA drops, tell everyone what you thought. If you don’t fancy the game, cancel the pre-order.

This is a very different scheme from actually charging for closed beta access. As a customer, a pre-order is a declaration of intent to buy when the game is released. Usually you’ll supply payment details when you make the pre-order, on the understanding that you don’t actually pay until the release date. That means that you can cancel at any time before that and pay nothing.

When a company chooses to make beta access complicit on a pre-order, they understand that too. The majority of people who bother to pre-order probably won’t cancel, and it’s nice to have some upfront numbers for PR purposes. For example, Aion announced recently that they have over 300k pre-orders. Just bear in mind that those aren’t solid cash until the fat lady sings, the game gets released, and they find out how many of those pre-orders were still valid. Also, the pre-order crowd are likely to be the hardcore gamers, the guys who read official sites and bulletin boards, the guys who are influential in other games’ communities.

So actually, giving beta access to pre-orders is a way of getting some experienced gamers into the beta. Who is to say that’s a worse way to test the game than getting any other random selection? There is really no moral issue with cancelling a pre-order. Especially if you played the beta, spread the word, and helped to stress test or find other bugs too.

So I was talking about gambling in the subject line here. With a pre-order bonus, it is the developer who is taking the gamble. They’re gambling that getting some experienced gamers in will pay off in terms of PR, word of mouth, and making those customers feel special, and feel so attached to the new game that they want to buy it and spend lots of money on it. The customer has no risk, they can try the game and still not pay if they don’t like it. So I would absolutely encourage anyone to take out pre-orders which offer beta access if they want to try a new game out before it is released.

Just … bear in mind that a beta isn’t really the same as a free trial, even if it is being sold that way.

When is a Closed Beta not a Closed Beta?

Selling beta access as part of a pre-order will change how players feel about it. There’s no notion that you had to fill in a form explaining why you’d be a good beta tester to get in (I’m sure no one reads those forms but just the fact that you often have to fill them in for beta makes people think about the whole idea of a beta test). A player might not be told anything about the beta except that characters get deleted before the game goes live.

If the beta client is not very up front about offering obvious ways to report bugs and tell players what functionality is currently being focus tested, then pre-order players will ignore the test side of things.

This may be fine. It may be that the devs want to just let players loose in the beta version and see what happens. Again, grabbing some experienced players to do this is at least as good a test corps as you’d get from random applicants. The fact that these are guys who have shown interest in giving you money at a future date is just a bonus. If however the beta client is still very buggy, some of those pre-orders will be lost. Players may have come in with the mindset that they’ll experience the finished product unless it is made very obvious to them that this is not the case.

Clearly a free to play model won’t need to charge for beta access, either in real cash or via pre-order. So maybe in the future this odd status of the beta test will either resolve into a free trial or a free test.

But right now, it’s peculiar. If you have actually paid for goods or services then you’re entitled to certain levels of quality (the phrase ‘fit for purpose’ is used a lot in the law here, for example). If you haven’t, then who knows where consumer laws fit in? If you didn’t get your beta access for technical reasons, then you can hardly claim damages when you hadn’t paid in the first place. This is why beta agreements can be quite arcane – no one sane thinks you can reasonably expect test code to perform like live code. But when it is being sold as a free trial, even when people say that they understand it is a beta test, their expectations say something different.

Like I say, I think it’s perfectly sensible to pre-order if you want the pre-access, and then cancel. Would you do that? Are you planning on doing it with any games in particular and if so, why?