Imaginary Playmates

DVplPrptwvjNtp_l“Companion characters are a big part of how we do our storytelling,” claims Erickson. “There’ll be a very large variety and amount of companion characters that are available for all of the different classes. Everybody will be adventuring with companions. They won’t be like World of Warcraft pets – they’ll be people you interact with, like in a typical BioWare game.”

Guild Wars has it.  Star Trek and Star Wars promises it.  And players will be divided down the middle by it.

What is it?  Persistent non-playable character (NPC) sidekicks — computer controlled dudes and dudettes that journey beside you, help you out and, ideally, form relationships with your character.  For some, these “companions” are seen as a huge step back in MMO gaming, which is (to them) all about groups of actual people teaming together, helping each other out, forming relationships and being all manner of social.  Yet MMOs have been decidedly turning around in their vision for massive social gameplay by giving players more and more options to play the way they want to.

It’s pretty funny to me that MMO gamers have developed this elitist attitude toward NPC companions, looking down their noses at these “substitute humans” who will only fail in every way that a racist 12-year-old with a spelling impediment would succeed.  After all, haven’t these sorts of companions been a bread-and-butter staple for most video game genres to date?  Not just solo RPGs, mind you, but adventure games, platformers (thanks for the ride, Yoshi!), FPS titles, and so on.  We got them then so we wouldn’t feel totally alone and abandoned in our quest, and that’s a notion that bears merit even in MMORPGs, where other players aren’t always available, dependant or in character.

The latter is one of the best reasons for companion inclusion — NPCs will always, always be in the spirit of the game universe.  They don’t break “character”, but instead they belong to that world, and by associating with you, help you to feel as though you belong as well. I’m totally excited to see what BioWare does with their companions in SWTOR, because those wacky NPCs have been a highlight of their single-player RPGs, where you bicker with them, boss them around, manipulate them, even fall in love with them or have them die for you.

For those who still consider NPC companions silly and detrimental to grouping, consider this: you guys are always complaining about how quests never matter, how your efforts never change anything in the game world other than the gear on your back and your levels.  But what if your adventures had a long-lasting, persistent change in those who travel alongside of you, who are there to remind you of your past heroic deeds or evil dealings?  What if you could do things to them, for them, and they to you — would that be the beginning of an in-game “relationship” that went beyond passing familiarity with NPC quest vendors?  I think so, and I truly hope so.

Some of my favorite memories of BioWare games, come to think of it, involve the NPC sidekicks I got saddled with.  Baldur’s Gate 2 was a masterpiece of this — I vividly remember Imoen’s kidnapping, Jaheria’s flight from the party, Anomen’s redemption to full-fledged paladin status, and Minsc’s famous battle cries (“Go for the eyes, Boo!”) — but KOTOR wasn’t shabby either (although I did want Mission to die a thousand deaths just to silence her).

BioWare’s certainly leading the charge into this area, although other titles are edging toward it: players have raved about Guild Wars’ persistent henchmen that help them overcome group content, others are excited about having persistent NPC bridge crew for Star Trek Online go with their main characters on away missions (sometimes with other players as well), and even World of Warcraft’s hunters know that there’s something special in capturing, training and fighting alongside of a faithful companion for 80 levels.

Kill Ten Rats and Level 1 Human have both been mulling over this topic lately, so I turn you over to their capable hands.

LOTRO: Curves

There’s an interesting thread over on the LOTRO forums where a dev basically asked players to make a wish list of what they wanted built into the game (within certain parameters), which just opened the floodgates as you may have expected.

Among loads of pie-in-the-sky wishes was a pretty practical suggestion: more quests in the 16-40 range.  There was even a graph of solo quests per level to back this up:

totalquests

The initial hump there is because you have three newbie zones, all brimming with 6-12 level content, but then it starts dipping as players are funneled to higher-level Bree, then Lone-Lands and beyond.  While I’ve never run out of quests through the upper 20’s, the poster reported that it got incredibly trying to level up multiple alts through what is essentially a linear path through the mid-game.  More quests in more zones = more paths to leveling.

Anyway, thought the graph was interesting, especially how it gets a LOT better after 40.  Life begins at 40, right?

Warrior Epic – Worth It?

FJIM4GLF8DOU3GF.MEDIUMSnafzg tried to rope me in to trying this with him last week, but I resisted the call of a game I heard nothing about previously.  He’s since reported numerous crashes/blue screens trying to play it.

I also noted on the official website that the game went into closed beta on April 30, and launched, oh, 19 days later.  Is 19 days enough for a MMORPG closed beta these days?  Or enough for… anything?

So, just curious — anyone out there try Warrior Epic?  Any good?  I like some of the concepts (Diablo-ish, the spirit system, interesting-sounding classes), but I need some convincing it’s not just a bit of roadkill on the path to much better games.

P.S. – Plus, the title leaves a lot to be desired.  “Warrior Epic”?  That’s like taking two of the most generic, overused MMO terms and smooshing them together.  By that process, you could come up with other names like:

  • Rogue E-Peen
  • XP Loot
  • Raid CC: The Rezzening
  • L2Play Troll
  • 1337 Noob
  • Kill Eleven Rats (motto: “We go to eleven!”)
  • Nerf Buffs
  • Buff Nerfs
  • Vendor Aggro
  • Goblin Gank

Oi! Boggers!

Do you link to me on your blogroll and I, the selfish and unfeeling creature that I am, have yet to do the same?  Let me know and I’ll gain a conscience by this afternoon and rectify the problem!

No Tears for Azeroth

Title.storytellerHey, since it’s just you and me here, can I ask you a personal question?  When is the last time a MMO story moved you in some way?  I mean, really moved you to where you felt genuine emotion over the story (not just the gameplay) — anger, laughter, sorrow, regret, shame, joy?

Yeah, me neither.

I love me some MMORPGs, that’s for sure, but if I want moving, involving examples of storytelling in video games, that is not the genre for me.  Especially in light of some of the excellent tales told in adventure games (The Longest Journey, Grim Fandango) and single-player RPGs (Planescape Torment, KOTOR).  I’m an absolute sucker for a good story — forget loot and skill points, I’d rather be rewarded with a terrific yarn nine times out of ten in a game, as long as that story was compelling and moving.

And yet, we all know that not to be the case in MMOs.  Part of the problem is that story writers in MMOs are limited by the game mechanics — instead of writing a grand epic, they’re providing countless cover stories for same-old fetch/kill/escort quests.  And by the time we get to any epic tales, we’ve become desensitized to reading any actual quest text so that it doesn’t matter.

And why the fetch/kill/escorts?   Apparently, devs have deduced over time that players don’t want stories, they want quick achievement.  Thus began a chain of simplifying quest design to a preschool level, just to feed the appetites of instant gratification/power gamer lovers.  While this may be feeding the base needs of a majority of players, these are the same players who grow to hate the game they’re stuck playing, because it became nothing more than hitting six buttons and watching bad guys fall over and over without any larger context.  Well, other than “I shore hope he gives me the loots!”

For all of the supposed stories and quests in MMOs, only an infinitesimal amount of them stick in the minds of players, from testimonials and personal experience.  We remember Gwen from Guild Wars, Mankirk from Azeroth, um… that one guy from that thing that time, but really, it’s the exception rather than the rule.  We don’t play the game for the story; we suffer the story to get to the game.  And that is just so terribly wrong.

This is one reason why I’m holding onto hope that BioWare makes good on its promise of upholding story as the “fourth pillar” of The Old Republic, because I’m tired of not caring about the game world I’m involved with.  LOTRO does a good job, sometimes excellent (especially with their Book quest lines), but still has too much “filler” stories that I have a hard time keeping up with it all.

I have a proposal for a MMO that has yet to be made, and that proposal is this: separate tedious quests from story.  Sure, still include the staples of kill/fetch/escort quests, but cut out the story from them entirely — just have players go to a bounty hunter NPC or mission vendor to pick up one of these odd jobs to fill some time.  Then pledge to make all quests have a real story, a unique path, and a satisfying — perhaps persistent — conclusion.  Forget MMOs that boast of 14,000 quests on the back of their box; I’d rather play a game with 50 meaningful, moving, exciting quests than 14,000 dull, trite and tired ones.  Put a long timer on these quests once you complete them, and when the timer is up, offer players the chance to revisit them if they so wish.

Going a different direction from the previous paragraph would be to have all the quests you like, but have each one contribute to a certain overarching story.  During or at the conclusion of the quest, a part of that story is revealed, and an in-game journal plugs it into that story’s page.  So you start with a blank page for that story, and like a jigsaw puzzle, you completing quests fills in the page, a sentence at a time, until the full dealio is revealed.  Then, if you have completed the story, you would unlock a special cutscene that perhaps includes video or pictures from your journey along with narration.  A recap, in other words, to remind us of where we’ve been and why.  You can never have too much hand-holding when it comes to lore, in my opinion.  What’s obvious to game devs is often buried in a mountain of details to players.

Part of a great story, too, is that it infiltrates all aspects of life.  MMOs are infamous for cutting a storyline dead the second you complete the final quest, but I assure devs that players would grab on to reminders of that quest, characters that sought them out in a tavern months later to buy them a drink over their deeds, some visual mark on the world (phasing, perhaps) that would serve to say to the player that their efforts weren’t wasted, but had a real and lasting impact (even if that is a simulated impact).

What will the future hold for the attempt of MMOs to tell stories without losing player interest?  Perhaps its as simple as cutscenes and in game scripting (which, not as simple as blocks of text, is at least pretty possible today).  Perhaps there’s another solution we’re just not seeing yet.

Age of Conan: “Content”

This is pretty funny. Pretty dang funny, actually.

  • Step One: Announce a special one year event for your game.
  • Step Two: When players show up, don’t have much, if any, content for it.
  • Step Three: Tell the players that THEY were supposed to create the content for the event, so why whine?
  • Step Four: Wonder why people continue to spit on your company.

I guess this is like if I sent out invitations to a killer party, and everyone showed up to an empty room, with me expressing disbelief that nobody brought snacks, music, games or a pair of llamas to race.

Combat Alternatives

peace_bday_259_20080416-152905MMO creators seem to be trapped in a dilemna — they know that the genre has become far too combat-centric, favoring that mode of interactivity with the game (meet interesting things and then kill them) over most all others.  It’s understandable why this is so — combat is an easy system to comprehend, create and engage in repeatedly.  But its extreme use in MMOs have created an almost satire-like state in these games, where one imagines worlds not populated by sane, thoughtful, heroic types, but hordes of sword-waving, gun-shooting maniacs murdering everything in eyesight just to “level up”.  The only reason that the NPCs haven’t run for the hills is that they’ve found the secret to magical murder force fields, rendering them immune from the relentless hunt for XP hidden deep inside every living thing.

But really, what’s the alternative?  In single-player RPGs, you can have a much more rich and varied experience, but that sort of thing doesn’t translate as well into a multiplayer environment for various reasons.  It was possible, for example, to finish Planescape: Torment as a near-pacifist, with only two battles mandatory to beat.  Can you imagine topping the level cap in your favorite MMO without killing a single thing?

It’s not that I have anything against combat in MMOs — it can be very fun, with a deep and rich center — it’s just that every alternative to a combat system seems shallow and pale.  Why is that?  Why can’t devs finagle other systems that are just as fun and potentially complex to play without falling back on the sole crutch of combat time and again?

Let’s explore some of the current alternative-to-combat systems that we find in MMOs today:

Crafting

If a new MMO is announced, inevitably one of the first questions is, “Will it have crafting?”  Crafting is the ol’ reliable MMO busy work that’s never — to my knowledge — been done in such an exciting way that people go, “Wowzers, I want to keep on doing that instead of anything else!”, but gets a lot of complaints if left out.  It’s a side activity for those who like building and creating instead of destroying, totally commendable, but while the idea is great, the process is typically recipe-based “combine A with B with C to make D, rinse and repeat” boring.

At best, crafting is a terrific source of income, a way to support your character or guildies, or a way to provide utility in your game experience.  A Tale in the Desert was HUGE on crafting, as were many of the older titles such as SWG.  Yet I’m unconvinced that any game can make the crafting process enjoyable to the point where I’d want to do it above other activities.

Card Games

This is becoming a new side activity in MMOs, and one I heartily applaud.  Collectable card games are already established as a fun hobby in both the real world and online, and it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to throw them into a MMO.  It works, too, as part of the game world — characters sitting down to while away the time by playing cards and sharing war stories, etc.  Free Realms, EQ and EQ2 prove that it can be done, and not only that, but suck players away from combat without making them feel as though they’re missing out.  I’m quite surprised that Blizzard hasn’t incorporated WoW’s CCG into the game (imagine the revenue sources for them), and I truly hope that The Old Republic has a CCG, as KOTOR had a primitive one.

Mini-Games

This is kind of a newer attempt at implimenting systems that are combat alternatives, but I’m not sold on it yet.  The idea is that you have to complete mini-game X successfully to achieve a good result in the game, something that MMOs such as Wizard 101, Puzzle Pirates and Free Realms are all over.  The problem is that, so far, these mini-games are pretty kiddy in nature, and that lots of folks don’t subscribe to MMOs to play something that PopCap or Kongregate could give them for free.  Or even their cell phone.

I’m not saying that mini-games aren’t a good idea — they offer a smaller game system within a larger one, and if really new, addicting ones are developed, they could provide a nice diversion to axe slinging.  The major problem that this, and many of the other alternatives on this list, is that you never see your avatar doing any of them.  They yank you OUT of the game world so that it’s you the player doing this, not you the character, and that’s disconcerting.

Vehicle Action

I mention this because of Free Realms’ kart racing/demolition derby jobs, as well as WoW’s tenative steps into vehicle combat in Wintergrasp and elsewhere.  Personally?  I like it.  It keeps your avatar in control by hopping in a vehicle or on a mount, and doing something with it other than just utilizing it as a faster mode of transportation than running.  Races, demolition derbies, mounted combat — these are things player do love and ask for, but many titles have been slow on developing them.  Because they were scared off by Auto Assault, mayhaps?

Achievements

While some people think we’ve been over-saturated by achievements in every form of video games out there and don’t relish more of it, I say, “Bring it on!”  I adore achievements, even if they’re not tied to any specific reward, but especially if they are.  Let’s face it: we’ve had achievements ever since we started video gaming — they were called “high scores”, as well as any stupid thing we would challenge each other to do in a game to make it more difficult.  I like achievements because it shakes up my routine, challenges me to play the game in a new way, and offers me incentive to do so.

As much as I lauded the praises of WAR’s Tome of Knowledge (and related unlocks/achievements), I’m even more attached to LOTRO’s deed log, mostly because they’ve paired these deed achievements directly to character development.  It’s nothing revolutionary or varied or crucial, but there’s a giddy thrill when you do reach a goal set by the game that not only congratulates you, but makes your character stronger independant to the leveling system.

Diplomacy

Another one I’ll mention just because of Vanguard — this was much-talked about prior to launch as the “third sphere” or somesuch of gameplay.  When people found out that it was pretty much a minigame that wasn’t so much about actual conversations than numbers on a line, it got a lot less interesting.  Yet I still find the concept of NPC social interaction as a challenge to be intriguing, especially when tied to CCG elements.  I hope it’ll be revisited, and perhaps vastly improved, in the future.

Puzzles

I suppose this might overlap the mini-games section above, but I mention it separately to specify puzzles that your character solves as an avatar in the game world, not in a separate window.  Such as how DDO might have you figure out a puzzle in a room to unlock a door, or how WAR’s lairs often came with puzzles that had to be solved before accessing them.  The obvious problem with such puzzles is that spoilers on the internet would render them without challenge before the game even launched — unless puzzles could be randomized for different players.

Quote of the Day

“I don’t know if you’ve caught an episode of Sesame Street lately, but apparently Cookie Monster is being morphed into a fruit and veggie eating monster. His new slogan is “Cookies are a sometimes food.” WTF? Seriously? Cookies are an anytime food!!!! Screw veggies!”

~ BikerPuppy