My five favourite MMOs

In the spirit of yesterday’s post, here are my five favourite games that are MMOs.

It’s hard to analyse MMOs in the same way as non-MMOs, because there are so many other factors that affect one’s fun – the quality of dev support, the quality and frequency of new content, the friendliness of the community, the critical mass of players that makes a world feel lived-in, and so on.

Still, here are the five MMOs I’ve enjoyed the most – and, in some cases, miss the most.

  • World of Warcraft

Yeah, yeah, WoW is the opiate of the MMO masses; it’s old and tired and whatever. I don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong: I fell out of love with Blizzard a couple of years ago, and I haven’t been inclined to cut them much slack since them. But despite my dissatisfaction with what WoW has become, it’s impossible to forget the years of happiness and fun it’s provided, or the way it’s shaped an entire industry and brought it into the mainstream.

When WoW was shaping up for release, our SWG guild put its money on EQ2 instead. Most of us weren’t Warcraft enthusiasts, didn’t much care about WoW, and many had a history with EQ that made EQ2 look amazing. When WoW came out, we were snobbish about how ‘ezymode’ it was and how it just gave you stuff on a plate – while we went back to retrieve our corpses again (and corpse runs in EQ/EQ2 were not the simple thing they are in WoW!) and earn some XP to pay back what we’d lost by dying.

And then slowly we all trickled across to WoW, and we realised just how damn good it was. Most importantly, more than any other game at the time, WoW cut away the bits of the MMO gaming paradigm that weren’t fun.1 “I’m a game,” said WoW. “I’m supposed to be fun. Stop doing those stupid grindy chores in other games, and come and play me.” And we listened, and we did, and most of us never looked back.

World of Warcraft

  • Lord of the Rings Online

LotRO is very much a game in the WoW-ish themepark model, but it’s far from just “WoW with a Tolkien theme painted on”. Its crafting system is more interesting (and more relevant), the game’s ambience and atmosphere are absolutely perfect, the narrative does an excellent job of keeping you involved in the story and making you feel integral without overriding the canon, the seasonal festivals are fun and setting-appropriate (instead of just feeling like our holidays pasted onto a fantasy world), its geography is excellent, and the community is generally peaceful, friendly and mature. And it’s got a) what’s probably the single best F2P implementation I’ve seen in any subscription game, and b) the best wardrobe/cosmetic gear system ever. The game design is great: each class feels special, with unique mechanics and clear differentiation – playing a WoW warrior, DK or paladin all feels much the same; playing a LotRO loremaster, minstrel or runekeeper does not.

It’s not perfect, of course; in particular, the animations and movement engine feel unresponsive, which drove away pretty much everyone I was playing with. The housing system is clunky and lonely, and reportedly unlikely to be improved. And there’s been some unhappiness with the direction of the Turbine Store, like the immersion-breaking $50 hobby-horse mount. Those aren’t dealbreakers for me, but sadly I don’t rule the world (yet).

But If I could wave a magic wand and make all my friends and guildmates want to play one MMO; if I could make everyone I know and want to play with congregate in one game — LotRO would, without doubt, be that game. I’m only not playing it now because nobody else is.

(It also has my single favourite MMO class of all time, the Loremaster. That class was made for me, and I really wish more MMOs had classes like that.)

Lord of the Rings Online

  • Star Wars Galaxies

Oh, SWG. I am so conflicted about you.

SWG was really my first MMO love. I’d played UO years before, but not in a particularly involved way, and I’d missed the whole EQ craze.

SWG was so very flawed. It was massively buggy – for instance, you’d quite often lose half your inventory when you crossed an invisible zone line and it wouldn’t come back for a couple of hours, which was irksome to say the least. And being very sandboxy, it didn’t take long to run out of things to do for those of us who hadn’t quite got the hang of making our own fun yet. All up, I only played for eight months or so before being lured away into EQ2 and then WoW.

And yet SWG had so much going for it that no other game has matched. Its Star Wars atmosphere was perfect – much more Star-Wars-y than SWTOR, to be honest. The game mechanics were interesting, the Galactic Civil War actually made open world PvP relevant (and thus people actually did it for reasons other than ganking lowbies!). The game encouraged roleplaying and storytelling with non-combat classes like dancers and musicians. The housing system was excellent. And the crafting – oh, the crafting. The crafting was basically perfect, and hit pretty much every single one of my buttons as far as crafting goes – and unfortunately it’s set an incredibly high bar that no game has since been able to match. I regret leaving SWG behind, more so now than ever – the classic case of “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”, really.

I’m very happy to discover, though, that there’s a team of volunteer devs developing a Star Wars Galaxies emulator/private server project, at SWG Emu. I haven’t checked it out yet, as I’ll need to find my original game install discs, but this might be my only chance to get my SWG fix again.

Star Wars Galaxies

  • Glitch

Glitch was a magnificent experiment from a startup studio called Tiny Speck. It launched as a browser-based MMO in 2009 and ran until December 9 this year; they simply couldn’t find a way to make it a viable concern. It also didn’t help that they were tied to Flash, and thus their future in mobile gaming – which would otherwise have been a perfect fit for Glitch – was limited.

Glitch had a sense of fun and whimsy like no other game I’ve ever encountered. Almost entirely combat-free, it revolved around exploration, social and emergent gameplay, and crafting. You gathered cooking materials by nibbling piggies, milking butterflies, and squeezing chickens. The fact that there’s no longer a game where you can milk a butterfly makes the world a sadder place, in my opinion.

Glitch

  • DC Universe Online

I can’t believe I’m putting this on the list, but I actually think DCUO belongs here. (This is the spot where I had about five contenders, all with pros and cons, and eventually I decided DCUO came out on top.) I played it constantly for a couple of months in early 2011 and then dropped it like a hot rock, focusing at the time on all the things it did wrong, and not giving enough love to the things it did right.

So let’s get that out of the way up front: it was a great game, ahead of its time, that was hampered by a horrible console-compliant port, utterly inadequate multiplayer features and a user-hostile interface. (The month-long downtime due to the PSN hack didn’t help, either.)

At the same time, though: it pioneered AoE keybound looting and the limited-toolbar MMO style, its movement engine was the most fun I’d had just running around in any game since WoW’s flying mounts (and it hadn’t been topped until I discovered Firefall’s jump jets), the combat system was unique and even healers got to beat stuff up, instance play supported duos, the instances were fun and interesting, the setting was true to canon, and it had Mark Hamill voicing the Joker. Flying over and around Metropolis was just amazing, and the game deserved a lot more credit for its good points than it got.

DC Universe Online

  • Honorable Mentions
  • All of these games were in competition for the fifth slot which eventually went to DCUO:

    • Star Wars: the Old Republic – would have been on the list, were it not for the limited replayability contributing to a player exodus and stale endgame. As a levelling game, it’s superb and would have been at the top of my list, but the fun stops suddenly when you hit 50. Well, it did for me, anyway.
    • Firefall – without a doubt my favourite surprise of the year, this MMOFPS will almost certainly be on my 2013 favourites list. But right now it’s still in beta, and they’re adding content and changing things quite radically and frequently. It’s unreasonable to assess the game right now, because it’s definitely not a finished product.
    • RIFT – I had a lot of fun in RIFT this year, but it’s just not compelling enough to draw me in when I’ve already got other themepark MMOs on the go. It lost the competition for my time against SWTOR, then TSW, then GW2 and now WoW. I like it well enough, but apparently I just don’t love it.
    • EVE Online – spaceships and lasers; what’s not to love? Well, the community full of toxic asshats, for a start. But more importantly, the existence of easy RMT takes something away from the game. I could spend twelve or fifteen hours mining like crazy to make myself half a billion ISK, or I could spend fifteen dollars in the EVE store and net myself half a billion ISK with about three mouse clicks. Don’t get me wrong, EVE’s still fun, but the existence of RMT (and my introduction to it very early in my EVE-playing career) takes away any incentive to do pretty much any PvE in the game. Add to that the fact that the only way you can improve your character is just to wait for RL time to pass and there’s little incentive to play EVE as anything other than “oooh look at the pretty spaceships”; it’s lost the risk-vs-reward factor necessary to make it a game.
    • The Secret World – another game about which I’m conflicted! TSW’s writing is the best I’ve ever seen in an MMO, the setting is refreshing and novel, the character progression system is very flexible, the missions are compelling and the investigation missions in particular are just amazing. Unfortunately, it’s plagued with a lot of challenging, grindy combat that dilutes the awesomeness down to merely ‘okay’, and it lost the competition for my time and attention. I’m not done with it, but I’m also not feeling the itch to go back any time soon.

So, I imagine some of my choices are pretty unusual — but it’s also true that many MMO players get fixed on just a game or two, and fleshing out a whole list of five can be a bit hard. What would your five favourite MMOs be?

  1. Like XP loss or XP debts for every death. Like corpse runs where you respawn alive but your gear’s still on your corpse waiting to be retrieved, in the middle of all the mobs that killed you the first time when you had all your gear. Like needing a full group of players, including a tank and a healer, just to be able to kill same-level non-elite mobs. Like having to run almost everywhere in a world full of monsters you can’t solo because taxi points are few and far between. And so on.

Because I am a nerd, and also a girl

As you might remember, I kind of fell into Firefall this year. Thus, I present: A Firefall Manicure. Each nail is inspired by a resource available in the game.

Firefall Manicure: left hand

Firefall Manicure: right hand

For those who aren’t familiar with Firefall, here are the resources:

Firefall resources

And for those who care, the polishes I used were as follows:

Azurite: Zoya Phoebe
Bismuth: Ozotic 506 & Ozotic 521 over OPI My Boyfriend Scales Walls (the multichrome effect shades from yellow to blue in RL, like Bismuth ingame, but photographing multichromes is impossible)
Brimstone: Ulta3 Honolulu
Coralite: OPI Austin-tatious Turquoise
Ferrite: Rimmel London 050 Tangerine Queen
Quartzite: OPI Dim Sum Plum (not quite right, but I don’t have anything in quartzite’s horrifying shade of purple)
Regolith: a-England Holy Grail
Silicate: a red Revitanail polish, name unknown

The thumbs aren’t shown, but they’re lacquered a nice Crystite blue using Ulta3 Blue Heaven.

My five favourite games

I’m going to exclude MMOs from this list, otherwise the sheer volume of hours eaten by MMOs would outweigh every other game I’ve ever played. But here, in no particular order, are my five favourite computer games ever:

  • Civilization III

Thankfully I never encountered the original Civilization, else I might never have graduated from high school. As it was, Civ II nearly put something of a dent in my college career. But Civ 3 was, for me, the pinnacle of the series. Although Civ IV and V kept innovating, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours in Civ IV in particular, no other game has eaten entire days at a time like Civ III. You start playing on Friday evening, and next time you look up and think “oh, I should sleep”, it’s Sunday morning and you’re not quite sure what happened to the last 36 hours.

Just one more turn. *click* Just one more turn. *click* Just one more turn…

Civilization III

  • Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

Sid takes the Civ III model and applies it to colonising an alien planet – and then throws in awesome politics, environmental awareness, a deep and engaging unit advancement system, and narration by Leonard Nimoy. What’s not to love?

(Just one more turn. *click* Just one more turn. *click* Just one more turn…)

Alpha Centauri

  • Diablo II

I think this was probably the first Blizzard game I owned, which makes it something of a gateway drug. Look, I don’t need to tell you all why D2 was awesome, do I? Everyone knows. It was just pure unvarnished fun. I didn’t play on battlenet and rarely played online at all, so I didn’t have to deal with the hacks and cheaters, and I put a hell of a lot of single player hours into Diablo II. It’s no surprise that Diablo III was something of a letdown, really – no game was going to live up to the memories of D2 fun.

Diablo II

  • Heroes of Might and Magic III

I have very many fond memories of Heroes III, and it was somewhat unusual for allowing hotseat multiplayer games. I spent many many hours convalescing after a long hospital stay, chasing computer enemies all around the map in multiplayer games with my best friend. The graphics were nothing to write home about, and the map difficulties were inexplicable to say the least, but nothing beat converging on your opponent’s last town with half a dozen of your heroes all packing armies full of angels, archers and zealots.

Heroes of Might and Magic III

  • Mass Effect

I have a confession to make. I *mumble* haven’t finished Mass Effect. Or played ME2. Or ME3, for that matter.

Look, it’s not my fault, okay?! I was in the middle of my first playthrough ever, in uber-completionist mode, and then my gaming machine died. I managed to salvage my savegames, but by the time I’d got a new machine reinstalled and back up and running, I’d lost my momentum, and forgotten where I was up to in all the side missions. And I just don’t feel right ploughing on ahead with the main story mission without finishing off the side content, because I am – as previously mentioned – ridiculous about completionism. So I’m going to have to start again from scratch, and that’s going to be fruuuustrating. (And I’ve been dithering about this for oh, about two years now.) But make no mistake, I want to, and I will, because Mass Effect is so awesome it goes on my list of Favourite Games Ever even though I haven’t finished it. It’s just that good.

Part of it is that I’m a tabletop gamer, heavy on the roleplaying, and Mass Effect was immersive and enrapturing in a way I’d never encountered in a computer game before. A lot of it was that for the first time I got to play a female hero who kicks ass, takes names and saves the universe – that’s a pretty novel experience for women gamers, and it absolutely added to Mass Effect’s allure for me. And part of it is that I’ve discovered I really quite like military sci-fi. (Also, I sort of had a crush on my Shep, which is always disturbing with fictional characters.)

Engrossing storytelling, immersive character play options, interesting and non-derivative worldbuilding, awesome voice acting, and big armor and heavy weaponry. Mass Effect might just be the greatest game ever.

Mass Effect

What are your five favourite games? I’d love to hear in the comments…

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.

Links: Humble THQ Bundle, and Riot Games vs the jerks

The Humble THQ Bundle:

    The current Humble Bundle is a pretty good deal – it’s five THQ games, plus Saints Row 3 if you spend above the average (which is currently $5.69), plus five free game soundtracks to boot.

Polygon: The League of Legends team of scientists trying to cure ‘toxic behaviour’ online:

    Riot Games join ArenaNet and Red5 Studios in the fight to tame the jerk brigade, and they’re having quantifiable success already. This approach, with hard data and specific mechanics, may well be more effective than a general statement from a game studio about “don’t be dicks”.

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.

Plus ça change, or “hooray for stereotypes”

I subscribe to Daily Infographic, because infographics are nifty and interesting (although most infographic makers, sadly, have fallen into lazy templating instead of designing the “graphic” part to suit the “info” part, but that’s a rant for another day).

Today’s featured infographic, produced by Online University, was entitled “Gamers Get Girls“.

(Click the link for a bigger version; animated GIF warning. If it doesn’t display, try viewing it directly.)

Gamers Get Girls

Some interesting stats in there? Sure. (And the subject matter provokes other thoughts which can wait for another post, like “well duh, of course shared interests work better for forging relationships than catch-all dating sites”.)

Unfortunately, none of the stats or conclusions were interesting enough to compensate for the ho-hum clichés and sexism of all the surrounding commentary. Dear Online University, the 1990s called and would like their stereotypes back, please. “Gamers get girls”? Gamers, increasingly, are girls – as of 2011, the Entertainment Software Association reports that 42% of gamers are female.1 Didn’t you get the memo? Because I thought I’d seen a lot of people talking about it – loudly.

That is, of course, to say nothing of the logical inconsistencies in their stereotypes. The infographic makes the point that a huge number of WoW players are dating another player. So… only the male players actually qualify as gamers, apparently; the female players are just girls, their purpose to be “gotten” by the male players. Like a reward.

Oh, you know what? We’ve had this discussion before – repeatedly. It’s pretty ridiculous when we have to keep shouting just for some basic visibility and recognition. Consider this my turn at the megaphone.

  1. I realise, of course, that there will be plenty of girl gamers who’d like to “get girls” themselves, but I somehow don’t think that’s what Online University was talking about.

Taming the jerk brigade

Trolls: Shadowrun, WoW and D&D Style

Trolling on the internet is nothing new; it’s long been a given that the internet is full of asshats. There’s a reason many people cite “Don’t Read The Comments” as Rule 1 of the internet. Online games are no strangers to this effect; sites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty are proof enough. We can’t police the entire internet, but we don’t have to put up with our communities becoming – or remaining – toxic wastelands full of bullies and trolls.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. One of the best examples of the wrong way is, I think, Blizzard’s moderation of the World of Warcraft communities. There are a couple of problems with their approach:

    Forum alts: You’ve always been able to use a level 1 throwaway alt for posting on the WoW forums, which diminishes any accountability and allows the trolling-inclined to be jerks to their heart’s content. Blizzard’s attempt in 2010 to enforce RealIDs on the forums was ill-thought-out, but requiring a consistent forum identity wouldn’t have been an unreasonable move and, I believe, would have cut down on the most obnoxious forum behaviour. Plenty of other game studios do it, and it works just fine.

    Speed of response: When you report harrassment, it takes Blizzard a long time to do anything about it. For example, Genowen at Untamed Hellcat recounts an incident where she was repeatedly harrassed by an entire guild, yet multiple tickets achieved nothing; it took two hours on the phone to Blizzard to see any action. Three days (or more) of harrassment while waiting for Blizzard to step in is simply unacceptable, and gives far too much power to the bullies.

    Lack of commitment: What do harrassers get, in WoW? A three-day ban if they’re really egregious? How often are people permabanned from the game for being asshats that make everyone consistently miserable? That’s right: pretty much never. Blizzard is too willing to forgive their customers for making other players — other customers — miserable.

So that’s the wrong way. What’s the right way?

Honestly, I think it just comes down to “being willing to put your foot down”. This responsibility is twofold, I think. In part, it’s the community’s job to enforce its own standards, which means more of us need to be willing to speak up and say “shut up, you’re being an asshat” when people are making the community toxic. And we need to do it on behalf of the people being victimised or harassed, not just in our own defenses when it happens to us. This is the spirit informing Navi’s Anti-Asshat Week, which I heard about via Stubborn at Sheep the Diamond, and enthusiastically endorse. LotRO’s a good example of this; it’s renowned for having a relatively pleasant community, because the community self-polices and good behaviour is rewarded while the jerks are generally shunned.

But it’s hard – it’s exhausting – to fight the jerks every day when you’re there to play and relax; doubly so if you’re one of the gaming minorities like women or gay gamers whose mere existence is used as hate speech. The ultimate responsibility lies with the game studio, IMO, because they’re the only ones who have the power to enforce actual punishment on people who aren’t swayed by whatever social pressure the community can impose.

I can think of a couple of cases of this done right in recent memory. ArenaNet attracted a lot of attention by banning the first wave of racist, homophobic bullies from Guild Wars 2 within a few days of the game’s release, back in August – and then they took to Reddit to explain why, with specifics when banned players challenged them. Their opening statement:

We want to clear up some of the confusion about GW2 name and behaviour suspensions. To keep Guild Wars 2 a pleasant place to be, we take action against racist names, hate speech and other unacceptable behaviour. We have suspended some accounts involved in the use of offensive character names or inappropriate chat. The number of account blocks is miniscule: less than .001 per cent of our total player base.

Of course, a number of commentators pointed out that ArenaNet had little incentive not to ban players, since their revenue model relies on box purchases rather than subscriptions — although this doesn’t address the issue of lost revenue from microtransactions the banned players might otherwise have made. Still, I have to admit that it warmed my heart to see bullies and trolls being dealt with sternly — and called out for their inappropriate behaviour when they complained. Pleasingly, some banned players even admitted they’d been in the wrong and apologised for being asshats — something I never expected to see, personally.

Red 5, the developers of Firefall, are another studio doing it right. The Firefall Beta Test Agreement includes the following clause:

6. You agree to be nice to everyone else playing the game. No foul language, no insults, no griefing, no cheating, etc. Red 5 Studios, Inc. retains the sole right to determine if you are being a jerk, and to take action on your account, which may include the loss of the characters, items, and any other virtual property within the game that is associated with your account. You may appeal this action through the informal process in clause 5.

I beamed when I read that for the first time. No shying away from the issue, no weasel words; instead we get a straight-up acknowledgement that being decent to other players is the required behaviour, not a statistical outlier. And I don’t think it’s a coincident that Firefall has a pretty decent player community, either. I haven’t heard anyone complaining of being banned, the incidence of general asshattery in zone chat is pretty low, and the forums are both lively and low on abuse. It doesn’t hurt that Firefall’s devs are actively engaged with the community, of course; they talk frequently with their player base, post frankly on the forums, and are happy to join in more casual and friendly discussions as well as the serious meaty developer posts. All of this adds up to an active and pleasant player community; people have little incentive to be toxic assholes to their fellow players, and it’s clearly stated that they’ll face heavy sanctions if they transgress.

I suspect it’s too late for games like WoW and communities like the XBox Live community so depressingly chronicled at Fat, Ugly or Slutty. The atmosphere may well be too entrenched to shift, short of massive (and massively unpopular) intervention on the part of the companies with the power, and those companies’ long-time silence and inaction has set a precedent they may not be able to break. But examples like GW2 and Firefall demonstrate that we don’t have to tolerate assholes in our part of the internet if we’re supported by game studios with the will to keep their games non-toxic and jerk-free. Here’s to ArenaNet and Red 5 and the other studios choosing to take a stand for their communities. Call it naive, but I dream of a day when level 1 forum alts and constant harassment are a cautionary tale from the past, not a reality thrust in the face of all too many of us who’d rather just game in peace.

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.