Tabula Rasa RIP

tabulaWell, it looks as though tomorrow will see the end of Tabula Rasa’s one-plus years of active deployment in the MMO battlefields.  Other than an extremely short (2 weeks) stint in the game, I have no vested interest in the title, but I always find it incredibly sad when a MMORPG shuts its doors.  It’s not just the thought that this represents the end of an enormous effort on behalf of many, many developers, coders and designers, but also the community that chose that game to make its home.

I felt the same way when Asheron’s Call 2 and Auto Assault powered down, digesting a few posts full of people visiting their favorite areas for the last time, frantically taking screenshots, and playing as if the world would end tomorrow… which, of course, it did.  I simply cannot fathom the future demise of titles that have had much longer lives — what will it be like the day EverQuest or World of Warcraft or City of Heroes goes offline?  I think it’s comforting for people to assume these games will continue indefinitely, because even if they’re not playing them, it’s nice to know they’re still out there.  There’s still an option to visit or revisit these worlds.

I have to salute Tabula Rasa’s dev team for a tremendous effort in the past couple months.  With NCSoft’s tanking of the title and Richard Garriott’s departure, there probably was a substantial temption for the team to go “screw it” and just eek out the last days with minimal effort.  Instead, they’ve pushed out the door some decent content, including a final day event in which the enemy will be bringing down the full force to the entire game.  For people still playing, that’s the right way to treat their loyalty — give them one final, grand memory to cap their experiences.

Apologies!

Hey guys, I’m terribly sorry for the picture that appeared in the previous post.  I found a cover image of the Dreamfall game, and it looked normal when I posted it, but apparently it got changed after the fact to something less than savory.  I changed it, and apologize — that’s obviously not the sort of thing I would ever post on purpose.

Friday Quickies

Hm, Darkfall’s launched in perhaps one of the most stilted, weird launches in MMO history to many mixed reviews. Will anyone be surprised/disappointed when this settles down to a very niche space in the MMOsphere and ceases to be news in, oh, a month or so?

Speaking of that “niche” word… with the possible exception of WoW, aren’t all MMORPGs “niche”? It seems weird to me when people label various MMOs as niche even when they have a multi-hundred thousand subscriber base. Niche, to me, is less than 50K huddling on a server, feverishly stoking the fires to ward off extinction.

We’ve gotten more word about the much-awaited Dreamfall Chapters over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and it looks to be a bit of a mixed bag. The Longest Journey was, and still is, my all-time favorite adventure game, and Dreamfall wasn’t half bad either — although I was totally peeved when it ended on a huge (multiple) cliffhanger without bothering to resolve much of the story. I’m all for the game continuing, but even Ragnar Tørnquist doesn’t consider Dreamfall to be the official sequel to TLJ — that will go to the future, and so far unmade, The Longest Journey 2.

Someone asked if I’ll be doing a review of City of Heroes Architect system when it comes out… and the answer is: most definitely. I’m playing this title month-by-month right now, alternating nights with Warhammer Online, and it’s a weird feeling to play a MMO for the short term instead of the long. I know I’ll be leaving it within the year — perhaps within a couple months — but it’s still a great way to pass a couple hours when I don’t want to play a “deep” MMO, but just blast some crap with friends.

And as for WAR, patch 1.2 comes out next week, and with it the Bitter Rivals event and a new scenario (yay). They’re rolling out new rewards for the Recruit-a-Friend program, so if you’d like to try out WAR for free for 10 days, drop me a line and I’ll hook you up. I’d love to get me one of them doggie pets.

Making The Mish

One of the aspects of my life that I won’t bore you with (at least, not at length) is that I usually drift off to sleep at night designing games — and MMOs, mostly — as a way to disconnect my mind from the day.  A year or so ago I got fixated on the idea of a fantasy MMO that would be centered around player-created dungeons, where half the time you’d spend with your character exploring the world and other dungeons, and the other half you’d build and run your own castle or pit or what have you.  I envisioned parts of dungeons (traps, mobs, treasure) as loot that you could pick up and then use in your personal instance, and even thought of how players would rate and build on to their own masterpieces.

Obviously, good ideas are a dime a dozen in this genre, but I’m okay with that — especially with games like City of Heroes blatantly rips off my dreams (they’re in my HEAD man!) to features like their upcoming Mission Architect system.  Seriously, this is nothing short of a stroke of genius, and that’s coming from a game that’s already pioneered a lot of “firsts” in 3D MMO-dom.  Players will be able to create their own missions, stories and characters for others to explore and rate, and the best will be featured prominently.

It’s not only a great idea for players, but for NCSoft, if they can pull it off right, they’ll have created essentially unlimited player-created content in a game that previously had little of it.  They’ve already proven that players LOVE to create their own bases, but I see this as going to the next level.  I’m sure this title doesn’t have quite the full dev staff it used to, and using their own players as creators could infuse this game with a much longer shelf life.

I’ll probably be sticking around to see how Issue 14 lands, unless I get a Champions Online beta key or something.  Seriously, guys, my captions for your screenshot contest were WAY funnier than the ones you picked.  One of them had statues urinating on tourists, for pete’s sake!

DDO Rolls 1d3

Wow… Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) just turned 3 — has it really been that long already?

When it first came out, I was right on board, first train and pulling that whistle.  Choo-choo!  DDO seemed like it had a great chance to forge a new path in MMOspace — a solid IP that was synonymous with “RPG”, a dedication to party instance runs that would tell stories, and the ability to multi-class.  Right after launch, however, it didn’t take long for most of us to realize that this wasn’t going to make any great waves in the gaming industry, and in fact, was going to struggle hard for its entire lifespan.

For the record, I liked DDO, but they didn’t quite think everything through in development.  The Eberron setting was a mistake, as few D&D loyalists were familiar with the campaign, and confining the population to one city gave the game a downright claustrophobic feel.  D&D’s leveling and multi-classing system didn’t translate exactly into MMO terms, so they really had to torture it to give players a similar feeling of “leveling up” as they got in other titles.  Turbine had — and still has, in LOTRO as well — a crappy interface that was brutal and small to work with, and gave no “life” to the adventures.  A great UI is essential to a game’s success, I’m starting to support.

Because you would repeat dungeon runs over and over, players soon learned the fastest way of doing them, resulting in “speed runs” which allowed zero time for exploration, trap removal or fun — just faster XP and loot.  That sucked a lot of the joy out of the game for me.

Then you had to cope with the fact that DDO wasn’t a simple game to understand; on the contrary, you could really screw up your character before even loading into the first zone.  Magic-casters in particular had to do gobs of research and agonize over every little decision, as they’d be penalized mightily for making the wrong choice (which would stick with them for a long time).  D&D’s check and save system isn’t very intuitive for the non-D&Ders out there, and I believe this became a big obstacle to drawing in that crowd.  Finally, this just wasn’t a game that initially supported solo play, and some players started to chafe at being forced into groups (or be helpless without them) just to run content.

That’s all a shame, because there’s a GREAT core of a game inside all of that.  The combat is pseudo-real time, and carries with it real weight — you don’t regenerate hit points over an adventure (other than being healed or finding one of the very sparse healing shrines), which made players really think through their actions.  Traps, mini-games and exploration played a bigger part of instance runs, and that coupled with the GM’s voice-over narrative actually worked in making you feel part of a real quest instead of some FedEx check box list.  You had enormous possibilities in building your characters, if you had the advance knowledge for it, and Turbine did add in more class options later on.

This is one of those titles that, if it was $6 a month or cheaper, I’d probably keep on my computer and subscribed as a casual, part-time title.  As it is, the age of the game, coupled with its extremely low subscriber base (and probably skimpy dev support) means that there isn’t much of a future in it.  Alas.  It really did have potential.

Steal These MMO Features — Please!

Feature theft — or “borrowing”, for the conscience-addled developer — is a common enough way of life in the MMORPG world.  WoW starts putting exclamation points above people’s heads as some sort of text-less “click here dummy!” icon system, and then suddenly everyone else is doing it, just with a fresh coat of paint to avoid outright claims of plagiarism.

Fine, bring it on, I say!  In fact, here are some MMO features I wish more games would abduct from others and force them to work in the salt mines underneath EA or Turbine’s palaces:

1. Sidekicking/Exemplaring

For a game that came out waaaaay back in 2003, City of Heroes turned a lot of then-conventional MMO staples on their ears and introduced a few radical and crowd-pleasing ideas.  One of these was the sidekicking system, where lower-level players could be temporarily linked with a higher-level player and boosted up to the second player’s relative strength and toughness.  This allows friends of any level to play together at any time — something that few other MMOs have done before or since, and yet players clamor for this more than almost anything else.  It’s downright counterproductive for companies who are looking to retain players to tell those same players they can’t run missions with their friends because one person plays more than another.

2. Public Quests

Warhammer’s Public Quests have seen both praise (for the general “raid without the bullcrap” idea and implementation) and scorn (for PQs that are deserted and others that are virtual clones of ones that came before), but the idea behind these dynamic, join-at-any-time, group-without-the-pressure events should be included, standard, in any MMO that’s coming down the pike.

3. Appearance System/Gear

I really harbor suspicions that MMO devs know exactly what will make players happy — and they choose to deny their subscribers those features or changes, because the devs think they know better.  Kind of like how parents make kids eat spinach instead of ice cream.  Sometimes they’re right, but sometimes they’re beyond stupid.

The look of your character is one of these areas.  Players hate looking stupid, and therefore want choice over how they appear to themselves and others.  EverQuest 2’s appearance tab let players equip two sets of gear simultaneously — one for visual show only, and one for stats.  Through this, players could tailor their favorite look while continuing to upgrade their “real” gear.  While other games are starting to incorporate this, it’s not the de facto standard yet (*glares at Blizzard’s clown outfits*).

4. Phasing (World Instancing)

Guild Wars and Blizzard might be the two biggest names attempting to show off phasing (visually changing the world for you after your character accomplishes something), but we’ve yet to see a MMO go full-fledged awesome with this idea — and certainly more need to do so.  The possibilities for storytelling and empowering players with world-changing decisions are endless.

5. Music

I’ll admit it — LOTRO is the role-player’s wet dream.  Unlike other titles, the devs really went out of their way to throw in silly fluff elements that had no greater purpose than to let players have fun and do something other than killing.  Their music system might be one of LOTRO’s biggest successes — players are able to buy and then play a variety of instruments for others to hear, and even coordinate to perform songs together.  Within the first month of the game’s release there were concerts being put on — and attended! — and that’s something that shouldn’t be denied to other games.

6. Player Housing

I’m kind of sick of how player housing gets shoved waaaay down on the list of priorities for up-and-coming MMORPGs.  It’s invariably one of the first questions asked (will the game have it?) and invariably they respond with one of those non-committal remarks (we won’t have it at launch because if we do it we want to do it well).  The fact that so many titles have yet to introduce this much-wanted feature YEARS after release (*glares again at Blizzard*) boggles the mind.

Players like to feel as though they “belong” in the game world, that they have a virtual place to call home and decorate, even if they don’t visit it much.  And it should go without saying that RPers need this like they need air.

7. Non-Combat Classes

Just when did we decide that it was no longer useful to develop classes that didn’t put “homicidal murder” at the top of their skills list?  It wasn’t the most common thing in the world, but MMOs used to offer players non-combat options for advancement, including Star Wars Galaxies’ entertainer career.

Tuesday’s Tiny Adventures

I’m still digging myself out of a really long, busy weekend of work and school, so instead of any one topic today… many mini-topics!

D&D Tiny Adventures

I’m not a total Facebook freak, but I do enjoy staying in touch with friends and family through it.  Lately I’ve been hearing buzz about a fun little app called D&D Tiny Adventures that I finally gave a whirl, and darn it if it isn’t engaging.  It’s essentially a quick-and-dirty D&D solo game, where you just pick a hero class, pick an adventure, and then your guy goes off to complete the adventure by him or herself over the next couple hours.  There aren’t a lot of decisions you have to make as they quest — the encounters look to be settled by die rolls — except for inventory and potion management.  However, it’s just fun to see your guy doing his thing and getting goodies — and requiring little time for you to have to manage anything.  Fun for the multitasker like myself.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

BioWare’s released some more concept art for Hutta… um, whee?

Champions Online

There’s a new Ask Cryptic out, which deals with pets, defenses and advantages.  I thought this quote was particularly insightful as to how they’re trying to balance the mix-and-matching of powers:

Certain defenses are specifically tuned to synergize well with certain power sets. We are setting up the rules so that you can synergize any defense with any power set, you just have to deliberately take some build steps to do it, as opposed to it being the default. We build in some synergies so that we can easily point them out to players so we can say to players if you want to be this guy, here’s the simplest path to doing it.

This is the sense I’ve been getting from the dev team — that they want to let you choose any powers to match, in theory, but will give you incentive to choose synergetic or matching powers, and provide drawbacks or obstacles to going hogwild with weirdly mismatching powers.

Majesty 2 Preview

That VideoGame Blog has a decent Majesty 2 preview — which 95% of could apply fully to the first game.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing, don’t get me wrong; I was worried they’d monkey around with the formula too much.

Bill Roper For The Defense

It’s always cool to see MMORPG devs support each other instead of getting into snarky hissy fits (although those are entertaining in their own right), and recently Champion Online’s Bill Roper came to the defense of WAR, especially in light of the recent sub numbers and layoffs.  As for Cryptic’s own titles, he gives this encouraging quote:

One of the things we’re [Cryptic] spending a lot of time working on right now is lowering our system requirements [for our games]. And making sure if somebody bought a computer a few years ago, they can still play. If they have a laptop, they can still play.

Seriously, game devs, this should be in your top 5 priorities for making a successful, mass-market title.  It seems as though a lot of very pretty MMOs were released in the past couple years that few folks could play, or play at a good framerate, because you were so much more interested in pretty screenshots than letting Joe My Computer Is Three Years Old Gamer join in on the fun.  If Blizzard can make a low-poly game look good, so can you.

Conan the Retiree

There was only the briefest of times when I was intensely interested in Age of Conan, possibly brought on for my past love of FunCom (The Longest Journey rules!) and the idea of a savage, brutal fantasy world with an edgey, non-PC nature to it.  Then that quickly evaporated as reports of the game started to pour in pre-release, and red flags started popping up for me: bad performance, antagonistic dev-player relationships, a good early game followed by a lackluster mid- and late-game, blah armor sets, an overdependence on instancing, and the mistake of thinking that topless nudity would equal a “mature” setting.

Seriously, it was hard to bump into an article about Age of Conan around May of last year without the author having something to say about breasts and their freewheeling nature in this game.  It was a very sad attempt to pander to the lowbrow sensibilities out there without trying to attain a high standard of gameplay and complex storylines.

Anyway, it came out, had the typical honeymoon where new players and bloggers gushed about it, and then it crashed and hard.  It didn’t help that the PvP system wasn’t quite in the game yet, that it was bugged beyond belief, that the end game was a void wasteland, and that female characters actually attacked slower than the males.  Yahtzee bashed it (in typical hilarious fashion), and a long, brutal expose on MMOCrunch covered its perceived failure.

Today, another kick in the teeth for the title came as Funcom’s CFO resigned over AoC’s massive profit loss and struggling (<100,000) subscriber base.  While the game has made some positive steps toward where it needs to be, it’s hard to debate the fact that this might be too little, way too late.

Age of Conan’s failure — and failure it is — surprised a lot of folks.  This was a AAA MMORPG title developed by an experienced MMO company, it promised faster (“realtime”) combat, mature themes not really seen in the genre at that level, a four-month head start on WAR and WotLK’s releases, and a killer IP.  It wasn’t quite like Vanguard, which had no great IP to draw from and a horrible launch — AoC actually launched fairly well, even amid angry cries of beta testers, but it fizzled faster than anyone could’ve predicted.

Some have tried to run a parallel between AoC and WAR, which doesn’t quite hold up in my opinion.  While there are some similarities — a buggy launch, a severe drop from first-month numbers, PvP focus — WAR looks to be on the increase with many positive factors swinging its way, while AoC doesn’t offer a lot of hope for its players.  Buzz for AoC has died to a mere whisper.

A couple months ago, one of the guys in our WAR guild had come from AoC, and spent the better part of an evening telling us just how awesome Conan was, how much better it’d gotten, and how they never experienced any of the problems that had gotten so much coverage by the press.  Fine and well, but note that he wasn’t currently playing the game, either.  When a game’s most ardent supporters have to cheer it on from a completely different MMO, what does that tell you?

I’m not over here rooting for the death of Conan; on the contrary, it would be a great thing if somehow Funcom could pull a victory from this by sustaining and improving the game over time, and slowly reestablishing it as a worthy title (as other MMOs have done after a rocky start).  It would be good for competition, for the industry as a whole, and for Funcom’s future in the market.  We need more MMO developers, not less, at this point.  How it might turnaround is anybody’s guess, but Funcom’s not going to pull the plug if it’s sustaining some measure of profitability — even if the margin isn’t that great.