Five MMOs on the endangered list

473I think that City of Heroes’ (and to a lesser extent, Glitch and perhaps Lucent Hearts) shutdown has caused some people to pause and wonder which MMO will be next on the chopping block.  Not to get maudlin or delight in “failure,” but let’s be honest: We all do think about it from time to time.  Whether a game’s shut down because of a lack of players and funding or because there’s a legal issue or a studio closing, it can and will happen.

So what MMOs do I think are most in danger of being sunsetted?  Five titles come to mind:

1. PlanetSide

Honestly, there’s just no reason for SOE to keep this game running.  It’s the only title in the studio’s library that hasn’t been converted to free-to-play, it has a F2P sequel that just launched, and it’s pretty long in the tooth.  Maybe SOE will keep the lights on for the sake of the dedicated few that stick around (and keep coughing up a subscription fee), but I don’t see that happening.

2. Warhammer Online

It pains me to say it, but I really don’t think WAR is long for this world.  Mythic is helming a leaking ship with no apparent hope for its future.  BioWare’s siphoned off several of its devs, DAoC is really old at this point and not going F2P, UO is even older, there aren’t any new titles in the works that we know about, and WAR feels like a game that they’d rather you not notice.

The fact that Mythic has outright said that it’s just not financially realistic to convert the game to F2P speaks volumes about its future.  Then you add on the fact that the studio also said that its MOBA version of the game will probably never leave beta status because of a terribly small playerbase, and I just don’t see WAR pulling out of this tailspin.  It was a great if flawed game in many ways, but there’s no hope left.

3. Guild Wars

NCsoft isn’t known for its bleeding heart, and if it sees that most of the Guild Wars fanbase has made the jump to GW2, their accountants are not going to look at the continued cost of operating GW1 fondly.  Hey, maybe those are very minimal costs and why not.  But GW1 can’t have much of a future making money for the company, and that leaves me with a bad feeling about it.

4. Final Fantasy XI

This one might be a bit of a stretch, but hear me out.  Not only is FF11 nearing senior citizen status in MMO years, but the studio is really desperate to make FF14 work.  Could it see FF11’s closing as a way to “encourage” the remaining players to make the switch?

Really, I have no idea what Square-Enix is thinking most of the time, and considering how volatile FF14’s history has been so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio just tried to back out of the online space altogether.

5. Anarchy Online

Gah, it hurts me to even suggest this — especially considering I’ve just put it back on my computer.  But with Funcom’s recent staff layoffs and the rumors that it might be shopping around for a buyer, I have to wonder just how stable AO’s future is.  I mean, it’s not just old but there’s little left to draw new/returning players back in until or unless the team can pull off that graphics update.  And raise your hand if you think that’s honestly going to happen?

I don’t think all of these games are destined to be shut down in the next couple of months, I just think that these are the five titles I’m most concerned about right now.  Put them on the “endangered” list, so to speak.  What do you think?

Where to get MMO soundtracks

Yesterday on Too Long; Didn’t Listen (you know, that podcast you so adore!) Dodge and I were talking about MMO and video game soundtracks, a topic which I quite adore.  I wanted to follow the podcast up with a quick post about some places that I’ve found legal ways to obtain these scores:

Free MMO soundtracks:

Amazon MP3 downloads:

Direct Song:

Blizzard Store/iTunes/misc.:

Let me know if I missed any and I’ll add them to the list (I’m not looking to list/link torrents and CDs, however)!

Blogsplosion2011: Gaming grudges

Proving that more than one blogger can have “sy” in their name, Warsyde handles all sorts of MMO topics over at The Babbling Gamer.  I gave him a loaded bomb with this assignment written on it: “Pick three long-standing MMO grudges that the community just… won’t… let… go, and discuss why we can’t move on from the past.”

The MMORPG genre has been around long enough now that it’s starting to develop a distinct history.  That history includes, shall we say, “disagreements” between players and developers, players and other players, developers and publishers, publishers and retailers, and just about everything else you could possibly think of. Many of those disagreements have been lost to the sands of time, the rage has blown over and life has continued on as before.  Some of those disagreements though, have turned into grudges that many members of the community just can’t seem to let go of, and quite possibly never will.

Sony and the NGE

Early in the last decade Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) released a little MMORPG called Star Wars Galaxies.  It was hyped as the savior of the genre and was going to revolutionize the way we played MMOs. Plus, you know, STAR WARS!  It . . . didn’t quite live up to the hype, and after a while the player base had dwindled to the point that SOE felt the need to invigorate the game by shaking things up.  They did so by instituting the New Game Experience (NGE).  The NGE essentially took many aspects of Everquest and pasted them into SWG.  The game went from a classless, skill-based sandbox to a class based themepark/sandbox mashup. Not only did everyone’s characters change dramatically, some characters were impossible to recreate under the new system (goodbye Creature Handler) leaving many players with a character nothing at all like what they had before. A good portion of the MMO gaming community has never, ever, forgiven Sony for what they did.  For many people, “NGE” is a swear word.

Star Wars Galaxies for many people was a complex mix of shattered dreams and refreshing gameplay.  Many players weren’t happy with the way SWG turned out, and didn’t like the simplistic adventuring content available at launch.  Nevertheless, the crafting system was top notch, it was still Star Wars, and the skill based advancement system was interesting and different from other things on the market.  Even though many people stopped playing SWG, they held a soft spot for it.  Then Sony tore the heart out of the game and replaced it with something new.  This upset both current and previous subscribers, as the game they held a soft spot for no longer existed.  Even if the nostalgia bug bit and you wanted to go play SWG, the game you remembered was gone forever.  Current players were hit even harder, as characters they’d spent dozens or hundreds of hours developing were ripped apart and rebuilt in strange ways.

Still, plenty of people still play the game today, so why has it been so hard for many gamers to just forget about the NGE and move on?  Probably because the NGE represents a fundamental betrayal of the unspoken pact between players and game providers — that we, as players, will give money to the provider to play in a persistent game world with persistent characters we evolve over time, and the game company will preserve that persistent world and your characters with clear continuity.  The NGE shattered character and game world continuity, and broke the trust between player and provider.

Warhammer Online Hype

“Bears, bears, bears.”  It’s a phrase that will go down in MMO marketing infamy, and one that anyone who follows MMORPG games has surely heard.  “Bears, bears, bears” was used in a marketing video for Mythic Entertainment’s Warhammer Online while describing a system in which players wouldn’t have to wade through dozens of bear corpses to reach a quest giver, only to have the quest giver task them to go out and kill 10 bears.  Instead, the quest giver would go “Oh, I have a quest for you to kill 10 bears.  I see you’ve already killed 10 bears, judging by the gore, bits of bear fur on your sword, and 10 foot tall stack of bear pelts you’re lugging around.  Thanks, here you go!  Quest complete!”

Gamers rejoiced, because we’ve all killed dozens of a monster only to have some quest NPC fifty feet further on task us to go kill some for him.  Never mind that we just killed dozens right in front of him.  The issue, of course, is that Warhammer Online didn’t deliver on this promise.  Instead of quest NPCs recognizing your kills for “kill x” quests, there were special “task” NPCs that would reward you for killing certain numbers of a specific monster.  That’s not so bad, though not what they promised, right? Except, infuriatingly, there were numerous cases of quest NPCs standing right next to the task NPC, offering “kill x” quests for the same monster type, and they wouldn’t recognize you had killed them already even though the NPC right next to them would.  They not only failed to deliver, they rubbed players’ noses in the failure.

This was just one of many ways in which Mythic failed to deliver on their promises for WO, but the fame of the “bears, bears, bears” bit has made this the one MMORPG players will never forget, or forgive.  It was just so over-the-top, and so blatantly unfulfilled.  Gamers were bludgeoned with the hype for months on end, with all sorts of wet-dream features being promised left and right.  What we got was a perfectly solid game that failed to meet the pie-in-the-sky promises of Mythic’s marketing team.  Mythic’s reputation has gone from that of a sterling independent MMORPG developer to that of an over-bloated hype-monster that can’t be trusted.  Warhammer Online wasn’t actually a bad game, but the community is unlikely to let this grudge pass, and it won’t be surprising if Mythic never releases another AAA MMORPG.

Anarchy Online Launch

One of the grandaddies of MMORPG gamer grudges (yes, UO Trammel is older, but I didn’t play UO so I’m not going to write about it), the launch of Funcom’s Anarchy Online in 2001 was so spectacularly bad that people still talk about it 10 years later.  Players attempting to play in the first few days of the game were treated to lag and latency so bad that something as simple as walking across a courtyard could take 30 minutes.  I’m not exaggerating, I actually timed it when I was trying to walk my character from one spot to another.  Rubber-banding, freezing, everything you could possibly imagine about a bad connection was present, all at the same time, constantly.  It was actually easier to force-quit or unplug your computer than log out thanks to the lag.

Funcom has been tainted by the AO launch ever since.  Not that people think they can’t make good games, but rather there’s a vague mistrust of their technical competence.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, read, or participated in an exchange like the following:  “Hey, check out this new game by Funcom!”  “Oh, err, ah, aren’t those the guys that did Anarchy Online?  That game was horrible at launch!  I’ll give them 6 months to straighten things out before I even look at this.”  Of course, a game that doesn’t sell well in the first six months is generally doomed to a mediocre showing overall.  Funcom didn’t exactly allay everyone’s fears with the Age of Conan launch either.

This grudge isn’t going to go away because the launch was just so bad and so memorable.  People shelled out $50 to buy the game and were rewarded with something completely unplayable.  The Anarchy Online launch is a textbook example of what-not-to-do, and no launch since has been able to surpass its misery.  World of Warcraft itself had a pretty bad launch, but almost nobody remembers because comparatively speaking, it just wasn’t in the same league.  The Anarchy Online launch was so bad it’s become legendary.

Conclusion

The theme behind all these grudges seems to be betrayal.  MMO gamers tend to be a pretty forgiving bunch in the long run (or maybe just forgetful), but the lesson seems to be that if you betray the gaming community spectacularly enough you’re never going to live it down.  Sony still has conversations about the NGE, generally along the lines of “we’ll never do anything like that again, ever, we promise!”  Funcom is still trying to convince people they’re capable of putting out stable software.  Mythic is, well, I’m not sure what Mythic is doing, but I’m sure they’re not letting their marketing department do it, whatever it is.

There are lots of other grudges out there, what’s your favorite?

2010: Looking Back

As much as I love retrospective posts and Top X Lists of the Year, I suppose it’s almost time to tuck those away for another 364 days.  January 1st always hits me like a wall of normalcy after the hectic month that was December.  Once tomorrow rolls in, it’s back to normal schedules and normal objectives and no awesome holidays until President’s Day (party central!).

So instead of getting bummed about the 1st, I wanted to take a couple minutes to look back at 2010.  While it may have not been much for MMOs, I thought it was a pretty exciting year — announcements, betas, getting back into old games, and so on.  I actually played a lot of MMOs this year, including:

  • World of Warcraft: I wrapped up my interest in this game early on in the year, and was finally able to say goodbye.
  • Lord of the Rings Online: I got back into LOTRO in February and have had an utter blast getting a character up in high levels, being part of a terrific kinship, and participating in many non-combat events.
  • Global Agenda: Played it for about a week, it’s decent for what it is, but it’s not for me.
  • Star Trek Online: Despite numerous hiccups on Cryptic’s part, I’ve enjoyed STO off and on during the year, and have spent about 100 hours in-game so far.
  • Ultima Online: Finally got a taste of this classic MMO for a few days — nothing compelling, but cool to be able to say I was there.
  • Anarchy Online: Spent a few weeks revisiting this title and my memories from back in the day.
  • Allods Online: I liked the beta, but the launch cash shop ruckus turned me off of it.
  • Age of Conan: Yeah, spent a couple days going through the newbie zone.  Decent game, but I didn’t feel like sticking it out.
  • DCUO: Played a very little bit of the beta, thought it looked really nice but I wasn’t too thrilled about the consoleish feel.
  • City of Heroes: Returned for a couple weeks with the intention of seeing the Going Rogue launch, but a once-familiar staple of my gaming life felt really drab and meandering, so I quit.
  • DDO: Enjoyed it off and on, but ultimately it lost its grip on me and I let it go with a teary farewell.
  • EverQuest II Extended: Went through the intro zone and generally liked it, but was turned off by the graphics and the bizarre pricing plan.
  • Guild Wars: Been playing through the campaigns for the Hall of Monuments calculator, and although I haven’t been in-game for a month or so, I have plans to return.
  • Rift: Got into the beta, and have been slowly won over by this gorgeous and pretty dang fun title.
  • Star Wars Galaxies: Played it for a couple weeks for a column, liked it so-so but it just got me itching for The Old Republic after a while.  Cool space combat, tho.
  • Vindictus: Tried the opening level, it felt way too much like a mindless click-fest and quit.

Whew, in retrospect, that’s a LOT!  And I’m not including all of my off-line gaming, including Mass Effect 2 (awesome), Back to the Future: The Game, Borderlands, Secret of Monkey Island, Dragon Age Origins, Torchlight and Batman: Arkham Asylum.

On the homefront, it’s been pretty crazy too: classes, work, family life.  Back in April my daughter was born, a daughter who’s now standing up and holding her own in play sessions with her one-year-old brother.  Being a dad is better than any game out there, which is why MMOs don’t stand a chance if they’re awake.

In February, I was hired by Massively to be a columnist and contributing editor, and in a way, it was a perfect fit.  I’ve always wanted to be a part of the games industry in some way, and writing about it comes naturally.  The folks over there are just terrific, and we’ve had a great year of covering the news and talking about the games we love.  I don’t know how you feel about the site, but I can testify to the real passion that everyone there has for MMOs.  It’s not a job, it’s being paid for what we were going to talk about anyway.  Well, okay, on days I don’t want to write, it’s certainly more job-like than others, but all in all I consider myself a very fortunate guy who has two jobs he really likes to do.

2010 wasn’t perfect — I didn’t lose all the weight I wanted to (although I made a small dent), I let a few projects slip that I wish I would’ve been better about, and I know that dividing my writing interests have hurt Bio Break in some ways.  But you have to take the bad with the good, and I’m pretty darn satisfied with how it ended up.

Yes, they are better. Or not. Does it matter?

As the resident older MMO columnist at Massively, I have a healthy respect for pre-2004 MMORPGs.  I really do.  They did a lot of (for then) cutting-edge innovation, they contributed a lot to the formation of this still-developing genre, and they raised the first generation of 3D MMO gamers.  A lot of people had a blast with these games, and in some cases, they still do.

I don’t have a single problem with this.  But it has started to really irk me how there’s a movement among some bloggers to elevate these games and this time period on an infallible pedestal by throwing out sweeping statements like “These older games were better, the newer ones are rubbish, aren’t fun, and people aren’t playing the games/systems they should in order to be real gamers.”

Again, you may like these older titles and how the way things were done.  That’s fine.  But here’s the thing: You don’t speak for me.  It’s heady to make widespread generalizations about the entire MMO playerbase, but it’s folly to do so.  MMO gamers are incredibly diverse, they want different things, they enjoy different things, and there are no perfect games that are all things to all people.

Asking the question of whether older MMOs were “better” is an extremely relative question, no matter how much one might try to dress it up.  What I’m sensing is that there are players who are restless and disgruntled with MMOs right now and are engaging in heavy-duty nostalgia back to a time where they didn’t feel this way.  They look at systems that have been phased out over time or types of gameplay that have become obsolete, and they try to connect their current malaise with these missing factors.  It very well may be for them, but I think this is just how life goes sometime.

What annoys me is that I really don’t  like to be told that the games I’m enjoying right now — and I *am* enjoying them — are inferior just because they’re not the ones someone else used to play back in the day.  Have we lost some features and types of gaming mentalities that did make the genre richer?  I don’t doubt that we have.  But have we gained a lot as well?  From my perspective, definitely.  I take so much for granted these days in MMOs that I would’ve given so much to have back in 2002.  I sincerely do not miss forced grouping, overly harsh death penalties, and the feeling of being completely lost in a game world.

Of course, it’s not like these things are forever gone — many of these older games exist still, and several newer MMOs have implemented features from the good ol’ days.  It’s interesting to see that many of the games that do try to recapture older MMO formats inevitably become a small niche game — Darkfall, Mortal Online, Vanguard, even (yes, I’ll be fair here) Fallen Earth.  There’s demand out there for those games and those features, but it’s being eclipsed by players who genuinely like several ways the genre’s developed.

Hobbies are extremely relativistic.  You can be a car fanatic and love the old muscle cars of the 60’s or the newer designs and features that we see today.  Your preference and perspective does not make one or the other “better” for everyone.  It’s just that we like to have the crowd agree with our viewpoint, so sometimes there’s temptation to take a few extra steps across the line and try to quantify factors that can’t easily be defined.  Was it better to have XP loss upon death in MMOs?  Depends on what you’re looking for in a game, what you first experienced, and how you might think it would affect your gameplay in a positive way (make you more cautious, increase the sense of danger, etc.).

For example, I’ve been tooling around in Anarchy Online this month, revising my first MMO stomping grounds.  It doesn’t seem like much has changed to the core game — it’s still a pretty hardcore, no-hand-holding experience.  There’s some fun to it, sure, but a lot of frustration as well.  I keep having to go to the web to research where places are and how to do even the most basic things, like training up new skills.  Likewise, FF14 is getting a lot of “no hand holding” testimonies, which some players appreciate and some very much do not.

I think there’s a balance that has to be carefully maintained as MMOs progress, evolve and develop.  If you do too much to simplify game mechanics and do away with all difficulties, you end up with a cakewalk that lacks challenge and long-term appeal; if you stubbornly stick with mechanics that don’t work or just appeal to a very small segment, you risk alienating most players.  I get the feeling that this industry is still in the infancy stage — perhaps toddlerhood — and we’re a long way off from full-fledged growth and maturity.  It’s been a fun ride so far, but as for me and mine, I’m looking at the road ahead for inspiration instead of wistfully holding on to days long gone.

Middlers

For all of the shockingly many MMORPGs I’ve played over the past decade, it struck me last night how shockingly few of them I’ve ever leveled a character all the way to the end.  That paltry list includes World of Warcraft (3 characters), Warhammer Online (1 character), and, um, um… I guess that’s it.  Just the four toons.  For a genre where a common rallying cry is that “the REAL game begins at END game!”, I’ve shied away from being in the “real” game more often than not.

And here’s the thing — I think I’m in good company, being a Middler.  What’s a Middler?  It’s the term I’m using for players who constantly get to the middle of a MMO’s leveling curve, but rarely the end, for various reasons.  Maybe they’re altoholics, maybe the first part of the game is perceived as more enjoyable than the latter (leveling is certainly faster), maybe they’re skipping around to multiple MMOs.  For whatever reason, Middlers don’t have a lot of level capped characters, but they’re still fiercely devoted to these games and enjoy them quite a bit.

For me, it’s a combination of all of those factors, plus often getting burned out once a character starts hitting the higher levels.  One of the weird things about MMOs is that, in a way, the more you level up, the more you’re punished for it.  Think about it — higher levels:

  • Take more time and work between gratifying “dings” of leveling up
  • Usually give you fewer and fewer new skills and abilities
  • Feature more ugly, desolate zones that aren’t as exciting to explore
  • Pile on the “busy work” of lengthy grinds

Is it any surprise that passion for these MMOs dies down when we hit this point?  Some people power through these levels with their eye on the prize of the End Game, that messiah of content that will hopefully make playing fun again (and that, my friends, is a subjective toss-up).

Way back in the day when I played my first MMO, Anarchy Online, I was astounded at the sheer number of levels — something like 220, I think.  I didn’t play the game ever thinking I’d hit the level cap at all, so I just played it to play it.  Maybe that’s when I first became a Middler.

This is why I frown on game companies that only develop content for the end game, because I think there’s a lot of us who constantly recycle the early and mid game and deserve new content for that span as well.

Just curious if this description fits you at all — are you a Middler?  If so, what’s your reason for rarely if ever hitting the level cap?