The future of WAR: does it have one? Tuesday, Nov 10 2009 

WAR

WAR: is its days numbered?

Other commentators have picked up on EA’s further cuts to its workforce. Hit hard, the team looking after Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. Nobody really knows how many Mythic employees went, but the there is a good chance they got hit hard. I feel for those peeps. Really, I do.

I have to say it saddens me, even though I no longer play the game. It had such potential. I wuved the PvP, especially in the early tiers when the game was full of players battling it out. I liked the artwork and the lore.

But the game had too many issues – class balance, imbalanced server populations, quality control issues, middling PvE content – that killed it. What does the future hold for WAR?

  • Closing the game down – a drastic move, and this would be a real shame. WAR was a $70m investment. I’d guess the player base is well under 100k subs by now. That may not be enough for corporate bean counters. It would be a huge embarrassment to EA to have to shut it down just over a year after launch, but if the game can’t break even or return a modest profit, then EA would have little choice but to shut it down.  
  • Life support – consolidate the remaining servers and keep the remaining population of players happy until it dies a slow, quiet death. That seems to be EA’s strategy.
  • Free-to-Play/RMT– follow Turbine and the DDO model? I’m not sure the games mechanics would allow F2P. Opening up Tier 1 as “free” is a good move, but what else could they do?

The problem inherent with WAR going F2P

F2P would mean opening up all the Tiers and allow players to purchase items, mounts and other items. But is that even feasible?

The problem is that WAR never really had a great deal of vanity items to speak off. There’s no Lil’KT or Mr. Chilly. And $10 for a mount in WAR? I can’t see the players purchasing them. Could they offer potions and scrolls perhaps? Maybe… though that might destroy what little remains of the player economy.

The endgame does not lend itself well to the F2P model. It depends on large numbers of players coordinating to lock down objectives and take the enemies city. F2P appeals to the casual market, and I don’t see them investing that much time and effort into a complex and demanding endgame.

The endgame offers very little else. There are precious few instances/dungeons of note to turn it into a gear/raiding game.

Most likely future of WAR… my “hunch”

Well, putting on my “Monday’s Expert” hat I predict a slow decline with WAR being closed down sometime in late 2010 or 2011. A simple press release will come out announcing when the servers will be turned off. With Cataclysm and so many other MMOs coming out, WAR will find it hard to survive.

A real shame, but WAR reached for greatness and fell short.

ZOMG! Avoid the slippery slope argument! Friday, Nov 6 2009 

buyKT

A widdle pet for only $10? Sold!

Blizzards decision to add $10 vanity pets to the game has stirred up the blogging community. Some are “meh”, others think it’s poor form and others think it’s inevitable. For me it’s a “meh” issue. Logging in last night just before my Ulduar run there was a fair bit of guild chat about it: consensus was it was “kinda cool”. Most people wanted the mini- Kel’Thuzad (Lil’KT).

How many players are willing to buy them? Hard to say, but this morning when I logged in to play the Auction House I counted two Pandas and one Lil’KT. “Gosh, that was fast” I thought.

Having spent a lot of time in other F2P games I’m surprised it took Blizzard this long to move into a micro transactions. I don’t see this as a desperate move by Blizzard, but inevitable given this is becoming the predominant industry trend. Big name “AAA” MMOs are adopting the model. Simply put, it would be foolish of Blizzard to ignore the trend.

Consider the following moves by their competitors:

  • Dungeons & Dragons Online- F2P with store. DDO has been a notable success, their actual paid subscription went up 40% after they went F2P.
  • Warhammer – tier one content becomes free (ie.e up to level 12) in order to attract more players.

Hmmmm… I can directly download DDO to my PC drive and start playing right now (and it’s a good game). I can do the same for a host of other MMOs. It would be foolish of Blizzard to ignore the moves of their competitors and miss out on the additional revenue. Why not get some of that action?

“Slippery slope argument”

Slippery slope arguments are a logical fallacy. One step does not inevitably lead to another.

Most of the criticism I’ve seen of Blizzard’s move falls into this category. RMT, or micro transactions will not be the “death” of WoW (whatever that means). Blizzards vanity pets are simply another signal of the changes taking place in the industry.

Heck, if they offered a cool looking dragon/drake mount for $9.99 I’d buy it. I don’t have the time to farm Onyxia for the rare mount. It’s very unlikely I’m ever going to get it. Now, if I can buy it for $9.99, I would. Why? For no better reason than I’d like my avatar to fly around on a cool looking dragon. What are those rare mounts but vanity items? That a player has to farm an instance for months does not indicate they worked for it. It means they have a luxory of time others don’t have.

Time is money. If I cant’ farm an instance for a rare mount drop – which neither detracts or impacts from the actual gameplay – due to RL commitments, then why can’t I buy it? Makes me happy, give Blizzard another ten bucks. Everyone happy.

Remember guys and gals, Warcraft is a franchise just like Star Wars, Transformers, the X-Files and Star Trek. The new pets are simply merchandise, just like all the other Warcraft related products out there. It just so happens they’re virtual and you can view them “in-game”. There isn’t a nerd out there without some collectibles related to their favourite franchised IP.

Saying Lil’KT is “ruining” the game is like saying Bobba Fett figurines ruined Star Wars.

A tale of two Paladins Part Four: starter zones Tuesday, Oct 20 2009 

Welcome! Now, go kill things.

Welcome! Now, go kill things.

The Warcraft (WoW) and Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) starter zones throw you into two very different games. While they may share many standard features of MMOs, right way you can see a difference:  WoW and DDO are built on different principles, and the starter zones in each clearly demonstrate this.

Starter zones: making an impression

Starter zones can make or break the game as far as players are concerned. It’s in these areas that we decide whether or not to invest the next couple of months, if not years, of our life with a particular game. So developers need to strike a balance – making it accessible, but also interesting. So how do the starter zones compare?

Let’s have a look.

WoW: solo friendly

My Blood Elf (BE) Paladin starts her journey on Sunstrider Isle, a tiny island North of the Eastern Kingdoms. The art work is very good, I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetics of BE architecture, armour and weapons. It combines a distinctive blend of Medieval Japan and Vikings with a vivid palate of reds, golds and greens. The Isle itself is “shrouded” with a mystical glow.

The starter zone acts as a very gentle introduction to WoW that will teach you the very basics of the game: collect your quests from a NPC with the famous yellow !, kill requisite number of rats, hand in for XP. Oh, and level. Level as fast as you can.

Some of the exciting tasks the quest masters will give you include:

  • Killing feral cats
  • Killing feral floating eel thingies
  • Killing feral trees that look like Druid tree forms

Fortunately the Isle is a well designed and small quest hub, so you can power your way through these quests within an hour. You should zoom past your fith level and collect a few additional spells by the time you’ve completed the quests on Sunstrider Isle.

However the experience is kinda forgettable – nothing really stands out as a fun or unique experience. It’s pretty, and BE’s are the best looking avatars in the game, but really the idea is to put you on the levelling path.  To me, the levelling process is like going on auto pilot – enjoyable, meditative but not particularly challenging.

After the Isle, you’ll move into Eversong Woods and reach the BE Capital of Silvermoon City. The quality of the quests do pick up, and the artwork is simply gorgeous. It’s here you’ll also have a chance to pick up your professions.

The most important thing you will learn is just how easy it is to solo the game. The message is clear: take your avatar all the way to level 80 by questing. Grouping really is an option and for those who like the social aspects of MMOs, or want to see the content. But really, a solid month of playing WoW will allow you to easily level form level 1-80 without breaking a sweat. WoW really is built for the casual player. You can jump in for ten minutes or spend all day grinding quests. Go as fast, or as slow as you want.

Still overall, it’s a good introduction to WoW. If you enjoy yourself here, it’s very likely you’ll love the rest of the game.

Overall ratings

  • Artwork: 4/5
  • Quality of quests: 3/5
  • Enjoyment: 3/5

DDO: instanced group experience

DDO dumps you on the shorelines of Eberron. You stand dressed in rags, confused and somewhat dazed. Wreckage litters the beach, and a small halfing waves you over for a chat. Soon he escorts you to a small camp where you meet one of the Warforged, a humanoid robot thing.

One thing you’ll notice is how much text there is to read. DDO is a very literate experience. Like a true RPG game, you can select different questions to aks the NPC. Reading all the text options gives you the back story. For WoW players this will seem very slow and annoying. “You mean I have to read the text! Just tell me which 10 foozles to kill/collect!”.

From there you’re directed to your first instanced dungeon experience. The starter dungeon teams you up with other NPCs who conduct you through a of walk through of the dungeon. The purpose it to get you acquainted with grouping mechanics and the nature of dungeons in the game. Overall, it’s a fun and satisfying experience. It’s not challenging, as it is effectively a tutorial.

One of DDOs interesting features is the Dungeon Master voice over. As you enter a dungeon, and proceed throughout you will hear a voice tell you “You notice a lever…” or “There is a strange shuffling noise ahead of you…” This is a classic nod to DM’s of yesteryear and adds to the overall atmosphere of the game.

During this first dungeon you’ll learn about combat, healing stones (waypoints where you regain health), basic group mechanics and traps, locks and puzzles. All in all a terrific introduction to the what DDO is about.

Following this you’ll enter Stormreach, the local town and quest hub. I started just after the F2P launch, so the place was packed with hundreds of players. From there you can gather some quests and jump straight into even more dungeons.

Right at the start you can select the level of difficulty of dungeons: from simple to expert. The simple “setting” is ideal for those attempting to solo. Expert content is great for those in groups. My advice: find a group, and the rewards will be better and the experience will be a lot more fun. DDO shines as a group experience. You can also run the same dungeon again, and again.

The quality of DDO’s dungeons, even in the very early stages is very high. Indeed, some of WoW’s later end game dungeons cannot compare with the variety and ingenuity of an average dungeon in DDO. You’ll be asked to solve puzzles, disarm traps and find secret doors. Because the combat mechanics are very different, each time you run a dungeon the experience will be very different.

There is a profound difference between DDO and WoW. DDO is a much slower experience – it’s less about levelling, and more about exploring dungeons.

However, I missed the feeling of being in open world with forests, skies, rivers and mountains in the background. Because most of the action takes place in instanced dungeons, DDO can feel a bit more claustrophobic than WoW. Like it’s pen and paper parent, DDO is all about dungeon crawling with less emphasis on the wider world. In WoW, you feel your travelling across a large and varied world.

Still, I’m impressed with my first foray into DDO.

Overall ratings

  • Artwork: 4/5
  • Quality of quests: 3/5
  • Enjoyment: 4/5

The point of difference: accessibility versus “challenge”

If I had to summarize the difference between the two is WoW’s accessibility versus DDO’s more traditional RPG focus. DDO is about building your character to compliment its group role. WoW allows you to create an avatar that can easily solo the entire game.

You can take your WoW Paladin into instanced dungeons or group to complete some of the quests, but that’s not really necessary. In DDO, you must group to get the best out of the game. The combat mechanics, emphasis on puzzle solving and grouping make DDO more challenging.

But DDO has a steeper learning curve than WoW, and it’s hard to beat Blizzards knack for making things accessible.

Other articles in series

A Tale of Two Paladins Part Three: Combat Mechanics Tuesday, Sep 22 2009 

Combat: a significant difference

Before moving on to quests and exploring the worlds of DDO and WoW it’s worth examining their respective combat systems. If there is a real point of difference, it’s DDO Active Combat System (ACS) versus WoW tab-target auto-attack for paladins.

Active Combat System: DDO’s tactical approach to battles

Swing, miss! And there's the D20 dice!!!!

Swing, miss! And there's the D&D dice!

It’s with combat that we see a real difference between WoW and DDO.

DDO utilises what it calls the “Active Combat System”. Combat happens in real time, and is dependent on your ability to actually aim your sword at the enemy MOB. Indeed, DDO combat reminds me of the same mechanics as a first-person-shooter: there is a small red circle indicating where you attacks are aimed.

In order to swing you weapon you have to click the left mouse-butto and be in range of them.  Combat involves a lot of clicking: you will miss a lot. Enemies can block your attack and will frequently move out of the range of your sword blows. Often you end up chasing them to deliver a final, killing blow.

As a nice touch, the famous twenty sided dice (the D20) can be seen rolling in the bottom right of the screen indicating your “hit roll”. Pen and paper of old players rejoice!

Combat in DDO is fluid and dynamic, as MOBs dance and jump away from your sword. Situational awareness is crucial: when fighting more than one MOB you often need to decide on taking down the monster wailing on you or running over to take out that pesky caster throwing damage your way. You also need to be careful taking on multiple MOBs when soloing.

I rather enjoyed the choatic, free-flowing feel of the combat. It’s like being an old 1930’s Errol Flynn film where you chase the enemies around a room wildly flinging your weapon at them.

It’s also a lot of fun.

  • Advantages: tactical combat that is interesting and skills based, therefore more of a challenge.
  • Disadvantages: it can take some getting used too, especially if you are used to conventional MMO combat systems.
  • Rating: 4/5

Warcraft’s Tab-Target approach: familiar MMO territory

Die magic eel!

Die magic eel!

We’re in safe and familiar territory with the WoW combat system: target your MOB by either clicking on them or hitting the Tab key; pull them with a spell or get within aggro range; let auto-attack do the work and cycle through your abilities in the Action Bar; watch your health so you don’t die; rinse and repeat. Abilities will be subject to cool downs: manage these as best you can.

MOBs in WoW are suicidally stupid. I mean, really, really stupid.  They will run up to you and stand there until they die. Occasionally humanoid MOBs may try and run away. Unlike DDO’s MOBs who jump around and try to avoid being killed, MOBs in Warcraft have a death wish.

Knowing what your abilities do is obviously helpful, so take the time to learn these. As you level you will get more offensive spells (Judgements etc.) and buffs that will enhance your defence or attack capabilities.

Situational awareness plays a small part in combat, at least in the early parts of the game. For a plate-wearing melee class it’s enough to simply walk up to a few MOBs, throw a Judgement of Light spell on them and whack, whack, whack.

The combat animations and sound effects are themselves interesting: and they have to be. You don’t actually need to pay much attention to the combat on the screen, unlike DDO when a MOB can dance out of range of your sword.

WoW combat is about managing your cool downs and your health.

  • Advantages: it’s simple, it works and anyone can master the WoW combat system.
  • Disadvantages: no real disadvantages to WoW’s combat system, except that it lacks any excitement. This is especially the case at the lower levels, where the lack of offensive spells and abilities for the Paladins mean you’re almost completely reliant on auto-attack.
  • Rating: 3/5

Riddle me this MMOs: what ever happened puzzle solving? Thursday, Sep 17 2009 

"Riddle me this: how many rats can you kill in ten minutes?"

"Riddle me this: how many rats can you kill in ten minutes?"

In experimenting with DDO and other MMOs I’ve been struck by the lack of challenge some of these games offer. I’m still in the early stages of exploring Dungeons & Dragons Online, but one of the features I noted and liked was having to solve puzzles in instanced Dungeons.

One of the very early quests asks you to go to a storeroom in Stormreach and find a missing parchment. It’s an instanced dungeon, rather small but nicely designed. However to get the parchment you don’t simply kill X amount of MOBs and wait till it drops.

What’s different?

You have to do some problem solving in order to retrieve the item.

Sure, along the way you kill giant spiders and reanimated zombie rats (that’s right – you have to go kill the proverbial ten rats). However, in this quest puzzle zolving is central: the parchment is held in a magical field. To deactivate the field you need to rearrange the surrounding floor tiles – which are decorated – into a pattern. Once they are into the right pattern the magical field drops. Following tht you collect the parchment and return it to the NPC for your choice of reward, XP and currency.

All good fun.

Whoa there! You want me to think through the problem?

Hours of fun... or frustration?

Hours of fun... or frustration?

When I initially when I entered the chamber I stood there numbly… the room was empty. I was expecting to see a semi-elite MOB I’d have to kill. Maybe a few trash MOBs around them. I was ready to pull, auto-attack and thump some keys to activate some abilities. But, something was different…

“What the hell?”

Panic! What should I do? How do I complete this quest!?!?!?

Maybe I should Alt-Tab out and go online and Google the answer? Is there a DDO wiki? If this was WoW I’d have half a dozen resources to consult, and maybe a add-on or two that would tell me what to do.

“Right…” I thought “…breathe…maybe I’ll try something different. Let me try and solve it by myself.”

It took me a minute or two, but I solved the puzzle. And gosh, didn’t I feel good! OK, it isn’t a MENSA test, but the simple act of attempting and solving a puzzle was enormously satisfying.

In my view it was a true D&D experience: a dungeon, some monsters to kill and puzzles to solve. Puzzles in DDO clearly signal the role playing game (RPG) heritage inherited from D&D. Dungeons required players to disarm traps, explore and solve problems. In contrast, dungeons in games such as WoW ask that you learn a scripted fight.

Do gamers want puzzles in their MMOs?

It did make me think: we aren’t MMOs doing more of this? WoW clearly doesn’t, or at least not in the quests I’ve seen. WAR certainly didn’t. Both MMOs are built around the concept of killing vast numbers of MOBs and looting items from their corpses. Puzzles offer something different and fun. They can offer a challenge.

Strangely I don’t think gamers would be immune from charm of puzzles. The enormous popularity of Tetris, Peggle and Puzzle Pirates indicates that gamers would be amenable to the challenge of puzzle solving. So why have games lost their puzzle solving elements over the years?

It would seem MMOs have become more and more like conveyor belts, placing the player on a path that will level them as quickly as possible. And while it may be great to get to level cap and experience the “end game”, such an approach degrades the fun and challenge of levelling a character.

Most WoW players pride themselves in how fast they can level a character these days. No one takes pride in completing a quest. And how could you? The mechanics of most WoW quests are fairly basic. Go here, kill this, come back… here is the XP you need to level as fast as possible. Rinse and repeat for eighty levels in WoW or forty in WAR.

But maybe it’s the journey we should value more, not reaching the destination as fast as possible.

My view? More puzzles please.

Next instalment: my comparison of the DDO and WoW user interfaces.

Monday’s Expert: alternative combat systems in Atlantica Sunday, Aug 16 2009 

Alternative combat models: do they exist?

Do you find combat in MMOs boring and repetitive? As players we are so used to the genre’s conventions we don’t even notice them.

Spells or attack abilities are mapped to certain keys. Call it the 1,2,3 spam.

Combat in most MMOs is based around your avatar selecting a single mob and buring them down with a combination of attacks – either melee or ranged. Developers understand this and will throw spell effects into the mix to enhance the experience.

The Death Grip of Warcraft’s Death Knight – i.e. pulling a target to the player from a distance with a cool purple beam – is a great example. It’s basically a taunt with some gee-wiz effects. The wide range of melee attacks a Death Knight weilds are variations on the same theme: hitting one object really hard with another. The rune system mixes it up a little as well. Instead of hitting 1,2,3 with a Death Knight you hit 1,2,3,4,5,6… in otherwords, more spells with shorter cool downs.

However there are some interesting examples of alternative combat models out there. One of them can be found in Atlantica Online.

Atlantica Online: turn based strategy

Atlantica Online (AO) is  a free-to-play (F2P), real-money-transaciton (RMT) MMO developed by Ndoors. Yes, it’s an Asian F2P RMT MMO. But it’s not that bad – in fact it’s pretty solid.

Doing it Anime style

Doing it Anime style

F2P and RMT games have moved from being the industries red-headed-step-child to being cited as the future of MMOs. The reivews are becoming far more positive these days, so being the metaverse tourist I am I’d thought I’d check some of them out.

I downloaded the client for Atalantica, registered, created a few characters and started playing. I was up and running within half an hour. I can see why this is such a growing segment of the market. Games like AO are free and very easy to get into.

RMT seems to be for vanity items, extra bag slots and consumables. The content itself – dungeons, zones, PvE and PvP content – is all freely accessible.

Atlantica Online: steampunk, alternative history setting.

If your haunted by images of Hello Kitty! then don’t panic, AO isn’t that bad.

But it clearly has an “Asian” aesthetic. The male avatars are rather androgynous and the female ones doe-eyed, busty and have short school girl skirts. Combat animations look and feel like Street Fighter. The graphics themselves are pretty solid, though the UI is a little clunky.

What I do enjoy about the game is the steam punk aesthetics: 19th Century alternative history meets robots, swords and sorcery. It makes a bit of a change from generic fantasy land. Virtual versions of Asian countires and cities are well represented – obviously. You can also visit cities such as Rome and New York. It’s history on drugs: unicorns and steamboats.

Something to really appreciate: there are no elves. Yes! That’s at least one MMO sterotype not in the game.

/fist pump

It should also be noted there is only one faction: human. Classes are based around the typle of weapon you weild: so you can be a Sword, Axe, Cannon, Bow and – wait for it – guitar. Yes, you can weild a deadly guitar. Awesome.

\m/

Rock on dude!

Hire your mercenaries and go to war!

What differs significantly is the combat and your ability to hire mercenaries. Yep, you can create your own personal army. For those of us who enjoy both MMOs and strategy games this is a nice blend.

Combat itself  is instanced and turn based. As you travel the world of Atlantica  you will encounter the usual variety of sprites, wildlife, monsters and demon-hell-spawn to kill. However AO differs from most MMOs in two key ways:

  • Mobs don’t seem to aggro. That’s right, I can walk right up to any mob and it won’t attack. As the player, you select when combat begins.
  • Single mobs will morph into a small army of the same creature in instanced combat.You don’t see your mercenaries until you enter combat either.
Arumy of Dear: prepare to die!

Army of Deer: prepare to die!

For me, this is what makes AO intriguing.

Combat is turn based, which may sound boring and static, but is actually far more challenging and interesting than simply walking up to a mob and spamming 1,2,3.

You select a target and set your troops to attack, cycling through each of their attack abilities during your phase of combat. Some spells attack multiple targets and act as a kind of AoE. Others stun, while others deal additional damage. Attack Points are needed to launch attacks, so sometimes one of your soldiers has to sit out a turn.

Enemy mobs have their own turns and their own deal special attacks. You can interupt these, as special abilities take more than one turn to be launched.

Die! Die! Die!

Die! Die! Die!

The combat animations are cinematic, the camera swooping and moving in accordance to the type of attack.

It’s a bit of a challenge to learn at first, but with practice you get used to cycling through your mercenaries and utilising their different attack styles to good effect. Some of your “mercs” are tanks, while others deal melee and ranged DPS.

You can hire and fire them at will with the Mercenary NPC. They also level, and you can upgrade armour and weapons. In fact, it reminds me of Diablo II, where you could hire mercenaries and equip them. If you felt comfortable with that mechanic, then managing AO’s mercenary units shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

I’d also note the transition between instanced combat and normal game mode is smooth.

For me its the combat mechanics that make AO interesting: your choices in combat are important. Do you concentrate all your fire on one mob, or stun one and DPS the others? When the mob starts to wind up their special attacks you must focus fire on them. Choices become much more critical – and involve more skill.

Tactics matter

Combat in AO is far more tactical, and requires a more thinking than your average player-vs-mob fight. Combat also takes longer, usually a few minutes to burn down an army of sprites, dears or demon things (unlike WoW where you can count the fights in seconds). It should be noted that different mobs have different abilities. Therefore fights will vary.

Indeed, every fight is like a mini-boss fight.

Verdict: interesting variation on a theme

I’ve only explored the first few zones of AO, but enought to say it’s an interesting concept.

I’ll play around with it for a few more weeks, though I don’t imagine my time in AO will be prolonged. Not because it’s a bad game – it’s actually surprising good for F2P – but because I’ve barely enough time for one MMO, let alone the three I’m dabbling with.

Final verdict?

Check it out, if only for the interesting combat mechanics.