Housing for all, all for housing

run-down-house1This Final Fantasy XIV guild housing thing is just a forehead-slapping mess.  The logic, if I’m following it correctly, is that the developers were worried that rich players would snap up all of the open world housing plots for guilds, so they jacked up the prices so much that pretty much nobody could afford one.  And then they said not to worry, that 80% of guilds should be able to afford the smallest-sized plot within three months of this highly anticipated patch feature.

There’s a few stupid gremlins at work here, not the least of which is the feeling that the developers are really out of touch with the purpose of housing.  It shouldn’t be a prohibitively expensive feature that requires gobs of grinding and time to achieve or a massive goldsink; it should be as accessible as possible for everyone so that people have a place in the game to call their own.  It’s in a studio’s best interests to help players develop “roots” in a game, whether that be terrific social tools, housing, or empowering players to be part of the creation content process.

You *want* to give your guilds a place to congregate, socialize, and decorate.  I’m always amazed more games don’t have such places (shifty eyes at Guild Wars 2 and doey eyes at Guild Wars 1).  Ever since I was a kid, the concept of a clubhouse for me and my friends had enormous appeal, and that hasn’t really changed.

Another thing that this FFXIV situation has taught me is that open world housing is hardly ever worth the bother.  I know it’s becoming more en vogue once again with these sandbox up-and-comers, but I’ve never understood the appeal of large swaths of land that are converted into suburban tracts with 3/4ths abandoned dwellings.  Instanced housing is just fine by me, and that way you never run out or have to worry about wealthy players creating a monopoly on plots.

In any case, what should be a day for FFXIV players to celebrate — a major update release day — has become soured by last-minute developments in pricing and the realization that most everyone won’t be enjoying the biggest feature of this patch.  That’s just not how housing should be.

Final Fantasy XIV is not for me — and that’s OK

Final Fantasy 3When your gut and past experience tells you one thing and your friends are all telling you another, it’s sometimes easy to get persuaded to get out of your comfort zone and give a new thing a try.  In this case it’s where so many people seem to be playing, raving about, and enjoying Final Fantasy XIV following its relaunch, to the point where I got persuaded to drop $30 for a copy the other day.

And that’s a $30 I really regret spending.  I has the buyer’s remorse, I do.  But since it was an impulsive purchase, I have only myself to blame.

So yeah, it wasn’t even on my radar because the initial launch was a laughable mess and the relaunch looked to be pretty niche.  But whether it’s people starved for a major release right now in the latter part of 2013 or a tsunami of word-of-mouth raves, it’s been doing quite well for itself.  And it was strange for me to see a really wide range of gamers and bloggers that I know being won over by it.  So what did I have to lose?

$30.  Don’t remind me.  I shall do that myself.

Anyway, I should’ve listened to my gut.  It’s not that FFXIV is a bad game in any way that I can discern.  Downloading it and setting it up was pretty smooth, and I didn’t even have to enter in credit card info.  Hearing the music was a nice high point — the Final Fantasy series always does well there.  But this game was not made for me at all.

For starters, I’ve just soured on the Final Fantasy experience: the aesthetic, the trappings, the overused rehash of elements that some may love as “tradition” and I’ve started to frown at as “unimaginative leftovers.”  I’ve really not been into Final Fantasy since, oh, 10, and even that wasn’t too fun for me.  Final Fantasy XI just turned me off within the first couple days of trying it out way back in 2003 or so, and even retro versions of FF games on mobile devices have lost their luster.

So there wasn’t a lot to like about my first half-hour or so in FFXIV.  I don’t like the look of the characters, chocobos make my eyes roll so dang much, and most of the races just irk me.  I felt really grumpy through the whole thing and that’s probably not fair at all to the game.  Sure, it looked pretty.  But so do a lot of MMOs these days.  It had quests.  It had me running.  It had me clicking through a lot of text bubbles that were dull as carp.  Hey, carp are not the most interesting fish, okay?

And how much combat did I clock in that first hour or so?  None.  It was like the world’s slowest tutorial-slash-hand-holding, and I’m going cross-eyed because what little story I’m seeing is dull and I want to see how the combat handles.  I’m asking myself what others were seeing in this game.

So short story short, I didn’t have the patience to stick it out.  It just wasn’t for me, and that’s OK; not all MMOs will be.  Maybe it’s just about the best game in the world past that opening hour and maybe I’m too antsy.  But considering that I don’t need another subscription right now for a game that — even if I ended up liking it — I won’t be paying for when WildStar hits anyway.  So we’ll part amiably and shan’t mention it again.

Just wish I had that $30 back.

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)!

FFXIV takes a deep breath… and charges for content

It’s weird how things pan out sometimes.  Last night we were having a discussion in the Massively chat room about FFXIV for some reason, and I basically said, “I mean no malice to the game, but if I was Square-Enix, I would pull the plug instead of dumping money after money into it.”  This may be a reversal of my position from a couple weeks back, but while it certainly would be a PR blow to the company, I think that over the long run it’s worse to operate a game that’s bleeding money left and right just to save face.

Maybe Square-Enix has access to figures that I don’t or is just wildly optimistic, but in any case they’re getting ready to flip back on the monthly subscription switch and relaunch the game.  This has happened in the industry, but not that often, and so I’m fascinated to see if this will help matters or if it’s setting SE up for an even bigger fall down the road.

Optimistically, they’re doing a lot of things right here.  They’re acknowledging all of the work that’s been done on the game and following that up with a detailed roadmap into the future.  Players need to hear that, need to know that there is a plan above and beyond “crossing our fingers and wishing for ponies.”  I think the company is putting a lot of faith into the PlayStation 3 release of FFXIV, which I could see going either way.  Still, it’s really cool to see concrete details instead of vague promises.

Of course, the big issue — and one that the company acknowledges — is that the entire situation changes the second they start charging for the game again.  The problem here is three-fold.  First, FFXIV players have been enjoying the game for the better part of a year without any fee whatsoever.  Even though Square-Enix needs to start making money here, it’s not going to be greeted with enthusiastic applause from players who’ve gotten used to the way things were.  People don’t like change, and they really don’t like change that costs them more (see: Netflix’s recent price increases and that fun fallout).

The second problem is that, by and large, MMO players have gotten really used to there being free-to-play options.  Subscription-based titles are becoming the minority, as they are perceived to ask for a bigger up-front commitment of money.  Not just that, but asking for a subscription for a game that’s suffered some of the worst reviews and PR of any title over the past year is a tall order for even the most skillful spin doctor.

The third problem is that once you start charging a subscription, you put your game in a selective club of subscription MMOs that compete with each other on a higher level than F2P titles do with each other.  Like it or not, players do evaluate where they want to spend their $15 a month and aren’t as prone to go for multiple titles (it does happen, just not in the majority).  So unless this monthly fee is, say, $5-8, FFXIV is going to be asking, with a straight face, that players spend just as much on this game as World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic.

I think these are considerable obstacles.  Not impossible, and I have to allow for the fact that players do get loyal to a title and that the PS3 version could be a goldmine for Square-Enix.  But from where I’m sitting, it’s going to get a lot more bumpy before it gets better.

The Curious Case of Final Fantasy XIV

We haven’t spoken of Final Fantasy XIV around these here parts since late last year, when I awarded it “Dud of the Year” with a slightly guilty feeling.  Actually, I’m hard-pressed to think of any blogger who’s even mentioned playing it within the last eight months, apart from Massively’s Eliot.  Eliot brought to my attention the fact that FFXIV is just now hitting its first anniversary, which Square-Enix celebrated by saying that the game “greatly damaged” the Final Fantasy brand.  Ouch.

Ever since the game launched in complete shambles, Square-Enix has been scrambling to make it right — somehow, anyhow.  Every once in a while I hear about patches and fixes, but it’s safe to say that the FFXIV buzz in the MMO community is somewhere around flatline.  It just doesn’t exist.  But what I didn’t realize is that for this past year, the game’s been entirely free, since SE is not confident enough in its product yet to flick on the subscription switch.  I knew it was free for a couple months following the launch, but still?  A year later?  How much money is FFXIV losing the company on a monthly basis?  And what will the company do from here?

The first option is to get the game to a much, much better point than it was at release, throw a relaunch party of sorts, and pray that players stick around — and that others come check it out.  The second option, of course, is to go free-to-play and introduce some sort of microtransaction business model to help fund the project.  Pulling the plug entirely would be a PR disaster for Square-Enix, especially since it’s a major part of the Final Fantasy series — Roman numerals and all.

I’ve often been baffled by Square’s business practices, especially in the MMO field, because I get the feeling that the devs and corporate suits are too far removed from the rest of the industry at this point and unwilling to change that.  Maybe things are finally getting better.  But something’s going to need to be done with FFXIV sooner or later before it becomes a money pit from which there is no escape.

Music Week: MMORPG soundtracks

I know I touched on MMO scores before, but there are plenty of additional tracks that I deliberately keep in my collection instead of tuning out.  So… here are a few more, I guess!

Guild Wars — Under the Dark Span (Asura Theme)

I have an entire folder filled with every Guild Wars OST track — that’s how much I love Jeremy Soule’s score for these games.  Just… awesome.  It’s hard to pick one out of them, but I’ve always been partial to this short but sweeping theme for the Asura.

Age of Conan — Memories of Cimmeria

AoC has one of the most widely recognized scores in the industry, and rightfully so.  “Haunting” is a good word for this track, as I can imagine it being played in a film after a huge tragedy has gone down for our heroes, or when someone is facing a huge decision of sorts.  It’s interesting in that it’s dominated by a female voice crooning wordless notes.

Aion — The Still Sad World

One thing that soundtrack collectors learn early on is that it’s important to separate your feelings for the work in which its featured with the score itself.  This is why we can have crappy films with extremely awesome soundtracks (Transformers, Twilight) or games that I personally would not play with great tracks (such as Aion here).  This is a lovely piece with an emotional piano vibe — and, oddly enough, whispering.

EverQuest II — Main Theme

A classic in many ways, and an update version of the original EQ theme.  It really does shout “FANTASY!” at you, but strangely enough I could picture this as a theme in any Star Trek film too.

Final Fantasy XIV — Chocobo Theme

Okay, we’ve heard this theme a million times before, but it’s still kinda catchy — and the intro bit is perfect to play at top volume.

Runes of Magic — Call for Heroes

I know, Runes of Magic, whodathunkit?  Jeremy at Massively pointed out a few tracks from this game to me, and I quickly realized that it has, hands-down, one of the best scores out there for MMOs.  I want to make a movie trailer of my life set to this piece, it’s that epic.

Nostalgia Lane: Final Fantasies

I may have mentioned on this blog that we didn’t have a regular NES when we were growing up — not for a lack of wanting, believe you me.  We had to wait for the SNES, which was certainly worth it, but that meant that my brothers and I were in a constant state of envy over our friends’ consoles and enraptured with them every time we could go over and play.

It was at a friend’s house that I first was exposed to Final Fantasy.  We were having lunch and the TV wasn’t on, but I still sat down and poured through the Final Fantasy I manual like a parched man at a drinking fountain.  Even by 1987 RPGs were incredibly captivating to me, and I loved the notion that you could make up your own party mix for the game, a party who would “grow up” at a certain point and evolve into a better class.

Oddly enough, that manual was it for me and Final Fantasy until 1997, when I purchased the PlayStation and a couple “killer apps” to go with it — Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil 2.  Now, most gamers I know have their Final Fantasy preference, which usually corresponds to the first FF game they played, so you’ll understand that I’ve always carried a torch for FFVII.  It was an incredible experience back in ’97 — a very cinematic RPG with lots of depth, a huge cast of characters, and hundreds of hours’ worth of gameplay.  Yes, it looks laughably quaint and slow today, but when I first got it?  I played it for three days straight.  Seriously, I skipped work and everything.

Little did I know that Final Fantasy VII would become such a gaming touchstone, what with Aeris’ death, Sephiroth, Cloud’s hairstyle, limit breaks, and all the rest.  Back then it was simply a fun game and I enjoyed it from start to finish.

Two years later I had graduated college and moved to Colorado.  It was then that Square released Final Fantasy VIII, a title that we were all waiting for like crazy.  They promised more realistic proportions on the characters and a more scifi world, although it soon became apparent that it was a far cry from 7.  The Junction system was absolutely stupid, although there are a few masochists who claimed to love it.  I also really hated the sour protagonist — and Square’s penchant for the brooding hero type — and so it became a forgettable experience.

The next year I moved to my current home of Detroit and picked up Final Fantasy IX.  Along with Chrono Cross, this represented the glorious peak of PlayStation RPG goodness for me.  FF9 was a tribute of sorts to the entire FF franchise, and I genuinely enjoyed the upbeat tone, the colorful look, and the easier-to-understand gameplay.

With the next installment, Square moved to the PlayStation 2, the last console I ever purchased (we’re not counting the Wii because, really, it’s a party trick, not a gaming console).  I made the jump as well, although the PS2 never really caught on with me as much as the PS — probably because computer gaming just was more fun in 2001.  While not a bad game, per se, Final Fantasy X felt like it was more about the looks than the story (which was weirdly vague and anticlimactic) or gameplay.

It was here that I lost my love for the series.  There’s a lot to be said in favor of Final Fantasy as a historical franchise, but in my opinion the company never really grew up as fast as the rest of the genre.  Turn-based combat got old, random encounters were annoying, linear gameplay felt confined, and the stories felt so confined to weird Japanese conventions that ultimately baffled me.

While I did dip my toes into Final Fantasy XI — it was not for me, I quickly decided — that was it between me and Final Fantasy.  I haven’t felt the pull back for 12, 13 or 14, and while it’s not for me any more, I’m not going to badmouth games I haven’t played.  It just feels as though I moved on and FF stayed still.

Also?  Cloud is a really silly name.  I can admit that now.

2010 Flushies: Best Trailer, Dud of the Year, Customer Service Fail, Best Beta

Winner: Guild Wars 2 “Manifesto”

Bold.  Audacious.  Inspiring.  These were just a few of the words that popped into mind when ArenaNet began its Guild Wars 2 marketing blitz with a powerful “Manifesto” trailer that came out swinging.  After a series of strong statements — “Cause and effect, a single decision made by a player cascades out in a chain of events” — the devs shut up and let the game’s visuals and concept art speak for itself.  It’s one of those videos that made our little neck hairs stand up and an involuntary “heck yesss!” escape our lips.

Runners-up:

  • Global Agenda: Tired of Elves
  • Rift: Beta trailer
  • Star Wars The Old Republic: Hope

Winner: Final Fantasy XIV

Gah!  I feel so torn on this — partially because APB deserves it just as much, and because piling more onto FF14 feels like you’re picking on the weakest kid in the class.  But that’s how the cookie crumbles — no other MMO this year was as highly anticipated and failed as horribly as Final Fantasy XIV.  From out-of-touch developers refusing to listen to testers to a cryptically bizarre subscription model to terrible reviews to the sacking of a good chunk of the dev team, watching the launch of this title became sheer rubbernecking after a while.  I know that some folks love this game and appreciate it for what it is — and good for them — but it’s not a good sign when the company is still not charging a monthly subscription for a AAA title out of fear of the playerbase fleeing entirely.

Runners-Up:

  • APB: Winner of the shortest-lived MMO award.  By all reports, it wasn’t that great of a game, although it had a good character builder and some folks loved the concept of it.  But Realtime Worlds quickly went under and dragged APB with it, so it doesn’t really matter how good the game was or wasn’t.  The only positive news is that GamersFirst rescued it and will revive APB as a F2P title next year.
  • Allods Online: Unlike the other two games, Allods is pretty solid and polished — it’s just that it had a lot of promise and excitement surrounding the launch, and then the company shot it in the foot with a horrid cash shop prices that seriously crippled players unwilling to pay.  As a result, Allods went from golden boy to black sheep within a month.

Winner: Cryptic Studios

I’m not quite sure what went on in Cryptic’s Monday morning meetings, but it must’ve been massive bewilderment for the sheer vitriol that players kept throwing their way.  It was as if Cryptic didn’t quite understand just how much it was constantly putting its foot in its mouth with terrible customer service decisions, such as trying to charge players for additional content that should’ve been in their games in the first place, electing a small group of players to sit on a council and receive special attention over everyone else, or any one of the other 50 gaffes the studio made this year.

Runner-up:

  • Dungeons and Dragons Online: Turbine wasn’t exempt from a few wince-inducing decisions this year, from DDO’s ill-conceived offer wall to a glitch in a festival that caused the company to ban many players for “exploits” (and then tried to hush it up instead of dealing with it straight-on).

Winner: Rift

To be honest, I wasn’t in a lot of betas this year, but of those I checked out, Rift’s came across heads and shoulders more polished, more playable and more fun than any of the others.  So much so that I don’t want to play it too much more and spoil the launch.