Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Lion's Den - Character Models

I have a confession to make: I find realistic models in MMORPG's to be absolutely ugly. LOTRO and DDO are the worst offenders in my book, but Everquest 2 is a close second. For example, look at this picture. It looks like a mannequin with wood shaped like hair perched on its head. And this is a promotional screenshot for the game. I find actual screenshots to be far worse. Even one of my favorite MMORPG's, City of Heroes, is guilty of making their faces look terrible. You could say that it is due to the age of these games, but APB and SWTOR are making their people look terrible as well.

Most people would reference the uncanny valley when approaching this subject, saying that the closer you try to imitate a human the more flaws you will pick out of it. And this is true. With how technology is progressing, we are able to move closer and closer to imitating a real person in a video game. But on the way we have to handle blank-faced monsters like the ones above.

Personally, I can't actually explain why I hate them. Is it the waxy or plastic skin, the blank (or horribly imitated) expressions, or the stiff movements? I couldn't tell you. And I can't really blame developers for not getting it right: the technology to replicate this more accurately is not feasible for an MMO project. But what I can plead is that they stop trying.

Seriously. Stop it. Maybe in 20 years we can make an MMORPG where the people don't look like Barbie's horribly mutated half of the family, but right now it is best to stick with stylized depictions. Yes, even if its a serious game. The original Batman cartoon with Mark Hamill was a cartoon, and was as serious as a heart attack. Pretty dark too. You can accomplish it to, and it will give your game a much longer life span.

I promised myself to spend a bit of time not mentioning that certain weather pattern named company, so let's go with two games most people would consider old. Super Mario World, and Baldur's Gate. Barring some severe nostalgia for Baldur's Gate, most people would say these days that they would prefer (in terms of graphics at least) to play Super Mario World. Let's give an MMORPG example then. Maple Story and Everquest 2 were released within a year of each other. Which one do you think has aged more gracefully than the other?

I don't mean to bash the graphic designers who put hours and hours of work into these 3D models, or the developers of the game for making this decision. They want their work to look a certain way, and they should be damned proud of what they accomplished. But your game will not age well. The rapid advancement of graphics technology (which admittedly, is slowing down lately) will make great games like Baldur's Gate completely unplayable to later generations. I have fond memories of both Star Fox 64 and Goldeneye 64. Guess which one I can still play these days?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I Wanna Choose My Own Adventure

Here's a fun little tidbit about me: I enjoy collecting original Playstation games. I have FF7-9, Crash Bandicoot, Marvel vs. Capcom and even an obscure title called Ehrgeiz which included Cloud Strike and Sephiroth as characters in a fighting game. And a really odd RPG dungeon crawler. Regardless, given that I've been sitting on my hands waiting for SWTOR to come out I chose look through them and found a copy of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature. Everytime I thought of Farmville I thought of my experiences with this game, as the experience was pretty much the same except for the micro transactions and the weird Japanese style dating sim. Though I'm sure Natsume could make a Facebook game that could blow Farmville out of the water (in terms of meaningful gameplay that is) that is not why I'm bringing it up.

I'm bringing it up because it's made me think of the styles of gameplay that go into a title. Not the overall parts, but really the little bits. I'm aware others have covered the topic before with varying results, but I felt like examining it anyway.

Using Harvest Moon, for example, you have many different parts to what would otherwise be a simple goal. Planting crops involves multiple steps, such as tilling the ground in a pattern to maximize yield, spreading the seeds, and then watering them every in-game day. Until it is harvest time and you can sell them and do it all again. There is the money aspect of it as well, which makes you budget and invest in crops or tools that will increase your yield, which will then increase your money, which you then invest once more. It's a fun cycle, and one with multiple choices. For example, you don't have to plant to get money. You can mine for a smaller daily yield, but more consistent as well. Or fish. Or buy a chicken, incubate the eggs and make more chickens to make more eggs to sell said eggs. Or cows. Or sheep.

...actually, that's about all the money making schemes I can think of at the moment. Regardless, you aren't restricted to how you get the money, just that you get the money. I'm all about choices. But I'm also all about goals. Put me in EVE and I won't have any idea what to do with myself. Put me in LOTRO and I'll charge on to end-game, raid...and then stop abruptly. Maybe do another class, but you get the point. But another class just isn't enough to warrant doing it all over again. Harvest Moon, I can make an animal farm and neglect crops entirely. Or only do crops, build a greenhouse and harvest tomatos all winter. Or an anagram of both. Same ending, different path.

Which brings me to why I'm worried about SWTOR. There are class specific quests, but each faction only has one path to end-game, quest-wise. And with all this focus on story...well, how many times can you sit through the same movie over and over again, regardless of how good it is? There is a limit.

But that was only a tangent. There are little pieces, and the little pieces are what make a game, and in my opinion, an MMORPG. Kill dudes to get gear to kill dudes is just not complicated enough to hold someone's attention. Sure, the ultimate goal may be to kill the biggest dude, but maybe I want to mine stuff to build weapons to kill dudes to get to the better mining stuff. Or build a robot. Or make enough money to hire myself a group of people to kill dudes for me.

Or better yet? Join the dudes and kill the people who are trying to kill the dudes. I don't want to talk about balance or feasibility for any of these, because I know I could come up with a solid rebuttal for all of them. But at the heart of it I just want more options to experience the setting they give me, whether it be sci-fi, fantasy or modern.

Friday, October 21, 2011

WoW is "That Guy" to the Blogging Community

You know the one. Maybe it's a family member, or a person in your group of friends. Nobody really wants to hang out with him, but they do begrudgingly, and when they do they feel the need to justify it. At length. I mean, sure, we used to think he was cool when he was the only one we hung out with. But now that we have other friends we've been trying to avoid him.

But we sure as hell are gonna talk about him. In fact, it's the major topic when we hang out with our other friends. Sure, we don't tell it to their face, but once he's out of earshot it's "Did you hear what he said? I can't believe he's doing that. I would never do that. I have other friends who would never do that. He just wants attention." Even people who haven't talked to or hung out with him in years have an opinion about him.

Well, Blizzard wanted our attention, good or bad. They got it.

And that's all I gotta say about Blizzcon.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wouldn't it be cool if...? Facebook-Style Games Could Help

I've spoken before on this blog about how I am in support of game companies implementing community building elements in their websites. MyDDO and MyLOTRO by Turbine are excellent ideas, if a bit poorly executed due to the lack of ease in using the system. Well, let's take that, and combine my thought that games outside of the main game could give benefits in the main game, and we have ourselves with a game company that not only has its own intra-community social network, but Facebook-style games to go with it.

Though I would not go so far as to create anything like Farmville in terms of its demand on players, there is no reason there cannot be games like that. Or perhaps a side-scrolling hack and slash. Or how about a turn-based city management game? You know what? I like these ideas. Let's pretend for a minute we have ourselves an average, fantasy based MMORPG that includes these three games on their website that are linked to your account.

First you have your side-scrolling hack and slash game, in the same vein as Golden Axe and Final Fight and those old Ninja Turtle games that ate up all your quarters. You'd pick a character, and play as a simplified version of your class while you tear through enemies and bosses from the various enemy factions in the game. Along the way, you'd collect a special type of coin that can only be used in this game. Collecting enough of these coins would allow you to unlock bonuses from the shop that would carry over to the main game, such as pets, mounts, or even useful consumables. You could also find treasure chests with actual currency for the main game or special rewards.

And we're back to the main game, in which, after you leveled your character to max and have a bit of gold handy, you go to a vendor and buy yourself some land. A warrior/mage/rogue/amorphous blob must have a home to go back to, right? You would be given a property and some farmland to help support it. The house and its amenities would be dealt with in-game, but some of those amenities would carry over to assist a Farmville-style game where you tend to the land. Not specifically your character, but the groundskeeper you hired that served as the unlock for the game. The currency from this game would serve to upgrade the property and house itself, eventually making it bigger, adding more furniture, more land to manage in the game as well as more in-game bonuses of course.

But wait, you say. City management? Yes, with a large enough property and/or with enough in-game currency (dual ways to unlock), you could purchase a larger spot of land and play a turn-based city management game. Your goal is to attract villagers to live there and keep them happy by building homes, creating jobs, ensuring food sources and creating places of worship. You would pick the locale, race of the villagers (Human, Elven, Dwarven, Amorphous Blob) and the resources of the surrounding area would be randomized, though lean towards certain things depending on locale. Far better chance of finding a mine in the mountains than in the grasslands, after all. This could unlock special titles, such as Lord or Baron, and players would be able to create trade agreements for resources to help each other.

These things would require a bit of work on the developers part to justify in-game, such as how it is possible to find so many plots of land for people to buy, but I'm going to assume someone intelligent and well-paid is capable of finding a solution. These games would make for an interesting alternate progression in a game, as well as a fun way to keep players minds on the game and company while away from a main computer and incapable of logging in. Some of these, such as the farming and city management ones, could easily make their way onto the iPad or iPhone/Droid platforms as well.

I find these little brainstorming sessions fun. Though it could serve to draw little attention, or drain resources from the development of the core game, I nonetheless find it interesting to think about the possibilities of working with unorthodox ways to expand a game. I think the social networking game could serve useful to some games on the market. WoW could add a few minigames to their site, or SWTOR could expand the companion system to let you play as them in some RPG style adventures when you send them on missions. The possibilities are pretty exciting.

Off topic for a moment, I have some exciting news. As I mentioned, I said I would be writing a bit more on SWTOR soon. Well, I now work for ForceJunkies as a columnist to help them cover the game up to and beyond launch. I'm very proud to be a part of the team and I hope you will look to them for The Old Republic news and game commentary.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Facebook's Gaming Social Cost

Tobold's posts on Facebook lately have given me a quote of his that got me thinking about Facebook games in general.

"Different games have different amounts of social cost, and if you are willing to pay that social cost, there are some good games to be found."

To recap, Tobold was banned from Facebook because he used his online moniker rather than his real name, and did not use his real life friends and family to advance in a Facebook game. Instead he met people online who wanted to play those games and progressed with them. He goes into more detail about what exactly is wrong about that second part: I'd like to focus on social cost.

Firstly, social cost can in a lot of cases be a big deal to gamers. "Outing" yourself as a gamer tends to have social consequences, as the debacle with that Gizmondo writer and the Magic the Gathering Champ displayed rather messily. Given that Facebook is typically connected to all of your closest friends and family members, spamming them with posts from a game is a sure way to out yourself.

I see a bit of an exception here though: I have family members and friends who are not gamers in the slightest (and would look down on video gaming as a hobby), but felt not a tinge of remorse or irony in spamming my Facebook wall with Farmville invites. They were just as dedicated to these things as I was to my WoW account.

It all seems a little weird until you realize a key thing about Facebook games: They aren't for gamers. I'm not talking about design and actual gameplay, because most gamers already know that Facebook games are too simplistic or shallow for their tastes. I'm talking about target audience. The rule about not meeting people online solely for the game is the key factor here. The target audience is the average person who has free time and knows little about games. A gamer can play Farmville, look at the cash shop and say that there are other games out there more worth his money. And there are. An average person is more likely to spend money and invite their friends to play and do so too.

I'm not only talking about the social cost that a person pays in order to play the game. The company pays a social cost too, in that their model pretty much prohibits communities from forming around a game. Though they exist, they are small and not very organized. Zynga hosts forums for them, but their largest section has 67k threads. Possibly ten times as many posts. Though it may seem like a lot, consider for a moment that this game at one point had 8.1 million players. That's 1 in every 120 players making a thread in the Farmville Discussion thread, not including the deleted ones.

World of Warcraft has 195,590 threads in its General Discussion board alone. And this is a forum that just launched with Cataclysm.

Facebook has enacted rules that shoot down any chance of a Facebook game cultivating a community of players, and that is why the crowds move from game to game, abandoning each one in the process. Most of you have already heard the news that Zynga games are hemorrhaging players at a rate far faster than WoW ever did. When it comes to making lots of money fast, Zynga has got it in the bag. But they pay their own social cost, and that is in an extreme lack of sustainability. Take care of your players, and they will take care of you. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What I'm Playing: October

Let's jump right into it, shall we?

City of Heroes - I picked this up as soon as it went free to play. It's been one of my favorite MMO's for quite some time, but I haven't been able to justify spending the money on a sub lately. Mainly because I spend some time with it, and then put it down for a week or two either because I get tired of the starting zone from creating too many characters, or get tired of running door missions. Regardless, I spent five bucks in the cash shop, which I didn't not anticipate wanting to do until I picked it up again. There are some clearly overpriced things in there, but a good portion of it is fairly priced. Costume pieces, for example, come out to close to a dollar each (or 10 bucks for a costume pack of around 20-60 pieces) and are account wide unlocks. So there's that.

The Sims 3 - Borrowed some disks of the expansion packs from a friend, and though I haven't tried the Facebook version (because I actually like my Facebook friends) I can see why the transition works incredibly well. It's repetitive, gives you rewards, and rather open ended on what you can accomplish yet gives you tangible goals at the same time. I am glad, though, that I borrowed them rather than bought. I am not of the mindset that any of the expansions (expecially the "Stuff" packs) are worth the money EA charges for them. Plus this game takes up a stupid amount of hard drive space.

Civilization 3 - I spent six hours over the course of 3 days building up a economical, scientific civilization before Otto Von Bismark declared war on me, and all of his allies ganged up on me when I tried to defend myself. I have never been so angry at a historical figure in my life.

Steam sales have been lackluster for me lately, so I may go back to KOTOR 2 and have a Light side playthrough. Tried to get KOTOR 1 to work but failed miserably and just uninstalled it. Team Fortress 2 is still on the list, of course, but barely worth mentioning.

A few notes at the end here, though. I may be doing some more writing on SWTOR soon, so keep an eye out for that if you are interested. Furthermore, I just wanted to pass along Levelcapped's link to a D&D Insider article.  I agree with them in thinking this is exactly what is missing from MMO's these days. It makes for an interesting read.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Customer or Guest? Part 2

Most of you likely know about the CCP's player council known as the CSM (Council of Stellar Management). Given the opinions that many of the blogs I read have of the CSM, finding out the S stood for Stellar made me chuckle a bit. Regardless, this is the most famous example of the voice of players having an impact on the game that they play. There are plenty who would love to say that devs mainly listen to people complaining on the forums after their favorite class was nerfed, but outside of the WoW forums most MMORPG's have very passionate, vocal and well-meaning players who post on their forums. The City of Heroes forums come to mind, as the devs even invite players to PM them on the forums with concerns, issues and questions.

Our question then is quickly answers: Being able to voice your opinion about things that devs control (game balance, feature suggestions, Moose mounts), have your "hosts" listen to them and have them actually address those concerns is clearly a game company treating you like a guest rather than a customer. Obviously the forums are a good place for this, as the most verbose and vocal of your customers will tend to congregate there. Or create their own blogs, which is pretty much the same thing with a dash of narcissism.

Is that even a good idea though? As Stabs could tell you, letting the wrong people into something like a Council can cast suspicions and doubt on every decision your company makes. But being so choosy about who is let on will make it appear as though you are only letting those who sympathize with you onto the Council. Having no council at all, yet expressly saying that you are listening is working great for Blizzard, as no one could tell if they were paying attention to their players until they started dropping subs like they're hot. You can see how this quickly becomes a PR nightmare. Yet, not listening to your playerbase will give you a situation like the NGE, so opting out is a huge mistake.

A customer is in some ways more than just a guest. A guest in your home is someone you enjoy having around, to laugh and have a good time with while you serve them dinner or host a World Cup party or what have you. A customer doesn't need to be any of those things, and yet you need them more simply because alienating them will bankrupt you. Like the guy who decides to tell you all about this neat thing that happened when he was drunk. He pays you to be there, and you need to tolerate him. Not only that, you have to act like you appreciate his presence within the system. Until he breaks a rule, of course, but the point is made. If that guy is a good portion of your playerbase, you need to work with him and not against him.

Players don't always know what they want, and what they want might not even be best for the game. As flawed as the system may seem, Blizzard's policy seems to win out. You can do your best to assure the customer that they are being listened to, and then take the action that needs to be taken. Their implementation could use a little work, such as when they made the leveling in WoW a joke, but the policy is solid. Ultimately the best voice a customer has is his or her dollar, which can be taken elsewhere.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Customer or a Guest?

For a new job I am starting, I recently had to watch three and a half hours of workplace training videos from the late 80's/early 90's on every topic from how to greet a customer to how to handle dangerous chemicals. This three and a half hours included the time I spent fast forwarding through bits when the HR manager left the room. Judging by my interactions with her in the past, I don't think she'd blame me in the slightest.

Regardless, one of the videos caught my attention. It was a corny one about a guy in a diner, saying he loved the diner because they treated him like a guest in their home rather than just a person they took money from. Given CCP's recent apology letter to their own playerbase, it got me thinking: do game companies treat their players as guests or as customers?

It's important to draw a distinction here for MMO companies: Most game companies only have to get you in the door to buy the game and then their job is done. Patching is sometimes done through Xbox Live or PSN but typically once they have your money they don't need to worry about the experience too much. This is the main reason we have shitty movie tie-in games: The companies know they will make a profit even if the game is garbage. MMO's, however, need to be able to retain players in order to make profit. And here's where the distinction in my title comes in: Customer or Guest?

Customer service, of course, is a big part of this distinction. After all, if late 80's training videos are to be believed, companies distinguish themselves the most in how they handle a problem rather than when everything is going good. So let's take a look at CCP's apology letter, shall we?

Everything before the section entitled "Incarna" is pretty much a flat out admission of what everyone knew who was keeping up with the fiasco. Taking personal blame onto himself is a bold (possibly arrogant in some lights) move, but not at all uncalled for given the playerbase's reaction. Some of us have already lost faith in the CSM and their effect on EVE, which makes the past few months seem like CCP could do nothing but wrong. I'm aware he addresses this concern at the end of the letter, but the apology is a lot of "I'm sorry" and not enough of "We're going to fix this."

Which is why I raised a brow at the second half, the section Incarna to the end. He doesn't actually give a new direction, or really reassure players that things are going to be going the way they want. This in particular popped out at me;

"Visual self-expression in a virtual setting is a core psychological component of gaming; most people need to see their avatars, or something vaguely humanoid, or else they don’t connect with the game. We were behind the curve and it needs to be addressed for the sake of EVE’s longevity."

Regardless of the response they got from Incarna, Hilmar here isn't apologizing for pushing the game in a direction that players were unhappy with. He's apologizing for not doing it right. Not a single person I have ever read or spoken to about EVE has said anything about wanting more personal customization, or a better avatar. Sure, they were cool, but then they launched into epic stories about pirates and corporations backstabbing each other and making millions on the market. EVE has never really been about what you see. It's been about what you do.

If I was an EVE customer right now, I'd feel like that apology pretty much set me on rails. Sure, I may be a passenger on the train and want to go somewhere, but the conductor is doing his best to convince me that where he was going is way better than my destination. If I had to answer the question in the title, I'd say I was being treated like a customer. The company needs me to spend money there to keep things going, but they don't necessarily want to do things the way I'd like them to. Nothing wrong with that, I can always find another company, but CCP doesn't seem to want to let their customers leave while they steer the ship in a different direction.

(Edit: Anjin has informed me that Hilmar's apology was paired with Zulu's announcement of features coming out this winter. This paints a far better picture for the direction the company is going, and renders my opinion in the above paragraph fairly void.)

But being treated like a guest doesn't mean they are going to do exactly what you want either. I don't go to my barber to get a great served meal, and I don't go to EVE to play dress up with an avatar. I have a favorite diner and City of Heroes to fill those shoes. Treating your playerbase as guests in your home, in your world or universe that you've created, means taking what they love and expanding on it, or giving them more of it, or improving it. World of Warcraft noticed that many people enjoyed the lore and boss fights in raid, but didn't have the time to commit to a raiding group. So in WOTLK, they made it incredibly accessible, cutting out the middle man (Heroic Dungeons) and letting players step up. Now, they are adding in an Easy mode for raids so that casual players can see raid content, and guild groups can do Normal and Heroic modes. Whether you agree with the changes or not, they are expanding on the things that they know a good portion of their playerbase will enjoy.

I think I'll stop this post here, for now. In the next segment, I want to address player's role in influencing company decisions and how it relates to the Customer/Guest idea.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Freedom Can Sometimes be Confusing

Before I begin this post, I wanted to take a moment to say that I broke 500 page views a month for the month of September. Hardly a big milestone, but it's one that I'm happy about. Just wanted to thank everyone who reads and those who take the time to comment and discuss with me. It means quite a bit to me.

With that out of the way, today's topic relates to the game I've been spending the most time with lately: City of Heroes Freedom. Besides being a far more patriotic title, it means the game has gone free-to-play. I'll spare the exact details, because if you have read an article on it you know the formula they plan to use. If not, Massively will fill that gap for you.

No, I wanted to talk about the design of their rewards program. I find it a very useful gating system, as well as an excellent replacement for the VIP rewards system they once had. You know, if anyone could figure the damned thing out. Let's pull up a screenshot, shall we?

So you got your levels. Tier 1 through 9, and then Tier 9 VIP which you can only unlock if you are a subscriber. All free players are automatically Tier 1, until they buy points, at which point they are upgraded to Tier 2. I'm not sure if they are upgraded to Tier 2 if they buy any amount of points, or if they buy the requisite 1,200 points (15 bucks, a month's subscription worth). You also get a Reward point for each month you subscribe and each year you subscribe. Regardless, from there you need to buy point or subscribe to fill out your tier and get to the next one.

Sounds easy, right? Not done yet. Each tier has certain benefits, the full listing can be found here. Yes, that is a link to a non-City of Heroes site. For some reason, I can't find this information on their site at all, nor in-game. (Addendum: Turns out if you hover your mouse over the bar on the right, it will tell you the permissions it unlocks. News to me.) Regardless, each tier unlocks certain things. For example, Tier 1 gives you "Local, Team, Help, Friends, League, Arena, Leveling Pact, Looking for Group, Emote, and Architect Communication Channels". And you don't get Broadcast chat until Tier 3, locking free players out of most zone-wide channels. Useful for keeping out spammers, yet keeping channels new players would use.

Things like the Auction House, Architect Entertainment and Invention system are locked until much higher tiers, though 30-day licenses for these systems can be bought on the cash store. Of course, all of these things are unlocked if you subscribe of course. Subscribers also get 400 points with their sub, so it's worth a look for those who are seriously looking into the game.

It's a useful system, if not blatantly telling free players they need to subscribe or pay real money to unlock most of the features. As with most new things, it's a bit daunting and new, but it is a way to reward players who play for free but buy a metric ton of points with most of the features subscribers would get. Looking at this chart, it would take 40,800 points to unlock everything a free player could unlock. Which is $510. Which means you probably should just go ahead and subscribe if you're thinking about doing that. Even if you spread those costs over 2 years, you'd still be paying $21 a month to gradually unlock something subscribers get for $15.

Is it a cash grab? Oh yeah. Is it hidden behind this chart and points? Definitely. Is it going to work? Absolutely. I'm playing for free, and I have an itch to buy points from them even though I wasn't willing to pay for the subscription. I commend NCSoft, and hope they find a lot of success with this. But damn it if I didn't have to refer to a wiki to research this post.