Poll: Champions Online’s Naming Policy

Reference: from “Ask Cryptic”:

Rejoice, the days of name-squatting are over! In Champions Online, character names are unique to a single player’s account. Everyone can now be “Odysseus.” Each account can only have one “Odysseus,” though. If Champions Online can’t figure out the precise character you’re referring to, you specify the player who owns the character. This is done by appending the player’s handle (also call an @name or public name) to it. For example, “Odysseus@poz,” “Odysseus@Simmons,” and “Odysseus@Homer.”

Question

Imagine you’re a MMO dev working on a project in, oh, say, five years from now.

Just how hard will you have to work at not offending a single soul with what you include, what you don’t, what your filters will catch and what they let slip?  How will it even be possible to create boundaries for the community that won’t be labeled as “hateful” or “exclusive” without throwing the doors open to allow a free-for-all that will most certainly offend quite a lot of folks?

How much of the real world will you absolutely have to include as not to stir the firestorm of controversy that blows up when players realize they can’t say X, or have their character be [sexual orientation/religion/political affiliation] in an IP that usually doesn’t deal with that sort of thing?  What guidelines will you set forth for your CMs to keep a lid on the insanity without stepping on the toes of political correctness?

Because I honestly think it’ll be impossible.

Free Realms: Well, At Least They Got 50% Of The Title Right

It's a flying elf.  Quick, get the fly swatter!
It's a flying elf. Quick, get the fly swatter!

Today my wife and I tenatively jumped into Free Realms, the Fisher Price simulator that comes across as the offspring of The Sims, World of Warcraft and Bejeweled.  Oh, and Nickelodean.  And Baby Einstein.  And Mario Kart.  Basically, it’s a schitzophrenic game that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up, so it refuses to do so and clutches every toy it can grab close to its chest.

Free Realms gives one the feeling of being a baby once again, who is apparently throwing a tantrum because the game keeps waving different shiny toys in front of one’s face in an attempt to shut one up with something colorful and pointless.  I never thought I’d say this about a MMO, but… there’s just a wee bit too much fluff here.  It’s like I’ve gotten on a non-stop boat to the It’s A Small World Ride and I’ll never see Pirates of the Carribean again.

We’re trying it out — well, the “free” part of Free Realms, which is everything except 40% of the quests and 100% of the pets and lots of other goodies that Sony wants you to steal your parents’ wallets to pay for.  This is yet another effort on our behalf to find a video game that interests both my wife (casual, Peggle-playing she) and myself (Mr. I Stayed Up Until 2:00am Last Night To Finish A Dungeon).  With luck and time, FR might be that game, but there’s some serious speedbumps along the way.

The first is its incredibly patronizing approach to character customization.  I don’t know why all tween-and-younger games do this, but all character creation options are just this side of a Tiger Beat cover (they do still publish that, right?).  Perfect cute fashion and looks and dimples, ta da.  Want to be a short fat weirdo?  Perhaps looking to recreate your daring “brace face” look?  Nothing doing.  You’ll look GOOD, darn it, and enjoy your brief sojurn among the beautiful people of the world before being coldly dashed back into the decaying skin suit of your life!

Once through the tutorial, Free Realms turns into an amusement park of options and rides without anything overarching to focus on (such as storylines, zone progression, etc.).  You just wander around, do whatever strikes your fancy, and click the ginormous candy buttons that fill up 1/8th of the screen, in case you’re five years old and navigating the mouse with your mouth.  Bite down to accept the quest, junior!

In theory, I do appreciate the jobs concept — jumping in and out of different classes which are leveled up separately — but some definitely got the short end of the creative stick.  Cooking and pet training seems to be a lot of mouse wiggling and tracing, which amused this 32-year-old man for about as long as it took for me to find the “Cancel” button.  Combat is semi-realtime with an extremely streamlined interface and set of skills — gee, should I click the “1” or the “2”?  Choices, choices!  The only thing that caught our immediate attention was the racing karts/demolition derby, which is a smooth ripoff of Mario Kart without Toad’s overpowered set of skills.

I also peeked in at the trading card game (they don’t even say “trading card game”, it’s all acronyms, baby: TCG ftw!), and there’s real promise in that.  Y’know, if I didn’t want to spend $4 a pop for 10 random cards.

That’s another thing about Free Realms that gnaws at me (and I knew it would) — it’s a game that allows you to play for free, and gives you a guilt trip the entire time because of it.  You’re not a member?  Why not!  We have kids to feed too!  Oh, you became a member?  We still want you to pay for all this RMT stuff so that your kid’s virtual puppy can look better than his friend’s virtual kitty!  It’s like walking by an endless stream of panhandlers in Candyland.

Okay, okay, I’m being a bit harsh for a game that is most definitely not targeted toward me, and for what it is, it does it well.  Very polished, wide variety of gameplay, and the kids are going to go bonkers for it all.  I guess I’m just not a “little something of everything” guy, but more of a “lot of a few things” player.  We’ll give it some more time, and hopefully find a balance that pleases us both.  It was a lot simpler to find each other in game and hook up as a group, which already puts it head and shoulders above Wizard 101 (oh yeah, and we can talk without worrying about a filter cutting off 95% of the English language in fear that we’re using “dilatory” in a perverted sense).

I’m just looking for a “Gunner” job.  Sniper headshot on that baby bunny = 45 stars!

P.S. – My wife snagged “Tinker Bell” for her fairy character.  I told her she just made a million little girls cry for claiming the rights to it.

WAR: Tales of Past Glory

n55876I’ve been watching with a heavy heart as many from Warhammer Online’s blogging community are retiring from their solemn duties, one after another, in a morbid procession of regret, wistfulness and (sometimes) anger.  Grimnir has the latest batch of farewells lined up, so I shan’t repeat them here, but there are some big names that have been blogging WAR since launch and before.

I understand, I identify and I support them wherever they go (and I sincerely hope that many of them, excellent writers that they are, keep on blogging in some format).  As many of you know, I wrote about Warhammer over a year on my old blog, WAAAGH!, played the game extensively, and ended up petering out much the same way as has been described by my fellow bloggers.  We all have our fun thresholds that have to be reached in order to sustain interest, and if it dips below that point, well, even having a major blog invested in talking about only one game won’t be the glue that keeps you stuck on it forever.

I’ve always thought of myself as more of a positive blogger than a negative one, but I’m not going to completely ignore what’s going on in the Warhammer community right now just because most of it is sour.  Patience is growing thin for many (but not all), particularly with Mythic’s promises and execution of said promises.

I will always love Mythic for being the company that they are, because — bless them — they have showed me that they care about the player, they listen to us, and they’re willing to work hard and pump out new content like there’s no tomorrow to improve their game.  It was a joy to cover WAR, because Mythic always gave us interesting personalities, excellent dev podcasts and interacted with the blogging community in a way that all other MMOs should do likewise. If I was the type to give report cards, I’d give them an “A” for effort, “A” for personality, “A” for imaginitive features, “A+” for hype, and “C-” for execution of it all.

Like Snafzg said, “If you keep building inefficiencies on top of inefficiencies, there is simply no way for you to untangle the mess you’re left with at the end.”  That’s an excellent way of putting a finger on WAR’s main issue.  It’s not that they weren’t daring, or don’t have a great IP, or have failed to throw a dump truck full of terrific ideas our way.  It’s that, like a car with three wheels that you’re fueling with Jack Daniels, it just doesn’t work properly.  Warhammer is an excellent game to play for those willing to overlook, for extended periods of time, faulty implementation in favor of the overall picture.  Mythic’s answer to a fleeing playerbase is grand promises, new content and rapid redeployment of Dark Age of Camelot’s tried-and-true features, whereas the #1 issue has always been polish, stability and playability.

Great ideas, grumpy engine.

There’s also an extremely wistful part of me that recalls back to summer 2008 and how I’d devour the advance info and imagine how the game would play.  In my mind, it was grand — the world was dark and gritty and humorous; the Tome all-encompassing; the play exciting; the customer characterization intricate.  The game in my head wasn’t pie in the sky impossible, it just wasn’t anywhere near where WAR turned out to be.  So I let that go, took WAR at its own merits, and eventually felt something intangible missing from my gameplay experience.

Of course, there are many, many players and WAR bloggers who don’t see it this way at all, and are in the thick of the fight even as comrades peel away for other MMOs.  That’s perfectly fine and I encourage them — as I’ve often said, don’t let the opinion of others (myself included) influence whether or not you like a game and are enjoying it.  If you do and are, then by all means: play away!  You shouldn’t need my blessing to do so.  We are all gamers, first and foremost, and should never be so wedded to one title that we can’t imagine ever playing anything else, or ever be able to leave.

I still hold tremendous hope for the future of WAR, because they are making strides to fixing and polishing and generating great content, and if in two years we start hearing about how we HAVE to come back and give this game another try by fellow players… then you won’t be able to stop a smile on my face.  I don’t want WAR to fail, and I don’t think it really will.  It can only succeed less instead of more.  I dare Mythic to win me back, to fling much improved subscriber numbers in the faces of doubters, to be the comeback story of the MMO world in 2009 and 2010.  I’ll be cheering them on if they do so.

P.S.

Guess I should qualify the previous post with a couple comments:

While not falling into a complete cynical cycle, I’m a lot more wary right now about how MMO companies promote pre-launched products.  It’s funny that we see them doing the same thing over and over, for different games:

  1. Highlighting some excellent, interesting, innovative new feature and showing it off like there’s no tomorrow.
  2. Insinuating that this is just the “tip of the iceberg” for this feature, and that the rest of it in the game is just as polished, in-depth and fun.
  3. Which isn’t true.
  4. But readers buy into this assumption, and let their mind run wild over the possibilities — creating even more hype in their minds.
  5. And when the game launches, cold, hard truth is dumped over their heads and mopey disillusionment follows.

When you don’t give people all of the information and facts, they make stuff up to compensate.  It’s an old marketing rule, and it always works against us.

Geez, how many times have we seen this up to this point?  Warhammer touted their PQs so strongly you thought they were the second coming — but they were careful to only show the beginning zone PQs that were polished and scripted extensively.  WoW’s inscription system.  Vanguard’s diplomacy system.  Tabula Rasa’s “ethical parables”.

It’s fun to spot the devs pulling this trick, because you see it when they repeat the same example for each and every interview they do.  “Characters take physical damage in this game, which you can see,” they’ll say.  “For example, here the character gets a cut across their arm — and it shows a red slash that stays for a while!  Awesome, right?”

And in every subsequent interview — the same cut, the same arm, the same explanation.  It’s misleading, because you assume that there’s dozens and dozens of similar effects, whereas you can be guaranteed of just one at this point.  They might not even have any others in the game.

Wow… that DOES sound cynical… but I think it’s the truth.

New Commandment

I’m adding this to the Commandments page:

#9: Never assume that any touted new/innovative feature that a pre-launched MMO demos will work quite as well as what is shown in the limited demo.  If it exceeds those small expectations, rock on; odds are, the rest of that feature will be sub-par to what is displayed for the press.

LOTRO: The Twilight Zone

the-twilight-zoneI’m stuck in the Twilight Zone, again.

One of my least-favorite zones in LOTRO, from both two years ago and now, is the Lone-Lands.  Sure, the sight of Weathertop is cool and all that, but the rest of the place is pure blah, the epic story forgettable, and the quests endless.  And I’ve been stuck here for well over three weeks now.

Have you ever experienced this in MMOs?  I don’t have a better term for it other than calling it the Twilight Zone, but that’s my own creation.  It’s when you find yourself stuck in a zone for a seemingly endless amount of days, for one or more of the following reasons:

  • You haven’t leveled up high enough to progress to the next (higher level) zone
  • You haven’t finished all the quests and you’re a completionist
  • There are big goals you have yet to accomplish there, some that necessitate groups that you can never find

That’s me.  That’s Lone-Lands.  Admittedly, the past week or so I haven’t been able to log on much, mostly because there’s a little 7-pound person in my house that craves cuddling, but when I do it’s an endless limbo of repeated events: run around doing solo quests, slowly work toward virtues, and wistfully watch the LFF channel to see if a GA group might start up (when you have a kid in the lap, it’s not the best idea to be the person to volunteer and lead it).

I want to move on.  I know that North Downs is next, and I’m equally unexcited about that zone too, but after that comes content I’ve never experienced in LOTRO up to this point (my previous character 2 years ago was level 32, and my LM now is 27).  I can’t wait to hit Moria content and start fiddling with leveling up legendary items.  I really, really want to work on my Warden/Minstrel/Rune-Keeper/Captain alts, but I’ll feel guilty if I don’t get this guy up to the level cap first in order to group with my kinship more often.

And so I’m stuck in the Twilight Zone, putzing around without enough energy to punch through the wall and move on to greater things.  Hang in there, I keep telling myself.  Even Frodo had to grind out six levels before leaving the place, and that was only due to medical disability.

Negative Traits: Why Not Have Them?

minmaxWhen I was a wee little lad, I was a freak for role-playing books.  I didn’t necessarily have a huge group of RPers to play with, but I did spend countless hours pouring over rulebooks like Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game, Cyberpunk and D&D.  However, hands-down, my favorite was GURPS.

GURPS stands for “Generic Universal Role-Playing System”, Steve Jackson’s attempt to forge one universal system of rules that could be applied to all genres and campaigns, from space to horror to fantasy to superheroes.  Well before D&D saw the light and started letting players build characters based on a point system instead of arbitrary rolls, GURPS mastered the art hand-tailored characters.  One of my favorite aspects is that you could spend points on “Advantages” (such as canine empathy), special perks that would make your character unique in some fashion, and earn points back by saddling your character with “Disadvantages” (such as being blind).  If you wanted a whole bunch of awesome advantages, then you were forced to swallow a few nasty disadvatages.

I simply loved the notion — still do.  To me, disadvatages weren’t just a way to squeeze out a few extra character points, they were part of who your guy or gal was.  They were heroes, to be sure, but flawed heroes, and that made them more realistic to me.

But that’s not how it is in MMOs, is it?  Oh, perhaps a few brave single-player RPGs (like Fallout 2) might give you the option to deliberately saddle your character with a less-than-desirable trait in order to gain a significant bonus elsewhere, but heaven forbid that ever enter the MMOPRG genre.  We’re not playing flawed heroes, but heroes with several layers of ascending perfection.  Anything bad we might do is negligible and temporary — debuffs that wear off, minor death penalties, quests that don’t have any meaningful negative consequences.

But what if a MMO would offer players — or even foist it upon themselves — to pick one or more disadvatages upon character creation?  Ideally, it’d add depth and complexity to the game, but realistically, we all know what would happen.  Min/maxers and theorycrafters would hack away at the numbers behind each and determine which disadvatage was, well, least disadvantageous, and then most everyone would pick those.  When WoW came out, the minor racial bonuses and skills that were available caused several firestorms of controversy — Will of the Foresaken being overpowered, everyone rolling race X for bonus Y no matter what they wanted to play in the first place, and so on.  And those were minor bonuses that were in no way holding a character back.

Devs could foresee this problem and issue a different solution — allowing players to choose one advantage upon character creation (but perhaps not mandating it), but each advatage comes with a set paired disadvatage.  That’s just one idea.

But it’ll never fly, I know.  Champions Online eschewed the disadvatage choices that are present in the HERO system, even though the very notion of superheroes is paired with special weaknesses in geeks’ minds (Superman’s Kryptonite, Spider-Man’s fondness for redheads, Aquaman’s entire existence).  They originally stated that CO would have disadvantages, but have since backed away from that (instead, some powers will simply be less awesomer than others):

If we turn to Champions Online, we won’t be using the exact same point system, power advantages, characteristics, power limitations or disadvantages (all of this is Hero lingo).

It’s a shame, though.  It really is.  If it wasn’t for the presence of other players who you always feel that you’re in direct competition with, having a negative trait could be a welcome facet to your character.  I recall games like Arcanum, that would let you choose a “Background” trait for your character that would, more often than not, have both a positive and negative attribute attached.  And that was just fine — I was okay with being more vulnerable to magic damage, or being wounded by sunlight, or having a bad reputation in certain towns, because that gave my character real depth.

I don’t want to play perfection; I want to play something I can truly identify with, a hero that is overcoming his or her flaws to be something greater.  Is that too much to ask?