Nostalgia Lane: Magic Online

magicWhen I was a freshman in college back in the ancient year of Nineteen Ninety-Four, my dorm floor became temporarily obsessed with a new card game called Magic.  I was dragged along with my friends to a comic book store about 30 minutes away and peer pressured into buying a few packs.  I had no idea what this was, but I had previously collected baseball cards and liked the idea of being able to play with your collection.

The fad passed pretty quickly for our floor; we had too much going on and the cards were too expensive to keep buying all of the time.  Still, it’s one of my big regrets that I totally ignored our college geek gaming group that was often seen digging these cards out for impromptu sessions.

The Magic bug really didn’t bite me until nearly a decade later when I stumbled upon Magic Online.  I gave the free trial version a whirl, liked what I saw, and decided to invest into it.  For a good year or so I was logged in nightly, building up my collection, trying out new decks, and haggling with the game’s horrible trading system.

I loved it because it offered me a convenient, tidy way to play Magic without dealing with the hassle of physical cards all over the place or having to find people to play it with.  I never was that great, but I usually had quite a bit of fun doing it.

Magic Online was a quirky program, particularly in its early years.  It went through a couple different studios and was notoriously undersupported by Wizards of the Coast.  The first couple versions of the game looked positively ancient — like mid-90s ancient.  The developers bemoaned how complex it was to program because it had to deal with thousands and thousands of different cards and all the various rules, with new cards coming in all the time.  The guild system was a joke, but I did try out a few tournaments and even won some stuff in them.

A while back I listed a few of the hiccups that the game went through, and I think I gave up hope that the new version (which was long, long promised) would ever see the light of day.  Eventually I stopped playing and moved on to MMOs, which was certainly better for my wallet.  I wince to think about the amount of money I dropped on Magic Online, and I hated the pressure of feeling like I had to keep buying all the new sets when they came out (like two to three times a year).

When I did return in 2009 to check it out, I simply stuck with what’s called “pauper decks” — games that only used the cheap common cards.  It was just as much fun and a lot less stressful on my finances.

The whole Magic subculture is one that demands your all, and that includes the game.  I remember reading the daily articles on the site and being overwhelmed by all the mechanics and theorycrafting involved.  Even so, it’s one of those games that calls to me every now and then.  If I had the time, I whisper back… if I had the time.

When CCGs and MMORPGs Date

Happy Day-After-Valentine’s Day!  I hope yesterday was either a great day to express your love to your sweetie or a bottomless pit of anguish and torment as you gnashed your teeth while you wallowed in your single state — because, either way, you have something to talk about to friends today!

Via Twitter, Spinks shared the news that Blizzard looks as though they’ve wiggled out of their contract with Upper Deck in regards to their trading card game (TCG/CCG), because it looks as though they’ve been working on an online version of the game. From MMO Champion:

About two years ago, Slouken slowly left World of Warcraft to start working on an “unnanounced project”, at this point I just assumed it was the unannounced MMO. I was wrong: Blizzard created a new development team in 2008 to work on an online conversion of the World of Warcraft: Trading Card game and Slouken seems to lead the project (or at least the recruitment, according to a few offers he posted online). This new game is most likely why the partnership between UDE and Blizzard died.

It’s really hard to get more details on the game but I wouldn’t be surprised if all the old cards were revived online to give new players a chance to acquire them. Of course, just like everything else, nothing is official and you shouldn’t believe me until someone in blue actually confirms that.

If true, this opens the doors for a lot of speculation.  Will it tie into the WoW game proper — will you be able to sit down in Stormwind or Orgrimmar and play a couple hands with friends while you wait for a raid to start?  Will they form a symbiotic relationship that will award WoW players cards as loot drops?

It’s not as if we don’t already have a precedent for this sort of collaboration (double negatives FTW!).  SOE has CCGs for Free Realms, EverQuest 2 and Star Wars Galaxies, making them a separate game that can be played within the MMORPG, which in turn gives players of the MMO opportunities to get cards while they go about adventuring.

I’ve never been much into SOE titles, but I love that idea.  Many MMO players have a history with CCGs, whether they be Magic or Pokemon or Warcraft.  At Gencon Indy, the sheer variety of CCGs available just boggles the mind, and I don’t think they’re going to go away any time soon.  I’ve said in the past that it’s a shame that Magic Online didn’t do a better job, because breaching the online market holds lots of potential — and profits — as players who love CCGs want the added convenience of playing at home with people across the globe.

The collaboration between MMO and CCG makes sense both ways.  People who are big fans of a particular MMO really can never get enough of it, so an online CCG using the same IP (man, count all the acronyms in this article for a big reward!) is going to be well-recieved — and the CCG gets a boost from latching onto that IP.  Having a CCG accessible in-game makes sense, because you can easily justify it as your character sitting down with other characters between being mass murdering the local fauna and kicking it with a card game.

Synergy!  Love it!

P.S. – I would kill for an official online Munchkin card game.  Just sayin’.

Play Hard

dancepartyI haven’t written recently on what I’ve been playing, mostly because I’ve been scattered all over the map in terms of gaming in August, and because I don’t like to write about my gameplay unless there’s something interesting to report.  The following isn’t terribly interesting, but it is an update, so feel free to ignore and skip on by.

DDO

I’m in a bit of a holding pattern with DDO, since the “re-launch” of DDO:EU is in less than a week and a half (Sept 1 for subscribers, a week later for the rest of the world).  I’ve heard nothing but good things about the improved features and performance of the new version of the game, and am looking forward to poking around the DDO store as well.

That said, I did get in the game last night and ran a couple dungeons with a pick-up group.  I actually fear PUGs in DDO less than most games, since it’s pretty standard to be in one, and the community is small enough that you can get a reputation quickly for being either an idiot, clueless or a combination of the two.  As we waited on a 6th member of the team, we broke out into an impromptu dance party (as evidenced in the picture there).  This is notable only because DDO has, by far, the worst dancing animations of any MMO I’ve ever seen, and that is saying something.  Because it’s well known that our chicken-jerk flailings is so terrible, many folks can’t restrain themselves from unleashing it on the public.

My bard, Fiddyment, is level 8, so I feel like I’m making progress.  I’m only 560/1750 for the 32-point unlock, so that’s not coming for quite some time, and that means I’m going to put a hold on alts until then.  Alas.  Good thing I like my little halfling machine-gun crossbow user!

I will say this: I am not bored with the game, and don’t see myself becoming such for a very long time.  When I’m in the mood to run group dungeons, DDO is my preference of choice — it’s always interesting, the different group makeups change the dynamics of each run, and I think I prefer getting all my loot from chests than mobs.  It’s kind of a psychological thing, but I’m always wondering what the next chest might hold, and I’ve never done that for a dead mob.

If you’re thinking of checking out DDO in September, a word of advice: you have to devote yourself to getting to know the game.  This is not a great game upon first impressions, and it takes a bit to understand it, get into the groove, and progress enough so that your options really open up.  Devote a couple weeks to it without getting easily frustrated, and you might just see how it grows on you.

Champions Online

Wasn’t really planning on going into the open beta, but I’m still trying to figure out what’s up with my lackluster framerate.  I had a bit of fun making Mr. Pebbles, a nightmarish clown-thing, but his whole experience so far has been hidden by the advanced graphics option screen.

Magic Online

Following GenCon, I got bit by the “must go back and try out Magic again” bug pretty hard.  I re-downloaded the client, confirmed that pauper games (all commons — i.e., cheap cards) are thriving, and was pleased to see the interface improved somewhat from a year or so ago.  I haven’t actually played a match yet; the bulk of my time is spent shopping around for every black commons I don’t already have — I like to run black mono decks for simplicity and fun, and I know that an all-rats deck is in my near future.

GenCon Indy part 2: The Games

GenCon Indy isn’t much about video games as it is about pretty much every other kind of game ever made: LARPs, card games, board games, RPGs, miniatures, etc.  But it did have a section of the exhibit hall reserved for electronic games, and that’s where I made my first stop: Mythic Entertainment.

Myself, Bob Mull and Andy Belford

Myself, Bob Mull and Andy Belford

MYTHIC

I was both excited and a bit apprehensive about re-visiting the WAR folks — excited since Andy made it a point to ask me to come over and talk, and apprehensive because I was sure they were going to gank me for shuttering WAAAGH! and I’d never see my wife and son again.  Happily, it was a good talk — we’ve always said that Mythic has one of the best, most approachable and friendly development teams, and they continue to prove it with stuff like this.  Andy and I talked for well over an hour about the game — where it faltered, what they’re working on, and his personal mission to try to woo me back to the fold.

I don’t know if that’ll work or not, but I told him I’m always willing to revisit it in the future, as has my colleague Snafzg in his new “Return to WAR” article series.  Here’s a few of the more salient details from our discussion:

  • Despite what some may assume, the Mythic crew has strong morale and continually excited to be working on WAR — a game that they all play daily, by the way.
  • Andy underlined Mythic’s new/revised approach to WAR’s development: lots and lots more listening to the community about what works and what doesn’t, and a very dedicated focus to improving the base game, getting rid of the bugs, increasing performance, and holding back from more sensational updates until they’re (and we’re) happy with the game at its core.
  • A common misconception is that Mythic could have improved performance by just throwing more or better servers at the game — in fact, Andy said that the servers have performed far beyond what they ever expected, but that some of the server code was less-than-ideal, which they have been working at improving (this is in regards to some of the lag of the graphics-intensive mass combat battles).
  • Andy mentioned how Aion’s models involved far less polygons than WAR’s — on the same level of WoW’s — one reason why it has such fast performance.
  • I asked Andy about his feelings of being included in the MMO gamer documentary Second Skin, and he felt generally pleased about the end result.
  • From his perspective, recent player response to patches and city siege improvements have been overwhelmingly positive
  • I asked what Mythic’s relationship is with BioWare these days, and the answer is that it’s mostly brainstorming back-and-forth between the teams.  BioWare is providing Mythic with story advice, and Mythic is giving BioWare information as to their engineering systems.
  • The big bottom line that Andy kept stressing is that Mythic is listening — and they want to continue to be open and communicative with its playerbase, while earning every sub they get with good word of mouth as folks hopefully realize how much the game’s improved since a year ago.
  • We talked about branching out in gaming, and how trying multiple titles strengthens us as gamers and them as developers.  Andy is a monster player — not only does he play WAR, but he subscribes to FIVE other titles as well (one of which, and this is true, is Pirates of the Burning Sea).
Yeah, I'll tank.

Yeah, I'll tank.

BIOWARE

I was pretty jazzed that BioWare had a presence at GenCon, but I quickly realized that it was for Dragon Age and Dragon Age Only — no Mass Effect 2, and definitely no TOR.  Even so, I quickly got sucked in by just how awesome DA looks (I am definitely snagging that title), and had a chance to talk with one of its developers.  Dragon Age is definitely set to be a franchise, and I asked if characters saved at the end of the game would be brought into the next — the response to that was a veiled “maybe”.  We had a good chat about how BioWare is advancing their morality system past KOTOR’s rather extreme “good/evil” slider to more complex choices and surprising results.

Jack Emmert and I on our first date

Jack Emmert and I on our first date

CRYPTIC

Very, very excited to head over to the Cryptic booth, especially since we’re on the verge of Champions Online’s launch in a couple weeks.  They had it playing on resolutions my computer could only dream about, and boy did it look fan-freaking-tastic.  I cornered Jack Emmert for a few minutes, and spent a few more with another developer whose name I forgot.  Jack spilled a few eyebrow-raising beans:

  • I got a bit of glare from him when I said that there was a perception that Champions is not doing enough marketing/hype for being this close to launch, but then he shrugged and said that once the NDA drops, it’s all word of mouth, and he trusts that people will try it and like it.
  • I asked if they’re going to try to get Champions out on the XBox 360 before DC Universe Online launches, and he said, “Oh, definitely.  And the PS3 too.”  (I don’t know if he was kidding on the last part, but he was dead serious about the 360.)
  • He wouldn’t talk much about their speculated third MMO that’s under development, except that it should be announced relatively soon (within six months? don’t quote me here), and that Cryptic is trying to become a major MMO player by developing a wide selection of games fairly quickly that stay outside of overpopulated genres (read: fantasy).
  • The biggest “Oh COOL” moment was when I point-blank asked him if Cryptic was going to do something with a multiple MMO subscription plan, a la SOE’s Station Access.  The answer?  “Yes.”

gencon2e

MAGIC ONLINE

I didn’t plan on swinging by Wizard of the Coast’s booth, but when I saw that they had a group of Magic Online’s developers there, I couldn’t resist.  I had a lot of gripes about the game, particularly with the 3.0 version, and wanted to vent.  In what became one of the highlights of the convention, the developer above — Matt who has a last name but I didn’t write it down — sat down with me and patiently addressed my concerns.

He agreed with me: Magic’s 3.0 interface was a horrid mess (which has gotten better), and they are still falling woefully short on supporting clans (mini-guilds) in the game.  However, the new 10th edition of the base game has been a huge success online, and he then went on to drop two big bombs that got me to agree to check Magic out as soon as I got home:

  • We talked about the success of XBL’s Magic: Duel of the Planeswalkers, and I shared with him my feelings that it was weird how much that was a popular success while Magic Online remains very niche — kind of an intro Magic and advanced level Magic without a middle ground.  He said it was funny I mentioned that, because they’re going to allow Planeswalkers players to import all of those cards into a special lobby in Magic Online that they could continue to play (while learning Magic Online’s interface).
  • Then he revealed that Magic is now supporting Pauper as an official format.  Maybe that’s old news to Magic players, but I hadn’t heard it — Pauper is where you only play with commons; no uncommons or rares allowed.  It’s for us cheapskates that are sick of getting schooled by folks who dump loads of money into the game to make all-rare decks.  Pauper is my personal favorite format, and if this is true, I will definitely be getting back into the game to try it out.

All in all, it was a good place to hit up a few of these game developers, although I felt the absence of two companies in particular.  Considering all of the D&D action and booths going on, it was just criminal that DDO wasn’t present.  And although Blizzard has its own con, GenCon spends a lot of space on the WoW miniatures and card game, so it would’ve been nice to see them make an effort to get there with their MMO as well.

Good Magic, Bad Magic

duelsHands up out there in the blog reading community if you ever played Magic: The Gathering.  Ah… ah… yes.  Lots of you.  It’s to be expected — we’re all geeks here, and Magic is/was a solid staple of geekery.  Now, keep your hands up if you played to any extent Wizard of the Coast’s Magic Online.  Hm… far less hands up this time around.  Magic Online’s history as an online version of the wildly popular collectable card game is as rocky as the mountain range that bears its name.  Since launching in 2002, it struggled to live up to its paper version even through the following gaffes:

  1. A series of three versions of the game, with each version sporting more problems than the previous ones,
  2. A hard-to-adapt first version of the game that made it difficult to add new cards and rules,
  3. A giant “virtual party” to make up for mass server crashes that — yup — crashed the server when it was held,
  4. A hard cap of 4400 players in the 2.5 version,
  5. A third version of the game that was supposed to come out in 2006 and ended up slipping well into 2008 before releasing in two separate parts, and
  6. A horribly lame system for trading and selling of cards (which quickly became dominated by “bot” programs).

Even so, the allure of playing Magic in the privacy of one’s home did create a distinct playerbase that accounted for 40-50% of Magic’s sales (according to Wizards).  The shame of it all is that this is, in my opinion, a greatly wasted opportunity for Wizards to have grown Magic Online far bigger and for more players to leap on board.

I don’t blame folks that like Magic but have rejected Magic Online.  Aside from the screwy 3.0 interface, lots of folks have a hard time swallowing the 1:1 cost ratio between Magic’s paper products and the virtual in-game products.  Magic Online is an expensive game, to put it lightly.  We might complain and moan about $15/month subscription fees, while dedicated Magic Online players are dropping $50, $70, $100 or more a month on drafts, tickets and the constantly releasing new expansion packs that demand purchase just to stay competitive.  The cost is so wildly out of control for the few that can afford it that there’s an underground Magic Online collective that play only “pauper” versions of the game (commons only, the cheapest cards to attain).

Plus, it’s obvious to anyone that’s followed Magic Online for a chunk of time that Wizards of the Coast got way in over their head by doing all of this, and now find it to be a chore to maintain, despite the money it pulls in.  MO players get lipservice for their $75/month whereas most MMORPG titles have a constant stream of updates and developer/player communication.

Nowhere is the tragedy of Magic Online’s mediocrity more apparent than the recent success of Magic’s Duels of the Planeswalkers on XBox Live Arcade.  Whereas Magic Online asks players to spend gobs of money on new packs and cards and expansions, Duels is a one-time purchase that contains a streamlined version of the game that includes 480 cards and the ability to play your friends without all the hassle of microtransactions and being schooled by someone who has spent hundreds of dollars on rares to fight against your Relentless Rats deck.  If Magic Online is an advance college course in the game, then Duels is, well, probably junior high.  It’s basic, it’s non-collectable, and there isn’t even a deckbuilder.  But the odd thing is — this is exactly what a lot of Magic players (and curious Magicos) were looking for.

Perhaps if Magic Online had such a slick interface and an XBox Live version, then it would see an uptick in popularity as well.  I think there’s an opportunity here for a middle ground — a high school version of the game where players can buy, collect and trade cards, but for far, far less than Wizards is charging current MO players, perhaps only dedicated to the core sets instead of the expansions (Wizards is attempting to make even more money these days by releasing a new core version of the game every year now instead of their previous every-two-years).