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Hotel WoWlifornia: you can never leave

I quit WoW when SWTOR was released. I was so incredibly burnt out on WoW, compounded by five years of guild leading and three of raid leading. I’d been really excited about SWTOR for a couple of years, and I found Cataclysm a tiresome and unengaging chore – were it not for my responsibility to my guild, I’d have quit WoW at the end of WotLK, and been happier for it.

So off I marched to a galaxy far far away, and I was pretty confident that I was done forever with WoW. I mean, never say never, right? But I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to play it again. So when SWTOR didn’t have the staying power we’d hoped, I sampled GW2, Rift (again), TSW, and flitted through a variety of other games (and lost part of my heart to Firefall along the way). I was singularly unmoved at the launch of Mists of Pandaria, the first WoW expansion in which I’d been entirely uninvested. Admittedly, I was happy to hear from the blogosphere that the Pandaria questing experience was excellent, and pet battles and the Tillers did pique my interest somewhat… but you couldn’t have those without the rest of WoW, so no dice.

A Walk in the Jade Forest

Yeah, so, it turns out it’s harder to resist WoW than I thought — especially when all your friends go back to it within the span of a single week.

I’m not entirely happy with Mists of Pandaria, mind you — what they’ve done to paladin is heartbreaking (so much so that I’m probably actually going to focus on a different character this expansion, for the first time ever), and I still hate the new talent system. I’m unlikely to commit fulltime to WoW as “my game” ever again; there are too many other games out there that offer me things WoW doesn’t.

But I can’t deny that I’m having fun. Mists of Pandaria might just be “more of the same”, but Blizzard has refined the formula time and again; the execution is so polished it gleams. And it’s nice to have company, too; it takes a lot to build a guild, and since WoW we’ve only ever reached critical mass in SWTOR. It’s very comforting to log into a game and know you’re going to see another dozen names around, instead of wondering if anyone’s going to be around tonight, and that’s an experience I’ve been missing in my recent gaming life.

So, Azeroth, I’m back. I haven’t moved back in, and I’m not sure I’m planning to, but I guess it’s a good thing I never gave back my key, right?

Random spaceship of the day

The Amarr Omen Navy Issue

Say what you like about the Amarr, but they sure know how to build beautiful spaceships.

The MMO edge: persistence and permanence

There’s a conversation about social play and soloing that’s been going on in the blogosphere, in one form or another, for years now. I was struck by one of Tobold’s recent posts, WoW the Single Player Game? — in response to a post from The Godmother about Cross-Realm Zones where she mentions that she “liked it when it was quiet“, Tobold asks,

[W]hy do people who “like it quiet” play a massively multiplayer online game? Wouldn’t let’s say Knights of the Old Republic be a much better game for them than Star Wars: The Old Republic?

Many of his commenters focus on the fact that WoW’s mechanics and systems aren’t set up to handle large player numbers in one area, discussing competition for quest spawns and resource nodes. Michael of Gaming for Happiness echoes my feelings, though, when he comments that “Why do I not just play KoTOR instead? Maybe it’s just me, but playing in an online world just seems to make everything seem more real. My actions more meaningful, my efforts yielding greater permanence than I can find in single player games.”

This really struck a chord with me. I’ve been playing a lot of The Sims 3 lately – I go through phases of this, and I’m well and truly entrenched at the moment. (I even bought some shiny new DLC as a birthday gift to myself.) I really enjoy The Sims 3, and Steam tells me I’ve racked up over 400 hours ingame – although I’m sure a lot of that is idle/AFK time. And yet, something about The Sims 3 feels wrong to me, and always has — it’s the fact that I’m completely alone in the game world.

Saskia's stylish pad in Lucky Palms

So my Sim is living out her life, interacting with her neighbours, winning hearts, making friends, and they’re all NPCs. In the houses I’ve never visited, NPC Sims are sketching out a rudimentary copy of sim-life, but the town is virtually stagnant apart from what I do.1 If there were other players around, even if I never socialised with them directly, my little town would feel a lot more real – I’d know that behind all those front doors, other Sims were living lives just as varied and interesting as my own Sim’s. Someone might buy the Perfect-quality fruit and vegetables I can grow. Someone might sell me a beautiful photo they took in Shang Simla.

But playing alone, nobody else’s actions will ever make an impact on my Sim’s life, and everything I “achieve” with her is equally meaningless. Any variety I encounter is just the result of a random number generator, not the dynamism introduced by other players.

Not that games automatically have to be ‘meaningful’ to be fun, of course. But I think MMOs have trained me too well to expect a certain permanence and persistence to what I do. When I make items to improve my crafting skill in an MMO, there’s someone around who’ll buy them from me. When I earn an Achievement, my progress is highlighted to anyone who cares to look. Even if I never say a word to another player, the world feels more real, more immersive and ‘alive’, because I know there are other people around all doing their own thing.

As one commenter, Josh, noted over at Tobold’s discussion, “[t]here’s a difference between quiet and silence”.

I talk to my neighbours, in RL, about once a year. Yet if they were suddenly replaced by timer switches who turned the lights on and off at the right times and robots who drove their cars off to work and back home again every day, I’d damn well notice the difference, and living in my house would suddenly start feeling very lonely and isolated. I may not want to interact with my neighbours, in game or in RL, but I want them to be there.

Saskia plays some blackjack in a nearly-deserted casino

  1. There’s actually a third-party patch that vastly improves the game’s background story progression and growth, but the patch author adamantly refuses to support the Steam version of the game, so I’m out of luck.

SWTOR’s F2P is an unsatisfying compromise

(Sorry for the radio silence; I’ve been away with my tabletop gaming group. Gaming holidays ftw!)

So, SWTOR’s F2P patch has hit the test servers, and finally we’re starting to see the details people have been wondering about ever since the F2P announcement first hit.

One recent Google search term that hit my page: “swtor horrible f2p implementation”. Sadly, I’m forced to agree with the anonymous searcher. The best I can say about it is that it’s less horrible than it could have been.

Dulfy.net has, as usual, a good round-up of the facts. Of particular note is the fact that SWTOR will indeed have a premium feature level, applicable to anybody who’s ever spent money on the game (either as a former subscriber or via the cash shop). This is common among F2P games; SWTOR’s version is called “Preferred Status”.

So let’s have a look at SWTOR’s F2P implementation in detail, shall we?

The Restrictions

Character Creation

  • Free players: Human, Zabrak and Cyborg are your only options, for a maximum of two characters per server.
  • Preferred Status players get to keep species they’ve unlocked via Legacy.

This seems fairly reasonable – it’s restrictive, but not unduly so. Presumably you’ll also be able to access a character created as a subscriber even if they’re another species, though I haven’t seen confirmation of that.

Communication & Social

  • Free players get 1 message per minute in public channels, can’t send mail at all, and can’t use /who. (Say, ops, groups and tells are unrestricted.) They also can’t hide head slot, unify armor colours, show a title or legacy name, use most emotes.
  • Preferred Status players have a higher quota for public channel messages, can use /who, and can send mail with up to 1 attachment.

Again, fairly standard practice, although limiting free players from using /who seems rather excessive; it’ll make it harder for them to actually meet up with their friends, thus making the game less appealing. The lack of emotes is a giant WTF, at least to me. I can understand selling some ‘premium’ emotes separately, as LotRO does, but not being able to /cheer at the person next to you is just ridiculous.

Items and Money

  • Free players can’t expand their inventory using credits, no access to the Cargo Hold (bank), vendor items cost 25% more credits or tokens, no trading, only 2 sale slots on the GTN (sales network), can’t equip purple gear or event gear, Cartel Coin items are locked for longer, capped at 200k credits, caps on all commendation types.
  • Preferred Status players can trade, can use the Cargo Hold, retain any inventory or Cargo Hold expansions they’d purchased, get 5 GTN sales slots, and have a higher credit cap.

These are fairly standard limitations, although the lack of a bank is a bit restrictive. (The trouble is that the basic Cargo Hold is pretty generous even before you expand it; there’s no half-measure they can offer a free player.) I’m ambivalent about the restriction on artifact-quality gear, too, especially given that it’s very expensive to unlock.

Travel

  • Free players can’t use Fleet Pass, Quick Travel cooldown is 2 hours.

Inconvenient, but not unexpected. This will likely be a huge annoyance to former subscribers, but F2P players probably won’t mind it too much.

Combat

  • Free players only get 5 field revives total, and must buy more when they’re used up. Free players also only get 2 quickbars (increased from 1 due to community outcry).

Even 2 quickbars is horribly limiting for ACs like the Jedi Sentinel/Sith Marauder. Ugh. This seems like such a petty restriction.

Companions & Crew Skills

  • Free players can only deploy 3 companions, and only get 1 crew skill. Lockboxes from crew skill missions aren’t received.
  • Preferred Status players get an extra crew skill.

This is pretty reasonable — it’s the kind of thing that won’t be horrible for free players or former subscribers, but is still a good carrot to get people to subscribe as they get more involved in the game.

Content

  • Free players don’t get access to Section X (the new content coming in Patch 1.5); only 3 space missions per week, only 5 warzones per week, no Operations, no lockboxes from mission rewards, only 3 loot rolls per week.

The lack of lockboxes, as with crew skill missions, is another one of those petty restrictions that just chafes without seeming reasonable. I think it’s a mistake to restrict free players from Operations content – this seems like something that would be ideal for Preferred Status players. As it stands, restricting Operations to subscribers doesn’t really encourage anyone to subscribe other than those who are regular raiders already — it doesn’t give free players a chance to sample an Operation or two and get hooked. Then again, they couldn’t wear the purple loot from an Operation anyway.

My Thoughts

As I’m sure you can tell already, my thoughts aren’t complimentary.

A good F2P system, in my opinion, doesn’t force people to subscribe — it lets you unlock most game features piecemeal, so if subscribing looks like a bad deal for you (because you’re not interested in some content, or because you have limited time to play) you’re still encouraged to spend money in microtransactions on the parts of the game you do want.

SWTOR nearly hits this mark — it allows you to spend RL money (via their Cartel Coins currency) on unlocking content, but it’s only on a periodic basis. You can buy weekly content passes to remove the limitations on warzones, space missions, flashpoint loot rolls and operations (although if you win any epic gear on those operations, you’ll have to pay 1200CC for an Artifact Equipment Authorization to actually wear it). 1

But there’s not enough incentive to purchase these passes in the first place, in my opinion. Raiding is a particularly egregious example – without the weekly pass, you can’t do a single Op. Who’s going to spend 240 Cartel Coins just to see if they like Operations? Far better, I would think, to allow Preferred Access players one Operation per week for free, to whet their appetite and encourage them to spend more or subscribe. This would also have the side benefit of making server communities healthier, by providing a larger pool of potential Ops recruits.

Ultimately, I think the most offputting thing is the pettiness of some of the restrictions. Some make sense – limited chat, trade and cash caps, for instance, to stop the potential floods of spammers and scammers. Restrictions on bag space, crew skills, and the like? Fair enough. But too many of the restrictions are offputting, not enticements — massive restrictions on emotes and moods? Can’t use /who? Can’t use extra quickbars? These come across as unreasonably petty, nickel-and-dime nonsense, and I think a lot of people will find them hostile and offputting. I wouldn’t want to subscribe to a game that restricted even the most basic emotes, or stopped me making UI customisations.

And yet they’re steadfastly refusing to restrict access to their greatest selling point – their story. If they let you do Act I for free, to get you hooked, and then sold permanent access to Acts 2 and 3 (separately), they’d be drowning in players throwing money at them. As it is, they’re giving you all the good stuff for free, and then putting really annoying obstacles in front of you that you have to pay to remove. Just skip the obstacles and charge for the stuff we want to spend money on — the content that’s what Bioware is best at.

In my experience, successful and enjoyable F2P transitions involve more carrot than stick. Don’t punish the free player for being a free player – encourage them to spend by showing them the tasty goodness that’s out of their reach, rather than taking away the staples most players have come to expect as part of the basic play experience. If you give Fred the story content for free, but make him pay to do all the trivial stuff, and you give Jane the trivial stuff for free and make her pay for the story, I’m willing to bet that Jane will spend just as much as Fred, and she’ll be a lot less annoyed to boot.

Carrot, Bioware, not stick. Please.

Firefall frame comparison spreadsheet

For those of you playing Firefall, hopefully this will be useful. It’s a spreadsheet I compiled showing the different abilities and upgrade modules available to each Tier 1 and Tier 2 frame for all five frame types. I’ll update it as soon as Tier 3s are released, and when changes to the existing frames are made. If you spot an error in the data, please let me know!

Click here to view the Firefall Frame Comparison spreadsheet!

Mechwarrior Online: the good, the bad and the ugly

Mechwarrior Online

Over two months ago, I mentioned that I was in the closed beta for Mechwarrior Online. Since then, my love affair with the game has fluctuated rather wildly, and now that they’ve lifted the NDA, I can talk about it.

My apologies that none of my screenshots show the game from the perspective of an experienced character; they’ve wiped the game repeatedly during closed beta, and I haven’t played since the last wipe, so I’m back to 0 XP, no unlocked abilities and no money.

What is it?

Mechwarrior Online is a free to play FPS from Piranha Games set in the Battletech universe. You take on the job of battlemech pilot, driving around giant mechs — twenty metres tall and bristling with weapons — in an attempt to defend or destroy strategic objectives.

Trouble right here in River City

Battletech has a rich story background as a tabletop miniatures game originally developed by FASA Corporation with the same development and licensing history as Shadowrun1, but at this stage in MWO’s development that background setting is almost entirely invisible, acting merely as a justification for blowing each other up in giant mechs. Piranha Games have promised future play modes involving more of the politics and story of the setting, but so far all we’ve seen is the default team deathmatch mode.

When you start the game you’re limited to one of four Trial Mechs, one from each weight category – at the moment the offerings are a Jenner (Light), a Hunchback (Medium), a Catapult (Heavy) and an Atlas (Assault). Trial Mechs are very limited; you can’t change their equipment in any way, and games played in a trial mech offer less money and XP than a normal mech.

Buying a mech

Of course, you can bypass these limitations (and the need to grind endless matches to save up for a ‘proper’ mech) by dropping some cash on the game; you can buy new mechs with C-Bills (ingame currency) or Mech Credits (bought with RL money), and purchasing one of the high-end Founder’s Packs gives you access to Founder’s Mechs which can be customised like a normal mech — and Founder’s Mechs also earn extra XP and cash compared with a normal mech.

Customisation in the Mech Lab

Once you’ve got a customisable mech, whether a Founder’s Mech or one you purchased, you can use the Mech Lab to change its fit-out to suit your preferences. There’s a wealth of options, all derived from the tabletop game, and unfortunately the game obscures some stats. Kris painstakingly combed through the game’s XML files to produce a very handy MWO reference spreadsheet to help with mech customisation. (Although it’s a patch or two behind at the moment thanks to the siren call of Firefall.)

So that’s where your money goes – that, and rearming, and repairing your mech after you get blown to smithereens. XP, on the other hand, is spent unlocking bonuses for the mech in which you earnt the XP – faster acceleration, faster turning speed, better heat dissipation, and so on. For now those boosts are token values, but they’ll be tweaked to get the balance right.

Unlocking mech bonuses in the Pilot Lab

The good.

There are a couple of great things this game has going for it:

First of all, Piranha are fans themselves of the tabletop game, which means that there are few glaring inaccuracies and they’re trying to replicate the tabletop experience as much as possible. (At least, inasmuch as they can when turning a third-person tactical miniatures game into a first-person shooter.)

Second, their movement engine feels good to me. Assault mechs are ponderous juggernauts with terrifying momentum when they get moving; light mechs are zippy and responsive. Apart from a few glitches, the mechs ‘feel’ like they’re the right weight. It’s not just like driving a human body in a normal FPS.

Thirdly, the pace of the game feels good – again, that’s subjective. But Battletech is fundamentally about tactics – careful positioning, terrain advantage, line of sight, and so on. MWO doesn’t have the fast-and-furious pace of most shooters, and to me that’s a good thing, because it feels more like Battletech than a faster game would.

And most importantly: you’re driving a giant weaponised mech, raining down death upon other giant weaponised mechs. That is, inherently, pretty damn awesome.

The LRM rain of death

The bad.

Unfortunately, I see two huge problems with the game as it is now, and one smaller problem.

The first problem is that there’s only one game mode at the moment: Assault, which is an 8v8 no-respawn team deathmatch where victory comes from eliminating the other team or capturing their “base”, a small unremarkable area of flat terrain. (Matchmaking for this involves balancing by weight class, so a team with seven Jenners and one Atlas should end up facing a team of seven Light mechs and one Assault.) There may be internal playtesting of other game modes, but so far they haven’t been tested in beta at all, and all the beta balancing is using Assault mode as a basis.

The River City assault

This is an issue because — assuming equal player skill — heavier mechs are better for straight-up combat than light mechs, because they can pack more weapons, more ammo and more armour. So there’s no incentive to take light mechs (unless you really like them), and the devs are treating the Light › Medium › Heavy › Assault path as progression, as Bryan Ekman (the Creative Director) says:

There will be some progression – Light to Assault by virtue of how we’ve designed the economy. This is a good thing.

He doesn’t, however, explain how it’s a good thing, and I don’t think it is. In the tabletop game, mech classes have different jobs and different strengths, and light mechs aren’t at such a disadvantage because you can use heavier mechs to support and cover them. As it stands in MWO, you get one mech to pilot per game and if you want to play a light mech, you’d better hope that your teammates are coordinated and interested in backing you up.

To a certain extent that’s an unavoidable problem when you’re turning a squad-based tabletop minis game into a first-person computer game where the player only controls a single mech, but I’d been hoping that other game modes would mitigate the power differential somewhat by giving more value and tactical advantage to the scouting and evasion abilities of lighter mechs. However, the devs treating Assault mechs as inherently ‘the best’ mechs (which is the logical result of Ekman’s ‘progression’ attitude) does not bode well for the playability or balance of other potential game modes. Obviously this is still a case of wait-and-see, but it has shaken my confidence somewhat.

The other – more serious – problem is a mechanics issue. In order to make the game ‘feel’ right as a first-person shooter, the devs reduced the cycle time of mech weapons (and doubled mech armor to make sure people weren’t falling over within seconds of being targeted). However, they didn’t adjust other numbers to compensate for this. To clarify the problem, I should explain some mechanics of the tabletop game:

  • You can fire every weapon once per ten-second turn.
  • Each weapon builds up heat in your mech; as you reach certain heat thresholds you suffer negative effects up to total shutdown and often-fatal ammo explosions.
  • Your mech has heat sinks; there are some built into the engine, and extras in other parts of the mech.
  • Each heat sink dissipates one point of heat per ten-second round (or twice that if they’re submerged; eg. they’re in your mech’s legs and you’re standing waist-deep in water).
  • So, as an example, if you’ve got a stock HBK-4G Hunchback with 13 heat sinks, you can fire off both its Medium Lasers (3 heat each) and its Autocannon 20 (7 heat) indefinitely while stationary without building up any heat. If you fire its final weapon, a Small Laser (1 heat), you’d slowly build up heat every turn until you shed some by not firing all your weapons for a turn or two, or by standing in water for a while.

So that’s how it works in the tabletop game. If you were playing the same Hunchback variant in MWO, and fired both Medium Lasers and your AC20 under the same conditions at every opportunity, you’d shut down or blow up in short order — you’d build up 44 heat over ten seconds (or 53 heat if you fired that Small Laser as well), and you’d still only be able to shed 13 of that. That’s because they’ve reduced the cycle time of all the weapons, meaning you build up heat much faster, but they haven’t increased the heat dissipation of heat sinks to compensate.

Shutdown sequence enabled

This wouldn’t be such a problem if it applied uniformly — it’d just mean everyone has to ease off on the trigger now and then. However, based on the tabletop rules, heat is just one balancing mechanic, and not every weapon generates significant heat. Energy weapons like PPCs and Lasers have high heat to compensate for the fact that you don’t have to pack ammo for them, while ballistic weapons like Autocannons and Gauss Rifles have low heat because you’re limited by ammunition. This means that high-heat weapons are very problematic in MWO — energy weapons are at a serious disadvantage compared with other weapons, especially ballistics — and yet I’ve never seen the devs explain why they haven’t beefed up heat sinks to cope with the faster pace of MWO, and the game has had patch after patch without a single tweak to (or even mention of) this fundamental imbalance.

If you try mentioning this on the forums, however, you get a chorus of yes-men shouting you down with “it’s a beta, it’s not done yet”. Of course it’s a beta; of course I’m not judging it like a finished game. But there’s a difference between “this is buggy and incomplete” and “this is a fundamental design problem that the devs seem to be happy with”. This is the third problem with the game: the community. It’s entirely too full of mindless fans eager to applaud Piranha for everything they do. (Today on the forums I saw a long, detailed post of criticism and suggestions and the first response to it was literally “don’t worry, it’ll all turn out fine”.) I’m all for positivity and giving a game a fair chance to succeed, but this is meant to be a closed beta; this is the time to improve the game and solve the problems. Uncritical backpatting does nobody any favours.

The bottom line.

Right now, I have serious concerns about the long term playability of MWO. I want it to be a success, but some of the balancing decisions seem absolutely mystifying, and without more game modes and more tactical options I fear MWO will devolve into a mindless Assault mech slugfest that’s only satisfying to let off a bit of steam at the end of a long day.

  1. It also spawned a pen-and-paper roleplaying game and a series of very popular video games.

My experience with RIFT: third time lucky

Here’s something that would have surprised me a year ago: I just got my first RIFT character to the level cap. (I know, I know, years behind dot com.)

Shimmersand by night

I tried RIFT with some friends for the first time last year, and at the time I was fairly unenthused by it. Sure, it was prettier than WoW, and the souls system was interesting, but really – as I described it to Kris – it was just like WoW except I was a lowbie with no money or resources. (And it was prettier.) Although RIFT clicked for a couple of my friends, as a group we drifted off to some other game — all the while playing and raiding in WoW as our primary game.

Then we tried RIFT again a few months later, and again, it just didn’t stick. I had more fun this time around, because we focused on the elements that made RIFT unique – to wit, we did a lot of rift-closing and invasion-chasing (and world-event-completing), and we spent almost no time questing. Still, RIFT didn’t offer me anything much that I couldn’t get elsewhere, and it occurred to me that I am so done with questing.

It’s not RIFT’s fault, of course — nor is it WoW’s, even. I’ve just seen how quests can be done better, and as a result my standards are higher. First SWTOR missions set the bar for emotional immersion (bear in mind that I’m also a pen-and-paper gamer in a roleplaying-heavy group; although I don’t RP in MMOs, story immersion is like catnip to me). Then TSW missions set the bar for intellectual immersion, being challenging, interesting and largely unique.

I Hope You Like SurprisesBy comparison, the “traditional” (ie WoW-style) questing in RIFT is almost entirely unappealing, and I’ve become one of those players who used to horrify me – I click to accept the quest without reading a scrap of quest text, and I only go back to read the quest in my log if I need more info to complete it. Ridiculously, I feel guilty about it, especially since I used to quietly judge other players for behaving like this. But now that I’ve seen questing done better, in two different ways, the old-school of questing holds almost no appeal for me. (Which is a shame, since then I miss the entertainment value of quests like “I Hope You Like Surprises”, the hilariously amusing quest in Shimmersand.)

This time around, though, I had a mission. I’d seen some preview videos of the upcoming Storm Legion expansion, and I fell in love with the player housing. Sadly I’m unlikely to ever find a player housing system like Star Wars Galaxies’, but a well-done housing system of any sort is a huge draw for me – I spent many, many hours in LotRO making my house and our kinship house look just right. Knowing housing was coming drew me back to RIFT, and I’ve been having enough fun that I plonked money down for the year long subscription with bonus free expansion. It seems player housing was the ‘killer app’ that I needed to turn RIFT from “fun enough” into something I actively look forward to playing.

So here I am in RIFT, level 50 and everything. Oddly, I’m actually looking forward to the process of gearing up, learning the RIFT endgame, and maybe even dabbling in raiding waters.

Sashire at 50

The trap of linearity

Tobold is experiencing Mists of Pandaria largely spoiler-free, and is concerned that MoP is shaping up to be just as linear as Cataclysm.

Blizzard is making most of their money from people like my wife, who was subscribed to WoW all the way through Cataclysm, and was busy leveling alts.

Mists of Pandaria might well turn out to be the worst expansion ever to level alts in. It has the linearity of Cataclysm zones, but where Catalysm had two possible zones to start in, Mists of Pandaria only has one. The Jade Forest might end up being more hated than Hellfire Peninsula, because in Hellfire at least you could skip the quests you didn’t like. All the talk you heard about Blizzard making MoP more casual-friendly is going to come to nothing if those casuals become bored of leveling alts due to linear questing.

An SWTOR mission

This is exactly the problem I encountered with SWTOR. The class quests are unique to your class, but the rest of the zones are incredibly linear, with very little room for deviation. The best you can do is try to get ahead on XP and skip side quests, but you can’t just ignore a zone planet completely even when you’re totally burnt out on it.

This pretty much killed any desire I had to play alts in a serious way in SWTOR, despite my interest in the different classes and their individual stories. It is, I think, probably the single biggest flaw with SWTOR: the replayability is very low1, which means that there’s little motivation to continue subscribing2 after you’ve played both factions to level cap. Even raiders need something to do outside of raid times.

Tangentially, The Secret World has the same problem — however, it’s less of an issue in TSW because you can do everything on one character (except experience the very small amount of faction-specific content), so a) there’s less impetus to play alts, and b) you’ve got a lot more to keep you busy on your main character anyway.

Totally linear quest progression is, I think, a design mistake for a traditional MMO. It may enable the devs to tell more interesting, engrossing and epic stories, but it’s at the expense of replayability, and replayability is where the MMO money is.

  1. Relative to most other MMOs.
  2. For most people.

How Cataclysm killed WoW for me

A crying paladin.So Mists of Pandaria went live last night, I gather? This is the first WoW expansion where I haven’t been even remotely interested. For every previous expansion I’d beta-tested, prepared exhaustively, pre-ordered, and blogged extensively about the whole experience. For MoP, I watched over Kris’s shoulder while he did ten minutes of questing in the beta, and that was enough to satisfy my curiosity.

It’s an odd feeling. I don’t miss WoW, but I miss missing WoW, if that makes sense. I played WoW to the exclusion of every other game for nearly six years, and for another year unenthusiastically. For those first six years, though, WoW captivated me; I had a lot of spare time on my hands for health reasons, and I poured much of it into WoW. And as a result, I felt I’d “mastered” WoW; I felt completely at home in the game. I wasn’t a hardcore raider because I preferred my more laid-back raiding guild, but I knew the mechanics of my class inside-out, I knew the lore behind the content, and I had all the advantages that six years of enthusiastic play will give. I had all the little convenience doodads to port hither and yon, I had all the obscure and useful crafting recipes, I’d maxed out almost every faction, and I knew all the shortcuts – the hidden questgivers, the fastest way to a given location, the best way to level to 40, whatever.

And then along comes Deathwing and everything changes. All of a sudden Azeroth isn’t familiar any more; I no longer know it like the back of my hand. Everything up to level 60 is different; content I knew and loved has just disappeared – replaced in some cases, gone forever in others. I don’t feel at home any more. It’s like coming back to the town where you grew up to find that the streets are all there but every building has been replaced. 1 There’s no sense of history in wandering around these zones any more; no nostalgia or fond memories, because everything I did has been wiped away.

But the game was still similar enough that I have no desire to spend another six years reacquainting myself with all the little ins and outs; it wasn’t new enough to make that fun again. I’ve levelled my squillion alts, and the game’s not fresh enough any more to warrant levelling another squillion.

And then you add the final factor: the homogenisation. To be fair, this was a trend that began in WotLK; tidying up the messy, asymmetric old content to make it all shiny and ‘balanced’ – but WotLK only applied the principle to its own content, whereas Cata went back and swept everything away with its shiny new broom. Everything’s neat and tidy and organised – and as a result it feels planned to within an inch of its life, orderly and symmetrical and completely inorganic and uninteresting. It might be more balanced, it might be smoother for a new player, but I prefer crunchy and interesting to smooth any day.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think Mists of Pandaria is for me. I’m not interested in the direction in which Blizzard is taking the game, and Cataclysm swept away my nostalgia, familiarity and comfort. Really, Cataclysm made it easy for me to leave WoW, because it cut the cords holding me there. So I moved on, and I’m not sure I can ever go back again. I’m sure at some point in the next year I’ll succumb to a moment of weakness and pick up Mists of Pandaria for a while, when there’s nothing else to play and nostalgia is particularly strong, but I don’t think the Azeroth I miss exists now, and this new Azeroth isn’t home any more.

Whatever happens, I’ll still miss missing WoW, and I’ll be happy for the people who can still love WoW the way I used to.

  1. And the trees all look identical, and are made of plastic. Whoops, was that cynical?

What’s nifty about Firefall

I’ve been playing the Firefall closed beta with Kris lately, and enjoying it a surprising amount. It’s a F2P MMOFPS with an open world for PvE and battleground-style instanced PvP, set in a future Earth after a spaceship crash that’s rendered the vast majority of the Earth uninhabitable. At the moment the PvE content is noticeably lacking1, but it’s still heaps of fun tooling around blowing the heads off mutant bug monsters. And the game has the single best implementation of jumpjet-style movement I’ve ever played; just running around is gleeful fun.

Me, demonstrating jumpjets

When you start the game you choose a battleframe, which is basically lightweight power armor originally designed for a combat game in the setting’s backstory, now adapted for the war for survival in which humanity finds itself. Your five options are Assault (AoE DPS and mobility), Biotech (DPS limited healing ability), Engineer (DPS and support devices like turrets), Recon (sniper-range precision DPS) and Dreadnaught (survivability and massive single-target DPS). You’re not limited by your starting choice, though — you can buy different frames with in-game currency (although garage slots are limited and opening extra slots costs RL money).

And I’ll digress here for a moment to highlight my single biggest gripe about the game: yet again, there’s a ludicrous and sexist gender disparity in character gear. As an example: male characters in Assault armor get a tank top and cargo pants; female characters in Assault armor get a sports bra and hotpants. Sigh.

The Assault frame, male and female

(And don’t even get me started on the female dance animations. “Pole dancer” is not a good look for a combat veteran.)

Anyway, that non-minor quibble aside: one of the most interesting things about the game is character progression. Once you’ve got your battleframe, you can improve it by spending Experience to unlock new and upgraded equipment via the tech trees. The Tier 1 starting frame is relatively basic and gives a general taste of the frame’s abilities, but if you spend enough XP you can unlock Tier 2 frames – and Tier 3 and beyond are in development now. Generally the two Tier 2 frames focus on different aspects of the frame’s core playstyle – for instance, for Assault frames, the Tigerclaw frame provides superior mobility while the Firecat frame is focused on DPS.

The Assault battleframe progression

Within the tech tree for each frame, you can unlock specific ability modules and upgrades to your existing gear, which you can then fit to your battleframe in whatever configuration you prefer — subject to weight, power and CPU limitations. Most upgrades come in four flavours – the basic “Accord” variant, which is usually unlocked first, and then variants produced by three corporations: Astrek Association, Omnidyne-M and Kisuton. Each corp’s gear has certain specialties – for instance, compared with the standard Accord gear, Omnidyne-M armor plating gives extra health, Astrek armor plating gives health regeneration and Kisuton armor plating reduces incoming damage.

Tier 1 of the Assault battleframe's tech tree

Tier 2 of the Assault battleframe's tech tree

What really piqued my interest, though, was the sudden expansion of the crafting system as soon as I unlocked my Tier 2 frame. Any Tier II upgrades you unlock (except the basic Accord versions) give you the piece of gear to equip on your frame, and they also give you a crafting recipe.

Everyone gets access to crafting, via stations called Molecular Printers, and there are no skill levels involved. They’re introduced early in the PvE game via an introductory mission, and everyone starts with a selection of crafting recipes (or “nanoprints”) for basic items, consumables, and industrial processes like ore refining.

Tier 2 nanoprints allow you to make a crafted version of the basic upgrade you unlocked with XP, with superior stats (but commensurately higher mass, CPU and power requirements). They also introduce interesting complexity to the crafting system, because they introduce the concept of resource quality affecting the finished product.

Resources are in the form of minerals and are acquired by looting them from mobs, blowing up mineral nodes with sonic detonators, or using a temporary mining device called a Thumper. Thumping is a popular PvE activity because it causes waves and waves of mobs to spawn, providing handy home-delivered sources of XP and loot, so it’s fairly easy to rack up thousands of minerals without even trying. Acquiring good-quality materials takes a little more savvy, however.

Resource attributes

As you can see on the left, each resource possesses a number of attributes with numerical ratings: Conductivity, Density, Malleability, Reactivity and Resistance. These attributes are measured on a scale of 1-1000, and if you want to improve a particular attribute you can actually blend two resources — as you can see on the right — to change their attributes.

A Tier 2 nanoprintSo you take a look at a Tier 2 nanoprint, and you can see that the attributes of the resource used to craft it will affect the product’s attributes. This example is the nanoprint for the Kisuton variant of the Assault’s Tier 2 Crater ability (which lifts you up in the air and then blasts you back to the ground at high speed, conveniently AoEing all the mobs you land on). You can see that Reactivity is the most important attribute to improve the Crater module’s damage and radius, whereas Conductivity is the key attribute to reduce the ability’s cooldown. So to make this, I’d look for a resource high in Conductivity and Reactivity.

This will feel very familiar to former Star Wars Galaxies players, where these mechanics were the linchpin of the crafting system. But wait, it’s about to feel even more familiar: resources in Firefall change quality over time.

The overall quality of a resource is referred to by an isotope number next to the resource’s name – the higher the number, the better the resource. These resources shift over time; although each resource has upper and lower limits on each attribute — Bismuth is always going to have high Conductivity and Malleability — the Bismuth you find this week may well have very different stats from the Bismuth you found last week.

This introduces an interesting and complex crafting minigame, where you can spend hours working out the best materials to blend for the attributes you want. And again, former SWG players will remember the buzz of realising this week’s spawn of a given resource has fabulous stats and promptly spending the next week hoovering up as much as you possibly can.

In fact, the only fly in the ointment is that there’s currently no trading system or player economy in Firefall. Devs have said that trading is on the way, but not the highest priority; no word at this stage on any kind of player vendor/auction house system. So for now, anything you make is for you and you alone; you can’t trade or sell your wares (or even your raw resources) to anybody else. Once the trading system comes in however, if crafted items aren’t automatically bound to the crafter, there’s significant potential for Firefall to be almost as appealing to crafting lovers as SWG was.

  1. But the devs have said that they’re focusing on PvE content next.