Getting off on the right foot in SWTOR… with fluffy stuffies!

Perhaps it’s telling that the biggest thing that caught my attention yesterday in MMOs wasn’t anything to do with pandas, monks or pseudo-pokemon; it was a totally unexpected unboxing of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s Collector’s Edition.  I didn’t think we’d see anything like this, because typically we never have in other games.  Usually the bonuses are put out to players as a tempting, teasing list that isn’t big on specifics, probably because marketers know that our imaginations are going to hype these dime-store goodies to the Nth degree before we see them.

So it’s good to have a glimpse at this $150 monstrosity I’ve pre-ordered.  I’m not convinced it’s *worth* $150 in what exactly you get, especially since I don’t care as much for the statue, but I’m happy that I have it on pre-order, so it’s worth it for the emotional factor for me.

After reading down the list — now with more descriptions! — and watching the short video, a lot of my curiosity has been sated in regards to the in-game items we’ll receive.  A few additional thoughts:

  • The flare gun looks neat.  The holodancer is… eh.  Both will be nice just to fool around with while you’re hanging out with friends, and in a few years having these will elicit “Hey, where’d you GET that?” tells from the newer players (much like having my vanilla WoW CE pets did when I was last in the game) (also, I just remembered that one of my WoW CE pets was a panda.  COINCIDENCE?  Yes.).
  • I was hoping that the training droid would be a more useful combat pet, perhaps taking the place of a companion before you get your first one.  But it looks as though it doesn’t do anything more than “visually mark your target” which will be helpful if I suddenly go blind and need some assistance.
  • Having a free mount is nice.  The STAP is still goofy-looking, however.  I’ll use it, sure, but will be trading it in for a speeder bike when I get the funds.
  • Holo-cam: I don’t get it.  This lets us take screenshots?  What, will the screenshot key be unavailable?  Is there something more to this that I’m not seeing?
  • Mouse droid is still cute.

The biggest news is what’s going to be in the exclusive CE in-game store.  While they don’t give us any specific examples of items, we now know that there will be “social items” (cosmetic outfits?  pets?  trinkets?) and exclusive companion appearance options.  The latter is attractive, since everyone’s going to want their companions to not look like everyone else, and having a few additional options in this regard is always welcome.

I also like how BioWare promises to be adding to the CE store over time, which is certainly welcome news — it’s kind of a Christmas gift that keeps on giving all year ’round.  Since the CE store is the only in-game goody (other than the mouse droid) above and beyond what’s in the deluxe digital edition, I have expectations that it’ll be somewhat substantial.  I guess we’ll know come December!

I’m wondering how BioWare’s going to handle the early access when it comes to these in-game items, however.  Will the codes we’ve entered already tell the game we’re good to go, or will we have to wait until we get the physical box to activate these?  Anyone know?

Jedi vs. Pandas

It’s been a heady couple of days in the MMO world, as we’re seeing the up-and-coming juggernaut clash with the existing one.  Depending on which game you side with — WoW or SWTOR (or, y’know, neither cause you’re cool and edgy like that) — the other side is making a terrific blunder and has failed to capture the attention of the majority.

As I said on twitter yesterday, there’s just no way that it’s a coincidence that BioWare dropped the press embargo on The Old Republic 24 hours before BlizzCon.  SWTOR’s got immense momentum going for it right now, but it needs to retain as much of it as possible, and if that means a not-so-sneaky move to keep the title at the top of headlines for the news cycle, why not?

It was a move that cost BioWare next to nothing.  The studio didn’t have to prepare anything huge to announce, and the risk factor was minimal.  If it grabbed headlines, great; if not, then there’s plenty left to announce and do.

Counter-strike, today.  After one of the most boring Blizzcons ever last year, Blizzard actually has something substantial to announce: a new WoW expansion and a DOTA title.  The expansion is the expected Mists of Pandara, featuring our lovable Panda Monks and their starlight backup dancers.  I would have loved to be at that boardroom meeting: “CRAP.  Ending the world didn’t get players back and keep them.  What will?  I know!  PANDAS!  Cute, cuddly pandas!”  “Uh, sir, for years we’ve maintained that the Pandaren are just a joke race and would never make it into the game…”  “Shut it, Jenkins!  We’ve changed our mind once, we’ll do it again!  Pandas for all!”

It’s an interesting move, is what I’m saying.

I actually applaud the idea of having a race that starts out neutral and can join either of the factions, although at this point WoW’s factions are more buddy-buddy than the Parent Trap twins.

But we’re definitely seeing a new side of Blizzard, one in line with my earlier prediction that we’ve left the WoW era.  This is a Blizzard that’s seen its subscriber base bleed publicly this past year, an expansion that failed to retain mass interest, and a competitive game that took a nice bite out of its side.  This is a Blizzard that has got to be sweating December’s Star Wars launch and is looking to mitigate the inevitable losses any way possible.

Their plan?  (1) Announce an expansion featuring a race that fans have clamored for for years, and (2) bribe players into purchasing a one-year subscription package in exchange for a free copy of Diablo III and access into the expansion beta.  It’s not a stupid plan, since it’s giving players a choice between a known and unknown factor.  Will it work?  Eh.  Hard to say.

I don’t think BioWare has to do anything more to react to this right now.  It’s crushing pre-orders with SWTOR and has plenty left to reveal, the NDA to lift, more beta weekends to run, and so on.

Really, I think we’re well past the stage where there can only be one king of the MMOs and everything else is a loser.  Players can like as many games as they want, and attractive payment options, bonuses and choices have become far more popular than ever before.  Blizzard and BioWare are in direct competition for the mindshare of WoWites, and that competition is going to push both companies to try their hardest, provide the best incentives, and be afraid that if they slip, the other guy is going to profit from it.  That’s a solid win for us.

SWTOR: Press Impressions

So today the embargo lifted for press to talk about their impressions in the SWTOR beta.  No, I’m not in the beta (nor am I that anxious to, for reasons Eliot eloquently explained here), but I know quite a few people both in the press and in the blogosphere who are, and generally, generally I’m hearing really good things.  Press embargo liftings for NDA-covered MMOs still kind of drive me crazy — I wish it would just lift for everyone, and I feel bad for bloggers who have been playing longer and will have to sit on their thoughts for a while yet to come.

Let’s pull some of the more interesting quotes from what’s popping up out there, shall we?

“Once I started playing, I could not stop — hats off to the creator of the Smuggler storyline. I found the majority of characters to be interesting and surprisingly unpredictable at times. The most unpredictable character was mine!”

~ Massively’s Larry

“I couldn’t get past the fact that I’m playing a pre-destined BioWare avatar as opposed to my own character, and to be honest, if I wanted to passively consume content, I would watch television.”

~ Massively’s Jef

“A lot of The Old Republic feels very safe, sticking to things that have worked for other games in the past, and rarely attempting anything new or experimental. And some of the classes feel as though they don’t have quite as much of an impact, both visually and functionally, as others.”

~ IGN

” I have to say though, having started with a Jedi class, the smuggler and trooper are just not as dynamic. Sure, the cover system and ranged combat work as designed, but I didn’t feel that the combat for the ranged classes was as active or strategic as the combat for the Jedis”

~ The Escapist

“I was often faced with multifaceted choices that really got me thinking about what I’m doing and what the best course of action is.”

~ MMORPG.com

“Much of the rest of the game bears the undeniable influence of World of Warcraft as heavily as a Wookiee wears his fur, and I can already hear the cries of players who’ll bemoan BioWare’s reliance on aging MMO conventions as soon as the game goes live.”

~ Gamespy

“In the end, no matter what makes The Old Republic different from the MMOs before it, what you’re doing eventually comes down to killing ten rats. But here’s the thing: you care about why you’re killing ten rats.”

~ Rock Paper Shotgun

iPhone: Tiny Heroes kick God of War’s tuckus every day of the week. And twice on Friday. That’s butt-kicking day.

So if you catch me fiddling with my iPhone these days, chances are I’m either watching Survivorman or playing yet another round of the incredibly fun Tiny Heroes.  I have loads and loads of games on my phone, but for whatever reason, this is the one that I keep coming back to time and again.

Tiny Heroes is sort of a tower defense game, but sort of not at the same time.  At the very least, it’s a wonderful variant on the tired (but still addicting) genre, and it recalls some of the fun I had back with Dungeon Keeper.  Remember that game?  Where you had to build your dungeon and defend it from invading heroes?  Sort of the same thing here.

The premise is pretty simple: You are in charge of several small, pre-built dungeons and have to protect the dungeon’s gold from brazen tiny heroes that come in from the left side of the screen.  Your job is to kill these heroes in any way possible, which means traps, and lots of them.  Actually, you get more than mere traps — you also have monsters, weapons, one-shot spells, and barriers at your disposal.  And there are LOTS of them.  I mean, dozens and dozens, each with their own use, and some can be chained together to cause combo attacks.  The problem is that you can only select seven or eight for every dungeon, which plays heavily into the strategy aspect.

To make matters more complicated, the tiny heroes come in five classes (knight, wizard, rogue, cleric, archer), have elite versions of each, and all have their own personalities.  So they don’t all stream in single file, but instead meander around and have their own priorities.  Wizards like to attack your mana-generating (money) crystals, for instance, while clerics like to stay out of fights and heal.  It makes for a more interesting experience when you have lots of these guys doing their own thing, all trying to get at your gold.

Unlike most tower defense games, Tiny Heroes isn’t so much reliant on setting up permanent towers that will last the game.  In fact, most of what you construct will probably be destroyed, and you’ll end up in a race between the heroes and your building abilities to keep them away from the gold while you try to kill them.  What’s more is that there is quite a bit of strategy involved, as you have to figure out what traps work best for different levels, all of which can change depending on the mobs incoming and how your level is structured.

The game launched with a main campaign and has since released four more for free, with a fifth (paid) one incoming.  I’m amazed how tough some of these later levels are, as you have to figure out the “trick” to beating them instead of mindlessly throwing traps down.  Some levels even give you a preset trap list and forces you to work within those boundaries.

Not only does the game have a quirky, attractive style, but there’s a neat achievements system in place that gives you new traps for accomplishing different tasks.  This definitely ups the replay, which was already pretty high to begin with.

Anyway.  Tiny Heroes.  Good stuff.

SWTOR: We don’t serve their kind in here

While BioWare hasn’t released the full list of races for SWTOR, the ones that are available aren’t exactly a state secret at this point.  There’s a little bit of a range going on here, but when you look at them all objectively, you’ll notice that they’re all the Star Wars races that are either human or as close to human as possible.

In other words, players won’t be stepping into the shoes of a Yoda, Chewbacca, Admiral Ackbar, or any of the more “exotic” species that have been both on screen, in comics, and in games.  This strikes me as pretty anti-Star Wars after a fashion, because the franchise has always been steeped in bizarre alien creatures that go far above and beyond what, say, Star Trek did.  Even Star Wars Galaxies would let you choose some of these more alien races, and if the race you wanted wasn’t available on the character select screen, you could get disguises or somesuch that would alter your appearance so you could be that Jedi Jawa you’ve always wanted to be.

But not in Star Wars: The Old Republic, where it seems as though the developers are practicing a not-so-subtle form of racism (speciesism?) — the humans and their close cousins are the good stock, and the strange aliens and droids are the undesirable second-string players not good enough for a starring role.

Now, I’m not going to project my “I wanna play [race X] or I’m going to throw a tantrum!” desire to play a Hutt or something.  I understand that with a game universe this big and a game project where choices have to be made, it makes sense to play safe and go for the races that will probably be picked the most anyway.  Still, it seems as though BioWare is not giving players enough credit for being willing to play unconventional races, especially in light of the entire MMO genre, where MOST games feature several unconventional races — and those get played.

Let’s go to the pertinent quotes by Daniel Erickson:

Lead characters in an RPG must be something the player can relate to. There has never been a movie or major Star Wars series with a complete freak job as the lead and that’s because dramatically it doesn’t work. We don’t understand what it means to be a giant lizard or a droid or a walking ball of jelly. We love the weird characters but they are always the sidekicks, not the emotional connection in the movie…

In the future I can see a day where we would do a Trandoshan or Wookiee type story but it would have to be just that. Not a simple graphic swap where now your smuggler is a giant lizard man and nobody notices but a full class story where you learn what it means to be this strange alien and deal with the rest of the galaxy and their reactions. For the present, however, our heroes are our projections of self, headed into a galaxy of wonders and adventures.

I know that this isn’t what some people want but I hope it helps them understand that game design isn’t simply throwing random features into a game because they seem cool. You have to have a goal, a final holistic ideal that you’re trying to hit. The Old Republic is, and always has been, about starring in your own version of a Star Wars movie.

Again, I’m torn on agreeing with the logistics of pouring in efforts into races that a majority of players might not even touch, but I really do disagree with his perspective here.  Star Wars isn’t about humans doing human things and everyone else is just background players.  Sure, most of the original trilogy featured humans in lead roles, but it was in a universe where races freely intermingled and there wasn’t a hint of racial superiority.  And when you go to the prequels, where the Jedi counsel was practically a who’s-who of aliens, it’s hard to hold to Erickson’s argument.

For a game that’s trying hard to be the next generation of WoW, there’s a shocking lack of understanding as to just how capable players are at stepping into the skin of non-traditional races.  The “RP” in “MMORPG” means that you are taking on a role that is something other than yourself and hopefully not just a Mary Sue situation.  You get to explore a world through a different perspective and in a different body than your own.  Whether this comes as a human, elf, dragon, giant cow-person, or a robot hasn’t presented a hardship because we have imaginations to allow us to slip into these roles.  Video gamers have been doing it for years, so why would BioWare think that we’re now going to balk at the prospect of playing a Mon Calimari as if we’ve never seen a character option other than “humanish” before?

Non-conventional racial choices could have been a neat area for BioWare to be bold in, but instead — as with so much of SWTOR — the company is playing it conservatively and then trying to justify it by putting words in our mouth by saying we wouldn’t be able to relate unless it’s a spitting cousin of what we are in real life.  Maybe I’m making a big deal out of what is really nothing, but it does irk me that the company didn’t just stop at “We’re putting our resources to what we think will be most played” but had to follow that up by implying that their customers are just plumb unable to roleplay anything other than a human.  Or a blue human.  Or a human with tails on their head.  Or a red human.  Or a human with a blindfold.

It’s a little sad that the vision for games like these is more concerned with unoffensive, mass-market appeal than creating an RPG first and foremost.  SWTOR isn’t the only title that’s fallen into this (RIFT is an equal offender in the bland-as-crap racial choices), it just serves to highlight just how unwilling modern devs are at trying to branch out from anything other than the safest possible choices.

Unless, of course, you’re ArenaNet and are planning a game full of giant vikings, sentient plant people, small alienish engineers, and beast men.  But we’ll probably not be able to relate to them at all because our minds are so fragile and we want a personal story that’s all about us, the humans!

Hopefully expansion packs will bring us more daring choices that will break down the walls of segregation between the “real” races and their token minority friends.

Video games!  They’re edgy!

Syp: The Guild

Lots of talk about guild applications recently, a process of which I am all too familiar.  I’ve thought about writing about this a few times this past year, and have stopped every time because I know my situation is probably a lot different than most.  Because I love multiple MMOs and am willing to keep trying new ones, I’m almost always looking for guilds in one game or another.

It makes it hard, sometimes, because that’s a lot of people to keep straight, a lot of relationships that are at different stages, and a lot of alts that confuse me as to who’s who.  In some guilds a lot of people know me, in some I’m just a small fry that might as well be a wallflower.  Some guilds I have seniority, some I’m a newbie.

But when it comes to the application process, I almost always dislike it (if I’m being totally honest here).  Let me finish.  I almost always dislike it BUT I understand the need for it and approve of it.  In some games, particularly ones I’m just futzing around with, there’s not a lot of motivation to go guild hunting, and so I’m much more inclined to hop into a publicly announced one.  Sometimes those are good, but you can almost always tell when guilds have low or no standards when you find a crowd that has no cohesion or unity or sense of purpose.

This does not tend to happen with application-centric guilds, because they’re saying up front that they have a vision and expect such-and-such from their members.  I can respect that.  It helps to weed out the people who won’t be a good fit, the people who might not be in it for more than a day or so, and the people who would potentially cause conflict.  It’s not perfect but it helps.

Still, ugh, applications annoy me.  I don’t like having to create YET ANOTHER account that I’m going to totally forget just to log on to a forum that I’ll probably visit this one time only.  I don’t like how some of these applications have grown into a vast college application-sized beast, nor do I appreciate the ones that try to trick you by putting a secret word in there that you have to find just to show you’re reading it.

I’d much rather keep everything guild-related in the game itself, really.  I wish more MMOs had tools in-game that would eliminate the need for out-of-game calendars and forums and whatnot.  I would almost always prefer to log in and be greeted with a message, calendar or popup that would tell me quite plainly what’s going on with the guild that week instead of being urged to log into the forum with the password I’ve already forgotten.

But again, this is coming from the perspective of a guy who does a lot of game hopping, guild applying, and MMO juggling.  Some people like to be part of multi-MMO guilds, which I used to think were great ideas and now I realize that they’re not as helpful as one might think, seeing as all your friends from one game are not guaranteed to go to the next one that you are.

Applications are hoops to be jumped, and they serve the purpose of being a gatekeeper.  However, in my opinion, a much better gatekeeper is a guild that does in-game interviews/discussions with potentials instead of thrusting a form under their nose and looking for the “right” answers.  I often have questions for the guild leaders during the application process, and interviews are great to get that back-and-forth dialogue going to see if we’ll both be a good fit for each other.  Plus, by the end of it, if you decide to go through with the application you’ve already met and gotten to know a member.  Bonus!

Fallen Earth: Adjusting to free-to-play

Last week Fallen Earth finally made its official transition to a free-to-play/hybrid format.  And while I was pleased as punch that it did so, life conspired against me to keep me away from the game for most of the week.  The nerve!

Personally I’m psyched that Fallen Earth is now F2P, since I really wanted to keep playing it but didn’t want to keep up another subscription.  At this point, I’m juggling three MMOs without a single subscription fee and wondering how I got so lucky.  I think GamersFirst did a great job with the different tiers of F2P/subscriptions, offering a choice for just about all play levels and interests.

For me, this means that I’m dropping down into pure F2P at the slightly snarkily named “Scavenger”  tier.  It’s been a little bit of an adjustment, but not as huge as I was fearing.  Instead of focusing on selling quest packs or putting a cap on levels, GamersFirst decided to focus most of the penalties for F2P on crafting.  So now, free players have to contend with longer (~6 seconds) scavenging and harvesting times, slower crafting speeds, an 8-hour maximum allotment of daily crafting time, and so on.  Since crafting is such a core part of the game, it’s going to be an adjustment to the slower pace for me, but it’s not so bad that it’s driving me nuts.  And since I get everything else for free, I’m not fretting it.

It’s amusing to watch the Fallen Earth community react to the huge influx of lookyloos and new players.  I’ve seen this in a half-dozen MMOs so far, and it pretty much all goes the same.  Lots of weirdos, jerks, questions, excitement and so on in the first two weeks.  Veterans are split between the joy of seeing their game grow and getting the press, and the fear that their sheltered community was now open to the unwashed masses.  This too shall pass.

It was cool to log in and see that I got a number of veteran presents from my one month subscription, including a removal of the chip cap, a spiked chopper motorcycle, a couple outfit pieces, and a creeper pet.  In fact, with the chopper for my long-range travel and the prairie chicken for my local mount, I don’t see why I’d really want to be making more mounts.  The chopper is incredibly cool-looking, by the way.

I’m much less thrilled with all the monkeying about in the crafting arena.  The devs have changed locations of nodes, modified recipes, and done so much tinkering that I now have no idea what mats I’m holding are worthwhile and which are commonplace.  The devs threw most of the really good nodes in the middle of PvP zones, which is very unfortunate for the many players who love crafting but hate PvP (which I’m going to go out on a limb and say are the majority).

Another change with the update is the addition of the wardrobe (cosmetic outfit) system.  Great to have it, but I was really let down to see that you have to buy, with reward points, each slot.  So free players aren’t going to have this, and even subscribers are going to need to purchase a few if they want the fluff.

But all in all, I’m still in and still really enjoying the journey.  I just realized that I overlooked another starter town, Terrance, so I backtracked to take care of it even though it’s giving me rewards and XP that’s next to nothing.  It’s so cool how all of the quests tie in to a main storyline (in this case, the owner of the town who dug up a malfunctioning lifenet station that started pumping out zombies all so he could resurrect his wife).  Coming across a backyard full of clones — including one very deformed one — was a wonderfully creepy moment.

Fallen Earth really is a game of details.  Instead of reusing the same structures over and over, there is a remarkable amount of diverse art here.  It makes you want to look at everything, especially for the funny, sad, and sometimes scary details.  Seeing “modern” gear being used in different ways for a post-apocalyptic world is endlessly interesting, and I keep trying to imagine what this all looked like before the world fell.

So if you haven’t checked it out yet, there’s no excuse now — Fallen Earth is free, it’s awesome, and I hope to see you in game!