Stropp's World

Games And Gamery

Boldly Going Somewhere. But Is It Trek?

Posted by Stropp on March 16, 2010

I decided a couple of weeks after the launch of Star Trek Online to give it a tryout. The game had a lot of positive buzz at the time which stimulated the impulse buying centre of my brain. But I had a plan.

The plan was to buy the game and just play the free 30 days and then let it lapse. Time being limited the way it is for me now, I can’t justify having another sub going, but I did want to see what everyone was going on about. I’m also enjoying other games in my limited play time and something would suffer with another game in the mix.

By the way, this isn’t a review, just my impressions of the game with limited exposure. I should also say that while I enjoy Star Trek as Science Fiction, I’m not a Trekkie and don’t spend hours (or even minutes really) in chat rooms discussing the relative merits of the starship classes, or if champaign would freeze or boil when the bottle breaks against a spaceship hull.

Overall, my STO experience was quite positive. The space combat was excellent and I really enjoyed that. But there were a few things.

  • Ground combat sucked. I didn’t enjoy it at all. It was unimaginative and ultimately pointless. There was in fact one mission I beamed down to where I had to run around and question a bunch of colonists and then repeat their answers to the colony foreman. That was it. No defending the colony from unknown critters. No solving a problem. Just we’re upset, answer these questions, see you later. Pointless.
  • Gold Spam. Or energy credits spam… whatever. Start the game up, or go into a new area and wham! Chat full of crap which then had to be /ignored. Very annoying. And ultimately it should not have been there. Star Trek has never been about economics, and The Next Generation put a lot of emphasis on that and how humanity had grown past the trappings of material gain, although later series hinted at an underlying economy. But still, the Star Trek gold trade could have been avoided if the economy was de-emphasised and the Star Trek values had been given more place.
  • And I guess that’s the last thing that bothered me. Despite the ships and species, it didn’t have a particularly Star Trek feel for me. Replace the Star Trek elements and there wouldn’t really be any difference. Except Cryptic wouldn’t have players up in arms about the lack of Klingon content. Star Trek was always about exploration and boldly going. I know it’s wartime and all, but Star Trek was all about maintaining the values even when things are going awry. That Prime Directive was a harsh mistress.

However, as I said before. Space combat is where STO is at. It’s fun, and the battles aren’t always walkovers. It can take a little planning and getting the ship loadout right to blast through a mission, but it’s reasonable easy to figure out. I have to say I especially enjoyed piloting the Klingon ship. Nothing like bearing down on an enemy with that ST Klingon anthem running through your head. (I’m not the only one who hears that, right?)

One tip though. Get yourself a controller. I used my wired XBox 360 controller and plugged it into a spare USB port. It makes all the difference. I was finding the keyboard mappings were taking my fingers through a bit of a stretch and twist routine, and it was difficult to do everything I needed to keep up in a battle. After spending a bit of time mapping to the controller, and then getting used to piloting the ship with it, I found it was a joy to battle. And it was faster too.

So the upshot. Crappy ground combat. Doesn’t feel like Star Trek (to me.) But excellent ship to ship combat which makes up for the shortcoming.

Is It Time To Make Levelling Hard Again?

Posted by Stropp on February 10, 2010

Once upon a time it was standard procedure for a MMORPG developer to make it tough to level.

The games not only didn’t give players much experience for a kill, or for completing a quest, they put obstacles in the form of tough death penalties in the gamers way as well. Everquest, the original, deducted experience upon death that could even drop a players level if he died enough times. EQ also had huge wait times for mana and health regeneration which added to the time it took to level. Asheron’s Call added a penalty called Vitae that weaked a player and had to be worked off before tackling the tough mobs again.

These penalties meant that it took a lot of time to reach the level cap in those games. I’m not sure how long it took from go to whoa in EQ, but it took over two years for the first player to reach the level cap in Asheron’s Call. And that was when the cap was 80, it’s now something like 270.

Contrast that to todays games.

Today, on the STO forums I read that there are some players in Star Trek Online who have already reached the level cap of that game. That’s getting to the cap in about a week of play.

The question I have to ask… is that too fast?

Some folks will answer in the affirmative, and will claim the best way to enjoy a new game (especially one without much end game content) is to take it slowly. And, there is a lot to be said for that viewpoint. I tend to be one of those kind of players. I can level quickly if I want to, but I tend to take my time and look around or do silly and pointless things like swim around the continents in WoW looking for ways to get into high level areas from the back. (Unfortunately, there are none I’ve ever been able to find!)

But that viewpoint isn’t the only valid viewpoint.

The thing is that there will always be players who really enjoy quickly racing to the top. The person who does this might have a competitive nature, or simply just be in a hurry. It doesn’t matter what a developer does, or how much lower level content is in the game, there is a percentage of players (possibly significant) who will not stop to smell the flowers, and will just race through.

And if a player enjoys playing the game that way, there’s nothing wrong with that. To say otherwise is the same as having hardcore players complain about casual players, or adventurers complain about crafters. One persons grind is anothers fun.

So. Is it time for MMORPG developers to make levelling hard once again?

Perhaps a better way to phrase that question is should MMORPGs be implemented in ways that it takes months to reach the cap, not days?

I’m not suggesting that we go back to the bad old days of huge level killing death penalties, or hours of play sessions spent sitting around medding or waiting for boats, it’s a good thing those ideas have fallen by the wayside.  What I am suggesting is that developers find a way to slow the levelling process while still allowing players to be active in the game.

Currently though the only real way to do this is by grinding, either kills or quests, and that’s not all that acceptable these days either.

Or maybe, the solution is to look somewhere other than the classic class/level system for player progression. Eve Online relies on a real time based approach. So long as a player keeps skills in training, it doesn’t matter how much time they actually spend in the game, and it will always take years to reach the skill cap. A player is then encouraged to enjoy the game rather than racing through.

Something that I’d like to see is to give a game more horizontal progression. EQ2 has tradeskilling, player housing, and collections to keep players busy. It’s entirely valid to spend entire sessions combing low level areas for harvests or shinies needed to complete collections. Expanding on this could be as simple as providing new systems. Allowing players to have more say in the game’s economy, or perhaps introducing a system for player and guild politics (ATITD with it’s voting systems, and Eve with its alliances) would give players more options, and would have the added benefit of more interaction and player dependency.

In any case, I believe that MMORPGs are going entirely in the wrong direction when it comes to the speed of levelling by making the level cap achievable in the first few days of play. By doing so they’re just ensuring that subscriptions are cancelled when the player runs out of things to do. If a player exhausts the content in the free month, is there any reason to subscribe?

That Crazy Little Thing Called Life

Posted by Stropp on January 21, 2010

You might have noticed that I haven’t posted all that much lately.

My contract concluded at the end of November last year, and a few weeks earlier I was thinking that I’d have a ton of time to make regular updates. I’d even made a bit of a resolution to myself to try and get a post out each day.

But as they say, the best laid plans of mice.

On the Friday, the week before the contract ended I recieved a call from a friend whom I’d worked with a few years prior and with whom I’d hadn’t seen for a couple of years. He, and a couple of partners, had formed a startup business about three years ago and had just come into some government grant money, and had found a new investor. He wanted to know what I had planned, which considering the contract was running out wasn’t very much at all. I was told that the funding was going to allow them to get some outside development help for the mundane tasks that needed doing on a day to day basis, and that this would free him to take the application to the next level.

I was asked if I wanted to work for them.

The catch was that they didn’t want to take on any full-time employees due to the on-going costs, insurance, taxes, superannuation, etc; that they’d face with a limited budget. This meant that I’d have to go beyond contracting and become a freelance software guy.

I thought about it for a couple of days and told my friend that I’d be in it, with the condition that I’d be free to take on other work. He was okay with that.

A few days later, I signed the papers to create my company.

So… I’m now a businessman with a Pty Ltd (kind of like a LLC I think.)

At the same time, after years of being past the all-my-friends-are-getting-married stage of life, two of them decided to tie the knot with their respective girlfriends. Five days apart. One in Sydney, the other here in Adelaide.

So on the first of January I took off with the other groomsman and drove to Sydney via Dubbo and the Western Plains Zoo to be best man on the 5th.

That done, we drove the long way down the coast to get back to Adelaide on the 9th (for a total distance of 4000 kilometers) and another wedding the next day. And of course, I started work on the Monday and have been pretty busy since.

Of course it wasn’t all weddings and business.

I decided to take it easy in December and just play some games.

I mentioned in my last post I spent a session in STO before Christmas, but for the most part I played Everquest 2, and took my Shadowknight from level 25 to level 60 (achieved late on December 31st.)

That was pretty good because that was the goal I’d set. I was secretly hoping to get to 70, but really didn’t think was realistic. (I have no idea how Stargrace, or anyone else for that matter, can get to 80 as quick as they do.) I’m now hoping to reach 70, or even 75 before the expansion is released.

I’m not sure if that’s achievable due to the amount of work I need to do for the business, there’s so much to learn! but I’ll give it a decent try.

And of course that leads me to the major point of this rambling stream of consciousness that I’m calling a post.

That crazy little thing called life (with ap0logies to Freddy) has thrown a great opportunity my way. But it’s not one without cost.

Running a business, when it’s more than just an attempt at a work at home job, means that there’s a lot of stuff to do. I’ve been a software developer for over 25 years now and it’s something I understand (and do) pretty well. A business on the other hand means paperwork, accounting, marketing and sales, and perhaps most importantly, managing my time in order to give each their due. I’m learning now how much I don’t understand, even though I thought I had a lot of it figured out previously.

The cost I expect that I may have to pay is a severe reduction in the amount of time I have to play games, and along with that the time I have to blog about them. While I’m not quitting the game blogger scene — I’ll be squeezing in the gaming and writing whenever I have a chance — I won’t be fitting stuff in around this activity, it will be the other way around. Gaming, unfortunately, will have to be scaled back a tad.

So that one post a day resolution?

Just blame life.

Jean-Luc Picard Is A Big Wuss

Posted by Stropp on January 20, 2010

I’ve been meaning to write this article for a while now, but life decided to come by and slap me silly. (More on that shortly.)

Anyhoo. Star Trek Online. Oh, and please note this is not a review, I have spent in no way enough time in the beta to work up a review. This is simply an impressions and thoughts piece.

It sounds like the dream IP for a MMORPG developer. A huge pre-existing and completely obsessed with anything Star Trek fan base. An IP that is all about exploration, seeking out new life, and boldly going where no one has gone before. The TV series, all of them, have drama, diplomacy, puzzle-solving, space combat, ground combat, humour, and a hopeful outlook on the future.

It should be a MMORPG goldmine.

But, from what I’ve seen so far, I doubt that it will be.

Now to be fair, I haven’t spent all that much time playing the beta. I was invited to the closed beta just before Christmas and spent a single session of a game that seemed woefully incomplete. Since then I’ve patched to the open beta client and have found a much more complete version of the game. Lots of missing text and graphics is now in the game. There’s certainly been a lot of work done over the last few weeks, and a lot of improvements made.

To a certain extent, I’ve had fun playing the open beta of STO. The space combat is much more tactical than most MMORPG combat systems, except perhaps Eve.

But ultimately, Star Trek Online offers nothing of what made the television series(s) special.

There is space and ground combat to be sure, but there is no diplomacy game, the missions are all canned in that there are no real choices or consequences for the decisions you make. I haven’t seen anything that I have to figure out — do I kill that silicon lifeform rock-creature, or get Bones down to heal it? Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor not a bricklayer. — And the exploration seems inconsequential. There’s no relationship with my bridge crew, they just add stats and beam down with me on away missions.

In a nutshell, the game lacks content.

It’s odd because it feels like STO has less going for it (gameplay wise) than Tabula Rasa did at the same stage of development, and look how badly TR got caned for lack of content.

What Cryptic have with Star Trek Online is a great foundation for a MMORPG based on the Star Trek franchise. What they need to do is to take another six months for development and add in those elements that made Star Trek special.

  • Choices. Jim Kirk made his own decisions based on what he encountered. So did Picard and Sisko. (Janeway just parroted the company line.) He didn’t have a bunch of mission text leading him from one step to the next with no room to improvise. And maybe that’s what ST was all about. Improvisation. Can a Star Trek game, really be a Star Trek game without improvisation?
  • Real Exploration. While I’m travelling shouldn’t I come across the unexpected. A new lifeform perhaps a space jellyfish or some such thing? And it should have an associated story. See next point.
  • Solving Mysteries. If I’m sent to a star system to rescue a stranded freighter, don’t give me a damn slow escort mission that’s just a timesink, give me a mystery to solve. Or evolve the scenario into something interesting. Sure, Star Trek was in a “planet of the week” format, but each episode at least attempted to have an interesting story. So far the missions I’ve seen have been not much more that the kill ten rats or escort variety. It’s worse than that, it’s boring Jim.
  • Missions need to be Episodes. Following on from the previous point. Each mission really ought to be the equivalent of a weekly TV episode of ST. How many stories started with, “Starfleet has sent us to… ?”
  • Klingons. Don’t make them Monster Play only, unlockable at whatever level. The Klingon’s in the TV series, TNG onwards, were interesting. They had the best parties, and the Klingons seemed to laugh more than any other species. (Except for that stick-in-the-mud, Worf.) The Klingon’s also had the best ships in the first two series. TNG started developing a rich culture for the Klingon’s that was continued by DS9. There’s a wealth of content there for STO. Use it.
  • Away Team/Ground Combat. This needs to be sorted. It’s not very good and needs improvement. For one thing I have an away team, yet I can’t figure out how to operate them like a squad. I always end up leading the team into a room and get shot first. I need to be able to send my red-shirt in to danger first!

I think the real clincher for me is that when I think I should login to Star Trek Online and spend some time with it, I don’t really have much of a desire to do so. I end up opening up Everquest 2, or just sit down and read a book. It doesn’t give me any inclination to buy and subscribe to STO (let alone buy a lifetime sub — what a ripoff that is!)

From what I’ve read, Champions Online has become a virtual ghost town only a few months after release, due at least in part (in my opinion) to being released too early without enough content. I fully expect Star Trek Online to suffer the same fate. The only thing that may help is that die hard Trek fans could hang in there for a while longer than most.

My overall impression is that STO will be on life support within a year of release.

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.

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