Archive | August, 2012

Tips for the GW2 player

First of all, if you haven’t read Pewter’s excellently handy post full of GW2 tips and tricks, go!

Second, I thought I’d share a few tips of my own.

  • Alt-left click splits a stack of items.
  • Ctrl-left click pastes a link in chat.
  • Doubleclicking an item is usually a shortcut for the default action with that item.
  • If you want to take screenshots without them featuring the back of your head, /sleep first. Your character lies down but the camera doesn’t follow, so if you get the positioning right you can capture lovely views without your character in the way.
  • Every racial capital has an Asura portal which will take you to Lion’s Arch, the hub city for the game. Lion’s Arch has portals back out to every other city. So if you’re playing a different race from your friends, after you do the initial tutorial instance you can run into your local capital and pop out in theirs, to team up with them.
  • From level 11, you get access to Traits. Unlike the previous Weapon Skills and Slot Skills, you can’t just dump points in your traits straight away. You’ll need to find your class trainer (look for a book icon on the map; if all else fails, there’s one in your racial capital city) and buy a book from them to unlock the Adept level of traits. This costs 10 silver.
  • Class trainers can also respec your traits, for a fee. This scales based on your level.
  • Attacks don’t require a target, so if you have an attack that involves a charge/dash/blink to an enemy, you can also use it in cities for getting around faster.
  • If you’re taking cooking as one of your crafting skills, try applying real world logic to the recipe discovery process. Meat plus seasoning equals steak. Meat plus bread equals hamburger. Meat plus bread plus cheese equals cheeseburger. And so on. :)
  • Unlike other games there’s no drowning mechanic. You can stay underwater as long as you like.
  • Levelling underwater weapons can be a pain; Grawlenfjord in the Norn starting area (Wayfarer Foothills) is a really good place to do it. There are lots of underwater monsters, and they’re mostly non-aggro so you can take them at your own pace.

Grawlenfjord

That’s it for starters; I’ll share other tips if I come across any. (I’ll probably add them in the comments as well as editing the post, to make it easy to follow updates.) Feel free to share your own in the comments! GW2 is a very fun game, but because it doesn’t follow a lot of the MMO conventions, there are mechanics one doesn’t always think to try…

GW2: first thoughts from the blogosphere

Needless to say, the blogosphere has been lively with reaction posts musing on the first day (and a half, now) of Guild Wars 2. My own post was fairly critical, mostly because I find it hard to find good things to say — not that I’m not enjoying it, I just can’t articulate exactly what it is about the game that appeals to me, whereas I can articulate what niggles. I think it’s that it’s pushing my ‘explorer’ and ‘completionist’ buttons in a big way; it’s the most rewarding game to just run around and see stuff in since… I can’t remember what.

Lion's Arch

Other people have had interesting things to say about GW2, too, so I thought I’d link to some of the posts I found most interesting:

And now I’m off to bed. It’s so tempting to do “just one more POI”, but that way lies madness. Or, at least, sleep deprivation come tomorrow.

GW2: the real deal

Well, GW2 is live, finally — at least, for everybody who’s prepurchased, which I assume is everybody who cared about the game by now. And now that the beta’s over and we know that things are (generally) working the way they’re supposed to, obviously the way we assess the game is different — no more cutting the game a break because it’s still in beta, or waiting to see if things change before release.

A cave in the Norn lands.

Although I’ve definitely been having fun, and largely in the manner I expected, I have three major points of dissatisfaction today.

Number one: the money.

The “Digital Deluxe” edition of the game feels like a complete ripoff. For an extra twenty bucks over the standard edition, you get:

  • one elite skill that you can’t unlock until level 30 (I’m not sure yet whether it will prove to be actually worth using or not)
  • a non-combat banker NPC, as is common with collectors editions of other games, except the one in GW2 permanently expires after five days
  • one rare piece of gear
  • two one-off consumables, a Tome that boosts your guild influence, and a Chalice that boosts your PvP Glory (which is basically currency points a la WoW’s Honor Points)
  • a non-combat pet

In addition, the two consumables and the non-combat pet are only available to the first character that claims them; alts only get the elite skill and the temporary banker NPC.

Now, I realise that some of this was disclosed on the purchase page (the one-shot nature of the consumables, and the temporary nature of the banker pet), so there’s no sense complaining that one was cheated (although it was hidden in mouseovers). But it definitely feels pretty thin compared with the rewards one gets for other games’ special editions. (By comparison, buying RIFT’s deluxe edition scored you a non-combat pet, a giant backpack and a mount from level 1, for a very small extra cost.)

Number two: the interface.

The UI is frustratingly uncustomisable. Let me move my target frame somewhere useful, please? Let me up the opacity of the chat frame so I can actually read it? That’d be nice. And hey, while you’re at it, how about letting me change chat channel colours? That’d be lovely. And so on; you know the deal. This is the least customisable MMO UI I’ve ever played with, and one of the least pleasant in its vanilla state. That’s not a good combination.

(And hey, while we’re at it: why is there no first-person camera zoom level? I do not WANT the back of my head in all these screenshots, please.)

Number three: together alone.

This is the big one for me; the game is really not conducive to playing with friends.

When your server is crowded (and right now they’re all crowded), more often than not when you enter a new area you get shunted to an overflow zone. If you’re already in a party, you have a better chance (but no guarantee) to be put in the same overflow area — but if not, or if your partymates are in a non-overflow area, you just can’t join them and you’re stuck playing by yourself. That’s frustrating and unfun.

And even when you’re in the same phase, you simply can’t help your friends with the vast majority of what you’re all doing. There are no collaborative abilities (edit: more correctly, I should say that there are limited collaborative abilities, and most ally-helping effects are general rather than directed) — in ANet’s attempts to break the restrictions of the holy trinity, there are no tanks (no way to protect your squishy friends) and no healers (no way to help someone who’s fighting for you). You can’t help your friends’ progress towards finishing a renown heart the way you can help your friends get credit on a more traditional quest. You can’t help your friends get credit towards an event. You can’t put a friend on follow when you need to run for a bio or to answer the door. There isn’t even a /thank emote.

That said, I’ll give them kudos for one thing — on your “personal story” quest chain, other people can join your instance and they can get credit for their own quests, although they don’t get to do the story portion personally. Given how frustrated I’ve been with TSW’s excessive Solo Instance quests lately, at least ANet got that one right.

This is a particularly timely issue given that the blogosphere is currently talking about individualist vs collectivist games, thanks to Stubborn over at Sheep the Diamond. Speaking as somebody who prefers collaborative gameplay – I’m a collectivist at heart, and fortunate enough to have a good group of MMO buddies to play most games with – GW2’s incredibly individualist approach is frustrating and a lot less fun than more ‘traditional’ MMOs.

I’m hoping this changes at higher levels, but at this point in gameplay, it definitely feels like a watered down MMO experience. For a while now commentators have complained about MMOs losing the “massively” aspect to which they lay claim — it kind of feels like GW2’s trying to do away with the “multiplayer” part too.

The GW2 final countdown

For once, being at the ass-end of the world (I’m Australian) pays off — while Americans are staying up til midnight or later for Guild Wars 2’s early access headstart, here it opens at a very civilised 5pm on Saturday.

Lion's Arch concept art

I’m not actually sure why I’m looking forward to GW2 so much. For starters, I don’t have enough time for the games I want to play already. And then there’s the fact that, Dynamic Events aside, GW2 feels kind of … shallow. I like immersive games, and GW2 is the opposite of immersive.

And yet it’s shiny, and I like the exploration and discovery aspects, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the beta weekends I played. So I’ll be queuing up with everyone else in an attempt to claim my small portion of Tyria (and, hopefully, my preferred character names), although I’m not sure how long it will hold my interest, or how successfully it will compete with other games I already know I enjoy.

I’m also trying to work out what to roll, character-wise, especially when it comes to playing with my friends. Most of them seem to be going for humans first, but the human females creep me out — the combination of “doll-like childish looks” and “exploitative armor” (especially for casters) is not a good one.

So, I think my first three characters are going to be:

  1. Norn elementalist — the Norns are attractive without the ick factor of the human girls, their starting area’s fun and beautiful, and elementalist is probably my favourite of the classes I tried. (Especially the lightning aspect. ZZZZZZAP!)
  2. Asura mesmer — I’m not usually a fan of the small races, but I loved the style and aesthetics of the Asura starting area.
  3. Sylvari guardian — I’m not set on the race for a guardian, but I enjoyed what little I played of one in the beta, certainly more so than the other melee classes professions.

I barely tried ranger, I didn’t enjoy thief, and necromancer was okay-but-uninspiring. I haven’t tried warrior or engineer, though I watched Kris play both of them.

I do have some qualms about GW2 (although admitting them is tantamount to inviting a dogpile from the GW2-can-do-no-wrong zealots):

  • Like Azuriel, I think Dynamic Events will lose a lot of their lustre after the first few weeks’ worth of levelling hordes have passed through the zones. Those that rely on larger player numbers will never happen, and for those of us who are completionists it’ll be frustrating to know there’s content we’ve never seen because there’s no way of going back to find something; it’s all random chance, or triggers we don’t know.
  • Although I like the fact that GW2’s system means everyone gets to share mobs and resources equally, I lament the loss of incentives to socialise. Commentators regularly criticise modern MMOs for promoting “together alone” solo gameplay, and I think GW2 takes it a step further than I’m happy with. It’s nice that people can’t grief you, of course (especially given the apparent toxicity of the GW2 community, based on their pre-launch behaviour), but it’s less nice that there’s no incentive to interact with anybody ever. No need for healing, no need to party up for a tough quest or challenging mob, just blast away next to a row of nameless compatriots without ever saying hello.

So, we shall see. I’m still looking forward to the game’s launch, and I’m interested to see how their innovations will play out, but I have to say — if this is what the new generation of MMOs will all look like, I think I prefer the previous generation.

Good news, Mac-owning LotRO fans!

The upcoming Riders of Rohan expansion for LotRO from Turbine

With the de-NDA-ification of Riders of Rohan, the upcoming LotRO expansion, comes the news that Turbine’s been working on a native Mac client for LotRO.

My main Mac is a little past its best for gaming now (it’s a six-year-old Mac Pro), but I’ve long thought that developers ignored the Mac at their own risk. There are so few MMOs available for the Mac that those that are (such as WoW) have something of a captive audience. Off the top of my head, I can only think of WoW, EVE and CoH that cater to the Mac market. Even before they were a phenomenon, Blizzard has always made an effort to develop all their games in a Mac-playable variant – and in fact their install discs always had the installers for both OSes right on the same disc. I know a lot of Mac users who really appreciated the consideration, and I’m pretty sure Blizzard profited handily from it. (Well, if it hadn’t been profitable, they wouldn’t have kept doing it, would they?)

I really hope this pays off for Turbine, because I’d love to see more developers follow suit.

What makes a good MMO setting?

The recent Shadowrun Online kickstarter prompted a bit of thought on my part, as — unlike to most Shadowrun fans — I’d always felt that Shadowrun would lose a lot in translation to MMO-land. 1

So what does make for a good MMO setting, when you’re talking about existing IPs from books, movies, television and existing non-MMO game franchises? I’m not sure I know, but I do think there are some important factors to consider. (Note that all these apply to themepark MMOs, rather than sandbox games, as they’re a rather different beast.)

Books! Image CC-licensed by A30_Tsitika on Flickr

1. What makes the original IP engaging?

This is something my tabletop gaming GM 2 and I have often thrown around as a criterion when thinking about what makes for a good roleplaying campaign, 3 and I think it applies equally to MMORPGs. Think for a moment about the original IP (especially for books/movies/TV) — is it interesting because of the adventures (or personalities) of the protagonists? Or because the setting itself is interesting? Could you imagine another group of characters having an equally interesting time in that world?

Most original tabletop RPG settings succeed against this criterion (because it’s their job to provide interesting adventure and challenges for any group of characters); TVs and books and movies are more of a mixed bag. As an example: Star Wars and Star Trek both succeed, because the world is full of interesting adventure for anybody. Doctor Who, on the other hand, fails; there aren’t that many Time Lords out there, and for everyone else, life’s going to be pretty mundane. There are some cases where the story is about the protagonists yet there’s a rich backdrop behind them (such as Farscape, Firefly, or Babylon 5), but in general most character-driven stories aren’t likely to be very interesting for the people in the background.

2. Is there a power scale?

Unless you’re talking about entirely sandboxy games where players make their own fun, you need a sliding scale of antagonists. You need mooks for the characters to wade their way through, and you need Big Bads who pose a serious threat to civilisation/the world/your way of life, requiring cooperation to take them down.

This is where horror and fantasy settings shine, of course; whether classic high fantasy like the Lord of the Rings or modern fantasy horror like Buffy, the monsters can always be bigger and badder. By comparison, other genre staples like espionage thrillers or procedural crime stories fall down here — who would characters in an NCIS MMO actually fight? Other ordinary humans? That doesn’t sound compelling.

3. Does the setting suit MMO story needs?

Because of the way quest-driven MMOs are constructed, you need to be able to assume that most characters (not players) are willing to let questgivers tell them what to do, whether because they’re all motivated to be heroes (as in typical quest fantasy) or because they’re the kind of people who will accept orders from their superiors (for instance, military types).

Again, this works in most fantasy settings, because the archetype of the fantasy hero saving the world is fairly strong; even if there are plenty of characters who break the mold, it’s reasonable to assume that protagonists are heroes or champions, and to write quest and story dialogue with those assumptions front and centre. If your setting is full of characters who look askance at disinterested altruism or blindly trusting in The Man, though, that puts a lot of constraints on how characters are motivated to do your quests. This is a criterion that dystopian settings like cyberpunk and espionage tend to fail; in a grim and gritty near-future where people will do whatever they have to to survive (such as Shadowrun or Dark Angel), hoo-rah heroism tends to look somewhat out of place.

4. Does the setting constrain normal MMO mechanics?

“Death” is the obvious problem here. In high-magic fantasy settings a plethora of revival spells make sense; in science-fiction futures, cloning and personality transfers are a reasonable explanation. But in low-magic low-tech settings, you need a plausible way to explain how Joe isn’t dead any more.

LotRO got around this problem cleverly. Healing magic in the canonical setting is slow and subtle, and has no provisions for returning from death (unless you’re Gandalf, and even then he had to get help from Eru himself). So Turbine re-cast traditional health pools as Morale; when you run out of Morale you’re not dead, you’re just too demoralised to continue, and this of course allows for healing and buffing effects from those who improve your morale (such as Minstrels and Captains).

But this dodge won’t work for every setting — it’d be jarring in a pseudo-realistic urban fantasy setting like Buffy, for instance. And there are plenty of much-loved science fiction properties that don’t have handwavium-levels of technology to allow for functional interchangeable clones, such as Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica.

Similarly, if the setting comes from an existing tabletop game or video game, does it come attached to game mechanics that don’t translate well to MMO gameplay? WotC’s D20 system is a good example here — it’s the mechanical system behind tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and fidelity to it served singleplayer computer games like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic very well. But it didn’t translate very well to an MMORPG, where players have different expectations of the gameplay. Dungeons & Dragons Online — a sloggy clickfest — is living proof that mechanics permanently attached to a setting can be a millstone around the neck of an MMO based in that setting.

5. Does the setting still make sense when there are ten thousand protagonists?

This is where Star Wars Galaxies ran into problems when people started unlocking the ability to create Jedi characters — set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, it was hard to explain away the existence of half a dozen Jedi, let alone a server full of them. SWTOR avoided this issue; in the Old Republic era, there are canonically thousands of Jedi, and seeing a party of Jedi working together (or even a space station full of them) isn’t jarring in the same way it was in SWG.

A setting passes this criterion when you can imagine that any character could do what the protagonist does — Star Trek, for instance, succeeds handily because we know that there are tens of thousands of Starfleet officers out there; there are thousands of witches and wizards in the world of Harry Potter. There aren’t that many Time Lords, though, or Vampire Slayers, or D’ni, or Tarzans. When a setting features a single protagonist whose uniqueness is the linchpin of the story, it’s almost inevitably going to fail as an MMO – what works for the Chosen One becomes nonsensical for the Chosen Ten Thousand.

…Obviously I’m not an MMO dev,4 and MMOs are based on fresh IPs as often as not, but at least these rules help to remind me that “no, that might be a great book but it’d make a terrible setting for an MMO” when I’m having pangs of wishing I could adventure in my favourite fictional worlds.

  1. I do have reasons for this opinion, but they’d be something of a digression. That’s a post for another day.
  2. Who may very well be the best GM in the entire world. Seriously, you other gamers only wish you had a GM this great.
  3. Because we are obsessive nutbags about gaming and RPGs.
  4. More’s the pity.

Too many games, too little time…

  • Guild Wars 2 early access starts this weekend.
  • I’m still really enjoying TSW and don’t want to give up my (admittedly slow) progress.
  • I’m loving the beta test of MWO, and it’s replaced our real-life Battletech game for the moment.
  • The Gamescom preview of RIFT’s upcoming player housing inspired me to resub in the hopes of hitting 50 before Storm Legion lands. 1
  • I’m slowly getting to the point in EVE where I have enough skill points to try fun stuff.
  • I’m currently raiding up to three nights a week in SW:TOR, an obligation to my guild I can’t easily set aside.
  • …and the boyfriend just got me hooked on Minecraft. ARGH.

SEND HELP.

  1. I’m a sucker for good player housing. I adored SWG, and you don’t even want to know how much time I spent in LotRO redecorating my house and our kinship house.

The doom of factions

So it’s been a busy week for gaming news, with updates pouring out of Gamescom and several games lined up to go head to head on August 28th. One piece of news that attracted surprisingly little commentary in the blogosphere was the announcement that RIFT would be minimising the divide between player factions.

(If this post is slightly less coherent than usual, you can blame the lovely head cold I’ve got; I’ve been sleeping about 18 hours a day, and coughing for most of the rest. Hooray!)

The news broke on RIFT’s forums, where CM James Nicholls posted that

With the death of four of the dragons much has changed in Telara. Old rivalries are questioned as new challenges arise, the greatest the Ascended have ever had to face. Destruction of the Blood Storm is now essential if this world is to ever find peace – Guardians & Defiants must unite if they are to ultimately travel to the planes and defeat them.

The powers that control Meridian and Sanctum still remain at odds and it will take time for those wounds to heal… but as Ascended the choice to work together is now yours to make outside the city walls.

Now, this is being spun as “RIFT is doing away with factions”, but that’s actually not the case. Instead, it’ll work much like, say, The Secret World: you’ll be able to group, trade, chat, use LFG and so on with players from the opposite faction. (Unlike TSW, cross-faction guilds will also be allowed.) However, the NPCs will still have factional allegiances, so I expect that a Defiant wandering into Sanctum is still going to have a miserable time of things. I haven’t yet seen any info on whether zones will be opened up to the opposite faction — will Guardians be able to do the quest chains in Freemarch?

Speaking personally, I absolutely applaud this move on Trion’s part; I just think it doesn’t go far enough.

Factions - Sith Empire, Dragons, Defiants, Horde

Let’s face it, the factional divide is a legacy of WoW’s dominance, and it’s the result of the franchise being based on a 2-faction RTS series. (If Blizzard had made World of Starcraft instead of World of Warcraft, would every MMO now feature three equally-balanced stalemated factions?) It made sense in WoW at the time, given the series’ backstory, but Blizzard’s continual adherence to a static (and arbitrary) political divide was frustrating in the face of global threats like the Old Gods, Arthas and Deathwing. And even the Big Bear Butt’s nine-year-old thinks the renewed emphasis on the Horde-vs-Alliance war is boring.

The problem with a factional divide is that unless the devs are going to put a lot of work in, it’s going to feel extremely stale and limiting after a while, because – contrary to actual politics – nothing ever changes; everyone’s loyalties are fixed forever. It’s even worse in RIFT where the divide is somehow philosophical and racial. You mean to tell me there are no religious Eth? No apostate High Elves? Surely not. There’s no co-operation in the face of existential threats — despite the dangers posed to the entire fabric of the world by the Lich King, Regulos or whoever, the opposing factions would rather spend their time taking potshots at each other and it’s down to the heroic player characters to save the day. (Whether or not you think that’s reflective of RL politics, depending on your level of cynicism, it doesn’t make for fun or heroic stories.) As Green Armadillo puts it over at Player vs Developer, as long as everyone is fighting the same enemies, a two-faction system simply feels like an unnecessary obstacle.

There are some games where the factional divide makes sense and is well-implemented. In SWTOR, for instance, the struggle between the Sith and the “good guys”, the fundamental opposition of Light and Dark, is an intrinsic part of the story’s setting, and they are each other’s ultimate enemies; there’s no third party posing a serious threat to the entire galaxy. In DCUO, all the factional content is nicely opposed — if you’re playing a hero, you’re actively engaged in undoing whatever dastardly deeds the villains have done (and the story instances, in particular, are often nicely mirrored, with one faction’s instance storyline being a reaction to the other’s).

But in general, factional divides don’t add much to a game unless they’re an intrinsic part of the basic setting. Far better, I think, to adopt a system like Guild Wars 2, where factional conflict is World vs World; LotRO, where the opposing faction is a separate PvP-only part of the game; or The Secret World, where you can work with anyone you like regardless of where your loyalties lie.

Steam’s biggest missing feature

Nathan Grayson over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun comments today about Steam’s community revamp and asks about the features it’s still missing.

Steam and its Tools

And yet, somehow, he missed the thing that Steam needs the most (IMO, of course): better Friends communication tools.

I suspect that most users see the Friends list and chat interface an order of magnitude more often than any other part of the Steam community, and yet it’s woefully lacking in some areas. There’s no way, for example, to appear offline while still playing games that rely on Steam for multiplayer. If you want your Left 4 Dead match with a small group of pals, you have to be visibly online and accessible to your entire friends list. And there’s no way to appear offline to one group of people, or individual friends, without being offline to everyone. (And there’s no chat log, either, which is endlessly frustrating to me, especially given my friends’ tendency to send me links via Steam that I then lose next time Firefox crashes.)

These are, in general, pretty standard features for most chat systems. I realise that Steam’s not trying to be a competitor to a more general chat service like MSN, but these features seem like no-brainers, and adding them would help to keep more gamers within the Steam ecosystem. And, more importantly, they’d be a serious quality-of-life improvement for those of us who don’t want to have to be equally accessible to all their contacts at all times.

I’m not holding my breath, but I’d happily trade all Steam’s new community upgrades for a more feature-ful chat client.

A letter to game designers everywhere, #1

Dear Game Designers,

If you write events or quests that prompt us to try to capture or defeat an NPC…

…and if that NPC gets multiple cut scenes in which he gets to gloat about how clever he is while standing easily within range of our firearms…

…and if that NPC then gets to run off without us getting an opportunity to stop him at a sensible juncture…

You got me monologuing!

…you have only yourselves to blame when we players complain that we should have been able to shoot him in the face while he was monologuing at us.

This is a lesson that every pen-and-paper GM learns early in their career. Just because there are thousands of miles between your ears and our jeering doesn’t mean you should pretend it’s not happening.

Bad writing, designers. Please, please stop doing it. It’s not exciting or inspiring; it’s weaksauce and mockable.

Love,

Siha,
on behalf of frustrated genre-savvy gamers everywhere.

(This letter brought to you by the Star Trek Online “Diplomatic Orders” mission.)