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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.

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

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.

GW2: the real deal

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

A cave in the Norn lands.

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

Number one: the money.

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

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

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

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

Number two: the interface.

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

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

Number three: together alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The beautiful vistas of The Secret World

Let’s have a break from the meaty posts about Free-to-Play games and the state of the MMO industry and spend some time admiring the subtle beauty of The Secret World instead. Here, have some downloadable shinies!

A tower in Shambala
Download “Shambala Tower” wallpaper [1920×1080]

The sweeping views of Shambala
Download “Shambala Vista” wallpaper [1920×1080]

Abandoned ferris wheel
Download “Ferris Wheel” wallpaper [1920×1080]

A quiet street in sleepy Kingsmouth
Download “Kingsmouth” wallpaper [1920×1080]

All images are taken from The Secret World, which is a registered trademark of Funcom Gmbh.

The false economy of Free-to-Play

I spent a while this weekend in The Secret World (surprising, I know), which is currently having a one-month-iversary free play celebration weekend. That meant that the chat channels in the first few zones were full of people trying out the game, and most seemed very positive about it. That said, there were a surprising range of sentiments about the costs of subscribing.

Image credit: Twid @ Wikimedia, licensed under CC-BY-SA

The most common refrain I heard was “I won’t bother subscribing, I’ll just wait til it goes free-to-play” (often with the addendum “because Funcom games always do”). That was closely followed by “the lifetime access pack isn’t worth it, it’ll be free-to-play soon”.

Given that a Grandmaster Pack (which bestows the lifetime sub) costs the equivalent of 13.3 months’ subscription, that’s a gamble that TSW will go fully free-to-play in a year or less 1 and it’s assuming that the free-to-play mode won’t lock you out of content you’d otherwise want to do.

Now, different games have different free-to-play limitations. SWTOR, for instance, will allow you to complete the entirety of the quest content, and will just restrict the number of instances, PvP warzones and space missions you can do every week (and restrict you from raiding). 2 LotRO, on the other hand, only opens some questing areas to free-to-play users; if you want to progress further, or explore more widely, you need to unlock regional quest packs with microtransactions in their store. (As well as a range of other restrictions.) Many games restrict free-to-play players to more vanilla classes and races, leaving the interesting and exotic stuff for the subscribers. And almost every F2P game restricts your character slots, bag space, bank balance and/or concurrent auctions/sales if you’re not a paying subscriber. For comparison, check out the free-to-play models offered by SWTOR, LotRO, EverQuest 2, DC Universe Online, City of Heroes, Age of Conan and Star Trek Online.

So “waiting for F2P” is a gamble that it is coming sooner rather than later, and that its implementation won’t be so restrictive that you’ll feel the need to pay anyway. Remember, the whole point of F2P is to lure you into paying, and one way devs do that is by restricting what you can do as a free player. Which is fair enough — they’re not a charity, after all. In most MMOs, if you’re a non-subscribing player, buying access to all the features of a subscription costs as much as months of subscribing.

Now, if your gaming time is already full and you just can’t see you’d get value for money out of yet another MMO sub, or your budget is creaking and you can’t afford it, that’s another matter (and waiting for F2P seems an entirely sensible choice). And F2P modes work well for people who get very little regular gaming time — you’re not wasting subscription time and you can still get months of entertainment out of the limited content they offer for free. But if you’ve got the money and you’ve got the time – and you like the game – why not pay for it? Waiting for a free-to-play implementation that may never come seems like false economy to me.

  1. And for comparison’s sake, Funcom’s other two MMORPGs both took three years to offer a free-to-play option.
  2. Which is why I’m concerned about SWTOR’s implementation of F2P — there aren’t enough restrictions to encourage a free player to subscribe. I don’t think it’s going to do good things for their revenue.

Investigation missions: The Secret World innovates

Working out an investigation mission in TSW

It’s been a long time since a game has made me take notes. Theorycrafting napkin maths, sure; spreadsheets of profit-and-loss and crafting recipes, well, they’re a given with me and MMOs. But actually taking notes? The last game I remember doing that with was Loom or Myst.

TSW’s investigation missions are a puzzler’s heaven, and break the mold of standard questing in a big way. They don’t follow preset formulae the way normal MMO quests do; you’re just given some information to find out, and the game leaves the rest up to you.

One investigation mission has you learning Morse code to translate an intercepted transmission so that you can reach the drop point. Another gives you mysterious conspiracy-theory style clues about Bible verses and times on a clock to lead you to hidden treasure. Some have ciphers, or clues based on nursery rhymes. Many require you to make friends with Google: not for spoilers, but for in-universe websites with hidden clues — there’s a web browser accessible within the game (your character is given a smartphone as part of their factional induction), because they know you’re going to need it. Unlike most MMO quests, completing an investigation mission isn’t just a case of “pick up all the clue macguffins; presto, quest complete”. Investigation missions in TSW say “here are (some of) the clues; now work out what answer they’re hinting at” — and leave the rest up to you.

In many ways, TSW’s investigation missions are reminiscent of ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games, where subtle clues lead you on a treasure hunt across multiple websites and other media. Funcom employed several ARGs as part of TSW’s prelaunch marketing and community building, and it seems they don’t intend to drop that thread now.

It’s a really fascinating addition to an MMO, and it perfectly fits the flavour and atmosphere of The Secret World. I really look forward to the investigation missions, because they tax my ingenuity and imagination. Solving one doesn’t give you any idea of how to deal with the next, except by showing you how far afield you might have to search for your answers.

…The downside, of course, is that unlike most quests, an investigation mission isn’t repeatable — once you’ve done the legwork once, the second run-through isn’t a challenge.

Thankfully, Funcom is planning a monthly update schedule with regular injections of new mission content. The first update, Unleashed, went live this week with seven new missions — five of which were investigations. That’s a promising start, and I hope it becomes a trend.

TSW Issue 1 - Unleashed