Thursday, September 6, 2012

Features All MMO's Should Have - Sidekicking from City of Heroes

Before I begin, I'd like to say I whole-hardheartedly  support the groups trying to save City of Heroes. I don't know if they can do it, and I'm not keeping my hopes up, but this would lift the spirits of many of the people who are down because of the game closing. I truly feel like we aren't losing a game, we are losing a home.

With that, I will begin another series, entitled "Features All MMO's Should Have". These are features that I believe all MMO's should launch with or at least make a priority during their development. Innovations comes in leaps and bounds in this industry, as we all may be aware of the huge contrast in playstyles between Guild Wars 2 and Mists of Pandaria. Similar, yes, but a vastly different experience. Therefore, I feel there are certain features that most of the industry should have by now, but for some reason they don't.

The first of these is the Sidekicking system found in both City of Heroes and Guild Wars 2. GW2 uses it in a more seamless fashion, but both titles will do just fine as an example. This system is meant to address a major flaw in the leveling system, and that is its nature to keep people from playing together.

This story may elaborate my point. My first experience with WoW was during Burning Crusade, where myself and a friend leveled up a Rogue and Hunter together. We played largely during the same times, so keeping together was never really a problem. We stayed roughly the same level. However, as the school year switched into a new semester, our availabilities shifted with them. Suddenly I was able to play much less than he was.

Due to this, his new Paladin got far ahead of my new Mage, and I ended up abandoning the character. Why bother when my partner was level 49 and I was 25? It was too far of a gap to cross. I couldn't do his content and doing my content was a waste of time for him. Our other options would be to force each other to only play those characters while we were playing together, which only served to restrain us, or for me to play catch up with his character alone while he didn't have time to play. I played those character to play with him, not to go around by myself.

The sidekicking system allows higher level players to play and receive reasonable rewards for content lower than them. This allows players to level at their own pace, and no matter what level you are you can find something to do with your friend. Furthermore, it expands the content a single player can do. If you have multiple areas with the same level range, one player can do all of them without having to worry about slowing down their progression. They don't have to worry about the most efficient way to do things, only the best way to have fun.

Online games shouldn't have to be about level anymore. They should be about playing with your friends and having fun. It's about time all games provide that.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I'm Tired of Saying Goodbye

This post is gonna get a little personal.

City of Heroes is closing down. This is coming at a time in my life where, as the title implies, I'm tired of saying goodbye to things in my life. You see, these past two years have been pretty rough for my family. Starting two years ago, my Oma (dutch for Grandmother) passed away. Then six months later, my Abuelita. Then my Opa. Less than a month ago, I found out my Abuelito is dying from cancer, and has six months to live.

I'm not comparing the shutting down of a video game to these personal tragedies, not at all. I would gladly give up every game I own for the chance to see them again, twice over. But online games have always been a refuge for me. When I don't want to worry about money, I figure out which WoW class I want to level next, or a concept for a City of Heroes character. It's been a constant in my life, a place where I can go to socialize with people who share a common interest, are nerdy like me and I don't have to worry about things going on in my personal life.

These past five years, City of Heroes has been a reliable place I can go. In Paragon City, I could fly around, run at super speeds or leap tall buildings while beating up the various (and sometimes ridiculous) villains of the universe. Or be a cheesy, dastardly villain who steals P.L.O.T. devices. I knew Paragon City, and I fit in there.

This post is delayed because I didn't know how to respond to the announcement. I read it on Twitter and thought it was a joke. City of Heroes had endured through many of the ups and downs of the industry, surely they wouldn't shut it down out of nowhere. But they did, and I felt kicked in the gut. Now, as this is sinking in I find myself in the predicament of trying to figure out how to say goodbye. There is so much I have never experienced. I have never had a max level character. I have never gone on a Hami Raid, or defeated Statesman or Lord Recluse.

I could try to do these things, to flesh out my experience in the game before I leave. Or I could sit and remember the times we had. The many Frostfire runs, the ridiculous adventures of myself and my friend, The Boogie Knight, and the times I spent with the Jerks Super Group started by Scott Sharkey. Words cannot express the quality of the community and the Roleplay I experienced in this game as well.

I find myself groping for another game to fill the void before this one leaves me, and I'm coming up empty. I bought Guild Wars 2 today, a decision many may disagree with due to NCSoft being the one who shut down the game. I don't blame them, I've seen the quarter call earnings. Aion brought in twice as much money as City of Heroes, and nobody I know has heard of anything from that game in months. I hope it will fill the void but I truly don't know. Even World of Warcraft cannot provide me the experience I found in that game. I doubt anything ever will.

What I am left with is a profound sense that no part of my life is sacred from the feeling of loss. Online games used to be my refuge, and now I am acutely aware that this ground is not safe either. It is difficult for me to trust to begin with, and investing myself in a new game will be significantly harder. You never do trust as easily as you do the first time.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Turning Lies into Marketing

By now, I think we're all familiar with the pattern: A game launches with a subscription, they don't get the numbers they want, and then they go free to play. Sometimes the company is quiet about it until its second launch, othertimes they try to be coy and fail miserably. As I mentioned in the last post of the Worst Case Scenario series, the F2P revolution always comes on the heels of the subscription model failing.

I titled this post "Turning Lies into Marketing" because I felt that companies always lie about going F2P, due to the stigma it attaches to their game. From what I understand, Secret World is an exception to this as Funcom is not shy about saying they might do it, but for the most part companies are ashamed of it. I say, why lie to your playerbase? Instead, make that transition a feature of your game.

Here's how it works: Take a 3-6 month period after the initial launch  and before you go free to play and call that the "Subscription Head Start". This will act much like a normal MMORPG launch. There is a box to buy and you pay a sub, except unlike normal MMORPG's you launch with a cash shop. The box is not necessary to play the game, but the subscription is, meaning that you can pay 15 bucks and get in for a month without the box. The box merely provides a free month, some cash shop currency, and something along the lines of a Founder's Pack which provides unique items you can't get anywhere else. A mount, a title, a cosmetic item, or whatever they like.

Keep the game running as sub only for however many predetermined months you like. It is important that this length of time is announced beforehand, as otherwise people will feel cheated. This time is known as the "Pre-Launch Subscription Head Start". People pay a sub to get a start on the game before anyone else. Then you have the true launch of the game, which is F2P. When that happens, you switch the model over to a tiered system, where the subscription members can keep paying to get a better experience than the F2P players, who have to pay to unlock things.

This system is transparent, easy to understand, and does not lie about the game's future as a F2P title. In fact, it banks on that as a feature and uses it to sell a head start to players. It's not a subscription game, you merely need to pay one to get ahead of everyone else.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Peter Molyneux and the Cube of Curiosity

An alternative title to this post was "What the Hell is Peter Molyneux up to?"

Seriously though, what is he up to? For background, I follow Peter Molyneux on Twitter and in the news because his old studio, Lionhead, is responsible for one of the first PC games I ever fell in love with (Black & White) and the man has an astounding ability to get people pumped about anything. In the time leading up to Fable's release, he promised us the moon and the stars, that this game would wake up in the morning and serve you eggs, toast, orange juice and bacon. Is it love? To Peter Molyneux it was.

We all know how that went, but you can't blame the man for having stars in his eyes and being able to make other people see them. But this new project is weird. This game, now called "Curiosity: What's Inside the Cube?", places all players in the same room with the same cube. You are given tools to pick away at this cube, but they are small. It is a group effort to open and dig through the layers. From what I understand, you can collect coins to get bigger picks, or even buy them with real money. But the catch is, only the person who delivers the final tap will see it.

I don't know whether to be mad, confused, excited, or apathetic. Molyneux promises what is inside will be "truly amazing" and "absolutely unique", but quite frankly, I think it's just an exercise of his hype abilities. For all we know, the only thing inside the cube is a youtube link to Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up". And if the final person doesn't have a recording tool available? Well, then the rumors fly, and I assume the game starts up again with new hype.

It's new. It's interesting. It's confusing. I don't know what to make of it. Is it art? Is it a game? Is it a social experiment? Is it an April Fool's Joke? I have no clue whatsoever. Do you?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Worst Case Scenario - The End of Subscription Gaming

I'd try to make myself look awesome for the fact that I wrote a post about SWTOR going free to play before it was announced, but everyone and their mother knew it was gonna happen so I'd just look like a moron. So, let's take care of some business before we begin: I apologize for my long absence, as real life caught up with me and I found myself sucked into World of Warcraft again. After some thinking, and a lot of post ideas coming up about WoW, I decided not to bombard this blog with those posts. I want to talk about the game, but don't feel like those discussions are up to the style of this blog. Because of this I've created The Westfall Field, a side blog meant for my WoW experiences. Pardon the look of it, I'm still fiddling with the layout settings. I'll be keeping my analytical and general MMORPG posts here, and will still mention WoW, but if I feel it is a topic that is solely for fans of that game it will be moved there.

Because if I don't update one blog enough, clearly the answer is that I need two.

So. For the finale of "Worst Case Scenario" we have a topic that I briefly touched upon in the SWTOR F2P article, and that is the death of subscription games. Many MMO fans are cheering this happening, partially because it means change in the genre and partially because I think they are cheap. I forgive them, because I am cheap too. However, that does not mean I agree with the idea that subscriptions should die.

These days, the rise of F2P games has been accomplished at the cost of subscription games. I can't count very many games lately that have launched free to play, but conversions from sub games are a dime a dozen. It's a proven business model, so why not? However, the saturation of F2P titles in the market can prove even more dangerous for the genre than subs. You see, one of the main hurdles of creating an MMO is the high price point. Many indie developers cannot hope to compete in the market because creating an offline game is much easier, and any subscription revenue would barely cover the costs to create new content due to how few players would be paying. Consider how worse that would be if F2P releases became the norm.

Indie developers would be shut out of the market entirely. Should the consumer base accept F2P launches as the norm, launching with a box and a sub to try to recoup development costs would be suicide for the game. Why would anyone buy when there are so many titles that they can get for free? Less small studios means less risks taken. SWTOR has proven that big companies are only willing to pay into models that are proven, and when the only models they think work are BC and WOTLK-era World of Warcraft, we have ourselves a near standstill in the evolution of games. I can't ignore the contributions of titles like The Secret World, but those are exceptions in a stagnant genre. Make F2P the standard, and the indie developers will put their resources into fields that they can compete in. I'm a WoW fan, but we don't need another title like SWTOR on the market.

You then may note that the trend in the industry is starting to turn to releasing a subscription game, and then switching free to play. Funcom has been quite open about this, but SWTOR was about as subtle as a tank driving through a residential neighborhood. They denied it all the way while driving directly towards it. It was borderline ridiculous the press releases they sent out. "You know, free to play is a good market to be in. Not that we're going to do that. We're just browsing." That kind of behavior may garner a few laughs now, but that will wear off fast. And what you are left with is a lack of trust.

Why would a gamer buy a subscription game now when they can wait a few months to get the game F2P, and with all the launch bugs ironed out? The answer is only impatience and hype. Those can only last for so long until mistrust of companies hyping up their games sets in. Deceptive marketing techniques won't sell a bad game, and especially one that is blatantly trying to use whatever system makes them the most money at the given time. We gamers know that this is a business, and businesses need to thrive, but changing payment models really makes us consider the money we put into a game and where it is going.

Even with all that, my least favorite part is what I mentioned above: F2P titles arrive on the death of subscription games. If there is any stigma that this type of model needs to distance itself from, it is that the company just did it because the game was failing. And though the word "Free" brings in customers, how many are driven away because they think it is only free because it sucked? I want to see this model succeed on its own merits, and not based on the death of the subscription service. And let the subscription service evolve to compete with F2P titles. If this genre needs anything, its a little more innovation.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Worst Case Scenario - Gambling with Games

Allow me to begin with a story: There is a Wal-Mart near my home I go to pick up groceries at, and if I have some time, I like to wander the electronics section. For a while now they have had a large Skylanders display set there. For those who don't know, Skylanders is a game that includes a platform you hook up to your system, and when you place any of their figures onto this platform that character appears in the game for you to play as. It combines a fun hack-n-slash kind of gameplay with a collect-em-all sort of mentality that I have found very charming.

I found myself wondering how this sort of marketing could be brought to true online gaming (Skylanders has an online version, just not a fully fledged online world) and my thoughts drifted to other miniature based games...and then found myself mortified at the possibilities.

Online gamers are familiar with the recent trend that some F2P titles have picked up of the grab bags. You pay actual money for a bag/box/safe/thing and you open it, receiving a random prize. Those titles have received flak for it, because this typically requires throwing a lot of money at it in order to get something you want. The numbers for getting everything are astronomical.

How does this relate to Skylanders, you ask? Well, currently Skylanders shows you the kind of figure you are buying. Imagine a game, like the HeroClix or any trading card game ever, where the characters, items and power ups you get are random. And that is the point of the entire game: An electronic trading card game.

That is my Worst Case Scenario of the week. A game that blatantly and obviously sells random chances at electronic items. Cards and physical objects have collector's value and could be worth something if the game becomes popular. But electronic items are at the mercy of the game itself. If the game ever shuts down, everything you spent collecting those things is gone. This is no different than any other game, but a chance system requires far more monetary investment than a subscription. Hundreds of dollars gone without a chance of turnaround.

Chance bags are currently a nightmare for games, yet nearly an unavoidable option. Sure, they paint your game as being unscrupulous, but the amount of money they rake in is no small amount. I'm sure the temptation arises, with the intention of using the profits to make things that are fair to gamers. And I'm sure the temptation to do it again is always there. Now imagine an entire game based around that. Let's assume two different types of currency: In-game earned and cash bought, similar to League of Legends style. Each can buy the same things, they just require different amounts depending on the currency used. Winning card matches gains you currency to buy booster packs to get more cards to win with. It's gambling and skill based gameplay all in one. There is a reason the real thing is so much more popular.

Yet, an electronic version requires so fewer resources and balancing is simple. The temptation of the chance bag profit? Multiply that into an entire game and you have an untapped market that just reeks of exploitation. Should it ever rise into major popularity it will be a sad day for online gamers, and I think the company behind it would deserve all the hate mail they get.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Worst Case Scenario: SWTOR Goes F2P

Apologies for the delay in posting, I've had some silly fiascos involving a broken down car.

So, as the title implies, SWTOR going Free to Play is a Worst-Case Scenario for me. This coming from someone who was once the lore columnist for Force Junkies and is no small fan of the setting. I have long since stopped playing the game, but the fact that the developers are openly discussing F2P has some very troubling inplications.

Now, many of us have our attention diverted for the moment, what with the Secret World out, and Guild Wars 2 and Mists of Pandaria on the horizon. It seems that SWTOR, once vaunted for its devotion to the 4th pillar, has been largely left by the wayside. By the way, did you know they are up to patch 1.3 now and added a dungeon finder? Oh, and they are adding a companion based off of HK-47. Didn't know that? The Devs know that you don't. And they are trying to get attention back to their game.

Why is it bad though? So many games have started with subs and moved on to the F2P model. But here's the issue: None of those games were Star Wars: The Old Republic. This game had an IP that drew on two huge fanbases. It pumped its marketing into the fact that it would be story based, the next big thing for MMORPG's. It put itself on a pedestal and failed to live up to the hype. Now it's got a long way to fall, and it could take big budget subscription MMO's with it.

Let's forget WoW for a moment, as it has proven itself a sustainable and profitable subscription game. It is an oddity in the MMORPG market by that virtue alone. No, SWTOR was supposed to be our last hope. It was supposed to prove that with a good IP and a solid budget you could create a game that could sustain itself on subscriptions. We were wrong. They didn't make the game fans were hoping for, and because of it they were largely forgotten. Let's face it: Strip away the storytelling and you basically have a very pretty, science fiction version of WoW during Burning Crusade. The Legacy system is a stand out feature, but it wasn't enough.

This -will- make companies hesitate before spending money on MMORPG's. You may think that this would make them shift to F2P titles, but we all know that the box sales do the company wonders for paying off all the work it took to make the game. That boost is required to pay the bills. Launch a F2P title and people will try it, hate it and not spend a dime.

No, this failure will bring something worse than just a lack of investors in the MMO industry. This will bring a scary trend where companies will deliberately release a game with a subscription and a box, and then switch to F2P once the crowd dies down. This won't become a strategy for lackluster games, this will become the status quo for any large company looking to invest. And it's completely legitimate because it's the last proven business practice left in the industry. Subscriptions can no longer sustain a game.

SWTOR going Free to Play is the title on my list that is most likely to come true, and I believe it will. And I certainly will not be enjoying the fallout.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Worst Case Scenario: Zynga Buys Blizzard

And thus begins another series, this one entitled "Worst Case Scenario". There have been some interesting bits of news lately that have left a few games with undetermined fates. This leads to some fun speculation from the community. Let's play Debbie Downer and pick out the worst possible scenarios that could happen. It'll be fun!

As you may have guessed, the topic of this one relates to the possibility that Vivendi may sell of Activision/Blizzard. Now, I can't say that I understand much about how a company is sold, how much shareholders have a say in the direction of a company, or even if the scenario in the title is possible, but currently Vivendi plans to sell its shares on the open market soon if there are no buyers. In which case...

What if Zynga bought majority share in Blizzard? Hell, what if Zynga outright owned Blizzard? I'm not trying to paint Zynga as a demonic company (that would be too easy) but there are undoubtably many complaints about the casual direction the game has been going. What if the casual game king started calling the shots at Blizzard?

First in my mind would be Blizzard's sudden integration with Facebook. Why shouldn't Facebook update with your achievements? Sounds like fun. You can even invite friends to WoW via Facebook posts on their wall. And do so automatically! And money to progress in the game? Of course they'd have a hell of a lot of that!

Alright, perhaps that's being a bit drastic. Even a company like Zynga knows that making such drastic changes would alienate the playerbase and cause the value of the stock that they just bought to plummet.  But with the casual direction that Mists of Pandaria is going, would Blizzard be able to take some pointers from the casual game behemoth? Absolutely.

Let's examine what Zynga is best at in games: Tiny, short actions that allow for meaningful interaction while at the same time requiring a lot of dedication in order to progress. World of Warcraft fits many of those ideals neatly. I can currently log in and do three quests, probably in less than ten minutes, and still feel like I accomplished something. I did that today. With MoP's additions of pet battles, the Tillers farm segment, and the massive amount of daily quests it would be easy to break play sessions into bite sized bits.

Assume for a moment that Zynga would honor any promise that Blizzard already made for the game. If you want to log in, do some dailies and maybe a pet battle or two, that would be fine. But micro-transactions would be king. How would you like to buy another raid lockout? Or perhaps remove your weekly limit for Random Dungeon rewards? You can bet you'd be able to pay for that. Pets in pet battles with extra stats or bonuses? That could be an option as well.

Let's make no mistake, these changes would be introduced in a way that would be spun as improvements to the game. Play as you want, as much as you want, for a small extra fee. You sub buys you something, but a little extra can buy you more. I wouldn't be surprised if the items that remove your weekly limit for Dungeons had charges, so you had to keep buying them week after week.

I could spend pages listing all sorts of things they could sell, but the important part is how content would change. Bare bones content would be released for those with a sub, and adventure packs would start to reign supreme. Zynga abandoned Farmville, and they would absolutely be alright with burning through WoW's massive playerbase for all of their money and then dumping it when the train runs to the end of its tracks.

So, worst case scenario? We see the end of WoW. Entirely.

Monday, June 25, 2012

That's Not how you Solve a Rubik's Cube!

New favorite quote about EVE Online, courtesy of PC Gamer's interview: “Here’s a Rubik’s cube, go f%$^ yourself,”

 It beautifully describes being thrown into the world of EVE Online.

Despite my amusement, that's not the part of the interview I wanted to address. It was actually the part where they sat down to critique ZeniMax's statement of “At this point in the evolution of MMOs, every MMO has tried something at one point or another that you’re going to do in your game. There aren’t any more truly innovative features.” 

This is very upsetting to me. I have been with the Elder Scrolls series since Morrowind (which doesn't sound long until you figure in how long each game takes to complete) and this just -reeks- of the development team giving up. Which is awful because some of the features in the Elder Scrolls Online seem quite fun and new for the genre. Real-time blocking and attacking, skill based systems and a three-faction system (alright, that's not new) all come together for what seems like it could be a fun PvP and PvE title.

It seriously concerns me when developers working in the MMORPG industry think there are no ideas left. Obviously EVE's developers spent some time in that article bragging about the upcoming DUST release, but they make a valid point. Integrating genres and having two titles interact with each other so closely is a brand new concept. Imagine an MMORPG where you could download your character onto a handheld and upload it back with the riches and exp they've earned. Or a card game where the deck you build determines the type of abilities you can use while dungeon crawling.

Those are just two examples off the top of my head. The indie gaming industry is proving the mainstream titles wrong in what can be accomplished. I applaud CCP for this effort with DUST. I think it will fail, don't get me wrong, but it's an awesome idea. I may be excited for Mists of Pandaria, but I am excited because I expect it to be more and better versions of the same thing I've been playing for a while. I'm excited for DUST because this is a brand new creature launched into the wild that even titles like Secret World can't hold my attention away from.

The MMORPG industry is very young indeed, and there are many ideas to be had. Leave it up to the big companies to refine what works. I want to see someone do something crazy. You know, like combine a space simulation with a first person shooter.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Defense of Blizzard - RealID

If anyone was wondering why I have been mostly absent this week, it was to come up with this article.

Real ID brings up a lot of emotions in WoW players, and most of them are varying shades of rage. It gave us a global friend system, but minus any sort of privacy. It used our real names, it didn't allow us to set our status to invisible (Only 'Busy'), and there was a glitch or two that allowed people to see the Real ID's of people who didn't even friend them. This pseudo-attempt at integrating social networking into WoW made a lot of people scream and quit. It's not hard to get the WoW forums to do that in the first place, but at this scale it was something to be noticed.

This is actually the post I've been working up to. Why defend this action by Blizzard? Partially because I wanted the challenge. And partially because there is a part of me that wants to believe there were good intentions with this project. It caused me to quit the game once, and from a company like Blizzard who I trusted? It was a slap in the face.

I mentioned in a comment in a previous article about my theories on Blizzard trying to create a network of games. Diablo 3, Starcraft 2 and WoW players can all communicate with each other despite playing radically different games. This network allows friends to keep talking, and keep in contact. Playing Diablo 3 and a buddy wants to get together a guild run of a Heroic? Now you can join in without giving them that much information. You don't need to tell them your phone number or address, just your name. For some of us this is difficult, as having unique names presents us with the problem of being found. For the John Smith's out there it is not so much of an issue. A particularly scary incident happened when a forum goer in support of this idea offered up his name, only to be called at his workplace not longer than a few hours later by another player. Luckily, the caller only wanted to offer a friendly warning, but it is a frightening prospect.

Gamers want to keep their virtual and real identities separate. I know my coworkers would consider me odd if I talked about my orc warrior's adventures, and vice-versa my WoW friends about work. So in order to defend Blizzard in this post I need to attack one of the most prized ideals of the internet: Anonymity.

Anonymity brings with it many things. Trolls can attack others beliefs without fear of reprisal, but it can also give sick or disabled homebound individuals the chance to have a social life without the preconceptions about their condition. It can house a breeding ground for predators or for well thought out discussion. But the one thing it will always do is create a mask for the user.
And this mask destroys the one thing that many of us rely on to protect us from others: Accountability.

Technology enthusiasts will find it no surprise that companies have come into the habit of looking you up on Facebook before bringing you in for an interview. What they see there is the public image you give to them, and many users wrongly believe that what happens on the internet stays on the internet. Why should our actions on the internet not be held against us? I can't go to the store in a mask and scream scream racial slurs at everyone until I'm blue in the face and arrested. Why should the internet become a haven for that kind of behavior? As much as many proud internet users would like to laud some of the successes of Anonymous, search around for a few minutes and you'll find they've done some messed up stuff. Probably not the same people doing both, of course, but by taking on that name you are supporting their actions.

I don't believe this is an issue of free speech or right to privacy. The second you step into a social environment, may it be in public or online, you should be held accountable for your actions. It may be a game, but it is still a public venue and because of this we should know who we are dealing with. Social rules keep us in line. They keep us from releasing some seriously ugly trolls we have hiding in our closets.

Furthermore, most of us post a good portion of our information on Facebook anyway. As I mentioned before, companies do look up your Facebook. If you didn't want that information out there, why create a Facebook? For those of you without a Facebook: Good for you. You understand how to not broadcast your information. You understand that you are accountable for the information you put out there. You are accountable for your actions. Why should that change because you are wearing a Dwarf mask today?

Is the system perfect? No. The concerns over internet predators and the terrible people who harass others are completely correct. However, the same systems they can exploit can be used against them. In-game harassment can more easily land a person in trouble. Doesn't matter if he hops on an alt, you know who he is and can avoid him. And so can everyone else. The social stigma with acting like that will marginalize them, and cause them to reform or leave. And with the threat of that punishment, players can build networks within the Blizzard family of games of people who just want to enjoy the game. Sure, Kraag the Orc Hunter is also known as Greg Allenson, but you'll be on even footing. Two people, friends even, just enjoying a game rather than finding themselves second-guessing who the other -really- is.


Well, just about everything I typed above runs contrary to my own opinions. It was a fun experiment, but I find the idea of losing my anonymity online to be appalling. Regardless, I need to add this disclaimer to this post and this post alone:

The above does not reflect my actual opinions, but for the purposes of this post, I will defend it against anyone who chooses to come to bat against the argument. Please note: I will delete any posts that choose to speak with anger or imply I am an idiot for holding these views. Even if I did hold these views, they are valid ones and I won't abide by personal attacks. If you choose to participate in this debate, thank you. If not, that's cool too. That concludes the "In Defense of Blizzard" series, and I hope to be starting a new one soon.

Monday, June 11, 2012

My Honeymoon with the iPhone

One thing I have neglected to mention since rejoining the blogging community is that I have become quite the fan of mobile gaming. This January I got my first smart phone (because I live under a rock) and proceeded to dive head-first into the gaming section of the app store. After weeding out the ones I found boring (Farmville), the ones I found expensive (Order and Chaos), and the ones I found ridiculous (Pocket Legends), I have come up with the following list. To prevent this from being a ridiculous long post I'm going to name one feature of each game that I enjoy or stands out the most. Without further ado, my games screen.

Yes, my phone plays Horde.

Triple Town - My girlfriend has managed to school me in every way involving this game. Still, I have a fondness for strategy games and this simple one manages to tickle that fancy. 'Simple to learn, difficult to master' is the phrase I would use to describe this game. The fact that it gives you coins as a reward no matter how far you get means that there is no real 'Lose' scenario, making every game enjoyable.

Tiny Tower - I picked this one up due to its similarities to Sim Tower, which I played quite a bit in my youth. It keeps you busy with maintaining the tower and the game has an excellent sense of humor. The work of the game is presented in bite-sized chunks like a good mobile game should, and I appreciate that.

Tower Defense - I can't say this game blew me out of the water. I've kept it on my phone because I bought it. It is a decent Tower Defense game with a fun story about colonizing an alien planet. Good for TD fans.

Words with Friends & Draw Something - I'm going to lump these together because the feature I enjoy the most is one they share. Being able to pick up a turn-based game at any time and play it with a friend is a feature I'd love to see transitioned into card games or turn-based RPG's. The technology is there, and I'd love to see it used.

Angry Birds - Because I own a smart phone, this was almost a mandatory purchase. I found these games far more difficult than I had originally imagined. The later levels can be pretty brutal. The fact that you can skip many using an Eagle is fun though, and even though you need to buy the Eagle it can make your experience smoother. Paying to not play the game though has its pros and cons though. It is a classic however and I respect its success.

Fruit Ninja - It's easy, it's visceral and requires 60 seconds of your time to finish a game, tops. I had a 5 year old successfully play this game. This is another on the list of simple-yet-challenging games. It's repetitive but rewards you for getting better. The star fruit option recently added gives a great dimension to the game with exploding strawberries and bomb blockers.

Jetpack Joyride - Simple, yet fun. The customization and upgrades are a charming and fun addition to the game, but the feature I have to pick out is this: The game is free, but "buying" it gives you a permanent double coins buff on your character. You can live without it, but supporting the devs while gaining a useful bonus is an idea that is well-received in my mind.

8-bit Ninja is nothing spectacular, so we're skipping that.

Infinity Blade 1 & 2 - Besides impressing the hell out of me as to what an iPhone is capable of graphically, the best feature I can pick out of this game is making the "lives" part of many games part of the story. Bloodlines and Rebirths tie into the story in a very real way and gets players involved in the game world in a way they can recognize. Many gamers don't question that they come back to the beginning of the level after their character dies, and this game makes you ask 'why'. It's beautifully done.

Last on the list is the most recent addition to my games list, Plague Inc. The premise is simple enough: You are given a map of the world and you need to develop your virus to wipe out the world. The combination of simulation and strategy is enjoyable, and though I find some of the challenges in what kind of plague it is to be annoying at times, it is a well crafted game. Despite damning it, the challenges only play off of features already in the game rather than adding new variables, which I found to be a nice touch.

My review of mobile gaming? Alive and a very viable platform for devs to tell a story or make a game. I'm preaching to the choir here, but just because many of the games are tailored for an audience that includes people other than traditional gamers doesn't mean it no longer counts as a game. Years from now we could be praising Angry Birds as the Mario of mobile gaming in terms of its contributions to the genre, and I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In Defense of Blizzard - Raid Finder (Going into Mists of Panderia)

For many, the idea of raiding in any online game entailed joining a guild of like-minded folks, scheduling out your raid nights, training with your team and finally praying it payed off right before the entire raid group collapsed forever after one attempt at the Lich King, denying your orc warrior his rightful Kingslayer title and making any future attempt to get it a waste of time since the increased level cap made the content trivial.

That's happened to everybody. Right? Right.

So, it came as a surprise to many when the Raid Finder was released: A new tier of raiding meant for the casual gamer who wanted to see the content but could not put in the time to dedicate to a guild. I'll admit, when I first heard about this feature I was against it. My experiences with raiding may have ended poorly, but the thrill of finally standing on top of Icecrown Citadel with the group who worked so hard to get there is my favorite moment, and my favorite screenshot. Imagine if all that hard work was taken away to give the content to people who didn't even do half the work? The guildless players who run heroics maybe once in a blue moon and couldn't bother to read up on boss strategies before walking into the raid. That content can't possibly be for them!

Hi. I'm Justin, and I've now become one of those players.

Sitting in the seat of a dedicated, 3-nights a week raider and then swapping that chair for the casual, Raid Finder gamer puts many things in perspective about Blizzard's design choice. It cannot be argued that content now sustains us for less time because almost all of the players can reach the end of Dragon Soul without having to dedicate too much time to the task, and the raid finder clearly brings many of the same problems that the dungeon finder does. But the keys to the eventual acceptance and success of this feature lie in its accessibility.

The timing of the raid finder was a funny one. Why introduce this feature in the last tier of content for an expansion? The best answer I have is that it served as a trial run. Blizzard needed time to fine tune the feature and get out the kinks; not only technical ones, but player behavior kinks. Loot distribution is a major problem for raiders. The best and quickest way to determine which loot system would work best is to crowd source it to ten million people. The hard part would be wading through the forum posts for the real problems people had with it.

What Blizzard found was that it made content consumption much faster. The raid that was supposed to sustain us until the next expansion would last as long as they expected. The solution? The endgame needed more. Not just raiding or PvP. The hardcore raiders and PvPers would stay, but the casual ones who chose the easy content would be out of content quickly. So in Mists, we now have hundreds of daily quests at max level and no daily quest cap.Other players might also be aware of the farming feature that was talked about briefly, The Tillers faction, which many people have compared to Farmville. And who can forget the pet battle system?

What does all this new content have to do with the raid finder? More than you might think. You see, Blizzard has its hardcore audience well intact. The ones who are there for the raids and the pvp are a fairly solid audience, although they are a small one. The casual group who may enjoy questing but ran out of alts to level up, or enjoy the mini-games that are scattered through the world during the leveling game now have something to dedicate their time to. Pet collectors now have a reason to keep going. The transmogrification system improved the game for roleplayers, gear collectors and old world raiders alike.

The raid finder on its own can be a confusing feature, but fitting it into the larger picture of the audience Blizzard wants to maintain helps to see how well it actually works. The period of exponential growth for WoW is over: It has a playerbase to maintain. And instead of being better than the competition they have decided to offer more than the competition. Though only time will tell if this strategy will have the effect they desire, as a casual player I will enjoy these features immensely.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mini-Post - Diablo 3 and Non-Standard Fantasy

This is more gushing than it is analysis, but I thought I'd share.

I enjoy the hell out of Diablo 3's characters, pun intended. The main characters, that is. The Barbarian, Monk, Wizard, Demon Hunter and Witch Doctor all have quite a bit of personality. And what I find most interesting about them is that they embody the world they are from: They are between heaven and hell.

Each character embarks on the quest to eventually kill Diablo, all for different reasons. The Barbarian for a worthy challenge, the Wizard to fulfill his or her destiny, the Demon Hunter for revenge, and the Monk and the Witch Doctor answer to a higher power. They are not doing so for altruistic reasons. They are called to do so by their own will and choice. And all of them are not good or evil. Even the Monk, who is the most divine character, flat out tells the mayor of New Tristram that he is a coward and should die. His conversations with the Templar note that he is typically sent to hunt down criminals. There are not nice people, and I think that's fantastic.

It is quite easy to get into the head of one of these characters (except the Witch Doctor, but anyone who spends their free time collecting jars of spiders is one train ticket away from crazy town) and have very clear motivations. They fight beings of pure evil and ally themselves with beings of pure good, but they distance themselves from both. They fight evil because it is destroying the world, and hang out with good because Tyrael is trying to save their asses. Their motivations are fairly selfish, and I'm sure if the demons weren't threatening the world none of these characters would care about them.

They represent humanity. They are selfish and concerned with their own world and well-being, and it works. Diablo 3 isn't about saving the world to fulfill some higher purpose. It's about killing demons because F#$% demons.

Monday, May 28, 2012

In Defense of Blizzard - Real Money Auction House

Mixing money and MMO's has always been a tricky business. Players are quick to accuse developers of trying to "sell power", a term that can blanket almost anything that is not a cosmetic effect. Regardless of your opinion of developers selling power it is a fact that it does increase the bottom line for a company as well as give players a way to further support the games they enjoy. For Free to Play games this can be its only lifeblood.

Diablo could very easily fall into the category of a no-subscription MMO. One of the only major differences between it and Guild Wars is that Guild Wars makes towns public areas. Other than that, you can play both without interacting with another person at all. Having an auction house is just one of the many things that MMO players just expect to have in their online games. A real money auction house takes things to a whole other level.

Let's first hash out the details of this: It will be a separate entity from the current Auction House, so you need to choose to use it. You are free to buy something on one AH and sell it on the other, meaning you can flip items for profit of gold or money. Furthermore, it will keep the fee of the normal AH, so you would need to pay a small, real money fee to Blizzard to sell it. From my understanding, they only deduct the fee if you actually sell the item, and for equipment the fee is $1.00 USD and commodities are a percentage based. There is more in-depth information here, but that is the short and long of it.

Blizzard introduced real money into their game, and gave players a way to buy power, but they are buying it from each other. This was enough to make many sit down and think. Generally, the blogging and gaming community has been against buying power in games, but buying it from other players is a different ballpark. Someone earned it, whether through luck or hard work, and decided he wanted something in return for that item he didn't want to use. If you want to enact that trade with real money, why shouldn't Blizzard provide that service in a safe manner?

Let's face it: People are still buying Diablo 2 character to this day. I just typed in "diablo 2 character selling" into Google and my 31.5 million results should be enough proof. (Note: Please don't click any of those links.) The market is there and thriving, so why not give the players what they want? They may not be willing to admit they want it, but the demand is there. Blizzard just chose to make it safe and reliable.

Though it may cater to the many people who can (or believe they can) make a profit off of buying low and selling high, the reality is that many of its users will use it like the Auction House we have today. The average smart player will sell a nice item, and then use that money to buy another item that is more useful to him or her. It is an extremely useful tool and side option to grinding gold in the game. As I mentioned above, equipment has a $1.00 selling fee attached to it, but I highly doubt that many items will be listed above 5 or 10 dollars. And the items that are listed will be ones worth buying, not garbage. Or just garbage masquerading as good items, but that is beside the point. You'll get your money's worth, and it won't break the bank.

Even more encouraging, the fact that Blizzard is doing this fee system can put players' minds at ease of the RMAH's intent. The servers to run Diablo are going to cost money to maintain, and the RMAH will solve that issue. It is a nickel and dime process, but it will keep the game running much better and longer than the money from the box sales will. More importantly, that excess money can go towards the company and developing an expansion pack or two. Starcraft 2 has its eye on two more installments and I am not counting Diablo 3 out of this one.

With this move, Blizzard has put together a system of introducing real money into a game that provides a benefit to its players, to the company, to the game, and puts its players minds at ease about the company's intentions. Blizzard is not trying to sell its players cheats to progress quicker: Every trade will be with another player who earned that item. Even buying gold won't be an issue, as I'm sure some items will circulate for the sole purpose of buying on the RMAH to sell on the standard AH for gold. A win for the players, a win for the company, and a loss for the gold sellers and bots. I don't see a reason not to support this move.

On another note, my Demon Hunter is having a really hard time keeping up the dark and brooding act while wearing bright pink, knee high boots, courtesy of the Auction House.

Monday, May 21, 2012

In Defense of Blizzard - Always Online DRM

Before I begin, a brief note: Besides the guest keys for the starter edition, one of the most exciting things I found in the Diablo 3 box was a Diablo themed notepad. I have no idea why. Probably because I am a man who loves his lists. This may explain why I enjoy reading Bullet Points so much.

Back on track, on a wonderful suggestion I've decided to do a trial run of a series of posts based around a theme. This first run will be in defense of Blizzard's more controversial decisions. I hold no illusion that Blizzard requires defending, but in a sea of those who enjoy bashing the company I'd like to try my hand at challenging those arguments, if only to explore both sides.

This first post will be in defense of Blizzard's (not-so) recent decision to make Diablo 3's gameplay online all the time, regardless of whether you choose to take advantage of the online features. In the days since launch, I don't feel like I need to explain  how this can go sour. It is largely considered DRM because it prevents players who only want the single player experience from playing the game alone, it prevents used or pirated copies from being played (for now, those pirates will find a way somehow) and it keeps anyone without an internet connection from playing the game entirely. This feature alone has caused its Metacritic score to fluctuate wildly, with low fan scores flooding the site in protest of this feature.

I won't argue that point: Having to be online all the time is a hindrance to the single player experience. Blizzard could have easily chosen to create a single player mode that detaches itself from the online experience entirely. Give it some limitations, such as not being able to play on the highest difficulty or something of that nature, if only to encourage players to play online. But locking out the solo'ers and anyone without a dedicated internet connection was a low blow to many.

However, connecting Diablo 3 to servers wasn't done arbitrarily and it wasn't done without significant benefit to the players. Blizzard did not stop at simply adding DRM: they made the DRM part of the experience. The connection to, the auction house, and the seamless co-op gameplay.

Let's work our way backwards through that list. Connecting Diablo 3 to your account allows players to rather seamlessly hop in and out of co-op games, or at least when it comes to hosting. Opening up your game to the public allows others to hop in and out as they please, which can only assist and enhance your experience. Loot and gold are automatically divided up, and the difficulty adjusts for each person who joins. You get to progress in your storyline and those who join get their experience and loot for the assist. Hopping into someone else's game requires a few more steps, but if you have friends with the game you can easily link up with them and roll out into a dungeon.

The last paragraph is completely pointless to solo players: They want to take their character and conquer Diablo himself without any assistance at all. For those who enjoy the hack and slash genre the multi-player offers no replayability at all. But there may be times when a wealth of gold and a lack of items may strike a player. That is where the auction house comes in. Disregarding the real-money AH (which has yet to be implemented anyway) the AH allows players to skip some of the grind and pick up the items they need to progress. This adds an entirely new dimension to the game that many WoW players are familiar with: Either rely on random chance to get the gear you need, or save up a form of currency to earn it. Either way involves work, but now players get a choice as to how they want their work to be rewarded. Gold is not hard to get in Diablo 3, and there aren't many things to spend it on. The Auction House relieves that while providing a more stable way to receive rewards. Even if you don't want to play with others trading with them is just as viable an option.

Even if a player chooses to forgo both the auction house and the multiplayer, it is hard to imagine that player living in a vaccuum. They may frequent a forum, be a part of a gaming group or have some real life friends who enjoy the same solo challenges they do. The achievement system alone allows players to hand off links to their characters, showing off their achievements and gear easily. We may laugh at the kid now, but in a gaming world that is dominated by achievements, trophies, and even Facebook posts that record our milestones, gaming has become a far more social experience than in its early days. Your Xbox Live profile and Steam profile showcase your achievements, even if you only play single player games. Blizzard is trying to turn into that kind of network and they are doing it well.

The always online DRM may place restrictions on those who cannot or do not want to play on the internet, but it frees us in more ways than it restricts us. Cross-game chat allows the thousands of Annual Pass buyers to keep in contact with their WoW friends (who are probably playing Diablo anyway) while still playing the game they enjoy. That simple act of communication is a huge wall being torn down. Blizzard is pulling down the walls between their games to allow their players to communicate and share while still doing the things they enjoy, rather than making them regret their decision to leave their WoW friends to play Starcraft or Diablo. We, as gamers, are very used to the idea that playing a different game means abandoning the previous one. Any loyal Blizzard customer doesn't have to now. Perhaps these console gamers have really got something here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Brief Update - What I'm Playing

I have a more detailed post forthcoming, but I thought it'd be nice in the meantime to give a rundown of what I've been playing.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have stopped playing SWTOR. By far the largest reason for this is not due to lack of content, or boredom with the game mechanics, but it demands too much of my attention at any given time. Having a well thought out reason and story to my quests started to bother me due to my shortened gameplay times. It's like being constantly interrupted during a movie and having to pause it repeatedly and then come back the next day. The stories were great, don't get me wrong. But it just asked too much of my attention as a player.

I suppose that would reflect poorly on me and my attention span, but when it comes down to it, if I'm not having fun it's time to move on.

Mobile games have recently taken a front seat, and I've had my eye on a few concepts, specifically the back and forth, pick up and play aspects of games like Words With Friends and Draw Something. I would love to see this kind of feature implemented in turn based strategy games, but at the moment I only see a few taking advantage of the feature.

I have returned to WoW thanks to a very wonderful woman in my life who has decided she wants to pick up online games with me, so having someone to play with has reinvigorated my interest in the game. So inbetween bits of playing with her I have been leveling my 80's to 85 in preparation for Mists of Pandaria. So far my bear druid is at 85, my Prot Warrior at 81, my Prot Paladin at 81 and my Blood spec DK at 80. Can you tell I like to tank? I cannot wait to try out Brewmaster tanking on a Pandaren.

For longtime readers, yes, I'm aware of the irony of the last paragraph.

I picked up and then put down Mass Effect 3. I was hesitant due to the bad publicity, but picked it up and do not regret my purchase. I haven't finished it yet, but it seems so many people complaining about it enjoy glossing over the fact that nearly every plot from the first two titles is wrapped up in the third. For longtime players, it makes for a very satisfying journey. I haven't reached the end, so I won't comment on it.

And I will likely have a post or two about Diablo 3. My brother received a review copy (as he is a game journalist), so I will be spending some time with it very very soon. I've always enjoyed the Angels vs. Demons stories, so I'll be interested to see this next iteration.

And lastly, I recently attended a meeting of the IGDA (Independent Game Developers Association) where we got to hear Michael Gnade, founder of Indie Game Magazine, talk about the right and wrong ways to market an indie game. Very interesting stuff. As a writer, I was aware of some of his talking points, but the whole experience of his talk and the organization gave me a lot of hope for game developers around my area. I'm looking forward to the possibility of joining a project in Philly soon. I highly suggest finding one in your area. Even if you don't want to develop a game or join a project, it was a great experience just to be in a room of people talking about design decisions and the processes that go into creating a game. Click the link up there and take a look. It was the best decision I've made this month.

Friday, May 11, 2012

On Personas and Long Absences

Whether you are reading this because I was not removed from a blogroll or feed (whether due to forgetting or faith in my blog), or because of new initiative on my part to revitalize this blog, welcome or welcome back to Straw Fellow's Field. My life has recently been through some hectic times for me, and as of now it has both steadied and become more hectic. As of yesterday I am no longer a part of ForceJunkies through my own choice. They are a fantastic website and I wish the Rerollz network the best in everything they pursue, but I no longer play The Old Republic and no longer have the time to keep myself up to speed on it.

Due to new employment, my schedule has steadied and this blog has always been in the back of my mind. I stopped writing because it became a chore to keep it up alongside my ForceJunkies work and I apologize to all of my readers who I have disappointed. I will make no promises, but I sincerely wish to rejoin the community I enjoyed so much last year.

When I first created this blog, I created the persona "Straw Fellow" both as a means to keep my identity safe and separate the part of my life that had a passion for gaming from the everyday. Almost every game forces you to do this in some way, whether it be under the guise of Marcus Fenix or a character of your own creation. You could say it is a bit of a habit for us all. Nils, Tobold, Syncaine, Gevlon and many others all chose new names and identities to signify their entry into a different world. How much thought went into each name as well as any potential meaning behind it is irrelevant: They were setting their passion for writing about games into a separate area of their lives in a very neat package with a title.

I know for a fact that Tobold has openly stated the reasons he doesn't release his true identity, and I feel that Nils has at some point as well, though I can't be sure. I may be thinking of another blogger. My own reasons were due to a very recently recognized sense of shame. It is not a secret that having a passion for something that is commonly seen as toys for children can bring some weird looks at best, and at worst being outright shunned. That may be a bit dramatic of an explanation, but the point is made: I've never felt my passion has been respected very much.

With that, I've decided I no longer like having a persona. My passion for games is not just an enjoyment of the titles, but of examining game features, discussing trends in the industry and immersing myself in rich, well-written and designed worlds. It is a part of who I am, and not something I want to put in a box to be pushed aside when it is given odd looks. I want it to be a recognizable part of my life.

And with that, I say hello. My name is Justin Puik. It's nice to meet you.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Revivification of Spriting

I hope everyone had a happy new year. I apologize that I have not been updating this blog, as my life has recently become a bit hectic, but I hope to return to a regular posting schedule soon.

Onward to the topic at hand: Sprites. To explain, sprites are the type of art work used in 8, 16 and 32-bit games. There was a surge of Sprite comics about a decade ago with the rise of Bob and George and other projects like it, and it was quite popular for fans of those comics to create their own characters and artwork. I was one of these fans back in the day, and learned a bit about creating sprite sheets for animations.

With the popularity of smart phone and tablet games, sprites have come back into the scene as a viable artistic style for designers. Angry Birds, for example, uses sprites, and is a million dollar business now. It is either a coincidence or a natural progression that those who were fans of the sprite comics ten years ago now have skills that are marketable. I wouldn't be surprised if that was how many of them started.

Not to insult sprite artists, because they do magnificent work, but this medium lowers the bar for amateur game designers. So does the entire smart phone platform, of course, but sprite work in particular is an easy style to learn.

I find myself a little sad to think that it may be phased out once more. The DS was the final handheld system to use sprites, though the PSP had them in select titles, and the smart phone platform may migrate in that direction as its gaming potential is explored. I feel as though there would be holdouts for a good measure of time, seeing as mobile games tend to lean towards casual and quick playstyles. But that doesn't change that it is one of my favorite art styles and the most memorable (in my opinion) in video game history.

I think I will return to that hobby. Certainly could be useful.