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.