Stropp's World

Games And Gamery

If It Smells Like Spin

Posted by Stropp on March 29, 2013

An interesting post by Green Armadillo over at PvD about player motivations. Mysterious player motivations actually. In it GA references two games and recent comments made by those responsible for them.

I don’t want to get into debates about the merits of these games or systems in this post, but I do want to talk about why these comments don’t ring true to me.

First of all these comments are coming from two veterans of the computer game industry, and not just that these are guys that have been in the front lines of game development for many years. We should also consider that they have worked on some of the biggest and most anticipated games to date; they’re not lightweights. They’ve been around the block a few times. They are the cream of the crop.

Game developers, and particularly MMORPG developers, have known since the first MMOs, that players have a tendency to rush to the level cap. MMO players consume content like a zombie consumes brains. How many games release one day, then two or three days later have players announcing they’ve capped.

How many articles and blog posts have we read about players complaining that a game has no high end content because they’ve rushed and run out of content well in advance of what the developers planned for?

And look at auction houses with the millions of words written about them. How we see players aggressively pursuing the market, and engaging in trading practices that would make the NYSE blush or proud depending on who was running it at the time.

Right from the start of MMO gaming, players have looked for ways to make their characters as effective as they possibly can be. Asheron’s Call players may be familiar with such things as 10/100/10/100/100 (I think I got the attributes for a mage correct there.) Players will min/max to make the right character, even if more distributed settings will create a more well rounded but weaker character.

So to hear a pair of veteran game developers, in 2013, say they underestimated what players would do with the long standing and well understood systems they were putting in their games…

Really?

Star Wars The Old Republic: Quick Thought

Posted by Stropp on May 9, 2012

While I was writing the last post, What Is Bioware Doing Wrong? A thought came to mind that didn’t fit in that post.

Having the Star Wars IP to develop a game is pretty much a free pass to a million or more box sales.

So why, with your development, go where every man has gone before? (I know, Star Trek reference doesn’t mix with Star Wars!)

Bioware could have done anything with The Old Republic. They could have made it a full sandbox with no quests, and sold two million boxes. So why did they stick with the themepark model that has been copping so much negativity over the last few years?

Bioware is, has been, a highly creative game developer. It’s a pity they didn’t use that creativity on more than just the class stories. Unless they completely botched it, they would have been successful.

What Is Bioware Doing Wrong?

Posted by Stropp on May 9, 2012

Bioware used to be the game developer who could do no wrong. They were a strong player in the game industry, with lots of very much loved games under their belt. From Baldurs Gate through to Mass Effect and Dragon Age it seemed they could do no wrong.

But now it almost seems they can do no right. The Mass Effect 3 ending caused a huge backlash among fans. Dragon Age 2 wasn’t appreciated by fans. And Star Wars: The Old Republic appears to be haemorrhaging subscribers, not that long after release.

So what’s happening?

Here are a couple of  ideas I have about where Bioware is going wrong.

#1 Bioware Have Forgotten Their True Fans

Bioware is where it is today because it focussed on one type of player, the RPG player. Through release after release of game they provided the experience that their fans loved. And consequently, they grew that fanbase. They gave it what it wanted, and because of this the fans loved them. Bioware only had to announce the development of a new game, and the fans went wild.

I’m not sure this has happened since EA bought them out, but now with each new game release, Bioware have been stripping away the game mechanics that their fans love. RPG’s have always been notorious for the stats. That’s been the case since, and caused by, the old pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons games. It also attracts a particular type of player, and repels other types of players.

Bioware in an attempt to make RPG’s ‘simpler’ have been removing the stats and attributes from their new games, or hiding them behind other gameplay elements. In essence this makes a game easier to get into and understand and easier to progress, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it marginalises the players who do actually like stats and attributes. If those players perceive Bioware as moving away from the model they love, they’re not going to be fans anymore.

#2 RPG’s Aren’t Just About The Story

In all the time Bioware has been developing games, there has been a huge emphasis on story. And that is good. That’s a big part of an RPG. But it’s not all there is.

As I mentioned above, a good RPG provides character progression as well as features that are recognisably RPG.

Is it possible to emphasize story too much?

In the case of SW:TOR, I think the answer is yes. So much so in fact that the game really comes across as a single player game with other players running around whom you can group with.

Ironically, this is Bioware’s forte. They make great single player RPGs. But for a MMO you really need a lot more than just a class story, you need a huge virtual world, not just a linear progression path. Even WoW has more than that.

#3 Bioware Are Choosing The Wrong Role Models (At The Wrong Time)

I think this one specifically relates to SW:TOR, but it could be applied to some aspects of their single player games too. It seems to me that Bioware focussed on making The Old Republic too much like World of Warcraft. Sure, Bioware puts a very strong emphasis on story in SW:TOR but is this enough to differentiate it from the WoW themepark model?

And even with World of Warcraft we are seeing a significant drop in subscriptions, perhaps the most significant since that game was released.

Why is this? Well, frankly I’m not really all that sure. Thousands of words have been written on the topic, and thousands of more will be. All I know that for myself is that World of Warcraft was becoming too narrow in its focus on the endgame. The journey was no longer important, it was all about levelling up quickly in order to raid. I’m not a raider, I’m more of an explorer so once the content was exhausted there wasn’t much point in sticking around. I see this same model in SWTOR, with the exception of (heavily) encouraging alt-ing through the legacy system.

If SW:TOR has been released five years ago it might have been the WoW killer everyone has been dreaming of, but instead it has been released at a time when there appears to be a growing disatisfaction with the subscription themepark model.

I’m not going to say that the subscription model is dead, I don’t believe that for a minute, but there is an equalisation going on between subscriptions and free to play. To survive the subscription model needs more than basic themepark gameplay. It needs, I think, the sandbox. The subscription model is perfect for Eve Online, I doubt Eve could work as free-to-play, but for a long term themepark, much more is needed. SW:TOR for all its beauty, story, and Star Wars-ishness is a very basic themepark. That isn’t going to keep players around.

Goodwill Hunting

Every business has this intangible asset called goodwill. It usually doesn’t appear on the balance sheet because it can be really hard to quantify. How do you tell if your customers love you? Well they keep coming back for one thing; but how much is this worth?

In Bioware’s case, goodwill was the asset they earned when they focussed on making quality RPGs for a generation of fans.

Now it seems that the recent mistakes are losing that goodwill.

What do you think Bioware are doing wrong? Do you think they are making mistakes in the first place? Or will this all blow over and everything will be alright?

Bioware, Mass Effect 3, and Artistic Integrity

Posted by Stropp on March 23, 2012

Despite not having bought or played Mass Effect 3 yet, it’s hard to have missed the ruckus about how the Mass Effect series has ended.

Lot’s of players have expressed displeasure at how the story ends, some demanding that Bioware change the ending to suit them. I think I even read that someone has initiated a lawsuit against the devs. (I might be mistaken there, people these days sue over so many trivial things it’s hard to keep them all straight.)

It looks like Bioware is caving to these demands, albeit in a way that doesn’t compromise their artistic vision.

But doesn’t considering changing the ending in the first place mean the compromise has already happened?

The crazy thing is how much of an issue this has become.

Books, movies, music all have examples where the story ends weakly, or the band tries something new that the fans don’t care for. But how often do you see the level of entitlement that we see from the game community demanding that the artists change their or face lawsuits?

It may be that Bioware have produced an unsatisfactory ending to the Mass Effect 3 series, but if they as the artists behind the series believe in their art then they shouldn’t change it because some don’t like the way the story ends.

Why Star Wars The Old Republic Is Bad For Role Players

Posted by Stropp on November 30, 2011

A lot of words have been written about SWTOR lately.

The impression I get is that these words have been mostly positive about Star Wars The Old Republic. And, to a certain extent, this is rightfully so. SWTOR is actually a pretty decent game.

I was given the opportunity over the weekend to participate in the final stress test for the game, and spent the greater portion of the weekend doing so. While I enjoyed my time playing it, despite some fairly annoying bugs, I’ve come to the following conclusion about The Old Republic.

It’s good for themepark gamers, bad for role players.

Darkside/Lightside Points

Bioware for some time now in their games have been using a simple alignment system to let players choose to be nasty or nice. This has the effect of altering the game play to some degree by changing the outcomes of some conversations with NPCs, and even altering the path of the game a little, even though the end result is the same.

This works quite nicely in a game like Mass Effect to provide some replayability and allowing different choices on the way through, but whether a player in Mass Effect goes light or dark really has no effect on anything other than romantic choices. But Mass Effect is not a MMORPG.

The big problem here is that Bioware has tied light and darkside gear to this system. If you are playing a darkside Sith or Jedi, when you reach darkside level 1 you can purchase DS1 lightsabres. It’s not clear to me if this equipment is better than what is normally on offer, or awarded from quests, but if it is then this encourages players to choose one path, dark or light, and stick to it.

Why is that a problem, you say.

Well, your choice is removed. If you want to be able to raid later on, you will need the best gear. Even if raiding is not your goal, having decent equipment is still going to be something to be desired.You are going to want to make the ‘right’ choice for your path, not necessarily the right choice for your character.

In other words the current darkside/lightside system encourages min-maxing.

If you are a role player who also wants to be competitive in raiding or grouping, you will have to choose between picking the option that awards the most points or the option that feels right for your character.If you don’t give a care about end-game, sure feel free to make the choices you want.

I did create a character on the weekend that was intended to be unrelentingly evil, and making the dark choices was fun, but even so, the darkside choice didn’t always feel right. That’s why the best bad guys in books, movies, and TV are so interesting, they make interesting choices. The worst bad guys are the ones who bwaa ha ha all the time.

It’s also interesting to note that the Bioware idea of morality was a bit off at times. Some of the light side choices were distinctly on the wrong side of right.

Legacy System

The proposed legacy system dictates that when your character completes the first chapter you choose a unique legacy surname. That is then used for all your future characters on that server.

This build has our first iteration of the Legacy System! At its core the Legacy system is about allowing players to create a family tree of characters. Family is pretty important to the Star Wars universe, with the Skywalker family having one of the most interesting dynamics in movie history. This version is just the foundational components that we will use to build upon in the future. Here are the features of this iteration:

  • Once your character has completed their Chapter 1 storyline, they will be able to choose a Legacy Last Name. This Legacy Last Name must be unique and is shared across all characters on that server – so choose carefully!
  • Once you have unlocked your Legacy, any and all characters on that server will now contribute to that player’s Legacy Experience Points. Much like normal experience points, when you reach certain Legacy thresholds, you will increase yourLegacy Level.

We already have plans for how we will expand the functionality of the Legacy System in one of our major post-ship patches. This will include being able to shape your Legacy’s family tree, and give you a reward for all those Legacy Levels.

I”m not really certain what the purpose is for this. I’ve seen conjecture that it allows characters on a server to share equipment, or provides some kind of bonus, but from the announcement it isn’t really clear.

Once thing is clear though, once you have a legacy name every character on the same server, no matter what species or allegiance shares the same last name. So your Twi’lek Consular, Human Bounty Hunter, and Chiss Sith Warrior will all have the last name. Nope, no logical problems with that at all. After all different species often share the same cultural background that results in the same last names… Hmmm.

This incredible lack of logic does not even take into account that a player might simply want to create a role play character that is not associated with their other characters. It’s odd to me that Bioware, a company that has grown to greatness on the back of encouraging role play in its games, is almost completely disregarding it in SWTOR.

So, if you are a roleplayer, you are pretty much out of luck.

Companions/Ships

A big part of SWTOR is the companion system. As the player progresses he is awarded companions that he can interact with, do their storyline quests, and even romance. Unfortunately here the role player is also let down.

You see you don’t have a choice.

You are given the companions for your class. You can’t choose from a pool or selection.

Every Sith Warrior is going to run around with that whiney Twi’lek as the first companion. (No wonder I enjoyed shock collaring her so much!) About the best differentiation you can hope for is to change the skin colour.

I remember reading a lot of love for the Jawa companion, Blizz. He’s only available for the Bounty Hunter. So if you love Blizz but can’t stand the BH playstyle, tough. If you want to access Blizz you will have to play a character you don’t like.

Of course you get a choice of which of the companions to take with you on a mission, but even this is limited by your class. A Jedi Knight for example is a tank. A JK player will always take the companion that offers the best support role, a healer for example. Some companions will be useless (does a tank need a tank companion?) Other companions will be indispensible and always chosen.

The same goes for the ship you get. Every character gets a ship which is nice, but the bounty hunter gets one single type of ship while the Jedi Knight gets another.

Now while this doesn’t directly affect a players role playing choices as much as the first two points above, there is an indirect effect in that all players in a class are exactly the same.

No two Jedi are unique. No you are not a precious snowflake in Bioware’s galaxy.

Homogenousity

Okay. Made up word.

I guess everything I wrote above boils down into my biggest criticism of Star Wars The Old Republic.

There is very little room for customisation.

From character creation where there is barely any difference in some of the face styles and other choices (why couldn’t my Republic Zabrak have Darth Maul colourings?) to the rewards for light/dark side choices and companion and ship allocations there is very little chance for customisation.

For the most part players will be constrained to playing Star Wars The Old Republic through a fairly narrow and linear corridor.

Themepark players will love this game, as long as they are not roleplayers too. SWTOR is a masterpiece of themepark design, taking the player along on what appears to be a great story. But that’s about where it stops. It’s a very limited game in some respects, perhaps only having long term playability for raiders and those who enjoy battleground style PvP. There’s no sandpit in this themepark.

While the story that I’ve encountered so far is excellent, it is the Bioware story that is being played, not yours.

That’s why I think that SWTOR will be bad for role players.

How about you, what do you think?

 

 

Mass Effect MMORPG? Somewhere Around 2020 If At All

Posted by Stropp on October 1, 2011

There has been a bit of speculation of a Mass Effect MMORPG on gamer forums and blogs for a little while now, much of it with little evidence that such a thing is likely to ever happen.

That is something I would like to see. Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 have been among my favorite games of the last few years. I really enjoyed both of them (except for the scanning mini-game in ME2, uurgh.) I reckon the backstory for the ME universe has some real possibilities, and once the trilogy has been tidied up there will likely be some level of aftermath for players to inhabit.

Anyway, I digress.

Industry Gamers asked Greg Zeschuk about the possibility, and he responded to the query with, “You never know.”

While this is great news for MMO lovers and fans of the Mass Effect series, who want more SciFi in their gaming, I wouldn’t start looking at upgrading your PC just yet. The release date is not likely to be for many years yet.

  1. SWTOR is shipping late this year, and will likely tie up resources for 12 months or more. The first year or two is critical, not only for fixing bugs and developing the expansions, but for the company to learn to run a AAA MMORPG.
  2. Bioware have to complete and ship Mass Effect 3. I don’t know what the release date is for ME3, but it won’t be this year, and will possibly be mid-2012 onwards.

So it’s likely that if Bioware do decide to develop MEO (like the acronym I came up with there?) development won’t start until 2013. With the long development times of big MMORPGs, you’d expect it take at least four years, that puts the earliest release date for Mass Effect Online at early 2017.

Of course, it is also way to early to get excited about a Mass Effect MMO at all. “You never know,” is not exactly a, “Hell yeah, we’re already planning it out.” And even if the Bioware doctors are keen to do MEO and have all sorts of great ideas for it, that doesn’t mean that they’ll get approval to do it. They’ll need approval to start, and funding from the bean counters at EA to even start spending money on the planning process.

And EA will want to see how SWTOR does before they commit money to MEO.

If we look practically at the other issues involved, even getting the approval to start planning could take a while, then it’s not unlikely that a Mass Effect MMORPG would have a release date closer to 2020.

 

 

 

Bioware Getting It Bass Ackwards

Posted by Stropp on February 15, 2011

Over at Kill Ten Rats, Ravious has a post up discussing the recent Bioware emails sent out to SW:TOR fan sites. Apparently, the legal boffins are saying that Bioware cannot promote fan sites if those sites are making money, if it’s just enough to pay for hosting and on-going costs. While the emails aren’t a legal threat, they’re simply saying that Bioware would like to promote the fan sites, but won’t if there’s money being made.

But hang on.

Last I heard, a fan site is set up because the owner is a fan, and wants to let everyone else know about the game.

You’ve got to wonder about the mentality present in a company if they’re worried that the  free publicity for the game they’ve lovingly labored over for the last umpteen years is making someone else a few dollars.

After all, they are happy to give the commercial MMORPG blogs like Ten Ton Hammer, Massively, and MMORPG.com interviews and lots of beta keys; and these sites are making a vast amount more than a little old fan site. Why do they care if the owner of a fan site makes something on the side?

2010 Prognostications

Posted by Stropp on December 25, 2009

225px-Nostradamus_by_CesarIt’s kind of an expected activity for bloggers these days. At the end of each year, we make a bunch of predictions for the coming year and review the ones we made last year. But since I didn’t actually make any predictions last year, there’s only one thing to do.

Make some predictions for the coming year, 2010.

I did consider writing my predictions in some form of abstract poetry like our friend Nostradamus (pictured right.) After all, anything written in an abstract and obtuse manner can be interpreted as 100 percent correct after the fact. But really, where’s the fun in that? And writing poetry isn’t really my forte — There once was a man called Enis…

So time to put on my silly hat and on to the prophetically predicted prognostications.

Prediction 1: The release date for Star Trek Online will be pushed back from the initial February date at least once, possibly twice.

Reason(s):  Not many modern MMORPGs or their expansions actually make the first release date. There’s always more to do, and beta testing often reveals serious problem that need to be corrected.

Probability: 90%

Prediction 2: Blizzard will release Cataclysm late in the year around November, or early 2011 in February.

Reason(s): Based on past experience, these are the dates that Blizzard releases their expansions.

Probability: 80%

Prediction 3: The Star Wars: The Old Republic release date (the rumoured October 2010 date) will be massaged in a similar fashion as the date for STO, but I expect that EA-Bioware will announce and push for a November 2010 release.

Reason(s): EA are going to want a successful MMORPG on the streets sooner, rather than later. Since the rumours (apparently coming from EA) so far indicate a late 2010 release for SWTOR, I’m expecting an announcement sometime around June. The rumoured October date may be announced, but I expect that will be pushed back to late November in time for Christmas stockings.

Probability: 50%

Prediction 4: Corollary to Predictions 2 and 3: Blizzard will wait until EA-Bioware announce the release date for SWTOR and then announce the Cataclysm release date to be around the same time.

Reason(s): This appears to be a standard policy at Blizzard. For the last few years, when a threat to World of Warcraft’s dominance appears, real or perceived, Blizzard times their expansions or major announcements in an attempt to steal their competitors thunder. Some of this might just be unfortunate timing, but it’s happened a number of times. SWTOR is a very high profile game with a good chance to become at least number two in the MMORPG space and give Blizzard a run for their money. I’d be very surprised if Blizzard doesn’t try and slow them down, and releasing Cataclysm (which is effectively a reboot of WoW) will throw a huge monkey in Bioware’s wrench.

However, if Bioware don’t release late 2010 or early 2011, Blizzard will be forced to release Cataclysm well before SWTOR and that won’t have as much of a negative effect.

Probability: Very High if Bioware intend to release SWTOR in 2010.

Prediction 5: The micro-transaction model will be applied to more existing games.

Reason(s): A bit of a no-brainer this one. In some ways 2009 was the year of micro-transactions for Western MMORPGs with Dungeons and Dragons Online proving that the model not only works, but can re-invigorate a game that was previously struggling on the subscription model. I expect that we’ll see the DDO model adopted more and more for other games that haven’t been as successful as the developers have hoped and there will be some MMORPGs announced in development by Western developers intended to be micro-transaction based.

Probability: 100%

Prediction 6: In 2010 the MMORPG communities will be rocked by IP type lawsuits with far reaching implications.

Reason(s): I pretty much hate making this prediction, but based on the increasing number of patent troll lawsuits in other technological arenas, there’s a good chance that there will be one or more lawsuits in the coming year that will be won by the trolls, and may result in either the termination of a game or the radical modification of game play to comply with the IP requirements. In fact there is already a case going on initiated by a company called Worlds.com that has serious implications for MMORPG companies.

As an aside to this, it’s also possible that there will be at least one lawsuit between two MMORPG companies. This could be between two of the big players (which is less likely) or between one of the big boys, possibly EA or Blizzard, and one of the smaller players in the market.

Probability: 70%

Now for some long-shot predictions.

Prediction 7: Turbine will announce that they are going to move Asheron’s Call to a free to play, micro-transaction model. This will cause fuss in the AC community, but Turbine will sweeten the pot by creating a new client for the game.

Reason(s): AC is still being supported by Turbine with new content each month, so they haven’t consigned it to a maintenance status. Coupled with the increased interest on the tenth anniversary, Turbine will see an opportunity to reinvigorate the AC franchise.

On the other hand they may just announce Asheron’s Call 3.

Probability: 10%

Prediction 8: Blizzard will announce the name and details of their new MMORPG.

Reason(s): It’s entirely possible that Blizzard will announce the details of the new game sometime in 2010 simply because there’s a lot of interest. I’m giving it a lower chance of happening because the game isn’t expected until 2014ish and Blizzard don’t tend to make early announcements. It may happen in the coming year or two, but there’s a better chance of an announcement in 2012.

Probability: 10%

Prediction 9: SOE will announce Everquest 3.

Reason(s): There was some buzz a while back about SOE working on Everquest 3. It was apparently mentioned in the last chapter of a book on MMORPGs by someone at SOE. Personally, I’m skeptical. I’m not sure SOE will want to risk damaging the EQ2 population and diminishing that game.

That said however, there would definitely be a contingent at SOE pushing for a new EQ, and there’s a possibility that SOE will act (or has acted) on that push. EQ2 is now five years old, and it would take three or four years to develop EQ3. If SOE have been working on EQ3 for more than a year, there’s a good chance it will be announced this year for release sometime in 2013.

Probability: 20%

Prediction 10: EA will announce the next Ultima Online MMORPG.

Reason(s): This is a real long shot mind you, but there have been a few attempts at getting a sequel to Ultima Online. Ironically, the original sequel UO2 was canned because someone thought it would negatively impact on UO. Now, after 12 years of UO, a sequel won’t be nearly so bad for the game. You can be guaranteed someone at EA has thought about it.

However, given EA’s recent sackings, and their consolidation of their interests, it’s highly unlikely that such an announcement will be made this year. But I did want to make one really really way out prediction.

Probability: 1%

So there you have it. My Christmas-time predictions for the next 12 months. Fortunately I’m not taking or placing bets on these ham and turkey induced prophecies as things rarely turn out the way anyone expects. About the only thing I can guarantee will happen is that the MMORPG industry will continue to change and mature. But whatever happens, it should be interesting to watch.

Can Bioware Tell A Story, Or What?

Posted by Stropp on November 6, 2009

After going through the preload decrypting and installation process on Thursday evening my time (which took longer than I’d hoped unfortunately) I fired up Dragon Age: Origins, created my first character and started playing.

I didn’t create a Bioware social network account yet, nor have I registered the game. I really just wanted to hop in and get playing. That was probably a good move since I’ve since heard that Bioware experienced the release day blues with their site, and players have had a tough time getting it all to work properly.

I’ll probably do that tonight, especially since I need to register to get the downloadable content and rewards from buying the digital deluxe edition on Steam.

Since this isn’t a review, more a first impressions, I won’t rate the various parts of the game like the graphics (which are excellent and smooth by the way.) Instead, I want to rave about the story.

Dragon Age Origins provides six character origins to choose from. Each of these relates to race and class.

Humans can be warriors, mages, or rogues, and have a single noble origin.

Elves have the same class choices, and have the city elf, or country elf origins.

Dwarves can only be warriors or rogues, and have a choice of noble or commoner origin.

Mages only have one origin as they are effectively imprisoned, a gilded cage of sorts.

Each origin provides a different story, and so far I have played four characters, a human noble warrior, human mage, city elf warrior, and a dwarf noble. Each of these stories has been told excellently, which is one of the reasons I’ve done all four to date.

Each of the characters, except for the first; the human noble, has taken me a little over an hour to complete. At that point you are taken into the main storyline, which is the same for all character types. However, there are apparently still differences here, and your race and origin affect how NPCs treat you. I’m also wondering if  those choices affect how the game progresses.

So far my favorite is the Dwarf noble warrior. I really enjoyed the quests leading up to… hmmm, perhaps I should say any more, eh?

Hopefully I’m not speaking too soon, but I think once again Bioware has shown themselves to be masters of storytelling in games. They’ve drawn me into their plotlines to the point where I’ve felt some pretty strong emotions in some scenes, and towards some characters.

And that King I met. I’m really not too sure what to make of him yet. I’ll have to watch him closely…

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