Tag Archives: swtor

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.

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.

The argument for addons

I was struck, when awaiting SWTOR’s launch last year, by the vitriolic debate for and against addons that raged within the fan community. Some fans — and I count myself among their number — were keen on addons; some hated the very thought of them.

Me, I love addons. I like the ability to tweak my interface to present me with the kind of information that’s important to what I’m doing. If I’m spending a few weeks grinding faction, I want to be able to see my faction standings onscreen without opening my character sheet. If I’m raiding, I want not just raid frames but easily-viewable buffs and debuffs and other important alerts. If I’m recruiting I want more social tools to hand. And I have a big monitor; I’d much rather keep that info onscreen instead of having to open up windows repeatedly to find it. I want to be able to put my action bars where I want them, and have different bars of different sizes depending on their function. I like being able to put all the elements where they suit me, style them how I like them, and hide the bits I don’t want.

For example, my WoW UI, Cataclysm-vintage:

My WoW UI, Cataclysm-vintage

Allowing players to move and resize interface components (in the style of LotRO, SWTOR, and RIFT) goes some way towards meeting the most basic needs of UI customisation, but it falls far short of allowing proper UI modding.

There are a number of reasons I like addons, both personally and on general principle:

1. Comfort

I don’t mind a single-player or multiplayer game with a locked-down UI because those games are generally limited experiences – you get in, you play, you log off. But MMOs are ‘home’ for so many of us – we log in to chat, to relax, and to socialise (and to do ‘chores’ like gathering consumables or doing dailies) as well as to actually play. The success of MMOs relies, in the long term, on players feeling ‘at home’ in their ingame environment, and UI comfort is a huge part of that. There’s a big difference between a hotel room and my own house, and uncustomisable UIs feel like the hotel rooms of the gaming world.

2. Accessibility

One of the reasons why I’m pro-addons is that they help solve accessibility issues. Not everyone is able to play with a stock UI, whether it’s vision impairments that mean you need elements bigger and more visible, hearing impairments that mean you need subtitles or onscreen warning instead of alert sounds, or physical impairments that mean you can’t move the mouse around easily while clicking so you need mouseover macros or click-to-cast addons — or some other issue. A robust addon engine means that, while devs aren’t off the hook in terms of addressing accessibility issues, players with uncommon needs or specific impairments have a much better chance of finding a solution that lets them play the game in comfort.

3. Customisation

We don’t expect everybody to play MMOs the same way or for the same reasons, and different playstyles need access to different controls and different information. It’s like buying clothing — “one size fits all” usually doesn’t fit anyone apart from those people who are within one standard deviation of the median. 1 The stock UI simply can’t be all things to all people, nor meet the needs of every facet of the (hopefully large) user base. Addons can help to make the game experience a lot more pleasant for people who fall outside the catered-to “norm”.

4. Reversion

Sometimes developers make choices that are simply ugly to your eyes, or leave you scratching your head wondering what they were thinking. (Personally, I think the unmodded original WoW UI was a simply terrible design that really doesn’t hold up to the huge screens of modern gaming computers, for instance.) Allowing addons that modify the interface means that hapless players can undo the dev choices that seem insane to them.

(Unsurprisingly, some devs are so attached to their precious interfaces that they cite the “user experience” as the reason they’re disallowing addons. Pal, if your interface design is so great, your players wouldn’t want addons to change it. Take the hint, yes?)

Customising the SWTOR UI

5. Inspiration

A vibrant addon-creating and -using community is effectively a volunteer workforce refining and playtesting the best (and worst) interface changes that addons can offer; the developers are then free to incorporate that sort of functionality into the game proper — which is good for everybody, as native features are almost always smoother and faster than those from third-party plugins. WoW has a long history of incorporating the most popular addon functionalities into the game itself, and I think other games miss out by not doing the same.

Countering the counterarguments

Unfortunately, all too many people have a kneejerk DO NOT WANT reaction to addons; to them, “addons” are synonymous with “elitist assholes who use DPS meters as a tool to put other people down”.

Certainly, every game community has its share of assholes, but despite the common arguments, addons don’t make the community toxic. Community size (plus its demographics and the basic asshole-amplifying nature of the internet) makes the community toxic. Gearscore, Recount and Omen didn’t make the WoW community a horrible place – 12 million players (and poor community policies and the proliferation of “level 1 forum alts” did that). Addons are just tools, and I can honestly say that my community experience in WoW, RIFT, TSW or LotRO (which all allow addons) was not any worse than my experience in SWTOR or GW2 (which do not).

The bottom line

What it boils down to for me is that having addons shouldn’t make life worse for the people who choose to play without them, but not having addons does make life worse for people who want (or need) to play with them. Provided I’m able to do my job in group play, and I’m not an asshole, it has no impact on anybody else whether or not I’m using addons.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to download some addons for RIFT.

  1. And this article is, totally tangentially, an interesting look at why off-the-rack clothes fit so badly.

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.

When copying is a good thing

It’s no secret that plenty of games in the MMO space borrow from each other, and from their community. Each new game is, in many ways, a response to the games that have come before — and, of course, many of us bemoan that fact, or deride new MMOs as WoW Clones, and so on.

And yet it’s not at all uncommon to play a new game, stumble across a feature, and think “oh, ffs, [Game X] did that so much better; this is so clunky!” Or, more often, stumble across the lack of a feature, and be frustrated that “bah, [Game X] managed to get this right three years ago, why isn’t everyone doing it?“.

It’s terribly unfair of us, of course, to criticise games on the one hand for being too similar, and yet to complain on the other when New Game Y is missing the convenience features we’re used to in Old Game X. But apparently it’s human nature, so here are a few off the top of my head:

  • Looting: DCUO gave us one-key AOE looting. RIFT, WoW and SWTOR now have AoE loot; TSW and GW2 have keybound loot. Other MMOs are still catching up, but few games have matched DCUO’s looting convenience. Every time I kill a mob in SWTOR or RIFT I lament again the lack of a loot key – TSW and GW2 have spoilt me.
  • Selling junk: RIFT has a “sell vendor junk” button on every vendor window. Why doesn’t every game do this? (In fact, why even have vendor junk?) GW2 followed suit. SWTOR comes close with your ability to send off a companion to sell your junk for you. WoW solved the problem with addons. Other games missed the boat.
  • Character customisation in game: SWG had a brilliant “image designer” system back in 2004, people. LotRO caught up with the release of Barbers in Book 12, early 2008. WoW matched them with barbershops in Wrath of the Lich King, late 2008. RIFT only brought in stylists a month or so ago, and SWTOR still doesn’t have them. TSW launched without it, but is implementing them shortly; GW2 lacks any kind of in-game character customisation and ArenaNet’s said nothing about it.
  • Crafting: It’s no secret that I have strong opinions about how games implement crafting systems, but however else you feel about it, SWTOR did one thing brilliantly right: crafting from the bank. RIFT wasn’t far behind in implementing that, and players everywhere loved it, yet GW2 launched without it (as did TSW, though that was probably an inevitable effect of its crafting system).
  • Group-finding tools: I’m not sure whether WoW was the first to implement such a feature, but despite criticism it revolutionised gameplay for many many players. There are those who don’t like group finders, but they make it much easier to find groups for the majority of players, and especially in games with low (or spread-out) populations, one could argue that they’re vital. And yet they don’t seem to be a priority for many games at launch, oddly, despite grouping woes being one of the single biggest turn-offs for player retention.
  • Customisable UIs: WoW obviously set the bar here with its addon system (although it wasn’t the first by a long shot), and other games followed suit. Even games without addons allowed players to move and resize stock UI elements for their own comfort. Some devs, on the other hand, seem to be very precious about their beloved UIs, refusing to allow players to customise their layout in any meaningful way (which is a bad move on accessibility grounds, if nothing else). BioWare, thankfully, wised up with SWTOR and implemented a system like LOTRO and RIFT; ArenaNet, on the other hand, are very resistant to letting players customise GW2’s (intrusive and unfriendly) interface. It’s certainly not winning them any friends in my neck of the woods, I can tell you.

I’ve probably got a whole bunch of these wrong, in terms of who first pioneered an innovation, but the key point is not “who did it first” but “why isn’t everybody doing it now?”. I understand that devs want to set their game apart, but eschewing features that make gameplay better, more convenient or more satisfying is really not the way to do that.

So, what have I missed? I’m sure there are plenty of other features that should be industry-standard by now — and aren’t.

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.

F2P: SWTOR, you’re doing it wrong

Inspired by the recent discussion of SWTOR’s move to free-to-play in the blogosphere, I went looking at F2P offerings from other MMORPGs. While implementing F2P is often a good move for an MMO’s revenue, I think Bioware have got the wrong end of the stick with SWTOR’s model, and I’m honestly concerned that it’s going to do more harm than good to the longevity of the game.

(I’m not actually obsessed with F2P MMORPGs, contrary to the recent spate of posts. It’s just a hot topic right now, and there are a lot of interesting discussions happening thanks to SWTOR’s recent announcement.)

If you look at the different games with F2P options (shown in the table below, or neatly formatted on a standalone page), you’ll see a lot of similarities. Almost all games restrict your character creation options, for instance, usually in terms of access to classes and number of character slots. We’ve got no information about SWTOR’s plans in that arena, but there’s been no mention of such limitations yet. And most restrict at least some of their levelling content (which is the meat and potatoes of what a game has to offer to all except the most involved players), yet SWTOR has promised to give all theirs away for free.

Free-to-play, as a concept, exists to get money from customers who aren’t willing to commit to a subscription. A good implementation of F2P will encourage non-subscribers to give you their money. A bad implementation will encourage current subscribers to stop giving you their money. If current subscribers are looking at your upcoming F2P and deciding they can afford to unsubscribe, it rather suggests that you’re giving away the wrong stuff for free. And I’ve heard a lot more people saying they’ll go from subscription to F2P than the other direction.

SWTOR’s publicity and advertising all focused around its impressive quest content, story and character development, and fully-voiced-and-animated NPC dialogues. And yet Bioware has decided that that’s the stuff they’re going to give away for free, while restricting the raiding and PvP endgames (which are, let’s be honest, the parts of the game that are most interchangeable with other MMOs) to those who pay up.

Unless Bioware plans to implement extremely stringent limits on the number of characters a free account can have, 1 I don’t see this ending well for their balance sheet.

Other thoughts from the blogosphere on the same issue:

Financial analysts, on the other hand, seem to think this change could make SWTOR more popular than WoW. Good luck with that.

Follow the link for the full table of F2P comparisons.

  1. Which will be seen as a bait and switch as any mention of it has been omitted so far, and will thus provoke a lot of unnecessary hostility